Ironman Maastricht 2017
After I had read the Wikipedia page about the Ironman triathlon, my mind went from "insane" to "let's do that before I'm 40". I started running in September 2011, gradually increasing the mileage. In the process switching from regular running shoes to Vibram barefoot shoes. As the big 4-O came closer, it was time to up the game and get serious. Here was not something I was able to accomplish by myself.
Exactly two years to the date of the IM I send an email to AVtriathlon, the tri club in my hometown requesting if I could give the running training a whirl. And whirl it was, thanks, Bert, Gert, Wouter and Joop for teaching me to run and having the patience to cope with my very sub-par motor skills. After six months things got better, I could finally do all of the running drills; learned a lot about heart rate, running technique, and pacing.
Training for the swim started the same month as the running training. Twice a week, at 6 am, on Mondays and Fridays. Couldn't do five meters free style without gasping for air, backstroke felt as if I was waterboarding myself. And again, as with the running, I was fighting with my motor skills. Water does not forgive, never. Thanks, Wouter, Peter, and Harry for actually teaching me to swim.
After my dad passed away in 2014, I picked up his old Batavus road bike he bought for his retirement and decided to do the IM on his wheels. In April 2016 I joined the bike training at AVtriathlon.
September 4th, 2016 I did my first triathlon, Olympic distance in Amersfoort. There I was, with my 12-year-old road and freshly bought TriSuit among guys who seemed to do these things every week and had some serious awe inspiring bikes and gear. I was nervous, very nervous but in the end, it felt great, swimming felt super, the biking seriously hurt but the 10k run went smoothly.
In November 2016 I asked Harry if he could train me for the Ironman Maastricht. Harry agreed. Week after week he made a training roster, I reported back, and August approached. Seemingly far away in January but in June things started itching, the date of the IM was within reach, Harry started talking about the final few 3-week training blocks and the concluding tapering phase. I got more nervous; the IM was always on my mind - always.
Friday the 4th of August I drove to Maastricht to catch the race briefing at 16:00. Seriously trained athletes everwhere, some even had Ultraman tattoos or were chatting about all the other Ironmans they already participated in. It was intimidating, especially after I discovered all the first timers had a green bracelet besides the blue Ironman bracelet and could not see that many first timers. That evening my girlfriend Tamara arrived by train, and we watched the Friday night Ironman run as we had dinner.
Saturday, drop off time for the bike, and goodie bags, one for running one for biking. It took me some serious effort to see some other bikes which were not time-trail bikes. Even worse, it appeared to be I was the only one with four bottles and three inner tubes on his bike; I heard Harry: "this is your race, do not change your routine." I found my spot, spend about ten minutes making sure my goodie bags were water proof; rain was coming, and the bags were outside on racks. As a final gesture, I received the tracking chip and forgot to make a well-planned joke about interference with my other "enkelband."
I exited the transition zone and felt like I just left some parts of myself. Done; nothing left to check, double check or triple check.
Sunday. 5 am - it is going to happen. I had some small "breakfast" at 1 am and managed to get about 4 hours of sleep after that. Did the triple check of the swimming goodies, took two caffeine treats and an energy gel and took off to the start with Tamara. On our way to the start we spot other athletes everywhere, some of them are even wearing their fully zipped wetsuit.
I do a quick check if any of the running or biking gear had become wet overnight, but everything was a-ok. Nothing to do now but wait for seven o' clock.
A quarter to seven the athletes are starting to queue according to swim time; I found a pleasant spot around the 1:30 mark. I am aiming for a time of 1:20 but having about zero experience with swimming in very close proximity to others this is the most failsafe option.
