Wednesday 4 September 2013

Race Report: Ironman 70.3 Zell am See-Kaprun

I’ve been looking forward to this weekend all year. When I injured myself towards the end of last year and took a lot longer to recover than I’d expected it became quickly clear that I wasn’t going to be able to compete at Ironman 70.3 UK this year (though I did go to support Mrs – the weather was terrible, and she didn’t have the best day). Rather than pull out all together and lose the cash I transferred my entry to Ironman 70.3 Zellam See-Kaprun. Mrs was already signed up, it’s her A-race for this year – but I hadn’t made the choice yet and was considering just going in a supporting capacity. So for the bargain transfer fee of €29 it was out with Wimbleball and in with Austria. And in what seems like no time at all, here we are!

And the award for "70.3 with the most place names on its official logo" goes to...

Bikes neatly (ish) packed into the rental boxes we get from Bicycle Box Hire, bags packed, ready to go. The first close call was checking the flight times the night before to work out what time we needed to get up. We’d remembered the times correctly, a most acceptable 11:10am, but for some reason thought we were going from Gatwick. We weren’t, it was Heathrow T1. Talking about a race for 6 months then realizing the night before that you were about to head to the wrong airport is a close call for sure.

We wanted to be as chilled as possible for the weekend, so set off in really good time for the airport. Two giant bike boxes plus hold bag plus hand luggage plus District Line commuting rush hour on the underground means we did not make any new friends on the train this morning.

On the Piccadilly Line, District Line was rammed with commuters - we were not popular

At Heathrow (we’re supposed to be at Heathrow, right?) Lufthansa check-in told us that although we had bike box spots reserved on the flight, they weren’t pad for so Mrs had to do a tactical strike at the Lufthansa desk to pay – and I think we’ll need to do the same on the return flight. Still, no stress, everything fine.

We were flying to Munich where we’d be met by someone from Nirvana Europe to drive us down to Zell am See. Neither of us can remember why we chose to travel this way, but it involves a 200km drive through Germany and into Austria. Should be pretty at least.

The flight was uneventful, and the “pizza snack” got our pre-race carb loading off to a good start – oh hang on, we don’t subscribe to that any more, whoops... Our hold luggage came out quickly, and we went to hang out by the “Bulky Baggage” belt for our bike boxes. And hang out we did, until after half an hour with no bikes Mrs went to the “Baggage Tracing” desk to enquire (incidentally, I continue to get progressively more annoyed at it being "Tracing" rather than "Tracking").

Bulky Baggage - or not, as it turned out

It turns out the bikes had never made it onto our plane! Lufthansa need to fly them out later on, but the guy who drives orphaned luggage to Austria has already left for the day, so we won’t get our bikes until the Saturday evening, and probably too late for transition. We hoped we could get special dispensation and rack Sunday morning.

We were met ground-side by the patiently waiting Lucas and his VW people shifter for the long drive down the autobahns and through the mountains to Zall am See. Apart from a stop at a service station (“Car says it needs more oil”) the journey was uneventful. I think we’d had enough worry for one day, but we stayed positive. The bikes would be here tomorrow. We hoped.

Home for the next few days

Arriving at the Hotel Neue Post we set off out to find some dinner. The town of Zell am See is small and the biggest surprise was the number of people form Middle Eastern countries. Lots of families with children, and most of the women in full hijab. Many of the shops and restaurants had signs and menus in Arabic so I think it's either got a very large Arabic population, or there are consistently a lot of visitors from that part of the world. I wonder if there's a similar population when Zell am See turns into a ski resort in the winter?

We found a shop with giant sketchers in the window

We ate well. Carb avoidance seems to have gone out of the window a bit, will need to take a look at that later - but this close to race day is not the time.

Saturday we went and registered. Ironman MC Paul Kaye advised us via twitter to find Vicky Habig, and make her aware of our situation. This we did, she noted our race numbers, and said if we couldn't check our bikes in today then we should do so on race day at 08:30am. A big weight off our minds, and a big thank you to Paul and Vicky.

Someone's beautiful bike, still with an Ironman 70.3 European Championships race number on it

Picked up my race number, cue lots of "not found" jokes

Paul Kaye welcoming us to Ironman 70.3 Zell am See-Kaprun

Compulsory race briefing followed, with Paul Kay working his magic. After some lunch we wandered down to check the layout of transition and for a look at the lake. It really was a beautiful place, we were excited to be racing the next day.

