Taking on a first Ironman race
A couple of years ago, a group of friends were training for an Ironman. While I was in absolute awe of the amount of dedication and training it took, having never done a triathlon myself, I couldn’t help but wonder why they would put their bodies through something so extreme. Fast forward two years and I had just entered Ironman Switzerland. I’m not quite sure how that happened to be honest. Over the previous year, I had focused on 70.3s which was a distance that I really enjoyed and I felt suited me pretty well but something drew me to entering my first Ironman. I think it was a mixture of not knowing what event to do next and wanting to see how far I could challenge myself.
The training itself was a lot more intense than the training I had previously done for the shorter distance triathlons but it was nothing I couldn’t cope with. In May, I went on training camp to Majorca which was a brilliant experience. It made me realise how much my body could take training day after day and I quickly became so much stronger on the bike. I also realised that climbing mountains on a time trial bike with high gearing was, let’s just say, challenging!
I was back from Majorca and raring to go, clocking 100 mile rides most weekends, including what could only be described as a pretty damp and grim Chiltern 100. In what seemed like no time, we were in Zurich and race day was fast approaching.
When we arrived in Zurich it was hot, very hot. There was a lot of speculation between fellow athletes about whether it would be a wetsuit or non-wetsuit swim and finally at 8.30pm the night before the race, we received a text message confirming that the swim would be non-wetsuit. Coming from a strong swimming background, I was actually pretty pleased about this. To be honest, I don’t particularly like swimming in a wetsuit and recently during my long training swims, my lower back had started to hurt which I think was due to my wetsuit making my legs too buoyant and resulting in an arched back. I also knew that the swim being non-wetsuit would give me a slight advantage over the other competitors since a lot of triathletes relied heavily on their wetsuits for buoyancy.
Race day morning and I was up early and ready to go. All of our kit and bikes had been checked in the day before so I just had to get myself down to the start line in one piece. When we got to the start area, you could feel the excitement and anticipation among all of the athletes getting ready and I felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness. They had introduced the new rolling start for the swim which meant that rather than 3,000 people all starting at the same time, they would send 10 athletes into the water every 5 seconds until everyone was in the water. We had to stand in groups according to our swim time and I confidently placed myself in the sub 60 minute group. Once I was standing in position, I looked around me a noticed that I could only see men in my group, extremely fast looking men. I suddenly became extremely anxious and slowly edged myself to the back of the group. The pro men went first then a few minutes later the pro women were off and then they started to send my group into the water. Within no time I was in the water with what felt like hundreds of men. I got into automatic swim mode and just swam my usual steady pace. There seemed to be people everywhere and I was struggling to find water space to be able to actually swim properly. After about 200 metres, I realised why – I was overtaking people, quite a lot of people actually. I quickly realised the mistake I had made in putting myself at the back of the group. I carried on swimming and tried to weave myself into any gap that I could find. The swim was a two lap course and towards the end of the first lap, it had started to open up and I was actually really enjoying myself. After the first lap we got out and ran over a small island before jumping back into the water. As I ran across the island, I heard the commentator saying something about top three women and then heard my name being called out. I didn’t think much of this because in no time at all I was back in the water taking on my second lap. The second lap was challenging. As soon as we hit the first buoy, we started to catch the swimmers that had started at the back who were still on their first lap. It must have been pretty hard for them being hit by a barrage of swimmers and it was also tough for us trying to overtake swimmers and find space to keep moving. As I neared the end of the second lap, I realised I had made an error in keeping to the right throughout the swim as I was now on the right hand side of a huge group of swimmers but needed to exit the water to the left while the swimmers who were on their first lap would head to the right to run across the island. I took a deep breath and worked my way across what felt like hundreds of people, finally reaching the swim exit.
I was in and out of Transition 1 in no time. I did my usual trick of not being able to find my bike ( I swear I become momentarily blind whenever I am looking for my bike in transition) and then I was out on the bike course. I hadn’t cycled the bike course before the race but I had driven it the day before and I knew that there were challenging sections but nothing I couldn’t handle. It was two laps which was quite nice as I would have a few opportunities to see my supporters and I would know what to expect on the second lap. The first 30k was pretty flat and I just tried to get comfortable and maintain a steady pace. Then we hit the more challenging section and although there were more hills than I was expecting, it all went pretty well. The bike is always mentally challenging for me because I am usually out of the water quite near the front and then spend a lot of the being overtaken by fast cyclists which can be pretty demoralising. Although I was being overtaken on the bike, it seemed different today. I just reminded myself that I was racing my own race and I quite enjoyed seeing how far ahead I had got on the swim, especially when a Canadian guy cycled past me and said “wow, you must have had an awesome swim”.
