IM Hamburg race summary – very late and a very long (apologies for both!)
The journey to my Ironman started this time last year, I’d taken part in a couple of IM 70.3 races (St Polten in 2016 and Staffordshire in 2017). I swore after each I’d never put myself through that again, in both I had horrendous gastric issues and walked most of the half marathons. Friends started mentioning I’d done IM events in conversations, I felt I had to correct them and say I’d only tried the half distances, the next reactions was usually ‘oh okay’ to which I wanted to respond it’s still a really long way! Andy Cowen’s race report from IM Copenhagen this time last year inspired me to take a look at the IM website and see what races were out there, if I could complete a full distance race I could stop correcting people…I signed up for the race in Hamburg.
I signed up with a coach (Andy’s report recommended it!), he set me a programme every week to fit around my job and personal life and kept adjusting it for how I was performing. Training started properly in January (giving me 7 months to race day) to put my fitness level then in perspective, I had to bail on a 5km run with colleagues because I’d cramped! The plan was 6 days a week with gym sets to fit in on top but I quickly got used to the routine and worked out how to fit it in before and after work. In the first couple of months it was c. 10hrs a week, that moved up to 15-20hrs towards race day, the increase was mainly in the long run & bike sessions. Everyone that goes long feels the training tests you mentally, physically and can put you in a dark places, often wondering why in the world you signed up but all good prep for race day.
July arrived, I’d finished all my long sessions and was getting excited to give the race a go. I’d been pretty lucky, 7 months of training and the only injuries to note were a couple of blisters on my toes until 10 days to go and my left knee started to hurt. Everyone told me it was race nerves, I was only getting it after running for around 3-4km and there was no pain on the bike or in the pool. I went and had a couple of sports massages; everything was pretty tight, my hamstring, calf and IT band so stretching out and reducing running load completely should improve it and as everyone kept telling me – I was just overthinking it.
At some point in the last couple of months my seat post had solidified into my bike, flying was off the cards so we booked a Eurotunnel to drive across. Unbeknown to me I managed to book the busiest day of the year for getaways to the continent – the first day of the school holidays! It also happened to be the hottest, the Eurotunnel’s aircon failed, we turned up at 12pm for our train departure to eventually be given a space on the 9:20pm train, with 5 hours of driving on the other side to our hotel near the German border – it was less than ideal prep!
During the remaining drive the following day my husband, Tim, told me the organisers had announced the swim was cancelled (!!!!), quick pullover into a car park and instant tears, there seemed to be a lot of signals that I wasn’t meant to be doing this – last minute injury, nightmare journey and now I wasn’t going to get to swim! My reaction was to turn the car around and head home, I wasn’t going to get to race the race I had spent months planning for and they’d taken my favourite bit away…..luckily Tim was at the wheel and we continued onto Hamburg. A quick call with my coach to rant about how unfair the situation was and figure out a new game plan put me in a slightly more positive mood.
We arrived just in time for the race briefing, looking around the auditorium we were the only ones dripping with sweat – apparently the 34 degree heat wasn’t affecting anyone else. They explained how the duathlon would work, everyone would self seed by predicted 6km pace into starting pens and they’d set 3 people off a second, expecting everyone to be over the start line within an hour. They listed out the new cut off times, we now had 14hr50 to make the finish line and the start would be delayed until 7am (lie in- first positive of the new format!).
The next day I walked down to register, had a browse of the event village then headed back to meet my parents at the hotel. Just before I racked my bike I took it for a quick spin around Hamburg, lesson learnt that they drive on the other side of the road (including their cycle paths!). Bike and bags racked and we found an Italian restaurant for an early supper, almost every table had someone with a blue Ironman tag on their left wrist and a large bowl of pasta.
Back in the hotel I had a final check of my kit for the morning, had a read through some of the good luck messages I’d received during the day and sat down on my laptop to figure out my revised nutrition & pacing plan. Starting with a run meant I could eat my breakfast later and could start re-fueling during the first leg (2nd positive!), then the nutrition plan I had tried and tested during training would kick in, I wrote it out on cloth tape so I could put it on my bike tube the next morning.
I had another look at my pacing spreadsheet my plan was 5:40/km for the first 6km, 27 kmph for the ride and allow myself to slow to 7:30/km for the marathon, that would get me home in 13hr30 (equivalent to 14hrs if I had done the swim). Then checked how slow I could afford to get before the sweep up bus caught me – 24kmph on the bike and 9:00/km on the marathon – I wrote these numbers on my cloth tape so even in low moments I could tell myself I could make the finish line.
