It has been a while since the race, but here is my race report. The lead-up to Ironman Switzerland was actually very challenging. I had been traveling for about three weeks, first to a friend’s wedding in Hawaii, then up to visit my hometown in Northern California, and then to Bend, OR, to participate in the Pacific Crest Long Course Triathlon (Half ironman distance). As soon as I returned from Hawaii I did my first triathlon of the year — an olympic distance race in Big Bear than traveled north that day after the race. I spent a few days in Humboldt then drove up to Bend, OR, with my mom. In the past I’d managed to put together races on back-to-back weekends, but I seemed to struggle this time.
At Pacific Crest, a few Aussies (Ironman 70.3 World Champion Tim Reed plus colleague) showed up to smack everyone around on a training day, but besides them I came out of the water in 10th place, then biked my way into third place. The ride was amazing, basically one long climb up and around Mt. Bachelor followed by a 10 mile pills to the wall descent. Given that the race paid five deep I was pretty excited as I started the run. Immediately my legs felt strongish. I started the run and was ticking off 6:20s or so (at 4,000 feet) then about half way through the wheels began coming off. The last five miles were five of the most painful miles I had ever experienced as I was unable to pick up the pace, getting passed by two guys. What made matters worse was that Sun River is a resort and there are people leisurely biking along and floating down the lazy river with beer. The juxtaposition was hard to handle.
After these events I was a bit low on running confidence, despite having run a 2:43 marathon in May. I had not fully recovered from that race (upper achilles strain) and had a hard time running more than 30 miles a week leading into the ironman. Upon returning to Riverside from Oregon, I did a 10K foot bike climb up Oak Glen and Onyx Summit with a few training friends, attempted an hour transition-run in the 90F degree heat and conked hard. I barely made the last two miles to the car and had to pour water down my back just to keep the feet moving forward. Clearly, I was overtraining.
However, I gained some of my confidence back the following weekend when I went up to Bishop with Josh and Duane for some (even more) hardcore training. I had relaxed the intensity heading into the weekend and built in a little more recovery time. We stayed near Aspendell. We did a 3K foot climb Friday evening, followed by a 40 minute base run, all over 8,000 feet. The scenery up there was unbelievable. The next day, Duane and I did a 30 minute swim in an alpine lake to get things going. Our plan for the day was a double-brick. The first was a 6,000 foot 30 mile climb from the Owen’s Valley basin up White Mountain to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine center in 90F+ heat. This is the 9th hardest climb in the U.S. and is definitely very challenging with a few 15 percent grades. We split the ride into two parts stashing several Gatorade bottles half way up. The ride took me about 3.5 hours. This ride was immediately followed by the first brick run of 60 minutes. I split the run into 20 minutes base, 20 minutes tempo, 20 minutes base, using HR as my metric, since the wind was very strong so pace would be an inaccurate gauge of effort. We then did a ~1.5 hour ride along highway 395 towards Mammoth and back, once again into a headwind. Our last run of the day was a 30 minute run — which I held steady around a 7:25 pace. The pace held at this run is a pretty good indicator of what you can probably average during an ironman. I felt pretty good but the last ten minutes were a struggle as I had inaccurately gauged my calories and felt gnawing hunger pangs and energy depletion as I slogged along the Bishop streets as day turned to night. All told, we started our training at about 7am and finished at about 8pm. We were absolutely shattered but overall the day went about as well as it could have for me. The next day we drove down to Independence and hit the Onion Valley climb, the sixth hardest climb in the U.S. and an absolute bruiser. Given everything we had done the day prior, I was surprised at my effort and I completed the climb with relative ease. This training block let me recover some confidence I had lost after Pacific Crest.
That was two weeks out from Ironman Switzerland. I flew out to Europe on July 18th, which gave me enough time to recover from jet-lag, as the race was July 24th. A few days later Sarah arrived from Ethiopia, and my Jason Bourne fantasy trip through Europe began. I spent the next few days adjusting to the time zone, writing and reading, and doing light workouts.
Ironman Switzerland takes place in Zurich, which is a fantastic city. I cannot recommend this race more strongly. Switzerland is a beautiful and well-organized country. Put it this way, I had an easier time taking public transportation in Switzerland than I did when I went to Philadelphia.
Sarah and I stayed in an airbnb home about ten minutes walking from the race headquarters. One thing I’ve learned, staying near race headquarters is mandatory. I headed down to check-in race morning relatively early and was one of the first people to arrive. I set my bike up, pumped my tires, then walked down to the swim start. Overall, people seemed more relaxed about the race than what I’ve seen in the States. For me, I was definitely nervous even though this was my eighth ironman. You just know how much pain you will have to endure, so even if you are the world champion you have to contend with that reality. You don’t know precisely when that pain will occur, you don’t know if someone will kick you in the gut during the swim, whether you will get a flat on the bike, slide out of control on a descent, bonk hard during the third lap of the run, or have the will to take a chance during a key stage of the race. Even though this is a superfluous sporting event, for you, in that instant, it is the only thing that matters.
The swim start is rolling, so I positioned myself between 1 hour and 1:10. The entry was organized as eight athletes enter the water every 5-10 seconds (knowing the Swiss is was probably exactly 7.5 seconds). Given my traveling, I hadn’t been swimming as much as I liked, but did manage some decent swim efforts in Lake Zurich in the days leading into the race. My plan was to try and not go anaerobic at the beginning, get into a draft and try and stay as relaxed as possible. The course buoys were confusing so I just swam behind people. We set a pretty good pace for me and I managed to draft for much of the swim. This helped me towards the end when swimmers started to separate more, but overall there were people around me the whole time. I came out of the water in 1:07, which is a pretty consistent swim for me.
