Ironman WA, Busselton 2005 - My Ironman Journey

I think I had just turned 10 when I first saw an Ironman event on one of those late Saturday afternoon sports specials on TV. If my memory is correct, it would have been the February 82 Hawaiian Ironman (there was another in October of that year) and it featured one of the most memorable finishes of all time. It was the year Kathleen McCartney passed Julie Moss metres from the finish as she struggled through dehydration and exhaustion to crawl to finish in second place, thereby inspiring millions and the legend that just finishing is a victory.

I was one of the millions inspired, but never for a moment did I seriously think that I could complete the gruelling 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run. But somehow that inspiration stayed with me, so when I first attempted a triathlon, a little under two years ago, unknowingly, I was planting the seed to turn dreams into reality. It doesnít take too long hanging around a triathlon club, listening to the stories and hearing about everyone elseís amazing efforts to catch the tri bug. The camaraderie is fantastic, thereís always more to learn and at Hornsby Iíve found that thereís always someone around to give you some helpful advice and a bit of encouragement, no matter what your level of ability.

So there I was, in March of this year, lying on the couch at home with the flu, contemplating what I was doing with my life. Iíd lost 15 kilos since doing my first triathlon, partly from training and also from dealing with the after effects of a marriage breakdown. I needed something positive to focus on. I made the decision then and there that I was going to stop talking and start doing. And I was going to do an Ironman.

I knew there was an Ironman at the end of November in Western Australia that had fairly relaxed entry criteria (all you need to do is complete a sprint distance triathlon 0.5km/20km/5km), so I made it my goal. I had about 35 weeks to prepare, so I just started at the end and worked backwards. A couple of spreadsheets later, I had a training program that required me to do at least one 30 lap swim, a 40km bike ride and a 13.5km run in the following week. It seemed manageable!

For the next 35 weeks, I just focussed on the week ahead. It was always only just a few laps or kms more than the prior week, so it always seemed achievable. I wasnít a saint and I didnít have the perfect training program but I knew that if I just tried to stick with each weekís goal, I would do enough to get home in the end. Sure, there were quite a few times when work or family commitments meant that I had to recalibrate my plans and I developed a couple of minor injuries towards the end, but more or less, I stuck to the plan. And updating the spreadsheets and graphs each day was heaps of fun!

Race Week

I arrived in Busselton on my own a few days before the start of the race after having driven down from Perth. Even 80km out of Busselton I started to get the nervous sensation of bogon moths in my stomach (so much more masculine than butterflies!) as I started to see solitary cyclists grinding away on the country roads, prostrating themselves on their tri-bars. Even though everything I knew about human physiology said that there was no benefit to be obtained by training hard in the week before a race, I couldnít help but feel that I should have been on the road as well. I started to feel like I didnít really belong - these guys looked like professionals. I reasoned that they were probably riding the 260km down from Perth and their bikes were really fancy. I started to wonder what on earth I was doing there. "Iím kidding myself!" I thought, "Iím no Ironman." By the time I got to town, it was worse. There were posters all over the place, the streets were filled with cyclists in groups and you could have convinced me that the beauty salon had a special on leg waxing that week - buy one get twenty free!

My initial impressions must have been an extreme over reaction caused by an excess of nerves due to the drop off in training intensity. Once I had checked in to the hotel and started getting around town, I realised that people were really friendly. I still seemed to be the only one driving and they still all had waxed legs and bikes that looked like they belonged in the Tate Gallery, but generally, everyone was up for a chat (except maybe the Swiss). The next couple of days involved a drive and then ride round the bike course (one 60km lap only!), numerous stops at the Busselton Jetty which extends 1.8km out into Geographe Bay and a couple of short swims at the beach near the hotel. Unfortunately I also seemed to have caught a cold, so there was also plenty of sleep and rest in front some dvds. The one thing I did realise though, was that a 1.8km swim looks like a bloody long way when itís all stretched out in a straight line!

