To fully express the events of Ironman Austria there needs to be a disclosure of too much information. For this I apologise unreservedly and in full. But as you soon find out ‘shit happens’ (unless you want to skip to the platitudes at the end.
Feel free, I won’t be offended).
Ironman Austria was essentially a culmination of a two year plan involving getting fit and weight loss. Overall I’ve lost over four and a half stone and recorded the fastest times since 2008 over all run distances up to marathon. There have been some difficult times (not least the last three months of emotional upheaval) but I lined up at this race in the best mental and physical state of my life and with demons to bury from last years race.
It was finally time…
Someone once said you can judge the theme of your day by the ear worm you wake up with. Since the bar had been playing Smokies version of ‘Living Next door to Alice’ for days (Chubby Brown has a lot to answer for!), I wasn’t taking any chances and decided on a pre-emptive strike with Plan B on YouTube. It worked so well and couldn’t have been a more divine choice.
This year, IM Austria introduced wave starts. All the girlies were slated for a 7.15am entry. I had a nice leisurely wander down to transition, generally faffed and was just squeezing the rear tyre in an attempt to decide whether to put more air in when the ambience was disturbed by the loud bang of an exploding inner tube. Taking it as a sign I hurriedly moved away from transition and back to the hotel for breakfast before donning wetsuit and wandering down to the lake.
With all of the ‘wandering’ you may surmise I was relatively relaxed. Indeed I was until I got to the side of the lake at exactly 7.08 to hear a cannon fire and see lots of pink hats swim away from the shore.
I barely had time time to get my arms in the wetsuit when I’d been zipped up and dispatched towards the beach, hat in hand. As I ran into a throng of black hats (the last wave of the day M50-54) slightly less relaxed, various people shouted ‘let the lady through’. Many, understandably focused on their day, refused to budge and got the sharp end of an elbow as I battled my way to the front where the official (after clarification from shore) told me I couldn’t start until the next wave.
I turned to apologise to all those I may have persuaded to move, but they all looked identical in wetsuits and black hats so I opted for a Gallic shrug instead. Oh well. The result of missing my start was a delay of approximately five minutes. Since it was nothing more serious than that (and there was nothing I could do about it) I focused instead on relaxing and entering the water in a calm frame of mind. Swim – 1.51 clock, 1.47 watch
So, there I was meditating when the cannon went off again and I got ploughed by a bunch of men in a hurry to get into the water. Without any time to be indignant I got dragged into the melee, therefore ‘enjoying’ being in the middle of a swim start for the first time (as oppose to waiting like a wuss on the beach until everyone had gone).
Pointy elbows and breaststroke kicks were everywhere for the first five minutes or so until being a rubbish swimmer paid off and I was eventually left to enjoy clear water. And clear it was. If anyone can find a better lake to swim in than the Worthersee, well I would really like to hear about it. As far a contrast as can be got when compared to the green, sludgy, smelly puddle that was Holme Pierrepoint at Outlaw last year.
In a surprising turn of events I was rather enjoying it. ‘Plan B’ was playing in the background, the sun was shining, I was relaxed and trying to live in the moment. The swell in the lake was bigger than expected hinting at a breeze insistent on picking up. Sighting was much easier this time, and I wondered why I’d had so much trouble last year. And in no time at all, I was swimming into the canal and the final 800m.
In the post race analysis there were many tales of biffing and boffing in the canal. I had pretty much the whole thing to myself although I still managed to beach myself while attempting to wee in the wetsuit. Successfully relaunched and relieved I made it to the exit on the beach and was helped out by a plethora of volunteers and encouraged on my way along into T1.
The run to transition is a long one but I got there soon enough, found my transition bag and went into the change tent to dress for the cycle leg. Once done, I picked up Piri and was escorted out of transition by a marshal who seemed to be encouraging me to run. Laughing at his optimism I wandered behind him congratulating myself on the decision to change the pedals to SPDs.
Bike – 6.55
There is something so empowering about the yellow and black of the pirate colours and for everything it stands for. Their ethos of the ordinary man being able to do the extra ordinary is the primary reason I was attracted to them. As I put on my bike jersey, I was so proud to wear it and wanted to do it justice today. (although that ethos can be self depreciating. I particularly enjoyed meeting Garrs Mate Nige in the bar at our hotel last Thursday as he came over to introduce himself – “You must be pirates, you’re the only ones who look like you don’t belong here”).
I love riding my bike and fear of a mechanical aside, this is my favourite (and strongest) leg by far. Me and Piri against the world and this world was set to the beautiful back drop of the Karavankas mountain range to the south. I was promised something exhilarating and exciting as well as beautiful and it didn’t disappoint.
Settling into a rhythm on the flat section along the side of the Worthersee lake we had just swum in, my legs really didn’t want to work. They hurt and my quads had started to cramp. But more concerning than that, they had no power. I had an unshakable belief in their ability and my mental strength so I didn’t panic. I just started to run scenarios and options. Almost instantaneously my back started to cramp too. Only at this point did I start to fantasise about a mechanical giving me a graceful way out and a reason to stop. But damn it! I’d worked too hard to be here, so brought my head back to considering options.
I guess that is one of the wonderful thing about Ironman, it gives you time, plenty of time to sort things out when they start to go wrong. So, live with the pain or take painkillers and risk digestive issues later on? It was the first day of my period and the first time I’d raced in this situation. So I was fairly certain the cramping was related to that. I was only ten minutes into the ride and with a potential of seven to eight hours out there, I went with the pain killers in the hope it would help. And it did enough to dull the pain.
I was comfortable on Piri, I had enough to eat and drink (the magic concoction of peanut M&Ms, Powerbar Ride shots and a salted cracker/pretzel mix stolen from the bar the previous evening). The scenery was spectacular and the road surface fabulous.
Being a shit swimmer gives a distinct advantage of having people to catch on the bike so I focused on the person ahead and rode the course to give my legs as easy a ride as possible while still making progress. There were more inclines than expected but I relished them, especially passing many people from various countries who had apparently never seen a hill (five grand bike, fifty pence legs).
But the real advantage came downhill. Austria is blessed with many long, sweeping descents and with a trusted bike, a bit of bravado and slight gravitational advantage I made the most of them. Piri held her line true and never let me down, as time and again I threw her into corners and out again pedalling hard when others coasted along.
The hardest bits bizarrely were some of the flats where the headwinds made themselves known and we were all grinding along at 13 miles an hour. Taking heart that I was still gaining on the riders in front of me, it was head down and arse up until the riding got easier again. The second part of the loop takes you up the famous Rupertsberg. A combo of Ditchling Beacons length and Box Hills gradient with a couple of shorter steeper sections. Not anywhere near as bad as feared and with a DJ rocking tunes at the top it was soon climbed and we were rewarded with the sweetest 10 mile descent back to town and the turn around for the second loop.
At this point I reassessed the back situation. It was hurting again really badly so a two prong approach this time… Five minutes off the bike for a good stretch and mental reset and two more pain killers. Happily it settled things down and when I got back on I was more comfortable than I had been all day.
The second lap was pretty much the same as the first. I caught Penny just before we got to Velden (roughly 70 miles in) and had a quick chat before pushing on. It was evident that the wind had picked up again and I was slowing down slightly. I had a target time of a sub seven hours, roughly sixteen miles per hour average and that kept me going when it would have been easy to take the foot off the gas. Second time up Rupertsberg, it started to show its colours, people were starting to dismount and walk. Shouting encouragement as I passed I ground the crank around and with relief crested and settled in to the wonderful descent back to Klagenfurt and followed fellow pirate Meldy into transition.
Run – 6.39
I’ve always been wary of taking pain killers during an event after a spectacular reaction post New York Marathon 2007. In many years to come I will look back on this race, particularly the run, and wonder how on earth I managed it. I’ve always had a cast iron stomach that will tolerate almost anything but to day, the outcomes of my earlier decisions came back to haunt me. I headed out of transition towards the hotel. (We passed it within 2 kilometres of the start of the run).
Earlier in the day I had fantasies of a sub six hour run and fourteen something Ironman, it became obvious, really quickly, that my legs were really hurting and the cramp had returned with a vengeance. This time though not in my back, but in my stomach. Oh dear. I was also really thirsty, and although I’d been aware of the heat on the bike, now it was really making itself known. I then headed off on the first proper loop along the lake.
Although I didn’t want to run I felt that I ought to, so forced myself to run three lamp posts and walk one. The feed stations were plentiful and well stocked with orange and watermelon slices, coke, water, Powerbar energy, crackers and soft pretzels. I started on the coke, orange segment mix which really helped slake the thirst.
