Hamburg Ironman Review.

We’re driving along the Autobahn en route to Hamburg when the email pings. Bugger. Blue Green algae…the swim is cancelled. Not really what you want when the last 7 months have been dedicated to swimming as much as it has to biking and running. And really not what you want when you’re not that much of a duathlete – and your swim has improved marginally more than your run over the aforementioned months. Hey ho. You can only race the race that is there. I’d felt for the Ironmen doing Bolton a month earlier when the bike was shortened and thought confidently (stupidly) that nothing would go wrong for Hamburg. What do I know? Anything can happen. It’s probably a triathlete life lesson.

So why Hamburg? Well first, I suppose, Why Ironman? I don’t know who to blame this time around. I think it was Simon who casually mentioned that Caroline was thinking about it for 2018…I had unfinished business with the iron distance so the idea festered for a few weeks before we magically came up with a shortlist. This involved…not too hot, not hilly, not a sea swim, ideally no chance of wetsuits being denied….That narrowed it down massively and we ended up looking at Hamburg, Copenhagen and Vichy. Simon, Caroline and I concurred that Hamburg looked good and then told Andy.

So imagine our surprise when we arrived in Hamburg and it was a glorious 35 degrees. Hmm. To be fair, this has been the hottest summer in Germany for some time hence the blue green algae levels. I think you’ve just got to be prepared for anything and then go with the flow. The forecast was showing that it was going to be a bit cooler for the Sunday so I mentally told myself that I could only control the controllables and to chill out a bit. Literally.

The advantage of taking the boat from Hull to Rotterdam and driving to Hamburg was largely to have all the kit handy, not needing to build the bikes and being able to partake of the buffet on the overnight boat. We arrived on the Friday afternoon and went straight to registration which was heaving.Managed to miss the race briefing so we sat and enjoyed some Holsten AF beer in the sunshine. Every time I started to relax and enjoy myself, I’d have perhaps a minute before I remembered I had to race an Ironman in 2 days time. One day, I’ll go back and actually see the city properly.

Hamburg is a gorgeous city, really beautiful and the Rathaus (Town Hall) is the centre of the Ironman action. You can’t fault the Ironman people on their organisation. Everything happens when it’s meant to, it’s relatively low stress. I think because Hamburg is also a regular on the ITU circuit, they know what they’re doing with the roads and the marshalls are well practiced.We racked up on the Saturday including leaving our bags, only for the heavens then to open and torrential rain and thunder hit the city. Fortunately we were allowed into transition on the Sunday morning so I could avoid having soggy cake in the bento box.

Sunday morning. Porridge then out of the apartment and down to transition. Pretty nervous but the atmosphere makes up for it. Got chatting to another Brit in transition. Sara. She was my equivalent of Caroline’s taxi mate from the Norway 70.3 (for regular readers of race reviews….). Seriously, her race was going to be a disaster, it was her first iron distance, she didn’t have a tri bike, it was too hot, she’d have to run slowly, no swim – agh! I put my own race anxiety in the back seat and tried to say nice encouraging things. I then saw her lining up in the 4 minute km queue for the first run. Sara she was called. A fraud.

They’d decided that we’d run 6km instead of the swim. Felt pretty grateful that it wasn’t a full 10km. We saw the elites setting off and then lined up – personally not in the 4 min/km queue but actually, I don’t think anyone was taking much notice of those signs. Bit irritating to see a few women wearing the same outfit and even a man. A rolling start and we were off – 8am. Nothing really to report on the 6km loop. Nice and cool at that time of day, I looked good (I’d got a spray tan before I left….), felt good (think I might have tapered a bit too much) and the atmosphere was fabulous. Took it nice and easy and arrived in T1 for the bike. It was a huge transition area but easy to find your bags and get kitted out for the bike. The sun was now shining and as I left T1 I saw that the temperature was now 22 degrees – it was not yet 9am!

