Ironman Austria – the supporters view

It’s widely acknowledge that when you don’t succeed at your first attempt, it takes guts to go back to the start and try again. But what about if you have a recent history that’s littered with non starts or starts that don’t result in a desired outcome?

In essence, that was the view G faced when he lined up at Ironman Austria in Klagenfurt a couple of weeks ago. G has already written about his endeavours here and so I’m not about to tell his story other than, in the interest of spoilers, the picture above shows the happy outcome of this attempt. I guess it’s just nice to put something down for posterity for when we’re old and reduced to racing bath chairs instead.

G signed up for Ironman Austria the Monday after the event last year. His failure to finish due to going off course burned bright and after a heart felt chat he decided to give it one more go. Once he’d entered, our friend Lee decided she would come back to support too. Klagenfurt is so beautiful, you can’t help but fall in love with it (and Lee was determined to upgrade rooms to experience the coffee machine and umbrellas we’d all been raving about 😂).

Ironman is hard and I felt for G. When I was training for my first attempt at Ironman Switzerland in 2009, a friend of mine, on his return from Nice a couple of weeks, before, burst into the shop and said ‘prepare for the possibility that you might fail’. It was almost laughable at the time. I had considered the possibility many times. But hidden underneath the self doubt was a glimmer of something stronger, hope that I was tough enough to get through it. My friend, the ultra runner it seems had not considered failure may be an option. It had come to him half way up the mountain climb on the cycle leg.

Plenty before and after had not finished their events either. I figured that was kind of the point of Ironman. Not the guarantee of success rather the possibility of failure. It was my motivation anyhow. But no matter how determined you are, you also require a dose of luck. And in previous attempts, G had been short of luck.

G and I were celebrating our first wedding anniversary just before heading out to Klagenfurt. We managed to squeeze in a couple of nights in Vienna before making our way over. It was beautiful, and a real highlight was swimming in the Danube launching ourselves, from one of the purpose built pontoons on the river.

Eventually, we made our way by train and bus to the Plattenwirt, our usual resting place for race week and fell into a routine, while we counted down days until the race.

On race morning, once we’d completed the domestic duties we headed over to the race start slightly earlier than normal. The race had dispensed with the mass and wave starts of the previous year and now operated a rolling start of athletes drip fed into the Worthersee.

In an attempt to given himself plenty of time at the interim bike cut off (where he had fallen foul at Hamburg, when the swim start had taken much longer than they had forecast) G decided to start further up the self seeding field. As he made his way, Lee and I took up residency on one of the piers and waited the start of the pro field. They use a cannon to announce the start, and although I know it’s coming, it really makes me jump. It’s really loud. Lee laughed so hard, three times the bloody thing got me.

Even seeding higher up the field, it still took G over 30 minutes to get in the water. Once safely in we headed back to the hotel from breakfast.

We then headed down to the swim exit and waited for G. He had predicted a time of 1.45. It came and went and nothing. But no surprises there. After days of speculation, the swim had formally been announced as no wetsuit at the race briefing. 1.50 came and went, 1.55 and then I started to worry. Nothing at 2 hours and then finally, a few minutes later he popped up at the other side of the bridge and ran towards us. It was tight but he had time if he got a shufty on. He shook his head while Lee and I screamed at him to get going. Which happily with T1 taking 7 minutes and shrapnel, he did. As he headed back towards us, this time on his bike, he had his game face on.

It was a new bike course for 2019 and would head back past the hotel at around 54 miles. Until then, the tracker watching started in earnest. Lee and I headed back to the hotel and discussed whether it for too early for alcohol.

We cheered as G crossed each timing mat and it registered his time and pace. Most importantly, the tracker also predicted finish time based on average speed. It was gratifying to show G comfortably under the interim cut off and with an hour in hand of the final T2 time. We headed out to cheer again when he came back past the hotel. He looked comfortable and was still wearing his game face as he headed out on the more familiar southern loop.

We returned back to the bar, relieved to get out of the hot sun. It was humid as well as hot and it would be tough for the athletes out there. We knew G would probably lose some time against the tracker prediction as he hit the hills early in that loop. But he would definitely gain in the later stages as the last 10 miles or so, I knew from experience, were a fast descent into T2.

