The perfect first Ironman 70.3 for Jessica

Ironman 70.3: Rapperswil-Jona, Switzerland. June 2, 2019

Race Reporter: Jessica


First, the good news: I did it. We did it. The Rapperswil-Jona, Switzerland 70.3 Ironman is done.

Now, for the bad news: … wait, there is none. As a first-time half-iron(wo)maner, I knew I could expect race day to be well organized and mildly glorious, but I never thought the whole experience, from our arrival in the area a few days prior to our departure Monday morning, would be quite so outstanding. What follows is a race report where I talk a little about the actual course and a lot about all the of the feeling before, during and after it. The conclusion, for those eager to get to the point, is that this race is incredible, and I highly recommend it.

* Pre-Race*

The race took place on Sunday, but our voyage began at 11 am on Thursday morning when Luis, Natacha (his wife), Ruby (their daughter) and I trundled down Boulevard Diderot on our way to Gare de Lyon. Our caravan, which included two rolling bike bags, a stroller, three backpacks and a magnificently large suitcase — it turns out, 11-month-olds require a lot of gear for a four-day weekend — made its way aboard the TGV Lyria to Zurich. From Zurich, we rented a seven passenger van to haul our load and drove south towards Wald, about 20 minutes by car from the race site in Rapperswil-Jona. We had time for a quick run in the evening before heading to bed.

Friday morning, the weather was fine (25° C and beautifully sunny) so we decided to go for a swim and give our wetsuits a go. Luis, the pro that he is, was well-prepared for lake swimming and had already climbed into his suit a few times this season. I, the amateur that I am, had not (1). Our 1 30-minute paddle helped me get acclimated to the cold and work on my breathing and heart rate. I’m a strong swimmer — it’s my favorite of the three sports — but I find that being out in open water is always disconcerting, so it was particularly important for me to get some practice before the big day (2). By the end of our swim, I had relaxed. My uncomfortably tight wetsuit started to feel less like a straight jacket and more like a sensory deprivation chamber (in a good way).

After our swim, on Luis’ suggestion, we headed into Rapperswil-Jona to register. Although registration would be open again on Saturday — when we’d have to come back anyway to check in our bikes and attend a “mandatory” briefing — there were fewer people on Friday which, for a newbie like me, made the site seem less intimidating. We flew through, collecting our wristbands, papers and half-ironman backpacks. We checked out the transition zone and ogled at the merchandise on sale in the Ironman village (3). I left feeling nervous, but excited. Like I was slightly out of my depths but in good hands and more or less capable of conquering the challenge I’d set out for myself.

On Saturday, the weather was once again on our side. After breakfast, Luis and I took a short, one hour ride. The bike portion of the Rapperswil-Jona race is known for its incredible beauty, and its endless hills. Over 90km, we’d gain 900m in elevation. While I’d “trained” a bit on a spin bike during the previous three months, it was really important for me to get out, experience the terrain and make sure my bike had survived the journey (she did great).

We went into Rapperswil-Jona later that afternoon and, after enduring an unfortunate amount of traffic, decided we’d use public transport to commute on race day (4). The Ironman site was much busier than the day before, filled with incredibly fit human beings and really fancy bicycles. I kept gawking about, looking for someone “normal” whose ride resembled my own, who seemed to be doing this for the first time, but I found no such being. Luis reminded me that I’d see them on the course and that, in any case, this was a race against myself and not against anyone else (he was right) (5).

We checked our bikes in, received our trackers and made it to the briefing (30 minutes late). The organizers explained the course in detail. There would be a rolling, dive-in swim start, with departures arranged by expected completion time as opposed to gender. Lake Zurich was in pristine condition — a little bit cold, but no colder than our test lake from the previous morning — and the out-and-back course would be very well marked with numerous, large buoys. The bike course, two laps on a 45km course, had a few tricky passes where aerobars were forbidden. The team paid special attention to point these out, showing short videos of each pass so we’d know what to expect. The run, again two laps, would be well staffed with volunteers, aid stations and lots of food. “For our European athletes,” the announcer said, “we know you’ve had a cold winter and that spring basically arrived yesterday. It’s going to be 24° tomorrow, but it will feel like Hawaii. We’ve brought in ice for you.” This wasn’t surprising — I had been checking the weather forecast before our departure from Paris — but it hit me at that moment that “hot” when you’re strolling around a Swiss resort town and “hot” when you’re starting a half-marathon at midday, were two different things. By the end, I was intimidated but resigned to my fate (is that the same as excited?) and very happy to have a seasoned pro by my side.

