Third time’s a charm? Not always…

This will be the first of two blog posts I’m going to write in the following weeks (hopefully). Whilst I’ve been absent online for a while, the last few months have been far from quiet. I’ve decided to split my posts up, firstly to ensure you don’t get bored reading for too long, but also because each will cover an Ironman race. At the start of 2019 I hoped those two races would be Ironman Switzerland and the Ironman World Championships in Kona but, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, competing in Ironman doesn’t always go to plan.

For the last 23 years Ironman Switzerland has been held in Zurich. With me living in Basel, it’s just a short train ride away to get to, which was one of the reasons I chose to compete there. No need to pack, re-pack, unpack, and swear at, my bike box this time. The course is also one I thought would suit me; half the bike is flat and fast, and the other half has some mean climbs where I knew I’d be able to make gains on other competitors.

The race was held on Sunday 21st July. For those of you living in Europe, this was during those weeks of intense heat that covered the continent. In the run up to the event I was anxiously keeping an eye on the forecast, whilst safely making sure my body was used to running and cycling in those conditions. With those temperatures, it’s so important to ensure your body is acclimatised. I thought I’d managed it well in the run up but, as I soon found out, you can’t always control how your body will react in those conditions.

There’s not a whole lot to say about the swim. The 3.8km lap was in Zurich Lake, so no choppy waters or jellyfish to fight off this time. I settled in amongst a pack of swimmers, stuck to another pair of feet and made it round in under an hour (00:59:59 to be exact). I have never pushed too hard on the swim; I treat it as a bit of a warm up for the day and have always been happy as long as I go sub 1 hour. This is something I plan to change in the future. I’ve seen time and again where a few minutes saved on the swim can make all the difference at the end of a 9 hour race. Not on this day, however; I had a longer day ahead of me than I could have anticipated.

The start of the bike was treacherous. Soon after I’d exited transition, a downpour started that made the roads slippery and dangerous. Within a few miles I’d seen a couple of people already come off their bikes. It served as a reminder to take it easy; there was still  a long way to go. I settled into a rhythm and felt good. The rain stopped and I could push harder with less fear of a wheel slipping out from under me. The climbs were as brutal as I remembered. I had recced the route a couple of months before which was invaluable in helping me to conserve energy on such a technical course. I made gains on the climbs and started making up places on my competitors.

Around 60km to go, I made my first mistake. By this point, all 2000-odd competitors were out on the bike course. I was getting tired, focussing on finishing strong, and didn’t pay enough attention to the 12m drafting rule from the person ahead. I got a 5 minute drafting penalty. Ironically, I had been quite vocal at the beginning of the race, shouting at people who were drafting without making an effort to drop back. I was so angry at myself, but as I pulled up to the penalty tent, I tried to see it in a positive light; I got a 5 minute rest that the other competitors didn’t.

In such a long, brutal race your mindset is one of the most important aspects to ensure you get across the finish line. The physical training has all been completed in the months (or years) leading up to Raceday, so as long as you’ve done that correctly you know your body can swim 3.8km, cycle 180km and run 42km. Therefore, other than any incidents or accidents, it’s your mind that will stop you on the day.

So I knew the importance of staying positive; this rest would benefit me on the run. After the 5 minute lifetime was up, I headed out again, pushing harder than I normally would to try and make up some of what I had lost. This turned out to be my second mistake of the day. My body rebelled at the change in pace and all the delicious gels I’d been consuming started making a reappearance. This isn’t usually a big problem (unless you’re on a bike behind me), the problem, and my 3rd mistake of the day, was not replenishing what was now down my front.

I rolled into transition after 05:04:02 on the bike, probably looking a bit worse for wear, but feeling strong and ready to hit the run. It was midday, the sun was at its highest point and the temperature was creeping up into the 30s. Not ideal conditions for a marathon but I was happy with my preparations for running in that heat. I knew what pace I could sustain (still doing my run-walk technique) but soon hit a bump when my GPS watch couldn’t pick me up. I didn’t have any pace or distance information, so had to trust my instinct and pay extra attention to how my body was feeling. 8-10km into the race, the welcome ‘beep’ from my wrist told me my Garmin had woken up and I had the information I needed.

This relief was short-lived. It was around the half-marathon mark where I hit the darkest point I’ve ever experienced during a race. I’ve had to cobble together the events of the next 15km from accounts of friends and family who were in Zurich to cheer me on. For me, they are a hole in my memory where unexpected instinct kicked in.

The friends and family who come to support me are organised with military precision. They have been to so many races that they instinctively know the best places on a course to stand and they spread out accordingly to give support in different areas. They have a WhatsApp group amongst themselves to let each other know where I am and how I am doing. It was my brother and a mate who were the first to spot me during this period of darkness and gave a heads up to the rest of the group that I was losing orientation. I was running with my eyes closed, head lolling around, inexplicably waving my arms in the air like I just didn’t care. At first they thought I was lapping up the atmosphere and waving to the crowds, but I had completely lost control of my body. Except my legs. My legs kept running.

The connection between my body and my brain was as absent as the connection to my GPS watch had been. If I’d had the presence of mind to recognise the state my body was in, I would have stopped. Instead, instinct told me I was in a race, and in a race you run. So I ran. 

Michaela saw me and called my name. Through the fog, it was a voice I recognised and love so ran towards it. She just managed to keep me away from the barriers by shouting at me some more and ran alongside me for a while, telling me to take on nutrition and water. My bruises and scratches at the end of the race showed the barriers still managed to get me at a later point.

The messages to grab anything and stuff it in my mouth to replenish the nutrition I’d lost on the bike wiggled their way through to me and the fog began to clear. My brain came back online and recognised that I just had to get round the last lap and it would all be over. I never wanted to do an Ironman again.

Competing in Ironmans is tough,  but I’ve been reliably informed that being a spectator is no easy job either.

My elation at crossing that finish line in one piece outweighed any disappointment at the loss of time on the bike and less-than-efficient run, and therefore a potential Kona slot. From my experience, a ’perfect race’ is a unicorn but to capture a Kona slot you need to execute your race perfectly. That means staying focussed and dealing with those unexpected events that arise. I made mistakes, didn’t rectify them in the right way or in a timely manner and they came back to bite me in a potentially dangerous way.

It took a few days to evaluate what had probably happened. Throwing up my nutrition on the bike, mixed with the heat during the run pushed my body to the edge. Hearing the accounts of the state I was in really drove home how lucky I was to finish the race at all, let alone come 12th in my age group. It was also interesting to see how bad things can get and my body will keep going. Maybe not a comforting thought for my family, but strangely comforting for me when I put so much effort and passion into chasing that Kona slot.

My third time racing an Ironman was definitely not a charm. Not charming in the slightest. Despite my conviction during the race that I’d never do another, I still absolutely loved it and it didn’t take long for my thoughts to return to Kona. My ultimate goal has always been to qualify, but my mini-goal was to qualify in the 30-34 age group. 2020 is the last year I’ll be competing in that age group and with mine and Michaela’s wedding next year, I wouldn’t be able to fit in a qualifying race as well as enjoy our celebrations to the full.

I started looking at other Ironman events to try and qualify for Kona 2020. Spreadsheets were made, finances were looked at, and a December race looked like a promising option.

It wasn’t over. I was going to Argentina.

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