I have never been superstitious. My number for Ironman Barcelona 70.3 was 1313. 13 twice. I’m sure that can’t mean anything…?
The first thing to say about Ironman Barcelona 70.3 is that it is nowhere near Barcelona. It’s in Calella some 50km away. Think Skegness sea-front rather than cathedrals and culture. After a difficult discussion with the car hire lady explaining that the tiny Mazda was not in fact the estate car that I had booked, we eventually loaded our two bike boxes into a van, and drove straight into a Barcelona traffic jam. Still, according to D-Ream; ‘things can only get better,’ but what the hell do they know?!
Now when you’re dragging your long-suffering wife along to watch you race, you feel obliged to book somewhere nice to stay. I duly booked a spacious 3-bed apartment close to the race location and the finish line. When we collected the keys from a very friendly elderly Spanish lady, it was quite clear we were essentially evicting her from her own flat: enthusiastic as she clearly was to charge us for the pleasure and stay somewhere cheaper. Unfortunately her taste in internal decor was more post-war than post modern. Helen’s opening words were:
“Oh my God, we’re staying in a nursing home.”
“It’s not what it looked like in the photos,” I reply meekly. It turns out that ‘the camera never lies’ is in fact, a lie.
We do a bike course recce late on Friday evening. It’s a tough one. Helen has committed to doing a 70.3 before she’s 40.
“I’m not doing this one!” Is her first comment, followed by:
“Why? Why would you do this?” Errr…
On Saturday my brother-in-law Jonathan arrives with his partner, as do Helen’s parents. The support team is well and truly assembled. We invite them round for a Bovril from the well-stocked cupboards in our apartment. Unfortunately we can’t use the music system; we didn’t bring any cassettes with us.
Race day morning arrives and after an early start we walk out of the flat. As I close the door I realise that the second key is in the other side of the door. I try the key I have to see if I can unlock the door. I can’t. We have locked ourselves out of our nursing home. And our mobile phones are in there. Not the ideal start to the day, but I can worry about it later. We get on with things. I get transition set up and meet with our support team on the beach. Wetsuit on and…where’s my GPS watch? It was in my bag. It’s not there now. This is getting daft.
The start was one of Ironman’s new rolling swim starts. Briefly; you enter a pen according to your predicted swim time and all file round to the start line in order. Your time starts when you pass under the gantry. I position myself in the back of the sub-30 min pen.
The sun is rising over the Mediterranean, the music is pumping, adrenaline flowing. I’m feeling great. This is why we do this! As I cross the start line I leg it down the beach and do my best Baywatch dive into the sea. All thoughts of tanned Californians in overly tight red swimsuits are banished as I go headlong into a large, neoprene clad bearded bloke who is already breast-stroking. I’m not sure how the dictionary defines optimism, but it should definitely include some reference to triathletes predicting their own swim times. Now, for future reference, there is a point in the breaststroke leg kick to go into the back of someone, and a time not to, unless you know them intimately. If you don’t know them intimately and miss-time this, you soon will.
The first buoy is at 200m and is an absolute scrum. I decide the brief kick in the head I receive is in fact better than the soft impact of the bearded blokes’ undercarriage. After the first buoy everything settles down and I get into a good rhythm. The sea isn’t too rough and I concentrate on shortening my stroke with a higher turnover (as advised – thanks Chris) and sighting at the top of a wave. As I exit the water I glance at my cheap stopwatch. 29.30. Happy with that. I leg it up the beach and through the arch.
Out onto the bike and it becomes very clear why we couldn’t work out the planned route from transition through the town the day before, convoluted as it is twisting through the narrow streets. Planning your fluids is crucial for a race of this distance on a hot day. It is therefore a touch frustrating to round a blind bend hit yet another speed bump and watch 50%of this strategy bounce off across the road. Trying to stop at this point would have been suicide, and from the clattering and multi-lingual swearing I can tell I am not the only one who’s bike bottle has exited stage left. We finally hit some smooth straight tarmac and I get my head down.
