Friday, 11 August 2017

Ironman Switzerland 2017

The alarm chimed quietly.  Nobody stirred.  Not even the grinding of the zips of the giant tent made the slightest difference.  Lynn and the girls slept peacefully.  Darkness.  Quiet all around the packed campsite.  4am and I seemed to have the early morning tranquillity to myself.  With most of the preparation taking place last night, I methodically prepared myself, dressing and eating in the gloom and the shadows of the phone torchlight.  Race kit – the white, black and red Fusion Speedsuit that has been a feature of all my races since 2014 – was chosen, the Ironman tracking and timing chip carefully placed around my left ankle and suncream liberally applied.  Breakfast was light, consisting of a Trek flapjack and a Clif bar followed by a banana. 

Almost an hour later and well wrapped up to avoid the early morning chill, I began my 2k walk up to the Ironman transition and race start area.  Walking slowly, lost in my own thoughts about the day ahead.  Reminding myself that over the past few months I had done plenty of work – not as much as I would have liked – but still enough for a good, solid performance.

I met up with Paddy in transition – as due to the Ironman TriClub initiative we were racked next to each other.  He looked relaxed and confident.  I went through the usual pre-race routine of pumping tyres, calibrating my new Garmin Vector pedals, filling my two water bottles (one on the frame and one on the aerobars) and placing my Torq strawberry and banana gels in an open tub on my bike.  I didn’t bother checking my bike and run bags that I’d placed in transition yesterday – I knew everything I needed was already safely packed away in there, ready for the moment they would be called upon.

I went through the painful routine of putting my super-tight wetsuit on before asking a complete German stranger to manhandle me and zip me up.  Into the 21 degree water for a short warm up and I was ready to start the race, as ready as I was ever going to be.

The swim is self-seeded, meaning that the faster swimmers – in theory - should be at the front of the queue to enter the water and the slower swimmers at the back.  I walked over to the area where swimmers were expecting to swim for 60 minutes or less, the fastest swimmers in the race.  I wasn’t feeling super confident about the swim so I positioned myself about two thirds back in this particular section, allowing others in front of me.  I had a strategy of trying to keep the swim easy, or as easy as possible, saving energy for the parts of the race that would require the greatest effort. 

The rolling start meant that there were eight ‘lanes’, with eight swimmers starting, before another eight swimmers joined the fray, separated only by 5 second intervals.  There were eight or ten groups of eight before me, maybe more.  My biggest concern before the swim start was the state of my goggles. They were completely fogged up and no matter what I did, visibility through the lenses was poor.  My plan, if I absolutely had to, was to swim into some clear water and wash them with the clear lake water.

6.45am and the age group athletes had started.  One wave, five seconds gap, another wave, five seconds gap.  I was inching closer to the lakeshore.  Another wave.  Heart was bumping.  Another wave.  Goggles still fogged.  Another wave.  Very soon, I no longer had a close up view of large men in black rubber suits, but a clear, uninterrupted view of Lake Zurich.  A Lake Zurich that shone brightly with the reflection of the early morning sun.  Three … two … one.  This was it.  Go!

Running through the sandy shore and into the cool waters, with fellow enthusiasts for company.  This is why I’d subjected myself – and my family – to hours of training, to a thousand mile road trip, to a camping trip that revolved around race preparation and the enormous guilt that accompanies all of that.  Entering the water in this environment was a marvellous feeling. 

Dive.  One stroke, two strokes.  I was in and I was swimming.  I immediately knew that many of the swimmers in front of me, the people who I’d let go in front of me a few minutes earlier, were not ‘sub-60 swimmers’.  I caught one guy, then another before colliding with several more.  I hit (accidentally), I got hit.  I swam over legs, I bumped into bodies.  It was all a bit rough.  After swimming for 400 or 500m and reaching the first turn buoy the field thinned out a bit.  Most of the athletes around me were now swimming at a sub-60 pace.  This was much better.  I swam alongside a group of swimmers, swimming in their wake, conserving some energy. 

Outside of the bumping bodies and the clashing arms, the water was clear and calm.  Sunshine and blue skies.  And the hills across from the lake.  A beautiful setting for a swim. 

I stayed in a group of swimmers, moving up through the field all of the time, until about 2,000 metres when I found myself slowing down to remain behind the leader of the group and stay in the draft zone.  I was swimming slowly.  In hindsight, this was probably an ideal pace, using minimal effort and conserving energy.  I spotted four swimmers about 50 metres ahead.  “Let them go” I thought repeatedly.  The temptation was too much though, and I decided to push on, swimming at pace to try and catch them.  It took a few hundred metres of effort, effort I probably didn’t need to spend, to draw level with them. 

I stayed behind this group, benefiting from their efforts by swimming in their moving water, whilst I had a little rest.  After 3,000 metres, I started to feel the earlier efforts.  My stroke, never the most smooth, was becoming ragged.  My arms were tiring.  The power was still there, but the effort needed to stay ‘on pace’ and with the remaining two guys was becoming greater.  I decided the benefit of swimming in their wake, using a little extra effort, was worth it. 

The big, yellow inflatable swim exit was a welcome sight.  I could see twenty or more volunteers at the waters edge, ready to give swimmers a helping hand onto dry land.  I reached up and grabbed the hand of the first volunteer, a petite lady, hoping I wouldn’t drag her in the water with me.  Onto dry land.  Yes! 

The first thing I noticed was the noise.  The crowd was thick and making themselves heard.  Cheering, shouting, yelling.  My smile widened.  This is what it’s all about.  This is why we do it.  I spotted Eric and the rest of Paddy's family and entourage, or should I say they spotted me.  Brilliant.  I made the long run through transition area, struggling (as usual) to unzip and remove my wetsuit as I ran.

My swim was 57 minutes.  This was the 35th fastest swim of the day, including all of the professionals, out of more than 1,700 athletes.  I was also 2nd (by 13 seconds) in my age group!  In Barcelona 2014, with a swim time of 54 minutes, I was 66th out of the water and 6th in my age group.  In 2015, my swim was 53 minutes and I was 36th overall, 5th in my age group. 

After the struggle with my wetsuit, I put my new Rudy Project aero helmet on.  Never try something new on raceday, right?  Shoes, race number and Oakleys on, I ran over to pick up my trusty race bike. The Trek Speed Concept is now seven years old and is a super bike, but is probably showing its age a bit.  This was to be my 10th Ironman race on this bike.

After mounting the bike, I was off along the flat section, through Zurich town centre and out of town. The road surface was good - not super-fast but mostly very smooth.  The early morning sunshine and blue skies were a welcome sight, as was the lack of wind in the air.  My plan was to be restrained in this section, ignoring the pleas of the road – flat and smooth - to go faster.  I was trying to keep my heart rate relatively low whilst keeping a watchful eye on the numbers on my new powermeter.  The first section of 30k was covered quickly, an average of 35kph, yet my heart rate had stayed in the 140’s.  I made the left-hand turn at the roundabout and headed into the hills.  I was feeling pretty good at this point.

I went through the first aid station, picking up a cold, fresh water bottle.  It was 9am and it was already getting hot out here!  I took the hills easy, clicking into my low gears and not putting too much pressure through the pedals.  As well as some ‘normal’ hills, there were two long climbs in the middle of the course – The Beast and Egg - and a shorter, steeper section towards the end of each lap called Heartbreak Hill.  Not knowing the course particularly well, I was expecting to tackle The Beast at every turn.  The anticipation of the climb was finally rewarded after about 55k. The Beast was a 4k ascent - not ‘out of the saddle steep’ but a long, winding grind upwards - maybe 6% or 7% gradient?  Conditions definitely made this section harder.  It was so hot.  Gripping the handlebars tightly during the climb, I noticed how much sweat was dripping off my arms.  Reaching the summit was rewarded with a very quick descent followed by another 4 or 5k climbing up Egg.  This was a shallower gradient, but the road was never ending.  Once over the top of the hill, there were some fast, flat sections followed by a screaming fast, twisting descent which tested both my nerve and my brakes! Down the hill and back onto the flat section, returning into town feeling relatively fresh.  The heat continued to rise. 

On the way to Heartbreak Hill I passed our campsite, our home for the past four days.  Lynn and the girls were waiting to give me a boost, a super cheer.  I slowed down, came out of the aerobars and sat up to see Lynn and the girls - dressed in their matching Ironman supporters t-shirts - enthusiastically cheering, waving and ringing cowbells!  Amazing enthusiasm and support. 

