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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Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Challenge Melbourne 2018

St. Kilda, a suburb named after the schooner of Sir Thomas Acland (Lady of St. Kilda), ironically also a place where beers are not usually drunk from schooners, provides the hub for Challenge Melbourne. The race would be my fourth race around the half-distance, with Hell of the West being slightly shorter.

A short history is that I’d set my half distance PB (5:15:49) at Ironman 70.3 Western Sydney in November, an effort that I’d considered to be less than perfect. A little bit of smarter execution in cooler conditions on a similar course and I thought I should be able to take a couple of minutes off that performance; but a lot can happen over five-and-a-bit hours.

This is not something you read in many triathlon blogs, but my lead-up was virtually completely free of injury and illness; pretty shit if you’re looking for an excuse for underperformance.

In 1840, St. Kilda was the first quarantine station for Scottish immigrants coming into Melbourne. On race day they would have felt slightly at home with a faint mist covering the water off St. Kilda beach. It was probably the sort of stuff that Paul McCartney and Wings got so excited about in Mull of Kintyre.

I couldn’t care less how cold it was, I was elated with the fact that, for the first time this season, I’d be swimming in a wetsuit and salt water. These are the sort of luxuries that below average swimmers crave.

The swim was uneventful. An extremely well-marked course, including swimming under the famous St. Kilda pier made it a pleasure. The time was considerably faster than I’ve swam in any other half-distance, mainly the result of favourable conditions rather than me suddenly knowing what I’m doing.

The wetsuit was quickly discarded and it was time for three laps of the famous Beach Road to the Black Rock clock tower and back.

The plan of power and heart rate worked well and the bulk of the bike went to plan. The hardest part of the 90km was staying out of trouble on the final lap.

A congested course made it tough to maintain the 12-metre non-drafting distance and equally as hard to pass big packs without getting caught up or burning a hell of a lot of fuel.

I witnessed quite a few penalties being handed out, luckily I wasn’t caught up in the flurry of felonies. My time was 22 seconds faster than Western Sydney. The bike was the only part I was happy with in that race, so I was relatively happy to reproduce something similar, at a slightly lower output in terms of heart rate.

The weather during the ride and run had been ridiculously un-Melbourne-like, it was nigh on perfect.

The aim for the run was to start a little more conservatively (read realistically) than I had recently. I’ve fallen into the bad habit of trying to run pre-injury times, which I am yet to reproduce. In other words, I’d start the half-marathon like Mo Farah and finish like a re-enactment of the Hindenburg disaster.

Photo: Stef Hanson - @HenryProductions and @Witsup

As a result of this plan, the first 10km loop of two felt relatively comfortable, it was actually enjoyable. Watching the pro’s, some mates and my wife go past at certain points and shouting encouragement to all, helped the cause.

The second lap, like most half-marathons, was a little darker and hurt a hell of a lot more. The upside was that there was only around 20-secs between my fastest and slowest km’s for the run, unlike Western Sydney which was over a minute, in the ultimate display of self-destruction.

The finish takes place in the picturesque Catani Gardens, names after the Italian native, Carlo Catani, who was responsible for planning the beautification of the St. Kilda foreshore in 1906, as Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department (he didn’t do a bad job either).

I hadn’t thought about how I was travelling in terms of overall time. I was pleasantly surprised to cross the line in 5:03:20, a bit over 12-minutes faster than my previous best. Naturally the normal reaction of a triathlete is to think of where you could have shaved the time off to go “sub-five” but that was not something I’d have considered pre-race, I’m sure there will be plenty of other chances for that.

Funnily enough, the overall time was just 12-seconds slower than my Hell of the West time. Given the fact that it was a 10km shorter ride and 1km shorter run, this would also indicate improvement from early February to late April.

As always, thanks to coach Nathan Miller for always having me well prepared for anything I do.

Now it’s back into plenty of volume with the next race being the ITU Long Course World Championship in Fyn, Denmark in 10 weeks time.

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Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Home Town Heat - Wollongong Olympic Tri 2018

Hot, windy and a non-wetsuit swim. The theme of the 2017/18 season continued for me. This time it was in my home town, Wollongong.

The Olympic distance event would provide a final hit out before Challenge Melbourne, it was also a qualifying race for ITU World Championships, so the fields were sure to be strong.

It was hard to believe that I’d raced hot conditions all year, but struck the warmest of all in the normally temperate Illawarra. The forecast expected the mercury to nudge 40c, a hot NW wind making it like an open, fan-forced oven.

The swim was non-wetsuit, it was a little disappointing with the location being a regular training haunt that I’ve been swimming reasonably well at.

I managed to go a little faster than my recent races, but it was probably due to the salt water providing a little more buoyancy. In reality, I’d only come out of the water in front of a handful of the 52 competitors in my age group.

I’d swam a large portion of the 1500m alongside a training partner, Grant Myers. We usually swim a similar pace, so at least I knew I hadn’t swam extraordinarily slow.

The first lap of the three-lap, 40km bike leg was easily my worst. It took a good 7km to get a rhythm and find my heart rate that I wanted to ride at. Unfortunately this meant losing touch of Grant, who I’d hoped to work with on the bike.

I was much happier with my second and third laps. Overall, I produced a ride with a normalised power 27 watts higher than my effort at Nowra and it was an Olympic distance PB by three minutes. I still feel that there is ground to be made on the bike but it is pleasing to be making some ground in that department.

The run is also that is slowly improving again and, despite fading a little in the heat over the last three kilometres, I ran 45-seconds faster than Nowra. Again, a long way from where I’ve been in the past, but progress is evident.

