2.4 mi swim/112 mi bike/26 mi run. For every oval sticker on the back of a car, for every red logo tattoo on the back of a calf muscle, there’s a story. These are things I recall from yesterday, only 12 hours from my finish. Instead of crafting the thoughts into a chronological listing – for this post I’ll empty them in no specific order. The raw nature of doing this will bring out what I remember most. And I have some pictures to help the story…
- The bike course. You can look at a map online, you can read posts from others who had done the race before, and drive around in a car prior to the race. Nothing supplants riding the hills and unseen roads with the adrenaline burst you have on race day. I knew to keep my “on the flats” speeds in check due to the hilly nature of the middle and very end of the ride. Two loops meant I saw the terrain on the first one, observing what faster and local riders did – then I got to emulate whatever I could remember a few hours later for lap #2. Really hot sun with minimal breezes away from Lake Zurich meant every water station was a chance to pour coolant on my back, legs and through the only hole in my aero helmet. I also diluted some of my water bottle mixture of Carbo Pro and EFS powder simply to add cool water. The night before I had frozen all 5 of my premixed bottles and arranged to start with them on the bike (3) and put two at the Relax Station in Forch. Because the race quickly turned warmer once the sun rose, all of the bottles, even though they were white, got warmer each 15 minutes. Ok once I left transition, soon they were room temperature, then too warm to even taste. While swimming I actually wondered if they’d be defrosted by the time I needed to ride with them, having left them on the bike starting at 5am. Lesson – Drinking warm, sticky, powder water seldom feels any good when you’re humping it up the hills. I was conscious enough to never squirt my “enriched” water bottle fluids on myself to cool off. It wouldn’t be a hard mistake to make however, my bike holds 3 bottles. I had to think which one had just water… etc. The scenery for the IM Zurich bike ride is a “10.” The comaraderie among the riders crawling up mountain passes at 7 mph was incredible. Locals were setting up sprinklers on their lawns, on top of their cars and in front yards – bringing cool water to ride through if your chose. Everyone knew the burn of 95 degree weather meant athletes would be really suffering through the course that on just a cool day, would be a fine test of riding ability and conditioning. The race crew, volunteers, thousands of fans, the other riders, everyone played well together. Someone has to have taken great pictures of the views and sights on our completely clear day for riding the hills of Switzerland. If I can poach some from the web or Flickr I’ll include them here.
- The weather. A week before the race (And three days into the “10 day forecast” range) the outlook for IM Switzerland was 78 deg high temp, 59 deg low temp and maybe the water would be low 70s. My tracking of the water temp at Mythenqaui (Swim start area) showed a dramatic climb in a matter of days from high 60s water to “wetsuit prohibited” temps right as we were boarding our flights in Miami to come here. I borrowed a full sleeve wetsuit to be ready for the cooler water, even a 72-74 deg temp on my “whimpy” Florida swim body could chill me over the 2.4 mile distance. All for naught – the race was rumored to be too warm for any wetsuits on Thursday. On Friday night we received a comfirmation of this via email from the IM Switzerland race team. Banned. Ok, not my ideal situation, because swimming in the TYR Hurricane wetsuit I had brought would be like cheating , I felt I could move much faster than I could muster on my own when I swam in that gear. Add a fresh water swim and the crowd funnel start area (See swimming section below), and you’ll understand why this weather change to Europe being covered in a heat wave was step one in the addition of time to my race day total.Let’s be honest, besides pretty blondes, who correlates anything “hot” with Switzerland? It’s a nordic country with winter sports at its heart. (Oh, and chocolate!)
