My girlfriend and I decided to make a bit of a road trip towards Panama City Beach where the race would take place. We flew straight to Miami where we stayed the night. Early up due to the jet lag we sat in a 24 hour breakfast place at Miami Beach together with dressed up people from the Halloween night before. Miami beach has a warm, alive and non-aggressive vibe even in the evenings when people are out drinking and partying,
which I really enjoyed.
After getting our Jeep Patriot rental car we were off towards stop number one: Tampa.
In order to get there we needed to drive through the everglades which are known to be full of Alligators - “gators” as they say.
Once we arrived in our favorite hotel chain on this planet “Hyatt Hotels & Resorts”, I managed to test the waters right at the hotel. Felt amazing to swim towards the sunset after sitting on your butt all day long.
Another slightly longish drive (no German Autobahn in the US!) towards our final destination Panama City Beach, ended the road trip and we could finally settle in at one place.
After many months of googling pictures and counting down days towards this big event we finally arrived at one of the oldest IRONMAN races on the circuit. IRONMAN Florida was just fitting in perfectly with trying to qualify early on and having a warm holiday destination in a place that is new and different to us. We arrived Monday before the race (Saturday) in PBC/Panama City Beach. That gave me plenty of time to have a holiday beforehand, adjusting to my jetlag, resting up and doing the last sessions planned before the big day. Physically I felt more prepared than ever for the IRONMAN distance and mentally I was getting pumped with the help of Niyi Sobo’s podcast “Sports motivation” as well as great tunes.
I prepared all the meals myself since I have to be quite picky with my diet being a LCHF athlete (low carb high fat). The week felt really relaxed and I noticed I was adjusting more and more to the time zone when I woke up in the mornings. Just having the sound of waves crashing into shore as your wake up alarm is holiday in itself. Everyone is different in race week, but I noticed over time that the more relaxed I am, the better I will race. So there was no need to artificially keep myself hyped the days before, since I know on race morning I will be calm and ready. When the gun goes off I am in race mode and my mind and body are united.
When I heard the first seconds of a tune from “Cypress hill” with my eyes closed at 3:30am on Saturday the 4th of November, I knew it meant only one thing: race day. This event being my 8th IRONMAN distance event, I luckily feel calmer when I wake up nowadays. I remember waking up and thinking “what the hell are you doing here?”, feeling very anxious and nervous of what was next to come. You can easily feel very alone in that moment, since in the end it is you that has to complete the distance all by yourself. It can be a scary process but just remember that you are not alone. Just engage in conversations with your friends and loved ones and chat to people on race morning. I always see their faces light up when I wish them good luck or help them out with some mechanical issue shortly before the race. It just makes all the difference. IRONMAN is a community, so help each other and pat them on the back and smile when they look like their eyes pop out due nervousness. IRONMAN triathlon requires a lot of hard work and will power to even make it to the finish line half way prepared. I knew I did not leave one stone unturned, never missed a session and was mentally ready to give my best. Since my bike and most equipment was already waiting for me in transition, I only had to grab my wetsuit and race nutrition and leave through the empty hotel lobby with most people still sleeping on that dark morning. I am extremely grateful I always have my better half and number one support on my side. I couldn’t imagine doing all of that alone, it would not feel the same for sure.
After I dropped off my special needs bag (your own nutrition for bike and run since I want to make sure I don’t test every single toilet they have on course due to stomach issues) I headed towards transition. Everything still being completely dark except for the lights put up by IRONMAN, I showed my IRONMAN wristband to the nice volunteer at the transition entry and I headed towards my second girlfriend: “Cuby” (my bike CUBE C:68 Aerium SL with SWISSSIDE HADRON 800+ Ultimate wheels). Cuby seemed to have slept fabulously and looked fresh and ready. Lucky for her it did not rain the night before, she probably liked that but she didn’t say anything. After placing my SPONSER nutrition on the bike, I quickly helped someone with a small technical issue with his back wheel. A quick high five later for fixing it, I went off for my warm up. I usually have a 10-15min easy run not forcing it, gently allowing my body to heat up. Once I feel my body is awake I follow that up with dynamic stretched, namely for hamstrings, quads, rotation spine, pec's, lat’s and more. Everything has to feel free before I add some run accelerations to get my heart rate up and use the stretch cords to get my upper body ready for the Gulf of Mexico. Always make sure to plan in enough time beforehand to put on your wetsuit (might rip when pulling to hard to get in – you don’t want that 10min before a race) and place yourself correctly at the start line of the swim.
