One of our younger club members, Emily Kempson, raced her second Ironman in Melbourne last month and was the youngest female on the course. She had a great race and qualified for the Hawaii Ironman World Championships - a dream come true! Here is her detailed report on the course and her Ironman experience. An informative and inspiring read for those of you aiming to complete your first Ironman Tri.
By Emily Kempson
Two weeks before race day, the sleepless nights started. I woke up almost every night and struggled to return to sleep, with thoughts about the race and possible scenarios running through my head. As you can imagine, this lack of sleep starts to build up and by the time I arrived in Melbourne on the Thursday before the race, I was already mentally tired. I had also had a couple of Ironman ‘nightmares’, not something that I remember happening to me at my last Ironman at Port Macquarie last year. In the first dream I was eaten by a weirdo fish in the water and when I got onto my bike I found I had forgotten to put my nutrition on. The next morning I was able to laugh it off but the second dream which occurred two nights before the race and shook me up a bit more. I was having the race of my life, everything going to plan, until I got about half way into the run and had to pull out! Boy was I glad to wake up and realise the race hadn’t actually occurred yet!!
Ironman is an amazing event. This being my second Ironman, I have come to respect the event a lot more and found it to be a completely different experience the second time around. The spectacle that it is made into is really just incredible. Picking up my race pack on Thursday, I had a chance to explore the Expo on St Kilda waterfront and of course get my first look at the 2014 finish line. It looked somewhat lonely with the clock off and the grandstands empty. I was back on Friday evening, to attend the athlete briefing located about 800m up the road at the Palais theatre next to Luna Park. It was an amazing venue with the artworks and high ceilings, but to be honest I have come to expect that sort of stuff after attending the 70.3 World Champs last year.
The briefing is the first time all the athletes are together. It gives you a chance to chat to other competitors and of course have a look at your competition! I sat down next to an American who was doing his first Ironman. He told me he wasn’t nervous but his legs tapped throughout the entire 2 hour event so I am pretty sure he was lying! The briefing also covered expected race conditions: 14-18 degrees, slight wind and most probably a few showers. If someone had asked me about ideal racing conditions I would have said these, so it was a real morale booster to know the things out of my control were going to be on my side. After a bit more entertainment from a previous ‘Australian Idol’ competitor (I had never heard of him!), a speech from Craig Alexander and a run through of the course and rules, I was out of there and back at the hotel sorting and packing the transition bags.
A main difference of Ironman to other events is the transition procedure. It takes careful planning to make sure you have everything where you want it because after checking in your bags on Saturday morning, you are NOT allowed access to them again, especially not on race morning – so pretty much if you forget something you’re in real trouble!!
The drive to Frankston for check in on Saturday morning was a weird experience. It took about an hour to drive there and just knowing in the back of your mind that the next day you were going to be running the return journey was a little scary. Actually, it was a lot scary! It was also my first look at the swim course. To be honest, I was expecting not to be able to see the buoys, so to have them just within eye sight was a good sign! Not only that, but the calm Frankston water was nothing like I had seen in the videos of last year’s event which had showed the competitors getting picked up and thrown around in the big swell. A quick check-in of my bike and bags, a look around the transition entry and exit points, we were soon on the return drive. Things were definitely starting to become real now!
Race morning!! I awoke after hardly sleeping at all but I had expected that, so it was okay. A quick shower at 4:30am before putting on the race tattoos (I was competitor #128 and Age group allocated ‘D’), and putting some tape on my wrists which had written on it all my messages for the day (this included my play list to sing on the long run leg!). My body was trembling for most of the morning, trembling for two main reasons; the first being that I had been on taper for the last two weeks and my body had so much excess energy it was ready to burst, and secondly because I was so scared of the day ahead. Scared is the best emotion to describe what I was feeling. Of course I was excited, but the day had so many unknowns that it was frightening! A quick banana at around 5am and we were in the car where I was able to stomach only half an Up&Go – not much before an Ironman event, but solid foods were definitely not going to happen!!
The drive to Frankston was even more daunting than the day before. This was because there was now cones set up on the other side of the road, which would become the run course in a few hours. We arrived reasonably quickly this time and took a short walk to transition to pop my nutrition onto my bike, pump the tyres and put in my special needs. Special needs is another unique part of the Ironman events, allowing competitors to pack their own nutrition to be accessed half way through the bike and run. At Port Mac last year, I hadn’t used the special needs option but this year decided to use it for both the bike and run. I placed a spare tube and nutrition in the bike and some water, jellybeans, salt tablets and a snickers bar in the run. After that, it was just a waiting game sitting around in the cold (typical Melbourne) waiting for the sun to come up and swim start to open a.k.a. go time!! A last minute check of my bike and it was time to put the wetsuit on.
Determined not to miss this year’s start after last year’s disappointment, I had my gel a little early and squeezed through onto the beach for a quick warm up. The water was icy! Absolutely freezing! This was no Sydney beach! 15 minutes before my race start we watched as the Pro men and women had their starts and disappeared around the first buoy and then our start line was opened up.
The volunteers at this event are amazing. There was about 7 of them that standing in their clothes, in the freezing water for the entire 15mins holding up our start barrier to ensure a fair race! I stood about 10-15m off the centre, towards the left side, knowing that I like to breathe to the right and that it would give me a better eye sight of the buoy. I was positioned about 4/5 people back from the front and was chatting with the people around me. It’s really hard to describe the start line. There is about 2000+ people trying to find a good spot for themselves- male, female, young and old, everyone just moving around and as nervous as each other.
The race was started by a Toyota car parked on the sand beeping its horn, not exactly the cannon I had heard in Vegas World’s last year however when it sounded chaos occurred! The water depth allowed about 10-20m of walking before you had to start swimming. Unfortunately some looney in front of me decided he wanted to keep walking, long after the other 2000 people had started swimming, slowing me up fractionally but more importantly causing a back log of people around me and behind me, not such a pretty sight!
After last year, I knew that it was really important not to swallow too much water, or it would be hard to eat on the bike, so I worked really hard as I swam through the washing machine of swimmers to watch my breathing. The first buoy was 850m away but it came around very quickly due to the current of the hundreds of swimmers in front of me pulling me forward. The first buoy turn was more chaotic. I came to a standstill as people from all directions were trying to squeeze in at one spot to get around. I could hear the water safety people going nuts, other swimmers yelling “Just keep swimming don’t stop”, but really it’s just a bit of a patience game anyway, no point going crazy here it’s a loooooooooonnnnnnnnnggggg day ahead!!!
After that I settled into a fairly comfortable rhythm, occasionally interrupted by an arm into my face or kick to the stomach, but after the amount of races I had done recently, I was more than capable of holding my own in the water. The buoys still caused a problem every time we all approached but I was feeling pretty good, so it didn’t bother me too much. I actually felt like time was going really fast around the first three buoys but between the 3rd and 4th buoy was 1km of swimming straight out which really was a test mentally. This crazy guy who was about twice my size with a moustache kept tapping on my feet continuously, so I again interrupted my rhythm to let him go past, of course not without a death stare and a few taps on his feet to return the favour. Finding feet to sit on at this stage of the race is still very difficult. People are spread all over the place and many of them seemed incapable of swimming straight anyway. Around the last couple of buoys I was more than ready to leave the water! As you approach the last buoy, 250m to go, you can start to hear the crowd and the distinctive Ironman bells ringing and of course Mike Reilly’s voice over the loud speaker!
