Jun
11
2014

Mel’s First Ironman

Ironman Port Macquarie – by Melissa Clark

May the 4th, 2014
I apologise, in advance, for the length of this story. There is no abridged version, only this. I entered this race in June 2013, just before my 24th birthday. ‘It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll’…


PRE-RACE

We arrived ready for the Port Mac Ironman 4 days before the race. It is very exciting to see where all your money has gone; the setup is amazing and is more like a travelling circus than a triathlon, with big top tents and banners lining every street.
I tried to slowly get up earlier and earlier every day that week to kick my body clock into gear. I ate normal foods the day before. Not huge amounts, just a bit more than normal and I cut out most of the fruit and veg. Carbs and protein… and thanks to Craig Doherty’s advice, some chocolate and salty chips the afternoon before.
As an ‘Ironman virgin’ I think you scramble for any piece of advice your little ears can pick up on, and one of the best bits of advice I got was ‘don’t’. Just stay out of it. Stay away from all the hype and the nervous people leading up to it. I was really lucky and could just hang out with my friends and family. I found it really, really hard, but I just mooched around for the 2-3 days leading up and ate and watched TV. I stayed flexible and did very short sharp intervals but I was so antsy and bored!
The night before one of my best friends (staying in the house with us) asked, are you nervous? Just before I headed to bed at 8 o’clock, I calmly replied, ‘yes’. ‘You’re hiding it well!’, she said. I think I was not too nervous. Doing Uni exams and different kinds of races over the years has taught me to be calmer at these times… There’s nothing that can be done so why worry. But I did worry about the things that I could not expect. Things that might happen. The things that were out of my control. Which is a bit like being afraid of the dark, I think. Stupid really.

RACE MORNING

I had slept well. I got up at about 3:30am. I was wide awake. It was dark and the house was quiet. I had some porridge and did some yoga-ish type stuff listening to my i-pod. I got kitted out and ate a banana. As everything was already in transition I just need my bike pump, wetsuit and swim stuff. I ate a Cliff Bar before Dan and I walked to transition, about 1km away. I checked my bike, pumped up the tyres and then we headed to the swim start. Our respective fathers met us there with the dutiful cameras.
I put lots of sunscreen on and a touch of Body Glide, drank a Gu, some water and I was ready to go. I wore my goggles between two swim caps as I did not want to lose them, and clung to my most vital piece of swimming gear, my ears plugs!

THE SWIM

Ironman Australia is just starting to introduce wave starts to its Ironman events which meant that we seeded ourselves that morning into different ‘corrals’ in the car park. I think there was 5 wave starts. I seeded myself into the 1:00-1:05hour pen, the second fastest. After the first pen was marshalled through to the boat ramp, my group followed. We then entered 4-5 new single file lines onto the small boat ramp and therefore only 4-5 people entered the water at a time about 2 seconds apart. There were no gaps between groups. It was the most calm swim start I have ever had! We headed up the Hastings River on the out and back course where boats were moored. We turned a corner under a bridge and headed to the ‘dreaded’ weir.
It was right out the front of where we were staying and builders had been constructing stairs over it ever since we arrived in Port Mac 4 days prior. I knew it would be easy to get over and a good break from swimming. There were a lot of anxious people who had not practiced on it or even seen it come race morning. The scaffold and carpeted stairs held up well and as it was about 1.7km into the swim everyone was strung out. I took it as a good opportunity to yell at my family both on the way out and on the way back, at the top of my lungs, ‘GO TASSIE!’, and the volunteers asked me to ‘just go steady now!’ Alas afterwards I discovered no one had heard me at all! Crazy I know! Apparently there was too much splashing going on.
I accidentally elbowed a woman in the face, quite badly, early on. I had been overtaking and avoiding swimmers by keeping clear water on the left of the stream of athletes. Unfortunately this woman suddenly veered ninety degrees just ahead and next to me. I didn’t have time to decide anything but to take my next stroke, with a bit more of a defensive high elbow and it connected, hard. She stopped and yelled out but I kept heading for the yellow buoy. I was very sorry and felt karma might get me for it.
The swim was warm. There was a touch of breeze and I found that I only stopped overtaking people about the 2km mark. So in hindsight I should have gone with the first wave. I cruised through the swim, saving my legs, knowing there was a long day ahead for them. I was so excited, feeling that, ‘I’m doing it, I’m actually doing it’ feeling. This grew as I ran up the carpet, under the sprinklers, grabbed my bike bag and charged into the women’s change tent yelling “Hellloo ladies!” (You can imagine).

