It feels selfish to write a race report given how badly Aisling’s day ended up. She was taken out of the water after getting into trouble early in the swim. I had one DNF in a race a couple of years ago and I know how sick I felt and how utterly disappointed I was.

I think it has tempered my reaction to what was a disappointing race performance. I find it hard to write about how disappointed I am given the fact that I got to come to Brazil, race another Ironman and most importantly given what happened to Ais that I got to finish it. This race was always going to be a bonus, a second unplanned bite of the cherry. There was no fall back plan if I didn’t qualify at Ironman Mallorca I didn’t want to have an ”out” so when Ais suggested we combine our honeymoon with another race I jumped at the opportunity. So I don’t think I deserve to feel anything other than lucky that I got to come out and do the race.

Read on but be warned it’s a sort of long one.
Ironman Fortaleza is a much harder race than the course profile might have you believe. The swim always looked difficult for someone with a relatively weak swim but having done non wetsuit swims in Kona a couple of times I just assumed I’d be ok. This was just one mistake of many that I made in this race.

The swim was by far the hardest conditions I’ve ever experienced in any race. That being said I did to some extent enjoy the challenge of it. It felt old school. No wetsuit, sea swim with big rolling waves, surf and currents.

It started on the corner of a small beach in four separate waves. Each of which went off every five minutes from 6am to 6:15. I was in the third wave, Aisling was in the fourth. There was waves breaking on the shore, worse than any we had swam in over the last week but nothing, I felt before the start, that would cause me too many problems. We would just have to fight through the breaking surf and after that would be ok. After all we had swam every day since we arrived and had managed the conditions just fine. This was mistake number two.

I was more nervous in the lead up to this race than I think I’d ever been before any race with the possible exception of my first Ironman. Looking at the times from previous years in isolation it looked like I would have a reasonable chance to qualify here for Kona if I’d held onto a decent amount of fitness from the earlier part of the season. My gut however was telling me otherwise. I think the nerves were because I didn’t feel ready. I knew if I was in good shape I could qualify here, the problem was I knew in my gut (but tried hard not to admit it to myself) that I wasn’t in good enough shape.

In terms of the times, I needed to go sub 10:20 to take the last slot according to last years results. I thought that if I handled the heat ok I had a decent chance of breaking 10 hours.

I reckoned I could swim somewhere between 1:10-1:12. Going on the bike course profile which only had about 900m of elevation gain I thought on a good day I could go close to five hours given that I rode 5:07 in Mallorca a couple of months ago which had about 1600m of elevation gain. Even if I had lost some fitness over the last couple of months, which I believed I had, I still thought that riding the same time as Mallorca should be possible given a flatter course.

Mistake number three. The problem with reading a race by the numbers or course profile is that it doesn’t tell you much about the conditions. The relatively slow times for a fairly flat course should have been a warning that the numbers weren’t telling the whole story. But instead of realising that I chose to see them as an invitation to sneak an easy Kona slot.

Note to self: There is no such thing as an easy Kona slot.

The run is pretty flat with only one very small hill each lap. I thought the issue on the run was always going to be how well I coped with the heat. Even allowing for the heat I thought a 3:40 marathon would be possible. This was my forth mistake, running a decent time in that heat would have only happened if I was both swim and bike fit enough not to be too fried starting the marathon.

It’s was the smallest Ironman field I’ve raced so I figured, correctly this time, that transition times should be fairly quick because it would be a pretty small area. Adding up all of those misconceived ideas I told myself that a sub 10 was not only possible but probably even likely.

Like I said, lots of mistakes, lots of very misplaced assumptions about my own abilities and fitness and the fitness and abilities of the mostly Brazilian field who were on the start list.

It was like Ironman Fortaleza could read my mind and decided to teach me a lesson. A really hard, painful, knocking lumps of of me lesson.
The swim. Target 1:10-1:12. Actual 1:27:53

Those numbers alone almost tell enough of a story without writing another word. Being almost 20 minutes off where I’d hoped to be after the swim was a pretty shocking shocking result.
This was by far the hardest swim I’ve ever done, anywhere. Like I said already I was really worried about Ais who was starting behind me in the next wave right from the start. Being small and light I knew she would struggle in the growing swell. The chop and waves getting out to the first buoy was really hard to cope with from a sighting and even just moving forward point of view. I kept on pushing and eventually reached the first turn. At this point we turned left and swam parallel to the shore but by now were out in the open sea.

