Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ironman Western Australia Race Report

One of my bike fit customers, Olivier Baillet, recently wrote a gripping report of his race at Ironman Western Australia.

This is a comeback of sorts for Olivier, as he returned to the sport of triathlon after a seven year absence with a goal of qualifying again for Kona at age 40.  His comeback culminated in a victory in the highly contested 40-45 age category at the 2010 Taiwan 70.3, and a 7th place at  Ironman Western Australia, which was indeed good enough to get him to Kona. Although Olivier is easily the smartest and most dedicated self-coached triathlete I know, his report highlights just how much a great performance is actually a mental battle with oneself.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Olivier Baillet.

October 2002. It's over 40 degrees and I'm walking, my body just can't take it anymore. I am heading towards the Energy Lab and I know I still need to do a u-turn before heading back to town. My mind starts to fall apart as I realize that the elusive dream of breaking 10 hours in Kona is over. Around me it's a battlefield with victims all over the place but no winner: everybody is in pain and there are lying bodies here and there. I start to jog again, pain is my friend, pain is weakness that leaves the body, pain is part of the game, pain IS the game, I'm stronger than pain. I catch up with one of my training buddies from New York, who tells me that we're on pace to break 10:30. Not what I wanted, but still a decent goal. My legs are progressively coming back, I am now running on the hill when the 1989 Ironbattle between Mark Allen and Dave Scott took place, I now know I will finish that bloody thing, and I just do it, crossing the finish line in 10.26.

The following day I realize that, although I gained 24' compared to 2001, which was the worst year ever in terms of wind conditions, I only gained 9 places; 361st overall in 2002 versus 370th in 2001. An average of 16 hours of training for 9 months for that! I had to make a decision. I would never be top 100 in Hawaii, I can't stand the heat, and I have made no progress in a year. And then it came: that's it, I quit, it's time to move on, I have lived a fantastic adventure since May 2000, when my wife bought me my first road bike ever, with a Hawaii qualification in Lake Placid 2001 at my first attempt at the distance with a 9:51, a second qualification for Hawaii the following year thanks to an age group win at the Keauhou Half Ironman, but I have reached my limit. But while I decided to turn the page, I swore to myself one thing: I'll come back to Kona, at 40 years of age, with my wife and my 2 (future) kids, whatever it takes. I turned 40 last week, will still be 40 next October, and the kids love to visit new beach places...


December 2010. The sun is out, the sky is blue, the stillness of the people is surreal and I'm super ready. Oh yeah, I am so, so super ready. I am containing myself, keeping that energy that wants to explode inside of me. These minutes before a big race count among the most exciting moments in my life. 3, 6, or 9 months of training are finally going to make sense. I just want to unleash that fire. It's time. Time to race. But before that, it's time for acknowledgement, and for thanks. Thanks for being at 40 healthier and stronger than ever. Thanks for having a wife who supports me and allows me to pursue my quest. Thanks for being part of that marvellous display of human will. Thanks for feeling that cool water up to my waist, breathing that fresh air, feeling the sun on my face. I purposely face opposite to the race direction to absorb the sunrays. Yeah, now I'm ready, bring it on! 

Bang! The washing machine is turned on in a split second. Finally!!! I tuck my head down and manage to refrain from shouting out of joy. Yesss, this is it, it's happening now, and it is here. I love that feeling of human mess, swimming one of top of each other, elbowing, I know it is part of the game, I know it won't last, and I know most people hate it and fear it, which makes me stronger.

Then we all start to progressively settle into our respective rhythm. We swim along a wooden jetty on our left and come back the other way. It's nice to race with the Australians as they are such good swimmers. For a while, I can't help admiring the stroke of the guy on my left. Slower cadence than me, smoother, effortless. Unfortunately I suddenly get swum over by a pair of huge arms, coming from nowhere. Apparently Mr big guy wants to follow the nice pair of feet I was drafting on. I resist, gently trying to push the guy out, but it doesn't take long before I lose the battle. Oh well, there's plenty of fast feet around, and by the way, here is a nice pair. Unfortunately, while I was battling with big arms, I lost touch with the big group in front of me and I know I will never get it back. So here I am in the lead of another big pack, not where I want to be. It's not long though before some of the guys behind me get impatient with my pace and take the lead. I'm fine to be passed and follow the stream, and I finally touch ground after 55' of relatively pleasant and calm swimming. 3' off my best, but right where I tend to be normally, and exactly on target. One down, two to go.

A guy thanks me with a smile: thanks, I drafted on you the whole way, nice pace!  And pass me running like a rabbit while I struggle to catch my breath. Whatever, I stick to my mantra: my race, my pace. I pass the timing mat. I know I have tens of people watching the race online and receiving my swim split right now. I know you guys are here. You almost all know what 55' means, it's as if I were sending an email to say 'hi guys, I'm doing just fine... And you ain't seen nothing yet!'.

