Ironman Maastricht was my second attempt over the full IM distance. I took part in Challenge Roth last year and came in at 12:43. The primary focus of my training this year was to try and get close to or, ideally, break the 12hour milestone over the distance. My training had gone well and i had some good results over shorter distances and i felt ready.  A nervous couple of days with bad weather preceded the event but woke up on the Sunday to clear blue skies and very little wind. I was ready.

The atmosphere in transition was buzzing as you would expect. I only have Roth as a reference point and thats a tough act to follow, but it was brilliant. We lined up by the river Maas, waiting for the cannon sending the pros on their way. All around us the crowd was amazing. Unlike Roth, when i was a bag of nerves, I found myself really enjoying this moment and singing along to any song that came on that i liked and chatting with other competitors. A few of the locals thought it was extremely funny that i was freezing on what was effectively a glorious summers day. Before I knew it, the second cannon went off and the age groupers were under way too.

I lined up with the 1hour group and within a few minutes i was in the water. The temperature was great, i was warmer in the water than out. Stroke for stroke i quickly settled into my swim. All the while you could hear the crowd, especially every time we approached a bridge. Three bridges to swim under before we got to the little island where the turnaround happened.


Bridge 1: done...bridge 2: done...bridge 3: done... Next up the turnaround. The current was strong, but i felt ok. I remember the temperature of the water feeling much colder as we approached the island. I had settled into a rhythm and was trying to establish a clear line to the exit point. I was still overtaking people so i got out of the water feeling good. I've never done a triathlon that included an aussie exit before so other than the dizzy feeling when you stand up i really didn't know what to expect. My plan was to get out, run and check my watch see how i was doing and jump back in. I got out and the atmosphere on that tiny little island was amazing. I found myself totally sucked in by it. I ran across, and jumped back in, totally forgetting about my watch.

By now the sun was fully up and shining, we could actually see straight down to the swim exit. And more importantly, we were now swimming with the current and not against it. Yay . Stroke for stroke i was getting closer to completing the first leg. I sighted every 7 strokes or so and tried to keep as direct a line to the exit as i could. Swim done: 1:02! Not the hour i was chasing, but it was still over a minute faster than my previous time over the distance and this included an aussie exit too. Happy with that, i ran to T1. The run seemed longer all of a sudden, but it was good to warm up the legs and get them going. Grant's words all the while echoing in my head: "don't waste time in there, make sure you're ready for the bike, but no need to stop for a hot chocolate!" 6minutes since exiting the swim, i was on the bike.

Legs felt good. The temperature had warmed up too. Thank goodness! First hill was up pretty early on. 9% incline and right after a tight right hand bend, so couldn't carry any speed going into it but i was going ok. I even caught up a couple of other riders.

Though with the swim being my strongest, it did mean that strong cyclists were also now catching up with me and overtaking me too, which in the past has been quite demoralising, but i kept my focus on my own race. Hill 1 done and just a few kms later it was the Bemelerberg. 11%, long and windy. At the top of the hill was a restaurant, and despite how early in the day it was, it was already a hype of activity which was a welcome boost. Hill 2 done and i knew the next one wasn't until we hit Belgium.

I tried to build some speed and bank some time but what followed was long windy roads, false flats and the wind gradually picking up. Off the main road and on to a cycle track. The view was beautiful, but the roads were narrow, at points narrower than AQ, and the surface rough. I wasn't holding the pace i wanted but i wasn't far off either and i knew once the next hill was done there was a chance to pick up speed and make up some ground. I kept my focus. The crossing into Belgium was totally unremarkable when we had driven it in the car a few days before. But on race day it was a different matter. The border crossing was marked with two huge inflatables bearing the symbol of the region and two huge torches on either side of the road let out a burst of fire every time an athlete made the crossing. I smiled thinking that was a pretty impressive detail on behalf of the organisers and it was just for us. The next hill Hallembaye Bassange took my breath away when it came into view, and not in a good way. All i could see was cyclist after cyclist grinding up the 13% hill, some even zig zagging their way up. Plenty of support out on course at that point too which was extremely welcome.

