Sally Phillips – Ironman Austria 2019

The obligatory pre-race-report warning

This will be long, maybe get yourself a cup of tea or something.  Like most people I have loads of things to say about this experience, and as a first timer who never would have thought I would do an Ironman I’ll probably spend as long writing about how I ended up on that start line as I will writing about the race itself.  I won’t apologise, if other people hadn’t written about this stuff I probably wouldn’t have done this myself – you can skip to the bits that you are interested in!

The events that ended up in an entry

This all started for me in June 2015.  I had been a Tri Surrey member for around 2 months, in that time I had purchased my first (basic, 2nd hand) road bike, dipped my toe in open water swimming and completed my first Super Sprint triathlon at Eton Dorney. I was at a Wednesday Donyngs swim and Jolene told me that she was doing a half iron distance in the Cotswolds that weekend.  When she told me the distances I was seriously impressed and remember saying that the swim sounded OK, the bike, well, it would definitely take some training but didn’t sound completely beyond the realms of possibility (bearing in mind my longest ride at that point was a bit over 20k I don’t know quite why I thought that), but run a half marathon after all that?  No chance.

Fast forward to September 2016 and I had done a few sprint races, and one undertrained Olympic effort, and was quite enjoying this whole triathlon thing even if I hadn’t done anything that would set the world alight.  A load of club members (including Jolene only a few months post-baby, and my now training buddy Emma) took on the Vitruvian, another half iron distance race.  I had by now got used to the idea that some people did this kind of thing, just not me.  But I bumped into Emma on the way into work shortly after the Vitruvian, and we had a conversation about some of her race strategy (basically, eat regularly).  She’d had a great race, and I started wondering if it was something I could do, leading to a Facebook post asking about the training required, and inevitably before I knew it I was entered for Costwolds 113 in June 2017 (thanks in part to Leanne’s announcement ‘I’ll do it if you do’. Thanks Leanne J)

My training for that first half iron distance was far from meticulously planned and structured, I ran more, and did a few long bike rides, and that was about as technical as it got, and a few weeks before the race I was worrying that there might be cut off times that I would miss (I have since found that the Cotswolds race is brilliant for allowing time for everyone to finish).  But I ended up having a good race, although I ended it pretty certain that a full ironman – double the distance – was definitely impossible.

The following year I did the Cotswolds 113 again, this time I did more training on the bike (got a turbo trainer for Christmas!) and probably a bit less running, and took 11 minutes off my overall time.  The idea of doing a full was starting to sprout… Jolene said she reckoned you just trained for it and made it doable.  Simples!

In late June 2018 I was reading articles on the best iron distance races for beginners, and deciding that ‘if’ I did one it ‘might’ be Austria (ranked 2nd best for beginners, and the highest ranking Ironman branded), and by that point if I’m honest it was a matter of when rather than if – so when Rich Bartlett floated the idea of mass club participation at Ironman Austria 2019 it seemed like fate.  I told my husband Nathan that I thought I would enter and he said “I don’t know how you’ll find the time, but I’ve never known you not do something you’ve decided to do”, so I paid out an obscene amount of money ready to challenge myself in July 2019…

The training:

The 5 months after entering were a bit strange; I was definitely not ‘in training’ – I knew there was a limit to what I could get my family to put up with, and I suspected there was a similar limit to what I could sustain, so I didn’t do any more training than I had before.  I watched and supported Sophie racing at The Outlaw, which was inspiring and a bit terrifying!  I cycled to Bournemouth and back with Sophie, Stacey and Emma, and struggled up the hills miles behind them, leading to me buy a new (to me, still not new new) much lighter road bike (I don’t think the bike was the sole reason I struggled up the hills, but every little helps!).  I also did my first marathon – the Thames Meander in November, with (or should I say, trailing somewhere behind), Adam and Emma, and couldn’t walk for several days after.

Somewhere along the line we decided that 30 weeks (7 months, give or take a day or 2)  was the agreed training period, so on the 8th December I went round Emma and Adam’s house and Adam started to help structure the plan.

Day 1 of training was the Tri Surrey Sunday morning ride the following day which went fine. Not on the plan but still necessary was the 1 mile family ‘Santa Run’ with my daughter Naia.  Unfortunately we slipped in the mud, she was holding my hand at the time, and I dislocated my finger – I looked down to see it pointing in entirely the wrong direction and can confirm that the first aiders on site were very friendly but not especially well equipped to deal with this… but thankfully that was my only injury across the whole training period, which is something of a miracle.

