The day after Challenge Taiwan I was hit with the realisation that I'd be attempting to do it all over again in just 2 weeks. What seemed like a good idea at the time was now a daunting prospect. Never before have I raced two long distance events so close together (8 weeks between Ironman Hawaii and Ironman Western Australia in 2011 is the shortest Ironman turnaround I'd previously done). For the first time in years, it felt like I was going into the unknown, not knowing whether my body would be able to get through another 140.6 mile race so soon after the last one. Rest was the biggest priority during the two weeks between races. As race day approached I was feeling more positive, although unsure how the day would progress. After a calm and relaxed race week, it was soon time to see what I had.
The first few hundred metres was far harder than I wanted it to be, but once I saw who was around me I was exactly where I hoped to be. For over 1km I sat on feet, trying to compose myself and find a rhythm after the frantic start. Feeling good, I moved to the front of our small group to see if we were setting an honest pace. As we approached the far turnaround which was a little over halfway through the swim, I put in a surge to see if I could shake some of the group. Looking back a few hundred metres later, everyone was still there. I considered dropping the effort and letting someone else come through and lead our group, but continued at a decent effort. On the final leg towards the shore we were swimming into the rising sun, but fortunately we had a kayak escorting us which made sighting much easier. It felt like a fast swim, which was reflected in the time of 50:10 (although swim times were fast across the board).
5th out the water was better than I envisaged - the day had started well. It took some time to put my race suit on in transition and I lost a few places by the start of the bike, but wasn't too concerned. The early miles of the course were quite undulating and unlike Taiwan, this time I was going to race my own race, regardless of what others were doing on the bike. One other element I neglected somewhat in Taiwan was my race nutrition, so that was at the forefront of my mind throughout the day. A pattern emerged very quickly – I'd lose time on the hills and gain time on the descents and flats. Although I wasn't trying to stay with the group ahead of me, as the first of two laps progressed, there were three guys within sight for the first 56 miles. The halfway point came a in a little under 2:25, an indication that this wasn't going to be a fast ride. For those unfamiliar with the course, the terrain is fairly challenging and the road surface isn't great, both of which make for slower bike splits.
As we started the second lap there were now two guys ahead of me, but we were riding with a crosswind and slight headwind. After the early undulations at the start of the lap, I moved ahead of them and made my first tactical move on the bike. I upped the power by 10% in an effort to get away, not wanting to give anyone the advantage of riding with me. After 15 minutes I turned around on a long straight stretch and couldn't see anyone. From that point onwards it was all about being smart and continuing to execute a good pacing and nutrition strategy. I was getting in plenty of fluids and calories, averaging 375 calories/hour (High5 Energy Source Plus) and over 1 litre of fluid/hour. At the few turnaround points on the course I could see the time gaps to those ahead, but was confident that I was setting myself up for a good run. I came into T2 in 4th place with a 4:50:54 bike split. My power was actually higher than it was in Taiwan (where I overbiked), but the way I went about putting out the power was completely different – this was a smooth ride with even power between the first and second laps.
As I put on my new Adios Boost shoes in T2 I was happy – happy with how the race had progressed until this point and happy with my prospects of running well. That being said, I wasn't overconfident. After letting myself down on the run in the last two races in Arizona and Taiwan, I was determined to prove that my 2:49 run in Copenhagen last year wasn't a one-off (my next best run was a 3:03). I took more High5 in a gel flask with me for the early stages of the run, with nutrition again at the forefront of my mind. From the first step out of T2, my legs felt great and I was having to hold myself back from starting too fast. Even though I had a gap of around 9 minutes to Denis Chevrot who was behind me off the bike, I knew he was capable of bridging that gap if I didn't run well.
The first of four laps went by smoothly as I quickly settled into a pace I hoped to maintain for the duration. Towards the halfway point of the run I passed Luke Bell (who eventually withdrew from the race) which moved me into 3rd place, the highest position I'd ever been in at a big race. The halfway point came with just under 1:28 on the clock. Everything was on track and my mind was focussed – far more so than it has ever been in any race before. The mental cues I had in mind were reminding me to focus on holding good form and maintaining a high cadence. However, at this point both Elliot Holtham and Paul Ambrose had a good lead on me and just as importantly, Denis was gaining ground behind me. I picked up another bottle of High5 at special needs and continued to pay very close attention to my nutrition and hydration. By this point the wind on the run was getting to be a little ridiculous, running directly into this invisible force slowing every effort at forward progress. It was quite demoralising, but all athletes had to deal with it. The 3rd lap went by at exactly the same pace and the narrow run course was now getting very congested with the majority of age-groupers now off the bike. At mile 20 I slowed to my first 7:00/mile and things were starting to get tough. With 2nd place over 4 minutes ahead, the focus shifted to maintaining pace to hold onto 3rd.
My stride shortened and my cadence slowed. Things weren't unravelling, but the pace had slipped significantly. The next few miles were 7:15-7:30/mile and my gap to 4th place had (according to my calculation at the final turnaround) slipped to just under 2 minutes. This was it, crunch time. The mind started playing tricks, saying things like “4th place is still a great result” and “There's not much difference between 3rd and 4th anyway”. But I wanted that 3rd spot so much, more than I could describe in a few sentences in this report. I walked the next aid station, took in three cups of Coke and said three words to myself - “One last push”.
The switch had been flicked. Everything still hurt, the only difference was that now I wasn't listening to the discomfort, but accepting it. The next mile went by in 6:37 and there was now only around 1.5 miles to go. With no turnaround points left in the race, I was running blind, unaware of what was happening behind me. Was he gaining? Was I pulling away? All I could do was run as fast as I could and hope that it would be enough. The crowd – who had been phenomenal the whole day – were amazingly encouraging and gave me so much energy on the final stretch through town. I picked the pace up further. A 6:21 minute mile. Almost home.
As I approached the finishing chute I turned around for the first time and couldn't see anyone behind me. The final burst of energy had been enough to hold on. I'd like to say that I was cool, calm and collected coming down the chute, taking it all in my stride, but that would be a lie. I was overjoyed to be coming across the line in 3rd place for my first podium finish as a professional.
I didn't even see the time on the board overhead (it turned out to be 8:41:19, with a run time of 2:56:22) as it was the last thing on my mind. I congratulated Paul and Elliot on their races and laid down on the floor looking at the sky. I couldn't tell you what I was thinking in that exact moment, but there was nothing but positive emotions. Very soon after finishing there was a podium presentation. After the flowers were handed out it was time for champagne popping!
Following that were some post-race interviews with media which was good fun. It was strange trying to reflect on the race so soon after finishing, as I was still trying to piece the day together myself. To finish off, I'd like to say a big thank you to Jack and Pat who were kind enough to welcome me into their home and look after me for my time in Port Macquarie. They made my week so much easier and more enjoyable than it would otherwise have been and were wonderful hosts, as well as being out there supporting on the day. My time in Port Macquarie will always be memorable, not just for the result, but for the race itself and the supporters who made it such a great event. I can't deny it - racing in Australia is a lot of fun!