On Sunday 29th July 2018, I took part in Ironman Hamburg. This was my third Ironman, with a twist, no swim. I was very anxious about the swim leading up to the event, especially as the weather made it likely to be a non wetsuit swim, and posted about my pre-Ironman nerves, see blog HERE. Although this element made me nervous, its a good thing, and something I was ready to embrace. I was looking forward to the challenge, and wanted to PB still, 12:30 was my personal target. So you can imagine the disappointment when it was announced the swim was cancelled. I am very disappointed and can’t help feeling hard done by after spending a fortune on the event, but I understand that the organisers had no choice with the water conditions being unsafe.
So it wasn’t a triathlon, but I’m not going to dwell on that, it was still an Ironman, and one that is unique at that. They replaced the 2.4 mile swim with a 6k run, making this a duathlon, my first ever duathlon. Although I can cover 6k much quicker than a 2.4 mile swim, this made the challenge slightly harder. Technically the course is now further than an Ironman. A 2.4 mile swim is 3.8k so to make it an appropriate replacement they increased the distance by 1.3 miles (3.7 miles) and moved the start back by 30 minutes. This wouldn’t be a like for like challenge, and I won’t get the PB I was aiming for, but it’s longer, and arguably more difficult. I usually leave the swim with fresh legs, starting a 112 mile bike after a short run is very different.
Before taking on my third Ironman I had a look back at my first two experiences. I took on Ironman Weymouth 2016, the only full distance Ironman have put on over this lumpy course. I completed this in 14:17. I was then back for more in Ironman Kalmar 2017, a flat course that was very windy, and described as the hardest year to complete. I took off a big chunk of time completing in 13:33. Which brings me to today, the second edition of Ironman Hamburg, and 2018 will be one to remember with a unique duathlon.
Before the event:
It is true that Ironman is very expensive, but you pay for a fantastic experience. I always enjoy the expo, and registration, and from my experience and from what I’ve heard from others, you always know what to expect. You can find the Mdot with your name on, which is featured on much of the merchandise, I always grab a few souvenirs. You collect a bag, which had decreased in quality over the last few years, but I really like the style this year, and it has all you need in it.
There is an athlete’s briefing and then a welcome banquet. Its free for competitors and I paid 20 euro for Kirsty to join, and the kids came free. The food wasn’t great when you compare to the spread at Kalmar, but it was decent pasta, fruit and cake. But the beer and other drinks were free flowing.
When I heard the news that the swim had been cancelled I was in a park with a large open area for swimming, I had my shorts and goggles so went for a dip, so at least I swam in Hamburg.
Most of the time in the days leading up to the Ironman wasn’t spent doing Ironman stuff, but spending time with my family. Yes I moaned a lot, I was stressed, I irritated Kirsty from all my anxious worrying first of all about a non wetsuit swim and then the disappointment at not doing a swim. I know I can be a pain, but appreciate the support from my family, and the best memories come from the experiences spent with them.
The day before the race I had to rack my bike and drop off my bags. There was confusion at the check in as the normal guidance is we would not be able to touch bags on race morning. But we were made to leave our bibs in our bag overnight and told to collect in the morning. This is minor. I got all set up and ready to go.
On event morning I got up around 5:00. I got ready quietly in the dark to not wake the kids, and walked to the start which was only about a mile and a half from my hotel. Once I got there I went straight into transition, where I lined up against fellow competitors, including Don.
Everyone was doing last checks of their bike, and so many pumping up their tyres. My bike was fine, and frankly there was nothing for me to do, I just went to check my bags and then went to the start line. I was really anxious, but calmer than normal, and I couldn’t go to the toilet which was unusual, and something that worried me.
Swim 6k Run – 27:38
The biggest disappointment for everyone was that the swim was cancelled. This couldn’t be helped, because of blue green algae in the water. What is most frustrating is that we had a thunderstorm on Saturday night, which cooled the air, and this would have been a wetsuit legal swim and the water looked amazing.
The start wasn’t really well organised to be honest, no-one knew where to stand, and we couldn’t find any signs for seeding yourself. I worked out roughly half way back. I’m usually toward the back of the swim, and I was curious about the impact on the bike having people finishing so close together. I didn’t want to start too far back on the run as I knew I would be a strong runner.
Once we were close to starting many of us realised there was a barrier in front of us, we had all lined up in a line but looks like the start was supposed to curve around to the side. So we climbed over the barrier. I was really impressed with the start, they set people off in 10 second intervals in groups of 3. This meant the whole thing too about 60 minutes. This did a great job of splitting people out, so once we came to the bike it wasn’t too crowded.
I started after 18 minutes and took it nice and steady. There was good crowd support, and before long I was approaching transition. I finished the swim, I mean run, in 27:38. Realistically I would be looking at about an hour slower if it was a swim, but its not comparable. It is impossible to know what impact the run had on legs compared to the way I would have felt after a gentle swim.
T1 – 5:26
The transition was long. Im used to a carpark type set up, so there is less distance to travel, but this set up was the fairest ive seen, as everyone travels the same distance. You come into transition and grab your bag, I was fresh so had a relatively quick change. The thing that took the time was the long run to my bike in my cycle shoes. A nice smooth transition and I was out on the bike.
