Ironman World Champs 2021, St George, Utah.
Ironman World Champs 2021, St George, Utah.
What a journey, what an experience, what a race… over 2 years post qualifying I was at the 2021 Ironman World Championship start line – albeit in 2022. What a unique build, not only because it was during a world-wide pandemic but also because I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of the Zwift Academy Triathlon team. So, although one of the most challenging builds with shifting goal posts it was also one of the most special, the most memorable and the most satisfying.
Although I have always known it to some extent, it was not until faced with lockdown after lockdown and no ability to race for an extended period that I realised just how internally motivated I am not only for race day but for the journey and the continual improvement that I chase as an athlete. Racing is just the carrot on top… I enjoy the process of getting to race day, being part of an incredible triathlon community, and learning some valuable life lessons through a sport that I am genuinely passionate about.
I have been lucky enough to remain relatively injury free through most of my triathlon years so when 9 weeks out from the Ironman World Championships I found myself faced with a calf issue out of nowhere, I found myself in a less than ideal situation and one that we had to manage carefully. Some complete rest, some walk-running, lots of calf rehab exercises and then having to keep the run’s generally “flat” in order to not aggravate it again was something that was tough mentally for me as we were working towards a start line that was not flat in any way shape or form! I just kept reminding myself that it was better to get to the start line with complete confidence my calf was in good shape than risking getting there wondering if it would hold up. I hit the start line in full confidence we had made the right call all those weeks prior.
Race morning arrived and we were faced with a balmy air temperature on a day that was set to heat up quickly. After being bussed out to the swim start (about a 45min journey from the Zwift team house) there was a bit of waiting around with the female waves being the last of the morning. So, plenty of time for transition, a second breakfast, a couple of toilet stops and some final words of encouragement amongst athletes.
Race day morning is always THE WORST! The nerves are unreal! Until of course the gun goes off and then somehow some way the nerves just vanish, and you just go into automatic pilot, with the months of consistent training, the years of racing and the pure enjoyment of swim, bike and running taking over.
With a start time of 7.54am and one of the final swim waves to start, the swim was always going to be a navigation through the tail end AG men and some of the prior female waves. Knowing this I knew it would be hard to find a rhythm early, so I did what I could as best I could. Surprisingly, the water did not feel as cold as I expected it to at 17 degrees Celsius, the body temperature felt good and I knew this would by far be the most pleasant my body temperature would be all day, so I soaked it up. The swim course was one nice big loop, I felt strong (particularly in the final stages where I pushed knowing that I can recover well off a longer swim) and before I knew it, the swim finish banner was in sight. I had a quick glance at my watch upon exiting, noticed my time was a little slower than my targeted 51-52mins but with the swim you never really can tell how you have performed comparatively until later, so it is not something I let worry me at all. Turns out it was a slower day across the board and with a swim time of 00:56:06 and the fastest overall female age group swim of the day, all those 20km swim weeks and Buddy Swim squad sessions had paid off.
After getting through T1 it was onto the bike for what would turn out to be the most eventful part of my day. My plan for the first 15km was to settle in, get some nutrition and hydration in, not worry about power, and just find a rhythm. This worked a treat. From here I had a target power number, but we also knew that on this course it was not all about the numbers…it was always going to be jumping around with the ups and downs and absence of much “flat”. I mostly found myself riding to perceived effort (keeping a little eye on the power, mostly so I did not go too hard and pay for it later) focusing on using my momentum through the rollers, building the climbs and riding the descents rather than coasting or going so hard in the climbs that I needed to spend time recovering. I was feeling incredibly strong and in control… until…the first puncture at 90km. Drat. I have never dealt with a puncture in an Ironman before, let alone a World Championship race and at this point I was so thankful I had done multiple practices in the days prior! I surprised myself with how relatively calm I remained, I got on with it, did the tube change and got straight back going again. I knew I had lost about 8mins and at this point just focused on remaining calm, not “over riding” to make up for it and told myself that a win with a puncture would be even more satisfying right!? I found myself quickly back into a good head space and rhythm and built the Gunlock Loop climb as planned.
