Monday, May 6, 2013

Lisbon Half Ironman 2013 Race Report

The short version

Disappointing physically but proud of myself mentally.

The medium version

I did a time of 5:19, 35 minutes slower than last time. I did a best HIM swim time of 36:11 and a best HIM bike leg of 2:29:34 but I got cramps as soon as I started the run and did my slowest ever Half Marathon of 2:07:38.

The long version

It was very hard to leave the family behind in Asturias, even though the weather was a bit grim. I’d enjoyed my 3 days of “carbo loading” – eating what I felt like, when I felt like with a leaning towards pasta, rice and chocolate – but I could even see the impact of all that associated water retention (1 gram of water per calorie of stored glycogen) and so could my bathroom scales (87kg). By now I am used to the guilt trip as a result of going from being very conscientious about what I eat and how much I exercise to suddenly seeming to “let myself go” in both regards.

The day before the race I did my customary 20 minute run (watching “Osombie” which I can recommend as being one of the worst films of the last few years, in which Osama bin Laden comes back as a Zombie) and drove to the airport. As soon as I was on the motorway, I realized that I had forgotten to fill up the car with petrol. I thought of the months of preparation, not to mention the cost of the hotel, the race inscription, all that would go to waste if my car broke down now. Still, I kept my calm and told myself that there was no point worrying about it until it happened and, in any case, I made it to the petrol station in the airport and wisely decided to fill up in case I forgot to do so on the way back.

I’d packed everything so ingeniously so that, other than the bike box which I had already sent through oversized luggage (for an extra €35), I only had a small backpack to carry. The bike pump caught the attention of the security guard as my bag passed through the scanner so I had to unpack everything, perhaps not so ingeniously after all. But the pump which was essentially a two foot long bar of metal with a sharp metal stand that would have made an excellent weapon was not the object of concern, rather my torque wrench. Again, I kept my calm and asked ingenuously whether it was considered dangerous but of course the real worry was that I might start to disassemble parts of the plane and use them to make some kind of makeshift weapon in the style of The A Team. I don’t want to seem facetious, in the end it is a perfectly reasonable rule that I should have been aware of - that you are not allowed to take any kind of tools on a plane in hand luggage - but thankfully I was allowed to take it on board.

Once in Lisbon I made my way to the humble expo (by this I am referring to the few stands that were set up for the triathlon and not the Paque das Naçöes Expo itself) and bought a CO2 canister in case of a flat tyre (as I couldn't take compressed gas on the plane) as well as some cereal bars for the bike leg. Then it was back to the hotel to put the bike back together again. It had faired pretty well but there was a small chip in the carbon from I don’t know what. It was much harder to put together than it was to take to pieces (isn't it always the way?) and I wasn't too confident about the bolts holding the nose cone and the seat post in place. The nose cone bolts can only be accessed with a long Allen key (no fancy torque wrench here) and I was worried about the Allen key rounding off leaving me with a problem to undo it for the trip back home. I realized that the guys in the bike shop had put some kind of substance to lock the bolts in place which made them much harder to turn. The bolts on the seat post are the teeniest tiniest bolts in the world and are much more prone to rounding off so I didn't manage to tighten them to even close to the very low 2 Nm maximum recommended torque.

Looking sultry
Considering this was to be my third participation in the Lisbon Half Ironman, I very nearly skipped the briefing – after all, I had never been to one before. I was impressed by the level of detail in which we were explained everything but soon realized that, unless I somehow found myself in pole position, I wouldn't need to remember any of it on the day. Compared to previous years there appeared to be an extra twiddle on the end of the bike course to make the distance up to 90 km, perhaps due to the transition area having moved. There were a lot of extremely detailed questions, mainly from the German contingent, and I couldn't help thinking that there wouldn't be quite so many in the Spanish / Portuguese briefings.

Everything organized by transition
On the day of the race itself, I got up at 5 am and had breakfast with Dani. His understandable nervousness before undertaking his very first Half Ironman served somehow to make me feel more relaxed and, hopefully, some of that rubbed back off on him. I’d already put Body Glide in all the places that I know from experience get rubbed raw as well as a special paste (that smells rather like fish paste) on my neck which my friend Carlos managed to procure me from Brazil where it protected me from the uncompromising friction of my wetsuit in the full Ironman I did there.

