Writing from the comfort of a DFDS Ferry after transiting mainland Europe in one day, here’s my account of the Iron Man branded Long Distance Triathlon based at Klagenfurt , Austria 07 July 2019. The run bit’s toward the end, but I had to swim and bike to warm up for it, hope it’s of interest.
Jeez that was a bit of a stress head experience – the weather in the weeks leading up to the event was ringing all the wrong bells – record temps in Europe – severe warnings of danger to life – In 21 years of IM Austria there has only ever been one non wet suit swim before but all the warning signs were there that this was going to be another.
For context there are water temperature thresholds which determine whether a race is deemed either ‘wet suit compulsory’, ‘optional’, or ‘forbidden’. I’m a weak swimmer, and wet suits help some people like me (mainly blokes with heavy, sinky legs) to be more efficient and confident in the water. For me a non-wet suit swim is a big deal, without wearing one there’d be a very likely chance that I’d not make the 2h20m cut off time.
I didn’t follow any web forum threads (I never do – a recipe for headspace disaster imo) – but as I suspected that there’d be a good chance of a non wet suit swim I bought a SwimSkin from Wiggle – It’s an uber tight hydrophobic garment which is some sort of cross between a swimming costume and an industrial strength condom. Still I watched the weather forecast from three different web sites AND logged the reported water temperature – it never exceeded 23C and was forecast to go down – that would be OK, just….. except that the break in the weather as forecast kept slipping back, and the temp stayed high. Not till I got to the race venue in Klagenfurt did i start to get unsolicited info about water temp being >26C (24.5C is the non wet suit threshold for age group athletes), & even then one didn’t know whether or not that was competitor hyperbole, or swim wear vendors plying for sales.
I was really miserable – I know how hard it is to navigate this particular swim course – instead of being 3.8k it’s previously been up to 4.2k at worst – the chances of me DNF’ing the swim were huge.
OK so I’ve been doing loads of fresh water swim training recently – but even so the maths are very close sans wetsuit…… and without one I’m even more nervous and afraid of, getting breathless in, open water – it all serves to slow things down. I even thought about shaving my legs!! I mean WTF – is that even a thing????
I also bought some neoprene shorts – I tried them over the Swim Skin (or as it has become known in some quarters: my ‘Body Sheath’! it felt worse than just the Body Sheath (BS) and It really was too warm to swim in the wet suit (a bit like being boiled in a bag) whereas wearing only the BS felt cool and easy BUT the timing – I’m so slow at swimming ….. aargh.
In the race briefing on Saturday when they confirmed it would be a non wet suit swim it was a relief tbh, at least I knew what to prepare for – the organisers made an error and said calf guards were OK but nothing else was to be worn below the knee or elbow.
There was a cheer from a small part of the crowd which I thought was pretty shit – they (the cheerers) were never going to be obliged to wear wet suits themselves, so what was the point of the cheering other than to make already nervous people even more so. Loads of hubbub in the crowded race briefing – so much so that the official intervened and said something like ‘stop – its disrespectful talking over me while I’m trying to do a briefing’.
Questions were invited and I asked them to clarify the ‘calf guard / nothing below the knee’ thing – which they did for those who’d gone to the front to ask, and also for the German briefing which followed. No rubber, no neoprene and nothing below the knee or elbow.
Nevertheless there was a massive rush on neoprene shorts in the expo – the vendors were having a field day!
A guy (a German guy) came up to me in the hotel later that day (after the English and German briefings that he clearly hadn’t attended) and asked me “is wet suit forbidden?” My chance had come – after years and years of ‘entertaining’ folk (!) with my ‘flair for languages’ ! (I reckon to be fluent in any language within an hour of arriving in a country – this usually equates to speaking very poor french at people no matter where I am, and shrugging and mumbling a lot) I was FINALLY able to use my one and only true German phrase (“for you ze var is over” doesn’t count) – and I delivered it with flair and passion……. “Wetsuit ….:.ES IST VERBOTEN” I said.
Perhaps it was the same bloke, who knows, but shortly afterwards someone was observed removing their bike and both transition bags from the transition area. I haven’t looked at the DNS / DNF lists yet – but I’ll bet there was more than one DNS (see epilogue).
Anyhow – once it was confirmed, it was what it was, a Non Wetsuit Swim! – I ignored the chit chat and did my thing – controlled what I could, left the rest to fate and got the bike and run stuff ready and put it in transition. Then I returned to the digs – had dinner and three rounds of pudding and went to bed at 20:00 for a 03:00 alarm (I’d been going to bed and getting up a little earlier each day for a week to try and adjust my body clock, so this was an hour earlier than I’d moved it to).
PRE RACE PLAN:
• Alarm Denial Ritual
• Ablutions (very important – another one week of pre race body clock conditioning)
• Smother self in Butt’rrrr
• Get into all Tri Suit / swim gear except ‘Body Sheath’, swim hat, and goggles.
