Ironman Busselton 2016
“You’ve done the worst thing you could have done, three times over.”
– Prof. Ton Tran, Surgeon
Eighteen months (July, 2015) before Ironman Busselton I came off my bike on a training ride. I was picked up by an ambulance, taken to hospital, and told that I would never regain full mobility in my right elbow. I was told that swimming competitively, and that riding and running would never be easy or comfortable for me again.
Following surgery, where I had two plates and fourteen screws inserted into and around what was left of my elbow (the whole joint had shattered, and was mush to touch), I sat at home and questioned my luck and the crappy circumstances that I found myself in. My wife thought that I had begun to suffer from depression, and looking back, I would agree. The hole I was in felt endless, with no improvement, or a return to normality – let alone some form of fitness.
I felt that I had been robbed of something I loved, and was angry at the world for taking it away from me – especially swimming. My pain medication for this period was an Oxycontin tablet every 12 hours, with two Endone and two Panadol every four hours. Once the Endone ran out after three weeks, I began to suffer withdrawals and spent a night alternating between hot and cold, sweating and freezing, and wanting to vomit.
Not long after this, something clicked, and rather than be ‘angry at the world’ for the situation I was in, I became driven by the thought that I was not going to be defined by this event. I would do everything in my power to get movement back in my elbow and return to full fitness. The following quote was of enormous inspiration for me during this time:
“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”
– Arnold Schwarzenegger
With the help of David Francis and Paul Kemmel at Physioworks, recovery included two full physio sessions a week, with extra ‘physio’ administered every day at home – this consisted of warming up the joint and pushing and extending it as far possible, with Nikki adding her body weight to move it further (an incredibly painful exercise). Slowly but surely, more and more movement returned and the muscle that had wasted away was becoming stronger (by tiny margins). I started to be able to do simple things again; pulling on my own socks, touching my own nose, and helping out around the house – these small progressions made me feel less helpless about the entire situation.
I also started to sit on the indoor trainer and spin the legs over. Running was not an option at this time (too painful), and swimming was definitely out of the equation with the stitches and a semi-open wound. Surprisingly, I never had a cast, as the surgeon wanted me to regain as much movement as soon as possible before scar tissue built up within the joint.
Around the same time, everything else seemed to be collapsing around us. The saying is that trouble comes in threes, but we stopped counting once we hit 21. Nikki’s Dad had a huge heart attack and was lucky to survive, my own Dad had a stint in the hospital, family members passed away, our home was broken into, and I had to have three more surgeries due to reoccurring infections. To say we were done with the year 2015 was an understatement.
Adding to this, a lingering infection would not go away, and the plate that wrapped around my elbow and down the length of my forearm was incredibly uncomfortable. So exactly one year (to the day) from Ironman Busselton 2016, I was wheeled into surgery to have the two plates and 14 screws removed. On the Sunday after surgery, I sat in our study with my arm in a sling, watching Luke McKenzie (professional triathlete) tear the field apart, and go on to set the fastest IM time ever on Australian soil. It was incredibly motivating to watch, and come December 2016, I knew I would be in Busselton ready to race. I had found a goal, and the drive and the motivation was back – I was eager to get started.
Nothing seemed to be going to plan and the start of training for Ironman was the same. Due to more surgery, my first ride wasn’t until early-February. I had lost all my fitness, strength, and ability to sit on a bike comfortably. My arm was still not 100%, and the loss of muscle through my shoulder, bicep, and tricep meant that I couldn’t fully support myself with my right arm on the bike – there was nothing to do but continue with the physio (I had added strength sessions by now, so it was only a matter of time before the muscle returned), and keep riding.
Thankfully, training only began to improve from here. My training distances were increasing, and although I had not jumped into the pool yet, I was doing two to three gym sessions a week to build strength and muscle. My biggest concern was that I would jump into the pool too soon and injure myself.
The months ticked by, my fitness improved with training, but more importantly, my elbow started to feel strong again. I still couldn’t straighten it fully (and I never will – the damage was too severe), but my times in the pool were improving. Confidence was returning, and it peaked with the final weeks of training. As a rough guide, I was swimming approximately 12km (a mix of pool and open water swimming), riding between 300 – 360km (a mix of long rides, and specialised sessions on the indoor trainer), and running between 65 – 75km each week, with my biggest run week totalling 85km.
The remaining weeks of training passed before moving into a full taper to freshen up for the race.
I woke up on race day feeling like I’d had a great nights sleep. I jumped out of bed, made a black tea, two slices of toast with honey and a banana. I threw on my race-suit (a huge thanks to my sponsor, Verge), grabbed the wetsuit, and had a nice walk along the foreshore to the swim start. Walking to the grassy area surrounding The Goose (the restaurant at the swim start), you could feel the excitement (and tension) in the air.
From here I double-checked the bike in transition (tyre pressure, bottles, Garmin, gearing, etc.), squeezed into the wetsuit and jumped into the crystal clear waters for a warm-up swim. From the water, I could watch the professional men start, the professional women, and the para-tri division (a mate, Dale Grant, was racing and went on to have an exceptional day, finishing second in his category). The age-group field were next. I took my place on the line and waited for the hooter to sound…
The Swim – 3.8km – 54.40
Swim Data: strava.com/activities/797357669
An IM mass swim start (watch the video below), is the equivalent of letting 1600 overly excited children run amok in a toy shop with no supervision – everyone goes nuts. Arms and legs are everywhere, people are being swam over, it’s total mayhem… and it’s awesome.
I had secured a great position at the start line; and, despite my elbow, placed myself at the front of the pack. As the hooter sounded, the rush of adrenaline was unbelievable – we were underway! I made quick time heading out, and my positioning in the pack was perfect; I was able to sit with some fast swimmers as we made our way out towards to first turn buoy at the end of the jetty.
I did have a lapse in concentration around the 1.5km mark and fell off the pack, but was able to surge back on – I felt strong and effortless through the water. On the way back in (we swam out and around the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere), the pack seemed to fatigue at once. I was still feeling incredibly strong, so I took the lead and ending up pulling away from the other guys and girls in the group – I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the swim.
Exiting the water in 4th place (in my age group), I felt amazing. I ran under the pier and down the beach towards transition to a huge roar of support from the crowd including Nikki, Mum, Dad, and friends. Up the ramp, through the freshwater showers, down the path and into the transition tent.
The Ride – 180km – 5.09.08
Ride Data: strava.com/activities/797356641
Running into the transition area, I inhaled a gel, grabbed the bike from the rack, and was out on the road. I immediately began eating an energy bar, forgetting to start my Garmin for the first kilometre, and settled in for the next 179km.
The course for Busselton is amazing; incredibly picturesque, dead flat, and reasonably quick roads (except for a few dead sections). A lot of the super-bikers passed me early on the ride, and I knew there was no way I would be able to hold that pace for 180km. Despite this, the gap between us at the turnarounds never blew out too far.
The first 90km lap went quickly and I was at the 90km halfway point in 2 hours and 30 minutes – just ahead of where I wanted to be. Everything continued to go like clockwork, and I stuck to my race and nutrition plan religiously, trying to stay as comfortable as possible.
Riding back into town became a little tougher with an increase in wind, but at that point, it didn’t really matter. I rolled into Busselton, and started mentally preparing myself for the marathon (with just over six hours of racing already under the belt).
The Run – 42km – 3.33.17
Run Data: strava.com/activities/797357690
It is normal to have a bit of tightness and fatigue in the legs transitioning from riding to running (it is not the most enjoyable experience for your body and the related muscle groups) but I have never felt as good as what I did running out of T2. I immediately started catching people who had passed me in the later stages of the bike and had to remind myself to back off, to take it easy, and to play the long game – 42km is a long way to run, let alone after a swim and a very long ride at race pace. Even so, I felt amazing for the first 20km and spectators and supporters were telling me I was looking strong.
But, around the 21km mark I began to feel the first signs of fatigue, and the next 10km dragged by very slowly, and quite uncomfortably. I was still holding a good pace and was still looking strong according to the support team, but on the inside, I was dying a thousand deaths. I began grabbing two cups of coke at every aid station (every 2km) to push some sugar into the system, to give me a boost, and help me get through a flat spot. On top of this, I was sticking to my nutrition plan religiously (an electrolyte gel and water every 4km) – and it was paying off. I began passing the back-end of the women’s professional field, and later saw that I had passed some of the professional men.
I started feeling strong again at the 30km mark and just wanted to get to that finish line. I kept pushing, battling the increase in fatigue, continually thinking about nutrition and checking how the body felt, and soon enough the 40km marker, and final turn around appeared – at this point, I knew I was home. Nikki had signed up for the ‘VIP Finish Line Experience’ so had been receiving SMS updates throughout the day. As I passed the 38km timing point she received a message to get to the finish line. Nikki would be the person to ‘catch’ me as I crossed that line, and present me with my medal.
The Finish – 9.48.45 – 13th (25-29 AG)
As soon as I passed the 42km marker, I rounded the corner, and ran onto the famous Ironman red carpet down the finishing chute. I immediately backed off the pace and savoured every second. The crowd was incredible and it was amazing to get high fives and shouts of encouragement from friends and family. I remember yelling as I crossed the line and immediately ran into Nikki. It was such an emotional moment and it meant so much to share it with the person that had sacrificed so much so I could do the required training over the previous 10 months.
Pete Murray (the IM commentator, not the singer) came over, slapped me on the back, shook my hand and said; “Well done mate – that was a bloody good effort.” Nikki and I walked through to the finishers area where we met the rest of the family and friends for another round of hugs and tears.
It was incredible how quickly my legs and glutes tightened up, so Nikki and I hobbled across to the massage tent where we were met by some amazing volunteers (they were outstanding all day) who helped clean the salt, sweat, and electrolyte off me before massaging my legs and lower back. Laying on the table gave me my first real chance to reflect on the day. Before the race, I told Nikki that if I crossed the finish line and had nothing left in the tank, I would be happy – to then have that feeling and finish sub-10 on my first attempt was very rewarding – there is no way I could have done any better on the day and I am incredibly proud of my efforts.
There isn’t a way to truly describe the experience of my race, but the quote below (from a TV series called SAS: Who Dares Wins) sums it up pretty well for me…
“Generally we want to be part of the flock, but for some of us, we want to excel at something, we want to be remembered for something. It’s not for everyone else, but ourselves. We’ve come through a gruelling assessment, and no matter which way you look at it, you’ve achieved something phenomenal.”
– Ant Middleton, SAS Instructor
Summary (Distances & Times)
Swim – 3.8km – 54.40
Ride – 180km – 5.09.08
Run – 42km – 3.33.17
Total – 13th (25-29 AG) – 9.48.45 (including transitions)