Back to Wald, we met my parents at our BnB and bought some pasta. My mom, having just gotten off a flight from New York, made us dinner. My dad reviewed our race itinerary, plotting out where he and our crew would stop throughout the day to cheer us on. Luis suggested we get up between 5 and 5h30 to be able to eat without rushing and make our 6h24 train into the city. I probably (definitely) pouted at the early call time but eventually agreed because, as I’ve said and will continue to say, he was right. Once I’d eaten as much pasta as I could, I took some deep breaths and went to bed around 22h. (6)

*Race Day Prep*

The next morning, it was race day. Up at 5h15, I drank some coffee with milk and managed to get down two pieces of bread with butter (7) . We rolled out at 6h, having packed our bags the nightbefore (8). Our train departed promptly at 6h24 (because, Switzerland) and we arrived in Rapperswil- Jona 10 minutes later. After a quick walk, we entered the transition zone. To my delight, it was relatively uncrowded, although this would change quickly over the course of the next hour.

I checked my bike and tire pressure. I opened my blue (bike) and red (run) transition bags, prepping the food I planned to bite into every 20 minutes (9). I practiced coming out of the swim and bike portions — Where would I go? What were my markers? — knowing I would be disoriented during the transitions. Next a trip to the bathrooms(10) before joining up with Luis again. We put on sunscreen (thank goodness for sunscreen) and reviewed some remaining details.

Finally, it was time to drop off our white (street clothes bag) bags and put on our wetsuits. Luis and I had similar swim start times, so we went off together to the pool to warm up. I was quite happy to get in the cool water, swim a few laps and cool down (the sun was already out and blazing, which made pacing around like a penguin a little uncomfortable). Just before 8h30, we finally parted ways. Luis ran down to the docks to start and I, like a young guppy, watched as my guardian fish swam away. I was officially on my own.

*The Swim*

A few minutes later, the announcer asked all blue caps, my color, to assemble at the dock. I placed myself towards the front, expecting to overtake some members of the previous group. We stood in place for about 60 seconds before a volunteer waved us through, inviting us to walk down the jetty and dive into the water. It was strange to be invited — I had inspected someone to scream, “Get in!” — but it was a good reminder that I was here on my own free will. This was my challenge and my choice. With that, I looked around, thought about how lucky I was to be swimming in such a beautiful place, put my goggles on and dove in!

I don’t have to much to say about the next 32 minutes other than that I loved every second of it. The swim was M-A-G-N-I-F-I-C-E-N-T. The rolling start limited over crowding, the yellow buoys offered excellent guidance, the water temperature was by no means unbearable. I was able to overtake people without any difficulty and to be honest, none of it felt like work. I kept realizing, over and over again, that I was living an incredible moment — I was swimming (in Lake Zurich!!) surrounded by mountains and sunshine and hundreds of other looney people who decided that this was a cool thing to do on a Sunday morning in June.

As I approached the end of the swim, I started to think about my transition, repeating the steps I’d take: focus on climbing out of the water, once on level ground start running, put goggles on forehead, un-velcro my neck, pull up zipper, arms out. Keep running. The runway between the lake and the transition zone was a bit long, but it gave me time to get my bearings and enjoy the crowds screaming, “hop, hop hop!” (11) I quickly found my red bag and headed into the women’s changing tent. My hands and legs were shaking — normal for me — which made it difficult to grip my wetsuit and pull it over my ankles. I ate a bit of my unwrapped Cliff bar, which helped me to focus and gain back some control over my fingers. I managed to quickly slip on my biking jersey, socks, shoes and all the rest. Stuffing all my wet items into my transition bag, I checked that my helmet was buckled and my race number was facing backwards before darting (OK, slowly running) out of the transition tent. I found my bike, somehow got on it and started riding.

