The final chapter in my first year as a pro, Ironman Arizona was a race I'd been looking forward to all year. It was no surprise that the start list was littered with top athletes – this was always going to be an opportunity to race against some of the best in the sport and I was curious to see how I stacked up against them. The build hadn't been without interruption, but I was optimistic of executing a good race. A number of people asked me what my goal was going into the race, to which I replied 'To get paid'! That would require a top-8 finish and with around 50 pros on the start line, it really would have to be a well executed race to achieve that.
15 minutes before the 6:45am start for male pros we were suited up and ready, but it wasn't until 5 minutes before the start that we were allowed to jump in the lake. It was still quite dark, making it difficult to pick out the other athletes at the start. There were certain athletes I wanted to start next to, but I didn't know where they were. This was the first mistake of the day and the race hadn't even begun. The gun sounded and commenced the most physical few hundred metres of swimming I've ever experienced. People were more interested in beating up on each other rather than swimming. Kicks, dunking and knocked goggles were some of the highlights of the opening 500m. As I reached the front of this small group, I could see a group further ahead, but they already had a good gap. My goggles had slowly been filling with water and I had to stop briefly to adjust them. After about 1km of swimming solo I reached the halfway turnaround buoys and the gap to the group ahead had closed slightly.
There's no doubt I would have preferred to be following feet, but at least swimming on my own allowed me to avoid the physicality of being in a group. Sighting the buoys ahead I could see the gap to the group was closing. As I latched onto the back of the group of around 10, I spotted a few of the athletes – this was the group I intended to be with right from the start, but it was only around the 3km mark that I reached them. For a couple of minutes I sat behind feet, but the pace seemed slow. I made my way up the inside to the front and led the group to the swim exit in 53:41. Just like in Copenhagen, this allowed me a clean run through transition and I soon jumped on the bike with Thomas Gerlach in around 19th place.
Within a couple of miles, most of our swim group moved ahead of me on the bike. Seeing guys like Trevor Wurtele and Victor Del Corral was encouraging, as they're strong bikers and this was exactly where I wanted to be. Brian and I had discussed the race plan and we were prepared to go hard at the start of the ride to stay with the group, hoping the initial hard pace would slow become more conservative before long. However, up until the first turnaround point the pace was furious. With a draft marshal accompanying us, there were occasions where the pace slowed as guys tried to avoid getting in the draft zone, which led to freewheeling, giving us a brief break.
The problem with the freewheeling that occurs near the back of the group are the surges that follow to catch up with the constant pace at the front of the group. There were times where I was pushing 350+ watts (5.5W/kg) just to keep up and I was convinced there was an issue with my bike. I could hear a rubbing sound which sounded like it was coming from my rear brake pads. Around 18 miles into the race I couldn't keep matching the surges and I lost touch with the group. I settled back into my pre-planned race pace, knowing that if I continued to surge with the group, there would be an inevitable blow up on the run. As we reached the end of lap 1 I'd lost a minute in 18 miles to the group. Considering my pace was still decent, I was appreciative of how hard they were riding. Still convinced my brakes were rubbing, I jumped off my bike to check, but everything appeared to be fine. The stop cost me a good 30 seconds.
The first of the three loops was uneventful as there were no athletes ahead of us, however, on laps 2 and 3 we were constantly passing age-group athletes. With most of the course one road width, you had to be extremely vigilant. Getting through the ride safely was the main objective, which was reiterated by seeing a number of age-groupers who had crashed along the course. With 2500+ athletes covering a 37 mile loop, it's inevitable that accidents will occur. Conditions were ideal for fast riding and I was on course for a sub 4:30 ride. The nutrition plan for the ride was very simple – I started with 3 bottles of High 5 Energy Source Plus, each bottle with 550 calories (370 calories/hour). Each bottle lasted 1h30' and was supplemented with water from the aid stations. My wattage remained reasonably consistent throughout the ride and I reached T2 with a 4:28:28 bike split (averaging 3.65W/kg), losing a massive 8 minutes to the group I started with. I was happy with the ride and felt that I rode quite well, however, that group ahead of Thomas, Trevor and Victor had really crushed it. Meanwhile, Jordan Rapp had set a new bike course record with a blistering 4:14 split.
