Steve Grace, CEO of Balance the Grind, shares his first-hand experience of tackling the IRONMAN 70.3 Western Sydney, a challenge that marked both his first Ironman and triathlon.
From the initial decision to sign up, through the grueling training, to the final race day, he provides an honest, down-to-earth account of what it takes to go from casual fitness enthusiast to completing one of the most challenging endurance events. It’s a story about stepping way out of your comfort zone and discovering what you’re truly capable of.
So my race was to be in Western Sydney, Penrith to be specific, the swim in a lake facility that was designed for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the bike and run around the same area. Now Penrith for those who do not know it is about 2-3 hours from Sydney centre, and known for being super-hot as it is so far inland. The weather had been 36 degrees the week before, but we got lucky and I don’t think it got about 26-27 degrees on race day, but to get there on time I had to leave home at 3am.
I had spent the entire day before getting everything ready, I got the bike checked by the Trek store, and made sure I had everything about 16 times, there was so much to carry (see earlier in the article) but I needed to get there and get my transition area ready but 5.30am for a 7am start.
I had a friend of mine coming with me as a support crew, his name is Paul, he had been in the Special Forces of the Australian Forces, so I felt I picked well on that front, he came over the night before and we left at 3am. I was so nervous it was not funny, I was terrified, but at the same time, I did feel ready.
We got there on time, no traffic, although it is weird leaving at 3am when it is dark (I had come home many times at this time, but not left at this time, especially not wearing Lycra). I had driven out to the venue the day before just to get a feel so I knew where to go and what to do. It was simply a case of standing there in the tightest wetsuit ever made with about 1000 others waiting to dive in for a quick 6 hour fitness session.
I had been warned that the first 200m of the swim is hard, you have so much adrenaline, hundreds of others swimming over you, around you, kicking you etc but they were running a rolling start where 5 athletes dive in at a time over about 40 mins to break up the field and make it safer so I was feeling good.
I had my number tattoo on and my age group tattoo on (which was “O” for “old”, didn’t make me feel great but I got over it) and in I went. Well WTF they were right, I instantly felt like I was drowning, I was swimming in the wrong direction, it seemed like 600 people had jumped in just after me, not the mandated 5, I even stopped swimming for a moment to see if there had been some sort of riot where everyone behind me at the start has abandoned to rules and just jumped in and swim over me and punch me in the face.
I could not get a rhythm going and after 10 mins all I could think about was why did I ever think I could do this, but of course I also thought I am not going to waste all this training, let’s just try and get to the first turn at the 750m mark and see how I feel.
Luckily by the time I had got there I had found my stride, I was swimming in the right direction (most of the time) and I was beginning to overtake people, a new found confidence filled me. The rest of the swim was uneventful, I went off on angles a few times and probably swam much further than required but I felt good.
Now coming out of the swim was a worry, I had read all these warnings that it was your responsibility to look for hidden rocks when coming out, so in my mind I assumed there would be a minefield of obstacles, but there was nothing but a nice red, but very wet carpet and I ran up the ramp to the transition area. There are crowds of people everywhere clapping and shouting and photographers everywhere, it gives you a huge lift.
I found my bike and stuff, stripped off my wetsuit, like I said they come off so easily it is incredible, dry off my feet and get my bike shoes on, my support crew Paul was shouting looking good and taking photos on his phone and put my helmet on, there is a rule that if you leave the transition area without your helmet on your are disqualified, there are actually quite a lot of riles, some of which I will mention later.
I feel the adrenaline kicking in again and I am struggling to clip in my bike shoes to get going, in the end I simply have to stop, hold onto a fence and clip in and we are away. Now 90K is a long way and my whole body is feeling good at this stage, the course is very winding at the beginning and then you head out on the open road to some super long straights.
Funny thing about the bike is you are not allowed to be close to the rider in front of you, this is known as drafting and considered cheating, so when you go to overtake you only have 30 secs to make the move or you need to drop back. I did find on a couple of occasions people sped up to make it harder for you to overtake but overall, the fields spread out very quickly.
I saw some poor guy only 1K in on the side of the road sorting out a puncture and a lot of people stopping to relieve themselves of too much water but I think the most dramatic thing I saw was the front runners coming past me as I finished the first lap. I was averaging just over 30 kph which was my aim, but then these guys who look like insects with the long sleep helmets came past me at a speed that made me feel like I was not moving.
I talked to one after and they averaged around 55 kph for the whole 90K’s, like I said, not I was ever in the ”race”. The key thing with the bike is to get your fuel right, I had some gels and my 2 bottles of premix drink made up and by the time I got to the end I had mastered the drinks stations where they hand out Gatorade and gels, you are not allowed to slow down for these so you really have to get the timing right or you miss it, but I kept my fuel up and really enjoyed this part of the race.
