Mandurah 70.3, Western Australia – November 10, 2013
After two failed attempts to qualify for Kona 2013 frustration was running at an all-time high; coming second just wasn’t good enough to get my slot. Now the focus was 2014.
Wife and coach Ali suggested in May that I race Mandurah 70.3 on November 10. To give substance to her suggestion she went and entered me in that race.
Training got seriously underway in June, giving me 5 clear months to get really fit and fast, and it was to this end that all my efforts were focused. There were 30 Kona slots on offer; I would need to win my age group if I were to succeed in my Kona bid.
Ali worked on my swim and bike strength. This ensured that I put on weight faster than her, despite the fact that she was pregnant. I put on around 10lbs (4.5kgs), maxing out at 214lbs (97kgs).
Training was going well and on track, despite a niggling pain in my second toe, which I attributed to gout. Not that I had had it before, and I don’t drink alcohol, but my father (now 89) has it, and my uric acid levels were on the high side. So being an “old” bloke it seemed reasonable that it was now my turn to join the ranks of old-people type diseases. This played havoc with my running training for weeks.
I treated it with NSAIDs, and by and large it seemed to do the trick for a few hours, but it kept coming back and giving me trouble, particularly on my runs, and sometimes on the bike.
After one very solid bike session it was particularly sore. It so happened that day that Ali was having a fetal ultrasound, and being a physio/sports scientist suggested that I come along and have an X-ray, for which she wrote a referral.
To my surprise this showed (in techno-babble) that I had a displaced fracture of the head of the proximal phalanx of the second toe on my right foot. I was relieved that I did not have gout, but disappointed that I had a painfully fractured toe and only 2 1/2 weeks to go before a race that I had spent the best part of the last 20 weeks preparing for. I had a stress fracture that had gone badly wrong. My world was crumbling around me.
Very painful toe fracture
After weighing-up the options in a council-of-war with Coach/Physio Ali, it was decided that I should do no land running or riding for the next 18 days, in the hope that the bone would knit/calcify sufficiently for me to at least start racing. After starting it was hoped that endorphins would kick-in, and I would be able to finish the race. I accepted that the race could be incredibly painful, and the recovery equally so. I was not to be disappointed.
This strategy had the benefit that I did a lot of swimming, plus I learnt that “water running” was the most boring exercise in creation.
I also had intensive (if controversial) laser treatment from Ali on the fracture, which after the first treatment woke me in incredible pain in the early hours one morning for which NSAIDs and ice provided little relief. I assured myself it was all good “healing” pains, and soldiered on.
The long flight/trip from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Mandurah Western Australia (some 2550 miles/4100kms) done, and I am in the water about to start the 70.3. In order to “protect” my toe I have it “buddy-strapped to the third toe, and on instructions I have done no running or riding as warm-up.
Toe “buddy-strapped” with Ali’s favourite pink tape
We are started in waves, me racing M60-64 in the M50+ wave, 43 minutes after the pro men. The water is freezing by comparison to Darwin, offset by my old Blue Seventy wet suit.
Mandurah 70.3 is swum through a residential canal estate, and due to tides is a notoriously fast “current assisted” swim. It is also horrible to navigate, as the background clutter makes sighting very difficult. But my wave is not big, and there is minimal hustle with other competitors. There is also the ever-present possibility of bull-sharks that are known to inhabit these waters, providing endless opportunities for my friends to give me a hard time, knowing my terror of deadly aquatic creatures that lurk in such places.
The siren sounds and we are all off. It doesn’t take many strokes for me to realize that I need more warm-up, and the wetsuit feels like a tourniquet around my chest. I quickly fade from leading as swimmer after swimmer pass me, and I have this sinking feeling that I am off to a bad start. However, I know that I am a slow starter, and that my strength lay in a strong finish. Such was my race today, for as the race progressed I pass increasing numbers of swimmers, coming 6th overall in my 50+ wave, with a 4 minute lead in my M60-64 age group.
So good to finish the swim!