Zeller see (lake Zeller) on a wonderful sunny day

Entry into T1, blue bike bags will be on these racks, change tent in the distance

Mrs finding her bike racking spot (assuming they ever arrive!)

Red run bags will be here, running track and soft grass - perfect surfaces for transition, easy on the feet

In the afternoon I ran a mile, and then we went for a nap. We were apparently so tired that we had a full on sleep for 2.5 hours. We were woken by a call from the Lufthansa luggage delivery guy - our bikes were here!

Damn right you'd better "rush"...

It was by now 17:30 and to get to transition by 19:00 we'd need to assemble them in record time with no time to test them. This would not be a good plan, so we opted to build them up slowly and carefully making sure everything was perfect, and take them down in the morning. Again, we thanked the Ironman team for accommodating us - I'm sure at every race there are a few competitors who have bike delivery trouble, but none of that helps when it happens to you.

A startling transformation is about to happen...

All built and ready to roll - just two bottles and no nutrition this time

A final check after dinner, and we were ready for bed. I was following my success in Thames Turbo #4 earlier in the week and packing light for transition. A final tyre pressure check, and we were done.

My lightest transition bags yet - no need for anything extra

Suddenly, Mrs heard a sound - like a stream of running water. "What's that?" she asked. We looked out of the window, but with horror realised the sound was in the room - her back tyre was slowly deflating! It had spontaneously split its inner tube around the valve seal! Annoying to have to change the tube when we were about to turn in for the night - but thankfully it happened now and not in the morning, or while we were out in the swim! Coming back to T1 to find a flat tyre must really suck.

Another beautiful sunny day in- wait a minute, oh no hang on, it's lashing it down!

Race day morning and we packed up and headed down to transition. Racking up on the morning was no problem, and a few other people clearly were in the same position.

Photos taken with bike and athlete for security, I like this - they check them when you leave at the end

Say "käse"!

Shoes, bottles, toolkit, bike - see you in an hour or so!

We milled around the start area, it was very busy - really very very busy. I got a bit stressed about where to go and almost cocked up the entry to the water - for a while I was convinced I hadn't crossed the timing mat (and as Paul says, "No chip time, no world champs!"). Not the right kind of pre-race nerves.

It got a lot busier than this before the start, very difficult to move around and know where to go

I was in wave 1 and setting off at the civilised hour of 10:00am. Much better than the usual 7am start nonsense! As a result my wave got a nice long warm-up. Given my previous swim-freakouts I was determined to get a good warmup in the water. I filled my wetsuit up and flushed some water through to cool my body a bit, dipped my face in, had a float, then a bit of a swim, then practiced a few fast starts - all the things you're supposed to do. I was calm, it felt good. We bobbed around a bit longer and after some respectful silence for the Austrian national anthem - BANG! We were off!

  • The Swim

I'd love to see 100m splits - I reckon I started at 2:30/100m and finished at 1:50/100m

For the deep-water start I'd positioned myself on the far right, at the front. My plan was to swim the first 50-100m hard and then relax. I could drift out to the right for clear water if I needed - there should be little to no traffic there and no need to stress.

The swim course was very straight forward with a nice long starting stretch

My start was good and strong, I pulled away from the guys around me and tried to settle in to my stroke.

But then came the old feeling - It's now happened so many times I can feel it start and there's nothing I can do about it. My arms begin to feel heavy, they drain of energy, I can barely turn them over - my head won't stay in the water, I start to breathe at the wrong time and fight for breath - my legs drop, forward motion becomes impossible and I end up treading water as my heart rate goes through the roof.

At the same time a monumental wave of negativity flushes over me - what's the point? Why do I keep doing this to myself? I may as well just stop now - where's the nearest bloke in a kayak I can give up at? Not quite total panic, but real fright - no fun when you can't reach the bottom (don't even start thinking about how deep the water is) and you can see the entire rest of the field swimming past and off into the distance.

Also, I know the feeling passes. Even at Ironman Wales where I thought I was going to die (only a minor exaggeration!) I managed to get a grip in the end. Slowly my strength returns, and after one or two failed attempts I start to swim again. Then over the next ten minutes or so I gradually find my strength, form, and confidence. This is the sucky bit now because I am much faster than those I catch up to, and I'm not experienced enough to pick my way through them and end up getting boxed in.

