Richard’s Race Report – Ironman Vitoria Gasteiz – 10th July 2022
How would I describe Ironman Vitoria Gasteiz? Going into a full distance Ironman race, you always know its going to be a long day out, full of unknowns, highs and lows, with the ultimate goal of hitting the red carpet to the roars of the onlooking crowds. And this is exactly how I would have described it, a day full of highs and lows, but did the highs outweigh the lows? Well if you had asked me that during the marathon, I would have definitely said, absolutely NOT, but once you cross the finish line, the europhia sets in and it soon makes every step of suffering worthwhile.
So leading into the race, Soph and I had given ourselves 3 months of Ironman specfic training to prepare ourselves for the big day of a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42.2km run (back to back). Now while we wouldn’t describe 3 months as the optimal length of time to train for an Ironman, with work commitments and school holidays, this is what we had available to us. My training went smoothly and consistently in the lead up and we were soon on our way to Spain. The plan was to head out to a little town outside of Vitoria called Haro in the heart of the Basque country in Spain. This gave us a few days to get settled and do our final preparation in the lead up to the race, while trying to resist the wine the Basque country had to offer.
Race day morning arrived. I took my usual calm and collected approach, focusing on what needed to be done. Sophie was her usual race morning self, flapping around like a headless chicken, looking for a portaloo. We completed our final preparations in transition and headed down to the swim start. The DJ was very excitable getting the athletes pumped to get going with some questionable music choices… something from pirates of the Caribbean. The game plan for the swim was to set off at an easy pace and build the pace throughout the 3.8km swim, aiming to finish in around 1 hour 10 minutes. The water was calm and clear, temperature was comfortable… perfect swimming conditions. And we were off… Sophie had planned to stay in my draft on the swim for as long as possible, which I knew was the case as I had someone (Sophie) tapping my feet for the first 2.8km. As I rounded the final turn buoy to swim the final 1km, Sophie lost me in a crowd of swimmers and we had to do the remainder alone. I ended up coming out of the swim with a time of 1 hour 4 minutes, which I was extremely happy with as it is the pace I would pretty much hold for a 70.3 race. Up into transition I went… socks, helmets and nutrition in pockets and time to get onto the bike.
The bike consisted of 180km over 2 and a half laps of the lake we had just swam through, with 1200m of elevation on what could be described as an undulating course with some very fast sections. The views on the course were stunning… not that I particular got to appreciate them on race day, however I had been for a bike course recce early in the week to see. The first lap of the bike I was flying around, passing athlete after athlete, and hit 70km with an average speed of 37kph. However nutrition was starting to become a problem. Prior to the race, Soph and I had carefully planned what we were going to take during the race. What we would be eating/drinking and when we would be. As nutrition is the 4th discipline in triathlon, if you get this wrong, you know you’re going to have a bad day. From 70km onwards the heat of the day had really started to beat down and with no shade on the bike course, it was giving a lot of the athletes issues… myself included. Temperatures were in the mid 30s and I was struggling to drink enough and take enough calories. The on course nutrition that was available to us was gatorade, which was super sweet and was making me feel sick. From that point onwards I started to slow down but was still making good time. Coming off the bike I ended up finishing with a time of 5 hours 26 minutes, which I was very happy with considering the heat. Now just for the small matter of a marathon…
Approaching transition, I could already see the crowds lining the sides of the streets. I had seen videos of what I was about to experience, but nothing could prepare you for the reality. I jumped off the bike, passed it to one of the volunteers and landed on the red carpet leading down to the transition tent. The noise of the crowd was unreal, any hope to keep my heart rate down was impossible as I ran down the ramp through the Vitoria crowds. As a lowly age group athlete, I beg to imagine what the noise levels would have been for the professional athletes. The plan was to change completely out of my tri suit into my running clothes as I wanted to be as comfortable as possible for the marathon. Then settle into a steady pace of around 5:20 minute kilometres for the marathon, which was something I was executing well in training. The first few kilometres, this was impossible, the crowds were roaring and even though I felt like I was going slowly and relaxed, I was clocking closer to a 5 minute kilometre pace. At this point, I was feeling comfortable and all feelings of sickness had gone. Then at 7km nature called and I had to make a quick (not so quick) pit stop. From this point on the sickness was starting to return, any nutrition I was taking wasn’t agree with me and it was starting to become a serious battle, but… I was still running, although much slower than would be expected. The run course was made up of 4 laps of around 10km to make up the marathon. I managed to run 2 laps before my wobbly stomach decided to come back up. I was halted to a moment in the bushes to be sick then returned to the course feeling very sorry for myself at a very slow walking pace. 20km left to go and I had hit rock bottom, never felt like this in a race, every negative thought I was having was willing me to call it a day and stop. But after some very strong words with myself and the constant encouragement of the Vitoria crowds, I willed myself on with the mindset that I was finishing the race, even if I had to walk the remainder of the marathon. Lap 3 was a walk, attempting to take in nutrition at every aid station but being unsuccessful on every occasion. The crowd were still willing me on, calling me, what I thought was “Animal”… I certainly didn’t feel like an Animal walking at that pace. Turns out they were saying “Animo”, which translates to courage and a message to will me on. By lap 4 I was still seriously struggling, with extremely low energy levels. But I wasn’t the only one, the side of the streets were littered with struggling athletes who were trying to get through the Spanish heat. Luckily I managed to stumble across a friend on course who was struggling as much as me. We walked together, and encouraged each other along. By this point I was managing to keep down some animal crackers and coca cola, we were pushed on and attempted to do a few jog/ walks to get the kilometres to pass quickly. At 37km, I passed Sophie who was at 35km, she was still smiling and having a good race, which gave me a boost. I plodded on until a couple of kilometres from the end and managed to summon the energy to “run” until the end of the marathon. The crowds pulled me in, I could hear the finish line and I knew I was almost at the end. The finish line was unlike anything I have ever experienced before, in the middle of a courtyard in the centre of Vitoria with crowds on all sides. I crossed the finish line in a time of 12 hours 10 minutes and 32 seconds with what I can only describe as a grimaced smile and thankful to be at the end.
The day was a huge mix of emotions… while in one hand I was ecstatic to have completed the race in tough conditions, with only 57% of athletes actually finishing. To the other hand of frustration that I hadn’t managed to execute my nutrition strategy effectively to have a strong performance on the day. After the race, I had vowed that I wouldn’t be doing another triathlon for a while, now I am looking at which race I want to do next. That the funny thing about triathletes, we have very short memories for the pain we put ourselves through. There are lots of positive to take away, strong swim and bike in tough conditions, and I know that if I get my nutrition right, that I can run a fast marathon. Next aim (at some point in the near future) will be to go sub 10 in an Ironman race, which would have been very achievable in Vitoria if I had managed to run my normal marathon times. My favourite part of the day was seeing Sophie smash her first ever Ironman with a smile on her face!!!