Cairns Half Ironman (Challenge series)

Image: Triathlete Magazine.

Historical post written by: Gemma Houghton. 

I’ve been in Australia over a year now, so when I heard they were running a long-course triathlon event in Cairns, I was leaping at the opportunity to enter (although note, I was not leaping anywhere 2 days after the race….more like a hobble).  So here is my race report…..

Not quite brave enough to take on the full ironman (yet), I opted to enter the half ironman course. It was the first year for this event, so I didn’t know what to expect.  There was a map of the ride elevation etc on the website but I never understand these things, so I was going in blind.  A friend of mine had mentioned something about tough headwinds in Cairns but that was about the limit of my knowledge of what the race might be like.  I just knew that the race was near the beach and it would take me away from winter in Sydney for a weekend.

Arriving in Yorkey’s Knob (yes this really is the name of the town the race starts from), I wasn’t quite prepared for the Cairns wildlife warning signs.  Now not only did I have the nerves associated with doing a half-ironman, but I also faced the possibility of a box jelly-fish, crocodile or shark attack. Great! Well, if that wasn’t going to get me swimming quicker, I don’t know what would.

Anyway, race day arrived and just after sun-rise we watched the pro ironman athletes (the half started shortly after) leave the beach at an amazing pace.  It was something to watch.  At the same time, I overheard one of the Aussie spectators complaining about it being cold. It was 20degrees and only 6.45am. Hmm! I looked up to see a helicopter circling above the swim course. I wasn’t sure if this was for crocodile watch or to video the course.  I silently hoped that crocodile feeding time wasn’t in the morning and resolved to swim in the middle of a pack if at all possible!  My list of reasons why I should pull out of the race was getting longer…

Before I knew it, we were in the water and the starting gun had gone. We were off. Let it be said that the Queenslanders are not a reticent bunch. It was elbows out and swim for your life! As I batted away a fellow swimmer who seemed to be trying to head-butt me, and another whose sole aim in the race seemed to be to try and drown me, I was thankful that the coach at my Aussie tri club had run lots of open water swim training sessions.  In fact open water swim sessions, where he actively encouraged the stronger Aussie swimmers to swim over the top of me (allegedly to toughen me up)…but that’s another story. The point is, it stood me in good stead to swim unfazed by the aggressive other competitors.

The swim was an “M” shaped course and so navigation was important. Unfortunately, this isn’t my strong point. Still, with thoughts of those jellyfish and crocs, I managed to make it to the beach in once piece with all my limbs intact and without any visible signs of sea-beastie injuries. Then to transition. My tactical racking positioning made it virtually impossible for me to lose my bike and I was changing out of my wetsuit (worn at the suggestion of Triathlon Australia, to reduce risk of jelly-fish stings!) and into my bike shoes in er, 3 minutes. Oh well, something to improve on for next time.

The bike course was an out-and-back loop from Yorkey’s Knob (still can’t say it without giggling like a school girl). The road wound out from transition towards Port Douglas, turning just after the crocodile farm (yes really). The course was spectacular. I won’t say that the beautiful coastal roads distracted me completing from the hill climbs in the middle section of the course, but they certainly made it a whole lot more bearable.  Think views of crystal clear blue waters and tropical palm trees.

By now the day was already heating up and as I zipped along, the wind felt more like a waft from an electric heater than a fan.  Not to worry, I had my Jetstream full of magic rehydration carbo drink and enough salt tablets to last me a lifetime. SORTED. At least I was until I watched my drink bottle straw fall out of the bottle and onto the road. Although I had drunk about half of it I was still in the irritating situation of having to carry the bottle plus liquid around on the bike, without being able to drink it. I thought about just chucking the whole bottle to save on weight and then picking up another from the next aid station. Then I remembered I had tied the Jetstream on with ziplocks, after it had fallen off in the last race I did. Oops!

