Thursday, 14 November 2019

Maitland Triathlon 2019

Morpeth, NSW, population 1403, situated on the banks of the Hunter River and home to the Maitland triathlon; a race as honest as any you’ll find, with nowhere to hide.

The distance? Unsuitable. 2km swim/60km bike/15km run.

The weather? Sunny, heading for about 26 or so and windy. Not quite dog off a chain wind, but enough to make you hang onto your hat.

The plan? Don’t flail in the Hunter for too long and chase like your life depends on it once on dry land.

The swim; 2km - 1km up, 1km back - one wave only for the males, 59 of us. The morning sun kissing the delightful brown hues of the water.

“On your marks, get set, go!” - No air horns in Morpeth, this town didn’t need starting devices.

Swimming east into the sun, silhouettes of flailing arms and splashes of brown dominated the scene.

I’m hanging onto the back of the larger first pack. I catch first sight of a bridge we get to swim under about 600m in, simultaneously I start to lose sight of the aforementioned first pack.

The other other large pack is nowhere to be seen; yet again I’ve found no-man’s land. I picture the image of someone lost at sea waiting for a helicopter, alone, bobbing up and down; bit dramatic really.

“Just concentrate on each stroke and the things you need to.” - I feel like Thorpe but look like Eric the Eel.
I see the Olympic turn, only 250m left before I’m halfway. Halfway? Geez this is long. There’s no one coming the other way yet, so I’m not 500m off the lead at least. Wonder where the back pack is? Maybe I’m actually last?

I reached the turn buoy; finally. The sun that was more blinding than the second coming of Jesus has now gone; but he’s healed me! I can see again!

After a while I see more white swim caps still going upstream; I’m not last.

The return trip was uneventful. Had company for the last 200m. Up the boat ramp and into T1. 38mins, second in AG.

For those playing transition lottery at home, I remembered where I put my gear this week; a small win.

Off we go.

The bike? 3x20km laps.

Up a small hill and down the historic Main Street. Looks like a few of these buildings would have been pubs back in the day. Can’t feel that wind now.

We head straight out of town and into farmland, gee whiz I’m going alright here, heart rate low, 43km/hour, hope there’s a Team Ineos scout here watching, I’m the next Chris Froome.

First 5km in 7mins, this ride is gonna be over in a flash, glad that wind has gone.

I reach the first u-turn, out of the saddle, back up to speed and back down into the bars. WTF just happened? The wind had never left, it was behind me and now it has hit me harder than a Tyson right hook. Cancel that cycling career.

Heavier people handle the wind better; that’s what I told myself and set about using it to my advantage; stay in the bars and just grind. Update; it didn’t make it any easier, but I’d convinced myself it would effect others more.

The headwind was followed by a crosswind, which was followed by some rolling hills. The course was a bit like going on a road trip with Ivan Milat, you were never really comfortable.

Result; 1:48:44, second in age group again.

T2 Lottery result; found my shoes straight away.

Time to gallop.

The run? 15km consisting of 6x2.5km laps, each laps was a “V” shape so that meant 12x180 degree turns and plenty of trips past the crowd.

The breakdown of the surface 94% gravel farm road, 2.5% grass and 3.5% road*.

*I made those figures up

A calf niggle has had me running on the treadmill only for the last five weeks barring one outing at Nepean. The loose surface would give it a test as hard as Butterbean trying on a medium cycling kit.

How did it unfold?

First km; hmm that’s a bit quicker than I’d planned. Second km; still faster than planned. Third; maybe you can run 15 of these? Heart rate says otherwise.

Six laps of a course is definitely something different, it was a bit like this; there’s Nathan again, there’s Richard again, turn, there’s Jenny again, past the crowd, aid station, drink, there’s Holly, wonder if she’s winning, there’s Nathan again, turn, there’s Richard, I’m running out of things to say as we pass; Repeat until finished.

The calf was handling the terrain with aplomb, and holding good form was all I concentrated on. It’s seemed to work well enough and there was no major blow up or decline in pace.

The result? 1:11:14 again second in my AG.