The swim exits onto a little island, you run over a bridge, into the change tent, and then to your bike. Somehow during this process my wetsuit was removed and I was on the course. The course wends around the northern part of Lake Zurich through Zurich and then along the shore for 15 miles or so. It then heads away from the lake into the foothills of the alps through small mountain towns, with supporters yelling “op op op” and ringing cowbells. Eventually it descends back along the lake then heads down the other side. Cyclists then head up “heartbreak hill” where they can restock their nutrition/energy supplies. The course is two loops.
The bike course is a medium to medium-hard course, as there is more than 5,000 feet of climbing but the wind and heat did not play much of a role. This type of course is well-suited to my abilities as a cyclist. Overall, I biked well and only got passed by a few guys the whole course (the two guys who passed me I saw walking at one point, which brought me great satisfaction). The first 20 miles (before the climbing) it was tucked aero, staying out of the draft zone, and just passing lots of people. I tried to keep my power under 260. Hitting the climbs, I was toying with some young German guy who I know was pushing too hard. Young ironman athletes, unfortunately for them, also tend to be the most stupid. Often, they brazenly push large amount of watts then conk hard on the run. However, this guy tricked me a small amount into his game, as I noticed I was pushing 280-300 watts up the larger climbs. It just felt good passing all the Swiss, Germans, and other Euros who think that universal health care is a freedom and right when we all know that true freedom is the ability to die from a curable disease. However, this mistake came back to me the second loop as I lost a bit of power the final 40 miles of the ride. The main issue was that I probably pushed a bit too hard up the climbs, as I started to fade somewhat the back half of the second loop. Still, I finished in a time of 5:01, so almost identical to my Kona split. In addition, during the bike I only wanted to quit the race for about 45 minutes, so that’s pretty good! I was quite pleased with this time but of course it’s always an embarrassment to bike slower than five hours.
Coming off the bike, I was already out of my bike shoes. Finishing 112 miles is always a mixed bag. On the one hand you don’t have to ride anymore, on the other hand now you have to run a marathon. Wait, why am I doing this again? Running into transition I took off my helmet, wracked my bike, then ran into the change tent. As I switched into my shoes, put on my Rudy Project sunglasses, visor, prepared my salt and gels, I felt a deep rumbling inside. I had to drop a bomb so my T-2 time was a bit slow. Luckily getting out and back into my amazing Louis Garneau trisuit was much easier than my old suit. With a front zipper down the chest it was actually pretty quick. Given a bit of stomach distress, my most recent blow-up at Pacific Crest, and my lingering achilles injury, in the moment I knew I had to start the run slowly.
Starting the run slowly is unnatural; many people are passing you and the tendency is not to let this happen. This is especially the case because I am a fairly strong runner. However, I stuck to my guns and spent the first of four loops easing into the run at a 7:45-7:50 pace, something that was probably about 45 seconds slower than my “ideal/capable” pace. I wanted the stomach to settle and my hamstrings were still quite tight from the ride. About four miles in I saw Sarah at an aid station and told her I was taking the first loop easy. Around this time I started to stretch out the legs and expand my stride. This seemed to help as I began passing lots of people who had passed me during my first loop. I began to get my stride and the average pace started to gradually tick downwards. I continued working a bit harder each loop as I drove the HR up a bit, stabilized it, then slowly drove it up some more. No signs of cramping and I was feeling pretty good, still making jokes on the third loop. I have found that my desire to crack jokes in a race is directly correlated with my mood and level of difficulty I am experiencing.
Because we were allowed to have a helper providing food/drink at designated spots on the course, Sarah played a huge role in my successful running. I saw her about four miles in and she gave me a hand bottle with Perpetuem and some electrolyte supplements. As the course went on she provided me with coke and Red Bull every other loop, which was key to keeping me going. The downside to this cocktail, though, was another restroom break on the second loop. The back half of the last loop I picked it up and split the last three miles in sub 7 minute pace. In the end, I posted a 9:35 time (1:07 swim, 5:01 bike, 3:20 run), which, I think in most comparable U.S. races would place me in the top 5 age group for a KQ (Kona Qualifier), but as it was I was 14th in M35-39. I was a bit amazed by that but them’s the breaks. It’s a bit of a shame to put in such an effort and have nothing to really show for it, but I have to remember that the Europeans start riding bikes at a much earlier age, in general. In the States, my bike split is usually one of the top few in my age group. This allows me to more or less bike into KQ contention in any amateur race. But in Switzerland I was a little further down. There were several guys who were biking in the 4:50s and even a few in the 4:40s, which, on that course, is ridiculous.
In sum, Ironman Switzerland is a fantastic race, and I could not recommend it more strongly. Switzerland is a beautiful and safe country. When I rolled into Zurich at 11pm at night there were women riding their bikes by themselves through forested areas along the lake. That really amazed me given that one would be unlikely to see that in the U.S. The race, much like the (at least parts of) country, is run very well and highly organized. It was fun to shoot the breeze with other athletes from all over the world after the race. Sarah and I then spent a week driving around Switzerland and Northern Italy, before heading up to Denmark for my family’s reunion. In many ways it was a trip of a lifetime, except I’m sure we’ll go on many more amazing trips because that is our style.
By day I am a political scientist studying campaigns, public opinion, and race and ethnic politics. By early morning and/or night I am an endurance athlete.