Monday, 22 June 2015
Ironman – it’s the pinnacle of triathlon (well to most it’s the pinnacle – to a crazy few, UltraMan is the pinnacle). For those who have completed one, it’s the culmination of months of long, hard hours of training, commitment and sacrifice.
Ironman training is all consuming. Weekdays, morning and night, weekends of both days taken up with long rides and long runs. Ironman is not a commitment to be taken lightly. An athlete could get away with skiving off from training as hard for a half distance, but on the long, long course, there is nowhere to hide. Ironman partners joke that they are the triathlon widow/ers. They are only partly joking.
When your partner signs up for Ironman, they sign up for an event that will impact on the whole family. Weekends away are planned around whether there’s a body of water to continue swimming training, roads suitable for long rides and suitable distances to run. They may involve solo drives to camp grounds while said partner rides the 190km to the campground. They may involve solo camping trips because training this weekend revolves around a long group ride and swim. Weekdays will mean you may become nothing more than ships passing in the night as they get up early to go to swim training, work all day and then go for a run in the evening just as you’re getting home. (PS I hate that alarm. Athletes may complain that they hate the alarm. Believe me, they don’t hate it anywhere near as much as the Ironwife who is woken up morning after morning by that damn sound).
As an Ironwife you will learn more about nutrition during endurance events than you will ever want or need to know. You will hear about every idiot who shares the road (or does not as the case may be). You will learn all about correct stroke technique when swimming, the best wheels for a bike, how pronation can affect foot strike and exactly how much you get back for physio appointments.
But once the hard yards are done, and it’s the morning of the big event, all of that is forgotten. The focus is on getting your athlete through the day ahead. Being there as they begin what may well be the hardest day of their life.
The days leading up involve the usual carb loading, bike racking, gear planning as any other triathlon. Yeah, right. It vaguely resembles that preparation, but is magnified by 100. Packing and repacking, checking and rechecking. Because let’s face it, it’s a long way to swim/ride/run if you forget your goggles, bike shoes, socks! There’s the need to pack for every possible scenario. Changes of clothes to cover wet weather, cold snaps, hot spells, emergency gear (for some that might mean Tim Tams, Red Bull, lollies, salt tablets) – the checklist is just that little bit longer for an Ironman event.
Event day begins pre-dawn. That damn alarm goes off once again and your athlete begins their day with a light breakfast, a final check of race day gear, countless toilet stops and the walk to the swim start.
The atmosphere is electric. Tension fills the air as each and every competitor begins the inward focus required to get through a gruelling day at the office. What starts as a babbling brook of noise and emotions dulls down to the quiet, still waters of a lake at sunrise, as the wave starts commence.
The hardest part about being a spectator is the moment your athlete enters the water. For the next 7-16 hours, dependant on your athlete, you will work through the full range of emotions as you support your athlete on the journey.
For me, the first Ironman was the worst. My husband worked really hard on his swim. From the moment he got into the water until the moment he got out of the water, I was counting the seconds, quietly willing him to be safe and well. I cannot describe the moment when I received the text to tell me his swim time and that he was in transition (thanks Ironman for the heads up!)
After that, the day is a jumbled hash of memories as we drove to vantage points to watch the ride. Brendon’s Ironman was at Port Macquarie, so it was only natural to stand on Matthew Flinder’s Drive for the better part of the bike time, cheering athletes up that hill. It’s a tough climb, and more than a few dismounted at some point and walked up that incline.
Then off to the run leg to watch him pass 4 times on his marathon. The emotions hit hard on this part of the course. The first run past, he looked great. I was euphoric for him. He was doing this, he was fulfilling his dream.
The second lap, he looked haggard. I started to worry. There was no recognition as he ran past. All of his energy was focussed on putting one foot in front of the other. I started to plan how I would be able to support him is he had to pull out, what I would say to ease the depth of despair if he didn’t finish.
Lap 3 he was like Lazarus – fresh, smiling and looking strong. I later found out he discovered Coke at the Aid Stations, and that had fortified his energy levels. After that pass, I moved down to the finishing line, waiting for that long day to end.
