World Paratriathlon Champs: Ups and Downs
Here is Michael's report following the World Champs in Auckland.
I had high hopes going into my second World Triathlon Championships. At the 2011 event in Beijing I finished in fourth place in a time of 1:30.45. Since then, I'd focused on improving my swim and run legs and invested a lot of time and energy as well as some sponsorship dollars from Toyota (a huge thank you to my major sponsor through thick and thin) developing a new set of running crutches. The plan was to take a few minutes off my overall time which, based on the times of the podium athletes in Beijing and some research since, meant I'd have a good chance at a top three placing.
If there's one thing I have learned after many years as an athlete, things never go according to plan. Until August this year, things were going relatively well. The new crutches had arrived and, with a little tweaking and some changes in my running technique, I felt a little faster. Training was going well (despite the Canberra winter) and I was even feeling more comfortable in the water. There were a couple of pool sessions there where I slipped back into that familiar black line trance, thanks to years of rehab swimming after losing my leg.
I had the usual issues with fatigue, a legacy from my second cancer battle five years ago, but I was starting to find some balance. Although my head is constantly telling me I need to train more I am learning to listen to my body and pace myself better.
That was until I hit a wall around the end of August. Did I push too hard? Did I have too much else on? All I know is that I went from balanced to busted. I struggled to train at all and had a hard time keeping up with work and family commitments. While my head screamed at me to get up, my body put training on hold.
Two weeks before world champs race day I went to Forster for my first race of the season, completely under-prepared. Maybe it comes from years of training or maybe it's just the way I'm built but, when the pressure is on, I find the energy somewhere to not just keep going but to do okay. As it turns out, my time in Forster (1:27.59) was my first race under 1:30. I had a strong swim, an average bike leg and then a good run considering it was on grass and therefore a little slower. Clearly there'd been some improvements. Not as much as I had hoped for but more than I expected given my less than perfect preparation.
As so often happens after I push hard, I was back on the couch the next week, struggling with fatigue. I love getting out and training and I love the feeling of getting fitter and stronger as a result so being stuck at home just drives me crazy. I managed a few sessions during those two weeks and tried to focus on doing short and hard intervals to spur my body into action. But, once again, my preparation was woeful and seemingly out of my control. On to Auckland. Bring on the pressure of competition!
The swim leg in any triathlon is my strongest and I fully expect to emerge from the water in either first or second place. The longer the swim, the better my lead. When I got to Auckland I learned the water temperature was a chilly 14.2 degrees celsius which meant race organisers reduced the swim leg from 750m to 300m. Not good but not unexpected.
With the normal bash and dash at the start intensified by the shorter swim, I came out of the water in third place. My coach Corey was on hand to help me get the wetsuit off and then I was on the bike.
I stayed in second place for a while, passed one and was passed by two others. Half way around the course the 2011 winner from South Africa pedaled past me so I went through the second transition in fourth place.
My race plan was to go hard in the swim and on the bike and then try to hold on for the run, by far my worst leg. It was a good plan but I suffered a lot and slowly lost my pace. I ran the first kilometre in 5:50 but the last was close to 6:25. I watched a couple more athletes pass me and finished the race in eighth place in a time of around 1:17.
Although disappointed that I didn't get a podium finish, I really couldn't have gone any harder. But, while I left everything I had on the course, I still dream about running a race after better preparation. With a full swim leg my 1:17 time would be more like 1:25 which is well under 1:30, far better than my fourth place in Beijing a good indication that I can go faster in another twelve months and with better preparation.
My goal now is 1:20 which I believe is possible with some more improvements in the run and, of course, better preparation. My times and placings also tell me that the competition is getting faster and, with the sport's debut at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, they will get faster still and more and more people will join the sport. Exciting times and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
It will be an exciting year for paratriathlon in Australia where the sport is growing so fast. The highlights will be my first Half Ironman race (1.9km swim, 90km ride, 21.1km run), the first ever National Paratri Championships and the Australian Cross Triathlon Championships (swim, mountain bike and trail run) at Lake Crackenback Resort and Spa near Thredbo.
So, why do I do it? I have two reasons to compete in triathlon. Firstly, it's fun and, secondly, it keeps me motivated and healthy, despite the extended and frustrating periods on the couch.
Let's hope my preparation for the 2013 World Triathlon Championships in London on the Olympic course is better. By then there may have been a change in the classification system which, I hope, will create a more level playing field in my T2 class. In Auckland the only guys who beat me were all running with a prosthetic leg. Did I say "two reasons"? Okay, winning is good too.
But winning is just a bonus. Throughout my sporting career, I've always strived for the perfect race... in skiing, cycling or triathlon. If that lands me on the podium, great! If it doesn't, my best is still good enough.