Getting to Taupo on Thursday had all of a sudden made it very real, and that feeling was only heightened after check-in and the athlete wristband had been attached to the wrist. Heightened but at the same time there didn’t appear to be the nerves to the same level this time when I compared it to 2011 - which I could only put down to having done it once before I had an idea what to expect.
Here’s a quick summary of the 2 days leading up to Ironman:
Thursday - check in, Welcome ceremony and carbo-loading party
Friday - Ironkids race in the morning, last swim/bike/run, drop off transition bags and bike, support crew all arrived, and resting up, in bed by 8.30pm!
And I woke up at 1.30am Saturday morning…so after many weeks of training and build up, the big day had arrived. I hadn’t expected to sleep all that well the night prior and so it turned out that way as from that point until I got up around 4.45 I only dozed. You can also imagine my thoughts when I woke up to hear it blowing a gale outside…which was not in the forecast!! Luckily by the time I got up a few hours later the wind had dropped right away so it wasn’t a factor.
Breakfast done, it was down to business. Got down to transition about 6am and made the final checks on the bike before heading into the tent to get into the wetsuit. I got chatting to a couple of guys who were doing it for the first time and both were pretty nervous, so it was nice to try and set their mind at ease and to tell them to enjoy the day! That done, it was down to the lake to start it off…!
(images from the swim start)
The first thing I noticed when I got in the water was that it was warmer in the lake than it was out of it! The air temperature was about 6 degrees but the water temperature was closer to 20! Tropical!
It doesn’t take a doctor of chemistry to work out that 1610 people in 1 confined body of water is going to cause some mayhem and potential to wear a loose arm or foot - so it wasn’t a surprise to me that the start of the swim was a bit of a bun fight. As with my other open water swims I’d done in training, I positioned myself about half way down the pack at the start as I didn’t want to have the really strong swimmers going over the top of me. Even with this, the first 5-10 minutes of the swim was a bit willing with a lot of stop/start and changing of direction to try and avoid being hit. The best way to describe the feeling is like being on a packed train and trying to make your way to the door to get off - that’s how jammed it can be at times.
My plan for the swim was pretty simple - not to go out too fast at the start and settle into a good rhythm whilst trying to find open water. The plan also was to try and get directly behind a swimmer so that I could benefit from the draft. After the initial smashfest, things settled down for about 10 minutes or so before the pack started to come together again which resulted in more physical contact with other swimmers.
I was pleasantly surprised when the first turnaround buoy came into view quite quickly. The one thing about swimming any sort of long distance is that it can get quite monotonous - last time I counted golf balls on the lake bed - but this time I think with the constant contact with other swimmers it made things go more quickly. I got to the half way point (1.9km) in about 37 minutes which was pleasing. The second half also passed quite quickly and this time I used the smaller marker buoys to mark progress as they were all individually numbered. The banging into each other was less than on the outbound leg but still there occasionally. The only issue I had was a small bit of cramping in my foot which wasn’t pleasant but passed pretty quickly.
I turned at the last buoy and I snuck a quick look at my watch and saw I was on for a good time (for me!). The last 200m seemed the longest but before I knew it, I was out of the water with the race clock just ticking over 1h14m - which was a full 5 minutes faster than 2011. That deserved a fist pump…which I duly did!
After the quick 400m jog to transition, it was time to ditch the wetsuit and put on the bike helmet for what I hoped was about 6 hours of riding. I was slightly concerned before the race about how cold I’d feel after the swim as when you’re in the water for over an hour - even with a wetsuit on - it does take a bit of time for the blood to get to the extremities. But there wasn’t any of that and I felt great. Before I jumped on the bike itself, I had to do something which I hadn’t needed to do in 2011…apply sun screen! Given it was sunny out and I was going to be on the bike for a while, I didn’t want to take the chance.
