Special 35th Birthday: IRONMAN Hamburg 2019
On July 28th of 2019 I turned 35. Mid-thirties. I feel like I have already been lucky to have had quite a few experiences here on Earth so far, but I still get excited by new ones or even by just repeating great ones. One of those that never failed to get me excited are Ironman distance triathlons.
Yes, they are a bunch of work, take nearly a whole day, and require not a tiny amount of training. But they are also rather enjoyable. You might not believe that, but once you’ve tried it you might. Probably not immediately afterwards, though.
I did not have any plans to do one of these iron distance triathlons in 2019, or anytime soon for that matter, until I saw that my hometown event would fall right on the day of my birthday. The idea to spend my birthday doing a long triathlon was intriguing to me. Which is why it didn’t take me long to sign up.
That’s the easy part. The tough part is finding time for long triathlon specific training. That’s the real challenge. I focused on running this year, doing lots of marathons, increasing the maximum distance, and trying for new personal bests. That takes time, too. Where to fit in the biking and swimming?
The end result was that I went swimming about five or six times for 2,000 meters at most during my daughter Vera’s swimming lessons. Not exactly great if you aim to swim 3,860 meters in the Alster rather fast without being exhausted afterwards.
Cycling was even tougher because of the time it takes and the specific weather conditions. I’m a good-weather cyclist because I strongly dislike cleaning bikes. Who has the motivation for that?! And when will the weather ever be good in Hamburg? Fortunately, we went on a summer holiday to Sweden two weeks before the Ironman and I decided to just take the bike. Result: three rides, 50k, 60k, then 80k. Still 100 kilometers short of the iron distance, but better than nothing! Two fun little other triathlons in July helped a bit, as well.
As for the marathon, I felt well prepared. Sure thing, after having done 10 of them so far this year, completing a 100k long run on one day, and doing two marathons in two consecutive days successfully. This will be a breeze, or so I thought.
Let’s Do This, Hamburg!
I’ve done three other long distance triathlons of 3.8 km swimming, 180 km cycling and a full 42.2 km marathon run before. 2015 in Copenhagen, 2017 in Roth, and five weeks after Roth also here in Hamburg. They’ve all been hard, obviously, but also very gratifying and left me wanting to do more. So here I am again, packing my stuff for race day without being sure if I have prepared well enough to get to the end.
While my body might not have been up to the challenge yet, my mind felt strong enough. I was ready to face this thing head-on. One of the main reasons for that, except for my history with endurance sports so far, is a guy named David Goggins. He has become some sort of inspirational figure for me. I recently finished reading a book about him, called ”Living with a SEAL” and then went right on to reading his own autobiography, “Can’t Hurt Me”. What that dude has been able to accomplish by basically just using his mind to will himself to complete incredible feats, is astonishing to me. I bought into the whole narrative and am convinced he is right.
“When you think you’re absolutely physically done, you’re just at about 40 percent of your body’s capabilities.” – David Goggins
How about I just go to 50 percent tomorrow. Can’t be that bad.
Four hours of sleep at the most, as always, because some of our four kids have been going through a phase of annoying us during the nights for several months now, and suddenly it’s 4 AM and my birthday. Happy Birthday to me!
I love the quiet. It’s peaceful at home. No one has woken up alongside me, which is a good start. Leaving the house in the dark, just before sunrise, the air feels electric. So I take an electric car into the city center. Nice and quiet as well.
As this is my 26th triathlon and a huge percentage of those have happened right here at this spot, getting into the wetsuit and setting all the last things up feels like a ritual already. Everyone is so quiet and concentrated. Nervous, sure. Excited as well. Focussed, most of all. I don’t know many other situations comparable to this atmosphere, and I like it a lot.
Sunscreen on arms and legs, chafing protection on the neck, and into the wetsuit. Good, that one still fits. Off to Jungfernstieg.
Around 2,500 athletes showed up again. Sold out event. We get into little fenced areas corresponding to our expected swim times so the fight in the water won’t be too bad. Faster swimmers start earlier, slower ones later. I choose the second fastest area of 1:05 to 1:15 hours expected swim time. Optimistic, regarding my training status. Gotta put some pressure on myself.