THE BIKE

There were only one or two other athletes in the tent and I plonked down on a plastic chair. Two ladies immediately stared emptying out my bike bag and pulling off my wetsuit. One lady was so keen that she nearly pulled me clean off the chair. As most of you know I have cyclist’s calves and my wetsuit requires a few fingers to get it off. I had to tell her, ‘stop, stop!’, and I took it off myself. They dried me off, put my socks on for me, my arm warmers (yes it was cold!), sunscreen, and shoes. On went my helmet and off I excitedly ran, (a bit awkwardly in my bike shoes).
My bike was opposite all the pro’s against one of the fences. It was easy to find and spacious as all the pro’s had already gone! I jumped on and turned on my bike computer immediately. I couldn’t believe it! I had got onto the bike in under an hour! I was ecstatic and tore off up the road with a grin a mile wide, a smile that could not be wiped off my face…

Until 2km up that road, on the crest of one, of many, steep hills, my pedals came to a grinding halt and I had to jump off before I fell off. I pulled my bike off the road and onto the footpath. I had never experienced anything like it and fiddled desperately with my bike. Everything looked normal except the pedals wouldn’t turn! I looked desperately up and down the road. I could see a person in a red t-shirt in both directions but they were so far away I couldn’t tell if they were volunteers. I began to yell and wave at them frantically as triathletes streamed past me offering encouraging words.
In the next moment, two motorbikes heading out of Port Mac, with the rest of the athletes, came over the crest of the hill and pulled over on the opposite side of the road. I knew immediately who the moustached man was who jumped off first, helmet and fluoro jacket and all – only one of two Tasmanian Technical Officials, and our own Launceston Club’s secretary Pete Adams. I immediately burst out explaining that I didn’t know what was wrong with it. Lucky for me, on that second motorbike was a ‘roaming’ mechanic, on his way out to the far end of the course. He quickly pulled apart my back wheel and my cassette fell out in lots of pieces onto the foot path. I burst into tears as the terrible thought of ‘I might not finish full stop’ popped into my head for the very first time. I thought of all the girls at work, my family and my Big Ears supporters and it was more than I could handle.
I tried to focus on what the mechanic was actually telling me as Pete offered a shoulder. He put my cassette back together and hand tightened it and explained to me that I had two choices; to ride back into Port Mac and have it fixed or ride on to Lake Cathie where the Shimano tent was. Either way it had to be fixed properly or it was not going to last the distance.
Going back was an option I just could not face so I jumped on, sniffing heavily and headed off. Amazingly I think this stop had only cost me about 5 minutes.
I made it to Lake Cathie with no problems. I rode through most of Lake Cathie without finding the Shimano tent. Had I missed it? Was it somewhere else!? At the bottom of a big decent, in a bus turnout lane, there it was. Rehearsing exactly what the mechanic had instructed, I skidded to a halt in the gravel and passed my bike over. I gave my spiel and then promptly burst into tears again. I don’t think I have cried that much in a few years! He fixed it within probably two minutes. I asked his name, said thankyou and shook his hand. And so I was off again.
Later as I tried to pull myself together and was heading onto the 30km marks, I realised I had not drunk or eaten anything since before the swim start. I began to refocus my energies into my technique and nutritional plan, eating and drinking small but often. I focused all my hopes into my little red bike and it finishing the race. It did take me ages to ‘get over’ my little mishap. I think everyone’s a bit ‘fragile’ on race day. I have never been married but I reckon an Ironman is similar to your own wedding day.
After the many short sharp hills out or Port Mac the rest of course was quite flat but still gruelling. I have since found out that Port Macquarie is the hilliest Ironman in Australia. Something which a Tasmanian, like myself, is suited to.
It was a two lap out and back stretch that took us South to North Haven and Dunbogan. I found Pete again down there and relayed to him the good news about my bike repairs. There were many technical turns down the southern end of the course and the road surface was awful. I had been warned the road was ‘rough’ but it was nothing like I had experienced before. Bits and
pieces were flying off people’s bikes leaving the road littered with gels, drink bottles and CO2 canisters.
