Along Cairns Esplanade, pop-up stalls lure tomorrow’s competitors with deals on lycra, energy gels and various chafing balms. It’s the day before the Ironman and the temperature is unseasonably warm. It’s the kind of heat that makes locals relish the tropical climate while athletes despair, knowing that so much of tomorrow’s focus will revolve around their hydration needs: how much to take, when to take it, a delicate balance of carbohydrates and caffeine. At the athlete check-in, movements are minimal. Everyone is conserving energy. Except Cas, who is charging through the crowd apologetically. He should have checked-in by now, but as anyone with young children will understand, schedules are rarely followed when the kids are in tow.
This time tomorrow, Cas will be hours into his first ever Ironman. His excitement is infectious and in conversation he talks animatedly, with a nervous energy that surely must befall most first-timers of the event. For a man who has made a name for himself from such bold expeditions like the Tasman Crossing, Cas’s features do little to indicate that his is an existence lived outdoors, often weathering the extremes. He seems to have retained a boyish exuberance for life, a curiosity that extends even to an event like this one. Ironman might attract the world’s fittest, but it’s surprising to see Cas here. With the kind of resume that would make Bear Grylls blush, why submit yourself to a day-long torture-fest when you’ve surely hit your quota of physical suffering? What more can you learn about yourself out there? Why return?
Cas was just 25-years-old when, in November of 2008, he and Jones set out for New Zealand in their custom-built kayak from Forster, New South Wales. The expedition was almost four years in the making, with the pair having spent that time preparing for months at sea with nothing but the food they packed and their own camaraderie. On day two they covered 178 kilometres in just 24 hours. In five days, they’d paddled over 500 kilometres. At this rate, the boys half expected to reach New Zealand in a matter of weeks. But then disaster struck. In the middle of the Tasman Sea, they were hit by a storm that raised 10 metre waves and 100 km/h winds. Held captive to the elements, Cas and Jones were pushed into the centre of a current whirlpool that held them hostage for two weeks in a loop. The distance they’d covered was lost, they had to eventually backtrack simply to break free of the current. Enduring sharks that pushed up against the kayak, as well as barnacles and severe sleep deprivation, finally the boys pulled onto dry land on the North Island of New Zealand after 62 days at sea.
Of course, as so often happens with the world’s best adventurers, the Tasman Crossing only inspired Cas and Jones to do more, to push further. They set their sights on Antarctica and in October of 2011, the pair set off from Hercules Inlet in a race to become the first to ski from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back, completely unsupported and unassisted. The snowfall and whiteouts were unlike anything the boys had anticipated and at the end of that first month in Antarctica, they’d only completed 300 kilometres of the 2,275km journey. Daily progress was slow and for much of it, Cas had to contend with a groin infection that slowed his movements and saw him unable to sleep. His body seemed to lumber forward in agony. In video diaries, his pain is explicit, practically etched into his blistered and wind-burned features. In one video, his hands pull at his hair in desperation as he laments, “This place has taken a part of me that I’ll never get back. The amount of suffering and pain and accomplishment and achievement, I’ve never felt this ever before in my life.”
Just when you think finally, a challenge that proved too great for James Castrission and Justin Jones, they did the unthinkable: they reached the South Pole on day 62 and with just 27 days left to complete the return journey, they skied for 15 hours a day, covering roughly the distance of a marathon each session. On January 26, after 89 days on ice, they skied the final kilometres to Hercules Inlet alongside rival adventurer, Aleks Gamme.
Aside from the intensely physical element and the unquestionable heroics, what seems to characterise so many of Cas’s adventures to date is his ability to go out there, a place so few of us willingly venture, one that sees you completely detach from the world. You can press Cas about this, but the man is too humble to speak in the worn language of egotism. “I’m just all about exploring what I’m capable,” he admits. The Ironman then, does present a challenge Cas has yet to conquer. For a man who has devoted his life to expeditions requiring month-long focus and exertion, how do you pivot to something that demands you give it all on one day?
“Probably the big thing about an expedition is, when you’re out there for weeks and months on end trying to survive, the golden rule of keeping yourself alive is to keep yourself within 80 per cent of your capacity,” explains Cas. “You need to be available for the next day, and the next day and the next day. If you’re burning up at 100 per cent, then you’re going to break down and not be able to go any further. When you’re trying to get extracted from Antarctica or the middle of the Tasman Sea, you can’t just call up and have someone there.” He laughs at the absurdity. “It’s a matter of survival to always dial yourself back and conserve energy to that 80 per cent rule.”
He looks out to the athletes that wander around the Esplanade. “I naturally just want to conserve myself for another Ironman the second day, or the third day, not be on the finish line and be completely done with nothing to give,” says Cas, pausing momentarily in consideration. “It’s about finding that line as close to 100 per cent and not going over it. But because I’ve never been there before, I don’t know where that line is.”
For anyone competing in an Ironman, the inevitable question is “why?” Why sign up for what is arguably the most demanding physical sporting event? To run a marathon is one thing, but when the distance merely serves as a final exclamation point to a 3.8km swim and 180km cycle, the sanity of its participants surely must be questioned.
As TJ Murphy documented for Outdoor Journal, the event we now know as Ironman began as all of life’s great discoveries do: a debate between friends, accompanied by beers and banter. After watching an around-the-island running relay on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, the friends posited the question of which kind of athlete has the better endurance: the swimmer, the cyclist, or the runner? It was then that the idea of piecing together a marathon, rough-water swim and bike ride took shape, what would be an epic triathlon of sorts. The first Ironman is said to have taken place in 1978, boasting a paltry 18 contestants who were just as unsure as race organisers whether such a thing - finishing - was achievable. 28-year-old Gordon Haller won the race, a former communications specialist for the US Navy, in a time of 11 hours and 37 minutes.
Since that first race, the popularity of Ironman has grown exponentially. We can’t get enough of them it seems, with races taking place around the world from Brazil to Japan and New Zealand. Though endurance certainly is at the heart of the event, outnumbering the professional athletes are the age-groupers, those like Cas who enter with nothing more than a desire to test their limits. A recent report on ultra running spoke of the rapid increase in global participation, suggesting that what attracts most is the story they tell upon completion, surrounding the impressive achievement of finishing. But to put the popularity of Ironman down to this would be a disservice to all those who enter. This isn’t a case of accomplishment and reward. At a time where sport has become such a commodity, the Ironman offers something as pure and uncomplicated as just swim, ride, run.
If you have to know why people choose to do an Ironman, you have to know this. As Cas explains, “It’s a sport that rewards commitment and dedication. It doesn’t reward talent, it rewards effort.” He doesn’t hesitate when asked what drew him to the event, “There’s no shortcuts to the hours and hours and hours of training you have to do. There’s no shortcuts. You can’t just wing it, you’ve got to do the work. I think that’s a really good lesson for my kids to see, that dad’s done a whole lot of work to get his body and mind ready for this thing.”
Cas had only started doing triathlons 18 months ago, shortly before the world came to be gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. When lockdown hit, the business he runs - My Adventure Group - largely came to a standstill. Working in the corporate events industry where he delivers keynotes, workshops and adventure programs for companies looking to transform their team culture, Cas suddenly found himself occupying a position he’d rarely had before: he had time on his hands. Not one to bemoan personal circumstances, he decided to use this opportunity to commit himself to something he’d never done before and having just discovered a passion for triathlon, he fast-tracked his way to the most challenging event the sport has to offer. The alarm was set for 4:30am so he could train in the dark, balancing 20 hours of training a week with family life. “Everything you do as a parent, you’re mentoring your children either consciously or subconsciously,” says Cas. “However you respond to whatever you’re dealing with tomorrow is going to have an impact on those kids and the way they see the world and the way that they then act. That’s always something in the back of my head.”
He spots his kids standing by the registration tent and a wide grin emerges instantly. It seems clear why Cas would do an Ironman, why this event and the spectatorship it affords is so markedly different from his previous expeditions. “Giving up is not an option,” he explains. That’s something I want imprinted in my kids’ heads. Never give up. If you can’t run, you can walk. If you can’t walk, then you can crawl. But you can always get there if you stick with it.”
After an hour and seven minutes, Cas emerges from the choppy waters of Palm Cove. Through the transition tent, he strips out of the wetsuit and into his cycling kit. Hair still dripping, salt-water burning his eyes, he straps on the helmet and shoves sandy feet into his cycling shoes. With 180km ahead of him and the temperature rising, there’s a haste to his movements - it is a race, after all. But as Cas mounts the bike in one swift motion, he forgets his bag with electrolyte tablets at the transition. Even so, Cas is unfazed. He feels strong, determined. Today will be the day James Castrission experiences the suffering of someone occupying temporary residence on the line of 100 per cent effort.