Back to reality, it's time for the frantic T1 transition. Focus, Olivier, focus, you can't screw up anything. "Number 730! 730!" I shout, show me the row where my transition bag is, as right now I could do with some help. Ok, stay calm. Seat, please volunteer, help me to get my wetsuit off, armwarmers ? No, it's warm enough, gloves ? Yes, you need comfort and security, put them on. Socks ? It will slow you down to put them on, sure, but wait, comfort and security you just said, so ok but don't be surprised if your transition time is slow. Gel flask ? Yes, slide it into the bike jersey pocket, in case the 1500 calorie bottle on your bike cage falls, and don't forget to carry the salt tablets too. Helmet, oh I love the integrated visor, so cool. Ok, here I am standing again, last circular check, I have everything I need for 180k, thanks volunteer for cleaning my mess, and off I go. "730, 730!!" ah, I can see my white disk wheel sticking out, and I sprint towards my bike. Quick gaze, alles klar, tyres OK, and mount! Yoohoo, ok, cadence, cadence, cadence, get the blood flushing into your legs, tie your shoes tight, more, yeah, right there, perfect. We're now zooming through the crowd, they're shouting encouragements, great, feel the energy, suck it up, suck it up, oh I love that sport, I love it so much!!! I feel amazing!

And then like in every race, we competitors enter into a different world that spectators cannot imagine. A world of silence and loneliness. We left the crowd behind already a while ago. The airplanes flying by at 50kph are getting more rare. I start to shut down into my own world. I'm entering into my bubble. Then, as my mind gets more and more quiet, I remember an interview I read 8 or 9 years ago. 'The Zone', as Peter Reid -3 times Ironman World champion- says, I'm progressively entering the Zone. It takes a while, more than 50k, before I reach that stage, as I'm still troubled by the strong cyclists overtaking me and the threat of getting trapped into a potential drafting position, forcing me to slow down when I get passed. But I'm getting there, the Zone. First time ever. I hear the wind in my aero helmet and the aggressive sound -but so smooth, so sexy at the same time- of my disk wheel. Man, this is so good. Delightful. What a joy, what a pleasure. Then comes a windy portion. I remember what Natasha Badmann -5 times IM World Champion- said in Hawaii in 2001 when she mentioned that in the 80kph crosswind she felt like 'she was spreading her wings and could fly'. My jaw fell on the floor when she said that, but now I know what she meant. Use the energy from the wind, use it, don't battle it. Facing now a solid headwind, I think it's time to spread my wings too. At the same time, I remember what my yoga teacher says when I feel like crying in the pigeon pose: Ease into the effort. She's right, I shouldn't be pushing too hard, it's too early. The race hasn't started yet. Patience.

Over 37kph average and this feels like nothing. I'm starting to pass female pros, and they had a 15' headstart. Girls, no paycheck for you today, I shouldn't be in front of you. Drink, eat, grasp Gatorage at water station, through away empty bidon at the right place, thanks volunteer! Check speed, still average 37 plus. Man, I'm strong! Check heart rate: 130, too easy, you can go harder than that. Push, push, push. Hey, I know this guy, he passed me 1h ago. Ok, they start dropping like flies, and I'm still steady. Man, I love that sound, voohoohoo, God bless the inventor of the disk wheel. My legs are still feeling OK, it's my arms that start to suffer. The road surface is most of the time pretty rough, and the vibrations are taking a toll on my triceps. But it's ok, I don't need them anymore, just my legs. Thanks God a junction is coming. Out of the saddle, voluntarily change pace, change gear, I need that change, I need a break into the monotony, and too bad if I lose 15-20 seconds in the process. I'm doing very well and by 80k I know I am as fast as I have ever been over that distance in a race, covering it in 2h08. Except that in the race I did that, total bike distance was 80k. No worries, my legs are still fresh, I can probably hold that, or not far from it, for an extra 100k. I am now convinced that I will break 5h on the bike, a goal inside the big goal. While I race for myself as I have my own motivation and my own agenda, I must say that being part of the quite exclusive sub 5h bike split cyclists makes me proud, especially as a HKG SIR cyclist. Another junction: "I love your bike" says a supporter. Me too, man, me too. And I love that stuff. Average speed hasn't gone down, still around 37kph. I'm lapping tons of people, but I barely see them. In the Zone, I'm so present and absent at the same time. I feel indestructible.

