TL;DR: First Ironman, trained well, had great support, did a mock swim in my hotel bed (officially hitting a new low in my classiness), completed in 11:55, did not hear “you are an ironman”.
Now the long version (seriously, I mean LONG)…..
Ahh, how time passes and replaces confident claims with hypocritical actions. Just last year, I was preaching how an Ironman distance triathlon would never be something to entice me, and now here I am now, on a train from Kalmar to Stockholm, writing away a race report of my experience of a full-distance Ironman.
I would have loved to attribute this journey to an idealistic sense of drive and ambition, but unfortunately I primarily have post-race euphoria (Mandurah 70.3 in Nov, 2015) coupled with beer to blame for the registration. The resolve to commit to this “mistake” came from a fallen relationship last year, worsened by an expanding waistline and topped by a desire to feel proud of myself. The healthy foundations to any major endeavour of course.
So I made up my mind in Jan, 2016, to focus on this goal and teach myself some discipline in hopes of a sense of accomplishment at the end. I could tell from the start list that there were only 3 Australians taking part in this race, including me. I was able to reach out to one of them, Pernilla, who lived in Melbourne. Through the coming months, we exchanged our experiences and kept each other going through the chilling winter and solo goals. Unfortunately, a couple of months before the race, she decided to pull out of the event for personal reasons. However, I’m quite grateful for all the support she gave me before and after this decision, all the way to my race day.
Considering the only half Ironman I had experienced had given me a 05:57 finish time, I started off with a target of 12:30 for my Ironman. At the time, I considered this to be safely aggressive since the rule of thumb was to double your half Ironman time and add an hour.
1) Busselton 70.3
Ironman Busselton 70.3 fell straight at the half-way mark to IM Sweden, so I figured this would be a great opportunity to shave my 70.3 time. But I was late to the party and ended up being on the waitlist. Not dissuaded though, since I was told that pretty much everyone on the waitlist typically got the entry. With only 11 weeks to go, I chalked out a plan and joined Perth Triathlon Club with a mission to kill.
Squad training with PTC did wonders to improve my swim endurance and speed, and strength training in the gym got my muscles working stronger during runs and bikes. Nothing makes you feel empowered like visible gains after the efforts put in.
With a few weeks to go and an upcoming taper period, I received a notification from TWA stating that my waitlist entry hadn’t progressed and I wouldn’t get a shot at Busso 70.3.
This was a major buzzkill and made me drop all training and get bummed out for a while. 3 weeks of downtime followed by my parents visiting me in Australia for the first time. Took some time later to re-evaluate my main goal of IM Sweden and decided to get back on the horse with a new zeal. Targets upgraded from 12:30 to 12:00. Ambitious? Very much so. Realistic? Why the hell not! Doesn’t hurt to aim big, just meant I had less room to slack in the coming months. Consistency over intensity. Always!
PTC was going into off season and considering there weren’t many upcoming matching triathlon goals for the other members, I would have to either go solo or find another way to get myself training efficiently.
2) Road to Sweden
With 15 weeks to go, I decided to pick a coach for myself. The intention was to be held accountable and have a plan with a clear purpose. 140.6 is a very different beast to a 70.3. No guesswork, no random volumes of ineffective workouts, no over-training at the risk of injury… none of that! And not just any coach, but someone I knew to be great to get along with, and someone I knew for a fact was a kick-arse triathlete himself. Enter James Debenham (JD), the beautiful combination of meticulous discipline, pure hard work and an insatiable love for beer.
The winter was picking up in full swing as well, with rains on their way. This did not make the coming months any more fun but on the flip-side, I do believe it helped toughen me up for the cold waters and strong winds of Kalmar.
16/05/2016 (13 weeks to go) – Got my plans sorted, got a bike fit done and figured out my strength training strategy for the coming weeks. Lock and load mothaafuckkaaaa!
As the training picks up, JD constantly tries to gauge how I’m doing mentally and physically. I am really appreciative of how he took the importance of this race to me as importance to him as well. It wasn’t just him dishing out workouts. This was personal to us both, and he was always looking to step the training intensities up or down based on how I was going. Good coaching 101.
The whole journey as part of James’s team has been an amazing experience. It gave me a stronger attitude to keep pushing myself no matter what, with amazingly supportive team mates on the side and a whole lot of fun to go with it all.
During the final month, James had to head to Europe for a couple of races, so we decided to catch up over a few beers and have a long chat about my race week and race day execution. This is the first time it ever felt this real and a part of me got a tad emotional. Not boo-hoo emotional but more like WHOAAA… kinda emotional.
Although this whole venture has been based around my personal goals and motivations, I was keen to make it more than just that. With that in mind, I started up a fundraiser page for a cause that was close to my heart: dealing with homelessness. To help push that further, I also committed to personally match 33c for every dollar donated.
If you’re reading this before Aug 31 2016, there’s still time! Please have a look at the link below.
