Updated: Jun 23, 2022
I stared at all my clothes and equipment sprawled across the apartment floor, an array of the ‘will need’ and ‘might need’, an organised mess. Fifteen gels, three water bottles of potent nutrition, elastic bands, Clif bars, timing chips and belts. I needed it all. I was yet to wash off my tan – I had paid a good deal of money to get my nails to match my tri suit and to have a fresh glow for the day. ‘Look good, feel good, race good’. I tanned before every race, it was a ritual by now. I carefully mounted my stickers to the bike and managed to tape my spare tubes under my bike seat. God forbid if I actually need to change an actual tyre. I should have taken up running instead, I thought to myself. Three sports in one day seemed a little excessive.
Tomorrow was the day I would attempt to be an Ironman. A 3.8km of swim, 180km bike ride and 42.2-kilometre run. Whenever I’d list the distances to those who asked, I was left with a mix of sheer dread and excitement. Four months ago, I’d made the decision to become an Ironman and it’d been a rollercoaster of emotions ever since. It was a quick decision, a simple ‘sure!’ across a coffee table with a friend. From that moment on, I had put all my energy into this one goal.. My conversations soon revolved around long bayside rides and cold ocean swims, online shopping that eventuated in gels and salt tablets, and my morning alarms had been brought forward to a eye-watering 4 am. It was an all-consuming goal and the day to test it all had finally arrived.
A flood of people in wetsuits lined Palm Cove beach at half past seven. It was warm enough to not wear the wetsuit, but the suit had created a barrier between us and the jellyfish stings. The sun had risen over the palms as I made my way to and from transition. Are my tyres pumped up? Did I attach my shoes to my bike? I had a stomach full of nerves as I paced each way, unable to think straight. You could feel the nerves in the sea of people too. The crowd moved forward toward the water and we started our race in waves, waiting for each designated beep that would send us running into the water in threes. Our arms took over as well pulled the ocean beneath us and found our rhythm. The biggest day of our lives had just begun.
The water was like a murky washing machine, rocking us back and forth. The course was a difficult two laps, one way against the current and the other ensuring the challenge of dodging other competitors, chasing the feet of those in front. The water was warm and slowly my body began to overheat. They’d warned me about this. Keep turning over the arms, I’d tell myself. Two years ago I wasn’t able to do a lap of the pool without stopping and without doubt this was my most challenging leg. Keep turning your arms over and pull, I could see the water exit chute over the chop. As I emerged from the water, mud-covered my face. This will make for a good race photo, I thought to myself. I had a track record of the worst race photos, so at least I’m consistent.
The 180km bike ride was next. I was still wobbly from the swim and eased into it. How much salt water had I ingested? Surely some sort of record I thought. For the next 2 hours I struggled to keep any food or liquid down. Focus on your nutrition, I told myself. This was crucial and could make or break my race. I kept in my aero position, spinning my legs and chasing the man in fluro suit in front of me. The road winded around the coast, rainforest on one side and the ocean the other. I’d glance up from my bars every now and then to take in the view, but I had plenty of time for that later. I had a plan for when I reached the 90km halfway mark, I’d down a Clif bar and take two Panadol. Halfway was always when it started to hurt. Little did I know that 15 minutes later I would crash the bike. Maybe triathlon wasn’t my destiny, maybe I was a talented psychic who just saw pain coming.
It was the first time I’d crashed my race bike and man it hurt. Some crashes you see in slow motion as you fall, and others like this one, felt like a rug has been pulled from under you. I felt stunned as I picked up my bike from the road, I could see the grazes and felt the pain instantly. Perhaps the Panadol hadn’t kicked in quite yet. I had two choices – to stand on the side of the road and call it a day or get on the bike and keep going. I already knew I’d made my choice as soon as I hit the ground, I was stubborn like that. Blood sweat and tears, just get me home.
As I spun the pedals, I accessed the damage. My knees were grazed, there was blood coming from my knuckles and my newly manicured nails, my hip ached, and I could feel the tears welling. I was the farthest out of town I could be and each pedal stroke hurt. I could hear the rear derailer scrape against the disc wheel. It was problem solving time. I moved the gears higher to stop the friction to the disc and kept moving forward. I had another 90km to go, a strong headwind and a marathon to get through. The moment I hit that ground the game had changed, my mindset had shifted and I was in survival mode from there on out.
As I got off the bike, I had tunnel vision. I don’t remember handing the volunteers my bike as I made my way to T2. Instead, I recall the struggle of putting on my socks and shoes and I worked around my cuts and grazes. I loosened my shoes for good measure and ran out onto the last leg, grabbing my gels out of my race belt. The marathon, my first marathon, was underway.
But as I ran out of transition, each step felt like knives. How was I meant to walk let alone run? The blood had dried from my knees and they ached, the impact had caught up with me all at once. The run was usually my bread and butter, my strength. This is how I caught up. ‘Out for blood on the run’ they had said, but right now it was my own. I needed this pain to leave my legs.
Fatigue I could do, but this was something else. Slowly, my left foot had turned from sheer pain to numbness and eventually, I couldn’t feel either. I could do numb. My pace quickened, and I began to chase. It wasn’t the pace I’d hoped for, but I was moving forward. ‘Run, walk or crawl’ the Ironman rules had stated. I had laughed when I had first read it, now I’m thinking…yeah, I get it.
The longer the run endured, the happier I became. When I focus, I block everything out and all that matters is the foot in front of me that propels me forward. One step forward, over and over again. The roaring crowds on the sidelines kept me going, it kept us all going. Our names pinned to our suits, we could hear strangers call out our names in support as we ran past. The run was four laps along Cairns Esplanade and I had made each landmark a short-term goal. If I could get the brewery, it’d be a win, if I’d get to the 2XU tent, another win. Each landmark my legs grew stronger and I was able to find my rhythm.
The sun was setting over the water on the last lap as I passed a teammate “Check out the sunset” I’d yelled out, hoping to offer some sort of distraction to what we were putting ourselves through. With the sun setting the air turned cooler, and it had eased the pain. I’d take my corners wide, keeping my ankles steady, worried they’d fall out underneath me. I’d move in and out of pain and see the beautiful place we had raced, glimpses of stunning locations I’d get to soak in after the race. Numerous gels will be promptly substituted for numerous ciders.
The fourth and final lap came around quickly, and I always get faster when there is an end in sight. I picked up the pace, winding around the crowds of people, eager for my feet to reach the red carpet. The lights flashed, it was dark now as I chased and held strong through the finishing chute. I don't remember passing anyone, I just remember giving it everything. As I crossed the line, the faces blurred and I heard nothing else but a single voice. ”Kelly, you are an Ironman”. Eleven hours of everything at once, but I’d made it to the other side.
It was not the perfect race I had planned, but it was perhaps the race I needed to have. I needed to know that through this pain I could keep fighting. Through these challenges I could keep pushing. I did everything I could to reach that finish line, I did everything I could to keep going. As I type this I’m happy to look back through all the blood, sweat and tears, and call myself an Ironman.