First Ironman 70.3 – Jonkoping, Sweden

It’s a bit long but hopefully it will give a small insight into my experience of doing a first 70.3 and in a different country. Reading other race reports in the past really helped to inspire me and to give me helpful tips so hopefully this will help someone out there.

The 7 days leading up to the event was a bit stressful despite my planning ahead to avoid that. I saw a few club members at the lake 7 days before the event and was feeling pretty good after my last long swim with only gentle sessions planned before flying to Sweden on the Friday. By that Sunday night however, I was in a bit of a panic as my knee developed what felt like an impingement when I straightened it causing a fair bit of pain. The crazy thing was I only did it getting up out of a chair. I’ve had various old rugby injuries to contend with since I started triathlon training a couple of years ago and Gordon at the Bosworth Clinic has been a bit of a star getting me through each one. He managed to squeeze me in to see him and confirmed the problem was effectively a ligament running across my knee that was catching on the bone. It popped back into place and out again at random times, but he covered all other bases and gave me some pointers on what I could do to minimise the occurrences. The rest of the week went according to plan but with me being paranoid about how I was sitting and standing. From then on it was at the back of my mind that if it popped out at the wrong time I wouldn’t be able to run on it.

The next bit of stress was when I tried to do online flight check in for Moira and me and our luggage and bike box. Despite booking it including the bike box months before, there was a problem whereby BA were saying that we needed to phone them 72 hours before to confirm we were taking a bike box and the dimensions. Be warned if you’re booking on BA as when I’d flown with EasyJet there was no such requirement. I had a nervy couple of hours before they phoned back to say it was all ok.

On Friday the flight and transfer went according to plan and we checked into the hotel and went to Ironman registration and to buy a couple of things from the Ironman shop in case they sold out later in the weekend. Putting the bike back together is always a bit stressful and time consuming for me as I’m not mechanically minded at all. There was however a free mechanic service at the athlete’s village and they gave it the once over after I’d done it. Be aware that it’s a good idea to double check what day you need to go through registration as I would have had a problem if I’d planned to fly in on the Saturday.

On Saturday I went for a short ride to make sure the bike felt ok and to give my legs a bit of a spin. Sure enough my knee problem returned and then rectified itself an hour later. Not much I could do at that stage a part from pray it didn’t happen again. You had to rack your bike on the Saturday as well as pack a bag you are given for the bike transition and one for the run transition and store them on your numbered peg in the transition area. It felt very strange not laying everything out by my bike and it meant my usual check list had to be adapted to make sure I had everything in the right place. I then walked the transition route I would take for each bit including picking up the bag and going to the naked changing area. Any wardrobe malfunction which lead to anyone getting an eye full could lead to disqualification and I decided I’d change into proper bib shorts rather than the Tri suit for the run. I also took photos of land marks and views as I’d be seeing it on the day heading for my bike and bags so that I could visualize it later.

Transition was really when it hit home that I was really doing this. There was an amazing buzz with over 2000 athletes taking part, and everything felt very professional and a bit scary. The race briefing was in a local lecture theatre with 3 time slots. I went to the international one and it was amazing to see and hear so many people from around the world as far away as New Zealand. They talked about amongst other things the heroes hour, 1 hour before the cut off time of 8 hours 30 mins. I sat there thinking based on my training times that I should be finishing in about 7 hours 15 to 7 hours 30mins so I won’t be finishing then but I’d definitely stay to cheer others on. Little did I know.

The morning of the race was as expected a nerve-racking experience, but my knee was ok. I had my headphones in and walking towards transition I had goose bumps seeing hundreds of competitors making the same journey. It had been a very warm sunny day on Saturday but as forecast it was now only 16 degrees and predicted to be a cold start with rain showers which soon arrived. My English weather conditions were ideal preparation! Due to the weather they decided no one would be allowed in the warm up lake as they were afraid of a risk of hyperthermia as competitors waited in the moving line for the rolling start. That meant no time to acclimatise to the water temperature as I had been used to doing in my lake swims or any opportunity to let water in to the wetsuit to help final fit adjustments. We arranged for Moira to hand me a large plastic bottle of warm water as I got near to the start and I poured that in my wetsuit. The idea was you self-seeded in the queue joining it at the sign closest to your estimated swim finish time. Once you got to the front 4 competitors started at a time at 1 second intervals on the starting ramp.

Hitting the water was a bit of a shock to the system but I got into a rhythm as soon as I could. I soon realised that visibility wasn’t as good as in the lake at home (although it had looked very clean and clear by the water’s edge) so you couldn’t easily see feet in front of you to aim for or to see bodies next to you to even try to aim for a hip to draft off. The other problem was the swim area was so wide and the marker buoys seemed like they were very spread apart that it was easy to take the wrong line and hard to get back onto it with so many bodies. By the end I’d swam about 200m extra and somehow taken 8 mins longer than my training swims.

Coming out of the swim was amazing. With about 600m to run to transition, the route was lined with spectators cheering as you ran on a red carpet. Then came the challenge of trying to think clearly about your transition practice walk through and to get the order right and not to forget anything by the time you got to the bike so that you didn’t have to go back to your bag. Quick change and loo stop then grabbed my bike and set off. I took longer than I expected in T1 but I had already decided that comfort on the bike would trump saving a couple of minutes. I mounted a good 20 meters past the mount line to avoid the congestion. Moira told me later that one competitor crashed within 5 meters of the mount line and his race was over.

After about 10k I realised my Tri bars were moving and somehow I hadn’t tightened a bolt correctly. I pulled over and used my multi tool to fix it being thankful I’d noticed before it had more serious consequences. The bike course was hillier than I’d realised compared to looking at the graphs and you tube videos and by 30k I was feeling it. For the first section it seemed to either be up hill or flat and none of the downhill where I can use my weight advantage. Although I hated the steeper hills in the Portugal training camp I loved the long downhill sections where I could blast past a few people. At the briefing on Saturday I was concerned about how strict the drafting rules were in terms of having to drop back if you were overtaken. I needn’t have worried as when each of the hundreds of riders overtook me they seemed to not just overtake but disappear quickly into the distance.

As the weather started to get a lot warmer too, and I realised that I’d maybe got my nutrition calculations wrong. I had 2 large 1.5 litre bike bottles on my bike which contained my electrolyte solution and energy source which had been fine in training but when the weather got hotter I realised I was in danger of running out before the end. In hindsight I should have fitted another bottle cage and had a 3rd bottle of mix. The plan was to use my first gel 45 mins before I got off the bike and then use gels on the remainder of the run and I didn’t want to change strategy at that point.

By 50k I was feeling more knackered than normal when it started to rain again. I just had to tell myself that everyone was in the same situation. I ran through my little phrases or songs I’d used in training for motivation from rugby days or advice from AVTC coaches and members that kept me going for the last 40k. The sun came out again and it was almost too hot again but the lakes and forest scenery were stunning. It was also great in the last 20k when a few riders more riders shot past me and shouted my name (it was on my race number) and some encouragement.

Eventually I got to transition before the cut off time which was a relief and it was great to see Moira as I arrived. After a change into my AVTC Tri suit it was out onto the run and I was running at my planned pace and feeling pretty good, despite the sun being pretty hot by then. I was glad of the cold-water mist machines at the water aid stations and the volunteers all had T-shirt stating what they were offering; water or gels or bananas etc. I was using a run walk strategy which I found in training gave me a faster time for longer distance if I ran at pace 5 mins anything per k and walked at 9mins per k. The run was 3 laps with about a third of it in the town centre which again had hundreds of spectators shouting encouragement and then around a picturesque smaller lake. The run course was a great lay out as although I was way behind many competitors I was still running with them but just a lap or 2 behind. They had a cool band system where on each lap you ran through a funnel and they put a colour stretchy band on you as you ran to denote what lap you were on. By lap two I had slowed a little bit but was feeling good. I saw Moira on each lap and it was also great to hear random spectators call out my name and words of encouragement.

On the last lap (7 km to go) it was a great feeling to know that the next time I passed this point I could turn right, onto the red-carpet finishing route with 200 meters to go. With 3k to go my worst nightmare happened and I started to get cramp in my hamstring. I tried to carry on running but pretty soon that was impossible, and I had to stop to try to stretch it off. By now I was hobbling then walking and stretching hobbling again. Others were running past me and when I got to 2k to go a race official and a medic approached me and asked if I wanted to pull out. I politely told them there was no way I would do that. I was however really worried about physically just not being able to carry on no matter how much I wanted it and then also about the 8 hours 30 cut off time. As I hobble-ran into town with 1k to go and not many competitors on the course I noticed more finishers walking away from the finish who stopped to cheer me on. I didn’t dare look at my watch and just kept trying to move. 600m to go and somehow, I was running more normally not knowing what to expect as I came into the finishing straight and the red carpet. There was a sea of noise and cheers as I turned the corner and heard my name announced. I crossed the line with 8 minutes to spare. What a mix of emotions - relief, pain, disappointment and pride. I’d done it! It was an experience I’ll never forget.

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