Thursday, July 26, 2012

IRONMAN Switzerland 2012 (Race Report)

Kristine and I arrived in Zurich three weeks ago, after a roller-coaster season plagued by injuries. We were there ahead of my season target: Ironman Zurich Switzerland. And we brought friends, too! Morten and Bo came across the pond with us to cheer and provide extra support.

For an shorter, more visual and easier-to-digest race recap, just take a few minutes to flip through my online Ironman Switzerland photo album.

The week before the race was a jet-lagged, couch-surfing scramble. We had too many balls in the air: we needed rest, but we also wanted to get out and explore the city of Zurich! The week before a vacation is always a busy one, so we also needed to get work done. And to top that all off, Kristine and Bo came down with nasty colds - one that came so close to knocking me off my feet as well.

I checked in for the race on Friday after a swim in Lake Zurich and then began closely monitoring the weather forecast for race day. The outlook wasn't great for either weekend day - meteorologists were anticipating heavy rain on Saturday and more scattered showers on Sunday. Much to our surprise, we woke up Saturday to gorgeous, clear skies and bright, shining sun. The weathermen are so wrong, we thought, Sunday'll probably be just as nice as today! 

Though the ground was wet, the traces of blue that we could spot through the smattering of clouds on race morning seemed to confirm our theory. The outlook was good. Time to rock-and-roll.

The swim start was a sight to behold as hundreds of yellow-capped, wetsuit-clad athletes clambered over each other and into Lake Zurich. I was fortunate enough to be at the front when the starting gun went off and managed to connect with a fast-moving pack of talented swimmers. A few of us kept the pace high by taking turns at the front; before long, we had whittled the group down to a very select bunch.

I was well-positioned at the end of both laps to lead the dwindling pack past the roaring crowds and cheering supporters. It was exhilarating. And toward the end of the second lap, I poured a few extra ounces of effort into my stroke, separating myself from the one or two pack-mates that remained to come out of the water first nearly 1,800 yellow-capped age-groupers.

My first transition was rocky, but I was on my bike and pedaling before I knew it.

Unfortunately, I felt flat on the bike from the very start. At first, I thought it was just temporary exhaustion from my effort during the swim. It took me too long to realize that I was actually being affected by two things: not enough rest during the week leading up to the race, and not enough food before and during.

Only one of those two problems can really be addressed mid-race, so I ate what food I had brought with me and began collecting gel packets from the aid stations along the course. Unfortunately, only one aid station was handing out solid, energy-rich food - and passing that aid station once on each lap turned out to be far too infrequent for me.

The low-light of the bike was a storm that struck just before a major descent at the end of the first lap. Those of us out there were pelted by cold rain and tiny hailstones. I was soaked to the bone and shivering within minutes - just in time for the newly-slicked roads to turn down-hill. My heart was in my throat as I struggled to keep my speed at a manageable level. By the time I reached the bottom, the cold, wet descent had allowed a deep chill to settle in. It took me miles and miles to warm back up.

The bike course did include some very memorable highlights:
  • The middle section of each lap brought us through a series of small Swiss hill towns. The road through each town was lined with cheering locals and in each one, a small horn band had assembled, dressed in old-fashioned Swiss garb and tooting out traditional-sounding tunes.
  • The ringing of cowbells is a common thing at races like this. On one lonely, green, rolling hill in the Swiss countryside, I heard that familiar ringing... but saw no spectators along the road. I looked around and spotted the source: a large cow (carrying a massive cowbell) was leaning against a tree and trying to scratch it's neck. I was being cheered on by a real, live cowbell ring!
  • Finally, the capstone of each lap of the bike is Heartbreak Hill. It's a short, steep climb that's so thickly lined with cheering supporters that it feels more like a Tour de France stage than a triathlon. Riding through those throngs of people was encouraging and inspiring and just plain awesome!

I found some solid food at an aid station toward the end of the ride, so I actually felt okay at the start of the run. I was tired, sure, but I wasn't bonking... yet. The good sensations continued for the first lap and into the second before I began to ride the bonk-coaster in earnest.

I was flat from the beginning of the bike course, sure, but I really blame the downward spiral on that hailstorm and the cold descent. My body was already depleted, and trying to warm back up after a chill like that only burned more matches.

At this point, I began to ping-pong between feeling dizzy or lightheaded and dealing with an upset stomach. I had to keep eating to stave off a full-on bonk, but every time I ate, it upset my stomach further. It was a vicious cycle that forced me to alternate between running, walking, and pit-stopping at various restrooms along the course.

These bouts of discomfort between segments of running were definite low-points on a miserable run course that also featured scattered showers and shoe-soaking thunderstorms.

On the flip side, my leg injury was not a significant source of discomfort during this run! I could feel it during and definitely after, but managed to push through that nagging pain.

Highlights on the run course were provided by my incredible support crew. Bo, Morten and Kristine braved the winds and rain to cheer for me throughout the day. Because the run course was flat and compact, they were easily able to cheer me on as I passed them going on way and then move one block over to cheer me on again going the other. I don't think I would've been able to make it through had those three not been out there willing me on.

The entire day seemed to come to a climax at the turn-around point of the final lap. A portable restroom stop at the furthest point seemed to finally settle my stomach. As I started running again, thunder pealed and rain began to fall. I knew two things: I didn't want to be caught out in another bone-chilling storm, and I didn't want my friends to be caught out in one either. So at that point, I set my jaw and started running.

I had 5K to go. Rain started to fall faster and faster. By the time I was turning in toward the final kilometer, it was coming down hard. I skipped every aid station at the end of that last lap. I just wanted to be done.

Thankfully, I finally reached the finisher's chute. It was lined with soggy supporters, cheering spectators and more. I dimly remember running through a tunnel made out of some cheerleaders' pompoms. To be honest, that last 100 meters is a blur except for the familiar faces of my friends as they cheered me across the line. I finished Ironman Switzerland in 10 hours and 52 minutes.

In the world of long-distance triathlon, certain physiological stars need to align to propel you to a personal-best performance. My stars did not align that day, and the rough patches far outnumbered the smooth ones. I am pleased with my finish, but I also know that I can learn a lot from those rough patches. I know that I can do so much better.

Mulling over my experiences this season and during Ironman Switzerland has yielded many learnings and take-aways. There are a lot of changes I can, should, and will make to my race preparation, pre-race rituals and mid-race nutrition. There are improvements that I can make to my training, too. It's time to shake things up. I think next year's routine will look radically different.

I'll get into the changes I want to make in another post. I've completed four Ironman-distance triathlons in eighteen months. It's time for a break! I have more than a year before Ironman Lake Tahoe in 2013. That means I have plenty of time ahead of me to relax, get healthy... and most importantly of all, marry the girl of my dreams!

I love Kristine. She has been the common thread that runs through all of my events and races, my faithful supporter from Western Australia to Vineman to St. George, Zurich and beyond. And much to my excitement, that beyond begins with our wedding in less than a month's time!

So thanks for reading, friends and followers. It's been a rocky season with highs and lows, but now that season is over. I look forward to seeing you all on the road again soon!

Addendum: This is actually my fourth attempt at writing a race report for Ironman Switzerland. Some were too wordy, some were disjointed. I wrote one the other day that I was juuuust about to post... but decided not to because it just sounds too darn complain-y. But I want to keep track of what I wrote there, so I'm going to link to it from here.

If you want to read more about my experience during this race, and really get into the nitty-gritty details, check it out. But be warned: I do a whole lot of whining!