Contextually speaking, if you’re even considering competing in a triathlon, it’s highly likely that your life circumstances are of a vastly superior nature when compared to the majority of the world. If you’re any kind of triathlete, be it a first timer, full time pro or anything in between, it usually means you have a steady income, access to plenty of good food and are heavily supported by loving people around you. You have the means to justify paying for the insanely expensive equipment, the race fees, the travel, exorbitant grocery bills, constant physical therapy and maybe even a full-time coach. You have people personally and professionally who can cover for you whilst you selfishly train for hours on end. All of which are luxuries that most people will never be privileged enough to even consider. All things that quiet rightfully demand a deep level of appreciation and gratitude.
Yet, for many athletes (myself included), especially when results don’t align with expectation, it seems almost impossible to find any kind of positive light when the goal race is over. When your training blocks are done, you’re physically and mentally exhausted, your result has been banked and you’re in a limbo between goals that for no reason feels like it will never end. For a moment, it all feels so final. No more chances, no more races. Back to the mundanity of being a ‘normal person’.
Triathlons are hard. Regardless of the distance, you choose to suit up and swim in open waters amongst thrashing bodies, for longer than you want to, run from the water to your bicycle and ride it fast as you can, for longer than you should, then run faster than you think you can for longer than you think you want to. It’s gruelling, painful and acutely physically destructive. This is the show everyone sees, but what most people never realise, is that all the race day insanity is the just the fruit from a tree that was seeded months, if not years in the advance. Painstakingly nurtured through the seasons, in the dark, the cold, the rain and frosty winds. No one watching on, cheering or handling the food and water. Just pure commitment to ensuring the fruit is sweet and satisfying on race day.
During race preparation, Triathletes, at least those of us wanting to finish the race, ride a constant roller coaster of ups and downs, we jump through hoops and navigate roadblocks, fight through sickness and health. We often stress on the logistics of every training session. Where will the time come from? What or who will be sacrificed or inconvenienced in the relentless pursuit of 100% completion of our weekly training calendar, all so we can start again Monday without the guilt that seemingly accumulates with every orange or red mark on the missed or incomplete sessions gone by. We sometimes feel in a constant state of here and there. Swim stuff in the car, goggles in our ‘other bag’, triathlon bike at office, run kit in the wash, road bike in for a service, wetsuit stuffed in a bucket smelling of seaweed, bike shoes accidentally left at work, just one arm warmer, only one of the socks that matches your only clean cycling kit. I’ll spare the detail and mayhem of flat batteries, tracking and charging all the watches, bike computers, lights and gear sets.
I make it sound all too hard. So why do we do it? Experiences.
Challenge Shepparton is my favourite race on the triathlon calendar. It was the first place I ever competed in the swim/bike/run, so it also holds a little nostalgia for me. It reminds me of how far I’ve come as an athlete since I first dipped my toe in the water. Pun intended.
This year’s event was approximately 18 months in the making. A cancellation due to change of event ownership, a reinstatement followed by a few postponements later, I found myself in Shep again, this time in a much cooler early April rather than a balmy early November when the event historically takes place. It was to be my first long distance triathlon in nearly 2yrs. With some personal hardship, a couple of bouts of illness, a sub 3hr marathon attempt and a pandemic mostly to blame for the hiatus from the tri format.
The race preparation was a little different mentally to what I was used to, as it was for all athletes though the pandemic. Without the confidence that events will go ahead as planned and all the race calendar changes, I found it difficult to focus at times. Work and home life was also providing new challenges with all the restrictions on our lifestyles and business environments. Although it was more exciting than usual as the race became closer, due to the long wait between events.
Around early February, 90 days out from the race, it was evident to me that my bike fitness was way behind where it had been in previous years, so I committed to taking every second Wednesday morning off to ride with my squad in pursuit of more strength. On the first of the Wednesdays, myself, my coach and another friend took off on our bikes for the hills, where the 3 of us planned to complete 10x8minute efforts at race pace on the flat country roads, before riding back nice and easy. I couldn’t wait, the weather was sunny, mild and no wind, what cyclist’s dreams are made of. I hadn’t ridden with anyone for what felt like forever, with most of my recent training taking place on my own, doing laps of secluded country roads whilst my family minded my little boy for me on a weekend, or squeezed into lunch breaks at work.
The ride out of town started a little hot as usual, my reluctance to hold the wheel was evidence of my lack of confidence on the bike, my not so fit legs nervously anticipating 80 minutes of all out effort with 2 of the strongest riders in our squad. On the second of our planned efforts, we had just completed a u-turn at a junction. I was third wheel at the back, punching out of the saddle to close the small gap that had opened as we accelerated out of the tight turn when a fly buzzed around my ear, which is quite common when cycling and is normally swept away with a flick of the wrist, but this time it very unexpectedly burrowed right into my ear. In what felt like an instant, I was lying on the side of the quiet country road, completely debilitated, slapping and poking the side of my head in a panic, completely confused. The buzzing in my head was like nothing else, almost unexplainable. Torturous and extremely painful. I lay hysterical, the loud and aggressive attack on my ear stopping and starting intermittently at unpredictable intervals, as the fly tried to find its way out, leaving me wincing beyond comprehension. The pain had me convinced at the time that my ear would never fully recover, which was all I could think, adding to the intensity of the situation in my mind.
