We’d been to Kaprun before with my wife. The fond memories of our childless youth certainly appealing, along with a late summer race giving ample time for ideal training load and progression made this Ironman 70.3 race my selected A race of 2012. I signed up for this inaugural race early on and we decided to make it a family vacation by bringing the kids with us. It would be the first time that my family would accompany me to an away race. How fun!
After Mallorca 70.3 I took roughly a month of easy training, at least in the running department. Between my brother’s wedding, several international trips, professional obligations and other constraints I took the month of June easy. The Paris Triathlon was my wake up race and went well (despite an expectedly weak run) and kicked off a solid 7 weeks of training with a specific program built by my coach. With seven focused weeks including a vacation in Crete where I loaded some heavy bike volume, I had only missed one workout due to a small foot injury. The lead up was perfect from a training perspective, my weight was exactly where it needed to be, I had all the key ingredients to have a great race.
I built a solid race plan and shared it with my friends back in the US. We talked about it at length and I had to admit that it was hard not to think about the magic 5 hour barrier. I was in better shape than my last race and the course was easier. A lot of things would have to go well in order to make that goal but in the end, they amounted to two main things: I had to be out of T1 in 35 minutes and half way through the bike in 1h23 or a little under 2 hour total race time by mile 28. If one or both of these factors held true, I had a good chance of making that goal assuming a 1h42 half marathon which would still require a PR.
Nevertheless, I was committed to racing by heart race on the bike which history has shown to be a very successful strategy for me and let the chips fall where they may. But…five hours would be really cool though…
Because of our youngest who is under three years old, we looked for a kinder hotel that took kids under 3. As such, we stayed in Kaprun, a bit far from the race (far from a standpoint that it required a car to get there). Though I loved the hotel, I would recommend to others participating in the race to stay either in Zell-Am-See or close to transition with a slight preference for the latter.
The check-in was a well oiled machine with the usual Austrian precision. Directions were clear and the overall organization rather strong and very friendly. Lots of questions loomed about the weather with a beautiful week but cold and rain planned for the race. The organizers indulged all our questions and were very positive throughout.
Since we made this trip a family vacation, my eldest son wanted to have his own race and participate in the Ironkids race. This was a fun experience and he practiced all summer long for his swim and run combo. The race was well organized and I must admit that this was the part of the weekend that was the most stressful for me. Fortunately, despite having a hard time putting his shirt on during transition, my son had a great time racing!
After the morning race, I went for an easy ride and a short run, both with short pick ups to mimic my planned race pace. (21mph and 7:45 pace). After that, it was off to check in the bike and drop off the bags. Because of the uncertain weather, I placed a bike jersey and arm warmers in my bike bag just in case.
I have to say, European racing is awesome. The race started at 10AM!!! That means I pretty got up at a normal time, had a normal breakfast and still had plenty of time to prepare the bike, check out the area and stretch. The weather seemed to give us a bit of reprieve for the morning and we slowly entered the water under loud music, large crowds and an amazing atmosphere.
The water in the lake is calm with no noticeable current. On my practice swim two days prior, it truly felt smooth and fast with easy sighting on the way out and back. With the pros starting at the same time (albeit about 100 meters in front), we all took off at 10AM sharp in the legendary Austrian/German precision.
Unlike other races, I decided to mix it up with the crowd. I am usually a top third of the field swimmer and with my bigger upper body strength I know that I can fight my way through people if needed. At the start, I took off fast and climbed over a few people on the way. After a while I realized that I hadn’t slowed down from my acceleration and had to remind myself to settle into a good rythm forcing myself to breathe every three strokes every once in a while. I was able to find some good feet and stayed with three or four people the whole way back. I felt like I was moving pretty well and upon the exit checked my watch to see 30 something… Game on…if I can get out of transition in under 5 minutes, I’d be through gate #1.
In my T1 bad, I had left a cycling jersey and arm warmers. The plan was to put on the arm warmer if there was no rain and the jersey if it was raining. Though clouds were out, it wasn’t raining so I went with arm warmers only. I was out of transition in 34 something, still on track…
I was expecting a bunch of uber-bikers. With a heavy Austrian and German crowd, strong cyclists were inevitable but expecting strong bikers and seeing these guys were two different things. They were absolutely smashing the gears flying past me. The first few miles of the race were very fast and it took a very concerted effort to remind myself to stay in my box in order to let them go. In fact, I’d say that it took a good 15-20 minutes to let the bulk of those bikers go by, calm myself down and get into a good rythm that was my own and not the other racers’.
Now that I was back within my HR zone, I checked the speed. The magic number was 20.5. If I could be around 20.5 mph in the first half of the loop I would have a chance at a five hour goal.
About 30 minutes into the ride, the rain started picking up again. There wasn’t much we could do about it except being careful on turns and slowing down when dangerous. In typical European racing fashion, the towns we crossed were packed with people. Bells, whistles, cheers, honks, music…the energy was incredible and it was just hard not to race fast.
