RG Active Race Team’s Karen and first Ironman – Austria 2011 Race Report
I had hardly slept a wink but when my three alarm clocks went off simultaneously I shot out of bed like my life depended on it. My Ironman day had begun!
I left the safety of my hotel room and walked briskly round to transition. My bike was where I left it and the tyres were pumped up perfectly. So far so good.
Breakfast was next and I joined the other competitors in the dining room where we made small talk and attempted to eat something. I ate a surprising amount – I think I was distracted by various tales from repeat offenders about grizzly past-Ironman encounters!
I was much happier after a trip to the bathroom and it was with a deal of excitement that Gwyn and I made our way down to the Strandbad where 2,800 of us were going to start the 2011 Austrian Ironman. En route I discovered a public convenience and whilst in the queue I saw Barbie strolling past. We exchanged a huge hug and ‘good lucks’ were passed from and to Nacho. I was destined to see his back disappearing into the distance at the beginning and not see him again until after we had both finished.
You had to hand in your street bag at the enormous marquee you would later eat your finisher’s meal in. Would that be in 17 hours time? Would I, true to form, be able to eat anything then? Would I even finish this long and grueling event? Well, one thing for certain, they would have to pull me from it, kicking and screaming, if I wasn’t going to get to the finish line. All these thoughts – but now it was time for my final visit to the loo before I got into my wetsuit.
On entering the Strandbad the mood was electric! How we all managed to fit into such a relatively small area, I don’t know. We stood around, adjusting our goggle straps and anticipating entering the water where the only way forward was into the Worthersee.
Treading water in as conservative a way as possible I reflected on my journey so far. It goes back to last October when I entered something I never thought I’d ever even think about doing. Then, in December, my 30-week training plan started and I didn’t look back. Nothing was left to chance. Right from the outset RG Active and all the Race Team members were behind me. They had been there every step of the way. That thought was in my mind now. I really didn’t want to let myself down but, more importantly, I didn’t want to let my team mates down. I decided then and there that not finishing wasn’t an option – I was going home with a medal.
The signal to start sounded and I adopted the horizontal position and began to swim. Forget even trying to sight a buoy – all I could see were bobbing heads. All going in pretty much the same direction. Each buoy, in turn, eventually came into view and I was surprised at how on course I was each time. I found space (perhaps I was given a wide berth for some reason!), I received one whack in the face (my retaliation was successful!) and one leg tussle took place (she came off worse than me). Buoy number three was orange – the 90º turn – now sight on the picturesque church on the bank and then the fourth buoy came into view. Exactly where I was heading. Thank you, RG Active, for all the open water sighting practice – this was almost too easy. The last part in the lake itself went by in a bit of a blur – I was into my stride now. Finally, we entered the Lent canal and I was swept along, with supporters lining both banks shouting encouragement (I supposed – it was mostly in German). When our hotel came into sight, I knew I had nearly completed the first discipline as the swim exit was in its grounds. How good was that?! I was lifted almost off my feet by some very enthusiastic marshals who smiled delightedly when I whooped with joy at my time of 1.31.09.
Seeing Gwyn, complete with camera, on the run out gave me a big lift but I barely had time to realize that he could have stayed in bed, got up at 8.30 am and just looked out of our bedroom window to see me, when I was through the hotel, down the road, over the cross-roads and into T1.
Help! Where was my bike bag? Big blue thing with 493 in big letters on it. Admittedly, like everyone else’s but not everyone else’s. Mine! I double-checked that I was looking in the correct place. Yes, 492 one side and 494 the other. Help! Without that bag I had no bike shoes and, more importantly, no helmet. Maybe I could survive without bike shoes. But no helmet meant instant disqualification. I wonder how long it would take me to get to that bike shop……..
I could have kissed the fantastic marshal who found my bag on the ground and handed it to me, but there was no time. With a very grateful ‘thank you’ I was running for the changing tent. I have no regrets on spending 10.37 minutes in transition (well, if my bag had been on its peg that would have been good) because I got dry, sun-creamed and comfortable before I left.