Fish paste
We went down to do the bike check in and leave all the stuff ready for the transitions. The transition area was much better and more impressive than in previous years. I had enough time to go back to the hotel for a bit of quiet contemplation, all the while with that nagging sensation that I had forgotten something…

The transition area
Back at the course, the gun went off for the “Battle of the sexes” which was a slightly longer than Olympic distance Triathlon (strictly speaking a quarter Ironman) in which the women were given a head start of 12 minutes. This turned out to be exactly long enough for the first woman to be exiting the water just as the gun went off for the men; I expect the men caught her up on the bike and the run. At 8:20 it was the turn of those of us doing the Half Ironman distance and we had just a few minutes to get used to the (cold) temperature of the water. I never warm up or even practise swimming the day before because, rather irresponsibly, I’d rather just do as little swimming as possible, although I'm sure it would probably have helped. The start was very hectic in spite of there only being 500 of us (compared to the 1,800 last time I competed). Someone swam right on top of me and used me to propel himself forwards. This pissed me off because I figured that, if he was so fast and competitive, why hadn't he started much further forward? So I grabbed his ankle and gave a little tug to say “fuck you too”. I don’t know whether it was the same guy or someone else but, just at this moment, someone very intentionally put their hand on my swim cap and dunked my head under water. If it was the same person, he would have had to stop and double back – a case of “swim rage” if ever I saw one – and if it was someone else altogether then they fully deserved the “c” word that I shouted at them. In the water – just as behind the wheel or behind a computer screen – you are anonymous and people behave much more primitively when they know there can be no comeback.

Only minutes into the race I was panicking and hyperventilating, breathing to both sides with my neck out of the water like a kid doing doggy paddle. I was so close to packing the whole thing in that I thought of calling out to a boat to get me the hell out of there. But the thought of the embarrassment I would suffer having to explain to Dani, to my kids, my work colleagues – and you, dear reader – was even stronger than the overwhelming urge to stop (interestingly, I don’t feel the same pressure from my wife or my parents). So I waited for the flock of flapping arms to subside and started off on the 1,900m slog. I decided not to overexert myself – after all, I was unlikely now to get a good time (although one always overestimates the time lost in the moment) – but at least I would take a good line to each buoy. Eventually I found my rhythm and started to overtake people and, bit by bit, I started to feel better about the whole thing. By the time I got to my beloved bike, I was tired from the swim but I think that I had expended less energy than in previous years.

For some reason I registered my country as Spain
Once I was out on the highway I really started to fly on the bike. My heart rate was still on the high side from the swim and took some time to settle down to the 153 bpm average I was aiming for. Unfortunately I had set things up in such a way that I couldn't easily read my watch from the aero position, which was tucked behind my water bottle along with a couple of moral boosting messages from my kids. Nevertheless, the pace felt like the right balance between tolerable and challenging and I was able to maintain it fairly constantly throughout (hills notwithstanding).

They say you should never try something new in a race. I had come up with the idea of taping a couple of packets of High5 Energy Source 4:1 powder to my bottle, that I could mix on the go with the water handed out by the organization. In practice I thought I would lose too much time trying to get the stuff to dissolve in the tiny chamber afforded by my refillable front mounted bottle and, at one point the packets came unstuck and started flapping about, so I yanked them off and threw them to the side of the road. Unfortunately, I also yanked the bottle out of its mount in the process and it also went flying. I did a quick calculation of minutes lost in going back for it versus cost of the bottle (it’s a “special one” with a straw) and decided to stop. Luckily, this happened where there were some spectators and someone kindly went back for it. In between them having to wait for a break in the oncoming cyclists to safely cross the road and jogging back to me, I suppose I must have lost about a minute. In an Ironman™ event, this would have led to my disqualification as outside intervention is prohibited, but not so in Lisbon. I soon caught up with those who zoomed past me including an Irish guy on an Isaac bike who I had been “playing tag” with for the past half an hour or so. I notice that I rode with a much higher cadence than most people around me and while “Isaac” would overtake me going uphill I would take him back going downhill and on the flats. I felt a couple of twinges of cramp but I remembered that I had felt this last time and, as long as I backed off slightly, they would go away.

