Saturday, 30 July 2011

Ironman Antwerp 70.3 Race Report - The Swim

The race began months before I got to the starting line, in February, when I began training. Ironman 70.3 means a 1.2 mi. swim • 56 mi. bike • 13.1 mi. run. But I train in meters. So to me, it means a 1.9 km swim, a 90 km ride and 20.1 km run.   

The first question is why triathlons? I love each component. I really enjoyed every single training session.  And the three together are a sport unto themselves.  I love the excitement of racing and the daily training discipline that grows out of fear of failure.  The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed on race day.

Why middle-distance racing? I chose middle-distance because of my size. I’m an Athena.  Until now, I haven’t thought of myself as a fast runner or cyclist or swimmer. So the longer the race, the more my size favors me, I suppose.  In 2004 and 2005, I raced in the Athena division for my first Sprint distance triathlons.  And I ran a fairly uncomfortable 5h30 marathon in 2010. So I’m not keen on a full ironman just yet. The training commitment is substantially higher, and I don’t want to spend so much time away from my family.

Race day arrived at the wrong end of my alarm clock. I hit the snooze button several times because I didn’t want to get out of bed and start the day. I felt afraid of the race. I marked a smiley face on my left hand with a permanent green pen to serve as a reminder to enjoy every step.  I also wrapped a blue and yellow cloth strip on my bike handlebars to remind me of my dedication to race in support of the families of the children who were killed in Norway.

I had wanted to eat sweet potatoes for breakfast but didn’t get up early enough to cook them. So I had a Powerbar Recovery shake with milk. I’ve eaten this before and it’s low fiber and goes down well.  I also had my standard espresso with milk.  Why give myself a headache from caffeine withdrawal?   I got the kids moving while waiting for my morning toilet routine.

I had planned a 7:30 a.m. departure time, and then thought to leave earlier at 7:15 a.m.  I didn’t communicate that clearly.  We ended up leaving at 7:45 a.m. That felt like my second mistake. My first was cycling a little too hard Saturday for 30 minutes. It left my quads feeling a little tired. Once we were in the car and moving, I started to get upset and caught myself, thinking that this was a recreation event and I wanted to keep it fun for the whole family. If I yelled at them, they probably wouldn’t think traveling to watch me race was fun.

Despite the late departure I had to make another pit stop while en route. That brought great relief to my nervous tummy and turned out to have been a time-saver, given the lines to the port-a-potties at the Registration Tent and at the first Transition Zone.

Notes for next time: pack before the day before.  The stress I felt on Saturday made packing difficult. It would help to print a detailed road map too.  The internet service on my phone doesn’t roam automatically, and I forgot about this when using the map service to navigate, and it suddenly stopped working.

As it turned out, navigation went smoothly. Antwerp's just not that big. We found a place to park and I rode my bike over to the Registration Tent.  Registration also went smoothly. I got a nice backpack and race belt.

I also dropped off my running kit. The bike-to-run transition zone (T2) is at a different location than the swim-to-bike zone (T1). You have to pack what you’ll need for the run into a labeled garbage bag and the race organizers deliver it to the T2 Zone. So I said goodbye to my racing shoes, a clean pair of socks, a hat, a bottle of Gatorade, and a running coat. Based on the forecast I expected rain, so I thought I’d be glad to have a dry pair of socks by then. I also tucked two minerals capsules in my shoe.

I rode back to the car, momentarily panicking since I wasn't quite sure how to get back to it, and changed into my tri-suit in the parking lot.  I stuffed everything into my new backpack and rode over to T1. I forgot my bike gloves, but that didn’t matter. I also forgot to get my bib number marked on my arm at the Registration Tent. I was relieved to read in the instructions that I could get marked at T1. The other number written on the athletes is your race category. (It’s definitely a stress-reliever to see another race category on the calf of the person who just passed you.)  I love getting marked for a triathlon race. It’s a temporary tattoo that I look at with pride on the days following the race.
Not me. My bike though! And why does this guy have my race number?

I set up my bike and stuffed myself into my wetsuit. It was cold and I wanted to keep warm before the start.  Some people had shower shoes or disposable togs. I stood barefoot. I had been worried about having to set up and leave T1 by 10:00 a.m. But T1 was right on the start chute for the swim.   I felt so excited and nervous and well-prepared.  My race plan was simple enough to know by heart.

Swim = a refreshing warm up for the rest of the day. Bike = patient. Run = steady pace.

I felt confident that this course was within my ability and that I could meet the time limits on the course without too much trouble. My goal was to finish before the time limit. Actually I had three goals:

Goal 1: give it my best try. Never give up.  Embrace the sucky parts and push through them.

Goal 2: finish ahead of the meat wagon

Goal 3: finish further ahead of the meat wagon. :> And magically a spot in Kona or Nevada will roll down to me. ha ha ha. That would be very funny indeed.

Really excited about the race!

