IRONMAN Melbourne 2015: Iron Mind… Not This Time
This could be paradise, paradise, paradise”…
That’s the music -from Coldplay- they are playing right when I enter the transition area for the final bike set-up. That makes me laugh internally, so ironic. The last thing one expects in an Ironman is to reach Paradise. We all know that we will go into very dark places today, very deep down, the pain cave is awaiting us, and there is room for the 2,500 competitors, one step away from Hell. I know that pain will be my companion, at best during 30%-40% of the race (the marathon portion), at worst from the start line. I’m no different from any other people and I dread pain and would rather avoid it. But I have no fear from it on race day. Actually, fear has never been part on the panorama when it comes to racing. My black cat is questioning and relentless analyzing.
As I walk into the bike compound, my mind starts to wander into the recurrent question: why am I here by the way? What am I looking for? But I dismiss this thought altogether: I still don’t have the answer after 15 years of asking myself the same thing, I’m not going to have an epiphany now. Just focus on preparing your bike, Olivier. So here I am, focusing. It is Ironman Nb 9 for me and I have gotten quite good at it. I solved the nutrition problems years ago, I know how to set up the bike properly for a given race with the right equipment, how to put on my wetsuit so that I am comfortable in it, choose the right outfit and footwear for race day, all these things that beginners might find complicated are no-brainers to me. I now have one hour in my hand, and even the long queue to the toilet is not an issue.
The swim warm-up brings about the first nice surprise. This water is crystal clear! That’s definitely not the murky water of HKG, or, worse, SGP, and that’s even better than Phuket, my 3 main training grounds since I moved to Asia in 2008. I notice that the water is shallow for a while, thing to remember at the start. I have plenty of time so I swim 200-300m from the shore, and there I see a big, a huge crab on the sand. And another one. 10m deep and I can see so clearly! I swim back along the wooden jetty. It is not Busselton’s jetty (IM Western Australia), but it’s quite scenic nonetheless. Nice. I like the swim portion so much, it’s almost indecent. Most competitors fear this part, but I don’t. While I cannot say that I ‘grew up swimming’ like certain Australians and Americans do (swimming twice a day 2h, 5 times a week, for 10 years), I did swim a bit as a kid, never more than twice a week, but I spent every year one month by the sea, bored with nothing else to do than swimming. So by the age of 10 I was probably swimming 3-4k open water most days of my summer holiday: fear of the water is an unknown feeling to me.
This year the organizers are implementing a swim rolling start. Exit the washing machine of 2500 swimmers launched all together, the part feared by most, one of the riskiest parts of the race where you might get your nose kicked, your goggles removed, swallow a liter of salt water or two, etc. This time, it is a very civilized start, where mini groups of 6-7 swimmers start together, every 5 seconds or so, over a span of 40’. I position myself at the front, as I expect to be among the top 100 overall in the swim, including the pros who took off 20’ ago. That’s usually more or less where I place in Australia, where good swimming is just part of the education of many young locals. Anywhere else in the World –barring Kona…- I’m closer to the lead. The swim is pretty smooth –although all is relative of course- and I can tell the effect of swimming approx 10k-12k a week instead of 5k: all this feels easy. The sprint sessions I did allow me to ‘jump’ from one group to another, as for once I have several different speeds to play with, in spite of just ‘steady-hard’ pace. The sun gets out and I can see everything super neatly in the clean air and clean water of Melbourne. Such a nice swim… I hit the beach in 54’15 I think, but the clock says otherwise (55’+) as they placed the mat further away. I ALWAYS do 55’ with a wetsuit swim, apart from one occasion when I swam 52’ (5 years after I am still questioning why…), so 54’ is good.
The weather has been very capricious since I arrived in Melbourne so I decide to put arm warmers on. As I decided to wear my road cycling shoes and not my triathlon shoes and to wear gloves (I fell once with no gloves on and I had scars in the hands that wouldn’t heal for months), my transition is done at snail pace, and I know it.
But as soon as I jump on the bike, I leave this shameful episode behind me and focus on the ride, a two-loop course. 45k out facewind, 45k back tail wind, and a second loop with wind picking up as fatigue settles in. That was the forecast, and it was accurate.
The rolling swim start makes it a clean race, with less packs of riders as athletes are scattered all along the course. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the biggest stress to me comes from the drafting situations that invariably occur to most of us, unwillingly. Indeed, we all know that we have to ride 12m behind the next guy, that’s the easy part. But when someone passes and drop in in front of us, then we have to decelerate to leave 12m free. That forces cyclists to do some bits of stop and go. Also when one reaches slower cyclists that are riding one behind one another, one has to pass the full ‘train’, which means an increased effort. And any failed attempt to pass because the slower cyclists are actually not that slow leads to a penalty. All this is good, fair and necessary, but renders the whole cycling portion a bit more stressful that it should, at least for me.
Anyway, the first 45k is about not going too hard: facing headwind may feel easy at the beginning of a race like this, we’re all tapered, excited and with high expectations, but too much in the first part of the ride means walking the marathon. It’s actually uneasy to know what I can do or should do, in spite of the thousands of km ridden at different allures over the past 3 months. Race conditions are always different. Right now riding 37kph into a headwind feels like a promenade in the park, while I was struggling to ride at an average of 34kph in Hong Kong. Heart Rate and even Power figures are not the same on race day, we’re just a different animal comes race day. The road is smooth as silk, and the return journey, the next 45k, is also all about keeping energy for the rest. I can see that I ride over 50kph for several minutes in a row, unthinkable in HKG for me. I am also concerned as I was very sick during the taper period (10 days of no training, including 5 in bed with fever over 38 degrees – chest infection), and I know that the first thing that goes away when I’m sick is my leg strength on the bike. And indeed, I test myself playing with my gearing from time to time and I notice that I cannot recruit as much muscle power as I am used to in training.