Bike – 7:12:30
The bike started so well. Its two laps of 90k, and basically a flat course. We had a bit of a head wind, but this didnt create too much resistance. In all it was a fabulous fast course. There are two points to note, the GPS doesnt pick up the whole journey as you lose signal under a bridge that you go under 4 times, and there is a cobble section that lasts a couple of hundred metres that you also cross 4 times. People lost bottles and all sorts over the cobble section, and it basically made you slow to a stop. It didnt matter how slow you went over, it bounced you all over the place.
It was going really well, at 40 k I was on for 6 hours and felt strong. With my lack of bike training I always knew it would be hard, but on a flat course I was confident I could sustain a pace close to 6 hours. On the section coming back to transition on the first lap at about 60k I heard a ping, I thought nothing of it at the time, and the bike got harder to pedal. I initially assumed that I had tired, but my pace was sapped and I felt good, I then heard a noise and noticed my brakes kept knocking against the wheel. I didn’t like to stop but I thought I had no choice, so I pulled over to investigate. To be completely honest I felt like a fraud, I didn’t know what I was looking for, but it soon became clear, a spoke on my wheel had broken. There was no way to repair this without taking the tyre off (I assume) and I certainly couldn’t do anything about it now. I spent 5 minutes trying to right my wheel, but soon realised there was nothing I could do. I noticed that it was creating a lot of added resistance which explained why it was so hard. Before this I was averaging 18 miles an hour and being reserved with my energy, I feel like I could have sustained this on the flat course. The first 40k was in headwind, so I didn’t even utilise much of the tail wind. From that point on I was struggling to maintain about 12 miles an hour, and really having to work hard to do anything more. I would like to think if I had a clear run I would have come in after 6 hours. Finishing in just over 7 hours with the issues I had is something I’m proud of. Its also given me motivation for next time. On a flat course I would have done 6, but I was being reserved, but I had to push much harder to generate pace for the last 120k, so I wonder what pace I could have got to if I didn’t have these issues. We will find out next time.
From about 60 miles I had terrible pain in my toes which I believe was a pooling of blood. This can happen from tight shoes, so I loosened, this was pretty consistent on and off for the remaining 50 miles. I spent long periods out of my saddle trying to wiggle my toes and ease the pain I was feeling. On reflection I think it must be associated with the issues I had with the back wheel. I was having to push so hard to generate forward movement and I was really worried about the cut off. The pressure I had to push down with would certainly have put more pressure on my toes. This was a horrible feeling that made it hard to continue.
The aid stations were fantastic, which is to be expected at an Ironman event. The set up for each was identical, you came in to drop bottles, then you had water followed by Iso, followed by gels, bars and then banana, then coke. I made sure a took an Iso every time, and must have drunk about 10 litres, and I must have had about 3 litres of water. I also took half a banana at each station. I had some cliff bars on the bike, but didn’t take on many gels. I fuelled well, the route was lovely, and the roads were good except for the cobble section. Other than the aid stations there was little support on the bike, a few locals were out, and most of the marshals were sunbathing enjoying the beautiful weather. I was also impressed that apart from one or two who didn’t care, I didn’t see much litter and participants were respecting the no litter rule.
It was great at about 170k to see Kirsty and the kids, she missed the photo opportunity but a high five with Benjamin was great. Overall I was unhappy with the time as I think I could have taken an hour off. If I had given it my all and came in with that time I would have been happy, its just frustrating when I was riding so well, despite the lack of long training rides. I think the mechanical evened out my improvement from the lack of swim, but made it harder. But I take a lot of confidence from this, as I have always been so nervous of a mechanical failing. But I’ve had one and lived to tell the tail. Let’s just say I was pleased to see the transition.
T2 – 12:38
After a tough bike my back was really sore, as I dismounted I could barely stand up straight. At this point my target time (in my head I had 12:30 and I removed an hour for the swim so 11:30) had become out of reach. I knew I had done it, I would complete my third Ironman, so I just took time to compose myself. It is a bloody long transition, especially in cycle shoes. I like it as its the fairest, with no athletes having an advantage over anyone else. I got to my bag and sat to have a redbull as I got my trainers on. I think I would have been a few minutes quicker if I wasn’t on the bike for so long. I started the bike probably top 10%, and got off it about 90%, I would expect to lose a lot of places on the bike as I’m not strong on it, but shouldn’t have lost so much, so when racking it was a little disheartening knowing that mine was one of the first bikes out and one of the last back.
Run – 4:35:02
The run is always one of the best bits of the Ironman. It is always lapped, but full of support. Ironman Hamburg had 4 laps, with 4 aid stations on each lap, and the whole course was full of support. This is unlike any normal marathon, everyone is going a lot slower and walking is far more common. A lot of people walked the aid stations, I walked all of them. Most Ironman come from cycling origins so when I get to the run I start running at a faster pace than most around me.
