I’ve been kidding myself that, as I was posting little blogs and other morsels in the run-up to IM Austria, my race report would be a nice, quick, wham-bam-thank-you-mam affair. But I’m a writer, and brevity doesn’t come naturally; so get the kettle on, pull up a pew, and make yourself comfortable… we might be here a while.Alternatively, if you’re in a bit of a rush but don’t want to seem rude when we next meet, here’s the crib sheet:
Austria – beautiful
Race – good and hot
Matt – happyFor the rest who are interested – or will do anything to avoid proper work – in the immortal words of Sir William Smith: “here we go, here we go, here we, here we, go go…”My goals and ambitions heading into Austria were perhaps different to most people’s. I’d done Ironman Wales last September and, somewhere along the way, had forgotten to ‘enjoy’ it. I know that you don’t truly enjoy an Ironman – not in the same way you do, say, having a nice cold pint on a summer’s day, or watching fat people fall over on YouTube – but I’d forgotten to ‘experience’ it and, as a result, didn’t feel like I’d done myself justice on the day. In short, I had unfinished business with the 140.6.
Unfinished business shouldn’t be confused with lofty aspirations. As everything from my Aerofit scan to the unholy mess of agony and anguish that is my face after a long run will tell you, I’m very much a short course triathlete. With that in mind, I set Jason the unenviable task of prepping me for a UK Sprint Qualifier and Ironman Austria, just five weeks apart…
On the whole, I think it worked well. I felt fit, ready and confident (within reason, of course – you can always be fitter, faster and more ready but…) heading over to Austria. I was confident that I was a different athlete from the one that lined up at Ironman Wales. Just as importantly, I was mentally in a different place. I spoke with Jason about the process – swimming hard and trying to find fast feet; concentrating on heart rate, nutrition and hydration on the bike; a steady run-walk for the run. It was mentioned that, on a very good day, a sub-11 hour time may be on the cards; but that smiling and soaking up the atmosphere and scenery was just as important.
The days before were fairly undramatic. Describing the Klagenfurt and Worthersee venue as stunning is a bit like saying Scarlett Johansson is pretty, or Facebook is popular. It’s breathtaking and the lakeside resort location for the Ironman village – along with Europe’s biggest outdoor sports expo – gives the whole event a real festival atmosphere. Add 2,800 triathletes and their families and the atmosphere soon becomes electric. Not wanting to tire myself out or expend too much nervous energy, I headed down to the race village as necessity demanded – registration, briefing, swim practice, massage – but then got away back into Klagenfurt town as soon as I was able.
Everything, I would say, went like clockwork until the day before the race. If this race has taught me anything at all, it’s that the saying ‘man makes plans and god laughs’ possibly applies more to long distance triathlon than anything else!
On Saturday morning, in the race briefing, it was revealed that, for the first time in 14 years, the Worthersee was too warm to allow wetsuits. If I were there for position, this would have been good news for me. As I was sort of there for time, it was sort of bad news, but no great shakes. Others, however, saw it differently. The announcement was met with the sort of loud clamour and screamed questions that I associate with movies in which a notorious villain is cleared by a corrupt jury on a technicality. In fact, I was pretty certain that ‘wetsuits will not be allowed’ must have sounded very much like the German for ‘all of your family have just been killed by a nuclear bomb’. I saw two women actually crying.
For me, the bad news started after lunch. I ate a standard, plain pasta dish from a local Italian; it made me feel so ill I could hardly eat for the rest of the day, while my stomach tried to play bongos on my intestines. Meanwhile, much to everyone’s concern – not least, we later discovered, the organisers’ – the unseasonably hot weather that was the cause of the non-wetsuit swim was only getting hotter and hotter.
In retrospect, there are a couple of things that I’m glad that I was ignorant of before race day. First was how many hills were in the course – but we’ll get to that later – second, and most pressing, was just how hot it would get out there. Official figures had it at 36C but, in the sort of mind-blowing coincidence that Ironman has a habit of throwing up, we discovered the sort of ‘hilarious after the fact but painful as hell at the time’ truth the next day in the local newspaper and at the presentation party: not only was Sunday the hottest Ironman Austria, but the single hottest day in Klagenfurt since records began (200 years if you’ve a taste for macabre humour!) and one of the five hottest days of all time anywhere in Austria! The road temperature on the big climb reached 41C, with 47C recorded at the finish line! Being a lake venue, there’s unfortunately none of the cooling breeze that you may get near the sea – so the temperatures soon stack up.
