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Sam Murphy: Rising from the Kona ashes

You have a dream. You’ve put your heart, soul and body into preparing for it and it’s dancing around your fingertips… then it all goes horribly wrong. Setting his sights on winning his Age Category at this month’s Ironman World Championships in Hawaii – a dream that was very realistic based on past results – Sam Murphy made the heartbreaking decision to withdraw from the iconic race in the final leg and face a dreaded DNF. A host of issues had snowballed since the starting gun fired and he was physically and mentally done. The experienced Ironman tells us what went wrong, how the crushing disappointment pushed him into a dark place, and what he’s doing now to rise again.

Editor’s note: This article was published on Sam’s blog, but we wanted to share it more broadly with TheGo community as it’s very open, honest and moving. We can all relate to that crippling, bottom-of-the-gut feeling when things don’t work out, but true success is how we pull ourselves back up again. We hope Sam’s account will be useful to others training, preparing and competing in events. Or, basically, just for when life just goes to crap. We would love to see your comments below of how you have overcome disappointment to go again.

“From the 120km mark, and particularly from 150km onwards, I was falling apart. There was not a lot I could do: it was due to my nutrition intake earlier in the ride – you always pay the price at this point regardless of where the race is”

Sitting here writing what has happened has got to be one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Every time I think about the day I have a pain in my chest and feel dark and saddened. This is not about excuses though; this is simply what happened and what I might try differently next time. I believe getting this done will help me move on and learn from the day. Perhaps it may help other aspiring athletes building to their dreams… that’s a nice thought.

I turned up to Kona in the best shape of my life and felt I was peaking to perfection. I knew from my training and how I felt that I was a whole level above my Ironman Cairns performance that has set me up to where I am today. This was meant to be my breakthrough race, the race that would determine my plans for 2015; but was not to be.


Sam Murphy with some of the tough fellow Aussies who qualified for Kona 2014.

Race morning started like most other races: The alarm went off at 4am and I knew what I had to do. Breakfast went down smoothly, I put on some comfortable clothes and headed down to transition for body marking and to pump tyres etc. I then headed back to the room for the toilet, and to relax before heading down to race start. Everything was in order, everything was going to plan. I got into the water after taking my usual 20-minute pre-race start gel. I positioned myself about 30m left of the pier right on the front line. This was a prime position that I had managed to secure. There was plenty of pushing and shoving before the gun had even gone off.

The usual countdown occurred, bang went the cannon, and we were off. As soon as I tried to get going though I was being clobbered by both sides and behind and being kicked from someone in front. I tried to get move over a little, but every time I moved I seemed to be in the same position all over again: I just couldn’t get my own space.

I didn’t get my own space till there was about 1500m to go, but the damage had been done: I looked ahead and there were two groups ahead, both with a gap that I knew I couldn’t bridge. I kept with my group to conserve energy for the ride. This was the worst swim experience I had ever had in 16 years of competing in triathlon. I got out at around 60 minutes, which although much slower than I had hope for. I accepted this at time and was just happy to be getting on the bike.

“I made my decision and I know not everyone would agree; but with how I felt and what the day had given me I was mentally and physically over it”

Transition was not my smoothest and was a little slow. My swim skin came off alright, but when I pulled my short-sleave tri suit up to zip up, it got caught on both arms. Transition was very congested and I ran past my bike in transition and had to turn back: silly error. I had counted the flags/banners earlier that morning for precision of locating my bike and would not normally make that mistake. Once I had my helmet on, I headed towards the transition exit.


Sam with super supportive fiance Kate Stackhouse.

Three times people pulled their bikes out without looking and crashed into me. I wasn’t aware at the time but believed my gel bottle may have been dislodged or knocked loose as later it wouldn’t be there. There was a queue to get out, but once I was out I ran 20-30m past the mounting zone so I wouldn’t be held up by the large number of guys trying to mount their bikes together. I think this was a good decision even with the extra seconds lost.

Once on the bike, I slipped my feet in my shoes and put my glasses on, and looked down and my heart rate was through the roof. I had never seen it so high at the start of an Ironman -something wasn’t right and I haven’t completely figured out why. It can’t have been simply temperature as I was comparing it to Kona last year, other hot races I had done, and training I had done in the hottest part of the day in Townsville. I was pushing 30 watts lower than in Cairns and Kona last year so don’t believe it was my exertion either. I dropped my wattage even further to try and bring my heart rate back in-check, which had no effect. It wouldn’t be till the 70km mark that my heart rate dropped back to a level I normally race Ironman at. Perhaps the beating I took in the swim and the mishaps in transition raised it based on stress? I don’t know, but either way I was burning way more energy than I wanted to this early in the race.