I was in bed by 10pm, straight to sleep – probably because of the lack of sleep on the journey over and didn’t stir until my alarm went off at 5am.
It was race morning and I woke up petrified. The later start was welcome, my breakfast of plain porridge & jam bagels all finished by 5:30, leaving my family in bed I set out from the hotel for the 20 min walk to transition with The Greatest Showman playing in my headphones. The walk took longer than I though and I arrived in transition a little panicked, I loaded my water bottles, stuck my nutrition plan to the frame, attached my shoes and headed down to reorganise the blue & red bags. Only having one pair of trainers meant I’d need to find both my red and blue bags in first transition to make sure I had my trainers for the second run, I overheard others saying they were only planning on using one bag for both transitions, sounded like a plan so I loaded everything into the blue bag and hung it up. Handed in my personal needs bag for the run as I exited transition (it had blister plasters, gels, a mini towel and water bottle just in case), applied some Iblueve gel to my knee, had a final stop at the loos and headed towards the start line.
A message popped through on my phone from Tim, it was 20 photos he’d taken during training over the years and a Winston Churchill inspired good luck message starting with “well today is D-day a.k.a. dedication day…stay in the moment, be rational and think about the processes…now its d-day you realise hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard…..never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…0.01% of the World’s population have done an Ironman you are going to join them”. I had another cry!
I found my family near the starting pens, it was chaotic, having spoken to my coach and Luke Worthington (thank you for the tips!) the plan was to make it to the end of the first run feeling like I hadn’t run it, I’d decided to head out at my marathon pace and headed for the 5:30/km pen (second from slowest!). The temperature was already creeping up into the early 20’s, it felt hot stranding in the sun when it dawned on me I hadn’t put any sun cream on – not good when you normally wear SPF30 in the UK! Needless to say no one had any on them when I frantically asked around, I had some in my transition bag, I made a mental note to apply a good layer to my face in T1. The starting gun went for the pro’s and the countdown to starting began, there were people in front of me with their swim caps & goggles on which made me giggle and relax a bit. The first pens started to move forward but really slowly, a couple of Brits said they were going to push forward to get going, it felt wrong but I was starting to need the loo so I went with them. Around 45 mins after the pro’s start and I was in the chute and off.
The first run was pretty much an out and back along the riverside, up the hill to the park and back down. Spotted my family who were cheering loudly on the first stretch, I was excited to get going and ran past with a big grin and thumbs up. It felt really easy, my legs were ticking over nicely, my heart rate was where I wanted it and the atmosphere was great. I turned around the half way point and started coming back down the hill when I first felt a twinge in my knee, instant panic and annoyance that it was already hurting, it wasn’t bad enough to slow me down but it definitely wasn’t right. Back past my family and more smiles for the camera and into T1.
T1 was much calmer than it had been that morning, grabbed my bag and found a bench – straight for the sun cream, factor 50 all over my sweaty face (no it didn’t sink in and I looked ridiculous but that was my own fault!). Trainers into the bag, helmet & cycle shorts pulled over my tri suit, energy bars into my back pockets and I re-racked my bag. The transition was massive, I ran the 400m for my bike (thanking the Swedish girl from earlier who convinced me to leave my cycle shoes clipped on there), over the mount line and I was off for 180km in the saddle.
The bike course was pancake flat, two times around an out and back course with a couple of split road sections along the river, it made the Cotswolds 113 course look like the Surrey Hills. The temperature had risen again into the mid 20’s, the sky was cloud free and there was a light breeze. Everyone had a TT bike, the course was made for them, my Cannondale road bike was looking out of place, so much so I shouted good luck to anyone else on a road bike! It wasn’t long before we left the City, cycling through an industrial area out to a single track road towards the countryside. My speed was ahead of plan at 30 kmph but it felt good, my heart rate was within range and my legs were spinning well so I decided to keep it up. I tried to spend as much time on the aero-bars as possible but my hamstrings were crying out for release pretty quickly, not having any elevation change meant I spent the whole time in exactly the same position – not something that is easy to replicate in training in the UK apart from on a turbo.
From my training the bit I was dreading most was being in my own company for a whole day. That turned out to be unfounded, for the first 90km I was overtaken consistently by a stream of men trying to keep 10-12m apart from each other, I read each of their names on their bib as they came past to occupy my mind. Then there were the families that lived on the route, they came out to support, their cheers broke up the quiet, especially as many had stereos blaring out German pop music. Around 25km out on the first loop the pro-field came whizzing past in the other direction, they were an inspiration and spurred me on.
