Nothing can prepare you for how your body feels after swimming 10km in the open ocean, then switching to sitting on a bike for up to 6 hours. When swimming for three hours your body is totally supported by the water. Your head is facing down, your heart gets used to not having to pump against gravity, your internal organs shift position and your muscles have begun the atrophy process as they get used to the weightlessness of the water. Your arms are screaming for blood as they revel in being the driving force in your forward motion, rather than the awkward accessories that hang out in your pockets with your change while walking. In a rare moment of misjudged clarity you feel like an astronaut floating in space. That is, until you hit the beach!
The beach landing of a 10km open ocean swim has many of the elements of agony and ecstasy that can be seen when an albatross attempts to land after weeks at sea. Graceful gives way to a comical interpretive pinwheel dance up the beach, as you attempt to get your land legs under you. There is pure joy as your fingers finally touch the sand bottom, signifying the end of the first leg of this mammoth task is now behind you. The agony soon takes over as the blood drains from your dazed head and you rip the goggles from your eyes to reveal a bright searing light which further disorientates you. Your hamstrings have been wound like piano wire and your lower back feels like you have just got up from a bed of concrete. All this results in you resembling an asthmatic donkey ploughing up the soft sand to the bike.
You never really recover after you emerge from the ocean, you simply cope and push back a little against your body's grumblings. Some people feel the lasting effects of seasickness, some experience swelling as they battle to rid their bodies of the swallowed saltwater. Others experience debilitating nausea, preventing the stomach from taking on much needed nutrients that would hold back the inevitable energy ‘bonk’ that builds as the kilometres tick over far too slowly. Whatever your experience it will be unique to you and something that you have never experienced before and this is one of the many reasons that Ultraman is relentlessness personified.
It's not all bad though, there are some great aspects to this painful transition. Seeing your smiling crew for the first time and experiencing their valet service from waters edge to bike saddle. They strip your wetsuit, pump water, electrolytes and food into your mouth, spray sunscreen and deodorant, dress you in your cycling kit and position you on your bike. With a pat on the back you are set on course for the day one cycle leg. I could have sworn in 2017 that I heard the whirring of a Formula 1 pneumatic wrench as I was topped, tailed and sent on my way, such was the speed and professionalism of Brena and Jacqui. If there is any advice that I could pass on from my experience, it is to recruit a crew that knows you well. If you are lucky enough to find one as good as mine, then success is assured.
The Transition - Swim to Bike
For me the transition from swim leg to bike has always been the hardest both mentally and physically for all of my triathlon races. Mentally, I am going from my favourite leg to my least favourite. All I have to look forward to is the brief streak of chiselled granite calves of the uber cyclists as they go by me at blinding speeds. Physically, over the two years I have competed in Ultraman, I have never felt very good on the day one cycle leg. It is a mix of nausea with a constant feeling that the next pedal stroke will be my last revolution.
The hills on the day one bike course are soul destroying. With one hill ironically named “Gentle Annie” on Strava, another is preceded by a warning that caravans and heavy vehicles should turn back due to the extreme incline, it adds up to be a gut-wrenching and mind-warping journey. However, the course is beautiful and provides the perfect opportunity for you to have those long soul-searching conversations with yourself and the dairy cows that litter the fields around Kin Kin.
As you can see from my Relive video of the day one cycle course below, it is a simple out and back course with four main climbs totalling 1500m of elevation over 145km. I would say that there appears to be more elevation on the way out than on the way back, but this could be mental from the relief of heading back towards the sea.
As children's author Shel Silverstein wrote, "How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time." The same is true for Ultraman. If you try to consume the whole 515km in one mental bite, it will bite back and consume you whole. The event must be broken down into manageable pieces, to get your mind into a position where your body will willingly follow. In the swim it is turning can to turning can or when things get tough counting 20 strokes at a time and pushing that out to 50 or 100. In the run it's the run walk strategy or telegraph poles. As a talent-less cyclist I work between hills to split up my mental anguish. So with four main climbs on the day one bike leg I have divided the course into four out and four back sections.
Section 1 - Noosa Beach to Gyndier Hill (0 to 15km)
The first section is a flat, fast 15km hot pour road which goes from Noosa Heads Surf Club through the town of Noosaville and residential areas of Tewantin. The traffic combined with a murky head from the swim makes this section a little hectic and dangerous as your body makes what seems to be a very slow transition onto your bike legs. Go into aero at your own peril, as there are many obstacles with traffic, pedestrians and an ageing tourist based population.
This section finishes with the first climb of the day, Gyndier Hill, which is a solid 10% climb for just over a kilometre. My coined term for this race, relentless, once again springs to mind as you hover between wanting to get out of the saddle to climb but knowing that your legs, heart and lungs will resist any attempt to push beyond the gentle build that you have been persuading your body to engage in. The only plus to this section is the large turn off area at the top of the hill, which serves as a staging post for the crews. From this point the crew can walk down the hill and cheer their athlete up the final pinch, Tour de France style. This gives a much needed boost to finish this section and head into a fast rolling stretch into Pomona.
Section 2 - Gyndier Hill to Mt Cooroora (15 to 40km)
Once over Gyndier Hill, there is a beautiful fast rolling section that takes you along Sunrise Road which forms one the borders of the “Golden triangle” of real estate in the Noosa hinterland. With the world famous township of Eumundi and the sleepy hamlet of Doonan forming the other two sides of this exclusive neighbourhood. Unfortunately, there is not much time to enjoy this area as your bike legs return after being cleansed by Gyndier Hill. After Sunrise, you turn onto Dath Henderson Drive which loops you back onto Noosa-Cooroy Road. This is a super fast section of road; be careful not to get too excited and blow the bank here, as you have 100km of some rough roads and tortuous hills ahead of you.
