Opus Unfinished: Lake Tinaroo Half Ironman

As we left our cabin in the beautiful Lake Tinaroo Holiday Park on race morning, a fine mist fell on us, filling me with nothing but dread. I clung on to Phil’s hand and walked slowly, as if in a funeral march.

What if the rest of the day was like this? I didn’t want to contemplate how miserable it would be so I tried to think about all the positives. After all, just four months ago I couldn’t run a step and had only ridden for ten minutes at a time on my wind trainer. Just being here, ready to go (kind of), was a huge achievement.

I’d been told there was no official cut-off. So I had all day right?

And if only 20,000 Australians have ever done an Ironman, surely only 50,000 or so have ever completed a Half Ironman. I was already a winner…

We got down to the lake. I’m not sure what the best description is of the fog that hung over Lake Tinaroo - pea soup or a misty haze? It was with my heart in my mouth that I stood on the start line, with Phil by my side.

There probably aren’t many times that Phil and I will get to start a race together but due to a smaller field at this race all the age group competitors started in one wave, a few minutes behind the professional field. It was reassuring to have him there beside me, and I clung to his hand for as long as he would let me. Eventually, he had to prise me off to do his own last minute race preparation.

That moment the hooter sounds always provokes in me a bittersweet combination of exhilaration and fear. There is a paradox of wondering whether I’ve done enough, in sheer contrast with the knowledge that there’s nothing more I can do now but enjoy the moment and do my best.

It’s always the same, and I have to admit that the feeling that I’m really alive that results is part of the reason why I’ll always strive to stand on some starting line, some time in the future.

In this case, diving into the chilly water made me feel even more alive than usual… as did the panic of trying to make out in the marker buoys through the fog. With such a small field there weren’t too many swimmers to follow! But as per my usual race plan I just tried to enjoy the thrill of carving through the water, this time wetsuit assisted, and find my sense of calm.

Having trained for a seven hour race, I had prepared myself for the distinct possibility that I might be the last person across the line.

I hadn’t prepared myself for knowing I was going to be last across the line, as early as 55kms into the cycle.

When I got out of the water, granted, there were only about six other bikes left in transition.  (And I took a bit of time in transition; I think more than one bike left while I was there!).  I remember a few people passing me early on in the bike leg.  But I hadn’t given my overall position much thought till I got to the first turnaround on the second lap.

When I got to the strawberry farm, there was no witches hat in the middle of the road.

I gave a fleeting thought to the possibility I was lost, but, no, I’d known the course was to be shared with normal traffic, so had made doubly sure that I knew the directions. And I remembered the strawberry farm from the last lap.

I then noticed the Official Race Tarago. Ironically, I’d joked to Phil the previous day that that was the van that would follow me in off the bike course.

But I was joking – it wasn’t meant to actually happen!

The marshall saw me approaching, sprinted out to where the witches hat was meant to be, and yelled “go around me!!!”

I did, and kept going.  A few minutes later, the van was beside me.

“I’m really sorry.  We didn’t know where you were!” said the marshall.

“Well, I’m here, and I’m not going to give up!!!” I responded.

Thinking that they may have seen me as an imposition, I was relieved to hear his instant response, “Good, don’t!!”.

And with that, the Official Race Tarago did trail me back to the township of Tinaroo – with more than my fair share of encouragement from the driver.

I headed out onto the run aware that most other competitors were well and truly into their four laps – and the pros were starting to come across the finish line. Due to injury I had planned to walk a fair chunk of the run, as I hadn’t been in a position to simply go out and run in training. I’d had to supplement with water running and punctuate my training runs with regular sections of walking.

A k or so into my first lap I walked with a chap who was worried he was last. I told him not to worry about that, it wasn’t going to happen.

The triathletes reading this will know that this kind of reassurance is regularly used amongst the fraternity – we will always try and encourage our fellow triathletes as much as we can, especially during the latter stages of a race, in the heat of the day, when we’re all doing it a bit tough.

“But I’m only on my second lap!” he said, unswayed and a bit panicky.

“Mate, I’m on my first lap, and the race vehicle escorted me back into town on my bike. Seriously, it isn’t going to happen.”

I had to convince him it was true by showing him my solitary arm band. When I did, the encouragement came back the other way, and I have to say it was much appreciated!

There are many reasons why the Lake Tinaroo Half Ironman will be special to me forever. But one of the most memorable things about the Lake Tinaroo Half Ironman was a local 88 year old bloke called Bob.