The hills were not too bad and the downhills were awesome, I think I hit 68 kph on one, but the Tri suit, although it dried super quick does not have as much padding as normal cycling shorts as you have to swim in it, so I can’t say it was super comfortable at the end of the 3 hour bike.
I posed for the photographers along the way, there were a lot but I tried my best, but I completed the bike much faster than I had thought and I was in great spirits when I got back to the transition area. I did however see the front runners finishing, and knowing I still had a half marathon to go was a little daunting.
I had managed to keep my fluids down so I had not needed to stop during the bike ride but now I need that toilet more than life itself (maybe why I went faster than I thought on the bike) but after that I got my runners on and headed out, my legs still felt good although a little heavy.
It was the middle of the day now and it was hot, I slapped on more sunscreen and started running, I was 4 hours in, only 2 to go, you run around and through the crowd, there are people everywhere shouting your name, they all know your name as it is on your number and written in huge letters so people can cheer you on, but it is a little weird when so many people who you have never met start shouting your name I must say, but part so the 3 lap course are away from the crowds and this is where it seems to hurt the most.
I felt like I had been running for about 40 mins, I did not want to check my watch so I just kept going, then it happened, one of those little signs that shows you how far you have gone, I looked at it with disbelief, it said 2K!
I realised I was not near the end, I still had 19.5K’s to go, this is where my mind went a little crazy, I started talking to fellow runners to see how they felt, some you ended up talking to for a while until one of you forges ahead leaving the other behind but between the 2K mark and 16K mark was easily the hardest for me, it seemed to just go forever.
I had run so many half marathons, I had just never done it after a 45 mins swim and 3 hour bike before. I kept telling myself all I had to do was not stop, but this was easily the hardest part for me, I was taking salt tablets like lollies as I was cramping, and I was getting 2 Gatorades at every station and pouring cold water over my head, also in some parts they would hose you down which was awesome, but the crowds help a lot, it is the parts when you are on your own that hurt, it seemed too easy to just stop.
All I wanted was my music, or any distraction from my own mind, then around 16K’s I got that distraction, but it was not really what I had been hoping for. It came in the form of pain, a sharp pain with every step in each knee on the outside, it felt like someone was putting a knitting needle into my knee each time.
The worst thing was I knew what it was, all the people who had done these before had told me to make sure I use a roller on the outside of my thighs a lot leading up to the race, I started but did not feel a lot from it so stopped in the last few months, now I understood why, but hey it was a distraction and bizarrely the time and distance passed quicker, even though I imagine I looked like I was dying to the crowds.
Then finally the last 1.5K, you can see the finish line, all the pain went away, all the tiredness went away, I knew I was going to make it, pace picked up, not for long though, I realised sprinting the last 1.5K’s was not a reality so I settled back into my pace.
When you hit the finish like crazy, big grandstand, red carpet, you are on the screen, the announcer says something funny, I have no idea what he said about me, I just made sure I posed for the photo as I went over the line. In fact I kept going, I went full Forrest Gump, Run Steve Run, that I ran right past the lady with the medal and right past someone who really wanted to give me 2 litres of chocolate milk. I finally came to a stop, made my way back, got my medal, got my milk, which I gave away by the way (the milk not the medal), all I wanted was a beer.
I went to the recovery area, ate lollies, drank flat coke and red bull, ate more lollies and headed out to meet Paul. I felt incredible, I really did, the high from something like this is beautiful, I was shattered, 6 hours 15 mins, I lost so much time in the run, I ran so much slower than I had wanted, I was sure I was going to do it under 6 hours, but I didn’t care, it was done.
The whole experience was epic, incredibly well run, well done to the Ironman organisation, and easily the heaviest medal I have ever got for participation! We hung around for a bit to soak up the atmosphere, I ate 100 bananas I think and heaps of yoghurt, there was sponsor galore giving away food and then got my bike and headed to the car, Paul then drove me home.
I had thought perhaps I could go out to dinner with my family but I was asleep within an hour of hitting my couch at home, but I felt the fittest I have ever felt and all that training had been worth it. If it was not for the training commitment and not seeing my family I would love to do another one, I learned a lot about me and a lot about things I never dreamt I would, but overall just the 6 months commitment had been so enjoyable.
There is so much more I could tell you, so many funny things that happened that day, or during the training, it might even be enough for a book, but I hope you have enjoyed my quick recount and if you are thinking about doing this, go for it, you will get to know yourself better than you ever thoughts, that is good and bad, seemed mostly bad for me but hey at least now I know!