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Ironman St Pölten 2018 Race Report

Only a month and a half late, I finally get around to posting this. It turns out I’m not motivated to write while on vacation, and then coming back from vacation there’s a lot on one’s plate to deal with! But here goes…

Pre-Race

Ever since I elected German as my foreign language requirement in high school, I had wanted to visit a German-speaking country. My father’s side of the family has German-Austrian roots, and the rumor is that my great-grandfather came over to America from Austria as a stow-away, and upon arrival at Ellis Island, they asked for his name, he said it, and then it was spelled as “Fahsl”, though apparently the original spelling in Austria is Fössl. I found Ironman 70.3 St Pölten on the Ironman website which would take place on May 27, 2018 and after reading some race reports it sounded like a great venue. Sankt Pölten sits about 60km outside of Vienna, the course involves swimming in two different lakes (swim, run, swim, bike, run!), a somewhat hilly bike course, and a pretty flat run that goes through the town. Sounds perfect! I created a travel plan to: arrive five nights before the race in Vienna, head over to the race, then stick around Austria for another week post-race to do some sightseeing - IE have a “normal vacation”.  

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Vienna - St Peter's Church

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Vienna - Niemals Vergessen: "Never Forget"

Leading up to the race, training had been surprisingly good, especially for some unplanned mental stressors I was going through. I received pseudo-promotion at work which was rewarding but also meant more work for me. Secondly, our dog Sammy experienced a slipped disc seven weeks out from the race leaving him unable to move his rear legs, requiring fairly physically (and mentally) intensive care for a 60 pound dog. Finally, my uncle in Vancouver had been dealing with health issues and passed away a few weeks prior to the race. I had tempered my performance expectations but to my surprise – training actually went rather well.

Upon arriving in Vienna, jetlag was a major factor and I of course forgot to bring my sleep aids (drugs). We started off by experiencing Vienna café culture, tasting Austrian beer and coffee, and visiting some of the sights. I also got to practice my German, which … wasn’t actually that bad … but my vocabulary is pretty minimal. I will say that it got better with more practice. I put together my bike in the hotel room and did a 75 minute ride outside Vienna which was pretty fun.

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Belvedere Palace

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Inside Belvedere Palace

After three nights in Vienna we moved onto St Pölten, of which we rented a car in Vienna: a nearly new Opel Astra, which was actually really nice! It was a little stressful driving around Vienna, trying to make sure I wasn’t breaking too many European driving laws, and experiencing the Austrian Autobahn. Additionally, we were staying in a small town outside of St Pölten (Wilhelmsburg) which is hugely different than the large city of Vienna – fewer restaurants and fewer English speakers! It was fine, just added a little more stress, which is best to avoid before a big race.

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There was some sort of event going on in Maria Theresa Platz

 

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Traveling by car after your bike is already put together...

Later in the day I went to the race site to check in and I was rather impressed at the event production, especially for “only” a half Ironman. Big overheads, big vendor expo, and even a welcome ceremony! It was also cool that I found another Team ZOOT member but from the European team – Sidney from Munich. He did the race last year and showed me the two different lakes and the pathway in between. 

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Wachau Valley Wine region. Part of the bike course

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F
inisher's Chute / Turnaround area

The day before race I did a swim and bike, but admittedly got a little bit lost and ended up riding a little longer than expected, oops. Apparently roads on Google Maps in Austria aren’t always paved! I drove back to the race site to drop off my bike. I’m in the “Ironman all-world-athlete” bike rack and wow, my bike seems cheap. Virtually every bike had deep carbon aero wheels and most had electronic shifting (OK ok I guess my bike has both of those too, but they have more expensive frames and wheels!). I noticed there seemed to be a lot of BMC and Argon18 bikes. After check in I head home to have my traditional white rice pre-race dinner.

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In the start corral

The morning of the race went pretty well, I got a decent parking spot, checked on my bike in transition, then walked over to the starting area. What was pretty hilarious was the amount of public urination happing all throughout the woods! Now of course in the US people pee in the woods but usually they try to go off the beaten path, but not here – right alongside bike paths, etc. It was pretty funny. Anyways, this race utilizes wave starts by projected swim finish time. I said 35-38 minutes for my time, which put me in the latter half of the waves. I get into line and get ready to go!

