Monday, November 12, 2012

Ironman Switzerland 2012

My quest to join the exclusive “Ironman Globe Finisher” club took me to Switzerland. Club membership requires you to finish an Ironman event on every continent that has one. The perks include entry into the Ironman World Championships in Kona, HI every other year plus a great t-shirt. Although, these perks and the club for that matter, only exist in my head, I want to be ready with my qualifications as soon as the World Triathlon Corporation (the owners of Ironman branded events) creates the club and starts accepting members.
Pre Race
I woke up super early, put on my race chip, had breakfast and started to get my mind right for the long day ahead. I put my stuff together, went thru my pre-race rituals, and then headed for the race start. Showed up at transition and set my gear next to Katherine, my Kuota K-Factor Tri bike (aka Kathy when she’s racing). My usual goal is simply to finish. However, this time I set the bar a little higher. Today I needed a “Daylight Finish”. I promised my family and friends (Mom, Dad, Reuben, Jessica, Carla and Colin) that they wouldn’t have to wait ALL DAY & NIGHT like some of them have done at other races. This time it would only be ALL DAY! That’s the least I could do for the best “Spect-Athletes” (Spectators that work as hard as Athletes to support you on race day) in the world.
Swim Starting Area
Swim Start
Today’s race was a two-loop course in Lake Zurich. Part of the first loop would take us under a bridge where spectators could cheer for you before you ran out of the water, crossed over a timing mat and ran back into the water for your second loop. About 1500 athletes showed up to race. I moved over to the swim start, sized up the crowd and found my perfect starting position. Picked a spot on the outside edge, in the middle of the field near the white sign. As the gun went off I charged the water. The start of an Ironman race is probably one of the most fun and exciting athletic things I can think of. It always reminds me of being a kid, lining up on a beach in St. Croix with all my friends and racing into the water to see who could swim to the buoy first.  The only difference is the buoy in St. Croix was only about 30 meters away and the Ironman swim is 3800 meters (2.4 miles).
Spectator Bridge
The first 200 meters were great, got into my rhythm, and settled in for a long day. Everyone warned me that the European triathletes were more aggressive in the swim compared to American triathletes. There were a couple guys that tried to invade my personal space and a few others that grabbed my feet. Keeping a high elbow made them rethink coming into my personal space and my distinctive “2 beat kick” convinced them to let go of my feet. After that I felt like I was swimming with friends.
Swim Exit
Toward the end of the first loop, it became evident that positioning would be key. You could go wide to avoid the crowd of athletes and swim extra meters. But who wants to swim extra? Not me! Or you could fight for position on the inside track for the shortest swim route but run the risk of being pushed into the rocks or running aground in the shallower water.
Swim Finish

I found an opening, headed for the inside lane and established my position. Another swimmer came over and swam right next to me. At first I though he wanted my spot but after a few strokes realized he was going to help me defend the inside position. Whenever another swimmer tried to swim between us we closed ranks and made it impossible for them to pass thru. We dominated the inside lane to the bridge, under it and all the way to the swim exit. My swim buddy was faster than me so I had to pick up the pace in order to hold the line. As we got out of the water and ran across the landing, we glanced at each other, nodded and jumped back in for the second loop. There was no way I could keep that pace for another mile. After about five minutes I eased off the gas and settled back into my race pace. The second loop went by quickly and before I knew it I was done. Swim time-1: 30:18 
Transition Area
TRANSITION 1 (T1) I jumped out of the water and ran into T1. I’ve always liked the feeling of putting on something dry after the swim. However, whenever I try to put on a tri top after a cold swim it always gets stuck right under the armpits, rolls up and looks like some sort of tube top contraption. So today, I wore the tri top under the wetsuit because it’s all about “The Daylight”. Took off my wetsuit, put on my helmet, grabbed Kathy and headed to the exit.  T1 time- 4:49 (Fastest Ever)
Dad cheering
Got on Kathy and started to ride when I heard the distinct sound of  “Isabelle”, the official OnPoint Fitness cowbell. Saw my dad ringing the bell and cheering so I had to take it up a notch. Out of the corner of my eye I saw another spectator with the largest pair of cowbells imaginable. They were so big he carried them with a yolk on his shoulders. If Paul Bunion’s Blue Ox wore a cowbell this was it.

