"How does it feel to finish an Ironman?"
I’ve asked myself that question a couple of years ago and 2019 was the year to find out the answer.
So, that’s how in August 2019 I found myself in Copenhagen, ready to experience the feeling of becoming an Ironman, having one last nervous shit before the swim start and taking in the smell of fear of my fellow athletes.
The 4 months before were nothing but intense with a crazy amount of training. Having a challenging job (50+ hours and lots of weekends on the road) and still trying to get 2 workouts in per day is not that easy. Getting up at 6am, going for a 2h bike session, working for 10 hours and hitting the pool in the evening for 1.5h was a normal day for me and after a while it actually became sort of a routine - even up to the point where you feel bad when you take a day off training. I quickly became addicted to this post-workout feeling once you start seeing progress and it feels just great to cross off yet another session on your plan. On top of that, I have turned into a supplement maniac, taking 5 pills every morning and putting all the protein into my body. After all, this was going to be the machine that I needed to perform at it’s best so it would take me across the finish line.
An Ironman Triathlon is widely regarded as one of the most challenging and physically demanding single-day sporting events in the world. It’s not at all difficult to understand why when you take a look at the tasks to check off within the total cut off time of 17 hours: a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, topped off by a marathon.
For me, the journey has started 5 years ago with the purchase of roadbike off a Tour de France team and getting interested in endurance competitions. Before even thinking about a full distance Ironman, I was testing the waters with an Olympic distance Triathlon - that’s when I got hooked and learned a lot about training and nutrition. Soon after, I signed up for a 70.3 Ironman event and it slowly dawned on me that all these steps were leading to one finish line: that of a full distance Ironman.
August 20th, 2019
"EVERYONE HAS A PLAN UNTIL THEY
GET PUNCHED IN THE FACE"
... and boy, did I get punched. Had a flat tire 3k into the bike, nearly got a penalty for wild peeing and after 100k on the bike my legs and back were in big pain. The run was after 20k a mix of hooks and face hits for about 2.5h. Well, forget the plan and better imagine the win. Visualize that finish line and you can take all those hits.
Fast forward to Copenhagen, T - 1 day.
Me and Harri G. (another weirdo with the shared appetite for pain) arrived in Copenhagen 3 days before race day. The nervousness level was increasing by the hour and we tried to distract ourselves with preparing our bikes and gear. You know how they say ‘do not change any settings on your bike shortly before the race’. Well, when you are hours away from the biggest challenge in your life you forget about all the good advice. So I went ahead and changed my entire bike set-up, from saddle to handlebar 48 hours before the race. I mean, 48 hours is not shortly before, that starts around 36 hours, right?
You also begin to show symptoms of a beginning OCD - you are convinced you have to see the swim start and have to get into the water for a last training session. Total nonsense obviously, but it helps you cope with the little guy in your head who freaks you out. Anyways, after picking up the start numbers and getting the bike into Transition Zone 1, time for the last supper before an early wake-up on race day. I was actually thinking about having a glass of wine for dinner, but then reminded myself of the two weekends before when I had to step up my drinking game in order to rule the dance floor at weddings. So that was a ’no’ for wine.
I kept wondering why I was nervous. It’s not like I was going for the win and behind me lay some intense months of training. I guess there was still some doubt in me if my body would make it to the finish line. With a lot of people knowing about it, I could not disappoint them and come back without finishing. Also, I was simply nervous of the unknown: being in a competition for 12 hours straight, performing on an intense physical and mental level, actually running a marathon for the first time ever. Yes, I had never completed any of the distances separately before and now I had to do all three, back to back. Not sure if that was a smart choice.
All I could do know is trust in my supplements. Watching my idol Lionel Sanders in his struggle for the best raceday nutrition, I came up with my own plan to survive the day. Besides all the gels and powders, I also managed to sneak in a small goody for transition zone 2: Bread with cheese, mustard and tomato paste. Let’s see if that will be the magic mixture to get me through the marathon.
Race Day. Am I an Ironman?
The big day starts with an early alarm at shortly after 4am. I haven’t slept much (I guess about 3-4h), but also didn’t expect anything else. I have prepared a small breakfast the night before (porridge with fruits) and forced myself to eat it. Any carbohydrate I can preload counts (after having started to carb-load days before, obviously).
Harry and I have pre-ordered a taxi to get us to the start area which also worked as transition zone 1 where we placed our bikes the day before. The biggest challenge right now is to get distracted from the madness that is about to go down. We go see our bikes and finish the last preparations (pumping tires, mounting energy gels on the bar, filling the bottles, attaching shoes to the click-ins). Now, time for a last but very important toilet session. The lines are massive and don’t ask about the smell. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Next up, jumping in the neo and gathering in the start block, slowly moving towards the start line. Oh and yes we had chosen this cap colour on purpose, just looks dope (and also was the one for our forecasted swim time). The moderator does a great job to animate and motivate the athletes and the crowd. One thing he says will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day. He quotes the infamous Mike Tyson: 'Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ This will become my mantra for the next 12 hours.
