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Focus, determination & mental strength - Morgan Millington's incredible ironman journey to kona qualification
I think it’s safe to say my journey is incredibly similar to many who have ventured down the Ironman path. It began with a crack at a bucket list item goal of completing a triathlon to catching the ‘bug’ and suddenly an entire day of exercise is the ‘norm’.
The main reason to give an Ironman a go was to learn what it’s all about, to see if my partner Luke and I were those foolish folks that enjoyed an entire day of absolute punishment. Turns out we are, 3 down and no doubt soon to be planning the next one.
Safe to say it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Ironman number one, two or three. But what is an Ironman journey without a few rough days at sea? What do we take out of each time is experience, lessons and fun that we won’t forget. I am writing to share my experiences and maybe you are bordering on entering an Ironman for the first time or after years of experience you really relate to the ride we have been on.
In our eyes the first step when looking to do an Ironman is to engage a coach from an Ironman background, by chance I happened to meet another triathlon ‘freak’ Steve who hooked us up with Rich. It’s been a few years now and we are so stoked to call him our coach as well as be a part of the culture and crew that is T-Zero. Rich might have other things to say about coaching us, it’s never an easy task to coach a couple who request to be nearly joint at the hip but are of different abilities, for us, it works and he makes it work.
We chose Ironman Australia as our first stop. The first one was all about getting our bodies used to the miles that come with the long distance. That wasn’t without its hiccups, Ironman training is never an easy ask with full time work as many I am sure, can relate. The main obstacle that was thrown my way was Achilles Tendonitis greeting me with 4 weeks until the race. After some serious down time for the 4 weeks I had reached a point where the medical advice was positive enough for me to line up on race day.
Race day was a new experience, there was that sense of complete unknown ahead of us, and on top of that I had in the back of my mind how on earth will I get through this, four weeks of no weight bearing running (subbed in some water running) I have to run a marathon. That little back of the mind voice had to be silenced. The mindset was so important that day, my mind turned to the previous six months and the training I went through, I found confidence in that and kept positive.
As the race went on I was perfectly positioned on the bike and was rolling back into town with about 8km left, only to hear something go terribly wrong, I look back to find an entire de-railer hanging, while I was prepared for all things flat tyres and chains off, can’t say I travelled the course with a spare de-railer! Eight kilometres from home it was time to get my hiking boots on. I kept strong, it was just a hurdle, one I had to jump over and keep moving. Lucky as I was on my walk the mechanic turned up and 20 minutes later I found myself on a fixie bike and 7km of hills. What happened was completely out of my control, what I could do, nothing but accept and find a way to make the best out of a bad situation. I was there for the experience and accepted this was part of the experience. I managed to pull off a really strong run, with my Achilles issue I was stoked, I knew I could do it. The overall result was unexpectedly close to punching a ticket to the ultimate Ironman World Champs at Kona with the 20 or so minutes on the side of the road with a mechanical being the difference. That certainly wasn’t within my control and knowing that left me comfortable with where I was with my ability and gave me drive to continue the Ironman journey.
What next was always going to be on the cards, it was an incredible experience and we were ready to improve.
Ironman Texas was the decision. We caught the bug but wanted to expand our horizons outside Asia Pacific. The build was near on perfect and our goal for the race was to better ourselves in the sport we chose, this is important for me especially, Rich has taught me, the goal is the best out of myself on the day, my square metre, my race, my goals and that will lead me to do what I deserve. This lead to a solid day out for me but not what I knew was my full potential. An opportunity for a Kona spot a whisker away, a mere 2 minutes over 9 hours 30, but because that wasn’t my end goal it was easy enough to accept. That Kona spot would come when I have my best day and the external uncontrollable fall my way. I took my learnings and spent the next 12 months finding that continuous improvement and enjoying the adventure.
Next back on home soil we decided we were all in for Ironman Cairns, our own personal goals were set. We were all in, as mad as our friends and family thought we were this was ‘fun’. It was all going to plan until….
Four weeks before the race in the best form I had ever been in, 28km into my 32km run I tripped over, I am a clumsy person and it wasn’t rare for the odd trip over but this one was different, it was at pace and getting up something didn’t feel ‘right’. Turns out I fractured my elbow. The next 4 weeks was a mind battle but as the coach said, there was no time for a pity party race was on and we would get through it. At the time I wanted a pity party, but looking back he was setting me up for success. There was no time for me to be upset or stress over what was happening, it happened and I couldn’t take it back, we get on with it and remind ourselves what this is all about, our goal to get the best out of ourselves and to enjoy the process whatever is thrown our way.
Race day came, the arm, while it had not fully healed, I had the tick of approval from medical professionals that it was ok to give the race a crack. Swimming training had been non-existent, running was short and sweet and a nagging hip was sending a few signals to me, but it was on.
Talking to Rich pre-race, mentally it was all about the path I chose to take was going to lead to either success or disappointment. The easy path was “tough race, tough conditions, I have a fractured arm, everyone will understand when I pull the pin” or “get on with it, pain is temporary and my arm is strong enough to get through this”. The day wasn’t without its twists and turns, the swim was a long way but I created my own path and stayed away from others, last thing my arm needed was to end up in a washing machine situation. The ride was amazing, that coastal road are just so beautiful the whole way and the run was full of on course support. Essentially throughout the day the path I chose allowed me to get on with the job. In this circumstance the mind helped the body achieve.
That resulted in my body giving me all it could on the day, 2nd in my Age Group and 3rd overall female age grouper and the big island. What a dream!
Things have since taken a twist, that sore hip, was a little more than just a sore hip. One week later I had an MRI which has resulted in finding out I have a bone stress injury. Us triathletes really know how to push the boundaries with our bodies, unfortunately in this case the body has told me to pull back.
The Ironman ride continues, what path it takes, not sure right now, crutches and couch time are my current situation. The plan is let the body heal properly re-set and go again.
Each time we learn more about the sport of triathlon, specifically Ironman, and the drive is there to strive for more, by more I don’t necessarily mean more training, or higher placings in my age group, or faster times. It’s about getting the process right through the entire journey, finding the perfect balance and most importantly have fun while doing it!
Coach Rich says he is a bit of a bad influence when it comes to setting the bar with races. And he’s right. Watching my work friend Dave Kalinowski and Richard do Ultraman had certainly lit a tiny little fire in me deep down, and I knew I would love to do Ultraman, but I would never have suggested it. Partly because it seemed laughable. And partly because I just couldn’t get my head around running a double marathon. Also because I would never have put my hand up for a goal I wasn’t sure I could achieve!
So, when I sat down after my first IM and said “You see my data. What should I do next?” and Richard said, “Have you ever thought about doing Ultraman?” it was probably like throwing accelerant on that little ember! I muttered about the double marathon and he assured me that he knew I could do this race. Yes – he is undoubtedly a bad influence. But without that influence I would have missed out on an amazing and life changing race that must surely have been the athletic highlight of my life!
I thought about doing a traditional race report, but nobody needs to hear the blow by blow about how much I swore when I found I had no gears on day 2, or how I nearly threw up my gel at the 70km mark of the run, so this is more about the things that I think were critical to success in the event and the ways in which it changed me.
So now I just need to realise that it is done. It wasn’t just another big long training weekend (where Steve Foster helped me down the stairs onto the boardwalk at the end – OMG major fan moment!) but the real thing. I achieved what I set out to do. I am an Ultraman. It’s just taking a really long time to sink in. I quietly went back to swim squad this morning, and when I poked my head up at the end of my first 100m the whole squad was clapping because Codie (Grimsey) had told them what I had done. Embarrassing! Nup – still hasn’t sunk in! 😊
For the last two seasons I have watched incredible ironman athletes run down the finish chute in Cairns. Wanting to be a part of the action, I signed up to compete in 2018. After watching my partner Larissa do an amazing job at Ironman Cairns 2017, I decided to ask her coach Em, if she would be willing help me reach my ironman goal. Seven months later it was race time, and thanks to Em’s preparation I was feeling excited and confident of making it down that chute.
This is by far my strongest leg of the race, I followed coach’s orders and got to the front of the swim start. After 200-300m I managed to find some clear water and get into a great rhythm. The plan was to swim strong but hold back given how long the day would be. I swam mostly alone until just after the turnaround, before swimming into a group of five. I stuck with this group until the end which was helpful considering it felt as though we were swimming against the current. Although, it wasn’t exactly a ‘free’ ride to the swim exit with this group, I had to put up with a few blows to the face, including losing my goggles at one point. Happy with my debut ironman swim, time of 56:55 and still feeling fresh.
