Racing Thriving Freezing Surviving

No plan survives contact with racing…

The Road to Kona 2016 ended up being more of a winding path with a dead end.

 

Back in October when I was on the verge of starting my quest for Kona points to try and qualify for 2016 I was full of confidence and excitement. I never doubted it would be difficult, but I felt sure that I had a solid plan and a good chance. Thorsten Radde (www.trirating.com) and I had numerous conversations about what would be required and I at least had a far better understanding of the process than in 2015.

My first 70.3 in Turkey went really well (3rd place) – but shortly after I suffered the first of my setbacks in Malaysia. A lack of time to acclimatise and an uber hot day resulted in me overheating and being unable to finish. I was gutted. An opportunity to race Bahrain Middle East Champs 70.3 just a few weeks later gave me a second chance and a 5th place finish there meant I went into an off season “pause” with a good number of points under my belt.

After a few weeks off over Christmas I got straight back into a solid training block leading up to my first race in early May. I knew I was in really good shape – so I was disappointed when I kicked off with a poor performance in Pays D’Aix.

Cold air temperatures and howling wind meant the race organiser took the (right) decision to cancel the swim and make Pays D’Aix a duathlon. We were set off at 1 min intervals on the bike in a time trial start.  I knew from about 5km in that I was not going to have a good day. My legs felt heavy and were tiring really quickly. I worked as hard as I could, but I was way off the pace. Getting off the bike I was greeted by reasonable run legs which was a bit of a surprise. Lack of power output on the bike meant I was quite fresh still. I put together a pretty good run and enjoyed the beautiful run route. Pays D’Aix was a fabulous race and one I would definitely do again (as long as there is a swim!). Probably the best part of the whole weekend was being supported by my brother and his fiancée who made the long trip from Geneva to watch Mark and I race. I was never doing this race for points and there were lots of positives to take away from it.

Three weeks later I was on the start line of Ironman Lanzarote. I loved racing there in 2015, and it made sense to go back to a course that suited me like this one. The team who organise the race are so welcoming and it is a great course. A couple of days prior to the race I was out for a jog and ran past the finish line. I had such an overwhelming feeling of positivity that I was sure I was going to have a great day.  In the end I had a pretty good race – but without the result that I needed. The swim was one of the worst for violence that I have ever experienced. It was a beach start for everyone and the PROs were given no time gap – we were just put at the front of the pack of rabid dogs / age group men! (Mark included). That resulted in a whole hour of being beaten up from all angles and swallowing most of the ocean. Really not my idea of fun. I had a really good bike, a significant improvement from the year before, but it just wasn’t enough for that day. Unfortunately the amount of sea water I had swallowed resulted in an upset stomach and nausea on the bike and I skimped on nutrition. This caught up with me on the run and I was not able to execute the marathon I had the year before. Still, 5th place was not too shabby and there were some excellent performances from the other PRO ladies.

A tough decision followed. Ironman Nice is a race I have always wanted to do and we had it booked as a back-up for Lanza in case of mechanical or illness. Following Lanza, Mark and I took the decision that I should race there anyway. We decided I would treat it as an all or nothing race and just see what I could do.  In the two weeks between Lanzarote and Nice I could have done with just pure recovery. Unfortunately work and my body had other ideas – and I was travelling the country for business and spent two days in bed with a stomach bug. Not ideal.  A cold sore appeared just 2 days before the race so I know I was cutting it fine. But we were already in Nice and it was too good an opportunity to miss. I still think it was the right decision to start and I loved every minute of the race despite having to pull out on the run. I felt great on the bike and for 20km on the run – but it all caught up with me then and we decided I should save my legs for the next race.  I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed. It was really galling to be in such a great position for 8.5 hours of racing only to have it all blow up. But that’s Ironman. It can be so humbling.

So the main focus for points was then on Ironman Frankfurt. As a regional championship with double points we knew this would be a gamble. Double points races bring with them stacked fields as well. But there is no point in avoiding racing the best athletes and I knew if I wanted a slot at Kona I would have to step up and prove that I was worth it with a top 7 finish at Frankfurt. Training had been going well and I was confident that I could at least give it a good shot. It was my last chance and I knew going into the race that I had left myself a lot to do.

All races have their story, and everyone knows that racing Ironman is tough. However, Frankfurt 2016 will definitely remain etched on my memory as a fight for survival. WTC rules currently state (and I hope that they will be changed following this race) that if water temperatures are above 21.9 degrees then the PRO race will be non-wetsuit. I believe that this rule is to match ITU rules for standard distance triathlon. I believe this rule needs to be reviewed. Air temperatures on the morning of the race were as low as 10 degrees and overcast with forecasts for showers during the day and a maximum temperature of 19 degrees. Standing on the beach with the other PRO ladies just a few minutes before the start I noticed we were all shivering and most of us were still wearing long sleeved tops over our swinskins. I had been in the water briefly for a “warm up” – mainly so I didn’t get the heart stopping feeling when I hit the water for the first time in the race.  It had only made me colder, despite trying to jump about after to get warm.  I focussed on my race strategy and put it out of my mind – surely once the gun went I would be fine?