I approached the hill, put my bike in the right gear and began the short, sharp 1k climb (10-12% gradient) through the crowds to the summit. Loud and colourful supporters lined the hill, giving me goosebumps and broadening my smile.  Down the steep descent and back onto the flat roads, past the campsite and my amazing support and onward, towards the start of lap 2. 

I checked my Garmin, looking at the time taken to complete lap 1 and my average speed.  I concluded that a fast time wasn't likely today – and the bike leg was likely to be about twenty minutes slower than I optimistically predicted.   

Onto lap 2, through the city centre and back onto the long, flat stretch of road.  I noticed that the trees were swaying a little, and I was now heading into a slight headwind.  This dented my speed.  On the first lap, 35 or 36kph was a common sight on the display of my Garmin, but I was now seeing 32 or 33kph for the same power output and heart rate.  I had strength in my legs and enthusiasm in my belly, so it was now my turn to overtake some of the tiring triathletes around me. 

During this section, I realised that I had been sitting on the bike for almost 4 hours and hadn’t yet needed the toilet.  It was in excess of 31 degrees and I was sweating – a lot.  I stopped at an aid station, put my bike down and headed for the toilet, forcing myself.  Without going into too many details, it was quite painful, indicating some level of dehydration.  I left the toilets, immediately feeling better.  I resolved to drink more fluids on the second lap. 

I felt more confident on this lap, as I knew the course a bit better, knew when to push and knew when the hills were coming.  However, the second time up The Beast, and it was like an oven.  Inland, there was no breeze, it was 33 degrees and I was cooking.  I made sure I stayed medium rare and not well-done by staying behind another guy who seemed to be wrestling with his bike to make it go upwards, further up the hill.

The last third of the bike leg and I felt pain in my right hip.  I wasn’t sure if it was my hip or I had tight glute muscles.  As I sit here writing this 12 days later, this area is still painful when I try pedal or run.  It didn’t stop my pedalling or interfere too much with my riding, it was just something I noticed. 

More slow climbing up Egg, then the screaming descent back down - still as exhilarating as the first lap – before pedalling quickly through the flat section – assisted by a tailwind - back into town. 

Passing the campsite again and sure enough there they were.  Once again, I slowed down to wave and blow kisses at Lynn and the girls before cycling up towards Heartbreak Hill for the last time.  The crowds had thinned and my legs had done 170k at this stage so this felt a bit tougher than the first time around.

180k of hot, hilly riding after a solid 3.8k swim. That's seven hours of effort, of my heart beating at least 150 beats per minute. My longest training session leading into the race had been four hours. Energy levels had not been conserved, as much as I'd like to think they had.

Into the welcome sight of transition. Relief. Seven hours into the race. Boiled. Right hip / glutes hurting. Dehydrated. I got off the bike and started to run, pushing the bike along as I went, to put it back in the rack. After the first few steps I realised that I would be better to walk it back into transition and settle myself before starting the marathon. It also dawned on me, for the first time in the race, that perhaps I was a little underprepared for today. I would soon find out.

Bringing my bike back into transition and back onto the steel racking, I was deflated when Paddy's Scott bike wasn't there.  I know he was aiming high, aiming for a fast time.  I didn't see him at any point on the road, but I had assumed that he had zoomed past when I stopped at one of the toilets en route.

Once the bike was racked, I grabbed my red run bag, which was hanging on the hooks with hundreds of other identical bags, and ran into the change tent. I changed into fresh socks, laced up my On Cloudflyers, grabbed a plastic food bag containing my Garmin run watch, Torq energy gels and sun cream and ran gingerly out of transition.

Running along, I reached into the plastic bag and found my Garmin, switching it on before putting it on my wrist. Nothing happened. I switched it on again.  Nothing.  "Oh come on!" I yelled.  I had a few issues with the watch on Saturday, but thought I had solved them.  Apparently not.  I was going to have to run a marathon with no idea of time, of pace, of distance or of heart rate.  This would be a first!  I was so disappointed.  So frustrated.  Of all the times the watch chooses to give up.  Race day.  Soon after, I spotted Lynn and the girls.  What a welcome sight they were!  I dumped my useless watch, took off my now redundant heart rate monitor and threw them to the ground for the girls to sort out.

