As 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to review the year. I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but I think it was the Greek philosopher Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Strong words. My version is – “If you never look back, you never see how far you’ve come.” And 2014 has certainly been a journey, both professionally and personally. There have been highs, lows and plenty of lessons learned along the way. So, here’s 2014 – the year that was.
Over and Out
Coming into 2014, I was feeling highly motivated. 2013 was ultimately a disappointing and frustrating year for me, with five 2nd places and no wins. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride! My last win was the Ironman Australia 70.3 Championship in Mandurah, Western Australia in 2012, so I was pumped and ready to take on the inaugural Scody Challenge in Melbourne.
The setup in Melbourne was great. The swim leg in Port Phillip Bay was followed by three laps of nice riding along Beach Road. It’s a quick, safe course. We were running on trails through Brighton Beach and then onto Beach Road for the return journey.
When it came to the race, Clayton (Fettell) had six minutes getting off the bike and I knew Johnny Polson and I were going to have to run pretty quick to catch him. I had a great run and felt really strong. When Johnny tired, I knew it was go-time for me. That’s when the ironman legs kicked in.
Afterwards, I was over the moon. With Kona in my sights for 2014, this was a great way to start the new year and a real confidence booster. My plan was to do the ‘dirty double’, with Geelong 70.3 the next weekend and an opportunity to build some momentum. Things didn’t quite work the way I’d planned.
In the end, Craig Alexander and Tim Reed fought it out in conditions that Craig described as ‘brutal’. I DNFed, pulling out after the swim, deciding that with Ironman New Zealand just over three weeks away I really didn’t want to overcook myself. But after being on such a high, Geelong left me feeling really down and out.
Lesson Learned: It’s crucial to have a good support crew around you for times like this. I had a really rough few days, but Gilesy (coach-Grant Giles) and I got straight in and refocused for Ironman NZ. The reality is – that’s our sport, full of ups and downs. And how you mentally handle both of those states is critical for any athlete.
Flying the Flag and Flying to the Finish
In early March I headed over the pond for Ironman New Zealand. There were only two of us Aussies in Taupo waving the flag, the other being Johan Borg. In some ways, choosing Ironman NZ over Ironman Melbourne was a sentimental decision. It’s a race I’ve always wanted to do. Plus, it was the 30th birthday of Ironman NZ and given that I was turning 30 too, it just seemed right.
As far as training and preparation, I knew that I was lacking a few long rides and long runs, but still felt confident given my results at Cairns in 2013, on the back of training for a 70.3. In the end, the lack of kilometres in the legs showed and I posted 02:55:44 for the run, coming in 4th and missing a podium finish by just under a minute. The race was won by Estonian giant (6’2”, 78kg!) who stormed home, leaving 10-time race winner, Cameron Brown, in his wake.
At this point, I needed to step up and Ironman 70.3 Busselton turned out to be just what I needed. Although I nearly didn’t make the start line at all. My final preparation was thrown into total chaos when a bug went through the whole Aeromax squad, including me, two weeks before the race.
Busselton is a beautiful spot and conditions were perfect – Geographe Bay was glassy and it was still for the bike leg. I’ve been conscious that the swim has been my weakest leg, so I felt like the hard work had really paid off when I came out of the water right with the front bunch. This set me up for the rest of the race.
Coming out of T2 into the run there were nine of us in a bunch and that’s where the race really got going. By the end of the 2nd run lap I’d passed Courtney (Atkinson) and then just needed to hold on for the win.
As it turned out, I didn’t just take the podium, I also grabbed the course record by over two minutes.
Lesson Learned: I was the last of the squad to shake the bug, which meant I probably went into the race well-rested and mentally fresh after having a forced break. Not the ideal way to do things, this time it worked for me!
Clean Air and a Clear Head
After Busselton I headed off for a 4-week altitude-training block in stunning Boulder, Colorado. With Ironman Cairns the next target, this was a great chance to sharpen my training focus. A different geographical location can really create a different headspace, especially when it’s away from home and from your coach.
The big challenge is to maintain intensity as the training shifts from general prep into race mode. You feel tired and as the training volume drops the tendency is to let go a little. I think this is where having a little more maturity has been a real strength.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve gained a better understanding of what I need and what I need to do. I’m not looking to Gilesy so much for motivation – it’s about harnessing his support and expertise. Our relationship has become less about driving and much more about collaboration.
