Coolangatta Gold – Regina Jensen
Race Date: October 13th Results: 2019
When I was a kid, there was literally nothing I enjoyed more than watching the Nutri-Grain IronMan and Toohey’s Blue triathlon series on Sundays Wild World of Sports. I know there are people reading this and recall as vividly as I do, the voice of Darrell Eastlakes brining the TV screen alive with his animated commentary of the thrills and spills of the beach side racing. It fuelled a fire in my belly that would keep me awake that night dreaming of being a triathlete or surf ironwoman. The Coolangatta Gold, I understood to be the ultimate endurance surf of the year. With the fittest guys in Australia overcoming nature and being admired by all us regular folk. Aow cooooool! …….. Funny how it didn’t dawn on me then that women were not invited to this that party; it was of course the fittest guys.
For so many reasons these sports were not an option for me as a kid or teen. I truly believed, these 2 sports on tele was where I belonging to be. But outside of some other Flyers and Travis Shields, there was literally no one in my life who I knew who was into these sports. I had no idea what was involved.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I moved to Newcastle. My husband Tim was going to Uni as mature age student, and I needed something to keep me busy and out of his hair on weekends, so he could study. You know what those mature aged students are like.
At 24, I had all but forgotten all about my teenage dreams. I had somewhat dabbled in sport, but I was far from fit, certainly not the way most of you would think I have always been.
In 2004, I had competed in my first triathlon the Sparke Helmore, I had done no training, But I thoroughly enjoyed it. From this I started swimming training and running in Paul Busteed run squad. Where I started to meet people, who lived the lifestyle of finesses I had always dreamed of. I made some amazing friends that I still have today. Flyers, Shannon Clarke and Ingrid Bardon spring to mind. This was where I also met Nathan Stewart.
There was a round of the Nutri-Grain IronMan on in Newcastle beach. This was my first opportunity to see this in real life. It had amazing atmosphere. As I watched that race, I suddenly became aware that I was not built like these girls. Yet, the triathletes that I had seen, looked much more my size/shape. I turned my time and energy to triathlon. And don’t regret this for a second, my pursuits and achievements in this sport would have made that kid watching Wide World of Sports from the back of Busby proud. I made some wonderful friends and had some amazing experiences and opportunities.
Post kids I had no ambition to return to triathlon. I found myself thinking about the Coolangatta Gold from time to time. I found myself researching what was involved, and then out of the blue Michelle Kent, who I had met through swimming and running and who I knew had won the Coolangatta Gold Masters event, posted her ski for sale. Michelle is about the same height as me, and I was certain this was fate.
And so, I was committed. The Coolangatta Gold was going to happen. I gave myself 2 years. As I had the upmost respect for the challenges that lie ahead. After my first few attempts on the ski and board, it was evident that I was going to need every day of those 2 years.
With Nathan Stewarts encouragement, I naively turned up to Redhead surf club training session. Insert forehead slap. OMG! I had done alright in triathlon, and even locally in pure running. So, turning up to surf training, I thought would be fine, just another new group of people to get to know. How wrong I was. It was a culture shock that I had not anticipated. I was very much an outsider. And I was a woman. Not a girl. but a real-life adult woman.
There was an 50 year old ex-pro triathlete Coates, whom I hadn’t met before but always spoke to me, but outside that, I did not feel welcome. Many, I mean many, told me you just can’t develop these skills as an adult. They take years and years and I was being unrealistic.
I actually didn’t care, I didn’t want to win, I didn’t even want to do well, I just wanted to do it.
In many ways they are correct, it is enormously skilful and powerful. I had neither the skill nor the power. It was so humbling to be so shit. And I mean shit. Not just, not-good, I mean pathetic. I could not even jump onto the board on flat water without slipping off or faceplanting the board. Even when I first started triathlon, I was successful locally pretty quickly. So, this ‘shit’ status was foreign territory. At this stage I hadn’t even been swimming training for 6 ½ years, so I wasn’t even good at that component. I felt like a joke to them.
