As many of you know, I turned up to Ironman Australia in Port Macquarie on Sunday, May 6, and by some miracle, swam, rode and ran my way into first place in the women's 40-44 age group. And, in doing so, earned my entry into the Ironman World Championships in Kona in October. It still staggers me writing the words. I don't really want this race report to be an endless diatribe of "Oh my God, I still can't believe it" and "Wow, I never expected this to happen" - even though that's exactly how I feel and they are the words I still repeat to myself several times a day even now, more than a week after the race! So this race report will be as much of an analysis of the race for myself, in an attempt to make some sense of exactly how it panned out and how I came to win the long and brutal race that is Ironman.
The Lead Up
I had originally planned to enter Ironman Cairns, to be held in June, 2018. Unfortunately the event completely sold out before I found the money to enter... #fourkidsareexpensive. Despite writing a desperate email to Ironman, begging for them to add just one extra bike rack with my name on it, they remained adamant the event was sold out and there was no hope for a last minute entry. I was devastated. But triathlon has taught me nothing if not the fact that you can only control the controllable - I told myself that everything happens for a reason and kept hoping that destiny would run its course and present me with some other opportunity.
On April 22, I completed the O'Keefe marathon in Bendigo, Victoria. I had a surprisingly enjoyable run and as I crossed the line, my (long suffering and endlessly supportive!) husband Richard held up his phone to me, saying, "We can still get you into Port Mac! And I've even found us accommodation!" A quick message to Coach Naomi begging for her approval to enter an Ironman two weeks before the event - and I was in!
I should point out here that it wasn't as though I was entering this event with no endurance training whatsoever under my belt. I had completed a 10km ocean swim in December, with weekly swim sessions of over 4km at a time since then. I had ridden long rides of 3 and 4 hours to parkrun for speed run sessions, and of course, I had just run a marathon in just under 3 hours and 50 minutes. In theory, there was no reason I couldn't complete an Ironman in the 17 hour time period allowed - but then, it's Ironman....and as we all know, anything can happen in an Ironman!
My two weeks of training in between the marathon and Ironman consisted of a few short runs, a 1:45 tempo run and a 5 hour ride. I only got to 102km on my ride, but the elevation is fairly gruesome in the hills where I live, so I hoped it had put enough grunt in my legs to get me through the bike leg of the race.
Before the Race
Because I have an amazing set of parents who humour me in this sport and were prepared to stay with our kids for a few days, Richard and I were able to head up to Port Macquarie on our own. Don't get me wrong, I love my kids and I love bringing them to watch me race - unfortunately they don't share my enthusiasm for the long slog that is Ironman. The first (and only other!) time I had done this race, it poured rain for about 8 hours and my poor husband had to drag them around the Ironman course whingeing and moaning in the driving rain.
It was an experience none of us wanted to repeat, and it was a relief to only have to concentrate on the race for the weekend. We had a ball - going out for dinner, shopping at the expo and eating, sleeping and breathing nothing but Ironman (okay maybe it was more enjoyable for me than for Richard, but in any case he certainly didn't complain!). Naomi and I caught up at parkrun on Saturday morning and we checked our bikes in together on Saturday afternoon. The weather was spectacular and we were both excited and nervous about what the next day would hold.
I have been somehow blessed with the ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, and so I had no trouble getting a great sleep the night before the race. I woke up refreshed and cautiously optimistic. I believed I could finish this race - it was only a matter of how long it would take. My first time at this event was in 2016, when I finished in 12:30. At the time I was rapt, especially when I took into account the horrendous weather and the fact that I was carrying a knee injury, resulting in a long and painful marathon which took 4 hours and 40 minutes to complete. During the run leg of that event, I had decided (stupidly) to consume four plastic cups of Allens Party Mix within the first 4km - after thriving on a sugar-free diet for the previous six months. Unsurprisingly, my tummy hadn't coped well with the deluge of glucose and repaid me with a dozen portaloo stops along the way! I learned an unpleasant but important lesson that day - and I wasn't going to let it happen again.