Swim 3.8km: 1hr 1min 57sec
The transition experience is amazing at an Ironman. The crowd is about 4 to 5 people deep for the 100m run into the change tent and they are all extremely vocal! I was lucky enough to spot Mum on the run in and also got a few “Go Warringah” calls as I came in too. It’s always nice to know people are cheering for you! Entering the tent, I was able to see that one other girl in my category had already picked up her bag, I was in second! I had a little trouble getting my wetsuit off, getting caught on my watch and timing chip but the amazing volunteers are there, taking off my wetsuit for me, getting my socks ready and handing me my helmet and sunnies. In no time they had already repacked my swimming stuff back into the bag handing it back to me to run it out to the allocated area, and I was suddenly back into the open where the crowd was still going off!
As I ran through to pick up my bike, I saw Mum again giving me a big cheer and really giving me a lift before I tackled the bike course. On the mount line was Rob Howitt’s (a fellow Warringah athlete, you know you’re doing okay if he is around!) support crew- I didn’t know it at the time but we exited the water about 15s apart- who gave me a big cheer too and I was on my way- well I was on my way after a little stumble getting onto my bike but who was watching anyway!?!?
The first 5km on the bike is really exciting, your heart rate is up, there are people still ringing the cow bells and it’s just an amazing feeling but soon enough that all dies down and you are left pedalling along alone! Already, more than an hour into the race, it’s really important to get on top of your nutrition straight away and that I did, just trying to settle into a nice rhythm. My splits were telling me I was going a bit too fast, so I spent the first 30km trying to slow a little and settle down, despite feeling as though I would be able to maintain that effort. At the first aid station I tried to pick up a banana but unfortunately missed on both attempts so had to settle for the nutrition on my bike. It wasn’t too long before I caught the lone competitor from my category ahead of me on the bike too and a quick glance at her form I could tell she was going to hard and would suffer in the latter part of the race, somewhat pleasing for me! The course follows the Eastlink roadway, which is pretty much identical to the M7 cycleway, something I had made my stomping ground over the last 12 months, so my body and mind were at ease with the slight rises and falls of the road. As we approached the first turn around point we entered a tunnel, with a super-fast descent down into it, and then a longish steady climb on the other side (well this part isn’t on the M7!). The descent was so fast it was hard to control your bike but it was an incredible experience, especially with all the carbon wheels echoing around you! The climb on the other side was a toughy but I ended up making up a lot of places on it, before turning around and descending back down and climbing back up the other side.
Unfortunately, as soon as I turned around I realised I had turned straight into the wind and my speed would drop significantly – it’s lucky I controlled my tempo on the way out after all! I had expected the wind to be in the other direction but I don’t mind a bit of wind knowing that the bike is my strongest leg, the harder the cycle usually means the more time I get on my competitors. It was definitely a lot harder to get nutrition on the return journey though, with the wind throwing you around a little so I settled onto the tt bars and pushed through. Occasionally, I would cycle through small patches of crowd on the side of the road with their bells and cheering but my personal favourites were the “I’m from South of the border” people dressed in big Mexican hats with maraca’s, undies on the other side of their pants and moustaches – I don’t even know what they were saying but it was funny! The other amusing thing on the bike was all the men who rode past, pretty much looking like professional triathletes yet they couldn’t put a tattoo on their calf the right way up, with an E looking like a 3 and some upside down K’s- this made me laugh too. Oh I can’t forget the one guy who forgot to take his goggles of in transition so rode for six hours with goggles around his neck!
By the time I was cycling back into town for the second turn around, the crowd had done the seemingly impossible and had enlarged! Smiling all the way back through and hardly having to pedal at this stage as the roads narrowed and the pack I was sitting in condensed together, I was able to really soak it up. The noise as you come through is crazy and really gives you a lift! I was still feeling really good at this stage, and decided that since I would have the wind at my back, this would be where I “turn the screws” (as my coach James Swadling would say), or my dad just calls it “Turbo Time”. A couple of salt tablets later, I lifted the tempo and really focused on putting some good times down. I knew I was doing my job when I started to catch some of the people that had zoomed past in the first 90km. I caught up to some big packs and was moving my way through when the dreaded motorbike pulled up next to me. My stomach dropped! Sometimes I think I am really lucky to be born female and to have a bit of a baby face because the nice man just gave me a warning- I needed to apparently overtake the entire pack, yep all 20/30 people or probably more because the pack disappears out of eye sight, if I overtake anybody at all. So thanking the man for kindly reminding me of the rules (“PHEW!!” was all I was thinking actually…), I was to be much more careful for the rest of the journey, they don’t give people second chances!! As I approached the tunnel and subsequent turn around for the second time, I realised how lucky I actually was as more than a handful of people were sitting in the penalty box!
By now the wind was significantly stronger and 135km into the ride, my legs were not exactly fresh anymore. I also noticed that my watch had been playing up and no longer told me where I was up to, but would occasionally still give me some splits, but of course with my watch playing up, who knew if they were accurate anyway! A quick check of the race time from a fellow competitor and I was pedalling away again. It’s one of the best feelings to be overtaking huge amounts of people in the last 45k of an Ironman cycle, with most of them aged 30+ and male, and here I was a 159cm 20 year old female with a bright pink helmet leaving them behind. I wouldn’t think these people like it too much… #yougotchicked! I rode completely on my own for the next leg of the cycle and into the wind made it a bit of a struggle but knowing the wind which was worsening by the minute and with a lead on the other girls meant they were going to have to battle with it more than I did, so I focused on staying aero and getting to transition as quick as I could. At one stage, I was pedalling along, on my lonesome and the motorbike pulled up next to me a second time, what? Slightly confused, I turned to my right for them to ask me if it was my second lap, ‘Yes’ I replied and then remarkably the officials then start to cheer me on and say how well I was doing and let me know that I was making the “men look bad”! This was a pretty special experience, I am almost 100% sure that they didn’t make the effort of doing that to anyone else in the race and I was really a bit overwhelmed by the experience. Here are the officials that hunt down drafters, and yet they had made a special effort to come and congratulate me! ME! They dropped back shortly after but it wasn’t long before they rode past again, with both the driver and official giving me some positive words and cheering me on. The best part was yet to come though, when I spotted my new ‘friends’ booking the group of people slightly ahead of me that had been clearly breaking the rules and taking turns drafting through the wind- Thanks boys!!
Bike 180km: 5hr 26min 25sec
Coming back into town at the completion of the bike leg the crowd seemed to have lost a little bit of energy yet for me the atmosphere was buzzing! Composing myself I was able to slide of my bike, hand it to a catcher and into the change tent I went! This was one of the best parts of the whole race for me, with about 10 volunteers waiting in the tent, they gave me a standing ovation as I entered (there was no one else in there at that time) and literally clipped my race belt on for me, sun screened my shoulders and helped me with my shoes! As I left there was one other lady coming in and I could hear them giving her a standing ovation too. It just amazes me that these ladies probably did that for every single competitor that came through, for hours on end and I was so thankful for that!
As I started to run I actually felt great! I don’t think I have ever felt that fresh coming off the bike in my entire life, not even at a sprint triathlon! I knew that I had cycled within myself and was being rewarded for that and I also knew that I was in the lead (but not by how much) – my race plan was so far intact! I had swapped watches for the run to ensure the battery would last the entire event, but it also meant I now had no idea about overall time. As soon as I was on the course I noticed I was getting huge amounts of crowd support, with five competitors running together, I would always hear “Go Emily”, “Looking Strong Emily”, “Go the chicks”; almost making me feel sorry for the men I was running with but at the same time it was really uplifting. A short turn around point later and we ran past transition, I saw my catcher had put my bike back nicely but more importantly noticed the other bikes had still not returned, so I had at least a 5min lead. Running back through the town was like running through a party! I saw Mum again, she was going crazy (well I guess she did have to wait three hours since she last got a glimpse of me), and Rob’s support team cheered me through as well! The best part was when I felt as though I had only just started running and I was already at 2km; that never happens to me!