My first experience of an ironman transition. Turns out it comes with a helpful volunteer and chairs – very luxurious compared to other T1 experiences. My plan was to wipe down my feet and face, before the usual socks, shoes, glasses, helmet routine and then apply sunscreen before jogging off to the bike. Spent a little too long fiddling with my bike shoes, but apart from that happy with my T1.
Having only started using power 6 weeks ago the race plan for the bike was something new to me. The plan was to ride at 70% for the first 90km and if feeling good, up to 75% for the final 90km. Apart from my heart rate monitor disconnecting itself from my watch at the start of the ride, the first 40km went according to plan. This was probably aided by the friendly tail wind all the way into Port Douglas.
At that stage, as I headed back from Port Douglas, my legs started to feel a little heavy - which had me worried given the 140km or so to ride. In hindsight it was probably just the fact that I was now riding into the wind. I had to really focus on my race plan during the next 10-15km, constantly reminding myself to avoid surges. Although with some great views along the course it wasn’t too difficult to forget about any struggles I was having. Eventually my legs got over their little tantrum, and by the time I was turning back to Port Douglas everything was on track once again.
I followed the plan for the rest of the race, as expected there was an unwelcoming headwind for the final 20km. The reward for getting that final 20km done was the ride through the crowds along the esplanade, a great feeling. After the race I realised my average power was lower than I had hoped, in some cases by upwards of 10%. Perhaps my inexperience riding to power, especially over this type of terrain had contributed to the low numbers. In any case I was delighted with my time of 5:26 on the bike. There is no way I would have been able to pull that off six months ago, but there is definitely room for improvement.
I once again enjoyed the novelty of the chairs and volunteers. They even put sunscreen on my neck while I changed socks – incredible! Off to the run.
My plan was to run/walk the marathon at between 4:45 and 5min/km - 14 minutes on, 1 off. The idea was to stick closer to 4:45 for the first half marathon. The first 10km went to plan, everything was feeling good and even the weather was perfect. My stomach then really started to get sick of gels and chews. On my next walk break I couldn’t stomach another chew and skipped it, thinking I was better off not feeling sick.
At the beginning of the second lap, I tried to continue with my plan and get back on the gels. My body didn’t approve, and my stomach problems got worse. Skipping my nutrition then caught up with me and I felt zapped of energy, becoming light headed with very heavy legs. At this point I decided to slow right down and see if I could recover – rather than continue and have to be sick. So, I walked until I felt I could try to run. I couldn’t get back to my planned pace, rarely dropping below 6 min/km when I was running. A few aid stations went by before I decided to try and take on different foods. Over the next few stations I had some banana, watermelon, coke, and even found a cookie. To cool down I also started using ice and pouring it down my trisuit. Eventually something started working, I was able to run for longer periods of time and the pace started increasing. For the last 10km I felt back to normal and was able to maintain between 4:50 and 5:10 min/km, although I continued to walk the aid stations.
In the end I was proud of myself for turning around what looked like a potentially long run leg. I finished with a run of 4:11, much slower than planned but much better than it was looking at one point. It goes without saying but running down the finish chute was a great feeling.
Delighted with my first Ironman race, I can’t wait to pick my next one and have another go. Huge thanks to my Coach, Em, who not only prepared me for the race but was a brilliant supporter on course - as I’m sure all T:Zero athletes would have experienced.
ULTRA TRAIL 100 RACE REPORT
I don’t even know where to begin, it was huge, it was amazing, I have been on a high for days! I can’t believe that I felt on top of the world all day? Thanks to my brilliant coach Richard, my wonderful husband Viv and our gorgeous kids, I ran 100 km and can truly say I enjoyed every minute. I wasn’t racing, I didn’t look at my garmin for pace or heart rate, I enjoyed stopping and having something to eat at the check points (CP’s), I appreciated the views and stunning scenery. I ran when I wanted to and walked when I wanted to, it didn’t matter. I felt oddly relaxed from the moment I crossed the start line. I didn’t know how to run 100km, but I believed that I could so I just ran by feel?
