Ironman Austria 2019 – Kamal’s race report
From a standing start, I began the build-up of my triathlon journey in 2013 with joining Optima. At first, it was all about not getting dropped on easy rides to Windsor and half drowning my way through swim sessions. With a supportive “no fail environment” attitude from James Beckinsale, the team’s coach and club founder, in exchange for a requirement that athletes bring a positive attitude and perform to their best capability, I started making progress. I have competed regularly in sprint and Olympic distance races and have tackled a couple of 70.3 races. However, the full distance Ironman remained a challenge too daunting to consider. That is, until James’ taunts, the tedious questions of “have you done an ironman” and the feeling of unfinished business became too much to bear. The biggest fear for me was the stress associated with the anticipation of the event. To borrow from Franklin D. Roosvelt, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself!” So in January, Andy Hindley, my triathlon alter ego, and I succumbed and we signed up to Ironman Austria. Gulp!
At first, it was fine because it was seven months away, we would worry about it later and I wouldn’t tell anyone to preserve plausible deniability! However, the passage of time and the fact nothing remains secret, reality started dawning on me. Thankfully, having James as a coach, Andy as an equally matched training partner and the Optima squad around us was as positive and supportive an environment anyone could hope for.
The twelve week training programme communicated weekly by James through Training Peaks or in informal post swim/bike coffee sessions was an excellent tool for the athlete who likes to have his/her hand held throughout the process. Of course, many emails / whatsapp messages to James were required to decipher James’ sometimes cryptic instructions or to answer some of our clueless questions. Also having Stuart Anderson, our uber-friendly and supportive (semi-) professional ironman and multiple-Kona athlete there to provide invaluable tips helped a lot, especially on the ground in Austria where I felt like a child on his first day at nursery school. Totally clueless!
The training went well and was more fun than I feared; maybe not fun but manageable; Looking back, pain fades and you only recall the positives. Well, maybe not with those interminable track sessions and those (up to six times) 5k reps around pen ponds. Those stick out as being nothing but pain!
But we got the training done, with no injuries other than for the odd cold here or calf niggle there. We got it done and felt fit in time for the race. We weren’t sure about being ready as neither Andy nor I quite knew what to expect.
We decided, on advice of James and Stuart, to arrive in Klagenfurt a few days before the race. Rima, my wife, travelled with me to be my support crew and distraction from the stress of the event. The objective was to settle in calmly and enjoy the beautiful setting that Ironman Austria offers. And what a setting! Beautiful weather, green everywhere, amazing crystal blue lake and silky smooth roads. With Stuart acting as my Iron-guide for the few days leading up to the race, I felt much more in control and relaxed. It did help that I had taken a weekend trip to train on the course a month before the race. The only thing we had to worry about was whether it would be too warm for the wetsuit and whether it would rain on the day of the event! No point worrying too much as these things were out of our control.
After a fairly sleepless night and trying to have breakfast at 4am, I headed towards transition for a final check of the bike, filling of the bottles and hanging of the bags. All good. Off to the race start where Rima and I met with Andy and his own crew, which consisted of two Optima athletes (Holly and Finn) and Mrs. Hindley.
As the race was confirmed to be non-wetsuit, the first task was to get into the fancy Orca swim skin I had purchased on advice of Stuart before arriving in Austria. Rima, please zip me up! Queue first disaster of the day. Zipper snaps; look of horror and manic attempts at fixing it. Suffice it to say my stress level climbed many degrees. Although, by this point, I was determined to not let any setback get to me. Focus was to try to be in the moment and deal with situations as they presented themselves. With a race that lasts the better part of a day, I was trying to be ready mentally to face setbacks. If this was the first, then it was entirely manageable. The pre-race photo with Andy probably shows my stress level at that point! Deep breath.
With the pros having set off, Andy and I headed into the 1:00-1:10 funnel, which I felt in a non-wetsuit swim was marginally optimistic. 5,4,3,2,1 and we are off. I decided to try to sprint into the water and dive-in like a pretend pro. Since the support crew was watching, I had to make it look good. Thankfully I didn’t trip. Amazingly enough, Andy and I swam within meters of each other for the entirety of the race despite the fact I had him in my sights only for the first few hundred meters. Not great news for me as I was hoping to beat him on the swim by a few minutes to try to offset my relatively weak biking skills. Surprisingly, I spent the bulk of the race swimming through traffic and was infrequently passed. The swim was fairly uneventful with the exception of one participant who decided, upon our arms getting a bit tangled, to punch me in the back. Since I was participating in a race not a sparring match, I completely ignored him and swam on. Be in the moment. As we entered into the finish canal, one kilometre to go, I spotted Andy. “What is he doing here” was the first thing to cross my mind. I thought I had dropped him a couple of buoys ago! This spurred me to go a bit faster. Soon enough, I was out of the water and as it turns out around one minute faster than Mr. Hindley. Good, but, worryingly enough, too close for comfort. I estimated that he would be around 15-20min faster than me on the bike. The swim was slower than I would have liked and, conveniently, I will blame Rima for this.