I realised that even with the waves we had at the start we had been sheltered to some extent by the pier and the marina. That shelter was gone now. The rolling waves seemed massive. In this the first telling of the race report they were somewhere around six feet tall. Like all good stories over time and with telling they will probably grow to more like ten or twelve feet. Maybe bigger. Ask me about this race in ten years and they will be as big as small houses.

I’d sight and check that I was swimming towards the next buoy when I’d get hit by another wave and I’d find myself turned ninety degrees and wondering where the hell I was going. I was having to sight on every stroke. Initially I just settled into a rhythm of stroke, sight, breath but it eventually became so hard and tiring to lift my head to sight while trying to keep my legs up at the same time that I could feel my legs getting lower and lower in the water slowing me down further. At one stage I felt like I was almost vertical in the water my legs felt like they were dragging so low.

I made the second turn buoy and headed back towards shore but now had to fight against the current which was pushing me off course to the right. I also realised that despite how hard the first last leg had been it was actually current assisted and that the next left turn would have me pointing straight into that current.

Sure enough at the third buoy I was fighting waves and swell and the current. By now I was more than worried about Ais. I was really afraid that she just wouldn’t be able to swim at all in such hard conditions and with such a small field she would be way out in the open sea alone unable to sight or fight the currents or the swell and would be terrified.

On the forth leg my pace dropped dramatically. Looking at the garmin files afterwards my speed fell from about 1:55 per 100m to 2:40 and slower. I knew that I was in for a much longer time in the water than I had anticipated and started to think that I would be looking at an eighty minute swim rather than the seventy’ish I’d hoped for. I just kept on hoping that everyone else was slowed as much by the conditions as I was.

I finally made the last buoy and turn of the first lap and headed back to shore for the Australian exit and the start of the second, smaller lap. We did a short run up the sand and back into the water. We were again headed straight back out into the surf again only this time I was much more fatigued. Just before I reached the last turn buoy I vomited a little and almost immediately felt better. The sick, nervous stomach that I’d started the day with seemed to sort itself out and the next thing I knew I was turning for home. The last stretch was into the marina and was sheltered by a long sea wall so that it was in fact the easiest stretch of the swim.

I saw 1h27 on the watch as I exited and my heart sank. Ever the optimist my next thought was that maybe everyone had found it as difficult as me. I ran through transition and had a quick scan of the bikes. I guessed that at more than half of them were gone. So much for everyone else also struggling in the swim.

As I ran up to the exit I saw Ais waving and shouting. She shouted that she couldn’t make the swim but was ok.

I felt very conflicted when I saw her as I left transition heading out onto the bike. There was massive relief that she was ok and at the same time I was so disappointed for her.

I knew how she must be feeling. When I did see her during the day she was all smiles and shouting encouragement and making sure I knew she was ok. After the swim she had realised that I wouldn’t see her on the bike course and that if I didn’t see her before leaving transition I would be worried because of how bad the swim conditions were. It’s a real measure of her personality that even after such a dreadful experience she was more concerned with me and the fact that I would be worried than she was with how she felt.

I knew at that stage how important it was that I race well so that she could take some pleasure out of the day.
The Bike: Actual: 5:26:30 Target: 5:00-5:07

Unknown to me at the time I started the bike in 413th place overall and 79th in my age group and needed to be in the top 6 of my division to qualify.

I got going on the bike with a fairly clumsy mount, the lack of racing this year showing through. Mistake number five. Not that saving 30 seconds in transition or on a flying mount was not going to address a 20m minute swim deficit but if I was in the right shape to be competitive then 30 seconds could be the difference in qualifying or not. I’ve lost a Kona slot by 2 minutes before.

