Monday, August 19, 2019

Race Report - Ironman 70.3 World Championship 2015

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The story begins in Kornberg, Denmark, last September.  A crisis of confidence, and a reluctance to spend a small fortune travelling to race I didn’t feel ready for, led me to defaulting on my place at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mont Tremblant, Canada.  Instead, I accepted a free place to race the 70.3 in Kronborg, home of Hamlet’s Castle, the following weekend.

In the end, I surprised myself by performing well enough to take a slot for the 2015 70.3 World Championship, which was rather handily in Europe and a whole year away. Plenty of time to get ready. Game on!

It also meant I could skip a year of expensive overseas racing trying to qualify for a slot, which suited me fine given how busy work had become.  I could just do some lower-key races on home soil and get ready to really smash the 70.3 in Zell am See.

You can read the 2015 race reports to see how preparations went. Or, at least, how I thought they went.

I arrived in Zell am See ready to race. My run pace off the bike seemed in a good place and my bike was strong. My swim was a little suspect, but the gains on the run should more than make up for that.

The week before I departed, I started taking notice of the weather and was quite shocked to see that 30-35 degrees was forecasted.  As a Brit, I’m really not used to racing in that kind of heat (no expensive month-long warm weather training camps for me!).  There were also rumours of a no wetsuit swim, just to add to the fun.

The venue

Arriving in Zell am See, I was taken aback with just how beautiful it is.  And hot.  The lake was placid and beautiful, if not crystal clear.  The roads were smooth and the hill… well, the hill was a lot ‘hillier’ than I had expected, which led to a minor panic and swap of my rear cassette (thank you SRAM for the help!).  The run was an unknown, but I was reasonably happy to leave it that way, not wanting to freak myself out.

Most concerning of all was the 11.20am start time.  That would mean we’d be running at 3pm, just about the hottest point of the day.  Historically I’ve suffered in the heat.

I’ll spare you the diatribe about race build-up etc. and just get straight to it.  The one thing to note was that as I laid in bed on Saturday evening, I started to feel the onset of a cold. That horrible tightness in the throat, excess saliva and blocked nose. Superb!

I woke up in no doubt. I had a cold.

But DNS was never an option.

The swim

Zell am See swimThe rectangular swim course was nice and straightforward and I positioned myself over to the left, on what looked like the racing line.  I didn’t bother fighting for the front row, but settled in behind and waited for the starting canon.

The swim start was quite simply the most violent I’ve ever experienced.  I had about 25-50m of ‘clear’ swimming and then I got dunked, and dunked again. And again. It felt like I swallowed half of the lake.  For the first time in a race, I was really put off my stride and had to collect myself.

It got better after that and I was able to settle into a rhythm that felt reasonably strong. I tried to grab some feet but it was inconsistent.  After making the two turns without fuss, it was the homeward leg and I started sighting for the exit arch.

Eventually I clambered out and glanced down at my watch. What had felt like a strong swim was in fact 29:45, my slowest 70.3 swim yet.  Looking at the Garmin trace later it looks like the course was spot-on distance, so I can’t complain about it being long! I’m at a loss to explain why I swam so slowly. I can’t even blame the cold symptoms.

I ran towards the transition tent, grabbing my bike bag on the way.  I made a faff of getting my wet Huub suit into plastic bag, but I was out and running to the bike quickly enough.

The bike

I unracked my bike and headed on the relatively long run to the mount line.  To my dismay, both the elastic bands holding my shoes in place snapped and the shoes dangled freely.  OK, I thought, no problem, this is a long race, a few seconds getting my feet in the shoes is neither here nor there.

I knew the first 20km or so of the bike was a net downhill, so I wanted to get a good start before settling-in for the 13km climb up to the HochKonig, some 670m of climbing with a 12-15% sting in the last 2km.  Whether we actually were or not, it felt like most of that first 20km was into a headwind and while on occasion I saw 60kph on the speedo, I was having to work for it.

All-too-soon the climb came and I settled-in, mindful to not burn myself out given it was 13km long.  Initially I felt fine, spinning away happily at around 90rpm and on-target for power.  Occasionally the gradient would ease sufficiently that I could see 30kph+ on the speedo, down on the tribars.  But the ‘sting’ at the end caught me by surprise. Driving it in the car I hadn’t appreciated just how long the steeper part was.

Even with a 26 on the back, I ran out of gears and started having to really grind out the last bit of the climb.  That killed me. I’ve always been more of a spinner than a grinder and I just couldn’t get the sort of cadence that suits me – stuck down in the 50s and 60s.  I could feel my race being ruined through bad gear selection then and there.  I just reminded myself that I had a nice long descent coming soon!

As I was struggling up the last bit, fellow Brit Chris Wood came past me on the bike.  No great surprise there, I thought, as Chris has historically been a stronger cyclist than me. But I was a bit annoyed as with the right cadence I would have been further up the road and burning less matches.

Finally the descent came and despite warnings that it was pretty treacherous (I’d heard there had been no less than 13 crashes in the previous week), I let rip. Nothing dangerous, but taking it as far as I was comfortable that both the bike and I could handle.  The Garmin trace shows I hit 77kph on the steepest part.  I sliced past Chris and a lot of others who had gained ground on me on the hill.

There’s no doubt about it, the Shiv is a FAST bike and finally the heavier 90mm front and disc rear were earning their keep. My heart rate plummeted back down from the high 160s to the mid 140s.