My watch was set to beep & vibrate every 15 mins to remind me to take on nutrition, I followed the plan on the cloth tape religiously, every 15 mins I drank and ate every 30 mins, as the race went on I became more and more thankful for the written plan, the 15 min beeps seemed to come around really quickly and I couldn’t remember what I had taken on last, having instructions for when your watch says 15 / 30 / 45 / 60 past any hour took the thinking out of the equation. I also had set times for salt tablets & gel top-ups for the latter stages written on the tape.
I started seeing some of the people that had overtaken me recently coming back the other way, the turning point must be close. I saw a couple of female competitors that looked to be going slower than me, my new aim was to catch them – I just wanted to go past someone, anyone. Around the turning point, 45km down and 3/4’s to go. The next aid station I needed to replace my bottles, chucking mine into the bin as we came through the station and grabbing a fresh water & energy drink. All the aid stations were ordered the same – Wasser, ISO, gels, banana, Cola, Wasser, the German volunteers yelled it out as you passed, that jingle went around in my head all day long!
The organisers were stickler’s for the rules, they had a number of motorbikes out on the course whistling at people who weren’t keeping 12m apart. There were so many people in the penalty tent as we headed back into towards the city they were queuing to get in, over 30 people stood taking their time penalty. Just on from the penalty tent there was a 500m stretch of cobbles, most people were cursing the organisers as they lost bottles and kit from their bikes but for me, cycling over it was dreamy to shake out the muscle stiffness. We came through a tunnel into the city centre, the streets were lined by supporters shouting out “hop hop hop Frauline”, I spotted my family – all looking the other way – when I yelled out to them my dad shouted back “3 hours waiting and we’ve missed her!” I was ahead of the predicted times I had given them so I let them off. The buzz of seeing them.
I headed out on the second loop and the headwind felt to have increased, I was struggling to maintain speed, an element of doubt crept in – had I gone out too hard, was I slowly blowing up, my legs suddenly felt heavier and the pain in my left knee was making itself known again. I still had 70km to go…looking up, the route was lined with wind turbines, they hadn’t been moving on my first loop but were steadily ticking over now – I decided the wind was the reason I was slower and to ease back to spinning, logic said it would be a tail wind back into town so just keep going. There was some respite from sections of river banking, I started to ride past a couple of the guys that had overtaken me earlier on, some looked to be suffering in the heat, a lot were spending time sitting up and stretching out their backs. Through a couple more aid stations with the volunteers shouting out my jingle. I was really enjoying myself.
Around the turning point and I started to need the loo, a part of me was relieved, I couldn’t judge whether I was drinking enough as I knew I was sweating buckets and I’d been going for 5 hours. I pulled over after an aid station, as soon as I got off my bike my left leg gave way – that’s when I knew I was in real trouble – on the bike it had been sore but I was still generating enough power, walking was a different storey. Quickly back on my bike (after fighting to get the trisuit back on!). The wind was behind me and I was cruising faster than I had been all day, I felt fresh, I had taken the planned gels and switched to only liquids for the final 30km. By this point no one was going the other way and the sweep up team were reopening the other carriageway.
Back into the City, over the cobbles (lovely!) and through the tunnel, the crowd had shrunk significantly, there weren’t many people behind me on the bike course. I spotted my family – looking the right way this time – they yelled out encouragement and I yelled back “get me off this bike”. I jumped off leaving my shoes clipped in only to realise my left leg had got worse, putting my foot down caused searing pain into my knee and a numb sensation in my calf. The 200m to my racking spot were torture, tears were running down my cheeks but my brain was replaying Tim’s message “never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never”. I grabbed my bag, sat on the bench and tried massaging around the knee. A British woman sat down opposite and told me to get my calf tights on, trainers, visor and start moving, I had 8 hours to make it to the finish line – I hadn’t trained all year to not make it so got up and limped out of T2.
The run course was 4 loops around the City, the plan was to keep making it to the next aid station, walk the aid station take on nutrition try and cool myself down and get going again. The temperature had hit 30 degrees but it didn’t feel too bad, heading out of T2 it took me a couple of hundred meters to work up to a rocking rhythm. I saw my family around the first corner, I shouted out to them to get the Ibuleve gel ready for when I came back around, mum yelled back that they’d binned it – you can imagine what I wanted to say back to that!
