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Kevin O'Neill - Ironman Part Deux Report

Roth - Ironman the Sequel
There can be few worse things than waking up at 3:00am for an Ironman.  However this year, I’ve discovered there is one thing worse – it’s waking up at 3:00am, getting down to the canal for swim start and having Celine Dion warbling at a decibel level that would make a departing Boeing 747 appear subdued.  That bloody song was stuck in my head for 5 hrs on the bike.  No human being should be subjected to such an ordeal.  Anyone in Guantanamo would have cracked way sooner if they’d simply played that song over & over again.  Who needs Water Boarding when you can have Celine Dion?
Anyhow, swim start for Roth is at the Main-Donau Canal a few miles from the small Bavarian town of Roth, which is pronounced ‘Rote’ we later discovered.  This year the Roth race was also playing host to the European Long Course Championships and I was ‘participating’!  My brother (Craig) and I had done a couple of scouting trips around the area to recce some of the bike course and swim start.  The scale of what confronted us at swim start was an indication this event was going to be something out of the ordinary.  And so it proved over & over again.
The pro’s in the final throws of their swim
Part of the appeal of Roth after Forestman last year was to experience a course on which both the male & female world records (7:41 for the boys and 8:18 for the girls) were set.  It also holds a reputation as one of the most atmospheric and best long distance races in the world – possibly only next to the legendary World Championship course at Kona in Hawaii.  I had my time goals for the race, some of which I’d shared and some of which I’d kept secret just in case I was humiliated due to my inability to meet them.

Except for some Achilles issues which stopped me run training properly for a couple of months (thanks to ‘Magic Hands’ Hard for his sterling efforts), training had largely gone well.  Not only did I manage to increase my run training overall, I’d managed to get to Majorca for some extended time in the saddle and amazingly I also made it to the pool on a number of occasions to actually swim. Though frankly I still regard swim training as only marginally more enjoyable than having finger nails removed by a panel of cruel Spanish Inquisitors.
At most races I’ve been to, Transition has been an eclectic collection of bikes.  A fair few high end TT bikes, some lower end TT’s, some adapted road bike, mountain bikes and once I even saw a bike with a shopping basket on it.  Here, it was simply loaded with high end TT bikes.  Suffice to say there were no shopping baskets on display and here’s what £10,000,000 of bikes looks like (there was another field next to it for the relay teams).

Where’s my bike Wally!
Swim (3.8km / 2.4m) – 1hr 14 mins
The crowd at swim start was immense and estimates suggested 20,000 people were there to kindly wave us off at dawn.  The swim for me was uneventful, thankfully, on the up & back 3.8km course.  The start was typically crazy and it took several hundred meters before it began to settle down.  I had my obligatory ‘panic’ moment after a few minutes, but with no thoughts of quitting this time.  It settled quickly and once I’d found some clear water I was able to get into my stroke at a comfortable rhythm and I came out of the water in an unremarkable 1:14 to head out on the fun part of the day.
Bike (180km / 112m) – 5 hr 16 mins
Given the world records were set here; I was expecting the 2 loop (2x90km) bike course to be pan flat.  It was anything but.  The tarmac was ultra smooth and puts our rough, pothole ridden road to complete shame.  It made the riding so much more enjoyable – and a little quicker.  So after disposing of my wetsuit I picked up my trusty TT bike and off I went.  I had a plan to ride at specific % of my FTP, but on reflection I was 20 watts below where I should have been.  Allegedly this is the optimum rate of effort you can ride at for 112 miles whilst minimising the potential of a run collapse in the marathon. The first half of the first lap of the ride was unremarkable, I settled into my zone, passing person after person making sure there was no drafting going on.  This was being picked up quite acutely by the race officials and people were being given an 8 min penalty, but in places it was almost impossible due to the density of the riders on the road, that being said there were some people there that were riding on a wheel as if their lives depended on it. 
We passed through several towns with good crowds, bands & DJ’s were playing and they were generally a lot of fun to go through.  At about ½ lap distance we came to a sizeable hill at Greding.  In the space of less than a mile, this managed to knock off more than 1mph from my average speed.  This wasn’t cricket.  Fortunately we then had a nice tail wind taking us back up towards the top of the bike course, more of the wind later!  Then at about 60km we came to ‘Solerberg’, it’s not particularly long, nor is it particularly steep but I’d heard about this being the epicentre for the 200,000 strong crowd and they weren’t wrong.  I'll never experience being a pro rider leading the field up Alp D'Huez at the Tour (in fact I couldn’t even lead a climb on Herriard Hill on club run), but now, after going up Soler, I have a minuscule appreciation of the experience they must go through, it was simply breathtaking.  The crowd was unbelievable; barriers stopped the spectators getting on the course for the first part of the climb and then they were allowed to encroach onto the course further up.  As each rider went up the crowd would surge in & out, parting in front each one like the Red Sea with a loud cheer.  It was an experience I will never forget – the first of many in this extraordinary race!  I couldn’t wait to get around the course and have another go.

