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Welcome to the Ironman Triathlon Zurich, Switzerland - 24 June 2007

Ironman triathlon (3.8km swim, 180km cycle, 42.2km run) has been a popular sport around the world for a number of years now. The most well-known event is probably the Hawaii Ironman, which is in fact the annual World Championships for this distance. To qualify to compete in Hawaii each October, you need to participate in any of the numerous Ironmans held around the world that each have a number of qualifying slots to award to competitors in the professional and age-group ranks. The slots are limited and the competition fierce.  

Being my first Ironman, I had no intention to try and qualify for Hawaii. If I am ever good enough and/or lucky enough to get close to the qualifying time (normally well under 10 hours until the 50+ age group), then I'll take it. Until then, I'll just try to finish each time.

Ready for battle! My first Ironman experience was to take place in Zurich,  Switzerland. Europe has about five Ironmans to choose from, but  Zurich seemed like a good place to start and have  a short holiday  as well. Training began before Christmas last  year as the event  gets sold out before 31 December, so I  wanted to ensure I had  the desire and training capacity to  handle an Ironman. I decided  quickly that I did and signed up  online, committing 350 euros in  the process. Add to that  entry fee flights, accommodation,  licence, meals, new racing  gear and bike components, and it is  more than your legs that  hurt at an Ironman.  In short, training  was exceptional by  just following my own programme and the  relatively limited  endurance experience that I had. The worst  injury I had was  blisters once I commenced long run training, but  I did often  fear a broken nose from swimming at the local 25m  indoor  pool - that sometimes had lanes / sometimes not and  heated  the water on Thursday nights to a ridiculous temperature  to accommodate 'the oldies' - due to the high number of  breakstrokers. All in all, I felt I had an excellent prepration  and  was confident that it would get me through the event. I  ate  sensibly during training, and even deliberately lost a few  kilos in   the weeks beforehand, and avoided alcohol (where  possible!)  not drinking a beer for about 2 months (just so the  first one  afterwards would feel well deserved).

Lead up
- we flew to Zurich (1.5hrs) on Thursday morning  before the Sunday race. First experience with a hard shell  bike box and it made it without incident. The days   beforehand are used for registration, checking in your bike, a bit of light training and sightseeing (see Zurich section under Europe). I rode some of the hills on the course Thursday afternoon to understand their intensity, swam half the course in my wetsuit on Friday morning, and had an easy 30min run on Saturday before breakfast. The rest of the time is lots of eating, resting and waiting, so much so that I just wished the day would arrive (from the date you start to taper the training 3-4 weeks out, you feel better but get a little annoyed at the lack of action).

Race Day - slept really well the night before and only got nervous once for about 30mins late on Saturday afternoon. Alarm went off at 4:00am, quick shower and final check of race gear before hitting the breakfast buffet (an Ironman's dream). On the bus around 5:10am and down to the start. Unlike many other Ironmans, the transition in Zurich was set up like a normal triathlon ie. all of your gear is stored together with your bike. No separate gear bags, no volunteers to help remove your wetsuit, no bike catchers. It was a little cramped, but was fine once you actually got to transition after the swim as everyone was so far apart. After a few ordinary days of weather, Sunday was perfect. Around 27C and little wind. It is not only the athletes that have an early start / long day. All of the families are there at the startline to support their husbands, wives, brothers or just mates, and are still there at the finish line giving the same support - no matter if that is nine or 17 hours later. Families are a huge part of preparing for, competing in, and finishing an Ironman.

Swim - at 7:05am, the gun went off and nearly 2000 of us made for the water of Lake Zurich - a beautifully freshand calm lake on the edge of the city. I have never experienced an Ironman swim before, but it was exactly as they say. Punching, kicking, swallowing, trying to move forward. The first 500m was 'water polo style' swimming and never really broke up where you could feel comfortable. Going around the bouys and the island for the second lap (in amongst the ducks and swans which was cool) just bottlenecked the situation. It is no place for the faint-hearted, but you give as good as you get. Managed to scamble up the ramp and out in 1:12 which wasn't too bad considering.

   Almost 2000 athletes tackle the 3.8km swim

Bike - I took my time in transition, as I kept all of my gear in a bag, to ensure it would be there when I went to get it. I also wanted to ensure my feet were prepared for the marathon to come later, so I made sure blister tape and slick were applied correctly. Got out onto the bike within about 5mins and time to catch all of those who overtook me on the swim. The bike was 3 x 60kms loops and started well, pushing out about 40kms on the flat sections. Being Switzerland, you can't go too far without meeting a hill so after about 15kms, the road went upwards with a climb of ~6kms that involved riding in the double/second chain ring and mainly out of the saddle. Out on the road  Short, fast decent then another climb that was much more  gradual (still in easiest gearing) but probably longer. The  best was to come though as after all the climbing, there is  only one place to go - down! A long decent at 15% saw the  speedo at 80kms/hr. The organisers would impose a 6min  time penalty on anyone caught on the aerobars during these  descents as hands had to be on brakes. Back onto the flat  into town, but past the finish line to head out the other side  and another climb called 'Heartbreak Hill'. This one was  about 3kms and a lot steeper, but you were met by a huge  crowd on the road at the top with music, shouting, banners  and even a shower if you needed it. Awesome! I couldn't  wait for the next loop. Bike splits for the 60kms were around  1:42, 1:46 and 1:53. Glad to be off the bike in 5:22 as it is  essentially a 180km time trial and I pushed as hard as I  could (but was hoping not too hard as the 40+ km run lay  ahead).