The first thing that struck me as I set off on the bike leg was the quality of the roads. The surface was like nothing I have ridden on before. There was just one patch after about five miles that was not as good as the rest and I thought for a moment I had got a puncture as my bike suddenly felt very different. This poorer stretch of about a mile was still not as bad as British roads are in general. I think I may go and live in Austria. It was also such a pleasure to ride on closed roads and not to have to stop for anything.
I had taken the bike tour in a bus the day before and I remembered not only where the hills were (the downs as well as the ups) but also the number of small towns and villages we passed though and, instead of counting off miles or time, I concentrated on the signs at the start and end of each village. I didn’t know the exact number of villages I had to go through but that somehow made it all the better. I was delighted to see both Gwyn and Barbie at the half-way point – and they were saying all the right things.
I had done my first lap in about 3½ hours but I had a feeling the second lap was going to take me somewhat longer. Having said that, I knew that I’d held back during the first lap so I had plenty of go left in my legs. I kept thinking of Dave Couldridge and what he would be telling me at the various stages – thank you, Dave, I knew you’d muscle in somehow!
Nothing bad happened on the bike unless you count dropping a full water bottle just after an aid station and then having to go quite a number of miles with just PowerBar Isoactive (lemon). It could have been worse but I had been practicing alternating it with water. Still, no real problem. There were plenty of good things – like small dialogues with other competitors, especially amongst the Brits and Canadians, and anyone else who spoke English for that matter. Having said that, I managed some interesting ‘conversations’ with non-English speaking cyclists – they all smiled afterwards but that doesn’t always mean much, does it?
The crowd support was fantastic and the aid stations brilliant. Every single marshal deserves a mention. They were amazing! Now try to imagine the scene when I reached 106 miles – this was the furthest I had ridden, ever! Woo hoo! I think I put at least 10 other cyclists off their pedal stroke. Also, riding into T1 shouting ‘cut-off time, what cut-off time?’ gave the crowd something to laugh about. They were definitely on my side. Whether they knew it or not.
I’m still not sure what I did that took me 10 minutes in T2! My run bag was where it should have been, everything went smoothly and I didn’t get cramp when I put my shoes on. Ah, that reminds me, if you have ever been asked to finish the statement ‘No-one else has ever …….’ well mine is ‘No-one else has ever used a shoe horn in T2’. The thing is, I wanted to use my sturdy running shoes with ordinary laces that I find the most comfortable but I have a habit of going into cramp when putting them on if I’ve just cycled long. My answer to this was a shoe horn. And I didn’t go into cramp, so there! Oh, and thinking about what I said earlier, perhaps a portaloo visit took up some of the time.
So now, Karen, you’re in your comfort zone. Where you like to be. But, it comes at the end. How much more have you got in your tank? The Austrian run is completely flat except for two occasions when you go down underpasses. I’d done a deal with myself that I was going to walk the aid stations but nothing else. I was going to run up those two 50 metre inclines no matter what! I found walking through the aid stations absolutely the right thing for me. It meant I could take on the nutrition and fluid I needed and it brought my heart rate down sufficiently for me to start running strongly again. It also gave me something to focus on and look forward to approximately every 2.5 kms. As well as being flat, the run takes place on a very smooth cycle path. I knew this in advance so I trained on hills and off-road! This was a good plan. It made the flat and smooth feel very much easier than I was used to; I am not just a pretty face. I also became very glad I had done so many brick sessions in training. I started steadily and continued steadily throughout. I didn’t once go out of my comfort zone (and I’m now talking about the whole race). Dermott has patiently spent all year easing/coaxing/teasing me out of my comfort zone in the name of training smart. Thank you, Dermott – in that instant I understood. I also remembered him saying that it can be very helpful to break down the marathon into manageable chunks which I did by using the two places either end of the marathon route (you visited each one twice) and the Ironman City in the middle to break it up into eight bites. I could manage eight sections.
