Friday, 12 July 2013

Ironman Germany Race report

I was really lucky with my home-stay allocation, and stayed in a really nice part of the city with a wonderful woman and her daughter who did everything possible to provide the perfect environment for my final  race preparations. As a result I felt unusually relaxed in the days before this race, despite knowing that my placing here in this European Championships would determine my chances of achieving this year’s ambition to qualify for Hawaii. 

Nonetheless, I slept little on the eve of the race, and was wide awake before my alarm was due to go off (this was fortunate for me, since I’d neglected to adjust the time on my ‘phone and would have been an hour late otherwise). The race in Frankfurt has a “split transition”  - meaning that the location of the swim and T1 is some 20km south of the city in a local bathing lake. This adds up to an hour of travel to the start in the morning, and is the one aspect of this fantastic event that I’d wish were different. It makes it more difficult for spectators to watch the spectacle that is the swim start and adds further complication, and time, to the logistics of checking in the bike and equipment on the day before the race, which is far from ideal. That said – the race organisors provided frequent shuttle bus services for athletes and competitors, and it judging by the size of the crowds of support around the lake on race morning, it did not deter too many from making the early morning effort!

I arrived at the start site early as usual, prepared my bike (pump tires, set shoes on pedals, load nutrition, check the brakes weren’t rubbing etc) and then found somewhere to sit and listen to music and watch the scenes of two thousand, five hundred athletes making their preparations. I greeted and wished good luck to a few friends and acquaintances and got in line for one final trip to the porta-loo.  The queues by now were long, and after a 15 minutes stand, I’m having to run to the start (as usual). I seem to have an ability to be rushing at the last second, no matter how much time I have to start with!

It was a deep water start, and there was some confusion amongst the Professional starters as to where exactly the start-line was. It took a while for the water safety patrol to explain that we were already about 500m into the course and persuade the eager athletes to retreat! As the German national anthem played, our group was slowly drifting forwards once more, and we were already virtually swimming when the cannon fired. We were ready!
300 of the fastest amateurs are allowed to start with the professionals, whilst the greater majority of the competitors wait a further 15 minutes for the mass start. With over 100 Pros plus the 300 faster age-groupers, this provided an excellent situation for me – not so many people that it is very rough, but plenty of bodies in the water to assist my swim pacing, sighting and drafting. As a result I completed the 3.8km lake swim, a “figure –of – eight” course with a “land buoy” after 2.1k, in 56 minutes which is a new record for me. (I should, of course, credit my new Huub wetsuit also!)

The run from the lake to transition was a cruelly steep climb up a 200m bank of sand ; certainly a wake-up call for the legs!  Here there is no assistance from volunteers in the transition tents, but there’s not so much to do here when racing in such fine weather : whip the suit off, glasses and helmet on and un to the bike. I’d been swimming in sight of several other pros, hard to tell if male or female (we all had the same yellow caps), which always motivates me to get on my bike fast and pedal it hard!

The 182km bike course starts with a flat 25km on the highway, which has been closed for the event, from the location of the lake to the city centre. The surface is good and this section is a good opportunity to get into a cycling rhythm. I was feeling very good and my Powertap was showing some rather high figures. I suspected that actually there was an error in the offset, actually, but it’s not something that I was able to easily fix whilst riding at such intensity. I do not rely on Power data during the race - it is there as a reference for me and for analysis after the event – but made some calculations as to what I felt the offset could be to ensure that I maintained the same level of output through the next five hours. I was pleased that there were several women on the start list that I have had close finishes to in Ironman races over the season, and that I might be able to use as a gauge of my progress. In particular were Nina and Monique who had pushed me in the last lap of the bike in South Africa and then beaten me on the marathon – which I felt was due to my own poor performance on that occasion. Also Kristin Lie, who had made me fight very, very hard to hold off in the marathon at Wales after she had suffered some very bad luck on the bike course (I’ll mention her again later!).

 Despite featuring 4 climbs in each of two laps, this tends to be a fast course – and there are several reasons for this. All of the climbs are short and steep, but offer long and open descents. Other than these hills, the terrain is generally open and rolling which makes it ideal for the use of disc wheels and every other aerodynamic advantage money can buy. It’s well suited for big powerful riders (which Germany is famed for) and attracts those who excel on the bike and in this terrain; thus it’s somewhat self-fulfilling. Another factor is the great road surfaces and the complete closure of the roads on the route enabling cyclist to take a wide line around corners in safety.  With one notable  exception! “The Hell” is a cobbled section of hill through the town of Hochstade – it’s really hard to ride, but also great fun – I find it difficult not to laugh as we rattle over this short section which is well populated with spectators, of course. It’s important to get into a low gear near the start of this section as it gets steeper and steeper and you cannot let go of the bars to shift with everything rattling around like that!
I felt that I was riding well, and enjoying my first race on the Specialized Shiv that The Sketchers-ActiveInstinct Performance Team has issued me with, though I do perform significantly better on hills than on a very flat course. The conditions were beautifully warm at that time of day, perhaps too warm for some already, but rather windy. There are also many sharp bends through the villages, which I found difficult at speed and noticed that I tended to loose ground on the riders that I could see around me when it came to negotiating these sections. Whether this is that I am still getting used to how the new bike handles, a skill that I am lacking in or just a matter of nerve, I’m not sure- either way, it can only be improved with more practice. Mind you – I did see several guys with torn clothes (including one guy who’d unfortunately ripped the arse right out of his shorts!) and bloody limbs as I rode, so a little caution was justified! 

There was a small amount of to-and-fro with some of the other pro women that I mentioned earlier, but not a great deal. At random locations along the route, my sister and her boyfriend Andy would appear, evidently they were running between points on the course to surprise and give me a huge cheer! As always my legs and neck were feeling more and more painful as the ride went on, but I’d judged my nutrition and liquid intake well and was able to maintain a relatively steady power through the ride, feeling strong throughout. None-the-less, I could tell that I would not be finishing the bike spit faster than I had ridden in 2008, which was a little disappointing considering how much stronger I am not generally on the bike – possibly attributable to the windy conditions (I don’t remember how it was in 2008), slight variation in the route, or the motivation that being in direct contention for the age –group title had provided me with on that occasion.

The bike to run transition was in a different location, near the finish and due to the pre race logistics, we’d not seen the area before. The dismount line caught me by surprise and I was lucky to get my feet out of my shoes and stop the bike in time! I was sure glad to get off it :o)  I knew that there was not much separation between myself and Nina and Kristin at the end of the bike split, but had confidence in my recent run training to post a much improved marathon performance than I have executed in my last few races, and really this was to be my motivation for the whole event.  I knew that I was currently in around 20th position, and my goal for his race was to a top 10 finish. It was a very hot day, and after a hard bike ride, anything could happen out there. In the next 3 hours things could chance a lot, and I could not afford any doubt that I’d make steady progress with a well-executed run.

The marathon course is, for me, always both the best and the worst part of the day. Of course, starting the 42km foot race in the heat of the, with 185km of racing and a massive calorie deficit already behind you, is really the last thing that you want to do and is always painful - but it also signifies the final challenge of the Ironman, and it is the portion of the race where the athletes receive the most support. In Frankfurt this is particularly so since the whole city, plus the thousands of visitors that accompany the athletes, are out in force to encourage us every step of each of the 4 laps of 10.5km alongside the river Maine.

 I felt great on lap one and had to make an effort to control my pace after the first km. I passed two other Fpros quickly, one of them I recognized as Kirstin, and she was walking; she was in for a hard afternoon. I knew that, as always, things would get tough for me too pretty soon, so I focused on relaxing and not pushing the pace, and to wait and see who else was up the road.  It was getting very hot – and  I could see that this was taking it’s toll on many of the people who were already out on the course when I joined. I wasn’t particularly feeling the heat, and it was tempting to run through the aid stations on my first lap rather than slow to pick up drinks, but I didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences later in the race, so I took drinks at each alternate one. Sure enough the leg ache starts to set in after only 12km or so and after that I start to break the race down into mile-stones: 1/3rd done (14km) half-way, 3rds, penultimate lap etc. In Ironman the second half of the marathon usually comes down to a mental battle to just get through it, and to that damn line. I had many bad and good patches, my overall pace had dropped and I could tell that I was not going to make my target time, so I focused on staying ahead of those behind and trying to reel in anyone ahead who might be in a similar situation!

My sister and Andy were now positioned on the run course, and had found a location where they could see me as I passed on my way to the most eastern turn-around, and then again about 3km later to relay the information.  I find this incredibly motivating – whether I am in pursuit or being chased and in this case it was a re-enactment of ironman Wales 2012 with Kirstin closing in on me through the first half of the run, but receding further and further behind in the later stages. It was very nice to see other familiar faces out on the course – my home-stay family and their friends, Linda from Easy Bike Transport who carried my bike for me and has been with us on camp, and even the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport!

The last lap was a real struggle – but it was also the last lap!  I only had to endure another 50minutes of this. I started to walk through aid stations – and it was in the last 4km when, doing this allowed one of my competitors to pass me! She was running well and slipped through Lotte and Andy’s radar (by this time in the afternoon, the run course was well populated with people on different laps, making it harder to spot people).  This gave me the motivation to chase hard for the last section, but I was only able to make ground back up on her very gradually, and was still 25 seconds off at the finish line.  This was a disappointment to me of course but it was also a stark lesson; don’t loiter at aid stations!!

I crossed the line in 9hours 50, and in 15th place.  I had very clear goals for this race, which were to beat my previous best time here and also to rank in the top 10. As the race approached and the starting list grew, the latter became a far more challenging target – but I did believe that on my best day, with full focus it would be possible.  I’m sad that I missed out on achieving the time target by a narrow margin (by 10 minutes - in talking to other athletes, of all standards, the consensus was that it had been a particularly hard day due to conditions. But, isn’t it always?) and a final ranking of 15th means it’s unlikely that I have a chance to go to Kona this year. But, there are aspects of my performance that I am pleased with, as well as areas that I can see I must do more work. I really enjoyed the course , the race experience that such a Championship event in this wonderful city provides, and the opportunity to compete in a high class field.

In a strangely sadistic way, I’m looking forward to getting back to training and my next racing opportunity in Ironman UK!