Andy Cowen – Ironman Austria 2019

Having already ticked off my first Ironman back in 2017, I wanted another bash. Insanity? My family think so… but for me there was an itch to scratch. I still believed I had a much better time in me than the last full distance, so it was time to start looking again. Given swimming was not a strong point I wanted a lake swim, rather than a sea swim, and one which had a low probability of a non-wetsuit swim. That ruled out Vichy as they had a non-wetsuit swim in 2017 – too close in living memory… Switzerland looked good, with a fairly flat bike course… but then the chat started in the club about Austria. Rich Bartlett started it! Encouraging thoughts of a big Tri Surrey contingent out in Klagenfurt in 2019. Given Austria is popular and sells out pretty damn quick, decisions needed to be made. Decision was made… Austria it was. With a flurry of emails with triclub priority access codes being shared amongst many TriSurrey members, I’d signed up… and so had 16 other people from TriSurrey – some taking more persuading than others (which I like to think I had a little hand in!). Swift work, as the race again sold out within 24hours of it going on general release.

So here we were, exactly 51 weeks out from race day, and 16 members of Tri Surrey signed up for one of Ironman’s iconic and vastly popular races. The training started! Training and preparation is a chapter in itself, and not too exciting – other than to say it’s a commitment and for which you need the support and agreement of those closest to you. It does take over your life. My family knew that, had been party to that before and knew that this was something I did – so their understanding is all important to me.

So fast forward to 2 weeks before the event, and the reports of a heatwave across Europe! Great! I’m not great running in the heat at the best of times – but with reported temperatures of 35 degrees – that was going to be some heat. The worrying part for me, was the increase in water temperature – creeping desperately close to the 24.5 deg cut off for wetsuits. So, two weeks out I thought I should at least try a non-wetsuit swim just to check. Tuesday evening at Divers (less than 2 weeks to race day) I swam two large laps in a wetsuit and then discarded the wetsuit and prepared for the tri-suit only swim. The water temp at Divers was still only about 19/20 deg, so not really warm, and took a few minutes to acclimatize! Off I set on a small loop… OMG… I can’t swim… I really struggled with front crawl and popped back to breast stroke to calm myself. Back onto front crawl for about 10 strokes and finding myself completely out of breath. Long story short – I breast stroked all the way round the small 450m loop and it took me over 13minutes! I got out thinking “I’m screwed”. There is no way I can do that and get inside the cut off time in Austria if it’s a non-wetsuit swim… I’m going to be a DNS! Money and training down the toilet! Embarrassment of not even starting – dragging my family to Austria and to an event which I wasn’t even going to take part in. I was in a dark place!

The following day I considered my options. I couldn’t really fit my buoyancy shorts under my tri-suit… someone would see!! I started looking into swim skins. Did they give you buoyancy? Did they help? All the reports said they make you go faster and don’t absorb water. I didn’t need speed – I just needed floats! Quick order for next day delivery from wiggle of Zone3’s entry level swim skin – I had nothing to lose (it couldn’t make things worse could it?)… and a quick panic text to Chris Stanton for some swim help that night! Swim coaching at CHSC done and the suit arrived on the Thursday morning – so off to Divers in the evening to test it out. I managed 2 x 450m laps all crawl – great, but had to get out as I got cold (Divers cove was definitely not 26deg). At that point I felt I could at least swim. Friday night, same thing – 2 laps and stopped due to cold. Sunday night the lake had warmed up a lot over the weekend and so another swim practice. Managed 5 laps – slow, but I got around. That filled me with confidence – it was more than half way. I basically only needed to swim an Olympic distance after that and I’d be done. Much happier – bring on Austria.

The road trip with the family started early Thursday morning and we arrived in Klagenfurt around 1430 on Friday to 30deg heat!! Weather was due to cool by Sunday, so there was a lot of crossed fingers. 30deg would be a killer on the run. Quick pitch at the campsite and then off to registration where we bump into Emma and Adam, and then Sally and Nathan. Post registration we meet up with Jenny, Guy, Matt and Gail at a lakeside café for some much-needed pizza carb loading – and catch sight of John Collins putting ice in the lake in an attempt to cool it down! I had resigned myself to the fact this was going to be non-wetsuit and had got my head in the zone. John was still praying for rain and a temp drop!