There were lots of nervous athletes around me.  I felt really proud to be there. It’s funny to look around at how everyone else sets up their bikes.  Everyone has a particularly method to setting out the stuff: bike helmet, glasses, shoes, etc. I clipped my SIDI’s into my Speedplay pedals. I practiced a couple times putting my feet into my shoes after mounting the bike. The way my shoes clip in makes it difficult to walk or run in them – they have a clip that sticks out. Anyway, my thought was I could at least run barefoot to the mount zone and put my shoes on there.

Realising there's no way out of the starting pen except to start!

I felt inspired by the disabled athletes who would be doing the race in special wheelchairs – pedaling with their arms.   They started with the pros and understandably lagged behind. What courage to swim that distance.  The swim was in Lake Galgenweel, a fresh water lake off the river Scheldt that runs through Antwerp.  Did I mention I hate swimming in lakes? I dislike muddy bottoms. In hindsight, I should have practiced lake swimming. The fresh water was very cold and green. I didn’t mind the lack of visibility, but I don’t float as high as I do in salt water. That took some adjusting.

Athletes started in waves every ten minutes.  We in the dark blue caps stood in the rear, slowly inching up towards the front to take our turn. No matter how far back we lagged, our turn approached. 

Somehow I ended up near the front of the pack, where I did not want to be. I figured I’d swim in about 50 -60 minutes, slower than most.    Eventually we all had to climb gingerly down these metal steps into the water (and the mud). I saw a woman bravely dowse her face in the cold water immediately. I will teach myself to do that.  Get over the shock of cold water as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, only the pros were allowed to warm up before the start. A warm-up definitely would have helped me.  I was impressed by the various sizes and shapes of the people in my age group. Not everyone was possessed of a “body beautiful” like the pros.  In the 45+ category, you find brave souls like me who are willing to work with the bodies they have, and not wait for the bodies they want to have.

ready set go!

waiting to begin!

When our gun went off, not much happened. Some of the group began to swim immediately. Others, including me, just stood there trying to adjust to the water temperature and coax ourselves forward.   Swimming 25 meter laps is one thing. Swimming a kilometer along the coast line is something else. Staring at a huge triangular course of the entire distance is just plain frightening. So I looked at the kayaks and other rescue boats.  They’re there for me if I need them. And off I went. 

A large group had broken off and was swimming too far to the right. That told me there was current in the lake. I kept to the left, but realized that unless I breathed on both sides I would veer to the right. I had difficulty swimming a straight line. The Tempo Trainer bravely beeped out the strokes I planned to take, but I had a lot of difficulty settling myself into the swim. I found some feet to draft on, but the swimmers proved to be either too slow or poor navigators.  The TT was helpful but seemed too slow and I had trouble putting together more than four strokes before pausing. It took a full third of the course before I settled down and felt more consistent. I was sinking in the fresh water. Breast stroke worked fine and that helped me to settle myself. And to navigate in a straight line. I was seeing some people ahead of me making good headway with the breast stroke.  So I followed them.

I had a lot of negative noise in my head and was out of breath a lot. That tells me in hind sight my swim form was poor. I told myself I was not quitting and just to keep going. I had told everyone I know that I was doing this, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having to tell everyone I gave up. I thought about fibbing and faking a cramp. But I didn’t want to become a quitter.  I only quit one race before when it was very, very cold and I was tired and didn’t want to run the whole 25 km.  I felt bad afterwards, and thought it’s dangerous to quit – it can be habit forming. It takes such strength to continue when your mind is saying quit. So I tried to remember my Total Immersion focal points. Swim tall.  Glide.

After the first turn buoy I started to settle down. I felt some growing confidence. I’m doing this, I thought. The second leg was marked with blue buoys which enabled me to focus on just swimming to the next one.  I tried counting strokes and told my brain that all I have to focus on was what I was doing right now.  Not think about whether I could have practiced more. 

I have been teaching myself how to swim the Total Immersion way. I can see how my race reflects the highest points I’ve achieved in my practice sessions.  I love this swimming method because when I’m in the groove, it feels effortless and it feels like I am flying through the water.   A woman near me stopped in the water. I paused and asked her if she was okay. She replied that she just peeing.  I found that very funny.  As we closed in on the last leg, I saw I was nowhere near last. I started feeling really proud of myself. Having intense feelings of happiness has triggered asthma in prior races, so I continued to breathe well even though I felt a little asthma coming on.   I had to battle for space on the direct line to the finish. It was kind of fun to feel like I was really in a race.  I kept going strong and finished the swim  at 0:47 – the time of day – but I thought that was my swim time. So I was ecstatic.  In fact, the official time was 54 minutes.  Regardless, the actual time is at least a 15 minute improvement over last year’s 1.8 km swim in Weymouth. I was fantastically happy.

Stay tuned for Part 2. First I have to make dinner, though.


  1. Inspiring stuff. I'm on tenterhooks waiting to read about the bike and the run.

  2. So exciting! Glad I'm finally getting to read this. You look so beautiful and happy in your "before" pic.

  3. Chris, great write up! I hung on every word. I can't wait to get to part 2. You are simply amazing!


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