Sunday 6th of August, 7:00 AM in the morning. I’ve been awake for 3 hours (you need the time for digestion of your breakfast and transportation to the start) on a day where most of us are still sleeping out and plan to sit in the coach all day watching some sports. I’m standing between 1600 other triathletes at the crossing of the canal ‘the Maas’ at the start of the Ironman Maastricht which is a 3.8 km swim, a 180-km bike and 42.2 km run to finish. For me it’s my third Ironman and the goal for this year is to run a PR which would be a 9 hour 40 min race. If you end up being top 3 in your age group (which is 30 to 34 years old for me), you get the opportunity to buy your slot to Hawaii, the world championships of the Ironman, a dream for every long-distance triathlete. I knew at the start that 9:40 was possible but would probably not be fast enough to end up in the top-3. As some of the top athletes do multiple triathlons in a year, they often do not take the slot and so the 4rd or 5th in raking gets the chance to buy the slot (which is still 900 dollars!). Needless to say, there are a lot of if’s but Hawaii certainly is in the back of my mind.
The feeling at the start of an Ironman never lets me down. Eager to start, but a little healthy stress and questions start to pop up. Did I train enough? Will I be able to cycle without punctures – your bike is checked in and racked the day before the race and you get the chance to do a final check and pump up the tires at 6:00 AM in the morning but that’s it - or crashes? I start visualizing the finish line and running across the beautiful city center, greeting my supporters, awesome! The stress and the questions disappear when the start is given. In Maastricht, the start is given by a mediaeval canon along the clapping and cheering of more than 10.000 spectators, perfect for a goosebumps moment.
1,2.3 we are off
The start is, what is called, a rolling start. This means that every 3 seconds, 5 swimmers can enter the water. Your finish time will also be determined by the time you cross the finish line and the start line which both have timing sensors in it. So, you can be beaten by someone who finish later but also started later. The difference between the first and last athlete entering the water is about 45 minutes, quite a lot but necessary to allow an easy swim start without getting swam over. If you are a good swimmer (below 60 min swim time for the 3.8 km swimming part) you start in front, if you are a less experienced swimmer you start in the back (1 hour 30 minutes swimmers). I plan on swimming around 1 hour and 7 minutes so I’m standing quite in front (but not the first one ;)). My girlfriend and 7 friends are standing exactly at the spot I’m entering the water giving me a good cheer the last seconds before I really start my race. I check my sports watch, 7:18, the PRO athletes are already 18 minutes in race mode. Here I go, time to catch them :)!
Just keep swimming
Most triathlons have very big buoys in the water, making it easier to navigate as straight as possible in the water. The first dip in the water feels good! As you get nervous in the start, wearing a wetsuit, your body starts to heat up. The water is quite warm but still cool enough for waking me up good! I start my first strokes and as thought the stress disappears. Here I go, stroke after stroke. Every 5 strokes I look a little ahead (not too much though, I do not want to have too much of a drag). My sports watch (a Garmin 735XT for the gadget fans), vibrates every 500m, helping me mentally but also strategically with pacing. To achieve my goal 1hour 7minutes, I need to be swimming 1 min 44 seconds every 100 meters. After 500 m, my watch vibrates, 1:48 min per 100m pace shows up on the screen, damn, not fast enough. I try to increase my pace but my arms already feel somewhat heavy, what’s going on? Second 500m, my watch vibrates again, 2:03 min per 100m pace! This is not good, am I having an off day on D-day? Suddenly I realize that the first 1500 meters are against the current, the next 1900 are with the current and the last 400 again with the current in the disadvantage. So, I do not panic and keep on swimming at a pace where I feel, this is quite intensive but I can do this for 3800 meters. The third 500m are done in a 2:04 min per 100m pace and then we have, what is called, an Australian exit. This is a ‘break’ in the swimming part, where you leave the water, run for a dozen meters and jump back in, cool for the spectators and good to have the water running out of the wetsuit. I jump back in the water and now it’s time to go faster, the current is my friend now for 1900m! The next 500 m show 1:29 min per 100m pace, wow, this is fast! My confidence is growing, the 1:07 hour goal is possible! The next 1500m are swam at a 1:29 min per 100m pace too and the last 400m against the current are done in a 1:51 min per 100m pace, giving me a swim time of 1:06:53! Perfect start of a perfect day!
Time to catch up!
A 1:07 swim time is good for me, but it gets me in position 311. The top 3 in my age group will probably finish top 40 overall, so I have some catching up to do! No time to lose in the transition zone (as some use this for recovery). I jump on my bike after leaving T1, making sure I have everything I need and start pushing the pedals. One of the advantages of Maastricht is that it is only one hour drive away from where I live so two weeks prior to the race, I’ve already did a recon of the course so I know where to push hard, and where to push even harder. Key thing in an Ironman is never to overdo yourself. Keep a good pace, but heart rate should never be above 85% of your max heart rate. Easier said than done with the race adrenaline rushing through your body, all the time have to catch up and hills up to 10% in the course. I manage to find my pace and catch up athlete by athlete, the legs feel good! First lap of 90 km is covered in 2 hours 33 minutes. My goal was to go for a 5 hour 15 min bike time, so this looks good.
