I’ve been doing triathlon relatively seriously for the past four years. For a lot of that time, people have asked me when I will do an ironman, and my response has been “never.” The very idea of six hour training rides has horrified me. In fact, the amount of training involved in general has seemed like an insurmountable task. But this year, with a new job, a new house, and now a wedding to plan for, seemed to be the perfect year to change my mind and sign up for my first (and, as I’ve stated again and again over the course of the year, my last) full distance triathlon.
The main draw card was the training partners I have: a group of girls living in Amsterdam who also do triathlon and are a similar speed (though they push me!) on the bike – and two of them (Janine and Annchen) were also signed up for Roth. So the solitary, boring, long Saturday rides turned into great social occasions.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, despite the companionship. As training hours peaked at some 20 hours a week, I was often too exhausted to enjoy any of the training. There have been training sessions where I have cried, and training sessions where I’ve seriously questioned my ability to reach the ambitious goal (11 hours) which I set for myself. There have been people who have questioned the goal which I had set for myself. But I have remained resolutely focused, driven by the thought: “Let’s do this once, and do it well enough that I never have to do it again to prove something to myself.”
Janine, Annchen and I all arrived in Roth a few days before the event and did a few final training sessions together. Apart from some serious taper nerves (“My knee! I just felt something in my knee I’ve never felt before!”), a fixation on the weather (would it be as hot as Frankfurt the week before? Would it be a wetsuit swim?) and complete anxiety regarding my ability to race, it was a good lead up.
The swim went quite well. I didn’t get kicked in the face or swum over. At one stage I clashed arms with someone in a green swim cap from the previous wave. “Wait a minute, weren’t there only pros in front of me? How well am i swimming?! Oh no, also the 65 year old men…” Then I felt like a real bully. I wished the guy a great race and said sorry in my head, and swam past.
I got to the turnaround point still feeling fresh and started the swim back. As soon as I caught a glimpse of the bridge we would swim under, I also caught a glimpse of my watch. “Wow!” I thought. “I’m swimming so well, the bridge is so close, I might finish in about 1hr12!” apparently I am not good at judging distances in the water – I finished up in 1:18. Still, it was sub-1hr20 and I was very happy.
I raced up into the change tent and was slightly overwhelmed by how busy and loud it was. But I changed quickly and headed out to pick up my bike.
Onto the bike and I was greeted by HUGE cheers. Then I realized they were for a man just in front of me, cycling his disabled son, not me. I wished them a great race and took off.
I was racing with my power meter, and had an idea of the power I could sustain over 180km. The first five km my power seemed to be there, but after that it dropped off. Had it not calibrated properly? Or was the strength not there in my legs for race day? There have been many a training session where my power is just lower than expected… Looking at the time and speed I wasn’t too concerned. My goal was to get as close to 6 hours as possible. At this rate, I could hold substantially less power than my goal and achieve it. So I changed my goal to as close to 6 hours as possible whilst expending as little effort as possible. That would keep my legs fresh for the run, which is where everyone told me my race could fall apart, despite my running background.
The crowds as we passed through towns were impressive, but I was most excited to get to the town of Greding, where our support crew was waiting: all three of us girls’ other halves. It also happened to be the toughest climb of the course. As I turned the sharp corner and started up the hill, I flicked into the smallest gear – no need to burn my matches so early. I saw the three guys ahead, and their cheering gave me a huge boost.
I needed it. The hill flattens out a bit after I saw them, but stays a gentle climb for quite some kilometers. And it was into a headwind. I watched my time start to slip off the pace …
Next up was the steepest descent of the course. Anyone who has cycled hills with me knows I am not a great descender, with my hands constantly on the brakes. But in a race, I overcome my fears and I flew down the hill to bring my time back up.
Unfortunately around the 60km mark my stomach started cramping up. I’m not sure what caused it, but it felt like hands were wringing out my stomach. Not good, but hey, I still had four hours to cycle, so I figured it would calm down. I stayed off the nutrition as long as I felt was possible, hoping sticking to water would help the stomach. It didn’t. And I couldn’t stay off nutrition all day, or I would bonk, so I started drinking my nutrition again after about 60 minutes.
As I started my second loop though, I did feel a second wind and took advantage. I was about three minutes off pace, but over 90 km that was not bad. I made up some of the time, and was in good spirits when I passed our support crew for the second time. The wind had really picked up though, so now the continued ascent was tougher – and for most of the rest of the course we faced a headwind. I watched the time carefully, but was still off the pace. The chances of me going under 6 hours were disappearing … would 11 hours still be possible?
Around 155km is the second time you experience the famous Solar Hill. It’s every competitor’s opportunity to feel like they’re in the Tour de France. A relatively short, but steep stretch of hill rises before you, with pedestrians lining the sides, almost touching, only to part as the triathletes come through. They are cheering so much it is deafening. The first round, I tried not to get too caught up, as I know too many stories of people getting too excited and going too hard, only to regret it later. The second time, I really reveled in the moment, a huge smile splitting my face as spectators cheered me on. The emotion hit me – what a fantastic opportunity I had to race this course!
Over the hill and to the home stretch. I was relieved when the transition was finally in view and it suddenly it was over … In 6 hours 7 minutes. I stumbled off the bike. My legs were heavy and wobbly, but every long ride I had followed with a run, so it was a familiar feeling.
