For many of us, a podium finish is a dream that may never be fulfilled. For others, it is a dream that they train for, push for, live, eat, sleep and breathe. Read on and find out what it takes to finish not just on the podium of a 70.3 Ironman, but to finish on top of the podium and qualify for World Championships. Thanks to Sian Reece for sharing her race with us.
Port Macquarie – ‘Port Mac’ – is a special place for many Aussie triathletes/tri-hards, Darryl and myself included. It’s the venue for Ironman Australia, the original Ironman down under which was first held in Forster (a bit further south than Port Mac) before moving to its current home. The Port Mac Ironman course is pretty much universally known as the toughest in the country, with rough roads, hills and a sea breeze making for a hard but rewarding day out. The 70.3 (half Ironman) course is a truncated version of the full course, including the steeper hills on the bike and run legs. With eight Ironman Australia finishes between the four of us, Darryl, Brendon, Ronan and myself knew what we were getting into when we signed up for the 70.3 held on Sunday 18 October. Only Denzer had not raced on the course before, but with a super hilly Mont Tremblant 70.3 World Championship finish under her belt, she was more than up to the challenge!
After making the trek down the coast with an overnight stay in Grafton on the Friday night, Darryl and I arrived on the Saturday morning feeling pretty relaxed. The entire event set up (transition, check in, expo and finish line) was this year in Westport Park rather than spread across the town. Although I was disappointed not to see the finish line in front of the lovely pub in the centre of town, the more compact set up did make for a good atmosphere and a very easy athlete and spectator experience. Saturday proceeded with the usual bike check, check in, supermarket visit, hotel check in and then early dinner and R&R. My good mood was enhanced by the fact that it was sunny and fairly warm – a far cry from the cold, near-cyclonic conditions which we had experienced earlier in the year the day before the full IM!
Race day dawned with pleasant temperatures and fairly clear skies. The five Baysiders – with Ruan Sweeney as our excellent supporter and photographer – gathered with the usual group hugs and best wishes exchanged. I was feeling positive and quietly confident that it was going to be a good day, and pleased to be sharing it with friends. The race organisers had opted for wave starts rather than the rolling start format which is becoming popular at IM and 70.3 races, so it was Brendon and Darryl into the water first, followed by me, then Ronan and then Denise. My wave start was very abrupt, with no warning before the starter shouted ‘go!’ meaning a few seconds of delayed reaction before the race instincts took over and I was off into the flailing mass of arms and legs of my competitors.
The field thinned out fairly quickly and I settled into a rhythm which was a bit harder than comfortable. With plenty of swim training under my belt and recent wins over shorter distance races, I had made a decision to swim harder than I previously had over the 70.3 distance and trust my fitness. This turned out to be a good plan as I could see that I was towards the front of my wave, which was quickly moving through most of the ‘older gentlemen’ wave (Male 50+) that had started in front of us. As we approached the turn point, I could athletes standing and walking through the part of the course which we would soon swim back through. We would soon find out that quite a sand bank had formed there and it was almost impossible to actually swim. Like most others, once I got to this point I pushed up from the river floor and did a series of wade-and-dolphin-dive until it deepened out again. Great fun and it added some variety to the swim! There were then only a few hundred metres to swim into transition and a big crowd at T1.
It felt great to be onto the bike – my first big race on my new Cervelo P5 (aka Cyril, thanks Nicola!). It was a quick spin through town before getting onto the hills that lead out of Port Macquarie. As discussed with coach Toby, I concentrated on keeping my speed up but not spiking my heart rate while going uphill. This was a fun section for me as the hills play to my power-to-weight advantage and I was moving through the field quickly. Once out through town, it was onto the relatively flat stretch down to just beyond Lake Cathie (‘cat-eye’ not ‘Cathy’), which is the turnaround point for the 70.3. As I approached the turnaround, I kept an eye on the other side of the road, trying to pick the female riders to see how many were ahead of me. Apart from the professionals, I couldn’t spot too many and could see that no one was opening up a big gap. My confidence grew and was further buoyed when I saw Darryl and then Ronan, who was ready with a big shout of encouragement for me (or at least I think that’s what it was!).
The course back into Port Mac involves the infamous Matthew Flinders Drive, reportedly with a 20%+ gradient but with unparalleled crowd support from both the locals who live along it and from spectators generally. The cheers and atmosphere always seem to make the relative horror of the climb (knowing that the run is to come!) bearable and this time was no different. Coming back into town for the turnaround for lap 2, I was however glad that there were only 45k more riding ahead of me and not 90k! I told myself to keep the pace up, keep the gap to the lead female riders down and get enough fluid and nutrition on board. The day was getting warmer and I knew the run would be taxing.