I came out of T2 with a 180 calorie bottle of Energy Source Plus, which I planned would last me the first hour of the run, again, supplemented with water at every aid station. The initial pace was conservative, opening with a few 6:40-6:50 minute miles. It wasn't long before that became 6:50-6:55/mile, which was slower than planned. There was nobody to run with and I knew the first 13.1 miles would be lonely.
The pace stayed steady until around the 10-11 mile mark my back tightened up - a returning niggle which first occurred in training 5 weeks prior. My pace dropped further and as I approached the 12 mile mark thoughts of pulling out entered my mind. Even taking on Coke at the aid stations didn't lift my mood. Running outside the top-15, I felt like there was nothing left to race for other than pride. Mile 12 came along and I decided to go another mile and reassess. I went through halfway in 1:28:xx, where the crowd support was great. I picked up another 180 calorie bottle of High 5 at special needs, again, to last the next hour if I made it that far. The crowd spurred me on for another couple of miles and at mile 15 my friend Steve Johnson gave me some encouragement and said to just take it one mile at a time.
That was exactly what I needed to hear. There was really no good reason to pull out – sure, the day wasn't turning out as I hoped and it was only going south, but it was the last race of the season and I'd traveled a long way to race. It's me who's out there racing, but there are so many people who are part of the journey who are as much a part of the race as I am. There were lots of friends out supporting me and owed it to them as well as myself, coach, family and sponsors to finish. I thought back to my trip to my old school in Seychelles earlier this year, where I talked to the students about the importance of having a positive attitude and mindset. Quitting when things aren't going your way isn't an example I want to set to them.
It was 15 miles into the race and I had to try and revert to a pace that I hoped would get me to the finish in one piece. Once I accepted that the situation, I felt much more positive. The race became fun again and I was cheering on friends on course who were also racing. The highlight of the 2nd lap was going through the ONE Multisport aid station at mile 20 where there was amazing support from everyone. The miles seemed to be going by slowly as is always the case at the end of an Ironman, ticking along around 7:10-7:20/mile. With half a mile to go my coach Brian who was on course told me there were 2 guys 30 seconds behind me and I had to pick up the pace to hold them off. Honestly, this is the last thing you want to hear with 800m left! My competitive spirit kicked in again and I responded, picking up the pace to maintain the gap to the finish.
The final run split was 3:03:48, a good 10 minutes slower than I hoped to run. The emotions were mixed – coming down the chute is always special, but I really felt that I'd let myself down on the run and it was hard to hide a sense of disappointment.
16th place was a long way off the top-8 I was aiming for, but I'd sneaked under 8:30, a time I'd surely have taken at the start of the year. On the whole, the race proved to be an excellent learning experience and one that will surely benefit me in the future. Importantly, its confirmed a few key areas that need to be further addressed moving forward next season. I absolutely loved the race and the support throughout was fantastic. Knowing so many people supporting on course made it feel like racing at home. My good friend Stu who I've been staying made everything in the build up so easy, driving me everywhere I needed to be and taking away any pre-race stresses.
The following morning Brian and I met to discuss plans for 2014. Making future plans is always exciting and it looks like there will be some new races and challenges in the coming 12 months. I'll write a follow-up post reviewing the year, but 2013 has been a whole load of fun and my time in Arizona has capped it off perfectly. Out of the many places around the world I've been lucky enough to visit, this really is one of my favourites. With the season wrapped up, it's now time for a bit of a break from training and a few off season indulgences.
To everyone who has supported and followed my #RookiePro year, its been a blast - thank you!