Ironman New Zealand 2015 Report

I lined up towards the right hand side, ensuring I was around some of the athletes I hoped to stick with during the swim. The first light of the day was barely coming through, at which point the cannon fired and the race began. The field seemed to line out quite quickly, which perhaps wasn't surprising given the high quality of some of the swimmers in the race. A few gaps formed and I found myself in a small group with two other athletes. With the lake perfectly still, swim conditions were ideal. Nevertheless, I found it very difficult to find a rhythm and struggled with timing my breathing. I tucked in behind the other two swimmers, but regularly found myself mistiming breaths and swallowing water. The pace seemed to be decent and after we hit the turnaround point I could see another small group not too far ahead. As we approached the final 500m the pace seemed to increase slightly and we caught the group ahead with 200m to go. A 50:06 swim split had me out of the water with five other athletes, which was a solid start to the day.

Once we hit dry land I was feeling pretty ropey and the 400m run to T1 seemed to take an eternity. A lot of the guys ran pretty hard and I lost a fair amount of time at this stage. I was quick through the change tent and clawed back some time, but found myself behind the guys I'd swum with.

Right out of the gate the pace was high and I felt unable to match it. I saw athletes move further into the distance and tried to remind myself that it was a long day ahead. Within 10km I had already lost over a minute – a trend that continued for the remainder of the ride. The weather for the first 45km to the turnaround at Reporoa was very cool, with light rain and temperatures around 14 degrees. My power was fairly low and despite every effort, I just couldn't seem to hit that next gear. At the 45km point the gap to the front was approximately 8 minutes and I was just outside the top-10. After 60km of feeling low, I tried to draw on previous difficulties in races. Going through rough patches is part of Ironman racing and I promised myself that things would come good. It took a long time - close to 100km - but I was finally able to increase the effort a little. 35km later at the turnaround point my wave of energy had crashed. I made it to 170km before things took a turn for the worse. For the first time in training or racing, I started hyperventilating and was unable to control my breathing. This came completely out of the blue and I wasn't entirely sure how to deal with the situation. I eased up and tried to take deep breaths through my nose and out my mouth, which seemed to help. My breathing was back to normal for the final few kms of the ride and I hoped that would be my last experience of it. A 4:52:23 bike split gave up far more time to the leaders than I anticipated (now 14 minutes behind the front) but I was confident in my ability to run well.

Right out of T2 my breaths were short and laboured and I wasn't even moving quickly. Within the first km I was hyperventilating again – it felt as if my throat was closing up and I just couldn't get enough air in. I slowed to a walk and tried to get my breathing under control and calm myself down. I got going again, this time at jogging pace, but I just couldn't stop the short breaths. It wasn't long before I had to stop. I was just one mile into the run and the performance I'd envisaged for so long had passed me by. My day was over. I walked for a while, my mind racing with a million different thoughts, none of which were positive. I sat on the side of the road for a while and looked over the lake – never before had I felt such a feeling of failure.

A kind gentleman offered to drive me back into town, where I handed my timing chip in. The disappointment was like nothing I'd ever experienced in racing before. Going into the race with high expectations, it was a humbling experience for the day to end like it did. I was well prepared, but on the day I wasn't capable of getting myself through the race. The decision to pull out wasn't what I found difficult to take, it was the nature of the withdrawal. Even now I still can't pinpoint the cause of my difficulties on the day, which is extremely frustrating.

My emotions immediately following the race were very raw and my disappointment wasn't just for myself, but for everyone who believed in me and hoped and expected me to perform. I've been extremely fortunate to have the universal support of all of my sponsors following the race, as well as friends and family who have consoled me and reminded me that failures are a part of racing. To have such a great people around me made the days following the race far easier and I'm now trying to focus ahead rather than dwell on whats been. After some of my best performances I've said that nothing is a greater test of your character than an Ironman – I believe the same is true when the performance is poor. There's no sugarcoating it - this is the worst result and racing experience I've had, but as I've been reminded, what matters now is the next race.

