Race Report – Frankfurt IRONMAN European Championships 2016

This was my A-race for 2016 and my first full distance ironman. Since I have moved to Germany recently I had decided to register for the European Championships in Frankfurt and I don’t regret it.

This race was not only this year’s A-race but something I have been wanting to do since I started triathlon a few years ago. I had a few stepping stones in between to finally and properly finish an ironman and I am very happy how everything turned out.

Pre-Race

Me and my family travelled to Frankfurt on Friday so that we could appreciate the ironman environment, be at the race briefing and in the welcome banquet. The journey was good and we arrived on time. After dropping things at the hotel, we left to Mainkai, Frankfurt where T2 was and all things ironman are taking place. Out of coincidence as we were walking down towards the merchandise shop I met none other than Sebastian Kienle. Jen immediately suggested I go there and after I shyly said no, she pushed me towards him and I said Hi. Was great since I ended up with a photo with him. I spent the rest of the weekend jokingly saying what a pleasure it was for him to take a photo with me.

After that we decided to splash on some merchandise for the kids so they were all kitted to cheer me up come race day so cow bells, supporter tshirts and ironkids caps were part of the shopping spree of the day. I then registered, heard the race briefing and we were all off to the banquet where the environment was great as the food was as well. All was amazing and I was feeling comfortable and confident that there was nothing else to do but enjoy myself and wait for the day.

The day before the race we drove the race course, racked up the bike, dropped off the red and blue bike bags and sat down by an Italian restaurant for more pasta (as if I hadn’t had enough… been eating the thing all week). Jen spent the day reminding me to drink and I tried to comply but mostly non-alcoholic shandy (or as we call it in Germany, radler). At times I got slightly nervous for no particular reason except to think I would be spending 13 hours the following day swimming, biking and running. The length of it all was quite overwhelming so I tried to push it, as much as I could, to the back of my mind and enjoy the moment. In the evening I drank some carbs drink, had some more pasta, and had an early bed time since alarm was set to 3.40am. Unfortunately bedtime at 9pm didn’t work so well since I couldn’t sleep straight away but at least I was lying down and hopefully my body was resting even if my mind was wrestling with the fact that I haven’t changed an inner tube in almost two years.

It’s race day and I wake up but not through the alarm. I simply wake up and it’s 2.20am. Oh, back to sleep. However, the mind decides to disagree and nothing takes me back to sleep. At 3.40am the alarm sounds but I am pretty much wide awake by now. Race breakfast is the usual ReadyBrek with banana and peanut butter (which you can’t find in Germany but Amazon.co.uk ships it in large quantities to Germany) and coffee.

It suddenly dawns on me that today is the day I have been waiting for a long, long time. All the training done and time spent away from family and money spent would boil down to this day. I got slightly nervous and since we only at to leave at 5am, I sat down in front of my eaten breakfast for 20mins relaxing and chatting away with Jen who decided to join me from early on, giving me as much support at 4am on race day as she been giving to my training for the past few years. Closer to 5am we do something which is quite hard for me to do as a parent: remove the children from their cosy beds and carry them down to the car where they, hopefully, could carry on sleeping. We were 19mins from race start by Langener See, it was 5.05am and T1 closed at 6.15am for race start at 6.40am. All was set. Except, things never go as planned. This is European Championships and trying to get 3300 athletes and a few more hundred spectators at the same time on the same day with road closures everywhere is not so easy. At 2.3kms from the lake we are stopped by police near a road closure and were told to take a detour, except the detour was congested. Not just congested but barely moving. It was now 5.30am and I could see myself not making it for T1 closing time, however I needed to because I needed to drop bike computer and nutrition on the bike. I saw some people walking and at 2.3kms to go I knew I could make that if I walked. So, we stopped the car, I jumped out with nutrition bag and off I went. Sounds ridiculous given I was about to do an Ironman but 2.3 kms of fast walking felt… a lot! Took me 20mins to get there but I made it. Nutrition planted, white ironman bag with post-race clothes handed over, now it was about finding Jen and the kids and waiting.

Nutrition on the bike was simple: one power bar / h (7 in total), 3 power jellies / h (21 in total, one with caffeine, one without), 500mls of carbs drinks / h which amounts to roughly 70g/h of carbs. Jen gave me a pretzel as well which is great for rides but hard to carry in a race so I just stuffed the pretzel hole through the aero bar and that’s it.

I get myself in the wetsuit and luckily I find Jen and the kids in the middle of thousands other people. Fortunately, they allowed wetsuits for age-groups but disallowed it for the Pros. Great because I had never tried open water swimming without a wetsuit. I said my last good byes and headed off to my 1h10-1h20 swimming slot.

