Ironman Zurich 2014

I had always seen the Ironman distance as a step too far – juggling a job, family and training being too much. So my departure from full time employment was followed within days by an inscription for Ironman Zurich and signing up to Coach Rich – – basically i had 9 months to prepare – plenty of time!!

At the start i had one eye on the 2hour 20 minutes cut off time for the 3800m swim – of course i can swim but it’s never been pretty or quick. A lot of effort would be needed here. Cycling 180km is long but should be fine and then running a marathon for a man of my running talents – no problem!!!!

The training program started rolling and i was active 6 out of 7 days sometimes twice, not so easy to start with but soon getting up to speed. The local pool became the equivalent of the local pub except the liquid on offer tasted of chlorine (probably drank as much as usual), the roads leading to Thoiry became more familiar and the dog started getting fitter with runs in the forest. The focus that i had from the training plan was really important to me having had 25 years of getting up and going to work i found i needed this activity to keep me sharp.

Luckily the weather was kind for most of the training period, my erstwhile cycle partner and I only had one session where our sense of humour was frozen out of us and otherwise cold weather turned warmer and finally the legs came out and a crisp tan line started to develop.

Along the way a 1:24:00 half marathon was achieved, a week training camp in the Pyrenees saw a bit of an epiphany on my ‘high elbow’, a pretty average sprint tri at versailles and an encouraging half ironman in Deauville. Things were shaping up, i was confident in the swim if not very fast and the other elements seemed strong.

The 6 week countdown commenced. Still some work to do but most is in the bank by now. My main anxiety was still swim related though – i need my wetsuit – the water temperature limit is 24.5 degrees and in 2013 Zurich lake hit 26 degrees on race day!!! i commenced a 3 time per day check on the water temperature – it was creeping up!!

From 4 weeks out i was in Arcachon – a new environment for training was nice and the sea and local lakes allowed more open water practice.

At 2 weeks out Lake Zurich was 23.5 degrees!!!!

My travel plan was to drive on the Thursday before the race to Beaune and continue on Friday morning to Zurich via the airport at Bale to pick up Allie, Florrie and Jago. Stage one was fine apart from the temptations on offer in Beaune (wine capital of Burgundy) – i resisted – honest! The next morning i set off on a virtually empty motorway and was right on schedule with 1 hour to drive when the cars coming in the opposite direction started flashing lights – a few minutes later i stopped 800 metres short of a large plume of smoke – 3 lorries had managed to collide and the motorway was blocked. 2hours 40 minutes later i started the engine again – by this time Allie had taken a bus and a train and was having lunch in Zurich!!

Having arrived and settled in it was over to the race site to collect the numbers and stickers – the good news was a water temperature of 22 degrees – definitely a wetsuit swim. I checked out the swim course which looked reasonable and spent the afternoon saying hello to a few people we knew and chatting to a guy who turned out to be from a few miles away from my home town. Feeling nervous but pleased to be in amongst things. A nice dinner and an early night – Saturday was bike check in day.

Saturday dawned with persistent heavy rain – and that pretty much set in for the rest of the day. Spent the morning in central Zurich a bit of shopping mainly waterproof shoes and jumpers for the under packed optimists in the family. After lunch back to the race site for bike check in – a quick test ride preceded this and all was ok. A massive queue for checkin meant a good 45 minute wait in line. The transition zone was grass and it had soaked up a good amount of water and was already very soft. The bike got its nice yellow coat for the evening and the transition bags where tied up to stop water getting in overnight. A short dip in the water was my last treat before pasta and bed at 10.15 – alarm set for 4.00.

A restless night waiting for the alarm and then down for breakfast – the hotel had spotted the 50 or so triathletes in the hotel and opened up early – i force fed myself a decent breakfast and negotiated a lift with a couple of French guys who i spoken to earlier. We set off for the 20 minute drive at 5.10 and parked in a typically French way close to the race site. The sky threatened rain but it was dry when i did last minute checks.

At 6.45 the professionals kicked the race off, 5 minutes later the first wave of 1.10 swimmers – i held back for the second wave at 6.55. The start soon arrived and i walked across the beach and tried to find a bit of space. These starts are notorious for being a big fight and that’s not what i wanted. Surprisingly within 200 metres i had a nice space (not right at the back) and found good rhythm. I swam a bit wide but sighted the first buoy well and felt very good in the water, the first lap passed quickly and i did the short exit to see the support crew and let them know i felt good before starting the second longer lap. Again i went well, i was actually enjoying the swim, i knew it wasn’t fast but it was comfortable – i was aiming to be under 1.45 and as i exited the water that is exactly what the watch said – pleased.

