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Welcome to Ironman Austria, Klagenfurt - 5 July 2009

For any event of significance in your life - be it an exam, interview, wedding, sports final or whatever - you are most likely to do some planning and preparation beforehand if you want to succeed. The importance of the event and your confidence of success will be two determining factors in the amount of work and time spent preparing. However, despite the best of preparation, things can and do take an unexpected turn when showtime comes around, making a challenging situation that you thought you had worked out just that little more challenging. I believe a true sign of character in a person is how they are able to quickly adapt the plan in this situation that still delivers a satisfactory result.

For those of you who have never attempted one, believe me when I say that Ironman triathlon takes a lot of preparation. Some physically train for a year, others for just a few months. But all of us prepare mentally in the weeks, days and hours beforehand. On paper, everyone has the same challenge before them, which allows each competitor - either pro or age-grouper - to respect all others. Complete 3.8kms of swimming with 2,499 of your new friends, cycle your way around the countryside for 180kms over varying terrain and weather conditions, then run yourself a marathon of 42.2kms. All by yourself and all within 17 hours. In reality though, the challenges thrown up on the day are as individual as each competitor themselves.

As in my past three Ironmans, my preparation for Ironman Austria had been perfect. A good, solid fitness level across all three disciplines, weight at exactly 75kgs, fuelled-up and rested, loads of confidence, and enthusiasm to get out there and race. However, as soon as I entered the water at the beginning of the mass swim start, 'things' took an unexpected turn and within 30secs I knew my race that day would be a very different one than planned.  

Here's how it went down at Ironman Austria:

Gibbo preparing for his 4th ironman
Off to compulsory check of the essential equipment on the afternoon before the race.
 
I'M NOT A FISH
IM Austria HQ was situated in an extensive public park that sat at the edge of one of Europe's largest, cleanest and warmest lakes, Lake Wothersee. About 4kms from the centre of Klagenfurt, this venue provided a great vantage point for the tens of thousands of spectators that turned out on a beautiful Sunday to watch 2,500 athletes give it everything they've got. Unlike many athletes, I prefer to get to the start area quite late before the scheduled 7am kick off. Having to check in all of your gear, with the exception of wetsuit and googles, the day before means there is not much to do before the swim start but put your nutrition on your bike and check your tyres are still inflated. Other than that, it allows too much time for fidgeting with the bike and perhaps creating trouble for yourself like bursting a tyre but adding that little bit of extra air (you hear a few 'bangs' coming from the bike park). I had allowed plenty of time, so wandered to the swim holding area and starting chatting with some British athletes (one of which was during her 10th Ironman!). Feeling edgy but relaxed, as soon as the gun went off at 7am and I entered the water, my chest suddenly 'collapsed' and I couldn't get a proper breath in whilst trying to swim freestyle - and avoid the swinging arms and feet. I thought that was stange and tried again and again but felt really, really breathless. Suddenly, even the very slow swimmers were past me as I breakstroked, looked out for a rescue boat and contemplated my situation. However, I knew I was suffering from a severe bout of asthma, something that I had midly in the past, but not for a very long time. No idea what brought it on, but perhaps something in the water or even the powder coating on the race-issued swim cap.

Almost 18 minutes had passed and I could still clearly hear the announcers voice over the speakers from the shoreline, so I had a decision to make. Climb aboard a rescue boat and spend the rest of the day (and weeks and months) doubting that decision or get my head down and see if it was just a small speed bump in the greater plan. Well, I like to think I'm no quitter so would keep going and see how far I could get. I hadn't prepared so much just to throw in the towel so quickly. Having some clearer water now as I was very close to the back of the pack allowed me to relax more and take quicker breaths. I battled through the middle section of the swim ok, but then in the lead up to the canal, began to really tire and became really sick of swimming, hoping it would just end. However, the canal section seemed to go on and on. I was finally dragged out of the water by a volunteer totally exhausted in 1hr 31mins, which to be honest, was better than I thought. Anyway, I was out and into transition so things could only get better (or so I thought....)

swim
The last 900m of the swim was in a canal !

WHERE'S THE SPIN CYCLE?
According to the results, the bike leg was actually 183.8kms, so I was extremely happy with my overall time considering the distance was almost 4kms further (the rules allow for a certain percentage of difference in each course as I imagine extremely difficult for the organisers to get 180kms exactly). After the swim, my chest was still very tight but breathing was easier on the bike as I went about 'destroying the field' (as you can only dream about as a middle-of-the-pack age-grouper!). I had heard that the IM Austria bike course was fast, but there was plenty of rolling hills and two relatively steady climbs on each loop so was surprised it was not 'easier'. I flew through the first 90kms loop in 2hrs 35mins and almost fell off my bike in a combination of amazement, fatigue and emotion as I went through the turn-around section (about 3kms long) and was greeted by the biggest crowds I've ever seen at a race, making more noise than you hear at a football match. It was a great feeling, so after seeing Nicki and Sue in that section too, I took off full of vigour to tackle the second loop. Powering as hard as I could, but clearly feeling the effects of asthma as I tried to hit each of the hills hard, I came back into transition for a total time of 5hrs 22mins, having made up more than 1,300 places on the bike.

gibbo on bike
Unfortunately, not much time to look around at the stunning Austrian scenery.

