Not like the others: Ironman Western Australia 2007

Ironman Western Australia, December 2007 was for me, Ironman number three.

I generally consider three to be my lucky number, but Ironman number three didn’t quite work out that way. Parts of the day were good, but lots of it was not. At times I felt happy, but mostly throughout the day I felt melancholy, lonely, and emotionally empty. So, when pushed to sum up my experience at Ironman number three, I think about my song for this race, and the words ‘not like the others’.

Perhaps I’d jinxed my race by choosing the Foo Fighters “The Pretender” as my theme? A song with a defiant, powerful chorus...
What if I say I’m not like the others?...What if I say I’m not just another one of your plays?...You’re the pretender...What if I say that I’ll never surrender?
The song came to me fairly early in my training program – and stuck – though at that time I couldn’t really say why it spoke to me so strongly. I’ve always liked the Foo Fighters – their irreverence; their melodic rock sounds; their well crafted songs and albums. But mostly I like the paradox of a pulsing rock riff unashamedly delivering lyrics that are candidly expressive and at times vulnerable.

By the same token, you don’t have to look too far to find some relevance in my choice. Many would say that setting and achieving a goal like Ironman does entitle you to feel different to others. Those that have achieved an Ironman will also say that the decision has to be your own, and there’s no room for pretence through the training or on race day. Most Ironman finishers will also have a story about how someone in their life didn’t understand their choice, and tried to make them feel negatively about their decision to devote such time and energy to what their so called friend perceived to be a ridiculous goal. To me, these themes are implicit in The Pretender.

Then of course, there’s the obvious. The sentiment of never surrendering will always stand you in good stead in Ironman training and racing.

As I prepared for this, lucky three, I held all of these things dear to me. As the race approached my emotions became increasingly amplified, not only through the looming challenge, but also because I’d decided to fundraise for Operation Flinders, a youth outreach group that my friend Megan had become involved with through her walks of the Kokoda Track. My fundraising consisted of friends and colleagues paying to guess my finish time. Whoever guessed closest would “win” a predetermined proportion of the pledges, with most of the funds donated to Operation Flinders. I was excited that, finally, I’d committed to doing something good with my Ironman journey, apart from my own self satisfaction. It felt good.

Maybe it was pre-race nerves – or perhaps it was denial – but I wasn’t to realise until all this was done and dusted, what an effect my choice of song and decision to help others would have. These two things were to become intrinsic to why I look back on this race as ‘not like the others...’

The day started fairly typically – if that’s possible for an Ironman race day. I was filled with the same expectation, apprehension and excitement that has greeted me on other race days. The difference this time, though, was a little more of a sense of calm; of destiny. Ironically, I had more pressure on me to finish than ever before. More than anything that morning as I stared down the starting line, all I wanted was to see the finish line, so the money pledged would make its way to Operation Flinders.

It was just a little more expectation than I usually place on myself, but looking back now I didn’t really mind that too much.

In the days prior, we’d gone about our usual pre race business. Special needs bags, checking in our bikes and transition gear bags, and of course, merchandise shopping!

A fair amount of time went into calming our nerves, and that of our fellow squad members. Especially Peppa, our first timer. It was also her 30th birthday, which was acknowledged at the Carbo Loading dinner a couple of nights before the race.

On race day she seemed cool and calm though. She and the others went for their swim warm up while I contemplated the day ahead from the shore. Geoff, Peppa’s partner, kept me occupied, though I suspect he was chatting to me to calm his nerves more so than to reassure me.

After returning from her warm up and kissing Geoff goodbye, Peppa hugged me. She told me in the days following the race that she hadn’t wanted to let me go, and that it was a memory that would stay with her forever.

It perhaps sounds a little corny, but even though I hadn’t sensed at the time how important that hug was to Peppa, it’s something I understand completely. Ironman does these kinds of things to you – brings out heightened emotions. Peppa, having now successfully become a member of the Ironman family, understands now too how little things stand out as you look back on your day.

I timed my start fairly well, having waded out to the back of the pack just before the hooter. Being a small field and wide start, there wasn’t much of a disadvantage to staying back from the start to avoid being caught up in too much rabble. In fact, I would say would say it was an advantage.

Like many of the Ironman races around the world, the local organising committee made use of one of the area’s tourist attractions. In this case, the swim followed the line out around the Busselton Jetty.

The swim leg seemed to go forever. As I guess a 3.8k swim kind of should. We had done a training swim out a little way along the Jetty in the days leading up to the event. I should have gone a little further that previous time – perhaps if I had, it wouldn’t have felt so long now.

I also may have been more prepared for the choppiness out at the end of the Jetty. The water during our previous swim had been nice and calm – as it was on race day. But even on the calmest day, when you’re 2k from the beach, there is swell. I battled with this both physically and psychologically, like you do with anything you’re not prepared for on race day. Little did I know at this time, that this was just the start of this ill feeling.

