I missed a turn…
One thing I get asked repeatedly by a lot of people (namely my mum and my girlfriend) is to explain the motivations behind this triathlon malarkey – when will I stop ? It’s a tough one to answer really as any endurance athlete can find new goals and challenges pretty much ad vitam aeternam. I think though the main reason I am still sweating buckets going nowhere in my living room in order to compete at pro level having now just turned 40 and despite having arguably a better career to focus on (phew, breathe here!), is because I know I still haven’t reached my full potential. And I want to (reach it). As per customary with elite sport, I went through as many highs as lows over the years, but somehow I tend to dwell on those missed opportunities a lot more than on the successes. As a runner I always seemed to get injured while at the peak of my form, and hence never got the times/results I knew I could have had. When I tore my Achilles in the final of the U23 french national championship, 300m for the finish line, that was one injury too many and I stopped my running career right there. I was in the shape of my life that day and fighting for glory and a definite PB when injury stroke again. This was a pivotal time in my life as I then took a 180º turn away from competitive sport, but the feeling of unfinished business never left me.
Soon after finishing my first triathlon in 2007, it quickly became obvious that I would have a crack at this new sport until I thought I’d reached my limits. I quickly progressed, turning “pro” after only a few years, but here again, despite some great races, it’s the so called failures that seem to stick, like injuring myself just before the Elite ITU World Cross Triathlon Championships in Spain in 2011 and having to pull out of the race after the bike leg, despite once again being in top shape. Also going off course at the XTERRA World Champs in Maui that same year was a tough one to get over! And I am still looking for a great ironman race, one where I can feel I raced true to my abilities. I got close in Nice last year, but I know that I could run much better than what I did.
Obviously there is also the Kona appeal. I could have stepped down and go as an age group, but really it isn’t the same, especially with all the drafting involved etc. This whole notion of age groups is quite alien to me – who cares about who wins in the 40-44 category really? What matters is who wins the OVERALL race. I’d rather be the last pro than winning my age group (as long as I’m faster of course). After a 5th place in Wales, the only chance I have of qualifying is with 2 other top 5 and some luck thrown in. So Ironman New Zealand here I came. After a long break over Xmas and new year, I started to put my head down in early January, and had 7-8 weeks of consistent training, possibly the most solid block I’ve ever done in triathlon, doing on average 4 runs, 4 rides and 5 swims a week (note that this is still about half the volume of the top seasoned pros, but for me that’s a lot). A spartan life, refusing gigs, no more ti’ punchs and all that. I really enjoyed the process though, and after the first 3 weeks saw some big improvements in every discipline, even recording some of the best runs I’d done in years. With IM NZ only 2 weeks away I was as fit as I’d ever been and really excited about transferring this into a good result.
However a pain in my lower abdomen which I’d been feeling for a few months without giving it too much thought had started to become most constant and present in the last couple of weeks, to the point where I was now worried about a possible pubalgia and about my ability to run properly on race day. As soon as we arrived in Auckland I found a Bowen practitioner who confirmed the tear but also gave me hope by releasing tensions in my muscles/joints, which could allow the body to fix itself naturally. Would 5 days be enough though?
As a DJ you are only as good as your latest gig. If you were crap there, despite having had a run of brilliant sets previously, you are only remembered as this last performance. Similarly as an athlete you are only as good as your last result. You can even extend that to your last session (be it good or bad). When you suffer from a running injury, the only thing you can think of is the last run you did, how painful it was, and how the next run will be. You visualise yourself running ALL THE TIME, at least I do. In the case of a pubalgia (also known as athletic hernia), it is a very progressive injury, taking months before actually escalating into something debilitating. As it stood when the race got close I was right at the limit. I did a run on the Wednesday, D-3, and the pain was the most acute I’d ever felt up to that point…but still within my threshold. Plus my legs were on fire and I could tell the fitness was there. The original plan for that race was to aim for a top 5, but given the depth of the field this turned into a top 10. If I were in contention after the bike, I’d start the run and see how I felt and stood after the first 5k or so. That was the plan.