The bike course is relatively fast but it has to be said that between the annoying hill at one end, the number of tight turns (that I had to take very wide as the turning circle on my bike is very wide) and the patches with cobble stones, it all adds up to having to go that much faster on the straight, flat and smooth stretches. The only good thing about the cobble stones was that I would have less bolts to undo when it came to packing up my bike. I started to hear an ominous clanking sound coming from the depths of my bike and wondered if we would make the 90 kms in one piece. Just as well that I had had to cut my seat post to length because otherwise my seat would have slipped down. In fact, the bolts now not holding the seat post in place were only really useful for one thing and that was for hanging the bike up my its bike seat, as you are required to do when you finish the bike leg of a triathlon. Again, the rules were interpreted in spirit and not to the letter and, after consulting a referee, I hung the bike up by its brake levers and put on my visor, Fuel Belt and running shoes and set off for the run. On the bike I had managed to eat two Powergel Endurance cereal bars and drink 750 cl of High5 Energy Source 4:1 as well as 9 High5 Isogels and, in the end, had thrown away the only water that I took from the refreshment station. In the Fuel Belt I was carrying a further 4 High5 Isogels.

I was glad to be able to stand up after two and a half hours almost entirely in the aero position. Now for the run – my strongest discipline! After only a few steps my legs suddenly seized up completely. I was frozen with my quadriceps contracting as if someone else was activating them with a remote control. The image of Mark Allen, standing stark upright in the Ironman as his eternal rival Dave Scott sailed past, came to me. I squatted down as best as I could and stayed there until the contractions abated. I couldn't believe it – cramps in kilometre 0!! I had 21 kilometres to go, this was going to be long and painful. This is where I can say that I am proud of myself because I didn't get angry or upset, I just took it (literally) in my stride. I felt a bit hard done by as I didn't think I “deserved” to be hobbled after all the training I had done. Perhaps it was just an extreme version of the famous “jelly legs” you get after transitioning from cycling to running. I took a couple of salt tablets in the hope that they would at least work as a placebo. Yes, I felt I could start to run now – even though the pace felt very slow, my watch was telling me that I was turning out kilometres in 4:20 which, while it wouldn't lead to a Personal Best there was every chance I would get faster as the race wore on.

But it wasn't to be. The cramps came back and this time they weren't going away. A pattern soon emerged in which I would run some 500 metres, my legs would tighten up dangerously and I would stop, walk and then run again. I seemed to end up stopping in exactly the same places on each of the four laps. One of the things that is motivating when running a fixed distance is that the faster you run, the less time you have to suffer – often the most persuasive reason I have to push myself is just to make this suffering end sooner. This works in the opposite direction when you are slowing down. You tell yourself that you just have to put up with the pain and discomfort for one more hour but after half an hour, you now have 45 minutes. It seems like it will never end and time dilates like the bastard it is.

Unlike under the cloak of anonymity of the swim, other runners gave encouragement and advice – one even slapped me on the bum to get me going again (a male athlete in case my wife is reading this). With just 3 kilometres (but 20 minutes!) to go, I saw Dani for the first time and he caught me on one of my standing breaks. “No te pares tío!” (Don’t stop mate!) he shouted, to which I replied “Ya he parrido 50 veces” – I was so tired I couldn't even conjugate my verbs properly any more but, somehow, what I said was more appropriate: instead of saying that I had stopped 50 times already, I said that I had given birth 50 times. At least Dani looked like he was going well, especially for being his first.

Just as I had played tag with “Isaac” on the bike, when I stopped I was overtaken by a man who was, to say the least, top heavy. I would pass him only to be forced to stop again by the time he shuffled past. I thought, that guy has a massive disadvantage (excuse the pun) – for him to finish this it is going to require an even bigger effort than for me: if he can do it, then I can. I realized something very important in that moment. There is a word in Spanish which neatly sums up the act of bettering oneself: superación. I had taken that to literally mean improving my times - maybe not in every race - but to be generally getting faster. In doing so I was snobbishly putting myself above those who “just finish”. What I hadn't realized was that this was, in itself, a get-out clause: if things didn't go to plan I could just throw the whole race and put it down to bad luck, a bad day. I realized that superación means improving yourself and not just your times. Finishing this race was vitally important for me to be able to learn from it and improve as a consequence. Not only that, but by not beating myself up about it, I was also improving myself in other ways, ways that would not only help me towards faster times in the future but also in other aspects of my life. It’s not as though I was slacking and that I deserved a good bit of auto-flagellation. I also realized something else: getting angry with myself was itself a way of avoiding facing up to the reasons why this might have happened and doing something about fixing it.

