If you fancy me telling you my story instead of reading it yourself …
40 Years ago, I was not even born when a group of athletes from 3 different disciplines argued about the greatness of each ones effort in their respective sport. In difficulty to compare they created a race combining the “Waikiki Roughwater Swim” with a 3,8 km ocean swim, the “Around-Oahu Bike Race” with a 180,2 km bike ride and the “Honolulu-Marathon” with 42.195 km to run, launching one of the most grueling endurance challenges for years to come… the “Ironman!”
The calm sea at evening before the …
4 a.m. “Beeb-Beeb…Beeb-Beeb…” my eyelids feel glued together. My hand unconsciously grabs the round edged phone, my finger slides over the cold smooth surface, finding the snooze button. Silence.
…until a growling Thunder! moves over my head. My heart rate jumps, my eyes open and a deep breath fills my lungs with air. I slowly exhale while I sit up on the edge of my bed.
My daughter sleeps, I give her a kiss on her forehead and put the cover over her shoulders before I leave for the kitchen. While the water is boiling and the eggs make their dancing sound on the bottom of the pot, the bitter nutty smell of fresh coffee fills the air. After abstinence for about one week I close the eyes to enjoy the aroma. Standing in front of the window with a the coffee in one hand and some Catalonian sweet from the tiny local bakery in the other, I watch the sea light up under the giant clouds, when their lightning is bursting down.
I put the small ear pods into my ears and turn up the volume of my raceday playlist. A shiver runs down my spine and my hairs stand up with every thunder growling over the sea and every lightning lights up the smile on my face too. This will be my stage today.
A sweet candy like smell fills the air while the carbohydrate gel slowly flows into the bottle. Following my nutrition plan on an excel sheet as colourful as a production plan I prepare my hydration and nutrition, carbohydrates, sodium, caffeine and water for the race, calculated on my swetrate sodium loss and carbohydrate needs. Remembering my strategy, to rehydrate every 20 minutes and load carbs in the same interval but with a 10 minute offset.
The body hair makes a distinct sound under the sharp blade cutting it before it falls down on to the hand painted tiles of the floor silently. Like in the old days. I am thinking of greek and roman athletes, pictures of Jean-Léon Gérôme. The vibrating sound of the old electronic shaver is not half that romantic and safes me from dreaming away. The cold water of the shower is the first reminder of what lies a ahead of me.
The cold mist in my face helps me to wake up while I am running along the coast to warm up. Warming up in the cold, dressed with a suit weighting just a few gram. The wild waves are crushing against the rocks. Their power is humbling. I am thinking of how I was coming out of the water tumbling, hardly able to stand on my two feet after just 20 minutes of easy swimming. I can already taste the salt in my mouth. This will be my first proper open water swim in the sea.
I rush to grab my bag after the run as my cab is already waiting next to the house. Jumping in to the car, my mind races, trying to visualize all the things I should have packed and mentally checking them off the list. I sit in the back on polished leather seats, breathing deeply, inhaling the typical car smell. We do not talk and even the noise of the radio does not really reach me. Just a few moments later I am looking on streams of athletes with white bags, walking through the streets of Calella. Their faces explain how a focused mind looks like. I am excited. I have to pull my self together to not dance through the streets to the music in my ears. Some of them seem to be puzzled when they see me smiling all over my face.
“…two thousand athletes right after me.”
I enter the transition area to load my bike with my nutrition and hydration. Installing the Garmin at my cockpit, checking my brakes, gears, tire pressure, seatpost and handlebar screws. It is all set, ready to launch. I got way to much time at my hand. I am walking around marveling all the haywire. Just before the sky opens again, I enter the transition tent and around two thousand athletes right after me.
I start to squeeze myself into my wetsuit. Admittedly the procedure taking easily up to ten minutes until I feel comfortable with my underwater superhero costume, is not the most elegant. The show helped an athlete next to me over his uptightness. I smiled back at him. He showed us first timers, as he called “us” how fast he gets into his loose-fitting suit within a blink of an eye. I admit that was fast! I promised him at least an equal level of entertainment when I will try get out of my second skin after the swim, if he manages to keep up with me. Laughter, I have successfully loosened up the mood for the others around us. I did not saw him again.
