Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Race Report: Ironman 70.3 Aarhus, Denmark

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For once I don’t actually feel much like writing this race report. I’m not entirely sure why; probably because yesterday’s race was littered with things that didn’t exactly go to plan and as such I have very mixed feelings on the event.

 

IM70.3 Aarhus

The main reason I ended up in the Danish city of Aarhus this weekend was because I was very kindly offered a free place by the race’s title sponsor, a Danish IT company named KMD.  They are a business partner of the company I work for and when they learned I was a triathlete (sort of!), they offered me one of their corporate slots.  Little did I realize at the time what a logistical nightmare it would become!

First off, I hadn’t realized the Danish race (the first time Ironman has held an official 70.3 in Denmark, it turns out) was only a week after the Cotswold 113 middle-distance triathlon. And second, I thought Aarhus was only an hour’s drive from Copenhagen.  Only when I got round to booking accommodation etc. did I realize it’s actually over 300km away!

I spent the Wednesday and Thursday before the weekend working in our Stockholm head office, and finally found a hotel with a ‘proper’ gym I could use (the Elite Palace), although on this occasion I was limited to using equipment for my last couple of brick sessions.  Then on Friday I flew to Copenhagen and made the long car journey over to Aarhus just in time to register at about 7.30pm.

Over the next 36 hours I managed to build the bike and do a little installation ride as well as swim a part of the jellyfish-infested course.  Oh, the water was a balmy 16.5 degrees – not what I’ve been used to lately!

Fast forward to race morning and it was a relatively relaxed 5am start with a decent breakfast before walking the 1.5km or so down to transition. Being in Scandinavia, it had already been light for hours and the skies were both clear and blue.  That was the plus side.  The downside was that it was only around 10 degrees and there was a strong wind coming in from the North.

Having sorted all my stuff in transition, I finally got into my Huub wetsuit, but not before pulling on my skintight Fusion Speed Top over the top of my Endurance Junkie trisuit.  These cooler conditions were exactly what I bought the Speed Top for (it’s a nice additional benefit that it works well for TTs!)  and it fitted fine under the wetsuit.

As the pros were getting ready to start their swim (I’d be off 25 minutes later at 8.25am) I took myself to the swim warm up area. I knew from the practice swim that the water was cold enough to cause a bit of ‘ice cream head’ for the first couple of minutes, so I thought it would be a good thing to get acclimatized first.

Watching the pros set off, I could see the top men were ‘porpoising’ into the water as it took quite a while to get deep enough to swim properly. Mental note taken…

The swim

Aarhus SwimAnd then it was our turn.  Being mindful that I’ve missed the front pack unnecessarily a couple of times recently, I went straight to the front on the beach and let others fill in behind me. As per usual, my butt was twitching with nerves. I was pumped up and ready to go.   The horn sounded and about 400 of us from combined Age Groups ran into the water. Instinctively I dove in, found my feet, lept forward again and repeated – the first time I’ve really porpoised in a race, but it seemed to be working – a small group of us were pulling away from the main field still wading in thigh-deep water.

After we reached the first buoy (about 100m in), I could see a small group had already made a break. Right, I need to bridge up like my swim coach, Adam, had told me.  I dug in and prepared for a couple of minutes of extra effort to catch some fast feet.  But it didn’t happen. They were clearly too strong.

I could see another guy was having the same thoughts as me and was trying to bridge as well. He had a funny wetsuit on that made him look like he was wearing a Spider-Man costume, so instantly he was mentally nick-named ‘Spidey’.

I thought maybe I could use Spidey to bridge up, but he was about the same speed as me, no faster.  So instead I accepted that it was time to go into energy-conservation mode and draft Spidey.  But he didn’t like me on his toes so eventually I settled-in on his hip.  As we were nearing the first turn, about 800m in, Spidey started veering off course to the right (it was an anti-clockwise swim). I wasn’t going to follow when I could see the buoy was straight ahead, so it was time to go it alone.

At this point we started swimming through jellyfish – lots of them! Thankfully they weren’t stinging, but I must have sliced three or four in half with my hands and faceplanted a few more… urgh!

Rounding the second buoy it was time to head for home and we were now eating into slower swimmers from the previous wave. There was no-one around me to draft, so I just had to judge effort for myself and try to do the best job of aiming for the blue swim exit arch on the beach.  The sea got a bit choppy as we headed back to shore and it definitely felt harder-going.

Eventually the beach drew near and I opted to keep swimming until it was so shallow that I couldn’t swim at all. Again it served me well as I swam past guys who were wading in knee-deep water.  Finally I had to stand and make a dash across the soft sand.  As I pulled off the top half of my wetsuit, I looked down at my Garmin.  I knew I wasn’t swim fit (not compared to Mallorca, anyway), but I was still pretty shocked to see the timer had already gone past 31 minutes! I had some catching up to do on the bike…!

