5 May 2019 Port Macquarie - My Maiden Ironman Journey
by Anthony Lam
Since I got into triathlon three years ago, I had done three Half Ironman races. Full Ironman was something I knew I would do some day but had no idea when given work and family commitments.
Late last year, I was informed the private equity fund I worked at was going to close down early. This was bad news. Coupled with the fact that I would be turning 50 years old in February, it became a classic mid-life crisis.
While agonizing over my career future, the idea of Full Ironman race came out of the blue one day in end December. Although I did not know when would be my last day at work, there was a three-month notice period in my employment contract. That meant I had a window of at least three months whereby I would have substantially reduced workload. More importantly I did not need to travel (I used to go on business trip for 2-3 days almost every week), hence I would have more time for training. Then I searched the Ironman race calendar and found Port Macquarie Australia in early May.
I knew it’s a bad idea as four months was too short for Full Ironman training. Nevertheless, given Port Macquarie was the only one that fit my highly uncertain calendar, I decided to bite the bullet.
The next challenge was to secure my better half’s approval. I thought about various pitches such as once-in-a-life-time experience, self-esteem booster, depression prevention measure, stress management tool, yada yada yada. At the end, I forgot exactly what I had said, my wife Coris agreed to travel together with me leaving my younger son at home with the helper. Bingo!
Hard Work Began
My training plan in the past was a patch work of internet research, advices from training buddies and secret formula stolen from Tritons superhuman triathletes. The result of that was obviously suboptimal. With this monster Ironman I was facing, it’s time to seek professional advice.
I reached out to Mark L, out of fantasy that I could be as strong as him one day, who referred his correspondent coach Tim B of Koa Sports to me. With the paperwork done, training was set to commence in the second week of January.
The 4-month training program was composed of three phases: build, peak and taper. Training volume started from 10 hours, peaking at around 16 hours per week. On top of which there were two 50-minute strength sessions every week. All that sounded pretty manageable on paper, until when it came to execution.
I had been sticking religiously to the training program and was pretty contented with my progress. On Sunday Week 14, three weeks away from race day, I headed to Disney for a 175 km ride. Less than 20 minutes into the ride, a van abruptly pulled out to U-turn on the Tung Chung service road. To avoid collision, I pressed hard on the brakes and fell on my left-hand side. With a strained calf, some minor scratches and an empty nutrition bottle, I managed to pick myself up and completed the ride. I did a 31 km run followed by 3.1 km swim the next morning and was relieved to reconfirm that my calf was not seriously injured.
On Thursday Week 15, four days after the accident, as the lump on my calf did not diminish, I went to see my family doctor hoping he could help to accelerate my recovery. He suggested an ultrasound scan which discovered sluggish vascular flow in my left leg. He then ordered me to see a cardiologist at Adventist that evening who prescribed 3-month blood thinning medication. His diagnosis was potential DVT (deep vein thrombosis) which could be fatal if left untreated (blood clot might form, blocking blood flow to major organs). The problem with taking blood thinner was if I had an accident causing internal bleeding, it would be difficult to stop. Out of patient care and possibly fear of potential legal liability, both my family doctor and the cardiologist advised strongly against my Ironman race. Coach Tim also told me it would be very serious if I had a bike crash.
With such dark cloud hanging over my head, I pressed on with my training hoping miracle would happen somehow. On Saturday Week 15, I did a 176 km ride (with extreme care to avoid any possible accident) followed by 31 km run, pushing my weekly training hours to just below 20 (the Sunday Week 14 long run was shifted to Monday Week 15 due to disruption by a two-day business trip).
With all the hard training sessions done, the last thing I wanted was to give up without pushing the envelope. Out of frustration, anger and desperation, I decided to seek second opinion from another cardiologist. When I visited the second cardiologist on Wednesday Week 16, 10 days after the accident, the lump on my calf had already started to diminish. He was skeptical about blood thinning treatment and suggested another ultrasound scan the following week before making formal decision. Miraculously, the ultrasound report showed regular vascular flow. Based on the clean report, I was given green light to go to Port Macquarie. Hurray!
During all my past Half Ironman races, I had made mistakes even rookies would laugh at. To name just a few, in Phuket 2016, I did not tighten the bolts hard enough which resulted in the handle bar dangling from the stem 20 minutes into the ride. In Nagoya 2017, I wore a cheap wetsuit I bought for kitesurfing which not only did not provide badly needed buoyance but also put unnecessary drag on my already poor swim. In Jeju 2018, I lost all GU gels tied to my race belt early in the run, ended up fueling the half marathon with only two bananas snatched from aid station.
Moving into this uncharted water of Full Ironman, there was good chance I would be tripped over by some sort of mistake or accident. To cater for potential hiccups, my mission statement was carefully crafted as “finish within 12 hours ASSUMING NO accident / mistake”.
Ready to Roll
Coris and I took the evening flight on Thursday, arriving Port Macquarie early Friday morning. Port Macquarie is a small town at the mouth of the Hastings River in New South Wales and is known for its beaches, wildlife and penal colony past. We checked into a small beach hotel conveniently located at the city center. Bike assembly and athlete registration were surprisingly smooth, leaving time for a nice power nap in the afternoon. Coach Tim, who was racing 70.3, invited me to join dinner together with his fellow athletes. He walked me over my race plan while I was enjoying my yummy fish tacos. We finished dinner early and agreed to meet up next morning for practice swim.
Saturday morning began with light rain which turned into intermittent pouring throughout the day. Water was a bit cold but manageable with wetsuit. I swam for 15 minutes before returning to the hotel. Bike recce was cancelled due to poor weather condition.