More Cowbell

What lay ahead was a two loop course in the Swiss country side over hills with names like “Suicide”,  “The Beast” and “Heartbreak Hill”. I started spinning and found my rhythm. Everything was coming together when I heard a slight rubbing sound. It was easy to ignore at first but when it got louder and louder it forced me to investigate. After applying a little pressure to the breaks the bike dropped about two inches right before I came to a complete stop. When I unclipped and looked down, the back tire had slipped off the frame. I put the wheel back on and tightened the screw really, really tight. It took several miles for the horror of how bad the day could have been had this happened during a hilly descent. A few miles later, I heard my name from a familiar voice. It was my friend Adrianna from High Cloud. We exchanged a few words of encouragement and pleasantries before she gradually pulled away. As the gap widened I yelled out “I’ll catch you on the run”. She just laughed.
Lake Zurich
The first 20 miles were great and then the hills started. First up was something they called “Suicide”. Although the name made you pause, the hill really didn’t. I asked folks later in the ride, “Was that it? Oh, I didn’t even notice it.” Several rolling hills, turns, and great scenery later we were at “The Beast”. When I hear “The Beast” my mind automatically goes to the one in the St. Croix Ironman 70.3 race. The St. Croix Beast is a 600-foot climb in a stretch of highway 7/10 of a mile long with an average grade of 14 percent and a maximum grade of 21 percent. All that means is that its steep as hell and most cyclist including me end up walking a half mile of the bike course thru no choice of our own (for the record I've rode all the way up twice). 

