My First Ironman, Maastricht 2016

I survived Ironman Maastricht in a respectable time for a first-timer of 13hrs 13minutes.  It was a good day.

Later I'll write a piece about what I learnt on my two-year journey in the hope it might help others.

For now, these are my immediate thoughts and race report.

The 2.2mile river swim was a spectacular location.

Liz thought I was kidding, "Surely it's just a city" she demanded.  (If you'd like to read more, please open this page).
Yes, but the atmosphere Is completely different to a lake or the sea where you can't see spectators.  With every alternate breath I looked up at all the people crowded onto the bridges and lining the river banks.
Plus we went from wide river to narrows separating an island from the shore, with Government buildings spanning both.

All those trips to the pool and winter swims in Loch Sunart clearly paid dividends.  I amazed myself coming out of the water in 1:16:52, fifteen minutes faster than I expected.

It's actually quite staggering to think that, just two years ago, my inability to swim was the reason I didn't try triathlon.

Two swim camps with Dan Bullock of SwimForTri at Club La Santa, plus lots of practice, and now the swim is my strongest discipline.

There is a logic to this.  Swimming is technique driven, and I found technique easier to acquire at my age (nearly 60) than the pure power required for biking and running.

More important than this though, I had confidence.

I was probably one of the few triathletes going into that river thinking, "I'm really looking forward to this swim".  I expect most just wanted to get it over with.  It made for a much nicer start to a long day.

Maastricht hosts the only full distance Ironman that crosses an international boundary.   In this case, the bike course goes into Belgium.  On the map below, the wavy blue line is the border with Belgium on the left.

My 112 mile Bike took me 6:52:57 and was mixed in all sorts of ways.   

Mixed weather - from sun to sleet.  My coach Joe Beer suggested putting a complete set of clothing in the run bag so I was more comfortable on the run.  I wasn't sure about this, thinking it might slow me down in transition.  When I arrived in T2  coated in wet, gritty mud, I was only too delighted to change out of my Heart Sports Trisuit.
Leaving T1- before the mud
Mixed road surfaces - from farm tracks which sprayed us with liquid mud (and worse), to slick cobbles on which there were numerous crashes - I saw many hobbling-wounded later on the run.

And mixed speeds.  Having ridden the first 56mile lap quite fast (for me), and not knowing how much energy I'd need for the run, I backed off on the second lap, perhaps too much.

Completing my first lap through the city centre, I was amazed by all the cheering.  People were leaping in the road to try to snap a photo.  Wow - is that for me?  Er, no.  Look behind you Simon.  The photo below shows what was really going on.

The chap I'm (just) ahead of wore Number 1.  He is last year's winner Bas Diederen (3rd this year).  We approached transition at exactly the same time... except Bas had cycled two laps of the 56mile course, I had only cycled one! 

Running the 26mile marathon through Maastricht was a supremely special experience.  When Ironman comes to town it takes over, and a huge slice of the city roads, pavements and cycleways  shut down.

One of 6 run aid stations on every lap - one per mile
This happened on the first weekend of the national holidays.  This being Holland, the locals decided to turn the day into a massive party.  In fact, an entire series of parties.  From the crowds lining the cobbles of the old town, to the live bands and street parties in the suburbs, the Dutch know how to have a good time.

They cheered, shouted and high-5'd us all.  Having names on our race numbers meant complete strangers could yell, "come on Simon".  It gave me a huge lift.

I was warned that somewhere around mile 15 to 16 is when the pain usually hits.  In my case, two recurrent injuries, about which I've previously written, flared up.  I was fine when I walked, but my right hip flexor screamed when I ran. 

Coach Joe Beer had told me, well in advance that, at one point at least, I would hurt.  "Be ready, so when it comes it's not a surprise".

I kept thinking of that scene with Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia when he holds his palm over the flame of a candle, then snuffs a match out with his fingers.  When a colleague tries and complain that it hurts, Lawrence replies, "Certainly it hurts...the trick... is not minding that it hurts".

Easier said than done.

My plan of walking for 30 seconds for every ten minutes of running was revised on the hoof.  Run/walk became walk/run.

"Just keep moving forward", Joe had advised, "even a slow walk is better than stopping".

In an Ironman event, where you run laps, you're given a coloured armband at the end of each lap.  It's an easy way for spectators and officials to keep track.  It's slightly depressing when, with no arm bands, you're overtaken by people with several.

But soon you're in their place, collecting the fourth and final band.  With that you enter the carpeted finish area with dancing girls, lights, blaring music and frankly feel like a rockstar.

A dirty, achy, exhausted one, and the announcer's best baritone booms, "Simon - you are an Ironman".

Except - he got my name wrong.  The only person to do so all day.  Oh well.

Someone puts a useless foil blanket over your shoulders, a medal around your neck and all you want to do is sit and drink a beer.  It's ready, waiting and free along with pasta, chips and fresh fruit.

Then you gather your belongings, including your sodden wetsuit still hanging in the bag where you left it, collect your bike, and go in search of somewhere, anywhere to lie down.
4:46:36 may be a rubbish marathon time (this was my first marathon too incidentally) but was the best I could manage given I was running with two injuries.

13 hours, 13 minutes 28 seconds was a long day out.  I'd secretly hoped to go under 13 hours but I'm not disappointed at all.
I wanna lie down
The next day, free food is offered as a way of tempting you to hobble back to the event centre for another sort-of party.  Here the highest age-group finishers gather to be selected for their Kona slots.  Since I was 52 out of 75 in the 55-59 age group, there was no danger of me need to find the required $890 to race in Hawaii.
Kona draw down
The Ironman brand is a highly evolved way of parting people like me from their money.  It costs a lot to enter, about €500 in this case.  Yes, that's not a misprint.  But you're buying more than a race entry, you're buying a major event and Ironman puts on a damn good show.

Having invest heavily in the whole process, once you achieve your goal, you want to shout about it.  On blogs like this for example.  I'm no exception, although the Ironman ankle tattoo is definitely not for me.

However, all manner of branded Ironman merchandise, much of it very good quality, is for sale in the on-site expo.   Or at least it was before the race.  By the time I turned up to buy some IM branded goodies, all the good stuff in decent sizes had all gone.
Good stuff all gone in the Ironman store
It's probably just as well - I don't think I'd want to be a walking advert for any brand that wasn't paying me.   I certainly do not regret failing to buy anything before the event - that would have been tempting fate way too much.

I had to earn the right to wear anything branded Ironman.

So as I write today, the damage  seems to be limited to a swollen, sore ankle (it feels like a sprain but is hopefully just inflammation) and a truly spectacular toe blister.

Walking is a bit of a struggle.

Above all I feel incredibly lucky that I am in good enough health to undertake such a challenge at my age.

Right now I'm pretty sure I won't be talking on another full Ironman any time soon.  It might be one-and-done.  Might.

Although never say never again...


Ian Johnston said...

Congratulations Simon!


Simon Willis said...

Thanks Ian - back to doing some kayaking perhaps now...

Atul said...

Hi Simon, amazing blog and believe me it's so apt and timely for me.. I am planning to do Maastricht, I have done couple of 70.3.. and the last one just 2 weeks back.. but I am not 100% sure. So couple of questions for you
1. Is 2 months is enough? Considering I have pretty much prepared for a half
2. How hilly was the bike ride, I know it used to be 1400 elevation gain and now 1100.. bit is it crazy climb or rolling hills?
3. How's the run, flat, easy.. as per the blog obviously you have cheering crowd.