• Breakfast – to be completed no later than 2.5 hours before swim start – needs to be digested before 07:30 swim start
• Go back to Transition – put food, energy drinks and Garmin on bike.
• Blow up the tyres.
• Switch on the lights and Garmin
• Back to Hotel
• Double Espresso
• Walk to race start
• Get into Body Sheath!
OK here we go. I’m wearing white hotel slippers – a Body Sheath – a rubber hat and a pair of tinted goggles – it’s not a good look. I’ve self seeded (yes it’s a thing) into a predicted swim speed pen with 3000 or so other similarly clad peeps, many of whom (at my end of the pen) also look scared witless – non wet suit swims are not a popular pastime.
There’s a bunch of marshals looking out for folk wearing illegal kit and a big pile of confiscated neoprene shorts, socks and calf guards. As I approach the start gate I guesstimate about 5 minutes to go before I get to the front and have an energy gel – any sooner and if I wasn’t active my body would think I didn’t need it and initiate an insulin response which would lower my blood sugar and be counter productive.
We were released into the beautiful turquoise water of Lake Wörthersee in groups of 4 every 5 seconds.
So there I was, where I thought I’d never be, at the start of a NON WET SUIT IM-Triathlon swim!!
So now it really matters – ever since my dad tried to teach me to swim (age 5) by getting me to jump into a pool and then NOT catching me I’ve never liked swimming (!) – Even now, despite the best efforts and advice of many well meaning but occasionally conflicting coaches – I’m pretty sh@t at it. UNLESS I’m absolutely calm, and in total control, swimming to me is a bit like being waterboarded in a hypoxic sensory depravation chamber. To get through a race I have to stay calm, stay aerobic, sight to way-markers one by one, not lose my cool when swam over, kicked in the head or my vision is blocked by a paddle board mounted swim marshal. In this, my first IM distance race without the safety aid of a wet suit, the first section is crowded – I’m getting punched and kicked and swam into – but the sun is behind me and I can see my way – I tick off one yellow route marker buoy at a time – breaking it into manageable chunks. Sooner than expected I (think I) see what the race brief said would be a red triangular 90 degree direction change buoy – it wasn’t – it was a marshal on a paddle board in a red t shirt and he/she was moving – so I’d been heading to a moving object and was off course – CALM – BREATHE – finish every stroke – smile sweetly at the marshals – say “thank you marshal”.
When I eventually reach the YELLOW (not red at all) triangular 1st 90 degree direction change buoy I turn left – I breath to the left – the sun is rising above the mountains to my left – I’m totally blinded to my breathing side; so I close my eyes and only open them every 10 strokes when I want to peek forward to keep on course to the next buoy.
Left again at the next Triangular buoy – this time straight into the rising sun – I can’t see a bl@@dy thing foreword – just occasional silhouettes – this is the worst bit, I’m supposed to be finding the entrance to a canal from the expanse of a lake – I can see the occasional silhouette of a paddle board and some yacht masts – I know there’s a marina near to the canal entrance – blind logic – breath – finish every stroke – stay calm – repeat.
Into the canal – another 1200m or so, there are people lining the side – looking at their watches – looking behind me – I mustn’t be last if they are looking behind me – but I have no idea at all what time it is. I keep on keeping on – reach – stroke – finish it – breath – reach stroke finish it – breath ….. the bank side is moving slowly by – I collide with a tree root – then a patch of lily pads – there are boats moored to the side, their outboard motor oil stinks in the water – I can see the marshals at the swim exit – 100m or so to go – crowds and marshals are screaming at me – I reach the ramp and what seems like a thousand arms descend and drag me out of the water COME ON … What time is it? – It doesn’t matter GO GO GO – FFS I’ve made it with FIVE minutes to spare!!!! I later learn that someone behind me made it with TWO SECONDS to spare!
TRANSITION 1 – SWIM to BIKE
A light touch is required – I’ve got a v short time to get in and through before it too is closed – I strip off the Body Sheath, grab my bike bag, run into the ladies area of the changing tent – nobody cares – there’s no body there – they’re all miles ahead – Slap on some more Butt’rrrr and get my bike kit on – bike shoes – helmet – a quick waz – grab the bike and GO GO GO.
This is my best bit, this is where it all comes together for me, it’s like skiing on freshly groomed motorway width pistes & I LOVE IT. The course had been modified since I last did this race two years ago – I’d driven the (new for this year) Northern Loop in the VW Fun Bus a few days earlier – it seemed to be gently sloping up and down and with largely smooth surfaces (from the comfort of Das Bus that is) – I was really looking forward to it. I came out of transition, got up on the pedals, and off.
