#2 2016 AG Triathlon World Champs - Brett Thomson


#2 2016 AG Triathlon World Champs

Recently I competed in the Standard Distance AG World Championship in Cozumel (Mexico) and the Long Distance AG World Championship in Oklahoma (USA). I will dive into the races themselves and the awesome experience I have had. First up however, I just want to say this is a challenging report to write, I had set some clear goals which were attainable and were all about building confidence for the upcoming triathlon season. Applying a black and white lens, the ultimate output from both races to what I had envisaged, was not what I had expected. However, I am soon realising that triathlon is anything but black and white! Check out the below for detail and I hope others can learn from the experience I have had.

Standard Distance Champs – Cozumel (Mexico)

I will talk more generally and then get into the race itself…

Arriving into Cozumel from Playa De Carmen by ferry we were greeted by an absolute festive celebration of everything great about Mexico and triathlon. Hundreds and hundreds of triathletes and supporters poured onto the island, which absolutely surpassed my expectations in every way. The people are super friendly and helpful which made it easy to navigate the island by walking or cycling. The majority of the New Zealand team arrived a week prior to the race itself, with some individuals having stayed in other countries to acclimatise to the heat. However, I don’t believe anyone could prepare themselves for the heat and humidity which we were greeted with, temperatures consistently in the mid-30s with humidity in the 90s – literally you would walk outside your hotel room and then the sweat feast would begin.

I had the pleasure of meeting the New Zealand team on various occasions which made it super easy to adjust to being in a different country - a very different culture and customs (one custom required pants to be worn by males at select restaurants in the resort which was difficult given the heat). It was great to be part of a large team, each individual sharing the same passion but having a very different story in getting there. A very big thank you to Triathlon New Zealand for making this experience possible (a well-thought out schedule) and also a massive thanks to the Wellington Triathlon Club and their travel sponsor BCD for helping a large contingent of the Wellington athletes with their accommodation requirements.

Furthermore, finding it easy to settle in allowed me to quickly concentrate on what I came to Cozumel to do and that was to compete in the best possible form. I was super keen to familiarise myself with the course in order to prepare mentally and get a feel for the conditions.

I cycled over the bike course early in the week, I felt super strong on a bike course which I believe felt as though it was perfectly built for my cycling ability, it was super flat and thus favored those athletes with a high power output – I felt confident for the race ahead and was excited to set a PB for a 40km time trial which was one of my sub goals. Better yet, I was keen to test out my new Trek Speed Concept (which had replaced the bike which was stolen only a few weeks before this race) which had been built by Kiwivelo Wellington.

I was initially nervous about swimming without a wetsuit predominantly for two reasons, I don’t have a strong swimming background to fall back on and I had performed majority of my swim training with a pull buoy to replicate a wetsuit for the 4km swim which lay ahead of me in the following week (Long Distance Champs). However, my nerves were squashed as the high water temperatures and salt concentration in the sea made it super buoyant and I felt as though my technique was great through the water.

I noticed early in the week when familiarising myself with the course that my heart rate was sitting approximately 20 beats above expectations for perceived effort which can be attributed to the heat – over the week my body adjusted and my heart rate was consistent with my perceived effort – this took approximately 4-5 days to occur. The combination of feeling great in the sea and familiarising myself with the triathlon course gave me great confidence for the race ahead.

As with any World Championship race, there are a lot of nerves and expectations which you place on yourself – as this was my first World Championship race I was nervous and extremely excited at the same time, representing New Zealand in any form is a great honor and is doubled up with the fact that every other country, only had good things to say about New Zealand and its people in general – made me super proud to be a Kiwi. I looked to suppress some of these nerves by taking in all the action – attending the expo, supporting our athletes racing in the Aquathon & Sprint, checking out the island and doing some shopping.

