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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Sprint Triathlons Fall 2014

The fall race season is always a fun one. I had come off a summer where I had done three Ironmans and had raced Zurich Ironman on Sunday. Then on Monday waking up at 4 am to drive over to the airport for a trans Atlantic flight, actually Vienna, then to Washington DC, followed by a 6 hour drive to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to meet up with the family for beach week. I really don't like to travel and if given a choice I think that I would stay in my chalet for the rest of my life, but I do like to concoct crazy travel plans that revolve around racing. 

Big jet plane takes me places

I had made good progress on the Ironmans. I had taken nearly two hours off my Zurich time and in my second year of competing in them felt that I was on the right track. My summer vacation ended the first week in August. I was back to work at Leysin American School. The first few weeks are not very intense because the students have yet to arrive but I am back to work and my activities become a weekend pursuit as oppose to my life. Because of all of my physical activity I feel super human in the fall. I have such a base built up from the summer that I usually crush the events that I enter. 

Finishing Zurich Ironman 2014

Being back at work meant that I was back among my racing colleagues. Two in particular, Finn and Stephanie, both were game for some triathlons. They are both new to triathlons so they  were more interested in the shorter sprint distances, which is 500 meters swimming, 20 km bike, and a 5 km run. I have only done one sprint tri in my life and I was curious how my body would adapt to short and fast after doing such long events all summer. 

Transition Area

First up was the Lausanne triathlon. I had done this one a few years ago but the Olympic distance, 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, and 10 km run. It is nice that it is so close and in a short 45 minute drive we are there. We are all in different waves, Finn first in the junior wave, me next in the men's, and Stephanie last in the women's. 

20th year

It is a good event for me since the biking is extremely hilly. The swim is in Lake Geneva. They start you off in the water off a dock so there are 300 people crammed together. I have adopted a new swim strategy. I wait 30 seconds until everyone is past and then start. I need a good 100 meters to ease into the swim. The strategy works to perfection. My swim has gotten better and after a slow start I hit a steady rhythm and settle into a pack. 
Packed swim start

In biking you can draft off the rider in front of you and this gives you a huge advantage. They block the wind and since you are in their slipstream it is much easier for you. This principal holds true in swimming and I am trying to learn to find feet to follow. If I swim right behind someone then I draft off them. I found a few feet to follow and I think this helped me have a good swim. I exited the water roughly two thirds in the wave, which is good for me. The swim takes all of 17 minutes.  
Drafting in a bike race

The bike is 3 laps. But first is a never ending run around the transition area.  It was at least a half kilometer of running in the wetsuit to get to the bike. The worst part is that you are in bare feet on the pavement and my feet got chewed up from that jaunt. The bike is great because immediately you start climbing. 
Powering up the hills

Lausanne is a hilly city. The course takes you up to the Zenith. I had remember the course from previous years so I knew to go easy on the first lap. Even so living in Leysin has made me a good hill climber and I streaked by most people on the climb. After the limb is a nerve wracking curves descent. I really pushed it on the descent but I am sure one day my aggressive riding will lead to a spectacular crash. 
Zooming down

After the descent the is a few km of flat and then repeat. With each lap I tried to get a touch faster. It is so hard to gauge yourself against others since there are different waves on different laps. It is futile and you are never sure if the person trying to burn you is just starting or finishing. 
Racers on undetermined laps

The bike ended quickly and I was back to the infinitely long transition area. Usually I get my feet out of my bike shoes while they are on the bike engaged in my clip less pedals.  Not this time. I wasn't going to torture my feet so after the dismount I kept my cycling shoes on and ran it in with them. Running in cycling shoes is awkward at best and I wobbled along in essentially reverse high heels. 
Heading to the transition from the swim

The run is only 5 km which seems incredibly short. It is 2 laps. Again you are in this tangle of people and have no idea who you place compared to them. I pushed it as hard as I could. I felt good and caught a lot of people. The best was just at the end. I had tracked down a few people and just a few 100 meters from the finish saw two guys ahead of me. I sprinted the final bit and passed them. I love ending in a sprint and it always feels good to catch a few people. 
Sprint to the finish
My final time was 1:16 which was a personal record in sprint triathlon for me. I was which is top quarter. I was happy with my result but could tell that I am not really a sprint triathlon. I don't really train for such a distance and it takes me nearly an hour to get into the groove. It is hard to just explode into such a fast pace. It is a lot of fun though.  It makes you really focus on the transition. Usually I like to take my time as I change from one discipline to another but in the sprint you really need to be dialed in and change fast because it really effects your time. 

A week later I was back at it with my team. I usually compete and travel alone. I must admit to being somewhat of a loner. I like the uncompromising nature of traveling by yourself. You never have to negotiate decisions or plans you just do what you want. But the team aspect is also pretty fun. It is nice to have someone to talk to as wait in the dossard (French for bib) line and to relive the race with after it is over. So the team and I went down to Vevey, which is even closer than Lausanne for the next race. This is a sprint plus. It is not really a regulation race and each discipline is a bit longer than a regular sprint. 
Run course

I was determined to have a record setting swim. We were there early enough that I could get a good swim warm up in. Usually if I start too fast in the swim I get this horrible out of breath asphyxiation which causes me to nearly drown. I thought by warming up hard I could get this out of my system. So there I was at the front of the pack readying to go. The gun went off and I charged out. Big mistake. The horrible asphyxiation grabbed me after about 30 seconds. I had to go into full on dog paddle as the pack swam around me. It took me a few minutes to regain my composure. I was in tough shape. I managed to at least swim properly and thankfully it is a short swim so my suffering ended mercifully quickly. 

Pack of swimmers
Almost all triathlons it is illegal to draft on the bike. For some reason this one is draft legal. It starts off with the mandatory Swiss triathlon huge hill. Then it is totally flat. My strategy was to go hard on the hill and then find some speed demons to for a pack with. I blasted up the hill and right near the top two guys absolutely flew by me. I put it in high gear and caught them on the descent. 
Racers hanging on to my wheel

I have never been on such an intense pace line. We started out as about 7 but these two guys would absolutely hammer in front. When someone else took a turn to pull if they didn't go fast enough these two guys yelled at them. At one point frustrated with our pack the two of time out on a big time acceleration and burned everyone in the pack but me.  It was the three of us. So as not to incur their wrath on my pulls all out sprinted. 
Drafting can be miserable on a rainy day

I was hanging on for dear life. These two guys were hauling. All I could do was stare at the ground and pedal as hard as possible. We blazed by other packs going so fast that no one could jump on with us. We got to the turn around and zipped back to Vevey. It was exhausting. Rarely does my heart rate go above 145 on the bike but it was well above 160 the entire time. We caught two other guys who were moving fast too and luckily they joined our pack. This meant we had 5 to share the work which saved me. 
The bike is always painful

With 1 km left I was destroyed from the effort. So I eased up a bit to try for a quick recovery before the run. The run was another flat 6 km loop. I felt good on it and tried to keep my pace high. I caught my usually number of people and it seemed that it was a solid run especially considering my effort on the bike.  
Trying to keep the pace high

I finished 6 minutes quicker than last year. Mostly thanks to the bike. My average speed was 36 km/hr which considering the big climb is fast. Again I was in the top quarter which is a good place for me. I don't expect too much more than that. The pacing was super fun. You think that it should have been easier but really it was the hardest that I have ever worked on a bike. Keeping our pace so high and then just staying up even in the draft required incredible energy. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ironman Austria

I have had a busy race season.  I discovered duathlon and worked really hard this spring to try and make Team USA so I could race in the World Championships back here in Switzerland.  I made it and then with the coming of summer turned my attention to Ironman season.
Quick trip to the US for this race.
My summer vacation started on 13 June.  I celebrated this with a weekend combo race of the Guebertal Duathlon and the 200 km long Santis classic, a bike race.  With the training for the duathalon which has a very early season I came into the summer in much better shape than usual.  I had done an Ironman in Los Cabos over spring break as preseason training.  I also did on 1 June the Half Ironman Switzerland in Rapperswil - Jona.
Third time the charm?

The half ironman had been my nemesis.  Three years ago I ripped the zipper off my wetsuit right before the swim and wasn't allowed to start so DQ.  Then last year it was raining so hard and so cold that they had to cancel the swim and turn it into a duathlon, which was great for me.  But just as I had biked 10 km the police came and turned everyone around.  A mudslide had covered the road in the bike course and the race had to be cancelled.
Beautiful day, no mudslides this time.

So this year was the first time in three tries that I successfully completed it.  I was nervous because of the swim.  The swimming always makes me nervous but the water temp was 16 degrees C and on the practice swim the cold took my breath away and the cold water on my face gave me an instantaneous ice cream headache.  I have learned how to deal with the swim though and as I tread water waiting for my age group to start I decided to dog paddle the first 100 meters and relax.  It worked well and I was able to get comfortable and then have a pretty decent swim.
Out of the swim.

The bike was good, I was faster than expected.  I ran a 1:38 half marathon to finish off the day.  I was really happy with the run.  It was a good time for running just a half marathon by itself.  I felt good on it and really was able to push my pace.  As I have done more long distance racing it is amazing how short even a half Ironman felt.  It was only the second one that I have ever done.  I finished at 5:15:13.  It was a morale boosting start to the season.

On the bike, Rapperswil-Jona
My mom and step dad arrived 18 June.  They had coordinated their European vacation with the Ironman in Klagenfurt that I had planned on 29 June.  The original plan was to rent a nice car to tour in.   My old car, the Green Gremlin, had to go through the tough Swiss inspection that all cars go through each two years.  If you have ever driven on Swiss roads you will be struck by two things.  The first is that every car looks practically new and you never see cars broken down on the side of the road.  This is in part to the expertise, the inspection of vehicles every two years.  It is very strict and some rust or small defects in a car will get it quickly banned from driving in this country.
Green Gremlin covered in snow.
My car had miraculously passed two years ago and now it was due.  From casual observation I believe that the Green Gremlin was the worst car on the road.  It had two big dents in it from two collisions while parked, ironically I believe both times it was hit by same person.  I was the sixth person to have owned the car and it had been passed around the school community.  It has duct tape on the bumper and numerous scratches on the side from skis and bikes.  It was due to the auto service on 18 June.  I took it in to the garage and after they looked at it declared for the chance to have it pass expertise it would cost approximately 3200 chf.  Since this was nearly 1200 chf more than I had paid for the car it was time to say good-bye.