(It wasn’t until I reviewed the Garmin files and splits later that I found the course to be at least 150m long and that I’d actually had the 4th-fastest swim in my Age Group)

Transition 1

It was a little run to T1 from the water, but nothing quite Mallorca. But what I found there was disorganized chaos! The tents were full and so there were bodies strewn across the grass in transition in various states of undress.

I found my bag quickly (thank you marshals for ensuring the bags were placed in number order, despite some athletes’ best efforts!) and threw it on the ground.  Having decided to leave my helmet on the bike and not needing to wear a race belt on the bike (an excellent idea, hope they incorporate this rule in more races), the only thing in my bag was a gel to neck on my way to the bike. So it was off with the wetsuit, shove it in bag and then run through the tent to the bike area.

Except… I ran through the LEFT-hand tent instead of the right. Honest mistake, but I was suddenly running through a tent full of half-naked women. Oh no.  I instinctively just put my hand in front of my eyes and shouted ‘sorry!’ (what a terribly English thing to do!) as I ran through and then threw my bag at a volunteer.

I necked the gel on route to the bike, tried to have a pee in the urinal by my bike, failed and so just got to the bike, donned my helmet and ran for ‘bike out’.

The bike

Aarhus bikeI was surprised how good I felt sprinting to the mount line and then speeding away down the road.  Little did I realize this would be the one and only time on the whole course I’d have a real tailwind!

Very quickly the course headed into a wooded area and we lost the wind, but also started to climb and weave along country roads. I was making up lots of places as usual and felt great. I don’t think I even bothered tightening my shoes until a good 5km into the course.

Now, anyone who thinks Denmark is flat needs to come ride this course.  In a car it does seem pretty flat, but on a bike I can assure you that it’s not! There were few opportunities along the entire 90km where you could get down into an aero tuck and just focus on time-trialling. It’s what I can only describe as a very ‘bitty’ course (and not ‘bitty’ as in Little Britain!).

I could see my power was a little higher than it probably should have been, but whether because I was feeling good, or I felt at the time like I had a swim deficit to overcome (or both), I pushed on regardless.

When the course turned more hilly after the first aid station at 30km, however, a few things became clear.  First, I had indeed gone off too hard (Strava segments would later confirm!) and second I had the wrong wheels for the course.  As I’d feared, it was bloody windy and I was really fighting the 90mm front and disc rear wheel to stay rubber-side-down.  Third; I’d fitted the wrong bloody cassette to the rear wheel.  Looking at the course profile from home in the UK, it seemed pretty flat and so I thought an 11-23 would be fine.  It wasn’t. I needed a 25 or even a 27. I was storming along on the flats, but getting caught and in some cases re-passed on the climbs.

This, in turn, was forcing me to work too hard on the climbs and I was putting too much pressure through my lower back especially. Nothing I could do mid-race except deal with it and just accept I’d have to try to measure my effort on hills and hope to regain places on the flat.

We weaved, dived and climbed across more of the Danish countryside towards the second aid station at 60km.  As I was trying to collect a bottle from the volunteer I was nearly taken out by a guy on my left suddenly veering right to do the same. I locked-up but somehow stayed upright. Idiot.

A little note on aid stations – they were REALLY well thought-out at Aarhus and split into two, so if you missed a bottle at the first one, there was a kind of ‘back up’ option another 100m down the road. Really clever idea. Well done the local organisers.

Less well done to me, however, as I was now really beginning to pay the price for the above mistakes. The last 20km or so back to Aarhus were, honestly, quite miserable. We were into a headwind pretty much all the way, and my back was really killing me. I had sticky gel all over my face and fingers, and was desperate for a pee (my bike/run coach ordered me to pretty much double my fluid intake on the bike, which I did).

Diving back down the hill to Aarhus was a relief, as was dismounting the bike in just a little over 2hrs 28min . But I could feel immediately how smashed my back was from all the early effort and climbing in too big a gear. This run wasn’t going to be fun.

Transition 2

I could see my rack space over to the right, but the marshals were pointing left. “No, my rack’s over there!” I shouted. “No, you go left!” they shouted back. Frikkin’ great, they’re going to make me run all the way around transition to rack my bloody bike!

Except they weren’t. A team of volunteers was standing by to take our bikes as we headed into T2. Ah, first time I’ve had that; rather liked it!

But first I needed a piss.  And then some more. And then some more.

After what felt like the world’s longest pee, I grabbed my run bag and headed into a much quieter tent (I even got the ‘male’ side this time!) to get changed for the run.

The Run

Aarhus runYup; my back was battered, there was no disguising it. But at least I felt relieved to be off the bike.  The support on the run course was amazing, with people pretty much all the way round the 7km loop.  I got overtaken by the leading male within a kilometer or so of starting the run (I think he’d just started his third and final loop) but just tried to focus on picking off slower runners and keeping my own effort in check.

