“So whose idea was this?” “Another fine mess you have got yourself into Liz.” “I can’t believe I have to get into that water for the longest swim of my life.”
These and other more unprintable sentiments were the thoughts going through my mind at 7.40am on Sunday 12th June 2016 in Palm Cove, Tropical North Queensland, Australia. I was lined up in Zone 3 for a 3.8km swim in the balmy waters of Palm Cove along with 2000 other competitors embarking on the most grueling triathlon of them all – an Ironman. Balmy water – lets explore this comment. Sure enough the water temperature was 26 degrees – in any other race it would be wetsuit illegal – but due to the possibility of stingers (TNQ’s way of keeping tourists out of their water for most of the warmer months) we were allowed to wear wetsuits. They had hinted at the possibility of crocodiles too but I am not sure what a 5mm covering of rubber over your body can do about crocodile jaws. So – the water was warm. BUT – in place of the sparkling azure waters and tiny white crested dimples I had trained in on Friday, we looked out to see a foamy mass of brown chop far out to sea. There was no real ‘wave belt’ like at many coastal areas not protected by an outer reef, but my morning practise swim had shown me that the curling foam whipped up by 25-30km/h winds was hard to swim into particularly for someone who has always held a fear of open water.
I was petrified – my mind was not functioning much beyond “YOU have trained for this for 6 months Liz, we paid a fortune in race fees, hotel fees, airline tickets etc just to be here AND I have told everyone I know that I am doing an Ironman, several are already on the live tracker looking for your results so YOU DO NOT HAVE A CHOICE”. My husband, Giles, told me afterwards that he would have shouted at me if I had backed out – strangely enough, despite the fact that in any other race I may well have opted out, the thought did not enter my head – I had no choice – I was about to become an Ironman.
The pros had already started and now it was the age groupers turn. We were doing a phased start (thank goodness) not a mass start so I took my time to amble over the line and walk to the water. In these situations I cannot afford to run – it shoots my heart rate up and coping with an elevated heart rate when the panic levels are likely to be high is too much for me. As everyone else around me dived in to start their race I seemingly leisurely breast stroked my way out to the first buoy. Inside I was trying to calm my heart rate and tell myself it wasn’t that bad – I knew that if I were to free style I could get out of that zone quicker but logic does not always rule when emotion is involved and breast stroking seemed the easier option. I have since checked with Giles and he watched my breast stroke all the way out to the first buoy – his heart must have been in his mouth that at any moment he would see me turn around and come back to shore.
Somehow I made that first buoy and turned to swim parallel to the shore on the first of the long side of a rectangular swim course we had to do twice. I broke into freestyle and never swapped back to breast stroke. It was all quite hideous – bodies everywhere crawling over you, trying to get to that next buoy but I felt their equal and clawed my way back. Everything seemed to be going quite well despite the conditions and I got around the first rectangle and half the second pretty well. I was aware that there were moments of sun when the water looked light brown in colour and that there were also moments of darkness in the clouds which the water reflected back as murky and forbidding. I turned for home at the bottom of the last rectangle and to my surprise immediately felt myself buffeted by seemingly larger waves. Strange – that far out at sea? All of a sudden I could no longer spot the forward buoys I was meant to swim around, the chop had increased, I could see it was now raining and the clouds were grey and menacing. I felt as if I was barely moving forward and around me I could spot increased frenzied activity by lifeguards in boats and on paddle boards.
I don’t know how I made it home – I never for one minute assumed I had the whole 3.8km in the bag, I could barely see the shore or the buoys, somehow despite being pushed to shore at all times we all seemed to swim back and round the buoys. You can see from my Garmin readings that this was in fact what was happening – we would all be pushed closer to shore and then have to swim back for the buoy. No wonder my Garmin told me 4.1km had been completed rather than the prescribed 3.8km as I eventually put my feet down on the beach and struggled out.
I have since heard stories of people being lifted out by helicopter, of people being told by the lifeguards to head to shore and to get out as fast as they could, of people vomiting due to the chop as they swam – I am glad I had no idea of this as I left the beach. All I wanted to do was bawl my eyes out at such a hideous swim, be comforted by my family and go for a hot chocolate!
But that’s the thing about Ironman. You must not let emotion overcome you, you must not let your focus wander too much – it was bike time! I headed to the change tents where I remember very little of what was happening. Hint – make sure you have put things into your bike bag in some kind of order and rehearsed in your mind what you are going to do. So much goes on in your subconscious when you are tired and it would be easy to leave without your socks, or your Garmin or something else vital. I exited transition with my bike and Giles say it was like night and day – the gloom of post swim had gone and I was bright and energised and ready to go hard on my favourite leg – the bike.
