Jul 21, 2023
My Ironman Switzerland was never going to be fast: The bike has a lot more climbing than I’ve raced before, I hadn't raced in five years, my job made it hard to train, … and then Switzerland came under a heat wave. So, two kilometers into the marathon, it was clear that I would not be able to sustain my initial running pace, even though it was a lot more conservative than normal. In fact, two kilometers into the marathon, it looked like it was going to be a very, very long afternoon …
My last race was IMTX 2018. Since then, I moved to a different country (continent, in fact) and got a new job that is fascinating but also rather demanding. The result was a five-year hiatus in all things competitive except for a couple of running races in 2019. Being at the beginning of July, IMCH isn’t ideally timed, coming right after IMD’s flagship program and what is usually a very busy spring at school, but it is my least-worst option of timing for racing.
Training-wise, I re-started working with François last September and had a good beginning of the year, with a solid foundation in January. Then work made February and March more difficult. April had a ten-day family trip, which meant that my build got delayed some more. And when I got back from that, I got Covid; yay!
Luckily Covid was gone in just a few days with no lingering effects and what followed was a string of training weeks like I have never had before—four successive weeks in the 22h-to-25h range. Working with Christie on my nutrition meant I was able to integrate that training far better than I have ever had, so things looked positive, even though I was just running out of time for accumulating training ahead of the race. So, when work finally calmed down in the last days of June, the plan was for one final push ahead of a very short taper.
… and that’s when I got sick. Another bout of Covid ten days before the race would mean no racing. Luckily, my tests came back negative one after the other and after a few days off, I was able to move again. Not at 100%—in fact, even on race day, a week later, I wasn’t at 100%—but happy to be racing.
I made my way to Thun two days before race day where I met my buddy Fred who had traveled all the way from the US to crew for the race (and do a few things in Europe but I like to think he came primarily for the race 😉). Fred and I have a history of crewing for each other—he crews for me a lot more than I crew for him so it’s not a balanced history, but it’s a history—so it was nice to go through the race prep with him.
Soon enough it was time to go to bed ahead of race morning and in the things-you-never-hear series, I had an excellent night, sleeping eight hours and waking up rested. I also had good carb loading in the days leading to the race … although I might have overdone loading in the early hours before the swim, which would come to haunt me on the bike.
Swim – 1h26
Fred and I made our way to the swim start’s dramatic backdrop. Not having swum much over the past five years and being a slow swimmer to start with, I self seeded in the 1h15-to-1h25 group. There was a lot of wind and the water was choppy. The pros started at 6:30 and the first age groupers were on their way by 6:40. I was in there a few minutes later. The waters were somewhat similar to my training grounds in Lake Geneva’s in terms of transparency which is wonderful after years of competing in Houston’s murky waters where you can’t even see your hand, let alone the heels that are about to smash your nose! I picked up a pair of feet and found my rhythm, nice and easy, as planned. No easy access to a pool in Lausanne means that I did most of my prep on a Vasa machine at IMD's gym. That has helped me keep high elbows, and that's what I focused on during the swim.
Early morning on the race line. Thun, July 9, 2023. Photo credit: Fred Houville.
Even though it wasn’t a mass start–we were released five at a time every five seconds—the swim was rather physical for the first half hour. It looked like a lot of slower swimmers self seeded ahead and passing them meant frequent contact. The choppy water was also not ideal, but overall all went fine. We turned the second corner buoy after what felt a little longer than I would have expected, and shortly after we turned the third corner buoy, starting our way back home in the one-loop swim. This is where the course started to feel long, really long. Passing buoys, I paid attention to their numbering, 12 … 13 … 14. I figured they might be spaced every 200m but when 19 came and went with the end nowhere in sight, something was clearly off.
A quick look at my Polar as I exited the swim course showed 1h26 and … 4,400m. My watch eventually crashed, so I don’t have the data for my race day, but the slow swim times were generalized, from the top pros going 52 minutes instead of their normal 47 to the overall stats for the field. In fact, I was speaking with a pro after the race who swum 60 minutes in lieu of his usual 50. My guess is the course was long by at least 10%, but this being Ironman, an organization notoriously terrible at admitting mistakes, we’ll never know!
Bike – 5h44 – 175W AP, 193W NP
My first transition was slow. I blame the absence of strippers! A first for me at full-distance races, but maybe that’s the new norm worldwide, or maybe it’s just that Switzerland doesn’t like strippers the way the US do. Anyway, it took a bit of time to get out of the wetsuit and gear up for the bike.
The bike course is two loops of 90 km. The beginning of the first loop was rather busy as I had exited the water in the thick of the field but after a while things spaced out. The nice part with climbing is that the drafting is a lot less relevant than in other races, such as IMTX’s regular draft fests.
Not much time in aero position; ah, well… Thun, July 9, 2023. Photo credit: Sportograf.com.
After passing the first aid station I began having GI issues, so I figured I’d stop at the next aid station where we were told there would be facilities. But that one came and went without me noticing any facilities. By then my stomach was so painful that I couldn’t drink or eat much. That was not sustainable, particularly so early in the day. I stopped at the next station taking whatever time was needed, and luckily life was much better after that.
The bike’s second loop was a lot quieter; as everyone had settled in their pace the passing became much more sporadic. But as the day progressed, the sun was getting serious and it was clear that it would be an extremely hot day. I made my way back to T2 on the slower side of my predicted time feeling a little weak but functional. 7h in my day, that’s when things got seriously challenging.
