Firstly, what is an Ironman 70.3? ‘Ironman’ is a brand of a triathlon events, which take place all over the world. An Ironman (full) consists of 3.8kms of swimming followed by 180kms of cycling followed by 42kms of running – all to be finished within a certain cut-off time (typically 16-17hours). The ‘Ironman 70.3’ in which I participated was half these distances, or basically the ‘Ironman 70.3’ is a nicer way of saying ‘Half-Ironman’. And 70.3 stands for the total miles covered in this event.
Why did I register for a 70.3? I was in France for a year and it was an easy opportunity to participate in an Ironman event as I would save on many costs like flight tickets, etc. I had previously done all the individual distances before, so I wanted to up my game and take my endurance to the next level! So I took the leap and registered for Ironman 70.3 Vichy. The first and probably the most important step in committing oneself, is by registering. Once you register, you automatically start making a schedule and the gears start rolling. And I did that 6 months before the event, giving me enough time to train – or at least that’s what I thought.
I was staying in Grenoble since March. Being at the base of the Alps, this small city was full of people addicted to fitness. When I gazed out of my window, I could always see people running or biking along the river (A big inspiration to go out and train!). It was an ideal place for training – with long paths to bike and run and open water lakes to practice swimming.
A downside of this place was – there were too many other things to do! I spent a lot of time hiking, climbing, playing football and travelling. The initial training plan to slowly increase my endurance was never followed. While these other activities did compliment my triathlon training, they could never be a substitute for activities to build my endurance. Also this caused some stress to my body and I did suffer through a couple of runner’s knee and shoulder injuries – which further reduced my training.
During those 6 months, I registered for smaller triathlons nearby – one Sprint and two Olympic distance triathlons. I got a good feel of how the transitions work, how to pack, how to swim in a wetsuit amongst other things. I could comfortably finish both the Olympic distance triathlons in Annecy and Marseille without any fatigue at the end which was a bit of a confidence booster.
However, by the time of the event, I realised that I was thoroughly under-prepared. The last Half-Marathon I ran was 18months ago. I hadn’t run more than 12kms in a single training session in the last 6 months. I hadn’t biked more than 65kms at a stretch. And I hadn’t swum more than 1.5kms. And these were in individual practice sessions. So swimming 1.9km, followed by 90kms of bike followed by a half marathon – seemed pretty crazy.
I knew I was underprepared, and I knew things would probably go wrong because I just didn’t have enough endurance. So I was prepared for a DNF (Did not Finish) as well. I just wanted to go there, and try. I was expecting a finish time between 6:30 and 6:45 according to my pace if things went well.
I was lucky to have Anirban participating with me. I had done a couple of my previous triathlons alone, but having company is always a good thing. We travelled to Vichy by train and could see the whole town in preparation for the weekend event. We had done our hotel bookings way in advance, because with 4000 thousand athletes staying for the weekend, every room was going to be booked. The EXPO was a delight where we could see the latest gear on display.
The day before the event we went through the route once again, discussed out nutrition strategies and got a good night’s sleep.
A Smooth Swim
Like every other event, I was excited, anxious, tensed and full of adrenaline. The water temperature was announced to be 25.3⁰C, so wetsuits were prohibited. This would increase my swim time by 2-3 minutes.
This was my first triathlon with a rolling swim start – which was a blessing compared to a wave start! I never felt crowded out, never got kicked by someone. It was a smooth continuous swim. I alternated between freestyle and breast stroke and completed the swim in around 50minutes – pretty much what I expected.
A video of the swim part was compiled by the Ironman organizers link to which is below. They have captured the wave start very well. Observe how organized the swim is because of this implementation: https://www.facebook.com/IRONMANVichy/videos/643868972446116/
Transition 1 was straightforward, but a part where I could save a lot more time. I had mountain bike shoes which took a lot of time to wear compared to tri shoes. I took it a bit easy so I didn’t forget anything in the heat of the moment.
Beautiful Bike Ride
The bike ride was through the French countryside. I was even more beautiful than I expected. The first km was weird and tough because of the transition. My legs felt locked and fatigued but they eased up soon. In just 3 kms, we were out of the town, riding along endless fields. The route was well marked with volunteers everywhere. We passed through pretty small towns, where people were out cheering for us. We saw rolled hay-stacks, water sprinklers with rainbows formed within them. It was a cloudless bright sunny day.
