In Chinese culture, the number 8 is lucky. The Olympics in Beijing were opened at 8pm on 8/8/2008. On Sunday 19th April at Ironman China, my race number was 8. And now I have 8 sunburnt into my skin!
Last year Ironman China was horrific due to "freak" weather conditions. No chance of that happening 2 years in a row! As everyone who raced has said, these were by far the toughest conditions I've ever raced in. I was at the media conference with girls saying "the hotter the better", surely they wouldn't have asked for this? Or wished this on all of us? A staggering 40% of the field did not finish.
Most people know that the temperature hit 45 (113f) degrees c, what most people don't know is that the "heat index" hit 56 (139f)...Herein lay the problem.
I was hungry for the win, and determined to go after it! I was disappointed with my performance 6 weeks earlier in New Zealand and wanted retribution. I knew it was going to be tough. Edith Niederfriniger I think is very similar to me across all 3, and I knew Tereza Macel was on form after a strong race at the Singapore 70.3. Then there was Hillary Biscay, Mariska Kramer-Postma and Kim Loeffler too...we totalled 5 past Ironman Champions.
The theme of the day for me was racing blind and purely on feel. It's the first time in an Ironman that I haven't seen the course. I asked Belinda Granger, last year's winner, if I should check it out. Belinda never checks out the course, so I wasn't surprised by her answer- "if you're confident about your biking, which you should be, you'll be fine, and the run's flat". Now I couldn't see the course, as it would mean I wasn't confident.
Blind also meant no heart rate and no bike computer. I've raced my last couple of IM without HR and I really like it, but this was the first time with no computer too.
The swim was absolute chaos, a mass start with age groupers wearing wetsuits, the pros speed suits. We were told in race week that the river currents were strong- they weren't kidding! Getting around the buoys was a mission- battling the current was mission impossible for some. Usually when I look up in a swim I can see a stream of athletes' ahead- the direction to swim is pretty clear. This time I would look up to see swimmers scattered over a 50m radius- with no idea who to follow. We were being swept all over the place, and all choosing different lines. It was as if we were all told to go swim around randomly for about the right amount of time, and then we could get out!
I had avoided the river in race week. I didn't want to risk picking up any bugs. So lap 1 was a disaster, I was 5 mins behind the lead female, Tereza Macel, lap 2 slightly wiser, a further 3. I swam a 54:59.
I was very happy that once on the bike I was able to take on Michael Phelps attitude from his book "No Limits", the acronym "W.I.N."- What's important now? I put the swim out of my mind. Dwelling on the swim wasn't going to help me on the bike.
The bike course was fantastic; it took us along undulating smooth highway, through villages and Haikou City. It's definitely the sort of course I like- point and go!
I rode really well for me, a 5 hour 12. I had moved the seat of my Airfoil further forward since NZ, and I felt much more powerful. I caught Edith just after the first turnaround at 45kms, and then rode with her for the next 45, until she dropped me. It was getting hot. At this point I started to feel a bit average, and realized that I hadn't peed. I needed to drink more. Until that point I was getting a 500ml water bottle at every aid station- every 30 mins. So I started slowing down at the aid stations and grabbing 2 bottles each time, half in the mouth, half on the head- absolute heaven. I chose to wear a non- aero helmet and am very glad of that decision. I came good, and finished the bike feeling pretty strong.
Tereza had flown on the bike, and was 16 minutes ahead of me into transition. But as I came in on the bike, the course follows the first 10km of the run course. I caught sight of her walking. This gave me a huge boost. On the flipside, I couldn't see a lot of running happening, and that was pretty ominous. The worst part of the run was the first 10kms, the heat was just so brutally intense, like nothing I've ever experienced. My head felt like it was in a vice, my hands felt swollen and my skin slathered in thick white sunscreen was all making me feel slightly sick. Somehow it got better.
There were more athletes than I have ever seen walking- and these were the 70.3 athletes too!
In the first 10ks I really wanted to walk, but I wanted to win more. That's what kept me going.
I just concentrated on running- any pace. It didn't matter, it was a start, and I was at least moving forward. I was breathing like a freight train, and yet I think I was clocking near 5 min kms, about 50 seconds slower than planned. I didn't ever consider what the temperature actually was, or my pace- that was all irrelevant, I appeared to be gaining on the others, and that's all that mattered. None of these facts would have got me up the road any quicker. They probably would have just killed me mentally! This was one of those times where it's "best not to know".
I was looking up at the sky- desperately searching for clouds! There were a few wisps, nothing more. But at soon as there was a slight bit of breeze, or shade, and the temp dropped just slightly, I picked up my pace. It was noticeably easier. I pushed when I could, and concentrated on just moving when it was too hot. I was suffering too, but not as much as others it seemed. I could see I was gaining on the girls ahead so I just kept working.
In that first 10kms I made up 10 mins on Tereza and was only just behind Edith. At this point I thought I could catch them. I took the lead at about 18ks. I really didn't let myself think about the win until I was at the 30km turnaround, I was heading for home and I could see there was no one coming to get me. I had been dying to look behind to get some kind of indication of the gap. I couldn't turn around- it would break one of my golden rules- never look back! Even though I counted 7 mins to Edith, I was so conscious of not cramping, or dehydrating that I remained really focused the whole way to the finish.
Nutrition was paramount. I made sure that I took on whatever liquid was on offer, and as much as I could. This was no time for being choosy! Most people were stopping for aid and so they weren't really prepared for anyone trying to run through the stations- so I just had to grab whatever I could. I was taking almost 2gs of sodium per hour, and made sure I had my High5 gels in small amounts- because I knew my guts would be more sensitive. There was no room for slacking off. I felt totally on the edge. I'm usually a peeing machine on the run- I think I went once.
I saw my friend Hillary Biscay, out on the run course, she was so excited to see me in the lead- she was awesome! There's no crowds cheering in China- but I didn't need it- there was Hillary- she nearly made me cry- so I shouted back at her "I love you Hillary!" I must have been delirious.
The finish chute was quite an emotional experience. 9 hours and 48 minutes worth of focusing was over- and I had done it! I crossed the line 1st female, 5th overall, and my 3:35 run was the fastest of the day- men included- and broke the course record. It could be my best ever day at the office.
I didn't think I'd win another Ironman until I was able to put together a sub 3 hour run. I've been training to do just that. So quite ironic that I ran one of my slowest times ever and it was the fastest on the day- crazy! Yes the course was flat, no I don't think it was long. It was just insanely crazy, crippling, elephant on your back- hot!
Ironman commentator Whit Raymond spoilt me rotten- it was my birthday the following day- and I think it has to be my best ever present. I'm not a "look at me" type, but for one day it was really quite nice. Thank you Whit.
After all our suffering, it was the best post-race camaraderie I've ever experienced. We were drawn together and had mutual respect for anyone who was out there- had they finished or not. For most, not finishing wasn't a choice and they don't even remember what happened!
Without a doubt I believe I won this race because of my attitude on race day. I'm bottling this feeling and keeping it safe. I altered my expectations and my pace with the conditions and how I felt. I was going to say, "I listened to my body", I definitely did on the bike, but I had to ignore it on the run, or I wouldn't have finished! Would I race "blind" again? Absolutely. Would I come back and race Ironman China again? Most definitely.
Thanks to all my sponsors for their support, and a BIG thank you to Kristian, my husband and coach, who prepared me perfectly for this race.
Photo courtesy of Steph Cox