Ironman Zurich race report.
Where it started, where it could turn around or where it could end
So where to start??
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve written a blog or really engaged much on Social media, and this is partly due to three things. Firstly I really wasn’t sure what I wanted or was able to get from Triathlon. Last year playing the Pro game took a lot of love I had for the sport and to be honest I didn’t know why I was doing it. The second reason is that Brexit made Facebook a pretty ugly place to be (partly my own fault) and I was happy to step back a bit from Social media as my own life changed direction.
The main thing that held me back from typing regularly was our move to Germany. Moving is stressful enough, but changing countries in the way we chose to do it, with a thin safety net, and a child is on a level I’ve never been to before, which is possibly why in March I ended up bed ridden with fever and burn out 2 weeks before the Zurich marathon. We moved to the German border with France and Switzerland, and although eventually training and living in 3 countries has been beyond special in so many ways, getting used to 3 countries was beyond stressful.
To be honest there was no real training for the first 4 months. I entered 3 races and my run of DNSs carried on to a number that when added to my DNFs is about as much as the pound has fallen against the Euro since Brexit. Remain!!! There’s too much I could write about how difficult (real life difficult and not Triathlon difficult) the move was, but this is a Triathlon blog and not a moan so I will leave that to the imagination. But all I will say is that I got sick really badly 4 times (proper cold here in Winter) and had my first dose of actual bed ridden Burn out.
But life did settle down, and when it did what I was left with was a look at Triathlon training paradise. This region of Germany has produced Norman Stadler, Sebastian Kienle and the current coach of Kienle, Ronnie Schildknecht and 5th Place in Kona 2016 Andi Böchere. They are based where I work in Zurich which is also a training paradise, but back
to where I live in Germany where I am a 20min ride from a mountain at 1200m another at 1400m is a 2hr ride, the Grand Ballon (the only uncategorised climb to be used in this part of France during the Tour) is part of a 5hr ride, and you can find a gradient, type of climb or hours of Flat in France that
cover every base. I live at the top of a 700m, 10 min climb which leads to km upon km of designated cycle lanes or clear roads.
When I run, I run in trails and don’t see one person for 3hrs and I’m yet to run the same route twice. Enough gloating! But all this woke up my love for training and as time and energy became available, I looked at the calendar and realised I still had 3 months I could use to get fit for an Ironman, and the obvious choice was Zurich. I knew that I didn’t have time to get to a level where I would feel comfortable racing at Elite level, but I knew I could compete well so I went for an Age Group entry, and I nearly shat my pants when I looked at the price. Are you fucking kidding me!!! Nearly £800! All the love I had found nearly ran away with the Credit Card as I considered the cost. This is an aspect of the Sport I hate. It’s selective about who it lets in and that’s not what sports about. But I did it, and in doing it I knew that if this race didn’t work out it would be the last time I waste this amount of money again.
As I started training what I couldn’t believe was how quickly the environment was bringing me on. It was fun to train hard, and even though my time was limited I could push, and that tied in with how well I planned for this block meant that momentum was coming quickly enough for my confidence to grow with my love. When I say how well planned I was, I’m referring to the hours of research I did across all sports to put together a very specific periodised plan that was going to maximise very little volume. Every aspect I could control I did and every limit I knew I could reach I did, and 1 month out from the race I knew I was in the game. 2kg lighter than at any time before, Key sessions for bike and run were very similar to 2015 when they were at their highest, but this was tied in to the fact than although in 2016 my bike and run were lacking, i learnt to Swim. I invested the time and I learnt to Swim, and on top of that most of my work time was spent next to Lake Zurich, which is not a bad spot for a paddle. I was also training in a very choppy 50m pool that required regular overtaking and my stroke was adapting to this above the water, whilst maintaining last years below the water improvement. So although I wasn’t fitter, with all these things together I knew I could be competitive and more rounded athlete.
The build up to the race was smooth because I was able to stay in Zurich thanks to Lina. Thanks Lina!! And I felt good and able to push the negatives away quickly when they came in to my head. But Zurich is an emotional race for me. It’s the place that I finished my first IM and it’s also the place I DNFd by choice for the first time, and although that’s something I’ve only repeated twice since, it did start off a string of race performances that were very up and down for the next 3 years based on the mindset it created. When I stepped off the course that day I definitely lost something and my wife says the same. In the past I would only have quit if a shit covered leg fell off, and I wouldn’t have thought too much about trying to carry on either, but that day things changed.
So this race was where it started, where it could turn around or where it could end, and because of this everything was done to prepare, I went to depths of preparation that only my Maths GCSE second repeat had seen before, and because of that I felt relaxed. Please, please, please no mechanical. Please no fucking mechanical!!! No fucking mechanical!!!!
At 5am having got to transition in the top 3, and done my 20th transition walk through I wetsuited up 30 mins before the start, to stretch, loosen up, view the course from the water, get in the pen exactly where I wanted all in time to
feel I had the right kind of adrenaline. I pulled my googles down as my wave got closer, and all my adrenaline nearly ran down my inner leg as my googles had completely fogged over resting on my head. Try cleaning googles on dry land with no water and material other than neoprene and sand, but as the Swim kicked off it was difficult to make peace with the collection of Mucus that slowly sloshed from one side of my vision to the other. All that prep and planning but perfection was still out of reach! The swim wasn’t too hectic. The Age Group wave starts make for a much calmer strategic approach, and my strategy was based around holding my race Pace but surging to get good looking feet if they came past. That’s what I trained for and that’s what I got, no surprise in that really. I knew my gears and I used them pretty well and a high 58 min swim without much stress or energy wasted was pretty close to what I wanted. I surged and caught about 6 different sets of feet throughout the Swim, and I stayed focused and calm throughout and these were my only Swim targets before the race. I’m not racing with a watch these days, but i knew when I left the water it was a good swim because I remained focused, and I knew I was in shape to ride well given the way I’d swam and that was all that mattered.
The 20 practice walk throughs I had done in T1 meant it went well, I wear a long sleeve over top and that took some time to put on but transition was clean and unsurprisingly I got what I trained for. I hadn’t had time for too much long riding, but I knew I had built the engine well enough to hold a good pace on this course and deal with the climbs, but due to recent race experiences I was focused if not confident. Within 5 mins I was in a Pace line of about 5 athletes which I pushed to the front of as the Pace felt easy at the back, and I lead the group for a while before looking round and seeing them all there and a tad close to each other if you ask me. So I chose to play the game and not let my ego get the better of me. I slowed up and let the train come through before legally joining the back. The truth is that at times some of the guys in front were riding wheel to wheel and at times even around 10m I was riding so easy that I would drift in to the draft zone, soft peddle, sit up, put the breaks on, read the paper and generally do whatever I wanted. Then the group would accelerate away and I would have to put in surges well over race Pace. My guess would be that I was going between 220 and 325 Watts constantly whilst trying to stay legal. The refs weren’t interested in giving out cards, and as I was riding legally I would watch the refs ride past me, stop and watch the group riding wheel to wheel in front which would cause the group to drift back to legal distance and create another big surge. There was a lot of seen drafting and no penalties until one guy, who basically had his head inside the rider in fronts arse pad got carded.
Fortunately I expected all this as from what I’ve heard it’s basically the norm now at Ironman Age Group races, so mentally I was prepared and I excepted that the best thing to do was to stay smart, as legal as possible, and to make sure that if anyone did break off the front I could bridge to them and ride at a faster pace than I was. The whole ride was a mix of these surges and that mixed in with all the climbing in Zurich, meant that my overall avg power was lower than I wanted but it was full of surges which I’m sure in the end took something off of my run. In the end the bike was 5-10 mins slower than I expected. 4 years earlier and less fit I rode a 4.56, but I excepted it for what it was and I had managed to stay focused enough to remain at the front of the group as it really started to break up around 140k. On top of that I was accurate with all my Carbs (around 87g per hr) and although a little behind with my water intake, I was aware of this and could respond to it quickly on the run.
As the run started it was 28 degrees and the sun was out, but I live in this climate now and I have spent many days training in the low to mid 30s. But I was low on water, and what training in the heat has taught me is that I need to be hydrated to hold pace and things can turn ugly pretty quickly if I’m not. On top of that the mental black hole I went to at the start of the run was a big shock. During the taper as reality began to dawn, I managed to hide well what the stress and pressure of this race meant to me, but the truth was that with so much going wrong last year and the cost of it emotionally and financially for me and my family, there was no room for error at this race. When you have a family to provide for Triathlon is a luxury if you’re at my level. Last year I got close to breaking even, but not close enough to justify being tired and miserable for large parts of the year. If I didn’t finish I knew I wouldn’t do another Long Distance race like this. These events are a choice, the time and energy cost is a choice, there is no real suffering in it, just a very personal, measurable way to test your work ethic and fight. I love the self discovery, the planning, the individuality and the adventure of Ironman but it is very hard on your wallet and body, not always healthy and extremely dominating. Despite this I love the sport, it will define the things I feel proudest of during this time of my life, and I will be involved in it long after I’ve stopped racing. My racing goals remain very important to me, and the pressure of what this race meant to me hit me like the stink of the Porterloos cooking in the heat.
I wanted to quit after 5k of the run, I felt like I was running well and not great, but the real problem was in my head. I just couldn’t stop wanting to quit. This dragged on for the first 20k almost non stop and it was draining. I thought I was stronger than that, and this also became part of the problem as well. Looking back a big part of this mental battle was that for me, when I stepped off the race course in 2014, around 20k funnily enough, I lost something. The reasons I stepped off were because I had lost the respect I had for the sport, my ego had grown after some wins, and in doing this I opened up a can of shit so large and full of worms I fell in and lost sight of the exit. This tied in to my slight dehydration actually gave me a way out as I started a run/walk strategy very early. To get my water and sanity in I walked each aid station from the third one I came to, making sure I got a lot of water in the mouth not on the face as well as a good amount on my head to keep my core temperature down. I would walk for about 15 sec per aid station, and breaking the run down in this way gave me small makable targets that freed my brain up. I also managed to engage all the meditation and visualization I’ve been practicing, my wife also showed up with my boy at the end of the 2nd lap and all of this together meant my head cleared completely. I kept taking a gel every 20 mins and managed to get my hydration level right and then it just flowed. It was uncomfortable and I still had to feel the doubt creep in and out of my head, but I was in control and I knew I would finish strong.
I had an idea in my head I was in top 15 but I obviously wasn’t sure given the looped course, and by this point I had one gear and I knew I was using it and pushing it as hard as I could, but my head was so clear for the last 1/2 marathon when I look back now it’s a bit wierd. I wasn’t confident, but I wasn’t afraid and I was acting very logically with my choices and decisions. The last lap was riddled with cramps which probably cost me 2-3 mins. There were 2 reasons for the cramps and both are linked to fitness. I had the ability to run the last 10k quicker and I was until I cramped, and this is down to the fact I had built the engine with high intensity sessions without quite enough long runs to support the effort I was producing. The cramps maybe cost me 2-3 places but I don’t care. This result is my best result in an Ironman and on my least amount of training, and when I crossed the line and collapsed I felt that, turned around and screamed. Not something I’ve done before.
Swim-2.5 per week. 6-8k
Bike-3 per week-190k
Run-3 per week-50k
When I look back, from start to finish I made two bad decisions, I didn’t drink enough on the bike, and I left my googles on top of my head for too long, but that was it and they were both corrected quickly. Every decision to surge on the Swim or the bike, how much water to be carrying up the climbs, my pre race meal, my gearing on the bike, my choice of kit, which surges to follow, right down to the 10 seconds I counted out each time I stopped to stretch my Hamstring cramps in the last 5k. I prepared for everything better than I ever had before and I got away with less training. Writing this now 9 days on I am still totally fucked, which is new. My body has healed but my hormones and stores are all over the shop. This took more out of me than anything I’ve done before and it’s only writing this, in hindsight I can allow myself to see what it meant. I love this sport, I love racing and I’m not ready to give it up yet. This gives me the chance to race again, set another goal and that will be all I focus on. I think I’ve found the right formula for me and with more smart volume I can compete in the top 10, and from there see which other goals I can reach with the years and energy I have left. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this race it’s that the opportunity to do 1 Ironman is very special, it’s a luxury, it’s an opportunity and although it’s wrapped up and packaged in a nice way for us to pay up asap, it’s worth making sure you’re not just prepared physically, but that you’re doing it for the right reasons.
IM Argentina in Dec it is then!