As I my stomach flip-flopped its way through the morning, I made three simple race goals for my second crack at Ironman Australia:
Plan A - aim for a sub-12 hour finish
Plan B - beat my time of 12:30 by at least something, no matter how small
Plan C - finish this race feeling strong and happy somewhere under 17 hours, without completely humiliating myself by blowing up and failing to finish at all.
We picked Naomi up on the way to the race start. We both headed straight into the transition area to stock our bike boxes with all the ooey, gooey, chewy and sickly sweet things we'd be consuming for the next several hours. I had my usual homemade Bircher muesli breakfast and made the obligatory last minute nervous toilet trip as we waited for the sun to rise and our massive day to begin. It was going to be a beautiful day but it was a chilly morning and my teeth were chattering so hard with cold and sheer terror that I thought I might bite my tongue! At last it was 7am and time to head to the swim start. I said goodbye to Richard and looked forward to seeing him wherever he managed to find a good spectating spot on the bike course. The swim was a rolling start, so that swimmers self-seeded themselves into expected swim times and then entered the water in a very civilised fashion about ten seconds apart. It's my favourite way to start a race as there is no starter gun and it is way less stressful than running into the water as a frenzied group. Naomi and I had agreed to start in Zone 1 - the fastest zone - for swimmers expecting to take less than 1 hour. My theory is always that the sooner I start, the sooner I'll finish this thing. I can't think of anything more stressful than standing around watching everyone else get underway - so it was in with the big fish for us! I popped my usual Revvies caffeine strip as I stood in the corral with the other few hundred terrified but excited age groupers who were ready to see what they were made of in this toughest test of endurance.
The swim -: 3.8km
The last time I did this event, I really held back on the swim, worried about expending too much energy and burning out on the bike. This time I was hungry for a faster time - and from the time I was tapped on the shoulder by the starter marshall and sent into the water, I went in hard and strong. It was a beautiful swim - the water was calm and surprisingly deep (I had been worried we'd be swimming among the reeds given it was low tide). There is also the iconic climb up and over the concrete weir on the out and back trip to break up the swim. The volunteers and spectators cheered us as we came out of the water, ran across the weir and back down the stairs into the water. I found lots of feet to stick to and be towed along by, and apart from some savage wetsuit chafe on my neck which despite three layers of my favourite anti-chafe cream, began to bite almost as soon as I started swimming, I could almost hear the sound of neoprene tearing off skin every time I turned my head. As always, it's mind over matter when I comes to discomfort and I knew no one had ever died of a chafed neck - there was nothing for it but to just keep on swimming. I really had a great time out there. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky and I found myself appreciating how lucky I was to feel so strong and healthy with all these other athletes on such a huge occasion. I thought I'd done a super time but as I ran out of the water and checked my watch, I felt a bit deflated as it appeared I'd done almost the exact time as in my last Ironman. It later turned out that I had beaten my previous time by more than a minute, so in actual fact my day was off to a great start!
Result: 1:02:02 (3rd in age group)
The Bike -: 180km
Heading into T1, I grabbed my bike gear bag and headed to the transition tent, where the always-lovely volunteers helped me rip off my wetsuit and prepare me for the bike ride ahead. They even unravel your socks and put them on your feet for goodness' sake - these people are amazing! A couple of minutes later I grabbed my bike off the rack and headed to the mount line. I had a little whoopsie at the mount line where I slipped on the road in my bike shoes and nearly went down - there was a "whoa" from the crowd, a bigger "whoaaa" from me and then a little cheer from the crowd as I managed to save myself and somehow get safely onto the bike. Anyone watching that little bit of bikemanship would never have believed the result that was to come...hahaha.
The ride is a two lap course over rolling hills, long straight stretches and savage climbs on notoriously rough roads.
My first lap of the course was nothing but fun and I loved being out there - the sea views were spectacular, the sun was shining and the crowd was amazing. The residents of the smaller towns along the route turned out in force - there was music, horn-blowing and even some hilarious guys dressed up, one as the Pope and the other as Woody from Toy Story who waved and sang as we went past. My simple nutrition plan - two sips of electrolyte every twenty minutes, a gel every hour, three energy bars to be be eaten somewhere along the way and water to drink whenever I felt like it - worked well and even though I was constantly being overtaken by other riders, I felt strong and happy. I even had a giggle at the unexpected sight of a paddock full of monstrous, fat camels as I crested the hill at the Golf Club heading back into town for the first time.