It isn’t until seven hours and forty-four minutes into the Ironman that Cas enters the narrow focus of agony. It’s the place where exhaustion and suffering collide and, despite all manner of persuasion, the body is unable to catch up to the mind. Just twelve kilometres into the 42.2km run, Cas is in danger of going beyond his limits. “Within five minutes of feeling like superman, I was keeled over vomiting on the road and it instantly went from smashing it to survival mode,” he says. Having consumed more hydration on the bike than he had anticipated in training - a result of the soaring temperature and salt-water - Cas encountered stomach issues on the run. For the remaining 30kms, he couldn’t hold anything down. Any nutrition or hydration he tried to consume instantly came back up. As Cas knows, in Ironman when you make a mistake, there’s nowhere to hide.
Anyone else would have called it, or slipped into an aid station to remove the bib number and stumble-walk their way to comfort in the form of non-liquid food and a temperature-regulating space blanket. But Cas couldn’t conceive of such a thing as not finishing. “It wasn’t a physical battle at that point, it really became a battle in the mind,” reflects Cas. He separated himself from the world and the Ironman at large, focusing his attention on the simple task of making it two kilometres from one aid station to the next, and then again over the course of the marathon. “As much as possible, when you’re in those situations you just focus on what you can control and park what you can’t control. At that point, you’re not worrying about what time you’re going to finish in or what pose you’re going to do when you come through the finish chute. It’s just about focusing on what you can control, which is that two kilometres ahead of you.”
It’s 6:40pm when Cas crosses the finish line in a time of 10:48:06. The sun has set and the horizon looks like a neon jukebox of flashing glow sticks and colourful wristbands. The finishing chute looms like an awards ceremony of the world’s toughest, a red carpet rolled out for finishers. On either side, families and supporters drum placards with such force and enthusiasm, the ground momentarily vibrates with each passing runner. The name “James Castrission '' sounds over the microphone. There is the thunderous sound of clapping, but it’s all drowned out by the man himself who, even despite his exhaustion, erupts in triumph.
So often in professional sport, disappointment is the pervasive mood. When winning is the ultimate goal, hailed not only by sponsors as a testament to athleticism but by society itself, the doing itself is undermined by a sense of loss. It’s the feeling that arises from the devastation of coming up short, of not executing one’s race plan and falling short of the goal. But when winning is the only signpost of self-worth, so often we are left with no sense of accomplishment. You have to be at the finish line of Ironman, you have to see the elation of completion, to understand that accomplishment lies in the doing. The result itself would be nothing without the hours of brutal suffering. “Over that course of a day, you experience more emotion than you would normally over a whole year,” explains Cas. “It just condenses the intensity of your highs and lows into this incredible chunk of time.”
With a stiff-legged stagger Cas walks through the finishing tent, bypassing the hot food contained in deep aluminium dishes. He spots his wife and kids waiting by the gate and instantly emotion overwhelms him. Shiver-sweating and salt-stained, he embraces his kids and doesn’t let go for a long time. Long enough to know that what he did, what he went through, will be imprinted in their memories forever, a reminder that things don’t always go to plan, mistakes are to be expected, and that even the most challenging circumstances can be overcome with nothing but determination and will to survive. “It doesn’t matter what your time is at the end of the day, it’s that you’ve found something you didn’t know you had and learnt something more about yourself, put yourself out there and you got through it,” says Cas.
For his kids, the day might just have seen like any other adventure in the epic life that belongs to James Castrission. But for anyone else bearing witness on the finish line, that embrace with Cas and his family left no doubt that it was their presence that got him through. Weeks later, reflecting on the race, Cas still is as emotional as he was upon finishing. “It’s often easy to push through when you’re connected to a bit of a higher purpose and knowing that the way I’m behaving and carrying myself, the kids will be learning lessons from that, knowing that there’s no way I was quitting on this thing. I wanted them to see me finish strong.”
To stay up-to-date with the latest of James Castrission's expeditions and the work he does with his company, visit My Adventure Group at the official website here, and follow its Instagram account here. For more information on IRONMAN Cairns visit https://www.ironman.com/im-cairns