Finally, I rounded the end of the Busselton Jetty. The Jetty is famous in local parts, being the longest jetty in the southern hemisphere. It’s 140 years old and has an interesting history. Like most old jetties there have been fires, and the swim turnaround was out past the end of the present Jetty proper incorporating some of the old, burned jetty from years gone by.

At the end of the jetty now stands an underwater observatory. I’m sure the view from there would be interesting on Ironman race day, as nearly 1,000 swimmers clambered for their position around the turning buoys, some losing their direction slightly and swimming precious metres further than they had to.

I didn’t have this problem. I rarely do. I’m not so great with navigation for the majority of the swim, but when it comes to the turning cans, I am usually as close as it gets.

When I got around to the other side of the Jetty, I desperately tried to follow Shane’s advice of heading for the tower on the shore.  It saves you from following the curve of the jetty, potentially saving a hundred metres or so – and obviously time. I tried, but just couldn’t get it right. I don’t know why but I couldn’t leave the security of the Jetty.

(Possibly though, not such a bad thing in waters in which shark sightings are frequent.)

Maybe part of it was that I spotted a man on the Jetty that reminded me of Phil. It partly comforted me and partly frightened me. I think it’s straightforward why having a man that vaguely resembled Phil walking along the jetty beside me was comforting. It was frightening because, obviously, Phil was racing. Deep down I knew that if Phil had been forced to pull out of the race this early, he wouldn’t be walking along the Jetty – he’d be being revived in the medical tent. Thus, it was frightening.

Although this mystery man seemed to follow my path faithfully, I was very well aware the whole time that it wasn’t Phil. Luckily, I was blissfully unaware that this hallucination would turn out to be in a way the opposite to what lay ahead for the rest of the day, when I would struggle to spot anyone in the crowd. But that’s still to come.

After what seemed like an eternity, I rounded the final turning buoy. With the help (?) of my very own ‘Special Navigation System’, managed to overshoot the finish, adding another few metres to the distance swum. If only there were time bonuses for that!

I exited the water without seeing anyone I recognised and slipped into the change tent to get ready for the bike. I was a little surprised to learn that the volunteers had been instructed to not assist with dressing. I’ve had that luxury in each of my previous races. For those of you who have tried to get lycra on over damp skin, you’ll know what a godsend it is.

I knew I’d struggle into my bike gear eventually. What I was more worried about was that I’d given Peppa a bum steer.

“Best tip”, I’d said, “when you get into T1, tell the volunteers what you need them to help you with. Get them to pull your jersey on if you need them to – they’ll do it. They are happy for you to direct them. They want to help, that’s what they’re there for.”

I got a negative when I asked for this kind of assistance – one of the volunteers gave me the tip that I could ask a fellow competitor to help me. I didn’t think this was fair so I struggled on and got myself dressed. Admittedly, only a little slower than it would have been assisted.

Out to Lance, my faithful companion for the next leg, 180.1Km on the bike.

Bryn had lent me his race wheels, and with the help of two Marties – my regular Marty at Planet Cycles back in Brisbane, and some final tune-ups by the Shimano mechanic at the race office also serendipitously named Marty – I was ready to go.

The race wheels looked good. They felt good. Unfortunately, I don’t think I went fast enough to gain any benefit from them. I am hoping that’s the case anyway. I can’t bear the thought that if I had have had my regular wheels, I would have gone even slower.

Maybe. Maybe not.

The first task on the bike is to get some food into your system. In my case, I take between 1:20 and 1:30 in the swim, a long time to be without intake when exerting yourself. I’d been banned from putting a half a bar in my transition bag so when I got to the bike I shoved a few bits of bar in my mouth and started chewing.

It was all I could do to swallow them. My stomach was not feeling good and I wondered what the result would be with the addition of half a somewhat chewed energy bar. Luckily, it didn’t get much worse, but having solid food didn’t help my tummy either. I had a fair amount of liquid nutrition with me so depended on that rather than the bars for the first lap, then considered my options further.

Into the second lap I tried a banana from an aid station and that went down pretty well, so I persisted with Enervitene and banana for the rest of the ride. It got me through OK, although I can’t say that either improved my condition.

My preoccupation with stomach problems prohibited my usual pastime on the bike. Usually I occupy myself by spotting the fellow competitors I know and keeping track of how they’re progressing. Who will I see next? When?

This just wasn’t possible so during the entire bike leg I saw Greg and Jill just once each, Phil twice.

It must have been the combination of a faster course and a 15 minute lead that the pros got through their preferential start that allowed them to lap me at the end of my first lap. Towards the end of my second, Tara and then Phil lapped me on their third. They would be almost finished by the time I finished my cycle.

