A personal best, and some lessons learnt

I can’t believe it’s over two weeks since the event and I have only just found some time to put together a blog update, several people have contacted me and ask for an update.   It’s partly due to the fact that I didn’t want to do a brief update with no real detail and I knew it was going to take me quite a time to compose it.  So, I hope you’re sitting comfortably, here we go:


The journey

Tuesday 3 July started at “dark o’clock” as we had to be in the van and on the road at 04.00 hours to catch the 08.35 ferry from Dover.  We had loaded the bike and kit van on the preceding Sunday with the 13 Team Bedford athletes’ kit and bikes etc. and only had to meet with the people carrier to make up our convoy of two vehicles and 9 people who were driving to Austria.  The remaining athletes and supporters, 42 in total, were mostly flying.  The two day journey took far longer each day than we expected as through Europe we had horrendous downpours leading to some accidents ahead of us which always seemed to take place in the numerous miles of road-works.  We had estimated an average speed of about 70mph but actually averaged only 53mph.  So, a couple of long travelling days but nevertheless a good experience.


Leading up to the race

Fitting in swim, bike and run sessions as well as signing on, going to the official race briefings, racking my bike and kit and having a couple of ambles around the Expo etc. meant that there wasn’t a day which didn’t have some time spent on a triathlon linked session.  Needless to say it didn’t feel like a holiday as such, especially for the supporters who trailed round after us athletes.


Race day

Having had heavy rain every day we were in Austria before the event, the forecast for race day was dry and hot.  In fact 30 degrees! (30C is about 86F)  We were all a little concerned as to how we would deal with the heat but all athletes were of course racing under the same conditions and had to deal with it in the best way possible and make sure we kept hydrated.


Race day actually began with my alarm sounding at 04.00 hours and breakfast at 04.30.  The restaurant in the hotel wasn’t its normal hub of chatter as everyone was focusing on what was ahead.  Some were making their sandwiches for the bike section whilst others were just having a good breakfast and trying to relax.  All the athletes and some of the supporters left the hotel and walked for 25 minutes to the transition area where the day before we had racked our bikes and hung our bike and run bags up in our allocated transition slots.  Over the preceding days we had also checked out the lake and tried to find sighting aids for direction during the swim and also familiarised ourselves with the routes through transition from swim to bike and bike to run.  It’s hard to imagine, but swimming in a lake with over 2000 other people means the water is choppy and the marker buoys for the course, although big, are difficult to spot from water level, so it’s best to find some tall, land-based markers to aim for.  Some of the team had also driven the bike course to check out the climbs etc.  Triathlon, and in particular long distance races, are not just about getting on the course and doing your best.  There is a lot that can go wrong and to avoid this quite a lot of pre race familiarisation and preparation is required.  I typically walk through transition 3 times physically before the race and then mentally ‘walk through’ a few more times, visualising the routes and my clothing change process.  It all helps to reduce pre race stress as I feel more confident about what I should be doing and where I should be etc. 


The Swim section

At just before 07.00 the starting gun went off prematurely and caught us all on the hop but nevertheless 2316 athletes started the swim.  There were some shenanigans as those who hadn’t positioned themselves correctly, possibly due to being caught out by a premature start, and those who would not go with the flow at the turns around the marker buoys resorted to a bit of kicking and punching, a usual occurrence at open water swims.  Some resort to breast stroke occasionally to get some more room as being kicked by a breast stroke leg action tends to make the following athletes back off or move wide.  The good news was that although the water temperature was above that where wet suits are normally allowed, the organisers gave the OK and all but a handful wore the full length neoprene wet suits.  At 1,800 metres, the turn point in the lake, I couldn’t believe I had arrived so soon, it only felt as though I had been in the water a few minutes.  After the turn, the swim back towards the lake shore was difficult to sight, it was in to a low early morning sun and trying to spot the entrance to the canal up which the last 900 metres of the swim leg travelled was very difficult.  It was a case of following my instincts and the feet in front until the entrance to the 30 feet wide canal became apparent.  At this point I knew I only had 900 metres to swim but it was both the worst and the best part of the swim.  The banks of the canal kept the athletes penned in and as it was also very shallow the mud and weeds had become very churned up making underwater vision non existent.  Also, as athletes know they are nearing the end of the swim they start to speed up and more kicking and shoving ensued.  However, whilst breathing it was possible to see the hundreds of spectators lined up along the banks of the canal cheering the athletes on.  The other strange sensation was that the athletes appeared to be creating a tidal flow in the canal.  As I entered the canal my swim speed increased and I could feel myself being dragged along in the wake of hundreds of swimmers.  I reached the swim exit ramp having had a good swim and felt too good, I clearly should have put a bit more effort in!  I managed a 1:07 split to the timing chip mat in transition (1:05:53 from start of swim to water exit).  With the swim done, transition (T1) began.


Transition 1 (T1)

Transition from swim to bike went reasonably OK but I know I can be quicker.  I collected my bike bag off the racking containing hundreds of athletes’ kit and had no trouble identifying it.  As well as rehearsing the route to my kit several times I had marked my bag hook by tying a napkin to it.  It’s always a good idea to make sure your kit spot is easily identified.  I ran to the change tent with my kit but noticed many people were changing against the outside wall of the marquee.  I assumed the marquee was full and tipped my kit on the floor and began to change.  It became apparent that the marquee wasn’t full so I gathered up my stuff and went in, although I did drop a couple of bits of kit and had to stop to pick them up.  Once inside the marquee I focused on a quick change and having donned my bike kit I stuffed my swim kit into the bag which I then deposited in the drop-off area, for collection after the race, and made my way through a well rehearsed route to my bike.


The bike leg

I started my Garmin (a GPS based exercise information device) and ran to the bike exit where once over the ‘mount line’ (riding in transition is strictly forbidden and getting on your bike before the mount line results in disqualification.  Athletes are also not allowed to handle their bike unless wearing a fastened helmet).  I got astride my trusty steed and settled in for the 112 mile cycle section.

Things took a bit of a nasty turn only 15 minutes in to the ride.  In short, I was penalised for ‘drafting’.    I had approached a rider, ready to overtake him but paused to allow a couple of riders to pass by before I could pull out to make my overtake manoeuvre.  This took a few seconds, but a marshal decided that I was drafting.  I am absolutely against drafting and never do it so I was incensed at receiving a penalty unfairly.  However, the rules of the competition do not allow an appeal against a draft marshal’s decision so I took it on the chin and started to work out how I could make it work for me.


Drafting definition: gaining advantage from the air/water flow from the athlete in front.  Drafting is legal in the swim and on the run but illegal on the bike.  There are different rules depending upon the governing body under which the event is being run but the World triathlon Union (WTU) under which Ironman competitions are run have the rule that there should be a clear 10 metres between the front wheel axle of two bikes.  So, bike A in front of bike B must be 10 metres (front axle to front axle) in front of bike B.  It is bike Bs responsibility to maintain this gap and once bike B enters in to this visualised 10 metre box, bike B has 30 seconds in which to pass bike A.  If bike B is successful then bike A must drop back to 10 metres behind bike B.  If, however, bike B can’t get passed bike A within 30 seconds, bike B has to resume its position 10 metres behind bike A.  The idea of the rule is that triathlon is an individual event and no advantage should be gained by working with other athletes and taking turns at the front of a peleton (a group of riders).  Typically when you are following a bike and are drafting in its slipstream you can maintain the same speed with about 30% less effort.  Taking turns at doing this means you can have fresher legs and reduce your race time but it is illegal in triathlon.  In road cycling however, such as the Tour de France it is part of the strategy which is why teams have about 8 domestiques (helpers for the main rider) who will ride in front of the main team player for the 100-odd miles of the stage, making sure that for the last couple of hundred metres the main player in the team is as fresh as possible to allow him maximum chance to win the sprint to the line and therefore take a stage win.  Drafting in triathlon is penalised with a 6 minute penalty for the first offence and disqualification for a second offence.

Needless to say, having unfairly received a first offence only 15 minutes in to the bike section, I was very twitchy for the remaining miles.  Draftbusting marshals travel the course on motorcycles, so do the press photographers, police, medics etc. so every time I heard a motorcycle I became worried even though much of the time I was riding completely alone.  I didn’t want to be disqualified (DQ’d) after so many weeks of training and with the first penalty being, in my opinion, unjustified I didn’t know how future run-ins with a draftbuster marshal would go. The really annoying thing is that for a few miles towards the end of the bike leg I had a competitor draft me within inches of my back wheel.  Unfortunately, there was no official around to yellow card him!


Anyway, the first lap of the two lap ride went to plan (apart from the drafting penalty) and I was able to note (using my Garmin device) that the first half of the lap was slower than the second half.  The first half contained some reasonably long climbs which reduced my average speed but the second half of the lap had some nice fast downhill sections and plenty of flat sections which allowed me to get my average back to my planned speed.  I had planned a 5 hours 45 minute bike leg which meant averaging just over 19 mph for the 112 miles.  The second lap held a couple of surprises as the temperature rose and the climbs seemed steeper than the first time I climbed them.  I had trouble eating my normal food rations as I couldn’t seem to get enough moisture in my mouth to swallow it comfortably, so decided due to the high temperature to take on more isotonic drink thereby increasing my fluid intake whilst also keeping carbohydrate and calorie intake sufficiently high.  The feed stations were reasonably frequent at about 20k intervals and I could take on board plenty of fuel whilst also using water to douse my head and try to keep cool.


The troubles begin

With about a quarter of a lap to go I started to cramp in my inner thighs and in my quadriceps just above my knees.  I have never had cramp in these areas before but the result was that during the climbs I had to stand rather than sit as whenever I tried to climb the hills seated the cramp started to dig in.  Not ideal, but I did manage to finish the bike leg in 5 hours 30 minutes averaging 20mph.


Transition 2 (T2)

Entering T2 I had to find the sin-bin and serve my 6 minute time penalty.  Whilst in the sin bin I stretched and tried to recover a little whilst also thinking through my transition and the coming run.  As the official gave me the OK to continue I went to my run bag and changed from my sticky cycling gear (it’s amazing how much of the glucose based isotonic drink misses my mouth and ends up all over me and my bike making it all very sticky) in to fresh run clothes.


The run

My stop watch was telling me that I was ahead of schedule and all I had to do was stick to my schedule of a 3 hour 50 minute to 4 hour marathon and I would achieve my goal of a sub 11 hour Ironman finish.  However, as soon as I started to run through transition towards the run course, I was aware of a couple of potential problems.  The first problem was that I didn’t have the feeling I usually get when coming off the bike.  Normally, after being in the saddle for a long time my feet suffer from pins and needles.  In fact they feel completely full of pins and needles but I can normally run it off in about 20 minutes.  However, I didn’t have this pins and needles feeling but the soles of both of my feet felt as though they had been continuously hit with sticks.  It took me about an hour of the run to get this to a point where it wasn’t quite so painful.  I’m not sure what that was but my feet were sore for several days after the event.


I headed out of transition and started to get myself ready for the marathon distance run.  I was adjusting my clothing and went to scratch my right elbow when I realised that although I didn’t feel that I had sweated a lot on the bike I clearly had.  Both my elbows were encrusted with sweaty salt crystals and this would affect my performance on the run.

As soon as I tried to up my pace, the cramp in both my legs set in.  It was clear to me at this point that the run wasn’t going to go to plan.  The run very quickly became a shuffle between feed stations and a walk through the feed stations whilst taking on-board isotonic drink, water, orange and melon segments and coke.  The cold wet sponges on offer were also put to good use with some being stuffed in to my run hat to try and cool me down and a couple on my shoulders under my top.  Some of the feed stations also had ice on offer which I used under my hat to try to keep cool.  The one thing I didn’t take on board was energy gels.  In hindsight, I should have not only taken in isotonic drinks but should have consumed plenty of gels.  A lesson learnt for next time.


The finish

The run turned out to be my slowest and hardest ever marathon with a time of 4 hours and 56 minutes, giving me an Ironman finishing time of 11 hours and 50 minutes including the 6 minute penalty drafting penalty.


I managed a personal best but didn’t achieve my real target for the race of finishing sub 11 hours.  I have spent quite a lot of time trying to determine what went wrong and think it was a combination of three things.  Heat, electrolytes and nutrition levels.    The only trouble with Ironman events is that I don’t do them regularly enough to try a different strategy soon and change just one thing at a time so my next event will have to be planned and practiced through the training weeks in hope that I can overcome the issues.  The trouble with that is I train in the UK and due to the time of year and location of the races the weather conditions are often very different and that’s something I have to take on the fly as I can’t afford to do lots of hot weather training.