So what did go wrong? I believe that exercise induced cramps are due to one of two things: under-preparation or overcooked pace. Looking back at my last training log, I rather optimistically put a “tick” by the training objective of converting myself from a Marathoner into a Triathloner in the space of 9 weeks in spite of having no evidence to this effect. When I signed up for the race, I had intended to spend several more months preparing for it – after all, two years had gone by since my last triathlon – but then the temptation to squeeze in another Marathon was too much to resist (nor do I regret it now). Just because I was in very good shape, it doesn't mean I was in very good shape for a Half Ironman. Specifically, I think that I skimped on two types of workout: one, the long bike ride which I substituted with a long run or tempo run and, two, the weights session.

It’s also possible that the heat was a big factor: last time round, when I did a time of 4:44, it was much cooler and even rained a bit. I'm not sure how much I believe in the theory that cramps are due to electrolyte imbalance from heavy sweating (although I do sometimes take salt tablets, just in case) but I do think that hotter conditions mean you expend more energy cooling yourself down, especially if you are a large person like myself, and it is therefore much easier to overcook the pace. Lastly, I might have benefited from wearing thigh compression, as I did last time. In case Emilio – to whom I had lent my thigh compression for his Marathon des Sables and who returned them to me this morning – is reading this, I take full responsibility as I had already decided that I wouldn't run with them.

Now back in the hotel, I treated myself to a nice lunch, had a wonderful siesta and finally got around to packing up the bike before going for a celebratory meal with Dani and his wife in a surprisingly cheap and good all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. My flight was leaving at 9am the following day and the queues in the airport were impressive, especially as I had to queue up first for my boarding pass, then to pay the €35 for the bike and, finally, to deposit the bike in the oversize luggage chute. This time security said nothing about my pump (the torque wrench was safely wrapped up inside my wet suit, in the bike box) but they made a fuss about my liquids and creams which I had wrapped in one of my mum’s plastic hair nets for want of a sealable bag. The sealable plastic bag dispenser required a €1 coin and I had given all my spare change as tip the night before, so I had to decide which one item I was going to keep. As the special fish paste from Brazil had done nothing this time to prevent a sore on my neck I opted to keep the Body Glide and said goodbye to the rest.

Another reason for finishing was to be able to teach my children the lesson that I had learned. They had already progressed from asking after every race I entered if I had won and losing interest when I told them in which place I had finished, to saying that they hoped I would get my best time, as they knew that that was my objective. When I explained to them that it was really important to finish, especially when things were going badly, Luca said to me “You’ll always be my champion daddy”.


  1. Great chronicle and great final message, Rob. You are right, we need to learn not only from our best moments, victories and great times but also from those bad days when things didn´t go as expected. But in any case we need to be proud of our achievements, because "just finishing" a half Ironman race is not that easy...

    1. Thanks Dani - I look forward to reading your write up (no pressure)!

  2. hi rob,

    dont be dissapointed. a great experience after all, and you excelled in swimming and biking, since you obviosly master running its all just a question of proper preparation.
    too little time to convert from a marathoner to a triathlete i guess.
    enjoy your "sabbatical period".

    1. hi nebosja. yes, i think it was exactly that: there is no such thing as being "fit" you are only fit for a particular discipline. when i signed up for seville i knew it would affect my performance in lisbon but, by the time i got there, i "forgot" that little detail. i might just have got away with it too, but i was not conservative enough.

  3. Que pena Rob, hubieras acabado en un muy buen tiempo.

    Piensa también en el acumulado que llevas este año. Preparaste NY, cambiaste a Valencia y remataste con Sevilla. Creo que más que el tener solo 9 semanas es que estabas ya cansado de todo el año.

    Me has acojonado un poco para mi debut. Ya estoy apuntado al ICAN de Malaga para el año que viene ;-). Tengo mucho que nadar y que montar en bici hasta entonces.

    1. hola santi! pues no te acojones, ya has visto que tengo altibajos. más que por cansancio creo que es un ciclo de pasar de infraestimar mis capacidades a sobreestimarlas. la lección aprendida aquí (por lo menos para mí) es que esto de triatlón desafortunadamente require más tiempo, tanto de meses de preparación como de horas con el culo encima del sillín. por lo tanto, la próxima la voy a preparar de manera más exclusiva.

      igual acabo haciendo málaga contigo pero dependerá un poco de si consigo plazas en los maratones de NY y de londres. en caso negativo iré a málaga con unos 6 meses de preparación específica; sino, el año siguiente será...