Challenge Shepparton is an annual massive multisport festival held in the north east of Victoria. It’s the first 70.3 race of the season for most of us in the southern states and it is a wonderful event to be a part of. I completed my first ever 70.3 race at this event, and so it holds a special place in my event calendar. Unfortunately, my lead up to this year’s event was not ideal, with an unexplained flare-up of a previously unexplained back injury resulting in me missing weeks of running training in the crucial build period of August and September. Combined with a change of coach as I began training under Coach Nac as part of my relished new role as Ironmums ambassador, and a 7 night stint of night shift the week before the race, it was not in the stars for me to be among the starters of the 70.3 distance. I really hate not doing the longest race on offer at any event I go to (I feel like I’m taking the easy way out) but in the end I decided to settle for the sprint distance race – if I couldn’t go long, I could at least try to go fast!
This was my first event under the coaching guidance of Naomi…and to say I felt a bit of pressure to perform is an understatement! In the days leading up to the event, Naomi asked me to define my race goals. In my typical late-starter-triathlete, previously overweight and unfit mother way, I simply said, “just to be in awe of the fact that this body, which I have treated badly for so long, can be a part of something so amazing as a triathlon.” I don’t mean to be wanky, but even four years into this incredible sport, I still just love turning up to a race and relishing every moment of being healthy and strong enough to participate instead of just spectating. Naomi, in her typical amazing-triathlete, passionately competitive and motivating coach way, immediately rang me and said, “don’t be so bloody wanky, you need to have a race goal so that you can smash this thing, which I know you can do.” So I shut up and listened while she gave me one of the most rousing and inspiring coaching pep talks that I’ve ever had. At the end of our chat, I had strict instructions to focus on each and every “pull” stroke in the swim, strive for comfortably uncomfortable on the bike until the turnaround then ride like the clappers into T2, and finish with a run that matched the 4:48min/km average speed that I had run at parkrun the week before. The whole race plan might just kill me but I was excited!
The day before the race:
Like me, my husband also works shift work and whilst this is often a blessing (think school drop-offs, extra hands at dinner time and off-peak holidays), it also means that he often works Saturday nights, which he did the night before this race. This meant that instead of getting a nice early night, I spent the post-dinnertime lull packing spare clothes, bathers, towels, hats, shoes, water bottles, breakfast and snacks for my tribe of four little people who would be getting out of bed very early the next morning. It had also been a long while since I had packed my tri bag for a race so it was back to feeling like a total newbie as I struggled to ensure I had everything I needed for the next day. It was only at the very last minute that I remembered to pack my bike helmet…crisis averted, but only just!
We are invariably such a circus heading off to a race that I’m glad it’s always too early on a Sunday morning for any of the neighbours to be up laughing at us as we struggle to actually leave the house. Trying to coax bleary-eyed little bodies to walk to the toilet and then out into the cold air to the top of the driveway where the people mover awaits with the bike on the roof and snacks, iPads and blankets threatening to burst out of the interior is a tough gig indeed. But by 6.15am, we were on our way, heading to Shepparton for the opening of transition at 8.30am and a race start scheduled for 10am.
I had my usual race day breakfast of homemade bircher muesli in the car on the way and checked the weather conditions on my phone. It was already predicted to be around 31 degrees in Shepparton but I was hopeful I would be finished before it got that hot…(oh, how the weather gods must have laughed at my optimism….)
I met my friend and fellow Ironmum, Claire, at the tri club tent and we got ready for the big start. Between us we had 6 kids, 2 husbands and a dog – among the demands for food, sunscreen and general attention, how we managed to actually get to the start line on time is anyone’s guess (although we did manage to miss the opportunity for an all-important warm up before the race briefing). The swim was a rectangle-shaped course around Victoria Lake, including a deep water start with all women in the race starting together. I took my usual pre-race Revvie caffeine strip and headed into the lake. There was the usual nervous laughter and banter among us ladies as we trod water among the reeds, trying to avoid letting our toes touch the slushy mud underneath. And suddenly, we were off! I started hard, but tried not to let the adrenaline get the better of me, especially being aware that I hadn’t had the benefit of a warm up. I found some free water and concentrated on Race Plan 1: just feel the “pull”. Almost immediately, I noticed a girl just ahead of me, too fast to catch, and apparently pulling away, without even having the courtesy to wear a wetsuit to help her! The first half of the swim went smoothly, it is easy to sight in the lake as there are rowing lanes marked that you can follow like lane ropes - it is almost like swimming in a pool. In the final 200m, I saw my speedy friend from the start of the swim, and I suddenly realised she was fading…and that I might be able to catch her. “PULL, PULL, PULL” my head screamed as I inched ever closer to her, trying to catch her as the swim exit loomed. With less than 50m to go, I got her. And once I had her, I wasn’t going to let her get in front of me again. I came out ahead of her by several meters and started the run to T1, satisfied with my swim and happy to be heading out on the bike. (Note to self: I know it’s been a while since your last tri, girlfriend, but for goodness sake, could you not have remembered to take your wetsuit down to your waist BEFORE you got to your bike?!?)
Swim Result: 12:57 - 1st in age group
T1: 3:17 – 6th in age group (God, I suck at transitions, although forgetting to at least start taking my wetsuit off before I arrived at my bike certainly didn’t help!)
Still breathing heavily from my swim exertion, I headed out on the bike – my slowest of the three disciplines – with Naomi’s instructions to head out strongly but not too hard buzzing around in my head. I was happy with my ride, although I had the usual unpleasant experience of watching several women I’d beaten in the swim go flying past me on the bike like I was standing still. Bah, humbug. I did my best to not let it get me down and I was actually really happy with my overall 32km/hr average speed. My nutrition involved half a drink bottle of electrolyte and a gel about 10 minutes before the end of my ride.
Bike Result: 37:59 – 5th in age group
T2: 1.14 – 6th in age group (Did I mention I suck at transitions??)
The run is actually my favourite part of any triathlon. Whilst I’ve never been a natural runner, I’ve seen huge improvements in my speed and strength since I started being properly coached, and I now relish the opportunity to catch those nasty fast cyclists who overtake me on the bike. I started the run with a smile on my face but man, it was HOT out there, and it wasn’t long before I realised how grateful I was to only be doing the sprint! The sprint course was a one-lap loop of the surrounding bushland around the lake we’d swum in, whilst the 70.3 athletes did 3 laps. The timing of the sprint start meant that I was running on the course with many of the 70.3 athletes and I took every opportunity to tell them how incredible they were to still be going in the brutal heat. I tried to stick with the race plan for the run: use the first 2km to settle in and then push for a strong 5km run to the finish. Unfortunately, the heat sucked every last bit of energy from my body and there was to be no “settling in” period – every step was just bloody hard work. As I ran, I tried to concentrate on just holding good form and keeping my cadence (steps per minute) high. It was a wonderful thing to see and cheer on so many people I knew on my lap around the course. I really do love this race – it’s like everyone makes it their first big race of the season and it’s like a big tri-community reunion. Seeing my husband and kids cheering for me at the 2km mark gave me a huge lift and suddenly I felt strong and confident that I could push through to the finish. And then right when I was feeling on top of the world, out of the blue, a tall, skinny and strong-as- hell woman came flying past me looking like she was just heading out on an easy Sunday run. It stung just a little to watch her go past but I knew I was already pushing harder than I was comfortable with in the heat so I had no choice but to let her go. She disappeared into the distance and I put my efforts back into getting myself around that course as best I could in the blistering heat. Finally, I reached 6km and I knew I was close to finishing. I approached the row of tri club tents around the back of the lake and received a huge boost as I was cheered and high-fived by the members of my tri-club. As I ran past, I suddenly saw that “Debra” was only a hundred meters or so in front of me. I was hot and I was uncomfortable and I was spent - but still something in me refused to give in. My Garmin told me I had less than 700m to go and I wrestled with myself over whether to just enjoy the last part of the race at my own pace, or give everything I had to try and catch this one last person. The voice in my head screamed at me to go for it, to take faster steps and pump my arms harder, and to finish this race knowing I had left nothing out on course. If you’re not going long, you can at least go fast! And so I went for it. And in the final stretch, the last 40 meters, I caught her. It cost me everything, and I couldn’t even feel my legs as I ran the final 30 meters over the red carpet to the finish line, but I did it! It was the icing on the cake to a tough race and I felt that I had done myself and the Ironmums group proud.
Run Result: 34:51 – 3rd in age group
Overall Result: 1:30:19
2nd place in age group (10 finishers)
8th female overall (59 finishers)
Yes, I finished with a lovely silver medal for my wall, and yes, I got to stand on the podium with two other incredible women who raced their hearts out that day (a feeling I will never, ever take for granted). But even more satisfying than that was knowing I had committed to a scary race goal that I knew was going to hurt, and sticking to that race goal when the pain inevitably kicked in. I didn’t quite hit the pace I was hoping for on the run, but as a strict pre-dawn runner who rarely experiences temperatures the likes of which Shepparton produced on Sunday, I was absolutely rapt to still run under a 5min/km average pace. This incredible sport continues to challenge me, excite me and reward me, and I can’t wait to see what the year ahead holds as Coach Nac and I work towards many more scary goals together.