Sleep was, of course, fitful and fleeting – they don’t believe in aircon in central Europe, it seems. Breakfast was sparse – my stomach still felt sore but was better than I’d dared to hope. I was happy to get a carton of Ensure Plus down – at least I knew there were calories ready to go. The atmosphere down at transition and the race start was already phenomenal. It all went without a hitch.
Before I knew it, I was lined up on the beach and ready for action. The swim start in Austria is split – there are three piers with the outer two forming the barriers and the inner one splitting the right from the left – the pros actually dive off one of the peers giving them a 100m or so headstart, which didn’t seem fair! I opted for the left but near the centre purely as it was least crowded and allowed me to push to the very front while taking the shortest line. The local priest performed the traditional blessing of the water, and then the Austrian national anthem started blazing out, competing with the hot air balloons, helicopters circling above and boats blowing in their sirens out in the lake. My skin tingled. Not for the last time that day.
The start was expertly done. With one minute to go, the tape was lifted and we were told to get into the water but not go past the start flags – suspended above the water some 25m out. As we were slowly swimming out, the cannon went off…
I put my head down and concentrated on working hard, breathing every four strokes for 20 breaths, until I was well beyond the end of the pier and leading the way for all the swimmers on the left side. I got into a rhythm, feeling strong, and continued towards the first buoy. Around 700m out, I looked right to see a group some 20m away and decided to head right and join them. It turned out it was a load of female pros, strong age groupers, and a few male pros who’d missed the front pack. I slotted in, found feet and battled away all the way out to the first buoy, which felt a long way out. There was a short section left (any time you find yourself sighting off a white castle on an island, you know you’re in for a stunning race) then we turned back for the shore near where we started. By this point, we’d dropped a lot of the pack and there were maybe 12 age groupers and a couple of male pros in the pack. This section was slow and difficult as it was straight into the sun and – my only criticism of the whole day from an organisational point of view – not well marked. We were heading for the entrance to the canal but, from the lake, that’s just a small gap in a tree-lined shoreline. It’d be difficult to spot from a boat with binoculars – with the sun in your eyes while swimming, it was like trying to play Operation while on a bouncy castle. At one point, all of us stopped at once, skulled and looked up – having a hilarious anglo-franco-german conversation. I didn’t understand every word that was said but imagine it translated as exactly what I said to them: WHERE THE FUCK IS THIS FUCKING CANAL? The pros were led in by kayak – I can’t help but feel that the kayak that stayed alongside us to make sure we were all safe would have been better pointing the way.
The pack slowed then, uncertain of the direction. “Bugger this,” I thought, as one other swimmer and I took the initiative. I thought I could see some crowds, and that was good enough to go on. I’d swim until I hit something, I decided. We’d been told how fast the narrow canal would feel. That we’d be almost dragged down by the tide of swimmers. Just one problem: only the male pros had been through and they were a long way up the canal, but I could sense that everyone was hanging back, looking to be dragged up. Oddly, I was cramping quite badly in my left quad by this point but relaxing it and not kicking whatsoever had helped. Otherwise, I felt good and had plenty in the arms. Screw it, I thought. I pretty much knew by now that we must have been the second group up here and the first age groupers – I may only get a chance like this once in my life, I decided, and so I was going to lead it in.
Then we were in it – in the canal – and it was deafening. And colourful. And, as someone who comes from a swimming background, by far and away the single greatest sporting moment of my life. The crowds were five deep on each side, with face paints and flags waving, kids dipping their toes in the water, fancy-dressed madmen trying to run alongside. People waved and cheered from the bridges. It’s quite hard to breathe while smiling and laughing, but it’s something I had to learn to do pretty quickly. I’d love to see my splits for that final kilometre because I absolutely hooned it; to the point where the pack of 12 who’d entered were now 5 – and you have to be going some to drop swimmers when drafting one after one in a narrow canal. The guy on my feet cut the corner slightly and just beat me out of the water on our way into T1 but I really didn’t care by then – for 12 minutes or so, I’d felt like a rock star.
