Ironman Switzerland Race Report

On July 10th, 2011 I took part  in Ironman Switzerland. As I previously wrote, my race prep had some rough patches but ended very well, leading up to the final weeks where I felt fit and ready to race. My bike was all prepped and ready to be packed for the journey.

felt b2 pro

The race prepped B2 Pro

I needed to stop over in London since I had several work commitments to attend before flying to Switzerland over the weekend. The weather report didn’t look good – rain forecast for the whole weekend. On the afternoon of Friday 9th July, Michelle and I left London City airport for Zurich. I was well stocked with plenty of carbs – the pic below shows my Friday snacks… I ate all of that by 2pm…

Carbalicious - my Friday "snacks"

Carbalicious - my Friday "snacks"

We flew in to a magnificent view of the Zurich countryside, dark rain clouds interspersed with radiant shafts of bright sunlight, illuminating the lush rolling hills below.


The Swiss countryside from the air

At this stage I still wasn’t really nervous – just very excited to get on and race. We got a taxi to the Sheraton Sihlcity, which is about 2km from the start, so pretty convenient. There are also loads of places to eat nearby; I settled for a large Calzone at a place called Vapiano and then headed to bed.

On Saturday morning I got up early, put my bike back together and started getting my stuff ready. You would think that the fact that I’d already packed it all for a flight would make this a quick process, but I seemed to faff around forever making sure that I had everything sorted out. We then took a bus to the start area at Landiwiese so that I could go and register. The place was already buzzing as they had a 5150 triathlon (normal international distance) taking place. When we arrived, I realised that I had left my USA Triathlon card at home, but fortunately they accepted an online version from my phone – result! I picked up my bag, timer chip and a few goodies from the Ironman shop before heading back to the hotel. After a light lunch, I rode my bike down for the 4.30 bike check-in. There were no instructions of what exactly we needed to bring for the bike check-in, so for future reference you need to bring your bike, helmet and race number (the one that you will wear). They then take a photo of you with your bike, so that they can check it again when you take your bike after the race. I racked my bike, and covered it with the IM issue pastic bag to guard against the overnight rain.

racked, wrapped & ready

racked, wrapped & ready

I headed back to the hotel, went to Vapiano again for a large plate of linguine, then headed back to the room for the final round of faffing. I must have spent at least an hour “getting stuff ready”. Despite all the packing and checking, I almost forgot my timing chip which would have been a disaster. I’m used to picking it up on race day, so it’s not even on my pre-race checklist (it is now). By 10.30 I was pretty tired so I went to bed, setting two alarm clocks (just as well since one didn’t work). I still had no pre-race nerves so had a really good sleep. I woke up at 4.45, got dressed, had a bread roll with ham & cheese (expertly crafted by Michelle the night before) and headed down to take the 5.19 bus towards the start (which of course being swiss the bus arrived at 5.18 and 55 seconds). 15 mins later I was in the transition area, unpacking my bags and getting the final details ready. It was a beautiful day with only a few clouds, so it looked like we were set for perfect conditions.

My race plan was pretty straightforward:

  • survive the swim – goal 1:10 but main aim is to just get it out the way
  • bike – start easy &  hold back, stick to 190 watts (see race prep post for details), refuel every 20 mins on gel or bar, drink coke/water mix. goal 5:50
  • run – start at a pace that is easy for me (5min/k) – goal 3:40 (secretly hoping to run 3:30)

At 06:30 we all started heading to the swim start. The aquamarine water of Lake Zurich looked warm and inviting, and at 21C it certainly was. At 7am the pro race started, we had a few minutes to go, so I took up a position near to the left hand side of the field which would hopefully mean a relatively clear path, even if it resulted swimming a little further. The following minutes whizzed by and before I knew it we were off – all 2200 of us jostling for position in the churning blue washing machine.

manic swim start

the start

To my surprise I saw about another 250 people on my left that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, so instead of being on the edge I was now in the middle of this big mess. The swimming was stop and start for at least the first 1000 meters, making it very difficult to find any sort of rhythm.

try swimming smoothly in this

try swimming smoothly in this

My goggles were also sliding up my face which was strange, and has never happened before. I eventually found my rhythm and started to swim well, when we got to the end of the first lap and had to swim under a bridge, run up a ramp over an island and then back into the water for the second lap. I was now swimming well, but  faster than the group I was with so I kept on bumping into slower swimmers, with little room to swim around them. I eventually just swam behind someone else’s feet and took it slow to the end. I felt fine at the end of the swim, pretty much the same as I feel after a regular 1500m swim. I don’t really get that about swimming – why 3.8km doesn’t feel much harder than 1.5km. Anyway, I was pleased to be done with the swim.

I entered T1 feeling good, quickly changed out of my wetsuit, stuffed a few caffeine gels into my pocket for the end of the ride (to help with the run), put on my helmet & sunglasses then exited. To save time I always put my shoes in the pedals and secure them with elastic bands to the bike, which means I can run barefoot through T1, making things a lot easier than trying to run with cycling shoes on.

