IM Switzerland Race Report

This was taken down in one of the many, many revamps of this site. With a friend doing the race, he asked to see it. Share and Enjoy.  Any questions, hit me up via FB or in the comments.

I do have to say, I remember the race far more fondly than this report makes it seem. Yet another lesson learned: give the race a few days to percolate before you scribble down what happened.

2008-07-16

The Good: I finished.

The Bad: Feels like my worst race. Evar. I can’t believe how many things went wrong on race day. When I first started my triathlon career, someone told me that Ironman was a mostly about problem solving during the race. I really didn’t believe it until now.

The Ugly: Finish time of 14:27

Here is how it happened.

Getting to Switzerland, The Hotel, and Packet Pickup

Travel to and from race site isn’t usually that terrible. You spend a few hours throwing your stuff into a transition bucket, pull the favorite race outfit out of the closet, grab some nutrition, and you’re off. Anything that is missing can usually be found in or about the race site.

That plan doesn’t hold up so well when the race is overseas.

To get started on this epic journey, last year Bretta and I reached out to Ken Glah at Endurance Sports Travel (EST). They have a pretty nifty travel package: you supply a reasonable amount of money; they provide an awesome amount of in-country hotel, transportation, food, and general on-site helpfulness. A glorious relationship. All we had to do on our end was get us and our race equipment to the airport, EST would take care of us once we reach Zürich.

As always, there is a certain amount of anxiety giving your bike to strangers to transport, but this time the airlines got the job done. We were met at the airport in Zürich by someone from EST who took us to the hotel, about 20 minutes from the race site. For some reason I was under the impression the hotel would be closer, but it wasn’t too far. EST provided shuttles to and from the race site as often as we needed.

After the getting dropped off at the hotel and settling in it was time to re-assemble the bikes. Our local bike shop, Pure Energy Cycling, did the packing for us and they went a little nuts. Lots and lots and lots of packing foam. Lots. Plus stuff taped down. About the only thing we really needed and I didn’t have was a pedal wrench. No worries, EST had a bike mechanic, Collin, on-site and ready to assist as needed. As a non-bike repair type person, I was surprised at how easily and quickly everything snapped together.

The next morning we went out for a 45-minute stretcher/test ride in the sun. I did uncover the one thing that wasn’t tightened down well during my re-assemble—one of the bottle cages nearly popped off, but a few turns of the wrench made everything better.

Pack pick-up was a snap!

A quick ride to the transition area, flashed my ID (and my USAT card which provided the 1-day insurance), and they handed over the race stickers, timing chip and an awesome IM Switzerland branded backpack.

Race Day

I usually like race day. A chance to get out and be cheered on… the finish line. Ahhhhhh. This one was different. IM-Ch is actually part of a set of races that started on Saturday and all of the races share parts of the same course and the transition area. Racking happened in waves based on the race and your last name.

Did I mention the rain?

Rained all day Saturday. In fact, it rained so much that the people using the course on Saturday had their races delayed a few hours. Big deal, right? But, this meant if your name fell near the end of the alphabet you couldn’t rack your bike until the racers using those racks were done… or as we like to say in English, “after 8:00PM” that actually turned into after 9:00PM.

+1 for a last name starting with “J.”

Racking your bike in the rain is a drag. The transition area was still mostly firm, but a thousand plus people roaming up and down the center aisle made it a tad squishy. At least the race directors provided a spiffy plastic cover for bikes. (I liked mine so much I brought it home after the race.)

Then it was back to the hotel for food and sleep.

Sunday morning seemed like a good day. Up early and everything was all packed and ready to go from Saturday. We grabbed our stuff and headed out into the cold, dark rain to grab breakfast and then the bus to the race site. The EST folk were up super early and the hotel pull together a great breakfast. I had the oatmeal with some raisins and maple sugar. Yum. I also stowed a few bananas for the transition and pre-swim noshing.

Made it to the race site… and everything started to unravel.

The cold rain was the worst. It was almost a race to see who could get their junk together quickly enough so you could then put on the wet suit. When I got to my bike I found my tires were still good to go from Saturday and I didn’t want to add any air—a smidge soft would be better for the wet roads—and the bike + helmet had stayed nice and dry under the plastic tarp.

As I started to put the last minute things into place for the day, I noticed a pretty important item had gone missing: bike computer. It was MIA. Having trained all season to ride this race with a power meter, this was devastating. I spent a good amount of time unpacking all of my bags looking for the stupid yellow computer. Everything got wetter and wetter as I sat there in stunned disbelief. Shoes, socks, post-race dry clothes, food all got a nice soaking. The only thing that didn’t show up was the stupid Powertap. There was one place left to check and that was the bike special needs bag I had given to EST to deliver around kilometer 65. Sadly, 20 minutes of searching failed to turn up anyone who could help. I was also running out of time.

