Eight: To some, it’s considered a lucky number.
Recently I road tripped with The Wife to Port Macquarie, NSW for Ironman Oceania intending to gain my eighth Ironman finisher’s medal and towel, and my third circuit of this iconic course.
The road surfaces are notorious, the hills pinch and the swim is punctuated with a pair of stair climbs but, I’d been here before, and although I’d missed some of my build due to illness and vacations I was quietly confident – lucky number eight!
We’d planned to tackle the drive as a three-day road trip because between the two of us there is only one licensed driver. Fun Fact: I’ve never held a license. So we loaded up the car on the preceding Tuesday before work to enable us to leave directly from the office, skip the traffic and begin the journey with an hour’s mileage already covered.
Midway into the city with the car fully loaded The Wife double checked I’d packed my photo ID. She’s well aware of my tendency to forget something important, and on this occasion, her concern was entirely on point. Too late to turn the car around I instead jumped out at the first opportunity to catch public transport home to rectify the issue. Two trams, two trains, a bus ride and several coffees later I finally arrived at work – lucky!
The workday was done on the dot of 4pm, and we were back on the road and headed North.
The trip from Melbourne CBD to Port Macquarie went pretty much to plan after the morning’s hiccup. We exited the city early enough to avoid being caught up in the horrific traffic being reported by drive-time radio, pausing at a couple of highway truck stops before landing in Rutherglen for the first evening. Day two on the road brought across the Victorian / NSW border and included a few animal encounters; a visit to the Dog on the Tuckerbox (where I shared my lunch with a resident cat!?) followed by coffee and cake in the shadow of a giant ram.
From there it was onto Pennant Hills for our second overnight stay. Here we were also able to catch up with an old friend from high school who was tackling Port Macquarie as his first full Ironman. We spent an enjoyable evening talking about the past and Lego, and I took the opportunity to dispense some words of wisdom on Ironman racing and the specifics of this course.
Early on day three we hit the road again and arrived at our weekend’s accommodation just after lunch on Thursday. After checking into the resort we headed into town to complete the athlete check-in, grab my race kit and hit the Ironman Expo. I needed to grab a new pair of goggles as I hadn’t seen my regular race day pair since Busselton last December where shark sightings had abbreviated the race to a ride/run only. “Nothing new on race day,” they say – what could go wrong though right? I bought a good pair that fits snugly with a good seal, and I was all set. Well, “all set” until I spotted the limited edition Mizuno Ironman branded, triathlon specific running shoes! Another swipe of the credit card and now I was ready to race.
On Friday before the race, I did my recon ride on the bike course. I had brought a spare set of wheels in case of high winds and a “climbing” cassette in the event I didn’t have the legs for the Port Macquarie hills. Happy with both the forecast and my ability to get up Matthew Flinders drive, I elected to keep the race wheels on and make no changes to the bike’s setup. I’d also brought some better, newer, tyres because there’s an exception to the rule: “Nothing new on race day”. It states: “Don’t risk your race on old rubber”. I decided to check the tread for wear and damage since they’d only been on the road twice. Two races and some long indoor trainer sessions meant the rolling surface was still unmarked. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This third, and overarching rule prevailed, and I elected to leave well enough alone. So on Saturday afternoon, after the heat of the day, I checked my bike into transition unchanged. To be safe, I deflated the tyres to ensure no blowouts in the afternoon sun before dropping off my transition bags. The time now to get busy doing nothing but soaking up the atmosphere of race weekend.
I like to take my time setting up on race morning, no rush, no stress, so we arrived at transition as it opened at 4:30 on Sunday morning. I grabbed my bike off the rack and re-inflated the tyres but, as I pulled the pump head off the rear valve all of the air rushed back out! For the first time in 5 years, I’d punctured on race-day! Luckily there was plenty of time, so I stripped and replaced the failed tube while The Wife dropped $10 at transition mechanics to purchase a replacement spare to see me through the race should the unthinkable happen. After remounting my spare tubes and tools, attaching shoes and hydration systems, checking over and re-racking the bike everything was race ready. All that remained was to drop off my track pump and find a quiet spot to chill out before the “Go time”. It had been a little more hectic than most setups but, I’d gotten my misfortune out of the way early and with minimal fuss – lucky!
Port Macquarie is a rolling start, so I self-seeded myself towards the front of the final group; 1:20 plus, I’m generally an 85-minute swimmer. A pair of gels, sip of water and a last good luck kiss from The Wife, new goggles down and it was on – for roughly 400 metres…
That’s about as far as I got before the salt water leaking steadily into my fancy new goggles began to burn my eyes. As luck would have it, I had purchased a fuller faced pair that was open through the middle so, though only the left side was letting the water in, both eyes were affected.
Realising I couldn’t just tough it out without risking my vision for the remainder of the race I made my way to the nearest directional buoy and swam into its leeward side to pause and correct the fit. This got me around the first pair of turn cans before I had to roll over onto my back, throw in some kicking and readjust my goggles again. This pattern repeated throughout the entire 3.8km of the swim with three or four further interruptions, sometimes a little sidestroke, a quick stop or an opportune weir crossing. Finally, I reached the swim exit and as I ran under the swim showers and resisted the urge to throw my goggles in the direction of a rubbish bin I checked my watch – four-minute personal best!
