It was the final leg of the Nutri-Grain IronMan series on North Cronulla Beach and heading towards the shore on the board leg I found myself narrowly ahead of Shannon Eckstein. We’d cleared out in front of the rest early on and had been battling it out back and forth the entire way. Then I saw a wave coming my way. Catching it would send me coasting through – I’d be able to practically walk up the beach for an easy victory. I paddled as hard as I possibly could. But somehow I just missed it, literally by inches. I turned around only to see that Shannon had caught a wave from out the back. My heart was in my mouth. We were going to hit the beach together. Coming out of the water, we looked across at each other and instantly knew it was all going to come down to this sprint finish.
Everything was at stake – the entire IronMan series title was on the line. Shannon is the greatest ironman of all time, with a resume thicker than a phone book. We were very, very fierce competitors. In the 2010-11 season, I’d lost the series to him by one point in the final race. Victory today would be Shannon’s 10th series win and he was hanging up his togs to retire. Meanwhile, I’d still never won a title.
Coming out of the water I was totally exhausted – we’d been racing hard for 45 minutes on the back of two other tough races. But I knew that I had to just dig deep and give it everything for that final 20-30 seconds. I had to find that explosive effort somewhere. There’s no chance to pause or take a breath in those moments. It’s just about whoever’s most willing to grit their teeth and fight it out. That’s who is going to be left standing on top of the podium.
Shannon’s wave had taken him a little wider, so I had a straighter run up the beach. But when you’re heavily fatigued, it’s very easy to make silly mistakes, whether it be hopping off your board and falling over or tripping over your own feet. Plus, you’re running on sand, so it’s not a very stable surface. I concentrated on using every bit of mental focus I could summon to try and get off my board cleanly, get straight to my feet and stay low to hit full speed as quickly as I could.
There was a moment of pure shock when I crossed the finish line metres ahead of Shannon and suddenly realised that I had won. It was just crazy elation for me. The first thing I did was turn around and Shannon hugged me and shook my hand. That really meant a lot because, as much as we were fierce rivals, we had a huge amount of respect for each other.
That was my 10th year in the IronMan series. I’d been a runner-up and come third a bunch of times but although I’d been close to winning the series, I’d never managed to clinch it. I’d always had self-belief because I knew that I was good and the margins of my near-misses and losses were sometimes so, so small. But when you’re dealing with variables like Mother Nature and the surf and waves, it’s not always the best or fittest who wins. You need so many things to go right on the day, and I certainly had moments when self-doubt crept in. But to win an actual series, well, it does wonders for your belief and confidence for sure. There’s a very, very small list of people who have won a series, so winning in 2017 put me into an exclusive history book alongside the best of the best in the sport. That was a pretty special achievement for me.
– Matt Poole is an Athletic Sport elite athlete and professional ironman
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