Slept reasonably well on Friday night and up early for the race briefing with the crew at 0900. Nothing much different from the athlete guide, other than the absolute confirmation that the race would be a non-wetsuit swim. The lake temperature was 26.5deg – it was never going to get below 24.5 in less than 24 hours. I wasn’t worried… and surprised myself. After the briefing it was off for a quick practice swim. The water truly was like a bath and a quick 600m settled my nerves – this water was more buoyant than Divers and much warmer – again I was slow, but that was to be expected. I was still comfortable about the race.

After the swim there was a quick bike ride with Emma, Sally and Guy on the early part of the course – just checking the bike worked and everything was functioning, before heading back to the camper for a quick spot of lunch. A third check of my run bag, bike bag and street bag and it was off on the short walk to transition to rack the bike. A check of the weather forecast for the next day, given today was still 30deg, did in fact show a temperature drop, but also some thunderstorm activity for most of the day – that might make things interesting.

I arrived in transition and racked my bike on the first row – great for the swim exit – but not great as I would have to run with my bike through the whole of transition on both the bike exit and bike entry – a distinct disadvantage. Oh well – it was an Ironman so transitions are never going to be super speedy. With bike racked off I went to hang my red bag on the running peg and my blue bag on the swim exit peg, picking up my timing chip at the same time – and bumped into Emma and Brad. Chat about all things course and weather related and then make the decision to remove all my nutrition from the bike, to put in the fridge overnight to avoid it becoming a soggy, dripping squishy mess in the heat that was 30deg!

Back to the camper, nutrition in the fridge and chill with the family. Spag bol for tea, and a little glass of wine – what harm could it possibly do? Luckily it seemed that most people in the campsite were competing the next day, so everyone was pretty quiet come 10pm. Time to turn in and try and sleep – despite the heat and the inevitable nerves for the next morning. At about 11:30pm the wind picked up and the rain started… and the thunder. A storm front had arrived, and it sounded wild – this is not a good start. I hope the bike is ok? The rain continued for about 30mins before subsiding, and I was able to get back to sleep – but was woken again at about 01:30 with more rain. Really? After today’s sunshine??

Alarm was set for 04:55 – reasonably civilized for an Ironman. I only had to have breakfast, not forget my nutrition from the fridge and then a 10min walk to transition to check the bike was still in one piece after the previous night’s storm. Usual breakfast consumed – without waking the rest of the family and then a cautious open of the door to check the carnage. Well there’s a surprise! It looked like it hadn’t even rained! And it was even warm enough to walk to transition in shorts and t-shirt! This might be a good day after all.

Once in transition I checked over my bags again – removed my cycle shoes to put on the bike and filled by bike with the now chilled nutrition. Quick pump of the tyres and then a re-tour of transition so that I know where I’m going come race time. All good, all ready and plenty of time, it was only 05:45. Head back to the camp site for the obligatory pre-race toilet stop x 2 and thankfully not having to queue – straight into the campervan and my own space! Bliss!!

The swim start was only 2mins walk from the campervan, so I arrived at the street bag drop off at about 06:10 – probably a bit early given I was unlikely to get away before 07:30. It’s a good job it was warm, as the street bag drop off was outside the swim entrance and therefore we all needed to lose our clothes and get into our swim skins before heading to the start area – about 200m away.

Swim skin donned and street bag binned, I set off to the start and to find my pen… at the back. I caught up with Matt, Gail and Emma in the 1:30 to 1:40 pen and we spent the next hour slowly moving along the line approaching the start – watching as athlete after athlete got into the water and set off on the start of their ironman journey. I was planning on starting in the 1:40+ pen right at the back, and this was definitely sparsely populated. The guys were encouraging me to join them in the pen ahead – but I was never really going to be that fast. The swimmers behind me looked slow, so I was confident where I was. I looked out for the family to see if they’d made it to the swim start, but it wasn’t until 15mins to go I spotted them. They had expertly managed to get themselves right on the swim start line, and eventually they did spot me. Now was the time for the obligatory pre swim wee… usually all contained within the wetsuit, but this time all flowing down my legs – but who cares – it’s important before 3.8k of swimming. I was still on a high and looking forward to racing despite the non-wetsuit, so by the time I arrived at the start line I was still smiling. 4 athletes sent off every 5 seconds, I lined up in one of the chutes. Family screaming good luck and the inviting waters beckoning. Finally, I was at the front, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and beep… off I went into the waters of Lake Wothersee.

