This is the first part of my Ironman Switzerland story – there’s far too much to say to fit into one blog post, so those that don’t yet know the final result will have to wait a little longer..
Ironman. Long-distance triathlon. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a number of years now, after stumbling across this crazy event online and being astounded that anyone could even do it all in a single day.
Swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and then running a marathon probably doesn’t appeal to most people. But as soon as I’d heard about it I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about – I love a good test, and this seemed like a pretty tough one.
I signed up a whole year before the race, figuring that would give me plenty of time to get the necessary training in. I trained hard, but without any real structure – just running and biking when I felt like it. I think if I decide to do another one, I’d put together a more structured plan and include some more ‘sessions’ in my training.
Through the spring I concentrated on the Barcelona marathon, so I was only really running up until the end of March. After that, my focus shifted to swimming and biking, with my run training ticking over in the background. I had my swimming analysed to try and address the fact that my stroke was awful and I sunk like a stone whenever I got into the water.
I spent countless Saturday mornings out in the Surrey hills on my bike, rising at silly o’clock in the morning to get a 5+ hour bike ride done before a run straight off the bike. I got up at 5.30am four times a week to go swimming for an hour before work, cycling to and from the pool in the process. If I’m going to do something, I like to do it properly, none of this half-hearted nonsense.
The last two weeks were torture as I counted down the days until I flew to Switzerland, fretting about whether I’d packed the right gear and if the predicted thunderstorms on race day would have a negative impact on the experience. I think by the time I was due to head off, every person in the office knew the 7 day forecast and my intineray for the entite trip.
My flight was on the Thursday night, with the race being on the Sunday, giving me plenty of time to get settled and take in the whole experience that an ironman race week has to offer. I’d already handed my bike over to the fine folks at ‘Ship my tri bike’, so that was one less thing to worry about – I could just pick it up at the event site the day before the race.
I arrived to a hot and humid Zurich, making the short train journey over to the youth hostel I’d be staying in, conveniently located just ten minutes away from the start/finish area. Apart from the rooms being a bit warm (effectively a sauna) the hostel was perfect, a nice room with a special breakfast put on early Sunday morning for all those racing. My awesome support crew – Katie, Mum, her partner Dave and my sister Meg would be travelling out the following evening, so I got an early night and tried to get some decent sleep.
On Friday morning I was up pretty early, so after breakfast I headed to the lake to check out where I’d be swimming on the day itself. I put my wetsuit on, which made me look a bit silly as there were a bunch of old ladies paddling around in swimsuits, but I figured I’d be in a wetsuit on the day (or so I thought), so I needed to swim with one now.
The lake itself was beautiful, but the water was warm and it was actually quite uncomfortable being fully clad in neoprene – I felt kind of like a chicken being boiled in a bag. After a 20 minute splash I headed to the event village to get myself registered and picked up various race numbers and stickers, as well as a rather nice free Ironman Switzerland backpack, which I haven’t managed to take off yet.
This was my first ironman branded race, and it was clearly a much bigger deal than any triathlon race I’d done in the past. On site they had various food and drink outlets, an expo selling all sorts of bikes and triathlon gear, a huge tent where the briefing and welcome banquet would take place, as well as the Ironman store. I managed to restrict myself to just buying a visor for race day (purely to keep the sun out of my eyes as I didn’t have one, noting to do with the fact that it said ironman on it..).
After pulling myself away from the merchandise, I met a friend from work, Phil, who’d come out to support whilst visiting his friend that lives in Zurich. His support over the weekend was massively appreciated, as I saw him multiple times out on the course. We grabbed some lunch at the supermarket – avoiding the steep prices the cafes and restaurants were charging – one downside of the trip.
Phil then came with me to the race briefing that was held in the giant marquee. Here I also saw some fellow club mates from Clapham Chasers, who I’d never met before, but had chatted to before the event. We swapped training stories and talked of pre race nerves, before tuning into the briefing which lasted about an hour.
During the briefing it was announced that the lake temperature was warm, and we were currently looking at a non-wetsuit swim. No problems at all, as it’s the same for everyone, although it would make swim times slower as it’s widely known that wetsuits help with buoyancy and therefore make you swim slightly faster.