The Incredible Solerberg
On the second lap, I had the expected headwind heading south again.  I was looking forward to the turn to pick up the tail wind again, except it never came.  Where I now expected to be flying, I was crawling and working hard.  The wind had turned through 90 degrees and we were all now faced with a headwind for another 40km heading north.  There were people around me that were close to tears.  I'd expected a carpet smooth, almost conveyor-belt ride for 112 miles. It was anything but.  Belinda Granger, a female pro in her 11th Roth, said that the bike conditions were the slowest she’d ever seen and collective wisdom suggested it cost between 10-15 mins over the 180km.  So to get round 112 miles in 5:16 was something I was really pleased with and some small thanks goes to the likes of Nick, Ben, James, Brian, Craig W, Gianluca and the T-1000 for effortlessly dragging me around Majorca quickly for a week.  Certainly wasn’t effortless for me, but a great training week nonetheless.  I hadn’t quite realised what a riding ‘advert’ I was for Specialized until I saw this picture.  If anyone knows anybody that works for Specialized can you let them know I’d gratefully receive sponsorship.......
For the stat geeks:
Time – 5hrs 16 mins
Average Speed – 21.3 mph
Top Speed – 44 mph
Total Height Gain – 1860m
Average HR – 136 bpm
Average Watts – 180w (far too low, should have been more like 200 watts)
Maximum Watts – (500w)