*The Ride*

The bike course, as I mentioned earlier, was hilly — very hilly — but we worked into it after 10km of more-or-less flat and uninteresting, perfectly paved road (12). Witches hill, our first vertical  challenge, came up after a sharp left. I was surprised and relieved to find that I’d already ridden steeper inclines. If I hadn’t failed on those, I wouldn’t fail on this (13). Much of the course was lined with supporters, and the uphill sections were especially well populated. It felt really encouraging to see so many people cheering us on and to hear so many more say, “Go, Jessica!” (pro-tip: when you go as slowly as I do, the spectators have an easier time reading the name printed on your dossard… and I suspect they feel a little bad for you).

Witches hill came and went and with it, the remains of any urban landscape. I was now out in the beautiful Swiss country side and would remain there for the next 20km or so. The sun was shining,no clouds in sight. I was pedaling through a valley, surrounded by spectacular hills, cows (so many cows!) and mountains. The roads were totally free of traffic and I felt like a queen. Much to my surprise, that feeling continued as I started the 5km ascent. It was long, but manageable (14). In fact, I really liked it.

On the Rapperswil-Jona race website, Ironman had advertised a “near-indefinite descent,” a claim that turned out to be true. The long climb gave way to kilometers of rolling down hill, which gave my legs lots of time to recover from the previous strain and gave me time to enjoy the scenery. There were a few more reasonable uphills and downhills, but soon enough I found myself back at the bottom, going out for the next 45km leg. The second loop, in all honesty and without surprise, was physically harder than the first. The 5km ascent felt much longer. The downhills felt much shorter. The final stretch of flat ground leading back to the transition zone felt ever more out of reach. But somehow I did it, greatly encouraged by the “Luis and Jessica Allstar Support Crew” who I spotted on one of the final hills (15). By the end, I was definitely happy to be off my bicycle, but I had maintained a good feeding schedule and had managed to stay hydrated. I had to pee and was definitely wobbly on my legs, but my worst fear — not being able to finish the race because of fatigue or a mechanical issue on the bicycle — was now behind me.

*The Run*

Once in transition, I docked my bike and found my red bag. I changed, made a quick stop in the port-o-potties (far worse for the wear), and began my second-ever 21km run. At 1pm. In the blazing, 28° C sunshine. But again, just a normal Sunday.

Luis had warned me that I might feel a little sick coming out of the ride and that I shouldn’t rush to start running. In reality, I’m not sure I could have rushed even if I had wanted to. My heart was beating very fast, and I knew I’d have trouble with the run if I didn’t calm down a little bit. The first few kilometers passed very slowly. I took ample advantage of the cooling sponges, water and ice cubes. I walked on and off. It occurred to me that Luis (who perhaps had already finished?) and our support team would have to wait an awfully long time for me to finish this thing.

Just after the third kilometer, I ripped open an apple-flavored gel and took it down with some water. Caffeine gels have saved me from zonking before — on one occasion, they brought me back from the dead — and I expected to feel equally as refreshed this time around. Unfortunately, the impact was mild. While the gel definitely helped — my step got a little lighter — my fatigue remained. I was more than four hours in and a little Maltodextrin wasn’t going to turn me into Usain Bolt.

Despite my tortoise-like speed, my attitude remained positive. I spotted my parents twice on the run course, and admired the city’s charming architecture. Even after midday, many people were still out on the streets cheering us on. I would have liked some more shade — any shade, actually, would have been nice — but what can you do? Aside from the heat, I couldn’t have asked for better conditions.

I finished the first 10km loop confident that I’d (eventually) make it through the second. I took advantage of the aid stations, tapped the hands of children on the sidelines and smiled when folks shouted, “USA! USA!” I was so tired, and moving so slowly, but I was really happy and having a great time. Near the 17 km marker, it occurred to me that I was doing a half Ironman. That this — this big race that I had been planning for and talking about for months — was happening and that I was going to accomplish an important goal. This thought stayed with me the rest of the way.