And then suddenly I arrived at Matthew Flinders Drive in all its dizzying, frightening glory. Matthew Flinders Drive - what can I say??? It is legendary among Australian triathletes as one of the toughest hills on an Ironman course - and you have to do it twice! It's only a short hill - but man, it is steep. And it takes no prisoners. The road is lined with enthusiastic supporters and a carpet strip along the edge for those who find it less traumatic to walk their bike up it than ride it. I was absolutely blessed to have two good friends from my beloved Eltham Tri Club, Tarryn and Liss, cheering me up that wretched hill on the first lap - they made me smile and gave me the boost I needed to get up and over it. You simply cannot be disappointed in your body and all its flaws when it proves it has the strength to deliver you to the top of that monster!
Back into town and the turnaround point - I was very happy to still be feeling good as I checked my watch and saw I'd finished the first lap in in 3:15. I was still on track to beat my 6:36 ride of 2016 - just as long as I didn't let the second lap destroy me...
I made it to exactly 102km (the length of my longest training ride the week before) before I wanted to get off my bike and throw it in the bushes. I'm not going to lie - I cried tears of frustration as I was overtaken relentlessly by other athletes hour after hour after hour. The problem with being a strong swimmer is that when the faster cyclists make their way out of the water, they overtake me as if I am standing still. I'm generally a positive kind of person, but I do have to consciously steel myself against the feelings of hopelessness that threaten to overcome me in every triathlon I do! (Naomi caught me at about the 80km point on her way to a cracking sub-6 hour ride. I love her - but as she overtook me easily on that endless ride, I might have actually hated her a little bit too...sorry Naomi xx) At the same time as I almost lost my mind with the frustration of it all, I realised I was running out of water. I desperately needed an aid station - and I nearly broke out in fresh tears as I passed not one but TWO aid stations on the other side of the road! I very nearly stopped and ran over the road to grab a water bottle, but it really is impossible to do this safely and so I rode on...and on...looking keenly ahead to find some sign of an upcoming aid station. 45 minutes is a long time to be desperate for water, especially under a full sun and with the prospect that another 60km of hard riding, not to mention a full marathon, awaits. I was pretty much at the bottom of my physical and emotional pit. I wanted so desperately to give up, get off and just go home. But I remembered the talk they gave us at my first Ironman - when they tell you that nothing is guaranteed in this race EXCEPT the fact that you are going to hit the lowest of lows at some point during this event. They also guarantee that you WILL climb out of the hole and things will improve...it's just a matter of how long it will take and whether your mind is strong enough to hold out until the good feelings arrive again. And so I began just striving to get to the next corner, the next hill, the next town - and suddenly, gloriously, an aid station appeared and I was able to fill my water bottle and take extra for reserves. A kilometre later I found Richard on the side of the road, calling out encouragement to me and telling me how proud he was even as I couldn't find the words to describe how miserable I had been. Suddenly I felt something lift in me - I was out of the hole and back in the game!
The roads in Port Macquarie are notorious for being rough and full of potholes. During the second lap, even in the beautiful conditions and with amazing crowd support, that road surface completely destroyed me. Every single part of my body burned - my toes, heels, ankles, knees, quads, back and neck, as well as my forearms from trying to maintain an aero position on my TT bars m. I eventually giving up because the extra speed it offered just didn't seem to be worth it for the pain. I had a roaring headache from about the halfway point from all the jolting along the road. And my lady bits...lord have mercy!! I suffered through every single jolt, bump and pothole - to the point where I cursed under my breath, (ok I might have yelled it..) "Fuck you, road!" when yet another unexpected bump almost pitched me out of the saddle. I had decided at the last minute to throw some Panadol into my bike box - I have never been so grateful to take those two magical little capsules as I was at the 135km mark of that ride. They didn't take all of my pain away but they certainly gave me a mental boost!