Half way around the first lap, I noticed a big group riding together and almost decided to join. Fortunately, I focused on my own race and refused to get involved in drafting. A few seconds later, a bike with a ref on it whizzed by me whistling like crazy handing out penalties to all the drafters. Well done! The race would be full of refs throughout the bike course and made it enjoyable to know that drafting was enforced.
I finished the first lap in about 1:55, well inside my goal pace with an average speed over 22mph. I had easily made it through gate #2. With 5 minutes to spare, I decided to take it easier on the second lap remaining well within my comfort zone. The biggest challenge that I faced was the lower heart rate (125-135) didn’t give me sufficient heat and it was starting to get rather cold.
At one point, I was severely lacking motivation. The hands start getting cold, I didn’t feel like running, it was raining and I still had 20 miles to go on the bike. These moments are probably the reason why many of us race. What will we do when it gets tough? For my part, I focused on what I could control (Pace, hydration, nutrition) and let it ride out. I must say that there is one nice thing about the rain…nobody sees you pee. I was able to pee on the bike a couple of times and prep for T2. Speaking of T2, as I approached it, excitement started building up again. As I was coming in under 2:30,I had largely exceeded my goal pace while remaining well inside my target heart race. If I could avoid blowing up on the run, I would finish a 70.3 under 5 hours.
The hardest thing with T2 was putting my socks on. My hands had gotten rather numb with the cold and coordination goes out of the window. But after the socks were on, shoes came on easily and I was off.
Once again, the beginning of the run came easily. I tried to manage the effort but found it hard to run slower than a 7:30 pace. Could I keep up the pace? The first two miles get you to the main loops where 3 loops then ensue. Along the lake was rather flat but the course meanders into the city on each loop with some short but steep hills. It certainly changes from the monotony. I focused on being strong up the hills and maximizing the downhills. My plan was to refuel with water/sports drink for the first half and coke the second accompanied by the gels I had on me. Right as I entered Zell-Am-See, I saw a teammate of mine from the Lagardere Club who was there to cheer me on. Even if he wasn’t racing due to professional conflicts that hampered his training, he had book his trip and still came to cheer the athletes. It was a great to see him and gave me a great boost.
It’s funny how we negotiate with ourselves when we run. What if I walked? What if I slowed down? I could walk during the aid stations, etc… The dialog is strong. During this race, the only thing I kept telling myself was to refuse to negotiate. I knew I had the distance and I could make it, there would be no negotiating during this race.
By mile 7 my left calf started tightening quite a bit but I was still managing to tick off 7:30 miles. By mile 8, I was around 4:06/4:07 and really started wondering if not only 5 hours was possible, but if a sub 4:45 was reachable. Some quick math told me that if I kept a sub 8min pace I may have a chance. The real race as I like to think of it started around mile 9 for me. My left calf was really tight and painful and my right knee (probably compensating) started to hurt…at times a lot.
It was hard not to negotiate and to keep moving but I manage to keep ticking sub 8 min miles. “7:55”, “7:55”, “7:49”, “Last lap”, “Last gel”, “Last aid station”, “Last mile”, “Last Km”, “Last hill”, “Last turn”… It’s funny how creative we get in our internal discussion. By the time I rounded that last turn, I turned on the gas. I knew I’d be pretty close to 4:45. I passed a few people and finally saw the clock. 4:44:25…What a magical moment. The nerves let out, I almost cried I think, or was it a laugh? I’m not sure but it was a state of euphoria.
Medal, beer, food, more beer…the atmosphere continued to be fantastic long after I’d arrived and even left back for my hotel. We spend a good amount of time eating and drinking, exchanging stories with other racers. A few complained about their drafting penalties of course. Unfortunately, because of nap schedules, road closures and the weather my family wasn’t able to make it at the finish line. So I didn’t take long and quickly made it back to the hotel to be with them and share my excitement.
If I looked at the race, I’d PR my swim, my bike and my run individually. It’s no surprise that the resulting performance was phenomenal for me. My new training program seems to have worked wonders and the build up to the rain was strong. Of course, I have to give it to the cities of Zell-Am-See and Kaprun for putting together a fantastic race and for the Austrian public who displayed a huge energy, even under the cold rain.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I checked my ranking quickly in the very-super-long-shot of a Vegas Slot. I figured if I was in the top 30 it might be worth a shot to attend the award ceremony. It turns out of course that I wasn’t even close. With the very strong field and the German/Austrian uber bikers, 4:44 only gets you 62nd place…incredible. This goes to show you the quality of the field present at this race. A late summer race in a beautiful setting timed perfectly so that it would be one of the first race to qualify for the next year’s world championship. It was bound to attract some strong athletes…and it sure did.
My wife and I visited Austria several times when we first started dating over 10 years ago. In fact, we were just starting to date when we last came to Kaprun in 2000 with a ski club. That day, several members of the Kaiserslautern Military Community sadly perished during the Kaprun Disaster. Only the clear blue skies saved some of us as we preferred to take the outside chair lifts or we surely would have been on that train. I had a special thought for all those victims throughout the race. The sun is what kept us from that train 12 years ago, it was fitting that the sky shed a few tears this year.