We had waited for an ambulance for about 25mins when the buzzing in my ear had become less frequent, I decided the fly was maybe dying and I became lucid enough to ask my coach to google how far the hospital was from us. ’10 kilometres’ he said in his understandably concerned Belgian accent. I thought for a second and replied, “F**k it! I think the buzzing has stopped, cancel the ambulance. We’ll ride there”. After confirming with me I felt safe to do so, coach lead me and my new fly friend to the hospital. I tucked my sore and inflamed ear into my right shoulder to block it from the wind as coach spent the whole 20mins looking back asking “your ok?”. Although I could feel the fly manoeuvring itself in my ear canal, I continually replied “yep”, so we could keep moving without any stress. After 2 hours with the doctors, too many painkillers and 4 very painful attempts to remove the fly by flushing and picking with tweezers, I was told I would need to be transferred to another hospital and prepped for surgery to remove the fly from my ear. ‘Perfect’, I thought.
By the time I got to see an ENT (Ear/Nose/Throat) Surgeon, the fly had been in my ear for 6 hours already, by which time I believe it had died and the job was now to remove it. As they were preparing me for theatre, the surgeon asked if he could have one last look in my ear with his keyhole camera. “ahh ok”, he continued in a concerned but comforting tone, “..… the fly has burrowed itself onto your eardrum, which is what’s causing the unbearable pain”. By this point I had just about bitten through the skin of my index finger which had been stuffed in my mouth in the absence of a biting block for the duration of the ear intrusion. He explained that I would be waiting until around midnight for surgery and would be in the hospital overnight at least. He showed me a tiny little pressurized water hose and some microscopic vacuums which he would be using to remove the fly. “Zac, after looking closely, I’m confident I can remove it safely whilst your still conscious and you will be able to go home tonight, no theatre. It’s up to you weather you can cope with the pain”. This was the ideal outcome. Being put to sleep with an anaesthetic isn’t the best for our health and I wanted to avoid it if possible. I sighed and replied, “ok, let’s get the f*#ing thing out then”. He gave me one more painkiller, passed me my hospital admission paperwork, which I rolled up tight and stuffed between my teeth. Over the eternity of what was probably about 5 minutes, he pressure hosed, vacuumed and picked at my eardrum. He stopped to let me catch my breath. “I have peeled it from your eardrum, so the most painful part should be over”. I was briefly elated and removed the sogging wet paperwork from my mouth to breathe freely. By this stage, my gagged screaming had cleared the nurses from the room, apparently, they couldn’t listen. The Surgeon continued “I’m afraid there’s just a little more to get through. I now need to pull the fly back out through your ear canal, which unfortunately, is damaged and inflamed as a result of the fly biting and scratching its way into your ear”. I can’t remember my reply. Paperwork back in mouth, he proceeded to scrape the carcase out of my ear, which by now was in 3 separate pieces. I could have kissed him when it was over. The nurses all returned with reciprocated elation. I thanked the surgeon profusely, he said “no sweat” with a sense of accomplishment in his tone and wished me on my way. As I gathered my things and made my way out, I remember my thoughts almost instantly shift to being disappointed I hadn’t got a good training session in earlier that morning, annoyed that I had wasted a beautiful sunny day away from work in the hospital.
Fast forward 10 weeks. Monday of race week, 6 days to go. I was on the home stretch of a consistent 6-week block of good training, zero alcohol, no junk food and a strict vitamin routine. My little boy had gastro all weekend which I had miraculously, albeit nervously avoided. It was a public holiday, so me, coach and a couple others did an easy 2hr ride in the country. I felt invincible, the type of good shape when you can do ride at your threshold with your mouth closed. Relaxed and excited about my fitness. I ran a light 3km after the ride and the feelings were consistent with what I felt on the bike. I was ready.
The next day, I felt a little flat and experienced some mild cold symptoms. Though this is quite normal when resting for a race, our body is adapting to all the stress and our immune system becomes compromised. So, I wasn’t worried, at first anyway. The following day I felt worse, a couple of my work colleagues were complaining of illness and my 5-year-old son and his mum were also quite unwell. The writing was now on the wall. By Wednesday afternoon I was home in bed, trying desperately to ‘sleep it off’. Filling myself at every meal with vegetable soup and triple doses of every vitamin I had. By Friday I was so unwell I had all but succumbed to the reality that I would be competing on Sunday only in the hope of finishing, if at all. Though I stayed as positive as I could, getting in some very light training sessions in an attempt to make up for the 4 days of just walking, rather than the required short and sharp efforts I would normally do in race week. I kept up the vitamins and took naps whenever I could. By Saturday night, on the eve of the race, I was feeling confident I could put together some kind of performance, but my throat was raspy, I was fatigued from battling the infection all week but also excited to get at it and make good of all my hard work.