There are other aspects of this journey that I would have loved to describe like THE DOUBLE PAGANONI, runs through hail, bike rides at 11pm, exploding tubes on long rides, swimming on 2 degree mornings etc., but I would need many more pages to get through it all.
I was glad when I reached my final 4 week block, lovingly called the “hell month”. Weeks with ~21 hours of workouts and over 5000 calories of eating a day! GERONIMO!!! Started slipping up near the end of this and was feeling mentally exhausted and beaten down. All I could do then was whinge to my coach and keep begging for the taper to start.
The week before my departure, my heart rate monitor stopped working and the swim goggles started leaking at every swim…. not the best time for these things to happen but then again, better now than while in Sweden. Bought a new pair of googles and my mate Dan gave me his spare HRM. I remember this inspirational story at 2009 Kona of an athlete that raced 3 years after a heart transplant surgery. I may not be running another man’s heart but goddammit I’ve got another man’s heart……….. rate monitor. #inspo
Final bike tune-up, test out the race wheels, and we’re good for race week!
From the moment I took off from Perth, I had a travel bag, a backpack, a camera bag and a bike case with me for 2 flights and 3 train journeys. This wasn’t my idea of fun and arm workouts were not part of the plan. With one train ride to go, I somehow lost the count of my bags and left my main travel bag in the train from Stockholm to Kalmar. DISASTER.
What followed was a bit of worry, quickly followed by the decision to assume my race gear was gone. I started practising swimming in 16 degrees Swedish water with no wetsuit and a borrowed pair of goggles.
The Garmin charger was in the bag as well, so was prepared to bike & run with a dead watch with no idea of speeds or heart rate, but I thankfully met an American triathlete, Steve, who offered me his spare 910XT! I was shocked he would offer it to me without knowing me at all, and not even caring about how or when I would return it to him. Greatly taken aback by the generosity and forever grateful for it. I hope that I can be that guy for someone some day. Worked out the data fields on it the night before and synced it my HRM.
Also bought some random shoes before the race and ran a couple of times to help break them in. They ended up making my ankles bleed which was easily fixed by having some band-aids around the key spots on race day.
The cherry on top was finding a place at the expo where I could rent a wetsuit for the day! Unfortunately didn’t have the time to try it out in water. This is me practising in the bed the night before the race.
I know…. I’m not proud.
There was one single race briefing with 3000 people, followed by a good carb-y dinner. I’ve never seen this before since most Australian IM races have multiple race briefings running everyday to spread out the audience. Although I must say there was something electric about having so many eager and strong athletes all in a room with the same goal.
Checked in everything the day after that and in a way, I was glad to get rid of the bike and know that it was where it needed to be. Before getting here I expected the red/blue bag issues to be a complex one that required thinking but it really ended up being very simple. Both of these bags were half empty for me with just the things I needed. No spare stuff, no fancy backups, no special needs bags.
Got 4-5 hours of sleep the 3 nights after getting there, owing to jet lag and all the chaos from the lost gear. Made it #1 priority to wrap up the prep early on Friday and be in bed by 7.30 worst case. Ended up getting 7.5 Hrs on the night before the race and woke up wanting to rip a polar bear apart with my bare hands.
4) RACE DAY!
Swim – 01:19
My left hand’s pinky tends to get a life of its own in cold waters and permanently sticks out from the rest of the wrist. Not the best swimming form, so I wrapped a bit of rubber band to get this in control.
It was 16 C water but without any choppy waves. Very different to last year which had a lot of competitors throwing up in the water while swimming! My first experience with a rolling start, so got into the 01:20 group hoping I would be somewhere around that. Final time was just a few seconds shy of that.
No warm up allowed in the water, so I followed JD’s land-based warm up routine to get that heart rate up. Got into the water and stepped right into it.
Happy with the consistency of my swim and I’m pretty sure that I would have never done a pace slower than 02:05 or faster than 02:00 (min/100m) through the whole distance.
Had my rubber band knocked out of my hand halfway through swim. Few seconds later, the same person kicked me in the jaw to reaffirm his/her dominance. Considering the amount of pulling and kicking I endured, I’m surprised Ironman swims don’t see any full-on mid-swim brawls.
The morning also ended up being pretty misty which made it a bit hard to see the buoys. Just tried to stick to swimmers around me and focused on not swimming too far away from the buoys.
I got a lot of feedback from others later that they were freezing in the water despite the wetsuit. I honestly felt pretty comfortable in there and I attribute it to the Perth river OWSs and the thick layer of fat under my skin. I recommend the former of those.
Bike – 05:54
The course was flat-ish with a few undulating terrains and maybe 3 or 4 major climbs. The winds are considered to be the main issue on this course but I reckon we didn’t have too bad of a day.
The course took us through viking graveyards, farms and most importantly the Oland Bridge (which gives a fantastic view of the Baltic sea & the Kalmar castle). That was good fun, especially considering that the Oland bridge can be biked on only this day of the year.
