Bonaparte, Bjorn, and the Three Hour Dream: Noosa triathlon 2003

As a sport where most participants do so for the personal challenge, triathlon is renowned for bringing out the best in human endeavour.  Personal bests, achievement, courage and determination – all words that are intrinsically linked to my chosen sport, and inspire and overwhelm us all.

The pressure of setting and achieving personal goals sometimes brings out some nasties, though.  Self doubt, fear of failure, and the kind of burden that comes from being your own toughest critic.

My only goal for Noosa Triathlon 2003 was to beat three hours.  A modest goal for an Olympic distance triathlon, but a goal that would certainly challenge me.  It was also the first time I had set a purely quantitative goal for a race.  There was no back up plan for me to feel good about at the end – nothing qualitative such as finishing feeling good, like having completed the run without walking...   It was simple – either I’d break three hours or I wouldn’t.

Either I would realise my Three Hour Dream or not.

Pressure like this generally manifests itself in nervous energy – which shows itself via any number of physical or emotional symptoms.  My nerves seem to rear their ugly heads when least expected, and in sometimes unexpected ways.  I’ve burst into tears minutes before a race start, I’ve gotten down to the water only to find I’ve forgotten my goggles, and often I withdraw entirely from the scene around me and can’t bear to talk to anyone.

In the lead up to Noosa, I seemed almost numb.  I had a bit of a panic attack when packing my race gear on Saturday afternoon when I couldn’t find my race shoes or bike shoes.  (I consoled myself until I found them by telling myself that at least I had time to go out and buy new ones...!)

But on Sunday morning I was surprisingly calm as I got dressed and had breakfast.  Even when I was setting up my gear in transition I had a sense of control and almost boredom with the whole experience.  I started wondering what was wrong.  I had looked forward to Noosa for so long – since the moment I started triathlon training almost two years ago.  And now that I was here, I was going about my business in such a matter-of-fact manner that I was hardly even enjoying it.

I was in a toilet queue about an hour before my race start with a couple of training buddies.  Out of nowhere, I said to Kathy and Annette “I feel like I’m facing my Waterloo”.

I’m sure you all know the ABBA song.  I’m equally sure that most of you have never really thought too much about the lyrics.  It seems harmless enough, a strong, punchy little tune about facing your Waterloo and everything working out perfectly.  It’s also about surrendering to something stronger –  love – and about giving in to your fate, as (according to the historians of ABBA) Napoleon Bonaparte did at Waterloo.

All of a sudden, I was acutely aware of the fact that the race might beat me – that the course would be stronger than me, and I would have no choice but to surrender to my fate of an unrealised Three Hour Dream.

All of a sudden, I was doubting my ability to achieve my goal.

Of course I did the only logical thing, and belted out a few bars of
“Wah-wah-wah-wah Waterloo… Finally facing my Waterloo”
…much to the amusement of not only Kathy and Annette, but also the rest of the queue and passers by.

I couldn’t have given a hoot – I was too excited to be embarrassed.  At last, I had some nervous energy.  That unexplainable mix of fear, anxiety, excitement, apprehension, and trepidation.  I felt alive, and as such, I was back in the game.  I couldn’t wait to get down to the waterline and get amongst it.

As I took my place amongst the other 112 competitors in my category I was a bundle of energy.  I resisted the urge to not sing out loud and do some of those daggy ABBA actions we all love to hate.  But all too quickly the hooter sounded and the race was on.  As I dove into the water I felt almost ripped off that I had had such a short amount of time to absorb and experience those intense emotions that, when it all comes down to it, is what it’s all about.

It’s always a challenge for me to pace myself when I swim.  I can never keep track of how far I’ve swum, and you can’t look at your watch to see how long you’ve been swimming.  My race pace generally feels fairly comfortable.  But then I start to wonder whether I’m feeling too comfortable.  Maybe I need to pick it up a bit?  But if I pick it up a bit, will I get out of the water too buggered to do anything else?

I had something else to think about this time.  My Waterloo.  Literally.

