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“Parts of the plan at times survive race day.”

 - Experienced Ironman Triathlete

[This report makes most sense after reading David’s report first]

Having taken six years in the sport to finally get my Kona finisher’s T-shirt last year, I initially thought I was done with chasing the ticket to the Big Island. And upon return I gave my finisher’s medal to a friend and colleague who was far more deserving, Rob Brown.
In 2014 Rob had raced over 12 Ironmans and qualified to go to Kona through the Ironman legacy program. He was booked to go when life took a different turn. A few months before the race he was diagnosed with cancer. Rob still went to Kona that year to watch the race, but he was advised against racing himself having just received the first round of treatment. The hope and expectation was that with Rob’s fighting spirit and wicked sense of humour he would beat this thing.

I put my medal in the company mail as an inspiration for Rob to get better and make it to ‘his race’ – the ultimate one in the ‘Ironman Lifestyle’ he and his wife Kerry and led for so many years.

Sadly, only a few weeks after me posting the medal, Rob passed away and he never knew about the medal. While the medal still served a purpose at Rob’s farewell together with all his other Ironman finishers medals, it had all been too little and too late from my side.

Now several reasons came together for me to decide to try and get another Kona slot by going back for a 5th Ironman South Africa (IMSA in Port Elizabeth) race this year.

1. Getting a finishers medal to keep.

2. Racing Kona properly after not being able to push the run there last year due to a soft tissue calf injury I’d picked up a few months prior - the run had been an ‘Ironman shuffle sufferfest’.

3. Really loving the race and the atmosphere on the Big Island. Clearly, I wasn’t ‘cured’ after my first Kona; quite the opposite, I wanted more.

Preparation

As I hadn’t been able to push the run in Kona, suffering and running slowly still has less impact than running fast and, hence, I recovered quite quickly. I kept the Kona fitness going and managed to finish second at the Bahrain 70.3 in December, which was good enough to pick up a slot for the 70.3 Worlds in Port Elizabeth (PE) later this year.

Having not had a break from training for almost 2 years the trick now became to stay inspired and motivated all the way to IMSA. In coordination with my coach John Newsom we achieved that by doing less of the really long stuff and more short high intensity work and racing ‘for fun’ (it’s always fun, right…?).  I competed in several of the Giant Duathlons, some Olympic distances as well as Dubai 70.3.

All went well until I picked up another calf injury 2 weeks before IMSA. I had to cut back the running drastically and I was pretty concerned this would be the end of any Kona slot ambitions, or even just finishing. But, I also knew there was nothing much I could do about it now and you never know what happens on race day. I managed to let go of most of the worry and go with the flow.

Race planning

I won’t bore you with the pages of race plan details,  suffice to say I try to have a plan for every step of the way starting a day before the race to having coping strategies and alternatives for any eventuality. While I know race day reality will always be different, having a detailed written plan creates a lot of mental peace and confidence for me going into a race.

Out of our group sharing accommodation David’s plan was clearly completely out of the window even before the race. He came down with fever two days prior and hardly managed to rack his bike only 12 hours before the race. All of us were pretty concerned for David’s health, let alone him actually racing. And of course we all became paranoid about picking up his bug, so our support was preferably given from at least 5 meters away. Gracefully, he banned himself from the breakfast table as the rest of us frantically popped Vitamin C and any other legal preventative drugs we could think of.

The experience of doing the same race five times really helps to develop knowledge of its quirks, the course, the various weather patterns and the best places to get coffee and food. As such, my race was not exactly an adventure, but more a job to do or a plan to execute. And still execution wasn’t anywhere near perfect. As Stine wrote in her report, one reason the sport is so addictive is that there is always room for improvement.

Swim-Bike-Run

Positioning myself a bit more to the front of the rolling swim start compared to last year I was off to a good start. The swim felt pretty good, dealing quite well with the slightly choppy conditions. I even managed to use my legs a bit by kicking like a real swimmer. Still, I also realized that the swim feeling good was perhaps not such a good sign, as it should probably feel harder. I also noticed I was at times quite far away from the guide buoys marking the straight lines between the turn buoys. Head down and try harder.

My suspicion became reality when I pressed stop on my watch at the swim exit. 1:10 – not according to plan! (I actually swam 4,140 meters instead of around 3,800, so my course sighting had been very poor indeed). But, a far bigger problem occurred when standing up to get through T1. My injured calf was stuffed. While I hadn’t noticed a thing during the swim itself, it was now very painful and totally cramped up. I only managed to limp and hobble my way through T1. How on earth was I even going to finish? Well, as the plan said, nothing you can do about it now, put it out of your mind, get on the bike and think about the run when you are actually running.

