I recently returned from the Hawaiian Ironman World Championships in Kona and the theme of this year’s event was “Onipa’a”.
“Onipa’a” means to remain steadfast, resilient and resolute.
What I have come to appreciate over the years I have been involved in ultra distance events and more recently Ironman triathlons, is that most people you meet have a story. A story of sacrifice, of personal triumph, of overcoming adversity. A journey that at times may have threatened to unravel them. What I see time and time again is that when we remain steadfast, resilient, and determined, these challenging experiences help to build our character. They have the potential to give us a clearer sense of purpose and personal conviction. They expand our perception of what we are capable of and leave us with a resolve to overcome other challenges in our lives.
Whether you are a cyclist or a triathlete, new to the sport or have been in the game for a while, you may have already noticed that not only does life and its challenges prepare us for the challenges of our sport, but our experience as athletes prepares us for life’s challenges.
I could start my story from when I was a lost teenager who battled low self-esteem and eating disorders, but found my way through putting my energy into sport. Instead I’ll start with my most recent adventures as a new Ironman Triathlete. I, like many, only ever dreamt of getting to Kona, ‘the big dance on the big island’, having to face the demons of self doubt to realize that dream.
I grew up in the 80’s when the Hawaiian Ironman was televised on the Wide World of Sport. Who could forget images of athletes of all different shapes and sizes overcome the grueling conditions of heat, wind and distance in what was considered one of the toughest human races? Watching those scenes years ago left an indelible mark in my mind and since then I have always said that ‘one day I will do an Ironman’.
Jump forward a couple of decades and I was standing near the finish line of the first Melbourne Ironman in 2012. I had intended to just pop down to watch the pro athletes finish, but six hours later, I was glued at the edge of the red carpet, teary eyed with goose-bumped skin as I watched and cheered athletes as they crossed the finish line. Some were in agony, others were skipping with glee and many were visibly moved. There was no escaping the undeniable desire to sign up for the following Melbourne Ironman.
In the years immediately prior to this I had been focusing on my running and my career as a Chiropractor, but living in Bayside Melbourne I had decided that cycling would be a welcomed relief from pounding the pavement. I had only just bought my first road bike, a Cervelo S2.
With my longest ride at this point being 50km, and barely swimming, I signed up for my first Ironman. I started to bank some k’s on the bike and continued to work on my swimming. I was confident in my running ability.
My first race in the lead up to the Melbourne Ironman was the Canberra Half Ironman. As a kid I grew up with a pool in the backyard, went to swim squads, competed at school swimming carnivals and played state level water polo, so you could imagine my surprise when 500m into the swim leg of my first half Ironman, I was overcome with a paralyzing panic attack. My journey to Ironman wasn’t necessarily going to be smooth sailing.
Swimming has been something I have had to work very hard on, not necessarily the physical aspect, but learning to love swimming and manage my fear of the open water. Even as late as the week before I left for Kona, I saw a Kinesiologist to help me manage my concern about the potential for a panic attack in Hawaii.
In March 2013, I was ready! On the morning of the Melbourne Ironman with horrendously bad weather conditions, the swim was shortened. Perhaps with my swimming ability this should have excited me, however I didn’t train 20+ hours a week just to complete a shortened Ironman. Even before the gun went off, I knew this wouldn’t be my last attempt.
The day was tough. I got through the washing machine that was the swim and made my way through the 180km of the bike leg. As nature would have it, I faced head winds for three quarters of the bike leg and it became obvious that cycling is one of those sports that develops with time. There are seemingly no short cuts to greatness. It takes persistence, time, consistency and patience. With a ride time of 6:20 for the 180km’s I became acutely aware that I had a lot of work to do. I finished the (shortened) Ironman with a strong run and a determination to have another go the following year.
With another 12 months of cycling under my belt I managed to take more than 50 minutes off my bike time in the 2014 Melbourne Ironman. Admittedly, conditions were more favorable and I had also bought myself a new Time Trial bike. My love for cycling was growing exponentially. My bank account didn’t love it so much, but for a runner who used to ride with envy watching the runners along Beach Road, I was now a runner who longed to be on the bike more often.
