Even writing the title for this blog hurts….. DNF…. 3 small letters but one massive meaning. I did not finish the race.
Maastricht had never been our first choice for our next Ironman. Paul and I had signed up for Challenge Galway but after a weekend training around Barna in summer, in crap weather, we re-evaluated….. Maastricht fit the bill as it was a month later and should in theory have a higher percentage chance of good weather for race day. Bonus number 1 was an extra months training and bonus number 2 was a trip to the Netherlands.
And so it came to be…. Coach organised, Oliver Harkin, Primed Coaching, masters swim sessions booked, tri club swim sessions booked. Training plan in place. It had been 7 years since my last Ironman race and I had 5 small operations during a 2 year period, within that 7 years. It felt like I was heading into unknown waters and my first ironman all over again. I was lucky enough to get a training camp in Tenerife in December for Christmas, yes, I’m a grinch, I don’t do Christmas and an additional one in Lanzarote with my coach in April. Training was going well, very consistent. My numbers improved across all disciplines as the weeks and months progressed.
Now, just to set the record straight, I’m not a podium finisher guy, I’d call myself, ‘steady’, maybe slightly above average. Although Oliver, wanted me to do a warm up 70.3, I dodged it and ended up not doing any pre races, except for the ‘Wings for Life’ run, which was just a great day out. I had loads of training niggles but we treated each one, loads of Physio, stretching, training adjustments etc.
I got my new Argon 18 E-119 Tri bike in March so had plenty of time to dial in my position and get accustomed to it. I love being back in the TT position. I knitted it out with Ultegra Di2, a Prologo T-Gale TT saddle, a set of Enve 4.5 Carbon clinchers, X-Lab super wing and Speed Fill Z4 front mount hydration system. Sweet eh! For the swim I had a Vanguard Zerod wetsuit and my trusty TYR special ops 2.0 goggles. I wore a Zerod 2 piece iSuit and ran in Brooks ST 5 racers.
We arrived in Maastricht on the Thursday, 3 days pre-race, stayed centrally, 300m from the swim start and transition. Maastricht, what a gorgeous place, a small city, population of around 120,000 and probably as many bikes in the city as people, loved it. The roads are mainly cobbled around the city and the vibe is very relaxed and friendly. Our friends arrived on the Saturday which was awesome as there was 10 of them. It helped us relax having their support for race day.
We did a small recce the day before, 500m swim in the river Maas, 40min bike and a 10min run (on cobbles), yep, all good, equipment ready and working. The rest of the day was easy and went to bed by 9.30pm. The alarm sounded at 4am after very little sleep and we did the usual, had breakfast, got the drinks for the bike ready etc and headed to T1. I was only slightly nervous, must be an age thing, I’ve mellowed. Pauls tyre had gone down overnight so he changed that and we were good to go. Suits on, off we went to the swim start.
This was my first experience of a rolling start, which has been designed to reduce the anxiety of athletes entering the water. In this instance, an athlete enters every second, so it takes roughly 30mins to get everyone in. You self seed, as in 55min, 1 hr etc. I chose 1 hour for my seeding as I was hoping to get a set of good feet for the swim, Paul approx 1.15 hr. The swim was in the river Maas against the current for 1.6km, then an Australian exit on a small island, where there provincial government building sits, back into the water and back to the start. Actually past the start around the final buoy and against the current again to the out point. The current was against us on the way out but adrenaline pushed us all. Rolling entry’s seriously work as there was zero pressure on the swim. Exited in 1.02hr, a PB swim for me, chuffed. I didn’t get any feet, but I was the feet for someone else. T1 was quick under 5 mins and off I went on the bike……. Only one boo boo here, I left the food for the bike in the T1 bag instead of putting into the pockets of my Tri top, oops my bad! I didn’t freak as I had 2 cliff bars in the bento box and 9 gels decanted into a bottle diluted with water and 2:1 High 5 in my hydration system. I’d collect more gels and bananas en-route.
Now here is where all the fun was. This, without doubt or exaggeration, has to be one of the most technical bike courses I have ever ridden. It was a 2 lap, 91km per lap, yes 91km, that’s not a typo, as if 180km wasn’t enough and half of each lap was in the Netherlands, the other half in Belgium, 5 climbs per lap, including the Guelhemmerberg and the Hallembaye. Most of the roads were secondary/ tertiary/ farmers lanes with corn or some other crop either side so made for interesting riding and truly spectacular scenery, throw in a left or right turn every minute or so and you have the gist of it. I had set watts to ride too for the flats and the climbs. The roads were great, narrow but good quality. However, crossing from on road to another road led to a lot of front wheels getting whacked against road edges and bottles flying left right and centre. I was cycling well and after about 60km into the ride the rain came down. It didn’t really bother me, I kept pace but was extra careful. I arrived into Maastricht at the end of the first loop in 2.41hrs, happy out and ready for lap 2. I was on for a good sub 5.30hr bike which is excellent for this course. The cobbles into the city were horrendous and contributed to a real bone shaking ride for about 1km. It was still raining on the second lap so re-evaluated my pace, average numbers were a little high anyway so I eased slightly as I really wanted to have a good run. Training had predicted a sub 3.30run and I wanted that badly. All was going well until I got to 115km.