The bike course was 2 loops of 90km. Out of the city centre and out into the surrounding countryside. Had to navigate a cobbled section where a lot of people on their fancy wheels seemed to come a bit unstuck but soon we were onto open roads. Now. Having selected a nice flattish race (which became flatter as they changed the route after we booked it!), you’d think that yours truly would have nothing to complain about. Well, I’m not necessarily complaining….but as someone who very rarely has the pleasure of a flat ride, I’ve assumed that it’s easy. Not so much. In fact it really brings home how important pacing is and also how the wind is your enemy. I’m still waiting for Hardcore Phil to come up with an equation for me to prove how many hilly km equals 180km on the flat (he says it doesn’t work) but training in Calderdale and the Pyrenees….we’d trained mostly on the hills. Still, the first 30km was a test in telling myself not to go too fast, monitoring my heart rate and trying not to panic that the women were nearly all man ladies (you know who you are) and there were absolutely no people doing it for charity or on a mountain bike. Someone later said it was the German long distance championship race but I don’t know if that was true. What was true was that there were some super fast women. Anyway, race your own race and all that. Lovely countryside. At 55km I was a bit fed up with the headwind but we were then turning back towards Hamburg so I was waiting for the lovely tailwind…..which I couldn’t feel at all. How does that work? Was pretty much self sufficient for food but was pleased with self for managing to get the bottle grab right without falling off. Got to the halfway point, 3 hours, pretty pleased with that.

Second loop started without incident but I was low on fluids so at km 95 I saw the feed station and tried to unclip (yes, I’d do the bottle grab but unclipped….just in case). Couldn’t unclip, tried to twist my foot every which way. Couldn’t unclip. Twist again, Oh GOD! My cleat has come off. Agh!!! So stopped, managed to find one of the screws. Used my GCSE German to ask a Marshall where the mechanic was…..He said (in English)….’where is your tool?’ I said, ‘with my husband’. He shrugged in a far more French manner than German. ‘The mechanic is at 135km’ Great. So I pedalled one legged for the next 40km to get to the man in the van – the mechanic. I’ve never been so pleased to see someone and I threw my shoe at him. He took it well and 10 minutes later he’d fixed the cleat on the one shoe and tightened them on the other. I used the 10 mins to stretch out my shoulder and eat cake. My speed for the first 90km was 30km/h and naturally that dropped in the second lap – I was cycling slower and then had to stop whilst my cleat was repaired. Back on my bike, I flew for the next 30km until cramp hit my left quad at 165km. Argh, agony. Got off the bike, tried to stretch. 2 medic motorbikes stopped. I declined a lift and added an extra salt tablet to my drink and necked it. It eased. Got back on the bike and had an uneventful 15km back into Hamburg.

At the start of the race, I’d been fretting about a puncture. I’d never have predicted a cleat problem and I genuinely thought I’d been drinking plenty of electrolyte to avoid cramp. I think the one legged pedalling had contributed to the cramp though. Very glad it wasn’t a hilly course, I could never have got away cycling that long without my foot clipped in.

