Through Their Eyes
By Nicole Martin
I had the pleasure earlier today of speaking with two of Cairns top Ironman athletes, Nathan Sandford and Tom Gersekowski.
Both very recently home after competing in the World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii, they are an absolute wealth of information and interesting experiences.
My never ending quest to uncover the secrets of successful people is well underway, as the similarities of previously interviewed elite athletes, and these two dedicated men were astounding.
Successful people have this:
An unwavering, rock solid desire to do something, to the point of not even being able to recognise it, or articulate their reasons-It just is, it just happens, it just falls into their life, and often, they can’t NOT do it. This natural adoption of a certain ‘lifestyle’, whatever it may be, is lived and breathed. Failure is simply seen as motivation to improve themselves, and relentless persistence, patience and practice, by default, births a champion on a never ending quest to be the best they can be.
I was especially humbled to be in the company of two men who’s immediate responses to “why do you do it?” and “How do you cope with such a gruelling schedule?” had within them an air of confusion. It was blatantly obvious these thoughts were foreign to them. Hadn’t they ever asked themselves these questions before, like many of us mere mortals? It was in that moment that I realised I was getting closer to the answer. The x-factor if you like…the secret to a successful person.
Please enjoy this conversation with a couple of very down-to-earth Aussie blokes who just happen to have in their possession, the gift of natural self-discipline and a passion for a sport that chose them.
How did your Ironman Journey begin?
CC-Tom, you’re 23 and you’ve competed in five Ironman events already. What were they?
TG-Busselton-2013, Cairns-2015, Port Macquarie, Cairns and Hawaii-2016.
CC-Wow, that’s three Ironman events in one year. How’s the body feeling after that?
TG-Not really sure. I’m ok, I got pretty tired, but I’ve had a month now with just drinking beer and chilling out, so I think I’m good.
CC-Think back to when you were 12 years of age. Did you ever dream you’d be doing Ironman?
TG-No! Definitely NOT. I played a lot of cricket, but I was never really any good. I sort of dabbled in a bit of everything. I liked Golf as well.
CC-So what made you decide one day to tackle arguably one of the most gruelling sports in history?
TG-In year 12, a good mate of mine, bought a bike and made me ride with him around edge hill once a week/fortnight. I did that for a while and then the next year in 2011, I saw the Ironman advertised and thought I’d like to possibly do that one day. It looked like fun. I’d never run more than about a kilometre in my life, so it was a very new challenge. I never looked back from there.
I self coached for a few years. I was loving it, but not really getting very far, so now I have a coach-Nathan Sandford-who has helped me grow as an athlete and given me the tools I’ve needed to improve my performance.
CC-Sandy (Nathan), how many years have you been doing Ironman, and what events have you competed in?
NS-I’ve been doing Ironman since 2012. Before that I played Aussie rules football for about eight years up here in Cairns. I played for Cairns Saints in 2009, and I’ve done quite a bit of mountain biking.
CC-Have you ever been a swimmer?
NS-No, never. I have always loved it, and loved the water, but it was very unnatural for me to swim.
CC- Tom, where did you go to school, and did you swim as a kid?
TG-I went to Trinity Anglican School. I did a bit of swimming in the squad from about year 4 to year 6, but I was terrible, and I wasn’t interested.
CC-So how then, did you guys both get so good at swimming? (They both did 61minutes for 3.8km)
NS-I wouldn’t say I am a great swimmer actually. It’s taken a good 4-5 years to get to where I am. I’ve only had a coach for about the last 8 months-Duncan Todd at TAS. I’ve always had someone write me up a swimming program as such, but I’ve never had technique training until I started with Duncan. I just got by on pure fitness before that.
CC-Tom, you are a fabulous swimmer. If you weren’t that good as a kid, how have you got to where you are now?
TG-Well Sandy swam only 15 seconds slower than me at Kona! I guess stroke correction and consistent swimming 3 times a week.
NS-Duncan’s harder sessions, swimming distance a lot. In my first 5 Ironman events I would have been lucky to swim 2-2.5km sessions in training, and I relied a bit on the wetsuit for buoyancy because I have a tendency to sink.
TG-Prior to my first two Ironman events I didn’t swim train at all. I didn’t want to, so I didn’t.
CC-So how did you make 3.8km?
TG-The water has never really been a fear of mine. I just got in.
CC-What’s the secret Tom, to achieving what you have in such a short time at such a young age?
