Following the disappointment of Ironman Frankfurt, I wrote (https://besse.info/news/658-Ironman-Frankfurt-2019) ‘I’m not sure what comes next. Maybe another attempt later this year, at a colder place. Maybe not. I need a few days to digest.’ I was in France already, for the “Ecole de Physique des Houches” for the full month of July. Trying to process what just happened and how I would recover from it.
I recovered well, muscularly speaking at least. And I let Matthieu tempt me into a cycling race on the following Sunday. 135km with 5 alpine passes. A chilly rainy morning. Skipping breakfast to spend the day in good company (but barely exchange a single word). Maybe I needed that. I enjoyed it at least. Later Philip sent messages asking why I would start a new training bloc, if there was the option to go to the next one in Europe (well after Zürich, whose registration deadline was missed already): Kalmar. You may have never heard about it, but it is one of the flattest, and fastest, Ironman around. Known for its spectators, and cool windy conditions. I like my Ironmans like my dad like its coffee… cold!
So there I was, riding mostly within the Chamonix valley (as running was made harder with the slopes and swimming pretty much impossible without any pool nearby). Confident that biking is what I need to do most anyway. And cumulating 15hrs+ over the two weeks following Frankfurt. Not quite the typical recovery program, but I can afford it, thanks to having stopped early in the marathon. It was still a lot for my body though, and I was not in great shape when coming back to Zürich to watch the Ironman. 4 weeks went by relatively quickly and I was back home, though with a tense muscle on the right leg from some downhill trail running.
The short road to Kalmar
Then started what I called “the short road to Kalmar”. 3 weeks, the first two training, the last one tapering. One long jog at marathon pace over slightly above 32km. Rainy, drenched, no problem whatsoever (felt too easy). A bit of a swim focus for a few days. Mostly to convince myself that I was still able to swim. Two long rides (one from Zürich to Lausanne with 36km/h average, the second from Lausanne to Bern with 4x10min fast). And that’s pretty much it. I am less nervous than before Frankfurt. The weather forecast shows potential rain, but otherwise close to 20°C. All is set to go well (though as people say, anything can happen).
Having organized a flight to Copenhagen, we still wonder for a bit whether we rent a car for the 4hrs drive, or take the slightly faster train. I push for the second option, as more relaxing. Turns out destiny had planned another sort of travel: Swiss somehow booked 2 bikes on the return flight only, and a single one on the way to the race. ‘We have to check if we have enough space’. (I better hope so). I decide to pack my stuff in a big black sports bag, to which Daniel jokes at the airport, it may be a bomb. Then on the train from Denmark to Sweden, he claims to see the CIA agent from Homeland. And when we jump off to change train in Lund we learn that all trains northbound are canceled, as one station burnt down along the tracks. A bit stranded, and stuck on a non-responsive Swedish hotline, a fellow competitor tells us that replacement buses take no bikes with them. The car rental is the only option other than 3hrs taxi.
And thus we get on a coast road trip to Kalmar. 2 days before the Ironman. Music blasting to the Swedish radio hits. When we arrive there our local agent Sarah informs us how our room works, and gives a short briefing on the city surroundings (true James Bond’s style). Happy to have her take some part of the organization. Our room couldn’t be closer to everything (just cross the road to the start line, 200m from finish and 300m from transition).
A city living for its Ironman
The day before in Kalmar.
Pretty soon one thing is obvious: Kalmar is all-in for the coming Ironman. It might not be a big town, with a single Italian restaurant in the city center, but they planned huge tribune close to the finish line, music is getting ready, flags hung up along the main street as well as high up on the castle, shops open longer (and from 5am on race day), and plenty of yellow bags running around. We should go to our registration, as it closes in two hours. Skip the queue next to the AWA line (not even in the AWA line, sorry I’m a PRO). Come back and mount the bike. Grab a pizza (‘I can eat a ton of it’).
Not much on the plan for the day before the race. A short bike ride of about an hour to check the setup, and get the legs rolling (and wonder why the pedals stop working, and the Garmin freezes, all things you’d rather have the day before). Seems to have a good road surface, long straight lines and only tiny up/down gradients. The wind is blowing already noticeably, though as I expected Daniel claims it is “nothing to get out of the bars for”.
PRO briefing is done in barely 20min. Bikes checked-in with the bags. Time for a last nap and cooking the pasta for dinner. Tomorrow is the day. While I slept well and was relaxed the day before, the last night I only managed to get a 22h30-2h30 sleep before waking up every twenty minutes to check my watch and wonder if I’ll miss my start.
The swim in the Baltic see is an interesting one, and being so close to everything we have plenty of time to walk a bit along the harbor to see the final buoys being installed. As soon as we walk in the ramp the harbor starts to fill with spectators. The water is at a nice 19°C, not as salty as the Mediterranean. We have a few minutes to do some sprints before getting out. I look around (as I pee in my wetsuit), rarely seen such a packed swim start. Frankfurt comes close to give the same “surrounded” feeling. We get to the line with 3min to spare, and Breggren starts actually moving forward. One meter, two, five, Paul says something on the speaker, but there are no line nor kayak, and the motor boat does not dare coming close. Ten meter now, another athlete calls him out as everyone else (me included) joins his level. He decides to swim a little. Seconds later all PROs are 30m beyond the start and the organisers have no other choice but to fire the cannon and declare the games open.
