Today is a month since race day, and I finally feel ready to put my experience into words.
My lead up to race day was filled with the same mixed emotions- nervous and yet super excited. I still cannot believe I was lucky enough to win my entry from the wonderful team at Women's Running Australia. Last December, whilst tracking other friends who were racing IMWA, I decided that I wanted to tackle my first Ironman distance race at Busselton in 2015. During the year, I thought I would have to postpone this goal, and so I was filled with hope and excitement when I saw Women's Running Australia’s competition. Yes I did take a moment to assess whether entering would really be the best idea. I was knee deep in a body transformation challenge and would ultimately have 8 weeks preparation time before race day. But I have never been one to back away from a challenge and my ‘message’ for the world is to prove anything is possible if you just believe and dare to ‘tri’.
I wasn’t quite sure how one should prepare for an Ironman in just 8 weeks. But knowing my body’s propensity for ‘overtraining’ injuries- the only option was to take it slow and steady and attempt to increase my distance in each leg to an achievable level in the lead up to race day. The first 4 weeks went great! I managed to run 30km (a PB distance) using a run/walk technique, bust out a 100km ride and swim 3kms. I went into Noosa Triathlon feeling strong (albeit a little slower than usual) and was happy with my result on the day despite some nutrition issues. I had so much planned for the rest of that week off following Noosa Tri, but within 2 days I was bed ridden with a virus that would keep me from training for 2 whole weeks. Once recovered, I managed to get only a couple of swims, 2 long wind trainer rides and an 11km run before pulling up with a niggle in the last 2 week lead up to the race. Surprisingly not once did I really questions whether I could do that. Was it going to be easy? No! Was I physically prepared? Absolutely not! But what I did know was that it would take something very serious to stop me crossing that finish line on race day. They say finishing an Ironman is 30% physical and 70% mental. Despite a few runs earlier in 2015 where panic attacks impacted my performance and experience on the day, I was not worried about the mental aspect and just hoped with all my heart that I had that 30% ability.
In the lead up to any race in the past I usually become quite introverted in the hours or maybe even day before the race, This need to just be inside my head hit me early Ironman week. I was in a different town, without the familiar faces of my family or loved ones and spent a lot of time just thinking. I still can’t quite pick what I thought about – but I know some of it was visualization of racing and what finishing would look and feel like. Race week flew by and before I knew it I was in Busselton registering and doing the final race day preparations. Seeing the race precinct for the first time felt so surreal- I couldn’t believe that within a matter of days I would be attempting my first Ironman. I spent the day before race day meticulously packing my transition and special needs bag (a process that seemed to stress me more than any other part of the race!) and heading out for a trial wetsuit swim on part of the swim course. Saturday was a gorgeous day and the water was clear and so smooth. Despite being slightly cooler Saturday morning, the water temperature was lovely and my practice swim was just the confidence I needed. With bags packed and dropped off, it was time to sit back and relax and wait for race morning to arrive. As those that have raced an Ironman or big race before will understand, relaxing is not possible with that level of nerves and any sleep the night before is that of a luxury. It all finally hit me- this was real, I was about to swim, bike and run further than ever before and the question of ‘what if I don’t finish?’ started haunting my thoughts.
I woke before my alarm on race morning with the same familiar mix of nerves and excitement. Whilst you can’t go into any race with out some idea of how you think day might go, the numerous unknowns, particularly leading into your first ironman, fill you with butterflies. I still can’t believe how quickly the morning went, it felt like I had only just popped my nutrition on my bike and it was time to don the wetsuit and head down to the swim start. Standing on the beach waiting for the starting siren, I was overcome with emotion. I tried to fight back the tears which risked filling my goggles. The tears were coming from a place of sincere gratitude for the opportunity, excitement to be about to start a huge goal of mine, and the fear of the unknown. Thankfully the start gun broke the thoughts, and it was time to get to the task at hand. I held back at the swim start and started towards the back of the pack. The swim of Ironman Western Australia is a 3.8km swim out and back around the Busselton Jetty. Despite my poor ability to swim straight, I was hopeful that the Jetty may aid me staying on track for this swim. The first 800m went well, I felt slow but good, but shortly after that the weather deteriorated and with it went the water conditions. It was windy, choppy and a sideways current saw me swimming of course. By the 1.9km turn around, I was NOT enjoying myself. Sea sickness was starting to kick in, the choppy water made it hard to see the buoys and if there was anyone around. People were being rescued all around me, one girl was even clinging to a barnacle laden jetty pole. I could feel some serious wetsuit rash happening at the back of my neck, that was only adding to my lack of enjoyment. I just wanted to be out of this water and it was time to just keep swimming. The last 1.9km seemed to drag forever, I felt like I was swimming and not getting anywhere, but eventually the shore was in reach and I have never been so grateful to be out of a swim.
