Ironman Race Day: the swim

10 03 2017

I woke up on race morning to the sound of the wind howling through the trees outside the house.

My heart sank.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t trained in wind.

After all. I live in Wellington. It’s unavoidable.

But you always hope that the training in tough conditions will prepare you for a great race when it’s calm and clear.

No such luck for us.

It was going to be like any other training day over this summer. That meant hard work.

Any time goal dreams I had went out the window.

Coach always says that you shouldn’t set time goals because it’s such a long day and there are so many variables. Weather being a big one. But you can’t help yourself. But anyway, my time was the least of my worries as I got some breakfast and headed down to transition to do the last minute prep on my bike.

Heading down to the lakeside, I met up with most of my training crew who’d gathered in the usual spot by the scenic flights office. From here we could hear the Maori warriors from the Tuwharetoa iwi arriving on their waka to lay down their challenge to us.

A challenge that was like no other Ironman New Zealand event.

The true meaning of their haka was probably lost on most of us, as we watched in horror as the waka they’d just vacated got bashed about by the choppy lake. The waka was soon to be replaced by us.

I decided not to go into the lake for a warm up swim, as I’d have around 30 minutes of standing on the shore wet before my race started, so I chose to use the first part of my race as the warm up. The plan had it down as easy to get into some rhythm and survive the “washing machine” that is the mass start.

Once the pros had been sent on their merry way, it was time to line up with the 1200 other idiots who’d got up to brave the elements. We shuffled slowly towards the beach as we were all filtered inside a narrow barrier. I could see my hubby looking everywhere for me but he was on the other side. When he spotted me he beckoned me over. But with the tight formation of bodies I didn’t think I could get across. He pleaded so I made a few polite “excuse mes” and got across, getting a good luck hug in the process.

Then into the water we went. It looked nothing like the calmness we’d seen the previous two days. Why couldn’t it have been like that? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one asking that. But, it was what it was.

At least it was warm.

And it wasn’t sea water.

Heck we’d done enough training in those conditions in Wellington Harbour. We knew all too well how yucky it is to get bashed left and right by salty waves.

It didn’t look that bad from the shore. But being in it was a completely different ball game.

Copyright Jack McKenzie Photography

I swam out to the deepest start point in line with the course buoys. I was going to try and swim the shortest possible distance I could. But it did mean I put myself in the thick of the washing machine.
I was watching the flashing lights that count down the final three minutes before the start. But the waves were that big I was rolling around a lot and could only see the lights when I was at the top of a wave. When it got down to the last light, I gave up looking. I knew the cannon would go off at any moment and I was just focusing on trying to stop myself being swept into my fellow competitors.

Then it went off. Not as loud as I was expecting, but everyone started swimming.

1200 of us. All at once.

It’s a weird sensation swimming so close to so many people. I’ve done a fair few mass starts at smaller events, but nothing prepares you for that volume of people. Legs, arms and bodies are everywhere.

You get bashed from every direction. It’s really easy to take it personally and strike out at them. But in reality it’s not intentional. And it’s part of Ironman life.

After a few minutes (although it seems like longer) space starts to appear and you can get into a rhythm finally. I was finding a few people to draft off here and there. And the odd person who swam straight across in front of me too. But it started to go pretty well. I counted down the buoys to the turn (they’re numbered) and it felt like I was going at a great pace. The first turn buoy loomed and I felt great.

At that point I should have guessed what was in store for the return leg. In Taupo, the swim course is an out and back, keeping you closer to the shore at first, then heading deeper out into the lake for the return leg. At the first turn buoy you swim about 50m across before turning back towards the finish.

This meant swimming head on into the waves for 50m.

I remember thinking I was barely moving and the buoy wasn’t getting any closer. But I just kept plugging away. And plugging away.

Eventually the second buoy loomed and I thought it was going to get easier once we turned side on to the waves and it would be more like the outbound leg.

How wrong I was. It was just as hard.

Being out in deeper water the chop was twice as bad as the way out. Breathing became tricky because it often didn’t matter which side you were breathing on, you still got a face full of water. It reminded me of the rough Ocean Swim Series race we’d done a few weeks ago.

But at least it was fresh water this time.

Sighting was also an issue because it was difficult to see the buoys if you sighted at the bottom of a rolling wave. Not only were you trying to time your breaths, but you ended up having to feel the water and trying to sight at the top too.

So many times I just had to blindly follow those in front of me and trust they were heading in the right direction.

Each buoy took an age to arrive. I was counting them down. I knew the last one was 24 and couldn’t believe I was only by 16. I was hoping that they’d taken some buoys out so they weren’t all there in order. But they were.

One by one, I slowly reeled them in. I could feel my shoulders getting fatigued by the extra effort required just to generate some forward propulsion. But every stroke was taking me closer to the finish.

Then I finally passed the 24th buoy. It was just a case of rounding that last turn buoy and I’d be surfing back into the beach with waves.

I had no concept of how long I’d been out there but I guessed it was longer than I’d hoped for. When I finally stood up on the beach I couldn’t believe that my watch said 1 hour 29 minutes. I’d been hoping for more like 1 hour 10 or 15 so I was a bit gutted. But I knew that was behind me now and I had to focus on the next stage. At least I’d finished.

 

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Ignore the time, that’s from the pro start 15 minutes ahead of us!

 My run along the famed green carpet, that 400m jog to transition, took me past my supporters and fellow squad mates. My coach yelled out something like “great work” to which I shook my head. I had no idea who from my squad was already out, nor about the troubles some of them were having behind me. But it’s fair to say none of us had a walk in the park.

