My First Ironman. (Cairns Ironman) Pain, Injury, Finishing

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What made me think I could do an Ironman? I had never completed nor attempted any of the three disciplines individually at full Iron Man distance. Yet here I was about to do the 3 together in one day. My first Ironman and only my fourth triathlon. Little wonder my wife thought I was mad! The Cairns Ironman was a new event that suddenly brought the sport to my doorstep, quite literally as the bike course actually passes my back fence. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I entered.

Maybe it wasn’t quite “couch to Ironman” in one year, but it wasn’t far off.

I’m about to compete in my fourth Ironman event, Wales Ironman in Tenby (my second here and definitely my favourite course), I’ve also competed in Langkawi and Phuket so obviously I survived my first Ironman attempt!

But let’s go back to my first Iron Man race and re-live the training, pain, suffering, and joy.

Editors Note:

Ironman Cairns was (at time of writing) still going ahead in 2020 despite so many cancellations across the world including Kona. The new date is the 27th of September and it looks to be locked in unless major changes happen in the next 2 months. It will return to June for 2021.

Cairns Ironman, My First Ironman

This post covers the experiences of my first Ironman, the Cairns Ironman race in Australia. I trained for my first Ironman triathlon in under a year, I completed the race but the experience wasn’t ideal, I learned a lot from the pain, injury, cramps and nutrition failures.

First Ironman, Costs, Training, and Competing

We hope you find my experiences of entering and competing in my first ironman race useful. If you have any questions, just leave them in the comments. It’s possible that I may add affiliate links to this post, they cost you nothing extra if you choose to use them and I make a small commission. It’s how I pay for triathlons.

What Does it Cost to Enter an Ironman Race?

Anyone who knows Ironman, knows they aren’t cheap to enter. In fact, there is nothing cheap about them. The figure of $10,000 USD is kicked around as a ballpark estimate of just how expensive that first Ironman is. You’ll see further down the post how I economised and saved money on this race, back then we had to do everything on a budget.

My First IronMan. Cairns Port Douglas Iron Man Bike Leg
Riding through Port Douglas during My First Ironman. Cairns Iron Man Bike Leg. Thanks to friends, the Dowells for the great photo!’

What is an Ironman Triathlon?

It’s surprising how many people don’t know what an Ironman triathlon is. The race starts with a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, finishing with a full marathon distance run. There are no breaks or rests and no stops to eat or drink. We refuel as we go and if you need a toilet break it’s a problem.

We change in 2 transitions, but mostly we just wear a tri suit for the whole event. The transition periods are against the clock too.

  • Swim 2.4 miles
  • Bike 112 miles
  • Run 26.2 miles ( a full marathon)
  • World Record Time 7 hours 48 minutes
  • It’s the longest, toughest, one-day endurance challenge in the world

Cairns Ironman, Australia. My First Ironman

My First Ironman Bike
My First Ironman Bike. As I said, I didn’t spend much!

Back then, based in Port Douglas the buzz around town was great, second only to that in Cairns where the race started and finished. They say that Ironman is a select group and with only 3 of us from Port Douglas registered to race, they were right. Race day would see only 2 of us even start.

The training was clearly a huge part of this race, in fact I would spend over 390 hours (16.25 days), riding, running and swimming over the next 6.5 months. I was up early at 4:30 am to ride for hours at a time.

As I mentioned, I kept my expenses as low as possible as we are a one-income family, so up until the week before the race, I still had clips on my pedals. After a particular tough 160km ride my feet were numb and I realized it was time to upgrade. I will never forget coming home after that ride. Still 20km short of race distance and without a warm-up swim my wife asked, “And just how are you going to run a marathon after that?” A good point and one that I ignored perfectly ’till exactly 14:00 hours on race day. Ignorance is bliss.

Everyone wants to either give you advice or certify you insane but frankly neither help. What helped me immensely was a great friend lending me his Zip wheels and tri wetsuit. Both made the world of difference and I certainly couldn’t afford them on my own. My first Ironman was bringing the best out in people.

We live 60km north of Cairns, where the race both started and finished. As such, I decided to grab a room in Cairns for two nights before the event. This would mean I could check-in and rack my bike without driving back up and down the highway.

I picked a room that had a small kitchenette, allowing me to cook my own meals which kept me on track for the race. Of course, being locked in a room for two days alone isn’t best for one’s mental health so for future events, I’d rethink that plan. It would also save on the teary phone calls asking me to pull out before I killed myself. Nothing like a bit of belief. I resolved to try not to die on race day.

If you’re coming to Cairns for the Ironman event, check out our guides to things to do in Cairns and things to do in Port Douglas.

Cairns Ironman Information

Cairns Ironman  Entry Fee: around $912 AU + 8% Active fee = $985.93

Cairns Ironman competitors: 1,500 to 2,000

Do you have to qualify for Cairns Ironman?

No anyone can enter, there is no formal qualification but previously completing a half ironman is strongly recommended Find more information on the Cairns Ironman website. Everything changes, please check for yourself.

First Ironman Race Day

Race day arrived and, of course, eating was essential but almost impossible. Friends picked me up as they came past the hotel at 4:35 am, the temperature was 13c which, for the tropics, felt near freezing. By late afternoon the hot trade winds and the scorching sun would be kicking in affecting everyone from pros to amateurs.

Chaos reigned at the bike transition area as everyone did last-minute checks. People had been planning this for 6 months, yet it seemed to this rookie that everything was left till the last minute.

