Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Ironman race

When I started my blog, my intention was to make it an Arabic language blog. After a few posts, my daughter Mariam suggested that I write in English so that I can have more followers. It was never my intention to have as many followers as possible, but I definitely wanted my daughter and my son (Kariem) to be able to read my blog. So, I started to post an English translation each time I posted in Arabic. However, I’ve never gone back and translated the first posts in which I described my Ironman race. This is what I’m doing now.
When I woke up at 5 am on the 28th of July 2012 I knew it was an important day for me. It wasn’t because it was my 50th birthday, but because I was going to have the physically most challenging day in my life. It was the day I was going to make one of my athletic dreams come true, finishing my first Ironman race. Was I going to endure a 3.8 km swim and a 180 km bike ride, followed by a full marathon, i.e. 42.2 km?
I was in my 7th year of living in Hungary, to where I was relocated by my company. So, the location I chose for my race was in the south of Hungary. We arrived at the starting point at about half past six in the morning. We were a group of colleagues and their relatives, several of whom had signed up to do a part of the race in a relay, except 3: Andras Dancso, Laszlo Barhacs and I. We signed up for the full race.
The starting point was the start and finish of the swim leg, and the swim-to-bike transition zone. At about 7am I had finished preparing my bike at the dedicated place. I put my helmet on the bike and my biking shoes next to it. I had 2 bottles of water on the bike as well as some Powerbars.
I thought if I should wear my Garmin watch during the swim or leave it on the bike, and I decided to reduce the risk of anything going wrong during the race and left the watch and the heart rate band on the bike. Rule number 1 in Triathlon is not to do anything during the race that you haven’t tested in training before. Finally, here I was standing at the lake in my tri suit which I was going to wear throughout the whole race, with my swim cap and goggles on. Am I really ready?
The water temperature reached 25 degrees Celsius. The race officials decided half an hour before the start not to allow wetsuits. I wasn’t sure if this was good or bad news. A wetsuit lets the body float high reducing the water resistance and allowing a faster swim. This effect is less helpful for good swimmers who have learned to keep their body high in the water, but I could have expected a bigger help myself. On the other hand, a wetsuit restricts the movement of the arms making it more difficult and tiring, especially if you haven’t trained enough in a wetsuit, and I haven’t done that. Five weeks before this race, I had done a sprint triathlon, in which the swim leg was only 500 meters, and since the lake was very cold I wore a wetsuit. I finished the swim part feeling very tired. Considering that experience, I think I was lucky the officials decided not to allow wetsuits.
During the last minutes of waiting, I was standing in the lake, the water up to my knees; “Conquest of Paradise” was being played which was increasing my anxiety by the second until the start gun went off.
The swim itself was not very exciting; 2 rounds, each 1.9 km long, exiting the water after the first round and entering immediately to complete the second round. I tried to stick to the feet of any swimmer in front of me to utilize the reduced water resistance. Saving effort in this way is allowed for the swim, but illegal when biking. The effect of drafting like this is significant. I completed the 3.8 km in1 hour and 25 minutes and I was relaxed and happy when I was on my way to the bike after exiting the water. My wife Iris was waiting for me at the water exit, cheering me and carrying a sign on which she wrote “Happy Birthday”.
My bike is a Cannondale Multisport 1000, an Aluminium bike I bought in 2001 when I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. Every now and then I contemplate buying a new, light-weight Carbon bike, but then my objective, data-based thinking tells me that I’m carrying many opportunities to lose weight right in the middle of my body and these are much cheaper than the opportunity of reducing weight under my saddle. Anyway, none of these thoughts were actually on my mind when I arrived at my bike in the transition zone. I put my bike shoes on, then my Garmin watch and heart rate strap, my number belt, helmet, and glasses. I jumped n my bike and took off. I was on my way for a 180 km bike ride which could last take me something like 7 hours. The distance was split into 75 km followed by 3 rounds of 35 km each. I have read several Triathlon books and articles and I knew that one of the biggest mistakes newbies do is to start the bike leg faster than their real ability indicates, and they only notice this after a while when they start losing energy and when it’s too late to make any correction. I didn’t want this to happen to me, so I tried to control myself and prevent my pulse to rise above zone 2. I was not completely successful, but it was it wasn’t too bad. The temperature rose to 30 degrees Celsius. I made sure to stay hydrated all the time and to eat enough powerbars and gels. My wife Iris, my daughter Mariam, and my son Kariem were waiting for me at a place near the finish line at which I had to pass 3 times during the bike leg. Kariem was handing over nutrition and Magnesium to me every time I passed. When I passed the first time he was hurrying to give me everything I needed without losing time, but I welcomed the short break. I think he was surprised that I was taking it slowly. I don’t think I have told my family since that day that I was really thinking about them while riding my bike, blaming myself that they were standing under the burning sun for hours just waiting for me. I completed the 180 km in 6 hours and 45 minutes, and burned 3500 calories, according to my watch, after having probably burned 700 calories during the swim.
Now, I only had a marathon to run, 42.2 km. The last time I had run a full marathon was 10 years ago in Cincinnati. The longest distance I had run in my training building up to the race did not exceed 28 km. In the transition zone, I took off my helmet and bike shoes, put on my running shoes and a cap. 100 meters later, I stopped were my wife who rubbed sunscreen on my face, shoulders and legs; and Vaseline in my armpits. The nice thing about this race I did in Hungary is that the marathon is made of 11 rounds of 3.83 km each, which meant that material and moral help from friends and family is very well possible. Mariam took over handing the nutrition to me. The first time she handed a Magnesium bottle to me, she had removed the cap which I didn’t expect. I lost half of the bottle running until I noticed. In one of the other rounds, the magnesium bottle she gave me was closed, but empty. I don’t know how that happened. When I started the run, I was running at a pace I knew I couldn’t maintain till the end, but I felt good and didn’t think of running slower until I was totally exhausted and about to end the race without reaching the finish line. This happened about 2 hours and a quarter into the run. I felt my quads were about to cramp any second. It was not important to me how much time I needed to finish the race, but the one thing I certainly didn’t want to see behind my name on the results list is DNF (=Did Not Finish). I stopped running and started walking until I passed by my friend and colleague Laszlo Marta. Coach Laszlo’s part in in getting me to this point and then helping me to finish my Ironman race is probably bigger than my part. Laszlo gave me a salt tablet which helped me feel I could run again. He gave me another one in a later round, but then he ran out of tablets. After about 4 hours of running, the feeling that my quads were about to cramp came back and I started walking again, and until the finish line.
Kariem joined me in the last few meters to the finish line where I received the finisher medal. Iris and Mariam met me there too. It was great to have the three of them with me as one of my dreams came true.

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