I was a little surprised at the time getting out of the water – 55 minutes – but I guess you’d expect a drop-off of around 5 minutes due to the non-wetsuit swim. Everyone also talks about it being a ‘long’ swim – I reckon it’s dead-on 3,800m but that’s assuming a straight line into the canal. In reality, I think that added a couple of minutes on. Long and short, I knew I’d swam well – I could ‘feel’ it.
Compared to the change of clothing, snack, chat, nap and after-swim drinks I must have indulged in during my transition in Wales, my T1 here was simple, quick and efficient. I put some extra bike shorts on for comfort, the helper shoved the swim stuff into my bag while telling me it could be 40C on the bike and lathering me with total sun block, to the point that I must have looked like Phil Graves’ albino cousin from Ireland. Fortunately, I had total game face on otherwise the fact that the transition girl was smoking hot and rubbing me down might have led to an uncomfortable moment when I had to shuffle out with my aero helmet strategically placed.
Helmet and race number went on during the long run to the bike, then I was straight out, feet into the shoes as I made the u-turn to head out to the football stadium.
In spite of the bike being the longest section, it’s probably the hardest to write about in detail. There’s basically three sections: first 30km is lovely rolling terrain along the lake, the next 30 goes inland and is pretty hilly, the final 30 is a mix between tough, steep hills and long, super-fast sections. I’d heard Austria was a pretty fast bike course but nobody out on the course that day really agreed. Sure, conditions played their part but, apparently, the extra loop down to the soccer stadium that we did at the beginning was new for this year – rumour has it that the bike course being 4km short and run course almost 2km short (again, there was an extra section at the start of the run this year) had, in fact, been responsible for the fast times in the past that were unlikely to be repeated… In terms of total climbing, Austria is actually on a par with IM UK, which is actually considered a pretty hilly course…
What I would say is that there are some very fast sections. And there are no kilometres-long hills that take 15 or 20 minutes to scale. But there are lots of short steep hills – two long and very steep hills – that tax the legs. If you’re a great rider, as a lot of guys were, you can probably mash up these very quickly indeed. For the rest of us, they were energy-sapping. Of course, it’s not meant to be easy – I’d just say that it was a good, honest bike course.
What I’m most proud of from this race was my ability to think on my feet and make changes accordingly. Realistic, actionable changes too. I zipped through the first loop of the course quickly, and allowing my heart rate to go above the limit I’d set. This was for one simple reason – making hay while the sun didn’t shine (quite so much). I also knew that my tummy tends to shut down in the heat; I therefore concentrated on getting around 1100 calories down me (a Snickers after 20 minutes, and 600ml Ensure Plus) – way more than half my total calories by the halfway point.
That first loop was a lot of fun – the course is jaw-dropping beyond description, and but for a couple of short sections the roads are in excellent condition. Plus, there’s barely a moment when there’s not a spectator shouting for you. The sound of cow bells, hooters and screams of “Hoop, hoop, hoop…Bravo, Suuuper!” are still ringing in my ears. I laughed, waved and shouted my way around. The other highlight came after just 15km or so, passing the first aid station when Chrissie Wellington cheered me up the hill. I’m neither the biggest Wellington fan nor easily impressed by celebrity, but if I had the breath I swear I’d have giggled like a schoolgirl and screamed “I love you Chrissie”.
I hit the turnaround in 2.45 and have to admit that, for a second, I allowed myself to dream of a 5.30 bike split. But only a second – it was now sensationally hot, and I’d expanded more energy in the first loop for that reason. A 3 hour second loop was the target, I told myself; a 5.45 bike split would be something to be proud of in these conditions and on this course and would leave me with a chance of that little finish time target I still hadn’t quite admitted to myself.