There are lots of stories in Ironman circles about proper nutrition during the event. You can be the worlds best athlete, but it will all mean nothing if you don't eat and drink throughout the day. I took note of this and didn't want to ruin my day by running out of fuel. However, I found that getting calories into your body is one of the toughest parts of an Ironman (at least for a beginner). On the bike, I constantly put down either water or Powerbar iso drink, but found the desire to eat just not there. I literally had to force feed myself to ensure I got the carbs down. This was a mix of Peformance Bar (Banana Bread flavour is normally good, but 
was like cement during the race), Clif Bar (chocolate chip is normally superb, but made me want to throw up on Sunday) and dried pears which were good but didn't eat as many as I had planned. Despite drinking about 8 x 500ml bottles of water and iso drink, I only needed to stop on the side of the road once during the bike (and not at all in the run). During the marathon, I only took on board water or iso drink at almost every drink station (approx 2-3kms apart) and two Powergels per 11km loop. In the last 5kms, my body didn't want anything else shoved down it's throat - not even water! More on food in post-race recovery below.

     Heading up Hearbreak Hill      On the 180km bike leg around Lake Zurich

Run - Undoubtly the toughest part of course. I had previously run two marathons, so know they are not that much fun. After the bike, I spent about 2mins putting on the shoes and cap before tackling 42.2kms in the middle of the day. It was hot and the course was exposed to the sun in some areas, so anything could happen. The run was four loops of almost 11kms each (short on the 4th lap into the finish). My goal was to tough it out on the first two laps, running each in around one hour, then just hang on for the last two. Riding flat out for five and half hours and then trying to run cannot be a normal part of human movement. If my legs could speak, surely they would have been asking my brain what it was trying to do. The brain of course, would have ignored the legs and pushed on, which it did. After about 5kms, I received my first wristband to say I had completed one loop. I thought this was ok and could look forward to getting another three of those bands before I could head to the finish (of course I hadn't completed the first loop at all, it was just part of the course measuring). To my surprise, I ran the 'real' first loop ie. back to transition starting point in 52mins. Well under my goal and now with running legs as opposed to cycling legs. Three more laps with very supportive spectators and a hard-working wife who dashed in between strategic viewing spots on the entire run course to cheer me on and get me home, I took the final turn towards the finish line. I knew once I had completed my third lap that I would be an Ironman in about an hour. Longer if I had to walk, but walk I would. I completed the marathon in 4:03, getting slightly slower on each lap but still happy to have completed - and enjoyed - running it.

Relaxed on the run halfway through

Finish Line - adrenaline really pumped through my body twice on Sunday. Once was at the beginning of the swim, the second of course, is running down the finishing chute. I now know that this is why people train for six months, sacrifice family and social life, and swim, ride and run for a full day. It's for this last 300m where you feel as though you are the first competitor home when in fact you may be the 10th, or 550th, or the last. It doesn't matter to you and it doesn't matter to the thousands there to congratulate you. Crossing the line, having your photo taken and receiving a finishers medal is certainly an experience to be remembered. Whether you still feel like that after your 10th Ironman, I don't know. But I think you will always remember the first because you've crossed the unknown and made it to the other side.

Finishing time - 10 hours 46 minutes (swim 1hr 12mins, bike 5hrs 22mins, run 4hrs 3mins, transitions 7mins)
    Yes I did it!      ..... after 226km

Post-race - after giving Nicki a high-five on the run to the finish, she scambled over to the 'meet the finishers' area for a verbal 'well done' (there was a big fence in between us). But like me, proud and happy. A quick chat was interrupted by the desperate need for me to sit down, so I headed into the Athletes Garden, got a coke and found a seat. Taking off the runners and having your feet on the cool grass was a nice feeling, but I was sure that I couldn't move much more. However, I did make it to the change tent for a shower before managing to try and get some pasta down. Being someone who loves food, and having just spent about 10,000 calories, I thought there would be no stopping me when it came to post-race food. Pasta, rice, yoghurt, cakes, fruit, coke and non-alcoholic beer were all there is plentiful amounts, but with little appetite. I joined Nicki outside for a proper 'well-done' before finding a patch of grass and a normal beer. Getting myself down to and up from the ground wasn't easy.

A couple of days after the event, the legs are still a little sore climbing the stairs at home, but generally everything is ok and working. Time now for some social life again before looking to the next challenge.

For more photos go to the Photo Gallery

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