Updated: Dec 21, 2019
Race Report from my first Ironman
“Cold Kona,” they say. “Land of the Vikings,” they say. “It will be fun!” they say! The Viking Experience did not disappoint. See, The hammer-wielding Viking God, Thor himself was there, and he can create a show. Thor brought excitement and suspense to this special day with thunder, lightning, and storm, but also the strength to all the triathletes swimming, biking and running that day.
I used to live in Norway for nearly 10 years. I thought I would settle there and become one of those mountain-life-living trolls. But life happened and I got ripped away in search of, well, even more adventurous life on the other side of the pond. Having lived in 5 different countries ever since Norway is still my dream country. Norwegians really live the life the way it was meant to be lived. Be out in nature as much as possible. Work to live life, not live to work.
Coming back to Norway to do my debut Ironman was a dream come true, and carried so much emotion and meaning to me.
I am relatively new to triathlon, having only done two Olympic distance races (2015), and one half Ironman (2017). I have been totally addicted ever since my first tri, but “Life Happens” (read two big moves and long stretches of being a single mother of three due to hubby traveling away) and the crazy life restricted any consistent training until September 2018. Finally, having moved to Dubai, living under the same roof with my better half, and having all three kids at school (DO I HEAR HALLELUJAH?!) allowed me to focus on consistent training and DREAM BIG. Although I have MSc in Sport Sciences and could coach myself, I wanted outside help so I could focus on executing, not second-guessing. I gave the reigns to Tenille Hoogland, former Canadian pro triathlete and coach at Element Sports Coaching, who pushed me way beyond what I thought I could be able to do.
We started with patience, bringing consistency up, building strength and slowly increase volume over several months, starting with 10-13 hrs per week at the start, and to 15-20 hrs per week at the highest. We kept intensity in the picture from the start, and I have to say, it brought me to believe in my ability to really endure some hard challenges.
As is during an Ironman race, the training was all about problem-solving. First, minor knee niggle, then getting a tri-bike (I was hoping I would be able to crank it out with road bike with aero bars, but it turned out my back muscles seized up after 3 hrs, so I had to get a triathlon bike in March), then asthma diagnosis in April, then training in the heat the last three months, then the seized back the day before the race. All these road bumps were challenging but I never lost the sight of my big hairy goal: to qualify for Kona on first tr(i)y.
The day turned out to be even more memorable than I had ever dreamt of.
Coming from 35+C degree Dubai to Haugesund, at the most western part of Norway to its 10-15 degrees C, was mildly said a shock to the system. Although I was mentally prepared it would be cold, having lived in Norway for 10 years, I knew exactly what to expect from the West Coast weather: ANYTHING (!). The cold still surprised me physiologically. My asthma flared up the days before and although I felt really light, fast and fit, my breathing felt like through a plugged straw. Hauling a heavy bike box around and flying over-night (I am a terrible overnight flyer, as I cannot sleep sitting, cramped up, germ-phobic, the list goes on and on). I should have taken a picture of myself, all cramped up next to a bigger girl taking over my space, all covered up in a scarf and mouth guard in hope not to catch germs pre-race.
It turns out my germ-phobic approach worked well. An old back problem hit with full force on Friday. My back and glute muscles seized up and I couldn’t walk or bend over without pain. How will I run on Sunday??
I am so grateful for Ivar, the race director in Norway. Any request I had was met with a smile and yes, I will fix. So being on verge of a mild panic attack due to my back, I found Ivar, asking if he knew a Chiropractor who could see me. Today. Now. “Oh sure, let me make a phone call”….. two minutes later I had an appointment within an hour. Got my back muscles relaxed, IS joint aligned – I was good to go. At least better to go!
The morning of the race, it was around 10 degrees C, windy, and rainy. A typical west Norway weather. “Ok, just warm up well, keep warm on the bike, eat more calories, you are good to go. You are Finnish, this is a normal summer day. You are prepared for this”.
It was a two-loop lake swim. 16 degrees C in the water, at least what they said. I don’t know. To me, it felt freezing. Double cap for sure!