Once I got going the speed came quickly and effortlessly and I started passing people. It was really fast for the first couple of k’s and I could see palm trees bending with the wind. The return leg would be hard I thought. I kept my effort easy with this in mind. Even so I went through the first 60k in just over 90 minutes, averaging close to 40kph (that’s just under 25mph in old money for any of you Brits or Yanks reading) The bike course goes out of town for 11k then does a short out and back loop before heading out onto the highway. The road surface is fast and smooth, very similar to the fast roads in Mainland Europe making for fast comfortable riding.

Once onto the highway you go out to the furthest point at about 60k then loop back for about 30k and then turn around and do that same lap again. Once I was heading out on the lapped part of the course I knew I could count the riders ahead of me coming back on the opposite side of the road.

I’d passed a lot of riders already and thought that if there was maybe “only” 100-150 ahead of me at the turn I was still in the race. I very quickly counted to 100, then 200 and I was still telling myself that it’s ok.

Lots of those guys started ten minutes before you.

They’re not in your age group.

Still ever the optimist.

I reached 250 with no sign of the turn around. By the time I got to the end of the course to turn back I thought there was over 310 still ahead of me.

I reasoned that the hard part hadn’t started yet and I would start to catch them as we headed back into the wind.

Sure enough I passed another 80 riders over the next 30k but at that point my progress slowed and I was passing less and less. Part of it was the legs. I reckon I was in pretty good four hour bike shape but that I wasn’t in good enough condition to push hard for the full 180k especially after that swim.That’s pretty unusual for me as it’s normally the bike where I make up the most time and I normally ride strongly all the way to the end.

I guess another factor was that I had caught most of the slower riders by then and a lot of those ahead of me were moving at a similar speed now or faster as I slowed.

I finished with a 5h26 bike split. About 18 minutes slower than I’d hoped for. Still holding onto the optimism I told myself yet again that maybe it was a slower day for everyone and anyway we still had the run to go yet and I usually run pretty well off a long bike.

Worth noting that even with a flat windy course there was almost no drafting. I guess that’s one of the benefits of a small field and wave starts.
The Run: Target: 3:40 Actual: 4:05:36

Still unknown to me at this stage was the fact that I was now in 161st place overall and 33rd in my age group. Having passed 252 people on the bike, 46 of them in my age group I now “only” needed to pass another 27. Probably just as well I didn’t know that at this point.
I got through T2 in reasonable shape and started the run. I was fairly sure I was now racing for a crazy roll down. Sometimes someone doesn’t take a Kona slot and the next person says no and the next and then you get past the point of where you would ever reasonably expect to qualify so no one is there to claim it. You know like 15th or 20th place and then it just rolls and rolls.

I held onto that thought as fuel to keep me pushing, that and the knowledge that Aisling was out there waiting for me. Knowing by my times that things weren’t going particularly well. But I was determined I wasn’t going to make her day worse by quitting or running around with a big sulk on.

Maybe that slot would roll like crazy and if it did I’m going to be as high up as I can to take advantage of it and that would make this a worthwhile trip for both of us.

I started off at a pace I hoped I could hold for the entire run which was between 5:35-5:40/k I had no illusions at this stage of managing to go any faster in this heat. I thought if I could pull off a 3 hour 40 marathon I would be somewhere around 10 hours 40 and within distance of an only slightly crazy roll down. I was sore and crampy for the first few k’s but after about 30 minutes the legs started to feel good.

I tried to pick up the pace but my temperature rose in line with my speed whenever I tried and I was forced to slow again. I knew from past experiences in Kona that if I overheated in these temperatures there would be no coming back so I managed it as carefully as I could. I passed Ais out on the course at the 4km mark and she was, as usual all smiles and encouragement. The next time I saw her was at about the 12k point and she told me then that I’d started the run in 33rd in my age group after making up about 50 in places on the bike. A kona slot looked like an impossibility at this stage but I still kept on telling myself to run myself up as high as I could in the hope of that roll down.

The run was all about managing my temperature. I filled my jersey with ice at every aid station and left carrying two cups of water which I gradually poured over myself over the next couple of minutes.