(heading out of Taupo for the first time)
The bike course is a 2 lap out and back course from Taupo via Broadlands Road to Reporoa. There are a few small hills coming out of Taupo but from about the 10km mark on until Reporoa it is either downhill or relatively flat. Given the prevailing wind was coming from the southwest which meant a headwind coming back from Reporoa to Taupo, my plan was to use the conditions to my advantage on the way out and push the pace and then to try and maintain a lesser pace on the return when the hills and wind would work against me. Taking full advantage of the downhills, over one 12 minute period I was able to average over 41km/h - which is fair flying for me - so my progress was good until at about the 20km mark a bee decided that it didn’t like me cycling through it’s territory so it stung me! And it bloody hurt! Now I’m lucky I’m not allergic to that sort of thing but it still isn’t a particularly pleasant feeling.
Getting stung by insects aside, I was feeling very good and things were going as planned. I was following my eating & drinking plan and it seemed to be working. The only slight annoyance was the continual rule breaking by other riders who insisted on being inside the draft zone. Riding directly behind someone is called being in the draft and is against the rules for Ironman - there are technical officials monitoring this and if they see it happening then there is a 4 minute time penalty to be served. People always try to push the limit and the officials can’t be everywhere so it is annoying but nothing much can be done about it.
About 3km from Reporoa for the first time, I earned the wrath of one of the officials for “littering” on the course - which is also against the rules. I was wearing some arm warmer sleeves at the start of the bike, and on the bike course there is a zone where you can discard any clothes you don’t want to wear any more. I came up to this zone and threw the sleeves away…only my aim wasn’t that great as they didn’t go onto the grassy bank but ended up on the road which is a big no no. And this happened right at the moment an official rode past, so he made me stop and go back and get the sleeves. And to deposit them in the right place. Frustrating but it is in the rules.
I got to Reporoa about the time I thought I would and started the journey back to Taupo. The wind was picking up a little but it wasn’t too bad so I was able to keep a relatively good pace which kept me pretty much to the time schedule I had in my mind. There is one section on the return called Heartbreak Hill as it’s quite a sharp rise which is not what you need when you’ve been biking for sometime. When I got to the top, I was a bit concerned about my legs as they felt a bit tired and sore - which when there is still 90km to go is not what I needed to be thinking about. I may have pushed a bit too hard on the way out to Reporoa so I made the call to ease back on the pace a little to see if they would come right as I needed to think about the small run that came after this.
(going through Taupo just coming up to the half way mark)
The next part of the ride passed without much incident and it was cool to see the support crew at Reporoa when I turned there for the second and final time. I got a real lift out of that!
(turning at Reporoa for the last time)
The last leg back from Reporoa to Taupo was very hard work as things were starting to hurt big time. During an event like this, it’s common to go through “dark” phases where things are bloody hard and it’s a real effort to keep going - my dark phase was between 140-160km as physically and mentally I was really starting to feel the effects. Combined with a moderate wind it made for a pretty tough time but the determination was definitely there and I resorted to breaking the ride down into 5km chunks. Breaking it down made it easier as I could focus on a smaller target instead of the bigger distance still left to go. Unfortunately things were going to get worse.
Because the day was fairly warm, I was conscious to keep my water intake up as the last thing I wanted to have happen was dehydration. I wasn’t only drinking water as I knew that I also needed to get electrolytes into me as well, but the water quantity was much larger than the electrolytes. I also started drinking a bottle of flat coke as that is good for an instant sugar hit near the end. About 20km from the end of the ride, I noticed that my stomach was starting to feel a bit funny - which was at the totally wrong time as it coincided with the start of Heartbreak Hill. I didn’t think too much of it and carried on - thinking that it was the coke not reacting too well. Even though the last 8km were mostly downhill, it was a struggle and when I got to the end of the bike I had some real concerns about what was happening and more importantly what was going to happen on the run.
Before I get to the run, the bike time was 6h22m which was a full 17 minutes quicker than 2011 but probably about 10-12 minutes slower than I had planned in my mind - especially as when you factor in my stops to pick up my “litter” and to also re-apply sun screen I would have been pretty close if those were taken out. Overall I was relatively pleased with how it went but the hard part was about to start.
(Starting the run)
This picture was taken just after I had come out of transition to start the run. The funny thing is G & Mal - who took the picture - both thought the expression on my face was along the lines of “No probs - I’ve got this!”. The reality is quite the opposite - more along the lines of “Yeah…there might be a problem here!”
First - some medical jargon
Exercise associated hyponatremia (EAH) is defined as a serum sodium level of less than 135 mEq/L following high-intensity endurance activities such as marathons and triathlons. It is a potentially devastating condition that can occur in otherwise healthy, young individuals. The hyponatremia of EAH appears to be mainly dilutional, with the main contributory mechanism being ingestion of hypotonic fluids (such as water or sports drinks) in excess of sweat, urinary and insensible losses.
Translation - too much water + not enough salt in the system = a problem!
The run course is a 3 x 14km lap course from central Taupo out to Wharewaka. It would be considered pretty flat with only a couple of small bumps to make it interesting. The course was different to when I did it last time and I wasn’t sure how I’d go with having to run over the same pieces of road 3 times instead of 2.
I started the run not knowing how things would turn out but determined to keep going. If it came down to it, I would walk the whole way if I had to! Initially I felt OK and was keeping a relatively comfortable pace but that only lasted until just past the 5km mark. The stomach discomfort that I had started to feel at the end of the bike manifested itself at the second aid station which is about 5.5km into the run and without going into much detail there was a lot of feeling nauseous and a little bit of vomiting in one of the port-a-loos.
Now again you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that having this happen with 37km left to run was going to drastically alter my race from that point on. There was never any thought of withdrawing from the race voluntarily but I knew that I’d probably be walking a fair percentage of the remaining distance.
So after taking a couple of minutes to re-compose myself, I tried jogging but my stomach didn’t like that at all so I started walking. I did the maths in my head and I knew that I had plenty of time before the final midnight cut-off so that wasn’t going to be a problem. I was hoping that at some point I would get to a stage where I could start running again but until then I had to start getting some food & drink back into my body to replace what had come out. My initial “diagnosis” for why it happened was that my stomach had reacted badly to the coke I had at the end of the bike because of the sugar content, so I started getting salt back into my body. The good thing is that with Ironman all of the aid stations have a stack of different foods, so I was walking along chewing on potato chips and pretzels as well as getting the electrolyte drink and water into me. Whilst my “diagnosis” turned out to be completely wrong, inadvertently I had started doing the exact thing I needed to do to come right!
Just after I came out of the aid station where it all happened, I came across Rochelle & the boys and she knew right away that something wasn’t right. The word got spread quickly to the rest of the support crew who were at different parts of the course that I was in a bit of trouble so they were ready to help me when I got to where they were.
(walking around the 6km mark)
And on I walked. I was fortunate that it as a cracker day as it would have been no fun at all if it had been chucking it down. The one “good” thing about walking was it gave me a chance to interact more with the spectators on the sidelines as there were a lot of characters. There was one area nicknamed the “Boogie Zone” and they were encouraging any of the runners to do a dance on their way through. If they did, the people in the zone would give money to the official Ironman NZ charity. So it would have been considered rude not to so I did a little dance on my way through…Travolta I ain’t!
I have to say that the spectators all the way round the course were awesome all day. Even if people were walking like in my case, they would always yell encouragement to you and really try to urge you on. For those who know Taupo, imagine running (or walking) down the entire length of Lake Terrace with spectators all the way along cheering you on. You get such a big lift from that and it does spur you on to keep going.
I finished the first lap of the run and was heading back out of town when I decided to see if I could start running again. I tried this a couple of times but no dice however the third time - which was about 17km into it - I found that I could actually keep going and felt OK. The pace was down a bit but I didn’t care as I was just happy to be able to keep going at something quicker than a walk. I made sure that every time I came to an aid station I walked through that as I wanted to make sure I kept up with my food and drink as it was obviously working. I also bumped into my brother so the word was spread out to the crew that I was running again!
In my mind, I came up with a new goal to keep me going for the remainder of the race. I had done too much walking for me to achieve my original target time of between 12-12.30 hours but I worked out that if I could maintain a pace of around 7 minutes per km for the remainder of the race I could still finish in a quicker time than what I did in 2011 - and being a competitive sod I would take that. On a normal day, 7 minutes per km would be a doddle so I was pretty confident I could achieve it. So with that now in my mind, I pushed on and by the end of the second lap I was feeling pretty good.