I took my time through transition, making sure I was comfortable for the ride and trying to let the waves of nausea pass. As I said, the weather had changed since the swim start and it was going to be a wet and windy ride. I headed out feeling strong on the bike but knowing I had 180km ahead I took it easy from the start. I was so glad I had done this when I found the head winds at 15kms. I had been warned about the winds of Busselton, but hadn’t really understood the concern. In my experience on an out and back race course, where there is a head wind there is usually a tail wind. So as I battled through these winds, I was eagerly awaiting the tail winds. My shoulder was not allowing me to use my aero bars or spend long on the drops, so I was tackling these winds head on and it was tiring. My speed was no where near where I had planned, and I was constantly doing the maths as to whether I would make the bike cut off (something that I had not been worried about!). I was so pleased to make the 90km turn around, but was dreading the battle as I headed back out for another 90km of wind and rain laden riding. It wasn’t until after the 90km turn around that I finally found the tail wind I had been waiting for- I thought I was going crazy- but I soaked up every bit of power I could from that 10km of tail wind knowing that I would be battling against it on fatigued legs when I would be making my way back into town to finish the bike. I struggled with nutrition on the 2nd half of the bike leg, I was struggling to stomach the gels and electrolytes I had left and I remember desperately asking for ‘real food’ at the last aid station before being handed a banana – it was an absolute saviour. I pushed my way through the last 20kms back into transition, feeling relieved I would make the cut off, but also worried about the 42.2kms that awaited once off my bike. As I dismounted, my legs buckled under me and I was grateful for the volunteer that was there to catch me. I never wanted to see my bike again! I hobbled into transition with quads on fire, sure that I was going to have to walk the entire marathon.
As I sat there in transition exhausted and beyond sore, the maths again started in my head. I had just enough time to finish if I managed to walk the whole 42km at a reasonable pace. So after a slow outfit change, I headed out onto that run course. Over the first 2kms I managed to slowly increase the pace, refuel with some ‘real food’ and get my legs back to feeling like maybe they could run. As I eased into my first run/walk set, I managed to find a rhythm. I’m by no means saying it was easy and trust me it hurt, but it felt good to be running as planned and gave me the confidence that I would reach the finish line. The run was a 4 lap course and you passed the finish line twice each lap- there was no better motivation to keep pushing than hearing others be announced as ironmen as they crossed the finish line. Each time this nearly brought me to tears.
The distance of each run of the walk/run leg reduced over the first 20kms, but I managed to keep this strategy up for just short of 30kms. As I stopped to walk after the last run that night, I knew my legs just didn’t have any more running in them. My feet and joints were aching and they just couldn’t cope with the shock of running any longer, the last 12kms were set to be a dark and cool powerwalk to that finish line. The supporters lining the run course were incredible, they cheered your name each time you passed them and pushed you to keep going. I had heard that ironman supporters were on a whole different level and that is so true, never before have I felt like such a superstar as I did out on that run course. The high fives with both kids and adults were constant (a sight usually only seen in the finish chute of a triathlon) and I just loved joking with supporters that I would see them again next lap. The face that I was most happy to see throughout the day was that of my primary school friend Elyse. She was kind enough to let me stay with her in both Perth and Busselton and stayed out all day to cheer me along in the swim, ride and the run. Having that familiar face and person who was there to support you was such a huge boost to keep going and I am so grateful for all her support on the day. She kept me company for the last 6kms, which was a great distraction from just how much I was hurting and encouraged me as I made my way towards that finish chute.
As I reached the finish chute I was completely overwhelmed. I wanted to treasure this moment and so I let the couple of people who were just behind me go ahead. I was going to walk the chute and take it slowly but the atmosphere got the better of me, and before I knew it my legs were again able to jog and I jogged my way to that finish line. It still seems like a blur, I remember bursting into tears and sobbing as I saw the finish line. I remember Pete Murray (the voice of Ironman Australia) commenting on how happy I looked to be finishing…but I somehow missed being called over the line with the words ‘Donna Spowart you are an Ironman’. I cannot wait to see the video of this!
The tears continued to flow as the volunteer attended to me and as Sarah Piampiano congratulated me on my finish. What an experience! That finish line made me forget all the struggle and all the pain and I instantly wanted to do it all again some day.