Beyond the Comfort Zone: An Unexpected Ironman
Everyone knows what the comfort zone is, it’s that little bubble we all choose to live for most days in our life. For me, the 29th of July 2018 was not one of those days. Off the back of a disappointing Half-Ironman in Luxembourg in June, I struggled for motivation and direction when I resumed training at the start of July. I’d put all my eggs in one basket to qualify for the world championships and simply had a disastrous race. No excuses, just the harsh reality that I hadn’t pulled it off.
Knowing that I wanted to do a full Ironman in 2019 or 2020, the idea of doing one in 2018 with no pressure crept into my head. It then took very little persuasion from a couple of my friends for me to pull the trigger on a (rather expensive) last minute registration for Ironman Zurich. I went for a 26km run the following day and felt good, I might get away with this!
As the time ticked over to 4:15am on my phone screen I quickly muted the alarm and slipped quietly out of bed. For some reason, waking up early on a race morning is never an issue and I usually arise a few minutes before the alarm. Stumbling through the dark in an unfamiliar guesthouse, I found my towards the communal kitchen to make some breakfast. This wouldn’t be the tastiest breakfast of all time. But, needs must on the morning of my first Ironman, I knew that getting ample carbohydrates in the system was the aim of the game. I wolfed down a bowl of porridge, which I’d cooked in water and topped with a good spoonful (or 3) of peanut butter and a sliced banana. Not as good as my usual Bircher Muesli, but milk and yogurt on a day like this would have caused undue stress on the digestive system. I washed this down with a high-carbohydrate chocolate shake and a few glasses of water. Sneaking back into the dark hotel room I lay in bed for another half hour before waking up my better half and getting dressed for the race.
Ready to Rumble
Walking to the start area I was struck by an eerie silence. Surrounded by eager triathletes and their families, hardly anyone spoke a word. The general sense of tension and anticipation in the air led to some nervous laughs and unassuming head nods, but little else in terms of social interaction. After making a quick stop in the transition area to put my water bottles on my bike there little left to do except kill some time before the start. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone and ran into my friends Axel and David, two experienced triathletes who weren’t racing their first Ironman. Both suggested I get my toilet requirements out of the way sooner rather than later, so I followed their advice.
I knew full well going into this day that it was a bad idea, a very bad idea. An Ironman requires months of specific long distance training (which I didn’t have), it requires hours spent getting comfortable in the aero position (I’d bought a new TT bike a week before) and it requires careful planning and testing of a hydration and nutrition strategy (I’d doubled my Half-Ironman plan and added an extra Cliff bar for good measure). But for some reason, I felt strangely calm and confident in my ability to pull off a good race.
After a few swigs of an isotonic drink, and a final attempt at some meditation/visualisation that was interrupted by an over-enthusiastic Swiss-German on the microphone, I decided it was time to line up in the start pen. Quickly spotting Axel and David doing the same thing, we lined up together in the Sub-1hr pen, shooting the breeze about how beautiful a day it was going to be and reminding each other to eat and drink all day long.
No Turning Back
BANG! The starter’s gun went off and the Pro race was underway, all sprinting their way towards the first buoy as if it would determine the entire outcome of their 8hr race. It was at this point I began to realise what I was getting myself in for. If everything went well this race could take me about 10 hours, maybe less. Who knows how long it could take though if things didn’t go to plan? I was snapped back out of my thoughts as everyone started shuffling alongside us getting ready for the start. Since it was a rolling start we would be released 5 at a time across the start line and into the water, so with Axel and David we ensured to be lined up together and dove into the dark and calm waters together.
Anyone who enjoys open-water swimming will know the feeling of pure delight that comes with swimming at sunrise, and for the first 200m it was pure bliss as I tried to get myself in a positive mind set for the long day ahead. Spotting Axel to my left every time I took a breath, we turned around the first Swim Buoy together before all hell broke loose. The change of direction meant the rising sun was now directly ahead and was totally blinding all the swimmers. Carnage broke out as the 100 swimmers around us began fighting for a view of the next buoy. Feeling confident in my Swim and sticking with my positive mindset I felt comfortable leaving the group to my left and swimming alone. The ensuing 3500m were rather lonely, chilly and uneventful as I chugged along by my self in the calm waters of the Zurichsee. Taking the inside line on all the buoys, I could make out a group of twenty swimmers 50m to my left taking a slightly longer route. Heading round the final buoy I merged with this group of twenty swimmers and made contact with a familiar face; Axel and I had unwittingly swum the 3.8km in exactly in the same time. Shouting ‘See you on the bike!’ to each other as we exited the water, morale was high and once again I felt like I had everything under control. Little did I know, that would be the last we would see of each other for the next 9 hours.
Heading onto the bike I put myself into a positive mindset, knowing that it wasn’t my strength but that I could complete the 180km in about 5hrs30 and feel (relatively) fresh for the run. Flying along the flat at 35km/h I kept singing “easyyyy like a Sunday morning” to myself to make sure I didn’t pedal too hard and burn any matches. After about 40km I suddenly felt the urge to pee, this wasn’t good news. I didn’t want to stop by the side of the road, I had never practiced peeing whilst still on the bike. I tried to ignore it and hoped the urge would go away. To no avail, it became the only thing I could think about and I tried to figure out where and when I would be able to relieve myself. Pedalling became uncomfortable and the situation became critical as I went through a feed zone at 50km and spotted some portable urinals down the road. THANK F*** I said out loud, earning myself a few looks from the volunteers as I unclipped, threw my (expensive & new) bike to the floor and emptied my bladder. No more than 30s later I was pedalling again and back on my way. The next hour went by quickly and before I knew it, I found myself heading up Zurich’s infamous Heartbreak Hill. A short 1km climb at a 9% gradient where thousands of supporters and fans unite to encourage you. Crossing over an intermediate timing mat at the foot of the climb the speaker announced my name and suddenly these thousands of people were in my face cheering me on. To be honest, it was quite overwhelming. After spending the first 80km of the ride alone in my thoughts, the sudden rush of noise and emotion brought a tear to my eye as I realised, I wasn’t alone in this endeavour.