Swim

Pretty good to start – jumped in off the dock, get into my groove. After about 3 minutes, things do start to feel a bit harder, it seems I’m not getting as much air – in the past this is when I’d have a panic attack. It’s like my body was doing fast efforts as a warmup, and now it wants time to rest and stretch and get the HR back down. Well I can’t do that in a race! So I ease up on the intensity a little bit until it starts to feel better. The first two turn buoys arrive quickly and then eventually I’m finished with 1k of swimming and we head out of the first lake. Next we run 275m on the path to the second lake, I pass a few people on this, and my HR is jacked! It’s pretty fun actually. Get to lake number two and I jump in and start swimming. Whoa! My legs are dead and my HR is still through the roof! So I don’t kick for the first 10 or so strokes, but eventually things calm down and feel a bit more normal. This turn buoy seems to come up really soon. I think about my swim form and some of the areas I’ve been working on – pulling from the lats, keeping the head straight in the water, and core tight. When I do all three, it feels like I’m rocketing through the water. After the turn, I see a group of three swimmers about 10 meters ahead, I think to myself – hey I wonder if I can catch them. Well I do catch them! Always encouraging in a swim to pass people in the last 1/3 of the swim, you feel like you’re heading in the right direction. Before long I’m at the end of the swim and I’m done! 

 

Time: 39:30, not a PR, but I’ve never had to run 275m in the middle of a swim before!

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Running from Lake 1 to Lake 2

Transition 1: Wetsuit got caught on timing chip. Never had that happen before, lost maybe 15-20 seconds, need to remember to really get the wetsuit over the chip in the future. So I come up to the rack my bike is on … and it’s the only bike there! Seriously! I’m thinking WTF, OK I know that Europeans are good athletes but I’m not THAT bad of a swimmer! But then I recall that with the wave starts and that I was on the “All World Athlete” bike rack that probably many of the others on this rack likely started in a wave earlier than me. But it did cause me to laugh, which is always good to do in a race.

Bike

OMG, spoiler alert, this was amazing. My plan was to ride the flats relatively conservatively at around 165 watts (starting closer to 160 for the first hour and closer to 170 the last hour), and then punch it once we hit the three major climbs of the route. The bike course was fully closed to traffic, which was awesome. It had a bit of everything, including riding 10km on the Autobahn (speed limit 130km/h, or in 81 in American), then through wine country along the Danube River, and finally to the largest climb of the day, a 1200 foot climb over 4 miles. I was anticipating the climb would be a slugfest, as 500 feet is at an average grade of 10%, but surprisingly, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I start passing quite a few people (benefits of being lightweight riding up hills) and I recall a friend who raced Ironman Switzerland a few years ago said tongue-in-cheek in a race report: “It just felt so good passing all the Germans and Euros who think universal health care is a right when we all know true freedom is the ability to die from a curable disease”. I found thinking about this to be deeply amusing, which is always great to have a distraction when going through extreme physical exertion. On this road we also went through a number of small towns where many of the townspeople (villagers?) were out cheering “Op op op op op” and “Zooper!” (just say it in your head with a thick German accent). I can’t describe how enjoyable this experience was. I’m thinking to myself: “I’m racing on my bike in Europe on closed roads which are super smooth with townspeople cheering me in a foreign language with beautiful scenery. Is this a dream?!”. Seriously, I don’t know how else to describe how cool of an experience it was. Anyways, after the major climbs we start heading back towards town which happen to be into a headwind, but it wasn’t as terrible as I was expecting. Over the winter I had upgraded a few components on my bike to make it more aerodynamic, including a new carbon fiber base bar, the Tririg Omega X aero front brake, along with a new aero helmet. It’s hard to quantify, but at least it felt fast despite the headwind! I approach town and roll into town after completing the 90km bike.