In hindsight, probably the best I’ve ran off a bike. My third fastest 15km and the other two were set in running events. Pleasing given the nature of the course and being off a solid ride.

The washup? Second in my AG on another successful day for the Project M contingent, bringing home more silver than you’d see in a Stanley Rogers factory, sprinkled with a bit of gold.

Strangely, in a very unplanned way, Morpeth probably provided the perfect conditions to prepare me for my next race in Taupō in a month, looking forward to it.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

PB's And Injury Free - Challenge Melbourne 2019

St. Kilda, Victoria, the home of two of Australia’s most notable clowns; Luna Park and Shane Warne. A suburb where I almost certainly wouldn’t want to live, but a place that I love to race.

A half-distance PB in 2018 on this course had left me with pleasant memories of the location, however this was Melbourne and the chances of getting those sort of race conditions again were akin to spinning the barrel for a second round of Russian roulette. Somehow, I missed the bullet again and the weather turned out pretty good.

My main reason for selecting the race was to give myself the maximum opportunity to recover from injuries late last year and to be in some sort of shape conducive to racing.

The lead up was good, a performance at Geelong that had me feeling like we were moving the right way, combined with some more bike and run gains since augured well. Still, when you know that you have to race faster than you ever have just to show some progress from a year earlier, the task can appear daunting.

Race morning presented fairly good conditions. A grey, dull mist eerily enveloped the venue, it’s seems the norm in Melbourne. The temperature was how I like it; cool but not cold with only the hint of a breeze. The water was similar, you wouldn’t wanna be in there without a wetsuit, but you could still feel your face.

The pro waves left at 6:50 with the scene at the swim start then becoming organized chaos. Waves every 90-seconds created a cavalcade of colour, with more latex than a big Saturday night at the Hellfire Club, air horns ringing seemingly non-stop and more than a few athletes scrambling for the start wave they had already missed.

At 6:56 our wave became semi-submerged in Port Phillip Bay and began flailing our way along the 1900m course.

We quickly combined with the stragglers from the wave in front and the speedsters from behind, which made for a fairly physical swim, featuring more hits than the Beatles. Eventually I was under the pier and into shore.

My wife had achieved her race goal of making up three minutes on me in the swim and beating me into T1 by a few seconds. We exited together.

The plan on the bike was to work pretty hard on the first two of the three laps, making use of the hard work we had done in recent times, before setting up for the run on the final 30km lap.

It’s a reasonably flat course on the iconic Beach Road, with a good road surface, conducive to good riding and minimal risk.

I didn’t muck around on the first two laps, pedalling harder than a Colombian drug lord. My heart rate was about 10 beats higher than I’d normally produce but it seemed to be producing results based on the 10km lap times I set up on my bike head set.

The last lap was a little more relaxed with the reduced effort yielding an overall heart rate that was only equal to the highest I had ridden in the past. The outcome was my best to date, 2:31, three minutes faster than a year earlier. The big question was whether or not I could back it up with a solid run.

While the first 10km felt reasonably comfortable to hold a target pace, I was weary not to try and over-capitalise and go harder.

Half-marathons off the bike can be a bit like a dog turd in the sun, the longer it goes, the harder they get.

From around the 14km mark, I broke down each kilometre, only concentrating on what I needed to do to get to the end of that 1000m stretch. The main motivation I gave myself was that I had the choice of two pains, the pain of discipline for another 30-minutes or the pain of regret, taking the easy path and letting it fall apart.

By the time I’d reached the finish chute at Catani Gardens, I had managed to string together my fastest run off the bike from the seven half-distance races I’ve completed and a gallop four minutes faster than the year before. The most pleasing part was probably the fact that there was only 20-seconds between my fastest and slowest km’s, so there was some sort of consistency throughout the 21km.

My overall time of 4:58:35 was a PB, five minutes faster than the year prior and the first time I’d broken the coveted five-hour mark.

I’m not a fan of comparing courses so the biggest takeaways for me were the bike and run improvements from a year earlier in almost identical conditions and realising that it is possible to put a run together off the back of a harder bike.

