Almost last, but feel like a winner
Two weeks ago, 18 August, I finished my first Ironman in Kalmar, Sweden. I had been training well for it. Nothing crazy (because life is more than triathlons) but enough to take me all the way through. That was my goal: to survive past the finish line. I didn’t have a certain time limit, but my estimate was somewhere under the 13 hour mark. (The pro-triathletes do it in 8-9 hours.)
I was accompanied by most members of my family plus one of my son’s girlfriend. Really grateful to have them tag along. They thought I was partly nuts, and felt a bit anxious concerning my wellbeing (thinking at 51 years of age I am somewhat out of my league), but I couldn’t help noticing they shared some of my excitement about being in Kalmar. There was definitely a special feeling in the air.
Swimming (3860 meters)
At 7 am the pros hit the water. They are closely followed by a steady stream of about 2500 swimmers, divided in different time groups. I had placed myself closer to the end, in the group estimated to swim around 1.45 hrs. I did the breast stroke, contrary to most others who were free-styling it. But I held a good tempo. Not many were passing me. In fact, I swam past several of them. Sometimes it was actually quite comical; several free-stylers didn’t seem to have a sense of direction, swimming zig-zag, much longer than needed, while I maintained a steady line. My body felt great apart from my head. I had had some trouble with leaking swim glasses, so I tightened them up beforehand. But too hard. After a 1000 meters I thought my head would explode from the pressure. I had to stop and loosen the bands. This partly helped. The pressure was off, but water started leaking in. But I had no choice but to continue, stopping every 200 meters, treading water, and adjusting the glasses over and over again. Lesson learned: make sure your gear is in perfect condition before the race. But all in all I was pleased in the end, knowing I had it in me to complete a swim at around 1:30 in right conditions. Final swim time: 1:38:13.
Biking (180 km)
After coming out of the water and Transition 1 it was time for the 180 km bike ride. First over the long Öland bridge and then 120 km covering the southern part of the island Öland. The weather was perfect (apart from slight headwinds), the country roads flat and beautiful, and the spectators fantastic. At one point I was very impressed with the crowds. A large group of people had gathered and when I passed them they were cheering and playing Diggiloo Diggiley. I waved and thought: What a nice coincidence. If they only knew it was me singing that song. Later I found out they knew more than well. It was my cousin Dan and his friends who were cheering me on. God bless you, Dan.
When I crossed the bridge again I had averaged 29 km per hour, which was exactly were I expected to be. So far so good. But during the last 60 km on the mainland, north of Kalmar, I felt my appetite failing. I had been there before, and knew it meant my stomach was beginning to protest. I slowed down a bit, deciding to keep a positive mind while I passed through beautiful rolling landscapes and more cheering crowds. I had estimated reaching Transition 2 after about 6:15, but didn’t make that in my current state. Final bike time: 6:35:08.
Running (42,2 km)
As soon as I started running I felt something was wrong. I had feared stomach issues – because I knew from experience that fast carbs from energidrinks, gels and bars weren’t friendly to my internal system. But I started off slowly, knowing I needed to be wise with my pacing. The marathon part of Kalmar Ironman takes you three laps around the city, so there are people everywhere, cheering and encouraging you on. Honestly, I have never experience anything like it. The crowds truly carry you forward. Having said that, I still had to walk part of my fist lap, not due to any cramps or muscle aches, but because my constant urge to vomit. After being energized by my family I began the second lap running at a good pace. But at around 20 km I felt so sick I needed to lay down in the grass. A few medics attend to me and after 20 minutes I stand up again. But from here on I am only able to walk. This pattern of walking, stopping, laying down and getting up again continues for a while, but finally I am so beat I crash on the grass 15 km from the finish line. I feel extremely frustrated. My mind and body (except my stomach) wants to continue. I have no aches apart from my wrenching gut. All this training for nothing. Stopped by a conniving stomach. If I get up I will faint. If only I would throw up. Maybe then…
Someone puts a warm blanket over me. The wonderful Medics again. They ask me how I feel. I try to explain, but it’s hard to talk. Then a familiar voice: “Pappa, pappa!” My son Isak has spotted me and is running toward me. He is followed by the rest of the family. Everyone is gathering around, looking quite worried.
“Dad, you don’t look good. I mean, you really don’t look good.” Isak tried to describe the color of my face, a mixture of gray and green. My wife, who now is concerned to say the least, comforts me with words like: “You’ve done your best now, that’s all that matters.” They all seem to agree it’s time to throw in the towel. Especially Clara, who is crying hysterically. She apparently thought I was about to die.
I felt foolish. I didn’t want them (or any reader of this post) to pity me. I really wasn’t in any life threatening situation. I just had a stomach that acted up, making me appear worse than I was. I felt determined to continue. Quitting wasn’t an option. I had to end the race. I had worked too hard for this. The only problem was: I was still lying on the grass. I didn’t know if I even could stand up.
As I always do, in good and bad times, I said a silent prayer. I need your help now. After a few seconds I felt an impression: Get up! I rose to my feet and walked a few meters. And then it happened. I dropped to my knees and vomited. Everything came out. After catching my breath I noticed a slight improvement. In fact, I was so much better I was able to stand and even walk again. Thank the Lord! Who would have thought that regurgitation could be such a blessing.
I stroked the cheek of my daughter, guaranteeing her that her father would be safe and well, but that he would finish the last lap. There was still apprehension among my family, but they supported my decision. “But”, Isak added, “if you insist on finishing the race, I insist on finishing it with you! There is no way I am leaving you alone again!”
So there we were, walking the last 15 km together. It was dark by then, and not many runners left on the course. But with a smaller faithful crowd, clapping their hands as we went along, and Isak keeping me company, talking to me all the way, the last lap seemed quicker than the first two. I truly was grateful for Isak, and loved him for being so concerned for his father.
When reaching central Kalmar, with 1 km left, Isak ran ahead to the rest of the family at the finish line. I heard music from the town square. Many people had gathered for the “Hero’s hour”, to celebrate the last triathletes crossing the finish line. I had always viewed this tradition as sweet; what a charitable act to honor the last ones standing – usually the older, the heavier set, the least trained. And tonight – me. But I was happy beyond belief, and with the thundering applause from city supporters I started running the last 500 meters onto the prepared red carpet. And with tears in my eyes I dashed into the square, with bleachers packed with people. They were celebrating the incoming heroes. And I was one of them. The photographers were waiting and I raised my arms in a winning pose as I crossed the line. I am among the last 100. I am almost last, but I feel like I winner.
Final running (and walking) time: 6:54:29.
Total time: 15:24:16
Final thought: The days following I felt great. I could eat normally the next day, and recuperated fast. I never had any soreness or aches in my muscles or joints. That is proof that I was in decent shape and probably would have performed better had I been free from stomach issues. So what now? Will I do this again? Probably. I have a slight feeling of revenge. (Plus, it really was a lot of fun despite this particular misfortune.) I would like to test the true limits of my body. But before that happens, my goal is to do some serious research on what supplements are the most stomach friendly for me. If any of you have some valuable tips, please let me know.
Excitement in the air as 2500 swimmers enters the water. Can you see me? I am the one with the green cap. 🙂
Running out of Transition 1. Ready for that bike ride.
Clara waves her cow bell as I pass the 120 km mark on the bike.
After 200 meters of running I am still smiling.
What a feeling! It’s impossible to explain. You just have to try it yourself.
Interviewed by the local media.
That was a hug I had been waiting for.
I know it’s just a piece of “medal”, but it was worth fighting for.