Almost as soon as I had crossed the line at Kona last year then I knew my goal for Austria this year was sub-9. I’ve got some friends – freaks - for whom this is a walk in the park and many - let’s call them ‘normal’ people - for whom it’s ridiculous, which it clearly is given how few people achieve it and how stupid long distance triathlon is. But for me after a 9:34 on a slow day at Kona it felt pitched just right – hopefully achievable and certainly scary - so I’d stuck it up on my fridge in magnetic Scrabble letters in October 2015. Saying ‘yeah, I can see me running a 3:15 off a 4:45 bike and 54 minute swim’ is one thing – but I’ve experienced the hell hole of the second half of an Ironman marathon enough times to know that the reality is normally quite another. But then I still love training and the balance it gives other parts of my life and I’ve continued to improve this year after a long winter build under James’ guidance (and getting duffed up by the Optima juniors in the pool). Whilst it’s a big goal, it just felt like incremental improvement. So why the heck not?
Winter was great, and the first two months of my three-month build was even better before a couple of wobbles in the final month (sorry to the cleaning staff at Stockwell tube station) led to an amusing/stressful hokey-cokey decision as to whether to crack on with Austria or regroup for a race a few weeks later. I eventually chose to race and am sat here now I’m delighted that I did.
I’ve avoided Austria in the past as it’s really not the place to qualify for Kona, but having scratched that itch last year I chose Austria this year given its legendary reputation. Within 10 seconds of seeing the bright turquoise waters of Wörthersee at Klagenfurt on Wednesday I knew why – it’s stunning. And then Nico and I recce’d the bike course on Thursday and I was sold for a second time. God is clearly a fan of Ironman and he designed his own playground in Southern Austria. I loved that it was no drag strip course – rolling throughout with a couple of punchy climbs on the loops away from the lake with long, fast descents afterwards, including a 20k rocket back down into Klagenfurt at the end of each lap. Right up my street. It’s a fast course partly because of this profile but also because it’s way short at 176k (shhh, don’t tell anyone).
Race day was set to be fast. The temperature had been over 30 in the days before, but was a bit cooler with a max of about 27, the water was just cool enough for it to be wetsuit legal (but not for the pros), and there was rain forecast in the afternoon. ‘If not now, when?’
I’m really not a fan of the rolling swim starts Ironman have introduced this year. Firstly, it means you’ve no idea if someone by your side in the race is actually ahead or behind you. Secondly, as a strong swimmer and someone who trains for and relishes the chaos of 3,000 people aiming for the same buoy it feels unfair to remove one of the biggest fear factors of racing. If you want easy, take up Zumba. But it is what it is, and rather than try to second guess whether it would be faster to start further back and work through the field on the swim and bike, I chose to go on the front row with Nico and Tony Cullen (who was also aiming for a sub-9 and finished 1 minute behind me at South Africa last year) to get out front and stay out front all day.
Which for four and a half hours is what happened. I felt strong and hit the first half of the swim hard, jumping on feet where I could and loving the final 1km down the narrow canal. Seeing I’d swum 55:50 was a bit disappointing but you never know how long swim courses are. I knew I’d swum well, very few people were around and I could hear Paul Kaye on the mic saying that ‘here are your first age groupers’. Job done.
Out on the road I was amongst the first on the course as it was mainly pros around me (they started 10 mins before us). I say ‘pros’ but if this really is their profession I might suggest they get a new one – especially given most of them were trying to check the rear stitching pattern on the shorts of the guys around them. A couple of age groupers came past, including Tony at about 75k on the main descent at a pace I didn’t quite fancy (60k later than he passed me at South Africa last year, so I was pleased to hold him off for so long – he really does know how to ride a push bike) and was enjoying my solo ride. Paul Kaye shouted that I was about 10th age grouper at halfway and at 230-235w I was bang on target power, right on 37kmh / 4:45 pace and most importantly everything felt easy enough.
[Warning… Beginning of a rant]. Then things changed a bit, and my ability to dictate my own race went out the window. A pack I saw behind me at the 90k turnaround caught me at 116k. 24 people big, maximum gap about 4m. The only legal place in that rabble was 12m off the back or off the front. Three times I overtook them all and went off the front only to be chased back and swarmed. So I retired to 12m off the back and accepted that in the final hour of the ride my pace would be set for me, other than a petulant attack alongside a Dutch chap in the final 15 minutes to get a small gap at T2.
I don’t think this situation impacted my race time – but these guys (and girl) were cheating, saving their legs and at least 10 of them hopped off and ran sub-3 hour marathons into Kona slots, podiums and prize money. With everyone’s national flag on their race number, it’s safe to say those it was the only time since Friday I’ve been pleased about Brexit – Austria and Spain being the countries I’d most like to extradite Nigel Farage to. I didn’t see a single referee motorbike. Not one. Given that group was about 25th to 50th overall at that point, including male and female pros and most of the fast age groupers other than about 10 up the road, it’s a total farce. [Rant over].
I hit T2 after a bike of 4:49 and left to see 5hr 51 race time on the clock. My pre-race sub-9 plan was a 3:15 marathon off a 4:45 bike. Given I’d lost a few minutes to the plan, that 3:15 would be a 9:06 finish time, which would be a 24 minute PB. But it wasn’t what I was there for. Decision time… except there wasn’t one really.
I have a pet hate for motivational quotes that get pasted all over social media, with triathletes being particularly guilty parties. However, there is a caveat for Steve Prefontaine quotes. They’re allowed and should be actively promoted. The night before the race I stuck a particular Pre quote up on Facebook: ‘Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for the great.
I did this for just this situation – having stuck that rubbish up on Facebook I had to roll the dice should the situation arise and deal with the consequences.
Whilst I hope this isn’t the case, I may never be coming out of T2 for the opportunity of a sub-9 again. For the second time in the race, whether I liked it or not, my pace was being set for me. 3:09 marathon for a sub-9. With a previous Ironman marathon PB of 3:27 what could possibly go wrong? Well – we all know an awful lot could go wrong from here. But hey ho. On the positive side of things, my legs felt great running through transition, it was still raining so taking the edge off the heat, and I knew the course was 400m short, so it was ‘just’ 4:30km pace required. And I was angry – which isn’t unhelpful.
Despite needing a faster than expected marathon, I was still telling myself to hold back at the start. But despite this I ran the first 5km in 21:30, or bang on 3hr marathon pace. Hmm. This is either my best day ever and I’ve just turned into Mirinda Carfrae (who was just up the road – pretty cool), or I’m running headfirst into problems later. As ever reality struck and the early pace slowed – but only to 4:30-4:35 pace. And importantly I was hungry and working through my gels ahead of plan. Needing, wanting and being able to process the calories was a great sign – I’ve never actually had that before. Hang about Pabs – this really might be on. The only downer was seeing Nico (definitely not in race kit) cheering me on with Luzelle outside our apartment on the run course at 3km. I processed that he shouldn’t be there, but couldn’t muster up the question as to why he was. On the way back into town at 10km he told me he’d felt way below par early in the race and decided to stop – been there and it’s a very wise decision. Such a shame as he was in the best shape I’ve ever seen him. Ironman Wales watch out.
Anyhow – I didn’t have time to sympathise. Halfway in 1:34, bang on 4:30 average pace. Awesome – but things were beginning to slip and I was about to start a long, hard negotiation with the central governor. Time to engage the ‘Weak Point Plan(s)’ and break out the emergency Gu Espresso Love gels. I went through my armoury of plans but the legs just weren’t quite playing ball. By 25k I’d slipped to 4:40s, and then further to 4:50s and a 5:04 at 30k. Balls. This could be curtains, and I knew the sub-9 had gone (and most likely any sniff of a Kona slot with it) – the battle was hanging tough at 5:00s and keeping this under 9:10 which would be a huge PB and you never know – those in front of me might crack and a Kona slot might come back at me (‘they always crack!’)
Two things kept me going in the final 10km. Firstly it was the oldest of my Weak Point Plans – bullying and abusing myself. ‘Any **** can run 10k’, and then ‘any **** can run 5k’ and so on to the end. It works for me. The second was knowing that at the 17k turnaround I had been only 4 minutes behind Tony, who I thought was my competition for first Brit. At South Africa I had caught him on the run with 2km to go and now I was going hunting. As I got closer and closer to the 36km turnaround without seeing him ahead, past the point we’d crossed on lap one, the more excited I got… until I reached the turnaround without having seen him. Was he way ahead? Had I passed him? Had he DNF’d? I had no idea, but the chase had got me running back in the 4:50s and then the 4:40s and now with 5km to go it was time to empty the fumes in the tank and make up places, including a final one in the finish chute. It was a shame to miss Paul Kaye on the line following a failed red carpet dance move ruptured his cruciate ligament (‘hop, hop, hop’ as they say in Austria, PK) – but in truth I was tunnel-visioned, had little clue what was going on and broke the tape at 9:05:40 and a 3:14:51 marathon.
Scores on the doors: 45th overall out of 2,900, 43rd male, 30th age grouper, 13th in M35 (megalolz) and 2nd Brit to Tony’s stunning 8:57. And really pleasingly a 1:40 second half of the marathon despite having gone out hard and rolled the dice, and a 25 minute Ironman PB. I went for the great, it didn’t quite stick, but I have no regrets and am delighted with every part of my performance as I couldn’t have got myself to the finish line quicker. The 4 Kona slots in my age group went down to 7th, in a rather rapid 8:55. Hats off to those guys all running sub-3 marathons. Well, the ones that had done it off a proper bike ride, that is.
The takeaways are almost entirely positive: - Austria is an incredible course with epic support that everyone should do at some point - I’m undoubtedly capable of sub-9 and I don’t think it’s going to take me the 5 attempts that qualifying for Kona took - I now have proof that the 3 to 4 months of consistent training leading into a race are more important than any of the final 3 or 4 weeks and that you can handle a mishap or two in those weeks – so I’ll chill out about it more next time it happens - My Ironman run is now as good as my swim and bike - Strength of mind and heart are just as, if not more, important than fitness - Don’t put limits on yourself – you’re almost certainly better than you think - I’m still learning loads and improving – after 9 years in triathlon and now 10 Ironmans - Your coach is almost always right - There’s no way I’m stopping this game yet And one negative: - Assuming you can’t change cultural behaviour, unless Ironman begins to referee Austria properly, don’t go there as a pro or fast age grouper and expect a fair race.
As part of my final couple of weeks’ wobble I entered Ironman Switzerland as a back-up plan in case I didn’t make the Austria start line. Whilst Kona qualification was never the main goal this year, I’ve had major pangs of jealousy since a number of friends have qualified, including the boss, James. So I’ve decided to experiment and see what kind of performance I can string together 4 weeks after another Ironman – so I’ll be lining up at Switzerland gunning for a Kona slot – a long term goal is a great performance on the Big Island and that requires as much experience of the race as possible. This performance showed me the benefit of a long winter’s build up to a race, and I often feel really good a month after an Ironman (sometimes quite bad too…) so it’ll be fun to see what the human body can do. It’s almost time to taper again…
Massive thanks as ever to my training buddies at Black Line London and Optima Racing Team, to all my friends in the sport, particularly Charlie, Tim and Sam who helped talk me into racing Austria with confidence in those last couple of weeks and most of all to James who has helped me believe and then achieve things I never thought possible.
By Paul Burton.
This race report originally appeared here on www.optimaracingteam.com.