Overall, the result can appear disheartening (40th of 51), but to produce my a PB is a positive and hopefully good signs moving forward to Challenge Melbourne in late April. 

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Monday, 5 February 2018

Hell Of The West 2018

Goondiwindi, in south western Queensland, is a town best known for producing a great race horse in the 1970’s by the name of Gunsynd, aka the Goondiwindi grey.

A winner of 29 races, including my favourite - the Doncaster Handicap, the horse has left an indelible mark on the town, with many businesses brandishing the name and a statue paying tribute to the horse.

It was one of the three main reasons that I chose to race the much revered race known as Hell of the West. The other two reasons being the challenge of a blazing hot race with a swim that would put me way out of my comfort zone and also the fact that it was a qualifier for the ITU Long Course world championship.

I should start by commending the race organisers on how good this event was conducted. Easy registration, an amazing entry price, a race bag loaded with goodies including a hat, the best race bib I’ve ever had, race tattoos and a very friendly community spirit. Absolutely flawless.
Pre-race with all the goodies

My race was not unlike the running style of Gunsynd in many of his races, with his penchant for a slower beginning, moving up mid-race and doing his best work at the end.

The swim was gruelling, the Macintyre River is a savage beast for an average swimmer. Starting up-stream in near darkness, the shoreline was lined with small kayaks bearing torches, usually to warn of a protruding tree branch or similar.

The first of two kilometres seemed to take forever. The small solace that I’d be swimming with the current on the way back was almost the soul motivator. Knowing there was a bridge near the turning buoys, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of its silhouette in the glow from the now rising sun. It was a long wait, but finally it appeared. The swim back seemed much easier but it had been a long time in the water.

Like the famous grey himself, I was somewhere near the tail of the field, 24th of 30.

After a 400m trot to T1 it was both a relief and somewhat exciting to be on the bike. The allure of a straight, flat, one-lap out and back course appealed to me. Sure it was on the country roads of the Barwon Highway, but I’d raced on much worse.

The 40km out was superb, I had my bike computer set to lap every 8km, my way of breaking the race down into 10 segments.

Riding at my target heart rate and power, my splits were more than I could of hoped for. Another standout quality of the course being one lap was the absence of drafting, this made for an honest affair.

Turning at the halfway mark to head back to town, riders quickly became aware of why the ride out felt so good as they were smacked in the face with a 30km/hr headwind.
Heading down the Barwon Highway

My splits were about two-minutes slower per 8km. I just stuck to the goal of heart rate and power, which remained consistent throughout. The return trip took about 12-minutes longer than the one out.

In Gunsynd style I’d eased my way up through the field as they hit the home straight, I was now 19th of 30.

The run was a ripper. With the mercury climbing to the mid 30’s, we traversed three laps of the town, with amazing support from the locals. Aid stations were manned by school children and community members alike who all embraced the race with great gusto; something that is becoming a rare commodity in triathlon locations.

If I made one error on the run, it was letting the way I feel dictate my pace a little too much early on. I was running around 10seconds faster than expected for the first 8km. It hurt me a little at the back end of the race, but also provided a valuable lesson for my next half-distance race.

I was lucky enough to run with my wife for a small portion of the race, I entered the finish chute while she ran in the adjacent chute to begin her last lap, it was a pretty cool moment.
With one of the friendly volunteers at the finish

In the end, I’d made up four more places on the run to finish in 15th. It was no Gunsynd in terms of charging to victory but I’d slowly improved my position throughout the day.

It was also enough to secure valuable points in my quest to qualify for Denmark and another little learning curve to take into my next half-distance race at Challenge Melbourne.

Again, this is a race to pop on the bucket list. We topped off the night celebrating with the locals, including committee members, who were great hosts and absolute triathlon tragics. I would not hesitate to recommend racing in Goondiwindi.
Alongside the mighty Gunsynd

In the spirit of the trip, we headed to the statue of Gunsynd for a photo the day after the race.

Now it’s back to training, laced with an Olympic distance hit-out in Wollongong, before heading to Melbourne in late April.

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Monday, 22 January 2018

The Sizzling Shoalhaven - Nowra Olympic Triathlon

The trend of warm conditions for my racing season continues at the Nowra Triathlon.

This race was to form a lead-up for Hell of the West at Goondiwindi and the conditions provided the perfect dress rehearsal.

The Mercury hit 34 degrees on the banks of the Shoalhaven River at the course I was looking forward to racing at.

I’d raced the sprint distance a year earlier on my road bike when I was still in a fair bit of denial about the severity of my Achilles injury. I loved the course and was keen to go back.

I went into the race with no taper as it was basically a brick session with company for the half-distance race in a fortnight’s time.

A year earlier we had been allowed to wear wetsuits due to jelly fish in the river, however despite them still being present, it was a non wetsuit affair in 2018.

As usual, my swim was a little below par and included a few stings from the aforementioned jellyfish.

I was excited about the bike course as if enjoyed it a year earlier. Sadly, on this day, my legs didn’t comply, for the first 25km they just seemed to not quite be there, no matter how hard I pushed.

I decided to just ride as hard as I could for the last 10km and things sort of came together. By the end of the 40km I would have been happy to keep riding; possibly a good sign for my next outing.

The run was a bit of a battle in the heat but I 47:29 was something that was a fair indication of how my running is at present. 

Overall 2:33:31 proved to be a new Olympic distance PB and landed me sixth I’m my age group. I’d still assume there’s a lot of room to improve on that time.

The best news of the day was my wife winning her age group in the sprint at her very first race back since both dislocating and fracturing her shoulder in a bike accident. Considering she can still really only use one arm in the water it is an incredible and inspirational achievement.

Next stop the iconic Hell of the West!!!

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