After the rush of emotions on Heartbreak Hill and the excitement of finishing the first lap of the course, things took a turn for the worse as my self talk turned to ‘oh wow, another full lap still to go’.
The ensuing 80km were never-ending, physically I began to feel the effects of the swim and the bike, as well as the heat, and mentally I tried my best to refocus on the task at hand. The second time up Heartbreak Hill was nothing to write home about, most of the supporters had left the bike course to go see the Pros on the run. Heading into T2 after the descent I regained some confidence and positivity as physically I still felt ok, and the need to pee again meant I had managed my hydration correctly.
Everything changed once again as I took the first few steps off the bike into transition. Both my glutes and hamstrings cramped up, and my feet went numb as I shuffled across the grass. I’d expected to feel rough coming off the bike, but not this rough. Up until this point everything had remained inside my comfort zone; the 4AM alarm, the bland breakfast, the pre-race nerves, the long ride and even the pee stop on the bike. But suddenly, that comfort bubble I mentioned earlier went BANG, big time BANG! I started the marathon knowing I was heading into unchartered territory.
Somehow, for the first 7km I managed to hold a steady pace, around 5:00m/km, which if sustained would see me run 3h30 and finish under 10 hours. It rapidly became clear this wouldn’t be the case however as the cramps returned in my legs and began in my stomach and lower intestines. At km8 I slowed to a walk through an aid station to drink some water. This would prove a critical mistake, as I was unable to accelerate back up to my previous cruising speed. The agony began, it was 1:30pm in Zurich, the sun was out and temperatures in the city were approaching 40oC. I’d been going for 7h30m, and now I had no idea how I was going to make it to the finish line. My body was saying stop, and my head was gone. There were 34km remaining (a distance I had never previously run) and I could barely muster up a 10km/h shuffle. On top of this, my stomach cramps meant I could no longer ingest any food to replenish my heavily depleted energy stores.
The only solution I could come up with was to shuffle from aid station to aid station, drinking water & coke and trying to ignore my increasingly bloated belly (I was later told it looked like I was a few months pregnant...). I finished the first 10km lap in just over 50 minutes, respectable considering the condition I was in. The second lap lasted forever (1h10m) as I stuck to my newly formed shuffle/coke/water plan. My mindset for the remainder of the race was just about survival, the hard-hitting reality that I wasn’t ready for an Ironman was etching itself into my stupid brain. I was regretting my decision to race with every single cramping muscle fibre in my body.
Anyone who has ever struggled their way through a run, or a race, will be able to relate to my next reality. My frazzled brain tried to calculate how long it would take me to get the finish line. But for some reason at this point your brain is incapable of doing the simplest of mathematical equations. Converting m/km into km/h and calculating the kilometres remaining at the same time becomes impossible. “Ok so if I do 6:00/km for another 25km, that makes 10km/h, so 25km x 6:00m/km = 150 minutes, but if I walk at the aid stations I add another minute per aid station, there’s 3 aid stations per lap, so 6 aid stations, so 150 x 6 = 900, and 900/ 60 = 15 hours, no that can’t be right, let’s start again... 6:00/km for another 2.5 hours makes...” and so on and so on...
Halfway through the third lap the porta-loos began calling my name and the calculations became irrelevant. I shuffled past a few toilets in a row, reasoning that if I lost my inertia I might never get going again. I hit bursting point around the 33km mark and formulated a plan to minimise the time spent immobile (as if the few extra seconds would make a difference at this point). I unzipped my tri-suit and pulled it over my shoulders as I approached the toilets, reached out my hand to pull open the door and braced myself for the inevitable stench that was about to emerge. As soon as I locked the door behind me, I realised I’d made a major mistake. Sat in the sun all day, the porta-loo had turned into an absolute sauna, the need to relieve myself disappeared instantly as there was no way I could spend another second inside a plastic shit-box sauna. Dry heaving as I fiddled to open the lock, I gasped for fresh air as I emerged back onto the run course. I began plodding my way towards the finish line at this point, regretting that I hadn’t tried a toilet-stop earlier as I managed to muster up a decent final 5km without any stomach pains. Entering the finish chute the only person I had eyes for was Sophie, my better half, she had weaved her way in and out of the crowds on her bike to try and encourage me throughout the marathon. Who knows if I would have made it to the finish without her? Across the line, I stopped the clock at 11h19 and change (an ok time, but nothing incredible by my standards compared to what I believe I can do) and realised I hadn’t heard the announcer say that I was an Ironman. Damnit, I thought, I’ll have to do another one!
Reflections on a long day out
Putting my first Ironman experience into words has been quite interesting, as the writing process seems to have reflected my actual experience on the day. The first part flew by, and the final part seemed to drag on as I tried to recollect what happened once I’d reached breaking point. Perhaps this is because I have tried to block out some of the memories of what happened once I left my comfort zone, and evidently only the most basic memories remain (eating and excreting). I learnt a lot about myself that day, both physically and mentally as an athlete and as a person. Despite the suffering and the discomfort, as I crossed that finish line, I was already resolute to train properly for an Ironman. I knew I should give it the respect it deserves in order to pull off a more complete race in the future. If you can take one thing away from this story, it’s that if you need to use a porta loo during an ironman, find one that is sat in the shade!