Now that Ironman Switzerland is a bit more than a week in the past, I feel that I can write a recap of my experience. And then I promise I will stop talking about triathlons for a while and hopefully move on to more meaningful topics. While this has been a mindblowingly awesome experience, it has been just that. An experience. A very long day of exercise. I prepared for it, I learned a few things, I did it, I learned a few more things and now it’s time to move on. Ironman Switzerland 2010, here is what happened.
Marc and I got to Switzerland about five days before the race. Our hotel was in the University District which was a very calm neighborhood. While Marc claims that he had ordered two beds, the picture below casts serious doubts on such. Logically, we spent quite a bit of time in bed the first couple of days which is where I managed to injure my left calf by trying to self-administer electro therapy. The next four days were spent trying to recover from that injury. Zurich is a seriously beautiful town. It has a lake in the middle of it where people hang out at night to drink from open containers, sunbathe topless and swim. We did a bit of all, which confirms Marc’s thesis that it’s perfectly ok to be drinking alcohol in the days leading up to an Ironman triathlon. My family arrived a couple of days before the race which, thanks to my loving mother, resulted into immediate stress and anxiety. I love my mother but she literally showed up in Zurich not having slept for three days and with enough medicine to supply an entire refugee camp. She also brought enough “blown up” maps of the course to give one to each triathlete.
We got up at 4 in the morning on race day and headed down to the course with a cab. As I was changing in the transition area, I heard a familiar voice yell my name. My best friend Alex had shown up unannounced in Zurich to cheer me on. Alex has no phone or email so this was a surprise to everyone, especially me. With him and my family there, I had no doubt it was going to be a great day. I prepped my transition area, ate a few more things and then headed down to the swim. You wouldn’t believe how much one eats leading up and during the race. I am not exactly sure, but I consumed in the neighborhood of 6,000 calories on race day alone.
Normally in triathlons, the swim start happens in stages (broken out by age group). In an Ironman, everybody (2,222 athletes) starts at once. It’s an open water start which means everybody gets in the water, the canon goes off and everybody’s time starts being measured once you cross a line in the water. It’s pretty chaotic and I got kicked in the head quite a few times. I was slow alright as at one point I got passed by a dude rocking the backstroke. My strategy was to swim slow, keep my heart rate down and get out of the water as strong as possibly. It ended up taking me one hour and 24 minutes to swim 3.8km (about 2.4 miles) which I was happy about. And best of all, I felt strong and ready for the bike.
I took my sweet time and changed into a full cycling kit. The reason for such was that in my last half Ironman, I raced in a triathlon race outfit and then spent the next week icing my balls and admiring the sunburned angel wings on my back. I learned that lesson and stayed comfortable and padded the entire time. The bike ride probably was the toughest part of the race for me. Not because it’s super hard but rather because it’s super boring. It took me six hours and 32 minutes to ride 180km (112 miles). My strategy once again was to race conservatively and preserve my energy for the run. There were quite a few hills in this race which I loved. I pass everyone up the mountains and then get passed again back on the flats. The thing about Ironman cycling is that you have to be 30 feet away from the next cyclist so there really is no talking whatsoever. Part of the race was through these small alpine villages where many of the locals came out to cheer us on. That was truly great and helped get me through the ride. I made a point in showing my appreciation to everybody who cheered me on. And no, not by flashing people. I also spent quite a bit of time riding behind older chubby ladies, as nobody gets cheered on like older chubby ladies. Plus they ride at my pace. I was able to catch at least three waves thanks to that strategy. Note to self, do not attempt a two handed wave while riding up a 12% incline. That was dumb. I guess many people go through extreme highs and lows when doing an Ironman. I had many highs as I can get myself excited about just about anything and really only one low on the bike ride. I think it was at mile 70 or 80 riding on a long flat. I must have looked at my watch and recognized that I had just exercised for six hours and wasn’t even half way done. The trick is always to flip the switch and try to think about something positive again. I did that by pulling over, taking a leak, joking with some race volunteer and eating one of the four prosciutto rolls (the true secret behind me finishing this race) that I was carrying in my bike jersey. Then the next hill came and I got myself so jazzed up again about something completely irrelevant that I cried tears of joy when riding past some old bearded man with a giant cowbell. Ironman racing is a really odd experience.
