Racing Back to Health
2017 was a year to forget health wise for me. Going from never having had a health scare in my life to having two major episodes in the space of 2days and a serious bike accident requiring surgery was a bit of a shock.
Once the dust had settled following months of rehab and many many visits to the great people at the Alfred Hospital in follow up tests monitoring my health, I gained a certain clarity and perspective on life and what was important. One of these things was my health, and with this came a new-found motivation to drop some weight and get fit again.
Even though I had kept a regular training routine for the last 6-7years, my fitness had taken a back-seat priority wise to those I trained. The serious life events of 2017 made it abundantly clear that I needed to prioritise my own health and pick up the good habits of old.
So, what does one do; Right I thought, I need a goal to give me the motivation to change my tune.
I have had an affinity with the Big Island of Hawaii since 1999 when I first raced the legendary Hawaiian Ironman event in my second ever Ironman as an age grouper. Since then I have competed there several times as an amateur and professional, so I looked to the Hawaii 70.3 as a possible goal.
The swim was set at Hapuna Beach half way along the Ironman bike course, the bike is effectively the hillier back half of the Hawaii IM course and the run is set on the Fairmont Orchid golf course resort. The other appealing aspect was the swim would be non-wetsuit, which suited the fact that I had only regained about 75% of my old range of movement in my left shoulder, a remnant of the broken shoulder sustained in the bike crash.
So, I went ahead and entered, booked flights and accommodation to lock myself in and had around 12weeks to train myself up for the 70.3 event. I knew if anything fear of failure would kick my ass into gear at some point as race day loomed.
I had a clear idea of what this process was trying to achieve, racing this event was not necessarily about the performance on race day, but more so reestablishing good habits by getting back to regular exercise, making good nutritional choices and ensuring my body stayed injury free with a regular conditioning routine, and doing it consistently for 3months. The key word there is…. CONSISTENTLY.
So, I set out some clear parameters and expectations about my swimming, biking and running training.
Swimming wise, at the start of the prep I knew that I was around 4mins slower over a 500m effort than my best ever times as I set myself a time trial. That came as a bit of a shock as I had always prided myself on my swim ability, now I was a lot slower due to the loss of range and strength in my shoulder. With that I set myself a dryland stretching and strengthening program to do alongside 3 aerobic swims a week around 1500m. At the start I had to use fins as my left arm/shoulder was pretty weak and had minimal range but slowly I weened myself off them.
Bike wise, this was the discipline where I could do some quality training, so I knuckled down and got out and did some specific strength work and maintained some consistent volume to my bike training. As weeks went on my weight started to drop and my power started to increase which was so rewarding and I was able to ride alongside the athletes I coached during sessions
Run wise my priority was clear, stay injury free with regular stretching and bank some easy long volume each and every week. From my experienced running was the discipline that most stripped weight, so I gradually built up each week till I was running 70-80km weeks over the final 3-4weeks of the prep.
In no time it seems race week was upon me, and I was boarding a plane to Hawaii. I am happy to say, yes I had kept true to my goal averaging 4-5kms swimming, 200-350kms biking and building up to 70-80kms running a week by the end. I was also 11kilos lighter and felt like a new person. For me this event was going to be the first step along a new path, and I had already achieved the things I wanted just by getting to race week in this condition. The race experience was going to be a bonus.
In no time I was in Hawaii, back on the Big Island.
Race week flew by, aided by all the pre-race check-in requirements you must complete and also some work I had to clear before the weekend. In no time it was race eve, and to tell you the truth I was nervous!
I hadn’t raced in an event for well over a year, and I was out of practice for this kind of thing. I have always said racing well is a habit, and handling everything that comes with a race including pre-race nerves is something that needs to be practiced.
In a past life where I raced professionally, race day performance was my strength but now as a sat at my accommodation thinking about the event I had more than my normal level of performance anxiety. I tried just to keep myself busy mentally and remind myself why I had set this goal and just get out there tomorrow and enjoy the elation of getting back on a starting line
Race morning had arrived, and I was a lot calmer after reaffirming what I wanted to get out of the race experience. There were lots of the big names here in support and commentary that are synonymous with Ironman Hawaii, Greg Welsh and Mike Reilly were on commentary, Mark Allen was there with some special comments.
The swim start was done in age groups with a rolling start, and it was a non-wetsuit swim. Conditions were great with the water pretty calm. As I lined up in my group, I put myself about 2/3rds down the age group which was conservative by my standards, normally I would be first row. Pre-accident I would swim around 28mins for a non-wetsuit 1.9k open water, but with my less than perfect shoulder at a guess I was hoping to go under 40mins. I didn’t want to race the swim hard as I had only been swimming 1500m a time in training and was not sure how the shoulder would go so I started out on the left-hand side to protect the arm so it wouldn’t get whacked. In the first few hundred metres I only swam moderately just to get into a rhythm. But I noticed that the field was very spread and lots of swimmers were way too far left on this clockwise course, so I shelved that idea and started to aim straight for the first turning buoy. About half way down the back straight I was into a solid rhythm, it just seemed to happen so decided to hold this intensity. The shoulder issue stops me from extending long and shallow and catching early with the left arm, so that’s what I concentrated on, trying to be shallow at extension and at least get some catch on the water. As I exited the water I had no idea what time I had done as I don’t wear a watch, but it felt like I had been out there for ages! In reality I had swum 34mins, much better than I had hoped for so that was great.