Heartbreak Hill
However, this Beast was a 3-4 mile climb that seemed to just keep going. The only good thing was the breath taking view of the mountains and Lake Zurich that almost made you forget you were in a race. Although the Beast was hard, I didn’t have to get off and push my bike up the hill. So from that stand point it didn’t trump the St. Croix Beast. After reaching the top of the hill I flew down the other side of the mountain at mind blowing speeds. Got in my aero position and tucked in for a long and fast downhill section. My grin went from ear to ear as the speedometer went 20, 25, 30, 35, 36mph. At this point the grin turned to a grimace as it climbed to 37 and 38mph. I tapped the breaks and slowed down to 36mph. The same thought kept running thru my mind. “How fast could you go without the breaks?” Well there’s only one way to find out. The hands came off the breaks and the speed climbed, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41 and peaked at 42mph.
Heartbreak Hill
The rest of the ride back to town was fairly fast. Passed the transition area and headed for the last hill on the course called “Heartbreak Hill”. Got to Heartbreak Hill prepared for the worst but started to think the Swiss may not really know how to properly name hills. From the base of the hill, before you could see a single spectator, the roar of the crowd and a guy on the PA system calling out athlete names could be heard. As soon as you made the first turn onto the hill you were in the “Tour de France”.The crowds were lined up on both sides of the hill as far as the eye could see. People were spilling into the streets running along with athletes, chanting, “Up, Up, Up” or “Pop, Pop, Pop” (couldn’t tell with all the excitement). Feeding off the crowd’s energy, I passed one competitor. The crowd went wild and so did I. I got out of the saddle and passed two more riders before arriving at the top of the hill to thunderous applause. Saw my Spect-Athletes (Mom, Dad, Carla and Colin) cheering me on.
The weather conditions were bad all day. It was freezing cold, the on again off again rain kept the roads wet and the thunder and lightening were a little off putting. From time to time the sun came out, warmed you up then faded behind a cloud just before it rained again. All of that was bad enough but the roads were open to traffic making it even worse. Whenever you’re flying down a hill, on a wet road, at 30+mph only to see a motorist speeding up the same hill, it just sent chills down your spine. However, when it started to hail—that’s right, I said HAIL—this officially became the worst race conditions ever.
The second loop was off to a great start. Apart from spending so much energy shivering to stay warm, everything was good. When I got back to “Suicide” I expected it to be as easy as the first time. While never living up to the name, it definitely felt more like “Assault & Battery” the second time around. The weather finally took its toll and everyone struggled to make it up the Beast.
It was a long slow grind all the way to the top.
Reuben & Jessica
The road back to town looked more like an abandoned ghost town than an Ironman race. Thousands of spectators and well wishers that lined the course earlier had deserted their posts and went looking for a place to stay dry and get warm.  All of course except my Spect-Athletes (Reuben & Jessica) who were on the main road cheering me on as I struggled to keep it together. 
Made it to Heartbreak Hill, ready for my second “Tour de France” experience. This time you didn’t hear the crowd or the announcer on the PA. Maybe the neighbors complained and forced them to turn it down a bit. After making the turn, the truth could no longer be denied. There was NO CROWD! The rain and hail had scattered everyone for shelter. With the road completely empty you could actually see how steep and crazy this hill really was.  Although the difficulty of the hill doesn’t break your heart, the absence of all the love from the spectators you felt the first time around does. By the time the hill was done, so was I. Started spinning the last few miles to prepare for the run. Despite the crazy course conditions I rocked the bike, finally averaging over 16mph for the 112 miles. Bike time- 6:50:50 (Fastest Ever) 
(SPECIAL THANKS To: Richard, Elizabeth, and Shelly for the hundreds of miles you endured to get me ready.)
Mom trying to stay dry
The last leg of the bike took the wind out of my sail but when I saw my split time I was back on  “cloud 9” coming into transition. Dropped Kathy off, grabbed some gel and headed for the run exit.  Leaving T2 I had a craving for salt and wanted pretzels. T2-4:07
The run turned out to be a four loop cross country/steeple chase course vs. a marathon course.  We ran over cobblestone, pavement, gravel, dirt, mud, grass, up/down stairs, in a garden, over a bridge, thru a tunnel and around a lake.
Carla & Colin
I came out of transition feeling great. After putting down my fastest bike split I was ready to drop the hammer on the marathon. Banked the corner and headed to the first aid station to get some nutrition. Got there but they didn't have pretzels. So I grabbed some orange pegs and the next best thing with salt. BBQ potato chips. Woofed them down and took off. Less than 10 seconds later my stomach started to rumble and I had the strangest feeling that required me to slow down. As I slowed down my brain rushed to figure out what this strange rumbling feeling was all about. Then it hit me, literally. “Runners Trot!”
OnPoint Fitness Aid Station
The first 5K were a bust. Stopped every 1K to find relief. In the middle of the first loop I saw Adrianna. To take my mind off my GI issues I focused on calculating how far of a lead she had on me. The next 5K were only slightly better since I could now make it every other kilometer before having to pull over. After the first loop I calculated I was 30 minutes behind.  (1st loop average pace10: 15/mile)
Waiting at Aid Station
