Argentina: a long way to go for a coin

After my less-than-ideal race in Zurich (see post here), I wanted to find another race that was held before the end of the year. It would make 2019 an extremely long season but, if I managed it well, I could maintain my fitness from Zurich. If I qualified, the only race I would have to focus on in 2020 would be Kona; I could have an extended rest into the new year and be able to fully enjoy mine and Mic’s wedding in June.

There were 10 potential races that fit in with my new plan, spread all over the world from South Korea to Taiwan to Mexico. I delved deep into the statistics; travel duration, time difference, average temperature, historical weather, course elevation, field size, previous results… I had always considered some of these variables for previous races but, at the end of the day, I had chosen Copenhagen partly because I’d never been to Denmark (and Michaela is half-Viking) and Zurich for the convenience of being only 1 hour away from where I live. When neither of these went to plan, the most important aspect of choosing my next Ironman race was what would give me the best opportunity to qualify for Kona 2020. In the end, the one that stood out was Argentina on 1st December. A big factor that helped this one pip the others to the post was the number of Kona slots available. As it was the Ironman South American Championships there were 75 slots available compared to the usual 40.

In each Ironman race over last 3 years I’ve been so close to qualifying. After every race, I’ve been able to say ‘if I didn’t have this injury’, ‘if I didn’t make this mistake’… That slot would’ve been mine. All things that can be rectified if I took care, paid attention, and made the right decisions on the day. I KNEW I was good enough to qualify in any race. As arrogant as that sounds, my training and race statistics showed it. And I love a statistic. But this time, it wasn’t enough to know what I was capable of doing. Ironman can be such an unpredictable beast, I had to give myself the best chance of qualifying and with the increased number of slots, that would help counteract anything that didn’t go to plan in the run up and on the day.

So off we hopped to South America.

The race was held in Mar del Plata, a coastal town south of Buenos Aires. After a 13+ hour flight and a 5 hour (surprisingly luxurious) bus journey, we arrived, got lost, got un-lost, had a nap, and unpacked the bike. I recced some of the bike course whilst Michaela scouted out the best spectator spots for her to run around to during the race. I took a quick dip in the ocean, practicing my elegant run-skip-jump in and out of the waves. The swim route was made up of 2 laps with an exit, run along the beach, and entrance back in between the laps. I’d never had a race that had that set up, so wanted to practice to save some precious seconds on the day.

Another area of preparation I made time for was thinking through any potential problems that could arise during the day and contingency plans I could execute. This was always something I put time aside for when I competed in sprint duathlon but had never done for Ironman. In hindsight, this is ridiculous. Ironman races are 10 times longer; there’s so much time for things to go wrong. The Zurich race had brutally hammered home how important it was to run through ‘what if…’ scenarios beforehand and how I would deal with them.

With all the recce and preparation done, we met up with my in-laws. Michaela’s parents had been gutted that their planned holiday to Hawaii had been brutally snatched away from them and had therefore grudgingly taken the opportunity to visit Argentina instead. Their sacrifice was very much appreciated on race day when I heard their much-needed cheers on what would become a brutal bike course.

The afternoon before race day, I took my trusty steed to the transition area to rack. I’d been keeping an eye on the weather forecast and it consistently looked as I had expected- clear, warm, and a bit breezy. ‘A bit breezy’ had steadily become ‘very breezy’ and volunteers were manically running up and down the aisles, taping bikes to stands and the ground in order to stop them flying around. Turns out lightweight carbon bikes with disc wheels catch the wind nicely. I grabbed some cable ties and strapped my TT down tightly.

The next morning it was still there and in one piece; my first bit of anxiety was soothed. A message was soon making the rounds that the swim course was being shortened. After a bit of digging for information, it turned out the water was colder than expected so the swim was shortened from 3.8km to 3km.

Before I knew it, it was time to head to the start. Physiologically, this is an odd time. My heart rate starts increasing in anticipation, but at the same time my mind is completely calm; my job for the next 9ish hours is simple. All the hard work has already been done.

The organisers were right; the Atlantic Ocean is chilly. But being used to swimming in rivers which originate in The Alps, for me the temperature wasn’t crazy cold and I made it round the shortened swim in a comfortable 00:50:20.

The run to first transition was a 50 m stretch of beach. I had been relieved to hear there would be showers to rinse the sand off my feet before stuffing them in my shoes and cycling for 180km. Alas, in an amusing absence of common sense, these showers had been placed halfway to transition… So once you rinsed your feet and they were clean and free of sand, you had to go back on to the beach to finish your journey. Face palm. I didn’t waste time with it and tried to wipe off as much sand as possible in transition.

By this time, the wind was starting to pick up. Heading out onto the flat bike course I had a tailwind and was flying. The bike course was 3 there-and-back laps along a 30km stretch of coastline. The wind was directly behind me and as soon as I made the first turn to head back into town, it hit me full on in the face. What had been an exhilarating 30km out became a painful, slow slog back. And I had to do that 2 more times. The final 30km of the bike leg was painful. I was so close to the end, but felt like I was barely moving against the relentless wind. Later, after the race, another competitor who had competed in 16 Ironmans, including 5 in Kona, told me that was the toughest bike leg he’d ever cycled.

So it was with a fair amount of relief when I rolled into transition after a 05:05:17 bike and could head out on the run. Just a marathon to go. I was tired from battling the wind and fatigue quickly set in. My personal support team had spread out around the course and for the first time I got an update on how I was doing. We had calculated before the race that to have a chance at a Kona slot, I needed to come in the top 7 of my age group and to be absolutely safe, in the top 4. Michaela updated me; I had come out of the swim in 11th, and made up some places to finish the bike in 5th place. I had to stick to my plan and hope I reeled in at least one more competitor.

It was tough to gauge how I was doing on the run as, after the first lap or so, the course started filling up with more people who had finished the bike. As always, I stuck to my 1.9km run- 100m walk strategy and just kept an eye out in case any uber-runners started catching up. By this point of the race, it was just about hanging on and surviving. It’s never pretty.

Finally, after 9 hours, the finish line loomed into view. A tiny, brutal ramp led off the main course to separate the finishers from the poor sods who had to keep running. Along the finishing straight, competitors often slow down to soak up the atmosphere of crowds of people cheering them home, maybe grabbing a flag or giving some high-5s along the way. I’ve seen races where seconds can count between gaining a Kona slot or going home empty handed. So I powered on until the line told me to stop, I got a finishers medal around my neck and a burger in my hand. Michaela was trying to muscle her way through the crowds to get to the barrier and tell me the message I’d been waiting so many years to hear; ‘you came 4th, I think you’ve got your slot’.

Bloody 4th. Again. 3 seconds off 3rd place. But I didn’t care. For the first time competing in Ironman, I had the satisfaction of knowing there was nothing more I could have done. Whilst I’m yet to have the mythical ‘perfect race’ I had perfect execution and that’s all I could have wished for. Other than maybe some better placed showers. My feet were ripped to shreds from the sand.

At the awards ceremony the next day it was confirmed. I went up on stage, collected a lei, my Kona coin, and spent a hell of a lot of money.

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