Back into the transition area and it was raining even harder. I was both sweating from running about AND pissed as hell I’d be riding minus any information: no speed, no Watts, no nothing.

At the last minute I kind of made peace with the idea and told myself I would just ride easy and hope I didn’t blow up before the run. I then cleaned up my transition as best I could and started to work on getting the wetsuit on.

It ripped.

Pulling a now-damp neoprene suit over a wet cold wet body ain’t easy. As I grabbed the top bits to tug it over my hips I felt the material give way. It had opened a 6-8″ flap along a seam near the right hip. &^%#!! I knew that (fellow racer and good friend) Bruce had gotten a small tear in his suit fixed the day before at the Expo. After a few rushed seconds, I saw Bruce he pointed towing me towards the BlueSeventy tent. We found the guys with about 30 minutes to go before the race start.

An older German guy made a few faces, but thought he could get it fixed in time. Off came the suit and the wait started. While waiting Bretta, Vicky (Bruce’s wife), and my mother all showed and, for a minute or two, it seemed like things would be looking up.

With about 15 mins to go before 7:00 AM start, they all headed down to the race start and I sat there fidgeting waiting for the repair to be done. I let the guy do his thing and all told it took what seemed like forever to get the repair in place and re-don the wetsuit. I thought I’d make it to the start with a few minutes to spare. They said I could put the suit on, but don’t pull it up and on until the last possible minute to give the seam more time to set.

Okay. I was moving again.
Calm and back on track.
Still 10 minutes to get to the water.

On the way there, I ran into Abby and Rich from EST and she wanted to help with the final zip up of the suit. Very cool! On go the suit sleeves and we took a few seconds to admire the repair. As soon as she grabbed the zipper, I feel something get loose near my lower back.

Nooooooo! The zipper teeth had slipped free from the other side of the zipper. I kind of freaked. Another minute of tugging revealed there wasn’t a way to get two halves back together. With less than 5 minutes until race start and I run…and I do mean run… back to the repair guys to see if anything could be done.

No.
It wasn’t something that could be repaired. (The actual zipper had pulled away from the wetsuit.)

I stand there for a second or two taking deep breaths and was about to just strip my now unusable wetsuit off and just do the swim in my tri-shorts. They saved me with a broken English version of, “take one of ours”. Whoa! Really? “Sure, just bring it back after the race!” Then, two more guys show up out of nowhere and the four of them strip off my old suit and jam me into a spiffy new BlueSeventy Synergy. I’ve never been man-handled to clothing before, and as I was a bit rushed, I couldn’t enjoy it as much as you’d might think.

New suit now on, I start running full speed to the start. IT was a least a ¼ mile run (and I had to hop a barrier). There were still a goodly number of non-racers slowly walking down the path so I started yelling “Make a hole!”, only to just hear just as loudly “Hallow!” coming from behind me. Some other dude was having just a bad as morning and he was trying hard to follow in my wake.

We reached the shoreline of rocks just as the announcer said, “Go”… only about 200M away from the in-water start line. We were the last people to show up and we hit the water running.

The swim was a washing machine.

The Swiss don’t know how to swim politely. Every bad sight line ends up in at the same bouy and makes everyone come to an almost complete halt. I swear I could have dog paddled around the corner faster. With everyone kicking and pushing around the turn, most of them forgot the course was a rough square so instead of making a 90-degree turn towards the next point, a goodly number of swimmers did a 120 towards the last point… and this opened up a good amount of space. I could see them through the rain, slowly coming back on course. Go faster! The next turn was better as I had started to move through the field. Thank the Gods most triathletes can’t swim very well.

The last turn on the first loop of the swim was a made under a bridge. Then it was up a small ramp and then, like Lemmings, everyone leaped back into the lake and towards the first buoy for another lap. By this time we had all settled into groups of like-speed swimmers, so the second loop was a lot less violent.

Getting out of water, I took a quick peek at my watch—1:15? My slowest swim ever (usually in the 1:00-1:05 range) and the balls of my feet were tingling a little from the sprint on the pavement to the race start.

T1 was icky.

The rain was still falling steadily, it was cold, and the mud was slippery. Pulling on my socks and shoes was slow. The cycling top and long-sleeve wind jacket seemed to take forever and the whole time, I could only seem to focus on how much it was going to suck to ride without knowing my Watts. For all my problems, T1 only took 4:53.

The bike was awful.

I was cold from the get-go. The first 30km or so were a flat ride through town and around the lake. My legs never seemed to warm up and I was afraid of going to hard. The EN Kool-Aid calls for a 75%-80% bike effort and I had nothing but feel to go on.

