How to build an Ironman

Ironman Frankfurt 2014 was Stefano Pardi’s first attempt at going long distance. He’s been a dedicated triathlete for three years, having entered the sport “almost by accident” five years ago. Before the race, he notes, don’t eat dodgy food, don’t drop anything on your toe and plan your loo breaks in advance.

Pardi hurts his leg and slows down his pace 18 km before the finish.
Pardi hurts his leg and slows down his pace 18 km before the finish.

Two weeks before the race

The weeks leading up to the race were quite busy. Key focus was on:

• Checking the bike and make sure that I had all pieces of kit I needed; made a trip to Evans cycle to get a full bike servicing; checked tyres for any damage and replaced rear tyre just in case; bought and tried the Co2 canisters
• Food for the race: made sure gels and bar are enough and buy additional ones in time
• Contact Nirvana, a sport logistics company, for bike collection. Bike was picked up the week before the race and transported hassle free to my hotel via a van
• Reduced my volume of training and focused on tapering. It felt strange at time to train so little for such a big event
• Quality of nutrition and sleep: I aimed at going to sleep relatively earlier to start getting used to the time change and what the wakeup call would have been during race day
• Things I could control. My mood was going through a rollercoaster in the two weeks before the race: from super-excited and feeling ready to smash it, to self doubt about being able to finish it. I felt that looking back at my training log and realising that I almost entirely hit the hours of training I originally planned gave me a positive outlook I needed
• Reviewed the race info pack over and over to make sure I was familiar with the course, aid station etc.
• Visualisation of my race day: what would my best race have looked like and also how would I have tackled issues that could arise during the races, for example, mechanical issues, stomach, injury issues….

This last bit would become crucial on race day during my run.

Two weeks before
» Game plan

Friday 4th of July

The trip to Frankfurt was quite enjoyable and fun. Met Rosh, Jen and Jason – team members from the Serpentine Running Club – at the airport, and sharing a good laugh and some pre-race nerves helped making the journey more enjoyable. The airplane had its fair share of aero helmets going to the race and it was a bit of a show at who had the toughest shirt! Our Serpie group spontaneously opted for a non-racing attire just in case ;-). Of course a dude with a Ironman Lanzarote backpack won over everyone else.

At the bag collection I started hearing war stories of some experienced Ironman finishers who were eager to share their past experiences. As you do, the first of such characters we met was in Frankfurt to do the race for the fourth time, and made sure we knew that his favorite one was Nice, which he had done three times, followed by 20 others! I kept my thoughts on my favorite Olympic distance and Half Ironman race to myself.

“The thought of my chicken with rice and pineapple will haunt me for the remaining of the day as the most dangerous thing I did before the race”

Once in Frankfurt, we all went to registration, very efficient as you would expect in Germany, and then for lunch. The thought of my chicken with rice and pineapple will haunt me for the remaining of the day as the most dangerous thing I did before the race. Note to self: next time, avoid strange-looking sauces.

After lunch we went to the race briefing and then I went straight back to the hotel to check my bike and have a quick test ride to make sure everything was ok.

Saturday 5th of July

Early in the morning, I woke up to go on a recce of the bike course with Nirvana. This turned out to be a very good choice. Seeing the course beforehand helped me making a mental note of how to tackle specific section of the course, how the road conditions were, and most importantly, checking the infamous climbs with inspiring names like Hell, Heartbreak, The Beast – the bottom line is they did not seem that bad.

By 11.30 am, I was back at the hotel, a bit more cheerful after checking the course out.

A quick sandwich meal, and I was off to the bike transition to leave my bike.

Frankfurt is very distinctive in its transitions, as Transition 1 (T1) is by a lake 13km away from the city center and Transition 2 (T2). All participants had to take their bikes on a bus – yes, a regular passenger bus – and this meant taking the bike in some odd position (e.g. one wheel up and bike in the passenger seat). As I read a few race reports about this short journey, I was pleased to find a place to seat on the bus, and enjoyed some chit-chat with other athletes.

After a 20-minute bus ride, I was in T1. As for registration, everything was managed with German efficiency, and in approximately 10 minutes, I racked my bike. I decided to reduce the pressure in my wheels to avoid any surprises the following morning. I also checked that the bike pumps provided by the organizers were not close to my bike and made a mental note to bring my own the following morning.

“The feeling of trepidation before the race started to take over”

After racking the bike, I took a look around to make a note of toilets, transition bag racks, and went to check the swim course.