“Wah-wah-wah-wah Waterloo… Finally facing my Waterloo”

Every time I started worrying about my pacesetting, I sang a few bars to myself.  And every time I did, my emotional journey was the same.  First, amusement.  How can you not smile at the thought of Bjorn, Benny and those girls’ outfits?  But as I sang through the song, I got to

“I feel like I win when I lose”

And there it was, smacking me between the eyes.  My one goal, my Three Hour Dream.  If I gave in and lost the fight, I knew I wouldn’t feel like I’d won.

Bonaparte and Bjorn just wouldn’t let go, though.  Maybe, just maybe, they managed to distract me just enough to let my subconscious take over the business end of the swim.  I got out of the water and ran through transition.  When I plucked up the courage to look at my watch, I saw a 28 minute something split (official time 28:32).  So far, so good.

When I look back on my cycle at Noosa, I’m a little lost for words.  The experience was just a complete pleasure.  Though at the time I went into the leg with a little apprehension.  Part of the race is “The Hill”.  For most competitors – and particularly for the race organisers – the concern is with the descent.  The stories of top speeds down the hill are frequently bantered about in Noosa folklore, and the pre-race briefing notes warns all entrants about the dangers involved with this stretch of the course.

I, however, was just as concerned about getting up the hill strongly in the first place!  The ascent follows a different route to the descent, and is quite pleasant as far as hills go – a long and winding road through some quite scenic forest.  It isn’t too steep but it is steady and long – a few ks – and can certainly put a dent in your overall speed.

As I headed up the hill, Glen, Haydon and my swimming buddy Scotty all passed me and gave me a cheer.  Glen later gave me a bit of a ribbing about “having a chat” up the hill but the reality was that I was in the vicinity of an old training buddy, Debbie Demaj, and like old times we were giving each other a bit of a “giddy-up”.

I kicked on through the hill, to my surprise leaving Debbie in my wake, and hit the main road again.  I knew I had to sit on an average of around 28ks to make my goal time so I set on building up my average speed throughout the rest of the 40ks.  I knew I was having a fairly strong ride as I passed plenty of fellow cyclists (though of course there were plenty of “overachievers” flying past me too…!).

“The Hill” (the downhill bit) is marked by one of those signs that warns trucks to use a low gear.  (Yep, it’s a goody.)  I clocked an exhilarating 79.1 km/hr down the hill, and though my eyes were watering the whole way, I avoided the speed wobbles and held my line admirably.

Holding that 79.1 so competently was a real achievement for me.  Maybe that’s all I’d need to feel like I’d won…

“Wah-wah-wah-wah Waterloo…”

Bonaparte and Bjorn were at it again.  It felt like they were sitting on my shoulder, laughing at me, mocking me for even imagining the Three Hour Dream.

I was determined to prove my imaginary friends wrong.

With “The Boys” taunting me, and with just 10ks left of my bike leg my average speed was sitting at just over 29 km/hr.  I’d show those boys!  I resolved to hit an average of 30k/hr before I hit transition.  I rode hard and got there, unfortunately only just in time to hit the roundabouts of Noosaville and then the need to get my feet out of my shoes in preparation for dismount.  As a result, my overall average fell back, and at the time of racking my bike, it was back down to 29.8km/hr.  My cycle leg, rack to rack, was under an hour twenty.  I couldn’t have been happier.

You all know by now that the run is the leg of the triathlon that I dread the most.  Each race I curse the fact that I have the entire swim and cycle to think about what is to come.  As I finish the bike, it’s almost as if a sense of dread starts flooding through me, and sometimes it takes all the mental strength I have left to push these negativities aside and focus on the task at hand.

My experience at Noosa 2003 was a little different.  When I came in past the team tent towards transition for the second time, I heard dozens of voices cheering me on, but amongst the blur, the only face I remember seeing was Sue’s.

Sue, myself, and a couple of others in the squad run, cycle and swim at around the same pace, so needless to say, we see a bit of each other in training sessions.  We’ve bonded as a result, and always encourage each other and support each other when we need a little bit of a lift.  I was disappointed to learn just a couple of days out from Noosa that Sue had been the victim of a freak cycling accident earlier in the week, and had to withdraw from the race.  Like me, Sue had a special place in her heart for the Noosa Triathlon, as it was the race that had inspired her to start training, and right from the beginning she had set Noosa 2003 as her main reason for competing.