Focussed silence. Icelandic clap game, annoying announcer, Pro Start. 6:30 AM. 6:40, the fastest amateurs get into the water, it’s a rolling start again. Meaning, four people get into the water roughly every three seconds. That prevents congestion in the water, but it takes around half an hour to get everyone into the water. Waiting. Spitting into the goggles. Straightening the blue swim cap. Starting the GPS watch. And there it is, I’m at the gates, no turning back.
Falling into the 24.1 degree Alster is pure heaven to me.
If the water temperature would have been above 24.5 degrees, wetsuits would have been prohibited. I’m glad it wasn’t, because the suit provides buoyancy and probably buys me around three minutes and a bunch of much needed calories in the end.
During the days leading up to the race, it was debated if the swim could be done at all. Last year’s edition had to be changed into a run-bike-run because of hazardous amounts of cyanobacteria in the Alster. At high temperatures over sustained periods of time, these multiply out of control and can cause rashes or even vomiting. The summer 2019 hasn’t been quite as hot, though. Lucky for me, because the Alster swim is probably my favorite part of the whole triathlon and I would have been sad had it been bumped.
The temperature is perfect, the swim suit fits, and I glide back into muscle memory and perform quite well. I have to take a few hits from fellow athletes, which just always happens because it’s so tough to see anything. Also, you can’t hear anything except for the bubbles, so there’s no verbal communication possible when someone overdoes it with the hitting. As was the case this time. A big guy next to me kept hitting me and hitting me, trying to swim over me somehow, all the while there was plenty of room on the other side and I was not diverting from the course. I couldn’t believe that behavior. Maybe he was just fuelled up on adrenaline and somehow didn’t notice. Because I couldn’t tell him to move, I had to forcefully shove him away. That somehow felt wrong and weird. First time that’s ever been necessary for me.
Underneath the two bridges dividing the Binnen- and Außenalster now. A few spectators are already up and on their feet here, quite cool. The sun moves out from behind some small clouds, creating a great atmosphere over the glistening water. It takes longer than I anticipated to get to the first right turn around the pyramid shaped buoy. Makes me feel like I’m slower than usual. 1.5 kilometers, well into the middle of the Außenalster. Great water quality over here, a bit colder. 10 minutes later, next right turn, not facing the sun anymore. Easier on the eyes. Back underneath the bridges, tracking watch check: pace isn’t too bad after all! Another bridge with noticeable currents is helping us reach the exit a bit quicker, and here I am on the first red carpet of the day.
Volunteers help me up, I climb some stairs and see lots of people now cheering, smiling. Watch check: 1:14:56 – oh, great time and a close call! So I had four spare seconds to justify having started in the 1:05 to 1:15 group. Also, this was the exact same time I had two years ago a the Ironman Hamburg 2017. Funny, with next to no training and a course that was a hundred meters longer, according to my tracking watch.
That swim worked out pretty well!
On to the longest part of the race.
The Dreaded Cycling
I’m ambivalent when it comes to cycling. As a method of inner-city transport, I love it and do it every single day. As a sports device I like how fast it makes you in comparison to your effort, just by being a clever mechanical invention. It is quite a mind-blowing thing, that an unpowered tool can make you move four times as fast while using the same amount of calories.
But I really dislike how unergonomic it feels for the body, especially when using one of these triathlon specific speed bikes. The neck and back hurt, the arms are in a weird position, not to mention the constant pressure on the butt. Adding to that, my disk prolapse injury still puts pressure on the spinal nerves and sometimes makes my outer fingers go numb while riding a bike. On the 80k training ride a week ago this became a problem – I don’t want to risk permanent nerve damage, which is a real possibility here, the doctors said. So, the bike ride will be make or break today.
The first transition went really well, I took a bit of time to prepare and that amounted to 8 minutes and 23 seconds. Acceptable, when taking into account the length of the transition zone, which is around 800 meters long – running barefoot through the whole thing takes me around 5 minutes already.
The first few kilometers on the bike feel great. They always do, because it’s such a big contrast of speed output compared to the slow swimming. Rolling downhill through Wallringtunnel at 40 km/h quite effortlessly also dries off the triathlon suit.