When I lined up for Ironman Cairns in June I felt like I was in great form. The final eight days of preparation had been all about tempo pieces – working at a good speed in a relaxed state. Mentally, I had been tapping into the power of visualisation. As Gilesy says, “You can’t do it if you can’t see it.” To put it bluntly, I felt ‘fast’.
After Busselton and Taupo I was going into the race as one of the favourites and the man standing in my way was Cameron Brown. Cam and I both love the Cairns course, especially the ride up to Port Douglas. And I love racing in tropical North Queensland.
On the day, conditions could only be described as ‘moist’. Sizeable waves, wet roads, high humidity, strong winds and waterlogged athletes. This was a war of attrition.
Heading out of T2 into the run I found myself in the lead, closely followed by Robbo (Peter Robertson) and Cam. After Robbo dropped off at the 12km mark I held onto the lead for the next 7km. At that point, Cam turned up the heat and put me into a world of pain. To his credit he pulled out a 2:44 marathon. In the hot, steamy conditions I came in second with a 2:48:15.
Bumpy Road to Kona
Kona has been my dream for a long time. Seeing Hawaiian ironmen on TV was what got me into triathlons when I was an 18-year-old kid in Albury, New South Wales. And now I was finally focusing my attention on getting there. As it turned out, the road to Kona was a little bumpier than I’d anticipated.
In mid-July I travelled to California for Ironman 70.3 Vineman, which winds through the Napa and Sonoma wine regions and always draws some of the top pros in the world. Going into the race, the media considered me the ‘dark horse’. Unfortunately, Vineman was short and painful for me. My hip played up again and this ‘horse’ retired early after the swim, leaving fellow Aussie Tim Reed to take the win.
It was a small bump in the road, but not enough to slow me down. Just before I headed off to Wiesbanden for the European 70.3 Championship, the news came through – it was official – I was locked in for Kona and the Ironman World Championship.
Germany is the land of autobahns, hilly climbs and fast, steep descents. I was there with Peter Robertson and I’ve got to say, the Europeans are great hosts. The course was demanding and there was plenty of excitement – when a rider crashed in front of me, I almost joined him on the asphalt. My swim was strong and I came into T2 in 6th.
There was a lot of competition as we left T2 and I thought, “Game on!” and kicked up a gear. In the end, Robbo finished second and I was really happy to finish 5th in a very tough field.
Next stop on the road to Kona was the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Canada. Talk about bumps in the road. Let’s just say Mont-Tremblant was not kind to me. It was one of those times when things just didn’t come together. It started with losing touch with the lead group in the swim and then not being able to re-establish contact for the rest of the race.
For most of the race, my numbers were good. Closing out on the bike, trying to reel in the leaders, I was well above my normal watts. I was in 19th place going into T2, but simply had nothing left in my legs. My finishing place rhymed with ‘hurty’ and looked suspiciously like my age… so disappointing.
September 13th and I was back home, back with the boys and although a little jet-lagged, back on the bike. I rode 190km through the hills behind Ballina with Kona in my sights.
Feeling the Love… and the Heat
I exited the plane in Hawaii with Belinda (my wife), new kicks from Newton in my bag (they’ve got my name on the back – how cool is that!), determination in my heart and butterflies in my stomach. This was a moment I had dreamt about for more than 10 years and now it was happening.
I was going into it with an open mind, knowing that this first time was part of my apprenticeship. I needed to learn about the race, get a result and then re-evaluate. And with 15+ Ironmans under my belt I believed I was physically and mentally ready. It was time for me to run my race.
I was spurred on by watching Aussies do so well at Kona in the past. Luke McKenzie’s 2nd last year was inspirational. I knew I was in the right place at the right time, having done the work to earn my spot.
Race week in Hawaii was crazy, but good. Instead of having abuse yelled at me from car windows while I’m training, I found myself being stopped in the street to sign autographs or have photos taken. I was reminded that it’s this grassroots support and enthusiasm that makes it possible for me to do what I love to do.