TG-Hard work. There’s nothing else to it. Just do what your coach says and commit to training.
NS-Training is the key. There are no secret formulas or amazing genetics, unless you are one of the pro’s-they are another level, just lots and lots of training, and a solid understanding that if you don’t commit to it with all you’ve got, you probably won’t achieve your goal.
CC-Sandy, how many Ironman events have you done?
NS- Ten. I’ve done Ironman Cairns five times, Ironman Japan, Ironman New Zealand, Port Macquarie and Kona twice.
CC-How’s the body holding up?
NS-I feel as if I need a break at the moment. I rode my mountain bike this morning and felt quite good, so I think I’ve responded pretty well to a 3 week break, where I’ve basically done nothing.
CC-Tom, which was your favourite Ironman event?
TG-It’s really hard to look past my first time in Kona, just because it’s Kona, and I also enjoyed Cairns this year. Things didn’t go exactly to plan-they never do, but I executed the race how Sandy recommended, and how I thought I should, despite tripping over my own feet and spraining my ankle quite badly. Running on it for the next 32km didn’t do it much good, but I still managed to win my age-group and qualify for Kona.
NS-Those 10 beers he had at Salt House afterwards probably didn’t help.
TG- I couldn’t walk the next morning, but by 6pm it felt ok.
CC-Kona was 17 weeks later. Were you worried about your injury interfering with your preparation?
TG-I was in a moon boot for 4 weeks, and I did nothing for a month because I couldn’t. I only got in the pool once. I had 4 weeks where I was forced to sit on the couch.
NS- IT was almost a blessing in disguise, because the plan was always going to be to have a few weeks rest anyway, because if you end up chasing a result too soon after an event, you end up fatigued.
TG-My preparation for Kona ended up being the best prep I’ve ever had for a race. We had 3 months of solid dedicated training, building on all the work we’d done since January.
CC- The Hawaii Ironman as it used to be called, now more commonly known as Kona, is renowned for being one of the most gruelling events on the planet. In your opinion…why is this?
NS- It is an extremely competitive atmosphere. I’ve never felt anything like it. We arrived three weeks early, and it went from a sleepy small town similar to the size of Port Douglas, to a town buzzing with a few thousand of the best professional and amateur age-groupers in the world, who are all there to do well, not just finish. You can just feel this competitive vibe.
The course itself, isn’t terribly difficult, it’s the conditions that make it tough. It’s not as if there are really steep climbs like Japan, but its really, really hot. You get cooked from above, and cooked from the bitumen below.
There is always either a headwind or a crosswind, and when I say headwind I mean the strongest wind you can ever imagine that you’re pushing into for a large chunk of the cycle. Until you’ve experienced that, you won’t really understand how windy it really can be on the course. There’s also a bit of pressure on yourself, because you are up against the best Ironman athletes in the World in one of the most challenging environments.
CC- Would you do it again?
NS- For sure. It’s the ultimate test. If there are any weaknesses at all, if one of your legs isn’t good, or if you haven’t prepared well, it’ll find you in Kona.
Post Race Analysis-Nathan
NS-The swim was interesting because I found I was swimming over the top of people for about the first 10 minutes. I’m not a natural swimmer, yet there were many competing who were slower than me. I think this may be because the standard of swimming in Australia is so high, and the athletes we train with are so good. So my ordinary swimming level in Aus is actually of a higher standard internationally-maybe. 1:01 is not really a great swim time at that level though. You need to be swimming 55 and under to win your age-group.
The Bike was really congested to the point where you couldn’t do anything. You couldn’t get up the front and explode. That was frustrating. There was one point in Waikoloa about 40km from Kona, where it was 5-6 abreast, 40-50 people in a group and 4-5 groups.
You’re worried about the 12 metre rule, worried about not pushing enough power because you’ve dropped off the back due to the congestion-obviously this effects your race time, and I found it really tiring just having to negotiate road space.
The penalty box at Kawaihae was jam packed. The wind was relentless. Not like anything in Cairns. We use Cairns as preparation for Kona. When coaching I try to stress the importance of coming home fast in the last 50km of the cycle. We train like that, and race like that.
Tom and I got out of the swim at the same time, and then he rode right behind me for most of the cycle. We were about 10 minutes apart at T2.
You basically run out of Kona for about 8 km’s and then it’s more muddy, and the heat is stifling. Luckily, I didn’t have too many dramas.