After just 10 kilometers I reach the amazing Köhlbrandbrücke, which will probably be removed soon and replaced by either a new and better one or by a tunnel. Maybe this is the second to last time I ever cross it on a bike. Second to last, because the bike course is two identical loops of 91.5 kilometers each. For a total of 183 kilometers – three more than needed. Thanks, Obama.
The uphill part on this huge bridge is not too bad, it’s just a 50 meter vertical difference. But the downhill part gets me up to about 65 km/h which certainly gets the adrenaline pumps going.
A nice and quiet part through southern Hamburg follows for the next few dozen kilometers. Unfortunately I see two guys having crashed and sitting on the sidewalk waiting for help. How unlucky. I checked but someone was already taking care of them. Now it’s back up north until after 40 kilometers we’re quite close to the start. The Deich part begins.
Every cyclist from Hamburg knows this part. It’s popular for cycling training because it’s completely flat, following the Elbe upstream out of the city in a southeastern fashion into the direction of the city of Geesthacht. The Deich provides a bit of shelter from the wind at times, and the street is in good condition and almost never used by cars. I’m glad they changed the course last year so we get to bike along here. If you just want to eat kilometers, this is one of the more efficient ways to do it.
At the southeasternmost point, Zollenspieker, I meet a familiar face: Peter, my father-in-law cycled here to show support! What a nice gesture. He had timed it perfectly and just arrived. He shouts: “Tim! Alles Gute!” – I shout back thanks but wondered about his choice of words for a second until I remembered it’s my birthday today. Right.
With a few more percent of motivation I made my way back towards the city center. 25 kilometers to go of this first lap. There are almost no winds, the sun is out and it has around 25 degrees. I couldn’t have asked for better conditions.
The power is still up, the neck is not doing too bad so far, I can still feel my hands, no nerve damage yet. At the turning point near the transition zone, the crowds have increased by a lot right now, there’s noise and a party atmosphere. After the last few hours of solitude this is a welcome change. Right when the first lap is done, I look at my watch and see that it has actually been 93 kilometers instead of 91.5, but still I have just needed 2:56 hours so far. Maybe I can finally reach my goal of completing the cycling part of an iron distance triathlon in less than 6 hours? My best time had been 6:06:15 hours for the 180 kilometers that was at Challenge Roth in 2017.
The Second Lap
Crossing the Köhlbrandbrücke again is great. I notice how I’m quite a bit slower on the uphill, though. These first 100 kilometers have taken its toll, understandably. The southern part of Hamburg has a bunch of rails crossing the streets, most of them not in use anymore. Many of them were protected with mats by the Ironman staff to prevent some accidents. But you still get a good shake every time with your 8 bars of pressure tires. So, inevitably, many athletes lost part of their gear in these areas, mostly drinking bottles. The volunteer helpers standing near the rail crossings always had a nice collection to show.
I really notice my powers leaving me now. Looking at the watch from time to time and doing some calculations I see that the sub-6-hour goal is becoming less and less realistic. Also, the neck keeps getting worse, it’s lots of pain to keep looking forward. This is becoming a fight, I sense.
When the flat Deich sections starts at 135 kilometers, the wind has increased as well. It’s coming from the front for the next 25 kilometers. I hear others complain and suffer. I hardly go at more than 30 km/h on average now, have been for a while. An exact 31 km/h average would be necessary to do sub-6 on these 186 kilometers. It’s looking bleak for my ambitions.
That’s when I remembered David Goggins.
“People are too comfortable! Most of my successes in life have come from learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Time to get uncomfortable.
The main problem with putting in so much effort so the legs start to burn is the uneasy feeling you get looking at the upcoming marathon run. Conserving the legs’ power would in theory be smart, but how to balance this if you would like maximum output? Today, at my fourth full distance triathlon, I feel like experimenting. I have some confidence in my marathon running abilities, so I’m thinking I can risk to put the pedal to the metal on the bike.
Sub 6 hours is still achievable if I really hit it now. Keeping the aero position is a must to save energy, but it’s also very uncomfortable now. My neck hurts so bad I need to look straight down at the street below around every 10 seconds to avoid screaming and relieve of some pressure. Thankfully, the hands are still not tingly, so it’s okay. Just pain.