I was descending and going into a 90deg right turn. The marshal was whistling and shouting at us to slow. I acknowledged him, was on the base bars with my hands and took the corner. Next thing, BOOM, I’ve hit the ground and hit it hard. My hands didn’t even move from the base bar. I didn’t move for about 1-2min, I screamed and cursed a wee bit, no actually a lot but didn’t move. My elbow, hip, knee and ankle took the hit. I was helped up and brought over to a bench where I tried to get my shit together. I was so angry with myself. I couldn’t move my right leg as my hip was so sore but gave it a few mins and then hobbled over to the bike. The rear derailleur was broken and the jockey wheels bent into the back wheel….. Race over. What… Race over, no way I thought, so I pulled at the hanger to try and straighten it. While I did 2 other guys crashed in the same spot. No joy. I couldn’t move or lift my right leg without using my hands so it was a done deal, my race was officially over. To say, I was disappointed would be a massive, massive, massive understatement. So may hours of training, 2 trips abroad for training camps, tons of cash spend on gear, missed social events, sacrifice, training 7 days a week, early mornings, etc etc etc. I sat on the bench to compose myself. It was going to take 2 hrs for an ambulance to arrive. Apparently, there were crashes occurring everywhere. I sobbed, yep, let all the frustration out, threw a bottle against the wall, screamed ‘fuck’ about a hundred times…. I managed to get hold of one of my friends who organised a taxi to collect the bike and myself. During that wait, 7 people crashed where I had. One was very serious. He was knocked unconscious and bleeding heavily. All of these were at a slow pace (90deg corner) but high impact. When my friend arrived, again, I blubbered for all I was worth. I hadn’t realised how much this race meant to me.
My mate Paul Harmon was awesome. He collected me, got to a pharmacy, dressed all my wounds, consoled me and then I had to suck it all up. Race over, move on. Paul was in off the bike and my day had to shift from racer to supporter. I hobbled the 400m to the finish point (neurofen was my best new friend) and got there in time to see him finish his first lap. He was having fun, smiling away and looking fresh. He had a good swim, 1.18 and a stonking bike 5.26. The pro’s were late 4’s so this was a good ride. The atmosphere was electric and Paul said after, there was no hiding spot on the run. It was thronged with people. He pace was steady and only slowed 2-5mins per 10km lap. He arrived into the finish in a very very respectable 11.22hr. Only 2mins outside his PB for IM Florida, 7 years earlier and that was a much faster course, and this time with 11 supporters cheering him on for all they were worth. It was epic. He was delighted. After all the finish line celebrations and hugs, Paul had to get 2 saline drips as he got the shakes and was shattered….. He had given it everything. Job done. Time for an ice cream
Loved Maastricht, really cool compact city, great food options. I loved the river swim, rolling start. I enjoyed the bike route, didn’t love it but enjoyed it, loved the scenery, rolling farmlands and country lanes. The run, well I didn’t get to experience that, bummer eh! Will I go back, totally, I have to do that run, it looked outstanding. The finish line was the business, thronged with people shouting encouragement, think Roth/Frankfurt and you have the idea.
Since the race, my hip pain hasn’t eased much but the road rash is healing nicely…. I have had some X-rays, no chips, cracks or breaks. I have really damaged the muscles around the hip. Nurofen and Paracetamol is helping along with copious amounts of red wine. So the next 2-3 weeks will be rest and rehab and then evaluate. Will I get another race in this year…. As I didn’t run I haven’t much recovery to do expect for the hip issue…. Which will be the determining factor. I better check out Ironman.com and see what’s available just in case….
Thanks to our amazing supporters, Paul, Aileen, Donal, Deirdre, Lorraine, Hilde, Eva, Rowan, Muireann and Conal who took time out of their holidays to travel and support us in Maastricht. You guys rock. To all my family for their support, friends, I swam, biked and ran with, Physio’s and Physical Therapists, Catherine, Darren and Alex, Oliver for all his guidance and patience, I’m not an easy athlete to coach…. and of course to Paul for absolutely everything. It wasn’t my best day on an ironman course but there are some big positives to take from it for the whatever race I chose next.
Paul’s finish video: