Ironman

Back to back Ironmans

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Ironman is a stupid enough way to spend a day at the best of times – so racing Zurich four weeks after my Fast-But-Not-Quite-Fast-Enough 9:05 at Austria was always going to be ‘interesting’ and the range of possible outcomes was rather wide – from a tiny chance of a better race than Austria to a far higher chance of it being calamitous. But as I wanted to be in Kona again this year, especially with James going for a once in a lifetime trip, it was a risk I just had to take. The physical response would take care of itself and my body would give me whatever it had on the day – I was fairly relaxed about that. I seemed to recover pretty well with 1.5 weeks super easy, 1.5 weeks of moderate training and then my normal race week. Swimming felt great, biking about normal and running was 50-50, as you’d expect. But I did two things differently – I didn’t go out drinking quite as enthusiastically as normal after an Ironman, and I did a lot of light and short swim and bike training in that first 10 days, which I’ve never done before. Keeping your body moving really does speed recovery. It hurts but it’s worth it.

What I was more concerned about was the mental side and how to deal with the voices that would be screaming ‘you raced one of these ridiculous races four weeks ago – you’re bound to be rubbish’ as soon as things got hard on the run – which they inevitably would as 1) it’s an Ironman – it always gets hard on the run; and 2) there’s no getting away from the fact that I did indeed race one four weeks before.

The course at Zurich is about 15 minutes slower than Austria and prior year results suggested a good performance (9:15-9:25) might be a podium in my age group – but they increased it to 65 Kona slots given it was the 20th anniversary. On the one hand this was great as it meant nine slots in my age group (vs. the paltry four at Austria), but on the flip side it was foolish to think other slot chasers hadn’t also then come flocking to make this a far more competitive race at the sharp end. Even so, I thought that anything under 9:30 would be very unlucky to miss out. To add to the fun and games, I did the trip with my mate Will Newbery who had missed out at Ironman France and was also slot hunting in the same age group. On paper we’re pretty similar with my 10-15 minute faster bike being cancelled out by his 10-15 minute faster run. But it would be friendly fire (despite the appalling pre-race banter) as there were plenty of slots for both of us, and it would be great to have a benchmark on the course. We also had Nico out in support as a roving reporter giving us age group placings on the course thanks to info from friends tracking online.

Zurich is a great course with a normal one lap lake swim and four lap town run but the jewel in the crown was an absolute belter of a bike leg. Two laps with 45k of pancake flat TT riding and 45k of hills with both long dragging 4-10% climbs and very steep, technical descents. 1700m climbing and the profile of the descents means it’s a slow course – whilst any goon can fly down the long, straight Austria descents (especially when wedged in a peloton), Zurich rewards risk takers, good bike handlers and good aerodynamics. When we drove the course with my friend Kai who lives in Zurich I was really excited as it suits my riding and didn’t look conducive to drafting groups forming.

Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich
Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich

Just as I had done at Austria, Will and I went on the front line of the rolling swim start with Alex Bradley (Team Freespeed’s new 21-year old sub-9 guy) – but I just wasn’t firing in the water, couldn’t hold Will’s feet and swum a disappointing 59 minutes (turns out it was near 4k, but even so I should be faster), with Nico telling me Will was two minutes up the road.

Thankfully my bike legs felt good from the off. I caught Alex at maybe 10k and encouraged him to come with me and then found Will at about 20k, who I absolutely didn’t encourage to come with me seeing as he has a 3:02 run in his locker. It took two 350w+ attacks (I was suitably impressed/concerned when Will came back at me after the first) but I managed to get away and then reached the hills with three strong looking riders - Alex had chosen not to come, which I thought boded well for his race. This group stayed together nicely in the hills but, as expected, fell apart back on the flats with most of them having ridden too hard and I set about getting as close to the front of the race as possible on the second lap seeing as I still felt great.

Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich
Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich

I was enjoying one of my best Ironman rides, loving the course (including hitting 89kmh on one of the descents – squeaky bum time!) and there was barely a soul out there. So I was, frankly, pretty pissed off to learn from Kai at 150k that there were maybe 20 age groupers ahead of me – I thought I’d be way higher up than that. So I knew then the slot-hunters had indeed turned out in numbers and this was going to be a harder day than hoped. At least this time I knew that everyone at the sharp end would be doing the run on tired legs as the bike course was both tough and better refereed than Austria. I came off the bike in 4:59, about what I was hoping and the poor swim was long forgotten.

Before the race I was expecting to be well in the mix at T2 and was hoping my run legs were something like Austria (3:15-3:20) so that a top-9 place and a slot would be safe – but that if I hadn’t recovered and they weren’t good then I was prepared to fight and scrap for the c.3:30 run that should see me grab one of the last slots.

I ran out of T2 feeling alright. Not great but not bad. Yet again I started running too fast with the first 4k at 3:05 marathon pace – I managed to slow myself down before my body did it for me and then my body gave me my pace for the day – which was about 4:45s (3:20 marathon pace). I reached the end of lap one of four in 47:30, and Nico told me I was 5th in AG after the bike – I was disappointed not to be higher, but was well into the top-9 so I had the buffer I needed, I was feeling great and a sensible run should be safe. Also, no sign of Will at the out and back section where you see anyone within eight minutes of you. Alex was four minutes back, looking good.

Only that didn’t last long. On lap two the gorilla threatened to jump on my back – I didn’t slow much but it just felt way harder than lap one. Just as this was happening Nico told me I had fallen to 9th in AG after lap one – despite running well. WTF?? Right then… cue the voices… cue the mental fight/negotiation. Now it was hot. Surely if I was struggling at an unsustainable feeling 4:45-50s now the second half would be a car crash? Surely easing off to a 3:30 marathon would be safe? Surely this can’t be another race with loads of age groupers running sub-3? Then I saw Will – he was eight minutes behind me. You know that comment earlier that there was plenty of space in the Kona slots for the both of us? At that moment I knew that most likely wasn’t the case. In my head I was racing Will for the last slot – and he the same. At eight minutes back with 24k to go my mental arithmetic told me it would be bloody close, and he was motoring. Lap two in 50:38.

The saving grace is now having the experience of dragging my way out of these bad patches. And somehow despite the voices being loud, I managed to do it again on lap three. Will had only closed the gap to six minutes at the turnaround – but Alex had gone as the end of his race was unravelling. Lap three in 50:16. And I was still in 9th. Mine to lose now. I’d also started running with the 3rd female pro, Michaela Herlbauer, who had been in the bike pack that caught me at Austria before running 2:59. How curious that after a proper bike ride she couldn’t run quite so fast…

The last lap was hard but it always felt like the wheels were just about still attached to the wagon, and trying to keep in front of Michaela’s bike lead out was a good mental distraction. Nico seemed to think I was safe from those behind me in 9th but you never know, so I turned myself inside out and dragged myself to the line for a final lap of 50:39 - a 3:21 marathon and 9:25 finish. It was a short wait for Will who arrived at the line totally spent at 9:30 – hugs and tears replaced words in acknowledging we had pushed eachother to the limit. I found out later he’d had a five-minute penalty on the bike. Without that it would have likely have been a sprint finish…

Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich
Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich
Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich
Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich

Scores on the doors: 34th overall out of 1600, 32nd male, 8th in M35-39 (I got someone in the last 5k) and 1st Brit. And most importantly Kona ticket stamped. Much like Austria I don’t think I could have got to the line any faster. Given I felt significantly worse than on the run at Austria (3:14), I’m delighted with keeping my body and head together for a 3:21 marathon. I suspect my slower run here was as much to do with a proper bike ride on a tough course (I spent the last 90 minutes at Austria twiddling my thumbs 12m off the back of a peloton) as having Austria in my legs. This time on a level playing field my slower run moved me up from 45th at T2 to 34th at the finish. It’s possibly my best Ironman to date given what had come before and the pressure I’d put on myself to deliver a Kona slot. I was hoping not to need to scrap for a slot, but I did and got it done.