In the 25 kilometer long headwinds section I actually manage to keep the 31 km/h average this way. Barely, and with burning legs that feel like they’re about to explode, but it works. Turning point at Zollenspieker again. Great, now it’s tailwind! Time to have a short break from the aero position, drink a bit, have a power bar and a gel, and back into it again. I do some calculations. The fight against the wind has made it possible that I can reach the sub 6 goal, but I now still have to make up for about 2 minutes that I lost somewhere earlier. I need to keep hitting the pedals – the good thing being that the tailwinds now get me to around 35 to 38 km/h with maximum power.
I kept trying to remember if there are any little hills coming up on these last 10 kilometers which could destroy my sub 6 ambitions, but except for a short but difficult cobble stone passage, there’s nothing. Full speed ahead. Until I reach the unmounting line right at the Alster. Quick look at the watch.
Can’t believe it, how close is this! Huge smile, pride, relief, goose bumps, adrenaline burst.
For a second. Then I need to focus on the upcoming marathon run with cooked legs. Of course. Transition works really well, again. I get through it in 6:23, a full minute faster than last time here in Hamburg. Might have been the high I’m still on from finally making it in under 6 hours on the bike. But it’s not over yet.
The Marathon Starts
Today I managed to get this far without having any caffeine during the race. It’s a deliberate tactic to make that drug more impactful when you really start needing it. I remember from my former long distance triathlons that I would get tired after about 150 kilometers on the bike. Yawning, feeling like I could fall asleep right on the spot. Today, that didn’t happen. Maybe it’s because I spent the last 20 percent of the bike in a focussed pursuit of the personal best time instead of just focussing on getting through it. No yawning yet.
It’s hot now, really hot. Around 30 degrees, with a bit of cloud coverage though. Just 300 meters after the run start there’s the first aid station of the 10.5 kilometer lap that needs to be completed four times. This is a full aid station, even offering a few continuously running cold showers. Man, that feels so awesome right now! Now, completely soaked and heavily breathing, I indulge in the other offerings: water, electrolytes, a bit of coke, and to top it off, put some ice cubes down my suit in the back. When the uncomfortable becomes comfortable.
I was really looking forward to doing the marathon part. Confidence played a big role there, for sure. In the back of my head I hoped I could do the run in the vicinity of 3:30 hours, or maybe 3:45 if it turned out I had a bad day. So I started the 42.2 kilometers with a 5:00 minute per kilometer pace. I love the course, it’s been slightly changed since last time – now Gänsemarkt is part of it, too –, but in general it’s the same. Up the western coast of the two Alsters, and down again.
After the first half of the lap, I finally get company in the form of my awesome wife Sophie, our four energetic daughters, and quite a bunch of friends. They made a picnic on the Alster meadows and enjoyed the warm Sunday.
During the first lap they were rather unprepared and surprised to see me, maybe because of my out-of-character record bike ride. But then I quickly got my hugs, high-fives, and a bunch of Happy Birthdays, too. Adrenaline burst, again. Man, what a day!
Pace feels alright so far. The tricky bit is the fluids consumption today. When and what to drink. It’s cloudy but quite hot and dry. I don’t get it right, at first, and pull in lots of water, electrolyte drinks, coke and a bit of Red Bull even, only to create that bubbly feeling in the stomach of too much fluids. When I tone it down a notch, I get dry mouth and feel like breathing fire immediately. The right balance is tough to reach.
After 7 or 8 kilometers, I get the feeling it won’t be a 3:30 marathon today. I can’t keep the pace and fall back to a 5:25 min/km. Getting the first hair band around my wrist for the first successfully completed lap is nice, as well as the aid station right next to that place on Gästemarkt. These volunteers today are absolutely amazing – they joke around, laugh, encourage, give compliments, have all the stuff ready to go. Great crowd.
At the southern Außenalster part I meet my friend Angel, who congratulates me as well as hands me a little present: he kept that Polaroid he took of me and my daughters #1 and #2 during April’s Hamburg marathon expo, wrote Happy Birthday on it and hands it to me, thoughtfully protected by a plastic cover as I’m currently covered in water, iso, gels, sweat, coke and what not. Incredibly nice gesture.
