One really good way of making friends at a Triathlon is to bring a roll of toilet paper. One of the guys I "lent" a length of paper to waved to me every time we crossed each other on the run. I was, however, still standing in the queue for the bogs (I think this is an appropriate term) - there were only 4 portaloos for 800 athletes - with only 15 minutes to spare. I always find it extremely satisfying to be able to jettison a bit of excess cargo at the last minute. I think the pre-race nerves must be to thank for my ability to do this - and yet I have never needed to "go" in any race so far. I expect the Ironman will change that (for this reason I bought a two piece racing suit).
I made it to the start of the swim with thankfully just enough time to jump in the water and get accustomed to the temperature. Unlike last year, the weather was pretty grim with some heavy storms leading up to the race, so it was fairly cold. I'd read that it made a big difference to get used to the water before starting the swim and, indeed, I felt my heart racing at first. The swim in Lisbon is in a kind of massive tank of sea water which is the best of both worlds as you get the benefit of the extra floatability from the salt water but without the waves. I put my Garmin in my swim cap so I could later see how much I meandered from the course. The gun went off and immediately the sound of 1,600 arms splashing in the water. I don't know why I bother practicing swimming technique frankly, when it is quite impossible to swim well with someone's feet in your face, someone else's arm clobbering you and a third person catching your ankles, but this is triathlon... I just tried to keep calm, keep my strokes long and my breathing regular. The good thing about this kind of suffering is that it does eventually end. There were moments when I could feel the panic starting to rise but I managed to keep it down. The worst I have ever felt in my life was in a diving course, taking my mask off under water, when the freezing cold water made me inhale through my nose and start to shake with utter panic. I went rushing up to the surface with the instructor clinging to my leg. Before inevitably going down to do it again, I talked to an experienced diver who simply said that the human body was not designed for this and that diving was a constant state of controlled panic. Well, I think much the same can be said of the swim leg of a triathlon. My Garmin beeped to tell me I had swum 2,000 meters already (my scenic route was a bit longer than the standard 1,900) and I could just make out the final buoys and the other athletes scrambling out of the water. I started to think about Neil at this point and an image came to mind from a photo I have of him gritting his teeth while climbing a hill on his bike. Finally I could feel the ground coming up underneath and I tried to stand up but it was so slippery and slimy that I dived back to swim the last couple of meters to the red carpet. The carpet was in such a bad state by now that I tripped and slipped again. There was a guy helping people up but he was busy with other people. I eventually got out and started to unzip my wetsuit. I looked at the time on my Garmin and, amazingly I was three minutes faster than last year: 35 minutes! All that seemingly random swimming training must have paid off. I jogged to my bike and got ready for part two.
Thank god Carlos had seen me earlier just before I racked my bike. He said "Where are you going with the smallest cog and big chainring? Maybe you can start like that but...". I decided not to bother with the fancy shoes attached to the bike transition and ran instead to the mount line with them on. This was when I discovered that my Garmin had been replaced by a random number generator. Not only did it sometimes show ridiculously high numbers as had been happening recently, but it also registered impossibly low numbers so it really was totally useless. Having no reference for how hard I was working other than the sensation in my legs and how heavily I was breathing, I went by 1 kilometer splits. Most of them were around 1:37 which is safely under the two and a half hours mark (yes, I was still able to do mental arithmetic at this point). But with the modest hills, turns and faffing around with water bottles and cereal bars, the laps were taking me 40 minutes, implying a time of 2:40. Considering I did 2:31 last year this was slightly demoralizing but I decided I would more than make up for it later on the run. The bike course was fairly uneventful apart from ejecting a water bottle after hitting a bump and later dropping half my cereal bars which had become a sticky mess after my not so wise decision to remove all the wrappers beforehand. The course is an ugly but flat out and back with the only thing to break the monotony being a fowl stench emanating from a factory along the way. You end up coveting the other competitor's bikes or wondering why someone riding an extremely aero bike with an aero helmet should choose to wear a jacket that acts as a parachute. Still, looks can be deceiving: there was a guy with an enormous bushy beard that looked like it would be quite effective as a fishing net - he ended up third in my age group! Every time I cycled back into town I would scan the crowd to see if I could spot my family and, as I was finishing the 3rd lap (of 4), I saw them there and waved frantically to them. What a difference it makes to see your loved ones at a time like that! I felt overwhelmed with emotion and adrenalin. What I didn't know until after the race is that Luca, my eldest son, had crossed the road and very nearly been hit by a cyclist - it took him about an hour to get over the shock.
I got to the bike rack after 2:35 and put on my running shoes. No visor or sunglasses today as it was raining. It wasn't the ideal race in terms of preparation for Brazil, which will no doubt be much hotter. In fact, I drank about half what I had planned to drink on the bike, supplemented instead with some 5 High5 Isogels, and I only gulped down about 6 salt tablets in the end, none of these on the run. I almost forgot to put on my race number which would have been a serious downer - on the bike it wasn't necessary and I'd forgotten to even take it out of my bag. I felt great on the run, as if I hadn't swum or biked just previously. I think only one or two people overtook me other than those who were a lap or two ahead anyway; I spent the race passing others all the way. It was just a question of putting up with the discomfort until it was over. The run is always a bit confusing, with people in all different stages of the race, but it is where you see everybody else for the first time. Apart from Carlos, Juan and Mario, some friends from my triathlon club, Aguaverde, there were about 10 people from work to wave to, not to mention those who I furnished with toilet paper before the race. I felt very strong but decided not to step up the pace for the second half so as not to leave myself in a lamentable state for the Ironman. I did the Half Marathon in 1:24! Actually, the run course was about 800 meters short so that's not quite as ridiculously good as it looks (remember my best Half Marathon time is 1:23) but it was good enough to get me to the finish line in 4:44, 20 minutes faster than last year. I felt overcome with emotion as I crossed the line - I craughed as I have done in the last three races I've done, a combination of relief, joy and exhaustion. It's an incredible feeling. It is why I race.