Ironman Zurich Race Report

This was my first (and will be my only) Ironman, so I wanted to write a race report to help me remember the experience. I also wanted to share it with anyone either thinking of doing an Ironman, or who would like to know more about what the race is like and how it felt to me as a new and once in a lifetime experience. My goal was to finish the race in under the 16 hour cut off time. Position was not important to me, but finishing was.

After the 4:25am alarm, I forced down some porridge and we got the bus in the pouring rain to the start area. At this point I was worried these conditions may last all day…

We arrived at the transition area, I pumped up my tyres, and I added a bottle of flat coke to my swim-to-bike transition bag. We then found the other members of our tri club competing in the race (there were 5 of us from East Essex Tri Club) and our supporters. We said hi to them and had a couple of photos trying to look excited rather than nervous…

After a long queue for one last toilet stop before the start, I headed to the start pen along with the other 1600 competitors for a 6:45am start. The walk was a little further than we realised so I ended up at the back of the fastest start pen (sub 60 minute swim) which was a bit further back than I had planned to be.  We were set off in groups of 8 at a time, 5 seconds apart to prevent overcrowding in the water. I felt nervous yet excited as I ran into the water to start my 2.4 mile swim in beautiful Lake Zurich.

As the start pens are self-seeded, I found a lot of people who had started in front of me had probably seeded themselves in a faster start pen than they should’ve been. This meant the first 40 minutes or so of my swim was spent passing people, but due to the spaced out start it wasn’t too hectic.

The swim was one big lap, which made me feel a little disoriented at times as I couldn’t quite work out where I was in relation to the swim exit or how far there was to go.

After about 40-45 minutes I ended up swimming alone in clear water, with no one around me, which made me feel a bit nervous – I wanted someone to follow! Eventually a couple of competitors came into sight and I managed to catch them, including a pro male! I could tell he was a pro as he was without a wetsuit (the pros have different rules to us age-groupers – the water was 23.5 degrees C and anything over 23 degrees is non wetsuit for pros, whereas the cut off for amateurs is 24 degrees), and the pros also had a different colour swimming hat on. They had started over 5 minutes before me so I was pleased to have caught him! The swim is by far my strongest part of a triathlon, so although I was fairly near the front for the swim, I knew and was prepared for this not remaining the case as the race progressed.

I exited the water with no one around me, and there was just one other girl in the female transition area when I entered it. A marshal helped me get my wetsuit off, I glugged down some coke, put on my cycling kit and was good to go out onto the two-lap, 109 mile bike ride!

For the first 30 minutes or so on the bike it was absolutely pouring with rain. Luckily this was a flat, straight section of the course. However, due to my proportionately good swim, compared to my very average cycling ability, a lot of very good cyclists were whizzing past me towards the start of the cycle, which I found a little unnerving in the pouring rain.  As I turned off the main road into the countryside (and up a hill) the rain finally stopped, and the sun came out! It wasn’t long until one of my club mates, Jack, whizzed last me, blasting along like an absolute machine! It was a hot day, about 30 degrees C, so even though the rain had been heavy, once it had stopped the road thankfully dried out very quickly.

My first lap felt pretty good overall and was uneventful, except having to take a couple of salt tablets as I felt like I was going to get cramp in my calf after about 20 miles.  After taking the tablets the cramp feeling completely went and I felt pretty comfortable. I had taken food on the bike with me to keep me going: bagels, cereal bars, flapjacks and sweets, which I ate a couple of mouthfuls of every 30 minutes to keep my energy levels up, exactly as I had practised doing on my training rides.  I also had two drinks bottles on my bike with electrolyte tablets in, which I refilled a few times at aid stations with water, and added my own tablets to as I knew my body was used to these from practising in training.

There was a long hill (mountain) 30 miles in, followed by a long drag with train tracks running alongside you, apparently known as ‘The Beast’.  This was hard work but didn’t feel too bad the first time round. 

My favourite part of the bike course was going up ‘Heartbreak Hill’ at the end of the first lap. This is a relatively short but fairly steep hill, and was full of supporters (including our triathlon club support crew), people with hoses to cool you down, and words of encouragement chalked onto the road. I felt like I was in Tour de France at this point, and seeing my triathlon club friends going crazy with their cow bells and pompoms on the side of the road gave me a great adrenaline boost!

After descending Heartbreak Hill, we looped back round to the start of the bike course and had to complete the same thing all over again…!

The second lap was a lot harder for me. The temperature was increasing, and I got back ache at about 70 miles, so I stopped to stretch for a few minutes, plus treated myself to a Rice Krispy cereal bar, at which point one of my club mates, Peter, whizzed passed me.

