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Race Reports 2014

Ironman Switzerland - Carlton Spears (July 2014)


Ironman really does take over your life. The race build-up can be an anxious time as you never really get to relax fully. Every swim, spin, run, cycle is focussed on the big day. After a year of training, the time had come to pack my stuff, check and double check, ready for the journey over to Switzerland. Here’s my story.


We arrived in Zurich on Thursday (3 days before the race) after a tiring 13 hour drive. After meeting some fellow FTC members for dinner we retire to the hotel. Friday was the start of the full ‘Ironman experience’. The ‘expo’ was our first stop of the day and we were greeted by a huge number of people (contestants and supporters). These events really are big!!! Registration involved queuing with likeminded members of the ‘community’, exchanging stories of past events and trying to ensure that we were standing in the right queue. I was really pleased to receive my goody bag, which included, well……a bag (a bargain for the £500 entry fee I thought!)


Next was the race briefing (these are conducted in several different languages, so you must ensure you attend the right one!). This was all very straight forward with the most important piece of advice……when you reach the aid stations on the run leg, walk while you drink, don’t run. That way, you actually swallow some of the drink!


The weather was a balmy 26 degrees, so we decided to go for a non-wetsuit swim in the lake. This was a great experience, as the water was so clear you could actually see fish swimming beneath you, a bit different to the lakes back home.


Everyone was worried about the water temperature as it was currently at 22.5 degrees, perilously close to the 24.5 degrees, no wetsuits cut-off point.


We retired to the hotel for an early night as everyone had told us that you rarely sleep much the night before an Ironman, so this was our last chance.


Saturday involved ‘racking’. This basically translates into more queuing, and more strange looks from the other competitors……clearly they have never seen a bike worth less than £3000 before!


As the big day approached, I was getting more and more tense. I just wanted the race to start. The good news…….wet suits are allowed tomorrow.


Another early night and ready for our 4:30am alarm call!


After a whole year’s build-up, the big moment is finally here and of course, I was awake before the alarm sounded.


Breakfast consisted of Bircher (cold porridge with fruit juice) and a banana. The weather looked cloudy and cool.


We wait nervously for the taxi to arrive, which it did eventually and we are soon at the event.


I completed the final checks of my kit and we add our ‘nutrition’ to the bikes, queue for the toilets and try not to look too nervous.


Before we knew it, it was 6:40 and we had 15 mins to go. The race had been split into 2 swim starts. 1 hour 10 and below for the faster swimmers and the second group for slower athletes. Our plan was to start at the back of the 1st group, in order to avoid the ‘washing machine’ effect. Time seemed to fly by and we were in danger of missing the start. We had to fight our way past the second group and eventually got onto the beach about 2 minutes before the start.


So this is it…….3.8k swim, 180k ride, followed by a marathon…….it all seems a little daunting at this moment in time.


Before I know it the horn sounds and we are off!


This was unlike anything I had experienced before. Not really open water swimming, more like American Gladiator meets Jaws. People are swimming over me, under me and there are legs and arms everywhere. It strikes me that I am not going for a PB time on the swim, it’s more about survival. After about 20 minutes, things start to settle down a bit and after 35 minutes I am under the bridge, over the island and back in for my second lap.


Total swim time was a hour 1 hour 17 minutes and I was feeling good at this point.


As I am not good with the cold, I decided to have several layers for the bike. I had the usual struggle with my clothes but after a few minutes, I was ready for the ride.


I had been told that the roads in Switzerland were beautiful and far nicer to ride on than anything we have in the UK. This proved to be the case. Very smooth, fast roads and the first 30k of the 2 lap course is flat and fast. There were 2 notable hills, namely, ‘The Beast’ 4k at 5% and ‘Heartbreak Hill’ 1k at 8%. To be honest, if you are used to riding the Surrey Hills, you will not find these too challenging. However, they are definitely a lot tougher on lap 2, particularly as ‘Heartbreak Hill’ is right at the end of the lap. Crowd support on the course is fantastic, particularly on the hills……….just like the Tour-de-France I thought…hup, hup, hup!!!


I was determined not to suffer cramp (a common problem for me), so had set my Garmin to remind me to drink and eat every 15 minutes. I had 1 bottle of gels (8 in total, topped up with water) and another bottle of electrolyte with an added salt tablet. My ‘lunch’ consisted of 2 cliff bars, some coffee sweety things, and some ‘shots’ (not sure what they were, but they tasted nice) and a second salt tablet for lap 2.


As I completed my second lap on the bike, I was feeling pretty good and had suffered no cramp…a real result for me.


My Bike split was 6:26 so now for the marathon, which incidentally, was to be my first!


As mentioned previously, my strategy was to run between aid stations, ensuring that I was fully hydrated and ‘fed’ in order to keep going.


It’s difficult to put into words, just how challenging it is to start a marathon after nearly 8 hours of swimming and cycling. This was going to be every bit as tough as I thought.


Mentally, my strategy was to break this down into 4 x 10k runs, a common technique I believe, and that way it should be easy, right? Lap 1 and 2 passed without incident, although I was finding it increasingly difficult to take down fluid, let alone food. By lap 3 things started to slow down and it was clear that I was not going to be able to run between aid stations without additional stops. I tried to drink (water, Iso, Coke, Soup) but nothing really helped. I tried to eat (bananas, crisps, pretzels, jelly babies, apples) nothing really worked for me apart from the crisps, which tasted heavenly (the salt I guess).


It quickly dawned on me that my marathon time was going to be ‘leisurely’ to say the least, but at least I could sense that the finish line and that ‘magic’ blue carpet was getting ever nearer.


Throughout the race I was visualising how I would approach the carpet, ‘high-fiving’ all the spectators, ready to collect my applause, medal and finishers T-shirt!


Finally lap 3 was over and I was ready to collect my pink arm band (this signified that I was on my last lap). My body was hurting everywhere and this was clearly something it hadn’t experienced before. How much further could I go? Just 1 more 10k, how difficult could it be……..?


I somehow managed to keep going and with the sound of the finish line in the distance I found a renewed vigour. I was determined to sprint the last bit.


As promised, I completed my ‘high-five’ of the crowd, turned onto the blue carpet, pointed at my race number and waited for the immortal words ‘Carlton, you are an Ironman!’


Finally, I had done it in 13 hours and 21 minutes. I was an ‘Ironman’ and although I felt a little unwell and emotional, it is an unbelievable and addictive feeling and one which I will never forget.


My immediate thoughts were ‘never again’, but once I had explored the culinary delights of the event (chips and pizza) and had a free massage, I was already contemplating my next IM race.


Perhaps the hardest part of the day was packing everything up and cycling 5k back to the hotel, arriving at 10pm…..a very long day.


In summary, Ironman is an amazing event. You will experience highs and lows like you wouldn’t believe throughout the race, and the training can be exhausting and draining. I have certainly had a couple of ‘Ironman breakdowns’ throughout the year, just ask my partner, but this is normal, right?


If you are after the ultimate challenge, what are you waiting for?


Carlton Spears.