Last picture of the Green Gremlin.
Since I plan to remain in Switzerland for a good deal longer, just signed another 3 year contract, and now that I am securely in my 40's with a good job I decided that I could afford a real car.  The prospect of car buying in a foreign country is unnerving, but I wanted the experience.  I had decided on trying to get a recent model of a car but after looking through the car ads online saw fairly decent deals on new cars.  So off I went down to the valley.  I drove around Aigle and stopped by all of the dealers.  They were all small so my choice was limited.  I ended up driving to the big city of Lausanne were I could find bigger size dealers.  After a day of searching I had settled on a Subaru Legacy Station Wagon.  It had the three things that I was looking for.  It was big enough to carry bike and skis along with people, it was diesel, and it had all wheel drive for the winter.  After long and difficult negotiations, mostly because the salesman only spoke French, I had bought a car.

During my conversation with the sale man I asked him about a trade in.  He asked to see my car, and I took him out to the Gremlin.  I didn't understand much but I did hear merde and demolition but he said that they would give me 500 chf for it.  So with a heavy heart I bid good-bye to the Gremlin.  It had been a great car.  I had driven it through snow storms, around Europe loaded with bikes, into the mountains, and it had performed beautifully.  It is true that it was loud, had no AC, for a long time no stereo, and over 120 km/hr scarily shook, but it had been dependable and gotten me where I needed to be for 4 years.  I like having names for my cars so I needed a new one for the Subaru.  The Silver Bullet seemed fitting but it was a little too cliche and common.  So I translated it into French which is la Balle d'Argent.  That might be the car's formal name but I just call it Argent.

So with Argent, I packed my triathlon bike, triathlon supplies, mom, and step dad into it and off we went.  Our itinerary was to drive to Venice and do a whirlwind tour of the city, then off to Slovenia for a few days.  Then they would drop me off in Austria and continue touring while I prepared for the Ironman.  They would meet me and support me for the race and then we would drive back through Austria.  The first part of the trip was great.  I had needed to see Venice and definitely was awed by the spectacle.  It is colonial Williamsburg on steroids of Europe.  We took the vaporettos around and saw all of the famous sights.  The highlight for me was an early morning run.  The town has these impossibly small streets that I just would go down and somehow connected all of them together to form and amazing tour of the city, including running through St. Marks courtyard and stumbling on an early morning photo shoot with a very beautiful woman in a very small bikini.
Mom and Ken at St. Mark's

With Venice checked off the list we jumped back into Argent and drove to Slovenia.  I am woeful ignorant of the former Yugoslavia.  It was a great history experience for me as we traveled in the north west of the country in the Julian Alps.  We stayed in the resort town of Bled which was hopping and then drove the famous Vrsic pass.  After that it was a couple of days in Kobarid which has amazing history during World War 1.  Earnest Hemingway's Farewell to Arms is based on his experiences in this area.  So after a few days of learning about the country it was time to go to Austria.  They dropped me off at a hotel in Klagenfurt which I made my base for the next few days to prepare.
Beautiful pass in Slovenia

Racing Ironmans is a very slow learning process.  These races, which take even professional athletes 9 hours to complete and mortals 10 to 16 hours, require and incredibly complex logistic plan.  Between the obvious fitness element, the equipment is much more subtle skills that need to be learned such as nutrition, pacing and hydration to name a few.  After trying to follow a few online plans I had been looking at trying an online coach.  I decided to give it a try so at the beginning of August I signed up for D3 coaching services.  There a coach looks a my progress weekly and gives me a week training plan based on my feedback.  I wanted to see if it would make a difference.  Racing is very scientific and a good training plan can make a big different.  I had been just sort of stumbling my way through becoming an endurance athlete and while I seemed to be doing well I was pretty sure that I could be doing better and maximise my training time.  So for $150 per month I was going to try this out.

So I had a plan that I had followed moderately well for the race and was really focused on very specific goals for each interval.  Aside from better planning the psychological aspect of knowing what I was in for was a huge benefit and having a few of these long races under my belt gave me confidence.  I spent the day before the race walking around with my parents showing them the course so they would know where to watch.  I took a quick swim to try out the water and then took all of my equipment over to the transition area.  I was all set for the race and had given my parents a list of predicted times for each section and placed all of these on the map of the course.  It is incredible how well I followed these the next day.  It becomes such a strange sport when you can so accurately predict your performance.
Mom helping me get on my wetsuit

Race day.  The usual sleep-less night followed by the 3:45 wake up.  I had a nice breakfast and then waited with about 10 fellow athletes for the shuttle bus in front of the hotel.  The morning was beautiful and the day promised to be perfect weather wise.  Everything was just as planned.  My bike was ready and all of my equipment was in order.  Ironman Austria is an extremely popular race.  It is a relatively easy Ironman.  The bike course is pretty flat, the swim includes a 1 km stretch in a canal which supposedly has a small current.  The run is also totally flat.  In the race briefing the day before it seemed that nearly half of the audience had raised their hand when asked if this was their first Ironman.  So with the 3000 other competitors I made my way to the swim start.
5:30 sunrise over transition area

Like many beginner triathletes I had struggled with the swim.  While I had biked and ran most of my adult life aside from splashing about in pools, lakes and oceans hand't swum as exercise ever.  My two years of triathlons had made me focus on learning and I had been training in the local pool.   It was getting better.  The two factors that make it more intense are the huge number of people and the nature of long distance open water swimming.  Starting the event with the swim also means that you go from a standstill to full on which is a hard transition to make.
Swim start day before race

I did an early season triathlon which had a pool swim in which you snaked up and down the lanes of an outdoor pool for 400 meters.  It was the Thrugauer triathlon in Stettfurt, Switzerland and I was gleeful about such an easy swim.  I started the swim at a full sprint and after a few minutes my body freaked out.  I was breathing really rapidly and gasping and felt like I couldn't breathe.  As I was in the middle of the pool I thought it ironic if I was to drown during a swim that seemed so safe compared to the big open water swims that I had done.  That event and thinking on my past swim experiences I have realised that if I go to fast my body overacts which is really bad to occur in the swim.

Learning this lesson I now start the swim legs very slow.  After the gun goes off I wait about a minute and then slowly walk into the water and go at a very easy pace for the first part of the race.  At the start of Ironman Austria i used this technique.  I was on the farthest right part of the beach and determined to go slow.  The gun went off, I waited and then I walked in and off I went.  The plan went perfectly and soon I was comfortably swimming having avoided my body freaking out.  

I learned though that now I have a new problem.  I am still a relatively weak swimmer but an capable enough that I am not in the very back.  I caught up with a lot of swimmers and then ended up in a pack, which was okay but I miss when I was in the very back and just had the lake to myself.  The swim was good and I felt like I was doing well.  We rounded the buoys and headed back towards shore.  The sun is right in your eyes at this point and I could not tell where I was going.  I relied on following other swimmers but every now and then I would look up and see the helper boats herding athletes in the right direction and use those to direct me.  From the amount of directions being shouted from the volunteer water crafts it seemed that many people where having great difficulty with their course.  I learned that you can't really hear directions under water so it was mostly lost to me any instructions.

I made it into the canal, which was a narrow entrance that was pretty non descript on the shore line.  By luck it seems I had managed to keep a good course.  I was excited for the canal thinking that this would make for an easy swim, since it had a slight current and being narrow which made me feel much more secure than swimming in the middle of a big lake.  The canal though ended up being very difficult.  I was with my pack and it was so small that there was not that much room.  I was banging into people left and right and I swum down the canal.  When you swim behind someone you draft off of them.  This means that I was faster than the person in front of me but there was little room to pass and when I did I lost that extra speed and just fed the congestion of the canal.  The canal was not fun and I was glad to finally get to the end.
The Canal

From the canal to the transition area was a good distance.  It probably was a half kilometre.  I ran along getting half out of my wetsuit, stuffing my googles in my sleeve.  At some point they must have fallen out because that was the last I saw of them.  I was really hungry at the end of the swim and devoured a Powerbar while changing.  I quickly changed an headed toward my bike.  I had the brilliant plan of wrapping 4 Powerbars around my bike handle bars.  This had worked before, but the heat of the dy had melted them and at the foot of my bike were about half of the bars and the rest was dripping off the bars.  I smashed them on and off I went.
Looks familiar

I had ridden the bike course a few days before the race so I was prepared.  The bike was pretty mellow.  My coach had really been emphasising the importance of eating, especially on the bike.  The day I will burn around 7000 calories and since you can't eat on the swim and the run with the constant movement up and down makes eating challenging, therefore eating on the bike becomes critical.  I was already hungry so after the first 20 km I had a nice Powerbar picnic as I rode.  I sat up and ate two of the remnants of the bars off my handle bars and drank a bottle of water.  Then after every feed zone I would grab some more bars, stuff them up my short legs (a new cool trick I learned) and have mid race picnics.  I really wanted to get a lot of food in me.
Having a drink while biking.

This plan worked well until the end of the bike leg.  It is a real challenge to eat and soon my body didn't feel like it.  I was tired of Powerbars and riding.  My picnics turned into force feedings where I would make myself choke down a bar in order to get the much needed calories.  It rained twice on the second leg of the bike, but I wasn't too bothered.  I get into this mode where I am just going and not much is going to make a difference to me.  The course was nice and had a few big hills which is definitely my strength.  It felt good to pound uphills every now and then.  The ride seemed to end quickly and before I knew it I was back at the transition area.
Pretty course.

I dropped my bike off, grabbed my running gear, which is only running shoes and a visor.  I remembered to take off my bike shorts.  After my first Ironman I discovered that the skimpy tri shorts don't have enough padding and the bike saddle becomes very uncomfortable.  At the Los Cabos Ironman I experimented with putting on bike shorts and it worked great.  The extra padding really helped and it takes hardly any time to put on in transition.  The one drawback was that I forgot to take them off in Mexico and a few kilometres into the run noticed I still had them.  While great for biking they are miserable to run in.  Luckily I saw my dad and was able to take them off mid race and give them to him.
There I am running in m biking shorts.  Notice all the trash from the wrappers stuffed in my  short's leg.

Learning from mistakes I made sure to take off my bike shorts and then I was off to the run.  I started the run just as the leader of the race was running by.  So there I was with an official on a mountain bike with the sign of the number 1 man next to me.  Feeling good and energised by this commotion I started my run at a ver fast pace.  The number one man still passed me, of course, and he was just a few kilometres from finishing whereas I still had the whole marathon ahead of me.  The pro athletes do get a 15 minute head start so that is probably why he had this lead.
There I am in first place.