In 2014, I managed to finish the FULL Ironman in a time of 10:25 and I also finished in the top 10 females in my age group. Suddenly, I had a hint of what was possible. Maybe it was within my means to qualify for Kona? I still had a great deal of improvement to make, and perhaps I was being a little impatient, but my hunger for a ticket to the world champs was omnipresent.
I changed coaches not long after Melbourne Ironman. My new coach surprisingly suggested that the Japan Ironman could be a great race for me to qualify for Kona. Initially I thought he meant for the following year, but no! ...... he was referring to that same year.
We had only ten weeks to get ready. The focus was going to be on improving my cycling. I had to spend more time in the hills on the bike. Japan was a tough bike course and with a total ascent of 2000m I needed to get stronger. I knew that riding up and down Beach road wasn’t going to cut it. Instead, each weekend I hit the hills of the Dandenongs, Kinglake, and Humevale.
With only ten weeks to get ready, I couldn’t afford any hiccups, I needed to look after myself in every possible way to minimise the risk of injury and sickness, and ensure that I ticked off every single training session. Life became very focused. In addition to staying committed to my training I had weekly chiropractic care, weekly massages, infrared saunas, and ate a mostly wholefood diet. This was all to proactively ensure that not only did I not get injured, but ultimately to allow me to fulfill my athletic potential and perhaps get that ticket to Kona.
I left no stone unturned.
I had an incredible race in Japan. In fact, to this day, I think it was one of my best races. In many ways I believe it was a break through race simply because I started to believe it was possible! I started to believe in myself.
Typically speaking, the Asian athletes aren’t super strong swimmers, so this suited me and I got out of the water in sixth place and found my legs on the bike very quickly. It’s amazing how you find that little bit extra when you get a sniff of the leaders and the possibility of realising a dream. I was riding well. I was passing other women on the bike and climbing well. I was amazed at what can be achieved in ten weeks with focus and relentless training. I got off the bike in second place.
I ran well off the bike, but despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t close the gap on the leader. I crossed the finish line four minutes behind her.
Without going into a lengthy explanation about how Kona Ironman slots are decided, the short story is……I missed out. I was second in my age group, third female age grouper and tenth female overall, but it wasn’t quite good enough.
I’m often reminded that we learn more from our mistakes than our victories. In many ways, Japan was a huge victory for me. In only my third Ironman in less than two years I had finished on the podium. I had made significant gains in my swimming and cycling ability and learnt a lot about race strategy and mental preparation. Yet, in the weeks that followed Japan, rather than celebrating what I had achieved, rather than recognizing how far I’d come, I let my disappointment of not qualifying for Kona tarnish this monumental occasion. Not only that, but I failed to honour my body’s need for rest and recovery.
I returned to training too prematurely, in fact, I didn’t rest at all. I went against the advice of my coach and went straight back into my training. I wasn’t on a program, so I just did what ever I wanted. Not only that, I started entering races too. I was fatigued. I was tired.
My determination is often considered a strength, but in this case, it had become a source of sabotage.
As a Chiropractor I am very aware of human physiology. I understand the impact that chronic stress, both physical and emotional, and not listening to your own body can have. My body started to wave the white flag. I was injured and ignoring the pain. I was unwilling to rest, determined to get better, get stronger, and ultimately get to Kona.
In my effort to ‘chase’ the dream, I neglected my greatest asset, the instrument I needed the most to achieve that goal…my body!
In Part 2, I’ll continue my story of overcoming injury, the race where I earned my ticket, and share my reflections on what has been some of my greatest lessons through it all.
Carmen Atkinson is a performance focused Chiropractor in private practice at Align Chiropractic in South Melbourne. She is a passionate Ironman Triathlete and Ultra distance Runner, who draws on her personal experience as an athlete and utilizes her knowledge of the human body to help others achieve their own health and fitness goals as a Triathlon Coach with TEAM Tri Coaching.
Carmen regularly speaks at sports clubs, women’s groups, and corporate organisations, inspiring people to live healthier and happier lives.
She advocates living an organic life, recognizing the innate wisdom of the human body, and teaches strategies to eat, think and move better.