The finish line at an Ironman event is like no other finish line. If you think the swim start is electric, then this is nuclear. Every athlete gets cheered home. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know them or their story. What you do know is that they have put in the hard work to deserve the respect and adulation of the crowd as they make their way down the red carpet. This is such a dynamic place to be. The emotional reunions as a husband spots a wife in the crowd and makes his way to the side for a kiss and an embrace before crossing the line. An excited child in the crowd who spots his mum making her way to the end from the top of his dad’s shoulders. Parents watching their young adult children completing a long day’s toil. Strangers cheering everyone home, emotionally drunk on the hype of the finish line.
There is music pumping (Land Down Under was playing when my hubby crossed for the first time – it’s one of his favourite songs), lights flashing (it was dark when he finished), and then there’s that voice that you’ve been waiting to hear all day. As you amble, run, stumble, sprint, skip – whatever you need to do to get to the end – as you make your way up that slight incline at the end and hear the words you have been focussing on all day “Brendon Boyd, you ARE an Ironman.”
When your athlete crosses the line, it feels like you have done so too. After all, you’ve been on the journey too. You not have swum a single stroke, cranked a single pedal or run a single step, but emotionally you have been there every stroke, turn and step of the way. Emotionally you have been absolutely drained waiting for this moment. Even as my husband completed his second Ironman I found myself breathing easier. I thought it would be simpler second time round. In a way it was. I didn’t panic as much about the swim, and I wasn’t worried as much about him finishing because he had done one before. However I found I still held my breath a little until he crossed the line. After all, so much can still go so wrong. Bikes break down, ankles roll, tired bodies aren’t always capable of giving that little bit more.
And I’m not just emotionally supporting him out there. I’m cheering on multiple athletes from our club. This year, one of our blokes had a health issue while on the bike. When all of our athletes had passed and there was no sign of him, the entire Bayside spectator contingent went into panic stations. Where was he? Was he ok? Was it as simple as a mechanical issue, or was he injured, had he crashed? His wife had been unable to go to the event, so we stalked her FB page to see if she had heard from race officials – nothing. We watched anxiously as the ambulance drove out along the course responding to an emergency. Just when we had almost lost hope, along he came. We later found out that he had had a health issue and had to sit on the side of the road for over an hour waiting for pain to subside. He continued and finished, but not without showing amazing courage, guts and determination to overcome the pain.
There are similar stories at every Ironman. Ask anyone who has completed one of these events and they will all have a story. This year our camping spot was on the breakwall where the run is held. After Brendon had finished and was resting in our tent I sat on the breakwall and cheered people home well past 10.30pm. One man, who was looking very much the worse for wear. As I cheered him past, he thanked me and said that the next 8km would be the longest of his life. I started to run with him and told him to remember what that finish chute would feel like at the end. He thanked me again and ambled off into the night. Over his shoulder, he told me he’d see me at the end. I didn’t go to the chute to watch him finish, but a lot of athletes go back to watch those guys finish towards the cut off time. The triathlon community is amazing in that way.
I thought Brendon would sleep like the dead that night. Not so much. His body had spent over 11 hours being told by his brain to just keep going. Even in his sleep, Brendon was still running. His feet continued to move even as he slept fitfully beside me. Oh and that alarm clock? We didn’t need it the next morning. Brendon was awake at 4am, unable to sleep post-Ironman.
Finally it’s all over. It’s a bit like a wedding – all that planning, a day’s work and then it’s done. There is a very real phenomenon known as post event depression and Ironman is no exception. Your athlete, who has spent the last 3, 6, 9 or 12 months training for this event finds their lives devoid of the need to get out on the road and train. They mourn for the known. They will say never again as they cross the line, but will sign up when the event goes live again next week.
When I told my husband I was writing this post, I warned him that it may sound a little negative and like I was complaining. I asked him to read through to the end, to not feel guilty as he read my words. Because as much as it is a hard slog, and I’m sure a marriage tester for many couples, I would not change a thing. In fact, when the event entries opened the next week, I was the one encouraging him to register. He loved training for the event, he had a tough day on course but the sense of achievement as he crossed the line was immense.
As a spectator I can tell you the day is one of the best you can have at a triathlon – endurance events give you plenty of time to see everything you could want without the rushing around of a shorter event. Planning is essential to ensure you know road closures, alternate routes, the best vantage points, places to grab a bite to eat and go to the loo. It’s the chance to show your support to your athletes and the triathlon community at large.