At the midpoint of this section you will descend into the township of Cooroy. Just beyond the T-intersection is a perfect opportunity to meet up with your crew again, at the parking lot of the Cooroy Primary School. From this point you have a rolling section of rough chip roads into Pomona that signifies the end of section 2, with a little over 40km under your belt.
As you travel from Cooroy to Pomona keep an eye on Mt Cooroora, as this landmark signifies the epicentre of Pomona. You are in for a treat as you round the final corner of Yurol Forest Drive and head down Hill Street into Pomona, the mountain rising up before you. Savour this breathtaking view, as the fast sections of the race are behind you and the soul destroying hills are what lie ahead. Have the crew use the on-street parking outside of the furniture factory to refuel the athlete, as there are not many pull-off places between Pomona and Kin Kin. The crew can also pop into the Pomona bakery and down a quick award winning pie.
Section 3 - Pomona to Kin Kin (40 to 55km)
As you leave Pomona you will notice that the rolling hills now have a little more bite to them. The grades get steeper and they come around a little more frequently. The road surface is rough and the shoulders of the roads seem to shrink in proportion to yours dropping. There are also potholes to keep you honest and a few sections of one lane give way roads that you will need to time well in order to not get hit by the weekend joy riders travelling in the opposite direction.
The highlight for me is the Kin Kin Range climb, which is gradual on the way up. On the way down it is downright exhilarating with a smooth fast surface and safe open corners to really get your heart pumping and your soul soaring with joy. Be prepared to wear some bugs in your teeth, as I guarantee that you will not descend without smiling.
The end of this section is signalled when you come into the township of Kin Kin. A beautiful timber two story country pub greets you as you come out of the forested area and meet up with your crew again. This area is a perfect aid station for both the crew and the athlete to take on more water and nutrients as the final section is quite frankly brutal. There are no joyful moments that lie ahead of you. For the next hour you will be in pain and your body and mind finally join forces to try to convince you to stop. Only the brave and delusional will get through this section. But the good thing for you is, only the brave and delusional sign up for Ultraman!
Section 4 - Kin Kin to Turn Around (55 to 70km)
Once out of Kin Kin town centre it gets hard. In fact the ride through Kin Kin town centre is hard and you face a climb that sneaks up on you when you aren’t looking. It is only when you look at the buildings that you realise that none of them are sitting flat on the ground, indicating the slope of the road. I suppose the reason you don’t realise that you are climbing is that you are still in bliss from the Kin Kin Range descent and the boost of seeing your crew. But this small hill leading out of town is simply a harbinger of what's to come.
I am once again sounding overly dramatic, but I suppose this is because in both of my Ultraman experiences Kin Kin is where everything hits a wall for me - mentally and physically.
From the high of the range descent I was starting to think that I had put the nausea of the swim behind me and could start cycling well. Making up some ground on the uber cyclists in front of me and holding off the fast cyclists behind me. Unfortunately, that feeling of positivity left me by the time I got to the roundabout at the top of the hill leading out of Kin Kin township. The feeling would not return until I reached the top of Gyndier Hill, signalling 15km to go on the first day. I had a tough 80km in front of me and the next 15km had the two nastiest hills I have ever ridden.
The first big hill in section 4 I mentioned earlier, "Gentle Annie”. While the lead up to this hill is quite gentle, the 2km hill with up to 20% grade is anything but gentle. The first time I tackled this hill was in a training ride. I had to stop and get off my bike to slow my heart and breathing rates down (think asthmatic donkey again). It took me 11 minutes to climb during that training ride. I am glad I tried the hill in training first, because I went straight to the bike shop and had a ‘granny’ ring put on the front. During the 2016 Ultraman I was able to ascend without stopping, 4 minutes faster than I had in training. Admittedly, I still had to zig zag up it. In 2017, I dropped another minute off my ascent by reducing the zig zagging. However, I am sorry to say that "Gentle Annie" and I will not be exchanging Christmas cards any time in the near future.
The second big hill is shorter in distance at only 300m, but it packs a wallop in such a small package. This is forewarned by a sign at the base stating that caravans and heavy vehicles should turn around due to very steep incline. In retrospect this second hill is easier than the first. However, there is some self doubt as you note the sign and remember that the previous hill did not have a warning sign. “The last hill didn’t have a sign, how much worse is this one going to be?” You express your horror to the dairy cows that line the fence to watch you climb. The sound of a drone camera whirring overhead adds insult to injury. You swear under your breath wondering why the organisers thought it was a good idea to film on the steepest hill in the whole two day bike course. Why not on the Kin Kin range descent where I actually looked like a professional cyclist. In spite of the pressure from drone and cows, I managed the climb without stopping in both years.
The ascent of these hills indicates the end of the physically hard section of the day one bike leg. Once you conquer these you become numb to the return journey. The other benefit of an out and back course is that when you turn around every pedal stroke is taking you closer to home. You can tick off all of those major landmarks that you saw on the way out. Your confidence builds, as does your positivity and ultimately you begin to feel that you can finish not only this leg of Ultraman, but the whole three day event. If you are not cut out for Ultraman, it will happen in the first 80km of the race. If you can make it through these 80km then you are set for the next 435km.