Anyway. T2. Uneventful. Started the run, 4 laps of 10.5km. Saw Caroline not far behind me then saw Andy on what must have been his last lap! Great support on the route – a couple of groups playing hardcore German techno but no oompah loompah bands which was disappointing (was one of my criteria for Hamburg!). The run is (I think) where you prove if you’re an Ironman, or not. When I think of all my training runs, all the pacing practice, the long bikes plus long run brick sessions…..nothing really prepares you for a marathon at the end of that bike. This is also where you realise how ‘mental’ endurance races are. If you can get to the start line of an Ironman in one piece, you’ve proved you’re fit enough to be there….so it’s about how you adapt during that run and break it down into small chunks. Quite a few motivational placards out on the run and I was conscious of Caroline not far behind too! The menfolk who had finished were off drinking coffee and having ice cream but the tracker allowed them to check out where we were so we did get some support. Lots of big men walking on the run as I trotted past them. It was still 28 degrees at 7pm so whilst I the sun gradually disappeared, it still felt very hot. Whilst my quads were on fire on the bike, it was my calves that were crampy throughout the run. If I never see a cup of salty water again it’ll be too soon – whilst I hadn’t planned on stopping at the food stations, it was so hot that I stopped a couple of times to cram ice into my camelbak (the joy of truly cold fluids on a hot day….), grab sponges and the salt water. Ignored the promise that Redbull could give me wings – after all, don’t try something new on race day. After my (euphemistically put….) GI issues at Chester I’d been paranoid about tummy issues but all was good and I started the last lap feeling like I was in reasonable shape although all my planned times were a bit off….I’d been doing 9:1 throughout my long training runs and it did work really well for me in the event, I still don’t get the science but I’m faster overall doing that, than not. I did get slower with each lap but to be honest, you don’t care, you re-set your goals and just focus on the finish. And when you’re seeing lots of people who were clearly a lot faster than you on the bike in trouble, you just feel grateful that you’re still moving. Made the mistake on the final lap of having a loo stop (in hindsight, I wish I’d just kept going…). Seriously, someone should have told me not to sit down on the loo seat, trying to get back up again was a nightmare – everything seized. By the time I got out Caroline was long gone.

So the finish. It’s quite hard having to run past the Rathaus 3 times and watch other people disappearing down the finishing chute. Finally, it was my turn. Now, finishing was the most important part of this race so I took time on the final stretch to make sure no-one was going to try any kind of sprint finish and ruin my photos. All good, I made it down the blue carpet with what felt like the world cheering me on and then the man says ‘Fiona, you are an Ironman’. I don’t think I’ve ever grinned so much. In fact, the photos do make me look like I’ve been taking some kind of amphetamines (I hadn’t).

If you do one of these races, soak up the atmosphere at the finish. I met my three fellow Ironmen and we did the appropriate high fives etc. Finishing late (relatively…), there wasn’t quite the same choice for food but there was a lot of beer, this being Germany! The trek back to transition and then to the hotel was made easier by the evident endorphins running around our systems.Sleep deserted me and I was in the bath at 5am, making full use of the disabled facilities to enable standing up…

The only real pain that I suffered post event was in my mouth. I think I mentioned this after Embrun. Apparently it is a ‘thing’ in endurance athletes. Breathing heavily through the mouth for long periods of time in hot conditions, you can effectively bruise the tissues in the roof of the mouth. So for 48 hours I was unable to eat anything solid – imagine my distress on the boat back and being unable to attack the buffet in the manner I am usually accustomed! I had a plate of mash and gravy. I’ve since made up for it and now a month post event, I really need to stop eating like an Ironman.

I reckon you’d get a very different Ironman review from someone who is properly competitive. But it was my mum reminded me that when I set out on this journey, I’d said I’d be happy with sub 14 hours and at 12.50, even with a swim, I’d have been well under that goal. All in all, I’m happy and I’m a bloody Ironman!

A few beginners top tips for Ironman.

● Choose your first race v carefully. Just because you cycle well on hills does not mean you can do a marathon after a hilly 180km on the bike.

● Check your cleats aswell as your tyres

● Take a camelbak with fluid (if you’ve trained with it….). Imodium and loo roll (ask me about Chester Middle another time…)

● Don’t have fruit or veg in the two days before the race….(hopefully negates the need for Imodium).

● Worth staying in an aparthotel so that you can cook your own stuff. At the risk of sounding paranoid about GI problems….

● Stick the sponges down your back and keep on replacing them on the run

● Put a towel and shower gel in your white bag – you’re meant to have showered before having a massage

● Do find the massage people at the end. If you haven’t showered, use sponges like I did….

● Get a spray tan!

● If anyone says you are not a real Ironman (no swim, short bike, whatever), it’s quite likely that they themselves are not an Ironman. You are permitted to throw a punch.