When I saw Sue immediately prior to the race, I had a lump in my throat.  I felt compelled to give her a hug and say something – but I knew that whatever I said to her would not come close to easing her disappointment.  Even so, I told her I’d miss having her out on the course, and held back my own tears as hers started to escape from the corners of her eyes.

As I came in off the bike, Sue was leaning out so far over the barrier that I don’t know how she managed to stay on the right side of it.  She was waving her arms and screaming my name as if her life depended on it.   All I could think was how much courage it must have taken for Sue to front up and watch the race, let alone to give so much to make sure we had as good an experience as possible.

Sue, you proved at Noosa 2003 that you are a champion – and though I know you would have much preferred to have proven it out there on the track, for my part, you got me through T2 and saw me into the beginning of the run in good spirits – the time in each race that’s the hardest for me.  Thank you.

Having spent less than 30 in the swim, and around 1:20 on the bike, I knew I had a little more than the 60 minutes I’d budgeted in my Three Hour  Dream calculations.  Even so, running 10ks in close to 60 minutes is a tough ask for me at any time – let alone in the Noosa heat, and after flogging myself on the bike for 40ks.

But I had something to prove.  Not only to myself, but to Bonaparte and Bjorn, who wouldn’t leave my shoulder, jeering at me…


I told myself that I only had to run to the first drink stop.  I always walk through drink stops, because I haven’t mastered the whole “drink and run” movement that looks so stylish and smooth.  Invariably, my attempts to emulate this result in the water going down the wrong way, and me having to double over for a few seconds, choking and spluttering.  Not that graceful.  Much better to just stop and walk for a few metres.  Saves the medical teams from thinking I’m having some kind of asthma attack or something…

By the third drink station, though, my walks became considerably longer than a couple of metres.  Even worse, I was deluding myself into thinking this was OK because I held onto my cup even after I was done with it.  (And regardless of whether it still contained any fluid!)  If I still had the cup, I was still technically at the drink station, and it was OK to walk a few more metres…

I kept making myself drop that cup and run, though, and before I knew it I was closer to the finish than I was to the start.  I wasn’t sure by how much, I tend to miss the kilometre markers as I run by them but I did a bit of an estimate, looked at my watch, and did some maths.  It seemed that my pace had slowed considerably and I started to wonder whether I’d make it.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I even started consoling myself that it would be OK if I didn’t get my three hours.

“Wah-wah-wah-wah Waterloo… Finally…”

That bloody song.

I didn’t want to feel like I’d won if I lost.  I didn’t want to lose.  I just wanted to bloody well win!

And it was then – only probably a couple of kilometres from the end – that I realised that I’d been looking at it all wrong.

My Waterloo wasn’t about giving in to the course – as that meant giving into my fear, and my self doubts.

My Waterloo was, in fact, about giving in to my goal, and my stubborn determination to achieve it.  My determination had already got me a long way in this sport.  It’d been driving my training for the last 14 weeks, preparing me for this event.  I knew if I let it take over now, my Three Hour Dream would be safe.  I’d get there.

“Wah-wah-wah-wah Waterloo… Finally facing my Waterloo”

I never gave Bonaparte nor Bjorn another thought.  I just kept running, and maybe that determination even helped me find an extra gear.  I also knew the team tent was only a few ks away, and if I just got there, my squad would get me the rest of the way.  I’ve said it before, and I know I’ll say it again, but probably the best thing about being one of the last to finish is that the cheer squad when you get to the end is awesome.

I crossed the line in 2:57:17 – almost three minutes shy of my Three Hour Dream. A personal best at this distance by just under 10 minutes.

So what got me there?  My courage?  My determination?

Partly.  But I think more than anything it was my decision to give in.  Now, I know that “giving in” is usually a bad thing – to throw in the towel, to hang up the boots, to pack up your marbles and go home.  But I learned a different perspective at Noosa 2003.
“Giving in” is not always about “quitting”.  When you surrender to the right things, great things can happen.  You can let your heart be won over by an admirer, and fall in love.  You can surrender a battle, yet win the war.  You can let your determination override your self doubt, and achieve your dreams.

You can feel like you win when you lose.

Who’d have thought that arguably the daggiest band in history, could be the custodians of such a powerful revelation…

Race website: Noosa Triathlon and Multisport Festival

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