About 5km into the ride I reached down to grab my gel bottle that was carrying 15 Shotz gels and it wasn’t there. My whole ride nutrition gone! I am very dependent on these: I train and race almost purely on them. I was forced to use the on-course nutrition and my backup caffeine gels flask meant for the latter part of the ride only if necessary. I would not normally take caffeine that early on race day as I find it writes off any benefit from caffeine later in the race, raises heart rate, and I reckon that wired feeling must zap energy when you don’t need it. Using on course nutrition is a big gamble: it’s a lucky dip what you get and with the sheer number of riders going through at once you can’t guarantee that when you come through that a gel will be in front of you.

Sam Murphy signing autographs for his young idols at the Free Radicals Tri-Be Family Tiathlon Club.

Sam Murphy signing autographs for his young Townsville fans.

I was handed all sorts of food; seldom stuff I wanted and timings were not as I wanted. Usually I take a gel every time my 20-minute gel alarm goes off: Due to what I could get there were times when I went a couple of alarms without any form of food and other times when I tried to eat more to catch up, but that doesn’t work. I got through to 120km reasonably comfortably, which I think I can always do on any nutrition; it’s the later part of the ride/run which is more impacted by not sticking to your nutrition plan.

Yes, the weather conditions were very tough, but I don’t believe this was a major factor in my performance. The only exception being that it probably increases the importance of getting your nutrition right and setting your pacing properly. From the 120km mark, and particularly from 150km onwards, I was falling apart. There was not a lot I could do: it was due to my nutrition intake earlier in the ride – you always pay the price at this point regardless of where the race is. I reckon I lost at least 10 minutes just in the last hour. I finished the ride feeling absolutely stuffed in a slow 5hr10min: a time I regularly do in training without all the race gear and just riding aerobically.

I convinced myself that if I could just ease into the run and pull myself together that I could still finish in a respectable time. I put all my hope into my body coming right on the run. Just putting one foot in front of the other for the first few kilometres I tried to relax and looked down: 4.30min/km – not fast by any means, but perhaps slow enough to pull myself together. It was not to be though as I quickly deteriorated and found myself slower than 5mins/k at the 5km mark.

“I don’t know my next move yet, but I’m setting new goals over the next few months. The support from the local sporting community is fantastic and I’m excited for my future”

I was a real mess and had to make a decision: In my head I weighed up the options – either I stuck at it and grinded out for a finish if I was lucky, or I pulled the pin now, reduced my recovery time and aim for another day. It was not an easy decision when you have put so much effort, time and sacrifice into a race. If I had not raced in Kona before, or had different goals, it would have been an easy decision to go with Option 1 and grind it out. But that wasn’t why I was here and I struggled to see the value of another three hours of grinding for a performance that I didn’t believe would make me feel any better than I did with a dreaded DNF, and would increase the time period before I could have another go. I made my decision and I know not everyone would agree; but with how I felt and what the day had given me I was mentally and physically over it.

This performance has really hit me hard: It’s a massive anti-climax and a big blow to the confidence. Where to from here? I will head down to the Bowen triathlon this coming and I’m hoping racing with all my friends and supporters from Townsville can help pick me back up. I will need to sit down with Mike [Prentice – Sam’s trainer] and determine what we can learn from this and where to from here. Thank you to everyone who continues to support me.


Sam has since been to Bowen and won the event, retaining his title. He says: “Bowen was just what I needed to pull me out of my dark zone. I was absolutely gutted after Kona. As I make the journey to progressing as an elite athlete, I have a lot to learn about coping with pressure and expectation, but I am absolutely committed and excited to be making that journey. I don’t know my next move yet, but I’m setting new goals over the next few months. The support from the local sporting community is fantastic and I’m excited for my future.”


Redemption at the Bowen Triathlon.

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Carly Lubicz

Carly Lubicz

Carly Lubicz is combining two of her great loves — writing and getting active. Previously working as a journalist, sub-editor, and editor in newspapers and magazines; she is editor and co-founder of TheGo Townsville. She stays active with the staples of road cycling and yoga, but has recently discovered triathlon. And become addicted (apart from the swimming part). She also has a Cert III in Fitness and is passionate about improving mental health through physical activity.

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