Back up north towards my crew. I take a good amount of time (about a minute) for a break to have a little chat with them, greet and thank the ones that have turned up meanwhile, like my parents and in-laws. Feeling really loved today.
On a high note I run south again. That’s when it hits me. Or I hit it. The wall.
16, 17, I’m destroyed. Need to have a short walk to recuperate. This is something I was aware of could happen at any point, but I’m surprised it does right here. Usually marathons are not a problem at all anymore, but that bike record played a role to be sure.
The Cookie Jar
So, now it’s the mental game it’s supposed to become at some point. Some would say that’s the reason we do it at all. If there wasn’t any struggle, there wouldn’t be any sense of achievement as well.
Before-mentioned David Goggins has this technique called “The Cookie Jar” which he uses in situations like these. This figurative cookie jar contains lots of cookies, each of them representing a fight you’ve overcome before in your life. Every significant hurdle that challenged you and that lost against you, is a cookie to remember when you’re presented with a new challenge. My 100k run is in there, my 55 marathon runs, and the other three long distance triathlons I did. So that’s what I’m taking out now. Good thing is, the cookies never get consumed, just used. And the jar grows all the time as you grow as a person.
At the half marathon point after two laps I’m at over 2 hours, though. The breaks and the walking cost me a lot, in addition to the slowed down pace.
I can’t let that happen. A marathon at over 4 hours would be really disappointing to me. So I give myself one last break at 22 to gather strength during one of the aid stations next to the Binnenalster, and then the fight begins. I need to increase the pace to around 5:20 again to make this happen, taking into account the upcoming aid stations and family and friends breaks. I check the watch a lot. It’s tough, but my heart rate is still okay. A good sign.
A few more hugs and kisses at my cheering station really help as well, and the surprise and comments from fellow triathletes do, too: “Hey I think you’ve got the best fan club I’ve ever seen!” – Yes, I think so too.
Over the kilometers, the pace increases slowly. It’s working, I’m winning. The only troubling thing is the actual distance of the marathon – sometimes the GPS watch will track a few percent too much or too little, so I have to calculate the pace when I reach certain points of the course. It’s looking like it’s going to be very close to the 4 hour mark. I could be missing less than a minute in the end, I figure out.
Fourth lap. Final time to see the family. They have geared up, increased in size again to more than 20 people I’d guess, and now they’re even singing!
If I weren’t as focussed on the 4 hour fight I might have cried some tears of joy here. “Das ist das beste Geschenk!” (= this is the best gift) is what I tell them as I make my way for the final 5 kilometers.
Worth every of the seconds spent here. Worth a missed 4 hour goal.
But it’s not over yet. 39 ends up becoming my fastest kilometer of the whole marathon and as I make my way through the second to last aid station at Gänsemarkt to cool off the legs with wet sponges one last time, I realize it can be done today.
Wow, what a great day. The watch reveals a 3:56:35 hour marathon, Ironman says it was 3:56:52. Well under 4, probably because the course was a little bit too short, 600 meters to my estimate. Anyways, I’ll take it!
The finish line clock says 11:26:12, a new personal best by about 10 minutes!
Sub 1:15h swim, sub 6h bike, sub 4h run. All goals reached. Best birthday ever.
As the family and friends are still way up north, I got a bit of solitude to stomach this win. A designated volunteer makes sure I am fine and in no need of any medical attention, as is Ironman protocol for every finisher. I’m good. After a few minutes of watching others finish and display their emotions, I walk over to the Athlete’s Garden.
The garden has lots to offer. I mainly care about some solid food for once. The two cereal bars I had on the bike are not enough for a day. They also offer some beer, with or without alcohol. A Brit looks at me with an expression of “are you serious?!” when I take the alcohol-free cup. We laugh.
I take my time, wander through the city towards the bike checkout and generally enjoy this evening. It’s the best.
Ten very slow biking kilometers later, I’m home. The kids are still awake because they wanted to see me again to clean me off with the garden hose. Cold!
After we’ve got them all to sleep, Sophie and I hang out with a beer outside for a while. Hands down, best birthday ever.