Race day dawned and for the first time the Ironman World Championships featured four separate starts. This eased the congestion a little, but the first 500m of the race were still survival of the fittest, in a churning sea of thrashing body parts. Once I found some clearer water I settled into my rhythm in a pack of almost 30 guys. I’d been working hard on my swimming – Gilesy and I had agreed that there was no point in even going to Kona if I couldn’t swim with the front pack. I exited the water in 51:21.
Coming out of T1, I was conscious of the hot, humid, salty air and I was thankful for Gilesy getting me to train in jumpers and coats to acclimatise to the heat. The bike leg up the hill into Hawi is renowned for sorting out the men from the boys. Three solid efforts took me past Tim Reed and Tim O’Donnell, before taking another group, which included Andreas Raelert. By this stage, the temperature was hovering around 33 degrees, the wind speed was increasing and the tiny figures ahead were shimmering in the heat haze.
Heading up to Hawi I averaged 27km/h at just under 300 watts. On the back half of the ride it was 40km/h at 229 watts. And the tantalizing question was – should I put the power down and bridge the gap or stay strong and ride my own race? The decision was taken away from me, as the group behind caught me Together we stayed in touch with the front group as we headed into T2.
A Tough Day In the Lab
I was just settling into my stride when O’Donnell, Potts and Raelert flew past. Once again, the million dollar question was, “Do I follow them?”
Lesson learned: On race day the temptation is to let your emotions rule, lose your nerve and ditch your race plan. Know your strengths and your limits and then work within those – run your own race and have confidence in your ability and your judgement.
I let them go and eased into the pace, sticking with Jan Frodeno who was also making his World Championship debut at Kona. Jan went on to finish 3rd. I settled down and just kept chipping away at the gap ahead.
At about the 26km mark runners hit an area nicknamed the Energy Lab. It’s a barren area of lava fields, renowned for destroying triathletes. Road temperature here was 46 degrees and air temperature was 33 degrees plus. I was in 4th place, reeling in the competition and my pace peaked at 3:43/km. At the turnaround I was on 75 seconds behind. It seemed that the Energy Lab was working for me.
But, coming out of the Energy Lab I was passed by Frodeno, which put me back in 5th position. And things were starting to unravel. My body was starting to slow and tire, with cramps hitting my quads constantly. Van Lierde passed me and the last 6km were a world of pain. My pace slowed to 4-4:44/km and all I could do was grit my teeth and hang on. I crossed the finish line in 8:23:26, less than three minutes after Fredeno who came in 3rd. It was a tight finish to an epic race.
Kona 2014. Did it hurt? Hell, yeah! Was it awesome? Absolutely! Just running out on the Queen K Highway was surreal and the support from the spectators was amazing. And running into 4th place was a huge confidence boost. I left Hawaii believing that I could actually win that race one day.
Bringing It Home
I was excited to support the Challenge Shepparton race in November. It was my first race post-Kona and I knew I was in trouble before I even started. Hip problems were an issue earlier in the year and when I felt a twinge, just days before the race, I went straight to the physio. To try and get it sorted.
On race day I had a strong swim leg and entered T1 in the front pack, feeling really good. But, it didn’t take long out on the bike to change that and so I made the tough call and finished up after the first lap.
My year ended with the Challenge Bahrain – it was worth it just to race on a track that was built for Formula One cars and to enjoy the spectacular hospitality of Bahrain. Who wouldn’t want to stay in a 5-star hotel and have your own personal driver?
Race-wise though, I came out of the water in the second bunch and then struggled to shift into top gear. I was feeling sluggish, despite trying all the mental tricks in the book. Even the giant inspirational billboards they had erected along the course didn’t help. It seemed that my brain was writing cheques that my body couldn’t cash! By the end of the run I’d upped the pace to around 3:38/km and picked up a few places. I crossed the line in 3:47:01 in 10th position, bringing the race and my year to a close.
I’m finishing the year with a thankful heart. As I said earlier, it’s crucial to have a solid support crew around you. To my support crew – my coach, manager, sponsors, training partners, family and especially my beautiful wife, Bel – you make it possible for me to do what I love to do and for that I am very, very grateful. And to everyone who has supported and encouraged me this year – thanks!
2014 has been an amazing year. Hopefully I’ve learned some lessons and grown and matured as an athlete and as a person. I’m excited about 2015 – I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.