Final Thoughts on the Race in Paradise

If you followed along with Slowtwitch’s race coverage of IM Cairns, you know it was a stunner of a day filled with top-notch racing across the men’s and women’s pro fields.

Aussie Matt Burton won the race - after hardly being talked about as a contender beforehand - and set a new course record of 7:45:24, besting three-time champion Kiwi Braden Currie.

Kiwi Hannah Berry crossed the line in first for the women in 8:44:31 after a dominant performance on the run where she passed superbikers Lotte Wilms (NLD) and Lauren Brandon (USA) and held onto the lead all the way to the finish. Two-time champion Aussie Kylie Simpson came in third.

While the racing itself was electric, the word that kept coming up among spectators, athletes, media and the IRONMAN staff was “experience.”

During my week in Queensland I quickly learned that IM Cairns isn’t “just” a race - it is indeed an experience that extends well beyond 140.6 miles.

The Town

Cairns is one of the most convenient and walkable towns I’ve ever been to, hands down. The many hotels, shops and restaurants along the Cairns Esplanade are all within walking distance of each other - and the 50-meter pool a quick Uber ride away.

As athletes dismounted their bikes near the Esplanade and began the run portion of the race, families were able to easily give high-fives, hugs, and cheers to their athlete - and then meet them along the course again and again thanks to the four-lap run course.

When an athlete wasn’t in view, families were able to rest on the well-shaded sidewalks of the Esplanade, treating kiddos to gelato and pizza or walking the quick distance back to one of the many hotels to regroup before heading back out to cheer.

Having a town this walkable and convenient does a lot for the spirit of the race. As race day draws closer, the Esplanade grew increasingly vibrant with that indescribable nervous yet excited energy emanating from IM participants.

Athletes bumped into each other by happenstance at one of the many cafes along the Esplanade, causing tons of “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know you were racing!” exclamations to be heard up and down the main drag.

Whatever your needs and wants are pre-race, the Cairns Esplanade is almost guaranteed to have them in spades.

Plus, while athletes agonized over every detail pre-race or recovered post-race, loved ones had the world at their fingertips with available helicopter tours of and snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, a gondola ride that stretches into the Daintree Rainforest, and plenty of opportunities to safely and legally interact with the diverse flora and fauna of the region.

The Course

The IRONMAN Oceania team wasn’t lying when they told me that IM Cairns is the “race in paradise.”

I’m not one to be easily swayed by terms like that - for example, I wouldn’t exactly call Kona a race in paradise, despite its beaches, blue waters and palm trees.

The swim course at Palm Cove truly looks like a sight of Jurassic Park, with many lush, hilly islands dotting the background of the calm waters of the cove and its wide, sandy beach.

There were both athlete and spectator shuttles for the swim, so families could see their athlete off and then build sandcastles while waiting for their loved one to finish the 2.4 mile swim.

Additionally, the ~60km turnaround point of the bike course is just a few blocks from swim exit, which makes it easy to grab breakfast or a quick nap before briefly cheering your athlete on when they need it most as they head back up the hills of the Captain Cook Highway for their second bike loop.

The bike has it all - rollers, significant climbs and a healthy straightaway that’s perfect for holding aero position. The rollers and climbs follow the coastline and treat athletes to a pleasant coastal breeze (although sometimes that breeze can turn more into a gale) and breathtaking views of the North Queensland coastline before giving athletes the chance to rip it in aero on the straightaway into T2 back in town.

The flat run is a welcome change from the incessant gear changes on the bike, and by the time the bulk of age groupers were on the run course, spectators dotted it nearly three people deep on the sidelines. Cowbells and vuvuzelas and cheers could be heard blocks away as the energy reverberated from the course.

Nearly the entire run course had an insane level of support from spectators - one of the benefits of a four-lap design. Whether you were having the best race of your life or needing to take a walk break, you were among some of the best crowd support I’ve witnessed yet at an IRONMAN race.

The Experience

Watching everyone from the winning pros to the final finishers cross the line at IM Cairns reminded me that while the pros go quite a bit faster than most age groupers, the feat of completing an Iron-distance race affects us all the same.

There were plenty of happy and relieved tears shed from many of the top pro finishers, and all of them immediately looked around for their support crews to embrace them in huge hugs of gratitude.

Seeing the elite professionals shed a tear or two was so raw and meaningful; it’s good to know that no matter how many IRONMAN races they’ve done, even the pros are still in awe of the accomplishment.

Welcoming in the final finishers was no different - the same tears of joy and thankfulness, the same giant hugs lasting for minutes on end.

It is easier than ever to get caught up in the many metrics of triathlon and trapped in the comparison game thanks to social networks.

However, I must implore you to remember that at some point, we pursued this triathlon adventure for the “experience.” To feel like we’d left it all on the line - and maybe even gone beyond that line, to feel proud, to share a moment with our families and friends, to thank those who supported us when doubt was all around.

So, yes, hit your power targets and heart rate zones and give a passive aggressive Instagram “like” to that one person you’d really, really like to beat at your next race. But don’t forget that above all, reconnecting with the complete experience of a race and its journey are what will stay in your memory for the rest of your days.

Photo credits to Kristin Jenny and her mediocre iPhone camera