Step by step we get closer to the water ramp, Tamara follows me on the other side of the fence and snaps the final pre-IM pictures. A few minutes before the ramp I hear Hans shouting my name and encouraging me, he is joined by Riet and Yvonne - besides being stressed out, I feel comforted by their encouraging words. Apparently, it did not go unnoticed I was "somewhat" stressed and Yvonne tells me to focus on my breathing - it helps. Stepping up to the ramp is handled by two guys who grab me and release me a few seconds later after the got the all clear signal. I press the start button on my watch and enter the water, scared shitless. I see one of the scuba guys looking at me, and he seems to be thinking "we got a live one here." I focus and plan to get out of the way of the other athletes as soon as possible, after some breast strokes and a few kicks to the head I spot a clear path and switch to freestyle.
Breathing, breathing, I hear Harry - "go easy, long strokes, slide through the water." My body takes over; I have trained for this; I get into the rhythm and start passing other swimmers. Every ten strokes or so I take quick peek to stay on course but away from busy parts of the swimming route.
The swim splits into two parts with an Australian exit in between. I keep passing other swimmers, as we get closer to the halfway point things get crowded, again I get kicked in the head few times. I immediately drop back and take a small detour, avoid injuries or losing goggles at all costs. On the way back I feel great, avoid the temptation to speed up and before I know it I am queuing in the water to exit to the ramp. As I exit the water, I check my watch: it says 1:13. Bam! It feels like getting a Christmas present when you are six years old; I can't stop smiling on the way to the transition zone. All those people, shouting, clapping, it feels great. I unzip and unwrap from half of the wetsuit. Some guys are running; I just keep a steady pace, it is going to be a long ride. The first act is done, check.
After I triple check my number, I get the bike gear bag from the rack and sit down in the transition tent, the guy next to me is swearing a lot when his wetsuit is not participating. Harry: "stick to the plan - focus." When I unpack my bag some guys are eyeing my shoes, they look like shit; I had to use some duct tape to patch one of them up. I don't care, they fit, they work, and they will do their job. Apparently, I am the only guy without socks, interesting. I have no experience with support stations, so I decided to be as self-sufficient as possible. I lay out all my goodies, 18 energy gels, 9 with caffeine, nine regular, six energy bars with open packing and two caffeine treats. I first take the caffeine treats, it takes about an hour for it to peak in my blood stream, so they go first. Caffeine gels go to the left back pocket of the suit, regular to the right and each side gets three energy bars. As planned and tried out several times: it all fits perfectly in the tri suit; I put on bike gloves, yellow buff, glasses and bike helmet, squeeze the wetsuit in the bag and leave the tent. Outside, in the bike area, an official is closing monitoring the athletes, I keep checking my helmet and helmet guard; the official partly manages to suppress his smile. I must look like a distressed deer. Don't care.
Bike. Bike. Bike! Again I have to double check my number and find the, for regular people impossible to miss, yellow Batavus road bike. I put my watch on the aero bar, attach a picture of Tamara to the bar, take the bike and walk to the exit. The second act commences.
The weather feels good, sunshine and a very comfortable temperature. I already did the course twice, so the bike start feels a bit like coming home, I know the route, I know what is coming. Harry pops up, "take it easy when you start biking; it is very tempting to blast, don't do it." However my legs feel great, I feel great; Harry remarks "don't do it." In front of me I spot an American athlete biking at a very comfortable speed, she has the same name as my mother who passed away in 2007. I take it as a sign and start tailing her at the obligatory distance of 12 meters.
Other athletes keep passing us; I do my best to ignore it - this is my race - stick to the plan. On my watch I only keep an eye on my heart rate, it is low, and after 45 minutes it is still low. I decide to pass the American and pick up the pace. I keep my heart rate in zone two; my diesel zone - the plan is to go easy for at least the first two or three hours. Every ten minutes my alarm goes off, at 20, 40 and 00 I have a gel and at 10, 30 and 50 I have a few sips of sports drink. I switch the gels between caffeinated and regular. By rotating my bicycle bell, I keep track of which type is next, normal of caffeine. Between those moments I take some extra sips of water or a little bite of an energy bar. Every five minutes something is happening. At the first real climb, I hear Jeroen from AVtriathlon shouting; it gives me a push up the hill.
It is a beautiful route, the scenery is superb, and I give a lot of thumbs up to all the people next to the road. You clap: you get the thumbs up. As I bike, it slowly starts dawning on me; I am doing an Ironman. I check the picture of Tamara on the bar; she will be there for the coming hours, nice. As the guy in front of me has a nice pace, I stick to following him, and my mind starts to wander. I hear my dad talking; he would have found it incredible to see his son doing an Ironman on his bike. I really would have liked to share this with him; I experience some, and some more, somber moments. The little salt crystals on the inside of my bike goggles make funny colors of the surroundings; it makes me smile.
There are some steep climbs in the route; I updated my gearing when I got my bike IM ready, and for each climb, I switch to the triple. I focus on keeping a high cadence and try to avoid any heavy lifting. It works out.
As the course progresses, the Hallembaye gets closer, the dreaded climb, the monster, the hill that broke me when I did the course for the first time. Nightmare hill. I exited the Netherlands and cross two bridges, take a right, and there She is. The Hill. I switch to the lowest gearing and hope for the best. As I keep a close eye on my rapidly increasing heart rate I start passing other athletes, there are a lot of people on the hill. Shouting, clapping and encouraging. There is an old guy next to the road in bike outfit, he is not a participant, but I imagine he has at least 40 years experience under his belt. The corners of his mouth go down a little bit, and he gives me and nod. As I reach the top the smile on my face explodes; I own the hill, I took her down. Bam! As I continue I keep passing other athletes; I find it very confusing. Some of these guys seem very professional, am I going too fast? Should I tune down? I decide to keep my heartrate in the diesel zone and continue.
Since I sweat a lot (a lot!) I am trained to drink a lot, but since the temperature is not as high as during my training, a toilet break soon becomes unavoidable, and at the next aid station, I happily seek the confines of the toilet - I am still fully stocked and require nothing else. The first full lap is coming up when I reach downtown Maastricht I am spotted by my brother Maarten and Wim; they seem surprised. People everywhere, I did not see Tamara and feel a little bit bummed out - better luck next lap.
As I pass the transition zone, the second lap "officially" begins. Some ten kilometers into the second round I spot an ambulance with a bloody athlete next to it, she seems to have her leg broken - it saddens me; we all trained so hard for this, it is unfair. Since the ambulance is blocking the road, I have to put my bike on my shoulder and walk through the stinging nettles. After a minute I spot a small cheering crowd with two women showing off and shouting like the end of days has commenced, I find it very amusing. As I get closer, I spot one of the women to be my sister Eliane and her friend Marscha. Eliane drove all the way from Le Mans to Maastricht to see me do the Ironman. It is nice to see her again at this small 2-second family reunion.
Then my stomach starts to complain, I do not feel well, and I know the feeling, I have been there several times before and it is the end of the line if I do not get this under control. A slight panic is creeping up on me. Harry: "keep calm, and check your options."
The first thing to do is drop the heartrate, hoping my body react positively. It does not. The only alternative left is to stop eating, which will also mean the end of the line. What else to do?
Although I never used it in training I decide pick cola at the next aid station; it is the only thing of which I am not sure it will not work. Drinking cola is uncharted territory for me. I am not sure how my stomach will react, and I was told so many times not to switch routine during race day, but it is the only option on the table. I will finish this.
At the next aid station, I pick up a bottle of cola, or to be more precise half water half cola. A few minutes after the first sips I feel like the comic figure Asterix after he drank the Magic potion. Stomach clears up; I feel much better - I pick up the pace a little bit and continue with drinking a lot of cola. As a side effect, I have to take two extra bathroom brakes, but it was worth it. I decide to keep the heartrate low and focus on the marathon - my strongest suit of the triathlon. As I finish the second lap, I keep overtaking other athletes, some several times due to the bathroom breaks. But I am back on track! The final act can commence.
