Half Ironman – Part I

What the bloody hell am I doing here?

Standing on St Kilda Beach surrounded by 1000 other clowns on a perfect Sunday morning in April. Each of us jammed into very tight wetsuits, neoprene straining like the casing on an over-stuffed sausage. If this humiliation wasn’t enough in and of itself- we were then going to punch, kick and swim over the top of each other for nearly 2km. Then get out and ride a bike for 90km. And just to top the morning off- punch out a half marathon whilst dodging promenading Melbournians trying to enjoy their foreshore on a Sunday morning.

I felt ridiculous and TOTALLY out of my depth.
How on earth did I end up in this situation……


July, 2018
Innamincka, South Australia
I decided to go for a run with my wife, Lisa.
It sucked. Everything hurt. I couldn’t run very far or fast.
I’d just spend 5 weeks on an amazing trip to Cape York and back with our family, but it left me sedentary, slow and physically feeling like rubbish.
‘Time for a challenge’ I thought as I looked over the remarkable desert landscape.
The thought of a Half Ironman had been nagging me for years- what better time than now to give it a crack; after all, I’m not getting any younger!
I’d dabbled with shorter triathlons and enjoyed them but I needed a bigger challenge.
I love the fear you get when you set a big ugly goal, tell people about it and then have to go through with it.
That fear makes me feel alive, it gets me out of bed in the morning and doing things that I wouldn’t normally do.

I also love the planning that comes with a big event. What are the demands of the event? What do I need to do to match these demands? How am I going to make this enjoyable? How will I fit it into my week without compromising family and work?

I’d become a one trick pony- all I was doing for fitness and enjoyment was cycling. Which is fine for your heart and lungs but I hadn’t done enough heavy, weight bearing exercise and my body needs it before I drift off into middle age.

Impact has gotten a bad rap over the years- people believe it to be bad for you.
Nothing could be further from the truth- we need it.
The body loves getting worked, bounced, jarred.
Appropriate, varied impact is necessary for joint health, muscle strength, bone density, mental health, gut health, tendon strength- the list goes on. I needed more impact through my body so I was determined to find something to shake things up a bit.

A Half Ironman ticked all the boxes- learn a new skill (swimming), continue doing something I love (cycling) and return to an old love (running). And it always looks like a massive party when people finish long course triathlons- who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

My first step with a big, ugly goal is to break the task down and then assess my strengths and weaknesses. If you want to read about the more analytical/technical details of how I trained, selected equipment and remained injury free, then you will need to read part II of this blog.

When we returned to Albury in August I started to run.
Very slowly and with LOTS of walking.
I knew that to run 21kms I needed at least 9-10 months to allow my body to get stronger, adapt and be able to deal with the training load.

I kept riding my normal 3 rides a week but could not bring myself to start swimming until October. And the most important part of my training began- strength work. Not strength like ‘lift big weights”; but strength incorporating balance, challenging key muscle groups, improving endurance in hips/calves and ultimately ballistic, bounding exercise to ensure I could run safely and efficiently. I hate exercises as much as anyone, and getting patients to do exercises is the hardest part of our job and I understand where they are coming from, but man alive do they make a difference. If I didn’t do these exercises there is NO WAY I was going to be able to run safely. To keep me in line I had the benefit of a live-in Physio who made sure I did them- perhaps renting Lisa out could be the solution to ensure patient’s do their exercises???

I surprised myself by beginning to really enjoy the running. The sheer simplicity of it was what made it fun- you only need to throw on shoes, step out the door and you were into it. There is a lot more rigmarole with cycling and swimming which makes it a bit of a hassle. And it is very time efficient, within 30 mins you’ve had a cracking hit out. With cycling you need at least an hour. Maybe I was converted……

For the first 4 months I slowly chipped away, never dramatically increasing speed or distance but just sneaking up on progressively longer runs.
It took me 6 weeks to run 5km without stopping- not that I couldn’t have run 5km on Day 1. I could have, but knew that it was unsustainable and I’d injure myself- I can assure you it was an exercise in self control and I’m rather proud of myself for not overcooking it (which I have ALWAYS done in the past whenever I’ve tried to start running again- who said you can’t teach an old dog??).
It took me 15 weeks before I ran 10km without stopping.