I came off the bike feeling pretty strong, and changed into my running outfit. At this point I probably could have put on an Ironman looking race outfit. But I wasn’t an Ironman yet, so I switched into normal running shorts and a dri-fit shirt. That ended up being kind of a smart strategy as spectators thought I was a total rookie and cheered me on like crazy when I was passing others. I was the underdog. The run consisted of four laps and unlike with the bike ride, I had supporters everywhere. My mother, my father, Alex, my aunt, my uncle and Marc’s family. The run is arguably my strongest sport but I still held back for most of the race. My goal was to finish and I didn’t want to do anything stupid to risk it. About 11 hours into the day I probably hit my biggest low of the entire race. I think I was a bit more than half way done with my run and just felt really down. There really wasn’t much of a physical reason as I had zero stomach issues or cramps. I just for some reason let myself get down and needed something. At this point I already knew was going to finish the race, which makes the extreme low even more surprising. In an Ironman race you normally get to place personal support bags in two different places. One on the bike and one on the run. My mother filled that role during the race as she was waiting at that support station. While many people choose to place food, clothing or medicine in their run support bag, I had a personal note waiting for me. I had someone who I hoped could inspire me write a note for this very moment. So I stopped at the support station and had my mother give me the note. I read it, hugged my mother and finished the race strong and fast with the note in my hand. I ran the marathon in four hours and 28 minutes with the last lap being almost my fastest. I will not reveal who that note is from or what it said, but I can tell you that it worked. And therein comes the biggest lesson from doing an Ironman. It’s all in your head. While you need to get your body into a certain shape whether or not you finish the race will depend on your mind and heart. For me that played out in three ways. 1. I went slow at the beginning and didn’t let my competitive mind risk the outcome of the race. I stuck with my race strategy. 2. I had a smart nutrition strategy and was constantly eating. I probably consumed about 6,000 calories throughout the race and was well fueled until the end. Actually when I finished, I still had some left in the tank. 3. I rode my highs and got out of my lows as fast as I could. Truth be told, I didn’t have to fight too many lows. But when I did, I got myself out of them fast. I guess that’s a life lesson right there. Don’t dwell on the bad shit too much, especially if you can’t control it anyways. Do what you need to shift your mind, think positive and ride on.
I am pretty sure I sprinted the last three miles of the race. Everybody was waiting at the finish line. It was all a blur to me. I threw up my arms, crossed that line, hugged my mother, drank three beers, showered and that was my first Ironman.
The day after
I was pretty sick the morning after the race. Of course, my body hurt but I also had a bit of a fever and felt kind of sickish. I spent most of the morning in bed with my Ironman finisher’s jacket and the medal around my neck, and then jumped on the family bus back to Plettenberg. I will be forever thankful to my aunt and uncle for coming out to support me like that.
Finishing an Ironman was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I learned many new things about swimming, biking, running and mostly about myself. When training for something like this, you spent a lot of time by just yourself. That was good for me. I had at least five new ideas during that alone time which I am excited to pursue now. It also gave me time to think about all the wonderful people in my life, and I hope that I will appreciate those a bit more moving forward. If anything, I hope this makes me a little better of a person. Anyways, the actual race wasn’t as hard as I had expected. I truly believe that anyone can do an Ironman. You just have to want it bad enough. I did. Ps. There are so many people who I want to thank, which I will do in person. But let me tell you this, I know that many of you checked my race progress online, posted on Facebook, sent me emails, cards, goodie bags, and just cared about what I was trying to do. That means more to me than you can imagine. We all walk through life, trying to achieve one thing or another. Having people who care makes that easier and so much more meaningful. Thank you.