Run (42km / 26.2 m) – 4hrs 04 mins 
Run wise, it was a slightly different story - though the good news is that my Achilles that troubled me stood up well.  I had a plan to run at a comfortable 8.10 min mile pace and I felt really good for the first 3 miles or so, and went through slightly ahead of schedule at just under 24 mins. Then I could feel my legs starting to feel a little heavy.  I saw Craig at 4 miles and told him it was going to be a VERY long day and so it proved.  I went through half-distance in about 1:50 and I calculated slowly that another 1:50 half would see complete it in a miraculous 10:20.  A 2:00 hour half would see me break 10:30, which was beyond my wildest expectations. Yet even at that stage I could feel things slipping away slowly - and it didn't take Mystic Meg to know that my prediction was going to be proved right.  The next 21k, or Purgatory path as it’s now known, would take 2:10, a slow mixture of running, walking and feeding my face with cola & water to pick up some morale and energy.  I found it frustrating and tough.  I know I can run significantly better, but didn't know why I just couldn't keep going continuously without having to walk.  I’m sure more experienced Ironmen/lady athletes will be able to point me at aspects where I went wrong – and they’ll probably be right.  I suspect there were issues with poor nutrition strategy (I don’t think I ate enough), lack of endurance run training due to the Achilles issue and a tougher bike leg due to the wind. 
The final lap of the market square in Roth with raucous alcohol fuelled Germans and the finishing Shute was absolutely incredible, an experience I won't forget for a long time.  Tiredly I crossed the line and practically collapsed into the arms of the chap in front of me, but we settled on a manly handshake, he gave me my medal and off I went to re-fuel with a t-shirt and beer.
Overall – 10hrs 41mins
My finishing time of 10.41 knocked off 96 minutes from last year’s time at Forestman and it's something I'm hugely proud of.  When I thought of doing an IM, it’s not a time I ever thought I’d be capable of.  It’s showed that training does pay off in some small way, although some of the improvement will simply be a reflection of the faster course. The continued fly in the ointment is my inability to race an evenly paced marathon – though the photo at the finish fortunately makes it appear I actually ran so of the last few miles!
Post Race
Ironically, some of the event highlights were after I’d finished and I won’t bore you with all of them but there are two stand-out moments.
 After I’d been ushered through the finish gate, where someone thrust a pint of the sponsor’s beer (beautifully ice cold & non-alcoholic) in my hand, Craig & I went back to the finishing stadium to cheer in some of the later finishers.  We saw happy people bounding in with children, people crying with joy or relief, people in pain, blind people, people without any lower legs but the one consistent variable was an enthusiastic and sizea ble crowd wildly cheering everyone and anyone in hour after hour.  It was incredible to witness such generosity of spirit towards people they’d never met and you could see that each athlete was so grateful for the reception they were afforded.
The second – and probably main highlight of the whole event - was seeing a 76 year old man cry!  I promise it’s not as strange as it sounds.  At the winner’s awards ceremony on Monday, all the Pro’s and Age Group winners were awarded their prizes.  The crowd was in good spirit, high on a cocktail of non-alcoholic beer and chocolate milkshakes.  Each winner was greeted onto the stage with polite applause and the odd partisan ‘whoop’ from a friend, countryman or family member.  Then the winner of the 75 year old AG was called out.  In unison the room stood and gave this chap a standing ovation, he really didn’t know what to do with himself.  He tried to compose himself on stage, but the big baby failed dismally bursting into tears.  I’m rather reluctant to admit it still brings a lump to my throat re-living it now, makes me a bit of a big baby as well I guess.
Of huge importance is the support of my fabulous family (it’s highly possible there may have been some mild family ‘suggestions’ to these). The key points to note (I am told), in addition to their acceptance of my regular training schedule, are:
1.     The ability to undertake two holidays without my family, leaving my wife to manage work, two children, two cats, the house and a collection of bikes littering said house. (Holidays being Roth and Majorca of course);
2.     My ability to take over the kitchen every night in order to watch reruns of bike races whilst cycling on the turbo;
3.     Leaving the kitchen each night with steamed up windows and a sweaty floor;
4.     Requiring my wife to go to work in order to earn the money to feed my ironman and cycling habit;
5.     Talking constantly about cycling and Roth before the race. Returning from Roth and being even worse;
6.     Entering Roth for 2013 before I even left the town and am now attempting to talk my wife into planning next year’s summer holiday around the next European Long Course Championships;
7.     Their willingness to still be seen in public with me as I have returned from Roth with yet another pair of weird coloured shoes. At least no new bike (although Anna thinks that’s probably on order from Pedal Heaven anyway).
Before the race, I thought this might be my second and final IM and from 21km to 31 km on the run, when I entered Purgatory path, this was definitely the case.  I was never doing another IM.  I was like Sir Steve Redgrave, but where he was never going near another boat, I was never going anywhere near another IM course.  Well, as we all know from subsequent history Sir Steve successfully changed his mind, I changed mine too and history will judge whether it will be a successful decision.  I’ve now already signed up for Roth 2013 and have my goals, some of which I’ll share and some of which I won’t!  I may never win a gold medal and I may never win my Age Group, but I’ll enjoy being very average. 
Becoming a full-time roadie will have to wait another year.

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