Aquabike World Championship 2018
After 33 years of triathlon racing around the world, my left knee finally told me to stop running or else! The last decade of racing had involved mainly ironman and half ironman races culminating with the world championship 70.3 race held locally here in Australia.
Fortunately for me the global body for triathlon decided at that time to introduce Aquabike to the annual world championship titles. Whilst relatively unknown in Australia, this category of racing, which includes the first two disciplines of triathlon, has been expanding greatly in the US over the past decade and is the fastest growing element of the sport there.
I decided this type of racing was going to be my future, competitively speaking, so I attended the inaugural Aquabike world championship last year in Canada to gain some experience and check out the level of competition. I discovered that it attracted some really fast swim/bikers in the mature age groups who, like me, could no longer run but have very good engines. I knew that my best shot was going to be in 2018 when I moved up to the next age group 70-74.
My training remained focussed on swimming and cycling with the distances increasing gradually as the months went by. I was almost ready to race a month out from the event and was swimming faster than ever over 3km and cycling the 120km comfortably a couple of times per week. I also threw in a hills session each week around Buderim to build up strength. I learnt from talking to people who raced in Canada who did only 60-80km rides in training that the last 20km of the race became a problem for them and I was determined not to fall into that trap
Having built my own race bikes for years I spared no expense in preparing what, for me, was going to be the ideal bike – lightweight, aerodynamic and comfortable. Nine months out from the event I booked flights and accommodation.
In the weeks prior to the event the organisers released the names of competitors and I began to research my rivals. With most results of races accessible via the net, I perused mainly ITU world championship results from previous years as well as those of the Ironman organisation. One guy stood out from the rest as the main contender and favourite in my age group, a GBR athlete named Michael Smallwood. He had aced me a few times in previous Olympic distance races and had been on the podium on several occasions. His forte seemed to be the sprint and Olympic distances and the only long distance success he had had was at a European championship. Nothing in the ironman archives. Nevertheless, he had the runs on the board and I knew he would be preparing himself well for this race. I discovered from British press reports that he was basically the long-term British champion in his age group and his rivals at home found him unbeatable. I focussed on this one name.
I had planned my morning pre-race organisation meticulously and everything went without a hitch. I was as relaxed and well-prepared as I was ever going to be. I met my training partner Cookie and we joked around as we waited for our wave to enter the water. When the horn sounded there was bedlam in front of us as we began the long swim.
Unfortunately, after about 10 seconds someone hit my goggles off my head and they filled with salt water. I had to stop, drain the goggles and then proceed without being swum over from behind. I then discovered my sight was obscured by the water that had been in my goggles and was going to remain thus. I hoped I could navigate with the little vision I had but soon suffered the ignominy of having a paddle thrust over my arms and a paddler telling me to go back around a buoy I has swum the wrong side of. The remainder of the swim was uneventful and I put in a big effort without any regard for conserving my energy.
As I took my bike out of transition I glanced at the other bikes near me to see if anyone in my age group had led me out of the water. Most, if not all, were still there. So far, so good. I discovered only when I arrived home and analysed the results that I had the fastest swim and transition of my age group.
The air temperature was about 13 degrees and overcast so with a wet skimpy race suit on I thought I would get cold. However, I was concentrating on racing so much that I didn’t give it a second thought.
I was motoring along quite smartly and settled into a good pace considering the 120km ride ahead of me when a guy in a blue race kit flashed by going like a rocket. As I glanced at him I read his name on the back of his suit – Smallwood. My heart sank. How the hell could a guy in my age group be going so fast. Certainly faster than I could possibly go I thought.
In the next few seconds I had to make a decision. Do I let all that time, planning, effort, training and money count for nothing or do I try to do something about it. I then said to myself – either go hard or go home princess. So off I went in pursuit of the blue streak.
I eventually caught up to him but it took a toll. The only performance reference I use is a heart rate monitor and it had raised to what I knew would be an unsustainable level over the course of the race. However, I knew I had to keep with him or die trying.
I remained the legally required 5 bike lengths behind him as there was no way I was going to have my day ruined by a technical officer in the draftbusting role. And there were plenty of them going by all the time on the back of motorbikes.
So here I am hanging on to this guy like grim death as the kilometres fly by. We finish the first loop of 60km and head out on the last loop with me still in hot pursuit and the pace not easing. However, as we approach about the 80km mark I notice my heart rate gradually falling. Wow! Maybe I can stick with him. I start to get a bit excited about my prospects and plan how I might be able to take him down. Do I wait until the finish line is in sight and take him on in a sprint? Or do I go from about 1km out and try to outlast him? The one thing I was not planning on doing was to take the lead anytime soon and have him hunting me rather than the other way around.
As we approach the final aid station with about 25km to go I notice that he is really easing off and I am starting to feel refreshed. My heart rate is right down and I am feeling good. I am not even sure he knows I am trailing him although I suspect he does know as he had glanced back slightly as he approached several right angle corners in the road to check his line was safe. The entire field was dominated by US, GBR and Japanese racers and the green and gold I was wearing stood out clearly.
I had emptied all three bottles I was carrying and had made sure I had taken food and gels during the race as well because I know that Endura alone will never get you to the finish line in good shape by itself. After about 4 hours of racing we both take bottles from the aid station attendants in quick succession and after we had squeezed the contents into our refillable bottles lying between our aerobar extensions and throw the empty bottle away, we pick up the pace again.
However, an unexpected thing happens. Smallwood slows even further, takes out a banana, and starts to ingest it. Two things I do know about eating a banana in a race – they are an excellent source of energy; and also they are difficult to peel with one hand and consume while you are racing. In an instant I saw my opportunity and grabbed it with both hands.
I belted past him as fast as I could go and determined to put some time into him. I was jumping out of my skin as I knew this was my best chance to win a world championship. I was now redlining but was determined not to give this sucker an even break. For those last 25km I busted my buns and was not going to die wondering. Because there were so many GBR athletes on the course there was no point in looking back to see if he was coming at me - but I knew he would not give up easily on the title he may reasonably have been expecting.
As it turns out, he did not pass me and I had that warm glow of having had my best and most challenging race ever. Not only had I beaten him, I had outmanoeuvred him. And I think it was from my race preparation for that distance that I had the legs to go when he was flagging.
Only when I arrived home and was able to check out the results online did I realise how well I had done. I knew it was fast but the fact that I would have won silver in the age group below me and come fourth in the age group below that again, made it feel extra special. I think I will retire from competition now – how could I top that?