Ironman 70.3 Geelong 2015 Report

Having not raced over the 70.3 distance for almost 18 months, it was with nervous anticipation that I lined up in Geelong. It really did feel like I was going into the unknown, with the only certainty being that this would be a hard and fast race. As the gun fired 19 male pros ran into Corio Bay, all of us seemingly fighting for the exact same space in the water. Having focussed specifically on my swim towards the end of last year, I definitely felt more confident in my ability to have a decent swim leg. I quickly found a rhythm and was sitting within a large group quite nicely. After a few hundred metres the pack seemed to split slightly, with the stronger swimmers really pushing the pace. Fortunately I was still in the smaller chase group, although we were losing time to the front pack. After an all out 1.9km effort, I came out the water in 22:57, just over a minute behind the front pack.   

After making the error of coming out of the water at the back of the chase pack, I was behind the eight ball in transition. I left T1 with guys up the road, who were quickly working hard to bridge up towards the leaders. In hindsight I should have been more aggressive towards the end of the swim and/or through transition, which is a lesson I'll take away with me. I had a good idea of the power numbers I would be capable of holding for the bike, but with little recent experience over the distance and being conscious of the run, I was perhaps a little conservative. With a slightly different position to last season following my trip to the Drag2Zero wind tunnel, I settled into the task of holding my watts. The course climbed out of transition then was predominantly flat with a few rollers.

The first lap seemed to pass by quickly and conditions were proving to be ideal for fast racing. The race up ahead has split up into a couple of smaller groups, making it difficult to make up time alone and bridge up towards them. I focussed on holding my watts and taking in my nutrition, always conscious of the impending run. After pacing the first lap conservatively, I upped the power slightly on the 2nd lap for a 2:15:52 bike split, coming into T2 in 10th place.  

A relatively swift T2 and I was out on the run course. It's definitely fair to call this a rolling course, with numerous gradual inclines and declines, as well as some shorter, sharper climbs. I felt a touch laboured in the opening mile, clocking a 6:07. Fortunately things picked up from there and I held a pace that felt comfortably hard. I'd done relatively little training around this pace and wasn't sure how much room for error I had. After going through the halfway mark in just under 39 minutes, I moved into 9th place. With my gel flask in hand I kept taking in the calories and held a constant pace, moving into 8th place with a few miles to go. At the last turnaround I saw that 7th place was a few minutes ahead and making the catch was unlikely, which proved to be the case. A slight negative split got me over the line in 3:59:37 with a 1:17:16 run.

On the face of it an 8th place finish isn't all that impressive, however on this occasion I wasn't focussing solely on the result. The performance itself was filled with positives – I stayed in contention on the swim, executed my plan on the bike and came through with a well paced run. Equally important - and especially so with an Ironman coming up - with the help of High5 I really dialled in my nutrition strategy. Although I'm happy with the performance, I'm in the business of results. I'm realistic that my talents don't lie at the 70.3 distance – it's neither my focus nor what my training is specifically tailored towards. In less than three weeks I'll be wearing #4 at Ironman New Zealand – a race which I've been excited about for some time. The performance at Geelong has cemented what I've seen in training in recent months - everything is on track.   

Addressing My Weakness with Swim Smooth

My swim training has often been sporadic, with motivation occasionally dwindling as I've searched for excuses to either miss swim sessions completely or cut them short. However, in the last two years of racing as a professional I've learned one thing – the swim matters. For myself as a second pack swimmer, it's not necessarily the time I lose to the leaders that's the biggest factor, but the impact that it has on the dynamic of the remainder of the race. I wanted – and still want – to be a better swimmer, but I knew that something had to change. My coach Brian recognised this also and we planned to spend the winter focussing on swimming. Addressing my weakness seemed logical, but in reality I knew it would be difficult to shift focus towards my least favourite of the three disciplines.

We briefly looked into some options, which included Europe, the US and Australia. There was one option that I kept coming back to – going to Australia to train with renowned triathlon and open water swim coach Paul Newsome (Swim Smooth). Having worked with countless triathletes who have come away with big improvements, I had no doubt that his expertise would have a positive impact on my swim. After chatting with Paul he convinced me that if I was committed I would come away a better swimmer. Just how much better would depend on me. Having friends in Perth made the decision an easy one - I booked the trip and two months of swim training awaited. I immediately recognised what a fantastic opportunity this was and was determined to make the most of it. I focussed on doing just two things: turning up and working hard. If I could do that then I trusted the improvement would take care of itself.