The second timing mat was at the top of the hill, the first had also been at the top of a hill and i smiled at the thought of everyone tracking back home that would no doubt be thinking: "Uh oh she's slow!" But i knew what followed would hopefully let me pick up speed so i didn't worry. I had to climb without destroying my legs, it was only 45k into a 180k ride. A bit of downhill relief and on to yet another cycle track. One 90 degree left hand turn and 100m or so later another 90 degree right hand blind turn. I knew another athlete was behind me and i figured he would pass me on the next available straight. Sadly not! I know i'm not the fastest at cornering, i like to play it safe so maybe he was a bit frustrated at the pace and lack of space. He undertook me on the right but misjudged his line, ran out of road and was headed for the bushes on the side. He was too close however and his back wheel swiped my front. Before i knew it, or had any chance to react i found myself on my back on the side of the road in the field. Took me a few seconds to process what had happened before i stood up. I checked the bike and it seemed ok. I checked myself and i was ok. I gathered the waterbottles that had flown off the bike and a few choice greek words later i hopped back on to my bike and carried on, still processing what had happened and trying to get my focus back. In all honesty, I have no idea whether the other guy carried on or not. I remember him standing up and sorting his bike but i was off again before he was. In hindsight i should have checked if he was ok, it was an accident, but in my head it was an avoidable accident, ride right, pass LEFT! So i was in no mood to be helpful. I was back on the road, and felt ok, the bike seemed ok. Relief! But something didn't feel quite right. My back felt tight, particularly if i stood on the pedals or pushed up an incline. 'Uh oh! this is not good!'

The belgian section of the bike course was in theory faster and to an extent it was, but the road surface was notably worse. Lots of bumps, and concrete cycle tracks and two interesting road crossings. Instead of having us simply use the roads as they were,  on two particular junctions, the organisers constructed temporary bridges/ramps about a storey high, so we would effectively ride over the road, while traffic would continue as normal below us. It certainly added to the event but getting on and off them involved a little lip/step so even more impact and jarring. Soon we were on another cycle track that led us to the river bank. This was just stunning. And the road was flat. Proper flat, and relatively wide..."Finally! some speed! About time!" Down on the aeros, head down and i pushed hard. But i couldn't hold the aero position for long. My back was really hurting so i stayed on the hoods. I tried to put it out of my mind and kept pushing. I noticed other cyclists on the other side of the river so i figured there was a crossing soon but i couldn't see one ahead. All i could see was bridges way up high above us at road level but none at river level.  "Where on earth was this crossing?" A u-turn sign was displayed, and we were directed on a very steep hill to bring us up to road level! I took the u-turn wide, and thankfully managed to drop down my gears for the climb up, but others who had taken it tight and were taken by surprise with this 'little' hill, hidden by trees, ended up dropping their chain or running out of gears.

To give you an idea of how steep it was, my garmin kept pausing and restarting! yes i was that slow, but i was still overtaking a couple of people too. We were rewarded with a totally breathtaking view when we got to the top and the bridge that would bring us back into Holland. Finally, on the home straight into Maastricht and lap one was almost done. Still had the cobbles to deal with in the city though. I had ridden the cobbles a couple of days before and i was ok with it. Sadly cant say the same about my garmin! All the impact and constant jarring and the garmin flew off my bike. Unfortunately i didn't actually notice it happen so as far as i was concerned garmin was lost. "Bugger! Jeff's gonna kill me! Looks like lap 2 is on feel! Argh!" Lost garmin aside, lap 2 of the bike didn't start too bad. Just like Roth i felt more comfortable on the course and was taking the corners faster and riding better. At least thats how it felt. Hit the first hill, and my back was screaming. In the saddle or out of the saddle, it didn't matter, both were just as bad. knowing i still had 3 hills to deal with and lots of false flats ahead, i was worried. "I still have about 80k to go, how am i gonna get through it like this?" Kept riding and pushing through. Cycle track, cattle grids, and yet again something seemed amiss! Front tyre was flat! More greek mumbling as i started to change the tyre. Within 8minutes i was back on the bike and soon enough on Bemelerberg again. Mentally i was seriously struggling.

My focus was gone, and i recognised that it was gone but i couldn't seem to get my head back in it.  "No one will judge me if i stop now..." But the thought of everyone who was tracking me suddenly seeing DNF next to my name and no doubt the worry that would bring, kept me going. As long as i stayed on the hoods my back was ok. Another incline and as i tried to change gears the aerobar practically came off in my hand. More greek mumbling and yet another stop to screw it in. Thankfully i hadnt lost the screw, otherwise i would have been totally screwed. I had another 45k to go but i felt totally defeated. I had no feedback other than the time on my wrist watch and it was easy to work out that the 6hr bike split i was chasing was unattainable and i wasn't even on track to improve my Roth bike split of 6:21. Simon, (one of my coaches) had told me to just focus on my effort.

As long as i was giving it my best, it didn't matter if it was the perfect race or not. Lesley (my other coach) has time and again spoken to me of gratitude: "Look where you are and what you're able to do...." But i was struggling to feel it at that point. I pedalled on knowing i had a pretty awesome group of friends and family following the tracker urging me on. Transition was there! The relief at finally finishing the bike felt great, but the final bike split also felt like a punch in the gut. To break 12hours i needed a 4 hour marathon. "No **** chance! But maybe, just maybe, if i can run the run I trained for, i can still beat my Roth time"

The run started well. I checked my watch: 5:55 pace. For me, after that ride, that pace was brilliant. "Ok not bad, i can do this". The run was 4 laps around the city, with one hill at the 2.5k mark. I have never been happier to have had so many hill rep sessions in my training. I took the hill in my stride. I was actually overtaking people. Me?? On the run?! Imagine that?! The run lap was relatively compact for a 10K which made it amazing. The entire city was out in full force to support every single one of us. 