I played AFL for a number of years, so that has really given me a good running foundation.
Post Race Analysis-Tom
TG-I was expecting to have about two minutes on Sandy, but that didn’t happen! I was more happy for him than disappointed for me actually. I was like
“Good on ya mate. Damn it”.
The water temperature was beautiful. Not quite as warm as Cairns, but perfect really. The swim itself, was for me up there with one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had in a race, because it was the first mass start I’ve ever done as a competitive swimmer. They separate the men and the women, but there were still about 1500 men all starting at the same time. 1500 of the best swimmers in the world all trying to fight for the one turn around buoy 1.9 km ahead so it got pretty hectic.
I was absolutely beaten up. Sandy said he was swimming over the top of people, whereas I was getting swum over the top of big time. One time, some guy’s freestyle stroke hit my nose and dislodged my goggles, so I had to stop and re-position them. I had no clear water for the entire swim. I definitely picked the wrong line. There are big pace lines that swimmers form, and I think I just picked the wrong one. I didn’t enjoy the experience at all.
Sandy caught me at about 4km. Then we sort of rode together from there. After about 9 km you climb and get onto the Queen K-The main highway-and as I got up there I vomited a few times as a result of all the salt water I swallowed in the swim, and therefore lost a fair bit of nutrition, but I pushed on.
I followed Sandy as much as I could. The packs are huge, they come up behind you, 40-50 people deep just swarming past. I climbed up to Hawi and spent too many bikkies. I kept in the big chain ring for too long, used too many big gears and I burnt, which I’ll learn from. I don’t think overall I executed the bike like I should have. Not as a result of the conditions, just as a result of my race course inexperience.
CC- Tom, is the run leg your weakness?
TG- Yes, by far. I haven’t done a lot of running at all in my life, so I have to work really hard at it in training.
I had a lot of pain in my foot on the cycle for about 60km coming home, so I was really worried that would be a problem on the run, but it felt ok luckily. The first 8km out and back felt good. Lots of crowd support, aid stations were pumping, volunteers were awesome. I averaged about 5:15 min/Km which was a little slower than I would have liked, but it was Hawaii and it was hot, so all in all, I was pretty happy.
CC-What do you eat the morning of an Ironman?
NS- Nothing huge. I have a black coffee, and something small to eat. Then I back it up with gels and fluids. All liquids and gels for me. I’ll take 10-12 Gels with me, and I use optimiser, an Endura product which is all carbs. I use about 10 spoons of that in water so it’s quite concentrated, I drink coke, and I also take a couple of caffeine tablets as well.
TG-I usually have oats on race morning-not sure if that’s a great plan because they’re a little hard to digest. I have a Gel just before the swim, optimiser on the bike in the first 100km, more Gels, 4 energy bars and caffeine. We do the same in training, but in training we are more likely to be nutrition depleted because we’re not as on it as we are in the lead up to a race.
NS- You don’t have to eat that much in an Ironman because it’s only a 9-10 hour race.
CC-On the floor. Only????
NS-Well there are people that do 24 hour races!
The importance of strength in ironman
CC- So we have a hill here in Cairns with lots of steps. It’s called the Red Arrow. I remember Mike Le Roux saying it was one of the best training grounds he’s ever had. How is the red arrow good for endurance racing?
NS- It provides strength training, and in Ironman, you need a lot of strength. Strong glutes, strong core, strong hips. We do a few weight sessions, not a lot, and not for bulk, but resistance training to gain strength in specific targeted areas and for the activation of specific muscles you may not activate in training. The red arrow is great for building strength, as is the Copperload ride (Hills).
Overcoming challenges in a race
CC-How do you deal with things going wrong in such a long race?
NS-There are always challenges in races. The only way around it is having the right temperament. You have to be flexible and adaptable.
TG-I have never had a race that has gone exactly to plan, so you have to have the right mindset. And if you’re prepared for every scenario (mechanical, nutrition issues, vomiting, injury, hydration, over heating) and you’ve trained for it, you’ll have a plan in place to deal with whatever presents itself.
You can never predict exactly what’s going to happen on the day. Conditions are variable, so you have to be mentally prepared to accept anything before you start.
Sandy’s worst experience in an ironman event
CC-Sandy, what is the worst experience you’ve ever had in an Ironman event?
NS-In Port Macquarie I had really bad mechanical issues, 3 flats, and I was so fed up I couldn’t be bothered doing the run. I was delayed by about 2 hours. I spoke to my coach and said “Do I have to run?” and he simply said “yep!” I felt like throwing in the towel after having lost so much time. It mucked with my mind, but I’m glad I finished it looking back.
TG-There was a miscommunication with the mechanics so he had about 2 hours to wait around. In this time, he called me on the marathon with about 4km to go. He knew I was to the front of my age-group and I’d just walked about 500 metres before his phone call. He told me to toughen up and run. I consequently ran the fastest 3km I’d run in the whole race. My average run pace for the whole run was 5:30 and he made me run 4:40’s.
I came third in that race and missed Kona by 30 seconds, but second place was 30 seconds in front, 4th place was less than a minute behind me, and 5th place was less than a minute behind him, so I was pretty glad that Sandy pushed me. That’s probably the most I’ve ever hurt in my whole life-that last 15 minutes, running 4:40’s at the end of an Ironman.
Poor Sandy had half a marathon to go and I’d gone up to the room, had a shower, had dinner come back down and watched him finish.
How does one commit to such a demanding training schedule?
CC-Do you sometimes ask yourself why you do it?
TG-No. You know the training has to be done to get the results that you want. It helps when you have someone to train with. It can be a lonely, selfish sport, but if you make each other accountable, it’s easier. Sandy and I do our 6 hour rides together, which helps curb the loneliness.
CC-But how does someone commit to that much training?
TG-You just want to do it.
NS-I think for me it’s the fear of turning up to a race unprepared that keeps me going.
TG- You don’t want to get to the start line knowing you haven’t done the work, when you could’ve. I work 5 days a week so I have to get up early to train. Sometimes to get the long ride in during the week it’s an 0345 wakeup, once a week which is pretty bad, but you’ve got to do it to get the results you want.
Having a coach is a huge advantage here, as they not only hold you accountable for your training, but you know that what they set for you is going to be the best for you-pushing you to your limits, but staying on the safe side of burnout, fatigue and injury. Their experience puts them in a position to judge what your personal limits are, which is something inexperienced athletes find hard to do. They either stay well within them and fail to get the best out of themselves, or they exceed them and end up in trouble.
CC-Is the intensity of training always high?
TG-No. At the beginning of the season, for the first couple of months, the long stuff will be conversational effort. Aerobic runs and rides where you just relax and talk whilst training. It’s important to have patience and pull back at the beginning. It’s a slow build or you won’t be able to sustain it and you’ll open yourself up to injury and burnout.
CC-How long does it take to get to your best in ironman?
NS- Some are good straight away, but usually they have come from a sporting background and already have a very solid baseline level of fitness. In others, it may take years to reach their best, it just depends on the athlete, and the intensity of their training program.
If you want something bad enough you’ll do it, and you’ll do it well, because you have the drive, but when it comes to age-group winners and the professionals, it’s all genetics. They are another insane level of talent again. Top of the Ironman gene pool.
CC-Do you ever wake up some mornings and say to yourself “I’m so sick of this?
TG- I wouldn’t say you get sick of it, but when you are in the lead up to a race and in the biggest build phase, you are trying to work every day and train every day, and you get fatigued. I get up at 3:45 every Thursday, and I’d be feeling like I didn’t want to do it, but I know I have to. I ride along, and sometimes feel awful, but I just remind myself why I’m doing it. It’s really hard in those last 4 weeks because you’re doing nothing else in life other than training and working, and it’s taxing on you. I don’t NOT want to be there, but it’s challenging.
NS-You can’t physically do that kind of training all the time, but you know that excruciating intensity is only for the last 4 weeks, so that’s what keeps you going. I know that when I’m really frustrated and angry on the road, with cars, I’m in the build phase, and it’s close to Ironman time.
TG- When I was close to Kona, Sandy checked in on my progress and I told him that I was angry with everyone all the time and he simply said “Good. You are obviously doing the right amount of training. You are not burnt out, but you’re getting irritable. You’re on the right track.”
CC-Do you neglect anything in your life as a result of the ironman lifestyle?
TG-Neglect would be the wrong choice of word. It’s a choice. I made a choice to do this, this is my life, this is what I want to focus on right now.
NS-Housework and mowing the lawn are seriously neglected!
Many thanks go to Nathan Sandford and Tom Gersekowski for sharing their time and their experiences.
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