Swimming. I had seen a few YouTube videos of the swim start for Zurich, I was always focused on the mass number of people that poured into the water after the start horn blared. Being there, you could see that the swim beach was not big enough to hold all 2600 racers across the sand, they were lined up 12-15 deep charging into the water. A special “ladies area” was apportioned to the left of the diving platform, that’s where Suzanne and Lanae began their race.They said a few guys mixed in to start with girls, and they may have opted to swim in the mass start if they knew that was the case. Lanae said many of her encounters on and under other athletes came from ther women! I stayed in the middle of the crowd, foolishly, about 3-4 people off the water for my start. So many people from each side funneled into the buoy marked lane for the race. My first 800m (guess) was a complete street-fight, with no deliberately mean incidents, just too many people vying for too little space – all
heading in approximately the same direction. The elimination of wetsuits really threw many of the Euro competitors into a frenzy – they usually only know swimming with a wetsuit in cool waters. The idea of a bare chested pool swim for 2+ miles was concerning to many. It showed in the results.
- The venue – IM Zurich is an incredible race. All components of the course have the potential to amaze you. Swimming in a lake you can drink? Riding two weeks after the TdF on hills with climbs, turns and fast descents? Running on a well maintained course with many cheering fans, each encouraging you in different languages? This is a great spot for a long course triathlon. Expect this race to sell out earlier each successive year. I’d come back to do this again, definitely. The race organizers were very prepared – they made adjustments in the days leading up to the race when it became apparent it would be very hot. Then as the marathon was underway for all but the fastest finishers, they switched gears and had hundreds of IM ponchos and mylar heat blankets available to ward off – believe this – COLD! Great organization under some trying conditions.
- The Race – An early arrival to transition thanks to Erika Eichenberger put us right at Mythenquai for the swim start. First, we setup our transition areas. The bikes and equipment bags were deposited last night on a ride to town Suzanne, Lanae and I had done. We put more things into the RUN and SWIM bags, these are held outside transition tents for us to grab as we swap disciplines. We also surrendered our white “street wear” bag for after the race. I forgot to drop a towel in there for showering after the race, but there was a finisher’s towel distributed at the line, so worst case I figured I could use that.The three of us went over the chip mat between Landiweise into Mythenquai and were officially “Ironman starters.”Suzanne and I did a warmup swim to a yellow buoy in very flat and cool waters. This warmup saw me doing regular freestyle strokes, checking to see my goggles were on under my swim cap and that I was feeling well overall. I wasn’t nervous about the race, still only one hour from starting. I was surprised to see not many others tested the waters, however. Plenty of folks chatted with family on the beach; it seemed like people were arriving right up to the point where the starting horn went off. The sun was creeping over the mountains in front of us, and sprinkles of rain came as the announcers cleared the area for the Pro start. I’m so impressed at their times – they do not get to fight out the mass start like the 2500+ age groupers, but instead they start as a pack of 65 athletes together 5 minutes before the big age group start. Looking back at the winning times, they seemed only slightly phased by the blast furnace heat predicted for the biking and running segments. I elected to start in the middle of the beach, about 3 people off the water. Stash, (sp) a guy we met from Mass. was near me for the swim start. Suzanne and Lanae opted for a go at the “ladies area” start, to the left of the big diving platform. They said it was a crowded mess getting over to the main “channel” marked out by the race officials to turn buoy #1. Lanae said many of the lumps and bumps she received were from other girls fighting for positioning BEFORE the mix of men and women occurred just 250-300 meters from the shore. And she said that a few men snuck into the ladies start area, hoping for less of a washing machine experience. Overall, this is a tight start area for that many people. I was very much in the middle of it all, foolishly, since I’m not an “A grade” swimmer. I’m average. My first 500m were very congested, some elbows and bumps, some wayward off course zig-zag swimmers, but no evidence that guys just wanted to bully through or over me. It was a case of too many people cramming into too little space. One time as I gasped