I decided early on that I was going to walk the aid stations but try to keep every 5km split under 30mins (6min km’s), which would get me a 4hr 12min ish marathon (which funny enough I did exactly a 4hr12 marathon, pretty good guess-timating!), a PB by more than 20mins, but I knew that I would have to have a little bit of spare time for when the going gets tough later on. I set about ticking off the km’s and taking in the atmosphere. The Melbourne run course is really special to me because it runs straight through Chelsea, where my Great Grandfather grew up, and he went on to become a Professional runner. If it wasn’t for the Olympic postponement because of WW2, he probably would have had a shot at that! Approaching 98years old, I don’t know how many more races I would get to tell him about, so getting a good race in his home town was something that had been on my mind since I entered 12 months earlier! When I eventually got to Chelsea and knew my race plan was going well, and it gave me the tingles- this was fast becoming my race to lose.
I had heard from previous competitors that Melbourne IM was not a spectator course but again, having a baby face does come in handy, getting support from everyone I passed! Eventually Ian Gard (another WTC), who happens to own the physio on my street (it’s a small world here we were running at the same place, same time on the Melbourne IM course) caught up to me and we were able to have a chat. He was able to give me an idea of time, although he didn’t stick around too long, moving much quicker than I was, so we parted ways and my mind was set on that snickers bar awaiting me at 19k. When I eventually got there, I was greeted by a huge crowd watching the event unfold on the big screen, with one supporter telling me when I (finally) got my Snickers to “carb up, you’re going to need it later!” I also heard on the loud speaker my first confirmation that I was winning the category. It was official; a Kona spot was now within my reach, with just 23km standing in the way!
The next km’s would be some of the toughest, with a couple of really nasty little hills, that were so steep at times I didn’t know if I could even walk up them! Pretty much everyone walked up these, so I didn’t really mind. The thing that got me was the immediate pain in my legs when I started to run again- it was absolute agony and I still had 20km to knock over! Despite this, I guess other people had it worse, overtaking two of the pros whom I believe got hypothermia (ha so extra kilos DO come in handy), yet in the spirit of Ironman were going to walk to the finish; one of the reasons I really do love this sport!
I ran most of this section with a lady called Amanda (Mandy) and we cat and moused it all the way to the finish, trying to come up with a positive remark every time we passed each other (She was much better at that than me!)! Mum was trying to follow me in the car and it gave me a massive boost to see her every 4/5km or so, with the bits in between being really lonely, despite still receiving huge amounts of crowd support. Some of the stand out bits on the course was the ‘movie quote kilometre’ where someone had stuck a movie quote on every tree for the km, many of them from Rocky, but my favourite was: “Do I look too turtly in this?”. There were also chalked messages all over the path, for most of the last 15km, my favourite being “Look across the road at the lions” -I looked across and there were lion statues in the garden of the house- followed by the next message “Look over there, a naked lady”. Hahaha!! Wonder how many people fell for that one? My favourite sign of the entire day though was: “Toe nails are for sissy’s” - Pretty much right on the mark there!
The last 10km was one of the most painful experiences of my life, I was so close to a Kona spot, and did NOT want it taken from me in the dying stages. The closer I got the worse those thoughts were becoming- getting overtaken in the last 10km is bad, in the last 5km is really bad, but in the last two km’s would just be heart breaking! I really tried to lift in this part of the race and was rewarded by catching a fair few people and also getting more crowd support… Again I am really sorry for any of the males that I ran with because I knew most of the messages of support were being directed at me!! With two aid stations to go my legs started to seize up, first my quads and then my hamstrings, but having cycled this part of the course in my preparations the day before, so I knew I was so close! The last 3 km’s felt like the longest of the whole race, especially the final one! I kept looking at my watch, 800m to go, 700m to go and finally I felt as if I could relax, this race was mine! High fiving the crowd and feeling like a celebrity for the last 500m, people banging on the side, bells ringing and of course Mike Reilly not only announcing that I was an Ironmans but also the winner of the female 18-24 only seemed to increase to volume of the crowd (was that even possible?)!
