Reflections on Cairns 2016
As I sit to write my reflections on IM Cairns 2016, 12 months after writing something similar for IM Cairns 2015, it is with a mixture of emotions.
IM Cairns 2015 was my first relatively incident-free IM. I had a good race, despite some stomach issues, and was only ten minutes from a Kona spot even though I had a very relaxed build-up to the race.
My preparation for this year’s event could not have been better.
I trained harder than I have in years and was in great shape both mentally and physically. After reviewing my weaknesses from last year’s race I had improved my swim and bike endurance significantly and was 2.5kg lighter this year.
On race morning I was relaxed and confident of achieving my goal of qualifying for Kona. However, between the cramping at the end of the swim and the exercise-induced vomiting, I now know I have a couple of issues to resolve with my body first. Let me take you through the race.
I positioned myself toward the front end of zone one and was looking to swim under the hour quite comfortably. I had swum 56 min for 4km (Garmin measure) at the Noosa swim a couple of weeks ago so I started with confidence. It was certainly one of the roughest swims I have done with some testing conditions for everyone. However, once I was out there, I focused on staying as relaxed as possible and getting through without incident. I could feel it was quite warm in the water but I was feeling good and stood up on the beach in 59 min.
Considering the conditions I was happy with the time but as soon as I stood both of my hamstrings went into a terrible and painful cramp. I fell back in the water and couldn’t stand up. As the waves crashed over me I put my hands up for assistance as I was in so much pain I wasn’t able to move my legs. I used to suffer terrible cramps like this on a more frequent basis a few years ago in similar conditions but I thought it was a thing of the past. What is even more surprising is that I was in great shape so it wasn’t a fitness issue and, while it was hot, I don’t think I sweated enough to cause such terrible cramp in both hamstrings.
The lifesavers carried me onto the beach and for the next few minutes I could not move as the cramping was incredibly intense. Any time I attempted to move both hamstrings continued to cramp with great force. After a good few minutes of withering in pain on the beach the cramp subsided and I was able to walk or very slow jog through to transition.
On a side note: I have come across some reading in the last 48 hours on cramping and the causes. Harvard neurobiologist Bruce Bean and Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Rod MacKinnon believe cramps are caused by the nerve, not the muscle, and even the most nutritionally fit athletes can suffer from them.
They go on to say muscles cramp when neurons in the spinal cord start firing off spontaneously and repetitively. This makes sense to me as I was swim fit, well hydrated and I did not over extend myself in the swim.
Traditionally it’s thought dehydration, sweat loss or a lack of fitness causes cramping and, while I think there may be some truth in that, my experience in coaching and racing tells me there has to be more to what causes my issues. Maybe a combination of rough conditions, my back being in an extended position for longer than normal and previous surgery caused the cramp from my back into the hamstrings. Also, in a wetsuit swim which lasts for more than an hour, my hamstrings aren’t being used often so it doesn’t make sense that both would cramp so badly.
Anyway I digress and so once I was able to move freely I tried not to let what happened affect my resolve or plan. In my bike bag in T1 I had some Cramp Stop spray and I used it like I was dying of thirst in the early part of the bike. I have to say it worked as, until the very late stages of the run, I didn’t suffer from cramp again.
Once on the bike I struggled to get my heart rate under control. My plan was to race at 70-75 per cent of my max heart rate (approx. 200) and have a good even race by starting easy and finishing strongly knowing the wind would be up on the way home. For the first hour my heart rate didn’t drop under 155 to 160 very often which had a lot to do with the hills early on and I was still struggling from the effects of the cramping. My legs were not feeling like I had hoped they would but I remained positive and just said to myself, “Stick to the plan, you will come good”.
After about an hour, the heart rate came down and I started to feel OK. I got into a good rhythm and focused on getting in the calories while remembering it is a long day. Pacing, nutrition and being in a good head space was all I thought about.
I thought the conditions on the bike were very similar to last year, windy with rain, and in 2015 I rode 2.44 and 2.46 (90km splits) for a total time of 5.30 with an average heart rate of 74% of max. This year, with the exact same average heart rate, I cycled 2.32 and 2.39 (90km splits) for a 5.11 time. So, despite my cramping at the end of the swim, I had put together a good ride with the extra work on the bike in training paying off.
Even though the vomiting started at around 150km through to the finish of the bike I started running and believed today was my day. I got off the bike in ninth place in my age group, after starting the bike in 26th and no doubt losing quite a few places due to the cramping at the end of the swim.