This time no boxing in - the course is almost a kilometre straight out to the first buoy, an acute left turn, then round another buoy and back to the start area. The long outward stretch meant we all spread out so I could get up to speed again without getting stuck.

By the time I rounded the buoy I was swimming confidently. By the time I rounded the second, I was catching well and pulling hard to make good progress through my wave. The rest of the swim was uneventful.

Ironically, probably the happiest I've ever looked coming out of a swim!

I need to get over this panic at the start. The only way I'll do it is to get more open water experience. I need to get in the water more, swim with people more, get confident and capable. I've only worn my wetsuit twice this year, both times in a race, and both times I freaked out hard at the start. I just hope I can maintain my cool next week in Valencia...

  • Transition 1 (Swim to Bike) 5:31

T1 was a breeze - certainly the key is to have as little as you can get away with in your transition bag. In mine this time just my helmet, race belt and number, and glasses. Transition was on grass and a properly surfaced running track so running about in bare feet (even my soft girly bare feet) wasn't a problem.

Grabbed the bike (shoes clipped in, held in place with elastic bands) and ran out to bike mount. By now the earlier threat of rain was coming good and it was lashing it down.

  • The Bike

Averaged over 40km/h in two sections, need to be holding that over the full distance really

My feet went in easily and I reached to pull the straps up - someone shouted something at me in a language I don't speak, oops I was being English and sitting on the left of the road while I got up to speed, I should be on the right, this is the mainland remember!

Getting settled in the weather continued to worsen. I gave up on my glasses after 20 minutes and put them in my pocket, they were covered in water and wouldn't un-steam. I was breathing hard and wheezing quite badly. I'd got a wheeze on the run at Thames Turbo on Monday, but not normally on the bike. The ground was made of puddles and lakes, the road surface was very good for the most part but it was hard to see where the slippery metal manhole covers were (and there were hundreds of the buggers).

Check out the shark-fin of spray I'm throwing up from the back wheel

I found it very hard to settle. I was overly-cautious round corners which means you lock up and go rigid, ironically making it much more likely that you have an incident as you end up fighting the bike and cornering poorly. A few wobbles, particularly on a slippery wooden bridge, but I managed to keep the right way up.

The bike course is two laps with a short connector to transition. I can see how the course could be really very fast and I'm not surprised at all that those with local knowledge got blistering times. I was not feeling confident and didn't perform to my ability today. My focus became making it to the end safely.

Two laps in the valley, this would be a wonderful ride on a nice sunny day

Squinting into the rain was making my eyes tired, particularly when everyone that overtook me covered me with their shark-fin of spray when they pulled in front of me. I was overtaken so much that after 20km or so I wondered if there was actually anyone in the race still behind me. Being the first wave off meant I was being caught quickly by the fast guys in the following waves and they weren't taking any prisoners.

I was finding it hard to breathe properly. Each exhalation was accompanied by a deep rasping. When I have an asthma attack like this it's not enough to make me stop all together but it certainly impacts power and efficiency. It was certainly the limiting factor over the first loop.

All in all a depressing ride. I played games like "don't look at your watch until you think you've done another 5km" and "try not to crap yourself on the cobbles" but my mind was not on racing. I didn't feel like I was in a race, and I wasn't pushing like I had something to achieve. At about 70km the leading female age-grouper overtook me, she had started in a wave 25 minutes behind me. I felt like I was losing time to everyone on the course.

My breathing cleared considerably in the first half of the second loop. The air temperature warmed up a bit and although I was never properly cold on the bike, it certainly became more comfortable. I had an odd surge of strength going through Zell am See town for the second time and cranked up the power, I started reeling people in and flying past them. I held that until about 85km when I relaxed and just cruised in to the finish. The speed difference was obvious over that section and overtaking was easy, it was a clear message that I just hadn't been trying.

It's not all bad though, I heard two bike crashes happen behind me so at least I got to the end in one piece! I slipped my feet out of my shoes in order to make a quick dismount (might as well practice these things when you get the chance) and rolled into T2.