I first met Bob the previous day when we went to the race briefing.  He was standing beside the course maps, looking like a kid on Christmas day.  He was jumping out of his skin with excitement.

Tinaroo’s a pretty small place and this was probably the biggest thing that’d happened there for a while.  (Except for the annual Barramundi fishing contest.)

He had in his hand an A3 sized aerial photo of the dam and township of Tinaroo, and was showing anyone who was interested how the run course wound its way around the lakeside to the dam wall.

Given that, as I’ve already expressed, I thought there was a possibility I might be out there by myself, was very interested in having some kind of idea of the course.

Bob introduced himself, welcomed us to Tinaroo, and proudly and painstakingly pointed out the run course in laborious detail.  It didn’t help me too much, as having just arrived in town hadn’t really got my bearings yet.  But I appreciated the sentiment and thanked him for his time.

The next time I saw Bob was about halfway around the first lap of the run.  He was marshalling on top of one of the hills, in a spot where runners passed him three times each lap.  It was stinking hot, but there he stood, making sure noone got lost (or cheated), and happily cheering everyone on.

On my third lap I shared a drink stop not far from Bob’s post with my old friend Number 18. I’d got to talking to Number 18 when racking my bike on the Saturday. I noticed the bike opposite me had Number 18 on it – and since my race number was 19 we had a bit of a chat and wished each other luck.

Number 18 was on her last lap, and there weren’t too many others still out there with us.  The race director caught up with us at the drink stop to check our progress.  When I said I still had one lap to go, he asked if I minded if the on-course staff left their posts.  By that stage I didn’t care too much, I just wanted to finish.  I indicated as much, then kept on my way.

Low and behold, when I got back to the finish chute to commence my last lap, having been dismissed from his official duties, there was Bob.  He looked like he was straight out of the 70s, with a yellow Bonds tshirt, powder blue Scoops… and his running shoes.  All he was missing was a Dennis Lillee headband!

His grin was ear to ear.  “I’m running your last lap with you,” he said.  Pleased as punch with himself, he was.

So off we set together on the last five kilometres of my first Half Ironman.

I walked most of the last lap, and he trotted on beside me, chatting away as if we were on a Sunday stroll through the park.

I found out that he was in fact an accomplished runner.  Amongst his years of running he’d successfully completed Comrades, an annual ultra-marathon staged across some of the biggest hills in South Africa, on two occasions.

Bob considered himself part of the world’s running fraternity, so I wasn’t too surprised to find out at the presentation dinner that night that Bob had rung the race organisers earlier that week to offer his help, and his home. The phone call went something like this.

“Mate, I’ve been running marathons all around the world for most of my life.  Many of the times I’ve stayed at people’s places.  Other runners have just opened their homes up to me.

“I’ve finally got the chance to do the same thing.  If you’ve got an athlete or two that needs somewhere to stay, just let me know.”

Bob hosted several athletes and volunteers over the course of the event, and as I was about to find out, was happy to play local tour guide as well.

“Geez”, he said once when I decided to run a bit.  “I’m flat out keeping up with you when you’re walking!”

I couldn’t help but think to myself, “whose race is this?!”.  Of course I didn’t have the heart to say anything.  I kind of pretended not to hear him and just kept jogging along.

When we got to the dam wall, I started to wish I had said something.  Bob stopped at the spillway and started pointing down yonder, explaining in great detail the local points of interest.

I tried to just keep on moving but he was pretty insistent.

I have no idea what on earth he was trying to show me.  At the time I didn’t care. I stopped briefly, made some kind of “oh, really?!” and just kept going.

This happened two or three times along the dam wall.

“Bloody hell Bob!”, I thought to myself… “I’ve got somewhere else to be… and it isn’t sightseeing!”

Finally I made the finish line and sat in recovery (by then just one tent, a few slices of watermelon, a couple of cups of water, and a lovely older lady that had saved them especially for me). Along came… you guessed it… Bob.

He congratulated me on my persistence and determination, and presented me with another copy of that A3 aerial photo of Tinaroo.

While Bob stands out, there are other people who helped to make this day special, who warrant their own mention as well.

Number 18 – (I found out after looking up the results her name was Leonie.)  Number 18 was prepared for a long day too so we greeted each other with a huge yell of encouragement whenever we saw each other.

