Before the start I jumped into the water for a short warm up. To say that the water quality was poor would be putting it kindly. A deluge of rain in the days leading up to the event had turned the Hastings River brown, reducing the visibility to, well... nothing. However, the temperature was reasonable and I was excited to test my newfound swim at another Ironman race.
As the gun fired the usually frantic pace seemed benign. The opening few hundred metres – even in an Ironman – are usually an all out sprint. To my surprise I felt completely within my comfort zone for the first couple of hundred metres, surrounded by a good group of athletes. It soon started to string out and we transitioned into an orderly line, everyone trying to take advantage of a draft. Having to sight regularly because of the lack of water visibility, I could see that the guy I was following was dropping off the back of a group. Keeping tabs on the situation, the gap was growing and soon we were about ten metres behind. Without hesitation I pulled around and put in a surge to reach the feet ahead. Having more confidence in my swim has been a huge advantage in recent races and this was a good example of that. Despite my best efforts, I swallowed some water on a few occasions, but other than that the swim was uneventful. I came out with three other very accomplished swimmers: Kerin Lachlan, Peter Robertson and Brian Fuller. 48:24 (av. 1:15/100m) was a new PB.
Coming out the swim I felt great and was keen to get through T1 as smoothly as possible. A 1:57 transition time was one of the fastest of the day. After my good work in transition I let myself down at the bike mount line, wasting precious seconds. I was soon joined by Peter Robertson and we started the ride within seconds of each other. Within the first few kilometres I dropped my chain, which unfortunately knocked off my power meter magnet. Over 175km to go and my pacing plan – which was to power – had gone out the window.
Brian Fuller soon joined us and the three of us started to rotate nicely, each willing to do our fair share of work at the front. The pace felt comfortable - not easy, but sensible. As we reached the first turnaround point around 45km we saw that the leaders had four minutes on us, with Paul Ambrose not far behind them. The pace still felt comfortable, but I was struggling to keep my nutrition down. When I was behind Peter and Brian I was bringing everything back up. I tried not to do this when I was in front, as I didn't want them to see and think it was a weakness. As we approached 90km, Brian did a lot of work at the front and was clearly the stronger on the hills back into town. We managed to stay together and started the second lap with a little over four minutes to the front.
Grabbing another bottle of High5 at special needs, I had all the calories needed for the second half of the ride. Unfortunately I hadn't absorbed nearly enough calories or fluid in the first half, but my stomach was starting to settle. Buoyed by the fact that we hadn't lost any time to the leaders, I moved to the front to do “my turn”. A few minutes passed, then five, then ten. I was still at the front and sensed the possibility of a break. On one of the hills I turned around to see that a gap had emerged. It wasn't until the next turnaround that I saw the small gap had turned into a minute. Now in fourth outright, I was still just four minutes off the lead. Around 140km I passed Pete Jacobs and moved into 3rd. Little did I know, Ambrose had his foot on the gas up ahead and was putting huge time into the rest of us. My 4:46:59 split was the second fastest of the day, but I didn't know what the time splits were, so when I came into T2 I was eager to find out what the damage was. The answer - eight minutes to Ambrose in 1st and just one minute to Luke Bell in 2nd. Game on.
Coming out of T2 I was hit with a disheartening realisation – the game wasn't on. I could see Bell ahead and willed myself to run faster to bridge the gap, but I was falling back. You know those days where you fly out of transition and know that it's going to be a good day... well, this wasn't one of those days. My legs felt fine, but I was running on fumes. The lack of nutrition on the bike had caught up with me. Soon, the gap I'd worked hard to achieve on the bike was eradicated as Brian Fuller came past. We were just 6km into the run and I knew my day out would be longer than I hoped. The next 20km were seriously tough as I continued to slow. Running on empty, I did something that I haven't done since my first Ironman in 2008. I grabbed as many salt pretzels as possible, chewing on them as I walked through the aid station. By this stage the run course was more congested, which made it difficult to track where other athletes were. However, I knew Luke Martin was closing in. He came past at 38km as I was walking – and chewing – my way through an aid station. I wanted to try and stay with him, but there was nothing to give. The last 4km seemed to take an eternity, as I sneaked under 9 hours with a 3:21:11 run. Finally my body could stop.
Despite a run that was 25 minutes slower than last year's 2:56 split, I was pleased. I was willing to risk an implosion on the run for something greater than a “safe” performance and result. Last season I finished between 3rd and 5th on four occasions, but in this race I wanted more. I don't regret having ambition. On this occasion it backfired, but you never know if you don't try.
There are definitely some positives to take away from the day. A new swim PB is always nice (although this does seem to be a rather quick swim course). Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the race was the bike. I've been a little disappointed with my riding this season – which perhaps is partly due to the lack of specific riding from October to December during my swim focus last year. As I view my bike as a weakness, this was a step in the right direction. It was of course disappointing not to prove my run on this occasion, but my 2:54 run at Ironman Taiwan three weeks prior again showed that on the day, my run is solid.
The fallout from the race is that 5th place doesn't help hugely in my chase for Kona qualification points. Having now reached my maximum of three scoring full Ironman races (at Wales, Taiwan & Australia), I'll have to try and improve on my weakest result, which is 6th at Ironman Taiwan. Two Ironman's in three weeks was tough, but the next challenge is making it three Ironman's in seven weeks. South America beckons as I'll be lining up at Ironman Brazil for my first regional championship race, an event with additional points up for grabs. The reality of the points chase is that if you're not a Kona incumbent and on the bubble of the podium, you've got to finish three full Ironman races and perhaps two 70.3's (or two full Ironman races and three 70.3's). If one (or more) of those aren't stellar results, then count on racing more to try and improve on them. That's exactly what I'm doing. At the time of writing I'm ranked 50th, but the table fluctuates with every weekend of racing that goes by.