Arriving in Klagenfurt 4 days before race-day provided ample time to stock up on as much merchandise as possible; I mean everybody needs an Ironman doormat right? It also provided the perfect opportunity to swim in the salubrious looking Lake Wörthesee, explore part of the mountainous cycle course on the bike and sections of the run course with light running sessions along with Barry Woods, Mark Heald, Chris Cullen, Aynsley Guerin and Scott Ramsay - all fellow Dubai based triathletes. I was fortunate enough to secure a room at the official race hotel and whilst this provided fantastic convenience, it also made me feel slightly overwhelmed at times given that the majority of professional athletes and top age group athletes were also staying at the hotel and I felt a little out of place at breakfast watching on as athletes drank more coffee than I thought was humanely possible whilst walking around the town in compression socks each day. I soon settled in to the routines and felt a lot more comfortable as race-day approached.
Up long before the sun, I headed for a 4am breakfast and watched what the top chaps were fueling up on and intended to follow their lead. Plan B was soon required when the lady sat at the same table as me cracked open a jar of baby food for her pre-race feast - she finished top of her age group so maybe I’ll try this next time. Baby food wasn't on the menu so I opted for a few pastries and energy bars and headed across to transition to check the tires, load the bottles and make sure the bags were good to go. A quick walk down to the water via a stream of athletes nervously urinating all over the street before the wetsuit was donned and to the start line we headed. A final good luck message to my fellow Dubai-based friends and down to the starting point feeling a lot less nervous than I’d expected.
Several weeks before the race it was evident that despite my best efforts, I was nowhere near where I wanted to be at swimming and my times were showing very little signs of improvement and the decision was made that I would opt for the ‘complete and not compete’ mantra during the swim segment on race-day. I self-seeded in the 1:20-1:25 pen, although this was more due to not wanting to be stuck right at the back of the pack as opposed to expecting to finish within these times. A quick hug with my brother, Barry, and we were off in the rolling swim start.
I anticipated completing the swim in around 1:35-1:40 and set off feeling very relaxed and happy to have finally started this incredible course. The first 1.25 km took us out in a westerly direction into the crystal clear waters of Lake Wörthesee before a left turn heading across the lake for a further 500 m. A final left turn took us back towards the start-point and I was feeling a lot more comfortable than I thought I would at the halfway mark with a low heart rate and no signs of fatigue. Sighting became a little more difficult as we approached the starting beach due to the rising sun but the large and frequent buoys made it all relatively easy to follow. The final 1 km of the swim played a big factor in the decision to race IM Austria due to it being situated in a narrow canal with an abundance of support lining the banks on either side.
As I entered the mouth of the canal I saw my wife, Laura, with a huge smile on her face and cheering me along. I made sure she was aware that I’d seen her with a quick wave and swam the last 1 km, with Laura walking alongside, a lot faster than I thought was possible due to the natural flow of the canal mixed with a good dose of adrenaline. I exited the water and glanced at my watch, the time was slow when compared to where I aim to be in the future, but to say I was happy would be an understatement. I was 10-15 minutes quicker than expected and celebrated this with a roaring cheer and a quick heel-flick, much to the delight of the enthusiastic crowds that were gathered by the swim exit.
Final swim time: 1:25:53
Official distance: 3,900 m
Garmin Distance: 3,964 m
Out of the swim and into transition, I grabbed my bag, stuck an additional pair of padded shorts over the top of the TriDubai suit and headed to the bike. I have absolutely no idea how and why I did this but I mounted the bike in transition and was about to pedal, wondering why nobody else had followed my lead. The mistake was realised and I quickly hopped off again before running to the mount line. My plan was to always give it a lot on the bike whilst staying predominantly in an aerobic heart-rate zone, to make up the ground which I had lost on the swim.
The bike course was 2 loops of 90 km per loop with a total ascent of just under 1,800 m and I felt fantastic heading off into the mountains, I was fist-pumping and smiling to the crowds that lined the streets and the cheers I received in return gave me extra adrenaline to keep pushing. Heading in to each climb, I kept focused and watched my heart rate closely whilst also ensuring that I followed my nutrition plan of 500 calories per hour as much as I could through the use of energy gels, bars and iso fluids. I was aware that I was passing so many more athletes than I’d envisaged on both the climbs and the incredibly fast descents. We drove the course in the days leading up to the race and this gave me confidence when heading into the fast, sharp corners and I was able to push the downhills to the limit, reaching 78.8 kph as we descended down through Velden.
Back into town for the first U-turn and I saw Laura holding up a sign that my daughters had made for me displaying a ‘go daddy go’ slogan which gave me a further boost as I headed off into the 2nd loop. Again I was passing cyclists regularly and counted just 4 that passed me, 2 of which I took again on the climbs. The wind had picked up slightly for the 2nd loop and when the rain started to drizzle at the 150 km mark I feared the worst. Fortunately the rain held off and the final 30 km provided ample time to run through the transition from bike-run in my head and start to focus on my strategy for the run.
In all of the months that I had trained for this event it was the run that I was looking forward to the most as it was just my body that could stop me from completing now but as I approached Klagenfurt the thing I wanted more than ever was to do a further U-turn and head out again for a 3rd loop. The course was beyond beautiful and the bike had gone fantastically well; asides from several punctures, a couple of crashes and a broken chain which were all in my head. I was enjoying this moment and didn't want it to end. I was also a little concerned as to how my legs would feel after pushing them hard for 180 km. Careful not to screw the transition up again, I hopped off the bike around 50 m from the dismount line, stood on one pedal with my feet removed from the shoes and rolled to the line with a smile on my face and a big piece of gratitude for my bike that it got me around such astunning and often challenging course in a great time and without any mechanical issues to hamper my efforts.