My plan was to run slowly for the first lap, then increasing the pace slightly for the rest of the run. I also planned to walk through each of the aid stations, taking in water and nutrition as I went along.

I didn't know the run course at all so everything on the first lap was a surprise.  It is a varied run route, taking in the park, the lakeside, Zurich city centre and the opposite side of Lake Zurich, passing some pretty packed bars and cafes along the way.  Each of the four laps of the run had six aid stations.  Six aid stations on a 10k loop!  As well as an assortment of drinks (energy drink, water, coke, red bull), gels, fruit, salty snacks, soup (!), all of the aid stations had plenty of cold, wet sponges.  At every aid station I grabbed at least two sponges and squeezed them out over my head to help cool down. 

The first lap went quite well.  Running slowly, yes, but cooling down at each aid station and seeing the sights of Zurich.  I was enjoying this and I was convinced I could plod my way to a sub-4 hour marathon and a sub-11 hour finish.  Somewhere during the second lap this seemed to change.  I wasn't feeling so 'fresh'.  In fact I was feeling dreadful.  Still, I ran on.  

The running - such as it was - was painful.  Each foot strike sent pains into my leg muscles. My glutes had stopped working and we're now just feeling the impact of the road and telling me to stop.  Large blisters were forming on both feet, due to the amount of water I was squeezing and pouring over my head.  

At the start of the third lap I began walking, walking a lot.  The running was less and the walk breaks extended.  I was defeated.  I have never had a run as bad as this.  There would have been a psychological breakdown, no doubt, perhaps as a result of the Garmin malfunction or a realisation that the race time would be below my expectations.  However, this was definitely more of a physical problem.  My muscles were shot, they hurt, hurt like I've not experienced before.  Each stride making me wince.

At this point on the fourth lap I was still walking.  I had just seen Paddy overtake me. I was glad for Paddy, but I was beyond caring about my own race.  No amount of crowd support and words of encouragement could shake me out of my slump.  I walked up towards the town centre, with my head bowed but still giving the occasional smile to the well-wishing and encouraging spectators.  I spotted a big, shiny clock on the side of one of the high-end shops.  I quickly calculated that I had been racing for 11 hours and 20 minutes. 40 minutes remaining before 12 hours of racing and I had about 6k to run.

At that moment, something happened.

I realised that, after putting in all of this effort, I really didn't want to go home with an Ironman finish time of more than 12 hours.

Pride kicked in.  I simply had to run to make it under this new goal, no matter how much it hurt.

One step, ouch, two steps, argh, three steps, ooofff, this was hurting but I was running again.

It was slow, it was ugly, it was painful, it was running.

As badly as I was moving, I was starting to pass people again. Come on, keep on running! Keep on moving forward.

Soon enough, I found myself running along the finish chute. I was scanning the deep crowds for Lynn and the girls. And then I heard them. Cheers. Smiles. Cowbells. Yelling.  Jumping. The painful memories of the last few hours extinguished in a single moment.  My smile had a reason to be back.  My arms shot out to high five any and all spectators who dared stretch out their arms. I bounced along the carpet, milking the applause, and realising what a beautiful place this now was.  

The Ironman finisher zone definitely causes acute memory loss and comes with a pair of rose tinted glasses. Side effects include a confidence of ‘definitely smashing future races’!

After taking a year off triathlon and Ironman in 2016, 2017 was a hard road back to speed and fitness.  This was my first race since Ironman Barcelona in 2015 and a reminder of how tough this sport is.  

Although an hour outside my original target, I had reached my new goal with 5 minutes to spare, finishing in 11.55.  This was my second slowest Ironman finish, with my very first Ironman (in Switzerland in 2009) being 40 minutes slower.  A 4 hour and 51 minute marathon run was my slowest Ironman run, by some distance, 1 hour and 18 minutes behind my Ironman Barcelona run of 2014.

Not a time or performance to show off, but I’ve realised that each Ironman finish is something to be proud of, to be grateful for and to celebrate.  It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to even make the start line, and an enormous amount of energy to get through 140.6 miles to reach that glorious finish line, no matter how long it takes. It takes generous family support and sacrifice in the months leading up and on the day itself.  All of which I am very grateful for and appreciate immensely.