I thrive off the atmosphere of the day – and having completed my first Half this year, know the value of a familiar face and voice calling out encouragement when you’re feeling low. This year I took my bike to Port Mac and rode out to the other end of the run course so I could cheer on our athletes. All up, this year at Port Mac, I walked over 30000 steps, clocked up over 19km (10 on the bike, 9 on my feet) – so it’s a win-win exercise wise.
And if you’re really lucky, you’ll make the highlight reel – yep that’s me in the blurry blue and my hands ringing the Ironman bells. Best. Day. Ever.
After every event, I send out annoying emails to our athletes and ask them if they are interested in writing a race report telling other members about their race. These requests are either answered with a groan and an “ok” or more often than not, are not answered. I don’t take it personally, as I know that not everyone a) wants to share it all and b) enjoys writing. So when I completed the Tweed Enduro three weeks ago, I knew I’d have a plethora of athletes to hit up for a report, but did not send a single email, as I knew that in order to ensure I wasn’t that annoying chick who always requests, but just doesn’t deliver herself, I’d have to write the race report.
But I had another motive as well. I wanted a race report written by someone who trains for events for the fun of it. Someone who trains to give them a motivation to train. Not to be fastest. Not to podium. Just to finish. You see, my name is Sue Boyd and I’m a completor, not a competor. I am by no means saying I’m the only one, but too often we focus on places and I wanted others to see that there are many reasons that we race.
In September 2014, I saw a post pop up in my newsfeed advertising a new Enduro event to be held at Pottsville on the Tweed Coast. I’d done a couple of enticer events and the sprint distances at Bribie Island, but was never really into Triathlon, as I’m not fast, and the shorter distances really didn’t appeal to me. I do the events as a reason to train and try to improve my fitness. I liked the idea of a long, slow toil out on course, and as this event was the same distance as the half Ironman event, and a first time for the area, I signed up.
Now what you need to know is that on entry, I had never swum more than 100m without a break (and a significant amount of panic and distress), so I knew that I would have to train particularly hard to overcome that fear and get through the swim to be even able to think about the ride and the run. I’m a competent enough rider, and had run my first half marathon at the Gold Coast in July, so I figured what the heck!
For six months I worked through my water issues (if you have young children, please get them swimming lessons while they are still young, it will be much better for them later in life) and on a beautiful Autumn morning on March 29, found myself in Pottsville lined up and ready to have a crack at my first Enduro triathlon.
I had nominated as an Athena (translation, heavy female athlete) and along with two other female age groups (one of which included our very own Bayside club coach, Karen Short) waded out to the start line ready to see if the training would pay off or if the nerves would kick in and see me breast stroke my way to the end.
I’d put in a lot of time in the pool, knew I could swim the distance (albeit slowly) but really did not know what would happen when I was in the water with a number of other swimmers. My normal reaction was to panic, and keep my head above water while staying well out of the way. My strategy for this swim was to get to the end and not let anything or anyone get into my head, so I started in the front line with the other women (there were only 10 of us in that wave), and just start swimming.
I was caught by the next wave, had a couple of guys swim over me and one who grabbed my ankle and pulled me backward. I kicked him pretty hard and he let go very quickly. Other than swimming a little crooked and having to recorrect to go around the cans on the correct side, the swim was pretty good. The water was cool and clear and visibility was right to the bottom, so as we swam we could see plenty of fish darting around underneath us. Oh and did I mention the cracking tide? Swimming with the tide is my new favourite thing to do.
I emerged from the water like I’d won the lotto. The photo in this post was taken by the professional photographer, and I think that he caught the moment perfectly! There was a group of Baysiders cheering us out of the water and I turned to them and raised my arms in victory. Who cared what happened to me for the rest of the race, I had just swum 1.9km and I hadn’t drowned!
But I digress, a quick transition (learned from my fast transitioning husband) and it was a 90km jaunt on the bike. The course was a 22.5km out and back loop, completed 4 times. There was a patch of road approximately 500m long that was as smooth as a baby’s bottom, with the remaining 22km just a little less forgiving and at time jarring on the body. Can’t tell you much about it, other than that there were a couple of little hills to challenge near the out turnaround. Why can’t I remember the ride – because I spent most of it grinning like an idiot because I’d survived the swim!
So nothing really eventful on the ride, other than the chance to encourage a whole heap of fellow Baysiders who were on course. There’s nothing quite so heartening as hearing your name called out by a team mate and a spot of encouragement as you go. Unless it’s a whole swath of team mates and spectators. That first lap turnaround on the roundabout was just about as special as getting out of the water. The Bayside crew shouted themselves crazy as I came into the corner – so much so that the announcer even commented and called out my name, because of their noise.