For the first 5km on the run my heart rate was where I wanted it to be, around 75 per cent of the max, my legs were OK and I was running at around 4.30 per km. The plan I had worked on with dietician Sally Garrard was to not eat for the first 20 mins of the bike or run. This was to give my stomach a chance to settle and reduce the risk of the vomiting occurring which is technically known as “exercise induced vomiting”. Here is an article of interest that I found which describes what happens to me in a race – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4027831/
Even with the vomiting happening on the bike I thought it wasn’t as bad as other races and the same thing happened last year which didn’t stop me getting to the finish. However at 5km, when I started to take in calories, it came straight back up. It was then I knew I had a challenge ahead of me but like last year I thought I would get home on coke and water. This year it didn’t work as well. For the next 37km it became a battle for survival as anytime I put coke in or any type of drink, gel or food in it came straight back up. My worst fears were being realised in that I couldn’t get the calories in and was running on empty. When I wasn’t vomiting I felt nauseas, weak and lethargic.
Despite this, I wasn’t about to give up and during the run had so many ups and downs. Periods where I could run, all be it a slow pace, and periods where a walk was all I could manage. I took my watch off at 10km and just decided with what was happening that it was best to run old school and ignore heart rate, time and pace and just dig in to the finish.
So many times I wanted to stop. I never thought about giving up but just stopping and resting. Yet knowing how hard I had trained and the support I had received from so many, especially my wife Suzanne, I knew I had to dig in and suffer to the finish.
I thought of my goal and resolved not to give up but take aid station by aid station. I had no idea where I was placed but every time I ran past the Tri Nation support team and other Tri Nation athletes it kept me going.
Last year I ran a 3.36 marathon and this year I was lighter, stronger and had done some really good long runs in training so I felt I was capable of running around a low 3.20 all going well.
In the end my marathon time was 3.57 for an overall time of 10.19 and 16th place in my age group. It was 15 minutes from a Kona spot and last year I was 10 minutes off a Kona spot with a 10.10 overall time and 8th place in my age group.
I did not enjoy the marathon this year. It was horrible; a mixture of vomiting, nausea, pure fatigue and the pain of pushing yourself to a place that makes me afraid to go back there. I swore I would never do another one after collapsing at the finish line and ending up in the medical tent again. Now after a couple of days to reflect, I am determined to find an answer to my nutritional issues associated with long course racing. I know that without the nutritional issues I would have qualified for Kona quite easily and run some 30-40 minutes quicker than I did on Sunday.
Last year my average training volume 23 weeks leading into Cairns was 11.5hrs and this year it was closer to 14hrs. For the last 12 weeks leading into Cairns this year my average was around 18hrs which for me is a lot, more than I have ever done. I was fit, strong and ready to race well.
On the day I did everything I could to maximise my performance. I could not have gone any quicker, I overcame any obstacle I was confronted with and despite all the challenges I did not give up. From that perspective I am satisfied but at the same time quite disappointed I still haven’t found the answer to these issues my body battles with.
I had set myself a goal to qualify for both the 70.3 World Champs and Kona and this reflux vomiting is making it very difficult to reach my potential. As I alluded to in one of my earlier blogs, I have had quite a few setbacks in my long course career and with each one the voice of doubt grows louder but I know after the weekend I am close, I have the ability and I just need to keep searching for an answer.
Reflections on Cairns Ironman
Training conversations involving triathletes, especially those focusing on long course events, can obsessively dwell on weekly training volume. I have not escaped such chat in the past as I’ve tried to squeeze in too much for my body and lifestyle to handle. When I push the training limits I am prone to becoming overly fatigued and extremely tired to the point where I can’t train until I have completely rested for at least a few days.
This is mainly due to the three Ironman events in three days I raced in 2008. The health of my eldest son William, who requires ongoing full-time care, also plays a part. The toll from completing three Ironman in three days and the stress of William’s health problems means I am forever balancing a case of permanent fatigue. Training, racing and coaching is a great way to cope with stress but it is a very delicate balance.
I know I respond to high intensity training well but not to large volume. It has taken me a number of years to understand I simply can’t train as much as others. For my Ironman Cairns campaign I decided I would keep a record of my training, as I always do, but not count weekly volume hours until after race day.