I have never previously consistently trained for anything, so these next few months were a new experience for me.  I can’t say I never missed a single session in the 30 weeks (life sometimes gets in the way) but I got to race day knowing I had done all I could within the constraints of my own life, and I genuinely enjoyed much of the training, particularly because Emma is a great training partner, capable of making a long hilly ride in horrendous weather actually quite fun.

One of the best things about this journey has been pushing my limits – probably more so in training than in the race itself – it turns out I can fit in a lot more than I thought, even if that meant sacrificing some sleep for another late evening turbo session.  Far more of my sessions were late evening – often starting after 9pm – rather than early morning.  I had been warned that I would have to start doing early morning sessions but I am just not at my best early in the day and lack the will power not to press snooze, so late nights work better for me, but I think I am in the minority there.

My training stats look like this:

30 weeks approx. totals:

Swim: 32 hrs

Bike: 150hrs

Run: 70 hrs

Total: 252 hrs

Of which just over half (135 hours) were April-June

Adam was fantastic at telling me and Emma what we should be doing, providing advice and generally being encouraging.  I joked that we were playing a long and elaborate game of ‘Adam says’, and my daughter took to telling me somewhere around May “You don’t have to do everything Adam says you know!” Of course I did know that, but I also knew that Adam knew what he was talking about.  And Emma, whether she meant to or not, kept me accountable via an extended WhatsApp training conversation.  There were definitely some sessions I did mainly because Emma would know if I didn’t!

In the run up to Austria I did the Cotswolds half again, yes, my third time there, and yes it is the only half distance race I have ever done (if it ain’t broke…), and took another 14 minutes off my time, which was reassuring – the training was paying off.  I also had my fair share of less successful training sessions, including a few where I had no energy, and one where I was sick 100m from the end, and these, while unpleasant, were helpful from a learning perspective.

Austria

Nathan and I travelled to Austria on the Friday morning, before the race on Sunday.  Naia stayed with the in-laws (she likes the idea of supporting me racing, but not so much the reality once the novelty has worn off, and it was going to be a long day).  It was great to have several other Tri Surrey racers and supporters around, partly as a distraction, and to make the massive crowds of athletes seem a little less intimidating.

I had a small mechanical issue putting my bike back together – I tightened up the seat post and it suddenly loosened and would not tighten again.  The bike mechanics in the expo were able to sort it, and I managed to stay relatively calm throughout, and apart from that the last couple of days were pleasingly uneventful.

There was nothing unexpected at the race briefing, most memorable were the confirmation that it was a non-wetsuit swim (I had expected that and wasn’t worried) and a reminder that there was to be NO DRAFTING on the bike, along with a detailed explanation of what drafting meant and what to do if we got shown a coloured penalty card.

We had to rack bikes the day before, and I had a pretty good spot, fairly close to bike in/bike out which means less distance to run (or walk…) with my bike.  Transition was massive, with loads of fancy TT bikes, and not many ‘normal’ road bikes like mine, especially not without tri bars (I never managed to get both elbows down at the same time the couple of times I experimented with clip on tri bars, so I took them off again).  Maybe next year I’ll get a ‘proper’ TT bike…

Race Day

My alarm went off super early, and I forced down breakfast and we drove to the race venue.  I needed to go back to my bike in transition to put my bottles and bento box on it, and we arrived in plenty of time (on this occasion the peace of mind of knowing I didn’t need to rush outweighed a bit more time in bed – unusually for me) so I was waiting outside transition for it to open and had a chat with a couple of Tri Surrey people there.  I got to my bike, checked my tyres (all good), realised I had stuck the sticker telling me where the aid stations are exactly where my bento box needed to go so moved that, put the extra bits on my bike and headed out to swim start.

There was an allocated time for a warm up swim, and I hadn’t been bothered about using it, but everyone told me I should to check my goggles were OK etc.  In the end though I needed several toilet stops and the queues were fairly slow (lots of men using the ladies, like it isn’t bad enough that we have massive toilet queues at most events while men get to go straight in, the one time there aren’t many ladies and the tables could be turned all the men decide to use our loos!) so I missed the warm up swim.  No matter, the toilet stops were more important.

Swim

The swim start was a new experience for me, rather than a mass or wave start they were setting off a few athletes every few seconds, and we were supposed to wait in pens according to our planned swim time.  I went in the 1:15-1:20 pen with Jenny, and we chatted about nothing in particular while we waited, helping to take my mind off my nerves.  I wasn’t worried about being non-wetsuit, I have done plenty of non-wetsuit swimming including in open water, because most of the time I can’t face the effort of putting my wetsuit on.  Jenny reckoned that it would add around 10 minutes to our swim times, which seemed as good a guess as any.