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Swim

The swim was a rolling start so anything like 10-20 people were sent into the water every 5-10 secs. I waited, then I waited and waited a little longer. At around 6.50am I got there, the volunteer wished me ‘Good luck’, I smiled, he smiled and I was off. The jump into the water was amazing. The water at 22 degrees celsius felt pretty warm and the swim started well. I was racing with new goggles which I had used once for training and the visibility was simply amazing, best I had ever experienced. I could easily sight all buoys in front of me and had problems keeping track of where I was. The route was a 1.5 km loop, an australian exit of about 20meters with a reentry for the last 2.3kms. Doing the 1.5kms felt easy and I got to the australian exit. At this point, you imagine yourself jumping out of the water like the pros, running the exit and going for the reentry with a massive dive. Well, didn’t go that way. As I swim out to the exit and see the sand under the water I try to stand up but the water is still quite high to run, so I slowly drag myself out of the water, run a bit and a high barrier of people that decided to slowly reenter the water with a walk rather than a beautiful dolphin dive. So, I do the same. The second part was relaxed and consistent with no surprises and close to the end I start thinking about the first transition: run out, pick blue bag, take wetsuit, put helmet, socks, shoes, sunglasses, race belt and start easy. And so I did. Eventually I come out of the water and to my amazement I am pretty much bang on plan at 1h19m (plan was 1h20m). Transition is smooth and I feel energised and ready to go.

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Bike

Bike starts without any hitch, right out of T1 by the road side I see Jen with the kids. I try to high five them as if to power up energies and keep going towards loop start at Frankfurt center. Legs are awesomely strong but I kept saying to myself that I need to calm down because it’s a long day.

As usual I had discussed a plan with Steve: keep it steady at 150w-170w, eat, drink and don’t go over 200w. I was easily doing 150w. At 150w-160w on a flat I am doing close to 30km/h so I was quite happy with that since the plan for the bike was 7hours.

There was no trouble, the route was well sign posted and the kilometers kept ticking. I had setup my bike computer to beep at 210w so each time I heard the beep I eased on the pedal. By kilometer 60 I saw again Jen and the kids by the road side shouting which powered me up again on my way to the second loop. Finished the first loop without any real trouble at an average of 31km/h which was way better than expected and at 153w normalized power. The second loop started well but I could see a downward trend in power and feeling a slight fatigue in the legs but the last thing I wanted was to push and lose it in the marathon so I just kept it easy since I was way under my time plan for the bike anyway. The hills felt harder and the riding was not as smooth and I could see my NP going 153-152-151-150… was annoying but not too concerned. I kept saying to myself it’s just a long journey. Steve had warned me the race really only starts by km 30 of the marathon so I should keep my energies for when I get there. I was pretty worried about my body ‘crashing’ at that point so I just eased off. Always seated on the hills and easing off on the downhills. By km150 Jen and the kids powered me up once again and for the last time on the bike course and even though I had been losing speed, I was pretty much on target for 6 hours on the bike. That would be an hour faster than the goal so I couldn’t complain. As I turn into T2 my mind goes through what to do: shoes off, running shoes on, helmet off, running cap on, race belt to the front and here we go. And so it was, but what it really took me by surprise was how easy it was to run after 7h30m on the go.

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Run

The plan was simple: keep a steady 5m20s/km for as long as possible and walk the aid stations to grab coke. The course was 4 loops of just over 10.5kms each and so the first loop went quickly. Legs were moving without problem, Jen and the children were already setup on the run course excitedly cheering for everyone and it was feeling easy. I had a coke in one of the 4 aid stations of the loop but didn’t actually stop. I overtook a man walking, slightly arched and looked at him mainly because he was already on his last lap so I realized he was way ahead of me but in quite a bit of pain. As I look into his face I noticed I was overtaking Tim O’Donnell. On the one hand, it felt good to overtake a pro even if he was in his last lap and I was in the first. On the other hand, it worried me that four hours from then I could be in his place. But first loop done and I knew things had to get harder… and I wasn’t disappointed. My watch was showing during the second lap that my run was not as easy or as natural as they had been 15kms before when I started. There was a heavyness and tightness to the legs and so I decided to stop on an aid station and do the coke/walk thing. Coke finished and I restarted but slightly slower than before. The decline in energy was so great that I had a moment where I wondered if I was going to make the 13hrs I had as a goal, something which earlier was a given. Towards the end of the second lap I walked once again and started to worry since my average pace was now closing in on 6min/km and I had another half-marathon to go. As the second lap ended my left knee started screaming at me, an injury from a month earlier which hadn’t completely healed.