Like black pillars athletes stand at the beach next to the sea, preparing, fitting their goggles and seizing the the course with their eyes. The feet dig deep with every step. The wet cold grainy sand sticks to the skin. The waves are still building high walls with white crowns. We walk, run and jump into the salty cold water. Some athletes are carried back to the beach by the sheer momentum of the waves. I dive into the water, accelerate and try to find some rhythm. Warming up, I flood my wetsuit. I am not sure how to swim in these waves and how to navigate but I am feeling good.
Epic drum music plays as thousands of athletes line up at the beach. Drones are watching. The commentators voice is trying to find the athletes ears. The anticipation is at it’s peak. Excitement, doubt, nervousness and focus is written in the athletes face around me. I am smiling.
I tried to move forward in a crowd of black pinguins. Some are trying to get their goggles right, others swing their arms or do some last squats, most are intensely focussed, some joking, others nervous and some are celebrating their level of adrenalin and anticipation. Suddenly I am standing right in front of the arch.
off we go, six Athletes at a time. The waves seem to push me back, slowing me down and not allowing me to move forward. Straight against the tide. After a few moments I get the rhythm, fast strokes at the building up wave and a bit more gliding down into the valleys. It still seems slow. Where am I? How far is the next buoy? I look out of the water and see… nothing, just a hill of water in front of me. After the first buoy I got a good feeling when I am at the peak of a wave to look out. But I do not need to as I just picked up pace and start to follow the bubbles. I am not rushing past other swimmers but I take over continuously. A pleasant feeling of butterflies running my stomach and a super salty taste in my mouth I fly through the water with a smile.
I did not see the ground, I could not see to far ahead, there were no plants, algae or anything, I only passed one jelly fish and quite some weird looking fish with mostly black, sometimes gold, yellow, orange and red neoprene skins.
Beside some elbows, a guy hitting me and a couple of times that the waves seemingly stacked swimmers on top of each other, the swim went by uneventful. Still I came out of the water after that 3800m swim with a smile, thinking that this was the most enjoyable and interesting swim I had so far.
I think I catched a tail. Will not be the last time in that race.
The first few steps I was tumbling, I think after 3 steps I felt my legs would just give up under my weight. A guy catches my arm firmly and balanced me. Thank you. After running up the beach, I catched a bottle of water, flushed my mouth and spilled the rest over my face.
I got out of this skin way better than expected. I wipe my face dry, slip into my socks and shoes and put the helmet on. Most of the field seems to be still in the water as the bike park is still packed. A new high of anticipation builds up as I run out of transition and mount my bike.
The first few kilometers are technical and aerobars are forbidden as we move out of the old city of Calella. The roads are packed with people cheering the athletes. It starts with a light ascent. My heart rate is way over what I should be doing but I attribute it to my swim and keep pushing. Contrary to the weather forecast, predicting rain all day long the sun is out.
We climb up to Sant Pol de Mar, where I have been staying during these days and start pushing the speed down along the coast. Palm trees on one side, the beach and the endless sea on the other. I never got into the rain, but there must have been some certainly as the the roads are often wet and sometimes huge puddles along the way. There are quite some roundabouts in the course and the tarmac turned out to be quite slippery when wet, to the mishap of some, even pro riders.
I draw in my pace zones and keep pushing forward. I take over one by one or pack by pack. They ride in questionable distance to each other (minimum distance to avoid drafting is 12 m) and I really want to avoid any penalty because of drafting. I push my pedals hard again and again to get by these packs. Just to be the train for them, until I have recovered to be able to kick it again and leave them in the dust. It might not have been the most effecient strategy but satisfying my racer heart.
Since Barcelona Ironman has changed the course it now offers some elevation at middle of the first loop. Back home I have no climbs to train but dutch mountains. Somehow this might be quite effective as I tend to keep my speed up way better then most of the riders and still have enough in my legs to kick up the speed at the tip of it, before recovering on the way down.
Shortly after the descent my legs have recovered and I dial in to my rhythm. My left shoulder starts to complain about a piercing pain. I am not sure where it comes from but it hurts. To relax the muscle I put my left arm on my back while remaining in my aeroposition riding only leaning on my right arm and pedal on. I keep the speed up, stabilize with a more focused core. The spectators are clearly wondering, a small boy pointing at me while obviously asking his mother about my doing, if this is an attempt to be even more aerodynamic? After about three to five minutes I am able to get back into a normal aero position. Repeating this procedure every 30 minutes I am able to cope with the stress in my shoulder muscle.