My goal was to run a marathon in under 4 hours.  It seems easy considering how slow it is compared to my normal marathon pace.  I was definitely flying the first 10km and had visions of a record performance.  But the lack of food and the effect of biking 112 miles caught up with me.  It is like a switch is flicked and my blistering pace went to a slow plod.  The trick is trying to keep a consistent pace.  I definitely had gone out too fast and exhausted my supplies.  Also my will to eat had vanished.  Even bananas which usually are my staple tasted inedible.  I had to spit one out it so revolted me.  I could only drink water and sports drink and that would have to sustain me.  Even though I had hit a snag I did manage to settle into a new pace.  It was still a run and I could sustain it so I just accepted the slow pace and made sure I sustained it.
Running along.

You run from a town on the lake to the centre of Klagenfurt and repeat this lap for the marathon.  Much more than the bike or the swim the marathon seems the most forbidding and the longest.  Coming at the end of the event is part of it but the pounding of running so long is really hard on the body.  It is also the hottest part of the day and compared to the bike where there is always a breeze from the speed you are traveling.  It seemed to take forever and the worst part is that you pass the finish line on the second lap when you still have half a marathon left.  It is mentally tough not to drop out.  I wasn't in that much pain compared to my last Ironmans, so I just committed to keep on going.  My parents were on the run course and seeing them always boosted my spirits.
Mom with her cowbell.

Finally after what seems an eternity I rounded the statue of the dragon in the centre of Klagenfurt and headed towards the finish line 5km away.  I added what speed I could and cruised back.  There at the edge of the W├Ârthersee 11 hours 27 minutes and 59 seconds after the start of the race I finished.  At the end two volunteers held out a Ironman Austria tape that the finishers break.  This was done as a treat for the finishers at all times but it so confused me that I just approached it and grabbed it and looked at it for a minute trying to figure out what was going on.  Maybe I had won?
Fighting through the tape and confusion 

The post race is all about surviving your body's revenge for doing something so ridiculous.  During the run I dream of just sitting and not doing anything.  But after I am finished siting hurts, walking hurts, standing hurts, everything hurts.  I have learned that I just need to get some warm clothes on and lie down.  I found my parents, got on my after race clothes, took the mylar blanket they give you and laid in the grass of the park.  My body freaked out as always and I went through my traditional bout of post race shivering and seizing but after an hour of recovery I was feeling okay.  I reclaimed my bike, my parents drove me back to the hotel, and I went directly to a warm bath and then to bed.
Picnic on the drive home

In the end it was a personal best for me.  This was the third Ironman that I had done and my previous best time was 13 hours 4 minutes.  Everything was faster and overall I felt better than previous ones.  I am trying to move from surviving them to racing them and I feel like this race was a good step in the right direction.  The course was easier too but I am getting better.  So now I have spent the month of July preparing for a rematch against the Zurich Ironman, which happens 27 July.
Mom and Ken and the Austrian mountains

This post is dedicated to my step dad Ken Kellermann.  He was the inspiration for the Slovenia tour which was a great cultural event and at 76 ran his first race last November, a 5 km in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I want to still be competing when I am in my 70's too.
It was Ken's 77th birthday on the way home.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ironman Zurich

As I stood on the bank of the Zurichsee at 6:58 Sunday 28.July probably lots should have been racing through my mind like “how did you get here?” or “will I survive this?”  Honestly it was a beautiful morning and though I was surrounded by stunt doubles for Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie, men and women with amazingly sculpted bodies, and the tension of the start as everyone anticipated the beginning, I felt really calm.
Beautiful morning. Calm before the storm

When I was 5 in the year 1976 across the US and on an island in the Pacific a group of athletes were deciding who was more fit the swimmer, biker, or runner.  There were three challenging races held each year on Oahu, a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a marathon.  These athletes decided to test themselves by doing all three in one day.  It was decreed that whoever could do them all would be an Ironman.

I think 11 of the 15 who started it completed and the Ironman triathlon was born.  It quickly grew into a famous race and spawned a group of professional athletes.  In my childhood I had never really heard of a triathlon (except for the Ironman.)  I had grown up on Bruce Jennings on my Wheaties box, who was the decathlon champion, 10 track and field events, and dubbed the world’s greatest athlete. 

The idea of combining sports is quite cool and had been around for a long time.  The biathlon is a combination cross country ski and shooting, the pentathlon is 5 events that a 19th century soldier would need to be skilled at: shooting, swimming, fencing, equestrianism, and cross country running.  It seems that triathlons had been done as early as 1920 but never really made it big until the Ironman started.

Somewhere in the 80’s a triathlon craze hit the world.  While most of the other multisport contests had events that most ordinary people did not do, nearly everyone swims, bikes and runs.  Of course the Ironman distance is pretty unattainable without a lot of training and effort but race organizers started creating smaller more reasonable triathlons.  The sprint is 0.5km swim, 20km bike, and 5 km run.  The Olympic distance is 1.5km swim, 40km bike, and a 10 km run.  I find it strange that the Olympics use this quite short triathlon, I would not be surprised if TV coverage had something to do with it.  Then there is the half Ironman, half the distances, and the full Ironman.

Me in local race.  The woman in blue is Nicole Spirig.  The 2012 London Gold medalist in triathlon.  She lives in the same town as me.  She beat me in this race.
Two years ago I had been swept up in this craze.  I am not sure what started it other than it seemed cool.  I had moved to Switzerland and had met people who were doing bike and running races and started doing them too.  I seemed like a good value to get to do three sports at once so I tried it one and was hooked.  Of course if you are doing triathlons then the Ironman is the Holy Grail.  I had noticed that there was one in Zurich every year and since that is a mere 3 hour car drive was psyched to give it a try.  After Christmas I started thinking about it but was unsure.