After I finally, gloriously and painfully reached the final turnaround point and headed back into town for the last 45km stretch, I counted down the landmarks of my ride - the Pope and Woody, the ridiculous camels and finally, Mathew Flinders Drive. By then my body was screaming but my head was strong and I climbed it with no problems. I checked my watch for the final time and realised I was going to beat my 2016 bike time by about 20 minutes if I could just hold my speed. I pushed hard over the last of the rolling hills, spurred on by the impending promise of getting off that bike!
So much can go wrong on the bike ride - from mechanical issues to nutrition problems, and the overwhelming feeling I had at the end of this ride was relief. Relief that my wonderful Giant Trinity had again gotten me through another race with no flat tyres, relief that I had survived my water shortage with no apparent ill effects, and relief that I had not succumbed to my feelings of defeat and desperation during that impossibly long and lonely ride.
And oh, the absolute bliss of getting off that bike and handing it to over to the volunteers and heading into the tent for the final transition - what joy!
Result: 6:15:51 (7th in age group)
The Run -: 42.2km
There is this moment in Ironman when you realise you have finally gone completely insane - when you stagger off the bike on wobbly legs with numb feet and inwardly cheer because you know you "only" have to run a marathon and you're done! T2 was super quick - just having to change my bike shoes for sneakers and put on my run belt. At the last second I decided to use the loo - I was hoping it would be my first and last toilet stop of the race. It wasted a couple of minutes but I appreciated the extra breather and I headed out onto the run course for what I hoped would be a steady, solid run that would bring me to the finish line in my dream run time of under 4 hours and 10 minutes. The run is a four-lap course with each lap just over 10km, beginning with a fairly steep climb and descent before a long, flat loop.
As unbelievable as it sounds, literally the moment that I began running, all of my pain disappeared. My legs had run a marathon two weeks before and they seemed to remember exactly what they had to do. I deliberately took it super easy for the first part of the run - I ran my first marathon four years ago and went out too fast too early...hitting the wall like I did during the back end of that run was something I will never forget and definitely never want to repeat! I don't like checking my watch for my pace too much during a long run - who needs the stress of that?? - but as I snuck a couple of glances during the first 5km, I was staggered to see that I was hitting each kilometre under 5:10 pace and I wasn't even out of breath.
At about the 6km mark I saw my Tri club friends Tarryn and Liss again - they delivered the news that I was coming third in my age group. THIRD??? What the??? My first thought was that the Ironman tracker must be playing up as usual, or worse, they weren't reading it properly, the poor things! In the back of my mind I thought even if it were true, I knew I couldn't maintain this pace for another 36km - but even if I "blew out" to 5:45/km , I would still be able to beat my last Ironman run time of 4:40 and would still have a chance of reaching my Plan A goal of a sub-12 hour finish. And could it be possible that in doing so, I might even end up in the top ten finishers??
I refused to let my mind get ahead of itself and continued with my easy effort running, knowing there was a very long way to go yet. I stuck with my nutrition plan to take a gel every 45 minutes for as long as my stomach could handle it and have water or electrolyte at every aid station. Honestly, the time flew. I really enjoyed that run, even as my calves began to complain at about the 10km mark. I decided to try the "cramp fix" on offer at the aid stations (nothing new on race day?? Pfft why not try EVERYTHING new on race day!!) to send a message to my calves that I was in control of them and they weren't going to let me down today of all days. Unfortunately I couldn't open the package on the move and when I finally succeeded, it exploded all over my face and I managed only to "cramp-fix" my eyeball...and I couldn't see for the next kilometre or so out of my left eye. Not ideal, but all part of the Ironman adventure!
At the 13km mark, I saw Tarryn again and she ran with me for a couple of hundred metres. I could hardly believe my ears when she said that I was running faster than anyone in my age group and had actually taken the lead. If I'd been surprised at being third, I was absolutely STUNNED to think that I might be in the lead. I had never won a triathlon in my life - what could possibly be the chances that my first win could be at an Ironman?? My very next thought was that I hoped not many people were watching me on the tracker from home...I couldn't handle the thought of disappointing them all when I inevitably fell apart and ended up losing this thing!
Again, I had to tell my mind not to get too far ahead of itself. I still had 28km to run and there was still the potential for everything to go to hell yet....
I took what ended up being my last gel at about the 18km mark. I had to talk myself very gently and kindly to convince myself to swallow it as everything in me gagged at the thought of any more of those sickly sweet little packages of gooey glucose. As it hit my stomach, I knew I'd asked too much - luckily I was at an aid station and ducked into the portaloo, worried that this was going to be the beginning of some severe GI issues and inevitably, the end of my dream run. But wouldn't you know it - I was fine (could've trusted that fart after all!) and I realised I was going to be okay for the rest of the race if I just stayed off the gels.
Out of the portaloo and back onto the run course, I was happy that my legs continued to feel good and that the toilet stop didn't seem to have upset my rhythm at all. On I ran, relishing the enthusiastic and very vocal crowd support. It was great to be supported by my friends and Richard, but holy cow - the kind words and encouragement from strangers was something that lifted me beyond words and never failed to bring a smile to my face. The sun was beginning to set and it was spectacular. Even though I was deep into the marathon, I could still appreciate how blessed I was to be out there, under a beautiful sunset, surrounded by so many other amazing and committed athletes who were all going to see this thing through, no matter what it took. I even got chatting for a short time to a man who was doing his THIRTY-FIRST Ironman at Port Macquarie - it took my breath away and I had a little tear as I told him what a legend he was. Truly amazing.
Onto the final lap and I bargained with my calf muscles to hold on for just one more climb up that hill - and in return I promised them a nice cruisy journey to the finish line. By now most people were walking up the hill - I was one of the few people who ran up it and it was great hearing the cheers and calls of, "Looking strong, girl!" and "You're flying!" from the spectators as I ran past. I was beginning to genuinely tire by now and those cheers from people who had never met me before gave me a strength I didn't know I had. When I reached the bottom of the hill, I collected my fourth and final coloured wrist band for the run - it was a very sweet moment knowing I was now officially heading towards the finish line.
I checked my pace and saw I had slowed to a consistent 5:35/km pace - but I was still passing people and not really getting overtaken myself so I figured whoever was behind me was probably slowing as well. Despite my twitchy calves and growing nausea from an overdose of sugar for the day, I was actually feeling really strong. It was dark now and people were beginning to wear the glow sticks they'd be given at the aid station to put around their necks. I promised my legs and stomach that they could cramp and vomit as much as they liked if they could just get me through these final 10 kilometres! I was now only having coke and water at the aid stations, and even took a little bit of Vegemite on a paddle pop stick in an effort to put some salt into my body to get my calves to hold out that little bit longer.
Step by step, one foot in front of the other, i made my way through that final lap. I made sure I thanked every volunteer and every group of spectators who had made a point of cheering me on as they recognised me each lap. It was a surreal and bittersweet feeling, knowing that this long, difficult day was drawing to a close and I was actually beginning to believe that I was going to make it to the finish line of this race! At the 40km mark, I was heading back into town and saw in the sky the light beams of the finish line and heard and felt through the ground the cheering of the crowds. It was a strange moment, realising I was only 2km from finishing this incredible race, especially with the growing possibility in my mind that I might actually be winning it! At 41km, I was heading into the final kilometre, preparing myself to slow down along the red carpet in the finisher chute and relish all the high fives, the cheers and the music, and the sound of Mike Reilly calling me over the finish line as an IRONMAN. Then all of a sudden, there was Tarryn on the other side of the barrier. She called out to me, saying, "Lee, you're going to have to sprint, don't talk just run, if you sprint you'll win your age group and you'll be going to Kona. Kona, Lee! Now don't let me beat you to the finish line!" And she was off, sprinting on the outside of the barrier before I could even spit out how ridiculous a thought it was that I could possibly win this race. Somehow, from some energy reserve that I didn't even know I had, I found another gear in my impossibly tired legs. I concentrated on nothing else but picking my feet up and putting them down as fast as I could. I was terrified of falling but even more terrified of failing. As I thundered down the final few hundred metres to the red carpet and the finisher chute, all of my good intentions to slow down and really soak up the experience went straight out the window. If it turned out that I was in fact winning this race, I certainly wasn't planning to lose it in the final 200 metres!
