Written by Jon Moseling
Earlier in the week, I’d just got back from South Africa, having had a chance to reflect on an eventful Ironman. Given that some of the club are about to do their first long distance race this year (for the most part in Austria), it may be that some of my “Idiot Triathlete Abroad” learnings prove useful (though I appreciate more schoolboy errors for those with more experience).
Whilst this wasn’t the race I’d wanted (I was an hour and a half slower than my last race – more a battle to finish than nailing a PB), it was, on balance, a fantastic adventure in a beautiful part of the world, a humbling learning experience, and above all, still a great feeling to hear the words “You are an Ironman!” for the second time.
Anyway, here are some lessons I learned the hard way this time, that may be of use to any first timers out there:
If you’ve dialled in your bike set-up and got it working well in training make sure you tape or mark your seat-post before packing the bike! I didn’t (although I had measured it fortunately). Unfortunately, in reassembling I was perhaps off by 0.5-1cm and, despite the bike feeling OK on a test ride, the race itself became a world of pain, and I couldn’t apply the power when I wanted to.
Check any electronics in race mode before the race and avoid untested software updates. I made one minor change to my Edge 520 (switching on tones so I could hear the alerts) that I had not tested during training. In the race a bug in the Garmin software shut down the unit every 30 minutes instead of giving me the alert. Although I can’t be 100% sure on this, the restarts seemed to play havoc with any power readings I could usefully rely on. Play safe or train to race by feel.
Fluids! Most Ironman races will be warm to hot to sweltering. I had tried a water bottle system that worked well for me in Copenhagen and used it again in Port Elizabeth. However, the course organisers were only handing out 500ml bottles (as opposed to the 750ml in Copenhagen) and these (until part way through the last lap) were only part filled. Had I had a second water bottle holder in the gorilla cage behind me or invested in a larger reservoir I would have been better off – as it stood I eventually had to resort to stopping at the aid stations to take on enough water.
Heat!! Fortunately, you are likely to be training in the summer for a summer race. That said, somewhere like Austria can be heat-wave central compared to breezy old England. Despite training in the kit I used, my feet swelled uncomfortably in the bike shoes, and, combined with the out-of-line bike set-up, helped contribute to a high level of discomfort on the bike. If you can, test your shoes when you’re warmed up and riding in the heat – especially if they’re a snug fit during the english winter! Riding 180km whilst continually trying to adjust for leg and foot discomfort is not great.
Weight!!! Firstly, no Ironman course is flat, so you are going to have to climb some hills. Whilst there’s some views out there that strength matters more on longer courses, it’s worth getting as close to your plan race weight as life and work allow. To put it in perspective: being 2kg out is like running or cycling with a day sack or an extra 2 litres of water; 5kg is adding a laptop and shoes; 10kg is close to racing whilst carrying an extra bike! Having aimed to get back from an unfit 110kg last June down to a racing 90-92kg, for various reasons I only made 100kg. Although I managed to up my fitness and strength to deal with this, it did present a second problem – the more of you there is, the more there is to cool down – (if there’s 10% more mass of you, unfortunately there’s probably only 6-7% more skin area to cool you off – and chances are it’s covered by clothes)
Mind your feet on the run! On a hot race there’s invariably water everywhere around aid stations – discarded drinks, sponges, even some helpful souls with hoses. Whilst it’s great to cool down, getting wet feet can be murder when running a marathon. Somewhere on the first lap, my left shoe got a soaking and, after skinning half of one my toes over the next 20km, I decided to walk rather than risk anything longer term. Also worth checking sooner than later if your running shoes give you enough toe box room with the kit you plan on racing in (and when your feet are warm).
However, the most important lesson is just to enjoy it, even if you’re not having the race you’d planned for. I’m amazed on both Ironman races how much local support there is, particularly on the run. And, if you’re feeling down, go high five some people and you’ll feel great again (well, somewhat!)