for air I did question how I could continue doing this for 2 more miles. I never considered pulling off or stopping. At the first buoy, there was a slowing of all swimmers as they approached the turn, then some space to swim in. I found myself behind a guy that would only take several freestyle strokes, then scissor kick with his head above water to see where he was. Annoying because his constant slowing to scissor kick put his feet in my face, these are the spoils of not being ahead of knucklehead swimmers like that. I saw some clear patches of water ahead once we swam on leg #3 of the first rectangle – that was good. I concentrated on keeping my chest down and my torso swiveling. When you get hit or collide with another swimmer, you tend to revert to sloppy and inefficient stroking. I felt slight toe cramping on my left foot, at these times I drank some of the lake water. In the rare clear patches of water I did find, I wanted to have some competency swimming. I swam under the spectator bridge and ran across the “island” to start lap #2. Less people in the way, yes, but a slow beginning as people rested some, checked their goggles, greeted family and friends on the island. According to the timing from the race, my pace per 100m was slower in my second segment, although I didn’t feel any different swimming. I was glad to get out of the water at the end of lap #2. I was among plenty of athletes, I didn’t bring a watch, so time in the race wasn’t much of a concern. Same for the bike and run, no watch, no Garmin, just go on feel. There was plenty of concern about the heat and athletes in aero helmets, no wetsuits, etc. I was looking to do well, but not blowout any segment of the race at the expense of another.Transition was easy – a little more than 5 minutes to find everything and suit up. They had sunscreen in the changing tents, one or two squirt top tubs of SPF 25. I used that on my arms and back of neck, the remainder on my face. It didn’t last long in that sun, I watched my forearms on the bike become red. Even frequent questioning at water and bike aid stations revealed there wasn’t much on the course for sunscreen. I made it onto the bike course and The sun was hot cruising from the transition zone around the lake. This first 30km of the 90km 2 loop course was spent keeping my speed under 21 mph and not getting in trouble with the very diligent drafting referees. I saw 3-4 flats in the first 10 miles of riding, I was happy and relieved I wasn’t along the roadside jerking around with the bike and grease this early in the race. We may have had a breeze behind us, I wasn’t concentrating on that. The views of Lake Zurich and the towns that surround it were amazing! The first big aid station, the Natasha Badmann station, took in many riders that had only one water bottle, so they’d be stopping at each station. Then we rode into hills, the 30km timing chip and some shade on one side of the road. Many people were working their way past me, but I was on a good pace I felt I could keep and still run well in 5 more hours. We went through beautiful towns with great views as our route began to climb away from the lake and up into the hills. I used the Carbopro and EFS drink solution, the almond butter and strawberry jam sandwiches and salt pills about every 30-45 minutes. Of the original 8 sandwich portions I made, I only used 3. They seemed dry, so that was an early race adjustment. Every once in awhile I’d eat a papaya enzyme pill to calm down what may be brewing in my stomach. Up and down the hills until we reached “The Beast.” This slow 6km climb came abruptly after making a right turn while traveling pretty quickly on the flats. I could see riders slowly cranking up the hill, then looking further up I saw more riders on the switchbacks. My speeds were 8 and 7 mph in my lowest, easiest gear. This was enough to pass a few other people, while still others passed me. I noticed one guy had a triple front sprocket like a mountain bike – that made his job a bit easier! The referee motorcycle came up and rode next to me. We were in a clump of riders way inside the 10 meter “no drafting” rule, but it was clear that no one was benefiting from being behind someone heading up The Beast. There was good spectator support here, plenty of people yelling, “Allez, allez,”or “Hopp hopp” as riders tested their legs against this hill and the heat. Most of the hill was in the sun, there were a few shady spots around turns. I recall a spectator telling me before I reached the little schoolhouse landmark that I only had 500m left. Then another 300m up the road, I was told the same thing! So cycling is just like marathoning – you’re ALWAYS “almost there” according to the bystanders. This hill was followed by a fun descent, a good passing opportunity for the brave willing to speed right down the middle of the road! Then another unnamed climb, one Erika, Sal, Suzanne