After this I picked up my bike (a seamless process), before taking it for a quick spin around a section of the course including ‘heartbreak hill’, a short, sharp climb known for its great support on race day. The legs felt superb, and I couldn’t wait to get going. The views from the top of the hill over the lake were nothing short of spectacular.
That evening I headed to the official ‘welcome banquet’, which was essentially all you can eat carbs. After loading up with a massive portion of pasta, I settled down to listen to a fun Swiss band play some local music, before eating about 5 pots of ice cream. Unfortunately, the free beer I’d heard about failed to materialise, so I settled for soft drinks.
Katie arrived that evening so I went to meet her at the airport before escorting her to our palace of a room. It was late again so we got some rest with another early start on the cards the following day.
Being the sporty couple we are, it probably comes as no surprise that Katie was up at silly o’clock running 16 miles around Lake Zurich. I didn’t think it would be the best idea for me to do that the day before an Ironman, so while she did that I went to meet the rest of the family down at the event site. 10 minutes and a few Swiss francs later, they were geared up with a supporters wardrobe worth of clothing from the ironman store. Much to Dave’s dismay, they also had some mini cow-bells, which didn’t stop ringing all day Sunday. Sorry Dave.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the hostel. I watched a bit of the Tour de France, before heading down to rack my bike in transition (at these big events you have to do this the day before – it’d be carnage trying to get 2,000 bikes sorted on race morning), dropping off the gear I’d need for the bike and run in the designated bags also. It was then announced that wetsuits would be allowed on the day – result!
The transition area with buzzing with a nervous energy, everyone making sure the set-up on their bikes was absolutely perfect. I pretended to look like I knew what I was doing for a minute or so and gave the tyres a little squeeze before heading into town for some dinner.
After a pre-race meal of more pasta and bread (at the fourth time of asking for it – they really didn’t want to give me bread), we headed back and I attempted to get something that resembled sleep. I closed my eyes but my mind was racing, before eventually drifting off ahead of my 4am alarm ‘woke’ me up – in reality I was already awake and raring to go.
I had my normal pre-race breakfast of porridge, which I’d brought with me over from Blighty. There were a few revellers drifting in after a big Saturday night in Zurich, looking bemused as a small group of men in lycra ate breakfast nervously – probably not what they were expecting.
Katie joined me soon after (I’d like to say she was excited as I was, but it was awfully early). She couldn’t sleep, so took advantage of the free tea on offer. I was struggling to go to the toilet, no big deal at the time, but something that would come back to haunt me later in the day.
In what seemed like no time at all, it was time to take the short walk down to transition and the start area. It was still dark and we walked through the deserted streets of Zurich, before more and more triathletes starting appearing from all angles, eventually arriving at transition, which was a hive of activity.
I did a quick final check of my tyres, before making sure I had everything I needed in my transition bags. I then spent a few minutes taking in the occasion, observing that there were an awful lot of nervous faces around. After trying and failing to go to the loo again, I found Katie, said my final goodbyes, before heading in the direction of the swim start. On the way I had the first of many energy gels I would consume over the course of the day – chocolate peanut butter flavour.
There were different pens at the start line, based on your estimate swim time. I lined up in the 70-80 minute area, hoping to swim around an hour and 15 minutes. I exchanged a few nervous nods with others, before the countdown to the pro race began. The hooter went, and they were off, unsettling the clear, smooth water of the lake.
The promised rain had failed to materialise, and it was a beautiful morning. I spent the last few moments reflecting on all the hard work I’d put in during the build up, before it was time for the age-group (non-professional) race to start.
It was a bit of a false start, as once the hooter sounded, no one actually moved. They let 8 people into the water every 5 seconds, to reduce congestion and make sure everyone has a safe swim. Your timing chip is only activated once you cross the start line.
After about 5 minutes, it was my turn to get going, and one of the many awesome volunteers lifted to barrier to set me on the way. I ran through the shallow water, before diving into Lake Zurich, ready to start one of the longest days of my life.