And suddenly, I was on the red carpet and heading towards the finish line. There is no real way to describe the energy at an Ironman finish line apart from pumping. I saw Richard briefly in the crowd waving to me and I waved as I kept running, arms in the air like some deranged gorilla and absolutely revelling in the fact that I had made it. I was an Ironman!! Mike Reilly called me over the finish line and somewhere amongst it all I heard him say "age group champion". I will never, ever forget the joy of that moment. Crossing the finish line at an Ironman is a breathtaking, unforgettable experience whether you come first, 70th or dead last. This one for me was indescribable.
The rest of the night and into the next day was an absolute blur. Of all things, I chose two boiled potatoes in the recovery tent and I carried them around with me on a plate for the next 30 minutes while I waited for Naomi. She'd finished a mere 40 seconds behind me and had been taken to the medical tent. I threw the potatoes out, untouched, when I finally left recovery and met up with Richard. We walked a kilometre to McDonalds where I celebrated with a large mocha instead of my usual small - it was the best way I could think to treat myself! There were athletes still running past the McDonalds and I wanted to stay and cheer them on to the finish but I was freezing (and chafed to the sheisenhousen) so in the end we went back to our hotel where I soaked in the bath and just stared at the results on my phone; where no matter how many times I refreshed the page, the result still stayed the same: Lee Bova - 1st Place. I didn't sleep at all that night, not a wink! Richard left to drive home at 4am but I stayed to attend the awards ceremony and the Kona roll down. I got to meet my idol - professional triathlete and overall female champion, Laura Siddall as she presented me with my Hawaiian Lei - the official Ironman symbol of worthiness in the quest for Kona. I then was directed straight to the World Championships registration table where I handed over my well-worn credit card and just like that, entered the biggest race of my life.
I flew home that afternoon and walked into my house at midnight. I got up and went to work at 7:30 the next morning as usual. I came home from work to a mountain of washing, school excursion forms to fill out and the news that the dog had eaten my official invitation to the World Championships. Once again, I was back to being a normal person and mum!
So how can I describe adequately the thoughts that went through my head in the days following this incredible race? Whilst I am still in shock at winning, and still hear the cynical little voice in my head chiming in with such snide gems as "Well, there were fewer people in your age group this year than in 2016" and "All the proper athletes obviously didn't enter this race", there is also a kinder voice butting in there somewhere too. That voice tells me that maybe this wasn't accidental at all. That maybe I did deserve this win. That all of my runs and rides in rain, hail, frost, sun and howling winds up and down the brutal hills in Hidden Valley actually did count for something. The 3:45am alarms, the training sessions I turned up to when I was on holidays, on night shift, and on the edge of insanity made me stronger than I realised. When I was exhausted, emotionally drained or just plain couldn't be bothered, I put my faith in the program set by Naomi and in my daily self-lecture:"No one gives a damn whether or not you want to train, just get up and go anyway" - and I went. I didn't miss a single session on my program, not even the ones that scared me the most. Heading into yet another long Melbourne winter of heavy training, I know what hard work awaits. But racing in Kona is an opportunity afforded only to a privileged few and I will suffer happily through this training block so that i can truly enjoy the experience of the Ironman World Championships.
My thanks and utmost gratitude for my win goes firstly to Naomi who took yet another massive leap of faith by giving me her blessing to enter this event with such short notice. Her training program was tailored perfectly for me and obviously had me peaking just at the right time. Naomi, I just cannot thank you enough for the tough sessions, the tough love and above all the true friendship you have provided along the way to this unbelievable result.
My husband Richard also deserves a "reserve champion" commendation for being my number one supporter, damage-control specialist and anchor to my ship of dreams in all of this. He's no triathlete but his willingness to cheer me on in every single race, Ironman cowbells in both hands, never fails to amaze me and his unwavering belief in my ability makes my heart sing.
I cannot wait to see what Hawaii holds for me in this sport - where in Ironman anything really is possible.