Never before have I felt so anxious to race. With Kona seeming like a lifetime ago, the last 5 months have been about preparing for two early season races – this and Ironman South Africa. There was never any doubt in my mind which was the more important of the two races. With South Africa being my professional debut, that was the focus. That being said, the Abu Dhabi Triathlon would be my final race as an amateur and I of course wanted to end age-group racing with a great result.
Feeling confident in my swim – especially in my ZEROD VFLEX wetsuit - I lined up on the front row on the left hand side, hoping that I’d get some clear water at the start. When the gun went off we ran for a few metres before diving in the Arabian Gulf to start a two lap 3km swim. Everything felt good and I found myself with a lot of space, managing to avoid the boxing match that so often happens at the start of these races. I could see one or two athletes moving into the distance, but wasn’t able to catch up with them. This turned out to be one of the loneliest swims I’ve ever done, as at no point was I able to find feet to follow. Exiting the water after the first lap I saw an athlete 15 seconds ahead of me, and within the next few hundred metres managed to catch and pass him. The second lap was as lonely as the first, with the exception of passing some of the slower swimmers from a later wave who were still on their first lap. My swim split was 40:23, a massive 4:40 faster than last year. I was one of the first few athletes out of the water, which was very unfamiliar territory for me!
Going through transition I saw – as expected – that fellow age-grouper (and my soon to be training partner) Kyle Buckingham was already on the bike course. I’d joked with him before the race about catching him on the bike, and the chase was now on. Within the first few metres of the bike course - before I’d even had the chance to put my feet in my shoes - I was passed by none other than Olympic Champion Alistair Brownlee, who was racing the shorter distance event.
This year’s bike course was different to last year, with three 40km out-and-back loops within the ride. As always, the highlight was racing around the Yas Marina F1 track, which we got to do three times this year. Having not cycled outside since November (I’ve only done indoor riding in the last 3 months) my handling skills were a little rusty and I lost a little time through some of the corners of the track.
Around the 2 hour mark I started looking ahead to the end of the bike, although there was still another 3+ hours of riding to do. This is never a good sign, but fortunately I had the mental stimulation of calculating the time gap to Kyle at every turnaround, which was hovering around the 5-7 minute mark. Over the next 2 hours we saw each other at the same point every lap, with the time gap staying the same. I was ruing the fact that I hadn’t swum as fast as him, as it would have been far more fun to have someone to ride with. As with the swim, this was a 100% solo effort.
After 4 hours, someone turned off the power. Out of nowhere my power plummeted and I was struggling. The end of the bike couldn’t come quick enough - never before have I imploded so badly at the end of a ride during a race. Even the caffeinated gels didn’t turn things around for me. My mind was overcome with negative thoughts about the impending run, wondering how I’d be able to finish the race feeling so weak. There was nothing I could do but try and manage the situation and stay positive. My average speed took a hit during the last hour as I ended with a 5:06:12 bike split.
As I rolled into T2 and gingerly dismounted, I shuffled my way to the changing tent to get ready for the run. Dad was there as I came out of transition, but I couldn’t even muster up a smile for him (sorry Dad)! I took the first mile easy and walked through the first aid station, making sure I got in some water and plenty of sponges and ice, as it was heating up. I was thankful that the run course was so flat, as the prospect of hills might have been too much to handle! I eased into the run, ensuring that I’d save plenty in the tank to run well for the second lap. Kyle and I saw each other and gave one another some encouragement to keep pushing on. He was having an awesome race and I figured he’d be close to breaking the top-10 overall – an amazing achievement for an age-grouper in this competitive race. I increased the effort a little and approached the turnaround point in 39 minutes - I was starting to come good.
In contrast to the bike, I couldn’t have been happier to be running. Everything felt like it was clicking into place – my form felt good and the effort seemed remarkably ‘easy’. I was taking Pepsi at nearly every aid station, along with plenty of water. The volunteers were great and did their best to keep the athletes cool, handing us loads of sponges at every opportunity. I picked up the effort in the final few miles and smiled to myself, proud of the way I was closing out the race. With a negative split on the run, I grabbed the flag from Dad and crossed the line with a 1:16:48 run split and finish time of 7:10:11.
Kyle finished a few minutes ahead and we caught up at the finish line and congratulated each other, immediately sharing our account of how we struggled on the bike!
My final age-group race was a victory in the 18-24 category, with the highlight being finishing in 11th place overall, my highest placing at a big international event. Again, this race proved to be a great early season test, but most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to assess my fitness ahead of Ironman South Africa on 14th April. There are a few things to focus on between now and then, but I’ll take away an important lesson from this race – sometimes you’ve got to play defence. Things don’t always go to plan, but you’ve got to be able to react to the situation and prepare to deviate from your pre-race plan. The last hour on the bike was pretty dark for me, but by backing off the effort, not getting down on myself and trying to stay mentally strong and, I managed to come out the other side and end with a great run. That’s a positive experience that I’ll no doubt draw upon many times in future races.