Then the unthinkable happened……. puncture #2 (a few curse words this time!) This one was on the descent at the 145km mark. When I stopped, I thought maybe I had a slow leak related to the first puncture, so thought with only 35km to go id just chuck my second gas cannister in, in an effort to save time and hope for the best (being as it had been 50km since the last one). Yep, nope. Now with my second and last gas canister used all I could hear was the air coming out of the tyre. This was bad. Then came along my knight in shining armour… a young gentleman manning the aid station just prior to where I had flatted saw what had happened and came running up with a floor pump! It was not over! With one more spare tube on me (yep, I carry two!) and a pump on hand I commenced operation change the tube AGAIN. I apologised to the young gentleman for my slightly less than lady like language and he politely told me he did not hear me say anything. There was an overpass bridge above me with spectators on it who started cheering when I got going again. Let us just say it was a rollercoaster of emotions for this 14mins, going from “this is my race over” with no more way to get air in the tyre, to “I’m back but I’ve lost 22mins in changing tubes!”. This one was tougher to recover from, I did ride a little angry for a few kms.
With the final part of this ride up and over Snow Canyon I always knew this would be physically tough but throw in a couple of punctures and it was just as tough mentally as physically. But at this point, although of course I was starting to feel tired, I found myself passing people up the climb and rather than dwelling on what had happened to me just focused on how much better this was than still being on the sideline unable to change the puncture. I was riding, I was still racing, no idea where I was in my AG, but Ironman is a long day, and anything can happen… this just kept running through my head.
I finished the bike in 05:34:36 (05:12:22 ride time – this would have been the fastest overall female age group bike of the day, but not to be. Instead, I learned a whole lot about how much mental strength I have so I will take that away this time instead and very much hope I have had my quota of race day punctures forever!).
Similar to the bike, I worked my way into the initial stages of the run. I felt good pretty early on, found a rhythm and focused on controlling the body temperature from the get-go, using ice at all the aid stations (down the front and back of the suit) and getting the fluid and gels in.
Again, similar to the bike, there is not any flat on this course, just up or down. The first lap felt great, I was really able to work the ups and run the downs and draw on the energy from the sidelines. Early on I learnt I was still leading my age group which at that stage and after my less-than-ideal luck on the bike course was just the extra motivation I needed at that point to stay focused.
Lap two started well and as we all know an Ironman can be won or lost in those final 12km or so. The ups and downs on the bike and run had taken their toll on my quads and from about the 30km mark the quads were on fire. From there it was about self-management, self-talk, a desire to retain the lead on what had been a trying day mentally and it was about getting ALL the nutrition in and pushing through the pain. The final 4km or so downhill was absolute torture on the quads and with every step the pain just intensified. With 1km to go I had to take a 10sec walk which is something I have never had to pull out that close to the finish line before.... I could feel my legs about to shut down and it was sheer mental strength that got me over that line. Run time 03:27:29.
The emotions of a tough day mentally and physically took over, I was met at the finish line by Ryan who now has a name...... “the young gentleman with a pump” from earlier in the day. He said he had been tracking me ever since that second puncture and was there to hand my medal to me. Just another showing of how spectacular the triathlon community truly is.
Overall time 10:07:01, 35-39 AG World Champion.
This one means ALOT. To become an AG Ironman World Champion is once upon a time not something I even thought a reality to achieve and to do this with two punctures I am incredibly proud off. It has taken years of hard work to get here, and I have stuck at it because I simply love to swim, bike, and run and prove that if you work hard at something, have a great support network and some great guidance around you, you can get to places you once never thought possible.
Two weeks have now passed since race day, and I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been many moments of “if only I hadn’t got those punctures....” but this does still leave me hungry and I think I learnt more about my mental strength in this race due to those punctures than I ever have before.... and let’s face it, some extra mental strength credits go a long way in the world of Ironman racing.