The run from the swim to transition and out is fairly long at IM Austria. I got to wave to the support crew en route and thankfully I was happy that I wasn’t groggy or disorientated coming out of the water. It helped that I had a cast of volunteers who literally scooped me up the ramp and got me going. Dankeschon!
On arrival into transition, I was gratified to see my training partner’s bike comfortably racked. I quickly shuffled toward the mount line and got on the bike. The first couple of hours were uneventful. All smiles. Enjoying the moment! A few rolling hills but I was in good spirits. It did help that thirty of these early kilometres were on a motorway where it was difficult not to go fast. Andy eventually made the pass around fifty or sixty kilometres into the race; much later than I expected. I did manage to keep him in sight for a while which would help with my psychology. Soon enough, I saw Andy slow into an aid station, either to pick up some hydration or for some other biological reason. I took the opportunity to silently (and sneakily) pass him. Did he need to know that I was now ahead of him?! I didn’t think so. My tactical advantage didn’t last too long as he eventually passed me (again.) I believe he is still trying to figure out how he passed me twice. We did have the chance to see our support crew twice on the bike which was a huge boost. Smile. Enjoy the moment. The photos show us riding with a smile on our faces and helped us tackle those steep hills. Hop hop! It was impressive from the race organisers they were able to shuttle spectators around the course so efficiently.
The race was going according to plan. I was taking on my gels, shot blocks and fluids every twenty minutes as instructed by James. My body felt good. The bike wasn’t all smiles though. The hills and some stiff head wind started to bite. About 30-40km from the finish line, the sky turned black and what began as a few drops of cooling rain turned into a full storm with gale force winds, horizontal rain and hail. Visibility dropped, road conditions became unpredictable and my brakes were now useless. I was convinced the race would be called off. I was passed a couple of times by race marshalls on motor bikes and I thought they would have the black flag out. Nothing… My thought was not whether I would crash on the technical descents but how would Rima know which hospital they would send me to once I had crashed! Surprisingly enough, I stayed in control although I did succeed in scrubbing my speed quite a bit. The remaining aid stations still had young kids as cheery as ever. I even ran into an improvised aid station organised by some locals who were distributing hop-based based hydration and playing “Highway to Hell” on their stereo! Their positive mood did help me stiffen my resolve and finish the bike leg, albeit a bit more slowly that I had originally planned.
The sight of T2 was a huge relief. The arrival back into town really lifted my spirits. Half frozen and stiff, I managed to drop my bike on the ground upon dismounting. I won’t share any photos of this! Running through the changing tent was like going through a field hospital in a war zone. There were dozens of people wrapped in blankets, shivering and dazed. Several hundred participants did not finish. I had no time to think about this. Andy was somewhere on the run course and I had to hunt him down. However, my main worry was I didn’t know what the run would hold for me. I had never run a marathon before and this was an unusual way to figure out whether I was built for the distance.
Coming out of T2, I took James’ advice and started off at a gentle pace. I was focused on easing into the run. On the first lap and out towards the far end of the run, I saw Mette, Stuart’s spouse, who informed me that Andy was about 500 meters ahead of me. That was really surprising as I had estimated that he would be something more like 4km ahead as he was around 15 minutes faster on the bike. So Andy must have gone into slow motion in T2 to have lost so much time. This really had a major impact on my mood as I figured the race was still on! I picked up the pace a bit and almost perceptively felt a burst of energy flow into me. Soon enough, I saw Andy up ahead with his distinctive running style. On catching him, I decided we should run together which would be fun. We ran together for a good 15-20km. We were chit-chatting most of that time and were in good spirits especially when we met our amazingly cheery and omnipresent support crew.
Eventually, I felt Andy drop a few steps back. I had previously imagined there would be a scenario where we would cross the line together. I had to decide whether I would slow down or stick to my pace. I decided to follow to my own game plan. After all, while we were training partners, we were still racing! Also, I still felt good. I was being disciplined in taking on calories and water at every aid station and trying to maintain a steady pace throughout. Come the last lap, I was ready to finish the race. 33, 34, 35km…. I was literally engaged in a series of one kilometre runs by that point. With the last kilometres in sight, I dug in and tried to pick up the pace. I wiped my face and fixed myself up a bit as I approached the final stretch. After all, the only thing that matters is the finish photo and you have to look good. When I arrived into the finish chute with the crowds and pom pom girls, it was difficult not to break into a full on grin and goose bumps. I would have liked it to be a bit more slow motion and take longer so that I could fully savour the moment. However, it was just a blur. I did hear Mr. Kaye announce: “Kamal, you ARE an Ironman.” Done.