I initially thought I was having a bad day; my swim felt sluggish and the bike was a real grind, but when I got up the hill out of town in the run and turned left onto the Queen Kahamanu Highway (Queen K to the locals) with 30km left in the marathon, I heard a voice say ‘Woody you are 65th overall’
I couldn’t believe it.
I then realised that not only was my bad day looking OK, but it seemed the whole field (1,800 competitors) were struggling. What I didn’t know at that point was that in two hours I would have what was potentially my greatest day in the sport taken away from me and giving me a lesson that I wished I’d learned years before.
The 1994 Hawaiian Ironman triathlon was my 12th Ironman and my 4th Hawaiian. I was in good shape and was coming off overall top 10 finishes in Ironman races in Australia and Japan over the past twelve months. Hawaii has never been great to me. My personal best Ironman time there was 45 mins slower than actual Ironman PB (8:47) and having to train through the Aussie winter for a race in high temperatures wasn’t ideal. Being very fair skinned I had never really been able to stay adequately hydrated. I finished 53rd overall in my first attempt but had then thrown in a hundred something finish and a DNF.
I began the last 30km with a renewed sense of fight; the mind is an incredible tool and when I was told my overall position I immediately reversed my mental position from whoa to go. The race organisers have changed the Ironman run course a few times over the years and this time the turn-around was down a small road that led to a scientific facility called the Natural Energy Lab. I had been passing a few runners and began the three kilometres from the turnaround back up to the Queen K it was a slight hill (not noticeable in a car but well into this run it felt steep) and with no breeze at that part of the coastline it was brutally hot. I was really dialled in now. My brother and the Australian kayak guys had been doing some outrigger racing over on Oahu at the same time and had come over to watch the race. When I turned back onto the highway with 11km to go they were all there and had been counting the competitors ‘you are 51st’.
I had always considered that for someone of my limited ability an overall top 30 finish at the Hawaiian Ironman World Championship would be a great achievement and now, on this day in hell, as I looked forward down the highway with a line of competitors in front of me, it was possible.
Although essentially being what I would call an average swimmer, average cyclist and average runner I had two things in my favour, I always did the training miles, so I could not only cope with the event distance, I could ‘race’ the event. Also, I could mentally dig in at the back end of an eight-hour race. No one is floating at this stage of an Ironman triathlon and the ability to absorb the hurt is critical.
I moved past runner after runner, and I ticked them off. 49, 48, 47. I was suffering but I drew strength from believing they were hurting more. With 3km to go, I was 33rd overall. I was salivating at the thought of the last part of the run as I was in full battle mode and my lifetime goal of a top 30 finish in the biggest triathlon of them all was in front of me. I could see more runners up the road, and they were mine.
The cramp started in the big toe in my left foot, so I adjusted my foot slightly as I ran. It spread to my entire foot. Again, I made an adjustment but, in an instant,, the cramp shot up my entire body. Both legs, both arms, torso, and even my neck muscles. It hit so hard my body sort of shuddered to a stop. So, there I stood, three kilometres to run and totally frozen in one spot. As I stood there in the baking Hawaiian sun the only part of my body that was moving was my eyes.
A volunteer from the aid station came over but couldn’t assist me (against the rules) a couple of competitors ran past, then another and another. I had experienced cramping in endurance events before (certainly not a full body lock) so had half an idea how to deal with them.
I stood there totally unable to move. I was just swaying like a palm tree in the trade wind.
Another couple of runners went past. I was focusing on relaxing and gradually the movement came back. I don’t know how long I was there but everything I had battled and fought for over the past nine hours had gradually slipped away.
The focus for the last 3km had changed I now just needed to get it done. Barely able to walk/jog/run, I grovelled down the hill into town and along to the finish line. I finished in 106th place overall. I had not only lost 70 positions in 3km but also what I believed would’ve been my best-ever result, in anything.
I was dragged off to recovery where the doctors emptied five litres of IV into me. That night I lost count, but I would have vomited 100 times. After the first 10, there is no fluid coming out, so the last 90 spews got a pit painful.
My mum was there that year. She was sharing a room with me. It was the first Ironman my Mum had ever been to, and it was also the last.
I found out the next day that the temperature had reached 42 degrees Celsius during the race and although I had been downing large amounts of fluid, I was leaking way more than I could absorb which led to massive dehydration and huge loss of body salts which led to the massive cramping.
To this day I think this was the most disappointing experience I have had in sport, but the real kicker is that a few days after that race I was talking to a Canadian athlete whom I roomed with in Japan earlier that year, and whilst telling him the story he says ‘oh salt tablets will sort that out’.
‘Sorry, what?’, I said. ‘Yeah salt tablets, end of story, that problem doesn’t exist’.
I had been doing long races for years, had always suffered from the odd bit of cramping (not to this extent) and cramping had only ever taken something away from that really mattered once before when it prevented my selection for the Australian amateur team for the Duathlon worlds in Zofingen, Switzerland. So, I had never really chased a solution, merely putting it down as ‘one of those things’.
What / whom was it that said, ‘you never stop learning’? Well since that Ironman race in 1994, I have done many more ultra-distance events some in very hot conditions and the salt tablets have never let me down.
A few years later I was chatting to a guy after a race and he began to talk about cramping and how much it had affected him throughout his career.
‘Mate, salt tablets will sort that out’.
‘Sorry, what?’, he said. ‘Yeah salt tablets, end of story, that problem doesn’t exist’.