The patience of my coach (Nathan Miller) has been something that is only understood when you are there to experience it. A couple of frustrating years with Achilles issues must have made it a real pain from his perspective, so to finally put something together that is in someway indicative of the work he puts in and faith he shows is as satisfying as anything else.

That’s the end of the season for me, which in some ways feels like it was just beginning. There was definitely a couple of races post-Christmas that were satisfying after an extended period of frustrations.

Now it’s time to log some winter miles with an emphasis on running (including some exciting uncharted territory) before attacking a new triathlon season.

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Monday, 21 January 2019

Tri Nowra 2019 Race Report

Nowra, on the banks of the Shoalhaven River, originally inhabited by the Wodi-Wodi tribe, is possibly best known for producing the racehorse, Archer. For those that don’t know, Archer won the first two Melbourne Cups and historians will tell you that he was robbed of a third by the bureaucrats down south who said his entry didn’t arrive in time. They named a pub after him, so he’s clearly left his mark on the place.

Saturday was my third trip to the Nowra triathlon. Unlike Archer I had been far from tasting success on my first two sojourns to the town that also produced dual international (league and union), Michael O’Connor (aka Snoz).

After a underwhelming 2018, where I continually convinced myself that an Achilles tendon niggle would simply “come good”, I felt I had turned a small corner health-wise with fitness slowly returning via consistent training. This would be my first sprint race in over a year and a distance I have hardly raced at all for the better part of three years.

The instructions were simple; Send it. Anytime you’re not in severe discomfort, you’re being soft.

I like it.

Far removed from the world I am used to of monitoring power and heart rates and managing nutrition over a five-hour span, this would be over before I knew it.

The swim takes place in the Shoalhaven River, under the shadows of the dual bridges. The smooth waters once hosted the National Wakeboarding Championship. However, unlike those competitors, this race throws up a more unsavoury variable for triathletes; jellyfish. There was quite a smack (yes, that’s the collective noun for jellyfish) of these creatures lurking beneath the surface capable of producing a sting that rivals the one pulled off by Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the 1973 film of the same name.

The course was changed from its usual tide-assisted, point-to-point affair to a one-loop circuit. I spent most of the 14-minutes with feet to swim on, coming out of the water in sixth, almost three-minutes behind the leader and 40-seconds away from fifth. I only copped one small sting on the face, but the pain quickly dissipated. If Daniela Ryf can win Kona with one, there’s not really any cause to complain.

It was time to get busy.

A lot of gut-wrenching trainer sets over the past two months made the idea of a balls-to-the-wall 20km pedal seem well within the realm of possibility. So off I went.

The flat ride heads out towards the rich farmland of Terara. The road has more bumps than a maternity class and is lined with green paddocks filled with healthy looking bovine of various breeds. 

Sadly I was unable to marvel the agricultural delights, keeping my head down and eyes on the road, looking for the small white circles that were kindly painted around potholes and also navigating the different surfaces created by a myriad of patch up jobs over the years.

The first and last thirds of the ride were a battle against a crosswind with the middle portion being a headwind then a tailwind. I managed to carve out the fastest bike split in my age-group (11th overall), hopefully making my way a little bit closer to the pointy end of proceedings.

The run features some small undulations and crosses the aforementioned bridge in both directions.

The five kilometres went by reasonably fast, with plenty of teammates and friends out on course as well.

The last kilometre is a straight run to the finish and I could see a couple of guys who looked like they could be around my age a couple of hundred metres up the road. It gave me something to chase and I managed to overhaul them both with about 400m to go. Unfortunately that also meant I had to keep going so they didn’t pass me again.

That last kilometres ended up being my fastest by some stretch. Strava hawks will quickly point out that the run was 200m short so, while my official time is probably the third fastest 5km I have ran, realistically it was probably heading for my second fastest 5km off a bike; not something I was predicting at the start of the day. It was the second fastest split and moved me to second place, my first podium of any sort since April 2016 (no it’s not a misprint). My overall time was also my second-fastest sprint time. I’m happy with the day as I now prepare to go and play with the big boys again at Ironman 70.3 Geelong in a month.