T1 was a leisurely affair, didn’t race it just wanted to get all my gear and nutrition sorted. Even thanked a volunteer and smiled, something back in the day I wouldn’t have done, I used to race with tunnel vision, some would say I even raced angry, but that was more perception.
I jumped on the bike and straight into the climb up to the Queen K, an indication of what the rest of the ride would be like. One funny note, a skinny bloke rode past me as I was setting off, he had ‘be fierce’ written on his ass, I remember thinking at the time that I better pass him back pretty quick, which I did and didn’t see him again. Ha-ha Americans can be funny buggers, such an American comment and no way was he going to stay in front of me 😉
Onto the bike my expectations were a little higher as I had done some quality bike training in the lead up. The course was tough with minimal flat sections on it as it climbed to Hawi, the bike turn around. Had a lad go past me once we hit the Queen K, he looked quite rapid so hoped to ride near him throughout the bike. My Garmin bike computer had shat itself a few days before probably due to the international location. I could record the ride but wasn’t able to see any data fields so had no way of knowing speed or anything. This is the time where you hope that you have done some training by perceived effort so you can ride blind but still dose your effort. I had done many years of riding this way by feel so this situation didn’t bother me at all.
Felt good on the bike and on the climbs, tried to stay in a sustainable aerobic range and then keep pushing over the crest onto the descents. Momentum is key when riding a rolling course so tried to maintain my momentum off the downhill well into the next uphill ascent. Worked well and made good gains on the guys around me.
The Hawaii climate is a funny one, you start the ride with lava around you, and as you climb to Hawi, the environment gradually changes to more green grass pastures near the top. Whilst it was hot and sunny near transition, all of a sudden about 5kms from the turnaround it started to rain fairly heavily for a short period wetting the roads and cooling things slightly. A lot the way up we had a cross headwind around 20km/hr to deal with which by Hawaii standards is still fairly mild. So, the descent off the turn with cross tail and wet roads made for some sketchy descending in aero. I had no idea what speed I was holding but I had run out of gears, so it was sustained 60+km/hr at times.
I was still riding within the vicinity of the lad I mentioned earlier and riding strong. There were a couple of guys I rode near the whole ride, and each of us were better on different gradients of climbs so there was a lot of yo-yoing in the general vicinity going on.
Had a solid ride, finishing in 2:38hrs and 34.22km/hr average, so was pretty happy as I gave it some and rode strong all the way to T2. It was hot and getting hotter as I headed off the Queen K towards the Fairmont Orchid and T2.
Again I took my time in T2, and actually put socks on for the run leg something I would normally not do as it wastes time. Coming off the bike and running through transition my legs were very stiff. I knew that combined with the heat which I hadn’t acclimatized for, as well as having done only easy volume in the lead up with minimal runs off the bike that the early stages of the run would be slow.
As I headed out into the golf course I was struggling to get my cadence up and find any rhythm. I was expecting this so just controlled what I could and kept the fluids and carbs up and drenched myself at every aide station. Lots of athletes passed me in the first 7kms, but as I started a 2km out and back section which was the hottest and most exposed part of the run course I started to pick up the pace and repass a few athletes. Slowly my legs started to wake up and I began to enjoy the run leg and make gains finally!
I began to pick out runners ahead and pick them off gradually one by one. Never one to wait till the final kilometer or finisher chute, I reached the 5km to go mark and said right let’s lift the pace till the finish line. I dropped my pace by 40sec per mile and pushed for the line.
It was a small finishers chute at Hawaii but at a stunning location right by the beach and I enjoyed every minute of the final few hundred metres. There was a lad who had passed me very early in the run who I had been gaining on visually in the final 2kms, so he was my carrot to push all the way to the line. I love that strategy of using another competitor as a yard stick to find another gear, and even though this was one of my least ever competitive events, old habits never leave you. My finishing time was 5:18hrs.
SO WHAT NOW?
This whole experience of making the decision to change how I go about things driven by a race goal has been a satisfying and worthwhile one. Losing some weight has made me feel in some way like my old self, and the support and encouragement I have received from people I know has made this experience.
I completed the Hawaii 70.3 and pushed myself harder than I expected I would. I had no idea what to expect but just got out there and gave it a go. Once I was in the race I just switched to auto pilot and knew what to do. I have always been a racer who got the best out of my limited ability and even though this result was slow I did the best I could and left nothing out there, just like I used to do.
Now that I have some good fitness gains and loss of weight from this event I plan to capitalize on it, keep trimming up and training harder and more specifically for an event like a marathon. I have run over 25marathons, mostly off the bike in an ironman and including a few long 42km tempo training runs. So, I might give Melbourne a crack and see what I can do, and then who knows from there, maybe another Ironman?!
BUT what I do know is I will keep going down this path, a path I have not been on for some time but one I know well.
Finally, I would like to thank my beautiful wife Lyndsey for her love and support during this difficult last year, my family for always being there and finally my squad family who have my back and I love so much.