The warm water pouring in over the neoprene neckline would normally help me relax and prepare for the nonsense to come. Today as my head bobbed back above the water and I surveyed the hoards amassing along the small sloping beach in front of me, it did nothing for my mood.
It was about twenty to six in the morning back home in Ireland. There was a warm bed there that I could still be curled up in. I should have at least another hour before my slumber would be disturbed by the excited voices of a three and five year old and my space invaded by their reckless flaying limbs. It may just have been the Lithium playing with my mind or perhaps the sudden realisation I was all on my own, but I was grumpy and I was nervous. I no more wanted to be here than a private of the 24th Regiment of Foot looking out over his redoubt at the gathering Zulus in the hills above Rorke’s Drift cared for his situation.
It seemed like a good idea back in the dark depths of our winter storms that I would nip over on my own, do Ironman Switzerland and nip back again before I was missed. Eimear had other plans for a family holiday that didn’t involve lugging a bike around so was happy to sit this one out.
Athletes talk about being in the zone. I wasn’t. I was worried about an injury I had picked up seven weeks previously and had not being able to run properly since. The pain in my achillies was still quite bad, it had even woken me a few nights before. It wasn’t the only run injury I inflicted on myself over the year. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to finish the marathon today. To be honest, I really shouldn’t have been racing but when everything had been paid for it would have been a shame to pull out. It was worth a go.
But without my usual rock of common sense accompanying me or any other member of my extended family there for moral support, lying in my hotel room in the days before the race, I had begun to dwell on the negatives and managed to turn a number of minor inconveniences into bigger problems.
Following on from my near race ending flat at Kilkee, I had come into a brand new tubular tyre (amongst other goodies) thanks to my sponsor www.wheelworx.ie. These things cost more than car tyres and once punctured have to be replaced. I figured I would glue the new one to the rear wheel; the one that experiences the most abuse, and replace the front flat with the old rear tyre. It required an afternoon of pulling, gluing and picking glue off everything including myself before the job was done. I gave them twenty four hours to cure and took my new tyre out for a spin the day before my flight. All was well. However whilst packing I saw there were a few small nicks in the old tyre that had previously escaped me. They could be just cosmetic or perhaps serious gashes that were about to fail. I fretted a while then decided it was not worth the risk. I would replace the front tyre too. A quick dash to my local bike shop, more gluing, picking, a blast of air and I was now ready to travel.
Saturday was bike check in day. It rained all day. That morning I noticed my front tyre was flat. I assumed I had deflated it for the flight and wasn’t concerned. Over the course of the morning while getting my race stuff together I became suspicious. I inflated my tyre and waited. An hour later I thought it was a little soft. Two hours and it was soft. It was a new tyre; never used, it could only be a problem with an old valve extender I had added. But to fix that I would have to take the tyre off again, replace the valve and glue the tyre back on to the wheel. A thirty minute slightly panicky very wet walk to the race site followed. After many Swiss francs were handed over for a little tube of glue and a new valve extender, and while everyone else was checking their bikes into transition, I found myself trying to stay calm gluing my tyre again in the rain. At nine o clock they would shut down transition. I got it done. I was a little later to bed than planned, but it didn’t matter – I couldn’t sleep anyway.
Prior to coming down to Lake Zurich for a short pre race swim warm-up the first thing I did this morning on arrival was check my tyres. My heart sank I couldn’t believe my front was soft again. There was little I could do but re-inflate it. I tightened the valve a bit more. I figured I would probably get an hour or two of cycling before I would have to stop and inflate it again. I had two gas cylinders with me so I only had the capability of blowing it up twice. Hopefully that would get me through the 180km cycle.
Needless to say as I stepped back onto the beach to take my place on the start line my mood was still glum. For all I knew I could be getting out of the swim to a flat tyre. And just suppose I got through the bike, there was no guarantee I could even run. And if I could run the cramps already building up in the vicinity of my large intestine were telling me a pit stop or two was going to be the order of the day.
I adjust my goggles and empty the water from the right lens. This is the second pair of goggles in as many weeks that seemed to fit in the shop but leak when tested in water. I think I have a funny shaped nasal bridge or something. Six months ago I was hoping to blast my way through this race, today I would be happy to finish and even happier to be at home in my bed. Briefly I think about stepping out and going for a coffee and some sightseeing. The moment passes.
I run my finger along the collar of my wetsuit. It should be smeared in Body Glide a petroleum jelly type product that assists the removal of the wetsuit but more importantly prevents the suit scratching the neck as you turn to breath. Over the years I have suffered badly from this but a good dollop of body glide and it’s usually sorted. At three o’clock this morning as I prepared to leave I couldn’t find it. What I did find was a small tube of ‘Lithium based non corrosive’ axel grease in a tool box – I smeared some on my neck.
Then as the crowds gather around to watch the 2600 competitors start I remember I am alone and the thought suddenly occurs to me what if I fall and break my collarbone or worse – how am I going to carry my bike home?
And we are off.
It’s a bit crowded. My hand lands on the head of a woman and pushes it underwater. Sorry, didn’t mean too do that. Today’s race has been split into two age group starts five minutes apart. But with the big field its still chaos. Apologies to everyone. I seem to be dishing it out a bit more than receiving it today. I probably started farther back than I should and am been held up by slower swimmers. There is no way out. I cruise around in the pack to the halfway point and a little run we have across a small island. I am still giving out to myself. The short run allows me time to catch my breath and empty my goggles again. Space finally opens up and I can pick up my swim a bit. It’s a dull morning but the lake is still beautiful, the water is clear and I finally begin to enjoy myself. It seems a little long and I sense it must be well over the hour when my feet reach terra firma again.