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Bike Time: 2:53. It was also lower on the power than I had planned, maybe too much sightseeing and not enough hammering 

Run

In T2, after I took what felt like longest pee ever, get started with the run. After having run barefoot from my bike around a large field and get into my On Cloudflow shoes it felt like running on clouds (trademark?)! Some background on my run – I have had a small stress fracture (GASP!) on my right foot the few weeks prior to the race. I did see my PT, fortunately it was a minor one, but enough to keep me away from all but the minimal amount of running the two weeks leading up to the race and plus taking some mental energy worrying about it. It seems most races around this time of year I will have some sort of minor running injury, but somehow on race day they are magically fixed. I assume this is due to a combination of having fully warmed up (via swim + bike) before running, plus the race-day adrenaline, plus since in a race I’m pushing so hard it’s usually my legs/muscles that hurt the most and the existing injury doesn’t hurt that much comparatively! Leading into to the race my assumption was that the stress fracture was going to hurt, potentially a lot, but that I probably wouldn’t notice it too much compared to everything else. From a long-term risk standpoint, it was relatively low – it wouldn’t help the healing process but it shouldn’t make it that much worse – but I might have to lay off running for a few weeks after the race.

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Anyways, back to the race, I did feel the stress fracture at first but was more or less enjoying the sights and scenery around me. Typically I try to take the first 3 miles fairly easy, trying to get my HR down and settle in. After the 3 miles is when I consider the run to “actually” start and then try to pick it up. It was warm (78-80F) but not terrible. Ever since Ironman Coeur d’Alene last year, it seems my ability to run in the heat has dramatically improved, primarily due to taking in more BASE salt during the bike and early stages of the run. Also, that race was 93F, so almost anything feels cool compared to that. I did have some light cramping around mile 2-3 where my pace slowed a bit, but the BASE salt helped and then my first gel around mile 3 also was a boost. I distinctly remember around 7km (1/3 of the way through) that my foot didn’t hurt any more … at all. This has been the best my foot has felt running in weeks, I kind of couldn’t believe it. Chalk this up to another case of race day magic I guess? I also saw a few Team ZOOT Europe teammates on the run, which was pretty cool. On the far end of the course we go through the town of St Pölten and there are a number of outdoor cafés with people enjoying their frühstuck (breakfast) while watching triathletes run by only a few feet away!

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It is a two-loop run course and once I start loop two there are significantly more people on course, which also means I am passing a lot more people as well, which always gives me a mental boost. Around mile 10 is typically when I decide to pick it up, IE where the real suffering starts. I tend to focus on the small things – drive from the hips, force the elbows back, push off the big toe, stand up tall. This tends to work quite well and I ended up having my three fastest miles of the day to close it out. Finally, I am back at the turnaround point where you either go right for loop two or left to the finisher’s chute. To me, this is the absolute best part of the race, the hard work is done, now is your time to celebrate – though I always end up sprinting to finish, maybe I need to celebrate a bit more. I cross at 1:38:00 for the half marathon, my personal best by almost a minute despite being hot and having a stress fracture. Not too shabby, I’ll accept that!

Total Time: 5:19:30

92/245 in division, 452 / 1515 Non-Pros

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After the race I chatted with some other athletes, a guy from Venice, a guy from Munich, and a few other randoms. I don’t consider myself an outgoing person, but it’s really easy to do after a race. I certainly needed to take some time for my body to cool down a bit, I didn’t want another post-race puking incident like at CDA last year. But eventually I felt good enough to have a post-race beer and some fruit. Pick up a finishers shirt (yes, they had finisher shirts for a half!) and head home to clean up. 

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Earning my finisher's beer

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With Sidney from Team ZOOT Europe

Post-Race

In closing, the experience of racing in Austria was awesome. It absolutely exceeded my expectations. The competition was very strong, the course was super cool, the fans cheering in German was awesome, and I was able to close out with a personal best run. It’s likely that maybe if I had a few more days to adjust to the time zone or had a little less stress in my personal life (and once in Austria) that I could have performed a bit better, but honestly – I think I raced the best I possibly could have on the day, and you can’t do better than that!

After the race, we hung around Austria for another seven days. We spend three nights in Salzburg visiting a number of Sound of Music sites to experience childhood nostalgia from watching the movie growing up. Then we closed the trip with three nights in the Alps in Innsbruck, where I went on an amazing solo bike ride in the Alps and we saw some more sights around the mountains. The Alps are truly a magical place and require a return visit.

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Melk

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Salzburg - Mirabell Gardens

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Salzburg

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Hohensalzburg Fortress

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Zell Am See

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Innsbruck, on top of Nordekette