The swim exit to T1 was at least 400 yards/metres, and provided the first opportunity in weeks to test my broken toe running. It seemed to hold up more or less, so I felt optimistic that it might work for the rest of the day.
On to the bike, with a course that is not only short (~54.9 miles/88.5ks) but also with a punishing headwind for the first 15 miles/25ks. I push hard on the outward leg, managing around 18mph/29kph. At the 18 mile/30km mark on the return downwind leg I have a reality check, whilst sitting on 27mph/43kph, the leading male pros including Greg Bennett, eventual winner Terenzo Bozzone, Tim Berkell and others pass me doing an estimated 36mph/60kph. I dream of being just a little bit faster.
Through to the turn-around
At 30 miles/50kms someone in my age group, a man in a weathered blue one-piece, #736, cruises past me on the second outward leg, and I up my tempo a little to reduce the time that he is putting in to me, and really work the downwind leg on the way back.
My busted toe had been aching, but not the sharp pain that it had been several weeks earlier.
Finally it is off the bike and in to the run – assisted by my transition spot right at the end of the row. Easy to find, easy to access, and then off running. The toe protests.
The run course at Mandurah is a double-out and back course plus a bit to the turnaround near the finish. My family & supporters positioned themselves near the finish, seeing me 3 times on the run.
On my first pass Ali told me that I was trailing #736 by 3 minutes. Time to really get moving. I was also told later that I looked ashen-grey and was struggling.
This observation was pretty accurate; after much disrupted training and then 18 days of no running at all the legs were protesting at the demands being made. I was feeling terrible, and no amount of cunning running or self-reassurance made the slightest difference – it was going to be a hard day.
With a three minute gap to make up it was game on, and I pushed as hard as my protesting legs and toe would allow. This wasn’t all that fast, and it took every bit of concentration to get to the 20 minute mark, where the running didn’t hurt any less, it just seemed a little easier.
“Smile” for the camera!
On my second pass, at approximately 6 miles/10ks, Ali told me that I was trailing #736 by just 1 minute, offering all sorts of encouragement for me to get a move-on; supporters told me later that I looked good and strong, but the truth was very different. But I was possessed by a manic determination and pushed on through the rising pain.
The pain starts to mount
Within a mile my body started to revolt at both the pace, and the rising temperatures, which were now over 93 deg F/34 C. First one leg muscle cramped, then another, and then as if in unison they all tried to cramp at once. I closed my eyes grimacing, willing the cramping and the pain away, running like an idiot parody of Pinocchio.
My toe had also progressed from a dull ache, to a dull ache with strong throbbing, but this was a minor irritation in the pantheon of pain that was my lot.
I was in deep crisis, hating myself, hating my situation, hating the cramping, hating the pain, hating the heat, and hating that I still had too far to go. And the man in the faded blue one-piece #736 was still out-of-sight ahead. Ali told me later that she followed my progress on-line between mile 6 and mile 10 (10kms-16kms), and that she struggled when the gap of 1 minute remained unchanged. The far-end of the run turn-around gave me the same discouraging feedback – despite my exertions, #736 was still a minute up.
From problem to resolution, my fast-dimming senses tell me that every run has its low spots, and after the low spot things get easier. I focus hard to will-away the cramps. I promise my body relief and rewards at the finish – but not to fail before you get to that finish.
I tell myself the heat is hard, but my endless training in the stinking heat of Darwin should make it harder for others. I grapple to find positives, to re-assure myself. I reflect on the training to get to this point; the months of effort, the goal of getting to Hawaii; the many more months to try again if I fail today. My two failures in my last two attempts. I push through more pain, I run faster, I run harder, I have little time left to waste.
About 2.5miles/4kms to go and I see Mr Faded blue one-piece for the first time in the distance ahead of me. This spurs me to hold my pace through the pain, to catch him, as I think the heat has finally taken its toll on him and I am making-up ground.
With but 1.2miles/2kms to go I finally catch and overtake him, and I change from being the chaser to being the chased. I ease back my pace a little as an acknowledgment to the cramping and pain, but then keep running as best I can, with cramping threatening to stop me at every step.
