The vibes before the race were positive and I was really excited to finally kick off the 2014 season. Race week was great fun, with most of the professional athletes staying together. Training in race week had gone well, with the final sessions bringing some confidence ahead of Saturday's race. Even the local kids were looking forward to it!
Never before have I slept so well the night before the race. After at least 7 hours uninterrupted sleep, the race day processes began. Soon enough the professionals were lined up awaiting a dive start, which is a rare (but fun!) occurrence in long distance racing. A quick check to make sure I was around athletes I wanted to start the swim with, then we waited for the signal which would start my 2014 season.
With a relatively small professional field, the start wasn't as frantic and physical as it can be. My plan was to sit on feet immediately from the start and not go out too hard, aware that with the warm water temperature and wetsuits, it would be easy to overheat during the swim. For the first of two laps I sat on feet and saved energy, happy to let others set the pace. At the start of the second lap Till Schramm and I set the pace towards the front of our group, of which there were 7 or 8 of us. As we approached the final turn with 950m to go, I surged to get to the turn buoy first and avoid the congestion that always occurs at these points. I kept up the pace and after a few hundred metres turned to see that a small gap had emerged. Happy to swim solo for the remainder, I came out the water in 55:02 and had about 25 seconds on the group I was with. Whilst this obviously exerted some energy, it allowed me to cruise through T1 and settle into the first mile of the bike before being joined my the group.
Almost immediately, 4 of us formed a small group on the bike and set about trying to regain time on the leaders. Dylan McNeice had a great swim as expected and already had a big lead, followed by about 6 other athletes who had swum well. There was some chatter with Jason Shortis and Till Schramm, and we realised that our best chance of regaining time was by working together and sharing the workload. We rotated well at the front, but at the 28 mile mark we were still over 10 minutes down on Dylan, although gaining on the other athletes. Before the halfway point we caught up with the group ahead, but we were unable to ride away from them immediately. Slowly, a few of them started to fall back and our group was whittling down.
With 40 miles to go it was only Dylan up the road, but it was still only Jason, Till and I who were doing any work at the front and it was starting to take its toll. The constant efforts above race pace at the front of the group weren't in keeping with the race plan, but the three of us were committed. For the power people out there, my race VI was an all time high of 1.07, which illustrated just how much surging was going on at the front. Even though this is far from a safe strategy, this was an open race and I think each of us genuinely believed we could contend for the top spots. Showing some ambition on the bike was necessary if we wanted to have a chance of getting close on the run. We came into T2 together having ridden a 4:27:32, and the three of us said “Good riding boys” before heading out on the run.
The first 2-3 miles were absolutely horrible. I had some stomach cramps and found it really difficult to get into a comfortable stride. The guys I'd ridden with were quickly running into the distance. Thankfully things came around quite quickly and I settled into a nice rhythm, ticking along around 6:45/mile. The early miles felt like we were running in an oven, but thankfully it clouded over and stayed that way for the remainder of the day. Although I wasn't gaining time on the guys ahead, I was confident that a well paced run would allow me to catch back up to them in the latter stages of the run.
Just as I had positive thoughts, almost instantly out of nowhere the day unravelled and I hadn't even reached the halfway point. At mile 12 I was walking, feeling light headed and dizzy. I don't train or race with a heart rate monitor, but my heart rate felt like it was through the roof, even when walking. I tried to get running again, but the most I could manage was a jog. I didn't make it another mile until I was walking again, wondering how things had turned upside down. At this stage I had some very negative thoughts, which looking back was obviously the worst thing I could have thought of at the time. Any optimism and positivity about the race, performance and my placing had gone and I was well and truly in survival mode. I went through halfway in just under 1:30 and didn't think I'd make it to the finish line.
I resorted to walking through the aid stations – a strategy which has worked well for me in the past. The problem was that I just wasn't able to run at a decent pace in between the aid stations. The temptation to pull out of the race and save myself for Ironman Australia was high, but as much as I wanted to end the pain and frustration at the time, I knew how disappointed I'd be with a DNF. I was still in 5th, but unsure of how far behind the other athletes were. Somehow, the miles ticked by (albeit very slowly) and I progressed towards the finish. With less than 200m to go my hamstring cramped and I stopped in my tracks. I had visions of being passed in the finish chute, but thankfully there wasn't anyone behind me yet. I crossed the line with a 3:11:11 run with a strange feeling of achievement but deep disappointment. After experiencing some very negative thoughts during the run, I was pleased with my mindset to get through those dark moments, yet realised that I'd let a great opportunity pass me by. The time of 8:38:56 was 15 minutes behind Dylan who had repeated last year's win in fine fashion.
In the post race analysis, it's easy to say that I biked too hard and that's why my race went south. To a point, that's correct. My run has progressed nicely and perhaps I should have been conservative on the bike and backed my ability to run well. As it turned out, this was my slowest run since 2011. However, I'm not disappointed with my tactics on the day. I had big ambitions heading into the race and was willing to race hard to achieve them. 5th place isn't a terrible result, but it's not one I'm content with either. That's a turning point. In the past I've been satisfied with safe and conservative performances because it's a strategy that served me well as an age-grouper. However, to progress in the sport as a professional I'll have to take chances. In Taiwan I was willing to do so and it didn't work out. Live, learn and apply. There's another opportunity in a few days at Ironman Australia.
I'd like to end this report in the most positive way possible by thanking Michael Dhulst, Charlie Chen and everyone involved with the organisation of Challenge Taiwan. They went above and beyond before, during and after the race to ensure that we had the best experience possible and they delivered a fantastic event. I really hope to be back again. A big thank you must also go to photographer Darryl Carey for following the professional race and for kindly providing the photos above.