Soon I was back on the flat and heading towards the steepest hill on the course, Heartbreak Hill. I was looking forward to Heartbreak Hill as I had heard so much about the atmosphere being amazing and it certainly didn’t disappoint. There were so many supporters and as soon as I hit the bottom of the hill, I could hear bells ringing and people cheering. As I made my way up the hill, the atmosphere just increased and suddenly I was cycling through crowds of people either side of me as I reached the top of the hill. It was at that point that I actually felt quite overwhelmed; I think the magnitude of what I was doing had finally hit me and I was buzzing.
A slight downhill, some more flat road and I was on my second lap. By this time, it was starting to feel very hot. When I hit the hilly section for the second time, I was really feeling the heat and starting to feel quite tired. I made sure I kept drinking as I did not want to become dehydrated. The downside to this was that due to the high volume of fluid that I was taking in, I wasn’t eating enough. In fact, I only ate half of the nutrition that I took with me on the bike and this would affect me later in the race. As I came back towards the flat section that led to Heartbreak Hill, I tried to change gear but nothing happened. I tried again and still nothing. I’d had Di2 (electronic gears) fitted on my bike a few months before the race as I was keen to ensure that gear changes were as easy and smooth as possible while I was racing so this was strange. I kept pressing the buttons but nothing was happening. I checked to see whether the battery was low which I was sure wouldn’t be the problem as I had charged it a few days before. Rather than either a green or red light showing on the junction box, there was no light at all. I had no idea what the problem was…all I knew was that Heartbreak Hill was getting closer and I was stuck in the big ring. I actually stayed pretty calm at this point. I decided that if the gears still wouldn’t change by the time I got there, then I would just get off and push my bike up Heartbreak Hill. When I got to the bottom of the hill, I quickly decided that walking up the hill was not an option so I got out of the saddle and moved my weight from one pedal to the next. It actually wasn’t too bad but I knew it would get steeper. Halfway up the hill, I saw my other half, Phil, and he started running next to me. He asked me if I was ok and I told him about the gears. He quickly looked down at my crank set and asked what gear I was in. My response: A bloody big one! With that I had reached the top and although my legs were a lot more tired than I would have liked, I knew that I would be fine, all I had left was a nice downhill followed by a flat section and then I would be back in transition.
By this point, my left foot had started to hurt quite a lot. I assumed it was a mixture of my feet swelling in the heat and being in the same position for 112 miles but I just hoped it would be ok for the run. By the time I reached the bike dismount line my foot hurt so much that I couldn’t even run into transition. I dropped my bike off and hobbled into the transition tent. This could make running a marathon interesting, I thought. I took my time in Transition 2 and then set off on the run.
The run was a four lap course and, given that I had never run a marathon before, I really didn’t know what to expect. In actual fact, it was great fun. Once I got out onto the run, my foot didn’t hurt anymore and I actually felt quite good. There were feed stations every few kilometres, supporters everywhere and such great camaraderie between all of the athletes that I loved every second of it. I kept the run very steady as I didn’t want to blow up and this worked well for me. By the third lap my legs were hurting a lot and my stomach was feeling the effect of too little food on the bike and too many gels on the run. I found the last lap the hardest but by this point I didn’t care, I knew that soon I would be an Ironman and that was all that mattered. As I came round the final corner, and onto the finishing shoot, I managed to dodge the guy that was breakdancing near the finish line (he had far too much energy left if you ask me!) and finally I crossed the line. I felt both relieved and incredibly proud of what I had achieved. Finally, I understood why people put their bodies through something so extreme.
Ironman was my biggest challenge yet and finishing it felt amazing. I enjoyed the experience so much that as soon as I finished, I knew that I wanted to do another one. The challenge now is deciding which Ironman to do next!
Jo is a Triathlon regular and has completed numerous other open water swims, runs and obstacle course races. We are proud that Jo chooses Stnky Bags for training and racing. Jo uses Stnky Metallic & Stnky Shoe bags. Check her out on twitter here.