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Friday, 1 August 2014

Ironman Zurich: Bring Cash

Ironman number 7 was taking me across an ocean to race for the first time. I was extremely excited to be racing in Europe and super happy to have my mom (Iron Sherpa) joining me. Not so excited about the 3:40 am alarm on Thursday morning, but this is the price of doing cool stuff. We arrived at the airport and checked in with plenty of time to get on our flight to Toronto. After hanging out in the lounge we took the first boarding call into our business class seats. I had enough points to go round trip business and my amazing Uncle Bill was cool enough to hook mom up with points so she could join me. 

The first leg was the bumpiest I've ever had. So much so that the flight attendants had to stop service for 40 minutes waiting for better conditions.



From Toronto mom and I were on different flights. I was direct to Zürich and she was via Frankfurt. This was a NEAT experience. In business class over the Atlantic you get a pod, not a seat. This can fold flat to a bed or just be adjusted any way you like to get comfortable. It was a little strange taking off facing at a 45 degree angle but I dealt with it.




I arrived in Zürich at 8am on Friday having only managed 2 hours sleep on the plane and made my way to Starbucks. I ordered my 1/2 sweet fat free caramel macchiato and the barista told me, "9 francs 40." Stunned, I handed him my money and tucked away my change. I had just paid $11 CAD for my coffee. Welcome to Zürich. I sat near the arrivals board and waiting for mom's flight. It was late so I kept a closer eye. Then it popped up red and displayed, "Diverted." What the hell? I made my way to an internet terminal and checked out Lufthansa's site and they said it was canceled. I jumped on Facebook hoping mom would be logged in and sure enough she was. Apparently there was a problem with the pressurization system and so, nearly in Zürich, they turned back because this is Lufthansa's main hub and it was easier to deal with there. Most people took it in stride but one man was evidently quite upset at the decision. Mom doesn't speak German but anger is an international language.

Sadly I hit a curb with my cart and spilt $4 worth of coffee, but it was still yummy.

We agreed to meet up at the hotel so I was on my own to check in to the race and do the first bit of site seeing. It was really interesting to do something so familiar but in a place where you don't speak the language. The signs don't make sense, the instructions don't make sense and the conversations around you are just gibberish. I actually enjoyed the challenge of navigating the registration process in bits of German and charades. I got my package and wandered around the expo. At one of the tents I walked up to a vendor selling some kind of new fangled energy drink and asked, "vas is das?" (What is this?) Apparently this was convincing enough that he went into a 5 minute pitch about the product ENTIRELY IN GERMAN. I just stood there and listened intently and confused. I don't speak German, but I do know people and I read his signals loud and clear. When he made a point about the product I looked impressed, when he seemed inquisitive about my interest I looked him in the eye and nodded and when he got excited I raised my eyebrows and smiled in approval. At the end he handed me a sample of what turned out to be cow colostrum, I downed it, nodded a little, said "Danke. Auf Wiedersehen" Turned and walked away. I'm still convinced he thinks I grasped every word.I also took a lung test at one of the booths and if you hit a certain level you got a free t-shirt so I figured, "what the hell." I blew into the machine and it turns out I have the lung power of a pro athlete, if only I could get the body of one I might be good at this sport.

Hercules Hercules
I met mom back at the hotel and after a quick change it was time to head back to the race area for the welcome dinner. This was our first real intro into the ways of European Ironman. The dinner was traditional pasta and salad but the service was anything but what I was used to. In North America, you line up at a table, grab a plate and as you make your way down the buffet line you take your food and move on to the dining area. In Zürich, there was a row of servers at a counter and you had to navigate your way through a mosh pit to get to the front. You handed them a plate and they handed you back your pasta. At first our Canadianness held us back but eventually our stomachs took over and we began shoving our way to the front. The main problem was that the plates were being guarded by mobbed up Spaniards and Germans who were handing them off to their friends and preventing others from getting to them. We finally broke through the service area and made our way to a table where we sat with two very nice British gents. We relayed how shocked we were about how dinner was conducted and he said with a sneer, "Welcome to Europe. That's how they queue on the continent." He told us about a ski trip he had taken to Whistler and that one of his fondest memories was how well people lined up at the lifts. Apparently in Europe the lines are always a battle royale.