Shortly after this I stopped at a porter loo, which I had to queue for (would you believe…!), and whilst I was in the queue another one of my club mates, Jo, passed me, looking so strong!

Shortly after my toilet stop, Jonathan, my boyfriend, also caught me up. We had a quick chat as he passed me, and then I was alone again. It was getting hotter and hotter and I still had ‘The Beast’ to go. Mentally I was feeling a bit deflated as although I was expecting a lot of people to pass me I now knew I was last out of those racing from my club. I started wondering if our supporters would be fed up with waiting for me after everyone else had finished.

I found ‘The Beast’ extremely challenging the second time round, at about 85 miles into the ride, but tried to feel positive about re-overtaking some people on very expensive looking time trial bikes who had overtaken me on the first lap but possibly not quite paced themselves for the 109 miles. Feeling mentally drained after the second time up ‘The Beast’, I stopped at the aid station and chatted to one of the marshals for a few minutes whilst trying to psych myself up for the last bit of the ride.

I got through the rest of the second lap.  Heartbreak hill was still filled with supporters, which got me up it despite how tired I was now feeling. After that I knew it was only a few miles until the bike would be over!

Eventually, I got to the dismount line of the bike course where my club support crew were standing, which made me smile despite the fact that I was now feeling quite apprehensive about the run. I cannot put into words how happy I felt to see familiar faces when I was putting my body through the toughest thing it has ever done.

I racked my bike, changed into my running kit, put my little emergency sandwich bag with paracetamol, ibuprofen and anti-chaff cream into my tri shorts pocket and I was off onto the marathon (26.2 mile) run!

As I exited transition, there was a little ramp you hard to run up to go onto an overpass, and my club support crew was standing at the top of it.  They were all cheering so enthusiastically! They asked how I felt and I don’t think I could answer. I did feel positive in a way as I knew at this point even if I walked all of the run I would still make the cut off time. My friend Clare offered a hug, which I took. It is debatable whether this was a good decision or not, because as I did so the realisation of what I had already managed to complete along with what was still to come caught up with me and I ended up sobbing to her telling her it was just too far to go!

After a few moments (and making the rest of the support crew also very emotional), I managed to ‘woman up’ and continued with the run. It was 4 laps, some of it in view of Lake Zurich, and some of it through the old town. It was flat and fairly scenic and the 4 laps meant it was good for both ticking the distance off and for seeing our support crew several times.

The food stations were about every mile on the run. This may sound like a lot, but by this point I needed it, and it also really helped break the run down even further, as I focused on what I would take to eat and drink in between the stations to stop me from over-thinking about the distance I  still had to go. It was also very hot by this point in the day (I started the run at about 3pm) so I needed water at every stop. I also used sponges they provided to cool me down, and took ice if they were offering it too. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the ice so tried a few different things to keep me occupied… putting it down my top, putting it on my head, holding a cube in each hand, putting a cube in my mouth…

If I felt any negative or daunting thoughts start to come back to me during the run I used a couple of strategies I had practiced in training:

  1. Count backwards from 100, timing the counting with your breathing. Once you have counted backwards, count forwards, back up to 100 again. Repeat as needed.
  2. List 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Repeat as needed and try to list something different each time.

I found trying some different foods and drinks a bit of a distraction on the run as well.  I had flat coke, the isotonic energy drink they were offering, crisps, pretzel sticks, various different types of fruit, and sweets. Trying different food and drinks to what you have in training is probably not recommended as technically you should eat and drink what you’re used to but at this point I found the mental distraction of a different taste more appealing than the thought that it might give me a stomach ache for the rest of the race (which thankfully none of it it).

On my third lap I started to get a really bad headache which started to make me feel a bit sick. I took my time to make sure I walked through the aid stations and drink a bit more water, I kept going with using the sponges to keep me cool, and took I the paracetamol and ibuprofen I had in my pocket. Thankfully after taking the tablets my headache soon went and I felt much better.

As I ticked the laps off I got more and more emotional each time I saw my club support crew, or when a stranger was cheering really enthusiastically for me, or even as I went through the aid stations that had music playing. I made sure I smiled and waved at anyone cheering for me to show I was thankful, but as I went past them my smile turned to a little cry each time. I wasn’t unhappy but I think the mix of exhaustion, gratefulness that I had support, and the fact that I knew by this point I was going to make it to the end of the race all became a bit overwhelming.

Finally, I picked up my 4th wrist band (you picked one up at the end of each lap). Once you had 4 you could go through the finish line! I ran (felt like running, pictures show it was more of a shuffle!) down the finishing straight waving and high-fiving my club support crew with the biggest smile on my face, and finally crossed the finish line, where I was given my finishers medal. I had made it in 13 hours 14 minutes and 54 seconds!

I am an Ironman!

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