Friday morning was race registration. I picked up my race bags and info and got my yellow wristband and competitor t-shirt. Once I started to look like everyone else, I felt more legitimate. Friday night was the Carbo Party. I caught the athletesí bus into town and then discovered that there was an athletesí parade. The town marching band led the way and the local primary school children were holding up signs indicating all of the 37 countries that were represented - just like they do at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. I jumped the fence after watching the parade pass by and joined in with the Australians. With locals lining the streets of Busselton, I started to feel like an imposter again. This feeling was exacerbated when I hear the evening news report stating that 700 of the worldís elite athletes had descended on the town for the Ironman. I wished that someone would just tell everyone that I was only an amateur from a tiny club in Hornsby, far from elite and that it would be good if they didnít expect too much!

The Carbo Party itself was great. I met a few people from all over the world, many of whom I was later able to see again over the weekend. I knew that it wasnít your usual party, however, as I got closer to the food. Off to one side was a bar area. Behind the bar were large fridges with glass doors. I think they had six beers in each fridge. By the end of the night I think they had sold two of them. It wasnít a late night but some of the highlights included a moment when the MC asked all those who had completed an Ironman to stand up. Most people did, and it was awesome to see and felt even better to see the people who were still sitting down. Then the countdown began as the MC asked all those who had completed two Ironman events to remain standing, then three and so on. Eventually only two people were left standing. One was Lothar Leder, the German who was the first man to complete an Ironman in under 8 hours. He thought that he may have completed 30 events but he had lost count. The other was a small Japanese man, Manabu Ueda. He was 60 years old and he was lining up for his 60th Ironman. And he just looked like a regular guy!

On Saturday morning we had the race briefing. I was still quite nervous at this stage so listened very carefully. I felt like I was listening to the flight attendants giving the safety briefing before a flight, in so far as I had heard it all before (or at least read it about 70 times!) - except that it was like listening to the safety briefing when you know you are going to crash. One of the moments at the race briefing that summed up the whole experience and the atmosphere of everyone racing occurred when we were told:

"We may all have goals and targets when we compete but don't let them be your over-riding concern. Race with an attitude of appreciation because you are truly fortunate to be here and to be able to compete. Some people cannot even get enough food to live, let alone enough food to train and then compete".

That comment made me really appreciate my fortunate existence.

The other memorable comment was aimed at the international competitors who may have been nervous about sharks: "More people die from lightning strike in Australia each year than die from shark attacks." More on that later.

At lunch time on Saturday my support crew arrived. Rosanne from the club had come over the night before and driven down with Kerry, a friend of ours from Perth. In addition, two of Kerryís friends, Dave and Michelle, also came to watch. With Hornsby colour pom-poms attached, Rosanne and Kerry did a fantastic job of cheering, I canít thank them enough. I am also really grateful to Dave and Michelle for taking some really top-class photos of the event for me.

Following lunch, I took my bike and run gear into town to put into the transition area. All the photos of me at this stage show me looking pretty serious. I still felt nervous. Once the gear was checked in, however, I think I finally started to relax. I didnít really have to remember anything else, other than to eat well, get some sleep and turn up on time.

Race Report

I tried to get an early night before the race. As it turned out, the elements were against me. A ferocious storm hit Busselton at 10pm, about 8 hours before race start. Pouring rain, driving winds, lightning and thunder all made sleep just a tad difficult. I was in good spirits, however, and chuckled to myself thinking, "Iím glad the storm hit now and not tomorrow morning."

I woke to my alarm at 3.50am. At least, I think it was my alarm. It was hard to hear over the thunder. I got up, made myself the breakfast of champions - some weetbix, cup of coffee and this really delicious meal replacement fluid recommended by Steve that they give people who are being tube fed. Well, that was all true except the delicious bit. Anyway, I thought it was probably worth while getting used to the taste as I contemplated whether or not I would be on the stuff for life post race.