In January, with 4 months until the triathlon I finally began to incorporate some structure and intervals into my training as I began to hone in on the specific requirements for a Half Ironman. I have a great network of fantastic athletes who also assisted with information, equipment and encouragement about very specific components of long course triathlon- particularly with respect to nutrition. Eating and drinking in a 5hr event is SO important; it can make or break your race. I’ve done plenty of this with cycling, but trying to consume fuel and fluid whilst running is a very particular (and grubby!!) skill.

One of the best moves I made was getting involved in a few of the great Allen’s Flat Triathlons run by the Albury Wodonga Tri Club. The AWTC is a fantastic, welcoming environment in which to enjoy triathlons and their Women’s Tri is an extraordinary event that we’ve loved supporting over the years. They are very inclusive and everybody is overwhelmingly welcoming and I strongly encourage you to head out and have a crack at some great short course triathlons. I really enjoyed slowly building up my distances- from mini to sprint and finally Olympic distance.

My last hit out before the big event was an Olympic distance tri at the same venue as the Half Ironman would be held- it was almost a complete dress rehearsal. I managed to combine it with a lecture I was giving in Melbourne which killed a couple of birds with one stone. It was a foul morning with very choppy water in the bay and a filthy cross wind on the bike course- it could not have been a better practice for the big day; after all, how much worse could it get? I was really pleased with how I went (99th out of 600 and 13th in my age group)- particularly with the run leg but I felt a little sore in the achilles just as I was finishing the run……

2 weeks later… the afternoon before the big event.
I can’t believe the logistics of this thing.
The amount of gear I have to pack and plan for.
I’ve spent the pest part of 3 hours servicing my bike, packing the bike, packing my bag, preparing food and fuel. All of which could be redundant given that I haven’t been able to run for the past 2 weeks- my achilles did NOT pull up well. It was no coincidence that it tore in my last tri- I’d stopped doing my exercises 6 weeks beforehand. I fell into the classic trap of feeling like I hadn’t done enough training, so I sacked the strength work to pick up more bike and swim work- rookie error and now I was going to pay for it. This is the reality of injury- small bad decisions over time accumulate to cause a problem.
Big gel flask for bike, small gel flask for run, gels for transition just in case, as well as 2 litres of electrolyte mix and 2 litres of water.
All the gear laid out and ready to go.
I have to eat a massive bowl of porridge 3hrs before I start. I don’t want to. I want to sleep. Apparently it maximises glycogen and reduces the feeling of a ‘heavy gut’ on the start line. It doesn’t feel right shovelling it down while I’m still asleep.
My bag is at the door with all the gear- food and drinks labelled the night before. Is this fun yet? Where is the glamour??
The sun is nowhere near up. I’m nervous- achilles pain has been brutal for the past 2 weeks and I haven’t been able to run. Pete Collier– podiatrist and runner extraordinaire has advised me on taping and medication strategies to help me through it.
I start to get a little more excited as I head down to St Kilda. I arrive with 90mins before start time. It seems like a long while but there inevitable technical challenges at the start of the event, and as I’m very inexperienced I haven’t got my routine sorted out. It’s been quite a buzz walking into the event centre at 6am- sun just starting to peak up, coffee brewing, nervous athletes milling and spectators spectating. It is a cracking day. Could not be better. I’m starting to feel the nerves that I’d been looking forward to- you don’t get these without challenging yourself!
Perfect weather for my Half Ironman debut.
I struggle into my wetsuit.
Then I struggle out of it as I need to do a nervous wee. I can assure you that this is a logistical feat and something I had NOT trained for. I struggle back into my wetsuit.
The race briefing is a necessity but most of us aren’t really listening as we focus on the impending day ahead- and why does everyone look so fit?? Am I about to embarrass myself here?