A video of the bike route:
For most of the route, I rode with a German woman because we had very similar speeds. It’s good to keep pace with someone. I had memorized when the major climbs would come and conserved energy accordingly. I kept eating gels and drinking water at regular intervals to keep my energy, water and salt levels high. By around 80kms, my muscles were pretty fatigued, so I gave them rest on the downhills. Overall I clocked 3hr 17mins for the 90kms, with an average speed of 28kmph, which was better than I had expected!
The worst run of my life
The temperature was soaring now. The sun was on full blast. I wore a cap, got hydrated in T2 and set off for the half-marathon. In the previous Olympic triathlons, I finished the runs very strong with an average pace of 5mins/km. But I decided to go slow this time and pace myself right from the beginning. In my first two kms, I was at a decent pace of 5:30mins/km and felt comfortable. But soon my left knee started feeling weird, so I dropped my pace further to 6mins/km. But at km 5, the outside of my left knee started throbbing like crazy, and my fear turned real. My lack of training showed. My right leg was completely fine but my left knee was busted. I tried stretching and relaxing it a bit, but it didn’t help much.
The rest of the 15kms was the worst run in my life. I was almost dragging my left leg and swallowing the throbbing pain. I’ve always run at a pace faster than 5mins/km and running was my strongest part in a triathlon. And not being able to perform in it was a huge disappointment. Running at 8min/km didn’t feel like running. I didn’t enjoy it, I dreaded it. But I realised that even if I walked the remaining distance, I would finish by the cut-off time. I kept going, stretching from time-to-time, and hydrating at every aid-station.
The only plus point about the entire run was the support and enthusiasm shown by the organizers and the public. Throughout the run course, people were smiling and cheering. Due to the extreme heat (36⁰C now!) the organizers had installed water sprays at every aid-station to cool down the athletes – which was a real blessing. Hell, they actually made an artificial cloud with an airplane to block the sun! It lasted for about 45 minutes, but it helped a lot!
Throughout the whole event, I had decided to keep smiling, whatever situation I may be in. It not only helps to lift your mood, but also the mood of other athletes who see you and also the supporters and organizers. With a kilometer left, my body squeezed out the last bit of adrenaline and I increased my pace knowing I would finish it soon. I entered the finish area with a big smile. 6 hours 38mins 24sec. Not a timing to be proud of, but it was an amazing feeling, one which I will remember for a long time. 6 months of semi-training, did the trick this time. I may not be so lucky the next time 😉
The nutrition plan during the race which Anirban and I planned worked wonders. Apart from a bit of soreness in the muscles, I didn’t feel any cramping or super-fatigue. I felt almost back to normal in the next 2 days. Hell, I even played some intense football for a whole hour just 3 days after the event!
- Swimming beginners should choose a triathlon with a rolling swim start: Anxiety of an open water swim, coupled with the rush and crowded nature of a wave start can be daunting for beginners. Having experienced both, I would definitely recommend anyone (beginner or professional) to choose a rolling start. Although the race gets converted to a time-trial like race because everyone starts it at a different time, it is a much smoother and safer experience. You are with people swimming at around your pace so there is less anxiety and less disturbances due to reduced collisions.
- Keep pace with someone during the bike ride: Look for a person or a group of people with a similar speed as yours (or a bit more) and ride with them. This helps to maintain your speed and helps you push a bit more when you start slacking naturally. But be careful of maintaining a safe distance to prevent drafting and avoid being penalised!
- Bike speed training: My speed on the bike improved a lot in 3 months of training. I went from 25kmph to 28kmph in a short time. As most of your time is spent on the bike in the event, it makes sense to improve your bike speed. We usually train a lot for runs, because of the large number of events. With very few biking events, bike training is often neglected. Adding aerobars does help a lot and that will be my next upgrade.
- Importance of Nutrition: Plan your nutrition well and maintain your level of salts, water and energy throughout the race. Not only helps in the race, but also helps recover faster post-race.
- Train at least up to 80% the race distance! Things will go wrong, your body will not be able to withstand the sudden mileage, especially when competing at a higher speed than usual. Go to at least 80% of the race distance at least once before the event. I went just up to 50% (in the Olympic tris) and that showed.
I realised that I can do much better in a 70.3. I also realised that I’m still a long way to a full Ironman. I could maybe train more and finish a full Ironman 16 hours or so, but that’s not how I want to do it. I want to finish strong and perform well. I want to run at a fast pace throughout. I love speed over endurance. I love the adrenaline and the thrill. A lot of endurance to build, at a high speed!
Up next in the coming year? A couple of HMs, a couple of Olympic tris and another 70.3 for sure! And a lot more training! 😉