When it was my turn I walked in, started my watch, and started swimming.  Definitely no struggle like you have in a mass start, I settled into my stroke and steadily passed people.  The temperature was comfortable, the buoys easy to spot, I had plenty of space and was going at a comfortable pace rather than aiming for a time, and generally I was just enjoying myself.

The last 1k or so of the swim was down a canal, and that bit got a bit more interesting.  It was quite dirty (all the swimmers before me had churned it up, I found a lot of mud in my sports bra that night) and the narrower space pushed the swimmers closer together.  Apparently this part of the swim was funny to watch because swimmers would go off at an angle and then get cross with the swimmer next to them for swimming into them, when in fact it was the other way round, so I don’t know who was to blame in my case, but I put a bit more effort in to get past a particularly elbowy swimmer (and realised that perhaps I could have swum a bit faster as it was pretty easy to accelerate past) but no great drama.  I spotted Nathan and Adam on the bank as I was swimming this last stretch, that gave me a boost and I gave them a wave mid stroke to show I’d seen them.

Out of the swim, glanced at my watch, 1:22 ish for the 3.8k which was fine.  I wasn’t particularly fussed about running to transition, I know it’s a race but it isn’t a fast race (for me anyway), but I decided I’d look a bit miserable walking past the supporters at this point so I jogged through, where Guy told me I was just behind Jenny.  Which was nice to hear, but pretty irrelevant because I definitely wasn’t going to be catching her up!

Bike

I had put half a bagel in my T1 bag, so I ate that walking through transition to my bike (yes, walking, I was employing tortoise rather than hare strategy here, and there were no supporters to spot me), got my bike and headed out for the 180k.  I had planned and practiced my nutrition and was feeling pretty smug for the first 80k, I ate and drank exactly when planned, the weather was pleasant, my bike was behaving, I was passed by a lot of people but that wasn’t unexpected, and I passed a couple of people going up hills which was entirely unexpected (in a good way).  I had to stop for a wee, enduring a bit of a queue for a hot smelly portaloo, which was a bit annoying, but otherwise all was well.

Then somewhere between 80 and 90k I went to eat my next planned bit of bar and felt a bit sick.  I forced it down, but it was a bit of a worry.  I had previously had this problem but thought that changing the type of bars had solved it a couple of months earlier.  The next bit I was supposed to eat I ended up spitting out, as it just wouldn’t go down.  Oh dear, adequate fuel is pretty important if I was to survive this.  Despite having experimented quite a lot in training to find bars I could tolerate on a 7hr ride, on race day it wasn’t working and I needed a plan B.

I consciously slowed down slightly in the hope that would get my digestive system working again.  I had planned for bars on the bike and gels on the run, but I did have a couple of spare gels with me so I used one of those, and I had energy drink in my bottles which was also going down OK, but I needed to start using the aid stations (and to a certain extent break the ‘nothing new on race day’ rule).

They were handing out coke at the aid stations, I knew that worked for me running, so I had some of that which was odd but OK.  They weren’t actively handing out gels but when I asked were able to pass me one, so I had a couple of their gels (which I had tried in training as I planned to use them on the run).  I did try taking half a banana at the aid station but it wasn’t ripe enough and the skin was too tough to peel one handed, so I gave up on that.  All in all I took on what I could in this second half, but it was a lot less (and different) than I had planned, and I had to hope that it was enough to see me through the marathon.

I was also feeling a bit tight chested / wheezy – I had been given a maybe-diagnosis (Dr wasn’t sure) of exercise induced asthma during training, and long sessions seem to aggravate it much more than short hard sessions.

And on top of that, during this half of the bike there was also an epic hail storm, the sort that stings your skin as it hits, and everything was soaked (and cold).  A lot of racers seemed to be sheltering under trees and bus shelters during the worst.  Emma and Andy passed me in this section of the ride, and it was nice to have a quick chat with both.  This was the lowest point of my race, I didn’t feel good and I was worried about what the reduced fuelling would mean for the rest of my race.  I didn’t mention my sick feeling to Andy or Emma because talking about it wasn’t really going to help, and I didn’t really want to be a downer on anyone else’s race.  The last hill was the worst on the course, but I had built it up in my head to the point that it didn’t seem too bad actually riding up it, and as I rolled into T2 I had mixed feelings.  The bike was over, the hail had stopped, I could change into dry socks and find my asthma inhaler, but what sort of person STARTS a marathon feeling like this?!