Fast forward 12 months and I had completed the short course of the Coolangatta gold, I had a good day and I came away with a comprehensive win in the masters and would have been competitive with the opens and under 19’s. My clubmates seem to quickly point out that there were few women even racing, and it was only because I had good swim-run legs that I had managed a good result. To be fair, I was still outstandingly average on the ski and board. The skill level involved in this sport cannot be understated. It’s like a marathon runner trying to be a pro tennis player. Thinking they can run around for 3 hours, how could running around a tennis court be that hard? Unlike a tennis court, no two days are ever the same in the surf. The swells, the tide, the wind, the rips. But I hadn’t given up yet and a few people from the club were at least starting to acknowledge my existence. Some even helping me out now.
The summer season came. I felt like I was starting to fit in at training. Saturday Ironman training where we did all 4 disciplines was a blast. I thoroughly loved these sessions. Outside Chopper, the coach, there were no boys at this session. It wasn’t a female only session, just no men in the club were doing ironman. So, it was nowhere near as intimidating. And I really started to get better.
But surf has a way of humbling you. Just as I thought I was getting the hang of things on the ski, I was reminded who was boss. One memorable session there was an honest shore dump and northerly sweep. I was not making it past the shore. Time after time after time again, I was slammed back into the shore. It hurt physically and mentally. I just wanted to give up. Ski training had all the boys, and I was the lone old lady, in the group of men and teenagers, and I was thinking “What am I doing?”
One of the loveliest men in Redhead SLSC and ex Olympic Kayaker Peter Scott pulled me aside and pointed out two very basic errors I was making. On this particular day, I was broken I was too depleted physically and mentally that day to correct it. I felt like I had let him down not fixing things then and there.
Later that day Pete spoke to Nathan about the challenges I had in the morning. Before I knew it, Nathan was on the text line, offering to help me. Just him and I playing in the waves no one else. No judging eyes, just practising what Pete had told me. No pressure. Within an hour, I had improved out of sight. I had a similar offer with another bloke, on the board. This particular bloke though, I won’t name, but I will describe as the only man on earth that I find so attractive I blush every time he is around. I can’t even look at him in the eye. It’s tragic. So that day whilst he was helpful, it was less productive for me.
I trained consistently all summer season and through winter. I had some good results at the state championship and felt a developing competence. For a variety of reasons 80% of my training was on my own. Training on your own in the surf, when your skills are my level is pretty bloody unsafe. Even times when I was with others, there were still moments in the channel that were terrifying.
My training practises were not ideal 4-swims, 3-runs, 2-ski, 1-board. I should have been doing about 3 of each. I knew this was not ideal, but with work and family commitments there wasn’t a great deal I could do about it.
The taper and prerace was un remarkable. Similar to any other endurance race.
What was remarkable was I felt like a broken spirt. There had been a few things done and said that reminded me that I was still not accepted and still expected to be taught a lesson. Normally this type of thing wouldn’t break me, but this time it did. My bucket was overflowing and this notion of being and outsider just tipped it over the edge.
I wanted this for so long, but I didn’t know why anymore. I felt an overwhelming sense of impending doom. I felt almost ashamed of wanting this. I was sure I was going to struggle, and that my struggle would simply reinforce that you can’t learn this sport as an adult, and a woman. I wanted to get through the race but hoped no one noticed my impending failure.
Nevertheless, I persisted….
On the start line there was a gently northerly breeze, perfect for me. I would be travelling into the wind on the ski. If it holds, I would have the wind behind me coming back for the board. I don’t mind muscling in for the ski. When its behind you, you need to be more skilful and know how to chase down runners and control yourself on gusts that might catch your paddle etc.
So, we were off, I quickly lost sight of 11 times winner of the master’s race Tiarne Smith. I expected that. I thought, if I could keep the deficit to within 20 min, things were still recoverable for me.
7km in and the water just turned into a choppy swirly mess. The wind had reversed direction and was now behind me. I quickly found myself spat out the back of the little group that I was with, as I just don’t have the skills to manage the mess on the water. It was now the type of conditions that I would avoid training in on my own because it just wasn’t safe (for me, for everyone else in my club fine). I would go out in these conditions, but not on my own. To some, that might make me piss weak. If that’s the truth, then oh well, I’m piss weak, I’m comfortable with that. I’m not about to kill myself for any race. But it also meant that I just simply didn’t have the skills to manage it.