I probably shouldn’t complain about the rain too much. I helped me go slow. It’s also mentally difficult to go fast when you’re concerned about sliding or overshooting a turn and sailing over a cliff. (The Swiss don’t believe in guard rails.)

About the only thing that do go well during the bike was my nutrition. Gu, Power Aide, and Kind bars went down at a regular pace. I didn’t get hungry and because of the cold I seemed to need to pee quite often. All good things during a 112 mile ride.

A few observations about the IM-Swiss bike course.

  • The three named climbs on the course (the Beast—a nasty 3K climb with grades between 6% and 9%; the Beauty—a 5K-ish 2%-4% climb just after the Beast; and Heartbreak hill—a 9% 1K switch back near the end of the loop) all rock!!! The Beast falls just after a rolling bit of the course. It is hard, but far from impossible. It felt like I had just gotten my climbing legs under me and it was over. The Beauty is probably the hardest of the three only because it is so long. I just never seems to end. Lastly Heartbreak hill is the most fun I’ve had climbing on my bike—it is so short, you can really crank up the effort knowing it will be over soon. Plus, spectators swarm near the top of Heartbreak cheering you on the whole time—very Tour de France as they crowd in, yelling and screaming.
  • There were cowbells! Laboring up the Beauty there are fields on both sides of the road. You can hear (and smell) the cows. Lots of “moo”-ing and bell banging as they watch you go by. Even the sheep had little bells that made noise as you went past. Very cool.
  • Downhill in the rain is horrifying. Instead of a nice quick downhill letting your legs relax you spend the time with a death grip on the bullhorns hoping the hill ends before your hands and/or brakes give out. Or, that some fool in front of you doesn’t wipe out and bring you down with him.

My first loop came in at 3:12. A little fast I thought based on my training rides, but pretty good considering the hills and the rain. I was also very, very cold at this point. My legs would start shivering whenever I coasted. The rain was still coming down, but it looked like maybe it would stop… any minute… but it never really did.

Lap 2 was more of the same. I tried to keep a steady, low effort bike going. Luckily, the rain did let up and here and there we’d see spots of dry pavement starting to appear. This made the downhills less scary.

The last 20K of the bike ride also uncovered a small surprise. As I was feeling around in my Bento box  for what should have been the last Gu of the ride I pulled out my bike computer. Yea, apparently, the “safe place” I put it while packing on Saturday was the Bento box figuring that no way would I forget my nutrition on the bike and no way I could fail to find it there. Riiiiiiight. The Powertap was with me the whole time and I didn’t know it. Poop!

Second loop was little slower than the first at 3:29. Fifteen minutes difference over 56 miles with nothing to go on by feel isn’t too bad and my total time of 6:42 was only bit longer than my projected 6:00 to 6:30 at my goal Watts. In the rain and cold with no way to measure effort or speed, not shabby by any means.

T2 was okay.

In and out with a time of 5:56. I changed my socks into something a little dryer (only a little because they got to spend 6-hours in the rain under my hat, but still drier and warmer than the ones I wore during the bike) and lost the cycling jacket/top in exchange for a run friendly top. I also discovered that almost 7 hours on a bike in the cold rain, most of it in the aero position, causes my back to completely lock up.

I’ve had lower back issues during my last two longer races. The Marine Corps Marathon was slowed greatly at mile 18 with spasms. Ditto with the Goofy Marathon back in January of last year. I was hoping to avoid it this time around due to the easier bike effort. At the very least, have it delayed until near the end of the run. No such luck.

:(

As soon as I started to run, the problems started. My legs felt fine, but the pounding started to send twinges across the lower back and down my legs. By the end of the first 10K loop, I knew it was a lost cause.

Again.

This led to another mental pity-party that lasted for 2 or so kilometers. But, I figured, hey, I’ve made it this far. I’ve got 7+ hours to walk my way through three 10K loops with lots of fan support and free food every 2-3 kilometers. Might as well suck it up and get moving.

Walking/jogging 20 miles does indeed suck.

Then, at the very end, it started to rain again. It provided a certain symmetry to the day as a whole. Joy.

Still, I finished.

It wasn’t pretty, but I beat most of the pros (they DNFed after the bike due to the cold), had worked through some nasty distractions as the start of the day, and finished the 140.6 miles in less than ideal conditions.

Many thanks to everyone who helped me get to the start line. Special props to Bretta who put up with all my junk during the months leading up the the race (all while training for her very own IM-CH race). Hopefully, I’ll be smart enough not to do this again… but no one ever accused me of an overabundance of smarts. <grins>…

ps/ Select race pic are on Flickr,