Run 42.2km: 4hr 12min 37sec
Total 226km: 10hr 46min 53sec
I crossed the line to be caught by a volunteer “catcher”, finisher’s towel placed over my shoulders, a medal around my neck and chosen for an interview by the cameras. The finish of an Ironman is pretty emotional, you just want to cry – cry because you finished but also cry because your body is in so much pain! Greeted by Kate Shedden (an awesome chick that I have raced and Canberra and Husky, but lucky enough for me she has just gone up a category!) at the finish was really cool too, congratulating each other and just being so happy to finish! I left the recovery area almost straight away to find Mum, but unfortunately I didn’t know she had missed the finish and wasn’t there yet, so I lay on the grass, where people seemed to recognise me and congratulate me on my win. Two families in particular came over and said things like “Hey is that Emily? Look over here it’s our friend Emily! Emily we were watching you all day and you were so strong! Hey look kids, it’s Emily!”, “Emily? We just wanted to say we saw you a couple of times on the run and you just don’t sweat! Made it look easy! Congratulations!”. How do you respond to these people you have never met before, greeting you like this?
Eventually I got up and had a look at the clock still not sure of my overall time, 11hr 15min, WHAT! Low elevens was a crazy good time, but I had been sitting there for a few minutes so, maybe cracked 11 hours? I was eventually reunited with Mum (after stumbling over to information and borrowing a phone to ring her) to get out my own sphone and read a text from my awesome training buddy Lucy, who said I had done a time of 10hr 46min! Mum and I just cried for a while, we couldn’t believe it, that’s about 1hr 20min faster than 10 months ago! Mum also didn’t know that I had won it and then when I told her she just cried some more! We’re going to Kona!!!!
I really wanted to stay and party at the finish line, but unfortunately my body did not allow it, with cold really starting to hit me, and I honestly had absolutely nothing left (I actually couldn’t even make it to the car and I had to stand with some construction workers while Mum drove it up and then they assisted me into the vehicle!). By the time we got back to the hotel I had 14 texts and 19 Facebook notifications from my amazing support crew which was really cool, thanks guys!!
Ironman Melbourne was seriously like a dream come true for me! I probably could have continued thinking it had been a dream except the pain that I felt all over my body was no dream. Blisters were covering my feet (one particular blood blister was still bleeding the next day!), I had some pretty bad sunburn (which is so bad I will probably have it another 12 months) and of course the pain aching through every muscle in my body (Like seriously even my biceps- What are you sore for? You hardly did anything!?).
Overall I was really happy with my race, and going over the day I don’t think I would have done much differently had I the chance to do it again. I guess the best part of all this was how much I learnt on the day and the people I met along the way! I am really looking forward to Kona, but going even further ahead I really think I have a lot of improvement still left in me which is really exciting and I can’t wait to do a couple more full distance events in the coming years!
Lastly, I just really want to thank everyone for the messages in the days leading up to the event. It’s pretty overwhelming for me how many people made such a big deal out of it like they did and it did keep me going in the tough parts. To my coach James Swadling, who planned my taper and training program to perfection, I have never run that well in my whole life and could not have done this without him! To On Australia, it means a lot to have a company believe in your potential. On shoes are awesome and I wouldn’t want to run in anything else anyway!
To my family, who have been amazing, what 20 year old in their right mind would do an Ironman? From the early morning wake ups, to when my brother cycled out to drop me some water on my long runs, to them all coming and supporting me in the lead up races and just knowing that they are really proud to have me as their Ironman Sister means a lot! And to all my friends who are amazing and give me heaps of support, thanks so much!
The dream continued well into the next day when people came and stopped me in the street to congratulate me and wish me well in Kona, like these people who I have never met before, one of them even asking if I was going to make this my career! It has been a really special experience, something I will never forget!