3.8km/180km/42.2km – 12:12:38 – Cat Pos 271/445
Ironman number 5 then – another crack at Austria, and Tri Spirit Team’s first group ironman outing. I’d entered after Ali, one of the founder members of the team, had been incorrectly disqualified last year and re-entered for 2016, which prompted a whole load of other team members to sign up as a show of support. I loved the idea of watching Ali cross the line, and I also loved the idea of having another crack at a beautiful course where I made my ironman debut in 2012 and which had beaten me up on a day with 40 degree heat. That day had also taught me what training you need to put in to do well at one of these and I was looking forward to seeing what I could do on that course with proper preparation.
Actually my preparation ended up being not as proper as I would have liked – the motivation I felt in 2015 just wasn’t there this year and so I turned up in Austria having done less than half the cycling mileage I had the year before, and having swum only 9000 metres all year with a longest swim of 1900 metres (in the pool, on a day where I got overtaken by old ladies doing breaststroke). Only in running had I had a decent first half of the year, but even with that I felt that I’d lost fitness since the Paris marathon at the start of April.
8 team members had signed up but the team had taken a bit of a blow when Sarah had been forced to withdraw a couple of weeks beforehand after her knee had blown up. Terrible news, she’d trained hard and didn’t deserve the bad luck. If that was bad news then worse was to come when at registration, 2 days before the race we learnt that Ali had also been forced to withdraw, having been stung by something, in Austria, suffering a severe reaction meaning antibiotics and antihistamines. She was the original reason we were there and all of us felt the devastation she must have been feeling. More on that later… but the team was to be six strong on race morning.
2012 had been hot, really hot. I arrived in Klagenfurt (actually just up the lake a bit at Portschach) on the Thursday… and it was hot. So was Friday. And Saturday. Up into the 30s, but the forecasters were predicting a cooler Sunday… I was really hoping they would be right, the last thing I’d need would be a non-wetsuit swim and another scorching run but hey-ho, what would be would be.
Registration was quick and easy on the Friday and we all went for a swim afterwards to check out our sighting for the entrance to the canal which hosts the last 900 metres of the swim – it can be difficult to sight on the day due to the rising sun in your eyes and we wanted to familiarize ourselves. Lake Worthersee was at its stunning best – warm, blue and drinkable. In the afternoon I went for a quick ride just to test the bike, legs felt fine. Early evening was spent at the pasta party with Sophie and Julie – 5th ironman and the first time I’d attended the pasta party. The food was adequate.. but what I hadn’t bargained for was the free beer and my inability to control myself when there’s free beer. Having had a few free beers I found myself back at the hotel lubed up and in the mood for a few more beers, and so final ironman prep took an unorthodox twist with the consumption of 8 pints of lager with less than 36 hours to go before the start.
That meant that I did achieve the now traditional race week hangover although this was the first time I’d had it the day before the race. Luckily it wasn’t one of my special bad ones, sorted out with a few pills.
Saturday afternoon meant bike and bag check-in, I had an easy to find spot at the end of a rack (not that there are ever many bikes left in T1 by the time I get there), and I did my walk through, partly through diligence and partly because ironman transitions do have a certain atmosphere and who doesn’t love perving over TT bikes?
Pre-race dinner was taken in Portschach with Deb, Sophie, Julie (the 3 other Tri Spiriters at the same hotel as me) and their support crew – I had a pizza and a raspberry tiramisu, and congratulated myself on cutting short my beer intake after a pint and a half. First victory of the weekend. While we were eating it started to rain and thunder – the forecasters had got their bit right it seemed. Bedtime came at around 11 and after some broken sleep and a few odd dreams which were the only way I knew I’d slept, the alarm was going off at 3:45 and it was time to get up for one of the true pleasures that ironman brings – forcing down breakfast at 4 in the morning. By 4:40 we were away, and shortly after 5 we found ourselves in transition carrying out final bike checks as dawn broke on a thankfully chilly Klagenfurt morning.
And so – the Tri Spirit Team that lined up for the start of Ironman Austria was:
Julie, Sophie, Debs – all breaking their ironman ducks
Tara – ironman #2
Nick – ironman #5
Liz – team founder and ironman #umpteen (which is Austrian for 15)
What I absolutely must mention now is that the 6 of us were far from the end of the Tri Spirit Team contribution that weekend. An army of supporters had made their way over too, partners, friends and family. In no particular order, we were cheered on by Ali, Jason, Malcom, Pat, Marcia, Trudy, Zoe, Amber, Jo, Greg, Alex, John and S, Pat, Laura and Carol. At some point during the day I think I saw all of them and every single one of them helped create a truly memorable atmosphere before, during and after the race. This was only added to back at home where even more of the crew were following us via the athlete tracker – we didn’t realise until after the race just how fervent this support had also been.