Dave – One of my best friends who lives in Cairns.  He made not one, but two trips up to Lake Tinaroo to watch me take on my first Half Ironman.  While this is very much appreciated, it needs to be said that Dave could do with a bit of practice at being a good supporter.

Firstly, it’s not good form to ride up beside someone competing in a non-drafting triathlon on a motorbike, and yell out their number.

Admittedly, I’d seen my race number of 19 as a good omen because of those lotto ads where people get really excited about seeing number NINETEEN!!! And I also admit I had fun calling it out and waving my arms around on the day before the race – I released a lot of nervous energy this way, despite looking like a prize goose, just like the people who imagine they’ve won lotto.

However at the precise moment Dave did this, I happened to have just been passed by another cyclist and probably would have been touch and go as to whether I was drafting.  I’ve never been LESS happy to see Dave.  Ever!

As I mentioned, Dave made two trips up to the tablelands, due to a prior engagement in Cairns on that same day. On his return to the race, as the race leaders were finishing, I was, of course, just starting my run.  On my first pass through the finish area, Dave yelled at me, “how many have you got to go?!”

When I replied “three”, he wasn’t too good at hiding his surprise. His jaw dropped and his eyes almost dropped out of his head.


“Yes. Three!!!”

Regardless, he waited patiently and was there to congratulate me when I finished.

I hope he’ll come back to brush up his skills next year!

Chris – The Tarago driver!  Thanks for your encouragement and enthusiasm up those last few hills into Tinaroo. For Chris and all the race organisers, their day was perhaps a little longer than they’d envisioned. Thanks for your patience.

The Timing Crew – They kept Phil and Dave company on the long wait for me to finish, even wheeling out the good old line ”well, if you’re not going to win, you might as well come last.  They get the biggest cheer.”  And when I finally did finish, promptly gave me my race times, and congratulated me on getting the best value for money for my entry fee.

And of course, Phil – for spending more time calming my nerves before the race than he did calming his own!

Phil also kept the race organisers in check. He made sure that one of my biggest fears in triathlon remained unfulfilled by insisting the finish arch remain intact until I’d run through it. I hardly noticed that transition was demolished, that all but one drink station was gone, and the course marshals had knocked off for the day. But if the finish chute had been gone…

So, with all that done and dusted, perhaps you are wondering about the “Opus Unfinished” title for this Chronicle.

Yes, I know, I did finish.

Writing this Chronicle, like the race it’s about, has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. The race was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced – but at the same time was exciting, overwhelming, inspiring and highly emotional. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in encapsulating exactly what a roller coaster it was for me. I regret that.

While physically and mentally extremely difficult, I said at the time and hopefully will always say that September 4 2005 was one of the best days of my life.

Even so, I have to admit that I still feel this whole Half Ironman business is unfinished. And there are not one, but two reasons why.

The first reason started to materialise the day before the race.

I looked at the competitor listing and realised I had a pretty good chance of getting a spot for the Australian Ironman – there were 40 available spots including lotteries, and only 55 entrants wanted one. I was in the biggest female division, and one of only two in that division that wanted a spot, and I realised any unclaimed female rolldowns should automatically come back to me.

I can’t tell you whether I got it on rolldown or lottery, but at the awards dinner on the night of the race I secured myself a berth for the Australian Ironman for 2006. So there’s been little time for backslapping or celebration – given my poor leadup for Tinaroo there’s been injuries to sort out and training programs to commence.

The other reason is a little more personal. Put bluntly, I came dead last and walked three quarters of the half marathon.

Given where I’d been with my injuries, I probably couldn’t have expected much more than this. But it’s not how I saw my longcourse triathlon debut unfolding, and it’s not what I expect of myself in the future.

I named this Chronicle “Opus Unfinished” in honour of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in B minor. In many ways, the 2005 Lake Tinaroo Half Ironman is my own “Unfinished Symphony”.

Schubert only completed two movements of this piece of music, although he originally had three in mind. He even started sketching out the melody of the third.

There are many theories as to why he never finished that third movement. Some music historians purport that maybe Schubert lost interest, or ran out of inspiration.

Others have even tried to complete the work – even today the fact remains that, just like a triathlon, noone else can do it for him.

But while just the two movements wasn’t what the composer had originally intended, there is another school of thought that holds that Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” is perfection exactly as he left it.

I have a hunch that, with some time passed, Schubert looked back on those original two movements and came to that realisation himself...

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