The Aboriginal opening ceremony started and looking across the crowd I made eye contact with non-other than Chris ‘Macca” McCormack, current Kona world champion. Of course, I should have said something intelligent and witty, after all, he’s a great approachable guy even right before a race. As it was I just stared and stared which I think brought home the fact that I was racing against the world champ and giving him a 10-minute head start. I suppose rather like a weekend rugby club playing the All Blacks and giving them a bonus try. As I walked to the beach I laughed to myself and didn’t actually feel nervous.

Please, could you do me a favour, and pin this to Pinterest, thanks!

My first ironman triathlon in tropical Cairns Australia. Swim, ride and bike in Cairns and Port Douglas in tropical Far North Queensland

Cairns Ironman Course

Cairns Ironman Swim

The gun went off and suddenly we were away. Remembering that I had sacrificed so many hours, lots of cash and used up all my brownie points with my family, I was suddenly getting a massive beating in the swim. I took a foot to the face and numerous arms and hands to the entire face and torso region. All that flashed through my mind was “What the hell am I doing here?”. As my heart rate spiked up over what felt like 200 bpm my goggles were pushed from my face. Putting them back on I was still pushed along at sub 2 minute 100ms. I cut the end of my big toe on the second lap as we ran around the small rocky outcrop, but it didn’t actually hurt so I could ignore it.

Cairns Ironman Bike Course

Entering T1 I moved with what to me, felt a good bit of gusto and proceeded to get onto my bike and then put my shoes on while riding out of town. All without falling off in front of all the spectators. The bike leg was amazing and even though it took a bit over 5.5 hours seemed to last no more than minutes. Waving to the family as I rode past them each time was certainly a highlight. And did I mention just how good Zip wheels are?

Cairns Ironman, Run

Earlier I mentioned that I would think about running at 1400 hours. Well, the time came, as I hopped off the bike my legs were just a little softer than jelly. A lovely person took my bike for me and I did the T2 waddle into the tent to change for the run. I swapped tops, shoes and my socks. It was here I noticed how big the flap of skin was on my big toe. Pushing it back in place the sock held it nicely. Then suddenly (10 minutes actually) I was away and running. It actually felt pretty good and the first 22 km swept past at the pace I was aiming for.

The 3 long laps of Cairns were a different story and soon it became a game of just hanging in there. I did some walking, some running and some chatting with others matching my speed. As dusk fell we were given glow sticks to run with and we all helped each other along. I finished my first Ironman in 12.5 hours which was the race average and a mere 4.25 hours more than Macca. See, he didn’t need that 10-minute head start did he? Running across the line with my two boys was certainly a massive highlight, especially as this participation is no longer allowed.

Cairns Ironman triathlon, my first Iron Man.
It’s a great feeling when you’ve completed your first Ironman race.
Cairns Ironman. My first Iron Man Triathlon
Straight after the Cairns Ironman, trying to replace some energy. The kids managed to eat, I struggled. My first Iron Man Triathlon

How did I Feel After That First Ironman in Cairns?

Returning home Alyson cracked open a beer for me as I collapsed on the sofa. My stomach was beyond empty and surely beer would fix that? I casually mentioned that I had cut my toe and perhaps it needed looking at, to which Alyson replied: ” It can’t be that bad if you rode 180km then ran a marathon can it.”.  When she actually saw it and my sock full of blood, she gasped. Yes, it would need looking at, and how on Earth did I manage on that toe? Honestly, I couldn’t feel it but every other muscle in my body was making up for it.

So I did do my first Ironman and I must say that ignorance is bliss sometimes. While I know I would go faster if I did another I would also know the pain that would come with it. Not just physical but the emotional input that is part and parcel of competing the toughest one-day event in the world.

Do You Need Insurance For Ironman Triathlon?

As I compete internationally in Ironman triathlon events and have now completed several at full and a half distance, yes, I take out insurance. I have a post on the insurance I use for Ironman races here.

How to Transport Your Triathlon Bike Internationally?

This is something else I know all about as I’ve travelled all over the world with my triathlon bike for training and competition, for years. We are a digital nomad family, I was able to train, and compete in Ironman races while travelling. My post on transporting a triathlon bike is here.

My first Ironman was long before we started our nomadic travel adventure, we’ve spent the last few years on the road as a family. I’ve always kept up the training, be it running up mountains in the Himalayas or cycling in the Balkans, Wales Iron Man is just a few weeks away. Stick around to see how that turns out. Any Ironman-related questions here? Or specific questions about Cairns Ironman? The comments section is below.

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Chef is James Long, a professional chef, world traveler and endurance athlete. He has spent almost a decade traveling and working internationaly.

7 thoughts on “My First Ironman. (Cairns Ironman) Pain, Injury, Finishing”

    • Hi Mum, at least I got a comment, even if it is my mum. LOL. Nobody comments it’s depressing.not long to go now until the next ironman.

    • Good thanks Jennifer, touch wood no injuries at the moment, everything is on track for qualification for Kona 😉 ( Alyson & kids think Kona could be fun)

  1. I bike twice a week to stay in shape. Honestly, it’s one of the best exercises you can do, other than swimming. I’m not a big cycler, but I do love doing it, especially now in the summer. Great post!

  2. I didn’t know what an Iron Man Triathlon is before going through your post . Describing about your effort and endurance makes this a great post. And seriously wonder how you managed to do complete with an injured toe. Kudos!!


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