This was the start. I set off at my usual steady pace, and thankfully not too many athletes around me, sighted the first buoy and just got on with it. The water was bath temperature and beautifully clear – with a hint of milkiness! I was ok. This was going well. After the first few buoys, I started looking for the first turn buoy, but couldn’t see it. That’s ok… given I don’t have a wetsuit on things are going well. Or so I thought! That first turn buoy seemed to take forever to appear – but eventually it was there. Nearly half way I thought (1200m), then recalculated and realised it was only actually a third. Not to worry – once I get around the second turn buoy, I’ll be on the way back. The second turn buoy seemed to take even longer to arrive – way longer than one small lap of Divers!! Once around that I started heading back, but I was barely half way at this point. This did not bode well. I felt things were taking way longer than they should. I managed to avoid lots of people on the swim and tried to get on the feet of a breaststroker so that I didn’t have to sight (I know, I know… how slow??). Eventually what seemed like an age, I spied the entrance to the canal. Good – that’s only 1000m to go and I’m not far from the entrance. Slower than I’d planned but that’s ok… only 10/15mins left…. Wrong calculation and poor distance judgment. The entrance to the canal was much, much further away than I thought and took yet another age to arrive. By this stage I was getting really tired. I alternated between breaststroke and crawl, and each time I switched I seemed to be going a little faster. I glanced at my watch as I entered the canal. 1:37… only 1000m to go so that’s about 10/15 mins isn’t it? NO!! ITS NOT!! The canal had very few swimmers in and a huge mixture of breaststrokers in speedos and people like me! I was starting to panic about missing the swim cutoff so was desperately trying to increase my speed. The humiliation of missing the swim cut off would just be far too great. When I finally spied the exit, I caught sight of Liv walking along the bank watching me. I think she was watching me… I tried to wave during a front crawl stroke but it was all I could do to keep afloat. She followed me to the end shouting “you’re nearly there… don’t stop now”, every time I slipped back into breaststroke. Finally, the exit ramp, after what seemed like a marathon. I clambered out, checked my watch 2:08… fuck!! I’d made the cut off with 12mins to spare!! 12mins!!!! That’s it… race over… I’ll never beat Copenhagen now. Might as well just use it as a day out. I still jogged to transition (because that’s what you do – you don’t walk – it is a race after all), passing a few people on the way. I was also conscious that I wanted to get out on the bike in case the cutoff occurred at the start of the bike and not the exit of the swim. I entered transition, grabbed my bike bag and quickly changed. Helmet on, gel down, quick wee stop and off to the bike. All the time running through transition. Picked up my bike and jogged to the bike exit, deftly weaving in and out of people who were out on a Sunday stroll!!!