Getting prepped for the race ahead…

The morning before race day, I was feeling good – I had caught up on sleep and adjusted to the time zone, was eating food and staying hydrated with electrolytes. I had been bitten by some mosquitos or sandflies earlier in the week which was super itchy but nothing other athletes had not also faced. During the morning, I went down to the expo to sort out my timing chip and then headed back to the resort. In the afternoon I dropped my bike off at transition in preparation for the race ahead on the following day. The Elite females World Championship final was held mid-afternoon on that day and I decided to stay to watch the action that unfolded. It was a great race to watch in super tough conditions (the Elite men later had their swim course altered due to the difficulty of the swim course).

As soon as I got home I prepared nutrition, hydration and racing equipment ready for the day ahead. I felt relatively relaxed but very excited for the day ahead.

Race day…

I woke up fairly early in the morning as I wanted to be well prepared. As expected it was a super-hot day despite still being dark. I ate a banana and started drinking electrolytes (in hindsight I probably didn’t have much in terms of substance for breakfast but I didn’t really feel like it and I have trained on much less so didn’t think much of it at the time).

I made it to transition with plenty of time to pump up the tyres as well as set up my bike with nutrition and hydration. It was a super awesome atmosphere as pretty much all the New Zealanders had their bikes racked side by side. You could feel the tension in the air as everyone knew it was going to be a tough day based on the athletes racing in the Sprint Championship and also the Elite females the previous day. However, at the same time everyone had goals and their own plan which they were working towards.

At this stage we all moved to where the swim was going to start. We were advised due to the strength of the current that the swim had been shortened by approximately 200-300 metres. I was super excited as an even shorter swim meant I could focus on the bike ahead. This excitement soon faded as wave after wave each age group entered the water, you could see in the distance as soon as the athletes started heading against the current (which happened to be the main straight which lasted approximately 1km), athletes weren’t going very far in a hurry. At this stage my nerves continued to creep up – especially when we were herded into what felt like a cattle pen. My race was to start at 6.55am.

We were herded again down on to the platform and then into the water – I quickly jumped in and had to quickly swim back to the platform as the current was pushing us away from the platform aggressively. It was nearly 6.55am and I heard murmuring “my arm is starting to hurt from holding on”.

The hooter went off with a bang! I had positioned myself well as I knew the current would push us straight to the buoy. I also wanted to be pulled along so I could focus on relaxing and not expend any matches (energy) early on. The first turn had three buoys positioned like a triangle so it wasn’t a direct turn, this meant athletes didn’t get caught on each other (which surprisingly happens a lot in other races). I was happy with my positioning and was swimming well through the water. I passed the final buoy around the corner, heading directly against the current on the main straight. I had good line of sight and felt like I was swimming the most direct route. I could see to my left a group of swimmers in a line which made me a little nervous but I checked up and felt confident in the path I had taken (in hindsight, I think given the fact that I have a bigger upper body, I would have been better to draft directly behind other athletes as much as possible on this straight, saving energy as well as reducing the impact of the current which would have had a greater impact on my upper body when compared to other smaller athletes). This straight felt like an eternity, the current was pushing back hard, every time I looked up the buoy didn’t feel any closer, slowly but surely I made it to the final buoy before the next turn.

This was challenging as I aimed to swim around the buoy but little did I know that the current was pushing so strongly against the buoy, the chord holding the buoy was much more horizontal than anticipated and thus directly in the route of where I was swimming – I nearly got caught up (after the race, a lot of athletes mentioned that some had been caught up). As mentioned above the strong current having a greater impact on a larger upper body, it also had a helping hand heading back towards the swim exit to transition – I felt I could relax and was actually swimming a lot faster through the water compared to athletes around me.

I exited the swim and ran out of the water – immediately I felt something was wrong. I have raced on previous occasions and know what it feels like to take your first steps out of the swim – it is tough, most of the blood flow is in your arms and there is a brief moment when you are still finding your balance when standing. This was different, it was like my muscles were shutting down – I literally had nothing. I ran from the swim exit to transition which was long and there was an overpass heading into transition. I entered transition and then went straight to my bike where it was racked, I quickly put my helmet on and ran out of the transition and scrambled onto my bike.