For a phase lasting 6.5 hours my memories of the bike are far less vivid than those from the swim. As long as you pace yourself on the bike and have the confidence, built through extensive solo bike training trips, that you are capable of cycling 180km, there really should not be too much to worry about. Of course there is always nutrition to focus on – this can make or break your race. In my case the nutrition went as near perfect as you can expect it to in Ironman conditions. I had planned on two salt tablets an hour but this was wrecked immediately when i discovered the rain had turned my carefully hidden tablets into one big mush of salty white powder and inedible tablet wraps. After a few careful finger loads of salt I gave up and was glad that the weather had toned down the temperatures from their highs of 30 degrees two days prior to something more like 25 degrees. I had planned on stopping every second aid station (roughly 20km apart) to refuel the drink bottles but I appeared to drink more that I expected so it became every one. I had it down to a fine art – I shouted ahead what I needed and some wonderful volunteer would plant the right bottle of water or electrolyte in my hand allowing me to barely break pace. I stuffed up one time and got electrolyte instead of water (I was drinking one full electrolyte followed by one full water) and immediately noticed my tummy rebel against too much carb. Again, when you have been well coached I knew to wait until the next aid station and pick up water and only drink that till my tummy returned to normal. I ate some carb bars too – the idea was to get 60g of carb per hour so during a water hour I needed extra carbs. I actually only ate about 5 bars in total but I was pretty confident my energy levels were good and I was not in danger of bonking.
I was fairly conscious that around me there were a lot of bodies by the side of the road fixing punctures, or actually appearing to have given up and be waiting for the sag wagon. I had time to feel sorry for them – their hopes and ambitions thwarted by a mechanical likely bought on by the wet roads. One year ago in Giles’ first Ironman event, he had suffered two punctures – I knew how cross he was but he did get to complete the race – how did these poor blokes feel as they watched us all cycle by?
Cycling in and out of Port Douglas twice were highlights for me – on a road which basically follows a coast line (a gorgeous one needless to say but one without supporters) there is very little outside motivation so it was nice just twice to have your name called out by the commentator and crowds in the coffee shops cheer you on. Considering the people of Port Douglas were stuck in the resort for the whole day given we had effectively closed down all their exit roads, they were very cheerful and happy to see us – or perhaps it was just the fact that they were full of coffee and I dare say beer as the day progressed that made them so audible! I gave the air a fist pump, particularly on my second time through knowing that as I turned for home I was only 60km from the finish.
One other thing to consider if you are rookie like me – there is always someone willing to chat if you want them to. This might be your thing and give you the energy you need to continue but it can bring you down too. Hours and hours of solo cycling mean that I am fairly self contained in my own world and don’t really need someone else chatting to me. As I left Port Douglas for the second time, a chatty cyclist came up on my shoulder and said “Now for the hard bit”. It took me several seconds to work out why he should be saying this – after all we were on our final lap weren’t we? Wasn’t it party time not worry time? He obviously meant the fact that from now on we were cycling into a headwind – who cares? I was on my way home.
My average speed did dip a bit as the headwind buffeted me and I hit the hills around Rex’s Lookout. I am not being arrogant though when I say it really is NOT a hilly course – those rolling hills were nothing compared to the area around Sydney’s NOrthern Beaches where I train. I was surprised at the slowness of many up these hills and I loved passing them by. We get into our heads that triathlon should be on flat courses but you must train on the hills too – how can a course organiser find 180km without some hills after all?
Another cautionary note is to watch out for drafting infringements in the final 30km when you are tired. I had been vigilant the whole way – keeping my distance, deliberately losing pace if someone passed, ensuring that when I did pass someone I had plenty of gas to do it at full pace and leave them for dead. But as you get more tired some of these things don’t register the same. At one stage I was happily passing a few tired cyclists when a motorbike came up alongside me. I felt relaxed until I looked ahead and realised I was less than 4 metres from someone else doing exactly the same thing. Luckily I had the energy left to put on a spurt and pass him as well and the motorbike drove away happy without a penalty.
Then suddenly I was in Cairns – 180km completed in a time of 6.5 hours. I had hoped for 6 hours but I was not crestfallen – the conditions had taken their toll and my average had never been close to the 30km required. That’s just it – you can’t think about what might have been, it is what it is and you roll with it. I know it sounds daft but I was shocked to see runners well into their first or second marathon lap alongside the bike course. Shocked because it made me realise that a) I was a long way behind a lot of people and b) I had to do that too when again, all I wanted to do was celebrate my second longest ride ever and go to the coffee shop for scrambled eggs with my mates like you would on any long Sunday ride.
I realised I was desperate to see Giles, Jack and Meg at transition – the support of familiar faces, in particular those of your family, is so critical on these occasions. And those final 1-2 km seemed longer than many as I counted down the minutes. And suddenly there they were – smiling in the sun and happy to see me too. Transition was another blur and I emerged for a big hug from Giles to send me on my way. My words “I can’t believe I have to do this” reflected the inner disbelief that I now had to complete the longest run I had EVER undertaken.
