28th August 2016 – Sophie’s 1st Ironman 70.3 race (Jumping in at the deep end and winging it)

I remember the night I booked my first Ironman 70.3 vividly. I was lying in bed with food poisoning, feeling very sorry for myself and I wanted to do something to cheer myself up. I had been dabbling in local sprint distance triathlons earlier in the year and had been contemplating the next step of an Olympic distance. I had London in mind. However, just as I was browsing how to enter London triathlon, a crazy idea popped into my head.

Why not skip a step and just go straight from sprint distance to 70.3? How hard could it be? I started to look through the different locations of summer races, got pretty excited by everything I saw and one race jumped off the page completely.

Austria! It looked stunning! Beautiful mountain lake to swim in, lush green fields, stunning landscapes. I had ABSOLUTELY no idea what I was getting myself in for except that this race looked so pretty.

No, I did not consider the temperature of the lake.

No, I did not check the total elevation of the bike.

No, I did not consider I had never run a half marathon, never mind after a cold lake swim and mountainous bike ride.

Race in Austria? Yes, please. Clicked book, went to sleep, woke up the next morning with a strange feeling that I had done something silly.

For the first few minutes of the morning, I chuckled to myself at the crazy Ironman 70.3 dream. Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn’t my imagination. I had actually done it. I even quickly checked my bank account to confirm. The significant amount of money had departed and was on it’s way to Ironman. Just as I was on my way to Austria. In 3 months.

It was a steep learning curve but I made it to Zell Am See. I had an unexpected hangover from hell after many mojitos at my cousin’s wedding in Tuscany, Italy 58 hours before. 1st lesson learnt. We arrived late and only just in time for registration. My nerves were through the roof and everyone seemed to be discussing the water temperature of the lake and whether we would be allowed wetsuits or not.

I had a wetsuit with me but was contemplating swimming without it, if possible. A random triathlete I chatted to told me I was crazy. If they allow westsuits, WEAR YOUR WETSUIT he advised.

I took note and wore my wetsuit! (Apparently it makes you faster and more buoyant in the water. Who knew!) The morning of the race I felt sick to my stomach. My throat felt so constricted, I had to force breakfast down my throat and focus on chewing and swallowing one tiny piece of peanut butter, banana and toast at a time.

Mum and Dad were there to support me but I barely noticed their company as I ran through the race in a thousand different ways. They had a bag system in transition and I kept talking myself through the different steps.

Come out of the water. Peel wetsuit off, take hat and goggles off as you run. Grab the bag (remember where it is!) Go into the tent. Peel off wetsuit. Take out socks and shoes….etc etc. I think transition was panicking me more than any other element of the race.

Then, there was nutrition to think about. I didn’t have a clue. I had bought a bag of small nakd bites (date and nut energy balls) because the same food had helped me complete Ride London 100 so….yeh! That was my nutrition. I had gels and electrolyte powder in my drinks but I had not calculated what to eat, when. I was 100% winging every step of the way. I never anticipated that I would not be able to stomach any solid food whatsoever during the race.

That day, I honestly couldn’t have cared less about my time. All I knew, was that I wanted to cross the finish line and I wanted a medal. As Mum, Dad and I walked along the lake towards the start line, we came across an older competitor. Her name escapes me but her stories were impressive. I believe she must have been in her 70s or 80s but she had competed in hundreds of triathlons and Ironman races.

She gave me a really important piece of advice. Because we arrived late, there had been no chance to recce the bike course. This lady told me that the only reason she was racing was because the previous year she had given up at the summit of the bike course, hopped off her bike and pushed it to the top of a very steep incline. She felt she had unfinished business with the race due to this small fact. She warned me, “No matter how much you want to, DON’T get off your bike!” Again, I took this advice. As a total Ironman beginner, I was willing to soak up any advice that anyone could give me.

If somebody had advised me how to get rid of the knot of nervous energy deep in my stomach and my throat, that would have been useful.

I faffed around in and out of transition a lot on race morning but soon it was time to choose a pen based on my expected swim time. I was surprised to see that I was one of only a couple of women (we had pink hats.) My swim time seemed to be quite strong as I was close to the start pen.

Soon I was off and dived into the cool water. The whole swim I was being tackled underwater by other athletes, especially around the turn buoys. Aside from others attempting to half drown me, I appreciated the fresh, crystal clear water to swim in though. As I ran out of the swim, I felt pretty chipper. I spotted mum and dad in the crowd taking pictures as I peeled my wetsuit off and smiled at the encouragement of the crowd. Into transition, and everything went to plan. I had decided to wear a camelpak in case I ran out of water (madness). As I jumped on my bike and cycled out of transition, along a stream and headed towards the mountains, I honestly didn’t even know what an aid station was.

I had imagined an aid station to be a place where you pulled in, parked your bike, went for a wee and grabbed a drink and a snack. How wrong I was! The first aid station was on a slope at the side of the road and nobody was getting off. It was only on approach that I quickly had to figure out what was happening. In a panic, I threw an empty water bottle to the side (mimicking the triathlete in front) and felt a little sad. I liked that water bottle. I hadn’t been aware I was going to have to part with it. I tried not to wobble off my bike and tentatively reached out to grab a bottle from the volunteers. Electrolyte or just water – I had no idea! I was just happy I hadn’t dropped it or fallen off my bike.

I remember climbing up and up and up that mountain climb and being amazed by the scenery. I was overtaken left, right and centre but was genuinely really enjoying myself. I felt more like I was exploring on a cycling adventure holiday than competing in a race. A number of athletes made cheerful and encouraging comments whilst others soldiered on. I thought of the older lady as I reached the summit. Everyone around me was hopping off their bikes to walk but I wobbled my way all the way to the top.

Then it was a long, winding, slightly terrifying but incredibly beautiful descent. I remember glistening streams, lush trees, fields and picturesque churches and homes whizzing past. We cycled through alpine villages and down a mountainside. It was very “Sound of Music” and I couldn’t help but smile to myself most of the way through the bike.

Next thing I knew, I was approaching transition. I succumbed and nipped into the portaloo before my (first ever) half marathon around the lake.

Then the smiles stopped. I hadn’t seen Mum and Dad in transition as I had hoped and couldn’t hide my disappointment. As I began to run, I realized my legs were killing me. I thought my calves might start to cramp straightaway and wondered how on earth I was going to run more than 21km. The first 2km I scanned the crowd constantly trying to locate my cheerleaders but there was no sign. (It turned out the app wasn’t tracking me properly and they were in completely the wrong place.) I think at that point I was crying and wanted a hug from them. However, I think I may have been tempted to stop if I had seen them.

About 3km in, the stomach cramps started. I was in agonizing pain and I was crying as I ran. It wasn’t feeling that fun anymore. It was a 2 lap run so the distance signposts cruelly displayed 2 distances. I was struggling the first time round so it was incomprehensible to consider how I would feel for the second lap. About 8km in, I was ready to hang up the towel. I stepped off the pavement with my head in my hands. “Are you OK?” someone asked. It was another competitor and they had stopped just to check I was alright. It was 40 degrees and there were lots of paramedics and athletes suffering from heat exhaustion at this point. “My stomach” I managed to point to this kind stranger. He suggested a few stretches and then asked if I would like to run with him. I nodded and continued at a slow jog. We started to chat and he distracted me from my stomach pain. He was my race angel! We ran together the whole half marathon and I still owe that race to him. Other competitors probably thought we were quite odd as we slipped in and out of conversation as we ran side by side. Most people were running solo at this point, looking like survival was the name of the game.

I remember seeing my parents in the crowd as I reached the turnaround point for lap 2. They say they couldn’t believe it when they saw me approach, jogging, relaxed and chatting to another athlete. Mum had been out of her mind worrying why they hadn’t seen me in so long and whether I was one of the many athletes that day that DNF.

Next was the finish chute and it was an AMAZING experience. There is just nothing quite like achieving something that took pain, tears and a huge amount of physical and mental strength. I accepted my medal and found my proud parents straightaway. It had been SO worth it and had my first Ironman 70.3 medal in the bank. 

I finished in 6:20:21, 22nd in my age group and 120th female overall.

The stats didn’t matter to me though at that time – only the finish line!

And what a beautiful finish line it was!

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