I’d expected to be lapped on my second lap, but not on my first. And not by Phil at all!

When I headed through town with two laps done, I spotted my friend Megan and her brother Geoff. Geoff’s 40th birthday had preceded the race by a week so Megs had stayed for the extra week to cheer us on.

I was so happy to see her!!!

I think it’s the only time on the bike that I smiled, as Geoff snapped off some photos.

I’d never felt as lonely in a race as when I headed back out of town by myself. I resolved to at least hold the same pace, if nothing else to try to get back into the town centre to see Megs before she and Geoff ran out of time and had to leave to get back to Perth.

To top off my desolation, I hit the same pothole I’d hit each of the first two laps, on the approach to the first aid station. I really cursed then. And I have to admit, a few tears slid down my cheeks.

The wind was really picking up now but at least the rain that had threatened in the previous days didn’t come to fruition.

I succeeded in holding a regular pace, but not in getting back to town before Megs had to leave. There were no other familiar faces in the crowd either. The announcer acknowledged me as I dismounted and handed my bike to a catcher – the only comfort.

Perhaps the only advantage of being a late finisher on the bike is an uncrowded transition area. I had the tent to myself while I changed my shorts, reapplied sunscreen, pulled on my running shoes and socks, and weighed up the rest of my wardrobe. It had been cool all day and each night we’d been in Busselton had been cold. I kept my cycling vest on, and took a long sleeve shirt and arm warmers for good measure.

It was only when I was finishing up a fellow competitor came in, who professed to feeling a hell of a lot worse than I did... or at least that’s what she was telling anyone that would listen... Time to get out of here!

I had taken my time in T2. If I’m really honest – probably too long. Admittedly, I wasn’t feeling the best. I’d spent a bit of time on my third bike lap planning how to execute the upcoming marathon, as I was somewhat concerned about the lack of energy I’d been able to consume. Hopefully if I was just able to get a couple of Gus down, and if I could stomach some Coke, I’d get through OK.

As I left the safety of the transition zone for the final time, I was at the lowest low. I honestly didn’t know if I was physically up to the 42Ks that remained. And still, there were still no familiar faces, so psychologically, I began to wonder whether any of this even mattered...? I had a fleeting thought for the Operation Flinders kids I so desperately wanted to help. But it was fleeting. The pain won and I told myself that walking would do.

Out of nowhere, only 100 or so metres into the marathon, the most magical part of my Ironman took place. Despite the self talk to the contrary, I started to run, in my familiar Ironman shuffle. I still don’t know what switched in my brain off and let my body subconsciously slip into action. But I didn’t question it then and I haven’t since.

I settled into a slow but steady pace and stayed with it the entire run. I stopped for Aid stations where I alternated between Coke, Endura, water, and some GUs.

The first GU came out at the first aid station, where I spared a thought for its original owner. This particular GU had been given to me by Megan on her most recent return from the Kokoda Track. She raced the 96K length in August earlier that year. And although she took a couple of GUs with her, only stomached one and brought the other home. Being a hippy at heart, she doesn’t like to waste so passed it on to me, knowing I’d put it to good use.

I told her I’d save it for the marathon at Busso and as I sucked it down, I spared a thought for her, for her adventure through PNG, and her achievement as one of the first Australian women to compete in such a gruelling event.

My train of thought brought me back to the fundraising I was doing for Operation Flinders, and the young people I was trying to help. By finishing the race, I’d achieve donations to Operation Flinders of over $1,000. I focussed on that and before too long I was thinking about what these kids really needed. It was more than just money. They needed strong role models that believed in them, and showed them the virtue of doing their best.

While I still don’t know what had made me start to run at the beginning, this thought is what kept me going from one Aid Station to the next.

As the daylight faded and my fellow competitors became fewer and fewer, I reverted to my well established Ironman tactic of chatting to and cheering on my fellow Ironman hopefuls. My stomach had started to feel a little better by now... or maybe everything else had started to feel a bit patchy as well, so it just seemed better?

By the time the final lap came around, with my constant little shuffle, I started to pick up other competitors, most of whom were walking by this stage. Still, I gave each one some encouragement as I passed, just as I was thanking all the volunteers along the way.

It was easy to spot the last placed competitor, being trailed by an event marshall on a mountain bike. I saved a special cheer for her each time I saw her, which seemed fewer and further between as time ticked by.

At the far turnaround on the final lap, I picked up my glow stick. Just two days ago I was talking up my chances of getting in without needing one of these. Coincidentally the volunteer seemed apologetic at having to give me one, but I accepted it with good grace and continued on my way. Not far now...

Almost back into the town centre a spectator gave me a cheer... “go 654!” followed by “Hey, your boyfriend’s looking for you. He was worried he missed you!”
Phil had been as optimistic as me about my possible finish time.

