Savage. There’s lots of words to describe the Ironman Philippines in Subic Bay in June, but I keep landing on this one. I said at the time that the race (course and conditions) chewed us up and spat us out and I still feel that way today. With four of us racing, it was supposed to be an easy event to manage, given only one first timer and a beautiful destination. How wrong I was.
The afternoon before, a monsoonal weather front came charging in, right as we racked our bikes, dumping about four inches of rain instantly on us. And our gear.
It then rained until almost 1:30am on race day and the result was horrendous. T1 was a mudslide in the bike racks and the water in the bay was a churned up mess.
But with a deep breath and a nervous laugh, we got organised, hitting the water almost all together. The rolling start means we can support each other right to the waters edge and offer a final hug before the long day commences.
Norm, Dave and Patrick were off quickly whilst I settled into a nice rhythm. I’ve been concentrating on keeping the panic at bay and the result was perfect. As I exited the water at the halfway point I heard Pete Murray announce my exit, letting me know I was only 2-3 mins behind Dave. I was stoked with that! I swam calmly, counting every single stroke of the two lap swim (4,070 for the record) and exited comfortably. Turns out that comfortable swim was good enough for 9th! Go figure. Must’ve been the new speed suit.
Transition was in a tent or at your bike. Despite not getting changed, I chose the tent option to stay out of the sun. Probably a mistake. It was like being inside a giant plastic bag. No volunteers, just six plastic chairs on muddy ground. And no air circulation at all. Stifling.
I was always going to be the last of the four of us into the ride and I figured it would be about a 20-minute deficit to make up. So, as I went flying along the highway with only gentle rollers before the first climb, I was thinking I might be able to catch them on the bike instead of the run. The first climb was brutal. 8km on a shared road. Trucks racing past. Only a tiny shoulder. No lane. Holy moly. Terrifying. At the top of the climb I found Norm, who wasn’t feeling the best. We had a quick chat, rejoiced that he was finally here on a day he’d waited more than 30 years for, and off I went. Only a few kilometres up the road I spotted an athlete finishing a tyre change. It was Dave. As he mounted his bike to ride off, I was fast approaching. And he’d left his helmet on the side of the road. I was screaming at him, but it took a few goes before he worked out what he’d done. Yikes. Talk about heart rate rising. It took him a little to catch me but we decided to wait at major aide stations in case we needed to exchange spares as he was now out.
The next 40km was torture. Looking up the dead straight highway it was climb after climb in baking heat. Over 40 degrees and no protection. Added to this was the burn-offs they were doing beside the highway, making it hard to breathe. The legs were buckling and the brain was headed to la-la land. Fast. I was having trouble focusing my eyes and not swaying on the bike. I was jamming calories in and still feeling weak. It actually crossed my mind that perhaps I’d be in trouble and not able to go on. The brutal climb into the turn-around was met by the most amazing aide station. Jugs of ice cold water poured over me brought me back to life, and I stuffed more food in. Dave was good so we hit the descent where he tore ahead. But I found myself passing dozens of people on every climb. He breathlessly chased me down each time, exclaiming he’d never be able to keep this pace up. It’s a nice feeling that I’m now that strong on the bike. The reality is, when he’s on, he’d crucify me if I gave him an inch.
As I looked up, Armageddon was bearing down. The storm they’d promised was about to full-frontal me and there was nothing I could do but brace for impact. It sounds dramatic but that’s exactly what it was. The rain felt like bullet fragments hitting my skin. I was so grateful for the visor on my aero helmet protecting my face. The road was good and everyone stayed right so I just tried to keep calm and pedal on, but max speed was about 28km average for around 90 minutes. The temperature relief was welcomed but the price was the rain and wind. As it lifted, the wind turned into a heat like a dragons fury straight into our face as we ploughed home. Out came the plague of locusts. Ok, bugs of some description, but it was a plague right into my mouth if I forgot and opened it! Wind, rain, fire, locusts. We had it all!!! The crew were ok so I settled into a rhythm, knowing there was a very dangerous descent, the red zone, on the way home and I wanted to be relaxed as I approached. Easier said than done with my back seizing up constantly on the lower right. What I wasn’t prepared for was the climb back up to Tipo Gate. Open roads. Narrow edge. Heart stopping. Then descending the same way we’d come up, with cars, into blinding tunnels, avoiding traffic-calming bumps on the road. Extremely stressful. But I’d ridden myself into the 5th fastest bike time and was feeling ok despite the length of time in the saddle.
“Wind, rain, fire, locusts. We had it all!”