The check of the swim course was uneventful, as the buoys were not set up yet, and so I decided to head back to the hotel. More chats with the rest of the gang already in transition was a pleasant distraction from the race.

Once back to the hotel I kept checking the weather forecasts for the following day on five different sites, as I did in the past week. It was quite incredible to see how much the weather forecasts kept changing from storms, to cloudy to boiling hot in a matter of a few hours. By the end of Saturday the picture was starting to become a bit clearer: it would be warm and possibly hot with wind.

The Serpie group and all of our supporters decided to have a very early dinner, and by 5pm we were all indulging in pasta and pizza at L’Osteria, an Italian restaurant opposite the hotel. I found the evening really fun and relaxing. I guess that the feeling of trepidation before the race started to take over, and with a mix of excitement and fear I was in bed by 8.30pm.

Race day

Pardi says all participants had to take their bikes on a regular passenger bus to T1, which was 13km away from T2 and the city centre.
Pardi and his bike. All participants had to take their bikes on a regular passenger bus to T1, which was 13km away from T2 and the city centre.

The wake-up call at 3.15 am arrived earlier than I had expected. I had a surprisingly easy sleep. I started preparing in autopilot. I took a shower, did some exercises to activate my glutes, wore my Serpie kit, and had some plain brown bread and a banana for breakfast. My stomach was not really up for much food at that time of the day. At 4am, I was downstairs with all the others to have some coffee and then back in the room to pick up the last bits of my gear and all the nutrition for the rest of the day. When getting ready, I checked Facebook one last time and I was so surprised to see what Lan, Manuela, Katia and the other supporters had been up to during the night. Seeing the pictures of them writing up supporting messages on the ground gave me an incredible boost. I felt very grateful to them for being there for us and made me realise, as I would later on in the day, how amazing it is to race with your club.

By 4.40 am, all the Serpie group was walking toward the Intercontinental, the race hotel, to pick up a bus to go to T1. We were all chatty and sharing how we felt in those hours leading to the race, and I felt really happy and fortunate to be experiencing such an event with the same squad I trained with during the past eight months.
It is difficult to describe the feelings I had during the bus ride to T1. I felt very grateful I was able to be at the starting line. I did not feel overly concerned but started to feel very focused on my directional race plan. We exchanged wishes among the squad and we all went off to get ready.

An hour before the race

I spent the hour before the race setting up my bike and nutrition:

• I inflated my tires to 110 psi as it did not seem very warm yet. Bringing my own track pump was a great idea, and it ended up being used by at least 10 to 15 other athletes who were very grateful I brought it with me.
• I taped ten gels around the bike and prepared the energy bars I could get from my bento box in small chunks. I also left four extra gels and two bars in a plastic bag to go in my back pocket after the swim
• I used some sun block on my neck, arms and legs but forgot to put some on my shoulder blades – and that would become painful during my bike ride

“There was a lot of swimming over each other, trying to avoid punches, and avoiding to punch other people”

At 6.15 am, the transition area was closed and we started making our way to the swim area. Right before leaving transition, I did manage to drop my track pump on the right foot, managing to hit quite hard on my right big toe. Jason and I managed to have a good laugh about it – and I had to wait to get back to T2 to figure out the outcome of that.

The 45 minutes leading to the swim were quite interesting. The way leading to the swim start was a downhill section. Well, it seemed like a few hundreds people, myself included, found it very difficult to go downhill and to the start line. We all stopped a few minutes soaking in the views and probably convincing ourselves that we really had to go downhill to start this!

Swim

I entered the water 10 to 15 minutes before the gun went off. I had a good warm-up in the water, enjoying the warm water for a change. The organisers told us that the water temperature would have been around 21 to 22ºC, so wetsuit legal, and I would add, pretty pleasant.

I positioned myself to the middle and a bit on the back of the pack for the start. Or so I thought, as I realised later that was closer to the left side of the swim pack that I had wanted. I started treading water, making sure I was marking my territory. Some kicking in the water helped keeping a few swimmers away from me.

I started my Garmin watch a minute before the gun went off, focusing on my breathing.

The gun went off and I was into the washing machine.

I started swimming at a slightly higher pace than my race pace in an attempt to gain a comfortable position for my swim. I started to overtake people and there was a lot of swimming over each other, trying to avoid punches, and avoiding to punch other people. The first few minutes were quite brutal: my style was definitely not elegant, and I was alternating front crawl to polo swimming, but my breathing and rhythm felt good.