After a 2:47 transition, I got on the bike and felt great. The first 30km is flat, so I just focused on spinning easily through my gears and settling in. I was shocked to look down at my Garmin and see that I was riding at 300 watts, way over plan! It felt like I was putting in no effort, but I needed to stick to the plan so I eased off a little and settled in at around 200 watts, taking in a few gels, a bar, a bottle of electrolyte and some coke to replenish what I had lost on the swim. The Zurich roads are pretty fast and I was cruising along at around 39km/h (24mph), passing a lot of people. There were quite a few groups that I needed to get past, and it was pretty difficult to ride without drafting. I ended up sticking to the middle of the road and just accelerating in short bursts past the groups before settling in again on the right. It looked like a few people were drafting for way too long, but the eagle-eyed swiss officials were on top of things and I saw a fair amount of riders waiting in the penalty box at 30km.

fast n' flat near the lake

fast n' flat near the lake

When I got to the first drinks station, they were just serving water (not food/energy drink as the race guide had stated). Luckily I was equipped with enough food to get me through to 60km so I just took a water bottle. The water from this station tasted like they had rinsed inner tubes in it, so I mixed it with some coke to improve the taste.

From here, we entered the hilly section. There are a few short, sharp climbs & descents and then at around 50km there is a climb called “the beast”. It’s not really as bad as it sounds, about 4km long followed by a short descent then another 5km hill. I stuck to the plan here and didn’t ride much over 230 watts up the hills. A few energetic germans flew past me, stomping on the pedals, but I just kept the constant power output easing up the hill. The hills were also a good opportunity to get out of the aero position, stretch out the back, and talk to a few of the guys around me.  After the hills, there is a long flat and then a fast descent back down to the lake. If you had a road bike here with drop bars, you could probably make up a lot of time on the descents. I was hitting just over 70km/h going down but my bike would start shaking around a bit at faster speeds, whereas my road bike handles 85km/h + easily.  Being keen to stay safe and not crash out, I remained conservative down to the lake. Even with my careful riding my brakes were overheating on the corners, filling the air with the smell of burned rubber (reminiscent of the drinking water at water station 1).

Once back at the lake, it was fast and flat back to the main start area, then a quick 10km out and back, up a short climb called heartbreak hill. This is a truly amazing experience, riding up this hill, jam packed with spectators that cheer you on in a deafening roar of cheers, cow bells, horns, whistles, drums and trumpets. I could feel the emotion welling up inside of me, but managed to bottle it up and retain my dignity 😉

Heartbreak Hill

Heartbreak Hill

I went through 90km in about 2:50 which was on track, and I was still feeling fresh. I was using the avg lap power function on my garmin to make sure I was sticking to plan (by pressing lap every 20-30 mins). I was actually slightly over plan at just over 200 watts. However I was still feeling ok so I pushed a little harder on the next flat 30km of lap 2, staying comfortably around 41km/h. By this time, many of the stomping euro climbing heroes were rather tired and I passed about 80 people on this flat section.  My heart rate was still quite low, averaging at around 140 bpm, so I felt confident that I was saving enough energy for the run. I pushed a little harder on the beast this time round, and I remember a group of british spectators chanting “kill the beast! kill the beast!” which at the time was good motivation!

Down the hills and onto the flats, the last 20km was pretty much a formality and I used this as an opportunity to take in two caffeine gels and another bottle of water. My bike leg had gone according to plan, my power output was a little higher than anticipated at 204 watts. Here is a link to my splits (just random lap times that I used to calculate avg power as I was riding)

Ride summary: 5:40, 180km, 204 avg watts, 1487m elevation gain, avg cadence 84rpm, avg speed 31.8km/h (just under 20mph)

Arriving in T2, my legs felt like jelly as I got off the bike, but they came right quickly as I racked the bike & ditched the helmet. I usually run sockless, but for Ironman I figured socks would be sensible. I chose my Nike compression socks just to give my calves some extra support. Putting on socks adds about 30 seconds to transition but I think it’s worth the time, considering blisters would cost you a lot more time than that. T2 took 2:40, I grabbed a few gels, a half packet of haribos, and then set off on the run at a moderate pace of 5min/km which I thought would be sustainable and get me back home for just over a 3:30 marathon. The run is 4 flat laps, looping back and forth along the crowd-lined avenues. These spectators were really incredible – not one minute passed without someone shouting GO!ROB GO! (your name is printed on your number).