Going into the swim, the goal was to swim 1:05-1:08. I felt I was good for a decent swim. Gun goes off, off to the water. I started like a rocket, plan was to go hard 10-15 sec, then ease into it. 100m in, I felt like I couldn’t breathe at all. I started to panic. Why does this feel so hard??? Why can’t I breathe? Shit! I have to stop! I decided to stop and get a hold of my breathing. At this point, I was hyperventilating.
Could not get a breath in. I looked back. Maybe 200m in the race. EFF! “Game OVER? 200 m in?! REALLY>?!” Glimpsed at my watch. 1:30 pace. WHAT? Ok, I just need to catch my breath, then start swimming slower. I managed to calm myself down, then started swimming at slower pace, focusing on the good powerful pull. Good, this feels good. I am good. Let’s go!
The second lap was better, felt in control. Then, Thor decided to make the swim memorable. Lightning and thunder stroke in the forest right next to the lake. SHIT! We are all going to die!!! There was no way they could have gotten all of us out in time if Ivar had decided to stop the race. I guess it made me pick up the pace as you should anyways towards the end of the swim, lol!
Swim exit. Looked at my watch. 1:02:13. WHAT? Amazing, I was giggling as I added clothes for the bike in the tent. I knew I was first out on the bike in my age group.
Then people started zooming by. Our plan was to hold 150-160W average (my FTP is 200W). It felt so easy. And slow. People were passing me constantly. I was tempted to work harder. Very tempted. Had to talk me from starting to work harder than the plan. I was committed to the plan. “My coach knows the game, this is my first Ironman, just trust the coach. I will see these guys on the run. The race starts at the run. BE PATIENT”.
So I stuck to the plan and kept going only slightly higher power (160-165W) than the plan. But the pace felt so slow. I was kind of disappointed that I was not going faster. I knew I was being passed by my age groupers. My HR was about 5-10 beats higher than the plan, but I felt strong so I was not worried. After the first loop through, I was struggling to stay on the saddle my saddle sores were so bad. That was really the only pain I had.
I chose my training wheels with good rainy weather tires. Because of 1. It was very rainy 2. The bike route was quite technical with many of the downhills ending in 90-degree turn. I did not want punctures, and I did not want lose the bike under me. I don’t know how time I lost on this choice, but at least I didn’t puncture as did so many others.
At T2, I saw other bikes in my group and got confirmation that I had lost the lead. Probably a lot I thought, with slow 7 hr bike like that. I have to admit I felt incredibly discouraged and felt disappointed. But I also knew my favorite discipline was still to come. Running a marathon. 42.2Clicks, anything can happen. “Just put one foot ahead of the other”. Finishing the bike, I was not sure I was able to run due to the back problem I had the day before. But from the start of the run, the back felt fine and never really bothered me during the day.
My family had written notes for me and they were waiting for me at T2. I started reading them every 8-10 km while running. What a powerful way to remind yourself why you are putting yourself through an extremely tough day like this. The most powerful note was from my oldest, 8-year old son. He said,” Don’t worry about the result, just HAVE FUN!” That note blew my mind, and I was reminded of what is truly important. To have fun during this special day, or worry about a result you have no control over? I felt so empowered again and believed in myself again.
The rain had stopped by the time I got to the run, although it never bothered me during the bike at all. Expect when lightning stroke so close to me I lost my hearing for a while and got a good scare!
The run course was four 10km loops before the “golden mile” to the famous black and red carpet. The course had short, steep ups and longer more gradual uphills on the way out, and gradual downhill back into town, which allowed me to get my tempo up (if anything, I know how to run a downhill). Sure enough, I was passing so many racers who now were walking while I kept pretty constant 5:20 pace. The plan was to start easy, 5:45 min/km pace the first 15 km, then increase pace to 5:15 to 25 km and bring it home at around 5 min/km pace. After holding it back for the first 10km, mental fatigue set in. I had prepared for many scenarios, but mental fatigue was not one of them. The way I was talking to myself took me by surprise. “You are not going fast enough, you should be going faster. It is ok to slow down. Why are you so slow? 25 km is a long way to go. You are not winning this thing, why don’t you just walk a little?” I had to dig really deep to get the will power back on track and shift the mental focus on the positive.
