Firstly I have to confess, I am not really a triathlete. I did a dozen triathlons in my early 20's before I worked out that I was an awful swimmer, a modest rider but a pretty fast runner. I also enjoyed running more than riding, and lots more than swimming. So I've spent the last two decades as a runner and haven't done a triathlon in 18 years, but having recently talked a bunch of mates into doing an Ironman I thought the triple-tri would be a good first comeback triathlon.
I also figured as a young fella, that one is fast when young, and then you get slower as you age. So as a life-long strategy I chose to run fast while I was young, and leave long-distance races, such as marathons and Ironman until I was an old codger. My thinking was that this would allow me fresh challenges, without being reminded that I am not as fast or strong as I once was. Being 41, I was no longer able to pretend that I was in my youth, so here I am building towards Ironman WA in December 2013.
With a target set, it was time to start preparing - dust off the 1992 Malvern Star and buy a pair of swimmers. I also had to face the reality that I had never raced further than 50 km or 3.5 hours, so I needed experience at fueling and fatigue management, not to mention facing an intimidating long open-water swim. The Sri Chinmoy Triple Tri has a 3.5km open water swim, so I figured I would give it a go and sent off my solo entry.
The knowledgeable triathletes that I mentioned this to were of the unanimous opinion that I was perhaps being a little ambitious. I had realistic ambitions for the day (i) finish, (ii) complete the swims confidently, (iii) enjoy myself, and (iv) take the solo course record for the final run leg.
We had a beautiful day for the race - dead calm for the first swim. Into my old custom fit Aleeda wetsuit. It's a credit to the benefits of a fitness lifestyle that a custom fit wetsuit made for me when I was 21 still fits at 41 as well as it ever did. As a non-swimmer, wetsuit swims are by far the best kind of swim. I can't swim and my longest training session has been 1500 m with breaks, so I approached the swim with some trepidation.
The start was low key in typical Sri Chinmoy fashion, with a dozen of us in the water for the solo start. We spread out quickly, or to be honest the pack swam away from me quickly, as I modestly made my way around Lake Ginninderra. In training I'd had issues with lactate accumulating in my arms. It appears this is from 3-breathing, whereas in the race I 2-breathed and had absolutely no issues with fatigue. It seems my muscles just like oxygen too much. The water was fairly warm until the major turn, but then was much colder once we turned towards the swim exit. Around this time the lead team swimmers went past like a motor boat.
It was a relief to get out of the water because I now knew that I could complete the race - my biggest uncertainty was whether I could really do the swims. Although the big swim was still to come, I was sure I could complete it. Being early in the morning it was still fairly cool, so two cycling jerseys and winter arm warmers were the go for the first ride. It still took until the base of Black Mountain for me to really get my mojo back after the coldness of the swim. The walk up 'push-bike hill' on Black Mountain was the first chance to really meet my fellow competitors, they really should have a photo on the web site of the stream of lyrca clad athletes all walking up the fire trail pushing or carrying their bikes. Once we neared the asphalt I started riding again, and set my normal riding pattern for the day - pass people going up hills and on flats, and let them past as I rode like a Nanna in a 73 Corolla on the way back down. I could make excuses about riding a 'mountain bike' with no suspension, commuter tyres with solid bead and 55PSI. But the reality is that I am barely a cyclist, and certainly not a MTB'er. On the bright side, although the tyres gave very little grip I had no pinch flats and they are fast on the smoother surfaces.
Coming off the bike I downed a salt-fizz in transition. I used one of these in nearly all the transitions for the day, and if avoiding cramp is a measure of success then this was adequate for salt replacement. They are also a pleasant taste to 'resample' during the swim. My other nutrition for the day was a single gatorade bottle on each bike leg and then endura gels, where I had three on most ride and run legs. I ate one banana in T4 to keep my wife happy, and had some fruit at an aid station late in the day. I have adapted to gels in running races, where I can carry enough to give myself nutrition certainty when custom drinks are not available. I also find that gels avoid the horrible mouth and throat effects of too much sports drink. I raced in Sugoi tri-shorts all day as a trial of gear for Ironman, these were great. I used chamois cream at the start of each ride, and had no chafing and no issues with the chamois on the runs. I am used to racing in running shorts that have a pocket that can hold my gels, so I did all three runs holding my spare gels in my hand. As a runner I don't believe in race belts as I have no fleshy bits to support them.
Given goal #1 was to finish I needed to avoid spending any go-beans on the runs. So on each climb I stopped and stayed with the first competitor that I caught, so I walked up most of the early hills. The feeling on the course was very much like a long training run, I had several extended conversations with new friends. On this run I met fellow solo competitors Warren, James and Nick, who I would see and travel with regularly throughout the day. Coming down through the War Memorial I diverted to pause and reflect for a minute at the Montevideo Maru memorial in memory of my grandfather, then rejoined James and Nick for the trot down to the boatshed and completion of our first triathlon of the day. A team competitor we were with had fallen three times on the run - beats me how.