Ronnie Schildknecht winning Zurich Ironman for the 7th time in a row.
Most athletes follow some kind of training plan.  You can get elaborate plans of the web for marathons and Ironmans.  I am not big into training but I do need to have some way of convincing myself that something is doable.  Over spring break I went to Chile to go backpack in Patagonia.  By luck the Santiago marathon was on the last day of my spring break.  I decided to do it.  My friend Eric, who lived in Santiago and was a colleage of my dad who is now living there, wanted to do a marathon.  It was his first one.  I decided that I would do it with him.  I had run two before at 3:33 and 3:43 but the long Swiss winter had been very snowy which meant lots of skiing but no running.  My training was 8 days of 20+ km a day backpacking.  I did the race with Eric at his pace and it took us 4:12.  Though running 26.2 miles is always painful I was able to do it fairly easily with no real training.  This convinced me that I could do the Ironman.

Finished Santiago Marathon with Eric and Neil

I signed up for the Zurich event and proceeded to not train.  School ended and I was on summer vacation, which means that I spent nearly every day running or biking.  This was how I was going to get in shape.  I focused mostly on the bike because that is what I like to do the most.  One day I put my flip flops, a shirt and shorts in my bike jersey pocket and rode across Switzerland in three days.  Each day I would do the length of the Ironman bike.  When I traveled with my mom and sister I would run in the afternoon while in Zermatt and the Bernese Oberland. 

Mom and Sister and Me in Zermatt
The summer flew by and before I knew it I was packing up my bike and gear into the Green Gremlin, my car, which I am convinced is the worst car in Switzerland.  The Swiss have a rigorous inspection every two years and if your car isn’t in great shape it is not allowed to be driven.  On the Swiss motorways nearly every car looks shiny and new and I think in the 4 years I have lived here I can count on one hand the number of cars broken down on the side of the road.  Somehow my car passes even though it has been run into twice (huge dents on side), has duck tape on the bumper, and is always dirty from being parked under trees. 

Green Gremlin buried in snow this winter.
Back to 28.July.  I am standing on the bank of the lake.  It is an open water swim and basically swims across the lake and then parallel to the far shore and back across and repeats for a second lap.  Confession time.  I had not at all trained for the swim.  In fact I had literally swam 4 times this year.  Twice in the pool in the winter and once in another Olympic triathlon I did in the summer.  Last year I had done a half ironman and completed the swim okay so I wasn’t too worried.  Since it was very hot, it was actually the hottest weekend in Zurich in 10 years, it was a non wetsuit swim.  Most triathletes prefer the wetsuits.  They have extra buoyancy and swim times are always faster with them than without. 
Wetsuits, great for swim but near impossible to get on and off

I started in the back because I am such a slow swimmer that I do want to be run over by the faster swimmers.  There were about 3000 athletes that day and even with starting in the back I was still in a pack.  It was a mass start so we literally all started at once.  It was a wrestling match for the first 10 minutes, banging into other simmers, kicking people in the face, being kicked in the face, swimming over top of others, absolute chaos.  At some point I managed to get myself far to the outside of the pack and then started slowly cruising.   

Swimming rush hour.  Pic from actual race.
Probably about halfway across the lake I had a panic attack.  The adrenaline of the beginning along with the underwater fighting had unnerved me.  The realization of swimming 2.4 miles without any training struck me as about the most foolish thing that anyone could do.  If you can’t finish the bike you hop on a train, the run you call a cab, the swim I believe you drown.  That thought had me debating whether I should turn around and swim for the shore.

Pushed that button.
I settled down though and rested and off I went free styling.  I was in a group of about 10 and being near others helped ease my worry.  The first lap went by and I felt okay and was had my confidence return.  About halfway through the second lap I was miserable.  My awkward swimming style ahd been reduced to only breathing on the left side and I am sure that I was doing some type of weird sideways stroke with my right arm barely getting out of the water.  My goggles were squeezing my head and I had a dull ache which turned into a intense ache around my eyes from the pressure.  Water had gotten into my swim cap and I could feel it go down my ear each time I turned my head.  It was pretty much torture.  Everyone now and then I would tread water and look up to get my bearing.  I would see the next buoy and the sad trail of about 20 other swimmers who were moving about my speed. 

Halfway point of swim you run across this island.
2.4 miles is a long way to swim.  As I approached the exit 2 hours and 23 minutes after I had started the feeling a pain and dizziness overpowered any joy I felt at completed it.  I heard the announcer saying as I exited the water something about the last swimmers and a lot of people were clapping and cheering, obviously out of sympathy and charity.  Ironman’s are pretty snazzy events and the swim exit was the main staging area so there were plenty of people to witness my struggle.  So add humiliation to pain and dizziness.  I grabbed my bike gear changed into it.  In the transition area there had been 3000 bikes and now there where about 10.  It did make it easy to find my bike.  I pushed it out to the road and jumped on and off I went. 
Thankfully swim is over.  Can't believe there is a person behind me.

According to the tracking I was the 1930th athlete to get out of the water.  I am not sure if there were really 3000 athletes as they said since there were not a 1000 swimmers still out in the water?  I was psyched to be on the bike, It was my favorite activity of the three, and over the first few km I was slightly proud of my swim.  I had done the free style the entire time and aside from stopping to get my bearings and during my panic attack had never had to rest.  Being last has the great advantage of getting to pass lots of people.  The bike was going well.  The course was flat for awhile then had a pretty steep and hilly section.  I love riding up steep while others suffered I sort of enjoyed it. 
Me enjoying climb.  Friend, Ian Nelson, suffering.

