So it happened! Despite all my hesitations, nerves, fears and doubts I lined up for my first 70.3 distance triathlon since January 2018.
I want to start by saying that the path to this race was a bumpy one. I think I had built up in my mind my comeback race. I wanted it to be something special, or at least not something terrible. The progress I have made in this sport has been hard earned. I have never been naturally athletic or one of those people that makes it seem easy. There have been too many hours of blood, sweat and tears put into my performance than I care to remember and the fear that I had undone all of that hard work was almost too much too handle.
I realised at the start of the year that while my leg was still hurting, it wasn't holding me back anymore and if I wanted to wait for a time that it would not bother me anymore I could be waiting a very very long time. So instead I realised it was time to bite the bullet and pick an event. The decision to race Melbourne was actually quite last minute. I had gone back and forth on it due to feelings of just not being ready. I entered 2 weeks before after not starting a race in Forster due to bad weather. I have already said it but I wanted my return to be something special and racing in the cold, wet and windy conditions that day would not have been. After some tough love from my coach, I pulled the trigger on Melbourne.
We drove down the Friday before the race from Sydney and this time we stayed within walking distance of the race precinct because my Dad’s house that I usually stay at is being renovated. In the lead up to race day I was extremely nervous. It was actually really bothering me how nervous I was. I know on race morning the whole thing rushed past me. I made a point of getting down there with plenty of time to spare yet it felt like a snap of the fingers and I was in the water. Anyway, enough preamble. This is the story of how my day unfolded….
I have done so much work on my swim over the last 18 months and I am extremely happy with the progress I have made. One of the key things I wanted to achieve was a fast split time. It literally started so quickly I don’t think I had much time to dwell on what was before me. I was in the water duck diving and took off like a rocket. I felt good. The water was cold and despite the large number of athletes the swim never felt too crowded or hectic. I felt good and strong. I was excited to see what I could deliver.
I was with a group of swimmers for the first 750m and as we turned at the far left of the course I noticed that the pack had put maybe 5m into me. I decided to make a concise effort to catch back up to them and I think I spent the better part of the next 750m trying. The thing is, no matter how hard I tried, I didn't get any closer. Then at about the 1500m I felt like I hit a wall and was suddenly swimming uphill. There was a noticeable drop in my energy and I could feel my form go out the window. Despite swimming much longer in training, I was struggling to make the 1900m. It was probably the fact I had gone so hard trying to catch the group but I sort of limped back into the swim exit. Looking at my Garmin after the race (it auto laps every 500) the 1000-1500m interval was by far my slowest and I actually came in quite quick. I exited the water feeling fucked and saw my swim time was around 30 minutes. Honestly about 3-4 minutes slower than I was hoping for.
I think the one really good thing about this race was that I convinced myself that all that mattered was finishing. Times were (relatively) irrelevant. I know that 18 months ago, a 30 minute swim would have left me extremely disappointed but it didn't phase me at all. After the race my coach pointed out that a lot of the swim times were very slow so not too worry too much. This was also my first opportunity to race in my blueseventy Helix and it delivered the goods with the absolute highlight being ZERO chaffing around my neck. My official swim time was 30:52.
A rather long transition but I was happy to not make any silly mistakes. I have become very good and setting my transition up for quick changes. The only thing I need to work on is getting out of my new wetsuit as that took me a little longer than I would have liked. I also wish they had some water you could run through to get the sand off your feet after running in from the beach. My T1 time was 1:35.
This was what I was looking forward to. My first opportunity to really put my bike work to the test. The Challenge Melbourne course is an undulating 3 lap course on smooth, fast roads. I do not care what anyone says but it is not flat. We aren’t talking serious hills but it is broken up with enough little ups and downs that you are never just in a rhythm. As with all my bike legs the plan was simple, break it down into 3rds. I have recently also really focused on 2 numbers, my power and my cadence. I am constantly trying to find the sweet spot where my power is high enough and my cadence is over 90. That is basically what I focused on for this race.
On the bike and it felt easy pushing big numbers. Even though I haven’t raced for a while though I still have enough experience to know that it usually does. I had a plan and I wanted to stick to it. I had forgotten what it was like to have people pass you and then slow down and the process repeat over and over. I want to from the start say that while I saw some CRAZY drafting and packs out there, all the people who road around me were doing a good job of riding fair. It made me really happy to see most fast guys really trying to race properly.
The first lap went off without a hitch. I was pretty much on target with my split and still felt good. I have a rock solid nutrition plan which I was following. Then about halfway though the second lap I noticed my speed and power was dropping. I didn't feel like anything was wrong but there was a good 10 minutes of panic. Had I ridden to hard at the start? Was my HRV (I got my lowest ever score race morning) correct? Maybe Melbourne was being Melbourne and the weather was going to shit? I am not too sure because I did start to feel good again but I really think that little window is why I just missed out on a 2:15 bike split.
2 laps down and 1 to go and I got passed by a rider who I assumed was a relay rider (they look like proper TT riders) I decided I wanted to go with him and within the space of about 5km there were probably 5 of us riding together. 100% we were not drafting and I know this because my power and speed remained basically the same. The psychological impact of having someone else set the pace however cannot really be measured and for me it was significant. My pace and power were nice and high on that last lap and with about 5km to go I decided to up the pace a bit and took off. I felt very calm and relaxed about the bike. I was a little disappointed realising I would not crack 2:15 but all thoughts quickly turned to the upcoming run leg and how would my leg hold up. I rode my best ever power for a 70.3 and my bike split was 2:16:49.
My Dad who I did not see was at the dismount line and after the race told me how impressed he was with my dismount compared to others. This was another long transition with a decent run on a gravel path. Not exactly what you want after a hard 90km bike. I felt very right and uncomfortable. But once we hit grass I could stride out a bit. I made a point of cleaning the sand and gravel off my feet then I was out in a flash ready to attack the run. My T2 time was 1:55.
This was it, the thing I was nervous about. Just how shit was my run going to be? Straight away I made the decision to let my body set the pace. I was just going to run at the speed my body liked. I really had no idea how my leg would hold up to a long run at a decent speed. Usually, I always aim for 4 min or under off the bike but today I was sitting very comfortably at 4:15-4:20 pace… Not terrible. I felt very comfortable and could even talk to my wife and volunteers as I ran past. The St Kilda course is actually great as you run along the coast for 2 laps. However, there were just too many people on the course, walking their dogs, pushing their pram or walking 4 abreast. It meant you had to pay a lot of attention running and dodge a lot of people. On the run course I spotted some of the MX Endurance guys, Jarrad who I coach and Hal. Both were looking good (I found out after the race Jarrad wasn't feeling good.)
As I finished the first lap I spotted my Dad and I wasn't feeling as good anymore. My pace was now dropping towards the 4:25 mark but I was still going and while I was getting the usual neural discomfort in my hamstring I was very optimistic. I kept doing my thing and was actually surprised how quickly the run was passing. I was on the cokes and was not doing much talking at this point. I got to the 16km mark of the run and I am not too sure why but I changed my watch over to overall time and saw that I was still under 4 hours… Hang on a second… This wasn't meant to happen. I was going to do a 4:40 today? My mathematical brain started calculating and I realised if I really push the pace here I could PB. WHAT. THE. FUCK!
With 5km to go I went to work. Now don’t imagine I started running 3:30 pace or anything like that. But I made a significant effort to increase my pace and I think I started sitting close to 4:00-4:10 pace for those last 5km. I was constantly doing maths with my watch now just showing overall time. I pushed and pushed and I think I realised with about 400m to go I would miss out on the PB but I was still going under 4:20! I crossed the line elated! I had not only gotten through the race without major incident (my leg was a bit sore) I had gone so much faster than I had expected. In fact, I would later realise that I had done my second fasest ever 70.3 and had missed out on a new PB by seconds! My overall run time was 1:27:03 and my finish time was 4:18:16.
How common is it for triathletes to talk abot all the things that went wrong during the race… For me I can’t. Did I have a perfect race? No. I know that I need to do a lot of work to get my run back to where it was and my swim was a little disappointing. But for what I wanted to get out of the race, I could not have asked for a better comeback.
When chatting with Ben before the race he had said to me, “this isn’t about your old times, they mean nothing. This is about setting a new benchmark, a new starting point.” To set a new starting point so close to my FASTEST EVER result has given me so much confidence after having next to none for so long. I really mean it when I say the last 18 months have been the hardest of my life. I have come so close to giving up, to walking away and taking up cross fit so many times. But that result, that insignificant number on a website that matters to no one else but me was a like a shock to the heart while I was flatlining.
I am still struggling a bit to find the same dedication and focus I had 2 years ago but I know it will come. I also know that all of those fears of all of my hard work being undone are just that, fears. They occupied so much of my energy recently so it was nice when I was packing the car to drive home after the race (metaphorically because I made Dez pack the car) to leave them behind.
I know it is a cliché but I really do want to thank some people. Firstly, my physio Matt Sweeney. Matt is almost exclusively responsible for my comeback from this injury. I am extremely grateful for his help and support and shit taking while we are in the gym. I cannot recommend him highly enough. I also want to really thank my coach Ben Hammond. I know how frustrating this was for me and can only imagine how frustrating it has been for him. He has helped ensure I continue to grow as an athlete despite my injury and his words of wisdom before the race helped me a lot. I also need to thank my mate, Mike Robinson. Robo is probably the bloke I am closest to and he therefore has had to deal with more bullshit than most people. His friendship and support mean the world to me. Then there is my Dez. Getting to hug her after the race and say “I did it” nearly made me tear up. She knows better than anyone how hard this whole thing has been on me and to have her their cheering me on is still probably my favourite part of racing.
The last thing I want to talk about is my Grandad. The last time I raced a 70.3 we had just found out my Grandad was dying. We lost him in August last year. One of the weird things that happened on race day was that randomly my Mum had found his iPad and had emailed me a bunch of the photos she found. One of the first people I used to always call after a race was my Poppy and after the race when I opened my phone there was an email from Barry Stockbridge. It certainly gave me pause but it also made everything feel sort of right in a weird way? So I just wanted to dedicate that race to him. I know he would have called me a crazy bastard but he would have been proud.
So don’t ever give in to your fears, stop waiting for the perfect time and remember to TRI!