The support on the course was incredible, the run up the lake was through a shaded park, people sat in groups either side of the road with music blasting out, I didn’t understand half of the shouts I received but when a German shouts at you want to keep running! By the time I made it to the third aid station I had managed to start running, it wasn’t anywhere near the pace I wanted but I was moving forward and the pain was manageable. Turning around at the top of the lake and I was 5km down, no stomach issues, everything apart from my left leg felt good and I was enjoying the atmosphere. Coming back through the City my family were in the same spot I had seen them on the way out, they asked how bad it was and shouted out that I was looking good – that was a boost. At 10km they send you through separate chutes to collect your lap band depending on how many laps you’ve done – green, yellow, blue then red – I became obsessed with how many other people had, I had green!
Passing the finish line I was onto lap 2, the heat was more noticeable now, I was grabbing water at each aid station, taking salt tablets from my pouch every 45 mins and sticking iced sponges in my tri-suit (they dried within a km!). Wherever there was ice I grabbed handfuls and ran holding it. I was feeling good, running past people that I’d seen on the bike earlier, saying hi to others I had cheered on. As I came past my family on the way into the City I was buzzing, I had managed to run between all the aid stations that lap, the most painful part was re-starting after walking, a big thumbs up as my dad yelled out “Goy’s don’t quit” (that had been my mantra through all the difficult training sessions and was working well here).
I collected my yellow band and started to believe I could actually make it, only a half marathon to go. The next aid station I took my first cup of cola (my planned treat for getting half way!), sponges and handfuls of ice, as I left I tried to run and the pain hit a new level, I stopped for the first time. I wiggled around my kneecap and massaged my calf, I was back to rocking rhythm. The next 5km were awful, this is not what I trained throughout the summer for, I knew I had enough fuel to run but I couldn’t make my leg work. I was putting ice down my trisuit and holding it on my hip, that had started hurting almost as much as my knee but the ice was numbing that pain.
Signs out on the course made me chuckle and motivated me on “you’ve paid for this, you might as well smile!” and “pain is temporary, IM medals are for life” were may favourite. I came around the top bend, 15km to go and an American in bib 241 came up next to me and told me I had knee problems, he said to me the pain would be coming from bending it so I needed to keep it straighter. He ran alongside me teaching me how to run like he was, he’d finished 23 IM’s and had had his left knee replaced (not the best advertisement!) – he saved my race, I was back to running (very strangely!) and I had a buddy. Back past my family and Tim ran alongside me for 300m, I told him all about my new technique and my new mate. He told me they were heading for the finish chute and they’d see me there. Blue band collected, only one more left.
Final run lap and the end feels close, a British family scream out “do it for the girls, you’ve got this”, the park is quieter now but there are plenty of people still out on the course, I had my rocking run going, walking through the aid stations, I grabbed some pretzels (planned treat for making the final lap!) and cola. They were out of ice so my hip pain was rivalling my knee, it was taking me longer and longer to pluck up the courage to start running again, American 241 usually the push factor on that. By the time I made the top of the lake I only had 5km to go, I realised I could still finish the marathon under 5 hrs so I decided not to stop at the aid stations, I had loads of energy left and my stomach was fine – the final aim of the day, make the finish line in 30 mins.
Final time through the bands chute and my red band’s collected – I am homeward bound, less than a kilometre to go. I was fist pumping the air, completely elated, thinking how the hell have I made it, I’m actually going to make it! The finish line is straight ahead, the music is booming and supporters are cheering their family home, the man on the tannoy shouts out “Sara Deakin, you……are…….an Ironman”, I’m still fist pumping and grinning at my family in the stand. I am an Ironman, YES I AM AN IRONMAN. I can’t describe the feeling, I finished, I made it, I managed to finish in a time I never dreamed of 11:39:20!
A couple of lessons I learnt this year about going long for any first timers considering it:
- Get your friends, family, work colleagues on side – they will have to hear a lot about your training (apart from working and sleeping it pretty much became the only thing I did!). Being part of Tri Surrey for help, guidance and encouragement is brilliant!
2. The true fourth discipline is nutrition – I now know I failed in the two 70.3’s because I didn’t fuel correctly. I’ve found a system that works for me, practiced in training and used the Cotswolds 113 as a test event. I stopped freaking out that it wasn’t the same as other people, for me writing out a plan for the bike and sticking to it religiously every 15mins meant I started the run full of energy.
3. Just do it, give it a go
If you’ve got this far I’d say you are thinking about going long….safe to say I did some damage to my knee, I couldn’t bend my leg at all for a couple of days, Tim had to drive us home while I sat with frozen peas cling filmed to my knee and I am still not allowed to run. But was it worth it? Absolutely, as that sign said – pain is temporary, IM medals are for life! Thank you to everyone in the club that supported me, I’ll be back giving it a go again and encouraging others to try! 😀