Start to Narrowneck CP1 (11.4km)
I hadn’t slept well during the night, I was nervously excited and couldn’t wait to get out there. We haven’t been to the Blue Mountains before and had done only a few short walks to Echo point, Three Sisters and explored the Scenic World boardwalk and rides the previous days. The views and weather had been picture perfect.
I made myself eat a bowl of porridge as I dressed in warm layers. My eldest daughter had already braided my hair back the night before ready for the head lamp I would wear later today. My running pack was ready with the mandatory gear and I had premade my litre of lolly water that I had decided to carry. That had been a light bulb moment of realisation that I only needed the capacity to carry 2 litres of fluid.
Our accommodation was in a great position close to a UTA bus stop and the travel to the start line was hassle free. The wait to my start group time in zone 3 seemed to take an eternity! I ate a banana, had numerous toilet visits and at the last moment stripped down to my shorts & T, armwarmers and gloves.
I have been so excited about doing the UTA 100 since Richard and I stalked the internet in February and managed to get a start position in the sold out event. Since then it has been a huge trail running learning curve for me.
Heal to toe shoe drop, what’s that? Is it important? Trail shoes/road shoes…….difference?
Poles, are they useful? How do you use them? Is there a pole etiquette?
Running back pack/vest….fit, size, volume?
Running in the dark……Head torch? How many lumens?
I have run through countless spider webs, been covered in leeches, seen snakes, wild pigs and cassowary’s in training, had some spectacular falls, become entangled in metres of “wait-a-while” and gotten myself slightly lost on numerous occasions.
Finally my wave at the UTA 100 started at 6.56am.
People set off very fast but I had already decided to jog out as it went straight into uphill anyway. I made my way around the first 5-6km without accidently ending up on the 50km route, gave Viv a big happy smooch and headed down into the trails.
It went down, down, down and was particularly rough through the land slide section. I remember hoping we didn’t have to navigate anything like this at night as I clambered over rocks and logs, wishing my legs were a bit longer. The trail was narrow and I happily trotted along in the queue of people not fussing about pace. The Golden Stairs didn’t trouble me at all. My legs were fresh and the day still felt relatively cool to me having trained in Cairns. I was surprised to find myself already at CP1.
My plan was to stop at every CP and have a good drink of water and something to eat.
Narrowneck CP1 to Dunphy’s Camp CP2 (31.6km)
By this section I had realised there was no chance I was going to get lost today! There was pink flagging tape everywhere and prominent crosses on incorrect routes at each junction.
I took in the gorgeous views and chatted to people around me. Before long we came to the Tarros ladders. There was no queue because they were directing everyone via Duncan’s Pass. There was a lady stuck on the ladder and the volunteers weren’t sure how long it would take to get her down? Duncan’s Pass is a very interesting detour! I was very happy that I still had my gloves on as I used the thick knotted ropes to help me almost abseil down the trail. It is supposed to be only 300m longer than going down the ladders but I’m guessing it takes a lot longer as coming into CP2 I overtook a lot of the same people I had been in front of before the ladders?
CP2: Bakery bun and banana
Dunphy’s Camp CP2 to Six Foot Track CP3 (46km)
I enjoyed the climb up Ironpot mountain, it was very similar to a lot of the trails I had done at home and Ironpot ridge was worth the climb. On pre-reading the somewhat complicated written directions I had wondered why they sent you on this narrow, exposed out and back section? It’s simple, the experience is magical. I rock hopped over granite ledges feeling like I was on top of the world with the most spectacular backdrop and aboriginal music beats. It wasn’t the first time that I wished I ‘d brought my son’s go-pro to capture the moving moments and I locked the experience away in my memory.
Then it was time to go down again, I randomly thought as I precariously slipped and slid down the mountain that I wouldn’t be to bad at this trail running if only I could run downhill!
The last part of this section had a lot of runnable terrain and I jogged along easily, mentally registering the distance sign meant that I had run a marathon so CP3 must be getting closer.
A few hundred metres out of CP3 we were stopped for our mandatory gear check. The phone was easy but my thermals were stuffed deep in the back pocket so I had to take my pack off and ran into CP3 with it only half on.