I was confident that I had the fitness to swim under an hour for the 3.8k. I placed myself in the 3rd wave of athletes, all in the sub60min area. I remember a lesson from my first outdoor triathlon where Mr. Supersmart-Me thought: “hey I can just start n the first row, rather me being overtaken than having slower people blocking me” – yeaaaa that wasn’t a good idea. I got dunked and swam over so hard I am still struggling to get air when I think of it. It’s a huge field of great athletes so be realistic and don’t start with the sub50min swimmers which will be at every IRONMAN event.
“One minute till the start” is what I heard between cheering spectators and athletes, the loud music getting everybody pumped and the crashing waves of the ocean. I closed my eyes one last time, took a deep breath and felt pure joy and happiness to be able to stand at this very spot in the soft sand of Florida.
“10seconds to go! 9…8…7…” Wishing everyone around you good luck, patting them on the shoulder and smiling it was time to go after all these hard months of training. “Boom” the cannon went off and everyone sprinted into the ocean. I ran as far as I could jumping over the waves until I dived under the bigger ones crashing into shore. A few dolphin dives later I was swinging my arms around with other athletes around me trying to get a good position and feet to draft off. It was quite hectic and aggressive swimming until roughly 600m where we had to turn left. I made sure to hydrate properly by taking a few big salty gulps of the Gulf of Mexico, which I would not recommend to everyone. That’s just open water swimming, lots of waves and people around you making it a feisty ride. I kept to my pace and before I knew it we took the second turn left again towards the shore. I always try to swim as far as I can until I reach the bottom with my hands before I get up and start dolphin diving towards the beach. My heart rate was surely well up when I hit the beach and made a left past many spectators and loud music.
Back into the ocean for round two of the swim course. When I ran until the water I experienced something very strange I never saw before at a race. The water was hip deep and everyone was just slowly walking into the water. It was quite and it seemed like the race was over already, nobody in a rush to get anywhere – super weird! I didn’t allow myself to follow their comfort walk and went back to diving until I started swimming again. Around halfway of the second lap suddenly the best case scenario appeared for me. I found the perfect feet to swim behind and navigate through the other athletes who were on their first lap. That was definitely making things easier. He was a great swimmer and he did all the zick-zacking through the crowd, I just had to keep in reach with his feet. The second lap gets significantly more challenging since I have to maintain good technique and keep the pace hot. The blown up IRONMAN swim exit gate at the beach signaling the end of the first discipline came quickly after that. Unfortunately, also the first cramps in my left calf and hamstrings when I started dolphin diving towards the shore. I am quite sure this is from not being used to all the strong explosive dolphin jumps and running around and swimming again. In Switzerland we had cold temperatures and definitely no more open water options before I left or any chance to test much of dolphin diving.
Anyways, all good and stoked to see the 59min mark on the clock, I sprinted towards my blue transition bag. I always look for landmarks where I place my bag with hundreds of other blue bags lying around. This time it was the 3rd palm tree on the left right at the fence. “Ha, there it is” – grabbed it and ran towards the changing area. Transition at IRONMAN Florida is different to most others. Normally, I pre-clip in my bike shoes on Cuby and then just hop on and get into the shoes while riding. Not allowed here though, so I had them like all others in my blue transition bag. Sneaky me, I checked with the race officials if it was allowed to put on my shoes right before my bike instead of awkwardly shuffling along towards the bike with the cleats under my shoes. I got the green light for that move, so I sprinted the 400m towards Cuby barefoot while everyone else was wasting time. When I arrived at the place where I left my bike, it wasn’t there! I was looking around and couldn’t believe it for a second. Then I heard a volunteer shouting from my left, having MY GIRLFRIEND CUBY in his hands (can you believe this guy?!). Awesome organization once again from this race to get the bikes ready to leave for the athletes when they come running. I thanked him and grabbed Cuby to head off to our 180km adventure on the highways of Florida.
I had strict watt limits for the first 40k on the bike to allow my body to get the heart rate down from the swim. I took my time and even soft paddled some time to get my body relaxed. My bike skills were asked when I had to do a flying powermeter calibration while riding, since I had the feeling something was off. That’s just IRONMAN racing, do it thousand times in training and on race day you are in for surprises 100%. My hamstrings and calfs felt also pretty tight so I needed some time to stretch them open several times. Around 90min into the bike, I finally felt that my body was really ready to ride. I kept to the prescribed watts, stuck to my race nutrition plan with SPONSER products being mostly sports drink hydration plus one bar for the ride. I was very much not interested in what everyone around me was doing and who was overtaking me since the ride really just starts around 140k in. I waited until then and if I felt good then and the heart rate was good I could up it a touch. My heart rate was constantly at around 145 beats/min, well below what we had planned (low 150s). So, I knew I was saving some beans which I will surely need later in the day. At the 140k mark I could unchain the German genes and hit the gas a little bit. Its also a great confidence boost when you see everyone around you fading and you are the one overtaking and leading the charge. Feeling strong and comfortable in my aero position till the end of the ride (Thanks STAPS – Aero- & Bike fit) I mentally got ready to leave Cuby for some hours of running in PBC downtown.
