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Endurance Traveler: Busselton, Western Australia

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While many of the 2010 Ironmans have sold out, Ironman Western Australia has yet to start accepting applications and provides an opportunity to travel and race in a beautiful location: Busselton, Australia.

Written by: Dean Warhaft

An iconic pier, fun and welcoming people, excellent wine, blazing fast times and an unforgettable after-party can only mean one place on the Ironman circuit: Busselton, Western Australia.

“W.A.” started in 2004 and wasn’t initially considered one of the fastest courses in the world. Tri experts suspected it had the potential to be a fast course, but until the ideal conditions of 2006 were sprung upon the race no one knew just how fast it could be. In fact, the 2005 lighting storm that almost prevented the swim was also almost its undoing. Speculation of the race’s demise was crushed along with course records across the board in 2006. The race conditions that Dallas O’Brien, Shane Smith and the other IMG organizers hoped for was in full effect. The swim was like glass; Mitch Anderson crushed the bike in a time of 4:18; and Jason Shortis blitzed the run finishing in a time of 8:03. The “Fastest Ironman in the West” was born.

The swim start of Ironman Western Australia. Photo: Delly Carr
The swim start of Ironman Western Australia. Photo: Delly Carr

From the U.S., travel is westbound to Perth. Plan to spend a few days there; either before or after the race. The weather is perfect, the surf is tremendous and the food is fantastic. Speaking of food, some of the best, and inexpensive Indian food I’ve ever eaten was at a place called Chutney Mary’s Indian Restaurant at 67 Rokeby Road. Other highlights of Perth include the ferry to Rottnest Island on which you can see amazing plant and animal life, cruising the Swan River and grabbing a pint at Old Swan Brewery. Perth is the way I imagine Southern California must have been 50 years ago, beautiful and laid back.

Getting to Busselton is a short 2.5-hour drive south to Geographe Bay. This is also known as the Margaret River Region, and home to more than 60 wineries. Some of the best wines from Australia are produced there, so going wine tasting is an absolute. In the 1960’s John Gladstones realized the soil and seasonal temperatures were of a similar quality to that of Bordeaux France. Fifty years later, were all toasting his foresight. And to offer up something for everyone, there’s a fudge factory, chocolate factory and cheese factory along the wine route.

There are resorts in and around the area as well as motels, bed and breakfast inns and camping grounds. Where you stay might influence how far your lodging is from the race venue. But Endurance Traveler’s personal pick is the Geographe Guest House two blocks from the pier, where hosts Richard and Helen Pennington, will make you feel like you’re home. Most of the resorts are located five to 10 kilometers west along the run course.

The swim is in the Indian Ocean, where the water in the bay tends to have a higher salinity noticeable to the pallet. The start is set up as a coral format based on a swim time competitors originally predicted when applying to W.A. The gun goes off on the west side of the 140-year-old Busselton Jetty. At 1,841 meters, it’s the longest wooden pier in the southern hemisphere and a prized Australian eco-tourism site. Don’t worry, if you don’t get a chance to walk out to the underwater observatory at the end of the pier before the race, you’ll see plenty of reefs, fans and marine life as you swim out the west side and return on the right. The good news is that the 1,850-meter drag race to the first turn really stretches the swim out so you’re not getting pummeled the entire time.

The soft beach sand found everywhere in the bay, makes for a smooth swim exit without worrying about foot placement or damage. The swim-to-bike bags are all lined up in rows with volunteers speckled throughout. As the athletes run through and call out numbers, volunteers are quick to respond with bags, although there seems to be a lack of wetsuit strippers. So be prepared and do what you need to get your own suit off if necessary.

The bike course is three loops of just over 37 miles each, and each loop can be broken sections. The first section takes riders east along the beach before turning inland getting-round Geographe Marina and it’s canals. This is not the scenic part of the course, and if it’s windy it will kick your butt. After all, the course really is quite flat, so the only potential element riders deal with is wind, rain and air temperature.

The next bike section is through marshlands, and out on to Tuart Drive in the Tuart Forest National Park where riders might get lucky and see a redback, or red kangaroo. The prevailing winds tend to come out of the west, making for a tail and/or cross-tail wind through this entire section. So, plan to bring your Zipp disc as it will act like a sail and keep you ahead of those roos. The bike turnaround is in Capel Shire, home to Ironstone Gully Falls and Peppermint Grove Beach, two beautiful and pristine places that demonstrate how vastly diversified this region of Australia is.

The course then doubles back and heads out to the highway for a second out-and-back section. Out-and-backs are great opportunities to keep an eye on the competition. The last section of the loop heading into to town is the only section of the course where prevailing winds can really hurt the riders. During the 2007 race, winds were directly in the riders’ faces as they worked their way toward town. Finally, the lap turnaround is literally the hot corner and spectators are packed in. The announcer is bantering and triathletes are in a sea of screaming spectators as they rip through the roundabout to head back out for another lap.

For spectators, taking a break while watching the race is easy in the town center area. Queen Street is lined with plenty of sidewalk cafés and they all serve great coffee, whether you’re looking for cappuccino or a long black, the service is with a smile. And there are plenty of bars and eateries too.

The bike-to-run transition is similar to the swim-to-bike transition, except athletes work their way back through transition in the opposite direction toward the beach.

The run course is three 14 km (8.73 miles) laps along the Geographe Bay shoreline. The route is pretty straightforward, beginning with a short winding route to the footpath passing the famous blue jetty boatsheds. The course then heads west with a few juts and turns along the way, but it’s basically an out and back hardly ever-losing sight of the shoreline. The turnaround is just past the Mandalay Holiday Resort. As runners dream of the finish line they can smell the beer and shrimp on the barbeque in full effect along much of the course.

The awards dinner is held the following evening at Barnard Park, but more important is the after-party. This is the best “official” Ironman after-party Endurance Traveler has ever experienced, featuring a Jack and Coke in a can, a live rock band and even some pro athletes doing stage dives. It’s a rager, not to be missed.

Finally, Margaret River is where the Sothern and Indian Oceans converge, creating some of the most enormous waves on the planet–waves that just a few years ago were not even ride-able. But tow-in surfing has allowed big-wave riders to test themselves against these mountains of water.