Transition was amazing. I saw a sea of competitor bags in front of me, and was trying to figure out where mine would be, when I looked up and saw a young girl holding up a bag with my race number on it. She beckoned me, and I followed her into the tent. She hustled me to the far end of the room, and emptied the bag out. “Right, what do you need?” she asked.
After she’d helped me take out what I needed and repack my cycling kit, she then set me on the right path to run.
Onto the run course, my legs were wobbly, but not too bad. I looked down at my watch and saw I was doing my half distance pace, about 45 seconds a kilometer too fast. “Slow down!” I instructed myself. “You feel good, but it’s not the plan.”
My stomach was still in agony, but I hoped the change of position from bent down on the bike to upright on the run would help. Nope. My thought of taking on my gel had my stomach heaving in addition to the cramps.
A couple of friends from the Macca X community saw me and cheered me on, which helped me ignore the pain for about … twenty seconds.
I thought to myself, This is crazy. What kind of sick challenge is this? My stomach cramps are so bad, I wouldn’t start a regular marathon like this. In fact, I wouldn’t even go out for a Sunday run in these conditions! What will the results say? They will be slow numbers which don’t tell anything of the pain I am in, nor of my potential as a marathon runner.
As I turned onto the canal path, I channeled my experiences from running two marathons: there is no wall, only waves of pain which come at you hard, but then recede. Just wait for the pain to recede. It’ll come good, I told myself. Pity party over. Just get this done.
Then ahead I noticed someone walking in familiar looking kit: it was Annchen, with her boyfriend Bram’s arm around her. I stopped and walked next to her to check in how she was: not good; shed been vomiting since km 120 on the bike. Did I have anything for nausea I could give her? Sorry, no – even if I did I would have taken it myself long ago …
I picked up my run again and not long up the road saw the other two guys. I handed Korneel one of my gels and said, “I don’t think I can stomach that! I’m not feeling too good.” I really didn’t want to emphasize how bad I was feeling, since I’d learned in Mallorca that my mind listens keenly to what I say aloud, and can magnify a bad situation…
After about 10km, my cramps still hadn’t subsided, but I was keenly aware of the fact that you can’t run a marathon on no nutrition – especially after 180km on the bike. So at the next aid station, I grabbed a coke. Now, I am the first to speak the evils of coca cola and soft drinks to anyone who asks my opinion, but my goodness, it really saved me. Another 2km and I was starting to feel better – even more so when I hit one of the turnaround points and saw Annchen was now running and not too far behind me. “If she feels better, so can I,” I thought.
I continued on and for the first time stopped feeling the awful stomach cramps. Checking my watch, I was a few minutes off pace if I were to make 11 hours, but I told myself the time to surge was later – as long as I was feeling good.
Around 19km I passed our support crew, buoyed to see them again. That would be the last time I saw them before the finish line.
I was really hitting my stride now, a few seconds per kilometer faster than my goal pace, allowing me to slow to a walk every time I hit an aid station and take in water, one of my salt & electrolyte tablets, and cola.
As I approached the bottom end of the course, another turnaround, Janine was running in the opposite direction. “I’m struggling!” she called out. A few minutes later I was running past her, trying to give her some positive words.
As I approached 30km, I allowed myself to look at my watch and start some calculations. It would be really tight to come in under 11 hours … Did I feel good? Then now was the time to hit the gas.
Once again, I heard my friend Frank’s wise words in my head: “Don’t think too much about the finish line. Be in the moment and it will come soon enough.” Truth be told, these words had been going through my head since about half way through the swim. Every time my thoughts started to drift, I’d pulled myself back.
Even now, I wouldn’t let myself think about what was 12km up the road – that was an hour away, and when you start thinking about it, an hour is a long time… So I brought myself back, just thinking, “Focus on kilometer 30 to 31. and then, Now focus on this kilometer. I thanked Frank after the race because I do believe that advice saved me from over-thinking (and ruining) my race, as I have been known to do in the past.
From kilometer 36 I really started a charge… Winding up the speed to finish as fast as possible. 1km splits:
4:44 … 4:32 … 4:40 … 4:36… 4:35 and 4:56 as I slowed down to high five my excited fiance, and smile and wave to the crowd in appreciation for all the support as I was cheered in across the line … In a time of 10:56:28, buoyed by a marathon time of 3:25.
I’m absolutely delighted with the result. But one thing which must be acknowledged is that this was not a one-man show. The performance is thanks to my wonderful fiancé, Korneel. Throughout the year, he has been my thought partner in devising my training plan, picked up household chores to give me more time to train, prepared my clothes or bike for training sessions, indulged my fatigue and bad moods, and generally put up with a fiancée who wants to go to bed at 9pm every night. He helped me devise my race plan, and filled me with confidence that it was achievable, despite what others said. He stood on the side of the road for almost 11 hours to cheer me on as I raced past. And he’s even proof-read this blog, despite hearing me tell the stories a hundred times already! Huge thank you!!!
Thanks also to my wonderful training and racing buddies Janine and Annchen. Without these two girls, I would never have thought it was possible for me to do an ironman, and I would never have had so much fun in training for one.
And of course, the question everyone is asking: will there be another ironman? Well … never say never …