Transition 1 saw a few extra clothes go on – it was about 17 degrees – so arm warmers made an appearance and my cycle jersey had pockets full of food to supplement the 10 gels already on the bike in water bottles. Shoes and socks on i left the tent to get the bike happy with how things were going.

The first 30 km of the bike is pretty much flat but it was quite boring, no crowds and not anything interesting to break the monotony. It was head down time trialling. After this you head away from the lake and get more variety, villages, climbs, descents and nice crowds. I enjoyed this section although it was actually harder than i expected – the hill they called ’the beast’ was a good 3-4 km of grinding a low gear. I made up a lot of places on the climbs and the descents – surprisingly a lot of people freewheeled the descents and then had no momentum for the flats. At about 70km you are back beside the lake and head back to and past transition in the direction of ‘heartbreak hill’ – a tour de france atmosphere had been created by shuttle bussing all the supporters up the road and the 1.2km was lined with cheering flag wavers. My support crew where in full voice – Jago has been watching the Tour de France and i was worried he may run alongside showing his buttocks but he behaved himself. I t was a fun thing and certainly made the hill pass quicker.

So lap 1 finished in 3.10 – well on target .

Lap 2 is the same route so you know what you are getting. The flat section seemed windier and longer although it probably wasn’t, the hills seemed steeper and the crowds smaller. The worst element is really just the time on the bike. The more sensitive male areas had taken a pounding and you just want to have a little rest!! Of course you just keep going. I was pretty happy with the way i was cycling and still taking positions in the field. A rain shower with about 40km to go made the roads wet for the tricky descent and as i passed through a village the emergency helicopter has landed to take someone off the course – hope they were ok. Back at the lake and the runners are passing at the other side of the road – i still had 15km or so including another taste of Heartbreak hill. It passed without incident and i came the end of the bike feeling like a run if only to change position!!

The bike leg was 6.43 – i wanted sub 6.30 so a little bit over.

Transition went smoothly – and the ran was under way. I slow start and then settled into 5.30 pace and feeling good. Lap 1 was well within schedule, lap 2 much the same to give a half marathon of 1.45 ish.

Lap 3 started with my head saying it was fed up of coke and water and wanted something salty – salty soup and water seemed the right thing and i took this at 2 consecutive aid stations. at about 23 km the wheels fell off!!!!

The next 30 minutes i covered about 2km, fortunately Allie and the kids had moved along the course and found me walking along. I didm’t want to stop but i actually had no idea how i could continue. I needed to cover 18km more and i was empty. Allie gave me a talking to and got me walking again – i was then saved by Red Bull – i hate the taste of this stuff but on the course a promotional tent was handing out shots of the stuff – i forced it down and then forced myself back onto my coke and water routine. Jago ran on the path alongside encouraging me and gradually i got going again. I had let my sugar levels drop and this almost cost me my race.

By the time i entered the final lap i was back to a reasonable shuffle and by the last 3 or 4km i was running around 5.30 again – it was a big lesson.

[cml_media_alt id='3711']Betts[/cml_media_alt]Entering the finish tunnel was an emotional moment – i still get a shiver thinking about it. Finishing an Ironman was my target and it was happening. My time target was past – the 30 minutes of sugar depletion representing the difference! – but i was pleased with what i had achieved. Seeing Allie and the kids at the end for a big hug was my prize – couldn’t wish for anything better.

On reflection an Ironman has 5 elements – the 3 physical ones of swim – bike – run plus nutrition and mental – the latter is difficult to train for when you undertake an Ironman for the first time. At the end i thought ‘i’ve done it – never again’ now 4 days have passed and it seems to be a shame if i don’t use that experience to do a better time……… yes i will do it again – but for now i have some other things to take care of like looking for a job!!!

I have to thank a few people: Greg for swimming tips and lot’s more advice, Sean for the long ride companionship, Luna my running mate, Sandra for the pilates,

My coach for the last 9 months – Rich Laidlow – thanks for everything

And finally Allie, Florrie and Jago – a more supportive family i couldn’t imagine


Paul Betts

(Ex-Expatriés Director)