Despite the eventualities, the rest of the bike course went smoothly. The last 10-20km into the headwind was a tough end to the bike but by then I could smell home and the thought of getting off the bike kept me going.  Just before T2 I craftily slipped my feet out of my shoes. The next transition was going to be lightning. As I gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back for my tactical time-saving skills and glanced smugly at the other athletes who had not had my forethought, a bloke in one of those daft aero helmets (I KNOW, they make you faster, but really, is it ok to sacrifice your dignity for speed?) shouted “transition’s not for another 5km”. Damn! Oh well, I would cycle on without feet in bike shoes.  Cycling past the aero helmet man after the shoe incident did make me feel slightly better about my mistake though!

After T2 it was just the run I had to contend with. My bike leg felt slower than I’d hoped but there was a reassuring lack of bikes in the transition area, so either I was doing ok, or I had gone the wrong way and skipped part of the bike course. I was hoping the former. I ran out of transition only to hear the unmistakable sound of an undone shoelace. Knew I should have invested in those elastic laces.   Next time! So off I went out onto the run. It was a point-to-point run, starting at Yorkey’s Knob and finishing up in Cairns. We’d driven the run course the night before and my non-competing friend had commented that “it seemed long”. Yes, that’s because it was. A long 21kms. I felt every single one of those kilometers.

There were aid stations every 2kms on the course. I’d naively mentioned the day before that there was no way I was going to use each of those aid stations. I would just be running non-stop. How wrong I was. After the first 2km on the course I was desperately looking the first aid station. Thankfully there was plenty of water and a lady with a hose-pipe to douse you off. I downed some water and grabbed a cup of ice (which I put straight down my tri-suit…lovely!) and I was off again. I decided there and then that I would be needing every single one of the upcoming aid stations. By kilometer 8 I had re-named the aid station volunteers “aid angels”. I had never run in such unforgiving heat. There was no shade and the sun was beating down. Despite best intentions, I began to walk the aid stations, just to allow myself to get the water I needed to try to keep cool.   Somehow I made it the 18 or so kilometers to Cairns, where I knew there was only another 3km of sauna running to endure. I was really hurting now and had to focus hard on not stopping. I knew my run time was so much slower than I planned but I was trying to keep positive and remember that if I was suffering, so was everybody else. I thought back to a training session I had done a few months ago in Sydney on a 35degrees day with 90% humidity. I’d survived that, so I could survive this!

With 2 or 3km to go, I now just had one small out and back loop to do and then it would be over. Cruelly, that final loop passed where the finish line was.  I could see the finish but still had more running to do. So close!  I was desperately looking for the turn around point but every time I thought it was in sight, a further stretch of run course appeared.  Almost there, surely!  By now I was breathing like an old boiler and even doing my “spectators are watching” run became impossible.  Finally, finally I reached the turnaround point.  Soon after I could see I was heading towards the finishing chute. It felt so long! There were lines of people on either side and the atmosphere was electric. I felt like a famous person. A guy in front of me was performing some sort of celebratory dance and hi-fiving the spectators as he went. I vaguely heard someone shout “enjoy the moment” but all I could think about was “get me to that finish line”. As I stumbled over, someone draped a finishers towel over me. I was so hot I had to chuck the towel on the floor like a small child having a tantrum as I couldn’t stand the towel on me.  One of the volunteers took this as a sign that I needed medical assistance (although my friends who saw it later called it a diva moment) and tried to carry me into the medical tent to be put on a drip. I thought about it for a second (quicker recovery? Greater capacity for celebratory drinks?) but quickly realised there were others whose need was a lot greater. That medical tent was packed full of dehydrated athletes. More crucially, I could see they had a stack of food in the finishers tent that I was missing out on. I persuaded the medical experts that I really was ok and headed for the food and the massage queue. That was it. I was DONE. What a race! My time overall was off the time I was aiming for, but all things considered, I was pretty pleased with my effort of 5hrs 17mins 52secs. Just surviving that heat was an achievement for me.

I would highly, highly recommend this race to anyone who finds themselves Australia-bound, or just fancies doing a race overseas. The bike course in particular is spectacular and not to be missed. Other highlights were racing (technically anyway) with Macca himself and loads of other famous names, the watermelon and lasagna they had at the end of the race, not getting bitten by a crocodile and the amazing support from the most enthusiastic supporters I have ever encountered.  One race that I definitely think should make it to the “must do”  race list!