I might have been a bit over my zones, my coach defined for me but I felt good so far. I am alone again, as most of the time on the way back of the first loop. Suddenly a pack swamps me from the back. One by one they overtake me, sitting back in right in front of me and slowing me down. About 20 riders and I have no choice to than let them do their thing and wait until they are done. I am upset. As soon I have no rider behind me anymore I fall back to get the 12 m distance and accelerate full power taking over the whole pack at once.
all of them. Right behind me they stick. I calm down and then try to get away. They take full advantage and keep sticking to me. Suddenly a fresh rider, not of this pack I am dragging with me takes over, sits back in in front of me, slows down. Before I realize what is happening, a motorcycle comes by from the side. They have been right behind that rider. The referee shows me a blue card. I am speechless. That is what I get for putting in that extra effort all the time to avoid drafting. I did not even tried make use of the legal advantage of staying in 12 meter distance to the rider in front. But how should this referee know? >386< I still remember the referees number.
A 5 minute penalty I will have to dismount at the next penalty tent. Worse I have been judged of unfair behaviour. What do I do with this? I am furious. 5 min! Me drafting?! I hit the pedals, speed up about 50 km/h. The pack I was fighting with did take over as the referee punished me. Now they are in front and the referee busy with everyone of them. But blocking my way. I yell as loud as I can at the referee as they block my way to overtake the pack. He draws aside. I rush forward. My legs are hammering down the pedals. 5 min! I have to go 5 min faster until the penalty tent to make it even, right?
Climbing up to Sant Pol, there is an aidstation right on top of the peak. My family waiting and my kids waving. I did not expect them, as we agreed it would be too busy and too stressful for them to be there just to see me for a few seconds. But my daughters persisted. I had tears in my eyes and nearly cried of happiness. My throat felt corded up.
Penalty tent was chaotic. 5 minutes I keep watching people I overtook before. A few minutes later I start again. Still furious. I will get every single one of you!
And I did. I was not aware of how much energy I am wasting and on the last 20 km I paid for a some missed long endurance sessions in training, because of sickness, family matters or work commitment. I did not expect it, but after 180 km I was kind of looking forward to get off the bike and run.
My third Triathlon race and I still do not jump on the bike but put on my shoes in transition. It does not look pretty, running to or off the bike but it looks by far worse falling off or over the bike when trying the “fyling mount”. Believe me I have seen it.
Though it is a bad excuse. I should practice it more. Actually I can do it, but I am just not confident enough to do it in the race. If you do not know what I am talking about,here is a GCN video explaining the “Fyling Mount”.
I run off the bike with cleats under my shoes. My first strides are a bit rocky but no cramps this time. 180 km bike leg done under 5 hours and my legs feel good, I am rushing into transition with smile on my face.
I slip into my beloved ON Cloudflow running shoes, pull up the elastic laces, take off the helmet and carefully place it into its protective bag. I put on my race number, 1262, cap, take a sip of my water bottle, one flask of carbohydrate gel into each hand and off I run.
Along the promenade at the beach towards the event area and later finish line, the sides are packed with spectators. Friends, wifes, husbands and kids cheering on the athletes.
My pace is to high. I am struggling to slow myself down. I am feeling good and adrenaline is pumping through my venes. My feet move fast, too fast but I am not alone, that makes it even worse.
About thirty minutes later the field stretches and the pace is dropped for good. We run along Calella beach. The sun is out and there is little to no wind. Two more turns and we change from tarmac to sand, leaving the city behind. Railway tracks and the sea on one side and a few farmhouses in the middle of squarish farms with beautiful stone gates on the other. Not sure what they are growing here, it looks right out of some druglord movie and the smell at one of these farms plays right into the theme. My thoughts are drifting. Later I will refer to this place without shadow as the “desert”.
Some Athletes are taking a leak behind bushes, standing in lanes in front of dixi toilet, or puking next to the track, some are walking or having a chat with each other. I am trying to calculate in my head at what pace I have to continue to make it to the finish line in under 10 hours. The thoughts get interrupted by a voice asking “Finish or try to finish under 10 hours and maybe…?” Start slow, keep an easy pace until the half marathon is done and then start to push. I started a bit late with the easy pace but it felt good.