The bike was two 90km loops.  About halfway through the first loop I discovered two big challenges of the race.  The first was peeing.  It was momentum breaking to come to a stop get off the bike and pee so I was holding it in.  I should have just succumbed to the first feeling of need.  I am not sure what I was thinking that I would go all day without peeing.  Finally at the 30 km when I thought my bladder would explode I stopped.  After that I quickly realized how thirsty and hungry I had become.  I had been exercising for nearly 3.5 hours and had gone through my one bottle of water on the bike.  Luckily the first feed station came soon and volunteer handed me a bottle of Power bar athletic drink and I grabbed a Power gummy (this whole race was sponsored by Powerbar.)  Eating proved unfun.  My stomach was not very happy with me.  I am sure the many liters of Zurichsee water along with the constant churning on the bike was the culprit.  I knew I had to eat and devoured the gummy and drank all of the drink in 1 minute.  While I was sated the next feed station wasn’t for another 30 km and there were 2 big climbs between me and it.
Eating on the run or in this case bike.

I got to the feed station dehydrated and famished.  I needed a new system so I grabbed a water from a volunteer.  Held it in my teeth and grabbed a Powerade.  The I got a pack of gummies and two Powerbar and stuffed them into my jersey pocket.  I rode slowly and drank all of the water and poured the other bottle into the one on my bike.  I ate a gummy, unwrapped the Powerbars and wrapped them raw around my handle bars, a trick I had heard about, for eating later.  Then you get to take all of the trash and throw it to the side of the road, as long as you do it within the feed zone.  Psyched that I had now a system and having passed about 100 riders confidence returned. 
The bike transition area.

I passed the staging area and had one 10km section left of the first bike.  It was mostly flat with one challenging short climb called Heartbreak Hill.  Here was the coolest part of the race.  The amount of fans at the race was amazing.  On this one section people lined up Dutchman corner style ( the iconic hairpin curve on the Alp d’Huez where the fans go crazy) and literally the fans were so close there was just enough room for you on your bike.  They lean out in front of you and just before they reach you pull back all the time cheering you on.  Again my climbing legs were with me so I put on as much of a show as I could by powering up the top of Heartbreak Hill.  It was pretty awesome.  What I didn’t know was that the race leader, Swiss triathlete Ronnie Schildknecht was about 5 minutes behind me finishing his second lap.  He zoomed by me a few minutes later and was off to the run as I started my second lap. 
Coolest part of race.

This is pretty much the sequence of emotions that I felt on each of the three events.  First eighth, wow this isn’t so bad I am going to do well.  One quarter, this is pretty challenging but I feel okay.  Three eighth, Oh my god I can’t believe I am not even at halfway yet, this is going to take forever.  Halfway, okay halfway done I just need to keep it up.  Five eighth, wow my, choose two:head, back, face, butt, toe, knee, quad, calf, shoulder, eyebrow, really hurts.  Three quarters, I wish this was finished, I can’t wait for the next event it is going to be so much better.  Seven eighth, the pain in my go back to five eighth selection is unbearable it is all I can think about.  Finished, whew! that wasn’t so bad really.
Sine Curve seems to graph emotions quite well.

The second lap of the bike was much more challenging.   I didn’t have that excited energy that the first lap had provided.  Plus it was getting really hot and I was struggling to stay hydrated.  The best part was that fans that lived on the side of the course often where armed with garden hoses which they gladly doused you down with or without request.  I think I managed to cope with the heat fairly well.  I saw plenty of riders though abandoned the race to the shade or walking up some of the bigger hills.  Everything was smooth except for my butt which was aching from sitting on the tiny saddle in tri shorts which have almost no padding on them and my left toe mega ached.
On the tri-bike.

The only real exciting moment came on the one steep downhill descent.  After the climbing section there was a very steep, 15% grade, hill that you zoomed down.  I was going around 70 km an hour when I hit a bee right in the center of my forehead between my helmet and my glasses.  The sheer impact was enough to hurt is was literally smashed into my forehead like it was a windshield.  It did manage to sting me and I felt like I had just been shot.  I pulled the bee out then got the stinger out all at 70km/hr.  It was painful but luckily after a few kilometers my triathlon pain overcame the bee sting and it was quickly forgotten.   
If only bees were this fun.

Heartbreak Hill was a ghost of its former glory as I pedaled up the second time.  I dropped down and 3 km later had finished the bike.  I was now 1577 having gained almost 400 places.  I parked the bike and grabbed my running gear and off I went to run a marathon.  The run was four 10 km (plus a little) loops.  Almost immediately I got to the first marker and it said 1km / 11.1km / 21.2 km /  Somehow this sign was really disheartening.  I had so long to go.  Luckily the run was much better supplied then the bike.  Every 3 km there was a feed station.  I hadn’t eaten too much on the bike and was psyched to get plenty of food.  I had been exercising for 9 hour now without a break.  Also at each feed zone you could get a sponge a use it to cool down.  Of course the first 10k went well but soon it became very challenging.
The run.