Another feature of the day was seeing many other teammates enjoy success, spearheaded my Matt Lewis, with his domination of the Standard distance event.

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Wednesday, 18 July 2018

ITU Long Course World Championship Race Report

“To travel is to live.” - Hans Christian Andersen.

Never a truer word has been spoken and, for me, this trip was to the birthplace of the man who uttered those words; Odense, Fyn, Denmark.

The city is completely engulfed by the indelible mark that Andersen has left, even surpassing Goondiwindi’s insatiable appetite for all things Gunsynd.

Andersen was also on the money when he said “life itself is a fairytale.”

Here I was lining up in Scandinavia, at a world championship, representing my country. Something I never thought possible at any level in any sport.

The ITU Long Course World Championship consisted of a 3km swim/121km bike/30.6km run, my longest event ever, by a fair way.

Perhaps I could follow in the motif created by Andersen in The Ugly Duckling and transform myself to something above and beyond expectations, I was certainly ready to have a crack.

One thing Denmark doesn’t lack this time of year is daylight, the sun is up at 4:30am and doesn’t set until 10:30pm.

A warmish week leading saw the mercury reaching the high 20’s most days, however race morning provided a much cooler proposition.

Timing chips were handed out race morning and as we queued to get ours a small girl brandishing an Australian flag caught my attention. I gave her a thumbs up and she walked over and uttered some simple words that I would carry with me for the next eight hours.

“Do Australia proud today,” was all she said, with a beaming smile that oozed the exuberance of youth. She probably knew little of the poignance of the comment or how much it meant, but it stuck.

All I could reply was “don’t worry, we will.”

The swim took place in the Odense Harbour (aka Odense Havn) part of the industrial centre of town.

Black water was sprinkled with a combination of litter and jellyfish. The banks of the swim course comprised of imposing industrial buildings. The swim itself included an “Australian exit” where you had to climb on a floating pontoon and return to the water.

Being an ITU event, the race featured the usual build up of dramatic music and announcements that lend a sense of occasion to it. I love that sort of stuff and being the type who doesn’t get overly nervous, I really enjoyed it.

After the pros were off our big wave of 18-44yo’s was ushered down a steep wooden ramp and onto a platform from which we plunged into the murky depths and made our way to the deep water start.

I arrived at the two start buoys around three minutes before start time. The usual ritual of officials yelling at people to get back behind the line even happens at world champs.

For some reason, we were held at the start for an eternity, with the hooter finally sounding around five minutes late. A collage of flailing arms and moving water ensued. If I was ever going to be an ugly duckling, this was the leg.

The first half went reasonably quickly and I got onto the pontoon without issue, enjoying the rare chance to dive back in (not many were diving).

I’m not sure how much swimming Hans would have done back in the day, but a 3km outing could well have formed the storyline for his classic, The Little Mermaid.

In that tale, a mermaid is happy to trade her life in the sea in order to gain a human soul. I felt my soul was slowly being lost in the home of Anderson and it would only be restored once I was out of this bloody harbour. 

Soon enough, I was. You beauty, terra firma for the rest of the day.

Now it was onto another triathlon first. Having never done an Ironman it was my first time using gear bags.

We were hauled up the exit stairs by volunteers and made our way to a change tent where you had to locate your bag hanging on a hook and then proceed to change into what you needed for the bike leg, followed by stuffing all your used swim gear into the bag.

With my worst leg behind me, perhaps Andersen’s quote from The Flax was befitting the current feeling.

“Now I shall be of some use in the world, as every one ought to be; it is the only way to be happy.”

And happy I was. This was easily the most enjoyable bike course I have raced on.

The 121km comprised of two laps, just under 60km each, followed by a 1.2km section to T2.

The wind was solid throughout, just enough to annoy you and always feeling like a cross breeze.

Each lap began in the industrial part of the city, not unlike the back blocks of Port Kembla (for those from Wollongong). 