Unclipping my shoes and placing my feet on top of the bike shoes while riding, I was heading towards the red line where you have to be off your bike. Quick look at my watch – 4:43 hours (38 km/hr average) I was absolutely stoked to be able to do that. I remember my first IRONMAN in 2012 at IRONMAN Switzerland with a 5:40 hours off the bike. I couldn’t possibly imagine how people could bike an hour faster or more. Well, I am happy to say that consistency, joy in doing it and some hard work will get you there eventually.
Some nice lady volunteer grabbed my bike and I ran towards my red run bag (second gap in the fence on the left). I can tell you that my legs were signalling me that there is a difference between a Sunday- on-the-couch and riding your bike for 180k. After I cracked some jokes with the volunteers and I was done tying my shoes (first time not quick lacing for the shoes, I always feel I slip in the shoe no matter how tight, definitely not something I want to think off while running a marathon) I headed out on the first kilometer of the coming 42.2.
My legs came around quickly after feeling a bit like mashed potatoes early in transition. Something that was definitely new for me in an IRONMAN race that somehow I was running alone. For a split second I was even thinking if I am actually on the right track here. Luckily there are fences in the beginning of the run course to guide you like a race horse, so my trust that I am actually running on the right pavement quickly returned. During the first kilometer of running another athlete pulled up next to me. That was the beginning of one of the moments why I love this sport. The fit looking young man turned out to be Steve Jackson from the well-know team “Every Man Jack”. We immediately started a conversation and there was not a second tension between us, like it often appears when racing each other. We on the other hand seemed to sit in the same boat from second one. I mentioned I was planning on running a 3:15 hours marathon and he seemed to like that idea. It was Steve’s first IRONMAN and despite having a 10min mechanical during the bike ride, he was still in great position. Lots to see from him in the future, I am sure. I was planning to hit 4:35 min for every kilometer of running and really hurt myself from 32k onwards for the last 10k. My coach said I would be hanging on for daylight to hold the 4:35s after 32km of running, but I felt like I wanted to try to break the science behind it and push through it with mental strength.
Steve and I were hitting the numbers perfectly and the first 10k felt so ridiculously easy it’s hard to put in words. These 10k are the reason I ran the fastest marathon of my age group. I would say 90% of all athletes are not patient enough to run these 10k easy. It felt like Steve and I were on a Sunday morning stroll, even getting comments from spectators like “guys this is a race, this looks too easy”. We were just chatting away and having a blast together. The chatter got less and less when our legs were telling us that this is still an IRONMAN. At around 25k your legs were quite alive, let’s say. I had to hold Steve on a leash not to speed up to 4:20 min/k which feels quite similar, but really is not for your body. I told him that if he still felt like a million bucks at the 32k mark he can go crush himself. We made a deal to push each other, always taking turn running in front for the last 10k that we basically fall over the line at the finish. We both started to fatigue obviously, but still hit the pace each kilometer. We even played some mental games with other athletes who decided that the Swim-Overbike-Walk – formula is a great idea. We saw two athletes running ahead of us, not quite at the walking level and still running well. I remembered from the first 21k lap that the run course would take a quick left and right turn in about 600m ahead. Steve and I were 10meters behind the two athletes ahead where I decided to hit the gas and run more of a 4:15-20 pace. I just said to him “till the first turn” which he could see ahead as well. So, we were racing past these two guys together, holding good form and putting on our poker face as if we could run this pace all day long. As Sebastian Kienle says “if you go by someone, you have to go by hard”. I had no interest in battling those guys for the remaining run, so better make it quick and painful. Never look back when you are overtaking someone. If someone does that with me, they are in for a treat because I will go full gas after them. With one look that person is displaying so much with one move. For starters: “I am tired, is he going with me or did I shake him?” – well if you do that, I will come wolfing after you little broken sheep.