After crossing the finish line and collecting my finisher’s medal I went in to the athletes’ tent and had something to eat and drink and collected my street wear bag.  This is the bag out of which many hours ago I took my wet suit, goggles and swim cap and put in the clothes I was wearing.  It was nice to get it back as it meant I had again completed an Ironman race and despite feeling tired and disappointed with my run time and overall race time I had arrived without injury.  For the athletes it doesn’t finish there, you have to collect your bike and run and bike bags from transition and there are other things to queue for, there’s the finisher’s T shirt, the certificate and you have to hand the electronic timing chip back to receive the deposit paid at registration.  Queuing isn’t what you want to do having just raced for hours but due to security you have to do it all yourself.


I met Leigh and found a couple of other Team Bedford athletes and we exchanged a few stories from the day and walked back to the hotel. I had a shower and went to the restaurant where we met up with more Team Bedford athletes and supporters and had a meal and then watched the midnight finish line fireworks.  Midnight is the official race cut off time and anyone finishing after the 17 hour cut off knows in their own minds that they are an Ironman but is shown in the results as a DNF (did not finish) and does not receive a finishers medal.


At the end of the day

The day took its toll on many people and although there weren’t many that didn’t finish (just over 300) many suffered the usual Ironman consequences.  It’s a long endurance event and many factors affect the athletes, such as the 30 degrees C (86F) temperature and for many reasons athletes’ nutritional plans were scuppered.  There were the usual gurney beds at the finish line with lots of medical staff and some athletes in need of intravenous drips.  Many athletes were OK apart from being knackered but on the course I did see the usual amount of people throwing up at the feed stations where the stomach just won’t accept any more carbohydrate gels and I did see the aftermath of one athlete’s woes.  Clearly he had pushed himself hard and his stomach, or rather his bowls just did what they decided was best regardless of his thoughts on the matter.  Not a pretty sight (or smell!).  It’s amazing what people will do to themselves in the name of Ironman.


The one thing I haven’t mentioned so far is the support, enthusiasm and general good feeling Austria gave to the athletes.  All around the bike course but especially on the climbs the roads were covered in painted messages.  People lined huge areas of the route and at the top of one of the climbs a local DJ had set his decks up and was rocking all day. He was giving non stop encouragement.  The run route was the same and people were out all day shouting-on the athletes.  Some of the locals had set out their garden sprinkler systems for the athletes to run through whilst others were offering water to drink.  All did this with loads of enthusiasm and encouragement.  It’s a great event.  In fact, entry for Ironman Austria 2008 opened midnight the day after this year’s race and the event filled in 19 hours.  That must say something about how great the event is.


The day after

Monday isn’t an anticlimax in any way as there is the official Ironman Hawaii race slots presentation at lunch time and in the evening the full-on awards ceremony for the age group winners as well as a dinner and a band etc.  Incidentally, Monday it absolutely hammered it down with rain, so the only day we spent in Austria without rain was race day.


Home bound

The journey home wasn’t as gruelling as the journey there but the two days were long days.  We took a different route home and came through some spectacular scenery.  I enjoyed the whole experience but as always it’s nice to pull up on your drive and get back home.


What now

I have planned and entered quite a few races for the remainder of the year, many of which are triathlons.  Although, I have also entered a quadrathlon (a triathlon but which also has a kayak section).  I will also get out on my mountain bike and no doubt do a few running events.


Next year is a different matter.  I have a few speculative plans but what I do depends upon many factors (watch this space!).  There is the potential of a very big challenge. A challenge which fewer people have completed than there have been people in outer space!  However, funding it will also be a challenge but if I can do it it should make fantastic blog material.


If you have any comments or questions relating to my blog please do get in touch.



3 responses to “A personal best, and some lessons learnt

  1. I’d eagerly been waiting for the blog entry – well done. Good (marathon) blog!…..Oh and very well done on the Mad-man thing too!
    Was the Draft Marshal a daft marshall? – I think so!
    Sorry you didn’t break the 11 hour target, but a PB is still a PB.
    2316 entrants – Where did you finish overall?

  2. There is a lot of great advice nested in this race account, something I can certainly learn from as I try to get back into small triathlons and build on that. Thanks! I want to invite you to the Accelerade.com community as well. Posts like these would be greatly helpful to the community members. There are also experts like Dave Scott there, who have much to offer in return. He’s engaged with the community and we are hoping to add live chat events with him in the near future. I hope you will consider visiting and sharing a post or two, or two hundred!

  3. Well done Nick, I’d wondered when the Blog was coming up too.

    Must have been a great experience all told.


    PS Chris is swimming in Nationals (Relay team) and has just got into finals.

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