I arrive at the transition zone; my watch tells me it took six hours and 30 something minutes and my body still feels "fresh." I feel good. I finish the last bottle of cola and pick up my running goodies bag. Some of the guys in the transition tent look surprised when I put on the Vibrams - this is my race, on my shoes. I wish them good luck.
It suddenly dawns on me I am now going to do a marathon, 42.5k. Never did that before, the maximum distance I did was 32k. Harry is back "come on; you trained for this, you can do this - get up - and go." I get up and, I switch my watch to running mode as I did for so many runs before and click start as soon as I hear the now familiar "beep" of the course tracker which marks the start of the run.
I am scared. I have to do four laps of 10.5k. But I will take this marathon down, lap by lap. You did so many 10ks; this is easy-peasy, it is only four 10ks in a row, now run!
As start running, I spot Maarten and Wim, as far as the terrain allows they run with me, filming. My plan is to take it real easy on the first 5k, let my body adjust. I must keep the pace down, take it slow. After a few hundred meters I enter the main loop, runners, everywhere - some are walking some are running at my best 10k pace. On their wrist are bands of different colors. Red is the second lap; blue is third lap and green is final lap. I have no wrist band. I tell myself the first lap is easy; everything is new, the second lap is easy because it is already halfway, the third lap is easy because it is the second to last lap, and well the final lap is the final lap! So, nothing to be worried about.
I try to get in my familiar running routine and find a pace which feels comfortable; I am aiming for a four-hour run. It is warm, I must drink water at each aid station, and I decide to skip the gels and completely switch to cola. All my running training kicks in "arms next to your body," "bounce, bounce" and "keep your body straight." It works.
There are a lot of people watching and encouraging the athletes, music, and parties everywhere, the atmosphere is great. I spot Wim, Maarten, and Martijn who joined them from his vacation in Luxemburg - some high fives are in place here! Super!
The last part of the route is past the finish where I spot Tamara, I smile and wave three more laps, and it is done. Here at the finish everybody goes left except in the final lap. I go left. Around the 15k point my feet are starting to hurt, something I expected. It does not matter that much, I keep focussing on my pace and technique and keep my heartrate steady. Each lap I keep passing athletes, each lap I see more and more athletes hobble or even walking - as my feet hurt more and more it is very, very tempting to start walking; "just for a few minutes." Instead, I focus on guzzling up the run aid station by aid station. At the aid stations, I do a short walk so I can drink two cups of water and one cup of cola. When I enter Maastricht city center, Hans is shouting at me, "you are doing well, take care of your body, make sure to keep hydrated, go!".
Then, almost suddenly, I get my coveted green wrist band, final lap! People along the route are yelling, "come on! The last lap", "almost done, go." After the 35k mark, just as the corners of my mouth, I let my heartrate slowly rise. I am going to make it; I am so close to finishing. On the Vrijthof I get the final golden wrist band which allows me to take a right at the finish. I pick up the pace and feel like I am flying, bam! The feeling is incredible, so many people shouting, clapping and smiling back at me. I take a right towards the finish line and feel exhilarated and raise my arms, I am flying, after 12 hours and eight minutes I cross the finish line. In the crowd, I spot Tamara and manage to touch her hand before I am pulled away for the finish photo.
As I exit the athlete garden, I am joined by my brother Maarten and sister Eliane, Wim, Martijn, Marscha and of course Tamara. I am so happy to see her, give her an endless hug and a more endless kiss. I am now an Ironman; it is done.
A very, very big thank you to all the guys of AVtriathlon who helped me out, encouraged me, and shared so many of their experiences. Harry: you took me in while I was very, very, far from ready and managed to get me there, thanks!
None of this would have happened without the relentless support of my significant other: Tamara. As the training hours increased, she kept encouraging me and was able to cope with my pigheadedness-I-do-not-require-help moods and spend so many hours alone while I was out training. In Maastricht you were there every step of the way, supporting me, helping me out and just being there. I love you; I owe you everything!