(seeing the family about 29km into the run on Lake Terrace)
I started the third lap and I felt like I was in a zone and was fully focusing on putting one foot down after another and not pushing too hard. I had changed my hydration plan and had reverted back to just taking water as I felt the electrolytes might have been affecting my stomach again and I also ditched the chips and pretzels. This turned out to be big mistake number 2. I got to the aid station at the 32km mark - which was coincidentally the same one where I had my issues on the first lap - and the stomach troubles returned big time. This time it was just the nausea but it was enough for me to have to revert back to walking. I was gutted to be walking again after having felt good for so long but again there was the determination that I was going to get to the finish line.
So on I walked. I stopped at a first aid tent at about the 37km mark as I wanted to talk to someone about what was happening to me. It’s there that they told me that I’d taken on far too much water across the bike and run and had flushed all the salts out of my system. Your muscles and stomach need salt to function properly and if you don’t replace what you sweat out then you can get into real difficulties. My situation could have been avoided if I had taken in more electrolyte drink as that has the right balance of salts and other stuff to keep you going. Apparently I was in good company and not the only one who had the same issue across the day. I’m not sure if that made me feel better or not
By this time it was starting to get dark and I knew there was only 5km to go so I wanted to finish. It was starting to get a little chilly so I donned the fetching glow stick and poncho that I was given at an aid station and kept on going. The bright lights of Taupo were getting closer so I knew that I didn’t have much longer out there and by that stage it couldn’t come soon enough. Not surprisingly given the time of day, the number of spectators had dropped away however there were still a few hard-core ones out there clapping so that was pretty cool.
I made my way along Lake Terrace slowly and when I got to the end I was determined I was not going to walk across the finish line so I started jogging slowly and this was fine. It was a good feeling to get to the lap turnaround mark and carry on straight ahead instead of having to turn the corner and do another lap. There were 3 other finishers just ahead of me and no-one behind me for a bit so I slowed down as I wanted to cross the line by myself.
Coming into the finish shoot, I was feeling a mixture of happiness and disappointment about what had happened. Of course I was very happy that I was about to finish another Ironman race but the disappointment was definitely there as what happened didn’t need to have happened and could have been avoided if I’d been a bit smarter. That was soon put to the back of my mind when I heard the voice of Ironman Mike Reilly say “You’re an Ironman, Aaron!”. A set of high-fives for the support crew, and I crossed the finish line.
Finish time: 14h 06m 28s
(crossing the finish line)
Race analysis - short version
Obviously I had the time target in mind but my first and foremost goal was to improve over 2011. In most area’s I did:
Swim - quicker than 2011 (tick)
Bike - quicker than 2011 (tick)
Run - start the run before the first professional male had finished (tick)
Run - quicker than 2011 (cross)
Overall time quicker than 2011 (cross)
So it wasn’t all bad!
Immediately after I finished and had the awesome medal and towel put around me, I was taken into the recovery tent and weighed. Quite surprisingly I was only 1kg lighter than when they had weighed me at registration on the Thursday. I had expected to lose more across the day so that meant that aside from the one glaring error my nutrition plan on the bike had been OK. I then saw some medical personnel who checked me out and said I would be OK and released me to go and have the post-race massage and food. About an hour after I finished, I was outside seeing the support crew and heading home.
I need to give a huge shout-out to the support crew - Rochelle, Nathan, Riley, Isaac, Glen, G , Mal, Brad, & Emma. They were all awesome throughout the day and especially when I was having the difficulties on the run they really helped me get through it. You guys are awesome!
And I also really appreciated all of the messages on Facebook and other places from everyone. It meant a lot to have that level of support!
(all images used in this blog post are copyrighted by Dr GMF, and Air Piglet Enterprises)
This is a pretty cool video that encapsulates the day last weekend. Some pretty emotional moments in here!
One really nice touch is that the last person shown in the video as finishing (the one bent double) was actually 8 minutes over the 17 hour time limit so technically was not entitled to a finishers medal - however she got one anyway. The person putting the medal around her neck was the woman’s elite race winner Meredith Kessler - and it was her own medal she was giving away! And the big guy standing right next to her giving her the finishers towel was Marko Albert the men’s elite race winner.
(And my race report is coming soon…probably this weekend!)