Careful as I am, I realized at km 120 that I have swallowed much more than two thirds of my calories and decide to take less for a while. I don't want stomach problems on the run. Hope I'll have it all digested within 2 hours. 140k: moment of truth. I have not ridden more than that distance since March. Testing a completely unorthodox method (patent pending), I have done all my training rides faster than what I estimated to be Ironman race pace, but not a single really long distance ride. To cap it all, I have been in the no man's land for already 20k, so not much to look at or look forward to. Basically, me and my competitors are way past the 'show one's muscles' phase where we play the game of zooming by at 50 kph, enjoying the feeling of speed and rejoicing from the devastating effect this makes to the guy just passed who feels like he's standing still. At this stage of the game, we are all trying to conserve energy while holding tough towards the end of the bike. Not many passes occur around that period at that level. Hence the loneliness, and weariness, and the significant risk of slowing down. Historically, the 140k-160k period has always been my weak point, in every Ironman. What usually crumbles at this stage, if and only if my nutrition has been tip top, is the mind, the capacity to focus. Oddly enough, I haven't read much in the sports 'literature' about what it takes to focus for 10 hours non stop, but I know I never managed to be on top of things for that long. But as semi-pro buddy Erich said, 'Busselton IM is so boring... but you must press and press and press the pedals all the way'. That's what I'm doing my friend, believe me, but boredom is not far. Still, boring as it may get, I find that time passes very fast. The final stretch is tough though, the headwind has picked up quite a bit and I can't wait to be running, I see my instant and average speeds drop and I'm not happy with that, not happy at all. Still, I can see in front a guy who passed me ages ago, so I'm still catching up on people. Riding in the long corridor towards the transition, with the thick crowd yelling at us, I raise my left arm in a gesture meaning "c'mon, it's time to raise your voice", and fair enough, everybody starts to shout and clap, and I'm like a sponge swallowing all this power released in the air. But suddendly I channel my mind into getting into a rehearsal mode: in a minute, you'll have to dismount, leave your helmet, put your visor, your sunglasses, get all your supplements in case something goes wrong (Ibuprofen, caffeine tablets, salt tablets, magnesium spray for the cramps). Focus, Olivier, focus. 

Transition's done already, and my legs feel terrible. No surprise here, that is the quintessence of triathlon! But I'm running 4:15/km... You're going too fast man, slow down. Same scenario as on the bike, guys pass me as if I were a spectator standing and watching. That's ridiculous: are they running 3:30ies or what ? My race, my pace, my race, my pace, my... What's that, a stitch, stomach pain ? No, that can't be. I can't get a stitch at such a slow pace! Keep running, pain is my friend, a stich is nothing, keep running. Pain gets worse though. In an attempt to ease into it, I read the inscriptions on the pavement, written with chalk. Some are funny 'Dad, I'm pregnant!', perfect timing to get this kind of news, in the beginning of the marathon of an Ironman. Some are just nice to read 'Number XX, you're inspirational'. It's true, the 1300 athletes are inspirational, we all are, together, we're inspiring thousands of people, today, now. I then start to think about my group of friends, my support team, my 'Ironman village' as someone wrote it recently. Yeah, we all need a village to get through that phenomenal undertaking. I think about my wife and my kids, my physical therapist, my bike fitter, my training buddies from the Lantau Buffalos, the SIRs, the Dragons, the people from the 3 triathlon shops I go to in HKG: they are all behind me, wanting me to have a great race. I am now running with my clenched right fist deep into my right kidney and I can feel the pity in the eyes of several supporters in the crowd. Yes, not a pretty sight, I know, but that bloody hurts, and it's starting to get the better on me. In fact, it hurts so much that I think for a minute or two: 'man, I didn't pick up the best moment to get a crisis of appendicitis'. Then the worst thing happened: a guy from my age group passes me. The 'E' letter on his right calf, which is the letter for the 40-44 age category, strikes me like lightning. And then another one passes by little after. I know at that time that I am still well in contention for a slot for the World Championship. Very few people finish the swim-bike combination in less than 6 hours, which is what I have just done. A fantastic achievement to my standards, but which would be meaningless if not followed by a solid marathon. I need a 3:20 marathon to get that slot, and I have been training for that pace, and faster, for over a year now. On a normal day, I can do that. But right now I'm walking. I feel sorry for myself, why do I always put myself in situations like this, why I am always looking for such misery ? And then, right in front of me, I read: 'don't take life too seriously'. A few meters after 'dad, in my eyes, you're an Ironman', with the drawing of a pair of eyes with the symbol of Ironman in it. 