At this stage I was thinking, get on the bike and relax – get a feel for what you know best. I had some Perpetuem (carb drink) and some electrolytes (Nuun) – I had planned to also take a caffeine tablet at this stage but didn’t feel comfortable given the state of my body. Then I started to go to work… unfortunately nothing. Earlier this year at the Kinloch standard distance race, it wasn’t until the second lap on the bike course which I found my legs. Unfortunately this wasn’t like that – I had never felt this before and nothing was coming right. I remember one of the other New Zealanders passing me and thinking this might be the perfect opportunity to find my legs again – we did some exchanging of the lead with a bunch of other athletes. I felt closer to the speed I should have been doing but at this stage my leg muscles completely shut down. I was guttered, despite this I continued to push with what little I had but other athletes were fading into the distance and others were passing me.

I headed back on the bike through to transition. It wasn’t long until I was running my bike back through transition to the bike rack. I placed my bike on the rack and then suddenly spewed – something clearly wasn’t right.

I ran out of transition pretty much in survival mode. I honestly didn’t and still don’t know what I was thinking at this stage – whatever I was thinking, I must have suppressed it. Basically I had one goal now and that was to finish.

I continued to run and at each aid station grab ice and water to cool my body temperature. I think it was literally the support of other athletes and the supporters on the course that got me home – a big thank you! The countdown to the finish line was on.

I remember crossing the line in utter relief. I quickly bent over (not from being short of breath but just being limp) and then was told to keep moving. Everything was quite spacey and my body felt limp.

Finishing was tough – I couldn’t explain what had happened all I knew is I was in a state and couldn’t tolerate much food or liquid. My body had shut down and I didn’t know what to do (in hindsight I should have gone to the medical tent). It was super tough explaining how I felt about the race. I didn’t have sore muscles and I didn’t feel dehydrated – I honestly just felt like I had nothing in my muscles and didn’t feel good internally.

After a long period of not being able to think or do anything I made it back to the hotel – I had a shower and then forced as much food and drink down me as I could tolerate. I had planned to go back to the event location to watch the Elite Men race in person but just didn’t feel up to it. After resting for a while, I made it down to a bar with Suze, Wilson and a bunch of other New Zealanders. We had a beer and watched the Elites on TV. Over time I started feeling a lot better and more relaxed. Physically my muscles didn’t feel fatigued at all. Over time I started getting food into me and I livened up a lot. Watching the Elite men race was awesome, and it was reflective of the conditions we faced despite being a slightly different course to be friendlier for spectators. Watching the Elite men head onto the run, I didn’t realise it was going to be such a special moment. I still remember seeing Johnny Brownlee start losing his legs and then all of a sudden collapse onto the ground. I remember shouting at the time “Alistair, com’on pick him up!” and what did he do…. It was such a special sporting moment and can probably be compared to the two female athletes crawling across the Ironman finish line in 1997. It made Crowd Goes Wild so it must have been good.

I started to feel better, we went out for dinner and then Wilson, Suze, Kotahi, Laura and I went out to a bar and had some Tequila (kind of have to – when in Mexico) and did some Karaoke (Wilson was the lead singer obviously).  This was such a great night but had to be cut short as I had an early start (flight to Oklahoma). It wasn’t until I got back to my room and undressed before hoping into the shower, I noticed something was wrong. I had red dots from my torso all the way down to my ankles. I was actually quite freaked out at the time and messaged one of the others to check on me in the morning that was if I didn’t send them a message first thing in the morning.

I managed to wake up in the morning and made it to my transfer, ferried from Cozumel to Playa De Carmen and then caught a shuttle to the airport in Cancun. Apart from the red dots still being there I felt really good, as though I hadn’t raced the day before.  I flew out of Cancun and into Oklahoma.