So.. back to the race. I had no real aim for the day other than enjoy it. Normally I would have some kind of target but with the lack of training this time out, all I could do was estimate a finishing time, which I guessed at around 12 hours if all went well. That would work out as something like 1:45-2:00 for the swim, 5:45-6:00 for the bike and 4:00-4:15 for the run, plus 10 mins or so for transitions.
I lined up with Deb and Sophie right at the back of the queue for the rolling swim start. You could feel the tension, and the conversation started to run a bit dry as we snaked our way towards the start arch. Austria used to be a mass start off the beach into the lake – 2000+ athletes all fighting for a piece of clear water. That was a true spectacle and in a way it’s a shame we don’t get to see that any more but the new system, where athletes filter through the start a few at a time does make for a safer experience although for me, being right at the back, it didn’t make a huge difference.
We got over the start line into the magnificent turquoise Worthersee at 7:15, about 25 minutes after the fastest age groupers had started. It was a wetsuit swim, and I settled straight into my bilateral breathing pattern, heading out about 1250m towards the first turn buoy. I really had no idea how this swim was going to go so deliberately took it very, very easy, concentrating most on breathing and going in a straight line. Bilateral breathing really helps me here – always in a pool I’m slower like this, but always in open water I veer off towards the side I’m breathing to if I breathe to one side only, and my best IM swim was achieved bilaterally so that was the rationale behind my plan. The water was pretty calm for most of the swim apart from a couple of sections where I guess we hit the wake from boats which meant for a bit of upping and downing, but I enjoyed that, and with the lake being such pure water a bit of swallowing now and again was actually quite nice – on the job hydration.
On the way back towards the canal into the 2nd half of the swim I was feeling ok but wasted a bit of energy and time by going a bit too wide right at the canal entrance, but once into the canal was when it became clear what a different experience this swim was compared with 2012. Then the canal seemed like treacle and I can remember hardly seeming to move. This time round I had the bizarre experience for me of overtaking people and after what seemed like not that long, I found myself exiting the water. “Not that long” is a relative term of course, but I was pretty happy when I saw 1:43 on the watch – 2 minutes inside what I’d considered best case, and I was out on the bike 5 minutes later after a relaxed and smooth T1. I could reflect on a calm, relaxed, satisfying swim and a good start to the day.
The ironman Austria bike course is a true joy, and I’d been looking forward to riding it on this TT bike. I’d been thinking of an average speed of 30km/h but also aware that I really had to take it easy on the first lap if I wanted to finish strong and run well. Nevertheless, into a very slight headwind along the very gently rolling lake section I was at 31.4km/h after 28km with my legs feeling great. I thought I was on for a very good day. Earlier at the start of the bike I’d seen Deb and Sophie, it was good knowing that they were out of the water, particularly Deb who shared my trepidation over the swim – both of us have the attitude that the day really starts once our wetsuits come off.
The first climb after 34km just before Faaker See that we’d nicknamed Charing Hill (over its resemblance to Charing Hill) came and went easily enough in a nice spinny low gear, and I then took to enjoying myself on the flatty/rolly bit, freewheeling where I could, with one slight miscalculation on the tight right-hander at Schiefling where I approached too quickly, felt my wheels slipping as I braked but managed to stay upright and avoid taking out some spectators and looking like a total knobend (aero helmet, TT bike, and no clue how to ride it)
Shortly after at the top of the biggest climb of Rupertiberg, which has a nasty sting of a second steep bit not long after you’ve conquered the first, I saw Julie who was riding well and seemed pretty relaxed. It was then that the real fun started on the long descent into Klagenfurt with some lightening downhills and some sweeping corners – I think in 2012 I was already knackered by the time I got here and it was 15C hotter but this time I was really able to take advantage. At the top of Rupertiberg I was at 29.7km/h average – by the turn point at the end of lap 1 that had increased to 31.2 – meaning an average of 38km/h for that 24km stretch. What fun!
Shortly after the start of lap 2 I saw Liz who was happy with the way her ride was going, I told her I was enjoying myself but I didn’t yet know whether I’d gone out too hard – the 2nd lap would give me a clue.
Up until now, the weather had been completely benign – a light breeze, dry and very comfortably warm. Then things changed – the rain came, the wind picked up just a bit and the temperature dropped. Rolling along the lake side the 2nd time around still felt ok but I was deliberately riding easier, using the conditions as an excuse but also knowing that there was a fair chance I’d overcooked the first lap and not wanting to compound the damage. When I climbed Charing Hill for the second time, a minute slower than the first, I realised for sure that I’d overdone it, and resolved to take it easy for the last 55km where I could, saving my efforts for Rupertiberg and the other short climbs that preceded it. It continued to rain, eventually stopped, but the roads were still wet and the second time through Schiefling I was grateful for what had happened the first time since I knew what was coming on those wet roads.
Rupertiberg was dealt with 2 minutes slower than the first lap and it definitely felt like it, but having crested it, I congratulated myself on a job done with only the fun bit to come, and even though I had to be more careful through that section, cruising back into T2 I had a bike time of 5:49 and an average speed of 30.4 km/h. So a much slower 2nd lap but not unexpected, and I certainly wasn’t feeling broken. I was however completely unprepared for a sharp right knee pain that I hadn’t felt in a very long time which hit in the last 100 metres of the bike as I prepared to dismount. It had always come and gone over the years but this was the most pain I’d felt from it. You get used to aches and pains appearing and disappearing but I think it’s normal to wonder what kind of damage you might do to yourself if you run a marathon on an injury after a 112 mile ride, but accepted practice is suck it and see, so I prepared to suck it and see. (More about knee injuries and ironman marathons later on – not mine though). Total race time was 7:38 coming into T2 where I finished the number 1 I’d managed to start but not finish on the bike, vaselined my feet and got ready for the money shot.
6 minutes after entering T2 I started the run with 7:44 on the clock and at this point I was actually wondering whether I could hit the 4 hour marathon and get under 11:45, which was what I’d need for a top half age group position based on 2015 results. Both Tara and I had said we were aiming for a 4 hour run – but only once before have I managed that – after a much flatter bike in cool conditions after several very good months of training – and so that was always an over ambitious target and I soon abandoned it after settling in to 6:00/km pace which equates to a 4:10 marathon. Still, that would be sub-12 and I knew that the run is a bit short so had something of a buffer.
The weather had changed again for the start of the run, and was now pretty warm again but I felt pretty comfortable chugging along at around 5:55/km, resisting any urge to speed up, knowing what was likely to be in store in the second half. My knee was a bit painful but not deteriorating and it now just felt like it normally does in the final quarter of a marathon so I was no longer worried about more damage. At this point I’d seen everyone out on the course bar Tara, and I finally got news of her approaching the far west point of the run at Krumpendorf where Carol, Pat and Laura started making the kind of racket you really appreciate on an ironman run – great support from them, and Carol told me Tara was around 10 minutes up the road.
Passing back near the run start Deb came bounding down the road the other way like a gazelle, a violent high five and a hollered “yes mate!!” told me she was feeling good, and then finally not long before the turn point in Klagenfurt, Tara appeared, also looking strong.
Back towards the start of the 2nd lap after about 20km was when the demons started to take control. My knee hurt, as did the rest of my legs, my hips, and most unusually of all, my stomach muscles – every step was a crash into the floor which reverberated up through my core and felt like a punch in the belly. This was something I’d never felt before, I put it down to complete swim unfitness and 1:43’s worth of core rotation that I hadn’t trained for. This was when it also became clear beyond all doubt that I had ridden a bit too hard, but actually I didn’t care, I’d enjoyed that ride so much and I knew that I’d probably struggle on the run at some point. The mental coping mantras started to come into play as I started slowing – at least this time compared with Copenhagen last year I managed to keep it going a bit more but after 23km I started walking. Kms 23-30 were spent run/walking at irregular intervals, not feeling any better and resigning myself to just finishing. Kms 31-35 got worse – I’d settled on a walk 250m/ run 750m strategy then which was manageable, but I saw even a 12:30 finish slip away in front of my eyes as my maths started to fail.
It was then, within the space of a few minutes that Sophie passed me on her first lap, excellent to see her running past, and then Liz coming back the other way during one of my walk breaks. Liz has had knee trouble for years and it had flared up again, we stopped for a brief chat and she said she was considering quitting, that it wasn’t worth it. I casually, without really thinking, said something about just walking the rest of the way but it was only after we set off in our opposite directions that I realized that whereas for me there were only about 5 miles to go, for Liz there were still 15…. 15 miles of walking after 11+ hours out there already…
Heading towards the Klagenfurt turn for the 2nd time I stopped at an aid station and had a piece of salty bread. Something so simple tasted so good, and although I’ve no way of knowing whether I can credit the salty bread with my recovery, not long after I began to run again, and resolved to run it all except the few inclines that you really don’t need after 23 miles of an ironman run. Just after one of the inclines I saw a guy running with “Fuck cancer” on his suit – I had a quick chat with him, he was from Portugal and I thanked him for his charity work. During those brief few words we spoke about why I was grateful for his charity work, and we shook hands, him congratulating me that I myself had “fucked cancer”. I got a real lift from this, and shortly after went past Sophie just after I saw a guy eating an ice cream. I really wanted an ice cream.
I knew now that I was on the long finishing straight, ran virtually all the way down by the canal back towards the lake and got a pleasant surprise looking at the total time on the watch which said 12 hours inside the final mile.
Inside the final quarter of a mile or so I got the cheers from Deb’s and Sophie’s supporter crew, and I was now running strongly again. It is such a brain game – you can produce this energy when you know the finish is close, but trying to turn the engine over when you’re a long way out is a different matter.
And then a moment I won’t forget, on the penultimate left hand turn into the finish, Ali appeared, slapping me a double high five. Ali – one of the main reasons I was there in the first place, I’d wanted to cheer her across the line but there she was reciprocating with a smile a mile wide despite her own misfortune. What a star.
I got one more shout, this time from Zoe just before hitting the magic carpet, applauding the crowd in each stand either side and then breaking the (virtual) tape with 2 arms aloft and bellowing like a caveman with 12:12:38 on the clock. Not far off the 12 hours that I would have been delighted with. I sat down, necked an Erdinger Alkoholfrei, and got emotional with myself for a minute or 2.
3 slices of pizza, a slice and a half of cheesecake and 2 beers later (I thought it was real beer as did the Austrian I was talking to in the finish tent but it wasn’t, the proof being that I had at least 4 in the end without the slightest tinge of inebriation), I went back out to welcome the rest of the team home. Tara had crossed the line shortly before me, Deb had come across while I was eating, and within the next couple of hours Julie, Sophie and Liz all crossed the line. 6 starters, 6 finishers – job done.
Whilst just finishing an ironman is a terrific achievement, there are certain aspects of the day that, in my opinion, stood out for each member of Tri Spirit Team. Every ironman finisher has their own story, and for me, the outstanding bits worth highlighting were:
Tara – 12:17 – the standout performance of the day I think. Age group finishing position is the best way to measure your performance against others and Tara’s 17th from 54 starters put her in the top third with a strong all round race. She also had the fastest swim from the 6 of us.
Deb – 13:03 – best Tri Spirit run of the day by a mile (or actually by over 2.5 miles as she was 25 minutes up on the next best). 4:08 was a superb marathon and also proof, if any more were needed, that an intelligent ride equals a good run and a good finish.
Julie – 14:01 – never having run more than 14 miles in her life, some less tough than her might have said that to make your marathon debut at an ironman is a bit nutty. So to complete the race in fine style under those circumstances deserves a “chapeau” (she’s a cyclist after all 🙂 ) She also wins the award for most enthusiastic Ironman crap shopper, I’m not sure if she did buy the Ironman oven glove in the end but it had her name all over it.
Sophie – 14:54 – admittedly fearing the bike a bit, and for a cyclist lacking a bit of confidence on the downhills, Austria in the wet could have been a nightmare. But she came through the 112 mile bike inside schedule and finished well with a good run and deserves massive credit for conquering the bike demons and seeming pretty happy at all times on every part of the course.
Liz – 15:09 – talk about spirit of ironman and determination to get the t-shirt. Liz walked over 15 miles to the finish for a 7 hour marathon with a busted knee. The more I think about this the more ridiculous it sounds but it embodies all the good bits that define the example to set for the rest of us – positivity, determination, grit, never say die. An attitude worthy of a triathlon club leader. 15 ironmans done and no sign of stopping, which brings us to next year… in a minute.
As for me, 12:12 was a course PB by nearly 2.5 hours, in much kinder conditions yes than in 2012 but off a similar training base. This tells me I’ve come a long way in those 4 years, but also that I have the potential to go faster and get that coveted top half age group position finish (in the end this year I finished 271st from 445 starters – I’d have needed 11:45 for top half).
It’s not worth analyzing it much more than I already have given that my main goal was just to enjoy it – analyzing that bit is easy, it was a fantastic day on a beautiful course with magnificent support provided by Tri Spirit Team members and associates both on course and at home.
Left to right: Tara, Julie, Sophie, Liz, me, Debs
And so to next year. Having said before the race that this would probably be my last ironman, and having sworn in the 2nd half of the run that I was never putting myself through this again, it was entirely predictable that at 11am the next morning I was handing over another 500 quid to World Triathlon Corporation for the privilege of swimming in that gorgeous lake, riding that superb bike course and going through agony running alongside a railway line in 2017. It’s all Ali’s fault anyway (or rather the bastard that bit her), I was joking with her on the Friday that we’d all have to come back next year but it was never really a joke and at the time of writing, 5 of us are down for 2017 – Liz, Ali, Deb and me from the 2016 vintage and Greg, husband of Sophie, who gets to watch rather than suffer next time.
Next up – probably a few half ironmans to get my racing fix for 2016 (I’d forgotten a bit how much I love it), fitted around training for the Amsterdam marathon in October where my oldest mate Dave and I are going to have a crack at something ambitious. And then hopefully a motivated winter and spring to go back and get it right 3rd time in Austria, which will no question about it be another marvellous Tri Spirit outing.