Off the bike and Dave asked me to wait on the other side of transition for him. I am much quicker through there and was happy to hang with him for a bit. As I waited, I was caught on video dancing to the pumping tunes in T2. Totally worth it for the good vibes I had going on. But all that was about to change.
The temperature was back over 40 and the run was an exposed, bitumen baking session of two laps, past some of the most boring industrial sites you can imagine. As I settled us into about 6:20 pace, it wasn’t long before we were begging for the aide station. They were every 1-1.5km and couldn’t come fast enough. My already soaked feet were about to spend 42.2km in their own private heated pool. Yuck. But over the head went sponges and buckets of ice water, trying to keep the body temperature down. There was no flat running either so we walked the major climbs and rolled through the rest. Dave was chatty and, despite hating the running, he kept at it for around 11kms. By then I was constantly edging ahead and desperate to get going. He wished me well and off I went. It would be another 8 or so kilometres before I saw him again as I turned for the 2nd lap. By then, he wasn’t happy. He was feeling sick and had made peace with walking the rest of the distance. We had a cuddle and a kiss and I told him I’d see him after my final turn.
Not long after that, my stomach wasn’t happy either. The heat was unrelenting and getting calories in was a struggle between cramps and nausea. I knew if I got to special needs I had some ginger products in there to help calm things. And it did. My final 10km home was so much better. But as I passed each of the boys and gave them my final pep up, I was growing worried that I hadn’t seen Dave when they were both sure he was ahead of them. The growing sense of unease was like a block in my stomach but it was now dark and I hoped I’d just missed him somehow.
Slowly but surely, the distance reduced to smaller and smaller numbers until there was just the final hundred meters to go. As I entered the left turn onto the running track and then right turn onto the grass, I looked up to see the finish arch. I raised my arms to the sky, pumping the crowd up to push me forward that last stretch. And then, that all-familiar voice of Pete Murray called my name and reminded me that yes, I am an Ironman.
The legendary Belinda Granger put the medal around my neck as I exclaimed that this race almost broke me. She reminded me that these are the ones we remember. Craig Alexander agreed and as I excitedly told him I’d at least beaten all the boys, I looked up to see Dave on the other side of the fence staring back at me. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing, trying to understand how he got in front of me and was now waiting for me. But the look on his face told me things were not as they seemed. He was devastated and any joy I felt at finishing was instantly replaced with worry and heartache for him. He shook his head sadly and I pushed through the crowds to reach him. He’d had a terrible next 6kms after I left him and finally sat down to ask for help only to pass out on the ground. I’m grateful for so many people around him to help and for the ambulance staff for bringing him safely back to the event area where he was again checked over. He was still feeling awful so he lay on the track whilst we waited for the others to finish. I whipped through the ice bath and a quick massage before trying to down some food. Normally we talk fast and constantly about everything that happened in our race that we hadn’t already covered. But not this time. This time the air hung heavy with unfinished business, sorrow and pain. I didn’t feel much like celebrating after that but we were both excited to watch Patrick and Norm finish their races before heading straight home to bed. Those stories are theirs to tell, so look out for them.
“That all-familiar voice of Pete Murray called my name and reminded me… I am an Ironman.”
I learned so much again in this race. I dealt with a tough travel schedule to stick to my normal pre-race routine as best I could. I was relaxed and routine-focused to give me time to help the others. I confirmed what I already knew – that the products and combinations I am using are working well for me and there is no reason to change before the next race. I’m happy with my performance. It wasn’t a personal best and was never going to be. But at 11th, it was my best ever finish, edging closer to that top ten I’ve decided I now want to achieve. My run is going really well but I knew to recover for Challenge Roth, I couldn’t push it, and so despite wanting to deviate, I stuck to the plan. I did speed up a little at the end to sneak under the next hour marker but I stayed within the zone.
“Days like these make me proud of the person I am becoming…”
The day after the night before is always a mix of emotions. This one was heavier and quieter given how hard the day had been for everyone and that no one achieved as many goals as they’d hoped. But over and over I came back to the same mantra – “It’s days like these,” because it is. Days like these make sure I never take for granted the ability to race because it’s just supposed to be for fun. Days like these make sure that my dreams and goals are never more important that the health and safety of those I care so much about. Days like these ensure I am empathetic, calm and compassionate in others’ times of need. There are many times in my life that I am undeniably selfish, but this sport has taught me that it is not self before others at all costs. Days like these make me proud of the person I am becoming – fierce, driven, and loyal to the end.
By Michelle Cooper – Pushys Sponsored Athlete