“Onipa’a” means to remain steadfast, resilient and resolute.
I was now dealing with a chronic injury, I barely had a pain free day and any training seemed to aggravate it. In fact, simply sitting was excruciating. The diagnosis wasn’t clear, but it seemed to be hamstring tendinopathy with sacroiliitis…... put simply a “pain in the butt” (literally and metaphorically).
I had had very few injuries throughout my life that had prevented me from training or racing, so this was a new frustration. It has taught me and continues to teach me, the value of patience and time. One of the underlying principles of Chiropractic is that all healing takes time, yet with my sense of urgency to qualify for Kona I was ignoring that and was asking my body to soldier on.
I took a little time off over the summer months, but I had registered for the African Ironman Championships in late March. So with that, I made the decision to go back to training in preparation for my fourth Ironman in two years.
I had previously competed in South Africa for ultra marathon running, there is something uniquely special about that country. They seem to love ultra distance events, like Australians love their AFL. The support on course is incredible, like nothing I have ever experienced, and this was a definite draw card to race this particular event. That, and with it being a Championship race, there were more Kona spots on offer. Sometimes you just have to take a gamble and try to work the numbers in your favour.
As January turned into February the Ironman was fast approaching. I was clocking up the k’s in the water, on the bike and on the road. Ironman South Africa was known to be a difficult course with tough climbs, rough road surfaces and notoriously windy conditions.
My coach, Michael Harvey, from TEAM Tri Coaching had a tough job to get me ready for a demanding race, while not further aggravating my injury. We were limited with any speed work and high intensity efforts and were restricted to volume, volume and more volume.
Perhaps it was because of my injury, but my confidence was waning and my belief fading. I kept ticking along, turning up to every session. I continued with my strict body care of chiropractic, myotherapy, infrared saunas, sports doctors and anti-inflammatory protocols. My injury wasn’t getting worse, but it was always there, nagging away.
Outside of triathlon, life wasn’t going splendidly. What I have come to understand from experience is that it is difficult to separate our sporting life from our general life. At the end of the day we are more than just athletes. We are sisters, daughters, friends, colleagues and partners. It is difficult to find the balance at times and when one area seems to be in struggle, it’s not long before it starts to show up on ‘the track’.
A little more than three weeks out from race day things took a nasty turn. I was involved in a bike crash, a reality that all cyclists have to be mindful of. I went down hard at about 32-34 kph, skidded along the road, and fell down an embankment. I was fortunate to walk away with only bruising and loss of skin. My bike however, was in a bit of a mess. This accident forced an early taper and with that, a further decline in my confidence.
On the eve I left for South Africa I had a conversation, or more appropriately, was given a ‘spray’ from the head coach at our tri club, Xavier Coppock. Xavier, is rarely one to hold back, he calls it as he sees it and sometimes the truth hurts, really hurts. He basically told me to not bother getting on the plane if I didn’t believe I could win and that others around me believe in me and he suggested it was high time to start believing in myself. Buckets of tears later, I was left with a resolve to prove him wrong, to show him I was ready.
Whilst Ironman is an individual sport it is crucial to have a network of people around you. People that provide a safe space to be vulnerable, to show compassion, to nurture and support you, equally as important is it to have those who, with good intention, give you the tough love you need. Those that see the potential in you, long before you see it in yourself.
Race day didn’t exactly go as planned. The swim was tough. I battled leg cramps late in the swim, which was something I hadn’t contended with previously. I got out of the water and by looking at the number of bikes already gone I estimated that I was deep in the field, perhaps as far back as 18-20th. Little did I know, that I was actually in 30th place. It’s a long way back from there.
My strategy with Ironman is typically to be consistent on the bike, to push, but to leave something for the run, which is my strongest leg. However on this occasion, I knew I had to give it all. I had nothing to lose and I wasn’t going to get a Kona spot by taking it easy, as the deficit was simply too great.
I pushed hard all day, and the course was as expected: windy, hilly and rough. However, I was happy with how I was riding. I nailed my nutrition and could see I was passing females, many I could see were in my age group. As I got off the bike I had assumed (incorrectly) that I was in about 7th. I still had a lot of work to do.