Zurich is a terrific course and race, made even better by racing with Will and having amazing support from Kai and Nico. Whilst it doesn’t quite have the support and impact of huge races like Austria or Frankfurt, with slick Swiss organisation and a tougher bike course it was certainly a fairer and more enjoyable race for me. The only negative is that Zurich is an astonishingly expensive place to visit - £35 for a burger and beer anyone?

Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich
Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich

Whilst my Hawaii slot was in the bag, the rolldown was a case of biting our fingernails to see if Will, who finished 11th(with 10th just one second ahead!), was going to be joining me. I know exactly what a horrible morning he had. Given the number of slot chasers who had so obviously turned out, it was doubtful… but I had a sneaky feeling that Madame Pele might be looking out for him given he passed on a slot last year and that he’s done his time. When the guy in 7th joined the guy in 4th in declining there were tears and hugs for the second time that weekend.

I’m not sure I’d recommend back to back Ironmans, but it was an amazing weekend and after 11 Ironmans I continue to learn more about myself and my body – I think the long, consistent winter’s prep with the Optima short course guys was the reason I was able to back up Austria so solidly. Time for a bit of a break before building up for Kona now. This time I go with expectations for myself and the pressure that brings.

It’s truly a stupid sport. But a magical one. We’re all hooked. Roll on October. Kona Baby.

Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich
Paul Burton, Ironman Zurich

Article by Paul Burton - the article first appeared here on optimaracingteam.com.

Ironman South Africa - Coach's race report

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I’ve been consistently helping athletes qualify for Kona since 2002 and have been in awe of the Big Island since coming into triathlon in the 90’s. I wanted to share my Ironman South Africa race report with you from a coach's perspective.

Kona to me is a magical/ sacred place, a place of dreams that only a few ever qualify to go. BUT… even though I’ve had opportunities to go out to Hawaii with athletes, I have always sworn never to step foot onto the Big Island unless I qualified to be there myself… and that was my target in South Africa…

The race:

This is my second year of doing Ironman South Africa and I think this was maybe my 11th Ironman altogether. Only once have I ever set myself a target in an Ironman and that was in 2006 at Ironman Austria where I wanted to go under 10 hours. I remember getting off the bike feeling a whole world of pressure (and thinking how the hell do the pros race this distance?!) and this weakness putting me in a bit of a wobble on the run. I did get my head together and eventually came home in 9.59.26… I know!!!

As a coach I have never had the inclination to totally dedicate myself to the selfish training required to go fast at Ironman. I am far too passionate about the athletes I work with improving their performance. However, South Africa sits at a good time of year for me as a coach. We have just come out of winter training, we have done some great bike work on training camp and I can squeeze in my key run sessions without disrupting what I need to do as a coach.

I also want to make sure the structure of the training plans I write for Ironman athletes are sound and the progression and overload allow them to hit optimum performance in their race. Even from last year to this year I made some significant changes to the bike workouts that have improved the overall Ironman training plan structure.

A quick overview of my race:

Great few days pre race in South Africa, some of the friendliest people I have come across in the world. Feeling great had a couple of massages on race week for a tight neck (after a battle with a few waves in the ocean!), but this seemed to loosen one thing and tighten another. The day before the race I woke up and literally could not run, the pain in my back was so severe (I had a vertebrae out around my thoracic spine). After about an hour of gentle movement/stretching it seemed to pop back in and I could do my pre event warm ups… phew!!!

Race day:

Swim: I’m not a fan of rolling starts. It’s not triathlon and it’s not Ironman (I think ITU have a lot of work to do here for elite racing but not for age groupers). Mentally and physically dealing with that pressure and hard start is part of the race, especially for those hoping to qualify for Kona. Possibly think about setting off age-group waves so you are always in a race.

To be honest I got a little disorientated and maybe dropped about 4–5mins… but felt strong and took a deep breath and looked forward to the picnic to come.

18th in AG.