“I started treading water, making sure I was marking my territory. Some kicking in the water helped to keep a few swimmers away from me”

On my way to the first buoy, I kept sighting every 3-4 strokes, and as I was going at a slightly faster pace, I kept breathing only to my left side. Despite the physical contact with other swimmers, I felt very well. I was confident in my energy levels and in my hopping from one pair of feet to the next looking for someone to draft.

Once I got closer to the first turn, I realised I ended up to the far left of the pack, very close to the buoys. And that is where it got a bit scary. The buoys were standing on a wooden platform, so to avoid hitting the wooden platform people were going crazy at the turns. When it was my turn to switch direction, I made sure I picked up my stroke cadence and kept my kicking up as I was concerned someone could swim over me – or worse, I could get cramps.

When the first turn was out of the way, I acknowledged I was going to swim to the far left of the pack and started to find more free space. The first half of the swim came by very fast and after a short walk and run, I went in for the second lap.

The second lap was a 1.7km swim, this time with buoys on the right side. For some reason I managed to get quite lost and ended up quite to the far left, meaning that I had to swim a longer course that I would have hoped for. My Garmin stopped at 4.1km; I do not want to believe I swam that much more, but I am sure I added some extra minutes to the swim. On the positive side, the second lap was much quieter and I had plenty of space for myself to enjoy the swim.

I was out of the water in 1.10 hour! Spot on into what I was dreaming of:

Transition 1

T1 was very different from how I would normally tackle it. I decided to walk up the beach into T1. I took my transition bag, got off my wetsuit, wore my cycling gloves and shoes, had a number one at the loo and went to pick up my bike – and I was off in six minutes. I planned for ten, so I was ahead of schedule.

Bike

The bike course is quite fast. The first 13km to 20 km back into town are really fast. Whilst thinking about what I heard from many people about the risk of going out too hard, I focused on spinning my legs at a higher cadence (95rpm) and starting to get my nutrition in. I had a gel straight after T1, and 20 minutes later, I started eating the half bars I prepared in the morning.

Focus during the entire duration of the bike section was on cadence and heart rate. I planned to keep my cadence around 90 rpm and my heart rate below 130bpm. I also planned to stop a couple of times to use the rest rooms as I knew I would have been drinking a lot during the day.

The hills on the course were quite fun, challenging but not tough at all. The crowds on each of the hills were quite unique, especially during the Hell, a straight ride on cobblestones where you were chased by two guys dressed like the devils, and the Heartbreak Hill, a long stretch with a Tour de France feeling.

It was great to spot so many people encouraging competitors on the bike course. It really gave me a boost to see people I knew on the course. As mentioned earlier, Serpie and friends’ support were an extra bonus during the race.

“We were all in survival mode”

The first lap went by very well. I was feeling strong and held back any time I saw my heart rate going above my set limits and when my cadence went below 88-90 range.

During the second lap, the heat and the wind picked up a bit and there were some stretches where I could feel I was slowing down, compared with the first lap. I kept focusing on eating and hydrating, making sure I was taking gels and salt tables regularly as I was mostly drinking water.

During the bike ride, I also managed the planned two pit stops to use the bathroom, the first one around kilometer 60 and the second one around kilometer 130. At the second stop, I had to fight for my place in the queue with an overzealous and needy participant, who made me realise how by that point we were all in survival mode.

From around 130km, I started to feel my right big toe very numb, so I started to move it a bit into the shoe. After a few minutes, the numbness became a sharp pain that was coming and going. I told to myself that there was not much I could do and that I would check it as soon as I got back into T2. I used the following 50km to run a mental check of what could have been affecting my toe. Not for a moment I thought about what happened with the track pump earlier in the day.

After six hours and three minutes, I entered transition. This was spot-on with my ideal bike split of six hours. And considering my two bathroom stops, I was very pleased: I had built enough margin for the run and I started to believe I could pull this off.

Transition 2

I decided to enter T2 very conservatively, with no flying dismount as my big toe was painful by that point. I gave my bike to a volunteer, picked up my transition bag and went into the changing tent.

In the tent, I decided to remove my socks and wear a new set that I had left in the transition bag. To my surprise, I saw that my big toe was a bit swollen and had a black colored section near the nail. I asked one of the doctors in the tent to have a quick look at it; he cleared me out saying that it would have hurt and that I was safe to run as long as the sense of numbness did not come back. I now remembered the track pump incident and thought I was an idiot.

I had my fourth loo stop in T2 and was off on the run after four minutes. I planned for seven to ten minutes, so I was still doing very well above my plan.

