My Challenge, My Journey, My Ironman by Marcin Zimny AG 35-39

Three years ago I said I would never do a long distance triathlon and that’s just beyond my reach. A year later I brewed up a plan to start open water swimming and try olympic distance in year 1, middle in year 2 and finally the long distance in year 3. Knowing it’s so far away was being kind of ignorant and fearless at the time. It all fell apart when my club mate Sarah who I trained with talked me into doing middle distance in the olympic year shattering my 3 year plan making it effectively a 1.5 year plan. At the time I was self coached but it didn’t work for me any longer and knowing I would be facing tough challenges I decided to meet up with coach Julie Whaley of Absolute Tri. Never looked back since. She did not have an easy task in the first season as I was what I call ‘shopping’ – trying everything and everywhere – marathons, triathlons of different size and shape, 10k’s, 5k’s – you name it. Despite all that I have delivered a great result at Rubicon going under 5 hours on my very first middle distance tri. My relationship with coach Julie grew and evolved not without pain, but I started to consistently deliver every A race we have planned for, which gave me confidence in the training, something I did not have from day one, sad to admit it.

Having so many goals in different races was not only tough for Julie but for myself, too. We knew that if I want to complete an Ironman I have to stay focused on the distance. At the time I decided to fully trust Julie and her plan. Can’t say I executed it in 100%, but we started to work together really well. There were two A races planned for 2016 – Outlaw Half and Ironman Copenhagen, with a test race in the shape of Long Course Weekend – a month before the big race. I have delivered a good Outlaw Half time – again under 5 hours, on a course that was significantly more difficult than my first – Rubicon. Things started to look really good. I could cycle kind of hard and still run 1:40 half marathon. My swim was also a PB, which was a surprise as I started really easy to save myself for the bike part. I have finished the Wales LCW in really good shape with a strong bike but weak and shattering swim. I knew I had to swim more. More meant longer – I wanted to get at least 2 long swims not far off the 3.8k. Julie had no problem with that and although Colwick was closed I have found myself spending a lot of time in Mallory Park – beautiful place where I delivered a few 3-4 hours long brick sessions. For me it was knowing I can do the distance and that LCW wasn’t a fluke. It made a massive difference for me. I knew it was long and required effort, but I also knew I could do it without being completely exhausted for the rest of the day. After spending a week in French Alps in Morzine, training hard I knew my bike was up to scratch. So the only unknown was really the run and with that unknown I went into the race.

The fear of not being able to complete was taking the toll on my mind. I never had a bad race before! When you ask people around about Ironman the common word that pops up is: pain. It’s an interesting one. I never felt pain that would paralyse me on the course. And then I did the Warsaw marathon… Was supposed to be a PB of 3:10, then readjusted to 3:15 because I wasn’t ready for 3:10, which ended as some 3:27 (still a PB funny enough), and excruciating pain – cramp in calf – actually both of them from 25th km of the course. First time ending up in a paramedic tent wasn’t a good experience. I hated it.  I just did not want to feel this ever again. Then in France my coach decided it was a good idea to do a 142km sportive with 4000m of climbing (it turned out to be a good one in the end). Again I found myself in a dark place. Cramped again it was the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. I did finish though. Not only have I finished, I have recovered really well and still had a good week of training camp in beautiful Alps amongst some lovely people. All of that was so important for my race. Alps transformed my cycling and again I made an improvement on the power on the bike. Big time. LCW ride was hard work but only that. So back to the pain during Ironman… Before I went to the race I said to Julie that I am not afraid of the pain. I just want to know when it will kick in and for how long I have to bear with it. Just to make things clear – suffer is not pain. That’s hard work. Pain is in the cramped muscle of battered joint. Some said to me – expect pain right after the bike. I was kind of hoping the pain would appear after 30k on the run. I also said that if I finish the race without any pain I would be laughing. How cocky of me to even think I can manage a painless Ironman if it hurts everyone around? Well guess what. Chapeau Julie Whaley, you could not have prepared me any better. The pain never came and no, it doesn’t mean I haven’t worked hard enough. I walked during the marathon alright. I fought the little chimp on my shoulder, that little devil telling you to stop – but I wasn’t scared to walk through the storm. That day I was the storm.

Ironman was kind of everything I didn’t think it would be in the end. It was my first ever race I wasn’t scared of. I had respect for the distance, but the thought of it did not paralyse me in the days leading up to the event. I wasn’t emotional at the finishing line. How weird? I felt guilty for being cocky, for saying ‘I will be alright’, I expected to pay the price for what I thought was my flawed attitude.