Nice orderly line up

Ring leaders at the front

Completely exhausted we made our way back to the hotel. The 8 hour time change was taking its toll and we needed sleep. In retrospect it was a little silly to plan to arrive half way across the world 48 hours prior to racing but it was not done without ample consideration. The initial plan was to see London for 4 days prior to moving down to Zürich but after realizing this would mean no drinking in the pubs this was quickly changed. PRIORITIES! 

Mom is so pretty
We slept for 13 hours and rolled out of bed at 11am. Just in time to catch the remainder of the hotel breakfast. We had prepaid it so we'd better eat. It was only 16 CHF/person/day. So $19ish CAD, for toast, coffee, juice and some scrambled eggs. ZÜRICH!!! We had to take the tram to the race area to check my bike in for the following day. We asked at the front desk about taking a bike on transit. The clerk told us it was no problem, you just have to buy the bike a ticket as well. So the next day we trundled off down the road, bike in tow and got to the ticket machine. For the low price of 8.40CHF or about $10 CAD you can add a bike to your ticket. You still have to pay your own ticket. 



Check in was fairly similar to North America. The biggest difference I noticed was that you have to wear your helmet and bib number when you check in. I was looking around at all these gomers with their helmets buckled up and standing in line and wondering what was so dangerous about standing around. That was until a tall Swiss fellow with a thick accent told me, "please poot on and fasten zee helmet for zee inspection." Something about that accent you just don't argue with. We got the bags and bike tucked away and headed back into the main part of town in search of Chinese food. The last few races it has become tradition that I eat P F Chang's the night before but since there is no P F Changstein's to be found in Zürich we opted for Chopstick. They had average reviews on Trip Advisor so we thought we'd give to a shot. We weren't expecting a cheap meal, that doesn't exist here, but we weren't looking to break the bank either. In response to the struggle to decide what we should pay for a meal I coined a new phrase, Züreasonable: A price for a good or service that would be exorbitant in a regular market, but is acceptable within Zürich. 

Mmmmm, deep fried cabbage

It had so much promise, so much
For an appetizer we ordered a spring roll each, which was actually much larger than a typical North American spring roll. When this came it looked alright but when we cut into it, it was just cabbage dipped in batter and fried. Oh well, can't win them all. The main course would save the day; chicken chow mein and beef with chutes and pods. The chow mein was an underwhelming plate of noodles whose only flavour was derived from the chili oil and soy sauce that WE added. The beef looked amazing however. Caramelized and darkened with what looked like a Szechuan seasoning. Looks can be deceiving, the meat was tender but lifeless and again was only slightly improved by a considerable dose of chili and soy. Now what would be a fair price for an appetizer, two plates of Chinese food, 1 tap water and 1 iced tea? 51.50CHF or about $62 CAD? ZÜRICH!!! 

It's a bargain at half the price
No matter, we weren't on a cuisine tour, I was here to race. Once back at the hotel I asked the girl at the front desk to book me a taxi for the morning so I wouldn't have to worry about transit. My alarm went off at 4:45 am but as is typical I was already laying there with my eyes open. A mixture of nerves and excitement propelled me out of bed and downstairs for a light breakfast. In typical Swiss fashion my taxi arrived exactly on time and quickly got me to the race site. During the 20 minute ride I quickly watched the meter click over. By the time the ride was over it read exactly 50.00CHF. I asked what that would be in Euros as that was all I had with me. This swindler told me, "is same." I double checked that what he was saying was that in fact it was 50 Euro OR Francs, no difference. He said yeah. This made this cab ride go from $60 to $80. I handed the driver 60 € and he gave me back 10 Francs in change. He even managed to screw me on the change. ZÜRICH!!!

Finally the race:

Swim: Goal 1:10, Actual 1:23:53
The swim in Zürich is odd. It's 2 loops but they're different. The first is a larger rectangular loop and the second is a triangular loop inside the first loop. In between you exit the water, run across a piece of land and jump back in. Kinda fun actually. I felt absolutely spectacular in the swim. My strokes were good, my breathing was smooth and I had open water to myself almost the entire time. By all accounts this was my best open water experience ever. Part of this I attribute to the fact that the organizers so,ot the swimmers into two groups. 1 that expected to finish under 1:10 and another that expected to finish over. As I swam 1:12 in Texas 10 weeks ago I opted to go at the very end of the first group. Perfect decision, no one swimming over me, people ahead knew how to navigate, great decision. So why was I 13 minutes slower than my goal? I found out afterwards that Lake Zürich has a current. The river that it feeds draws the water across the lake at a fair pace and for the crossing section of the rectangle and the entire hypotenuse section of the triangle you are fighting the current. The pro times are even 5+ minutes slower so I felt a little better.