and I drove the day before to the grocery store. We called it, “The Grind” because it had one straightaway along the RR tracks, not many curves, no trees and no incline changes. I heard a British guy call it a “drag,” maybe that’s a cycling term I’m not familiar with. That went straight through Scheuren, notably familiar territory for me. That’s the train station we had been using all week to get from Erika’s house (Our host) and Zurich City Center. From there it was only a quick 1.5 mile uphill to the Relax Station that we had seen and referenced many times on our stay, this was a good spot on the course for me during both laps. Erika was waiting at the top of the road at the Relax Station to greet us, a chip sensor told the announcer who was coming as family and friends waited at the top. This was the only aid station on the course where fam & friends could give you aid along with the race volunteers. The special needs bag you put in a bin at the transition zone was transported to the Relax Station by race officials for you to use later in the day. Erika had wisely positioned my white bag of water bottles and extra food at the front of the table. It was well-marked and easy to find. Because I swam slow (In my opinion) I asked Erika how the girls were doing, figuring they’d passed me and had already been here. Erika said no, they hadn’t been up the hill yet. I told her it was slow going with the heat and swim difficulty, but that we all started together (No waves) so they would be up shortly. It was a mental boost to see her smiling and so enthusiastic to cheer for me. The slight familiarity we had with that area helped – it would help me again even more on the second loop. After that station, we rode mild flats on the highest portion of the course then downhill to the lake. The views were memorable – a perfectly clear and cloudless day. The Alps, Lake Zurich and the city were crystal clear. This part was very fun, many times you had a clear view of the road ahead and you could let your wheels roll and pedal with them to get good speeds going. Oddly, the only thing I was usually seeing on the CatEye computer was my cadence. I saw a speed of 42 mph once, I figured that was good for me considering I didn’t know the route and how fast I could take the turns. Riding back down towards Zurich, I circled the lake, felt good, and went by the race site. I didn’t see any fans I knew, I was ready to wave if I did. I went past the transition area and saw Phil Liggett standing in the road on the mic with the IM officials! He was saying he had been a part of so many European cycling events but this was his first visit to an Ironman. My thoughts – If I’m going to be riding a bike in a race in Europe, please have Phil Liggett be my announcer! Now I pedaled towards the Heartbreak Hill area of the course, a once up and down exercise that mimics Tour de France climbs. It wasn’t where we originally thought, but the climb and elevation was very similar. We switched back a few times, crowds got larger, people had sprinklers and hoses out on their lawns pointing at the road – it was an exciting time. Based on my split time, I was probably there around 11:30-noon, a completely hot segment of the day with no shade relief. When I made the last turn and headed towards the “Scott” inflatable finish arch at the top of the hill, I was having fun interacting with the cheering fans. No one else was, so about half way up when I knew they could hear me, I fist pumped and began the “OLE song” cheer. Two quick rounds of that had most of the fans chanting their familiar soccer stadium anthem! That was exciting and fun, an announcer called out the name for each person reaching to top – I definitely heard the, ‘Dave Masterson, U-S-A” voice. at the top, I visited the aid station and I squirted water in my aero helmet hole and on my back, the cold stuff was a great feeling. My water bottles filled with mixture were warm, but I needed the nutrients I had stashed in there. I diluted some by pouring half out and subbing in cold water. It made it much nicer to drink – but not for long. These white bottles were heating up fast now in 94 degree heat with little clouding or shade. I rode down the hilly area, past the Lindt Chocolate factory (Smells amazing) and back past transition to begin lap #2. I still didn’t see any of my fans, maybe they were involved with Mia’s Ironkids race? Back onto the lakefront flat zone, this time I had few fellow riders passing me, I was doing most of the passing even at a slower speed than I had at this point on lap #1. The course had strung people out along the road or knocked people out of the race completely. I stopped at most water stations during lap #2 to get cooler drinks, splash my back and legs, or squirt cold water on my head through the aero vent. I kept up with the occasional salt pill and papaya enzyme chewable to keep things