Run

In T2 changed into dry socks and trainers, had a few puffs on the asthma inhaler, which helped, put the inhaler, my electrolyte gels and my salt chews in my pocket, took a metaphorical deep breath and headed out on the run.  I felt pretty terrible and tried to put a brave face on passing the Tri Surrey supporters including Adam and Nathan.  I was to see them twice in the first km, because the start of the run goes out, then turns back on itself to get onto the main run course.  I turned around the U turn point and knew I was going to be sick, so I paused, one hand on metal railing, to be sick on the side of the road.  I continued on, managed about 20 steps before doing the same again.  At which point I saw Matt Hutchings was coming up towards the turnaround point, so he was treated to the sight of me being sick.  But things were looking up, I now felt better, being sick had helped.  Much better in fact.  Like I had hoped I might possibly feel at this point.  I passed Nathan and Adam again, only a couple of minutes from the last time I saw them, and contemplated telling them I’d been sick twice in the meantime, but again decided that it wasn’t really helpful.  Nathan said later that he and Adam had noted that other racers stopped to give their supporters kisses and cuddles and Emma and I didn’t, but I think not kissing anyone at that point was probably an act of love!

I would be lying if I said the run was easy after that point, but I was so relieved to not feel sick any more. I was of course tired (but not to the point that I needed to stop at any point, thanks to Adam and Emma my fitness was up to the challenge), and my chest was not feeling good, and with limited experience of using the inhaler I was concerned that using it too much might not be good, so I rationed it on the way round using it only when my breathing felt bad enough that it was worth the risk.

The run route was nice in that you passed runners going the other way frequently, and I saw nearly all of the Tri Surrey crew, most more than once, and that was really good.  Tri Surrey supporters also popped up regularly throughout the course, and it sounds like the official tracking was good enough that they knew when you were coming so always saw and shouted and rang bells and everything else you’d expect from The Best Club In The World™

I’m not a fast runner by any stretch of the imagination, but I was able to keep going and passed lots of people who were walking (this is also an advantage of being a relatively slow cyclist, and the reason why I prefer longer distances over short, my slow pace suits a half or full iron much better than a sprint).  I kept on plodding on, having salt chews (until I lost them part way round) and electrolyte gels that I was carrying with me, and gels and coke from the aid stations, and regular puffs on the inhaler.  Perhaps I could have gone a bit faster, but the distance markers were ticking through, and the supporters were loud and enthusiastic, and the aim of the day was to finish far enough from the cut off time to not need to worry about it, and I knew I was going to do that. 

The finish

The run passes the finish area (out of sight but in earshot) a few times so I had been hearing the cheers and music, and as it started to get dark also seeing the lights, and of course I had looked at the finish line the day before.  We were to run around a corner, up a ramp (referred to as ‘Everest’) on the red carpet, and finish on the stage.

It had just got dark as I finished (perfect timing – watching some others on the run course after I had finished showed that it was actually quite difficult in places to find your way around the run route in the dark, but a finish line is so much more dramatic in the dark).

Whatever you say about Ironman (yes it is primarily a money making machine) they know how to do finish lines.  In addition to the music, lights, commentary and cheering, there were also cheer leaders, and the crowd was immense.  I can’t really put that feeling into words. I had done it.  It was hard, I was tired, but I had completed a challenge that not so long ago I couldn’t believe anyone actually did, and not only that, I did it pretty convincingly – there was no crawling, very little walking, and I will always be an Ironman.

Thanks

There are lots of Tri Surrey people who are the reason I ended up deciding I could do this, and only a few are mentioned by name above.  I read loads of your race reports and tracked you on race days and was generally inspired by your achievements, well before I thought I could one day be writing a report like this myself.

There are three people I absolutely could not have done this without, so massive thanks to Adam for being an awesome unofficial coach, you truly were amazing and I think Emma is right to keep you ;), to Emma for sharing Coach Adam with me, for being a great training buddy, and for all the conversations and company along the way (and for stalling my post-race de-training efforts), and finally to Nathan for being endlessly supportive, letting me get away with somewhat absent parenting, particularly at weekends,  in the run up to the race, and for making this whole thing possible, for supporting me and believing in me from the moment I said I wanted to enter to crossing that finish line.  I am very lucky.

What now?

I had thought that once would be enough, that once I’d ticked it off my bucket list I’d never want to do it again, but that isn’t how I felt.  I enjoyed the training, I enjoyed the feeling of being properly fit (even if I wasn’t as lean as I might have hoped!) and I enjoyed (most of) the race.  I won’t be doing one in 2020 (not fair on the family) but 2021 looks likely, and rather than getting unfit and fat as quickly as possible post-race I have been swept along with Emma entering things that sound like fun  – apparently evidence that Emma is not sick of me yet and that both of us are not sick of training, although I am following less of a plan and trying to give priority to Nathan’s plans, he has earned that!