I felt very comfortable, passing 10km in 50 min which was still on plan. Michelle was cheering me on at the end of the first lap which was just when I needed some encouragement – talk about perfect timing. At about 13km, the sunshine vanished and it started bucketing down with rain. The wind was howling, huge raindrops were slamming into our tired bodies, and massive puddles were forming on the ground. I had slowed down and I started getting cold, so I tried to run a bit faster to warm up. By this stage I wasn’t even checking my time any more. The thought of having to run about another 30km was pretty grim, and it took a lot of effort just to keep going. I allowed myself to walk through every 3rd water station, but as the race went on I found myself really pushing the definition of where a water station ended. One of them was about 1km after the start of each lap, followed by a short hill, and I managed to convince myself that since there were still cups on the ground going up the hill, that I was entitled to walk until the end of it!

The most difficult part of the run for me was between 14km and 25km; it was mentally very tough to push through that, and I’m sure the driving rain didn’t help much. When I hit 26km, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun came out again. I told myself that I basically had 10km to go (after which I would still have another 6km, but I told myself  I’d think about that when I got there). I continued drinking water & coke mixed, and even had some soup which was great.  So far my nutrition was working out perfectly with no issues. I even tried one of those red bull energy shots which they were handing out – I think it helped but I don’t think I could have too much of that stuff. I continued walking every few water points, and then at around 32km I suddenly came right and settled back into a faster pace for the last 10km, running all the way, even through all the water points. My energy increased through the last 5km and by the time I got to the finish I felt like I could easily carry on. If only I could have swapped that feeling at the 12km mark!

I crossed the line in 11:02, just missing a sub-11 but I was very happy to have completed it more or less to plan. In the finishers tent, they offered us some food and a non-alcoholic beer but I just wasn’t hungry at all, and the last thing I felt like was beer. The most I could manage was the powerbar recovery drink and a forced-down hot dog. I hung around for a bit, soaking up the atmosphere and then cheered a few of the runners on.  I then collected my bike and rode back to the hotel, showered up and enjoyed an expensive swiss-priced burger king (equivalent of about $14 for a cheese burger).

I had a really good night’s sleep, woke up early the next morning and took a slow 50 min ride along the lake front before packing up the bike and heading back to London. It’s now 2 days later and I actually feel pretty good. I felt worse after running Florence marathon last November – maybe it’s because of the relatively lower heart rate and slower pace…

Lessons learned for next time:

  • it’s worth doing more anaerobic swim training just to start fast, miss the chaos, and find a slightly faster pair of feet to follow.
  • maybe push a bit harder on the bike
  • probably do a little more run training. I think I was a bit overconfident on the run and didn’t put in enough running hours
  • it’s definitely worth sticking to the pacing strategy. I feel like I did this well and it worked for me – now I just need to up the pace!

What’s next? I’ve entered IM Coeur d’Alene 2012 – I definitely want to aim for a sub 10 in that. In the meantime I’ll enter as many IM distance races as possible just to get a bit more experience at the distance… maybe Vineman in 3 weeks time??? tempting…

13 thoughts on “Ironman Switzerland Race Report

  1. Hey Rob,

    I enjoyed the report. It brought back memories of my IM Switzerland race with all the Swiss people looking at me with serious faces yelling “hup! hup! hup!” (or is it hop hop hop!) while I was running.

    Sounds like a very well executed, smart race– congrats!! I guess you were right about bouncing back quickly after racing– I wish I had that recovery ability!

    That’s awesome that you pulled the trigger and signed up for IMCdA– it’s a great race and we’re going to have some fun up there!

    • hey Mike the water was 21 degrees and the air temp started at 22, with a max of around 25. My Garmin says 25 and by Polar HRM watch says max of 31 – but I think the Polar reads a few degrees higher because of body heat. It was hot but not uncomfortably so.

  2. Thanks for this report! I’m considering this event to be my first IM and hope it doesn’t sell out by the time I make a decision. I will be at Vineman tomorrow and will try to look for ya to cheer you on. What’s your bib number?

    • I’d highly recommend CH as a first Ironman – the Swiss are just superb organizers as you’d expect. Thanks in advance for the cheering! I have a cool bib number 292

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  4. Hi Rob, Really enjoyed your report and I am countdown to do the race on 15th July. I just had a couple of questions. Everyone says the hills are terrible but to me the elevation looks ok and I guess the roads are in much better shape than the Surrey Hills where I do my training. Also was wondering what % of max HR your 140 HR.

    Also interesting to read your observations about drafting. Other blogs from 2010 were complaining that it was rampant and going unpunished. Glad to see they were sending people to the naughty step in 2011.

    All the best

    • Hi John

      The roads are in very good condition and the hills are not that steep – about 5km long, steady effort with long fast descents. Practicing your descending will help you gain some time. If I remember correctly, I’d say gradients might be similar to box hill in surrey, just longer. In terms of heart rate, I think at that stage my threshold HR was around 155 bpm (based on 30 min TT). My cycling max is probably around 170, my running max is around 181.

      It’s a beautiful race enjoy it! That water is amazing and the crowds on the run are incredible. I’m jealous!

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