Mark’s Musings – Reflections on Cairns 2016

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.

mark out of water IM CairnsConsidering 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.

FMark Cairns IM runor 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 –

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.

mark IM finish CairnsI 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.