The swim down Lake Burley Griffin was flat, and my confidence was buoyed not only by the successful 1500m in leg 1, but by having my mate Jon paddle with me the whole way - I do recommend an escort paddler for this leg. I swam this 3.5km leg non-stop with only the barest twinge of incipient cramps in my legs that were driven off by a few kicks. The water temperature was variable, and for the second time today I came out shaking from the cold by the time I finished. I still think this is a small penalty to pay for the benefits of a lean body on hills. The shivers passed quickly once on the bike as the day had warmed up nicely. Maybe I'll invest in one of those newfangled wetsuits that has sleeves.
The second cycle is probably the hottest leg, especially as the breeze doesn't make it to the stretch at the back of Mt Stromlo. My helper Jon rode most of the remainder of the course with me. Having returned from Afghanistan about 10 days earlier he had not had the opportunity to swim, ride or run for six months. I'm sure he would have been a fellow solo competitor otherwise. He took a tumble over his bars on one of the downhills prior to the Uriarra road crossing and lost a whole swag of skin, but still rode what must have been close to 100km in the afternoon without complaint. Summiting Stromlo is a watershed moment in the race. I reached here feeling comfortable save for a lumpy throat converting itself into a bit of a head cold, but I knew it was all (figuratively) downhill from here. The challenges that I thought were a risk were behind me - I had swum the two longest swims, I had done most of the mountain biking, and I had avoided cracking with fatigue or going out too hard.
I walked up the steep pitches on the bike and run legs, as well as the technical downhills on the bike, this is a safe strategy, but I left many minutes out on the course. If you want a good time for this race, getting good MTB skills and a sensible bike will pay dividends. The Lake Tuggeranong swim had a bit of surface luffed up by the breeze, which set up a modest washing machine effect near the exit at the Arts Centre - but at 1200m it is best summarised as a refreshing dip at this part of the race. I wet suited for it, but I think a good swimmer would be faster without the transition delays. The final ride includes two sharp climbs, plus the famous tunnel under Hindmarsh Drive. I think riding the tunnel is for people smaller or more skilled them me - probably both.
Into the last transition I still pretended to myself that I was going to shoot for the solo record for this leg. I was fairly fresh and had the advantage that the day was now cooling into evening. I struggled into the toe-socks and five-fingers again (I did all my runs in these) and set off up Red Hill at a trot. Coming down towards the bike path in Curtin I was about a minute outside the time I figured I needed. I had been using the goal of racing this last leg as an excuse to go easy in the rest of the event. This had served its purpose - I was on the last leg and was going to finish, I had avoided going out too hard. I had enjoyed myself, and completed the swims. As a bonus I was going to place in the middle of the solo field, which is always nice and was certainly more than I deserved. Approaching the aid station I elected to enjoy this last leg and finish fresh and happy rather than shatter myself in a probably unsuccessful attempt on the record. So I stopped at the aid station, gorged down half the remaining fruit, and chatted to the volunteer for a minute or four (really? it felt like two but the Garmin never lies), and I then pattered down the bike path to meet my wife and kids. The kids were happy to see me back in my home suburb, so I ran with them for a bit, before pressing on towards the finish at a pace 5:45/km and a heart rate of 120 bpm. I felt invincible, it was so smooth and comfortable just cruising alone the bike path towards the finish. Every race I've ever done before I've flogged myself to grab every second as I approach the finish - easing off to savour those last few minutes is a completely different experience.
It was close to dark as I reached Yarralumla Bay and crossed the line hand-in-hand with my kids Charlie and Delle, in a bit over 14:13. I was rewarded with the famous Sri Chinmoy post-race food and presentations shortly after. I was surprised to discover that I came 4th U50 Male, and 5th solo overall. Hat's off to the other Craig that was faster than me and took out the over 50 category.
Logistics is a big component of this event for solo competitors. Transition kits are essential, my crew were great (thanks Mum, Dad and Jon), planning is probably a little easier if your crew have raced before themselves and know Canberra. Knowing the course, at least roughly, is also an advantage and minimises risk - several non-local solo competitors took wrong turns. The course directions on the web are ambiguous in places. The marking on the day is good, but there are a hundred opportunities to err.
The solo Triple-Tri has a mystique about it, and as with most big challenges this is sort of justified. It is a long day and is only achievable by those that are really fit. But it is not only for the elite. There were clearly two groups of solo athletes that finished the event. The racers that did 12 hours, and the rest of us that did 14 hours or more. Racing the event takes thorough preparation and has the risk of overextending. But many, many Bilby's could complete this event if their goal is simply to finish. Sure, you need to be able to ride and run for a few hours without being shattered, but the regular transitions seem to keep you fresh throughout the day. I approached this race as though it was an epic training day and it pretty much was. In post-race recovery I had much less muscle soreness than I would from racing a marathon, but have noticed my metabolism in a funny place that affects sleep and eating this week. This is a classic local race that is more accessible than you think.