Long Distance Champs – Oklahoma (USA)

I was stoked to arrive in Oklahoma and catch up with Georgia and Dan (we were staying at the same hotel) as well as start the week with a clean slate.  I still had red dots over most of my body so went to the Pharmacy at Walmart and they suggested a combination of Cortisone ointment and antihistamine pills. My skin actually started to blister from the Cortisone ointment so stopped that but continued the pills. It took most of the week to clear. During this time I had a good chat to Dan & my coach Silas and felt refocused and excited to have a good race ahead (and put the previous race behind me).

Again a big thank you to Triathlon New Zealand for making this experience possible and a big thanks to Wellington Tri Club and their travel sponsor BCD – it was awesome accommodation and meeting the small New Zealand team of approximately 20 athletes, was absolutely awesome. So many good people!

We had a couple of chances throughout the week to meet the New Zealand team, specifically the team dinner and Parade of Nations – it was great fun and was organised perfectly.

Dan and I went to the bike familiarisation on Wednesday where we caught up with Dylan McNeice (NZ Elite Male athlete), Jodie Swallow (Elite Female athlete – who went on to win her race) and a bunch of other triathletes. Unexpectedly we were greeted with a police officer on a motorbike. The officer said he would be our police escort for the bike familiarisation… and did he what! I was surprised how responsive cars were to a Police bike with sirens at a set of traffic lights. Every single car stopped on every lane… it was funny because imagine a small peloton of triathletes (10-20) cycling by as you have just halted because of Police sirens (everyone must have been like what was going on). We limited this ride to 60mins and I personally was confident I had experience a lot of the course to get a feel for it and it also helped me find my legs again – I was feeling good again (not 100% but it was better than where I was earlier in the week).

Dan and I also went to the swim familiarisation on Thursday and talked to some other athletes including Jodie. Jodie had mentioned that she had tried to go swimming in the lake earlier in the week. However, a number of Police officers turned up at the lake and tried to arrest her. It turns out Lake Hefner is not only the swim location for the Long Distance Championship, it is also Oklahoma’s water supply year round. There are literally only three days a year you are allowed to swim, otherwise you can be arrested. Those three days are the days leading into and including the Long Distance Championship race.

We had an awesome time during the week relaxing and checking out the sights which Oklahoma had to offer. While Dan and I were relaxing at the hotel on Friday, the day before the race, Georgia and a bunch of other New Zealanders had heard that Steven Adams was attending a press conference at the Arena. Georgia and Rosie somehow used their Kiwi charm to not only sneak their way into the Arena but also grab attention from a security guard. The guard later told Steven Adams that a group of New Zealanders were outside waiting for him in the car park area. Steven Adam’s said “let them know I will be 20 minutes”. A bunch of the professional basketballers left the carpark in sport cars, taking time to snap photos with people waiting outside and then sure enough Steven Adams with his white pickup truck drives out. Steven stepped out and said “what the $%$% are you guys doing here” (in a classic Kiwi accent). When listening to Georgia explain what happened I have not seen so much happiness on ones persons face - it was great to set us up for the day ahead.

Unfortunately throughout Friday, the day before the race my throat started to close up but I hoped that it would pass (in hindsight I believe I had the air conditioning temperature on too low, especially when combining a weak immune system from the previous week).

We had a good dinner, prepared our triathlon equipment for the day ahead and then went to bed relatively early.

Race day…

I woke up fairly early in the morning and had a good breakfast (something I had learned from the previous race). I felt relaxed and looking forward to the day ahead, despite my throat now being sore.

We all got to the transition with sufficient time to prepare our bikes with nutrition and hydration. Transition closed at 6.30am and our race didn’t start until 7.35am. During this time the New Zealand team came together, I had a little nap and it was confirmed that the swim would be a non-wetsuit swim given the lake temperature was over 24.5 degrees. This made me a little nervous as you lose a lot of buoyancy especially in a lake where it naturally isn’t as buoyant as the sea – though we had expected this due to the great work by Jen setting the expectations early in the week.

