My credo for the last couple of years has been to either go on an adventure or set myself a challenge every month. Now, in terms of physical challenges I had already run marathons and even a couple of ultras, so the question was what to do to take it to the next level in 2017?
A triathlon seemed the logical step – and a half length Ironman seemed about right. Combining swimming and biking and running in a course covering 113 kilometres, an Ironman 70.3 is something that could challenge anyone, but to me it was a daunting proposition for a couple of specific reasons: I’ve never learnt how to crawl properly, and I didn’t have any experience with road bikes – both fairly essential skill sets to triathletes…!
But then it wouldn’t be a challenge if it weren’t slightly intimidating, would it? And so I signed up for the Luxembourg Ironman 70.3 Remich-Moselle triathlon, happy in the knowledge that I had five months in which to prepare. Well, fast forward five months and I still haven’t learnt how to crawl, and I’ve used my new bike a grand total of three times… and yesterday was the day.
Here’s what happened:
First impression when I arrive at Remich? These are some seriously athletic people. They look like they eat marathoners for breakfast. It’s hard not to descend into homoerotica when describing these men (and even the women look like men!) – suffice to say even oldtimers look like gray-haired terminators. Or possibly these grizzled fellows are still young, and this is what too much triathloning does to you?
Second impression? These are people who take their kit seriously. Most bikes look like something Batman would be happy to cycle around Gotham on, if Bats was into eco-friendly neighbourhood policing. They might have heat-seeking missiles on them, for all I know, and a bat fax hidden underneath the saddle.
Overall, the level of logistics involved is slightly bewildering to a simple runner like myself. There are bikes to be checked in, red bags for running kit, blue ones for biking (I’m not sure if it’s purposely done to be (R)ed for running and (B)lue for biking, but it would explain the (W)hite bag for afterwards, when all that’s left to do is whimpering…).
Queuing up for the start, I look out across the Mosel river and a sea of neoprene-clad racers, nearly all of them in black, and already sweltering, because it’s proving to be a very warm day. Thankfully, in spite of the heatwave that makes this quiet village in Luxembourg feel like an outpost of the Serengeti, the organisers have dispensed with the traditional wildebeest-start for this event (where everyone stampedes into the water at the same time, turning it into a churning cauldron of thrashing limbs). This means I’m able to get in line at the very end – in the 50-60 minute bracket – where my breaststroke won’t upset anyone.
Even so, once we get in the water there are other athletes who are clearly not too good at crawling, but who don’t let that fact stop them from zig-zagging back and forth along the river. I’m quite happy to actually see where I’m going, as in the end that proves rather useful, allowing me to take the shortest route from buoy to buoy, and avoiding detours into Germany.
I think I did quite well considering this was my first attempt at competitive open water swimming, but I have no way of knowing, because when I stumble out of the water and jog into the transition area I realise my Garmin hasn’t recorded anything. Drat.
Pulling off my wetsuit and grabbing all my biking kit I laugh a little at a piece of advice I got off the Internet. I piously took a picture of my bike when I had parked it and memorised the surroundings to be able to find it today, but since I’m one of the last to enter the T zone I can easily spot it from a hundred metres away.
And so I hop on my bike and set off. The biking part is the great unknown for me. I haven’t done more than 18k in one go on this bike; I’ve only owned it for two weeks – and ten days out of those it was in repair back at the factory, since it fell apart on my third outing and nearly killed me, due to an assembly mistake – so there is no way of knowing how this will go.
As it turns out, I’m in for a pleasant surprise. The first 35-40k are along the Mosel river, first upriver all the way to the French border, then down again – and I average 30kph, which is considerably faster than I had thought possible. Then it’s inland and hilly, ridiculously pretty countryside, but even the longest, steepest uphill stretches feel eminently doable, and I pass quite a few athletes, in spite of my being unable to get at the energy bars and gels I have brought along. (Note to self: flip belts do not work well when biking!)
Before long, I’ve done more than half, and then suddenly it’s the last 20k, which are either downhill or flat, and I’m flying back into Remich for the last transit.
As I get off the bike, my legs object loudly to doing anything but pedal, but that was expected, and once I get out of the T zone, they know what’s expected of them. Running, at least, I know how to do. Ironically, that almost proves my downfall.
Muscle memory dictates what speed I’m going, and that means I am going fast. Way too fast. The first kilometre flies by at 5:05, the second at 5:15. I have to make a conscious decision to reign myself in before I bonk. Quite beside the fact that I’ve been exercising for four hours plus already, its gruellingly hot, 28C in the shade, and precious little shade on offer.
But once I’ve made my peace with this, and don’t treat the running as if it were a normal half marathon, it becomes surprisingly easy. The run is made up of four laps, each one taking you tantalisingly close to the finish before throwing you out of Remich and down along the river once more to collect another bracelet (one per lap), downhill on the way out, uphill on the way back.
Around me, people are suffering, throwing up, groaning as they attain to keep running. I take a different approach: I walk when it feels hard, stop to help a couple of people with cramps (salted raisins – work like a charm), and run with an easy gait for as long as it feels good. It won’t be my fastest half marathon, and I won’t meet my goal of making the run in under two hours, but I feel great. I even have enough energy left to show off a little on the finish line (which sadly, since it was only a live feed, you will never see!) before collecting my first triathlon medal.
My main ambition was to finish the race at all, and my hope of coming in under seven hours I managed with quite some margin, at 6:22:59. Can I improve upon that? Sure. Give me a year of actually training with a bike and some lessons in crawling and I will knock another 23 minutes off that time. More importantly, am I happy about having become (half an) Ironman? Affirmative, Jarvis.