As usual it is all out, going far in the see. I find myself again watching some feet disappear, slightly too fast for me, and hanging onto a next pair. Out and back, with current from the side. There is a bit of action in my group and I decide to not lead this time (I think I could have at some point). We get close to the harbor again. In a little altercation at the buoy I lose my swim cap (which I had placed above the goggles this time around, with another cap below). We are along the walls of the city, and as the currents and competitors push me I almost crash in the concrete a few times. Reaction? Push back a little, and do not worry too much. But it is a nice feeling to almost see feet in your head every time you breathe to the left for 200m. Later along the castle the water is more shallow, and the group extends a little. Less collisions, time to prepare to ride. Total time slightly below 49min (missing 130m on my watch). The first is far away with a world-fastest IM swim (course can make a lot, I know). Daniel gets second out of the water.
As the ramp ends up straight into T1, one needs to be fast to remove the wetsuit. But I did not race short distance and Junior leagues for nothing…
Fast windy bike
Bike (course reco the day before).
Onto the bike as first of my group, it doesn’t last super long until the Öland bridge arrives. 40m climb to get to the top, a descent onto see level again, and about 5k in the crosswinds. I’ve seen people nearly crash their bike, and don’t feel confident on the bars there. As soon as we turn South onto the island it is less of a safety concern as the wind is head on. Strong but consistent. Riding 250W I manage, depending on whether a small forest yields some protection or not, between 32 and 37km/h. Not quite the 38+ I envisaged. I should stay head down, well positioned on the bike. And keep pushing. I stand once or twice but it doesn’t really help. I will be able to relax once we turn back … but that's not for another 45km. I feel like most of my group has passed me, and ride alone for a good while. Miles still go by quite fast. Speed does not increase. I start extrapolating to 180km, and clearly that is above 5hrs. Keep believing (and stay within reasonable power outputs)!
At some point the road turns left and we head inwards. A little climb, and a wind ¾ back. It feels weird to have so much sailing effect in the wheels. As usual there are here and there a small family, or a retiree with a frying pan and a wooden stick to cheer you on. Another left turn and we start the northbound fraction of the course. I consciously drop the watts for a while to recover, and yet a quick sight to the Garmin shows 45km/h. A little later a group of 3 catches up with me, and I think “now would be the time to hang on”. Still they are a bit fast. But a 4th is sort of slowly getting dropped by them and riding my pace. You’ll be my guide for the next kilometers. We’re at the 80km mark, and I am riding 240W behind this guy at 47km/h on a flat road. It really was just the wind. Extrapolating now is a whole other story, and 4h50 should be easily doable. I take more time to stretch and get out of the bars now that the apparent wind is very small.
On the second island crossing the wind is more noticeable. Both because the direction is 2/3 front now, but also because the wind is slowly picking up as the day progresses. The second bridge passage is also strong in crosswinds, especially the descent on Kalmar side. I wonder how the disc wheel people are doing it. Two thirds of the course are done by the time we ride again close to transition, and only the inland loop is waiting. After the first 15km that we had seen the day before, the course heads onto slightly smaller roads with more turns (and speedbumps in 30km/h zones, that I jumped on with 46km/h). By km 140 my tempo guy is standing and stretching and I take the lead. We have not always been very equal in efforts, and the distance varied between 10 and 40m, but it’s still 60km that we’re together. The flats are still flat but slightly less (if it makes sense), the straight are slightly shorter before comes a turn. The headwind on the way back, for the last 30km, is just as present as before.
On the bike course J-1.
We approach transition, all seems good to rock the marathon. 4h41 on the saddle.
You never know if you never try
As I enter T2 I see the orange dress of Daniel waiting next to the bags. It relaxes me. A bit sad to hear that he has to stop, but happy to see he’s clever enough to not even start running. Your time will come. Now it’s on me. Shoes in, gels packed, sugary drink in hand. Very happy to consciously let the running visor in the bag as the day is cloudy. Let’s go!
Daniel starts to run next to me. He wants to exchange a few words on the way to his white street bag. I am just too happy to run, and only tell him: ‘too fast’ (though I’m giving the pace). 4min/km, or a few seconds below. And I feel good. After the few out-and-backs in town, and heading out north, I start wondering if I am risking it all at that pace. Maybe, but “you never know if you never try”. Lots of people around the course, wind in the back, passing a few PROs that exploded (and the single AG that caught me on the bike). Km 7 is here before I can think about settling in a proper pace. A local triathlon club has installed a 10m long red carpet, balloons over the road, and a huge speaker blasting “ta, ta tada, ta tada tada tada, … I’m an albatroaz!” It’s true what they said, Swedes are encouraging everyone, not just people they know.
On the marathon.
The euphoria never lasts forever though. And the hard thing is, the return path to the city is against the wind, with more slight up/down underpasses, and with less people. I start feeling my right leg. Maybe starting on a 2h50 pace was indeed too fast. But now it’s too late. Time to hold, and find some salt…
What remains stays on the same track. Probably slowing down as the marathon progresses, though I looked at my watch once only (km 10, 39’27). Increasing pain and tenseness in the right leg, increasing the asymmetry of my running because of it. And causing blister and knee pain on the third lap. I won’t make it to the 8h30 despite my initial fast pace (or maybe because of it). But I’ll get pretty damn close!
I am super proud to close in 8h32, with a 2h58 marathon. There wasn’t more in the tank for the last kilometers. 34 to 42 was a fight, despite the last music station claiming the “sun is shining, and so are you”. Sarah is directly with me for a medal and a coke, another volunteer brings me to medical for my blisters, and after a little to eat, a short massage, a bike checkout, a kebab, a look at my whastapps, …, I start to realize at the finish line party what a day it really was. I’ve long claimed 8h30 was a dream, and while I technically haven’t reached it, I convinced myself I can aim higher on a perfect day. But that is a story for another time…
Finish line with Sarah helping out.