Bike: Goal 6:00, Actual 6:44:25
Great transition into the bike, gear on and out the door in just over 7 minutes. The bike is a 2 loop epic bastard of a course. The first 30km of the ride are flat and fast and build your confidence. Then the hills start. There are 4 real climbs per loop. 2 long semi steep and 2 shorter very steep and they sap your will to live. I was really glad I had trained my hills as much as I had because they were tough here.

I'm sure this would have been a different day if I didn't have as much experience as I do now. Having been in some tough situations on the bike in the past I knew that I just needed to keep my legs moving and get up the hills so I could rest on the way down. For the most part the downhills were a fairly nice grade that allowed you to get some speed and recover a little. One particular descent, however, was a lot of work in its own way. The hill started out with a spot that actually took my breath away. For about 250m the trees beside the road were thick and formed a canopy over the road. This caused a weird sensation where it got very dark and cold for a brief stretch before you emerged on the other side. This was also the start of the fastest descent on the course. On the first lap it was raining and I was in a tighter group of riders so I was a little quicker on the brakes and only hit 73.8km/hr (45.9mph). At the bottom of the hill there was a fairly tight right hand turn that required some hard braking so I was glad I had taken my bike in to Element to get my bike doctor Cam to beef up the brakes. (Thanks Cam! I made it!). By the bottom of the hill my legs were good but my arms were exhausted from braking and holding the bike still to avoid losing control. From here it was a 20km or so flat section back to town where you. Had to tackle heartbreak hill. This is the shorter STEEP section that you do at the end of each lap. This is the only place on the course with any real crowd support but it was needed. By the end of the hill you're standing on the pedals and just hoping you have enough power to get to the top. Back down a short hill and you do it all over again.

Looped courses can either be great or brutal depending on the type of day you're having. On a good day looped courses are awesome because you know where you are and can prepare for what's coming. On a bad day it's awful because every tough section you're reminding yourself, "I get to do this again. Yippee!" On a single loop course it's great because you only see everything once. On the second loop the rain had stopped so it was a little better for visibility and cornering which was nice. This meant that on the second time down the big hill I could tuck a little more and ride the brakes less, I thought. I was flying down the hill at 75.5km/hr (46.9mph) when ahead I could see the flashing blue lights of an ambulance and a course marshall indicating for us to slow down. I got on the brakes and as I passed I saw a man being placed on a spine board with all of his clothes cut off and he was badly cut up. Later on in the race I spoke with a Brit who witnessed it and he said the guy got a speed wobble and lost control at high speed. As he tumbled his helmet came off and when this guy got to him he was only semi-conscious. They ended up taking him by helicopter and as of this writing he was listed in serious but stable condition. I really hope it works out for this poor guy. Ironman is about proving what the human body can endure and he should be in good enough shape to have a fighting chance. I mercifully climbed off the bike and was overjoyed to find that I felt pretty good.

Run: Goal 6:00, Actual 6:07:53

Despite being absolutely wrecked on the bike course I was excited  to be on the run course. I knew I was going to finish the race because I had plenty of time, I just  needed to cover the 42.2km. Last race my feet were cramped up so badly that I could hardly walk so when I got off of my bike I was relieved to find my feet felt fantastic. I started out jogging a little bit but my calves weren't up to it so I walked a decent amount at the start. After about 5km, however, I started to feel much better. My legs had loosened a little and I was able to run probably 200m or more at a time. I didn't think the run course was as advertised though. It is described as pancake flat and it certainly isn't that. There are no big hills but there are a number of sections where you cross overpasses and other elevation changes that are fairly tricky. This came as a bit of a surprise but nothing that couldn't be conquered.

