"I am an Ironman"
That’s ambiguous. As a punchline it’s like the film Titanic – after all, we all knew the ending before we went into the cinema but that didn’t stop the film being a roaring success. Or maybe it’s what you say at the meeting of the similarly afflicted and addicted to confront your madness and embrace your problem: step one, admit your problem, step two, resolve to do it all again.
It all came to a head nearly a year ago when Dave wrote up his first Ironman. I’d already entered a half distance event, but after reading Dave’s report I decided that my Vitruvian experience would be a dress rehearsal. If I didn’t completely hate it, I’d do a full distance one. The seeds were sown, entries were made and the next 8 months flew past.
Even getting to Zurich on Friday had been a bit traumatic, but soon enough I was there, nervously trying to eat some breakfast on the Saturday in my hotel, in a scenic spot overlooking the Zurichsee, some 10-12km down the lakeside from the event site.
Registration on Saturday lunchtime was really low key – the tent was empty, no hint of a queue, just a small packet with my number in various forms (hidden in a bag with loads of freebies). One thing about the number-packet which confused me was that in addition to your number, the bib also had your name. I thought that was a little cheesy – but Dave said that that would all become clear!
The bike drop-off even easier, wrapped nicely snug in a large sponsored sack – the same as hundreds of others in a weird shrouded transition area; a graveyard with rows of neat, white tombstones.
A leisurely walk into town with Dave and a light pizza would do as the final meal. A call from Sarah wishing me luck. Then an early night: The bag was packed. The bike was checked in. The clock was still well before the witching hour. No more time for training, just try to sleep as much as you could; I wasn’t nervous, but I think I was so well rested that sleep wasn’t easy. My mind was abuzz with the thoughts of the next day and all the training up to now and with the preparations of the last few days.
Sunday dawned bright and early. Well, strictly it was about to be bright. Breakfast was at 4-10 and it was unsurprisingly dark. A few good luck texts had arrived – fortunately Barry’s at 1am hadn’t woken me up! Intriguingly, the hotel was right by the local train station and a train pulled in while we were eating. And it was quite full of people! You get used to seeing clubbers when you’re cycling at 7am in London, but Zurich? The place just continued to surprise.
I think I’d been more nervous on Saturday morning. Race day breakfast went in with no problems. Transition opened at 5 and the shuttle bus from the hotel dropped us off at 5-15. Plenty of time to get everything done. But with the queues for the toilets, there wasn’t much scope for wasting it. The transition area was quite normal, no confusing changing areas and tents and rules about where you could take the wetsuit off. And it was small. End to end was little more than 100m. You might be going a long way for the event, but you don’t want to have to give too much away in transition!
I quickly looked out for Dave’s start position, which was quite close to mine, and I saw Terri through the fence and went over for a chat. Then one final run through making sure all the kit was there and soon enough there was a general movement of everyone. It was time.
No staggered starts here – everyone, nearly 2000 people, would set off together. Quite a sight!
The start was organised chaos. After the relative sterility of the transition area – strictly athletes only – the walk to the start was anything but. Lots of people meeting up with loved ones and supporters – and the whole teeming mass heading lemming like to the lake shore. After a bit of build-up, including some really cheesy dance choons (a recurring theme for the day – there were thumping speakers everywhere), the countdown was on. The pros got their own 5 minute headstart but soon enough the rest of us forged forward from the beach trying to hold our footing on the slippery stones. I had resolved to not get involved, but you couldn’t avoid it. I thought that I’d try to stay near the back, but it didn’t matter – you were in the crowd whether you liked it or not and it was a bunfight. A good couple of minutes before you could get a clean rhythm and more than a few strokes in a straight line. Soon enough the field resolved itself and I was amongst similarly paced swimmers. But there were enough people that even near the finish you were still trying to swim over people!
The swimming is definitely my weak link but over the last year I have at least got to a stage where I can comfortably do the distance without killing myself – even if that means quite slowly. The layout of the course meant that it wasn’t so easy to gauge your progress around, especially when swimming into the low slung rising sun. But where I assumed it to be roughly halfway, I was more or less on target. There were a few course anomalies along the way, but I don’t think I swam too much extra – unlike some who seemed to be heading off into town or just doing the tourist thing!
Ninety minutes later I was out of the water. I’d been aiming at around eighty, so I was a little behind schedule, but I was feeling pretty strong and the heart rate was more than under control – perhaps I could have pulled harder? It’s always a toss up – trying too hard on the swim would definitely be a false economy.
Time: 90:21.4 (Target: 80-85) Average Heart Rate: 131bpm
The Ironman transition is a different beast to the shorter races. While you don’t want to waste time, you’re about to spend a lot of time in the next phase, so it’s definitely worth making sure everything is just so. I had planned on wearing a tri-suit with cycling shorts and top, but there were just too many spectators and I was quite close to the fence; while there were others changing openly, my English reserve kicked in, so I made do with the tri-suit over the top of the swim/bike shorts which had been under the wetsuit. I quickly hoped that the, erm, padding would be enough. The day was just starting to brighten up so a quick towelling off and some liberal application of (more) sunscreen – SPF40, but later you wouldn’t have thought so – and I was trotting to the cycle exit.
The bike was three 60km laps, we headed toward the city around the head of the lake, then up through a hilly countryside loop (known as Beauty & The Beast), before back to transition, out the other side for a short sharp shock (ominously nicknamed Heartbreak Hill). And the day was really start to warm up – clear and bright, it was going to be a scorcher.
The drag out towards Beauty was 20km of pretty flat fast roads. The key to this first lap would be to keep yourself in check, keep the heart rate under control and keep telling yourself that you still had a very long way to go.
It was still early, with the Zurich ‘burbs only starting to wake up, but the countryside was in full swing all ready – Beauty is well named. A climb up through fields giving excellent views of the lake – a welcome diversion from the job in hand. There were more reminders of where you were. I turned one corner and heard cowbells, this wasn’t unusual, every other spectator seemed to have some … but these two spectators were actual cows with their bells slung around their necks. Welcome to Switzerland!
Everyone tells you to make sure that you use the feed stations. There were three well stocked stations on each lap and you had a good selection of water, go-go juice and power bars and gels, sometimes bananas and coke too. I’d definitely been dehydrated on my last ton ride a few weeks ago so I was determined to not let that happen again. My strategy was a gel on the hour and a power bar on the half hour, to pick up at least one bottle (if not two) at every station. This seemed to work – although the gels and bars were getting a bit tedious nearer the end.
Strangely I seem to be quite a decent climber. I definitely credit this to the work with the fixed wheel – having got in the habit of just turning the wheel and doing the job. I was passing people quite easily on the steeper bits, but losing out on the flat, but this made for some comfortingly predictable sights. The people you passed would pass you back on the flat, only for you to get them back on the next hilly bit, so you get to know their names (see, partially clear about the named numbers, as I warned earlier) – so thank you to Sandro, Bruno, Regis, John, Simon, Ellen, Nicole, Peter, Sancho, Nicole, Mike, Chantal and all the others!
The descent back towards the City was great fun – really quite steep (I got more confident – hitting 75kph by the third lap). Then a spell on the flat and through transition. Before an assault on Heartbreak Hill. On that first lap I didn’t know whether they named the place to scare you or be meaningful, but it was huge in a good way. Sure it was steep, but it was quite short, but at the top you felt like a hero. The reception on the last 100m before the crest, the sheer number of people and the noise of the welcome was overwhelming – a small insight into how some of the Alpine climbs must be in Le Tour.
People crowding the road, so you only had a couple of bike widths to work with. By the time I came around for the second lap far from fearing it, it was feeding you for the preceding 20km. You were just looking forward to that reaction on the slope – and the second time around it had got even better. A Swiss oom-pah band playing Blondie or the Jackson 5 (Dave said he got ‘Eye of the Tiger’) just topped it off. Heartbreak Hill is so harshly named – it was surely the highlight of the ride.
The laps were getting slightly longer and the legs were definitely suffering, but approaching the end – going through the 160km/100m mark was a lift and the crowds were starting to fill out in many places. So many words and shouts and ‘hopps’ and rattles. From locals looking out from their gardens, the supporters of other competitors, and other cyclists and runners out for their normal Sundays. The support was simply incredible.
Time: 6:27:17 (Target: 6:30) Average Heart Rate: 147bpm
Then it was into T2. I pulled my feet out as I was rolling into the dismount area and I was soon concerned. My feet were quite sore from the cycling shoes. They’re not new, so they shouldn’t be uncomfortable, but they were screaming at me. So while I was peeling off my top and grabbing some water and sunscream I was having some moments of worry. The run was going to be bad enough that I really could do without sore feet crippling me from the start.
One decent aim, someone suggested to me, was to be on the run when the Elites were still going – and I managed this (just). My original idea was to aim to be on the run in 8 hours, so I only missed that by 6 minutes. I reckoned on close to 12 hours if I was lucky. (My upper limit was about 14:50 as that was how much memory my watch had until it wouldn’t be able to store any more heart beats!) I started off with these in mind …
The run was four laps of just over 10km. But while I had my time target I had to remember my own advice – take the first one slow and steady, but I felt surprisingly fresh and went round in just over an hour, so well below my normal run pace (but that’s not a surprise) but comfortably done. But on the second lap the wheels started to come off. The course was quite windy, even labyrinthine in the area near the finish/transition and while this might help the eyes in that you can’t see too far to get disheartened and the supporters who can see you multiple times without moving too far, it did disrupt the rhythm. I tried to restrict my walking to just going through the feed stations (which were numerous and frequent), but quickly it became walking into the stations, and then walking out of them too. And the 12 hour target become 12 and a half. Soon I was settling for 13.
Through the second half I found myself leapfrogging with a runner with a Birmingham top – BRAT. I’d run and overtake her, then walk, and she’d overtake me. It seems obvious but I took a good few kilometres to realise that maybe I should run slower. Your brain has only so much capacity and apparently walking and chewing power bars is about my limit. That helped, so for the next lap, I slowed down and while it was increasingly painful I could just about carry on. And carry on. And on. Until I couldn’t. Which didn’t actually take very long.
The support of the crowd cannot be undersold, though. There were a few people on the side who I knew (Terri as well as Rachel, whose husband Alan was doing it too, who I’d met in the hotel) and their shouts lifted – but the name on the paper number meant that anyone could shout you encouragement – and they did. So rather than the crowds being anonymous, they became very real and very encouraging.
I saw Dave as I was finishing my first lap … he was about 2.5 laps in front and when I was on my third I saw Terri again who said he’d just finished … that was at 10:38 so I just boggled that he was already done. Amazing stuff. A legend. It briefly spurred me on, but my legs were just having none of it. It was quite frustrating. My heart rate was in the low 130s – there was nothing wrong with that, it could take more … but my legs had nothing left. They were out for the count – although my mind wasn’t about to come this far and throw in the towel.
Almost nothing left it seems; the fourth lap finally came and brought with it occasional fits of enthusiasm – and the support of the crowd who could tell it was my last lap (you got given coloured wrist-bands on each lap, so if you had a light blue-green band you were in the chosen few to not have to go around again).
Then finally under the 9km barrier about 1500m to go. Less than a mile. Slowly my legs were responding with something like vigour. Then I could see the banners. And hear the crowds. The adrenaline finally kicks in. Just when you thought that you were barely able to shuffle, your legs are refreshed and you’re running. I had no idea where it came from, but you’re somewhere else. Apparently Dave and Terri were on the beginning of the ‘chute’ that you run down to the finish, but while I was looking for them I didn’t see them. But there was such noise and support – and pom-pom cheerleaders – to welcome you into those last 50 or so metres that time just speeded up. Then you see you name in the arch over the line … raise the arms for the camera. And it’s all over.
Time: 5:10:24 (Target: 4:00, but what do I know?) Average Heart Rate: 143
A lady came over to swap my lap-bands for a towel. I think she was congratulating me and asking me not to stand in front of the cameras, but I can’t really remember taking any of it in. I wander away dazed to be confronted with some medal bearing Amazons who put one around my neck and a confusing 3-cheek kiss that seemed to baffle me. Then more photos. And more dazed stumbling. Before into the tent for some food. It’s all amazingly good-natured in there. Only the athletes are allowed in, so there’s a real sense of (muted) celebration. There are warm showers (check), jacuzzis (which I opted to miss), massages (definitely a good idea). More food. The certificate with your times (while you wait). Some coffee. Collect your finishers t-shirt (and wear it for most of the next 24 hours). More cake.
While I was waiting for the massage I dug out my phone from my kit bag – already half a dozen texts from people who knew my time within minutes of finishing. The internet is a wonderful thing!
All the while you have this amazing transformation. A mere ten or twenty minutes earlier I was barely shuffling along the course, but the finish is an amazing revitalising place. You find yourself just grinning at strangers, who have that same glint. It’s not selfish as you feel enormous empathy and community with everyone else in the Athlete’s Garden – you’ve all just been through the same trial. Some were quicker, some will be slower, but you share the mark for now of overcoming it.
So 24 to 36 hours later and walking is still an issue, steps doubly so, but I’ve got the t-shirt (it pretty much lived on me for the next 24 hours – and with many evident around Zurich and even Gatwick the following day, I wasn’t alone) and the medal.
Another one? Today I say yes. But with the sweet memories so fresh, well I might just take a while to really decide. There aren’t many days that could top these emotions … but there’s one coming up in a few months, let’s get that one out the way before taking any decisions!