It's not often I've had to sit and reflect upon poor race performances, but even less common that it related to an injury. It's quite a sobering feeling to not be fully in control of the decisions you have to make on race day, especially when you don't want to let yourself, family and friends down. Deciding to stop after 14km's of the run at Ironman New Zealand was definitely one of the hardest things I have done. I've been relatively lucky on the injury front over the past 20 years of competitive running and then triathlon. I had surgical procedure on my back in 2006 after having 2 torn discs in my Lumbar region of the spine, but recovery went well and I had no real problems over the next 10 years. The past 2 year I had experienced a few episodes with lower back and hamstring pain, but recovery and rehab had always gone well thanks to Square One Physiotherapy and Vision PT Mosman. Knowing that injury was the main restriction on my Ironman day was a hard pill to swallow after all the hard work and sacrifice.
It had been almost 2.5 years since I had raced an Ironman (Kona 2015), I'm the first to admit that my physical attributes and training history lend me to perform better over the 70.3 distance, but the Ironman is very alluring. I love the physical and mental challenge and I like the fact that the Ironman distance is not something that I am probably the best suited for and that's why I like to keep trying to improve at the distance. My family and I headed to Taupo a few days before the race. I had been feeling good physically and mentally leading into the race, despite a nagging cold the week before (daycare germs). My build to the Ironman had been shorter than usual as my decision to race NZ was late in 2017. I had been training consistently in the back end of 2017 for the 70.3 distance and felt very fit and healthy when I started my Ironman training block. Although my back and hamstring had not been 100% over the training build, things had gone pretty well and I never imagined that injury would affect my race day at all.
Over the 2 days before the race we settled into life in New Zealand easily, the sun was out every day and we were loving our trip. Travel to the event had been good (even with kids on a plane) and the locals in Taupo really embrace the event so we felt very welcomed to the area. Over the days before the race I did my usual training prep, got some time in on each part of the course and checked out the local conditions, I felt set for a good race.
I got up nice and early, grabbed some breakfast and slowly headed down to transition. I left the family in bed and they had planned to get to the event for my swim exit. I spent most of the morning on my own chilling out, I watched the traditional Maori water blessing before the Pro race start and then went about getting warmed up. The conditions were great, the water was still and the Lake looked amazing as the sun came up.
I set myself up on the front line of the swim on the right hand side looking for the shortest swim line, the plan was to get out strong (not stupid) and hopefully settle into a steady rhythm with some similar paced swimmers. When the cannon went (which is ridiculously loud) I found myself after 400m or so in a solid size group, I could see that we were about the 3rd pack, not too many out ahead of us, but the second group was not too far up the way. I think I should have made a bit of an effort to go harder for longer to try to make the 2nd group, but as I had come off a cold and this was my first Ironman in a while I decide to be conservative. The swim from there was pretty uneventful for me, I felt strong all the way which again probably confirmed my earlier thoughts about trying to make the next pack, but I was happy to come out in 55 minutes, feeling relatively relaxed.
** warning - my transition was probably more entertaining than my bike leg**
The transition from the water to T1 is long and uphill, I loved it! I could see coming into T1 that I was well up the field and I passed a lot of people on the run exit from the water and up the steps. I didn't have anything in my bike bag for transition so all I needed was to discard the wetsuit. 2 kind locals helped me out in T1 (2 huge Maori guys), the first tried to pull the wetsuit off my legs as I sat down and lifted my whole body off the chair! So his kind friend hold me down as they stripped my wetsuit, then I was off to my bike. As I put on my helmet and pulled the bike off the rack I realised I had a problem - the morning sun had come up and the visor on my helmet was all fogged up with dew. I was essentially trying to look out from the bottom of my visor as I ran to the mount line. I jumped on my bike and went to put my feet in my shoes, but with my limited view I was starting veer right, off line and towards the barriers.....ahhh! I managed to lean to the left and stay upright as I scrapped down the barriers and only managed to scratch my right elbow on the barriers without crashing. The spectators found it quite amusing. I discarded the visor to the top of my helmet until it had cleared (should have done that 60 seconds earlier).