The course begins by heading along a lonely little section towards the outskirts of town before turning and heading back towards a busier part of the city. For the most part you are in treed areas or next to the lake so it's a nice place to be running; the section in town was fairly well supported but the fans in Europe are much different than you find in North America. In NA it's a party atmosphere anywhere there are fans. People dressed in funny costumes, signs held up with jokes or inspirational sayings, music blasting and it's a great feeling all over. In Europe endurance sports appears to be taken much more seriously. In fact, if a fan is cheering for you and you're walking they almost seem personally offended that you aren't putting in a better effort for them. The aid stations were also different. They didn't always offer everything at every station so from time to time my nutrition got a little messed up and towards the end of the first of my four laps I started to lose my gut. For the uninitiated this means you've done something your body doesn't like and you start to feel nauseous. If it gets away on you your race can be in jeopardy because you need to keep fuelling your muscles to continue performing at any level and if it gets bad enough you can start vomiting and dehydrate yourself to the point that you need to quit. Luckily, after adjusting my sugar and water intake I was able to get it back and keep going. 

I'm not sure if all Ironman races in Europe do this but in Zürich each competitor had their nation's flag on their race bib. This was awesome because it allowed you to see who you could talk to and who may have no idea what idea you're talking about. About half way through I met up with a great lady from the north shore of Lake Erie in Ontario. She works as a "higher up" at her school board in Ontario but started out as a lowly teacher like me so we chatted a while when she'd had enough she trotted  off and I just kept walking. I'm not sure why but about half way through the marathon I felt pretty good considering what I'd put myself through and I started running more and more. Each lap you go through a "lap control" station where they'd give you a different coloured wrist band and it was actually kind of fun adding a band each lap, it added a sense of accomplishment that's for sure.

By the time I was half way done the final lap I was down right jovial. I was smiling like a fool and making jokes with anyone that would listen. With about 2km left I caught Nancy from Lake Erie and wished her well. The finish area was quite different than North America also, they had cheerleaders. GORGEOUS, cheerleaders. Not to be outdone I decided to show them my dance moves as well and this was well received by the crowd. After a brief dance with one of these beauties I trotted across the finish line. This was where I noted another distinct difference from North America, at home you are given a volunteer who takes care of you at the finish; they wrap you in a blanket, hold your stuff when photos are taken, get you food and only when they're sure you're fine do they return to receive another athlete. In this race, you were handed an emergency blanket and told where the food was. Fortunately I didn't need assistance but if I had I'm not sure what would have happened. They did have free beer at the finishers' area so I can't judge too harshly. This was a really nice local beer and more than welcome after 14 and a half hours of exercise. I found my mom and collected my stuff and headed for the tram. 

7 down, 5 to go
At the transfer point we got off and had McDonalds and then jumped back on. At this point I had a huge laugh. I had purposefully put myself away from the general population because after a race I have a certain aroma that is displeasing to most. I had hopped up on a shelf at the end of the tram car and apparently this local woman had claimed this as her birthright many moons ago because she sidled up right next to me. What ensued was both sad and hilarious. She started realizing that something wasn't right in the air but rather than move away she pulled out a body spray and coated her face in perfume and pushed her nose as close as she could to the cracked window above the ledge we were sitting on. Rather than move to a seat further down the train she endured this situation half way across town before she finally got to her stop. It was all my mom and I could do to not bust a gut laughing. After this I was actually feeling pretty good so I broke down my bike and got it packed away which was nice because hotel rooms in Europe are, let's say, economical in their space. 

Sorry lady but you sat by me
Little cramped
I try to take a couple of lessons from every race and this was no exception. The biggest thing I learned was appreciation. I had no idea how awesome the spectators were in North America, in Europe Ironman is a competition, in NA it's a celebration of the human spirit. I know it sounds cheesy but the difference is remarkable. I wish I could go back and hug the people that have yelled kind words when I was at my lowest (especially the cute girls). I had just become so accustomed to great crowds that I expected it. I won't make that mistake again. The second thing I will take away is how much I've improved. Despite the fact  that I felt completely wiped on the bike course I turned in a time that was alright. It wasn't outstanding by any stretch but it was faster than a few races where I actually felt better about my performance. I'm really glad I took the opportunity to make this trip and experience a race outside of North America. It was cool to see how things are done here and experience them first hand. That being said, I don't think I'll be back any time soon. Between the cost and the time change adjustment it was definitely taxing and with so many great races in North America I don't need to stray too far from home. Thanks for reading and auf wiedersehen!