RUN FOR YOUR LIFE
Although pretty gone at the end of the bike, that was not something new in Ironman, so after a speedy 4 min transition, I hit the road to start the marathon. But things were not good, and it wasn't just the heat and humidity that had really built up, I was struggling to get a good deep breath in and began to weeze. I stumbled along the course that weaved through the park of race HQ where I was cheered on again by thousands of spectators to meet Nicki at the 2km mark and asked her to walk with me (so much for my pre-race goal of running at least until the half marathon point...) She could instantly tell I was struggling and made an appeal to the volunteers for medical with an asthma inhaler, but none was forthcoming. I told her I would stick it out (again....) and see how I went so pushed on towards the first 7kms turnaround point. Besides, I could walk the marathon if I had to and hadn't battled through the past 7 hours only to give up now. As I continued on, I saw paramedics on bikes heading the way in which I just came and wondered if they were for me? On the return, Sue met me to advise Nicki had dashed back to the hotel (about 2kms away along the route) to get an inhaler as medical staff would be forced to disqualify me if I received treatment from them. She would meet me further on, which she did, and this provided some (but not much) needed relief. A combination of running and walking, in between a few more puffs on the inhaler, saw me eventually come into the finishing chute for a 4hr 14mins marathon, by far my slowest to date, but probably one I am the most proud of for other reasons - those being perseverance and the fact I actually negative split my times over the half marathon.

finish line
Luckily I finished early enough so the large disco lights (foreground) hadn't yet been turned on....

Final finishing time 11 hours 16 minutes (swim 1hr 31mins, bike 5hrs 22mins, run 4hrs 14mins, transitions 8mins)
. A little disappointing given that I felt my condition was right for a good performance, but happy and proud to finish, not only in a respectable time (my third best time in four starts), but to finish at all. It would have been very easy in the first few minutues of either the swim or the run to simply quit and receive a DNF (no thanks!) and Ironman is all about overcoming challenges - ones you expect and ones you don't. One of the 'best' things for me about training and racing Ironman is that you really find out where your physical and mental limits are. Of course, it's not life or death, but it can be pretty stressful.

Some other stats: 186th in my age-group out of 424 starters (of which 50 recorded DNFs); by comparison I finished 36th in my age-group at Ironman UK so you have to pick your races. Was I first? No, but I wasn't last either (not that it matters to be last, just to make it to the finish).

Sue, Gibbo, Nicki
A doubling of the usual support team got me over the line at IM Austria with Nicki (right) and Sue.

EVERYBODY HURTS (DON'T THEY?)
I've never been more glad to reach that finishline. I always say running down the chute is the best feeling ever, but this time, I just wanted to stop. I managed to catch a glimpse of Nicki in the massive crowd that was greeting finishers (IM Austria definitely has the best finishline atmosphere) and raised my arms in satisfaction and pride as I crossed the line....totally exhausted. I think a combination of less oxygen to the body, the stress of battling asthma and general fatigue saw me more tired than ever before. After watching a few more finishing and enjoying the carnival, I joined Nicki and Sue against the fence to recover. But I was gone and tried to get into medical to treat my asthma only to be told it was full and try later. In the finishers area, the rain and heat had made the place unbearable hot. I tried to force some pizza bread and a coke into me, but was really hurting, so I headed to the showers to wash away the layer of salt that had formed pretty much across my entire body (despite eating and drinking loads throughout the day, it was hot and most people had really 'salted up'). The three of us headed for a celebratory schnitzel and beer back at the hotel, but I could only manage a few mouthfuls and Nicki was only too pleased to take advantage of this rare occasion of me not finishing food! There was no need to worry as, after watching some of the athletes still out on the marathon course after dinner, I managed to get some sleep and refuel the next morning at breakfast.

A week in Slovenia and Germany was to follow where I would get some active recovery in (yes, much of that inoved either a latte or beer) whilst helping Nicki training for her Ironman 70.3 challenge in early August. As always, Nicki gives me the inspiration to keep going when things get tough - as they really did this time around - and is there to listen to my stories at the end. This time she had her own support team in Sue who was experiencing her first Ironman and realising just what a long day it is for everybody involved. Thanks for being there, gals and I hope that perhaps a little inspiration has flowed the other way.  

gibbo having a coffee
I only wish training rides were this relaxed! Enjoying coffee during a recovery session.

Check out www.ironmanaustria.at for more information. See you next race as I'm not done yet!


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