Load. Recover. Adapt. Load. Recover. Adapt. As endurance athletes this is what we do day in and day out. The science of training and coaching is now fairly good at telling us how much load we need to apply to get the desired stimulus. The “art” of training and coaching is knowing how much recovery is required, and when it is required, to allow for the best adaptation to take place that results in the best possible performance. Under recover and fatigue will affect your performance. Over recover and you will start to lose fitness. Timing is crucial. Balance is key. I hadn’t raced an Iron distance race since Kona 2013 and with the idea being to qualify for a second trip to the big Island in October my motivation to train and race well in the months leading into the race was at an all time high. I’d made a few changes to my two previous Ironman build-ups. Firstly the quality of work that I was doing on the bike had improved significantly with the addition of a Wahoo Kickr set up in the garage at home. This was providing me with significantly more honest training sessions. And secondly, we now had two children so my time management was going to have to go into over drive.
Taupo is a great place for a race, big enough that it gathers enough support from the local community but small enough that it is an easy place to get around. I was expecting a tough bike course, rolling hills, big chip road and less people on the course so the likelihood of getting swallowed up in a pack and pulled along for a few kilometres was remote. Leading in I had great build up. A good result at Western Sydney 70.3 in late November ensured that I was on track and wasn’t searching for fitness. I had managed to tick off all my key sessions and had the least interrupted build up I’ve had to a big race. At times the fatigue levels were high and I was hoping that the build up hadn’t gone too well. Four weeks out from the race I put in a large week by my standards. I’d definitely dug a deep hole but knew that I was a lot stronger than before so could cope with a higher workload. Trust in the process I told myself. As the sessions got easier I was carrying a little more fatigue than I would have liked. Trust in the process. Ten days out, eight days out, five days out….I was still feeling a little heavier in the legs than I would have liked when I did some short efforts in training. However two days out energy levels were high, stress levels low and the forecast was looking good on all fronts. With all the pre race admin going smoothly race day dawned warm, calm and it was looking like game on.
The start of the race in Taupo is special, even more so for a Kiwi. The local iwi perform a Haka and paddle a waka (canoe) across the lake just before the gun goes for the pro’s. It makes for an awesome atmosphere as darkness lifts and the day dawns for 1400 Ironman athletes. I started far right as per coach John’s instructions and was quick out of the blocks to avoid the traffic for the first 400m. This worked well and I found myself sitting in the second age group pack at the halfway point about a minute down on the leaders. On the way home I ended up in a little bit of no man’s land and had to swim solo for a while but looking behind there were no group worth waiting for so I kept going. Exiting the water in just under 54 minutes I was happy, hoping to swim in the 51-55 min range dependent on conditions. A smooth transition and onto the bike for the first climb out of town and I began to settle into my work. I passed a few fish on the early part of the ride then settled in. Kiwi roads for those that have ridden on them are unique, big chip, dead and never really flat. They can sap your energy and own you if you aren’t prepared for it. The plan on the bike was to make use of my new bike strength and ride in the sub 5 hour range on this course. 20k in I heard a clatter and looked behind to see my bottle of race nutrition bouncing down the road after it had self ejected. I thought about stopping for about half a second then made the decision to keep going. I had 3 gels in my pocket as a back up and more were available on course. Relax- it’s all good I told myself. Trust in the process.
After the 45k turn around at Reperoa I knew that my power numbers were slightly higher than I’d planned but I felt good. 250w was the upper limit I’d set myself and was I sitting just above this. My heart rate was within the range I wanted (125-139bpm) and the RPE’s (rate of perceived effort) all felt comfortable. This year conditions were good and we had a tail wind assisted 45km climb back to town. Again the power numbers were slightly high but no cause for concern. I pushed on and was expecting to start feeling the hurt at about 120k. 120k rolled past, then the second time through Reperoa at 135km and feeling even better…..140k…still feeling good…150k then 160k….power numbers were still climbing but heart rate was good and I felt even stronger. Dropping back into town I felt great after solo TTing for over 130km. I figured I was well fuelled despite losing my nutrition, I hadn’t had any twitches of leg cramps and I felt that I was on for a 3hr 2min -3hr 5 min marathon with the plan being to head out at 4:20k pace. All going well I’d come in very close to 9 hours. After another smooth transition I headed out on to the run with Gina Crawford after catching most of the female pro field and I could tell straight away that she wasn’t happy. We ticked along at 4:20 pace for a couple of k’s with things feeling ok, it is often hard to tell for the first 2k of the run after that long on the bike but then when I expected things to start getting better they went downhill…fast. Within about 1500m my quads felt like they were going to explode and I started to cramp. I shortened my stride and swallowed some salt tablets, one of which got lodged in my throat making it difficult to breathe. I passed Mum and Dad at the 4km mark before climbing the first hill and I was in trouble- barely acknowledging them. Bom-bom….things weren’t looking good as I realised the remaining 38km were going to be a real battle. I ran up the hill struggling to get enough air in my lungs, coughed and power ejected a salt capsule which cleared the airways and pushed on. The legs started to come right as the race leaders Cam Brown and Callum Millward passed me on their second lap. They didn’t seem to be moving that fast, about 4:10 pace so I latched on for a kilometre until I felt the quads exploding again. This time it was bad. It felt like the grand piano from the Taupo orchestra had been picked up from the town hall and dropped on my back. I realised that this was going to be ugly but I thought that I’d probably done enough on the swim and bike that as long as I kept moving I’d hopefully be able to hold onto a Kona spot and complete the mission. Quick re—evaluation of race plans followed. Power walk all hills and aid stations and take on as much nutrition as possible and hope for the best. With 2 and a half laps to go I knew it was going to be a mental battle to hang in there as running felt very unenjoyable. And that’s pretty much how the rest of it unfolded. I ran with Terrenzo for a while who was also having a shocker and as we ran along he announced that I’d be towing him to the finish. Yeah right! I was a lap down on him. Seeing Mum and Dad and Oscar and Coco on the course lifted my spirits each time I passed them, as did seeing how many other people were walking. At one point I was wondering if I’d break 4 hours for the marathon as I’d given yup looking at the depressing numbers on my Garmin. Stride by stride I made my way to the finish and was very pleased to cross the line. I managed to salvage a 3:18 marathon and finish 3rd in my AG and pick up a Kona spot. It was physically and mentally the hardest thing I’ve ever done. After 30 mins of not being able to move and a good spew to get rid of all the coke and electrolytes in my stomach I felt marginally better. I’d never been this sore in a race and was already dreading waking up tomorrow.
Looking back on the numbers a few days later I think the key issue was under recovery before the race. While energy levels felt good the last three days going in I don’t think I’d managed to drop some of the deep fatigue I’d picked up in training. My power numbers were slightly high on the bike but HR was where I wanted it and lower than Ironman Melbourne on a harder bike course in Taupo. I felt strong coming of the bike with no drop in power over the last 40km which is commonly seen when the early part of the ride is ridden too hard. Timing is crucial and I think my last easy week wasn’t easy enough to allow me to recover from my last heavy training week and there were a couple of sessions ten days out from the race that were too hard. Timing is crucial. Balance is key. Making my easy weeks easier will be a key in the Kona build up. As for now it’s feet up for a little while, catch up on a few things around home, get an overdue sinus operation out of the way in early April then start an exciting year building towards the double- 70.3 World Champs on the Sunshine Coast on September 4 and a return visit to the Ironman World Championships in Kona on October 8. A big thank you to everyone that has supported me along the way including Steve from Manly Cycles, Jason form Asics Australia and of course my lovely wife Holly!