I got about five miles in when the cramping was joined by gurgles and then suddenly I was almost bent double in pain with an immediate urge to go to the loo. This happened every time I tried to run so was reduced to a walk and formulating yet another plan. (Plan B was really the theme of today). However, this scenario is not uncommon in ironman and the ‘gooli loos’ were a testament to that. I’d already been in one to change my tampon, and already they were pretty disgusting. Sadly I was going to have to go pretty soon, so I started checking toilets in the vain hope I’d come across one that wouldn’t want to make me vomit. Soon enough, miracle of miracles I did. Not only that, it had toilet roll in it too.
Job done, then back on it past the hotel and the southern loop along the canal into Klagenfurt centre. We’d cycled this a couple of days previously so I knew what to expect. There were lots of people on the course and many pirates with arghs and cheers of encouragement. This was the perfect course for that. I was able to resume my run/walk strategy and went back on the oranges and coke. There was a lovely atmosphere in the city centre with the many restaurants and cafés full of spectators cheering as each athlete went through. The cheering was unreserved, fast and slow, runners and walkers each receiving the same amount of encouragement.
This really is a way to feel like a rock star for a day.
And I ran through enthused by their encouragement. By now, with time in the bag I knew that despite my digestive troubles I was going to make it to the finish line and was just trying to enjoy it as much as I could. The cramping returned on the back leg and once again I had to resort to walking. I resolved this time to use the hotel. It became a battle of attrition to get there but eventually I did.
I also picked up my phone once in the room and had enough time to check on the Facebook updates to catch up with how other people were doing. Simon, my osteopathic friend, had posted numerous updates to my feed. Knowing people were following my progress really gave me strength and determination to crack on with it. Once again done, it was back out onto the course and the start of the second loop.
Just 13 miles left to go.
Although I was able to run again I was reduced to run one, walk one, lamp post, street furniture, trees whatever I could find now. The light was starting to fade and the sun reflecting on the mountains turned hues of pink and orange.
They were beautiful.
The course was much emptier now, supporters much drunker and subdued and the solitude of it appealed to me. Back along to the hotel, and this time shandy waiting for me. Oh my word, that was good, cool and sweet and bitter and just delicious. Then, back to Klagenfurt again with less than 10k to go and on my return, the finish line.
It was now fully dark and street lighting was poor. It could well have been a scene from the ‘Return of the Living Dead’. People staggering fowards, zombie like and resigned to their fate. The thought made me giggle. Although everything hurt now, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else than right there, right then.
Finally I reached the turnaround and the road to home. I passed Penny on her way out where she offered a encouragement and a hug I took and returned with gratitude. In all of this, we’re just middle aged ordinary women trying to get on and I never cease to rejoice in how amazing she is. (This would be her fifth Ironman finish). She is a loyal and fierce friend and I love her for it.
As I left her, I reflected on my performance today. And although I was initially disappointed with the times, this was probably my best performance in any endurance event to date. I’d dealt with the issues calmly and adult like and with all of the stuff I’d recently had to face, still put in a very credible performance. In any case, I would need to be satisfied with it. I’d done the very best I could have done.
Weirdly, I felt emotionally numb. I was surprised to feel that way, expecting excitement or relief or something at least. I surmised that I was generally overwhelmed with the past few weeks and in comparison to that, really the Ironman had been easy. Plus I couldn’t work out what this finish would mean (if anything) in the grand scheme of life right now. This was the culmination of two years of work, it should have meant something, surely? But then it came to me this is not the end, merely a transition. In the same way that Harry Potter (when he ends up a Kings Cross station with Dumbledore in the final book) has the decision to go on or go back. There is still much of this journey to go and this was merely a marker, not the finale.
As I approached the lake towards the finish line I steeled myself. The run in was deathly quiet until I turned the corner into the finish area. There, the noise of cheering and clapping swelled and hit me with a crescendo. I felt embarrassed, not worthy and rushed through with my head down until I got to the finish line where finally I allowed myself a wry smile. Not wanting to linger, I walked quickly though the finish area to a waiting Stuart and Nicola who had both been amazing all day. They congratulated me and then headed back to the stands to cheer in another pirate, Helen. I picked up my things and took a slow walk to transition to pick up Piri.
So, this story is not over yet. The pirate ship sails for Mallorca next year, probably with me absent since September is an impossible month so I’m considering other options, Lanza, Holland, Barcelona are possibles. But first, my head turns to domestic reponsibilities where I have another date with Outlaw in three weeks time in support of the Outlaw gang and then onwards to the future.