I am in a better mood now but still not quite ‘in the zone.’ After a laboured peeling off of the wetsuit I jog nervously to my bike. The tyre is still hard. That’s encouraging.
The bike course is two laps of 90km. The first thirty of each lap is flat and follows the lake south. We then turn left into the hills and make our way along what best can be described as a hilly windy route back to Zurich on minor roads. Not my parcours at all. The first thirty kilometres before the hills and I am flying. I make up a good bit of ground. It’s raining but it’s not cold. I am now getting down to business proper; I suppose I am ‘in the zone’. The climbs come – they are long but not too taxing.
I enjoy climbing and I enjoy long straight tracks up or down. I like to set a rhythm. It’s probably an age thing but I don’t like too many changes in pace. It’s also how I train; I make no apologies for it. I enjoy countless hours on the turbo and they have made me strong. I have developed a bit of a diesel engine. However, I am particularly bad at cornering and I can’t descend on anything with even a slight bend. So much so if I try and do it at speed I am a danger to myself and everyone else. I am probably far too old to develop my bike handling skills now. As a child I was better. I could commute to school with out holding the handlebars. I could pop a mean wheelie and of course jump over a long line of skinny seventies children without too much trauma to them or our parents. Today I can’t even take my hands off the handlebars to adjust my jacket. I have tried many times. Perhaps I need to pick up an old Raleigh 18 somewhere and start from scratch.
Some of the descents on this course are very fast, twisty and end abruptly at junctions. I am in awe as everyone else tears past me carving a perfect race line through the bends. It scares me just watching them pass. I have spent the last few weeks watching the world’s best cyclists crashing. It has had an affect on me, I know my limitations. I see the faces of my two young children and pull the brakes hard. I crawl down, brakes screeching trying to keep out of the way of everyone else. I lose countless places, but my nerves and more importantly, I remain intact.
I stop briefly after about 60km to check my tyre. I can’t believe it but it’s still rock hard. If I can stay upright, I think I will make it to the end.
Despite my own fear of descending, it has to be said it is a great bike course and a great race overall. For those of you with a little more skill than me you should like it. I enjoyed about half the bike and despite feeling very strong struggled on the other half. The organisation, the number of uniformed volunteers, the signage and advanced warning of junctions was first class. To replicate an event like this in Ireland, and there are moves afoot to do so is not going to be easy.
Normally I am looking forward to getting off the bike and starting the run. Today I am not. I feel surprisingly fresh though, probably as a result of rolling down the hills. My foot hurts but if I tense the achilles and concentrate on every step as it lands I can get away with it. It’s not a limp, more of a right lean as one foot is striking mid foot and the other is more on the tips of my toes. It’s particularly pronounced going up hill but makes right turning easy.
It’s hurting but I am running and initially I am running surprisingly well. I tick off the first two of four laps without much grief. About half way though, the lack of run fitness becomes the limiting factor. Slowly, and there is nothing I can do about it I am been overtaken by a lot more people than I have ever noticed before in any race. I don’t feel too bad but I just can’t stop my legs from slowing down.
For the first time all day, when starting the last lap of the run I notice the time on the race clock. I have about fifty minutes to cover the last ten kilometres to finish the race in under ten hours; my primary goal for the day. It’s not going to be easy. Not used to the impact of running on roads recently, all my joints are hurting now. My left foot screams at me in protest every time it touches the ground. My lean is now more pronounced. Everybody else in this race seems to best friends with every spectator. Nobody knows me and it does play on my mind. Thankfully my Wheelworx kit is recognised by some of the other Irish out on the course and their encouragement helps a lot. My number also has my name on it and some thoughtful spectators cheer me on too. It all helps and I eventually make the turn onto the finish line.
After fifteen finishes it’s still a wonderful experience. I put all the uncertainty and worries of earlier behind me and enjoy the moment. Sub 10 again and a great sense of achievement. In the grand scheme of things it means nothing but to me it’s important. Oh yeah and my neck was unmarked.
I am always going to feel terrible on race morning and question why I am doing this, but it passes and I am buzzing after the finish. A few things I will take away from Ironman Switzerland; the most important is don’t do these races on your own (I would make an exception for Hawaii if I had too of course). It’s important to have a support crew and a sounding board for the last minute dilemmas and crises of confidence. that always arise. I could spend years trying to improve my descending and my nerve or just pick a course that suits my strengths, particularly if I want to challenge for a podium. Luckily for me Kona is a straight out and back. It can be hot and there is a bit of a draggy climb – just the way I like it.
So what’s next?
My goals are going to be a little more long term. I need to get back running properly. My latest injury happened at the end of a half marathon. Normally because of the risk of injury, in the lead up to an Ironman I have stayed away from road races. This year I wanted to try something different. I found my self racing at a lot faster pace than I usually train at. Although I ran comfortably for most of the 21 kilometres of the half marathon my body was not use to the increased stresses and impacts of the greater speed and of course it was going to break down. But it did show me I can run a bit faster that I thought. I just need to do it more often. Of course I am still fighting the water in the swim I haven’t given up on a sub one hour Ironman swim yet but it will take a bit more thought and effort and a bit of luck on the day.
In two more years I move up an age group. I will be a young lad in the over 50’s category. It seems like a good time to make another challenge at a top Kona podium spot. In the meantime I will pick my races wisely and with an eye to returning to the big island. I had better start saving now.