I woke on race morning with a clear, but sore sinus. I had been blowing my nose and pumping it full of Vicks for days. My throat was dry, but nothing some Panadol wouldn’t quench. My body was well rested and hydrated, so I was excited with how I felt considering the previous few days. I ate my usual pre-race meal consisting of 2 slices of toast with Vegemite spread on thick, along with a strong black coffee, then out the door at 6:15am. My start wave was last off at 7:55am, so I took my time setting up my transition area and doing my warm-up run, focusing all my attention on the next 4 and a half hours. It was cold, about 7 degrees celsius and becoming windy, not ideal but we were all in the same boat.
The swim course was different to previous years and I suspected a little longer than the prescribed 1900 meters. The shallow fresh water and long grassy weeds in Victoria Lake provided a slow and challenging swim. Congestion meant lots of climbing under and over people, feet and hands in the face and all the usual antics we love about open water racing. My coach and I had planned on a 30minute swim. The disappointment on my face at the swim exit is evidence of what I seen looking down at my watch – 36mins.
No time to cry about that, I was 5th fastest in my age group through transition, I saddled up and chugged down a few hundred mls of my homemade brown sugar/pink salt mix and settled into my ride. It was straight into a headwind, apart from being wet and cold, I felt good. By the first turn at around the 25km mark I was confidently on track to ride 2hr20 for the 90 kilometres, which given the windy conditions I was excited about, if I could hold on it would be my strongest 90km bike leg ever. Heading back into town on my first lap I was passed by another rider for just the first time. He was moving just a kilometre or two per hour faster than me, so for next 20 minutes we exchanged positions a couple of times. Keeping our 12m distance from one another as per the drafting rules. He passed again, this time not as fast so the gap between us extended a fraction slower, but not what I believed to be longer a few seconds. I settled into a position I estimated to be the allowed 12 meters behind my competitor. Then, over my right shoulder appeared the race official motorcycle, rider with arm extended toward me holding a pretty blue penalty card in my face, “drafting” he yelled, “5mins in the box”.
So, there it was, after enduring all the sacrifice, discipline and hard training, a day in hospital and a week of illness, the wave of a card kills all remaining hope of mustering up as much as a top 10 finish. It broke me, for a minute or two. I’d never been penalised during a race before. Though in hindsight there is a first time for everything, in that moment, I took it as a personal attack on my morals. I’ve been called a lot of things, but never a cheat. I was furious, then frustrated, then disappointed I had compromised my race so foolishly. Too many thoughts to sort through whilst focusing on maintaining 38kph in the wind. I served my 5mins, held my angry nerve and got through the bike in a tick over 2h25mins inclusive of the penalty. I’d done my job as best I could with the cards I was dealt. Another pun intended.
The 21.1km run off the bike started for me like it always does. Strong and too fast. After a few minutes, I settled into a rhythm on got myself on pace for 1h30 half marathon. By this stage it was freezing, windy and threatening rain. I held pace, finishing my run in 1h29m and fell to my knees at the finish line with an overall time of 4:35:00.00. If nothing else, I at least stopped the clock with precise accuracy. By the time I got to my feet and moved through the recovery area, my feet were numb, the tips of my fingers were tingling, and my teeth were chattering. My skin felt blue, and I was struggling to speak. In retrospect, if it hadn’t been for the safety of a hot shower at my accommodation nearby the event, I would have ended up in the medical tent. My body had stopped generating any heat some time during the run. I luckily only ended up with a chest infection for my effort.
In the end, as I had hastily calculated in a fit of rage siting in the penalty box, the 5 minute penalty was the difference between my position in 14th and a top 10 finish. And, in hindsight, this is really all I could have hoped for given the circumstances of the previous week. All of the experience I gained from the events during training and the race can’t be bought. I will be exponentially better for all of them, for which I am now grateful.
So, again. Why is it sometimes so difficult to find positivity and gratitude after life experiences reserved only for the most privileged of us? Sports and activities that are all encompassing and consuming (eg. triathlon), create a vacuum in which emotions are manifested only in the context of our reality we have created for ourselves during the training and preparation.
In the period of time immediately following an experience which we have prepared for in a completely saturating and sacrificial manner, we can fall victim to the agony of comparing the output directly with the input. It takes time to be able to see the bigger picture. That amount of time will sometimes relate to the circumstances of the input. The notion that we should take the positives out of everything is true, but we also should understand and appreciate that the view from this vantage point isn’t always immediately accessible from the monomania of unexpected results and disappointment.
All the experiences I have shared and discussed are precisely why I love triathlon and endurance sports. The physical and mental resilience required teaches me lessons about myself that can’t be learnt or attained by any other means. The physical pain is my mental training ground, my escape. My failures and disappointments are what keeps me thirsty for more. The elation of reaching a goal after months of preparation is my ultimate thrill.
And after all, if there are no thrills, then what is there?