My stomach is pretty sensitive, and I struggle with most electrolyte drinks. I had practiced with High5 in training, which they had on-course, but it was giving me bad GI problems, so I had to bring my own stuff. I find Precision Hydration works well with me for electrolytes and then I bring jelly beans for energy. But eating about 100 jellies during a marathon is a challenge itself. Blah. Force-feeding when you are already mentally beat and defeated.. not my idea of fun, so I started taking less and fewer jellies as time went by.
Coke helps a lot for me and I started to feel better around 25 km, knowing I only had one more lap to go. Keeping a steady pace is what I do best, just hanging on to the same rhythm of the legs bounding the ground. Like a train. Love the feeling.
At this point, I got passed by a girl who came second. She was just flying at sub-5 min/km pace. “You go girl” I shouted. Impressive and so inspiring. She looked so strong! It gave me the energy to see a strong girl run fast! I started to smile more to keep the pain away. Did you know that merely contracting your smiling muscles initiates “feel good” hormones, endorphins, to be excreted from the brain and alleviate pain? Try it next time, it really works!
At 30 km I had stomach cramps and had to stop for a bathroom visit. I wonder how many people manage the day without having to go #2 during the day? I had to go twice. Now I had only 12 km to go and I felt a lot better. I could not wait to get to the golden mile and see the finish line we had passed 4 times already! I kept smiling the last loop as I knew it was almost over. Sure I was tired and in pain but I felt elevated by the feeling of seeing my dad at the finish line. He drove 1800 Kms from Northern-Finland for two days to see me race and would return the morning after. I am not the only crazy in my family!
I ended up running only 9 minutes slower than my stand-alone marathon in January on a very flat Dubai course, 3:46. HAVE to be very happy with that.
The emotion of finishing my first Ironman after months of hard work and dedication overtook me a few hundred meters before the finish line. I was smiling ear to ear. I DID IT! I am an Ironman! Or Ironmom, as I call myself now. The relief that everything worked out, I reached the finish line, I did my BEST I could that day, I persevered, I problem solved and I finished the physically AND mentally toughest day in my sporting career. Still, I think giving natural birth is WAY harder! Sorry guys. I also still think what I have gone through in personal life is 1000 times harder than completing an Ironman, AND I think Ironman IS TRULY amazing, empowering, life-altering experience I am extremely proud of.
I did not win, I did not qualify but I took home third place in my age group, 16th overall female on a tough day, tough weather conditions and a tough course. I am proud of what I accomplished, and I raise my hat to two ladies who were stronger than me that day.
In afterthought, although I was well prepared for the race, I already know what I will do differently next race. 1. Trust your body and don’t go blindly by power or heart rate. Turns out power meter was showing wrong watts. 2. If you out-bike, you will suffer on the run. But if you under-bike, even a marathon is too short to recover. So learn to balance bike to run. 3. Build mental recovery strategies when you get mentally fatigued. 4. Keep SMILING!
As I continue my quest to show myself nothing is impossible, and chase that Kona spot, I am grateful for all the support I received during my training. Revolution Cycles in Dubai: hands down the best bike shop on the planet! My bike was so smooth it was incredible. Karin Hugo, thank you for your swimming advice. Turns out swimming is my best discipline! Dr. Fabrizio at Valiant Clinic in Dubai. I am forever grateful for your positive attitude towards my sporting passion, and your excellent care. Of course Tenille Hoogland, Element Sports Coaching: there are no words to show how much I appreciate you. You are a Rock Star! Of course my family: none of this would be possible if I hadn’t your support. Thank you! Being a positive role model for my kids drives me forward and reminds me WHY I do this! Friends & family around the world and community support in Dubai: Thank you so much! Knowing that you were following me on Ironman app that day carried me all the way to Finish Line. I am one lucky girl.
Until next race, Marjaana