The swim in Frankfurt is 1500m before an Australian exit, and then a longer 2300m loop. I was having a reasonably good swim for the first 800m or so – but even by the time we got to the 1500m point I had started to lock up. I could feel my body temperature dropping as the cold water contact with my skin took effect and by about 2000m I started to get cramps in my calfs and quads. I stopped kicking in the hope that the cramps would be alleviated, which they were, but not kicking only served to ensure my body temperature lowered even faster. It was a bit of a catch 22. I knew I had to swim hard to try and stay warm, but my body had other ideas and was basically telling me to stop being stupid and have a warm cup of tea and a hot bath. Sadly those are not on offer mid-way through an IM swim. I guess determination kept me going but coming into T1 I knew I was in a bad way. I couldn’t really think straight so I just went onto auto pilot and transitioned onto the bike leg. I am pretty sure if anyone medically trained had stopped and checked me over I would have been delirious and probably have been pulled from the race. Apparently spectators near to Mark were wondering out loud how on earth I was going to run a marathon when I could barely run in T1.

My data for the first hour of the bike reveals that shivering and involuntary cold convulsions are not good for power output. Thinking back I have no idea what was going through my mind except “it is the same for everyone” – and the hope that I would at some point warm up.  It was still around 0730 in the morning and air temperatures were low and were coupled with wind chill. It is without a doubt the most uncomfortable I have ever been in my life.

After about 1 hour I had dried out and we started the hit the first of a few short hills.  I felt the life come back into my legs as my heart rate climbed and blood returned to the muscles. I was then able to think not just about survival, but about racing. I started to eat, drink and work to try and make my way back into the race. Hats off to the girls at the front end, the conditions were the same for everyone and those girls also had to tough it out. Unfortunately the conditions were too much for some. Not only did world champion Daniella Ryf have to pull out shortly after getting on the bike, but Diana Riesler was taken to hospital with hypothermia and two other female PROs treated for early symptoms.  I sincerely hope this rule is reviewed as a result.

T2 was a bit of a flap. Another PRO had taken my run bag so I was standing around wondering what the hell to do for a couple of minutes before she ran back up transition with it. I am pleased to say not once did the though “yeah I don’t have to run” enter my mind! I was just furious that my race might be over due to lack of run shoes and I was eyeing the nearest volunteer for trainer size. Luckily it didn’t come to that and I was able to calm myself and get out on the run course in the now pouring rain.

I felt good going out on the run, but kept to my given run pace and just tried to relax into it. The Frankfurt run route is well supported, mostly flat and interesting and I enjoyed it. It was great to see friends out supporting, and Mark popping up every few km to give me a yell. I managed to hold a reasonable pace for the majority of the route but the last six miles were painful and slow.  The exposure to the cold conditions had taken it out of me. I crossed the line in 12th place in just over 10 hours – way off my predicted time and a long way from getting enough points to have a chance of 2016 Kona qualification. Congratulations of course to the podium girls, Mel, Katcha and Natascha – I know how hard they must have fought for that.

I had mixed emotions on the red carpet. Finishing an Ironman is never a failure. This sport is so damn tough, and every race has its ups and downs. I was elated to have finished, to have raced through the adversity, and to have given it my all. But of course I was also disappointed. I couldn’t have done anything more in training or in the race and the bottom line is that I just wasn’t good enough this year to get that Kona slot.  It’s incredibly frustrating to know within myself that I have not been able to execute the race I am capable of in the past few crucial months. 

There is a reason I am an engineer in my day job though. I do realism, pragmatism and analysis well. My post-race low was helped enormously by discussions with Mark and also with Thorsten Radde. Every closed door means another opens and I can now focus on the 70.3 World Championships in Australia in September. I am over the moon to have been awarded a slot to race there and it is a fantastic opportunity to stand on the start line with the best ladies in the world.  I am not quite sure yet what that will lead to but in the coming weeks we will reassess and make plans for the rest of the year.  Three full ironman races in six weeks has left me in need of a mid-season break so I will take some time off now to let the body recover/eat cake.

Thanks to all my sponsors and supporters. Without your guidance, help and belief I could not do this sport at this level. Special thanks to David Annett, Ian Freeman and Stephen Haynes for amazing sports therapy treatment and keeping me healthy in body and mind. I am so lucky to have you guys in my “team”. Biggest thanks of all to my greatest fan (feeling is mutual) and partner in crime – Mark – who I refer to as my “strobe light”. He keeps me dancing.

Xhale

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