This was the first checkpoint where crew was allowed and it was so nice to see the kids and my hubby. The kids had been acting as spotters and had seen me up at the gear check then ran down with me. There were lots of people and music playing. Here I refilled my lolly water and collected my poles.
As I didn’t know the course at all and it was too long to remember, I had asked Viv to bring the elevation map to the CP’s so I could see what was coming up. I had decided to run the course CP to CP so it didn’t become too overwhelming.
CP3: It was around midday so I had lunch.
Vegemite sandwich and mandarin
Six foot track to Katoomba Aquatic Centre CP4 (57.3km)
This section is mostly uphill so I had my poles out from the start. I ran and hiked, ran and hiked up Nellies Glen which then became the Six Foot track stairs. More Stairs! I like going uphill and I love using my poles. I don’t think I always run as fast with them but they conserve my leg energy. It didn’t actually take long to get to CP4. My right ITB was tightening slightly but it had just climbed up a lot of elevation and odd stairs.
I had planned to put on warmer clothes and even completely change at CP4 but it was only 2pm so we decided to reassess at CP5.
CP4: Dark chocolate sesame snaps
Katoomba Aquatic Centre to Water point (69.4km) to Queen Victoria Hospital CP5 (78.4km)
I enjoyed this part of the run as it passed through several of the places we had visited in the previous days. It was only mid-afternoon so lots of people were out on the tracks but everyone yelled out “runner coming” to alert people and it was very easy to pass through. Leura forest was a beautiful section, I thought I might use my poles again up Leura Cascades but managed the stairs fine without them. Up and down, Up and down. I loved hearing the bells from the volunteers as we reached the top of a climb. I had a drink of water at Fairmont Resort and started munching on little pieces of my Clif bar as I set off towards Wentworth falls. Here I enjoyed the stepping stones across the falls and watched the sun start to slowly descend in the sky. It was 5pm and I was hoping to get to CP5 before I needed a head torch.
As soon as I hit the bitumen I picked up my pace, cars were tooting and people cheering as they drove to and from CP5. I arrived just as darkness engulfed the CP and my hands started to get cold.
At CP5 we refilled my lolly water for the last time. On went the fleece, gloves, hand warmers, head buff, head lamp and high visibility vest. I was starting to get a bit tired but was still feeling great.
Queen Victoria Hospital CP5 to 100KM FINISH LINE
Viv moved me on out of CP5 before I could get too comfortable. I jogged down from the hospital for many kilometres to Jamieson creek before the uphill started again. There wasn’t a lot of people on this section with me but my headlamp gave me a comforting circle of light and the reflective flagging tape was easily visible. I felt strangely at home in the dark. Richard had made me do so many hours of hill repeats in the dark that I’m sure he could hear me cursing him from Cairns but apparently there was method to the madness 😊
I had a drink at the 90km Aid Station and knew I was now on the last climb. What I wasn’t prepared for was the amount of people vomiting on the way up. I stopped several times to see if I could help but soon learnt to leave them be.
As I entered Leura forest I started passing 50km people and seeing 100km people going in the opposite direction. I heard one person say to his friend that they must do a U-turn soon. I didn’t want to tell them it was a 30km U-turn!
I saw a sign that said 3km to go, then 2km to go, then I was at the bottom of Furber steps. Apparently there is 951 of these haphazard long steps, wide steps, short steps, inconsistent steps, laddered steps to get to the finish line. I knew from my Trinity beach stair training that it took me approximately 20 minutes to climb 1000 normal stairs. My garmin said I had been out on the track for around 13 and a half hours. Wow, I could get a silver buckle here but it was going to be close!
Ok, head lets love these stairs and the legs will follow, I’m sure that’s what one of the pro’s said on the panel on Friday night. I didn’t really know where the top was but suddenly I was on the board walk and there was my crazy crew cheering me to break the 14 hour mark. It was so exciting I forgot to turn my head torch off for the finishing photo. We all ran down the final stretch and under the UTA banner. Someone announced my name, I did a final gear check (rain coat & bandage I think?) and I was given my silver buckle.
I was so excited, I couldn’t stop jumping up and down. I had just run 100km! One Hundred kilometres, that is awesome!.
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