In a full distance triathlon, drafting – taking advantage of the drag reduction by sticking in the wheel of another athlete – is not allowed, so you must keep 10m distance between each other and catch others in 25 seconds. If you fail to do so, or you do decide to draft, you get a penalty of 5 minutes waiting time in the penalty tents. Unfortunately, as in most races, there are not enough referees to really check all the cheaters in the pack, being able bike a very fast time without losing energy. I am cycling most of the time on my own catching up, up to kilometer 120. I get into a group (keeping the 10m distance) which is cycling a little slower than the pace I was going. As I start to feel the legs a bit, I decide to reduce speed, keep up with the group and save my energy for the marathon.
The weather is perfect. Not too warm, not too cold, almost no wind, perfect triathlon conditions. Nevertheless, you should keep focus on hydration and food. I had an energy bar, apart from my breakfast before the swim start, a gel in the T1, and now I’m eating and drinking about 750 ml of isotonic drinks per hour and ingesting about 70 gr of carbs every hour with a variety of bananas, energy bars and gels. All is going good!
The second and final lap of the cycling course, I manage to finish in 2 hours and 45 minutes, giving me a 5 hours 18 minutes bike time overall, good for the 126th bike time overall, cathing more than 150 athletes and entering the top 160 in the race. I’m happy with that but not time to lose as the final and most decisive part of the race is starting now, the marathon!
Transition needs to go fast
I catch some athletes in the T2 racking my bike as fast as I can, making sure not to break any of the triathlon rules (keep your helmet clicked in until you are in the transition tent, making sure my race BIB is in front position for the run etc. 2 min 29 seconds after entering the transition zone, I start the marathon, I’m ready!
Run, run fast as you can!
The marathon starts for me, the top 3 PRO athletes are already running their 3rd lap. I join the 3rd PRO runner his pace running around a 4min 10 seconds per kilometer pace. He is telling me I’m running to fast, I tell him, no it’s fine, I’m a good runner. Am I being cocky or overestimating myself? Always listen to a PRO right? The legs feel so good though and I know that I will need a sub 3 hour 10 minutes marathon to achieve my goal, a 9 hour 40 min Ironman, and for sure my dream, a slot for Kona, Hawaii. A marathon in 3 hours is a 4:16 min per km pace. Knowing that I probably will have to slow down, I keep my 4:10 min per kilometer pace. I feel good, I’m going fast and even lose the PRO athlete (who is in his final lap now, so a little more tired as I am right now). I check my heart rate, try to eat and drink as much as possible at every water station to avoid getting hit by the hammer. Every 2.5 km, there is a water station with sportsdrinks, foods and water. It’s now 15:00 PM and the sun is burning. It’s getting hotter and hotter and my legs start to feel heavier and heavier. The second lap I’ve decreased my running speed to 4:20 – 4:25 min per km pace. The third lap, I still manage to run a 4:35-4:45 min per km pace. It’s looking good. If I manage to run that last 10.5 km lap in a pace sub 5 min per km, my 9:40 hour Ironman will have succeeded! But than, at kilometer 34, 8 kilometer before the finish line, cramps strike my complete body. My legs, arms, back, every muscle in my body is cramped up. There is no other possible way than decrease running speed and alter stretching, walking and running. I’m losing precious time and see more and more athletes catching me again. This is not good! I see my supporters crew cheering 500m in front of me, so I try to start running again, 200 m later I need to walk again because every fibre in my body is yelling to walk and stretch. Not a hair on my body is thinking about quiting. I’ve worked to hard, I’ve come to far to quit now. Not for myself, not for my supporters! Last 5 km are real hell, I can only run for 50m and need to walk most of the time. I loose about 20 minutes in that last 5 km.
Smile, no matter what!
Last kilometers are cobble stones, making it more difficult to run on. But knowing that the race is over in one kilometer gives my body the strength to run, as by wonder, the cramps stay away. I see my parents, girlfriend, friends cheering for me as I enter the last 200m. I have difficulties to control my emotions as I feel the tears coming up. Mixed emotions as I run on the red carpet towards the finish line. I’ve did it, a smile appears on my face! A full distance Ironman, in a slower time than expected but still a time a lot of athletes can only dream about. In the end, I’ve done a 3 hours 29 minutes marathon, not enough for my PR, not enough for a slot for Kona, Hawaii, but definitely enough to fuel my motivation to do this again, I’ll reach my goal, someday, no matter what!
You win some, you learn some
To summarize, I’ve learned a lot from this amazing experience. In the end, I think the race plan and tactics were perfect. The amount of training I’ve managed to do, in combination with the busy lifestyle I have, came up short. I’ve swam 75 km, cycled 4000 km and ran 1600 km in the 6 months prior to my Ironman. It sounds a lot, and it is the most I could do without overtraining my body in combination with the daily job and family life, but actually in comparison with the athletes in the top 100, it’s too few. I’ll come back, in better shape, well rested, and smash that 9 hour 40 minutes time! To be continued!