All of us made it out though. And none of us took a trip on an IRB, as many others did.

I didn’t know it at the time but close to 100 people got pulled out of the lake by lifeguards. They had to delay the start of the half ironman race by 45 minutes because the lifeguards were so busy with Ironman competitors that there weren’t enough free to ensure the safety of the 70.3 athletes. I imagine that was quite hard to deal with from their perspective.

I ran up to transition and straight to the line where my bag was. I shouted my number three times but the volunteer hadn’t even moved. Luckily I’d put some decoration on my bag to make it easy to spot, so I just grabbed it on my way past and ran to an available volunteer in the changing tent.

As she tipped the contents of my bag onto the ground she told me to put the swim behind me as it was over now. I can only imagine what stories she’d already heard from other competitors! She handed me my towel while she fought with my wetsuit. Piece-by-piece we got me dressed and ready to tackle the bike.
She had the process down like a well oiled machine, helping me with shoes, putting clothes on and placing items in my jersey pocket for me. It felt like ages, but in reality it wasn’t a long transition, and I headed out to find my bike to start the biggest leg, and the one I was probably dreading the most.

 

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Countdown to Ironman: 5 weeks to go

30 01 2017

Ironman is all about training the brain as well as the body.

You’ll often hear people refer to the mental battles on the day, so having a few of those in training is always good practice.

Take the bike ride when we were at training camp. When the wind picked up for lap two, creating a headwind on the way out to the turn at Reporoa, one of my squad mates said she had to give herself a good talking to. And boy did we all relate to that.

This week saw us needing another talking to with the NZ Ocean Swim Series event arriving in Wellington. Most of us were down to do the long course that takes you out to the lighthouse and back to Oriental Bay in a neat 3.3km triangle.

Only the weather Gods had other ideas.

A big northerly was forecast which meant the harbour was going to be choppy. Even by Wellington standards. So the organisers swiftly arranged a move to the south side of the city, hoping for more sheltered waters at Lyall Bay.

I wandered down for a recce on Saturday afternoon – ironically a magic Wellington day with no wind and a gorgeous flat calm harbour. Sod’s law right there.

The buoys were already up and one of the event team gave us a quick brief of the makeshift 2km ‘M’-shaped course. It was different but they figured it was the best they could do in the space they had.

Race morning dawned and the forecast wind didn’t disappoint. But the predicted chop was worse than expected. So the furthest points of the ‘M’ course were a bit too dangerous for more inexperienced swimmers.

So they decided to go to a two-lap loop. They lengthened the course and brought the far buoys in. But they didn’t really know how long it was and were estimating 2.6-2.8kms.

The shallower waters didn’t look so bad, so after swallowing “a cup of hard” (a kiwi phrase for “harden up”), we hit the waters.

The initial swim out to the first buoy wasn’t so bad. The wind was behind us and the buoy was close, meaning sighting wasn’t an issue. Then we made a 90 degree turn and headed parallel to the beach to head towards the airport.

With the wind hitting us side on, and with the tide going out, it was easy to predict that we were going to get pounded from the left a little bit in this direction. The start wasn’t so bad and I was able to get into my rhythm quite quickly – it normally takes me at least a km to get going properly. But the closer we got to the airport end, the worse it seemed to get.

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Even if I breathed away from the direction of the waves, the would frequently break on the back of my head, still giving me a mouthful of saltwater. So breathing was sometimes an issue.

And with the buoys being quite some distance away, and reasonably close together when looking at them from a distance, sighting was tricky. It was too easy to aim for the wrong buoy, sending you off course. I often just followed the crowd of swimmers in front of me in the vain hope that they were vaguely on track!

We’d been promised an “easier” ride back towards the start, and second turnaround. But that was a lie. It got harder as we were further out from shore in bigger chop. The waves were bigger and harder and there was no “tail wind” to speak of.

It took forever.

Or at least it felt like it.

Unlike the regular Splash and Dash series, there were no shorter options. If we pulled out early, that was it. It was a DNF. So that was the choice. Continue battling, or get no result.

But when the turn came, I had no intention of finishing early. While it might not have been the prettiest swim, I certainly wasn’t done. I wasn’t going to let it beat me. I’m way tougher than that.

Despite not being the strongest swimmer in the world, I don’t lack confidence in the water and have a steely determination to succeed. So out for a second lap I went. The second trip down towards the airport seemed even worse. I’m sure the surf lifesaving volunteers had their work cut out for them.

Back out in the chop for the final leg back down towards the start/finish area, I probably took on the most water of any of the legs. And not only that, the current was pushing you further with the tide. So sighting had to be more regular to stay on course – if you could see the buoys in the chop! I felt I’d been pushed out a couple of times so tried to correct my course, only to over-correct and start swimming further in. A quick sight check soon sorted that.

Even though the conditions were far from ideal, I can honestly say I never once felt like jacking it in. I felt strong and like I could keep going, even at the very end. Although swimming into the headwind for the final 75m (or so) stretch was pure hell. No matter how hard you swam, you didn’t feel like you were making any progress. But slowly and surely, the beach got closer.

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I’d made it. And when I stopped my watch to see the time, I was really happy, given the conditions. But in reality, the time didn’t matter. I’d swum just under 3.1kms in 1h 8 minutes. And then the official word came back that they estimated the course was 3kms long, so I’d done pretty well, even in that chop and current.

What mattered was proving I could tough it out in those conditions. After all, you never know what it’s going to be like on race day.

So you need your mind, as well as your body, to be ready.

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