I crossed paths with Darryl and then Ronan again on this lap, each of them going south and me going north, at exactly the same point on course that I had last seen them. Good – we were all going well and holding a constant speed. Shortly after this on a slight downhill, I felt unusually aero and then looked down at my aerobars to realise that they had slipped slightly down so that they were starting to point towards the ground! Uh-oh – I must’ve not tightened the headset bolts tightly enough, a rookie error on Port Mac’s unforgiving roads. Thinking quickly, I came to a swift stop at one of the sidestreets and shouted out to the volunteer traffic controller to ask if he had an allen key. The kind man started looking for one in his ute, but I immediately thought “I don’t have time for this!” and instead gave my bars a big yank back into position. Setting off, I told myself that there was only 15k or so to ride and that I would just have to be careful not to lean too heavily on the bars. There was a Shimano bike service tent set up on the approach to Matthew Flinders Drive which I considered stopping at, but then decided that I would have to risk it or lose valuable time which I had fought hard to keep. It was my lucky day as my headset held in position long enough to get me back into T2 safely and with no significant time loss.
I moved through T2 quickly, making a quick assessment of how many bikes were back in the racks. Not many – good. As I exited T2, I heard the commentator announce that one of the girls in my age group who is a top 15 Kona finisher was just coming into T2 – double good. I had rated her as almost a certainty to beat me, but maybe I had been wrong. I set off on the run knowing I was in a good position. Toby and I had spoken before the race about controlling the pace for the first few k’s. I felt like I was doing this reasonably well until I realised I was running alongside David Dellow, one of the male pro’s on his second lap. Oops – 3:50m/k pace – I slowed a little to what felt like quite a pedestrian pace. It was at this point that I caught a group of 4-5 women who I knew were in my age group and passed them immediately. The course at this point heads out to and back from Settlement Cove, before looping around the main town areas. As has been the case on the bike, I used this out and back stretch to watch for my competitors. There were only a few and I knew I was closing the gaps quickly. Toby’s words went through my mind – “the winner is the one who does not slow down”. I was now ‘in the zone’ and was not slowing down for anyone or anything!
The looping course meant I would soon enough see Darryl, Ronan and Brendon, all looking strong despite the building heat and humidity. Finally I would also see Denise, who unlike the others I had not seen all day. It is always a relief to see those you know out on course and to know that they are OK. As I passed the finish line, grabbed my lap band and headed out for the final lap, I focussed all my attention on the run and on keeping my pace high. I kept looking for other women in front of me or coming back towards me on the other side of the course, but all I could see were the black race bibs of the pro’s. I kept thinking I must’ve missed people, but on the way back from Settlement Cove I allowed myself to think for the first time that maybe I was not only going to achieve my goal of a podium place, but that I was actually going to win. I was starting to tire and could feel my pace dropping despite my best efforts, but grabbed some Coke at the aid station (my go-to product when it gets tough in a longer race) and steeled myself for the last 5 or so k’s. I could almost feel the sugar and caffeine entering my bloodstream and giving me a little lift. Not far to go now. The short but sharp hill at the far end of the course was horrible, but once I had cleared it and was on the downhill I knew I was almost home and started to smile despite the fatigue and pain. Before I knew it the finish chute was there, resplendent against the clear blue sky. As I crossed the line the commentator announced me as the winner in my age group and the first amateur female home. I was ecstatic, punching the air and high fiving people before collapsing into the arms of a volunteer catcher to get my breath back before heading into the recovery tent for much needed rehydration and fruit. It was a great feeling looking around the tent and seeing only men plus a few female pro’s, and I was got plenty of congratulations from my fellow competitors. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face and then wanted to get out quickly so I could see how Darryl and the others were faring.
It was great to watch all four of my fellow Baysiders finish what had been a typically tough Port day out. Everyone looked strong and happy in the finish chute and had acquitted themselves well, dealing with the many challenges of the day. I rushed around to the back of the finishing chute as soon as Darryl had finished to hug him, see if he was OK and give him the news of my race. He was as proud as ever and possibly a little relieved that all our collective efforts in getting me to this point had paid off! Once everyone was out of recovery it was time for bike collection, a bit of tale swapping and then to head back to freshen up at our respective accommodation before presentations and a trip to the pub.
I was flattered to have my own Bayside cheer squad at presentations. It has happened before, but this was a 70.3, and the Australian Championships no less! I was grinning from ear to ear as I was called up to accept my trophy, then my national age group champion paraphernalia and the champagne shower for all age group champions. I never thought I’d get to be in one of these and it was as cool as I always thought it would be – albeit sticky! Then finally it was roll down time for the 70.3 World Championships. Being held in Mooloolaba next year, there was no way that I (or any of the other qualifiers) were saying ‘no’. We left the ceremonies and headed for the pub – in my case, poorer (due to the upfront World Championship payment) and stickier (thanks champagne) but so happy, proud and still amazed that it had been such a dream day.
Thanks Brendon, Ronan, Denise and Ruan for sharing the weekend, Toby for perfect coaching and Darryl for everything! May our return to Port Mac for IM Australia 2016 be just as amazing and rewarding.