I was starting to get worried so I thought about drafting off someone. Simply focusing on an object and keep moving. Luckily I found the right man. I was about to overtake a man on his last lap doing close to 6m30s/km which had a steady pace but I thought he might be the thing that could get me through the 3rd lap so I locked on him and started matching him stride for stride. Surely doing 6m30s/km would be better than repeatedly stopping. I was running about 50cms behind him and looking at his race number (which he still had towards the back). “Hopefully he thought about turning it before the finish line otherwise he might have not been tagged on his finishing photos” – I thought. He was a German called Frank with number 3001, way older than me and given he was in his last lap also way faster. Thanks Frank! I stayed with him for close to 6kms until I decided it was better to walk an aid station and have something to drink. Filled up with sugary drinks and snacks I grabbed instead some banana, salted cookies and an iso drink. Close by Jen kept cheering and I must have looked pretty horrid as she screamed in a bossy voice: “Come on, this is what you trained for.” At that moment I actually thought she was upset that I was going so slow. I thought it was something like: “Hey, you spent loads of money, time away, kept going on and on about doing an IRONMAN and now you’re moving at a pace my nan can match? Come on.” Later she told me I was just delirious and misunderstood what it was meant to motivate me. Anyway, I was closing in on the fourth and final lap and one thing I had noticed about my knee is that it was bad when I was running but it was even worse when I stopped for a bit and then tried to restarted. But I felt I needed to stop since my quads were actually quite stiff by now so I was somewhat stuck between stopping to recover and not stopping so that the knee didn’t feel worse. I stopped in the first aid station of the last lap and filled myself with as much as I could for the final bit: salt, banana, salted cookies, iso drink, pizza and red bull. And then I got running… or shall I say, moving. My pace was just under 7min/km and therefore running might not be an appropriate term. While running I thought about calculating my finish time to entertain myself but funnily enough no matter how much I tried I couldn’t do basic arithmetic anymore. I realised it was ridiculous and decided instead to enjoy the Frankfurt skyline. At the second aid station I had a similar mix as before and promised myself that now it was all the way to the finish line. No stopping, no matter what. And it worked. I did the last 5kms at an ok pace, passed my family 200m from the finish line who reminded me to enjoy it and once I saw the IRONMAN carpet I stopped and decided this couldn’t be a 5 second run to the finish line. I was going to enjoy this. So I jogged slowly while screaming, raising my arms, doing something that could resemble dancing until I crossed it. Twelve hours, fourteen minutes and twenty seven seconds after I plunged into the water on a cloudy morning I was done.

Post-Race

We stayed until the last legal finisher who arrived at 10pm. A few, who trained probably as much as I did, who also sacrificed for the race for one reason or another didn’t make it, sometimes for a matter of seconds. Felt unfair. The finishing of the day was spectacular and it was made even better as I enjoyed it with my family who had been with me through this whole process, since the dream was dreamt and all the way until its completion. There were, in the past year, as I stepped up from half ironman races to full ironman several highs and lows but at some point I had put in my mind that it was it – racing an ironman would be a one-time thing. No more full ironman training. It was long, and ridiculous and hard. However, I think I might need to do that again just to make sure I actually did it. I still can’t believe that not only I did it, but I smashed my goal of 13hours. Can’t help but think that maybe the course was too easy or the goal not ambitious enough. But it’s always like that. There’s no dream big enough. That’s good and I am fine with that.

It is true that training was sometimes hard. Not necessarily because sometimes there was a hard session to complete but because sometimes it meant leaving my children playing in the garden while I went out for a run or ride. Sometimes I couldn’t spend an evening with my wife because I needed to turbo or call my family in Portugal because I was too tired at 9pm in the evening. Everyone endured my moods and lack of time for many, many months. To all of you thank you. It was all worth it. Both my children want to do triathlon one day and my 3 year old son says he’s already an IRONMAN like daddy. Part of the reason for training is that I can see my children are also positively influenced by it. Hey, actually my whole family is. Even my mother-in-law wants to start running at 70. Hopefully I had a part, even if small, in that decision. Last but not least Steve, my coach, had a massive part in my success. The coach, from a daily perspective, feels slightly invisible. Encouraging, planning, and always with a word of advice but you don’t notice a difference on a day to day basis. However the real deal is when you put on a macro lens and notice that it was by following his plan, encouraging and advice that you went from barely being able to swim and finish a sprint triathlon to being an ironman. Thanks Steve!

Still not sure what the next dream will be but I do know it has to be special.

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