Guest Blog by: Ben Shepherd
First of all, let me paint the scene for you. It’s 0100 h the morning after the race, the only muscles that still work are my fingers, my digestive system is in overdrive and I’m not even close to sleeping. So what other option is there except write a race report??
Prerace: Changing it up
Going into the race, I was dead set certain that I wanted a Kona slot. That was what this race was about – it was what kept the fires burning. Then, the competitor list came out and my world was turned upside down. There were some – a LOT – of super quick athletes in my age group and I knew that this was me done. Reality hit like a freight train. I let my coaches know this, and I very quickly had my expectations realigned. Now it was all about smart execution on the day, exerting energy within myself and being happy with the result. This was an enormous weight off my shoulders, and all of a sudden I was in a position where all I wanted to do was actually enjoy myself out there. I felt like a new man! The conditions leading in to the race were just awful, and I was fine with that – it meant every one was facing the same thing. While others were terrified of the looming winds, I accepted that it wouldn’t be the Cairns Ironman without them! I arrived on the Tuesday prior to the race to acclimatise, and the girls arrived on the Thursday – I missed them terribly so it was great to have them up! Bella was very excited about the race, and was practicing her ‘running races’ in the living room, including high-5 practice. Quite possibly the cutest thing ever. In any case, race morning rolled around, and for the first time ever, I was calm. I had slept well, fuelled well, and was just truly enjoying it. After a quick hug with the girls (and coach Dave), I waddled down to the water and just like that, the day started.
Swim: Find the bubbles, hold the bubbles.
Traditionally I have always been a below average swimmer. My best IM split was in the calm waters of Melbourne when I went 66 minutes and a bit of change. Luckily I have come across an excellent triathlon squad in Canberra, Tri 3 Coaching, and Megan Hall has completely changed my swimming abilities. The water was quite rough and I got thrown around a lot, however if there is one thing that Meg has taught me, it’s that tensing up and trying to fight it will only wear me out. The swim then became about finding a rhythm and keeping it as constant as possible. The turbulence in the water meant that sighting buoys became quite a challenge, so I began to use other swimmers as a guide in the interim. Sighting every six strokes, I’d look for a swim cap or a buoy, anything that would point me in the right direction. Once I could feel the bubbles of someone’s kick whizzing past my face, I’d work as hard as possible to keep that feeling, meaning I was reducing my workload and still swimming in the right direction. Despite the chop and current, the swim felt… easy. Even at 3km in, I thought ‘well, that’s it, there is no way this can be anywhere near my best’ and funnily enough, I was ok with that! I kept that same routine, finding bubbles and holding bubbles, eventually settling into a group of three swimmers and finally beelining to the shore. Imagine my surprise when I stepped out of the water with a 60:39… a six minute personal best, and feeling as fresh as anything in such horrid conditions! Today was going well so far – I’d hit my first goal of a 60 minute swim (disregard those annoying 39 seconds). A very happy Shep scrambled up through transition and got on with business…
Positives: – A six minute swim PB
– A focus on form and technique instead of power and force
– Swimming in a group all day to save energy
Areas for Improvement: – Work a bit harder overall
– Use the legs for power a bit more
– Pick the spots where I can spend a bit more energy: into the swell, into the current etc
Bike: Stick to the plan!
Whizzing out of town involves a wonderful tailwind. Its too easy to spend all your energy on dropping mega-watts because it feels like you can go all day. This happened to me in 2016, and Coach Dave and I worked very hard in training to make sure that the application of power was done intelligently. We surmised that the bike race didn’t really start until 120km in, at the final turn towards town where the headwind is strong and the body is extremely tired. This forced me to conserve energy and pace myself. Even at under 200w, I was cruising at nearly 38km/h… it was going to be a long ride home. I had a lot of people start to fly past me, looking extremely strong, and it was all I could do to refrain from trying to chase them and burn all my matches. The course is undulating and tough, with the climb up to the Rex lookout taking it out of you. To be perfectly honest, the bike was relatively uneventful! I stuck to the plan like white to rice, and my average power until the final turn was 199W – bang on target. Then the pain hit. Turning back from Port Douglas felt like a freight train had hit me in the face – my power and heart rate went up, while my speed took a dive like Matthew Mitcham (google it if you’re confused). This was going to be a very long 60km. I kept the nutrition and water going, continually working, keeping the fires burning. A few people came and went, and I passed a few who had clearly burned a few too many matches – but not as many as I had hoped… something to work on here for sure! Back over the hills, past the bike start, only 20km to go, and I was done. Sick of staring at the same handlebars, the same drops of sweat on the visor, the same feeling of bumps in the road. Just at that moment, a speed train of six riders passed me. This was my chance. I put a little bit of power in, and managed to hold the back of it, getting towed along (legally) back towards town, a little bit of a break from the unrelenting wind. Finally I made it back to Transition 2, with my plan adhered to perfectly. We wanted a five-hour split, but this was not to be – I dismounted with a 5:14:06, a massive 20 minute improvement from my last outing on this course and a 10 minute improvement overall. I had lost a lot of places to my Age Group, but I honestly didn’t mind. I had biked within myself, and that is all I could ask for.
Positives: – Stuck to the plan
– Executed fuelling and hydration to the plan
– Didn’t let ego take over
Areas for improvement: – Could have biked a little bit harder overall
– Should have stayed aero for longer
– Flexibility needs to be improved for comfort and power
The Run: Just Hold On
I departed T2 feeling good. I’d burned a few matches on getting back into town, but all in all I had been smart about it all. I left feeling relatively strong… for the first few km at least. After 5km, my pace dropped to 4:45/km. Manageable. After 6.5km at the most northern turnaround, the wind played a massive factor and once again I found myself fighting the conditions – my run splits slowed significantly. 5:05/km… 5:10/km… I wanted to cry! This was not the plan!! I still felt fine in myself, the body was still ticking over, but there was just no speed in the legs. I tried to focus on smooth form and controlled execution, but there was just nothing. All of a sudden, Pro athlete Jessica Mitchell appeared alongside me. She was having a rough day as well, but we were holding similar pace. It settled out at 5:00/km – a 3:30 marathon exactly. That’s fine. If we can salvage that I would be happy. The wheels continued to slowly fall off, the shoulders started hunching and now it became a game of survival. It’s funny how different people take a different perspective of the race. My beautiful wife kept calling out ‘we love you! Keep having fun! We’re so proud of you’, whereas my patient and dedicated coach kept calling out ‘right, you’re in 12th place. The guy in front of you is running 20 seconds per km slower. You need to keep pace to catch him’… funnily enough, both styles worked for me. We kept going, struggling through with tired legs, heavy shoulders, and just the burning desire to finish. Jess dropped me at about the 18km mark and I thought ‘that’s it, my day is done’ but being a stubborn mule, I refused to walk. Nope. Nope, nope, nope. I kept my shuffle going and ticked off the aid stations. The distance markers seemed to mock me, saying just how far I had to suffer through before I could stop. At 24km, however, I ended up catching up with Jess again – she was in the hurt locker for sure but also seemed too stubborn to quit. So that was it, locked stride by stride we made it towards the finish line. We walked some aid stations, but at no point did we walk the run. Forward progress. Finally, we were inside the last 2km with my next competitor only 20 seconds up the road. Coach asked me to hold a better pace for the last little surge, and Jess ran with me. Cramp struck me in the back of the legs but I held on. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to catch him, but a finish line has never felt so good. I had crossed the line with a 3:34 marathon, a 13-minute PB for the distance. I gave Jess a quick hug – she really had made the difference on the run today, and went to go and give my girls a huge kiss, but my legs had stopped working. The volunteers grabbed me and wheeled me away… and the rest they say, is history. Overall, a 9:54:34 – and a 41 minute Personal Best.
Positives: – Run PB
– Didn’t walk all day except aid stations
– Kept fuelling all day
Areas for improvement: – Better fatigue management
– Better focus on form in the back half of the run
– Aim for a negative split
The Future and Thank you
So what now? It seems extremely unlikely that I’ll get a ticked to Kona, and I am actually fine with that. I have always said that I love the 70.3 distance most, and that is what I will focus on for the next few years I think. I owe my girls a lot of time – training for a full Ironman is not easy on anyone. I’ll be taking the next few weeks to stop, reflect and appreciate the journey I’ve been on, then start again by getting back to basics – stepping up the pilates and gym work at the very least. It’s time I focused more on being a family man and less of an athlete, and I’m actually quite excited about that.
The list of people I need to thank is quite long and by no means exhaustive. Firstly to Dave and Michelle, my coaches from SBR Triathlon – what these wonderful people have gone through just to get me to the start line is nothing short of amazing. To Meg from T3C – I can’t thank you enough. Of all the individual legs, my swim has seen the biggest improvement and that is all due to swimming with you. To Jessica Mitchell – thanks for your help out there today, you hung tough despite being in the locker, that is the mark of a true champion and I’m excited to see what your future holds. To my wonderful supporters – Zwift, Pilates For Sports, Zero Friction Cycling, Oi Sports – your continued faith in my abilities is truly appreciated. To my friends at The Cupcake Cartel, thank you for the camaraderie and team spirit you show. To Nate and Jeff from Team Triumph, thanks for having me as an honorary member – love the positivity you guys are spreading!
Most of all, though, thank you to my girls. Annie and Bella have been there for every session, good or bad, they have fed me, looked after me, checked and rechecked my bags, visited me in the garage while I have been training, and left me alone when they have seen I needed it. I couldn’t have done any of this without you. Thank you, and I am looking forward to repaying you for all your love and kindness over the last 9 months.
So that’s it. IM Cairns in the bag. Thank you for reading this – and kudos if you have made it this far. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s now 0215 and definitely time for bed. Until next time!