It was with great satisfaction that I took my second half-distance win in Challenge Shepparton last week. It was also my fourth half-distance win to date, with two in Port Macquarie and one in Singapore. I never really expected to be carrying form this late in the year, and only really signed up to these races because the opportunity to race was there. There's so much racing happening in Australia this time of year that I've always considered it crazy to turn it down. I haven't done a training block since before 70.3 Worlds in September, so to actually expect to win when not logging the weekly miles and consistent key sessions is a bit out of order for me. I typically get confidence from knowing that I've done the hard work, but that literally hasn't happened for months. I guess from this non-stop racing I've taken a new type of confidence, that I can rely on my talent, gain fitness from racing and feel good about racing even when I haven't had those 'validation' sessions in the weeks leading into the race. This is probably something that has definitely held me back in the past and I've used too many matches before I even get to the startline. I guess at the end of the day, triathlon really is an imperfect science, and there's never that special one formula to get results.
Speaking earlier of the amount of racing on offer in Australia this time of year, the inaugural Ballarat 70.3 was competing for pro and amateur entries on the same day less than two hours drive away. I could have gone to either Ballarat or Shepparton but I obviously went with the latter. A couple athletes had decided to nominate for both events and ended up picking the one Michael Raelert didn't go to, but without sounding like I had avoided a fight, I was always committed to Shep. I wanted to come back to Shepparton because I had a great race experience the year prior when it was run by Ironman, it's a relaxed country event that I reckon every Australian athlete should experience. With the added thought of Challenge bringing in a in a new course at a new venue, I knew it would be a ripper event. Here's a race video before we get into the nitty gritty
The pro field that had assembled in Shep was bolstered with talent. There were three athletes in the race that had won big events throughout the season, namely Brad Kahlefeldt (Bateman's Bay, Putrajaya), Ruedi Wild (St. Anthony's) and Leon Griffin (Timberman), and also Tim Berkel coming off a huge debut result (7th) in Kona. These athletes were mostly great runners. With my strength in the swim & bike, the chance was palpably there to lead the race from the start to finish, had I put enough time into the other on my stronger legs. I know how to beat the fast runners, and I was keen to show that Port was no fluke and that there was no magic lead motorcycle in front of me for 90km to waltz along with. The conditions we woke up to on Sunday morning greatly increased my chances for a successful breakaway. I was actually kept awake for big chunks of time early on Sunday morning because the rain was so fierce. The wind was also blowing maniacally. With a big slog of the out and back course into a cross-headwind, it was always going to be a day for the cyclists.
I started hard from the gun in the water on the fun M shape course. With the calm water and big red Challenge bouys, it was pretty easy to put the head down and throw the arms over. Because the M-shape allowed very acute turns, I could count the time gap in my head every time we flipped around, and was surprised to see the gap well over 60 seconds by 3/4ths of the way through. I felt good but kind of tired, the feeling that everyone probably gets; 'I'm swimming pretty hard and it's already hurting. Do I really have to get on the bike & ride 90k's?' kind of thing. I did however find some motivation to pin in once I mounted the IA. It was raining and the win was blowing, but they say that when the going gets tough the tough get going. That's what was going through my head anyway. My power was very high into the wind and I was comfortable. I actually really enjoy riding into the headwinds; grinding that bit more and the slower speeds kind of makes me feel like I'm climbing, and I do really love the hurt of climbing.
At the first chance for a time gap at 1/4th of the way, I think I counted I had three minutes already back to Griffin. This meant that I had made at least 90 seconds up on top of the swim gap in the first portion of the ride. I was happy with this and felt it reflected the high effort I was putting onto the black top in the pissing rain and howling wind. I was pleased to see that the riders behind Griffin had splintered, and the next athlete I saw was Kahlefeldt riding on his own. I knew from this point he would only keep losing time until the pack behind caught him, which looked like it was made up of Berkel, Kastelein, Wild and some others. But these guys were maybe at least 4 minutes behind already. The race was mine to lose from this point on. I was now into the tailwind and loving the sail effect of the Zipp Super9 disc. I was coming to round the first lap and split the lap on my computer at 1:01:43, with an average of 300w. This was pushing slightly above 4.6w/kg, validating the thought that I was having a great ride. The interesting fact is on lap two I rode the exact same split, 1:01:43, but managed it putting out only 290w. I put the difference down to the slip stream on offer from a full course of AG athletes fresh out of the swim. While having the AG'ers on the course for lap 2 sometimes means it's a bit sketchy and congested when riding through at pace, it gives me great comfort mentally, it just breaks the effort up and makes it more enjoyable to share the road.
One thing I can put my good ride down to is some changes I made to my position and setup. I changed back from 165mm to 170mm cranks (I went to 165mm in July this year). There's good arguments for going to shorter cranks, and I was convinced enough to try, but I feel as if I was compromised in my pedaling efficiency and got really lazy and quad dominant. This was quite palpable in races like Mont Tremblant when I totally suffered on the run, even in Port Macquarie recently, where I still won but it hurt like hell; a hurt that just wasn't normal. Something was a miss, and I feel that by changing to shorter cranks my overall bike/run was compromised through inefficient pedaling and the consequent quad loading. So with the move to 170mm, I could still keep my hip angle open but just feel more comfortable in my pedal stroke, loading the legs more evenly through the quads, glutes & hammies to be fresher for a better run off the bike.
I had a lot of confidence heading out onto the run with a good feeling in my legs, thought it took my feet a good 15-20mins to regain feeling from the cold & wet ride. I just happened to be running on a section of the run course right next to the bike leg when I saw the others on their way back into T2. I looked at my watch and it read 9+ mintutes. I'm not sure if they saw me, but I could imagine they wouldn't have been happy. I knew this kind of gap was possible, but you never toe the line expecting to completely show your competition the back door. When it does happen though it is a real nice feeling, really really nice. Something would have had to of gone majorly wrong on my end not to hold on for the win, but with Brad K in the field I kept my focus and just kept telling myself I hadn't won until I crossed the line. There's too many horror videos/stories of athletes wobbling in the finish chute only to collapse and have the victory snatched way. Lucky for me I was feeling good.
Brad was taking time out of me but I still had the gap I needed. I got my last time check at 19km, with a 4 minute buffer. It was time to turn the engines off and think about Western Sydney 70.3 which was only two weeks away. I crossed the line & enjoyed the cellarbrations, and awed somwhat in Brad's 1:10 run split. Lucky I had a really good ride. I have to say I was really impressed with the run course. It was a very 'Aussie' affair with a three lap course taking you on roads through enchanting eucalypt forests, there was just never a dull moment, so a big high-5 for Challenge for the new course. All-round, it was a marvelous day, I was very happy to participated and even more thrilled to walk away with my first Challenge half-distance title. I hope to see you all at Challenge Shepp next year. Cheers all!