07.33 AM | SWIM START
What a feeling: Jumping into the water with the certainty that you and your body will be under stress for at least the next 12 hours. This is quite a unique situation, giving you goosebumps, scares you and setting free tons of adrenaline at the same time. I guess that’s what you need when you have no idea what to expect and where you will be at the end of the day.
To my surprise the swim went surprisingly well and I am leaving the water earlier than expected (pro-tip: training helps). The water tasted a bit nasty and you had the occasional physical contact with other athletes, but in the end I was surprised with my swim time: X.xx hours. It was quite entertaining to see people losing their sense of orientation, crossing in font of you, or coming straight at you.
First thing out of the water - finding a toilet. Apparently, I drank a lot of that nasty water so I had to pee right away. Fun fact: this is actually the first of eight pees in the entire race. Afterwards I calculated that I could have saved at least 20min if I would have just let it go every time like the pros do. Damn it!
"WHAT ARE THE F***ING ODDS..."
... of getting a flat tire for the first time ever on your most important day?
... of peeing in the middle of nowhere and getting busted by a race marshal?
08.51 AM | TRANSITION TO BIKE
After the great swim, I was really pumped to jump on the bike and tackle the two loops on the 180km round course. Especially because I came out of the water before Harry which had never happened before in a race. Well, 3km into the bike, all the momentum was gone and I was actually close to giving up. First left turn and I had a flat tire. This took me roughly 15min to fix and another 5min at the next aid station to properly pump it up again. Some would think ‘why did it take you that long’. Well, let’s assume you have never changed a tube in your life and thought that there is no chance that you get so unlucky and have a flat in the race. Maybe I should have trained for that scenario once before the race, but what are the f***ing odds.
Harry used my struggle to overtake and I tried to forget what happened and get back into race mode. But then, my bladder called for a break after 50km in the bike. The rules state that you are just allowed to pee at dedicated areas around aid stations. Sometimes you just cannot wait for it, so I jumped off the bike in the middle of nowhere and started my business. Literally 5sec later, I heard a whistle. Yes, the race marshals stopped next to me and did not like what they saw - what are the f***ing odds. They talked for 2min and wanted to get me a yellow card (time penalty), but in the end just left it with a warning.
That warning worked for me and the next time I used the dedicated areas (and I had to use them four more times). With the bike not being my favourite discipline, it went quite smoothly up until kilometre 100. From that point on I couldn’t hold the aero position for long and my legs really started to burn. Feeling more and more exhausted, my pace went down and I was looking forward to a change in position and starting my run.
When you spent 6h on the bike just by yourself (you are not allowed to draft, so you are actually by yourself the entire time, no headphones allowed, nothing) people always ask me what I was thinking about. Well, I was under the constant fear that I am not drinking or eating enough, resulting in my body to run out of energy. This has happened to me before in a race, so I have prepared this time and had a full mealplan in place. The plan consisted of mainly gels, some energy bars and water. After 3h I was sick of the gels and I had to force myself to eat them. The rest of the time I was looking at the crazy time trial machines from some of the other athletes that sounded like a jet when they overtook me.
03.16 PM | THE FINAL CHAPTER - A MARATHON
You remember the special treat that I prepared in the beginning. Now I felt like it was time for it and in T2 (Transition from bike to run) I took out the bread with cheese and tomato paste. After hours of eating gels and energy bars, this felt like the special Christmas dinner from a Michelin star restaurant.
I started the run pretty strong and maybe a bit too fast. I forced myself to go slower and to walk at least at at every second aid station. Obviously this changed to walking at every aid station and toward the end there might have been some more walking along the course included.
So, what was the plan for the run? Pretty much to not f***it up at this late stage of the competition. This means, eating enough, drinking a lot and don't overpace. The atmosphere in the city was just amazing and it was great to finally see some familiar faces again along the street that helped going through the pain.
The cruel part about the run course was the 4 rounds with each round passing the finish line but not being able to cross it. But after 4 hours and 20 minutes running (this was actually the very first time I ran this distance ever) it was my time. It felt just awesome to cross the finish line and too finally be able to stop running or walking and just stand...
Well, it was followed by quite some pain when I started walking again. Also, while Harry was eating the free pasta in the finish area I was just sitting there and wanted to get a transfer straight into my bed....
08.00 PM | THE FINISH
What started with a wake-up call at 04.30 AM ended 15.5 hours later with a medal around my neck. That neck was hurting like crazy, something I just recognized after crossing the line. Seems like i should have put some Vaseline under my wetsuit.
This wasn't the only pain I was feeling. My legs were screaming, my back was giving me some bad signs and all in all I just felt super exhausted. All of this while Harry was eating the free pasta in the finish area. How is he doing this... I was just sitting there and wanted to get a transfer straight into my bed....