I also know I have a lot to learn. I can’t remember at what point (maybe 18 miles?) the grippy tum started but I felt so much better when I dispelled the last intake of PowerBar Isomax (blood orange) and did the same again in another few miles. Problem over and I was flying along. Another visit to a portaloo and I was now ready to dig deep for the final miles. The only other discomfort I felt was a slight lower back feeling which I discovered I could make go away when I concentrated on my core and ensured every step was with good form. I’ve never managed to be in so much control before and the power was energizing. I think I attribute that one to something Chrissie Wellington once said.
It was only when I was in my last four or five miles that I thought about what time I was likely to do. Previous to that I’d been too scared to hope in case I (a) got cramp (b) developed a gastric problem or (c) hit the wall. Now I started working out that, in worst case scenario, I could still get to the finish in about 14 hours. Oh, boy, that would be fantastic. Oh no, what if it was 14.01? So, I increased my effort (which at that stage of the race meant my pace just stayed the same) and concentrated all my thoughts on keeping steady. The crowd near ‘Ironman City’ was just tremendous. I’d seen Gwyn and Barbie a few times and I’d had an ongoing dialogue with some Canadian supporters on our trips back and forth to and from Krumpendorf and Klagenfurt old town. I passed numerous triathletes who were better swimmers and cyclists than me but who were dying on the run. I’d seen young, strong, grown men crying, limping, walking and crawling but all I could see now was the surge of supporters lining the route that said ‘to the finish’. How long was this last section? My watch told me I was under four hours but how much exactly? As I entered the finishing chute I could see the clock. It said 13 hours, 49 minutes and 32 seconds. I had about half a minute’s run ahead of me. Now I had a new challenge. I wanted under 13 hours and 50 minutes and I wanted it desperately. I was no longer in Austria about to finish the most amazing thing I am ever likely to do. I was back at Ashton Playing Fields in Woodford Green at one of Dermott’s track nights. He’d persuaded Usain Bolt to come and join us and I was in the lane next to him. With Dermott’s voice in my head I sprinted like I have never sprinted and, as I crossed the line, the clock said 13.49.57. Bolt never stood a chance! The man with the very distinctive voice said ‘Karen, you are an Ironman’ and the world stood still. I didn’t – I careered into the marshals ahead of me and was completely overcome with emotion. When I’d moved to one side, and after I’d thrown up for the third time that day, I turned round. There was a sea of concerned faces, all asking me if I was OK. I wasn’t capable of speech. The lady who had been ‘assigned’ to me, was searching my face (for signs of imminent death, I think) and was starting to call for medical assistance but I just ground out the words ‘I…..am…..an…..Ironman’. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief and then I went bananas!
No, I couldn’t eat a thing. The lady who had helped me after crossing the line came to find me in the marquee. She unscrewed bottle tops for me and tried to tempt me with various food items. My body had held up but now I seemed to be incapable of doing anything for myself! Nevertheless, I forced myself to stretch, which I am programmed to do, as I regard it as an essential part of the recovery process. I later discovered that my time was fast enough to get one of the last ladies fitted finisher’s t-shirts – the icing on the cake!
I chilled down and was glad the walk back to our hotel was short. I showered, got into the snug dressing gown the hotel had provided and crept into bed – I felt I’d died and gone to heaven. While Gwyn went to collect my bike and bags (they would still be there now if I’d had to collect them), I contemplated my day.
I had just swum 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles. Me! Wow! But …… none of it would ever have happened without an army of people helping me on route. My husband, who has been a tower of strength and put up with a lot on an on-going basis, deserves a medal. My children often wished I had a 9 to 5 job so that they could contact me occasionally! Neglected non-triathlete friends would now get the chance to see me.
I have received so much help and encouragement from RG Active – Dermott and Dave have gone far beyond the title ‘coaches’ and I thank them both. The majority of the RG Active East London/Essex Race Team have adopted me and given me so much for what appears on the surface to be such a small amount in return. Many people too numerous to mention (and for fear of missing anyone out) have had a hand in my journey. I am incredibly indebted to them. I think you all now have a little bit of my soul.