Just as a side note, so you can understand my story better, during the training for Ironman Cairns, I was diagnosed with Grade 4 Osteoarthritis in both knees, so from then on my training had mainly involved long walks interspersed with running in an attempt to manage the knee pain so it didn’t cripple me. So as I set off on the marathon I knew it was all about lasting the distance, managing the knees, not busting it out and dying by lap 3. My strategy was to run 5 minutes and then walk to the next aid station where I would refuel before picking up the pace again. For all of lap 1 (14km) I stuck to this plan really well though my legs were tight and felt awful after the bike. Looking at my splits now from that lap I can see I was actually running really well – generally around 5.30 minutes per km for each of the 5 minute intervals. Interesting that my legs could do this despite the 180km bike that had just happened. Another triathlon lesson of course – although your legs can feel like jelly after the bike leg, as long as you have trained them to run in this state you can actually achieve close to what your normal running pace would be.
On lap 2 my plan came unstuck a bit as the darkness fell and I could no longer see my watch! I actually responded by increasing the length of the run off many of the aid stations – I was feeling good! Yes, actually good – I was amazed. My splits are not as good as lap 1 however so presumably I was tiring at this point – but hey, small battles – I was winning the mental battle at that point. My half marathon time was the FASTEST I had ever done – it just shows what the brain is capable of even when the body is weak – with 2 1/2 hours and 21km completed, I was really hopeful I would beat my estimated marathon time of 6 hours.
Nutrition by this point was getting tough. My plan to eat carb sweets I was carrying in my race belt back-fired when the first 1 or 2 gave me immediate heart burn and I did not touch any more. The aid stations were offering real lollies but I could not believe they were really going to help. I am not a gel fan – far too much for my body at one time and there was no way I could cope with eating a bar. I had had enough of pineapple flavoured electrolyte drink so that was out too. But I knew I had to eat something so I reverted to a banana piece at nearly every station. I will forever be grateful to nature’s wonder fruit for getting me through. And I had one other trick up my sleeve – I was carrying two e-shots, a natural source of caffeine and antioxidants which I had used effectively in training to boost performance and concentration levels. My tummy was rebelling at the idea of a whole one so I gulped down around a third at a time particularly as I felt my mind wander and my hear start to beat in my head every now and again. Magic – I would return immediately to crystal clear concentration on the job ahead.
By the third and final lap I was physically beginning to suffer but the mind is telling you – final lap, final lap, you can do it, you can do it so your head just goes down and you get on with it. My knees, or rather my quads, were shutting down and there was a bit more walking in those last few km. I did have a conversation with someone else whilst we both walked and in hindsight I allowed this to slow me down. Perhaps I would have been a few minutes faster – who cares, by this point, the camaraderie amongst those of us left on the track, is very high and you want to ensure you are encouraging others as much as yourself.
AND then – it was time to turn into the finishing shute. The lights were blaring, the music playing, the commentator shrieking, people were trying to smack your hand as you went by but I had eyes for only one thing. Giles and the kids had their VIP tickets and were standing ahead of me on the far side of the finishing arch – all I had to do to complete my goal and accomplish a sporting dream. “Liz Stapleton, you are an Ironman” yelled Pete Murray but I was already in the arms of the family – crying and laughing simultaneously.
It took me several minutes before I thought to ask what time I had achieved – for someone so goal and statistic focused as myself this was remarkable and shows how the achievement of finishing is far more important than the actual time. Nevertheless I was taken aback when Giles told me I was an Ironman in 13 hours and 42 minutes – nearly 1 hour and 20 minutes ahead of my target. The swim had taken 1 hour and 24 minutes which, given the circumstances I am thrilled at – the bike 6.5 hours and the run a fairly stupendous 5 hours and 27 minutes (which by the way just goes to show that a fairly energetic and well planned run / walk strategy can accomplish a very similar result to someone who just jogs the whole thing.)
And there we are – my first Ironman at the age of 49 – in my fiftieth year. Many say in the first few hours post Ironman that they will never do it again and then change their mind later. For me, with my knees as they are, it likely is my first and last. I’m glad it was a reasonable time but to be honest – I would have been happy with 15 hours too! It really is just about finishing – so what if the pro women do theirs in 9 hours. I think us age groupers are the true Ironmen – as we battle physical and emotional demons and nutritional hazards for much longer periods of time.
It’s too hard to summarise all my lessons learnt here – hopefully many will have become obvious as you read this article. Suffice it to say – in the first few hours post finish I felt bitter at the weather in Cairns for testing us quite that badly in the swim and I feel sorry for those that were forced to drop out. But within a day I re-evaluated my opinion – I am a true IRONMAN to have survived those conditions. If it had been blissfully calm then I may have gone about 10 minutes faster but I would never have known just how strong I can be. I would still retain the fear for the next time I get in the water that it might be bad and I might be forced to pull out. Again – I would love to have gone 6 hours or less in the bike but the headwinds probably stopped that – but I did not crash or puncture and for that I will forever be grateful and perhaps the lower temperatures were a life saviour for my levels of hydration. Above all the major lesson for all that read this is that your body, with the right training, can do everything – even if you have to adjust expectations around physical limitations like my knees AND your mind – well – your mind is capable of ANYTHING.
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!