Run – 3h45
The run is usually when I make up the day, usually finishing in the top of the age group at around 3h12 – 3h20. Well, not this time. From exiting the second transition, it was clear that I'd be slow. My GI issues for the first 50 km of the bike created a hole that I didn’t quite fill. Furthermore, by now, we were in the thick of the heat, with temperatures around 35 degrees and it only took a few minutes to start overheating.
The plan that François and I devised was to start slow (5min/km) and gradually accelerate. After the first two kilometers on pace—or slightly faster, in fact, at 4:48—it was clear that I needed to slow down. So I took it easier and walked every aid station with a ritual: ice in front of my jersey, ice in the back, ice in the cap, water, coke, water. Flavor fatigue had settled in by now, so taking gels wasn’t much of an option.
Getting it done. Thun, July 9, 2023. Photo credit: Fred Houville.
The first third of the marathon is always the same: Get some kilometers behind you, get the job done. The more kilometers behind you, the more the run looks like a regular Sunday run. Maybe the logic is flawed, but it works for me. However, IMCH's run was a particularly challenging one, with the kilometers feeling extremely slow. Having learned from my one DNF in 2015 I would not quit as long as continuing was actually a choice—but I really didn’t see an end to this day. Eight kilometers in I was in a very dark place.
This is were Fred's presence was an absolute boost! The dude is a master at reading the course and finding me. He had found me after the swim (“I’ll be the guy with a dark wetsuit and a green cap, among the other 1,800 fellas with dark wetsuits and green caps” yet, somehow, he finds me), after T1, after the first bike lap, at the end of the bike leg, and after T2. But now he would pop up and down along the three-lap run course, and I ended up hearing his encouragements multiple times in the afternoon. What an amazing support!
Walking all aid stations meant that my pace slowly faded to 5:10 min/km and, eventually stabilized at 5:20 min/km, but that’s all I could muster. I defaulted to the faster non-DNF pace I could hold, and I’m fairly confident that that was that.
Having ignored Christie’s guidance to eat salt on the bike (because it wasn’t convenient and I have never needed it anyway and my stomach felt bad and a half-dozen other excuses), I began cramping … in my right arm. So I added bananas to my ice-ice-ice-water-coke-water aid-station routine and hoped for the best.
Eventually, I made the right turn into the finishing chute for my slowest marathon run in forever. 3h45, slow but done. That brought the day to 11h05.
Last time I raced was IMTX, I finished in 9h09. That was good enough for 18th in my age group. This time was a gentleman’s 11h05 which was good enough for … 18th in my age group and 179 overall, out of a total field of 1,292 (Ironman reports starter figures, not registered figures, which I find misleading since part of the challenge is actually make it to the start line). Good enough for me. Oh, and with a larger age group and roll down, that meant qualifying for the world championship. I declined the spot but it was nice to be offered one … for the first time since I started racing long-distance tris in 2009.
What went well / what I would change
Maybe a useful way to think of performance in racing is to see it as preparation (building potential) times execution (a factor between 0 and 1). Looking back, I’m extremely happy with both; I did what I could.
On the prep side, I don't see how I could have added more potential given the challenges in the weeks leading up to the race.
On the execution side, I don't get the full multiplier. Maybe just a 0.9 because I should have done better with following the nutrition plan. (My overall nutrition for the day was: Two Maurten solid bars ahead of the race sipping on a 160 drink; 3 bottles of Maurten 320 on the bike with cola gums and four Sponser gels (a couple with caffein); a couple of Maurten gels on the run with coke and maybe 1.5 banana. Additional water on the bike—maybe four bottles—and the run. For the next race, I'll move away from Maurten liquid—I'll try Spenser's—and, of course, add salt tablets to the mix.)
Redundancies were great. I’m glad I brought an extra wetsuit because my Roka ripped open the day before the race. I’m also glad that I had a Garmin on the bike because my Polar watch crashed. Oh, and on Polar being unreliable: It was my first time racing with Polar and my first race ever for which I don’t have data, so I am finished with Polar and in the market for a new watch. Suunto? Apple Watch? If you have recommendations, I'm listening.
Chaffing was bad, maybe a result of wearing a brand new kit. I should have used a kit I had worn a few times.
With limited time to train, it feels that focusing on biking and running was a good choice. I will up the swimming, though, with a combination of Vasa and, in the last few weeks ahead of the race, a couple of open water swims per week (pool remains not really an option).
Deer-in-the-headlights; hard day at the office. Thun, July 9, 2023. Photo credit: Fred Houville.
Now that the insecurities associated with no racing in five years are gone, I’ll focus on mobility and strength over the next few months so that I can have a proper built next spring if I do IMCH 2024.
Self kudos for not stressing out the overall time. Yes, 11h05 is a lot slower than usual, but I feel that any additional pushing would have been detrimental. With an attrition north of 17%—when normal attrition is around 5%—the feeling that the day was brutal wasn’t just a feeling. I’m happy I got the job done. Part of getting old gracefully is to recognize that with ag … with experience racing speeds go down.
Triathlon is a very selfish sport. It requires lots of sacrifices for the whole family, and I’m immensely grateful to Leslie for letting me invest in it so much during months on hand. In fact, for the past several months, my life has been work and train, that's it. So, now, I get to spend time with my wonderful wife!
I’m also grateful to François and Christie for their guidance. You've been wonderful at keeping me in check, and I look forward to continuing working with you both!
Fred, you’re a bloody rock star!! Tri-ing is so much more fun with your support! Thanks for making the trip.
Thanks also to the colleagues at work, with a particular shout out to Stéphane Fondement, Fred, Amit, and Sarah. You might not realize how much a simple word of encouragement can help, but it does.