The wind began to pick up and by the time I reached Port Mac again it was throwing up some severe gusts over the tops of those hills and down to the sea below. I saw Bec and Justin (my entourage from Tassie) in the crowd, followed by Dan’s parents, and knew mine were in there somewhere. You can never underestimate how good this makes you feel in a race.
Heading out for the second lap was always going to be mentally hard but I found this mostly due to my new knowledge of the road surface and the increasing wind. Long distance anything is always mind over matter and I often try to trick my mind. In this case it was now only a 90km bike race. There was nothing else other than that now happening for me. This was how I dealt with it and it worked well. However I did not deal well with the increasing ‘saddle sores’. The road surface was smashing me to bits and pieces and the wind was wearing me down.
Once out of the mostly sheltered area that was Dunbogan for the second time, it was back out onto the old highway. The wind gusts were so strong I often could not stay aero or drink. Some of the bigger blokes fared better, but suffered worse from the broken road. Many had brought disc wheels and had no choice but to use them.
To answer many questions, yes I did stop and go to the toilet, during the bike leg. When I jumped back on I found another familiar Tasmanian and I exchanged a few words with Paul Ranson, our club president, and off he disappeared ahead of me. It was turning out to be a very interesting committee meeting!
It was not warm at all, about 24 degrees by the end of the bike, but being Tasmanian… it was fine! There is one hill as you are heading into Port Mac that I did not expect. Uneducated as I was… staying out of the hype… I did not know the extent of Matthew Flinders Hill. Now I have been to the Tour De France, and as I turned along a suburban street and looked ahead, I had to look up. About one hundred people crowded the hill that triathletes were trying to fight their way up. It is 200m long and there is carpet on the side so that if you fall off your cleats have something to grip as you walk up it. Luckily I made it both times. All it would have taken was a few people to shout ‘aller aller, venga venga!, and we’d be back in the Pyrenees!
I consumed 3 Gu’s, 2 bonk breakers, 1 ½ bananas and 1 ½ bottles of PowerAde and about the same in water. I made sure that the last thing I ate was about 40km before the end of the bike, thankyou Holly Ranson! It was hard to force it all down, especially when my infamous gut-back-related-cramp niggled but it worked out well.
I remember coming up some of the last hills into Port Mac, ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ with a girl about my age (on an amazing TT bike), thinking, ‘I don’t know how these jelly legs will run, let alone stand when I get off my bike’. However I hit the red carpet running and passed my bike off to the volunteers. I knew exactly where bag 169 was. Mum and I had rehearsed it… and there she was too, right on the other side of the security fence that it was hanging off, ‘Hi Mum!!’. We are never too old for our mothers… : )

THE RUN

I entered the ladies tent again, but alone this time, no other women were in there, only volunteers patiently waiting. I had no idea how I was placing in the women’s field, nor in your
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first Ironman should it matter, but you can always hope. The ladies told me I was ‘up there’ and to ‘go, go, go’ as I charged out. Although charged is not the right word. Jog is much more appropriate but at least I was doing that. And that is all I did for the next 3 hours and 58 minutes. I jogged.
I did walk through nearly every aid station, thankyou Suze Dowling, and drank properly. I had 4 more Gu’s and handful of jelly beans and heaps of support from my family and friends, who had the magical knack of popping up all over the marathon course in various places! I think they were nearly more worn out than me by the end.
I managed to smile and exchange a few words with them as I passed each time but I must say I have never found smiling such an effort. It wasn’t that I was in a lot of pain but my feet were great, heavy, dead things attached to the bottoms of legs and I was throwing them about like Ace Ventura who’s just been darted in the jungle! Well maybe not that extreme.
I tried to keep my form together at all times and I think my face was screwed up in concentration for much of the time. I sadly was not good at offering support to others, or smiles to the crowd, and it was all I could do not snap at a man who jogged along next to me on my final lap (about 5km to go) when he began to whinge a bit about how much further he had to go as he discovered he was one lap behind me. I promptly expressed that, ‘we were all lucky to have made it this far as other had not’, and quickly ran away from him. There is no room for negativity to creep in on an Ironman… as it only leads to uncontrollably tears (as above).