Come race day the conditions were crazy due to a really strong north-westerly wind, to the point where we weren’t even sure the swim would happen as Lake Taupo looked a totally different beast from the flat and peaceful waters I swam in the previous days. With the course being just one loop, straight out and back, I figured out it would be a long one. And indeed it was, one of the roughest swims I’ve ever done, on a par with a Maui on tsunami alert (Cam Brown said post race it was the toughest conditions he’d ever encountered here, having won 11 times and raced a few more! 64 triathletes didn’t actually finish the swim). I was feeling ok however, in the group with Viennot, Brown and Vanhonaecker at the turnaround. Exactly what I was hoping. Unfortunately soon after that U turn the guy just in front of me left a gap, and by the time I noticed it I was never able to bridge it. This meant I swam on my own for the remaining 1500m, losing time continuously as I struggled to see the buoys and navigate in a straight line. This might sound strange as we were swimming parallel to the shore, but really when out at sea (because this lake was a sea that day) you really can’t see much. Not exactly fun. Goggles had filled up and from then it was just a never ending fight to the shore, which I finally reached in 55min, some 7min down on the leaders and 2min on the Viennot/Brown group.
On the 400m dash to T1 I ran conservatively, on thin ice as we say, trying to gauge whether the injury was bearable or not. And it seemed to be, game on I thought! Problem was, once on the bike I was in absolute no man’s land, left to my own pedal strokes. Not a single pointy helmet in sight for the first 40k (which nonetheless went by crazy fast with a tailwind- what a blast to ride the Ceepo’s Katana and Progress wheels at those speeds!). At the turnaround I saw the Brown group about 2 min ahead, meaning I hadn’t lost nor gain any time. On the way back to Taupo it was a totally different affair, the 3/4 headwind pushing me to almost a standstill at times. Lanzarote type of madness. Not fun anymore. The legs were still good but I couldn’t’t help thinking how much energy I was wasting compared to the guys ahead of me riding in a group…only myself to blame there…As we got back into town I could now see one of the guys (Simon Cochrane I believe) having been dropped from that group and now just a minute in front of me, giving me a strong boost as we started the second loop.
And then…disaster happened. I went straight when I should have turned left. 5 volunteers were there but no one prevented me from doing so. A simple arrow would have been enough, rather than 5 guys watching me flying past. Because that’s the part of the course where we were riding head down at 60kph+. At that speed if there is no clear sign for me to turn I surely won’t turn. I thought I had to, but since there were no clear indication…It took a good 10min for an official to come pull up next to me and explain the situation. By the time I had turned around and rejoined the course I had lost 20min or so and it was game over. I muttered a few expletives to myself and to my bike as I started to implode. This has to be the most miserable way to end a race, let alone when you’ve traveled across the world for it. It really is a long way to come and miss a turn. And remember, I’ve already had a similar misadventure in Maui (that time with no one to blame but me). Can I rewind and do it again?
Needless to say I didn’t stick around to watch the race unfold. By the time I found Silvia I had already decided we would leave Taupo straight away and head back to my friend Sam Gardner’s shack in Turangi so that we could hike the Tongarino Alpine crossing the following day. Best and only way to put such a cruel disappointment behind is to refocus on what life has to offer outside of triathlon. Similarly after that fateful race in Maui I flew to Kauai to hike the Kalalau trail and had a bit of a revelation. Taking life easy is also good. Note that there is also the option of smashing/punishing yourself the day after a failed race which (sometimes) also works wonders, like when I cycled the Marmotte route (with the Col de la Croix de Fer thrown in for good mesure) the day after blowing up in the Alpe d’Huez LD triathlon…2 rather different schools. then.
Looking at the results, with an average run I could have aimed for a top 8. But with ifs you can be a world champ in no time without sweating. Triathlon is always a gamble at the end of the day, and when it goes wrong it can be cruel. There is a very thin line between success and failure, and when things don’t go your way you have to bounce back quickly. Unfortunately in this case I might now need surgery to get rid of this pubalgia and be out of action for a few months. A double whammy that is. Whether I will come back from this I do not not know, but something tells me that I will. Maybe even stronger. Because I must. For my own sanity!
To finish here are a few pics of New Zealand. Apart from the race it was a fantastic vacation. We absolutely loved the country and I cannot wait to be back. Though probably not for the ironman.