Storms had been forecast for early in the afternoon. As the first of the runners started to come past the hotel, Lee and I watched in dismay as clouds started to build in the mountains to the east. The hotel was suddenly swamped with people, many of whom had been in the finish area, which had been evacuated for safety because of the suspected high winds. The first rumble of thunder growled from the dark clouds on the horizon. The crescendo built until around 10 minutes later we were consumed by the storm.

Poor G, out in the mountains, the clock ticking and no protection from the storm. We had no way of knowing where he had got to, or whether there was any shelter. I felt sick with worry. Hoping he was ok and obsessively refreshing the tracker as the clock ticked down towards his predicted 121km time.

The predicted time came and went. Five minutes, 10 minutes then 15. Each minute felt like an hour. Texts and messages started to come in. ‘Where was he? Did we have any news?’ Well, no we didn’t!

And then finally, blissfully his 121k time appeared on the app.

He was ok but he’d lost around 20 minutes to the storm. Combined with a couple of other slippages, the race to T2 was now on. More time slipped by to the next check point. This was not unexpected as it contained the climb up Rupertsberg, the biggest climb on the route. But the slip was not as big as expected, he must be flying.

The storm had now totally cleared, almost like it had never happened and I could only hope that roads were dry enough for him to welly it.

Well he did welly it and squeaked into T2 with just three minutes to spare. He had a reasonably quick turn around in transition and then headed out on to the run. Conveniently competitors came past the hotel five times before heading to the finish. We would see him first around 3km into the run, a great place to assess and see what frame of mind he was in.

Soon enough he appeared into view. He stopped and we hugged and shared tears as he expressed his fatigue at having to chase cut offs all day. It was emotionally draining. He looked well though and was in no distress. He knew what he had to do and was now calm and in control. With plenty of time to march it, barring disaster he would get to the finish.

We embraced again and then he set off. The timing mats were plentiful and he crossed them almost metronomically within a minute of his predicted time. It was a masterclass of pacing. I was so proud of him. It was great to see him pass each time, growing in confidence and smiling.

Once he’d passed the final time to head out towards the town in the final 10k, Lee and I made our way to the finish line. We danced and cheered as we waited for G watching others make their way down the magic carpet after a long day.

When G passed the timing mat just up from the hotel, he had a kilometre or so to go and we waited expectantly, trying to glimpse him through the gaps in the banner on the approach to the finish chute.

Compare Paul Kaye announced that Daniela Ryf, the female champion had made her way to the finish line to hand out medals. How cool was that and a great honour for G when he got there.

And then he was there, loving the crowd as he made his way into the chute. Lee and I were screaming at him. He almost missed us but at the last minute turned to see us and stumbled over for hugs and more tears. Then he made his way to the finish line to get his medal from Daniela. He had done it, he was an Ironman.

Woolacombe parkrun

Parkrun is a funny old beast. It’s not a race, we’re told on a weekly basis. But I get the impression, from listening to conversations over many years, that people care about their time. A lot.

I’ll be honest, I’m still not reconciled with the role that parkrun plays in my life. It ignites very conflicting feelings. There is no doubt that it eroded elements of my previous life. Caused damage despite the protestations of those cheerleading it. On the other hand, it has been a very useful tool. And I, as others have before me, am as guilty of getting dragged into the time debate.

This thought occurred to me the other day when I failed again to beat my parkrun personal best at what has become my ‘home’ event, Woolacombe parkrun. The race director inadvertently reinforced my thinking by commenting on my regular attendance with an indirect comment about being at the back of the field then said, ‘well at least you’re improving’. I’m not, in actual fact I’m getting slower.

We first became aware of Woolacombe as we researched parkruns close to our new home in Devon. Bideford and Barnstaple were ruled out (flat, lapped courses) which left either Tamar Lakes on the Devon/Cornwall border to the south or Woolacombe Dunes to the north. Both were around 20 miles from home so we decided we would start with Tamar Lakes, one lap, scenic and most importantly without the word ‘Dunes’ in the name. I’m not the greatest fan of sand and Woolacombe sounded like it came with lots of it.

Tamar Lakes was lovely. Lovely enough to secure a resolution from us to make it our ‘home’ parkrun. But before we could act on that resolve, our friends Hollywood and Shiraz made the trip to Woolacombe from their temporary holiday spot in nearby Ilfracombe.