My Spect-Athletes set up shop near one of the aid stations and made it the liveliest one on the course.  They hyped up the crowd to a fever pitch and cheered louder and louder every lap. The 10K of the second loop was basically just like the first. At the end of loop two I was now 15 minutes behind. (2nd loop average pace10: 38/mile). As my pace slowed down, I knew that my “Daylight” finish was no longer going to happen.  I accepted the situation and switched into survival mode. I felt that it would only be a matter of time before I would be forced to walk most of the remaining 13 miles. With the good swim time and great bike split, there was enough time in the bank to make the 17-hour cut off time as long as I kept moving. However, if I ever stopped moving forward that would be a problem. I determined to run until I was forced to walk. The closer I could get to the finish line before being reduced to walking the better chance I had to beating the time cut off.
Salvation finally came during the third loop.  For the past 15 miles I would run past a bunch of people, disappear for a few minutes and then run past most of those same people again. After noticing this trend for more than an hour a runner on her fourth loop offered me some Imodium A-D. I graciously accepted and popped the pill. It took a few miles for it to kick in and to feel like I could actually run without stopping. Before loop three was over I finally caught up to Adrianna. (3rd loop average pace11: 15/mile). Despite the GI issues taking everything out of me physically and almost mentally, I surprisingly held on to a halfway decent pace. Although I was slowing down with each loop, a quick look at the time and it was obvious I could salvage my “Daylight” finish.  A second glance sent my brain into overdrive. Since I’m going to get a “Daylight” finish, I wondered what it would take to get a new PR. The final calculation was around a 10min/mile for the last 10K. At this point my pace was heading closer to 15 min/mile than 10min/mile. 
Relax, Lean & Lift
Most runners suffer the last 10K after hitting the wall somewhere between miles 18-21.  However, I’ve been suffering since the first mile. They say the first 20 miles are the warm up and the last 10K are when the race actually starts.  This freakish Swiss weather never allowed me to warm up so racing the last 10K didn’t seem possible.  Then there is always talk about the mythical negative split (doing the second half of the race faster than the first half). Though few of us personally know anyone who has actually done it, we all have friends who have friends who know a runner that does it all the time. When I saw my Spect-Athletes on the last loop everything changed. It had been a long day for everyone but I could feel their enthusiasm willing me forward. My brain suddenly switched out of survival mode into “Hunter Mode” (catch and pass as many athletes as possible). A new PR may not be possible but I was going to give this 10K everything I had.
Media Pass
So I locked in on a runner about 100 meters ahead, focused my e-Chi and dropped the hammer. Kept reminding myself to Relax, Lean & Lift. I sang and hummed my way thru to stay motivated. The play list went something like this:
10K- The hills are alive with the sounds of music. With songs they have sung for a thousand years.
9K- Do-re-mi-fa-so la-ti. Doe, a deer, a female deer. Ray, a drop of golden sun. Me, a name I call myself. Far, a long, long way to run.
8K -Buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta. There was a buffalo soldier in the heart of America.
7K- In my best Count from Sesame Street voice: 1 slow runner passed ha ha ha, 2 slow runners passed blah ha ha, 3 really slow runners passed, 10 very slow runners passed. “C” is for cookie that’s good enough for me.
6K- Rubber Ducky you’re the one, you make bath time lots of fun.  It’s time for the Percolator; it’s time for the Percolator.
5K- Oh we are the Pathfinder strong. Servants of God are we.
4K- I was born by the river in a little tent and just like the river I’ve been running ever since. Its been a long, long time coming but I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it is.
3K Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole. 
 Ironman Switzerland
With just over 2K left you could faintly hear the finish line crowd cheering as people finished. There were more spectators lining the course the closer you got to the finish line. I fed off their energy and basically sprinted the rest of the way home. Now I could hear the names of each person as they crossed the line. When I made the last turn into the finisher’s shoot my Spect-Athletes were there to greet me. To my surprise Colin (SAV) was in the official press box taking pictures. He had obtained an “All Access, Media Pass” and was stationed with the other professional photographers at the finish line with his camera.
I ran thru the finish line with my arms in the air as the announcer declared: “Lloyd Henry, you are an IRONMAN”! The race was finally over and I had done it. A “Day Light” Finish, a new PR 12:57:31, ran a negative marathon split averaging 9:15 min/mile for the last 10K with the last 2 miles averaging 8:18 min/mile and got one continent closer to becoming an “Ironman Globe Finisher”.
Lessons Learned

1)    Plan your race and race your plan.
2)    Protect your personal space during the swim. Maintain a patient lead arm, high elbows and a good two beat kick.
3)    Swim with the tri top under the wetsuit. Leads to a faster T1 time.
4)    Save something for the last 30 miles of the bike. Proper fueling goes a long way. (Herbalife 24 Prolong)
5)    Never eat orange pegs and BBQ potato chips ever again.
6)    Carry Imodium A-D and bring an extra one to share.
7)    Triathletes come back stronger and faster after childbirth. Discovered soon after the race that the only reason I actually caught my friend Adrianna on the run was because she was pulling over every lap or so to feed her newborn baby.
8)    Always travel with your Spect-Athletes. It makes the experience so much better. Plus it doesn’t hurt if one of them can also get an All Access Media Pass to photograph your entire race experience. 

Proud Parents

Best Spect-Athletets in the World