regular inside. I felt the exertion in the heat, but didn’t have any point where I would really slow down or stop on the course. I saw riders pulling off in the shade to rest, a few flats being tended to by a great volunteer force on motorcyles. Once I got back to the hilly area, the scene had changed from earlier in the morning. Way less people were climbing, direct sun everywhere and much hotter temps than before. I climbed, stayed at good paces, sometimes led other riders up, sometimes I was following. I rode behind a British guy that was positioned next to the middle painted divider stripe. This made it tough to pass him, and since passing on the right was illegal and unsafe, it took me a few miles to get around him on a downhill segment. I went up The Beast again, at seemingly a comparable speed, to find most of the spectators were gone off the top. Then down some smooth hills, up “The Grind” area climb again, and I was back at the Relax Station. I wasn’t planning on seeing anyone, but near the top on the sidewalk was Erika, waiting with a bag of ice! My plan was to swap out the bottle that was the warmest, put water in the other ones with their mixture, and be gone. No more sandwiches, they didn’t taste to well today. Erika ran beside me, explained that she knew I wanted ice so she went home and got it. She also told me Suzanne was behind me and looking good, but Lanae hadn’t met the swim cutoff so she was out of the race. Weird because I thought I saw her on the out and back near transition area. I really thought I saw her blonde head in helmet , riding the Kestrel bike. I even thought as I climbed that I’d see her whiz by and remind me that I never went to Clermont to train on the hills. Now at Relax Station for lap #2, I wasn’t alone, meeting Erika was such a good positive burst of energy heading to the downhill part of the course. I rode with now a limited but better idea of where things were, so partnered with my new cool drinks and enthusiasm from a very positive Erika that I was doing well, I sped down towards the city. I never looked at the speedometer while I was descending, I was fixated on the road, other riders to pass and the course’s turns ahead. My max speed for the second round of descents was 50.0 mph. I noticed this only as I approached transition to see how long I’d been riding. Scrolling through the CatEye features, Max Speed went by and said “50.0 mph.” I don’t get to do that often anywhere in Florida! Coming back around the lake, my speed was good, maybe 19-21 mph. A second pass by transition showed no fans but people out running their marathons in the heat. The run course had shade, but some long stretches othat were exposed to the sun areas, too. Now to pass transition again for the last time before I get to hop off and finally run. I passed that milestone at around 100 mi., then went for the second HeartBreak Hill climb. Not as many spectators in the dead middle of the afternoon, the music and announcer were still on duty, and it was easier knowing it was relatively shorter than The Beast. Down the hill, past Lindt Chocolate again and I was heading to transition. Sal, John and Mia greeted my arrival with a sign they held up for me. I figured they had secretly made it at the house when we were at registration or something. I discovered after the race that Suzanne McCarthy made one for each of us and sent them across with John in his luggage! Well done and thoughtful, Suzanne, Lanae nor I saw any hint of that in advance. I hopped off the bike, smiled and ran off to transition. John later told me most of the other riders finishing before or after me just unclipped their shoes, got of the bike, and walked it in. I applied more SPF in the tent, shed the helmet and cycling shoes, grabbed a visor and fanny pouch filled with new salt pills and enzymes and ran out. I had the new Skechers Meb Speed endurance shoes – very good! I had run in them twice before the race and now it was distance day. Designed for low heel lift, light weight and cushioning, they certainly stood out vs what else I was wearing. I saw Mia, Sal and John again at the top of a hill. I felt good, ready to fuel up and be diligent in pacing out a marathon in extreme heat. The race organizers positioned the run aid stops in good places, and each had wet sponges, water, Powerbar drink, food and sweets, then water again. I grabbed sponges at most stops, with each I’d wipe myself, squeeze the cool water on my head or back, then just carry it in alternating hands for something to think about. The course was on roads, in parks, and then made a big loop in the most crowded part of Zurich – the lakefront by the bridge. This had many runners, many fans, and was very exposed in the bright sun. My first two laps were hot. I ran steady with no regard for matching anyone’s pace. I didn’t have a Garmin or even a watch to calculate laps, so this was like a person