The ride was fairly uneventful except for the sticker covering my disc wheel’s valve that kept coming off. I wasted around 5 min in repeatedly trying to tape it back up so it wouldn’t hit the chain with every rev, but had to eventually rip it off. The aerobar grips started coming off later as well, I assume from the excess cosmic energy being generated by the race wheels (yes, I like to science). Thankfully no major mechanical issues to complain of.
Both my bike and run had only one thing on the borrowed 910XT’s screen: heart rate. For the bike, I wanted to stay around 145bpm, and for the run I wanted to stay below 153bpm. I occasionally checked the speeds on my bike when I felt I was going fast, just to feed my ego and give myself a mental edge, but the primary parameter was always the main screen with just the HR.
The plan was to stick to the numbers because the numbers were direct feedback on how the body was responding to the stress. I had to use this feedback to spread out my ability for the whole course, even if I felt stellar at some specific parts of the race. This wasn’t Dragonball Z where your body got stronger with motivation or focus or anger. You burn your matches up, you pay for it later. Simple as that.
When the watch said 179km, I got my feet out of the shoes for a wannabe pro transition. This was a fail when the course went on for another 2-2.5 km. Not sure if the course was longer than it should have been or if the GPS on the watch was off. Either way, I got a few funny looks and even made myself chuckle at the silliness of riding over 2km in my socks.
Run – 04:30
I had planned on doing the first 10km of the run on a super slow pace irrespective of how I felt. Went by perceived effort and stuck to a slow jog. After that, I picked it up a bit at went by MAF heart rate. Walked every aid station (except the last one) without fail. Initially, it felt forced but eventually I started looking forward to it, but having that plan did help me push past the urge to walk at any other time.
It was always fun to see the beautiful cobblestone roads near the inner town and an AMAZING Kalmar crowd on almost all parts of the run course. So much energy throughout the whole race! Hearing the “HEJA FREDERICK” (‘Heja’ means ‘Go’ in Svenska) chant was encouraging and you heard it at every corner of the run. I also managed to run alongside the race winner for about 0.3 seconds on my first lap. #Winning
There was a moment where my stomach didn’t feel too flash and I figured I could either take a dump or run/walk the last 15km feeling rubbish. Did the math and figured that if I lost 5min in taking a dump, that’s losing 00:20min/km for the remaining distance, but there was a chance of me making that up by just feeling comfortable. Took a 4min dump (timed it) and I have no idea if the rise in pace justified it, but damn it felt good! No regrets.
Left the nutrition to continuous judgement. Not sure how wise this was but it worked well. If I felt bloated with too much solids, I would increase the water intake and switch to coke for fuel. If I felt “hungry” with an empty stomach, bananas would be the go. Just kept playing with these three in different combinations and the body responded well.
The 3 lap course is a bit of a torture since you see the finish line thrice by the time you’re heading out for another lap of pain, but in a way it’s also really liberating to run those cobblestone roads towards that red carpet when you know this time it has your name on it
The 1st lap felt quick. the 2nd felt long, and the 3rd lasted for eternity. I didn’t how to bring up the time of the day on the 910XT, but had a pretty strong feeling that my swim was around 01:20 or below and that with the sub-6 slack created on my bike, I should be able to grab a sub 12 time with a 04:30 run.
Loved stepping on the red carpet and was so stuck in my own world that I never even heard the words “You are an Ironman”.
FINAL TIME: 11:55:20
How ridiculously amazing is it that they had an icebath for the finishers, and served you beer while you rested your lazy arse in it?!! I should add though that the beer was non-alcoholic which pretty much makes it barley water. Not quite as appealing.
I came back for the heroes hour after getting my bike checked out and safely tucked away with the rest of my gear. These were the 15:00-16:00 finishers, the guys who endured the most amount of pain and pushed when the support and morale was at the lowest.
The final guy to cross through and not make it within cut off was a Frederick coincidentally. Felt bad for the guy considering he endured the most pain that day, and also because he lost out on the medal despite having an amazing name.
Looking back, this has been a truly remarkable journey. I owe James a big one. I had plenty of faith in the process he laid out for me and offloaded the planning to his experience. In return he helped me smash my goals before setting new targets and repeating.
I’ll be catching up with him in the UK in a few days and sharing some war stories over a pint or five. Gotta love having a coach who’s not only badarse in the sport but damn good fun to chill with as well.
During this preparation, I’ve swum in chilling waters in the rain, gone on a 2.30am bike ride and run through a hailstorm. I set out to make me proud of myself, and I think I kinda did that with the help of some amazing friends and family. Becoming an Ironman was cool, but feeling proud of myself while becoming one was even cooler.
Time to enjoy a month in Europe and then to the next challenge, whatever that is!
P.S. Stockholm lost & found my bag the day before I left Sweden!! The world is too good to me!