The bike route is superb. After a brief run down the coast you swing inland into the hills. Three climbs await, none steep but all long (10km, 12km and 8km respectively, totalling 1400m ascent). I’m pacing myself which takes a lot of restraint as people keep passing me up the first climb. But sure enough I see many of them again, passing them on the second longer and tougher climb. There follows a superb narrow twisty, technical descent. Brake late and hard, off the brakes turn in, hit the apex, power down. I’m loving it and passing others; the course recce is paying off. You then hit a long fast wide road for an epically quick run down to the final ascent. By now we are into the back of the female pro field, and even catch one of the male pros as we crest the final climb. Down the final fast-flowing descent and I’m feeling really good. Good swim, I feel I’ve ridden well and there is more in the tank for the run. I’m starting to plan ahead, but number 1313 hasn’t finished yet….
At the bottom of the last descent is a sharp corner and the road narrows and rises sharply. I have been on the front of a short pace line all the way down the descent, but as I brake for the corner and change down ready for the hill a German, who for the purposes of this I will call Herr Wronggear comes past me on the inside. As the road rises sharply Herr Wronggear is in completely the wrong gear and slows, causing myself and a Spaniard to concertina up behind him. As he sorts his gears we all jump out of the saddle and start pedalling up the slope. A few seconds later and suddenly there is a whistling and shouting. A motorcycle referee has come up behind us and is penalising myself and the Spaniard for drafting.
“What? I was on the front? He’s just come past and bunched us up.”
“You all too close. Penalty, penalty.”
At this point a range of thoughts go through my head. Most of them are not fit for print. To be fair, by the letter of the law the referee was right. But he was clearly not planning to apply any common sense. This was particularly galling given he must have been behind us all the way down the descent with me on the front. I tell myself to try and stay positive, but it’s easier said than done.
I arrive into T2 and head into the penalty tent. My Spanish counterpart arrives some 40 seconds later. Now I don’t speak a word of Spanish, and he didn’t speak a word of English, but you didn’t need a translator to understand. Herr Wronggear and the referee were not exactly popular.
Standing in a penalty tent is not a nice experience. There is a mix of emotions from anger and disappointment, through to embarrassment for being labelled a cheat, even though you have just spent 2 hours and 43 minutes trying very hard not too. You can’t really move, so stiffen up and time goes very slowly. You stand and watch all the people you have worked hard to get ahead of go past you. Even I can’t find a joke or glib comment. Staying positive is difficult.
When I’m finally released I sprint through transition. The run is two out and back loops. After a penalty this is the last thing you need as at each turn around point you see those you were duelling with on the bike several minutes ahead of you. Instead of being up there racing with them, I find myself in no mans land. The run is still quite quiet and I plug away, wishing I was moving as well as the male pros on their final lap. On the second lap time is slipping away from me. Even now I am still not sure if this was all physical or partly psychological. It’s very hard to push yourself to your limit when you know your race effectively ended in a small tent in T2. Down the finish chute I manage a wave. My day is done.
Now even after an imperfect race there are positives. The first is guilt-free consumption of several gallons of coca-cola. The second is a free sports massage. Sitting in the queue waiting for this massage is a bit like Russian roulette. Which masseuse will you get? The second most painful experience of my life was a post race massage from a physio student who was also a rugby player. I was unaware that deep tissue massage involved trying to rub out your bone marrow. As it sit waiting, wondering if I’ll get another burly bloke causing me severe pain I decide to remove number 1313. As I do so an attractive petite Spanish lady calls me forward. I’m not superstitious, but…?
After a couple more cheeky cokes I head out to find the support team. However, it’s not quite the afternoon I was planning. Ideal post race activity does not usually involve the following: trying to break into a flat, persuading an English and Spanish speaking German to phone your land lady, waiting for a locksmith, watching him break into your flat and then paying him for doing so. All while jogging back and forth to the course to support Jonathan. Who incidentally had had two punctures. Maybe someone’s trying to tell us something.
After ensuring we had somewhere to sleep that night I start to look at the times. I was ninth in my age-group coming off the bike. Now I’m even more annoyed about the penalty. I finished 19th after what was really a poor run for me. At my second attempt at this distance objectively it is a good result, but it could have been a lot better.
There are many lessons to take away from the weekend: