On Sunday, I completed my first Ironman 70.3, so named because of the 70.3 miles you complete over the course of the triathlon: swim 1.2 miles/1.9km, bike 56 miles/90 km, run 13.1 miles/21.1km.
Pre-race: Keeping Calm
I was staying with my friend Rich, a seasoned Ironman. We woke up at 4.30am, ate breakfast, and were in a taxi on the way to the event by 5.20am. With the long days in Europe in May, it was surprisingly easy to wake up.
Arriving so early, we had plenty of time to attach our water bottles to our bikes, check tyre pressure, double check our transition bags, go to the toilet a few times, and head down to the start, keeping the pre-race nerves to a minimum.
The Swim: Take my Breath Away
With my wave start at 7.15am, I headed down to the start and jumped into the water … a little bit too early. The water was a cold 19*C. Apparently my watch was a minute faster than the organiser’s, so this meant I was in the water four and a half minutes before we began – and since the start area was about thirty metres squared, there was no room for a warm up. On the plus side, I got myself into a perfect position, front and center. On the down side, I was freesing. I treaded water, and tried to warm up.
Finally, the organiser announced, “Go!” and we took off. After a few strokes, I lost my breath. It could have been the cold, or it could have been the fact that I hadn’t swum in two and a half weeks due to illness. Either way, it was not fun. People were swimming over me, and I was gasping for breath. I was still gasping for breath when we rounded the first of three buoys in the first lake.
Moving toward the second buoy, I was still trying to find my rhythm when a swimmer to my right caught my eye. “There’s something wrong with that girl’s stroke!” I thought to myself, but couldn’t figure out exactly why, since I could really only see her out of the corner of my eye. The next time I out my head up to sight I got more of a look at her and realised: she was doing backstroke! No wonder her stroke looked so strange. But wait – if she was doing backstroke, how was she keeping up with me? I pushed the thought to the side and swam on.
Rounding the second buoy, I finally found my rhythm and began to make progress. I recalled years ago when I first went to a half ironman event and I had thought “1.9km is so far to swim. I might consider doing it if the swim were a bit shorter…” but on Sunday, I thought: “I am loving this. I am looking forward to swimming the whole 1.9km!”
The Austria swim is unusual in that you swim 1km in one lake, then jump out and run 200-odd metres to a second lake and swim the last 900m there. I finally got out of the first lake and began my run, where I had hoped to make up some time. However, the bridge we ran across was wooden and slippery, so I took it a bit easy.
The second swim was uneventful, and I exited the water in about 40 minutes, which was on par with my revised goal after my time sick.
Transition 1: To Sock, or Not to Sock … There was No Question
Running into transition, I was still trying to decide if I should wear socks under my bike shoes. Perhaps my toes would get cold without them! My mind was made up quite quickly however: the floor of the changing tent was wet from all the swimmers, which would have meant my socks would have been soaked through had I put them on. So: sunglasses, helmet, race belt, a quick sip of water and I was off, running toward my bike
The Bike: Finding the Cyclist in Me, Spectacular Scenery, and a Moment of Gratitude
I jumped onto my bike, and pedaled out. It was my first time putting my shoes on whilst on the bike in a race, so even though I’ve practised this move a lot in training, I was relieved it went off without a hitch.
The first part of the course was along the autobahn. Pre-race, everyone was talking about how there would be a great tailwind there, so not to get carried away and go too fast. At this, I was expecting to see speeds of 35kph. I was shocked when I looked down and realised I was pushing hard to stay close to 30. What was going on? Head wind… Of course! Murphy’s Law of Cycling: there is never a tail wind!
As I settled in, people started passing me. Not great hordes, but enough for the first negative thought to enter my head: “You still can’t compete on the bike! These girls just have more power in their legs! You should stick to running.” I pushed the thought to the side, replacing it with memories of hard bike training sessions I had completed successfully, put my head down and pushed on.
And then we came to our first climb, into a little town. Suddenly, I was passing people. I did a mental fist pump and said to myself, “You’ve got it on the hills! You have tenacity, technique, and far less wight to carry up the hills than anyone else. This is where you can compete!”
Then we went over the hill and a couple of heavier athletes sped past me. Okay, so I need to find a course with more uphill than down to compete on!
I cycled on, and was presented with the most incredible scenery: vineyards, castles, old churches, the Danube River – all highlighted by sunshine. I felt so blessed, and so grateful that I am involved in this sport which gives me the opportunity to compete in races and travel, and in this way see the world like few others get to see it.
I stuck with my nutrition plan, and felt strong as the ride continued – including on a big 8km climb. Here, I made the mistake of looking down at my speedometer, and freaked out about the slow pace. I decided I would have to push my fears to the side on the descents from there on in, in order to make up some time.
By the 80km mark though, I was ready to get off the bike and start running. Obviously I need a little bit more endurance training on the bike! 3 hours and 17 minutes after it started, it was finally over, so I swung my leg off the bike and ran back into the transition area.
Transition 2: No Time for a Sunday Picnic
I racked my bike, and tore off toward the bags. Well, “tore off” might be a slight exaggeration given the amount of lactic acid in my legs… I grabbed my bag, and read the inspirational notes my family had made for me, as I ran to the changing tent.
By this stage, there were a lot of people in the changing tent, sitting on benches and getting ready for the run. For me, it was socks, shoes, visor, gels, go! I was in and out before anyone else had stood up.
The Run: Finishing the Race. Twice.
It would have been 12 o’clock by this stage, so the sun was beating down. It was a hot day: 29 degrees, and the was no shade in the run course (as my horrific sunburn demonstrates).
I decided to let my legs settle into the task, then see if I could pick up the pace in the last 10km. In comparison to a lot of the runners on the course, I was moving quite quickly, passing a lot of people. But in comparison to what I normally run a half marathon in, it was a snail’s pace.
After 11km, I said to myself, “You’ve got 10km to go, let’s pick up the pace!” but my legs just would not respond, and continued to plod along. I looked at my watch: I was far outside what I had hoped to achieve before I got sick, but pretty much on track to run my revised race plan time. I reminded myself this race was about learning, pacing, finishing, and – most importantly – not doing any damage to my body so the rest of my season will go well – and decided to accept that this was the best I could do for the day.
So I plodded on, completed my second lap of the course, and found myself totally bewildered by a decision after 5 hours and 45 minutes of exercise: there was a sign on the pavement saying “Finish” and there was a man holding a handmade sign which read “Last KM”, pointing in the direction of a third lap of the course. I didn’t need to do a third lap of 10km, that was for sure. So I followed the sign for finish, went through the stadium, held up my arms in victory and smiled for the camera as I crossed the line.
I stopped my watch and looked down at it: my GPS showed I had completed 20km. What the? Oh my goodness, the “Last KM” sign!
I turned to an official – “I think I missed the last kilometer,” I said, panicked.
Obviously I wasn’t the first, so she opened the barricade and set me back on the course. I re-started my watch, figured out the last kilometer, followed the sign for finish, went through the stadium, held up my arms in victory and smiled for the camera as I crossed the line for the second time in my first Ironman 70.3 event.
Now, I know it’s not the first time I’ve got lost in a race, but don’t laugh: about 20% of the field (including one of the pro men!) made the same mistake. Some figured it out quickly like I did, and ran back onto the course to complete it properly without penalty. Others didn’t find out until the awards ceremony, when they were advised they would have 10 minutes added to their time as a penalty.
Anyway, my slowest ever half marathon time of 1 hour 46 minutes took my total race time to 5 hours and 51 minutes.
Final Thoughts and Thank Yous
So, how do I feel at the end of it? I raced a very different race to what I expected just a month ago. The illness I had probably took more out of my body than I thought, and I’m sure my fitness would have taken a hit from a week of bed rest. Because of the difficult lead up, I am really proud of the race I raced. It’s still a respectable time. And most importantly, now I know I can do the distance, with the right training I can take a lot of confidence into my next race and go faster. As long as I don’t get lost on my way to the finish line again!
Thanks to everyone for their support and encouragement – my wonderful family, my training buddies here and in Oz, my friends, my work colleagues, all the amazing triathletes I’ve met along the way, and my coach Scott. And of course, to the wonderful triathletes I shared this amazing experience with: Rich, Myles, Greg, Mark and Mike – you made this so special. Thank you.