doing a first marathon. Enjoy the experience. You were given a wristband at each lap, I had two of these when I first saw Suzanne on the run course. Lanae and Rick positioned themselves in a shady spot near the bridge, John had been moving around the transition area taking pictures, so I had some idea on each lap where I’d see people I knew. In laps 3 & 4 it became apparent that many of those still out there weren’t running strong. I had a good strategy of trying to keep my laps even and stomach and nutrition in control. Looking at my time of 4:13 – I could have pressed harder for the running. The final two laps were run in different conditions than the first two. The sky quickly clouded, winds blew into the city and brought swirling dust clouds on the portions of the run paths that weren’t paved. Even with Oakley Radars on, the dust from the winds made it’s way under my lenses and into my already dry eyes. I stopped at one aid station and poured a cup of water in my face in hopes of clearing away the dust. It was not dark out due to sunset, but the shaded segments of the course became darker and in some places difficult to see the path. Thunder and lightning started in the middle of my third lap, then it started to rain. The temperature dropped about 15 degrees, meaning now the athletes had a new problem – cold! Sweaty bodies, or those wet from pouring water and sponges on themselves were now chilled in wind and rain. I felt my nipples grating on the inside of my cycling jersey (Your upper body had to be covered on the run course) so I visited the med tent at an aid station and got two big Tegaderm patches. That took care of me feeling cold and sore. I adjusted my visor low when running into the wind and kept a handle on it because the chance of it blowing away became greater as the storm intensified. I ran my final lap with the idea of getting to the furthest point away at my same pace, then speeding up to come back. I did this, coming quickly past the aid stations and other runners, many of whom also had 4 wristbands. This meant that they were heading to the finish corral and fan bleacher zone, too. I wanted to have some time on the “magic carpet” without passing a crowd along the way. This was my motivation to scoot quicker in the final 5k. I was back near the transition zone, listening to the announcer bring the athletes in – unaware of how long I’d take to finish today’s whole race. I came around the final chute, ran through the spectator bleacher area, then towards the chase lights and cheerleaders. They call all the names out and announce “You’re an Ironman” all in English. They really do a great job at the finish, the DJ had upbeat and modern music, there was plenty of crowd support, and everything was organized after you crossed the line. I finished in 12 hours 37 minutes. Once past the finish line, your family and friends could wait for you and meet up together. In what had developed into a continuous rainstorm, John, Rick and Lanae all had IM ponchos on. I greeted them, thanked them for staying out in the cold and messy weather, then went back for my medal. I visited the medical area to try to get an IV bag of saline tapped in I felt good, and doing this would start a rapid recovery I thought. Then I went to the athlete only zone, had a box filled with very salty pasta, a red colored water drink, and went back out into the rain to find everyone. I walked around the area behind the finish line, went up into the bleachers, visited the regular spectator food zone, finding no one. I figured they were following Suzanne on her final laps of the run. After an hour of watching others finish in the rain and looking in the vendor area (Closed due to the lightning) I saw John first. He knew where the rest of our people were. Sal coordinated for us to leave and clear transition, he estimated that Suzanne would be in with 10 minutes to spare. That would leave all of us in jeopardy of not having bus/rail service by the time she got her transition stuff cleaned and had some food. We began gathering my things and heading out. We went back to Erika’s house not knowing Suzanne’s fate. She did finish with 10-12 minutes to spare, while Lanae, John, Rick and Mia made our way to the Central Station, then walked to the Stahdelhoven station for our ride back up the hill to the Forch area. When I got home, I was fatigued but definitely not ready to go to bed. I had plenty of thoughts I could share now that I wasn’t alone on the course just thinking them! Suzanne and Sal came home about 45 minutes after we did, they had taken a taxi with her bike on board, too. Finally, a day that began with a 3:45am wake up, plenty of prep, 12+ hours on a tough course – was over.
I’d certainly visit Zurich again to do this race, and I know my next long course triathlon will be faster and I’ll have more experience in fueling myself and spending energy. What a race!