Maybe Hans was onto such similarities when he said “Every town, like every man, has its own countenance; they have a common likeness and yet are different; one keeps in his mind all their peculiar touches.”

The course then made its way into a more rural setting, through villages, past farms and under a forest canopy. It included more than its fair share of technical sections and was constantly winding and undulating.

While far from perfect, the roads were still better than anything that is served up at home.

For one of the flattest countries on the planet, we still managed to climb around 600m over the duration of the ride.

I managed to maintain a heart rate and power just slightly less than a half-distance race and execute the bike portion close to how I had hoped to.

Could I have gone harder? Possibly but I’m not sure that it would have been without consequence later in the day. 

My nutrition had gone perfectly. I’d run two bottles. One enough of my Infinit custom mix for four hours and another of electrolytes.

Garmin says the average temperature for the ride was 12°. While it did feel cool early on, it certainly didn’t seem that cold.

The dismount line for T2 was at the top of a ramp leading into a gigantic underground car park. It was nice to have someone grab your bike for you and put it away while you went on bag search number two.

I found my seat and started getting my shoes on. A fellow Aussie sat next to me and asked if I was finished. He had just completed the aqua bike which is the same race sans the run. He said he felt pity for me when I informed him I was about to go run. But I assured him this was the part I’d been waiting for all day. And he left me with these wise words; “well bloody get into it then!”

Naturally the only way out of the underground car park was up a ramp; and what an experience it was. Emerging from the dull room to the light of roads lined with people cheering in an unwittingly man made amphitheatre. It almost had a feel of a Christian about to be thrown to the lions.

The plan from coach for the run was simple. Three 10km sections, building each time. 

Each of the four 7.5km laps snaked their way through the main streets of the city before entering parkland and a soft surface. They then looped back on a combination of road, trail, cobble and pavement back to the start. 

My nutrition plan was simple. Infinit Napalm Run combined with the run course water and the odd sip of coke.

The run course water was unique, it came in a plastic bag, kind of the size of a fabric softener sachet. You simply bit the top off and away you went. They were actually better to use than a cup.

The first 10km was controlled; an enjoyable experience. The support on course from people from all over the world was sensational. The cry of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” in all sorts of accents could be heard.

When I moved up a gear for the second 10, I felt even better. “How good is this?” I thought, preparing myself to run a fast final 10.

Maybe Hans could have penned something about this (I wonder if they’d have called him Ando if he was an Aussie?). 

“His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan. To be born in a duck's nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan's egg.”

Here I was, the ugly duckling, about to sprout my new plumage over the final 10km and become a beautiful swan. Maybe not quite as dramatic as that, but just entertain me for the sake of this race report.

The final 10 started well, I was really looking forwarded to the beginning of the final 7.5km and the charge through the lined city laneways.

With around 6km to go, I developed a sharp pain in my knee. Every stride was like having a knife inserted. Not in a serial killer, flailing kind of way, more a torturous style. It effected my ability to run at pace greatly.

That final stretch hurt, not just physically but mentally. 

Just like the sleepless night of the prospective bride to be in Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea, I too endured my share of discomfort. Although mine did bit earn me the same kudos as that of the eventual Princess.

Being so close to executing the way I wanted to was frustrating; but it was far from a disaster. The damage was probably around 10-15 minutes and maybe five or six places, but I’m not one to dwell on “what ifs” because there’s a lot more things that could have gone wrong that didn’t.

I crossed the line in 7:34 and 23rd place at the world championship. Nowhere near last which was something that I did fear.

There was nothing left in the tank and, as I write this three days after the race, I am still struggling to get down stairs effectively.

I genuinely enjoyed the distance and learnt a lot about myself in both the lead up and during the race that I believe will lead to bigger and better things. When I say bigger, the answer is a resounding NO, that does not mean an Ironman; ever.

This event was amazing experience that I will forever cherish; no beautiful swan and perhaps forever and ugly duckling, but not for a lack of trying.

I wonder if I would have got the tick of approval from that little girl with the flag.

As the great Ando once said; “We cannot expect to be happy always ... by experiencing evil as well as good we become wise.”

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