*The Finish*

Passing the 20th kilometer marker, I realized that this race would soon be done. I could hear the announcer yelling off finishers’ names in the distance. I turned left and a blue carpet appeared beneath my feet. This was the final 200m stretch. Holy shit. I was aware of fans cheering from the  bleachers but I have no memory of seeing them. A loud voice said my name as I was meters from the finish line. Crossing underneath the arch and over the final timing mat, I was genuinely and utterly shocked that it was over, as if I hadn’t had 70.3 miles to prepare for exactly that reality. My shock gave was to uncontrollable tears of joy and relief. I ran to hug Luis — clean and patiently waiting after having finished his race two hours earlier — and then to my parents who had fought through the crowd to greet me at the finish line. It was a wonderful moment.

In the end, it took me 6h41 to complete my first half Ironman. I had hoped to do it in under 6h30, but I’m quite pleased with my time given the conditions. There are huge areas for improvement — simply training more would be a good start — but the important thing is that I proved to myself that I could set a goal and accomplish it, no matter how fou fou that goal proved to be. I’m by no means a triathlon aficionado (I know very little about the sport and generally prefer to talk about other things) but every season it serves as an empowering and educational tool: a great way to push myself and build my confidence. The whole experience was incredibly empowering and I couldn’t have asked for a better long-distance race, support team or mentor. I’d highly recommend this course to anyone crazy enough to try!

1/ Being inadequately prepared and uncharacteristically lucky is a general theme in this race report. 1
2/ Another important thing to practice: wetsuit removal. Running out of the lake, we practiced transitioning. Luis demonstrated a quick- 2 release, leg-flipping maneuver which quickly freed his ankle from his sopping suit. When I attempted to mimic this gesture, the results were… less successful. On race day, I decided, I’d use my hands (sous entendu: like a normal person).
3/ In all honesty, I more than ogled. The next day, I walked away with a magnet, keychain, two hats and a couple of nutrition products. If 3 I’ve learned anything over the last few days, it’s that marketing is a very real force in the world and that I’m 100%, unequivocally a
sucker for the Ironman brand. 
4/Rapperswil-Jona is incredibly well connected to surrounding regions by bus and train (their suburban train lines put the RER to shame) 
5/ so we’d have no trouble getting our bikes aboard on Sunday morning.
6/ Luis being right about everything related to triathlons is another theme in this race report. I was naturally pretty tired because I’d been consuming less coffee than usual in the previous two days. Sleep came easily 
7/ In 2016, Chris Jamieson hosted a discussion on proper race nutrition. He mentioned that if you weren’t used to eating so many carbs, the load up leading to race day might prove challenging. He was right. It was difficult to eat pasta nights in a row and big quantities of bread every the morning. By race day morning, I couldn’t do it any more. Chris told us to listen to our bodies, which I did. I’m still super grateful for this discussion he hosted. It’s proven very helpful in each of my races.
8/ Pack all of your things ahead of time. Practice taking them in and out. Put on your tri-suit and wetsuit and goggles and swim cap. Take it off. Put on your bike outfit. All of it. It’s the best trick, I’ve found, for not forgetting anything.
9/ In this case, prepping means unpacking my energy bars and kneading them into larger portions that would be easily accessible during my ride.
10/ a detail I’m only including because I found that, in general, the facilities were in great condition and very well-placed throughout the transition zone and along the course.
11/ The Swiss-German (and very endearing) equivalent of “Go, go, go!”
12/ The whole route was perfectly paved. Switzerland is amazing. 
13/ This is something I said out loud to myself. I spoke a lot to myself during the ride. I was originally worried that I’d get bored being out for over 3h30 on my own, but it turns out I’m an excellent conversation partner for myself.
14/ I’m no good on flat stretches, and I cling to my breaks when scurrying down a hill, but I feel relatively confident pedaling upwards (the spin classes, it turns out, were good for something).
15/ I don’t recommend going into a 90km ride with as little preparation as I had. If nothing else, it was a major and unnecessary source of anxiety prior to race day. Nonetheless, I was relieved to find that despite my lack of training, I was able to do it and really enjoy myself.