Senin, 30 Mei 2011

The race

I started to get nervous just before the bike check in, which was (for me) between 7 and 8pm - a bit on the late side, considering I still had to have dinner and be up by 4am the next day. Apparently they were not letting people check in before their strictly allotted time. The check in made me realize the scale of this thing. You feel like a celebrity with so many people fussing over you. One guy had the job of asking everyone which brand of shoes they ran in. I was proud to be the only one to run in Pumas. It passed in such a whirlwind that I couldn't help having the feeling that I had forgotten something. Suddenly I was overcome by an irrational fear that my protein powders, the sachets of which I had already cut open and left on the bike, would absorb the morning dew and become an unworkable sticky mess.

Just think how much money is sitting here
Incredibly I went straight to sleep at 9pm and woke only once during the night, at 3:57am, three minutes before my alarm.

Carlos and I went down to the bikes to pump up the tires. Both of us were using disc wheels (well, mine is a disc cover really) and, to cover up the hole they have allowing pump access, we used a couple of "Invizimals" stickers that the kids had been collecting and who I had asked to choose some cool ones for good luck. My brain was still asleep at this point and, somehow, I managed to lose one of my cereal bars while I was filling up my water bottles. We then went back to the house that Carlos was renting which was when I realized that I no longer had my goggles or my numbered swim cap. It was now 6:30 - only half an hour before the start. I felt like I had shit for brains, literally. Luckily Carlos had a spare pair of goggles and a cap from a previous Ironman.

Did someone nick my goggles and swim cap?
Once we got to the start we made a beeline for the nearest race official who turned out to be the sourest grumpy old bat of all the volunteers I came across. She gave me a white, unnumbered cap and impatiently snatched the one Carlos had lent me out of my hand while I tried to explain that I wanted to give it him back. After a comical scene of us both stretching the cap in a tug-of-war, I eventually won and handed it to Cassia, Carlos' wife. There we said our final goodbyes and I could see tears in the eyes of Cassia's Mother's boyfriend (the whole of her family came to support us) and it made me get emotional. It was the only time that I really got emotional in the whole race. The view of 2,000 athletes in red caps with the sun rising up over the sea was really quite spectacular.

I went to the front of the pack to try to get into the water and get used to the temperature. People were eyeing me up, clearly thinking "Who is this guy?". It was only later that I found out that the white cap I was wearing was for the professionals. You'll be able to spot me easily on the photos because I'll be the only "pro" taking the long way round.

The start was less fraught than I expected it would be and I quickly found my own space. It was impossible to sight the first red buoy - with the waves, if it came in to view it was indistinguishable (for me) from the red caps of swimmers stopping to check their line. Instead I choose someone who looked like they knew what they were doing and tried to follow them. Trouble is, anyone slow enough to swim at the speed I go at most likely doesn't know where they are going either. Before long I was all alone and wondering if I was last or lost. At the buoy I was relived to see that I wasn't so far behind as I came back into contact briefly with a number of other athletes who were bunching up at the first turn.

The course is basically the M of the "M dot" Ironman logo (just as well they leave out the dot). The diagonal stretch takes you back to the beach where you get out briefly and realize how tired you are. It was on this leg of the swim that I managed to have a full frontal collision with another swimmer who was starting the second half of the swim and who had similar navigational skills to me.

Getting back into the water for the second half was much harder than it looked; by now there were some of the biggest waves I'd seen since we got here. I got knocked off my feet several times but managed to hang on to my (I should say, Carlos') goggles.

My Garmin beeped for the fourth time, telling me I'd already swum 4,000 meters of the 3,800 - in total it reckoned my swim was 4,500 meters. Eventually I got to a point where I could put my feet down but the waves kept picking me up and shoving me in the direction of some nasty looking rocks. I finished the swim in 1:15, almost to the second what I had predicted to myself.

One nice thing about an Ironman event is that there are volunteers to help you off with your wetsuit: you just lie down and they pull (I accidentally kicked one of them in the face - it's not a maneuver that I had practiced in training). I wobbled off to where my bike was racked.

If the swim is a warmup for the bike, the bike is the prelude to the run. The idea is to start the run with as fresh legs as possible. My ride didn't get off to a very smooth start. I couldn't shift up to the big ring and when I shifted back down, the chain came off completely. I dismounted, put the chain on the big ring and started off again. I was able to adjust the gears on the go and they didn't give me any more problems. This was when I realized that I had forgotten to put on my race number. Thankfully, the umpires were not anal about applying the rules (unlike the sprint triathlon when I got fined 2 whole minutes for approaching my bike from the wrong side of the rack). I must have left it in the bike transition bag. I spent many kilometers fretting over whether I would be able to get it during the transition to running or whether I would have to ask my wife to get my spare number from the hotel.

I wish I could say that it was an emotional experience but the reality is that the overriding emotion was one of boredom. Something my eldest son, Luca, had taken to saying lately got fixed in my head "Daddy, I'm just bored". I entertained myself for a while looking at other people's bikes and tattoos and deciding which of each I would get. In Brazil there is no middle class so everyone was riding super duper aerodynamic triathlon bikes, even if it was in a sit-up-and-beg style. Sometimes I would look at the scenery or watch kids (from the other end of the socioeconomic scale) collecting the water bottles we were throwing from the bikes. I saw a couple of billboards along the way - one was an advert for Ironman II (sorry, but there will only be one Ironman and this is it) and another was a sign saying "Men at work" which seemed equally relevant.

