Reflection: Ironman Cairns, 2017

Tri Nation at Cairns IronmanThis has become something of a ritual for me now, the penning of my thoughts post-Ironman Cairns. I have never raced the same triathlon three years in a row so Ironman Cairns obviously holds some appeal for me. I’m not sure why as the race does not play to my strengths as an athlete. Typically, I am a better cyclist on flat courses compared to something like Cairns. The heat and my high sweat rate don’t go together and I much prefer calmer swim conditions. However, I love the race and everything about it from the choppy swim and challenging bike course, to the amazing atmosphere on the run. 

I’ll start with a quick recap of the 2015 and 2016 races before delving into the gory details of 2017. I won’t bore you with the minute by minute details of the race this year. It’s an Ironman and all Ironman races are hard! 

To start with, here are some of my physiological details: 

  1. Ideal race weight 70-72kg
  2. 177cm tall
  3. DOB 23/10/70
  4. Max HR 204
  5. Resting HR 39
  6. Vo2 Max 65
  7. Sweat rate – consume 1.5 litres per hour and 1500mg of sodium per hour
  8. HR under 140 so stomach does not shut down and calories can be consumed

In 2015, I came eighth in my age group. My overall time of 10.10 was split into a 59-minute swim, 5.30-hour ride (average HR 137 and 2.44-hour/2.46-hour 90km splits) and 3.36-hour run. I suffered from vomiting in the latter parts of the bike and through the run. My weekly training volume for the 12 weeks leading into the race was around 13.5 hours. I had come off a very lackluster 2014, in terms of training and racing, and so I went into the race extremely relaxed and was a bit heavy at 76kg. I missed out on a Kona spot by ten minutes, although that was not a pre-race goal due to thinking I was not in good enough shape. This race was all about getting into a training and racing routine again. 

In 2016, I came 16th in my age group. My overall time of 10.19 was split into a 1.03-hour swim, 5.11-hour ride (average HR 137 and 2.32-hour/2.39-hour 90km splits) and a 3.57-hour run. My weekly training volume for the final 12 weeks was around 17.5 hours. I suffered terribly with cramping out of the swim and vomiting in the run. My race day weight was 75kg and I missed a Kona spot by ten minutes again. The goal was definitely Kona. I was fit enough however the cramping and vomiting made for a very hard day. I felt conditions in 2016 were harder than 2015. 

Ironman CairnsThis year I came 17th in my age group. My overall time of 9.56 was split into a 1.03-hour swim, 5.01-hour ride (average HR 141 2.30-hour/2.30-hour 90 km splits), and a 3.44-hour run with an average heart rate of 138.  No vomiting but I experienced cramping from my first step of the marathon. My final 12-week training volume average was 15.5-hours/week however I had a much more consistent year of training and racing in the lead-up. My race day weight was 72kg. I missed out on a Kona spot by four minutes. The depth of talent was strong this year. Pre-race I was confident a sub-10-hour time would equal a Kona qualification, as per every other year. 

If you have read any of my previous articles you’ll know about the lengths I have gone to in an attempt to discover why I have been plagued by vomiting and cramping in long course racing. I turned to sports dietitian Sally Garrard from Apple to Zucchini, Rebecca Elkington from Sprouts Dietitians and the team at Physiologic. Together we discovered the specific needs of my body in relation to hydration levels, nutritional requirements and heart rate limits. I can only have liquid nutrition, my heart rate must stay under 140 and I need 1.5 litres per hour and 1500mg of sodium per hour. I had also done some research into the cramping and felt comfortable using Hot Shotz as a preemptive measure, and also for when cramping strikes. I took Hot Shots before the start and consumed four on the bike. My nutrition and hydration plan worked a treat and I have to also thank Andrew Jacobs from Pro4mance Sports Nutrition for his assistance.

I felt I had prepared as well as I could. Sure, I would prefer to have done more training in the final 12 weeks but it simply was not possible as I juggled commitments at home, my role as State Umpiring Manager for the AFL in Queensland, and coaching at Tri Nation. The challenge was set, the training program was done and I went into the race feeling fit and confident. I felt good and in control during the swim and ride. I had no stomach issues on the bike for the first time and now know what I need to do in order to stop the vomiting. I started the run in 12th place. My run training numbers indicated a 3.20-3.25-hour marathon was easily achievable at 140 heart rate or under. If things had gone to plan, I would have recorded an overall time 9.30-9.35 and an easy Kona qualification. Unfortunately, my body had other ideas. 

From 100m into the run my left hamstring cramped terribly. Not to worry, I had four Hot Shotz bottles with me. I consumed one quickly and started running again. Still cramping and after taking the other three bottles in the first 1500m to alleviate the cramps, I got through my first 2km in just under 12 minutes. Don’t panic, I said to myself, I can come back. For around the next 5km I did, settling into a 4.40-4.45 per km pace at 140hr. Perfect, I thought, I can hold this all day and run my 3.20-3.25-hour marathon. Then the cramps in my left hamstring started again with a vengeance. I had no Hot Shotz left so the next 8km was terrible. I had to alter my running style to attempt to continue to run without cramping. At the first aid station of each lap they had CrampFix but it was nowhere else on course. I said to the volunteers, ‘give me the whole box’. I took a few bottles with me however the next 28km involved cramping, taking CrampFix, running and then cramping again. I estimate I went through half of Cairns’ CrampFix supply. 

Kona was definitely a goal again this year and to miss by four minutes is disappointing. However, that is what makes it so special when you do achieve it. Knowing how hard you have worked and how hard it is to get there makes the reward all that sweeter. What I have learnt during the last three years through my own challenges has helped me enormously as a coach, especially around the nutritional and hydration side of things.

One of my athletes said to me after the race, ‘While you’re a ‘player coach’ you’ll always struggle to be at your best on race day’. He is right but I am OK with that. I am a coach first and I get far more joy as a coach and seeing others succeed than I do myself. That does not mean I don’t want to achieve my goals and I certainly won’t give up. However, I also like to think that being an athlete as well as a coach, I know what all age group triathletes go through in terms of balancing training with life. I like to walk the walk as well. I am forever asking my athletes to go deep and who am I to ask that if I can’t do it myself? 

Like the campaigns of the previous two years, it is what I have learnt that I am the happiest with. I have learnt more about the physical preparations but I have also learnt more about the all-important mental side of things and the need to evolve mentally as an athlete. In the past, if I had 35 athletes racing at an event there is no way I would have had the mental energy to still race. However, I have also learnt to manage that and still race to my best on the day but not compromise my role as a coach.