Run

The run started ok. I checked my heart rate and saw I was under 140 bpm. I started moving my legs to check how tired they felt, and raising my heels to get into the running motion. To my surprise, I felt reasonably good. I started sipping water from the water bottle I picked up in T2 from my transition bag and tried to settle into my rhythm. The first 5km were quite tough; I decided to skip the first water station and felt like my stomach was not very happy about all the gels and water I had till that moment.

Somehow, I managed to get to the second water station and started to alternate Coke and Red Bull. I did not drink all of the cups they gave us, but a few sips alternated with water. That seemed to be working and after the first 10.5km, I started to feel much better and getting into my run-and-walk rhythm.

The support of the crowds and by all the Serpies was working wonders. Every 2km to 3 km, there was always someone shouting encouragement and that made a difference, as I did not feel like I was being on my own in the race.

“I had a few moments (probably a couple of minutes) of frustration (as in, I was furious at the world), and then I refocused on what I had to do to finish the race”

The aid stations were well staffed, and the choice of savory and sweet food, real food, offered was a bonus during each section of the run. By the time I got to the half way mark, I was feeling confident and solid. I kept running mental checks on all my body and everything seemed alright. By the time I got to the 21km, I felt like I was going to hit my sub 4.30 hour – a marathon’s ideal time. But that was not what the cards had for me.

Around kilometer 23, the outside of my left leg started to feel painful. It was something I had experienced six weeks before and that it had forced me to massively cut down on my running in the build up to the race. I stopped and gave myself a small massage and stretch, and then started alternating a run of a few hundred meters with a walk. After another kilometer of this, it became clear the pain was going to stay and my leg was seizing up quite fast.

I had a few moments (probably a couple of minutes) of frustration (as in, I was furious at the world), and then I refocused on what I had to do to finish the race. This is where the mental plan came in handy! I knew the injury could have come up and I visualised myself having to deal with it once it came up! Thanks to Kim for that! I started to focus on the fact that many people had to walk the marathon and I was very lucky in being already more than halfway through it. I then worked out that I had to walk roughly 18km!

“I felt my energy level was good to run but my leg did not want to know about it”

My heart skipped a few bits when I realised how much I had to walk. I then checked how fast I was walking and realised I was doing 5.7km an hour as an average. A new race within the race started for me: it was probably the most difficult three hours of the entire race for me!

Walking those 18km was something new. I had a good time soaking in the atmosphere and all people partying by the side of the street. Around 7km to the end, Jen caught up with me and we decided to walk the last stretch together. She had her own issues and we managed to keep ourselves up to the pace to stay under a 13-hour finish. For as easy as it might seem, thinking back about those last kilometers, I have to say they were hurting quite a lot. Especially as I felt my energy level was good to run but my leg did not want to know about it.

Once we entered the final chute, Jen and I decided to run the last 100 minutes. And so, we went into a final, painful, rush to the finish line together with our hands high in a sense of relief and happiness.

12.56.01 and it was over.

As soon as I stopped past the finish line, I felt my pressure going down and was taken by one of the volunteers to a medical tent for a checkup. A few minutes later, I was ready for a few sandwiches and to collect my finisher T-shirt!

Pardi wants to do an Ironman again, once he recovers from this one.
Pardi wants to do an Ironman again, once he recovers from this one.

Conclusion

The feeling post-race was quite overwhelming. I cannot clearly remember what I felt when crossing the finish line. It took a lot of mental and physical effort to get ready for this race, more than I had experienced in my life. Juggling the training and all the related activities (physio, massages), with work and personal life was a challenge and a journey in itself. A few weeks before the actual race, I started to acknowledge how Ironman for me was not just a race, but a journey of self-discovery, about how much I am capable of achieving mentally and physically, as well as of what really matters for me. The Journey was so pervasive in every dimension of my life, that showed me clearly the things that truly matter in my life in this moment.

Since I finished the race, many people asked me two questions: a) How was it? And b) Will you do another one? My answers are: a) I loved every minute of it and b) Yes, I will, after I recover mentally and physically 😉

My key learnings from the overall experience are:

  • Anything is possible (quoting the IM brand), as long as you stay focused, positive and put solid work into it
  • Endurance is a journey, and “time” is a variable I do not control, so better to focus on the ride and expect to be surprised by yourself
  • Ironman is best enjoyed with people you love, friends, squad members and other participants

What will I do differently next time:

  • I will focus more on my biomechanics and core to make sure the machine is efficient before overloading it with volumes
  • I will focus more on technique in all disciplines; there is always gains to be made with better technique
  • I will sign up to my next one after a solid period of R&R. My body and mind need some love now!
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