Onto the bike – thank god. No cut off and now in a portion that I could actually enjoy. I don’t remember too much about the first loop, other than a very long stretch of motorway which was a false flat, and my average power not quite hitting my race goal. I think mentally I’d stopped racing. The swim was just way longer than I was expecting, even in a worst-case scenario, so I wasn’t in a good place. There weren’t many people on the bike course, so things were a bit lonely on that first loop. I started passing people – which is always a good feeling in a triathlon, but still the energy and drive wasn’t there. Coming back into town and passing the half way point I heard the roar of the family and the Tri Surrey massive of Adam and Nathan, and that perked me up a bit. The start of the second 90k was out along the banks of the lake and I started to pick up the pace and ride a bit more like I was in a race. It felt better, and the fact that I was more than half way was a great feeling. The sun had faded and the temperature had dipped slightly, but it was still warm. Looking at the sky there were some black clouds… foreboding! I wondered whether I would actually catch anybody from Tri Surrey on the bike given my shocking swim – and was wondering if any of them had a mare too (clearly they didn’t, but at the time I had no idea). Then it came… a few drops at first, and then a few more until the heavens opened and it rained like there was no tomorrow. The temperature dropped a little, but it wasn’t cold like the UK. Don’t get me wrong – it could’ve been warmer, given all I had on was a tri-suit, but I kept pedaling and kept warmish. The wind picked up too and with 90mm wheels on the front, it was all I could do to stay upright – fighting the wind, fighting the rain and desperately trying to see the road in front of me – in vain!! In the back of my mind I was half expecting the race to be back flagged. This was weather like I’d never seen, the roads quickly turning into rivers. At that moment a tiny little part of me was hoping it would be black flagged – I’m not sure how much more of this I could take. But then equally quickly I thought that if I stopped for any kind of time, I would get cold and quickly cold! Let’s forget about that option. The storm lasted for around 25mins, and once it had passed the wind died to nothing and the rain stopped. The roads were still wet, and I was riding through alternating pockets of cold and warm air. The warm air was lovely, and I was praying it would stay, but no sooner had it come than it went and was replaced by a cool air pocket. This was my ride for the next 30mins. I spotted Sally with her distinctive purple tri-suit and shouted, “I know that person”. We rode together for a bit and chatted about how bad the storm had just been. She was looking very comfortable on the bike and had made great progress. After I’d left Sally, a few miles on I caught up with Emma – we chatted about the same things – the storm, just as we arrived at a hill. She told me to go, so I wished her luck and set off up the little hill, which turned a corner, and another corner and climbed higher and higher. Who’s idea was this?? 155km into a 180km ride and a hill on a par with coldharbour lane was thrust upon us. Throw in the fact that TT bikes don’t climb brilliantly, and this was just mind over matter. The legs were screaming… I was screaming, but I knew at the top the final 20k to the finish of the bike leg was pretty much downhill – and it didn’t disappoint. It felt a little like when I was younger on my Raleigh striker flying down the hill with my legs wide apart, shouting “Weeeeeeeeeee…..”. Back into town and back towards transition, the roads were rapidly drying out and the temperature had clearly upped, to the point I was wondering whether it had actually rained in town or not (it had!! Just as much!! To the point the spectators had to go and get dry clothes!!). Off the bike and trying to run through transition, but my feet felt like lumps of wood and were not co-operating, so it was more a shuffle than anything else – still trying to negotiate people dawdling in transition. IT’S A RACE PEOPLE! Biked racked and off to the loo (first time I’ve not needed to go whilst out on the bike…), then on to collect my run bag and get prepared for the marathon. Took a little while to get the socks on, given there was no feeling in my feet, and a quick gel, before racking my bag and heading off on the run.

As I came out of transition the first face I saw was Gail’s… I hadn’t caught her on the bike, and given the bike was the thing she was most worried about, she did a fantastic job. More cheering from my supporters and off onto the marathon. The weather had improved, the rain had gone, and the sun was shining. Not too warm – pretty much perfect run conditions. Running is my best discipline and probably my most favourite (when I’m feeling strong). I was determined to make this count and my plan was to aim for a sub 4 hour – which is no mean feat given by PB is only 3:24. I set off at my planned pace and kept it steady. I caught Gail and we chatted for a bit, I then caught up with Lucinda – surprising her with a hug as I caught her – but she was already a lap ahead, more chatting before heading off and keeping my pace. The run was two large loops, which came back to the central park each time, so really felt like four smaller loops. My strategy was to walk the aid stations and run the rest. That way the runs were only ever 2/3km. This allowed me to take on fluid and food easily – something I hadn’t really done on runs before. The family and tri-surrey massive (Adam, Nathan and Jo) were all in the park and so I passed them about 5 or 6 times, and the screaming, cheering, “you can do it Dad” were absolutely fantastic. Not only a massive boost to me, but also to all of the Tri Surrey competitors. On my first lap into the centre of Klagenfurt, about 15k in I was in a world of my own and happened to run into a scaffolding pole sticking out of a display stand which wasn’t set up. Bloody stupid place to have something like that right next to the run course!! It hurt but given everything was hurting by then it quickly paled into insignificance and thankfully didn’t impact my running. I felt like a chump! But I don’t think anyone noticed – I rang the charity bell with a limp on that loop. The rest of the run went without hitch, and the boost at seeing all of my tri surrey mates on the run course was awesome. It just felt that every 10mins or so I’d see a friendly face and we’d exchange words of encouragement and support – this was Tri Surrey’s race. At about 28k my watch gave up the ghost, so I was running blind for the remainder of the race – with no real idea whether I was on target for my sub 4 hours. I passed the family for the final time with 12k to go, and Liv expertly ran beside me telling my current run split and my predicted finish time – still under 4 hours… Woo hoo… something finally going right. Everything was hurting now, but I still felt strong and wasn’t feeling nauseous like Copenhagen (crystalised ginger doing the trick). Out to Klagenfurt and then on the final return along the canal. I arrived at the cheering point to the tri surrey massive again including John Collins this time – who’d finished his race by then and had come to cheer. This is becoming a theme… during IM Copenhagen two years previously John was cheering me on from the side lines at the end, having already finished the race himself!! One day it will be the other way round! Only 2k left to the finish now the decision point this time would see me travelling into the finish area and not away from it – oh boy did that feel good.