The second loop was like a different course. The little bumps turned into hills, the hills turned into mountains. The big two main hills were long, slow, painful deaths. More and more riders went past but I just looked at the heart rate – always the heart rate. I was taking on a 600ml bottle of water at every aid station (every 20-25km), and dumping another bottle straight over myself. Yet I was still overheating and thirsty. I managed to find myself in a couple of pace lines here and there but would invariably get left behind when hitting anything with an uphill. There were a couple of groups out there and a few times I saw two riders working together, taking short turns… really pathetic and sad to see, but I thought the marshals did a good job on the whole. They looked at every situation – I was passed at one point and sat up to slow down just as they came past and they indicated I needed to drop off an extra metre… totally fair. There could just never be enough of them, I guess.
I lost my chain twice on this second loop – slight issue with the front derailleur – but this probably cost me a couple of minutes and a little momentum at most.
I have to admit, I was happy to find myself steaming down the fast final few kilometres into Klagenfurt and getting off my bike. The 5.41 bike time was fantastic – and I felt pretty good all things considered. Transition was fairly speedy and, after almost seven litres of fluid, I even managed my first pee of the race… a sign of just how hot that bike course was.
Heading out on to the run, I looked at the race time. Let’s first see how the legs feel, I thought.
The first section took us over the canal and into the main park where the Ironman village was located. Once again, the support was overwhelming, with hundreds and hundreds lining the route. I ran fine until the first aid station at 2km into the run at which point I realised that I was overheating like never before, my asthma was playing up to the point of hyperventilating and I could barely open my mouth to drink. The plan had been a 30 minute/5 minute run-walk strategy, basically timing the walk to coincide with every other aid station. I really, really wanted to get close to a four hour Ironman marathon – I felt like I had it in me and was sure that I could get there with this strategy. But right then, walking through that first aid station, I knew I had a decision to make. If I ran a 4.14 marathon, that was my sub-11. Any faster, I might blow up trying… decision made.
So, the strategy changed to a 25/5 run-walk, with a minute to walk through every aid station. What’s disappointing, looking back, is that I was comfortably able to run 5.20-5.30 pace when I was running, and that it was heat rather than fatigue, that was the limiting factor. But conditions were what they were and I had to find a solution.
Chrissie again popped up after a few kilometres of the run. Say what you like about that girl, but she was the loudest, most encouraging spectator out there (and that wasn’t an easy contest to win) and it gave everybody a lift to see her.
The first section of the run headed along the lake to some of the neighbouring villages, looped through the villages and actually passed through a beach resort, before coming back to race village and heading out on the second section, into town along the canal (and then do it all again). There was basically no shade on the first section and it was a hot, hot mess. Even on the first loop, people were being carried, stretchered and ambulanced off the course. Up in town, the course took in the main town square and there was a bell there that – legs allowing – everybody jumped up to ring. Every ring of the bell saw local businesses donate a Euro to local charities… just another example of how the area has embraced Ironman.
By the time I got back to the main park ready to head out for the second loop, the aid station pattern had been established. Sponge in tri suit, water, sip, pour over head, coke, more water sip and over the head and – in the few places they had it – ice down the front of the tri suit… then time to run again. My pace rarely deviated. I was bang on course. The quad strain from the swim (felt a little during the bike but not enough to cause pain or discomfort) was now very stiff and painful. There are a couple of underpasses and steep slopes out on the course and I had to walk up and down them – no point blowing a quad for the extra few seconds of running that they’d bring, I decided.
I was also hallucinating, it seemed… thinking I’d seen two helicopters land in the middle of a playground. Turned out they were real, whisking people off to hospital – by this point, emergency medical services were being drafted in; after 9 hours, there were already more DNFs than at the end of any other running of IM Austria.
