2021 marked the first full Ironman event in Poland and with the swim, in the familiar Baltic waters, it had to be my first la grande full distance battle. We travelled to the destination with my team-mate Ewan, who signed up for the 70.3 Ironman happening the same day. Gdynia greeted us with a nice mid-twenties summer day, and, of course, a good traditional potato meal at the Pyra Bar (i.e. ‘Potato Bar’). Arriving at the venue on Wednesday, almost full 4 days before the event, meant we could take time to test the sea, check out part of the race course, eat, sleep, and watch the city getting ready for THE day.
Gdynia is a cosy modernist city, built after WWI to provide an alternative port to Gdansk, which was under German control at the time. Although it doesn’t boast a spectacular old town, the city – well maintained with nice wide roads and easy access to the airport, well accessible beach and numerous restaurants – provided a perfect spot for a triathlon event. Gdynia carries a triathlon tradition having welcomed their first tri event in 2013 and hosting Ironman 70.3 events since 2015.
My journey to the big day was a tough, relentless, transforming and utterly exciting challenge. Having planned my initial full IM event for May 2020 (cancelled due to Covid-19), this was a long-awaited experience. I kept surprising myself as I ticked off each key session weaved into a demanding 12-week training block. My coach James [Beckinsale] watched my progress, tweaked and moulded my training as the weeks went by. I love the preparation that goes into the race; even if I dread the TT rides, I await conquering the challenge. Mental strength is so important in endurance sport and I am fascinated by everything related to ‘training the mind’. James puts great emphasis on developing athletes’ mental strength. A day before jumping on a flight to Gdansk, I went through my race plan with James. His advice stayed in my head till the very last steps of the run leg on the day – smile and enjoy it – it’s a once in a lifetime experience – your first Ironman! (He did also say I’ll come back with a Kona slot, but we’ll let that slide!!!).
After a good night sleep (believe it or not) and a porridge meal with Ewan, I made it to the beach. The morning of the race wasn’t pleasant. The rain and wind made the swim a pretty choppy roller-coaster sea ride to the deep water finish in Gdynia bay. Thankfully, we had swum in the choppy sea a few days earlier, so I remained calm and confident on the start line. The 70.3 guys had an earlier start, meaning Ewan would have finished his swim before I got in just after 7am. With around 700 full IM participants, it was hard to spot other women in the crowd. Once warmed up, I slowly fed myself into a rolling start and before I knew it, I was out there fighting the waves and some of the aggressive participants!
Throughout the race I did everything to stay in the moment, thinking just enough ahead. The rain was still quite heavy once I got to T1 and I decided to wrap up a little; my last-minute panic-buy, a water-resistant gilet – proved a good investment. The transition was slow, but everything went to plan, I was soon going steady up the ‘flat hill’ leaving the very few support crowds behind.The Bike course followed a 2 lap route through the rolling Kashubian hills, which proved to be more challenging than anticipated; however, the views were pretty and the descents were awesome– worth every pedal stroke! 7 hours in and a few caffeine gels later, I managed to finish feeling good, averaging a few watts below my estimate at 6 hours 12 min.
T2 was, yet again, slow, however, my legs felt relatively good and off I went towards my first lap of 4. The Run course was tough; I’d say more mentally tough than physically. There were some groups of support at the start around the central point of the transition and the finish line; however, a slow and lonely 3km tarmac incline followed shortly after. 4 loops, with 3 fuelling stations on each, this stretch felt long and slow. Running up a slight incline and then down, making it difficult to judge the pacing. Not that it really mattered at the time – after the first 5km I found myself running by ‘feeling’ rather than pacing. A mistake, perhaps. Following James’s advice, I picked up ice at each station which kept my core temperature cool. Only when running I realised that here was the 2nd fuelling challenge of the day – COKE – part of my fuelling strategy – was available only at one point up the hill. A few gels packed into my race belt became handy. (The 1st fuelling challenge being a different carb solution drink served during the Bike leg than initially advised).
The 2nd loop was a lot slower than the 1st, but the 3rd felt awfully slow. I thought to myself I need to run up that hill, refuel and down the hill from there. I managed to get up, but there was another 15km to go. My teammates talked about the sacred ‘30km mark’, when many find themselves walking those last kilometres of the marathon. I kept rolling my heavy legs over and I wasn’t going to stop. But what if my body stopped? What if my foot gave up? (An old injury). 25km in I was subconsciously protecting my body. Here was my support crew greeting me with a massive cheer on my last loop – ‘quick light steps!!’ and ‘come ‘on dinner booked for 19:30!’. Big smile! Though I didn’t allow myself to think of the finish line until the 41,5km mark. The last 17.5km was the hardest endurance and mental effort. Painfully slow, but I kept going to just make it under 4:30h marathon. And here was that pinnacle turn to the finish line – amazingly I found sprint legs in me! I hope I won’t forget that feeling –
the goose bumps – my first Ironman finish at 12:03.
Surprisingly I felt pretty fresh the morning after. Two breakfasts and a couple of snacks later we made
our way to the awards ceremony. Only to find it was up the Stone Mountain in the Maria and Lech Kaczyński Park! What a great recovery climb!
I knew I came fourth in my age category, so I didn’t expect much but knew there is a fair chance of a Kona qualification rolling down. Here we come, my age group awards.. 3rd place! Must have
gone up the rankings overnight! Podium finish – love it! The 2 girls (1st and 2nd place) in my age group did accept the Kona slots, therefore, this time, it didn’t roll to me. Happy and relieved, I started planning my next battle ?.