THE FINISH

With 2kms to go I was elated. I finally let my concentration lapse and let myself think that final thought of, ‘it’s over, I’ve done it’. It was nearly dark. I was not wrapped in foil like some runners, but I was starting to feel the cold. During this time I considered my cartwheel… It was promised, and it would be delivered.
I shook out my legs, yes, they still worked. I emptied out my pockets at the final drink station. I had wanted to take my sunglasses off 3-4km before but kept remembering they would fly off during my acrobatics. I fixed my hair (a bit). I tried to clean all the crap off my face and I charged into the finishers shoot. I checked behind me, once, twice, three times I think, horrified at the thought that I might karate kick someone into not finishing their race. With a clear runway I achieved a fairly good cartwheel and finished my journey in 10 hours, 47 minutes and 47 seconds.
Nothing had gone wrong during my race, with me, my ITB’s held out. My right ankle held out. I could breathe on the bike with no lasting stomach cramps. I did not have to walk during the marathon. AND I managed to cartwheel over the finish line.

POST RACE

Guided into the recovery tent I walked around a little bit bewildered. I think I was a bit in shock. The day felt like it was over very quickly considering everything. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. I refused to sit down and I didn’t really want a massage… but it was free and I did want to be able to move in the days to follow. I really only wanted those dead things on the ends of my ankles reawakened but they wouldn’t touch them… in case of the blood or gangrene I think ;). There was only one ‘foot team’ and I wasn’t waiting for them. All I wanted to see was someone I knew and I found them! Craig Doherty and T.O. Pete Adams were there in the tents and tears gushed again with the first hugs of many. They told me I had come 2nd in my age group. I had no idea. I collected my finishers tee and medal and headed out to find my family!
I still wasn’t hungry that night, but forced down a sausage prompted by my respective Mothers, and even the pile of chocolate and Coke and cider Bec and Justin had surprised me with was not very tempting! Amazing!
Later we wandered out from the house to encourage those still battling the cold and fatigue. It was nearly 10:30pm. We offered encouragement and some crazy yelling from me for the first time that day. By that time the cut off period was looming for these ‘Ironman hopefuls’ and we gave them what support we could.
I was stiff in the legs for a few days, two black toenails and very swollen feet for about a week but otherwise I felt a-ok… maybe I didn’t TRI hard enough! 😉

AFTER THOUGHTS

In 2013 when I entered my first Ironman I had to nominate an estimated time. I calculated 10 hours and 40 minutes. I wanted to do the swim in under one hour, I wanted to average 30 or more km/hr on the bike and I wanted to finish my marathon in under 4 hours.
My final times were: 0:57mins (3.8km swim), 5:46 (this time is the whole time I was out on the bike course, crying and weeing) (180km bike- 31.2km/hr) and 3:58 (42.2km run).
There were 18 women in my age group and I finished 2nd. I came 23rd out of 213 women, 8 of those were professionals. I placed 282nd overall.
Winning female: Melissa Hauschildt 9hrs:28mins, winning male: Elliot Holtham 8hrs:35mins.
1700+ people started the race that day and only 54 did not finish. There were 3 men over the age of 70 who completed the day as did the blind athlete Nathan Johnson.
You have no excuse. If you want it bad enough. Crazy enough. You can do it.

ADVICE:

  •   Take vasoline in a little tube with you. I didn’t know this was a thing. For your armpits.
  •   Get your bike serviced for free, prior to racking, at the event, as you have most likely just let your bike be thrown around by airlines.
  •   Take your family and friends with you. This is must.

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