Contrary to the bike my right shoulder was burning in pain. Obviously by riding in aero position only on my right arm I must have put a lot of stress on the other shoulder. I know this “Pain Ping-Pong” well enough from my knees. The 150 gram gel flask in each hand, which I am lifting at a cadence of around 90, 45 times per arm in a minute does not make it better. One of them is just about empty and I get rid of it, only keeping the other in the left hand. Maybe I should have put them both in the back pocket of my suit in the first place.
I pass the half marathon mark and it is time to accelerate, at least according to plan. I will push the pace right after the next turn. After about 7 hours of drinking 30-40 ml of carbohydrate gel every 20 min my stomach is giving up on me. I feel like I have to puke just by thinking to take another nip from my gel flask. Ditching my gel for now and start eating fresh oranges on the aid stations I am trying to cope with my upset stomach. I am not feeling great. I do not speed up and my mind just tells me “Keep going!”, “You like that!”, while I am struggling to keep the pace up. “Keep pushing!” I start counting my strides. Every time I pass by a music spot my pace goes up, I know there is still plenty in there.
I am smiling. I saw my two daughters three more times at the track. My smile could not hide my struggle though. I was looking little like running, my movement was heavy and slow. Still while my mind was contemplating with my upset stomach the rest was programmed to execute and would not give in under any circumstance. “Just continue!”
“Into the desert and back again. One more time!”
One more lap. Into the desert and back again! One more time! Having my kids in my arm when I return, that thought makes me homesick, as so often in long training hours. It is the most beautiful thing I can imagine. Tears wet my eyes. This thought carries me, Noa and Yva, they are carrying me through my last lap.
I run around the last turn. “Lets get out of here!” Smiling again, still with wet eyes, I pick up the pace again, at least it feels like it, as I have stopped checking my watch for my pace. I enter the promenade and the final some hundreds meter I pass by some guys in my mind already celebrating.
Close to tears I run down the finish line. “You are an Ironman!”…
Shortly after the arch, my body relaxes, the core and tension collapses, I can stand but I do not mind the supporting hand guiding me towards the exit. It is a well timed procedure, catch the athlete, keep him on his legs, put a medal around his neck and push the athlete into the exit channel, where a questionable snapshot is taken before one is allowed to enter the athlete after race area/ tent, right along the Finisher T-Shirt stand to the medal engraving stand.
He asks “M?” “Can I have two S if possible, for my daughters please?!” Without any arguing needed he prompted me with two S and an M for myself. You can not imagine the relieve. After picking up my engraved medal. I find my way towards the buffet, warm toast with melted cheese, something I would usually never eat but now I love it. Followed by some Catalonian sweets from the bakery, melon, orange, pineapple, nuts, coffee, oh my gauge, I am so hungry. Beer! “Boah!”I nearly puked by nipping at it.
It started to rain right after I finished. Ten hours and seven minutes, I just missed the sub10h mark. Whatever, I think I did still okay. Athletes keep coming in, shivering not able to hold a cup, crying like children, some are sitting over their tea and cookies chatting as they have not done anything else that day. A big lane in front of the showers stops my considerations. I pick up my white after race bag, pull out a fresh shirt and slip it over my racesuit. Walking through the massage recovery tent with about 40 tables setups, all occupied by athletes under warming goldfoil covers, I remember my massage after my last race in Kraichgau. It would be absolutely worth the wait. But I walk right through the tent, dismissing the chance of magic hands tenderly loosening my tense muscles.
I only want to go home, embrace myself in the arms of my kids.
An Ironman race might seem like a daunting challenge, but the race is the reward for me as an athlete. The Journey is the challenge.
…the race is the reward, the journey is the challenge…
Whatever I have achieved in my life so far, I only did with the direct or indirect help and selfless support of others, my friends and my family.
I want to say Thank you! to my Coach Vladimir Savic! You are the Best!
I want to say Thank you! to my family and especially to my wife and my two daughters Noa and Yva.
Thank you to all my friends out there, close and far! I love you!
I am very lucky to have every single one of you!