The Aarhus course doesn’t have a lot of climbing on paper, but in reality there are a few sections which are a real slog, plus two dead turns per lap.  As much as I was overtaking people, I was also getting overtaken.  I tried to look out for orange race numbers (my Age Group), but in reality it wasn’t like I could have fought for a place; not in the early stages any way. My legs and calves felt really tight and I was wondering if I should have worn calf guards (I don’t normally), but after 5km or so my legs ‘came to me’ (such as they ever do!) and I could finally just focus on the run, rather than how beaten my body felt.

I ran through the first two aid stations (I had gels on me) but decided to walk the one at 10km and take on a little water and coke.  Then it was back to plodding up the gentle incline to the stadium where we did a half-lap of the track before heading back out on the roads.

Crossing the line for the final loop was a mental relief in its own right. I could crawl to the finish now. And looking at my watch I was more or less guaranteed a sub-5 finish time. I wasn’t expecting to PB today, I just felt too wrecked (don’t forget, I’d raced a middle-distance triathlon only seven days prior!), but I wanted to finish well.

That thought spurred me on through the final lap, even when I got utterly blown away by an Age Group girl who came past like an express train!  Into the last 3km and I knew I had it and that there was no reason I couldn’t go sub 4:45 as long as I didn’t go off the rails.

Into the last kilometer and there was no stopping for the aid station, it was time to pick up the speed and focus on form. Zip the trisuit back up (I didn’t realize at the time just how ‘salty’ it had become!) and look good (relatively!) for the finish line cameras.  I also wanted to make sure I had some space behind me so that I had the finishing chute to myself for once!

Finally I reached the point where you go left to continue the run and right to enter the finishing chute. No way I was heading left again! Into a strong stride for the finish and there it was, a completely EMPTY finish chute! I couldn’t hear anyone behind me. It’s mine; all mine!

Crossing the line I think it’s clear to see the over-riding emotion was: relief.  Quite honestly, I hadn’t really enjoyed the race. It was a tough course, made tougher by the exploits of only a week earlier.

I’d done the race in 4:41:52, a new 70.3 PB despite faffing with loo stops and an over-distance swim.  I was simultaneously chuffed with my PB and gutted with my terrible run (even though I knew it was the bike that had ruined the run). Only later would I find out I was 10th in Age Group.  I was a bit gutted to be honest, as I was hoping to place higher.

Post-race analysis

Aarhus finish lineSo the answer to the question “Can you race two 70.3s back to back in successive weekends” is “yes, but if you’re me, the second one will really hurt and won’t be much fun”. I feel a sense of accomplishment at doing them both, but I’m under no illusion that two successive 70.3s is still probably nowhere near as bad as one full ironman!

Lessons to be learned? Quite a few.

Swim – I still need to be more aggressive at the start to catch the ‘fast feet’ and then settle-in. Swimming without a draft is just silly and a pointless waste of energy.

Bike – I need to pay more attention not only to the elevation of the course but the general topography. I should have taken a spare cassette with me so that I had the option of changing. I also need to consider some wheels for windy days as mine are superb for calm days but a real handful in strong winds.  I also need to moderate my power in the first 30km to avoid getting p*ssed off by 70km.

Run – it’s actually difficult to say I learned any run lessons from Aarhus. It was an appalling run (again) by any standard, but I’m also well aware that I was battered before I even left the T2 tent. As such, it was a damage limitation run, not a testing my limits run.  The lesson for the run remains that I need to find a way to run faster consistently off the bike! No doubt that’s partly nutrition, but it could also be conditioning and even bike position.

A note on Ironman 70.3 Aarhus, the first time Ironman has run the race (it was previously a challenge race).  Paul Kaye wasn’t kidding when he announced it as the ‘unofficial Danish middle-distance triathlon championships’.  There were some really fast guys out there! Okay, so not many foreigners from outside Scandinavia came to play (I was 2nd Brit overall, for God’s sake…), but that shouldn’t take away from the quality of the racing.

To the supporters that lined not only the run route but also large parts of the ‘populated’ bike course – thank you. I hope you remain as keen in years to come.  And thank you too to the 1,000-odd volunteers – thank you if I threw my bag or bike at you! Thank you if you gave me water or coke. Thank you if you helped me stand after the swim.  Or indeed put a medal around my sweaty neck.

Make no mistake, Ironman 70.3 Aarhus is NOT an easy race. It’s fast, yes. But the bike course is deceptive (and frankly brutal when the wind is like it was on Sunday) and the run is challenging.  If that sounds like your bag, put it on your provisional race calendar for 2015. We need some properly fast Brits to go show the Danes how it’s done!

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Matt Fisher runs TriathletesDiary.com - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a 2014 qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs

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