Max Effort in 1st Ironman

Iain Maxwells account from his first Ironman at IM Switzerland 2011:

So, that’s it, I made it over the line, completing 140.6 miles of swimming, cycling and running in an overall time of 10 hours, 30 minutes and 10 seconds. I sprinted the last 50 metres to try to get in under 10 hours 30, but I think my “sprint” resembled more of a drunken shuffle….. Out of 2,400 triathletes, I came 250th overall (including 20 pro’s), and 61st out of 296 in my age group (35-39) which is the most competitive, followed by the 40-44 category (really is no excuse for anyone not to do an Ironman…!)

I am not going to bore you with a minute by minute account, I know what those blogs are like, but it was quite an incredible experience and I will try to keep it relatively short. If anything, the physical side can be prepared for to a certain extent (although no training can replicate a marathon run after 7 hours of swimming and cycling), as long as there is the unwavering motivation and determination to put in all the thousands of hours of training, but it is the mental side that pushes all boundaries, picking yourself up when you enter those “dark” moments where all I wanted to do was to stop, sit and rest……luckily I never wanted to quit, I kept my heart rate at a constant 140 to 145 bpm so I knew I had enough power to get me to the finish line, it was just a question of at what speed….

The swim was as expected, horrendous. The pros went off at 6.55am, the rest of us 5 minutes later. Minute by minute countdown as we all stood on a grey beach on Lake Zurich, thousands of triathletes covered in black neoprene suits, with bright yellow swim caps, with the logo IRONMAN Switzerland blazed across Loud spine-tingling classical music blaring out as hundreds and hundreds of spectators lined the banks cheering and screaming. It was an unreal experience. As the horn sounded starting the race, it was a mad mass of bodies running into the water, the water more akin to a piranha feeding frenzy…. I was probably about mid placed on the start line, and my main concern was getting through this leg without a kick in the face, a black eye, loss of teeth, or early injury….It was only after about 3 km that I reached open water, and was able to get into my rhythm for the final 800 metres into transition for the bike leg.

Arriving into the transition area, I had clocked a time of 1 hour 4 minutes and was placed 49th in my age and 226 overall. I had a good swim. The bike leg was far tougher than I had expected, especially considering this is my strongest discipline of the three. Overly officious referees on motorbikes were handing penalties like sweets from a candy jar. There are strict rules on the bike leg, the rider must be not less than 33ft behind the rider in front (to prevent drafting which is cheating and immediate DSQ), and any overtaking manoeuvre must be completed within 30 seconds. As you can imagine, hardly realistic when everyone is flying along at between 40 and 43 km/h. Lots of whistles being blown and hand signals from the refs, the riders had no idea what was going on. A bike comes right alongside, whistle blaring and 4 fingers shown to me, followed by 1. No card was shown. I had no idea what this meant, I shouted out to the referee, “was this a penalty” and the bike just drove off. Mentally this threw me, I just was not prepared for this at all. Thousands of hours of physical training did not answer this issue. I cycled for about 2 hours then stopped in the next penalty box, asking the officials what this meant They had no idea, they asked what colour card I was shown, I said I wasn’t but shown a group of fingers…they looked at each other blankly, handed me a stop watch and said “6 minutes”. I then noticed a red marker pen had been slashed across my race bib number, immediate fear ran through, had I been disqualified? Was all that training for nothing…..I felt like dying…the officials just had no idea what any of this meant…

Picking myself up, I resigned myself to the fact it was all over, I had been disqualified, and that I had to continue with the race just for my own personal time. It was a seriously dark moment and if there was a hole to climb into, I would have been in it in a shot.

The ride was slower than I had expected, the hills were long and tough and draining, and just sapped energy from the legs. On a normal cycle race this is ok, but knowing I had still do to a marathon, I had to hold back.
I finished the ride in 5 hours 27, and came 60th in my age category, position 224th overall.

Back into transition, running shoes on, fuel belt and cap and glasses, I stopped to ask the officials there what this red pen on my race number meant. No idea. Were they just saying that so I would at least finish, but not have a recorded time? Everything was running through my head, it was literally hell. I was hoping endorphins would power me along, but no chance. I was deflated and confused. I settled into a good pace on the run, 4 laps round a twisty run course, lots of aid stations. This was the final leg, only 26.2 miles and it was all over. I noticed a few others had red pen on their race numbers, a mix of red slashes and red “P’s”…surely a red P was a penalty, and a red slash was a DSQ? I could not stop thinking about it.

I kept a constant pace throughout the run, fuelled by a mix of water, coke, red bull, dried apricots, bananas, oranges and salted pretzels. We were so fortunate by a huge lightning storm which cooled the air from a balmy 28 degrees to a monsoon rainstorm lasting about 2 hours. Not good for spectators, but a dream for us runners!

My mum was simply amazing, she had positioned herself as close as possible to my transitional spot, so cheered me on after the swim leg and got to the top of one of the hills on the bike. Incredible. It is impossible to say how much this helped. On the run I saw her each lap, and calling out about the red pen and possible DSQ she was liaising with my brother back at home who was avidly following my splits and progress. She called out that I was still recording splits; I had one more lap to go, only 10km and I had an immediate spring in my step; I was going to record a time!!

I finished the marathon run in 3 hours 52 minutes, I had done it, crossing the line arms aloof and just stood for about 5 minutes head in my knees. Alcohol free beer, red bull and fizzy water was administered to everyone over the line, medics were on hand and worn out and broken triathletes being picked up off the floor..it was like a scene from a movie, as if we had just got out of a plane crash!! The winning male completed this in 8 hours 15 minutes. In Roth, Germany, on the same day, the World Record had been broken at a time of 7 hours 41 minutes. Roth is one of the fastest courses. Only the week before in Klagenfurt, Austria, the World Record had been broken in a time of 7 hours 45 minutes. When the Ironman first started in 1978 the target time was 24 hours..only about 15 years ago it was sub 12 hours….

I vowed to myself as I gathered myself at the finish, I would never do such a ridiculous endurance challenge ever again, but needless to say, I am already entered for the next one in Austria in July 2012, a much flatter and faster bike course. There is so much I learned from this race, I will be even better prepared for the next one, and the (healthy!) addiction is indescribable.

So, what was my target time?! My dream was sub 10 hours, but I didn’t fully appreciate how tough the bike course was; I was very happy with the swim, and run, but really need to be hitting 3:30 for the marathon leg. I was much slower on the run so this is by far my weakest discipline. I wanted to come within 15% of the winning time for my age category, which is dead on 10 hour 30, so I was only 10 seconds outside this….not too bad! Would my time have been different had I not worried for over 9 hours as to whether I had been disqualified? Most probably, but maybe I would have pushed harder and blown up….I just could have done with far more endorphins. If I hadn’t had the penalty and the worry, maybe 10 hours would have been possible…so many ifs….

So, huge thanks to all of you who sent messages of good luck, and for messages during and after the event – it is incredible what this means and helped me get through the dark moments.

Sorry this blog has turned into a long one, I have tried to keep it short, and could have gone on forever, but I will save all that for the pub! Now that’s a place I have not been to in a very long time!

The oldest competitor was born in 1937, and finished in just under 16 hours. There is no excuse for not doing an Ironman!! Food for thought….?!
Max/Iain

*Photo’s of Iain Maxwell and team buddy Paul Ward – Click to enlarge*

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