The last loop of the run I was entirely in my own head space. Just kept plugging away. Some friends I’d made at the hotel said they’d tried to call as I’d gone past – I didn’t hear a word. The 30km marker is a big one – that’s when you know you’ve made it, I think. You know that, by hook or by crook, you’re going to finish this race. The next, for me, came at the very top of town – final section, 37km marker, 5k left and 32 minutes to do it. I had it. I was going to go sub-11 but, to make sure, I stopped the walks (other than the quad-saving underpass walk and 30 seconds through aid stations). I’m glad I did – the markers had been placed wrongly, it turned out…
I hit 41km in 4.04 – 10 minutes to go, I should make it easily. I was running 5.25s at this point…and I kept running, and kept running. Then, with horror and frustration, I realised exactly where the turn towards the finishing chute was and that I had to pass through the special needs section, through another underpass and along the lake first…
Funny what you can find deep down when you need to, isn’t it. My Garmin shows a last kilometre at 4.40 pace – something I’d have thought impossible but, after all that, nobody was going to take my sub-11 (no matter how minutely ‘sub’ is was) away from me. Turning to the finish line, it looked so far away and I could see 10.59.32 on the board – the announcer was even counting down the seconds. There were huge bleachers and big cheering crowds either side, but I saw none of them. Head down, sprint. Two guys were crossing the line just ahead of me, milking the moment – I basically ploughed them down to get over the line. But I was over the line.
I grabbed for my finisher’s medal and saw a couple of helpers come over towards me… and that’s all she wrote. Legs went, the fire in my head exploded and down I went… I was dragged along into the shade and, briefly, over the road and into the medical tent. All I needed was fluid and shade. 10 minutes later, I felt 100% better and was grabbing a shower, then a massage. That’s when the big grin first appeared – not sure it’s left since.
A few words about the race. I can’t speak highly enough of the organisation – everything from a bike check-in that involves electronic tagging of bike and wristband, as well as photo of you and bike etc… to great briefings and parties, and the carnival atmosphere throughout. The course was immaculately prepared too. And the size and range of athletes it attracts is awesome. For those of us who’ll never get to go to Kona as athletes, I imagine this kind of race is as close as it’ll get.
If you don’t want to race Ironman Austria, do yourself a favour and go on holiday to Klagenfurt or do a training week in Carinthia. It’ll blow your socks off. The city is almost perfect – slightly isolated, it’s historic and still cool, with loads happening. Nobody really seems to work too much, instead choosing to swim in the lake, ride their bike and have a beer at any opportunity. It’s my kinda town. Plus, the women there are all beautiful and athletic, heavenly creatures – if that’s what that young Adolf fella had in mind, maybe we were a tad hasty in judging the chap..?
But the people make the race. They love Ironman and what it brings, and they come out en masse. The swim is incredible and the Tour de France style climbs on the bike are sensational but, on this occasion, the people of Klagenfurt are the only thing that got us through. I’ll be forever grateful for them turning their garden hoses into sprinkler systems, for lining up with hose pipes ready to dowse us with icy water as we passed by… this happened all the way along the course. Apparently, at around the 15 hour mark, a couple of guys pitched up and started handing out icy cold beers to those still out on the long walk home! Most of all, I’m grateful for the people of Klagenfurt for realising that hosing athletes down is a job best performed by bikini-clad women…
As this has probably been the longest race report ever, I’ll try to wrap it up quickly by singling out almost nobody for thanks! Not coz I’m curmudgeonly but because, at some point, I’m certain I’ve swum, ridden or run with everyone in this team, or chatted to you about triathlon, strategies and Ironman. My result would have been unimaginable eight months ago before joining T2A and, while Jason deserves a healthy dose of praise and thanks for that, the biggest portion should be distributed evenly among all of you. Hope to keep pushing some of you guys in the way that you’ve all pushed me.
By way of a conclusion, how do I feel now, a week after the race, other than still being in a whole world of sunburn itchy discomfort (oh, and lost four toe nails too!)? I guess proud covers it. The thought was always that, if things went well on a good day, sub-11 was a possibility. To do that on a day that was far from ideal, makes me proud. If you look at the scores on the doors, last year 1093 people went sub-11 – this year, that number was 413. Which goes to show how tough a day it was.
During IM Wales, I said never again; it took me a few weeks and months to change my mind. During the run on Sunday, I said never again. By the final kilometre, I already knew that wasn’t true. But it may be a little while away. Next time out, I want to be able to improve notably again. I’m still a poor cyclist when it comes to hills – that needs to change; just a little more run strength, I’m sure, and I could run sub-4 hours for the IM marathon too. But, for now, it’s back to the short stuff for a while.
Unlike my race reports…