With the exception of before IM Australia in 2019, the most physically prepared I was for an ironman was pre Ironman Cairns under Alan Couzens in 2018. It was very much a failed execution on my part but on the upside that race certainly had the biggest influence with how I went about coaching Appo for the 2022 version of the race.
My biggest downfall in Ironman racing was and still is my ego that kicks in about 20 seconds into a race where the plan in all but 3 Ironman events I’m proud of, would get chucked aside to make room for ‘Legend Reed / knobhead Reed’ where I wanted to smash everyone else instead of sticking to the realistic pacing strategy that reflected my current fitness and ability.
Ignoring numbers to race emotionally and aggressively often payed off for me in middle distance racing. On a grand total of zero occasions did it work out for me in Ironman racing. Your mind, or at least I know my mind, isn’t strong enough to overcome the physical cost of unrealistic pacing at the Ironman distance.
With this knowledge I knew that with Appo being one of the strongest Ironman 70.3 racers of the past 5-6 years that there was going to be a mountain of external pressure from others for him to really push and target the win. I saw my biggest coaching challenge for Appo was convincing him that his placing didn’t matter in the slightest. Ironman racing and 70.3 racing are almost two different sports and what really stressed mattered was making a big step forward in the right direction from his last Ironman where he lost a good 20 minutes to his competitors in the back half of the run. In Ironman racing if you target objective goals that typically lead to 5-15 minute improvements every Ironman, the results will start to eventually look after themselves.
So ‘mission Conda in Cairns’ was for Appo to be fully on board with the goal of sticking to the plan, and simply targeting a 15-20 minute improvement on his last Ironman NOT worrying about guys like Max and Braden despite every man and their dog on the street asking “can you beat them”?
Im not making this up and Appo can verify this outlandish claim that based off his relatively low Ironman training base, belief in where he could get to in quite a short period of time and typical conditions in Cairns that I told him at the start of the prep that I felt he could do 8 hours and 5 minutes in Cairns. Ironically, I normally wouldn’t put out numbers like that as there are too many uncontrollables involved but at least this time, that prediction came off to the minute. Of course, I’ll never blog about the many predictions that were way off.
Many pros, myself included, are simply addictive personalities who have the talent to be able channel that tendency into a successful endurance sports pursuit. Thankfully for me as his coach, that’s not Appo. If I tell him to take a weeks rest, I know not a single minute of training will be done quite joyfully if you don’t count the calories burnt by his thumbs on X-box as training. The challenge was going to be the opposite to most pros I’ve worked with, in that, we needed to lift the volume quite significantly rather than hold an athlete back on their easier days or recovery blocks. Simple in theory but complicated with Appo as he simply doesn’t handle volume too well. It was going to be a delicate dance that we could only pull off with a lot of communication and adjustments along the way.
To his credit and unlike many, Appo was fully on board with the other injury preventative essentials to help get up to a consistently sustainable unprecedented training load… including consistently ticking of the strength work and even diving into some yoga and pilates and the usual investment in preventative body work therapies. We danced our way from his more typical 40km run weeks to approximately 80kms per week. Still on the low side for Ironman racing but a huge jump for the lopsided Appo.
What sessions you need to do for Ironman success are not overly complicated especially after current metabolic and Vo2 max testing to find out what are the key limiters are that need work, testing which Appo completed early on in the prep. The biggest challenge for a coach is identifying an athlete’s ‘recoverability’. If that’s not a word, it is now. Appo’s is low. Recovering at altitude plays a role, his testosterone levels are quite low and he’s certainly not an athlete like Cam Wurf who blows my mind with his limitless mental capacity to stay perpetually upbeat and bounce back from gruelling training and racing.
Chronic volume is not an option for Appo but you can’t skip the longer key sessions and race an Ironman well so the answer was to simply spread out the training more. What I would give to other pros to tick off in 7 days, Appo would do in 8-9 days with an extra day or two recovery per cycle.
We also drastically changed the pace Appo ran. Unlike most athletes who run too hard and ride too easy, Appo was actually doing too much slow running and we added in a lot more running, while still at zone 2, higher in that zone range to better condition his legs to the impact of a fast marathon. Ironically, Appo has a hitch in his stride about 1/4 the hitch of Lionel Sanders (which is still very significant) and I feel like he looks much more bio-mechanically balanced at closer to 4-4.15 min/km where he is moving super smooth rather than 5 min/km pace where his head rolls around like a drunk runner and one stride is about 2/3rds the length of the opposite leg.
In my mind, given that it’s very early on for Appo’s focus switch to Ironman, I think 3rd place was a huge success. Many watching have sent commiserations to myself and Appo about his fade in last 10km. Appo just ran 14 minutes quicker than his last Ironman attempt and put out an overall time that realistically would have won him most Ironman events around the world! I had to really remind him to ignore those sentiments from the well meaning but ignorant supporters and relish in the improvements his hard work has brought about.
While we tried not to talk about it too much because it’s a goal that I think can distract from being very process driven on the day, we’re both obviously stoked he qualified for the Ironman World Championships. Ironically, I think Kona will suit Appo much more than Cairns given how the dynamics normally plays out; Appo can comfortably swim sub threshold with Frodeno, TO, Braden, Brownlee etc. He’s then with some amazing cycling company and the bizarre 10 motorbike media motorcade that rides alongside them sometimes offering very long stretches of protection against cross winds and a likely further buffer to the chases at the start of the run. Appo is also good in the heat with a sweat rate and sodium losses that suit Kona conditions.
There is still work to be done to get his run to a place that he can hold on to a top 5 in that marathon. Appo’s fat metabolism is terrific, and only needs maintenance so in regards to fuelling, we need to train his body to tolerate more carbohydrates throughout the run which we’ll do with lots of testing in Kona like conditions to see where his upper ingestion/absorption limits lie without negatively affecting his hydration status. We need to build greater resilience on the back half of the run through continuing strategically placed longer runs particularly off hard intervals on the bike.
What I was most proud of was how deep mentally Appo went in the final 10kms when he was really moving forward on fumes. Watching someone I deeply care about beyond coaching and pushing themselves to the depths of their deep mental energy reserves had me very emotional and hugely proud. I’m also very cognisant of limiting the amount of times he does that in a year so that he has that mental capacity on for the biggest occasions.
Lots of work to do going forward and a baby arriving will easily be the biggest challenge yet as most people in general, let alone pro athletes, really do struggle as they’re forced into a more selfless existence post baby arrival but.. after Cairns, I’m extremely excited about Appo ticking off the steps ahead of him for the Ironman World Championships in October.