Everyone was gathered just off transition close to the start of the swim. We stood together as the United States of America national anthem was sung by a young individual with an amazing voice. At the same time a jet fighter circled us with a final pass close to the swim start. It was a pretty surreal moment. The Elite males started, followed shortly by the Elite females. We were then instructed to go into the lake. It was close to a mass start – all male athletes below the age of 45 started in the lake at the same time. It was a 2 lap loop of 2kms which was in the shape of a rectangle. It was super windy so there was quite a bit of chop especially on one side of the lake which you could see.

The hooter went and we were off. I had positioned myself well to swim the most direct route. I could see the wind was pushing us slightly off to the right of the buoy so I ensured I kept as close as possible to the left and was swimming well. Every breath I took I could feel a strain in my throat but it was tolerable. After swimming close to 500 metres all of a sudden my hand hit the ground and immediately I was standing up. For about 30 meters the water level was so low that you only had but one choice and that was to stand – I have never experienced this before but what the heck let’s add in another complication. Back swimming now I was approaching the first buoy which I needed to make a left turn. At this stage the lake was quite choppy as the wind had picked up creating what felt like waves. As I turned left I was getting pushed to the right but needed to keep swimming up and over the waves and trying to keep the most direct route to the buoy – this felt super slow but it was only going to get slower. We made another sharp left around another buoy after about 50 metres. At this stage I couldn’t see the buoy into the distance. I was swimming right back against the waves and the buoys were spaced so far away you could not see them in the distance – this was compounded by the glare from the sun. I managed to swim relatively straight and try to force myself through the waves. I felt confident in my pacing and have since reviewed my heart rate and I averaged 159 BPM which is only a few beats below my threshold which I was happy with. I swam 4.426km in total.

I finished the swim and immediately knew my swim was slower than I had anticipated but given the conditions was actually quite good and this was reflected with the fact I swam in the fastest half of my age group which I was super stoked with (despite my throat making it a difficult to breath at times). I felt that it was reflective of the swim training I had been putting in leading into the champs so this gave me some confidence.

Straight into the transition, I quickly put my helmet on and I was off out of the transition area onto the bike. I previously never had triathlon cycling shoes and never used rubber bands to nicely position the cycling shoes when hoping onto the bike. I had put in some practice leading into the both Championship races and was super stoked with getting the second-equal fastest time for T1 (swim to bike transition) in my age group.

Onto the bike, I was super stoked I could feel my muscles (a complete different feeling to what I had experience in the previous champs). I was excited to get into what I do best. I don’t know if my luck has run out at the moment but I obviously wasn’t supposed to race well at both Championships. Within 5kms onto the bike, I had severe pain in my stomach/intestines, I tried everything by standing up and moving around – I figured it would past so tried to push through the pain but it was intolerable when being in a time trial position. Not only that it was even more pain when trying to take on nutrition and hydration. It was only after 40km I felt like my last resort was to go toilet. It was at the 60km mark where there was an aid station with a toilet. I stopped for about 5 to 10 minutes and felt so much better (probably too much information). I was back on the bike and feeling good again and had passed a lot of people which had overtaken me but knew I was behind where I wanted to be.  At this stage I was heading directly back into the wind and to compound this, my sore throat started to turn chesty. As I rode back towards Lake Hefner where the transition was, I started to cough, only every so often but it started to get more frequent.

I finished the bike and headed straight into transition. Despite the sore stomach and toilet stop I still managed to have a bike split in the top half of my age group which given the circumstances was great.