Second loop… not so good actually. Headwind has picked up a bit and I am only going at 33kph. Forget about my sub 5h goal in these conditions… but nothing I can do. Another issue: there is a long, long uninterrupted line of cyclists riding one behind another, probably riding legal, but no matter what, they are only riding at 32 kph, if not less, so here I am, stuck. I am not strong enough to sustain enough power to pass 30-40 riders in a row, but I am annoyed by what seems to be a real slowdown. Oh well, nothing I can do. I use the ‘opportunity’ to reflect on my nutrition and hydration so far: all good, all according to plan. Finally comes the tunnel and its downhill slope followed by its incline, and suddenly the sleepy peloton, shaken up by the change of conditions, explodes in smaller groups and I can move on. In fact, after the last turnaround, I end up almost completely on my own for 40k. Ah, the mystery of triathlon peloton dynamics… Wonderful to enjoy the tailwind in the last stretch of the race, very different from Busselton (or Kona!!!), as average speed actually increases in the last 4th of the race! A rare feat indeed.
Finally, I manage to finish the fast and boring course, in 5h01. Not a record at all, and disappointing, but I really didn’t have all the power in my legs today. Still, the swim-combo I have just had, although not fantastic, puts me in Kona contention.
Here I am now, running on the wooden path. I just handed my bike to a volunteer and from there immediately entered into another dimension. The mind game starts. Thousands of thoughts jump into my head.
On the surface, the positive thoughts: I saw this portion on the race video, when a pro was filmed from a drone, awesomely beautiful. I soak it up, not all Ironman run portions are nice, and this is meant to be one of the highlights. But on a deeper level, my mind starts to undermine the rest. I’m starting to think ‘Mate, it is freaking hot down there!’ I hate the heat, my body can’t handle it properly. Although I have lived in Asia for years, including two years in Singapore, my body never managed to adjust. I have tried everything to improve my handling of the heat, just like I have tried everything that has to do with triathlon training and racing. But that’s not a reason to sabotage my race! I also qualified for Kona once in the half Ironman race that takes place in Kona, finishing 12thoverall and by far 1st in my AG, so, it can be done ! It seems that my mind is actually taking pleasure in darkening the situation, which in itself, at this stage, is in fact not bad at all. I started the run less than 6h into the race, I ran OK the first kilometers, and although I have been passed several times, probably by some guys in my AG, I am still fit and with some reserves.
My watch is out of order, so I have to run blind. Not such a big problem: the only two races that I won overall were races where my watch didn’t work and I had to trust my body. It seems that actually I can run harder by feel that by pace or HR. But here again, my mind is playing tricks on me, and with nothing to compare myself to except for the guys who fly be me, I lose track of the big picture: there are, in this crowd, awesome guys who will run low 3h, just like there are guys who can swim 50’ and others who can bike 4h40. I am not one of them, and I should not focus on these 0.5% -or less- but just run my own race, with my assets and my limitations.
Internally in my head, it’s a mess, and externally it is getting tough also. We are now running on an off-camber road, under a baking sun, with traffic on the side, adding more heat and rendering the air even more stifling. I take as much ice as I can. I started to take Coke from km 4 onwards, 26-28k earlier than usually: I needed a boost. I am actually running out of strategy. The heat is getting into my head, I can feel my blood flowing into my veins. I am slowing down, inexorably. I now walk the aid stations. Km 16, and I’m cooked, done. Mentally I am a wreck. I think of all the hard training sessions, the incredible strong long rides, the long bricks, the awesome 30k+ run sessions on the track, but instead of getting energy from this, I am actually hammering myself down, beating myself to the ground. ‘Look at you now, you train to run a 3h10 marathon off the bike and 18k into the run you’re already walking. What a waste, aren’t you ashamed?’.
Not all is bad, though, I do manage to run most of the course, although at snail pace. But the Aloha spirit is not there. I’m shuffling, I’m a zombi. I still run, but every single bump feels like a mountain, running on soft ground makes me nervous because I feel weak. Although my stopwatch does not work, I can still see the time, and I start to think in my mind. “You can still finish in 9h40 or 9h45, go and get it !”. The bad road portion is behind me and the course becomes beautiful again, but with some hills here and there, which does not help. The sun is baking, I ask a volunteer to apply sunscream once again. It is now the hottest time of the day. I know it is a tough day for everybody and the fast times from the past won’t happen today. I also know I am not doing well. I alternate moments of despair and moments of hope. We can now see the city of Melbourne and we run along the beach. It could have been a nice race, without that heat. Yesterday it was 20 degrees, the day before, it was 15, and today 28 (the day after it was less than 20 and on Tuesday I visited Melbourne in my down jacket…). Gradually I diminish my expectation: 9h50, 9h55… break 10, no matter what, break 10. No matter what, marathon should be under 4h. I blow off all my intentions and end up in 10h07 with a 4h04 marathon, my slowest marathon time ever (barring Roth where I ran injured).
I cross the finish line completely wasted, but the temperature had started to go down and the ordeal finished immediately after the line, with no race impact on my body apart from mild dehydration. The following morning I was riding and on Tuesday I was swimming. That’s when my thoughts of doing another Ironman, rather sooner than later, started to get stronger and stronger.
I went to the Kona slot rolldown ceremony with little hope. There were 9 slots in my category but I finished 18. I missed Kona by a good 15’. A 3h50 marathon would have been enough, which is normally within my reach even in hot conditions (cf Kona times: 3h40, 3h41, 3h42).
Physically I was up there. Yes, the heat hit me, but I believe it is the combination of the heat AND my lack of control of negative thoughts that prevented me to fight as much as I normally do. Food for thought for the next one !