I think the final peace of mind I achieved Wednesday after our regular coached swim session when I had a longer than normal chat with Julie and Steve. They told me to work to heart rate and they were very specific about the bike split. I only wanted to work to speed, which had two risks. First one was not going to full potential and on the other side of the spectrum was overcooking legs if the conditions are tough to meet the planned split time. Working to HR meant that the time was supposed to take care of itself. And it did with a 5 hrs and 18 mins. They also said a few more important things. One was not to race anyone. I had a club mate racing with me. I really wanted to do good compared to her, no doubt. She is a girl and I hate being ‘chicked’. Although there’s nothing wrong with that apparently. She was also far more experienced having completed 2 long distance races before. I decided to focus on myself and trust this advice. Secondly Steve said that time should not be a target on the first one and I should enjoy the race having been preparing for it for 12 months. What’s the point otherwise. Yes, that’s correct. You have to enjoy it. 12 months coming into one day – take a look around. You might even get the feeling that everyone is there for you. I felt that way and it was absolutely amazing.

Now let’s focus on the chronology a bit. Race was on Sunday. Friday night – 12 hrs sleep. Knew this was the most important night in case I don’t get too much sleep on Saturday due to stress.  Eating loads – more than needed for a week. That includes Friday. Saturday – just racked the bike then had my last meal at 6pm – a chicken burger – carbs, protein and fat. A little bit on the fast food side of the spectrum but it works for me. Usually eating clean this was a treat. Did not get a great sleep as suspected, but stayed in bed listening to my iPod trying NOT to visualise transitions and eating anymore – failed. Transitions and eating on the bike went through my head for a couple of hours. Up at 4am – porridge and Belvita breakfast biscuits. Number one and two mandatory in the hotel. Off we go to the start zone. This is the nitty gritty part, but being an athlete I guess it’s part of the deal. I always no matter what happens go to the toilet again for both, before the start. Even if it doesn’t feel like it – squeeze it out of you hard. It will help later – and it did this time again.

The swim

Best open water swim to date and most enjoyable. I knew I was starting easy and I didn’t care what time it will be as long as it’s somewhere around 90 minutes. I could see the bottom all the time, but unfortunately did not get a good draft throughout, so followed someone only for about 1km in total, the rest was my own effort. Tough to sight for buoys in fog and on the way back I drifted away a bit but it turned out not to be too bad. Seemed worse in the water than in the GPX on Strava. Going past half way ish – still no fatigue (???), no chaff on the neck (I must have used half of the Glide), still strong and happy. Eh? That’s my weakest discipline. Got out of water pressed that lap button on my Garmin and I saw 1 hr 16 mins on it. PB by 9 minutes. Things were looking good and it made me smile. I knew I was going fresh to the bike so IMMEDIATELY my spirits were kept high and I smiled. I thanked the race marshal who wanted to help me on the way out (it’s on video for the record) – no help was needed, I was in my own world making my way to T1 to meet my steed. It was so crowded I had no place to sit. But – it didn’t matter – I quickly took the wetsuit off, loaded pockets with food and off I went for what was a treat of the day!

The bike

Closed roads, fantastic, quality surface and overall superfast course. Tucked into my aero position and watched the heart rate. First lap finished in Z2. Averaged 34.5 kph, which was 2.5 kph more than I initially hoped for. The ‘hills’ (they were not the hills really) spinning easy no effort that would raise the heart rate above Z2-Z3. Being overtaken up the hill, was getting my place back downhill when I did not have to put a lot of power to go past those who worked too hard up. My bike is really fast. At that point the cheeky monkey creeps into you mind thinking – hmm… maybe we’re brewing a sub 11??? Second lap started to go to zone 3, so I slowed down towards the end – not because I fatigued, but because I started to be scared a bit I might have overcooked the legs (which was too late anyway for any remorse), so I finished with 33.5 kph average. Give me that course again and I will average 35kph or go close or sub 5 hrs. Eating rigorously every 20 mins. Fig roll or two and Haribos. Drinking every 10. Mini pork pie or two after lap 1 to get some fat to kill hunger. Electrolytes in the drinks all the way and on the double. Coming to the last hour of the bike I stopped with solid foods and switched to my gels that I had in my aero water bottle. Slowed down for 2 feed stations to drop the bottle and get a new one. Never stopped. My drill of eating every 20 and drinking every 10 minutes went to shambles at some point, but not in a terrible way – I just ate more and drank more often. Went by feel – using every opportunity of uphill to get the food into my mouth so I can lay back down to chew it. Worked exceptionally well, but the stomach felt empty all the time. More Haribos next time! Coming into T2 I knew I had a great bike split and it’s time to meet the pain. Quick wee in T2 and off we go.