I had set up my Wahoo ELEMNT bike computer with a BestBikeSplit (BBS) plan for Westerly wind conditions giving me power targets every step of the way. I find this a great way to race as the power targets vary with every change in course gradient or wind angle providing  me with something to focus on at all times. I don’t use it continuously, as you also have to take into account actual weather conditions and of course other bikers to avoid a drafting penalty, but it is a good way to stay process orientated rather than getting distracted by the pain and suffering. Of course this plan didn’t work to perfection either, when GPS receiving failed on the ELEMNT and I no longer received targets. I reverted back to the backup plan of more generic power and the heart rate targets planned for the race.

Lucky escape

After about 60 kilometers I passed David on the bike and I could see he was suffering badly. Still, beating David on the bike never happens to me even when he is sick as a dog, so I was quite pleased with myself at the same time. The gods almost immediately took revenge for such evil thoughts when a fellow competitor shouted ‘water, water’ and pointed to the back of my bike. I felt behind me and realized my two-bottle cage was about to fall off. As following my nutrition plan is a crucial part of racing successfully, I decided to stop and try and sort it out as there was no way the bottles would stay put for the remainder 120 KM on the famously rough roads of PE.

When I stopped, David passed me a few seconds later and crucially a mechanic motorbike came up in the opposite direction at the same time. I flagged down the mechanic and using their Alan key and the elastic bands I had put around the bottles to prevent them from shaking out of the cage, we fixed the problem in under 2 minutes. How lucky was I that the attentive and considerate competitor pointed out the problem before my bottles were spread all over the road? How lucky was I that the mechanic passed by just as I stopped?

I was now back in my familiar position of chasing David on the bike. It took me 90 kilometers to catch up, with David looking more composed when I passed him the second time. That it took me so long to overtake David the second time illustrates that a large difference in effort on the bike doesn’t always mean a big difference in bike speed. Knowledge that is now well understood by David to his advantage: It can pay big dividends to race over and beyond the edge if you live to tell the tale.

I now also had Stine in my sights – as we both escaped another near disaster.

On the bike I’d spotted two snakes on the side of the road, dead or alive I wasn’t sure but I didn’t stop to find out, and several monkeys. I then noticed that Stine just ahead passed a group of cows that had wandered close to the course. Stine made it through safely, but another competitor behind her crashed into one of the cows while desperately trying to avoid it. Another competitor stopped to help and I was considering doing the same, when I saw one of the bike support motorbikes coming towards us. Again, how lucky was I not to have to deal with the moral dilemma of stopping or not stopping to make sure the competitor was taken care of?

Glad to have survived the bike in 5:22 at 228Watts NP with the race plan still intact it was now on to the run. Magically the calf felt OK in T2. It must have been the cold water and the calf being fixed in one position in the wetsuit that had made it play up so badly in T1. The bike had likely warmed it up and shaken it loose.

The marathon was planned using a 3K-45 seconds run-walk strategy. This worked well enough the first 25K, but then this plan failed partly as well and it became survival and just keep moving forward. I had to pull every mental trick in the plan to achieve that and not end up shuffling or giving up completely. What kept me going was the knowledge that most of the plan had worked and the result should be reasonable accordingly, the expectations that I felt rested on my shoulders from my family, supporters and coach and of course that my suffering was all rather relative compared to Rob’s.

I passed the finishing chute after a 3:28 run with Paul, the ‘Voice of Ironman’, announcer, who is an amateur pilot and aviation fan, making an embarrassingly big public deal of me being ‘an A380 captain’ as usual. I guess it is better to be talked about than not being talked about, as Trump would say. I politely declined the option of massages and the medical tent (‘are you sure you are ok Sir, you don’t look too well?’) and more or less kept walking straight back to our brilliantly located accommodation.

I had a shower first and a cup of tea reflecting on the race to make sure I wouldn’t completely judge it by its result, but rather by its execution. Finally opening the Ironman tracking app I found:

10:10:28, 4th in age-group, safe for a Kona slot. Job done!

Could-have-should-have

Studying the results I figured that I was only 2 minutes from the number 3 spot. If only I had swum straighter, if only I had set-up my bottle cage better, if only I hadn’t had the calf issue, if only, if only… But, that is racing and I was able to put it all into perspective when later that evening I spoke to a competitor in my age group. He had been on course for a 5-hour bike and a 3:14 marathon, when his chain broke on his bike, which cost him 45 minutes. If he hadn’t been so unlucky, his finish time would have knocked me right back into fourth place even if I had executed my plan to perfection.

Doing the Double

Now back to the drawing board to get ready for the 70.3 World Championships early September (in PE again, but on a different bike course, much hillier – not my strength…) followed by Kona full distance World Championships in October. AKA, doing ‘the Double’.

But, perhaps the longer-term plan is an IMSA podium after finishing 4th there twice in a row… As you can see from this report, that will likely involve lots of planning, consistent training, and plenty of good fortune. Not to mention much patience and understanding from all of those sane people close to me that I love who are not afflicted by this sport.

Finn Zwager
April 2018

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