Quick transition, helmet on and into transition, un-racked and ran the bike out to the mount line where The Wife and friends shouted encouragement as I rolled off for the 180km of some of NSW great roads.
I didn’t even get to put my feet into my cycle shoes before I realised I was in trouble. My rear tyre was again dead flat before ever turning a crank in anger and for the second time this morning I was stripping and replacing the rear tube. Without access to my track pump, I grabbed my CO2 inflator only to find it was empty. I screwed the inflator head onto my backup, and final canister, and went to pump up the tube but after the first attempt the rubber seal had shifted, and most of the contents blasted out the side of the valve in a cold cloud.
Fixing the seal, I hit it again and emptied the canister into the tube. A quick squeeze test proved it’d only filled halfway to a suitable pressure. Out of cartridges and no other means to inflate the tyre I realised lucky #8 was fast looking like my first ever DNF. Doubt began to set in. I reset the rubber seal in the inflator head and re-tried it, hoping to eke out just a little more gas. It took a few attempts, but finally, there was enough pressure to tempt fate and begin the ride. It had cost me all of my inflation tools and half of my tubes but I was ready to roll. Mindful I was down to one spare tube and no way to make use of it I remounted and headed out of town. I’d decided to use my newly purchased tube instead of risking my original spare in the hope that the previous failures were down to the age of those tubes.
After getting through the town’s rumble strips and some of the rougher road surfaces, I threw my faith into the tyre and started to peg back some of the positions I’d lost.
Through the first lap and back out I was rolling pretty well until misfortune struck again. Just shy of the 120km marker and descending one of the courses rises I felt the tail end of the bike coming loose again. I gingerly brought the bike to a halt and confirmed my fears with a squeeze of the rear tyre.
Stranded again on the side of the bike course I was facing a long wait – if I’d pulled out of the race earlier the result would have been the same, but I wouldn’t have been out in the middle of nowhere. “Just keep moving forward” has been a mantra I’ve used and dictated to others so, that’s what I did, and I started running my bike along the road.
My luck changed shortly afterwards as I spotted a CO2 canister that had dropped from another cyclist’s bike and that luck held when I discovered it was still sealed. I just needed somewhere I could make the repair as the roadside here was too narrow so I ran to the next crossroad and made use of the road closure barrier. Tube stripped, replaced and inflated for the third time and I was again rolling, “this last tube only has to last me 60km more” I told the volunteer manning the intersection. Just one-third of the bike course was all I was asking, once off the bike I knew I could get through this race; only two more hours is what I needed.
I’d asked too much. My last hope gave out 10km later. Four flat rear tyres, I had exhausted my tubes, I had half a canister of CO2, but I was now resigned to the fact that the rear tyre, the one that I had checked a day ago was shredded. The tread was intact, yet the sidewalls were shredded, even if I had another tube it would be fruitless to install, and possibly dangerous to ride on with the risk of blowing out on a fast descent.
I had reached the island at the top end of the bike course, literally as far away from transition and the bike dismount line as possible, on the plus side, there was a park bench and a beautiful river view to sit and await the sag wagon. I considered this for a moment or two, then thought of everyone back home who were following my progress and supporting me, all the time, effort and sacrifice my family invests in allowing me to chase my dreams and quickly decided this is not how this story ends.
Unwilling to sit here and feel sorry for myself I set off on foot, rolling my bike beside me. No footpath, narrow to no road shoulders and stones everywhere and my socks gave very little protection. I’d decided to leave my shoes clipped to the pedals. There was no way to know when a solution might present itself, and I wanted my cleats to be in working order if and when I could get back onto the saddle.
I had picked my way along gingerly, cursing particularly poor foot placements and seeking softer surfaces when available. Ever moving forwards, running when able, walking if not. Several cyclists checked if I was OK and many offered help, but I had to wave them on. My only salvation involved a replacement tyre or rear wheel and not even the most prepared competitor carry those! The way I saw it, there were only three potential outcomes ahead of me. The mobile mechanic would find me; I would get myself to the stationary mechanic station; I’d run out of time and get swept up by the sag wagon.
Eventually, I made it to the far bike turnaround and was heading back towards home – just 50 odd km in front of me. I estimate I ran about 5km before a fourth option arose, I found the mobile mechanic aiding another cyclist in trouble. He had a flat rear as well, and as irony would have it, they were struggling to get it pumped up because his CO2 inflator was faulty. I offered mine, and in short order, my new friend was set to go again as the mechanic turned his attention to my predicament.
New tyre and tube from his supplies and a shot of CO2 and I too was back in the game and rolling. Usually pretty strong on the bike (in my first visit to this course I took over 100 steps up the rankings in my age group) so there were a few relieved faces when I finally got back into town two hours later than expected.
Into T2 and as my volunteer helper dumped my run gear out I looked and then handed back the sunscreen I’d packed, with the sun about to set I told him I’d probably not be needing it this time. Port Macquarie has some of the best and loudest sideline support, and I decided to make the most of it as I collected high-fives and congratulations from other competitors who’d seen me sidelined.
Thirteen hours, thirty-one minutes after diving into the Hastings River I received my eighth Ironman finisher’s medal from my greatest supporter, as The Wife placed it around my neck, I took a moment to reflect. Lucky number 8 was my slowest race to date yet it’s not always about the time; sometimes it’s the journey and, with the right attitude and a little luck; anything is possible!