One of the hardest things I found about the ride was not really knowing how hard to push, knowing I had a half marathon to run at the end. I won’t lie and say I gave it my all. I think I left plenty in the tank, just in case, for the run, and looking back know I could have pushed a little harder (ok a lot harder), but given how it all ended, am glad I had something in reserve.
So off the bike (it was so good when I could feel my feet and hands again, which was about 3kms into the run) and through transition onto the run. An interesting course that wound around the back of housing estates, back onto road, past parkland, along the creek bank and out to the loneliest turnaround point in the world – with just a single soul out there directing traffic. The first loop was a nice easy pace, but as the day was quite humid, and the course was relatively sheltered from any breeze, the heat eventually started to take it’s toll.
Now if I can give you one piece of advice that you must always follow (and if you’ve read Karl Frank’s race report, you’ll see I’m just re-iterating his point), never, ever try to wear new kit on race day. I had bought a new pair of socks that were so comfy, lovely and padded under the pads of the feet and instead of wearing my race socks, I chose to wear the new socks. This gamble may have paid off if I had kept my feet dry. But on lap two, I allowed myself the luxury of getting sprayed by a hose. Felt absolutely glorious at the time. Cooled me down and reinvigorated my flagging spirits. Ran for another 2km and realised that wet feet = wet socks. Wet socks = blisters under the pads of both feet. Blisters under the pads of both feet = feeling like you’re running on a waterbed!
So hint number two – don’t get your feet wet!
I stumbled through the next two laps, running and walking alternatively. Kept sane by singing songs from the 80s in my head and thankfully Brendon came out to the turnaround for the second lap, so seeing a familiar face and getting a bit of encouragement kept me moving toward lap three.
That run past the club marquee was enough to strengthen the resolve to head out for the final lap. There was only 7km between me and the finish line. There were only 3 of us left on course. Being a late finisher is a lonely business. There’s no one out of course to acknowledge you, no friendly waves or encouraging calls. Again, thank goodness for the wonderful locals on the water stations who just kept cheering us on, and as I hit the 2km to go mark, I was greeted with the absolute best sight of the day. Brendon, Jon Kelk, Renee and Ethan Brace all waiting to cheer me home. I broke into probably the fastest pace I’d done all day as they ran beside me to the final marker.
With the chute just ahead, I hear a roar from Eric Brace, urging me home, “finish strong, Sue, just like Cootha” and with a song in my heart, a stupid smirk on my face and the sound of the remaining crowd in my ears, I crossed the line. I had done it, I had finished and it was the second longest 7+ hours of physical work I’ve ever done.
Would I do another one – definitely. Would I approach my training a bit differently – for sure. I was pretty slack on my running, and really only started to get serious about running again four weeks out. That is nowhere enough preparation time. Am I a triathlon junkie – no way. As much as I loved the event and enjoyed the challenge of training, I have to be honest and say I have the attention span of a goldfish. I really had to mix up my training to stay engaged. If it had been all run on paths, ride on roads, and pool swim training I wouldn’t have stuck with it. As it was, I incorporated kayaking sessions, Metafit sessions, pool running, trail running and stair running to mix it up. Was it the hardest thing I’ve ever done – not a chance – my first labour was 36 hours – this was a cakewalk, cos when I was tired I could slow down and rest. Childbirth does not allow that same luxury!
But really, the one thing that I would recommend to anyone embarking on an endurance event journey is to have a great support crew. Those people who will cheer you on and just keep you going. Brendon helped me so much on the day by just talking to me, listening to me tell him it was so hard, and that I was hurting, but still encouraging me to go on. Susan Davey was pivotal during my training in keeping me balanced, and talking me down off the ledge only days prior to the event. And to those Baysiders on the day who offered a “Go Sue”, “Go Bayside” “You can do it” – you may never know exactly how much that stuff helps us out on course.
And my final piece of advice – do not wear thongs to the shops when you have blisters on the pads of your feet. Because you will be in the middle of the store when both gigantic blisters give way at the same time, leaving you standing with wet feet and a puddle – a similar feeling to having your waters break in public.
Oh, and if someone tells you it can’t be done, knuckle down, train hard and flip them the bird when you cross the line