I finally arrived at the finishing chute – what a spectacle. Whatever you say about Ironman, they do finish lines in style. The music blaring, the roar of the crowd and the pom pom girls (probably unnecessary – but at that stage I didn’t care). In front of me I had two guys from the same club running together – savoring their moment, so I had to slow down. I was determined, after my finishers pic in Copenhagen did not having my finishing time on the overhead gantry, that today would be different. I slowed down to let the two guys ahead cross the line – which they milked and took forever! I glanced up, saw my name and time and stepped over the line with my arms in the air. I had done it again; I was an Ironman… I was spent. I received my medal – paused, glanced around, got my silver blanket and headed out to find the family. The emotion, the physical exertion meant I had nothing left to give, and the sight of my family meant I lost all control – I cried… for what seemed like forever – setting off in tears about 3 people around me (sorry about that). Long distance endurance races have that kind of effect when you’ve given everything. The time? 12:36 – I didn’t achieve my goal of beating my Copenhagen time and that was mainly down to the swim – so I will need to do another!

Crossing the finish line is an awesome and humbling experience and one that I will always remember. To those considering going long – do it! It takes commitment, do not underestimate the amount of training you need to do, and get the support and approval from your family – it will impact them too. But the feeling of crossing that finish line, for me, is yet to be beaten in any race.

And finally – to take part in this iconic race with so many Tri Surrey team mates made it all the more special, everyone an inspiration in their own way.

Gail, Sally and Emma – competing in their first IM and smashing their expectations out of the park. A huge inspiration to everyone in the club – you should all be immensely proud. I will remember our brief chats on the bike and run course, they were all such a valuable boost.

Jenny – who bounced back from Spain and smashed me out of the park in all disciplines. I failed miserably to give her a race and am just in awe of her time – yet again! One day Millett… one day….

Matt – for stepping up and taking it all in his stride at his own pace to complete such a huge race. What a hero… he still smashed me on the swim!!

Lucinda – for smiling and just taking the race in her stride. I was harboring hopes that I might just beat her on the bike and run, but of course never the swim…. more than twice as fast as me – I think she was pretty much out of the swim before I’d even started my race… and they say swimmers never win triathlons!!!

Rich – for all the banter and goading – I can never dislike him! To pull in a 12hr Ironman on no training and a week-old baby is just mind blowing – huge respect. If I have half the mental capacity as he does, I might be quite good.

John – who looked and sounded more petrified than me for the swim in the days before and at the start – but pulled it out of the bag when it counted – huge respect.

Brad – I think I can say that running is not his strongest discipline, but he keeps coming to do IM after IM. He either enjoys it or he’s a masochist – either way he delivers despite the adversity of that final leg.

Luke – although DNF he had the courage to know when to stop and look after himself. A lovely man and an incredible athlete.

Mark, Nick and Dan – all who put in impressive times and who spotted me on the run course quicker than I spotted them (TriSurrey kit guys!!). That extra boost on the run course from you all was so valuable.

It was a privilege to race with you all and made the day even more special – heroes and legends every one of you and inspirations to so many. Thankyou!

“Pain is temporary, Glory is forever”.