It was crazy hot and the sun was by far the hottest I’ve experienced anywhere. The temperature in Hawaii might be higher but I think the effect of the sun in Brazil is as hard to deal with, maybe it’s the proximity to the equator?

I managed to run well and was constantly moving up through the field but I’d no idea where I was. At about the 30k mark I started to struggle. The heat was savage and I was in a lot of pain and starting to slow.

I’d had to stop at one aid station and tried sticking my head into the ice water trough they were keeping the drinking water bottles cool in to get my temperature down and when I straightened back up I started to black out. I grabbed the trough and held on until the wave of faintness and nausea passed. I better not do that again, I thought.

I knew I would see Ais soon and kept myself going with the knowledge that she would say something to keep me going. She always seems to know what to say when I’m dying. It might be something encouraging, or a joke to cheer me up or she might shout at me to suck it up and hurt myself. Whatever tack she took it always seemed to get me going. I wondered what she had in store for me.

The next time I saw her was with less than 10k to go and I’d been really struggling for a while and she shouted that the last timing split she’d gotten had me up 12 places to 21st. I got a big boost from this and picked up the pace but couldn’t sustain it for long. Maybe I just might run myself into a place close enough to get a roll down I thought.

But no matter how I tried I was too sore and the heat was too hard to hold any increase in pace for more than a couple of hundred yards. Despite that I passed more runners, ones that looked like they were in my age group (at least that’s what I kept telling myself) I kept on pushing as hard as I could it just didn’t result in any extra speed. Until I finally managed to pick up the pace with a couple of kilometres to go.

As I passed Ais when I ran into the last 500 meters the emotion of the day, which had been high but controllable was starting to build and I let it come. I ran into the finishing chute with that incredible feeling you only get at the end of an Ironman. That unbelievable wave of emotion and relief that I can finally just stop moving and lie down.

I was in so much pain I was afraid I’d collapse in a melodramatic heap as soon as I stopped running and after a wobble I was grabbed by the arm and led to the recovery tent.

The disappointment hit me in a way that I’d never experienced at the end of a race before and I found it really hard to control my emotions. I sat with my head in my hands unable to answer the guy and girl who were growing increasingly worried that I’d either collapse or start blubbering like a baby.

I reckon they would have been happier with the collapsing as they had probably been told what to do with someone in that case and I would at that point stop being their problem. A 6ft tall blubbering mess on the other hand, there’s just no training someone what to do in that instance.

I put them out of their misery by refusing a massage and getting unsteadily to my feet and heading into the food and recovery area. In the recovery area I spotted a chair stuck off in a corner behind the food and started towards it thinking I could hide there while I got myself together enough to go out to see Ais.

Before I reached the relative privacy I was stopped by a guy telling me that chair was broken. Fuck. Story of my day mate. Three legged chair, sort of like a three legged race.

I turned and headed towards the exit and saw Ais waiting for me when I realised I had no medal or finishers t-shirt. WTF? I was not leaving without my medal I thought obstinately. I’ve earned this one. It took another minute to realise I got them on the way out. Suitably chastened I continued out to Ais.

As soon as I got to her the realisation that however hard my day had been I was standing there with a medal around my neck and a finishers t-shirt crumpled in my fist. She didn’t have either to show for her trip.

She smiled and hugged me, no mean feat given how badly I must have smelled. We swapped our stories of the day and headed back to the hotel.

The race reports are normally bursting out of me and writing helps me sort my thoughts of the day but this one was so hard to write given how badly the day went for Ais and given that regardless of the result I don’t feel that I have anything to complain about.

It’s taken a half dozen aborted attempts and a week to allow my thoughts and emotions settle enough that I can get them straight in my head.

In the end I finished in 11:06:02 was 122nd overall. I only made up another 39 places overall and having passed 12 in my age group ultimately though I couldn’t hold onto that and lost 4 of those places in the last 10k finishing 25th in the age group.

Also it’s worth adding that every slot was accepted the next day at the awards ceremony. There was no roll down at all never mind a crazy one. In the end the last slot in my age group went in 10:08 which was actually 10 minutes faster than last year.

My next post will be the thoughts and analysis of this race and the run in to it.

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Rob