The way they kept track of your progress was that at the start of every lap you got a colored scrunchie that you wore on your arm.  The first lap was blue, then green, followed by yellow, and at last red.  I was so envious of people who went running by with more colors then me.  I also delighted when I saw that I was catching up with someone who had my color(s).  A lot people were ahead of me and the run really rubs it in your face.  As I scurried around with my lowly single blue arm bad it seemed that everyone already had multiple colors on their arms.  Also doing a loop four times really ingrained the course into my mind.  There was the section that I hated, the one on the far side of the lake where you ran on gravel.  There was the dark tunnel as you crossed under the main street.  The pedestrian bridge which seemed plenty high enough if I needed to end my suffering.  The only small hill in the park I looked forward to just so I could use slightly different muscles as I ran.
Two scrunchie down.

Through all the pain and suffering at this point I knew that I was going to finish.  My goal was never to stop running, it was amazing how many people had to walk, and to try and keep a reasonable pace, the definition of reasonable dramatically changed each lap.  Once again the fans were great.  So many lined up to see this event, obviously most were friends and family of athletes.  My name was on the bib so people as greeted you with your name which is pretty cool.  I would always at least try and weakly smile back in acknowledgement but that was not always so easy.  I did feel that I had some groupies.  Doing 4 laps you pass the same groups and while I am sure they cheered every runner it did feel sort of special when they cheered me each time.  It was like they were invested in me.  I am sure my pace quickened a hair at each of these encounters.

While there was food a plenty a new wrinkle had developed in my eating.  When I was in college on a bet I had eaten two large pizzas.  I remember halfway through the second pizza the taste of it revolted me and it was sickening to eat.  I had gotten this way with the Powerbar family.  The taste disgusted me.  On my second lapped I gagged on a powerbar and spit it out revolted by the taste of it.  I am sure that it is normal for your body to freak out.  I had seen at least 4 other runners bent over vomiting on the course.  I was really hungry though.  As a last measure I grabbed some banana pieces and ate those with a glass of water.  This did it.  For the rest of the race good old banana was my fuel.  It was delicious, palatable, and did the trick. 
Famous churches of Zurich in view.

I remember the thrill of getting the red scrunchie for the last lap.  I wanted to show it off to everyone I was so excited.  I tried to speed up for the last 10k and my spirit was high knowing the end was near.  The last lap was done more than 12 hours after the start.  It was getting dark and the number of racers was drastically reduced.  Every lap went by the finish line and on the penultimate one for me about 10 runners I was in a pack with peeled off to the finish as they were done.  I remember running by myself for about a kilometer feeling like the last man on earth.  It was clear there were still plenty of athletes left as I did the last lap.  The cutoff time for the event was 11pm, 16 hours after the event began.  I passed some walkers with only two scrunchies on their arms and felt pity for them.  Part of me was proud that they were going to attempt to finish no matter what but I thought to myself if I was reduced to walking then I probably would have given up.  I felt that I wanted to complete this in style.
So happy 4 scrunchies.  The end is near.
 It is amazing how well I felt those last few kilometers.  I could run fast again.  The pains I had didn’t seem that bad.  There were about 4 of us who finished at the same time.  There were still a lot of fans at the finish line and cheerleaders.  Usually I sprint hard at the finish but I slowed to an easy jog 100 meters away.  I don’t usually show too much emotion but I was jumping up and down waving my arms in the air screaming with joy.  It was a very emotional moment.  I crossed the finish line.  There I was given my medal.  Usually I hate medals for races because I don’t really want them and I have to carry this metal chunk around with me not wanting to throw it away but upset that now I would have to keep it somewhere and deal with it.  Again I was really sentimental this time and I gladly had it put around my neck.  I have a feeling that I am going to be hanging on to this one for awhile.  Then they wrap you in Mylar (essentially aluminum foil) to keep you warm.
   I was aching and sore but didn’t feel awful.  I went to go get some food.  Not feeling awful soon changed.  I had two cups of Powerbar recovery drink and my stomach just cut loose.  I hurried to the toilet.  Sitting down I had a huge diarrhea attack and felt the energy leave my body.  After that I quickly realized that my legs were so stiff that I couldn’t get off the toilet.  So there I was on the commode, my tri pants around my ankles, wrapped in aluminum foil, stuck on the toilet.  I am sure it looked hilarious and with much effort I righted myself.  I went to the recovery tent and luckily they had some mats.  I laid down on one and had seizures of shivers and fell asleep for about 10 minutes.  I slowly woke up and managed to stand and go get my street clothes.  It was a Herculean task to go collect my bike and gear and go with the trains back to my hotel but I managed and that was it.
 Will I do another one?  Yes.  My final time was 13 hours 26 minutes and 27 seconds.  My place was 1375.  I had done a half Ironman in 4 hours 59 minutes so I was hopeful to do this full in under 12, I even secretly hoped for under 11, but obviously that didn’t happen.  Maybe I will actually train and try to do it correctly.  I did have a good time and through all of the pain and suffering I never really regretted it.  I was happy to never stop moving and swam the freestyle through the whole swim, was always going on the bike, and never stopped jogging.  It was a cool experience and the crowds were great as was the venue.  I am recovering quickly.  I have to because tomorrow is 1.August Swiss national day and I running the Aigle to Bernuse mountain half marathon here in my town that happens every 1.August J  Too much fun!
 Dedication:  I have enjoyed dedicating these posts.  This one goes out to my mom and dad.  They both tracked me from the States and Chile as I did the event.  Knowing that they were watching gave me strength as I competed.  I love them both very much.