My swim training partner, 16-year-old Bailey, the youngest person in the race came, past me at 12 km. He was in the wave behind me. He gave me encouragement, but also broke my heart. I thought we were about 18km in, but he pointed out we were only at 12km.
The next 6km were actually a bit of fun, catching runners, practicing my skills. I didn’t seem to lose any more time from the back of that group I had lost. Then at 20km you turn around and do the next 3km heading back south. And Jesus what a shock. That wind wasn’t a gently southerly, it was intense and the next 3 km were a really hard slog. Waves 2-3 ft, every 2 seconds. So, I was up-down-up down-up-down, I was mentally broken. I was hating this. Hating it. I was thinking I am simply too old, to be doing shit I hate. If my kids weren’t there, I would have thrown my paddle on the beach and pulled out. But physically I was fine. I didn’t need to pull out, I just wanted to. But I also didn’t want to teach my kids to quit.
Anyway, I got to end of the ski leg in dead last. I had expected it, but hoped it wouldn’t happen. I was still heart broken. I’m not sure I’ve even been last. At anything. Ever.
This is a short 2.1 km. Out one beach, up a set of stairs, then along another beach into the swim. Nathan had ordered me to take this run easy, have a gel, drink and go into the swim feeling recovered. I took it easy. And managed to pull back 6 spots in my wave. I was starting to regain my sense of self. The worst was over. So, I thought.
The 3.5 km swim was in a protected little bay. No chop, no swell, bliss. Every swimmer must have a board paddler with them, that’s a safety, measure as if you get into trouble on the swim you need someone with you ASAP. Mine was Nathan. Nathan had flown up that weekend solely to help me. Each competitor is meant to have 4 handlers. I had Nathan. He acted as all 4. I have a saying about Nathan. I would trust him with my life, but I also suspect that I am more likely to lose my life doing something with him than anyone else on the planet.
I come around the beach to the swim start. Where the f is Nathan? I spot him, Nowhere near a board I might add. “Hey Reg,” as if he was surprised to see me, “Sorry mate, I will be with you in a minute. You get started.” He points to the first can and tells me where to go. I don’t even know if I’m aloud in the water without him. But off I go anyway. Sure enough, after a minute he pops up beside me. On the board cheering me on. He is reliable in an amazing unreliable kind of a way.
The water wasn’t too cold, it was crystal clear and shallow enough that I could see the sand below me. Sigh… ah so pretty. I love this, I have a quick look at my watch @500m 7:30 spot on. I pass a number of competitors. After 2hr40min, of that nonsense on that ski. I was feeling competent, but all of a sudden now cold, quite cold. I rolled over and had a gel at 1km and then 2.5km. By the 2.5 km mark I caught sight of my frozen hands. The whole hand. Not just my fingertips were white. My wrists were cramping from the cold. I’ve never cramped on the wrist. How odd.
Before I knew it, the swim was over. Only board leg to go, then I’m on my home stretch.
So, I leave the bay where all was calm and protected. The moment I hit the first can that all changes. That southerly is still blowing. There is chop 2-3ft every 4-5 seconds. And it’s in my face. I do not like the board. Not at all, not one bit. Even on a good day. If I never see a board again it would be too soon.
I want you to imagine, you are lying down on an ironing board, freezing cold and you go up and straight back down, up-down-up down-up-down. With every up you cop a ½ bucket fill of water in your face, with every down your chest hits hard back down on the board. I don’t recall this part on Wild World of Sports.
There are 3 sighting cans. Black! Yes black. They are the size of a beer Keg. How bloody easy to spot! What idiot came up with that idea? The first and last cans were 100m offshore. That leaves the middle black can 3km away from the first and last can. Keep in mind, I am along way back in the field now. And it’s not like triathlons where there are hundreds of competitors. At best I have some people from teams go past me, I can see their Fluro vests from time to time and that is literally all I have to tell me I’m going the right way. Otherwise your way offshore all on you bloody own.
There are the odd patrols on rescue boats, but they don’t even yell encouragement let alone give you a sense you’re going the right way.