Final bike time: 5:29:02
Official distance: 180.2km
Garmin Distance: 178.7km
Average power: 209w
Average heart rate: 133 bpm
Max heart rate: 152 bpm
With the bike on the rack I headed into the changing tent, put the trainers, glasses and hat on, took a couple of painkillers to help ease the headache that was starting to cause me mild issues towards the end of the bike and headed off into the run, passing the rallying and mildly inebriated crowds and down towards the park. The only discomfort I felt was a slight pain in my left calf but certainly nothing to cause any real concern at this stage. After a few hundred meters I realised that my cycle shorts were still on and whilst they wouldn't really cause me too much physical discomfort I knew that 42 km was a long way to run whilst feeling frustrated that I’d completely forgotten to take them off. Fortunately I saw Laura after 1 km or so and quickly stripped the shorts off and continued on, feeling very relaxed. I tried not to focus too much attention on my timing splits in those early kilometers as I knew how important it was to maintain a good aerobic heart rate.
I broke the run down into 7 different km segments of 5/10/17/22/27/32/42 and focused on ticking each one off. A quick glance at the watch at the 10 km mark showed a little over 50 minutes which surprised me given how comfortable and relaxed I was feeling. Do I now push on, increase the heart rate, increase the speed and increase the risk of hitting that wall, or do I continue on in the same manner as the first 10 km? It was the first real question I’d asked myself since the starting gun went for the swim and whilst I’m a natural risk taker in life, I decided today was not the day to take risks and continued towards the 17 km mark.
My splits were steady at 5:06 per km and my heart rate was similarly steady throughout each km passed. I maintained the 500 calorie per hour strategy that had pushed me through the bike and took on fluids at each aid station without stopping. Each mental marker was passed and my splits continued to remain steady at 5:06. With 10.2 km to go I had a little glance at my watch and realised that a sub 11 hour Ironman was now within reach, a sub 11 hour Ironman was more than within reach, it was there, 10.2 km to go, everything I put into this journey was now within what I classed as a small training run. I saw Laura, gave her a kiss and told her I would see her at the finish line in 52 minutes.
All that was standing between myself and the title of Ironman was a 52 minute trip into town and back, the crowds by this point were well into the spirit, my name was shouted out by nearly every spectator that I passed, the aid station staff maintained the incredible enthusiasm that they had shown all day and I made sure I thanked each and every person I took drinks and nutrition from. The U-turn in the centre of town was at 37 km and I now had just 5 km to go. The crowds continued to cheer and high-5 me and I continued to pass many runners with relative ease. A final look at the watch and my heart rate was still low and all that stood between me and that finish line was 2 km, it was there, I could hear the crowds at the finish line, I could hear the announcer, I could taste the atmosphere, I was getting closer, this was the moment I had waited a long time for and now was the time to enjoy this moment. I felt cramp in my right hamstring but it didn't matter, nothing mattered, I was there. I turned onto the famous red M-dot carpet exactly 52 minutes after I told Laura that I would and the first thing I see is the greatest of smiles from the announcer, Paul Kaye, he looked at me, he could sense the pride that I was feeling and then said the words that I once thought would only ever be a dream… ‘Matthew, you are an IRONMAN’, the crowd were well in the spirit, I gave one final heel-flick which was followed by a great roar in return and took one last look back to see smiles all around before taking the final few steps to the line.
I had looked forward to crossing that line for so long and there it was, just feet away from me and yet a big part of me didn't want to cross as that signified the end of this journey, this experience, this feeling, this moment I was in right now, this incredible day. It wasn’t just about race-day for me, it was about the journey, the training, the early mornings, the late nights, the involuntary sacrifices that my beautiful family had made, the people I had met, the weight I had lost, the fitness I had gained and the overall experience of training for an Ironman event. All of these things meant much more to me than race-day did, but all of these things prepared me for this day better than I thought was possible.
I crossed the line, smiled, fist-pumped, looked right and saw Laura with the biggest look of pride on her face, she was cheering, wildly. I still had no idea if I had broken the 11 hour mark, I was aiming for 12 hours on the day and here I am, ready to take a look down at my watch and see if I had made an hour less than that. I looked down, it was there, it was confirmed and it was half of the reason why Laura had that incredible look of pride on her face, 10:41:15.
I had eclipsed any of my dream times and in my first ever Ironman. My brain was in no fit state to tell me how each of my run splits had worked out and a further surprise hit me when I realised my marathon time was 3:37.
Naturally, whilst I should have been elated, my thoughts start to drift to ‘what if I pushed harder, that run felt far too comfortable’. Yet deep down I knew that I had more than exceeded my own targets and expectations and I will take these experiences on to the next Ironman. If that Ironman offers half of the event experiences that IM Austria did then I am in for one hell of a memorable day
Final run time: 3:37:07
Official distance: 42.2km
Garmin Distance: 42.4km
Average heart rate: 135 bpm
Max heart rate: 148 bpm
I followed Don Fink’s ‘Be Iron Fit’ 30-week training guide for IM Austria and it certainly put me in a very strong position to race well on the day and helped me to drop 23 kg along the way. I would highly recommend both Be Iron Fit and IM Austria for anybody looking to race well in an incredible setting, just make sure you give as much back to the course and the people on that course as you take from it, I certainly did.
Klagenfurt am Wörthesee, Austria
02 July 2017