Onto the bike and the course was a 2 lap out and back loop. The first part in town (approx 10km) is undulating with a few turns and then you head out on a main road to Reporoa. The road is chip seal, so a little bumpy, but much better than Port Mac. It's undulating but nothing big, just constant changes. The conditions were great and although I wasn't putting out my prescribed power numbers I was moving fast and feeling comfortable. As we hit the turn around I could see that were some of the top guys in my age group up ahead who had obviously swum well and were moving well on the bike too. On the way back to Taupo I tried to use some small groups around me to help keep me on task and pass the time a bit quicker. By the 90km point I was on pace, slightly under power so I thought I'd be good for the second lap. As we headed out of town on the second lap I managed to take a quick wrong turn - a volunteer marshaling traffic with a flag caught my eye and I followed her instructions....oops! A quick 100m add on but I knew my mistake straight away, I was back on course and on my way again. As I headed on the main road for my second lap, 100km in, I started to get some sciatic pain down my left leg all the way to my foot and my lower back was starting to get tight. I thought the aero position might have got the best of me so I just relaxed for a bit, tried to move about to get comfortable and took a few turns sat up and out of the saddle. The problem was that on the way back to Reporoa the wind had got up and it was now a bit overcast. As I struggled, competitors started to come past me, I tried to latch on but holding an aero position was becoming almost too difficult. I decided that I needed to push through and stay down in my aerobars, this was uncomfortable but I thought it was the best saver of energy. I was finding it hard to put out much power at all now, but I just wanted to hit the turn around at Reporoa and have a better run home. As I reached 150km I was in pain, even sitting up wasn't helping. I hit the turn around and knew that I was probably in for an uncomfortable ride home but had made plans to get through in anyway I could. I figured I would lose about 10-12 minutes on this lap from the way I was going, so I concentrated on following my nutrition plan, getting some caffeine in (via Coke) for the first time in the race, I ignored my power and just did what I could. The good new was I had still convinced myself that I might be ok when I got off the bike to run, I'm a runner and good Ironman run can make all the difference and bring you back into the race...right?
I headed back into Taupo feeling very pumped to finally get off the bike. As I approached T2 I slipped my feet out of my shoes and jumped off my bike.....problem......I could barely stand up straight! My back and hamstring was now incredibly sore and tight and as I headed into the transition tent I knew things weren't feeling good. I took my time (relatively) and headed out for the run. It was great as I hit the main street to see my wife and kids, but I was hobbling already and really working to run in a normal stride. I decide to just try and hit my proposed pace and see what happens, as I put in a few 4:00/km's I was working extremely hard (too hard) to maintain that running speed. Like the bike I started to ignore my pace and just started to run by feel, use the aid stations well, grab some water and electrolyte, but by 6km I was in a world of trouble, running which is usually is so free and enjoyable for me had become very painful and depressing. I walked a couple of aid stations, tried to stretch and extend but each time I got going again it was the same story As I jogged towards the end of the first lap (14km) I made the hard decision to stop, I felt quite worried that if I continued running I was going to do some long term damage. Not the end result I had dreamed about and definitely not a scenario that I had even had run though my mind.
Lying on the floor listening to the music and hearing the commentary I decided that I had to accept my decision, hopefully it was the right one and one I could deal with. We decided to grab some food as a family and sit on the main strip by the finish line and cheer on the guys from the 70.3 and the Ironman. It was too good of an event not to enjoy and appreciate the efforts of all the athletes still on course. Obviously as others finished I was thinking a lot about what could have been, but my focus was on recovery and enjoying the rest of my time with the family.
Now I am in the process of making recovery plans and potentially new race goals. I have had an MRI on the back, with the hamstring to come. Hopefully this will give us a detailed pictured of where I am at, that way my rehab and training can continue and hopefully there won't be any re-occurrences going forward.
Thanks to all my family, friends and supporters for the lovely messages, I am feeling good about my decision now and I will hopefully be back racing soon.
On a final note - huge congratulations to one of our Team athletes, Andrea Pember who came second in her age group in the 70.3 and broke 5 hours for the first time, superstar!