My weekly training volume in 2014 was quite low, around 5-7hrs per week. Last year I did not race a triathlon but did enough work to maintain a reasonable level of run and bike fitness. I did race quite a number of running events for fun including the 500km road relay in November and 75km on the Queen K with my good friend and fellow Tri Nation online coach Craig Percival when he raced the World Ultraman champs in Kona. I also ticked off the Smiddy Challenge ride from Brisbane to Townsville. Swimming training was a rare occurrence until December and I was certainly carrying too much weight. Whilst I was in okay shape I was far from race ready.
On January 5, and 23 weeks out from race day, I began my preparation for IM Cairns. I needed this longer preparation, rather than a shorter more higher volume approach of 12-14 weeks, considering how long it had been since I had trained consistently. I needed to do a few races of any distance to get ready for racing again and also to find that routine of swim, bike and run. My first race back was Auckland 70.3 but a hamstring problem stopped me from completing the race. After getting on top of the injury I raced QTS Caloundra, Mooloolaba, Tweed Enduro and Luke Harrop plus a few cross-country races on a Saturday afternoon. These Saturday afternoon hit-outs are great for building strength and I really enjoy them having started my endurance career as a cross-country runner back in 1989.
My weekly average volume for 23 weeks was 11.8 hours. My longest ride was 165km and I did one other 150km but most weeks it was around 4-4.5hrs getting in 2-3 rides per week, an average two to three swims per week, one gym session per week, and three to four runs per week with my long runs up to two and half hours in duration but with specific intervals. My basic principle was easy on the easy and hard on the hard. So when I went hard I really worked hard but the easy ones were pretty slow. I had a bout of vomiting for a few days a month out of IM Cairns and there were a few weeks where I missed some key sessions because of William and work commitments having started in a new role as General Manager for Healthstream in Qld along with my coaching commitments for Tri Nation. I also had a few days where the fatigue levels crept in and couldn’t train but overall I had a consistent preparation. I coach people who rarely miss a session but this is just not possible for me.
I was happy with what I was able to achieve in the 23 weeks leading into Cairns. I felt good heading into the race and I was really excited to start on race morning. All I wanted was an incident free day, which in my previous four IM events had not happened because of punctures, a trip in an ambulance and a bout of vomiting. I was not focused on time but just the opportunity to test myself and cross the line knowing I had gone as hard as I could on the day.
A 59minute swim in choppy conditions set the day up well. The bike certainly threw up challenges in the forms of wind, rain and rolling hills in the middle section of the course. My plan on the bike was to ride within my target heart range. That was hard at times due to the conditions but I rode a very even race of 2.44hr for the first 90km and 2.46hr for the second 90km for a 5.30hr bike split. There was a very strong headwind on the way back into Cairns from Port Douglas that slowed everyone down. I felt quite good on this stretch and found myself passing a lot of people in the last 50-60km, which is always a welcome feeling.
On the run I felt pretty good from the start. Again, I had a heart range I wanted to stick within and the plan was to use course nutrition of gels and Endura. At about 10km I hit a bad patch for 3-4km and decided to switch to coke and water, really focusing on running from aid station to aid station. This worked a treat and I was able to run out a strong marathon of 3.36hr. Certainly the last 15km was tough but at the same time I loved it. I finished with a 10.10hr, 8th place in the men’s 45-49 age group, knowing I could not have gone any faster on the day.
I would have placed top 10 in every other male age group, which I was really happy about. While it was not a goal, I was only 10 minutes off a Kona spot in my age group so it gives me some validation that with further consistent training and racing I should be able to achieve that in the future.
One of the best things to come out of the whole campaign is how fresh I felt mentally. Any IM campaign is tough on the mind but with a low weekly volume I felt great, other than the usual tiredness and sore spots an IM delivers. This low volume approach of 12-16hrs per week depending on the athlete for IM is a theory I have been practicing for most of the athletes I coach over the last few years. Off the back of this we have seen an increasing number of success stories including personal best times, Kona qualifiers and athletes getting to the start line fresh, healthy and not burnt out. More importantly they are able to maintain a healthy balance in the rest of their lives.
As you start your next IM campaign have a think about what it is you want. I have seen too many athletes push too hard for a short period of time only to be mentally and physically burnt out. Their work suffers, their relationships suffer, their health suffers and they become what I call IM sick. It is impossible to have a conversation unless it relates to IM, they lose a sense of objectivity about the rest of their life but more importantly they lose their enjoyment for the sport and what it was about when they first started.
Let’s always celebrate the PB’s, the Kona qualifiers and the first timers. But let’s really celebrate how lucky we are to do it and the experiences and friendships this wonderful sport gives us.