After arriving the first task was to establish my CSS (Critical Swim Speed), which was done by completing a 400m and 200m time trial. That gave us a benchmark to use in training, with most of the sessions using the beeper (Finis Tempo Trainer), giving you instant feedback of how fast you're swimming. Throughout the week the emphasis was on specific sets rather than drills and technique, although Monday's session was always an easier one, incorporating a number of drills. One session which never changed was Tuesday's 10x 400m, which gave me a good indication of how my swim was progressing as the weeks went by. Wednesday and Friday varied each week - one session had a threshold pace main set and the other a longer endurance main set. We also did one open water session every week, swimming in the Swan River from Claremont jetty.

Initially it was hard, really hard. I was struggling towards the end of sessions and it took almost two weeks until I was able to complete a main set at my target pace. After that initial period, the improvements started coming. Using the 10x 400m set as a benchmark was fantastic and seeing the times come down week on week was really motivating. Paul analysed my stroke and talked me through it, clearly explaining the elements to address as well as pointing out the positives. My stroke didn't need completely tearing apart, but there was definitely room for refinement.

The work continued as the weeks ticked by. I turned up and worked hard, just as I promised myself. For the first time ever I actually enjoyed swimming. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, we were swimming in some fantastic pools. Whether it was the outdoor pool at Claremont or one of the three 50m pools at Challenge Stadium, the swim facilities were excellent. Secondly, there was a really great group of people swimming together and we had fun outside of swimming. Finally, Paul was always so positive and enthusiastic, it was difficult not to get excited about swimming!

Before arriving in Perth, Brian and I agreed that my bike and run training would take a back seat, allowing me to focus on executing the swim sessions to the best of my ability. Monday to Friday's bike training consisted of commuting to/from the pool (a 50km round trip), with one longer ride on Saturday. Similarly, run training dropped off slightly, getting in some aerobic runs during the week and a longer trail run on Sunday. We of course knew that my bike and run fitness would regress with this schedule, but we were confident that it would soon return with regular training. The important thing was that my swim was improving in training, and an opportunity to test it in a race environment was just around the corner. With Busselton being just a 2.5 hour drive away, I entered Ironman Western Australia with no expectations. Four Ironman/Challenge races between April and September this year was tough and I was unsure how my body would handle the prospect of another. Given the low volume of bike and run training – and absence of any specific training sessions – I couldn't expect to compete for the top spots against the strong pro field that lined up for the race. I put my pride aside and accepted that for the first time in my triathlon career my day would likely end before reaching the finish line.

The gun fired and the pace was on right from the get-go. I'm fairly certain I set a new 100m PB from the start, with the subsequent few hundred metres not getting any easier. As we approached 1km things seemed to spread out a little and there were some gaps starting to form up ahead. I'd been red-lining since the start and was giving it absolutely everything, but the front group of guys were pulling away. Just before halfway I moved to the front of our group and got a small gap, although the leaders ahead continued to swim into the distance. The last 2km was a solo effort as I found myself stranded between groups, eventually coming out the water in 49:52. The rest of the race went mostly as expected – I biked a 4:34 which lost time to the lead group and ran a gratuitous 3km before pulling to the side of the road and taking off my timing chip. There wasn't a moment of hesitation in stopping – I'd made peace with the decision around 120km into the bike. I've raced enough of these to know that you have to be mentally prepared and willing to push your body to the limit, but on that day, I wasn't prepared – or able – to do that. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the sidelines cheering on the other athletes which was great fun! The post-race analysis of the swim was really positive. Sneaking under 50 minutes for the first time and losing just 3.5 minutes to the lead swimmer was definitely a step in the right direction (for comparison, this season I've consistently lost 5-7 minutes to the lead swimmer). The main front pack still eluded me by 2.5 minutes, but that's a time gap that I hope will continue to come down.

Was I satisfied with the improvements during the two months? Absolutely. In the 10x 400m sessions my times improved by 7s/100m over 8 weeks, I progressed up to 8km in the open water averaging 1:19/100m (courtesy of drafting Mr Newsome!) and I had my best ever swim in a race. I got everything I hoped out of the experience and more. There's certainly a lot of work ahead to get closer to the front pack, but my time in Perth proved that with the right focus, I have the aptitude to commit to swimming – something I wasn't sure about previously.

As I write this at 40,000 feet on my final flight of 2015, I leave Perth grateful for an amazing couple of months. Just like their coffee, the Australian lifestyle is tough to beat and is something I'll really miss. That being said, it's the people around you that turn good experiences into great ones, and I'm lucky to have an amazing group of friends who made this trip a great end to the year.