Now 1 mile/1.6kms to go, the crowds grow thicker and louder. I reflect with fear that my race could come crashing down around me at any moment in a paroxysm of cramps; I am running scared – very scared. The finish seems a million miles away, and I push and push and I push. I hurt like I have never hurt before. I am near exhaustion, running on sheer will-power alone. I have wanted this win badly, oh so very badly, and think it would be a cruel fate indeed to fail when success is so close.
Through the crowds with maybe 300 yards to go, and to the point where the finish is on the other side of the fence, just a short distance to the turn-around and then the last straight home.
Through my fog comes a panicked scream from Coach Ali – Stu! Stu! Stu! He’s only 20 metres ahead of you!! Run! Run! Run! I look up in disbelief to see #736, a carbon-copy of the man in the blue one-piece that I had passed more than a mile earlier; thinking wrongly at that time that I had passed my adversary.
I feel sick in the stomach at my stupidity, and angry that everything seems about to fail.
I put in an anguished burst of speed and quickly catch the real #736; then hold back running just behind him for 50 yards. I take the last drink from my water bottle, catch my breath, and let the lactic acid subside. I reflect that I have raced more than 70.2 miles, and my most important work still remains. I am exhausted such as I have never been before.
Now less than 150 yards remain to the finish and I am crazed, determined and manic. I kick as hard as I can to pass him. He suddenly realizes I am his competitor, and he responds with his own kick. I see out my left eye that he is just drawing level, so I surge again, putting every ounce of energy I have in to running hard. Everything is screaming. Every muscle is protesting. I push hard hard hard. The world starts to spin.
I sense less noise from behind, ease my pace ever so slightly in response to the incredible pain, and start to look over my right shoulder (the only direction I can turn without risking cramp), to see where my competitor is. Before I can scarcely do anything Coach Ali’s voice penetrates my leaden skull “Don’t look back! Sprint hard! Sprint hard!”
At 30 weeks pregnant Coach Ali is sprinting herself through the assembled crowds on the other side of the barrier, screaming instructions and encouragement, like a demented person.
I am seized with total panic and a stab of adrenalin rips through my guts, as I think my competitor has passed me on my left. I lift instantaneously to a sprint; my life narrows to a pinpoint. Suddenly the pain is gone, the cramping is gone, the thirst is gone and the heat is gone. It is just me floating in the air with the wind whistling past me in my headlong dash to the finish. This voice keeps saying “Go Stu! Go Stu! Go Stu!”. And then it stops.
Go Stu! Go Stu!
As if in a dream I pass an arch, there is a lot of confused noise somewhere, but everything becomes strangely quiet. I feel my arms around two strong shoulders. I am going somewhere. A peace envelopes my agony like a faulty internet connection that suddenly cuts out.
That Last Step
Hands are doing things, I know not what. Someone says “Well done”, and I vaguely feel a medal bump my chest. I am being carried somewhere. I have ice on me. The heat is now cold. I am breathing heavily. I am wet. I am sitting down. And a mantra still echoes around and around and around in my head “don’t cramp don’t cramp don’t cramp”.
Minutes pass and an outside voice says “… your partner asks if you are ok?” The world again comes in to focus. I have ice under my hat, under my arms, inside my top, an icy towel draped around my shoulders, three concerned medics and I am breathing heavily. I look around with dazed eyes at my new surroundings. I am their first victim. “Water?”. I drink a litre (~1 quart), straight down, the icy liquid burning all the way to my stomach. Then another. Straight down. I’m OK I say, I’m OK.
After 15 minutes 2 medics help me to my feet. My legs are totally wasted, and with my toe are both wracked with pain. I hobble assisted to the exit gate where Ali and my friends are waiting.
I look at Ali and ask her “How did I go?” She says excitedly “You won! You won! You are off to Kona!” I burst in to tears and bury my face in her shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably.
Re-united – me & Ali, wife, coach, physio, #1 supporter & love of my life