OK, Olivier, two things: 1) you are NOT going into a depressive move if you don't go to the World Championship, even if it means the world to you and 2) you are NOT coming back home this time with a 'Did Not Finish' tattooed on your forehead like last March at Ironman Port Macquarie. In every Ironman, there is a moment of truth. Hammering the swim, hammering the bike, all this is easy if everything goes according to plan. But it's not what I came for. I came to see what I'm made of, I came to see if my mental fortitude, that which carried me through 4 Ironmans, 3 ultra trails, and at the top of a couple of pretty high mountains, was still there. Has age made me weaker? Is being more fulfilled in my life and having less things to prove to myself a good reason to have turned my mental of steel into the white marshmallow kind of stuff that my daughter likes so much ? So it's happening now. You cannot control everything, but you can always make decisions. Attitude is everything. I make a decision: stop moving, press that fist deeper, bend over, fist deeper, deeper. I stay like this forever. It hurts so much. Deeper, deeper. Pain is my friend, pain is my friend. It's working, the pain starts to subside, I'm walking now, soon I start jogging, finally I'm running again. Man, I'm back! Next decision: from now on, I'm exclusively drinking Coke, washing out my digestion problems, diffusing flush of sugar into my blood, electrifying my brain with caffeine. Yeah, I'm back for good, it's holding well, it seems, but don't get too excited either, that was pretty close! 

Let's start that thing all over again. I have no idea how many minutes I have lost. These have been really painful 15 km, but it's over, I'm now running 4:45/km again. Just hold that pace and don't blow up. The 'feel strong' is back, the zone too. I'm passing, passing and passing. Nobody can maintain my pace around me. I walk at every aid station, swallowing coke and putting ice my mouth as the temperature rises, losing 10 to 20" each time in the process but I don't care. If it's hard for me, it's hard for everybody. I'm trained for that, oh boy, I'm so super trained for that. Oops, I'm running 4:20 pace, too fast. Half marathon mark. Finally! The race starts here. All the rest has been a warm up, a build up. Now guys will drop like flies, or fly! For all my heavy legs and my digestion problem, I'm closer to the second category. I'm catching up. The crowd is shouting encouragements: looking strong Oli, go Olivier, great job Oliver, whatever the name they use, no doubt, they're talking about me, and I don't think they're lying. It's time to tuck my head down, raise that heart rate, and push, push, push. Right there, 50m away, is the blond guy in my Age Group who passed me at the beginning of the run. OK, after more than 8 hours of almost solo endurance effort, it's time to actually race for a place. The guy looks so-so, I would say, and I can feel I can take him down. Aid station... Now, now, go! While he's making a slight incurve to get a drink, I pass through the exterior part of the road, at a pace that doesn't look like a sprint, it would be too obvious and would not impress him, but at a sustained pace that doesn't leave a doubt: I want him to think: 'man, he looks strong, so far into the race, there's nothing I can do'. And nothing he did, the poor fellow. Ok, head down again. I remember the silly catch phrase from Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: I am still a machine. Yes, I am, churning my legs and arms. Overall, I'm slow, but at this stage, it feels like I'm not. And then, a few kilometres after, in front me, the second guy who passed me, right there, ready to be picked up. Ok, he's in better shape than the other, and it takes me a while to catch him up. At each lap we are given a black bracelet. I have done 3 laps and I took the time to check his wrist: so did he. Damn, if he reacts, we're in for a 4k battle until the finish chute. I don't want that. Even if I had a bad marathon start, I may still be in contention for Hawaii, and the last slot may be decided between him and me. He doesn't know that. Ignorance is bliss. I decide to pass him slowly, hiding my bracelets as much as possible, turning my hand and wrist so that he cannot see that we're even in terms of km. No reaction, he's not coming with me, he's done. Now, I'm gonna have to find the perfect line between pushing with the hope of potentially catching up fading competition ahead of me and keeping enough energy to reach the end. Time accelerates suddenly, the pain is gone, 'orange!', I shout to the volunteers, yeah, give me that orange bracelet, opening me the access to the finish line. And then it hits me. I had forbidden myself to visualize that image in advance as I would get so excited that I couldn't sleep after that. But here it is, the finish line. The emotion is overwhelming, the fire has to go out, I am hoping to cry but it's not coming, it's not coming, but it has to go out, somehow, and then it comes, no cry but a huge scream, I shout like a madman and at the same time I explode in laughter with a satanic laugh, I shout, shout and shout. I did it, I did it. 9:24, personal best by 27 minutes, stronger than ever before. 

The following day, after a very emotional awards ceremony full of suspense and a bit of luck (as several guys in front of me decided not to take their slots for Hawaii), I get my slot for the Holy Grail. What a quest, what a journey, what an adventure. Ironman is so much more than swim, bike and run; it can be a life changing process. 

I wish all of you, whatever your level, your aspirations, your pain threshold, your willpower, will get that kind of fulfilment once in your life.  
Olivier Baillet


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