The energy was unbelievable. So many people sat outside their houses, with make shift aid stations, cheering us on, as well as the expected loud hotspots near restaurants, bars and parks and official aid stations. Hard not to get sucked into it all and it was just what i needed. I kept the pace and headed towards the finish area for the first lap turnaround. We cruelly had to run right next to the finishing chute 3 times before we could go in. But that first run through brought a very welcome and unexpected boost in the form of a shout out from Paul Kaye, the main MC for the event: "Here comes Melina, from Cyprus, she's our Women for Tri ambassador in Dubai representing TriDubai, here she comes with the bright red hair, give her a special cheer" That was a highlight, and it made me smile and picked my spirits up (and for that, huge thanks to Andy Fordham for setting it up, it was a welcome surprise and a moment that will stay with me).

I was now on lap two but things soon started to change. The legs felt good but the back was getting worse. Every step just brought more sharp shooting pains. I started to walk the aid stations. The walks just got longer. "I cant do this" I remembered Grant telling me about his NZ race earlier this year. He'd raced it under the worst ever weather conditions for that event, also with a back injury, he had a bad day but he pushed through to finish. "With each step comes the decision to take another..." I drew strength from that and pushed on. I saw my Roth time go by on my wrist watch and i couldn't hold back the tears. "Can I at least break 13 hours? Try running, just one step at a time.." but pretty soon i was back to walking. I felt totally crushed. "Just go out and enjoy the race, and the atmosphere of the event, the performance will take care of itself" So i focused on the support. So many kids with their hands stretched out for high fives and I made a point of high fiving every single one; a little girl in a bright pink tutu held up a sign saying: tap here for power and i did, every single time i passed her and her smile when I did was priceless. It reminded me of my girls at home, probably still up waiting for me to finish before they could go to bed.

By this point there were many struggling athletes out on course and i tried to offer some encouragement to those i passed... if anything it distracted me from my own struggle. 13hrs passed and i still had a bit of way to go. I approached the last checkpoint and lined up to receive my last wristband, i had done 4 laps, i could run into the finishing chute now. The atmosphere at that point was just as electric as the finish itself. Anyone getting that 4th wristband received a massive cheer from all the volunteers and everyone at the cafes and restaurants around. "500m Mel, thats all that left" I picked up the pace. I was gonna run through this last bit, i wasn't gonna cross the line walking. I heard a few shout outs: "Number 4, Bragging rights are waiting", "4 bands go get your medal"...I was smiling. I saw Yvonne on the last turn, my fantastic friend who was quite simply an outstanding support crew and point of contact with Jeff and others back in Dubai and Cyprus. I ran to the finish. I had finished. I did it. The relief was immense. Got the medal round my neck and that was it.

Within seconds of crossing that finish line and the relief that came with it, the disappointment of the day just enveloped me and it was tears from then on. It wasn't the race i wanted and it certainly wasn't the race i trained for. I called Jeff who after 13 and a bit hours of tracking his wife while looking after the kids, no doubt expected (and deserved) a happy cheery phone call. Unfortunately he got nothing but tears at the other end of the phone. I knew i did well to finish and given how the day evolved my best that day was just that: to finish. But at that time it didn't feel good enough, I didn't feel good enough.
A few days later and an overwhelming amount of support messages from friends and family and i can now see (ok so maybe I'm not there fully yet, but Im working on it) that the day wasn't quite as bad as it felt. I did an Ironman, my second one and I finished. Despite what the day threw at me i finished and well within cut off times. Im not the fastest out there, Im just an average middle of the pack age grouper chasing the elusive 12hr mark, just a mum of three gorgeous girls (who drive me absolutely bonkers at times) and I am in a position, physically, socially, and financially to be able to do this. Mainly thanks to my amazing husband and a pretty awesome group of friends and family. And for that I am truly grateful. I can do it when others cant.  So focus is back on and eyes turn to Roth again next year.

I would totally recommend Ironman Maastricht. It is an amazing event. The bike though tough and definitely not a PB setting type of course is beautiful and the run quite simply buzzing with energy. The whole event was brilliantly managed and the volunteers excellent. So much so, that my Garmin didn't stay lost for long. A volunteer saw it bounce off my bike and collected it, and it was soon returned to me after the race. Not before they first rang Jeff in Dubai (while i was still out on the course) and nearly gave him a heart attack when they said: Im calling from Ironman Maastricht about Melina... (he can just about laugh about that now). 

Thanks to Hasan and the entire TriDubai community for the messages and support. It really is a privilege to be part of this group and to Tri for TriDubai. 

Melina Timson-Katchis
Ironman Maastricht