I started off a little slow as I got my body used to running, but I was soon in sub 4 pace. I thought a nice sub 4 pace would be lovely, so I kept my pace between 8:30 and 9 min miles. I was just running to feel and this pace felt comfortable. The aid stations were fantastic with water, salt water, Iso, redbull, coke, bars, gels, fruit, ice and cold wet sponges at every single station. I walked for just over a minute at every station but it was a great way to take on fuel. By this stage in an Ironman it is really difficult to take anything on, but so important. It was so hot and the ice cold sponges were a life saver.
I completed the first lap of 10.5 k and collected my green band, well on track for sub4. Just before the end of the lap I saw my family, and this gave me a welcome boost. It is a long hard day completing an Ironman, but my thoughts go out to all the families out there. It is all the support that makes the run so special and the motivation keeps people going. It is such hard work with young children, and I really appreciate my family being there for me.
On the start of the second lap I felt a little sluggish and I was preparing to adjust my pace. I had hoped for sub 4 and the pace felt good, but mentally I just didn’t want it enough, the bike had been tough, I just wanted to coast until the end. I had seen lots of Brits on course, but just as I was about to slow some guy said, “are you pick up the pace Paul”. It turns out that Matt was taking on his first Ironman, and this would be his first ever marathon. He was smashing it and a lap ahead of me. He said he was aiming for about 4 hours, so I shared a lap with him. This was the best lap, and it was great to spend an hour with him talking lots of randomness, which made the time fly. He is a great athlete, and I’m sure that although this is his first and only Ironman, I will see him out there again.
It is funny how things work out. I’m gutted with no swim, but this would have delayed my progress at the start, I’m gutted with my bike issues, but if I didn’t I would have ended up not bumping into Matt. Of course by chance I could have joined him on the same lap and kept going for sub4 for the whole run, but likewise we could have been 10 minutes apart the whole way and never seen each other. I’m glad it worked out this way. On my 3rd lap (after collecting my yellow band), so Matt was on his way to the finish, it was tough. I could have kept with him until he finished, but it would have taken everything from me, and I would have had a terrible last lap. It was so hot, and it was taking it’s toll, so at the next aid station I wished Matt luck and I walked the aid station and slowed down.
You have to be prepared when you slow after such a long time for that to be it. I didn’t have the motivation or energy to be able to pick up the pace again, but I didn’t care. It was now a mental challenge to get to the end, and in one piece. Its a fine balance, I could have ran faster and been completely useless at the end, which would be upsetting to family, or be more reserved and be able to look after my kids. If I had a better ride I would like to think I would have more energy, if I have the perfect race I will push the run and smash it, and my family will be there to look after me at the end. But until that time I’m not going to push it too hard. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I passed the 3rd lap to collect my green band and then I was on the final lap.
On my final lap the atmosphere was still great with lots of supporters out to cheer and motivate. There were still plenty of athletes still on the course, and although I was ahead of many there were people out there who had started 40 minutes after me. It was tough, but I was counting down the miles, and taking on fuel. It was getting harder to take anything on board, but I kept going. As Ironman we are one, and it was great offering encouragement on the run to those I passed. I spent the whole run overtaking people, I didn’t make up as many places as I passed as many of these were laps ahead of me to start with, but it was a nice strong finish. At 40k I picked up the pace to 9 min miles again for one last hurrah. I turned the corner to get my red, final band, and then to the home stretch.
As I approached I could see the best support crew in town there waiting for me, and they saw me coming too.
In the final miles I had my 12:30 target in mind. I know it’s not like for like, but I started my first Ironman with a 14, second with 13, and I wanted to start with a 12 and preferably a 12:30. I roughly knew when I started so knew I was close, and I have a friend at work who has a 12:36 (healthy competition, and he had a swim but it still counts haha).
One final hi five with my support crew and for the 3rd time I heard those words… Paul, you are an Ironman. This is a fantastic feeling. It is a great atmosphere as always, but I must say, it didn’t come close to the atmosphere at Ironman Kalmar. Ironman put on a great event, but it’s the locals that make it extra special.
As I made my way down the red carpet it was an amazing feeling. You cross and receive your medal and water, and follow barriers around to the village where you collect your top, bags and food/beer/redbull. I must admit, the food was a little disappointing, and the thought of it made me feel sick, so I grabbed a couple of beers and made my way to meet my family and went to MacDonald. The event village didn’t have the same buzz as Kalmar, but the whole event experience was still great.
The rest is history. You have to collect your bike and bags on the night, my boy tried to wrestle me when we got home, and won. The next day I went to the park, swimming and ate all the food.
Gutted about the swim but the run is my thing.
I surprised myself in the bike but the mechanical messed it up and ruined what could have been a much better experience. They really need to get rid of that cobble section for a perfect course. I fought and still delivered.
The run went well but I do think the bike impacted it. It was a pleasure sharing a lap with Matt. I could have done better, but happy overall.
Overall I’m happy with a new PB by an hour. Officially 12:33:12 is my best Ironman time. I realistically need to add an hour on but that would still be pb. Although without bike trouble I think I could get to a time starting with an 11, that’s my next challenge. I’m a long way off a Kona slot, but people like Joe who just smashed it to get his slot inspire me for the future. Start with an 11 next, and then who knows…