Everyone I go past on the bike course in triathlons has been quicker than me in the swim – it’s great for the ego. First one, then another; I need to keep a check here, and not get carried away…then they started coming thick and fast. Rules are ‘no drafting on the bike’ you can’t get close to another rider without then getting past them in a very short time – or you get a five minute time penalty – DQ for repeat offenders. That’s created a problem – it meant that on what had appeared to be gentle, smooth steady paced climbs from Das Bus I kept having to put in bursts of power to get quickly past each successive one time fast swimmer (now slow cyclist) competitors; and the motorcycle mounted draft buster marshals were being a bit zealous in their mission. I got one informal talking to, so after that I was more careful. The effect was that I wasn’t as consistent in the bike as I might have been – much more on and off – a bit of holding back till I got a decent descent and could take a few bikes out at a time. But once the field had thinned out a bit I was off again.
There’s different schools of thought on cycling in Triathlon (Quelle Surprise!) One endorses slow cadence, high torque, low HR – the other fast cadence, low torque, higher HR. Both give you the same net power, but they each rely on different energy systems and related predominant fuel. I’m a fan of the latter, shredding your leg muscles and bruising joints by overloading them for 180k is really bad way to warm up for a marathon. So I get my HR into Zone 4, drink near constant glucose & fructose mix for fuel and hydration, eat Nak’d Bars and Banana and spin it out – flying.
As you approach the end of the new Northern Loop and start to drop back down toward the Wörthersee you can see over the lake to the far side of the Southern Loop and the mountain ranges that form the border with Slovenia – fantastic..that’s where I’m heading now. But first back past the transition area – through the screaming fan zone – up on the pedals to get the carbon wheels singing – and off again … off along the Southern shore of the Wörthersee towards Velden – but what’s this – strange, feels a bit like hard work, feels a bit WINDY, it cant be .. surely …
BOOM – CRASH – KARUMBA – KRACKLE – A bit like the storm that broke the summer of 2018 on the same weekend as The Lakeland 100 and the Outlaw Triathlon – A HYOWJ thunderstorm hit the Karentan area of Austria just as I was mid way between Klagenfurt and Velden on the shore of the Wörthersee. There was washed out soil and tree debris everywhere – The wind was catching my wheels and throwing me about, the rain at lake level (hail in the mountains) soaked the roads and riders. Folk didn’t seem to know what to do. I passed cyclists sheltering under bridges and in barns. I saw at least three who had taken their helmets off (I’ve no idea why) and were heading back toward the race HQ. WTF, I thought, surely to hell they haven’t black flagged the race for a bit of WEATHER – jeez, it was little more than Sunny Sunday TriClub Cycle to Sedgefield. When I arrived at the next aid station it was clear that they’d had a bit of a panic at race HQ, but NO Black Flag (phew) – the storm passed and I shot off West then looped back to the South then East – up over the infamous Rupetisburg Hill Climb – I didn’t even notice it. There were no cow bell dingling spectators on that part of the course this year (no brollies or wellies I guess) which was a shame, but it’s amazing how much harder a hill climb is when there’s shed loads of graffiti on the road and crowds lining the route shouting HOPHOPHOP to tell you that it is one.
The last 20k of the Southern Loop, is mainly downhill and smooth – a guy cycles up beside me (no draft buster marshals survived the thunder storm) and tells me about his recent puncture.
‘Have you got a spare tube?’
‘Yes sure’ I say.
‘What about CO2?’
‘That too’, my retort.
So he drops back – and I wonder what he’s thinking. Then he cycles up again,
‘I’ll just slip in behind you then’ he says.
I’m wondering if he’s expecting me stop and give him a tube, or perhaps even the full Convoi Exceptionalle / National Breakdown service so – I reach for my easy access CO2 and hand him the canister.
‘Look mate, happy to help but if you want the tube you’ll have to stay ahead of me’.
He slips in behind but despite the massive assistance afforded by slip streaming me he drops back…. and I’m off again.
I know the course, it feels fast – this bike is a joy to ride – mountains turn to pasture, trees to deciduous, I can smell the lake again, hear the hum of the city and then the transition zone, the Pros and young folk with brand new bodies are on the run course – some have even FINISHED it (b@stards). I fly through the suburbs, past the sports stadium, waved through red lights by the police and into T2.
TRANSITION 2 – BIKE to RUN
7 hours for 180k for the bike is slower than envisaged by about 45 mins. Add that to the 45 min excess swim time and I’m running out of contingency time for the run! Another light touch required – no brewing up or making sarnies. Why do I do this again? .. oh well COME ON…. rack the bike, grab my run bag, towel out on the floor, change socks and shoes (all pre prepped with Johnson’s finest baby powder). Helmet, gloves, shoes all in the bag, turn the race number belt around and off, but something doesn’t quite feel right…
…. Something wasn’t right – there was a distinct mass in the undercarriage department – had I followed through with one of those post gel farts ??? Thankfully not, I’d forgotten to take my bike shorts off – the rain and sweat sodden chamois swinging about like a well hung baboon and knocking me off my stride. No worries , I give the crowd a laugh, took them off with a burlesque flourish and flung them to the baying crowd – hilarious.
