In my previous blog about Ultraman Australia, I spoke about the history of the race which has stretched back to 1983 and seen just over 1,000 athletes cross the finish line. My relatively short personal history with Ultraman started in 2015, when I came across the race for the first time. It wasn’t until the following year that I was selected to compete in the event. Having spent over two years preparing for my two Ultraman races, I have been lucky enough to learn a lot about myself emotionally and physically over the many kilometers training for and racing in the event. Hopefully the lessons described and the stories told here can help you shape your endurance journey and improve your times as it did for me, as I managed to wipe 2 hours and 55 minutes off my PB for this event.
Regardless of my finish time, both events are very special to me. Both years I was supported by my wife, Brena and her good friend, Jacqui as my amazing crew. Their support and constant encouragement provided the light to lead me out of some dark times during the days I spent on that wonderfully hard course. 2017 was special as it enabled me to finally say that I have had the perfect race (for me). I am now content to pursue other athletic endeavours and give back so that others can reach their goals. 2016 was a different beast altogether! It was all about survival to get to the line and sheer grit and determination to finish after a battle with illness. 2016 was special because I got the chance to conquer the race, but also to overcome adversity through parallelising self doubt and a body that was struggling to survive a normal day.
To explain why I was so ill leading up to my first race, I need to start from the first time I encountered Ultraman. On May 16th 2015 I was driving along Cooroy-Pomona Road, part of the Ultraman bike course, when I spotted a crew car and their shattered, emotional and physical wreck of an athlete. He was slowly riding past his imploring crew, who were willing their exhausted athlete on to finish the final 20km of the bike leg. Even though I had no idea what the event was, when I saw the pain of the athlete and the support of his crew, I knew that I had to do this event. I made a judgement based on the tortured face of a rider and in doing so perfectly encapsulated what differentiates endurance athletes from the ‘normal’ general public.
As endurance athletes, our desire is to actively search out pain and suffering and want to experience it in all its horrific glory. Unfortunately, this search comes at a cost as we push body and mind onto bigger and seemingly more ridiculous challenges. And so it happened in a mere heartbeat after making the decision to do Ultraman, my descent into illness started. This illness was manifested by deep self doubt that I didn’t have what it took to complete the event and this doubt never left my side until I crossed the line, exactly 365 days later on May 16th 2016. Along the way my anxiety and self doubt built, which caused me to over train and then under train in a vicious cycle of feast and famine. I succumbed to common colds for days, whereas normally I would train through the illness and while all this was happening I foolishly convinced myself that nothing was wrong and therefore compounded the problems. Eventually my mind wore my body down by constantly testing and probing for weaknesses until it found success by suppressing my endocrine system, all but stopping my production of testosterone. My mood changed, I was constantly tired, I lost muscle definition and yet I pushed through training, more to ease the panic in my mind than to do any good for my chances to complete the race.
The line in the sand came in April 2016, a month before I was due to start. My fear of not being able to complete the event caved into my first ever genuine panic attack. It was triggered when I read a simple article in the local newspaper about a cycling challenge around the Sunshine Coast. I was with my children at the time and I did my best to fake feeling normal but, like many who suffer panic attacks, I felt like I had a brain tumour as my brain chemistry was so altered. I managed to get home after I talked myself out of visiting the emergency room of the local hospital to book a brain scan.
After a poor night of sleeping I saw the doctor. He did some blood tests and put me on anti-anxiety medication, which slowly started to work its magic and let me at least get a little more prepared mentally before the event. The blood tests revealed just how low my testosterone levels were - low enough that the doctor ordered a retest to confirm. Although this was some what of a relief to find there was an answer to why I felt so ill (it wasn't all in my head after all!). Unfortunately, the doctor recommended I pull out of the event this year as my testosterone levels were so significantly low that he said finishing would be next to impossible. I was devastated.
Fortunately for me, I had my wife Brena in my corner. She gently and masterfully convinced me to toe the line and work with what I had. We agreed to assess each day as it came, and that there was no shame in pulling out if my health was ever at risk. Those kind, supportive and loving words of faith was all that I needed. Until she spoke with me I was prepared to throw it all away as the anxiety attack, combined with the doctor's advice, had scared me into submission. In the end Ultraman is as much about the crew as it as about you. It was down to Brena’s unending support which enabled me to start and ultimately finish two of the greatest sporting achievements of my life thus far.
With the story of my duct taped mind and failed endocrine system thankfully behind us, allow me to delve into the other side of my Ultraman journey - the relentless physical pain that drew the masochist side of me to this amazing race!
The swim leg of Ultraman is long… very long. Ten kilometres of swimming is hard even when you love it like I do. It can be nearly impossible if you are like many triathletes who struggle with anxiety induced vertigo, as your mind associates swimming in the open ocean with horrific death. Essentially you are swimming with your body suspended on top of the abyss of a dark open ocean below, as your goggles magnify even the smallest sea life to be large enough to swallow you whole. Add to this your wet suit strap masquerading as an octopus tentacle brushing your face every so often and you have the plot of a Steven King horror story set at sea. Now that you have contemplated this horror you need to add the 5000 plus strokes that it takes to cover the distance and you are talking a seriously demanding mental and physical effort just to hit the sand and then start the rest of the 505km remaining in the race.
The swim leg of Ultraman Australia is held in Laguna Bay which is, quite frankly, breathtaking. The conditions for both 2016 and 2017 were as close to perfect as you can get for an open ocean swim. Glassy with only a slight current of an outgoing tide in 2016 and in 2017 there was no tide pull at all, only a slight chop at the back end of the turnaround point. If truth be known I was actually hoping for more swell to help me a little more and distance myself from the poor swim strong cyclists in the field. This however was not the case as conditions were great. Even though the conditions were perfect in 2017 two of the athletes succumbed to the stress of the event and this was manifested in anxiety attacks in the swim and had to be pulled out. Conversely in 2016 all athletes made it through the swim with time to spare, even one brave woman with a shoulder injury who swam the whole 10km breaststroke. The lesson to be learnt from this is to breathe and work through your mental issues as your body will always have the physical capacities to complete every one of the legs if you keep your nerve. Ultraman is an event you conquer with your body but lose with your mind.
With regard to my swim, I cannot complain as I had two great swims over the two races. In 2016 I learnt that you need to provide a very experienced paddler to minimise the distance swum so you can maximise the efforts put in. In 2016 I had an 11 year old who did a great job for the first half managing to get me through halfway in 5th place. But unfortunately she waned in the second half, as did I to finish 12th out of the water in a time of 3:08. Notably, the Garmin measured nearly 11km instead of the 10km that I should have covered. Having a look at the GPS plot later on it seemed that we lost a little direction which could probably be linked to the time that she decided to use my water bottles as a pillow in the last 3km of the race. I remember giving her a pep talk to get her going for the last little section. While I am thankful to her for volunteering her time, the lesson on the importance of an experienced paddler was well and truly learned.
In 2017 I employed the help of a colleague, Craig, who has competed as a Molokai racer for many years and has salt water for blood. His paddle was perfect as he steered me around the course to see me cover the first 5km in 1:19 and in 8th position overall. Unfortunately, my pace slowed in the second half to see me finish in 10th with a time of 2 hours 54 minutes. A somewhat disappointing effort as I felt this was my best chance of getting into the top five, but I walked away with a 15 minute PB on last year. I must extend a heartfelt thank you to Craig, who managed to guide me through the course only 92 metres over the 10km mark with a perfect paddle for him and close to perfect swim for me.
My training in the weeks leading into Ultraman had uncovered an issue with my right shoulder. At the end of day one on the massage table my masseuse, Gail, pointed out that my rotator cuff needed some work and was inflamed. I state this not as an excuse, but to provide another lesson learned. My training leading up to the event was a bit ‘head in the sand’. I neglected all strength training, never got massages and chose poorly when it came to looking after my recovery. I needed to treat my niggles with more respect. While being hard on my poor recovery, there were some strong positives to come out of my swim training.
As a swim biased triathlete I am the polar opposite to nearly every other triathlete who cites swimming as their weakest leg and cycling and running as their strengths. I see swimming as bliss! To me it is the total immersion of body and mind in a ballet of repetitive movements designed to caress the water and glide yourself through the watery medium as effortlessly as a bird on the wind. The only problem with my love affair with the water is that the swim leg is the first leg, it is the shortest leg and by being good at swimming you have the heartbreak of being passed by everyone else who spent more time on the bike during training.
My first triathlon was an Ironman in America. I found myself at the pointy end coming out of the swim, but heartbreak came as I managed to get passed by over 1800 people as I struggled to maintain the pace. I have been quoted as saying that cycling is the inconvenience between the swim and the run. Unfortunately, Ultraman was proof once again that I can swim, but I can’t cycle out of sight on a dark night as I struggled through the day 1 144km cycle leg.
Please join me again next week as I recount the struggle and eventual taste of success as I complete the two parts of the 420km bike legs in 2016 and 2017. Thanks for reading so far.