At 5am, we left for the race. It was a bit later than we had planned but still well before the scheduled 6am start, and we were only 3km away. It was somewhat less than pleasing to see arcs of lightning illuminating the pre dawn sky on the drive in. Neither the wind, nor the driving rain had abated and I wondered whether or not they ever call off these races. But at least I didnít feel at all nervous.

I entered the bike compound and checked my tyres and then headed for the merchandise marquee to get out of the cold. It felt like it was about 13 degrees so I put my wetsuit on straight away. It was still cold. At that point I started to worry about the bike leg. Would it be possible to ride in a wetsuit? Fortunately my support crew came to the rescue and bought me a waterproof vest, which I quickly took to the transition tent to put in my bike bag. It was then time to head to the water.

I have never seen so many people still standing on the beach rather than being in the water at the start of a triathlon. And it was supposed to be a deep water start. We were entertained by an airforce fly-by and it helped a little to take our minds off the cold. I started wading out into deeper water and was rewarded when the starter said that we had one minute to go. When the countdown reached 10 seconds, a tiny chink appeared in the clouds and through this aperture, beams of sunlight flooded the start area. It was magical. And then, before we knew it, the gun went off.

I concentrated on swimming with an easy rhythm and focused on my form. I didnít suffer too many kicks to the head and soon found myself with enough space to swim relatively freely. The condidtions were very choppy, though, with the consequence that we were all being thrown about quite a lot. It wasnít unusual for a swimmer to be thrown from seemingly nowhere, to land square in the middle of your back, but everyone was quite polite about it. I later learned that quite a few competitors got seasick and had to feed the fish. It wasnít really surprising I suppose, because the weather station at the end of the jetty was recording wind gusts of up to 60km/h. Luckily, seasickness wasnít an issue for me. I felt good as I rounded the jetty and really enjoyed the swell that pushed me back to shore.

I didnít get to see the lead swimmer, but apparently it was Ky Hurst, the surf life saving champion who is trying to qualify for the Commonwealth Games for the 1500m. He was competing in the first Ironman relay ever and had opened up a handy lead before tagging Henk Vogels Jnr who had freshened up after a gruelling Tour de France. Henk was going to crunch out a 180km time trial before tagging John McClean, the champion physically challenged athlete who can clock a 2hr marathon in his wheelchair.

I felt good coming out of the water and even managed a smile and thumbs up to my support crew who were enthusiastically screaming support. I had a drink and some food in transition Ė another of Steveís famous meal replacements, put on my new vest and jogged out to the bike. I got a huge surprise, there still seemed to be a lot of bikes in the transition area. I had secretly feared that I might be the last one out of the water.

I jumped on the bike and headed out into a 40km/h headwind. I thought then that it was going to be a tough 12km out of town and probably a very long day. As I saw my speedo hovering just above 22km/h, I knew it was going to be a very long day.

The ride was fairly uneventful, but long. I ate and drank as much as I could. In fact, if I see another Power Bar this month, I might just jump off a bridge. After an hour of so of riding, the clouds had blown over and the storm had passed. The wind didnít ease off at all and this really hampered me. Iím not a particularly strong rider and the long stretches into the wind were taking their toll.

The ride was a flat 60km loop and on the first lap it seemed like I was being passed every minute or so. It was great to see the pros zip by but I lamented the kms I hadnít done on the bike as they disappeared into the distance. There was a T intersection in the course that had to be passed three times on each lap. It was here that I found my support crew. With the clouds disappearing, it was starting to become quite hot, but there they were, with signs saying ďGo FRANK!!Ē, yelling and screaming, telling me I looked good and waving those awesome pom-poms. It was a real boost and it gave me something to look forward to as I pedalled around. They stayed there for just about the entire 7 hours of my ride Ė I donít know how they did it. At least I was getting a change of scenery and lots of food and drink. They just skipped lunch.