I think I was pretty well behaved on the bike: despite the temptation to go faster to get this thing over with sooner, once my heart had settled down after the swim I kept it at around 135 bpm as agreed with Jonathan. I made an exception when overtaking in the narrow stretches and when riding up hill (allowing a maximum of 143 bpm) or into the wind. More than anything else, the sensations were good - my breathing was not noticeably more laboured than at rest and my legs felt fresh, not stressed as they had been in Lisbon. My back started to ache, though, after more than 5 hours hunched over in the aero position. I actually looked forward to the hills as a respite from the flats.

My favourite bit of the course was going through a tunnel (which we went through no less than 8 times). Here we were sheltered from the wind and I was on an even playing field with those in a more aero position. According to the Garmin, I clocked an impressive 60 kph but this may be due to losing GPS signal half way through. It may also account for the 4 extra kilometers of the bike course that the Garmin claimed. Maybe someone who rode with a wheel based speedometer can confirm this...

The only time I spoke to someone on the bike was when a Brazilian turned to me to comment on the strong headwind. I told him that at least he had a nice view. I suppose it must seem very chauvinistic and pathetic, but when you are suffering like this, it is refreshing to see a girl ahead pedaling in a skimpy pair of bikini bottoms.

My family was diligently waiting for me in Jurere both times and I waved frantically to them as I passed and tried to smile and look like I was at least enjoying myself. I measured out my time counting how long it would be until I saw them the next time. The bike took 5:30, again, more or less as I had envisioned (give or take the extra 4 km).

In the transition tent I was able to recover my race number, so that was one less thing to worry about. I started the run well. I ran at around 150 bpm, well under my "budget" of 160 bpm. Even so, this felt hard enough and translated into a good speed of around 12.5 - 13 kph. At this rate I would do a good time and, more importantly, it would be over sooner.

I started to wish that I had made a toilet stop in the transition area. Then I saw some portaloos and thought that I would hang on until the next ones but, suddenly I felt an "apretón" and I virtually had to sprint to the cabin. Wow, I felt so much better after that. By the way, there was plenty of toilet paper in case you were wondering.

There were a couple of ridiculous hills on the course that you were a fool to climb doing anything but walking. After about 13 kms, I suddenly remembered Pablo's pledge, to sponsor me an extra euro for each kilometer run at 12 kph (5 minutes per km) or faster. Apart from the hills I already had at least 10 under my belt and now I was motivated to bank the rest. I saw my family at the Half Marathon point and smiled at them and blew them kisses - I was going well and continually passing shuffling people who had overdone the bike. I must have looked so good that the race officials insisted on sending me on the third loop before I had even done the second - either that or, what is more likely is that they mistook my white sleeves for the hair bands they gave out on completion of each loop.

At some point the kilometer splits suddenly took a turn for the worse and - even though I felt like I was running just as hard and fast as before - I was now taking 5:30 to cover one kilometer. Never mind, I thought, I'll still get a good time at this pace. This is the thing about the Ironman, you start with some dreams and aspirations and you spend the rest of the day revising them, in my case, downwards.

I don't believe in God or Heaven, but I started talking to Neil, dedicating kilometers to him and apologizing for them being slow ones. 5:30 soon became 6:00 and 6:00 became 6:20 per kilometer. It was clear: now it was a question of finishing. I tried pushing a little - my pulse was lower than ever - but the twinges of cramps warned me off (in spite of the 20 salt tablets I had swallowed). I had been carefully pacing myself all the race, waiting for the moment to really grit my teeth and so it was frustrating not to be able to dig deeper, to feel as though I was pushing myself as hard as I could go (even though the incipient cramps assured me that it was indeed the case). My stomach also started to protest and I swallowed down very little of the (now) sickly warm gels that I had picked up for the second half of the Marathon in the Special Needs stop.

The organization of the event was impeccable and the island really lives the whole Ironman experience so I was really surprised how little the crowds cheered. In Madrid, there is more support in a local 10k race. Of course, 8-17 hours is a long time to be clapping. As this was Brazil I expected a Samba or Batucada band but there was no music. Still, I've learned something about why I race. It's the same reason why I love deejaying: I get a real kick out of the crowd and I thrive off the positive feedback loop. What was excellent, though, were the food and water stops that were scattered every couple of kilometers along the run course. I would drink either coke, water or both at every stop and throw an ice cold cup of water over my head and down my back.

One kilometer to go. Now I felt I could let myself enjoy it. I repeated to myself "I'm going to be a f***ing Ironman! I'm going to be a f***ing Ironman!". I took out the little photo I had of Neil, climbing a steep hill on his bike in readiness to hold it up for the finisher's photo. There was my family! The boys ran with me to the line and I had done it, I had f***ing done it. Unbeknownst to me at the time, about 10,000 kilometers away, a group of Neil's deejay friends were celebrating his life at a nightclub in Gateshead, playing out all his favourite and highly sought after tunes.

The medal is the coolest medal I have ever seen
Now it was time to try to repair the damage I had done to my body. My pee was brown which means that my body had started to break down muscle fibers to feed off the proteins they contained. If you want to get a six pack in a single day, then do an Ironman - I looked like an escaped prisoner of war:

I may not look it, but I am pleased
Carlos came to find me in the survivor's - I mean finishers - tent. He had broken the ten hour barrier (last year he was off by 23 seconds)! My other friends also did well - Christian did a jaw dropping 9:12 and will almost certainly be selected for the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii and Michel did 13 and a half hours. A long but good day.

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