  • Transition 2 (Bike to Run) 6:08

T2 greeted me with a lovely surprise. Mrs' Auntie Nuala had travelled down from where she lives in Chiemsee in Germany to support us. I didn't expect to see her until the end so it was a lovely surprise to see her just past the dismount line. It's amazing what a little support can do for you, and my spirits were lifted. Thank you, Nuala!

I had a few pumps on my inhaler in T2 to clear out the last of my wheezing and took it with me in my pocket. I had not eaten on the bike at all (on purpose) and only drunk water with a High5 Zero salt tablet in it (for flavour as much as the salts). I knew I wouldn't be able to run hard without a little top up, so I packed four High5 Energygel Plus caffeine gels in my run bag. Took one straight away and carried three to take at 30-minute intervals on the run.

  • The Run

Very hard work indeed

The run course was a couple of km round the lake by the swim course to the town, and then three laps of the town including a longer out and back section down by the lake. I'd learned from Ironman UK to be careful on what is counted as a lap - I was mentally beaten up there when I realised my first "lap" of the course wasn't a lap it was just "getting to the start of where laps were counted from". I was mentally prepared for three long up/down hills and had to do four. I make a point now of checking how many circuits I'm really doing. As there was a lap of the town before getting the lap-counting bands, I knew I was to do four laps of the town, and three out and back sections. No problem, mentally ready for that.

A run into the centre, then three loops including a longer out and back section

I've been building running up very slowly, only really up to 5km with a couple of 10km (including a very slow 10km at the London Triathlon a few weeks ago). I wasn't sure how I'd hold up over the 21.1km of a half marathon, but I was ready to find out. I made a slight error immediately - my lightweight transition plan hadn't given me any socks to wear, or a towel. My feet were soaked from the bike (also sockless) and there wasn't much talc in my run shoes. A recipe for blisters!

I set off at a good pace. My plan was simple, trot along for 15km and then see if there was anything left. My ironman runs in the past have been paced poorly with a big drop off at the end. I wanted to avoid that if I could here. My first km was around 5:30, probably a bit fast - given my current fitness I should be aiming for about 6:00/km.

Looking surprisingly sprightly

I felt a lot like I did on the bike as person after person overtook me. My run was consistently paced, but so much slower than most of the rest of the field. Then at around 6km I felt a stone in my shoe - I slipped my shoe off to shake it out, but it wasn't a stone, it was a rubbing bit of material wearing away at the wet skin on the knuckle of my little toe. Ouch. A blister, as predicted. There was a little red patch on the shoe where it was bleeding slightly. There's nothing I can do about it, so I just elected not to look down again, pretend it wasn't happening and deal with it later.

The next interruption was just a km or so later when my left knee started to hurt in an all too familiar way. I have become very tuned in to the type and location of sensation when I'm aggravating my ITB condition and this was certainly it. What to do? The obvious thing is to stop. The sensible thing is to stop. Anyone I'd have asked at the time who has had to put up with me complaining about my knee would have advised me to stop. So I carried on.

The discomfort built over the next few kilometres and then levelled out when I was about half way through the run. I hadn't felt the buckling feeling that I got when I hurt it last year, and I wasn't running hard or fast. I could focus on keeping my cadence high and form good. All credit to the guys at Athletic Edge, I've never found it so easy to keep my posture good when running fatigued, my core is clearly tougher than it was a few months ago - I can't wait to see what a full winter of training there will bring me.

It may have felt like my pace didn't drop off - but the GPS doesn't lie, it did

I decided that if my knee did buckle, I'd stop immediately. Some discomfort is OK, but injuring myself properly again is not. I'd go round the bend if I had to stop again now, having only just got back into the swing of things. Thankfully it didn't get any worse, I was able to maintain good form. My toe continued to hurt, but I'd already decided to ignore that so just blocked it out.

At about 17km I decided to see if I had anything left to give. I was pleased my km times came down from about 6:40 to 6:10, there was a little something left, even if not much. You can see the effort in the speed picture above, just to the left of the 1:40:00 marker.

Heart rate was managed well - I wasn't fatigued internally otherwise it would have dropped off

I saw Mrs on the first lap, and then again on the second - she'd run a lap plus a short out and back section in the time I'd run a lap. When I saw her on lap 3 we passed on the long out and back section - she'd gained on me again! Her wave started 25 minutes behind me, and she was still on the same run lap as I was! She was clearly having an amazing race, and I'd need to work hard if I was going to finish faster than her.