They raved about the beauty, talked about the ‘dune of doom’ and confirmed there was lots of sand. Their enthusiasm was infectious and so in the weeks following we made the journey over.

Even the drive was stunning, ending in a 1:4 descent with views over Woolacombe Bay.

We parked up outside the newly opened porthole cafe, wandered up to the start to tried to pick up tips from listening to the chat of those around us. The only useful thing we discovered was that participants for this event are primarily ‘tourists’.

The run is essentially split into three parts, all roughly a mile long. The first mile is descent on hard trail, road and then soft sand, including a steep section dropping down onto the beach proper. The second mile is a long flat stretch along the beach. The third incorporates the ‘dune of doom’ and an undulating section through the dunes on hard and soft sand then the return to the finish up the steep concrete road and trail.

With no idea what was coming up, I focussed on enjoying it. And I did, I LOVED the challenge and different terrains. I finished with a sense of elation and unchecked enthusiasm to come back and do it again the following week. My time was 45.47, very much back of the pack and roughly 7 or 8 minutes slower than Mole Valley parkrun, considered one of the toughest in Surrey.

The following week we did return and I was a minute and a half slower. Over cooking the first mile to try and get a faster time, I ran out of steam (no pun intended) in the last and walked far more than I had the previous week. I was a tad disappointed as we’d started to inject a bit more consistency into our training and I was hoping for some improvement.

It was nearly a month before we could get back. I felt strong so picked up the pace downhill. The sand on the flat section was also lovely and firm, at least for the first half, and I made good progress. The climb up the dune sent my heart rate up over 170 (theoretical max is 178) and I had to stop and walk again to try and get it down. I pushed on and managed a 1.48 pb. Whoop. That was more like it.

The next run out, confident in my regular training I flung myself down the hill to the beach and hit much softer sand. Reduced to counting steps I logged a much slower middle mile with a correlating high heart rate over 170 again. Struggling to get this down over the climbing sections I finished back in the 45 minutes plus again.

The following week I resolved to run the first mile easier to leave it in my legs for the later stages and got stuck behind loads of runners in the narrow dune section. I had resolved this week to not allow my heart rate over 150 across the flat beach. The sand was soft and energy sapping. I’d regularly do less than 50 steps before stopping to walk. Even with the easier start I hit the dunes with nothing left and dragged my sorry arse back to the finish in 48.42.

For fucks sake.

It was then I had the conversation with the volunteer about my regular appearance at the back and relative (actually none existent) improvement.

This week I left the heart rate monitor in the wardrobe (that’ll teach it) and would run to feel instead. It’s getting close to school holidays and numbers had swelled accordingly. I took it easy down the hill but once on undulating dunes before the beach found it a lot harder going than usual.

The sand on the beach this week was also really soft and I was reduced to running 30 secs and walking 30 secs to get through it. The dune climb was horrendous and I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath before carrying on. As I crested the top and descended back onto the hard path, the marshal at the top congratulated me and commented that it was really tough going this week.

At this point I was wondering what the hell I was to do to register even a minor improvement. I was getting myself tied up in knots as I ran/walked my way up and down the paths to the start of the climb back up the road. And then it hit me. I had become so bogged down in trying to improve, I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I’d taken to dejectedly looking at the sand in front of me without taking the time to look up and around me at the stunning views.

‘Fuck it’ I thought and immediately ditched any idea of pace (at which point had gone out of the window anyway). I lifted my head to look around and concentrated on just being in the moment, enjoying the wildflowers, chatting to the folks around me and in quiet times just pondered. With the pressure off I realised that this is one of the most difficult of runs to pin down to a time. The shifting, mercurial dunes could be either firm or soft depending on weather, tide, use and all manner of other things. All of which were out of my control.

I thought about G marshalling (blisters from his recent Ironman definitely didn’t need sand in them) and wondered what I could do to contribute. I recalled a conversation at the start with the tail walker who was holidaying in a nearby village and heading home the next day. Maybe tail walking would a good idea for a while? That would help to keep heart rate down and focus on fun rather than trying to beat the course which instead kept beating me.

This time at the finish line, I celebrated my slowest finish to date at 49.27 and immediately volunteered for the following week.