Laurent L, a hard-core Triton who relocated from Hong Kong to Sydney two years ago, who was also racing 70.3, arrived in late Saturday morning. We attended the transition tour, had our bikes checked in and then went for early dinner together with Coris. We had so much fun catching up over dinner that I almost forgot we had to race the next morning.
Ready, Set, Go!
Race day morning turned out to be a lovely one with beautiful sun shining over the calm beach. I had a big breakfast two hours before race began. With plenty of time left, I strolled to the transition area to check in transition bags while enjoying the exciting vibe created by thousands of triathletes gathered at the start area. I then went back to the hotel, put on my wetsuit before walking slowly back to swim start.
3.8 km Swim @1:08:16
Swim course was an out-and-back single lap along the Hastings River. It was self-seeding rolling start divided into four zones. I placed myself in zone three hoping I could draft faster swimmers although I should belong to zone four according to target set by Coach Tim.
Water was slightly warmer than the day before with unnoticeable current, making it perfect condition for swim. As I settled into my rhythm, I found myself passing a number of swimmers. It was a rare experience as I was very used to be overtaken by swimmers in my previous races (I was even outstripped by a few swimming in breast stroke during my first race!). I checked timing at the turnaround point and was happy to learn that I was well within my target.
On the way back, I kept passing swimmers in the front. With the finish point within reach, I sprinted to finish strong. I did not know my exact swim time as my Garmin was kick-stopped by another swimmer somewhere on the return leg but I felt pretty confident about achieving my target.
Later I was surprised to learn that I beat my 1 hour 14 minutes target by 6 minutes. It must be Coach Fen’s video analysis session which did magic to my otherwise stubborn sub-par swim form.
180 km Bike @5:57:52
The bike leg was a two-lap course heading south first, taking in amazing coastal scenery on Pacific and Ocean Drives to Camden Haven and return. Coach Tim warned me it was a tough course with rough road condition and a nasty climb towards the end. Having boosted my climbing stamina during Taiwan KOM training few months ago, I did not take the warning too seriously which was proven wrong very soon into the ride.
The first 10 km involved some typical HK Island hill climbs plus sharp turns. Under such unfriendly terrain, I rode conservatively to avoid accident. Soon after exiting the technical section, I was greeted by strong headwind which lingered for about 20 km. I began to worry as it took me more than an hour to cover the first 30 km. Fortunately, headwind gradually subsided as I entered the highway section. I was able to pick up speed and maintain 30-ish km/h for the rest of the first lap.
With the first lap completed, I stopped at the special aids station located at the 93 km mark. Instead of rushing through, I took the time to enjoy my home-made avocado sandwich and other goodies I prestored in the special needs bag.
Having done it once, I rode the second lap with more confidence and slightly greater effort hoping to make up some lost ground. Nevertheless, although I felt better and stronger, I was disappointed to find that my time had not improved. (Later Coach Tim told me all athletes he coached had the same issue as headwind had picked up later in the day.) With the second lap coming to the end, I climbed the Matthew Flinders Drive, which was a short version of the Beast in Lantau, the second time and rode another 8 km to finish.
My Wahoo Elemnt recorded 5 hours 57 minutes for 180 km with 1,500 m elevation, which was 8 minutes behind target.
42.2 km Run @4:01:52
The final torture was a flattish four-lap run, first heading east to pass along an iconic rock wall before heading north to Settlement Point and finishing in the historic Town Green Precinct. Temperature was around 20 degree Celsius with optimal humidity which was not bad for running.
While I was a bit disappointed at my bike performance, I was not exhausted at the end of the 6-hour ride. I figured that as long as I could hold a 6:00 min/km running pace, I would be able to achieve my overall target hence I was pretty upbeat. Coach Tim’s instruction was to start faster at 5:38 pace for the first 10 km, then easing into around 6:00 pace and hold it as long as I could.
I started the first few km at sub 5:30 pace. I had to constantly remind myself to slow down to avoid blowing up at the last 10 km. At around 8 km mark, I settled into a more sustainable pace of 5:40 - 5:50. With speed locked in, my body was moving autonomously while my mind was enjoying the beautiful coastal scenery and cheering from the super friendly spectators. I found myself busy high-fiving kids as well as Thor, Spiderman, Hulk, Ironman and Captain America etc. (I was well hydrated so pretty sure they were not my hallucination) along the way.
Thanks to the Avengers superpower, I was not only able to hold the pace but also accelerate in the last few km. With the finish line in sight, I put on a big smile and sprinted through it with a victory posture as if I had broken the world record.
Time check unveiled just above 4 hours for the marathon, making a total of 11 hours 17 minutes for the Full Ironman race. Mission accomplished!
As soon as I passed the finish line, I found Coris waiting for me on the sideline. Laurent was there as well waiting to say goodbye before departing. I really appreciated it as although he had finished his Half Ironman (at an outstanding 5 hours 11 minutes and secured a Nice WC slot) few hours earlier, his race had just begun as he had to drive four hours back to Sydney on the same day. That’s what true endurance athlete do! Coach Tim found me in the recovery tent while I was gobbling up delicious corn soup. I thanked him for his know-me-better-than-myself coaching and congratulated his fresh 70.3 win (1st AG; 2nd overall).
Looking back, it was a wonderful journey to my maiden Ironman race. I have no idea when I will take on another challenge. Only thing I wish is I do not need another mid-life crisis to kick my lazy butt.