Eventually the fun was over and it was time to start pedalling again (shame!).  But even though I was trying to get some power back into my legs, I couldn’t get my heart rate back up. It hovered in the high 140s, way below what I’d expect in a race.  My power, too, was substantially down on target.  My back was a bit sore (the sciatica has started getting really bad again) and I was getting some cramp on the inside of my left thigh.

And so it stayed for the rest of the bike. My pace was OK and I was keeping my position with those around me, but I was down on power and low on heart rate.  Somewhat like the swim, here and now I can’t explain why.  I took on the right number of gels; I drank more than usual (and I’d even added more electrolytes to my Elivar Hydrate Plus carb drink to combat the heat). On paper, I’d done it right.  I hadn’t quite put as much pressure in the tyres in the morning as usual, largely because I didn’t want the sun to cook my tyres and come back to two exploded tubs in T1! But the lower pressure doesn’t account for the lower performance.

I actually started looking forward to getting off the bike!

The run

Another long run in transition and I got my Skechers GORun4s on together with sunnies and visor.  I headed out of the tent trying to be sensible and just ease myself into the run.  I’d noticed on the bike that the shoulders of my black Fusion trisuit were now grey with salty sweat. But I thought I’d drunk enough carbs and electrolytes to be okay.

It took all of 1,500m to realise I wasn’t okay.  I just had nothing; completely empty despite all the calories I’d taken on during the bike.  My heart rate wasn’t especially high, but my legs were empty.  I walked the first aid station and got water and ISO drink down me.  Then started to jog again.

Zell am See runI passed another fellow Brit, David Glossy (who qualified alongside me at Kronborg last year), who was walking and tried to give him some encouragement (he’d had a far better swim than me and an almost identical bike split). I ran on but within a kilometre I too was walking again. This wasn’t going well.

David caught me up and we made a pact we’d get through it together, no DNF, no worry about the time, just get to the finish line.  And so for the next 5km or so, we walked/ran and tried to keep each other positive.  On the back half of the first lap, we caught female pro, Parrys Edwards who was also having a tough day.  Like us, she wasn’t going to DNF and ‘just wanted the t-shirt’. Good girl.

As we came back into the town to finish lap one, I walked the aid station again, grabbing ice, sponges, water, whatever was on offer! I’d never felt so overheated so ice just went down both the front and back of my suit.  I looked around for David, ready to start jogging (I can’t even call it running!) again, but I couldn’t see him.  I walked on and checked again but still no sign.  Okay, time to just do this for yourself and give David a big hug at the finish (I hope he forgives me for leaving him, I promise I was looking for you, matey!).

From what little I remember, I managed to jog pretty much the whole of the second lap, with the exception of more ice, water and sports drink at every aid station.  As I reached the turn around and headed onto the last 6km back into town, I passed Chris Wood coming the other way.  To be honest, I’d been expecting Chris to come past me at any point, so to see I had about 1,500m on him still was a surprise.  Like me, I think he was in survival mode, but looking better than me!

I high-fived him as we passed and then another 500m or so further down the road I passed David; he was still in the game. Good man.

I got a lot of cheers from people watching the race, for which I am immensely grateful. Clearly they could see I was in a dark place and needed all the encouragement I could get!

While running with David earlier, we’d joked that since time was no longer an issue, we’d see who could get the best finish line pic.  And so when I eventually entered the finishing chute, I just jogged it in with my arms spread wide.  I’d made it.  My worst-ever 70.3 performance in what should have been the biggest race of my life. But it was done. I was not a DNS, not a DNF, but a FINISHER.

5:04:54.  Yes, it was THAT bad. Just inside halfway in my age group and 10th out of 24 Brits in the group. My slowest ever 70.3 by some 20 minutes. 99% of which was lost on the run (for what it’s worth, I made the bike 1.5km long, but now we’re splitting hairs).

I waited in the holding area for first Chris and then David to come through. I wanted to make sure the guys finished safe and sound and had a friendly face waiting.  We all agreed it had been one heck of a day.

In the cold light of day

I usually write these race reports up right after the race, but even now 28 hours after finishing, I’m not sure the cold light of day has actually set in.  I’m still annoyed with myself and my performance.  I swam poorly, had a very mediocre bike and my worst-ever run.

Did the heat play a part? I’m sure. Most of the Brits I know had problems with the heat, albeit not all on the same level as me (and all credit to those guys for persevering, I am honestly in awe).  What about the cold symptoms, which have now developed as I write into full-blown man flu (someone dial 999….)? Yes, they probably had some effect as well, although to what degree I honestly can’t say.

Although I’ve received many encouraging comments since the race praising my mental strength for not quitting the race, I feel like it was a mental weakness that led me to walk when I should have run, to fail to put out the power I needed to on the bike.  I know from training I can hit the numbers, so why not on Sunday?

I still have thinking to do. And hopefully those more skilled in post-race analysis than me will be able to offer some additional insights.

The key for me is to decide whether or not I can break this Groundhog Day experience of messing up the half-marathon every time I get off the bike.  With numerous 70.3s now under my belt, I haven’t once been satisfied with the run.  I think it’s time to either fix it or go find another game to play.

A quick note on the race itself.  Although bike check-out took an absolute age, it was one of the best-organised races I’ve ever attended, a real credit to both the organisers and the many, many volunteers.  Thank you to all involved.

Thank you also to the people that supported me in my journey to Zell am See.  The Skechers shoes I just can’t do justice to (trust me, they’re fast, even if I’m not!), Elivar and their excellent nutrition, my employers Snow Software and the many others: Mark Racher, Richard Mellick, Mark Shepherd and more.


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Matt Fisher runs - 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 two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs