Last Sunday I completed my second half triathlon in Zell-am-See, Austria. An amazing event, a true Ironman 70.3. The number stands for the distance in miles you complete. Swimming 1.2mile/1,9km, bike 56mile/90km and a final run of 13.1mile/21,1km. Apart from the fact the scenery is like your are in a postcard, the event itself and its organization makes you feel a real sportsman or woman. About 2.200 contenders of which about 50 professionals. The rest are called age groupers starting from 20 to 70. Triathlon, especially the half and long distances, are more popular with 35+ sporters. Maybe because this is about endurance and mentality, the older you become the more experience you have and stronger you become. For myself the 2nd time I raced a half Ironman in Zell-am-See. A unique experience together with my friends Marc, Ruud and Jos!
Many times, especailly when training at 5:30am in the morning I am thinking, why, why?
The road to
As many of you might know, the road to a half Ironman takes some time. For myself it started 3 years ago and in the meantime it became my passion. I was not a swimmer, neither a biker or runner so started from scratch. For some reason my body is releasing endorphins when I am sporting which makes it a kind of addiction. I have no problem to encourage myself to train which makes it much more easier to make the training hours each and every week. Swimming by far for me is the most difficult part. It is all about technique and until today I still have made very little progress in this area. I can swim a breaststroke for a couple of kilometers but my speed is not that impressive. About 2:10-2:20mins per 100 meters which is above average. I think I can win a lot of time by getting specific training for it and I might need to do so. At the other hand it is not the swimming part where you will get most out of it for a whole race. On the bike and with the running part you can make the difference. But I must say that after a couple of races where I came out as one of the last competitors that really pisses me of. On average it takes 8-10 hours of training each and every week, in summer and in winter. For a whole year you are working towards a certain race, for me this half Ironman. The racing season is relatively short, starting in May/June and ending in October. This means that is a short amount of time you can do your races to prepare. In my case I did several 1/4 triathlons and Olympic Distances (OD). For the last one the only difference with the quarter version is the swimming distance, 1.500 meter instead of 1.000 meter. The road to the Ironman is the hardest part. This is all about discipline, dedication and being able to persevere. Many times, especially when training at 5:30am in the morning I am thinking, why, why? But for some reason the kick to do it, and to swim during rain and wind in open water outweighs all these pains and questions.
Days of preparation
The reason I choose for the Zell-am-See version last year was because of its flat course. Triathletes are less capable climbers in general, it is about speed and a long distance. Each and every week, somewhere in the world Ironman races are organised. It is a commercial organisation just like FIFA or IFA. It is better known than the official body for triathletes, the ITU. Regulations are slightly different which you for instance can see at the bikes. Specifications of my specific triathlon bike are not allowed in an ITU race. Because next year in 2015 the world championship Ironman 70.3 will be held in Zell-am-See they had to change the course. So they added about 1.000 meters of elevation in the biking course and also in the running course they added somewhat more challenges. All racers were informed several months in advance so we were able to train for it. Although living in The Netherlands doesn’t give you the most ideal training circumstances. I think we live in one of the most flat countries in the world! That’s the reason why w already left on Wednesday in order to explore the biking course on Thursday while racing on Sunday. Too much pressure on the legs is not good at all before a race so they need some recovery time to be able to race. This year 3 friends of mine joined the trip to Austria, 2 of them also applied for the race. One experienced guy who did several long distances a while ago, and 1 friend who also started only 3 years ago.
On Thursday we started exploring the biking course. And although several friends already told me to change some parts on my bike in order to climb, I always need to feel and experience myself. So when doing the climb I felt that it was for me too hard to get on that mountain top in one straight line. Especially the last kilometer of a total 15 kilometer climb was really tough. An average elevation grade of 14% made me step of my bike twice. So once we finished the exploration I hurried to a local biking shop to change my gear. Off course many others came to the same conclusion so it was quite stressfull to find the right parts and especially a mechanic who was able to install it on my bike. Luckely I managed to otherwise it would have become a disaster.
The atmosphere during the week is amazing. Hundreds of triathletes come together is the small ski village, all focused, all prepared and passionated about the sport. Since it is such a special sport you all feel very connected with each other. We all felt the same pains, challenges and hurdles in the road to. Always find the balance between family, work and sports. It is a never ending story. The family in particular need to support the sport 100% otherwise it becomes undoable. In my situation it means that through the whole year I only have 1 day of rest, the other 6 days I need to train. And with kids in the age of 12 and 13, having an ambitious working wife and quite a tough job it is a big big challenge. 3 sports means 3 different world of gear. And since I am quite susceptible for gadgets, having the nicest gear is a financial pitfall. Even for swimming you can buy swimming shorts that easily pass the 250 euros. My closet exploded the last couple of years with all kinds of sporting gear. The bike becomes a sort of 3rd baby of any triathlete. I do have quite a nice bike, but walking around during an Ironman event I feel like a starter seeing all those other impressive bikes passing by. On Saturday you need to place your bike in the transition area, one day before the race. Some quick calculation shows that the total value of bikes that has to stay for one night is about 8-10 million euros!
On the raceday itself you have about an hour to walk into the transition area and do final preparations for your bike and other stuff. You receive 3 bags for your running gear, biking gear and clothes once you pass the finishline. My starting time was at 10:10am, right after the professionals that started. After my start a couple of extra series with about 500 people each, having different swimming cap colours. The ones behind me had blue ones, myself green. Putting on the wetsuit the excitement really starts to flow through your whole body. Looking at the first buoy about 1 kilometers away over the water really looks incredible far! Once the race starts you know that for about 6 hours you will be sporting. You also know you have trained hard for it so that gives the confidence successfully complete.
Although I mentally prepared for it and knew it from the previous year, at a certain moment some racers who started after me started to overtake me during swimming. Just relax, and enjoy their great swimming moves is the best recipe. After about 44 minutes I know the hardest part for me is done so I can focus on biking and running. Weather conditions where great that morning and until the mountain top there was no rain at all. This was the next challenge, that mountain top. Sucks all the energy out of your body knowing that after the bike I still need to run a half marathon. But it went well, it was tough but I did. During the bike course you feel that the whole region embraces the event. Many people supporting you along the course but also the complete 90km course was blocked especially for the racers, even highways! That is something you will hardly see in The Netherlands. It gives a great feeling like you are cycling the Tour de France! The descent right after the top was pretty steep and having done it a couple of days before gives great confidence. Once the hardest part was done the rain started to hit me hard. And when it rains in these mountains, it rains! Wow what an attack on your body, muscles, with just wearing a tri-suit it became very cold. Deliberately I drove through big pools of water on the road because this warm water warmed me up.
After finishing my bike course in about 3 hours and 20 minutes I started my half marathon. And although I knew they changed the course I wasn’t aware they brought in some elevation at half of the running race. Here mentally I got such a punch knowing I had to pass that part a second time, fully unexpected. Lesson learned for next year but at that moment it hit me straight in my legs. Running pace went down and I was not able to speed up anymore. Normally I finish a half marathon in about 1:45, now it took me 2:07, one minute faster than last year without the elevation. I finally finished in a total time of 6 hours and 23 minutes. This is exactly 25 minutes slower than last year but with the course changed this dramatically I was really satisfied. It is hard to describe the last corner, the lat 200 meters when passing the finishline. It feels great, the crowd is screaming, the speakers are calling your name, and I see my friends pulling me in. For a second you think you won’t do this ever again, but than the endorphin does its work. Next year we will do it again!