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Bike: I know there are lots of schools of thought out there but to me a power meter is a no-brainer in Ironman. It baffles me why people ride up inclines at 300–500w and think they can run off that. Every hill I came to I had women, big men and whomever else coming past me like I was standing still. I kept my power about 15–30w higher than I wanted to on the flat (and 100% no lactate build up) but these little speedies flew past. Even paced with no/limited power spikes is the only way to ride an Ironman bike.

Ironman biking to me is about dialing into the numbers (220w for me), with a smooth pedal stroke (80 rpm for me) and then having a picnic every 20mins (shot block, carb drink and water) and enjoying the beautiful scenery that South Africa affords you.

For sure on the final lap the old ‘nether regions’ are a little distressed and the legs are tried, but again the power meter allows you confidence that you are in the right place.

6th in AG off the bike.

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The business end:

Running felt good off the bike (and a flipping relief to take pressure off down there!), however a couple of km’s down the road a weak point hit and I kicked in my first weak point plan (WPP)… counting and holding best form. I could feel I had lost rhythm and was not moving very well.

Now these moments for most people can be quite traumatic. In my job coaching people we talk through these moments all the time, whether young children taking their first steps into the endurance world or Olympians fighting to stay in contact at the pointy end of our sport. They know my feeling on the mental side and to me its 80% of what we do. So during my weak points, if I capitulate, it’s like a barrister losing their first big case in the high court… when they really should win, no pressure coach!

The reason they are called weak points is because you don’t feel strong, you are not frequenting the fight side of the cognitive fight & flight response… you want to step out of the arena, you want to pull the blanket over your shoulders and turn over for the nightmare to end.

I walk all aid stations and make the runs between as rhythmical and economical as possible. The next aid station I walked, I took on the coke/water, and I picked up the run again still no rhythm, still no fight, still applying my WPP. This time I’m also tapping into my 2nd WPP, the training I have done… 6 x 5k reps, 20 x 800m, 30k tempo… I’m thinking about the young guys in my team - I want them to be able to look at their coach as someone who has suffered like he asks them to suffer and come up with the answers as he asks them to… A few more km’s of suffering… I don’t wear a GPS or look at my watch. I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know I’m running slower than I want to… the job is now 100% mental. I dropped from 6th in AG to maybe 16 -18th.

In South Africa, the crowds start to pitch their tents on the roadside a couple of days before. They have their braai’s going, beers in hand, but what’s quite weird is they seem to get the sport… After about 8km and out the other side of an aid station, I found some reaction when I asked my legs to lift the pace, the supporters seemed to get this and they encouraged it… It was not easy, but I seemed to be finding a little rhythm again.

Entering ‘no man's land’ (the middle of an event or mid way on a run) I used my 3rd WPP, by looking around and appreciating all the different types of people that do this sport, big, small, fat, thin, black, white blah blah… all suffering to some degree or another and getting energy form our united suffering. If I catch an eye of a fellow athlete, a wry smile or look to say ‘come on, we can do this’ or a quick chat (which always gives me a massive boost) before they drop me or the other way round. The one thing I missed in this event is finding another runner with the same rhythm as me to run with, I find this is always a massive benefit.

The final few laps I was feeling stronger and stronger, I had come out of the bad patch, I had battled the demons and now I need to collect on a few lost km’s earlier in the run. I’m still walking the aid stations; even with a few km’s to go the wheels can come off. But I felt strong, rhythmical and tapping into good form.

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It transpires that I was in about 12th going into the final lap of the run but the guys around me were all just within a few minutes of each other. As I crossed the line I was 6th in AG, however due to the rolling start another athlete came in a few mins later that moved me down to 7th in the age group.

As I’m now in the 45–49 age category, I knew we would have about 10 slots as one of the biggest age groups so was almost certainly heading to Kona. Nevertheless after seeing the Facebook messages from the guys in the team, I could see I had been very close to messing this up. Phew… Kona baby!!!

There is a little apprehension though, as there is the small matter of preparing an athlete for the Rio Olympics when I would normally be kicking off my Ironman preparation – but we’ll worry about that later! For now, job done. Aloha!