By the last lap, I was starting to appreciate the demands of a flat course. There were no hills but there was no respite from the constant pedalling and I was having problems with some chafing. I realised after the race that I had put my saddle back on the bike at slightly the wrong angle. A real lesson for next time! I really enjoyed the last 10km of the ride though. The wind had dropped right off and I took the opportunity to thank as many of the volunteers as I could. There were over 1200 of them for only 700 competitors. Many of them had done a lot of work, in particular the ladies handing out bidons of High 5. As each cyclist came past, they had to run to give us a chance to grab the bottle. They were running a lot.

I was glad to finally get off the bike and change over to the run. Whilst in transition I was fortunate enough, or slow enough to see Mitch Anderson finishing to the blaring sounds of ACDCís Thunderstruck. Mitch had an awesome race, clocking the fastest bike leg, even faster than that of Henk Vogels. It was indicative of the conditions, however, that whilst a few of the pros had been expecting to finish in under 8 hours, the winning time was 8.27.

I surprised myself by running the first 6km of the run without having to walk. My heel spur did play up and was quite painful, but not as bad as it had been. I made sure I drank a cup of High 5 and a cup of degassed cola at each aid station and kept plugging away as best I could. By this stage, there was no wind, there were no clouds and it was 29 degrees. We were running along the foreshore and the water was a mill pond, almost glassy. It looked very tempting!

Unfortunately I had to walk fairly often on the run, but once I got past 21km, I realised that it hurt just as much to walk as it did to run. With this in mind I was able to start a shuffle that I maintained for the next 7km. Then it was back to walking and running. The support crew were again conspicuous. They gave lots of encouragement and the motivation to get back into a run whenever I saw them. Not only did they cheer for me, but I think they cheered for every single competitor, looking up their names in the program and yelling out things like ďGO BARRY, CíMON BAZZA, YAY BAZ!Ē. They also had been making a lot of comments like ďNoice Bike!Ē on the bike course which then became ďNoice Shoes!Ē on the run leg with a great Kath & Kim accent. I know this because just about everyone at the Meltdown Party on the Monday night came up to say thanks and we were still getting "Noice Bike!" comments yelled at us days later!

The run was a good opportunity to talk to some of the other competitors about their experiences and road to Ironman. Everyone was super friendly and very supportive. I ran with a few different people over the last 10km and had great support from Jim the American and Shiraz from Queensland.

With just over a kilometre to go, I left Shiraz who I had been walking with for a bit and stretched out for the final run. It was starting to sink in Ė I was going to finish. I enjoyed the sight of the bobbing glow sticks in the dark as I trotted towards the bright lights of the finish and started to hear the music pumping. The crowd was awesome as I came round the final bend into the finish shute and it was great to finally catch up to Jim again as we high fived our way down shute. And, as the clock ticked over to 13.47.48, I crossed the finish line. It wasnít pretty, and there were plenty of times when I was thinking that Iíd never, ever do it again and that I just wanted the pain to stop, but the feeling of finally getting there is one of the best feelings in the world.

So there it is. A long, but hopefully honest account of my journey to Ironman. I have referred to it as a race, but for someone like me, who is just out to finish, itís not really a race. Itís a journey. And one that hopefully leaves me a little bit more aware of myself and thankful for the opportunities that I have had that allowed me to complete it.

If thereís one last thing to add, it would one of the most moving moments for me. At the meltdown party the following night, the experience of Manabu Ueda was read out. Manabu was the 60 year old Japanese man attempting his 60th Ironman. On the run leg, Manabu tore a calf muscle and couldnít run properly. He was still out on the run course when the 17hour cut-off was reached. Manabu didnít stop, he kept going and the crowd stayed to wait for the final athlete to come home. Manabu finally came around the last bend to reach the start of the finish shute. The crowd was lined up on either side. As he reached that point, Manabu refused to go down the finish shute, instead chosing to run down the outside. He completed the distance but did not feel that he deserved the honour of crossing the finish line because he had missed the cut-off. We stood and gave Manabu a standing ovation and recognised him as a real Ironman.

Andrew Stone

December, 2005