Steve and I kept the pace hot and as soon we were out of reach and sight for the overtaken athletes thanks to the sharp turns we just ran through, we settled back into the old pace. Steve seemed to have his whole family and group of friends at this event, since it felt like he was getting cheers at almost every corner. Since we were sitting in the same boat, I got these cheers as well and really made things easier “go guys you are looking great” – “you guys are in 20th position overall” etc. – AWESOME! Sticking to my nutrition, drinking so much fluid without really comprehending where it’s all going actually, we were approaching the magical 32k mark we were waiting for. At around 30k I started to feel a twitch in my left inner thigh, which I treated with lots of salt tablets and even more drinks and nutrition. That twitch which might have started at the beach in the morning, became more and more over time though before it eventually became a nice little cramp. Made me jump up a few times actually. Not a place you want to be in since it can quickly ruin your whole race, making you walk home to the finish line. I increased my run cadence and kept the stride length short to not overstretch the already irritated muscle. Hand in hand with that also came a slower pace unfortunately. Mentally I was ready to dig myself a grave on this run course, but I also did not want to walk home and risk it all. I slowed a touch and Steve was still going strong which was awesome! He went off and dropped me to chase his 3rd place of his Age group. I tried to run as smooth and well as I could, chugging coke, salts and drinks like its nothing. My one-kilometer automatic lap from my watch gave the bad news and I showed more around 4:50 pace. At that point you are mentally and physically in such a tunnel that only one thing matters: reaching the finish line. I was actually completely unaware where I was positioned overall or my age group. I knew that a really strong cyclist (French Quentin, Kurc Boucau hit the transition after a 4:14 hours bike split, sick and so awesome – well done mate!) was ahead of me. I saw he really suffered half way through the marathon, but I wasn’t going to risk my race and run a suicidal pace to catch him before the line. Just like during the ride I kept to myself and myself only.
The only moment where I let other people affect my race would be from the 32k mark onwards. From that point onwards, I will follow and chase athletes who are in my age group, taking risks. Unless that person is an uber-runner running 2:55 marathons I will try my best to keep that person in reach. I am convinced that the mental strength is the most important factor after 32k of running. I also know that I love to be in that kind of pain, so what a treat for me to battle it out that late in the race, woopidoo! At the km 40 mark someone came running strong from behind (Mr. fastest run of the day in 3:04hours). One of his supporters shouted “you need 30sec at least” to him. I could not tell if he was at the upper limit of my age group or just and just in the 30-34 age group above me not affecting my Kona qualification. Since I was not sure, there was only one thing I could do. Run after him like a crazy person risking the walk with my cramp-buddy still with me. To be honest it felt really great to have that moment happen to me. IRONMAN is such a calculated sport, that those moment really take all the thinking from you. My thoughts: “Well, he is running away and might be Kona running away from me” – there is only one option really. Full gas. I was somehow running around 4:10 pace with that guy few meters ahead of me. He was surely running like an animal, kudos to him – awesome running.
Thinking back, why did the cramp not show itself until I was at the finish despite picking up the pace that much? Was I just mentally weak before “giving in” a little or is there some physiological overwriting of your brain by forcing it mentally? I do not know, but I am happy to run down the finish shoot with a huge smile, knowing I executed the absolute best race I could that day. I had no idea where I was ranked or if I actually would be allowed to go to the World Champs in Kona or not. All details next to the fact that I know I gave it all. That is all I always ask for and what will make me satisfied with a race. There are races where you cross the line even with a good ranking, but I am not really happy since I knew I did not leave it all out there mentally.
The finish line:
The finish shoot of an IRONMAN is always unique, no matter how many you have experienced. On the one hand, your mind and body finally want to get some piece of all this madness. On the other hand you don’t want it to stop since after you cross the line, your big day you have been waiting for, is over. Let me tell you, my legs were just fine with reaching the finish line. Barely made it to a chair where I sat for a good 20min getting some medical checks since I did not seem to look so fresh anymore. I felt tired but healthy and I just needed some sitting. I saw Steve opposite the room getting some medical attention. That man really dug himself a little grave on that run course to get his Kona qualification, amazing performance battling the ups and downs like a boss – more than well deserved.
The day after:
Waking up after an IRONMAN is not fun. I really do not recommend that to anyone. How hard can it be to turn yourself around in bed? Well, its not really fun after an IRONMAN, let me tell you that. After I got my corpse up from bed and got in some high quality breakfast and even more low quality chocolate cookies, I took the elevator down to the garage to head off to the awards ceremony.
I was already so sure that I got the Kona slot posting things on Instagram before I received a little reality check. In last years IRONMAN Florida there was exactly ONE slot to get to Kona in my age group. I have never heard of that before, since its always two in the 25-29 age group. Well, there I was slightly nervous heading towards the awards ceremony. When I arrived at the place I could see a big screen with an excel table on it. Squinting my tired eyes I could read some numbers on it. I rushed closer and could see the table was about the slot allocation of slots per age group. M18-14: 1 slot, M25-29: 2 slots. YES, boy was I happy! I came in 2nd in the Age group 25-29 and 10th overall from 2400 athletes in a time of 9:06 hours, something I am immensely proud of. I couldn’t believe that I was allowed to go back to this beautiful island to do a bit of triathlon there!