30 minutes in and I am mentally in a dark, dark, place. I was so cold. I was scared that any minute I would forget I was cold and then be in real trouble. Both wrists were cramping, the left side of my chest had blistered. My eyes were stinging from all the salt water hitting my face every 5 seconds. Each time I attempted to drink from my bottle strapped to the board, I got mouthfuls of salt water so I spat it all straight back out.
Did I mention how cold I was. I was so cold, I was emotional. I was actually crying I was that cold. I was all alone out in the middle of what felt like f’n nowhere. It was grey and windy. This leg of the race just went on and on and on and on and on. I could see nothing but the coast line of Coolangatta in the distance. And it wasn’t getting any closer.
Part of me was angry, what the hell was I doing out there, but anger wasn’t quite the right word either, almost a defeated angry. I felt angry, but a beaten down kind of anger.
Then after what seemed liked forever, and with no sign of it coming to an end, bang there was the final can! right in front of me. Boom it’s over. An amazing relief.
I see Nath waiting to catch my board, he reminds me its nearly over and that it is now my strongest leg. I can’t recall what he said to me, but later, before we had spoken about how I felt, he said I looked destroyed. I remember he said I was 14 minutes down. I had predicated I could run 10min into Tiarne, but not 14. I made a choice there and then to dial it back and try to enjoy this run.
The final run is 7.1 km back to Coolanagatta beach. You can see the finish line basically the whole way. The first km was the strangest thing. The horizon was going up—down-up-down-up-down. WTF?? Was I ok? I felt ok, but what was going on. I eventually realise my inner ears were still telling my mind I was going up-down-up-down. How fascinating!!
I didn’t wear shoes; I have no idea why nearly everyone else did. Stupidest thing I’ve ever seen to be honest. I gradually overtake people the whole 7 km. I sat on about 4:30’s on the hard sand, and paid no attention to the clock at other times. It was so windy; the sand was blasting my body. People’s beach umbrellas and tents are flying away, with crazy beach goers chasing after them. I always find this funny. I know I’m a little mean.
Before I knew it, it was all over. Whilst I didn’t run fast, it was so easy compared to everything else that day, that it felt like the fastest 7 km I had ever run. I see Tim and Emily at the begin of the finishing chute. Emily is a darling waving madly. I see Harry, he has his head in a hole that I’m sure he’d dug in the sand. I see Bailey, I must say I was surprised I didn’t catch him. Proud of him though too, apparently, he nailed it.
And then it was over. I was so emotional. I wasn’t physically exhausted per se, but I was spent, I was cold and just emotionally bankrupt.
No one from my club had waited for me to finish. Nathan hadn’t made it to the finish line yet. As it turned out, he didn’t make it to finish line at all, he got distracted by visiting his favourite Mexican before he flew back home. He arranged for all my gear back though.
I survived the race, but I didn’t conquer it. I didn’t attack it, I just did it. Even in my strongest legs, the swim/run, I didn’t attack. I just went through the motions. When it got tough, I didn’t fight it with confidence, like I know I can. I fought enough to survive.
Racing is as much psychological as it is physical. As I wrote this report, I realised that – yes, the race was hard, the conditions were tough – but I didn’t nail or enjoy the race because of where I was at on the start line. Not anything that happened in the event. When the going got tough, I just didn’t respond as well as I can.
I simply had too much to deal with this year, and my mindset focused heavily on people who aren’t worth worrying about. I didn’t bring to my conscious that the kids watching Wide World of Sports would have been so proud of me. I didn’t bring to my conscious mind how many people had helped me and believed in me. My Flyers friends haven’t thought I as a joke. Nathan was a major source of encouragement and practical help. He flew up for the weekend with the sole purpose of handling for me. And Coates, the triathlete that I mentioned earlier, he had invited me to over to one of his training sessions and he was no longer even in my club.
My mindset that day was my biggest challenge.
Will I do it again. I don’t know yet. That little girl who watched this on Sundays Wide World of Sports, idolised not just the race, but what I thought was the culture. A group or culture in Australia where I thought I belonged. I need to take a good hard look at myself. Did I not belong? Or did I just think I didn’t? And if I did or didn’t does it even matter? Doing what I enjoy with confidence and pride is the most important thing. So, we’ll see.