And off we go, round three, a 42.2k run. It’s so important to get this right and not blow up. We’ve all heard about hitting WALLS in marathons, but that’s really just running out of fuel, esp the carbs / glycogen fuel needed to run in HR zone 4 and above – it’s hard if not impossible to replenish glycogen at the rate it’s consumed over the course of a marathon distance, so we get that WALL thing at c.30k when there’s nothing left. So here I am I’ve just swam for 2h15m and cycled for 7h in a purposeful HR Z4, and despite constant fuelling on the bike I’m already glycogen deficient and now it’s time to do the marathon.
After blowing up early at both Paris and The Northumberland Coastal Marathons earlier in the year due to fuelling anomalies, my strategy for this race was to start and stay well sub threshold for the whole distance – I wanted to start and keep my HR in the Low Zone 3 region and be more reliant on Fats than Glucose for fuel. I’d already stacked up on ham and cheese croissants during the latter part of the bike course and I set out to start each run section slowly allowing my pace to steadilly and sustainably increase so that I never went into an oxygen debt – and if my HR crept up toward Z4 I’d back off. Note: training for that sort of run strategy is best done alone – it’s embarrassing – but it works.
So I shuffled off – past an already busy finish line grandstand – and toward the town of Krumpendorf. Feed stations are every 3k or so, and at each I walked though, swigged flat coke, iso, and a splash of water; ate a slice of melon, a lump of banana and two pretzels – then I’d get on my tip toes, walk tall, reach my hands up high, stretch out and slowly get back to an exaggerated easy shuffle which then morphs into a sustainable easy run.
From Krumpendorf it was back to the Grandstand, collect lap band #1 then out to Klagenfurt City Centre. In Klagenfurt it’s all so very café culture – the bars and restaurants do a great trade while the competitors run through the cobbled streets dinging a charity bell. Back along the canal tow path to the Grandstand and out toward Krumpendorf again.
So by now the Grandstand is in full swing and I’ve still got another half marathon to run. As I left the hum of the Grandstand behind it tended toward dusk, the aid stations were running out of stuff, it’s a quiet part of the course and frankly a little bit mentally taxing to ‘keep on keeping on’ when out Krumpendorf way. It’s time to start to count – 1 & 2 & 3 & 4, fiver, sixer, seven, eight, all the way to 100, then repeat, then repeat, then repeat ….. eventually back to the Grandstand area and collect lap band #2.
By now it’s properly dark, and remember that avoiding the 30k wall thing ? Well this is where it pays off – I keep it going, walk the aid stations, fuel, fluid and caffeine – restart…… But it’s starting to hurt now – I’m still keeping the intended pace and HR zone but my quads are complaining, my hamstrings are tight, and I get a bit of a wobble on when the ground goes uneven. I walk the subway descents and ascents so as not to pull a calf.
As I approach Klagenfurt for the final time I actually begin to wonder if I’m going to make the time cut off – I’ve stopped being able to do basic maths and I can’t work out how long I have left to finish or how far it is – but I take comfort (of sorts) in the fact that there’s no broom waggon in sight and there are still loads of other folk on the course.
Back to the park near the finish line & grandstand – the distance signs say different things (as they do on any multi laps course – Kielder is the worst!) and I can’t recall which signs are relevant and whether they mean distance ‘completed’ or ‘to go’ – I get to one that says 3k – surely it can’t be – and then Boom there’s the ‘turn here to finish sign’.
I turn the corner and it comes upon me a bit quicker than I’d expected – didn’t have time to lose my rabbit caught in the headlights expression …. but the Grandstand is BOUNCING– the finishing shoot resplendent – dancing girls in full swing – cheesey tunes mixed into the best apres ski sound track you’ve ever heard – It’s fantastic. IM is one of the few event companies (of my experience) that know how to do a finish line properly (the other being ‘Challenge’), and this one is no exception – it’s fantastic.
The support for the last finisher is unreal – then when the final cut off of 17 hours ticks over and there’s Fireworks over the Wörthersee.
What a Day – a non wet suit IM Triathlon in the bag – and #5 of 10 (or so!) done.
The results include 8 (web) pages of folk who have dns or dnf against there names and a few dq’s. I don’t know how this compares to previous years but It feels like a lot. As well as the normal collection of finishers in their 60’s and 70’s (occasionally 80’s) who are an absolute inspiration – there was one guy there who at close of play Sunday had completed 252 (two hundred and fifty two) IM distance triathlons – I’m still trying to work that one out!