Challenge Cairns. 1.9k fighting the croc's in the water, 90k riding alongside pristine ocean views and winding roads, and 21k through downtown Cairns... actually, it was about 18k along the steaming asphalt highway before relief from the monotony by going into town and past the cheering crowds and smiling kids faces!
I was up there a few days before race day and immediately eased into the long weekend like sitting in an old well-worn leather chair. The sky was clear and blue. The air was cool but the sun warm on my skin. With skinny, smooth and super-fit looking bodies everywhere it was obvious of what was about to come: the mother of all triathlons! With the transition actually 17k north of the township, and the run finishing in Cairns itself, I was unsure of how well it was all going to run. But come race day, USM events demonstrated a silky-smooth organisation by having traffic flowing relatively easily around it all. Which made it much more spectator friendly than I first thought.
A swim in the sectioned-off race area on the Friday before both settled and intensified the nerves. Settled, in that the water was warm enough (especially with a wetsuit on!) and so enjoyable I could have stayed in there all day. Intensified, in that rumors were abound that there was a HUGE crocodile who lived just around the corner of the bay. Let the mind games begin!
In amongst it all I had an opportunity to listen to Pete Jacobs chat and answer some questions. What a laid-back guy. You'd never guess he had the fastest run split at Kona last year! After the informal chat, he gave away a new sponsors shirt - the prize went to the first person who called out his run split time from Kona. Another guy and I both called out the hours and minutes (2:41) and when asked the seconds I was onto it - 6 seconds! I always told Al my 'nerdiness' would pay off one day - I now have the shirt to prove it!
Come race day I was ready to go. After watching the pros and then age groupers head off for the Ironman event (they started about 40 minutes before my wave) it was a matter of keeping the nerves at bay. With support crew handy (thanks for being their mum and Holster!) and Lance from Reddog their ready to tackle the event also, before I knew it the time had come to zip up the wetsuit and head down to the waters edge. I was unsure how it would all turn out - with 600-odd Ironman triathletes already out on the same swim course I was expecting absolute chaos on the M-shaped swim. Imagine my surprise when I found my own bit of space within the first 50m! It was as if everyone was going really wide around the first buoy! Other than coping a massive kick right into my left eye socket (which resulted in two quickly successive thoughts - "F@#k that hurt!" to "Woo hoo! My goggles didn't break!") I made it through the swim in a PB for 1.9k. Whatever I did worked!
Apart from a minor detour from the swim exit to my bike (I followed the Ironman path rather than the half ironman path) I was on my stead in no time and heading out onto the scenic ride. Thankfully I drove over the course the day before, otherwise the section of hilly climbing near the middle would have really caught me off guard! It had felt like a quick bike course the day before, and again in the race heading north. I was into a nice rhythm at about 35k and my chain came off the rear cassette! I couldn't jump it back on so had to stop and use my hand. Such a frustrating feeling in the middle of a race, feeling good, and having to stop! Not much I could do about it though, so back into it. Thinking of my nutrition, staying on top of my carb intake, fluids and salt capsules. Guess who I found just after the turnaround? Macca! He was heading back towards town for his first lap on the bike. It's not everyday you get to ride with a world champion! In hindsight, without having to stop to put my chain back on I would have missed that opportunity. So there is proof that everything happens for a reason, right? The last 15k on the bike were tough. There was a bit of a headwind and it felt like the effort to speed output was nowhere near as nice as the first 70k. I enjoyed it though, as it gave me an opportunity to put a nice gap between me and some of the guys that had been leapfrogging me for the past 30-odd k's. I got into transition confident that I had put everything into that ride - my quads had been burning and ready to burst out of the skin so many times but each time I was able to spin it out in an easier gear for just enough time to refresh them.
Onto the run and the long lonely road down the highway into Cairns. Never have the aid stations felt so far apart! By now the heat had picked up and all I wanted was water and ice! I dialed-in a steady pace early on and was able to keep it locked in for the whole 21k. A few times my quads had the pre-cramp twinge, but I kept knocking down the salt capsules which worked. Again, I made the most of the run, took in the scenery and began the constant monologue going between my ears. "High hips", "relax the shoulders", "focus on the next aid station", "can't wait for a beer", "maybe that guy will give me a piggy-back", "catch that next guy"... Never a dull moment! I have to commend the volunteers - every one of them was smiling and went above and beyond to help me out as I made my way through. And so many kids! I ended up pouring so much ice down the back of my suit that my lower back went numb - and even then I wanted more! By the time I hit town I was feeling great - on a roll, steady rhythm and so far the body had not packed up and gone home. By this stage I was doing a fair bit of running alone and yet each group of people I passed in that last 3k clapped and cheered me on - I felt like a superstar! It made me realise what a HUGE advantage it is just to be someone like Chris McCormack - with everyone cheering you on you find this extra gear that somehow makes the pain (or the voice in your head that is happily telling you how much pain you're in) quieten down. I found my way down the finishing chute and have to say - "I felt brilliant!". I can't remembering enjoying a race so much from start to finish. I think it was a combination of a stunning location, good preparation, great support, experienced race and food plan, and the buzz of it all coming together on the day. For sure this is my favourite race format by far. While I enjoy the challenge of the full Ironman, there is something about the half that feels just right. Enough time to make a difference with a good ride and run, but not out there long enough that it takes 6 weeks to recover!
And the end of the day, I finished 2nd in my age group (and 10th overall) with a 12 minute PB (4:26:xx).
I highly recommend taking part in Challenge Cairns. For a first time effort they seem to have done a great job in a great location. A big thanks to Kev at No More Knots for the massages and Trent @ Reddog for helping me put it all together. Also, team Whippet for coming through again! Sometimes I think I have it easy doing the race compared to the efforts you guys put in to find the best vantage points!