My age group gets called to the swim start- the announcer helpfully says that this is one of the fastest age groups in the race. Apparently when you’ve had enough years to be really fit but not so many years that you are beginning to slow down. I’m not sure he’s assuaged my insecurities… I’m pretty keen to just get involved now, just start the bloody thing.

The hooter blows, and like a pod of seals frightened off their rocks we scramble into the bay and begin to flail about. I go out VERY slow. I’m no great swimmer and I’m keen to stay out of people’s way. I figure that cruising along is the best way to approach this. Getting in a scrap and swimming too quick is not a great idea. Sighting in open water is a real challenge- it is difficult to swim in a straight line. Picking your direction and staying true to that course is difficult (that almost sounds profound and a metaphor for life…). We finally swing around the end markers and swim back under the iconic St Kilda pier- not long to go now. I head for the beach. Getting out and running is quite hard after 40mins of swimming and I look decidedly up-pro. Unbeknownst to me, my sister has travelled from Geelong to cheer for me. It scares the living daylights out of me as I thought I was anonymous- I feel rude but I can’t really stop and chat with her.

I discard my wetsuit, cap and goggles and throw on my helmet and bike shoes. I slam down a quick water and begin the first of my 17 scheduled gels for the day.

I throw a leg on the bike and I’m off. This is where I’m most comfortable and I immediately drop into a rhythm. No wind. Perfect road. The sun is out and all I have to do is eat, drink, avoid other riders and knock over 90km. I know exactly what power I’ll be holding so I just find that number and tap out the rhythm. Time passes, I chat briefly with a couple of Albury locals as we cross paths. Things are going well and before I know it I’m on my last lap. I’m impressed with the speed I’ve gotten for the effort. It is remarkable how quick you can go on a time trial bike with aero helmet, fancy wheels and some concentration. I average just under 38kmh as I get ready to embark on the biggest challenge of the race- my half marathon.

It’s confronting for a couple of reasons.

  1. I’ve never done one before. I decided not to run the full distance in training as injury risk and recovery time increases with length of run. I knew I had the cardiovascular endurance due to biking and running, but the musculoskeletal endurance was the challenge.
  2. I’m doing my first one after swimming 1.9km and riding 90km.

Within the first few kilometres I knew my achilles was going to be ok- it hurt, but it wasn’t getting any worse. I silently said a prayer of thanks to Pete for his advice. I was feeling great but I was running too fast. I had a plan going in to start at 5min 20secs for the first 10km but I was running through at 5min/km. The course was packed with other athletes, volunteers and spectators- it was a great feeling. We had to do 2 laps of a 10km loop. The first lap was amazing.

And then I had to do lap 2. I didn’t love running away from the finish line- it felt all wrong. I kept eating and drinking but by 16km things were getting tough. My pace was still 5mins but it was becoming a struggle. And then I ran at 5:10km. And then 5:20km. There was nothing I could do. I started to lose form and rock, roll and hit the ground a bit harder. Things were becoming less fun. The next km was 5:30 and then 5:45. Changing direction started to hurt. Stepping off gutters and over little bridges began to hurt- thank god I only had a km to go.

Rolling through the finish line felt great. The event hurt- a lot. But I had made it hard by pushing- I really wanted to break 5hrs (which I did at 4hrs:54mins) and as such I committed and knew that was going to happen. I could have backed off and really enjoyed the experience but I’m a competitive beast, I like having a proper crack. It was great to have my family there- a couple of sisters, kid’s and of course Lisa.

Will I do another one- probably. I think I can go quicker. I’d love to improve my swim. It is such a great exercise and involves so much control and technique, and I really enjoy the challenge. I’d also love to do more running and continue to improve. It is 6 weeks on and I’ve rehabed my achilles and I’m getting back into running and loving the purity of it. I was disappointed to miss Nail Can- perhaps that is my goal for next year.

What’s your goal for the next year?
Pick something challenging but that takes you out of your comfort zone- maybe a 10km run?
Maybe jiu jitsu? Adult gymnastics? Start tennis? Stretch yourself and take risk- your mind and body will be better for it.


-Tom Barry