I pulled myself together and pushed the last couple of km as best I could. Running up the short sharp hill for the last time it was a joy to turn left and go down the final 100m to the finish rather than right for another lap. I was pleased (although I don't look it!) to get this race finished. It wasn't fun, it took some mental toughness to push through, but I got there. From zero to 70.3 finisher in 3 months. Can't be too unhappy about that.

Got there in the end! I really need to work on my finish line celebration face!

The finish area was a bit chaotic. I stumbled around a bit and tried to get some ice for my knee. "No ice" I was told by the first aid staff who were waiting on hand, "Move, you're in the way", they added. I was ejected into a narrow passageway that was absolutely rammed full of disoriented athletes and spectators. The medical team at the UK races are head and shoulders above this in terms of attentiveness and concern.

I grabbed a word with Auntie Nuala who had made her way down to the finish, and then went to get my complementary alcohol-free beer.

My final times and position

Overall I was faster than my first 70.3 by 31:57 (6:15:08 at Ironman 70.3 UK, Wimbleball last year) but slower than my PB from Ironman 70.3 Ireland, Galway, where I hit 5:22:35. I think to be just 20 minutes down on my PB in such conditions is not a bad performance though. On a good day and with some better fitness, I really think I can make a good shot at hitting 5 hours. Let's see what next year brings.


Finishers had to make their way through the expo and into the main building to get their finishers' tee-shirts and food. It was completely chocked full of people - very stressful for those who finished just a few minutes ago. There were quite a few bewildered people around in silver foil blankets looking for people. The queue for the white "streetwear" bags (the clothes you take off at the start and pick up again at the end) were immense, and I wanted to see Mrs finish, so I grabbed my t-shirt for warmth and went back down to the finish.

It was hard to get through all the people, particularly with a hurting knee. This was the most overcrowded and chaotic finishing area of any of the races I've done. I met back up with Auntie Nuala and we waited for Mrs. She came over the line looking like she'd given it everything and maybe even a little bit more.

Our "thank God it's over" faces

We went back to the building together to pick up our bags and get some food. The finishers' food was good, and we talked through our respective races over some more alcohol-free beers and some giant bready pretzels.

Mrs had had an amazing race - faster than me in the swim and on the run, and only a couple of minutes behind on the bike. Overall she beat me by 40 seconds. An amazing day for her, though not without its fair share of challenges to overcome - her shoe also showed signs of a blister and she'd had a tough day mentally. Her race report is here.

We started out yellow-shoes buddies, and no we're bleeding-blister buddies!

We picked our kit up from transition and after a quick shower headed back to the main building for the awards ceremony and roll down. I had finished a long way down my age group, but Mrs had pulled out an amazing 12th place in her age group. It's unlikely the roll down would get to her, but if you're not there, you'll never know.

Paul did a great job as ever keeping us entertained at the awards and roll down

In summary - a tough day, my hardest race yet I think, even including the full distance Ironman events at Ironman UK and Ironman Wales last year (how on earth did I ever go twice as far as I did today?!). It was marred by the weather and the finishing area. I can see how the bike course really could be ballistic in the dry and if you knew where you were going. I'll come back again one day, maybe, but not next year.

The winning pros: Eimear Mullen (4:14:16) and Gavin Noble (3:50:24), both from Ireland

Giving out slots for next years Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mont Tremblant, Canada

Our journey back home was pleasingly uneventful. Steve from Nirvana Europe dropped us off back at Munich airport in good time for our flight. The bike boxes made it back to London with us, and nothing got lost or broken.

Next up, Valencia next weekend providing my knee recovers well enough - if it doesn't, I'll go anyway to offer my cheering and alcohol-free(-free) consumption skills :)


  1. Well done! a great post and while it's not nice hearing you had such a tough race it's good that you don't gloss over it. Fingers crossed you're all fit for Valencia and have a slightly easier time of it

    1. Thanks, Kat! It's a bit of a tired cliche, but you've got to try and look for what you can learn from an experience even if it doesn't go according to plan. I was surprised when I actually compared this time with my PB, a race that went really well form start to finish when I was much lighter and fitter.

      Thanks for the best wishes for Valencia - I'm sure I'll write a suitably rambling report after that too!


  2. Good write up and I was thinking of doing the same when I up my game from the standard distance. Enjoyed reading it.