There are only a few ironman races in the world that can captivate us athletes, and, draw our minds away from our pain, and Challenge Cairns is one of those races. With a bike ride showcasing views that are unparalleled anywhere in the world, along the most majestic coastline in Australia if not the world, sometimes it was difficult to stay upright on the bike as my attention was drawn to the crystal clear blue waters which crest the coastal ride all the way out to Port Douglas.
The inaugural Challenge Cairns race lived up to its pre race hype and expectations bringing with it a huge prize purse and some of the best long course athletes from Australia and New Zealand. Headlining the act was two time World Champion Chris MacCormack, along with other ironman winners , Tim Berkel and Jamie Whyte plus Graham OGrady, Clayton Fettell, David Dellow and John Hotchkiss. With the late withdrawal of 10 time ironman NZ champ Cameron Brown, I believed the door had opened for a podium or a possible victory for me. In the week leading up to the race there was a lot of talk in the local media about Macca questioning who would step up and challenge the world champ. Macca, who is never shy of talking up a good game really put the challenge out to us younger guys to step up over this new course. On a personal note, I managed to slip under the radar and stay relatively stress free in the days leading up to the event which really helped my mindset and focus, I did this by deciding to stay out of Cairns in beautiful Palm Cove, where I enjoyed the great weather and beaches which is what North Queensland is famous for.
I was feeling really confident in the lead up to the race having won the SA state half marathon the previous week, in a PB time of 1.09 so I knew that my running legs were firing. I was familiar with the Cairns course after having spent six weeks there on a training camp in 2009 in my lead up to Hawaii. I knew the run would play a huge factor in the race because the first half of the run was in the full sun along the Captain Cook Highway, and due to the distance between T2 and the finish line, we couldn’t see the majority of the supporters until the 19km mark when we arrived in Cairns- so in a way it felt like a reverse Hawaii, with a tough Queen K highway run! I had upped my running mileage in the weeks lead up to this race clocking on average 100km per week including some good quality sessions.
Race morning began with a 6.45am start at Yorkeys Knob beach, the water temperature was a perfect 22 degrees, and with wetsuits allowed, it made for a comfortable swim. I settled in to a rhythm mindful of the fact that superfish Fettell and O’Grady would be out in front. I exited the water with Berkel and Whyte in 49 minutes, a shade under 5 minutes behind Fettell and about 2 minutes down on Macca, Dellow and O’Grady. I was feeling really comfortable in the swim and was right on track with my race plan, the only issue was knowing that Macca was further up the road riding with a few strong bikers. I managed to find a good rhythm on the bike and shared good company with other strong riders such as Hotchkiss, Berkel and Whyte. We picked up Dellow at the 30km mark but we were losing to time to Macca, Fettell and O’Grady. The ride was out to Port Douglas and back twice which made the ride one of the most picturesque courses I have ever competed on. The fact that the road was fully closed to traffic made it extremely safe all the way back to T2. I was lucky enough to get a few time checks on the course from my wife, Danielle, who was racing the half ironman and who, in no uncertain terms, told me to move my A@# because the gap from me to Macca’s group was about 5 minutes.
Heading into T2 at Yorkeys Knob, the wind picked up, as did our pace and I noticed Berkel begin to struggle off the back in the last 5km. I actually thought Tim’s day was done as we came in to transition, I would later be proved wrong when he caught me at the 30km mark of the run! I hit T2 still 5 minutes down on Macca’s group and I had company with Challenge Wanaka winner Whyte, Hotchkiss and Dellow but, after a quick transition, I went off in hunt of the guys in front. I didn’t know what to expect from Fettell and O’Grady as it was their debut ironman and, being extremely talented athletes, they are capable of anything but, during a hot, tough ironman anything can happen.
I knew it was inevitable that the fast pace on the bike would have hurt the lead guys, so for me, the key was to run a solid yet consistent pace into town and let the crowd carry me home in the last hour.
In the first 17km of my run, I hit my target pace and felt really good, I managed to pick up O’Grady at the 10km mark, followed by Fettell at around 15km, finding myself in second still about 5 minutes down on Macca. I knew Berkel was about a minute behind and was coming back after his horror last 5km on the bike, then Whyte, Dellow and Hotchkiss all vying for a piece of the huge prize money on offer. I hit the 20km mark of the run and started to feel cramps coming on even though I was running well, and as most athletes know cramps can play havoc especially after about 7 hours of racing in hot conditions! Berkel was gaining on me and I hit a little bad patch for a while.
When Tim caught me at the 23km mark I let him go, I knew I was still running at a solid pace but I didn’t want to push too hard in case cramp ended my day. So I kept plugging away and concentrated on my nutrition- chugging down some SIS gels and fluids, coke, ice and anything else I could get my hands on. I started to feel better and found myself running alongside Berkel at the 30km mark! Despite being friends and training together, running with Tim is not ideal for me because I know Tim can run a fast marathon and I didn’t want to face a running race with him in the last 10km. While we were running the second lap of the three lap course together Tim asked me if it was our last lap, when I told Tim we still had one lap to go I could see the mental anguish on his face when he realised we had to run around the esplanade again. I took this opportunity to make a few surges into the headwind and finally managed to drop Tim then pick up the pace with a tailwind back into town.
At this point I was about 10min back on Macca and feeling the pain, Tim was hovering about a minute back just waiting for me to cramp up and then there was a gap to Whyte and Fettell who was having a great ironman debut. Coming into the last km in Cairns I knew I had 2nd place in the bag as I knew Tim was hurting as much as me and the crowd has an amazing effect in dispersing the pain, so I really got to soak it up and enjoy the great atmosphere of downtown Cairns, running passed all the cafes and pubs was awesome with people stacked 3 deep, and hitting the famous Challenge red carpet was something I would never forget with balloons and spectators going nuts. I crossed the line in 8.28 about 12 minutes behind Macca, Berkel tumbled across the line a minute behind me having given everything out there, Jamie Whyte came home strong in 4th and Fettell finished 5th showing everyone in no uncertain terms that he has unfinished business in ironman.
For me now its all about rest and recovery after a great 12 months on the triathlon circuit, I have made some great friends and experienced some fantastic places along the way, but without a doubt Challenge Cairns is a huge highlight of my year and an excellent way to finish off my OZ season. I feel privileged to be part of the Challenge family now and it was really great to see the way they embrace the whole family concept, allowing competitors to run down the finish shute with family members and loved ones, so a huge congratulations to the Challenge Family and USM for bringing this new event to Australia and I am sure with the worldwide exposure it is going to be even bigger and better next year.