The run

Oh dear, this is when my Ironman started… First 3-5 km were easy, but then the chimp sat on my shoulder and took all energy from me. It was hot and I could not produce any good pace. I was plodding hoping for 4 hours and I knew it would still take me sub 11. Lapped courses are mentally tough and this one was no exception. I suffered and walked through all feed stations and then some. Drank and splashed water in Brownlee style all over me – again on every feed stop. Couple of gels, caffeine and taurine shot, electrolyte tablet (fizzy, best feeling) after 20k to wake up a bit. But every time I went past my supporters I tried to smile and look good (if that’s possible in my hopeless case). Kissing your wife on the course is a nice gesture even I know that, but giving a hug to someone while sweaty, salty and disgusting is another story. Maybe I need to think more next time before I bestow such a gift upon coach Julie. Seeing my wife, family and friends though gave me the energy and kept me going. Unfortunately after 10k I needed to implement plan B. I knew I still had 30k to go and that was massive. My good buddy Richard Walker gave me an advice on micro targets in case I struggle. I knew about it before. But I would not use it if he did not reinforce it. I thought I wouldn’t need it anyway! Well I did. The marathon for me – was running from feed station to feed station every 2km and that’s a lot of little targets… The walk through the feed station was a treat. Heart rate was still coming down quick and I did not have to choke on water. I still aimed for sub 11 on that run (sorry Steve!) and I was giving myself rest – walking bringing the pace down a bit, but not going over what I knew I needed to finish under 11 hours. The last lap was easier as I knew I was going home, but I was exhausted and in my own world. Did not see too much anymore, perception was impaired. I stopped to tell Bogna – see you on the finishing line – even though I still had 8k to go. I knew I’d crawl to it if I had to. Going on that carpet – I said to myself “You’ve been wondering for a year how it would feel like. This is your answer, that’s how it feels”. And how did it feel? Felt good, certainly happy I finished with no “I will never do it again” thing whatsoever. I laughed – it didn’t hurt. I felt like I should have cried or something, but I couldn’t. I was drained and empty and quite literally. My stomach was just collapsed. If you shouted in my ear you’d hear echo. (not because I have no brains, that’s not that joke, beg you pardon). I could walk – but I limped, no cramp though. I was an Ironman. I sat down and saw my wife, family and friends around me and for these few minutes I was the star. I didn’t win the age group (nowhere near it!), did not finish anywhere close to the top, but… I was an Ironman – and I did it all pain free.

After the race the adrenaline kept me high for the best part of another 24 hours. I was in bed late, woke up 8am and spend all day visiting safari park with my wife and friends. Back home after midnight. And that’s when my shoulder gave in. It’s an old injury. What a pain! Could not move my right arm, struggled to find a position to sleep. Luckily the pain eased off over 3 days so I think it was muscular only. One more thing changed. It now takes more to upset me! I had some what I would consider dodgy and rude comments on Facebook clearly offending my coach and her team and although it made me tad sad, it didn’t stop me responding firmly and moving on with the celebration of my success.

Ironman blues – what’s that? Maybe it’s not a fairy tale, maybe people get to have a depression afterwards. I probably would if I didn’t finish! Not sure why I did not get to meet Mr Blues but it might be down to two things. I booked a race just before the Ironman for next year. And I had a chat what we are doing next on Sunday when we sat down with Julie to have a couple of drinks. Knowing what’s next, did the trick for me. I know I need to rest. But I also can’t wait for my next block in Training Peaks, which will surely address my running skills off the bike 😉

If someone asked what advice I would give to any future Ironmen, I’d say – trust your training (I presume you got a plan!), stick to the plan and most importantly enjoy your first. Being stressed doesn’t help and you need to find your inner peace. If you put the hard work in – you’re cooking with gas. Oh, also never trust your fart after a day long diet of haribos and energy gels!

And if you wonder what made me as an Ironman, I guess three things. My wife who supported me all the way, understanding long bike rides, long runs and swims, basically being away for most part of last year, I even missed her name day being on a training camp in France… My coach Julie, who for those who have any doubts – is the best coach I could have ever dreamt of. A coach who gives a piece of her heart to each and every one of her athletes. An expert in what she does. Compassionate, but demanding. Focused, but still flexible. Not afraid of challenges and working with some of us can be just that. (is it with me). The third and easiest bit was the training. I just had to go out and do what I enjoy most: swim, bike and run! I am an Ironman.


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