“He’s just ahead, keep going!”

I continued to shuffle along to the commentator’s tower just opposite the finish line. They’d packed up and gone home by now, so no one heralded my imminent finish. I passed a fellow competitor in this stretch and he decided to shuffle along with me. We started chatting, making the metres pass by just that little bit quicker.

Then, all of a sudden, there was Phil. He looked a bit anxious... he really had thought he’d missed me... or perhaps had thought something worse. I stopped for a quick peck before his promise to be waiting at the finish line for me. My new friend and I shuffled on together with the glow of the finish line just across from us...

We rounded the final turn, passed through the aid station and picked up another competitor. My friend decided to walk with him, which secretly I was happy about – it meant I would get to the finish chute by myself, and have the undivided attention of the announcer and the crowd.

(Indulgent I know but after all day and the best part of the night, surely you deserve your own place in the sun, so to speak.)

I was overcome with emotion as I finally took the left turn into the finish chute – instead of having to pass by to complete yet another lap.

Most of the finish chute is a blurred memory. I saw the time as being in the high 15:29s and sprinted to try and get in under 15:30. Unfortunately I didn’t succeed. My official finish time was just 2 seconds adrift.

I did see Peppa, who was dancing in the finish chute. Yes, dancing. Just hours after finishing an Ironman in a world of pain from her shin splints!

For the first time at an Ironman finish, I truly needed a catcher – those volunteers that you might say put their bodies on the line to literally catch Ironman finishers, some of whom stumble across the finish line in a range of medical conditions. My legs seized up the moment I crossed the line and I truly needed assistance into the recovery area. After a lemonade and a sit down I started to feel a little more human – not only after the fluid and carbs, but the bubbles helping me get rid of some of the gas that had plagued me all race day.

For the first time in all our Ironman races, Phil and I stayed at the finish line to watch the last lady finish. We’d agreed we would a couple of days before the race, but now that we were here, I was anxious about it. I quietly told Phil, “I don’t think she’s going to make it. I’ve seen her out there all night. She was a long way behind me and she didn’t look good.”

Still, we waited patiently, and with just seconds to spare, Luanne Hage became the final finisher at the Western Australian Ironman 2007. After a long day, we went home, downed some Nurofen to mask some of the pain, and tried to get some sleep.

Of course, by the time the morning rolled around, everything seemed a lot better. But, for a long time after this particular Ironman, I was haunted. That feeling of destiny I’d felt on race morning lingered. I struggled to let it go.

That damned song – my song – taunted me.

“So who are you?”

Now there’s a question.

For a long time, I’d been running away from a past that I’ve found difficult to deal with – a family with values and a way of life that I rejected. I was estranged from my family, for reasons I didn’t know how to explain to anyone, and for this reason, I’d always felt that I wasn’t like others.

To all of us, our family is our identity, until such time in our lives as we become comfortable enough with ourselves to show our personal identity to the world. For many this transition is easy but it was something I had struggled with for as long as I yearned to be able to do it. I realise now it was probably because I’d been robbed of a starting point, having never really adopted my family identity as my own.

Part of me had always wanted others to know how I felt, that I wasn’t like them, but for the most part, I was too ashamed of my family, and of my rejection of them, to allow others to know why I was different.

After Ironman number three, I realised that, in the words of the Dave Grohl, I was a pretender.

The song I’d chosen for this race reflected so much – the secrets, the voices, the enemy in the mirror. But to me, the song is also about the strength inside each individual – the ability of us all to decide our own destiny, and to make the most of our lives for the short time we’re here.

So who am I? I’m an Ironman.

What does that mean? I guess that’s personal, and different for every individual. For me, Ironman provided a reason to reveal that I wasn’t like others in a way that was palatable – for me and for them. It had been a long time coming.

With that acknowledgement said and done, I no longer have a need to pretend. Ironically, doing something extraordinary – something that should have made me feel different to others – made me feel, for the first time in my life, more like others than ever before.

To anyone, being an Ironman is special, but for me, it’s much more than that. Ironman has given me the strength to really be myself; to be proud of the fact that my life is mine and not someone else’s play. It’s given me the courage to reveal what’s behind my character, not only to myself, but, little by little, to the world – in a way that I would never previously have allowed.

So now, as I put the lid on Ironman number three, I’ll confess that my first Ironman was about proving to myself that I could do it. The second was about proving to myself that I deserved to be considered different from others by achieving something extraordinary. This time, it was about making it count, not only for myself and for my loved ones, but also for others that I may never meet.

In fundraising for Operation Flinders, I hope in some small way I have challenged a group of young people to find out who they are. To have the strength to find their own identity, away from any negativity they have in their life, and to be comfortable with the fact that they may not be like the others.

And with this found, to never surrender. For I never will.

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