I had met a South African lady, Shona, prior to race day who I asked to support me on course. When I saw her about 3km’s into the first of 3 laps of the run, I asked her where I was placed. She didn’t answer that question, instead she simply yelled…….“you have to run”!
I saw her again coming back and once again asked where I was, she again ignored that question and just told me to keep running, to not let up, to push! My injury was excruciating and with every step I felt a stabbing pain in my arse.
On the second lap, Shona told me I had got off the bike in 11th and was now in 7th………..f@*k! That was not the news I was expecting. She also said I was catching them, that I was looking strong, to stay calm, and just keep running! This was no longer about proving Xavier wrong, this was about proving him right, this was about ME. This was about overcoming the demons of self doubt, to show myself who I really was. One of my biggest motivations for doing this sport and for coaching, is to redefine what we perceive the human body to be capable of. Now was my chance.
We are always reminded at training that ‘they don’t give Kona spots out at the 30km mark of the Marathon’, so no matter where you are, you have to keep racing to the very end. You just never know what’s happening ahead. Despite my greatest efforts to chase the girls in front, I finished in 5th place.
When I went to bed that night, I felt truly satisfied that I had given it my all. I suspected that a Kona spot was very unlikely, but I felt happy with that 5th place, perhaps moreso than the previous 2nd place in Japan. I had overcome a lot just to get to the finish line.
As fate would have it, there were 3 Kona spots in my age group. 1st place had previously qualified and 4th place wasn’t accepting hers, so they called my name.
I WAS GOING TO KONA!
I had overcome my own story of inadequacy and realised the dream.
With my Kona ticket stamped, it was now time to rest and recover. I had plenty of time to get ready for the World Championships. Finally, I was going to give my body (and my butt) the break it needed and deserved.
October came around faster than I expected and race day was quickly upon me. I got to Hawaii a couple of weeks early to help acclimatise to the heat and make those final preparations, both mentally and physically. Many times in those final weeks I had to pinch myself that I was actually there. I was about to race in the Ironman World Championships.
From my reaction crossing the finish line, you would have thought I finished first, but actually I finished 42nd. Unlike any other race though, my time didn’t matter, my place didn’t matter. This race was a celebration, a celebration of all that I had achieved and overcome just to be there.
I wanted to fulfil my current athletic potential on race day. I wanted to respect the enormity and significance of the event and the course. It’s a race that so many dream of, yet so few get the opportunity.
There are not many races where you can look back and say ‘there’s nothing I’d do differently’, but that’s how I felt about my day. I executed my plan as intended. I remained disciplined with my pacing, nutrition and hydration. I remained steadfast and focused when the waves of pain came and went and came again. I embraced all the day delivered, the extreme heat, the sunburn, the head winds, the blisters, the bloodied toenails. It hurt, it really hurt, but I loved it!
Ironman continues to redefine me, to show me what I am truly capable of. I am constantly in awe of what the human body can endure and overcome. I’ve still got plenty of improvement to make on and off the track, but for now, I can proudly say, I DID IT!
For me, I believe my greatest challenge now is finding BALANCE. Our goals need to be big enough that they scare us a little. They need to be big enough that when the alarm goes off at 4am on a cold Melbourne winter morning, we are motivated to ignore the little voices in our head that are begging us to stay in bed. To ignore those voices full of excuses not to train. Our goals have to be big enough that they inspire us to our very core. That upon their accomplishment prove to ourselves what we are truly capable of; our strength, our tenacity, and our character. They have to stretch our perception for individual greatness.
Yet somehow, we need to not neglect the other areas of our lives. We need to respect our physical and emotional health along the way. I don’t believe we can ignore our relationships, our friendships and our commitments. Of course, there are sacrifices and compromises. We need to surround ourselves with people who understand our incomprehensible and at times, obsession, to succeed. But I don’t believe it needs to be at the cost of our happiness or our health. We are not defined by our successes and our near misses, but rather how we play the game of life, authentically, in and outside of sport.
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.