Again I have prepared for a smooth transition and was rewarded with another quick transition when comparing to everyone in my age group. I ran off the bike well and looked to settle into a pace which I felt I had trained to achieve. Unfortunately while running after a couple of kilometres I began to cough uncontrollably. At one point I was bending over coughing flem and was not going anywhere fast. I was still keen to keep progressing however running soon turned to running between aid stations to then running for a short period and then walking. At this stage the lack of fuel and hydration stated to take its toll - this was the result of not taking on sufficient fuel and hydration on the first half of the bike due to stomach/intestine pain. What started with coughing then turned into a sore chest and then I started to go a little loopy and my blood sugars hit an all-time low as well. There were a couple of occasions where I honestly didn’t think I was going to finish. Finishing this race was the only goal that mattered at the end of the day. So I resigned to the fact that I had to walk if I wanted to finish. In hindsight I think I could have run a little more but I am not sure if I would have finished or lay somewhere in a medical tent at the end. Despite walking it wasn’t any easier because it just extended the time I was coughing and staying out in the heat (temperature early 30s degrees celsius).

A massive thanks to the other athletes on the course and the supporters – I know I looked like a mess – that would have been the darkest place I have been since starting with triathlon. At one point I didn’t know what to think and I was super stoked for Corey to catch up with me so we could finish at the same time. That extra support helped me get over the line so a big thank you to you Corey and everyone else there supporting.

I finished 14 out of 24 within my age group with 6 athletes who did not finish (DNF) due to the swim conditions – there were reports of a number of athletes getting motion sickness on the bike after the swim which probably gives a good insight onto the swim.

The next day I caught up with the New Zealand team at the closing ceremony. Shortly after we went to a café and it was interesting to hear from Dylan. He explained that the race was just as hard as any full ironman race which he has completed. This certainly put the day in perspective.

Reflection

Overall, I am super guttered with the outcome of both Championship races given the level of effort and commitment leading into both races. I was keen to achieve sub goals set in both races which were realistic given the conditions. Due to some sort of reaction and illness on these two days out of 6 months’ worth of specific training, my body was not able to play ball. It is the first time this has happened to me – in the past I have had steady progression which is consistent with my training. This may seem negative but it isn’t a bad thing, it is actually a really good thing as there are some key learnings which I can use going forward. Further, I couldn’t be happier with myself. I have never faced a situation in competition where my body has completely shut down and certainly haven’t raced with a chest infection. My body and mind wanted to stop. To finish at both World Championship races when facing such adversity, I am certainly stoked and it will provide be with an additional hunger for the upcoming triathlon season in New Zealand.  

I had a good chat to my coach Silas about both races in detail. Despite the above adversity there are certainly a lot of learnings which I will take out of this:

  • Over the past 2-3 months I have been sick on probably 4-5 occasions. There might have been an element of trying to play catch up on where I felt I needed to be with training. This most likely contributed to a weaker immune system and then added to the stress and excitement of the World Championship I would have been a prime suspect for getting sick.
  • Back in New Zealand I eat fairly consistent foods that react well with my body. In hindsight I should have stuck to foods which reacted well with my body. Rather I ate foods that were difficult for my body to process which would have contributed to more stress internally resulting in a weaker immune system.
  • It was interesting to hear from Dylan McNeice (NZ Professional Athlete) regarding acclimatising and what I felt like was extremely important. He said effectively it is not possible to acclimatise unless you live in a location for a long period of times (i.e. months) and thus the biggest concentration should be on adjusting to the time zone.
  • Given the significant heat with Cozumel temperature being mid 30 degrees celsius with humidity in the 90s and Oklahoma with temperature is the high 30 degree celsius, I believe I had the air conditioning too low at both locations. I think the high and low temperatures added to a weak immune system and may have even contributed to the chest infection in Oklahoma. Going forward I would try ensure a lot more consistency between the temperature outside and inside.
  • Finishing both races has given me a real mental boost and improved confidence. Having such adversity with my body shutting down but still being able to push through will give me confidence for the upcoming season to push through any pain.

I can’t thank everyone enough who supported me in my quest to attend both World Championship races. The races themselves didn’t go to plan but I can certainly say I had one of the best experiences of my life. It was awesome representing New Zealand and making so many new friends. Both New Zealand teams were awesome and the places we stayed at Cozumel & Oklahoma were awesome. I have also been reminded the importance and achievement of finishing.

I am excited for the upcoming triathlon season in New Zealand. Thanks for all the continued support :)