Fueled on a bowl of muesli and race day emotions embodied by a healthy cocktail of nerves, self doubt, confidence and adrenaline thoughts abound – Brave or stupid? Smart or cocky? Fit or in denial? Ready or not? As 1 of 3,000 athletes on the day the sense of a shared mission provides solace. Hard not to be impressed by the focus and organization of those around and easy to confuse their apparent competence for my own. The mind returns to the task at hand. Despite the occasion there’s an honesty on race day like no other. As individuals we toe the line, a product of our lifestyles, our cumulated commitments, choices or sacrifices made over the previous weeks and months, at the mercy of our bodies and with the blessings of our loved ones.
A 445 alarm with a final gear check before breakfast in the hotel at 5 kicked off the day. A short walk to transition for pumping the tyres, cursing the hotel issue flip flops, thanking a generous French man for the loan of his track pump – getting nutrition and shoes on the bike, adding nutrition to bike and run bags. At 6.30 I was close to the last person out of transition. The walk from transition to the race start is that moment of truth. There’s an urgency in the atmosphere. Will I survive the day? Will my body play ball? What have I done?! The music and pre race commentary over the tanoi add a sense of emotion, some nostalgia.
I was, proudly, the last “athlete” into the start pen – a function of promises made in recent weeks for sense to prevail, not to get sucked into race mode, to appreciate the occasion and enjoy the day. Having carried over a couple of injuries from 2018 this was the last chance to go the distance or write off season 2019. A neck injury had meant little or no swimming over the previous 12 months and a foot injury had resulted in a run free summer.
With the age groupers entering the water in fives every five seconds from shortly after 7.30 I congratulated myself on taking to the Sub 45 minute pen buying an extra 20 mins or so to appreciate the predicament. The plan was straightforward. Today was not about time it was about the finish. Get around the 1.9k swim, get to my bike, enjoy a 90km cycle on closed roads in one of the most beautiful parts of the world and then cover 21km on foot to collect a medal and finisher t shirt. The atmosphere in my pen was relaxed with no sight nor sound of the more enthusiastic racers I usually try to charge off with. From bended knee on the beach, aka the hip flexor stretch, I cursed for the final time my journey to this moment – it was time to go.
Running down the beach to pick a spot to enter the Atlantic Ocean has a nervously wonderful feel to it – the swim was clockwise, I had the course map from the brochure etched in my mind – 150m to the first buoy then a longish stint following the shoreline north towards Lisbon – breathing to the left to spot my way to the turning point, and because my neck had a preference for not turning right, the pace was ok, all seemed to be on the same plan, a few stray kicks but mostly good progress. The first big buoy came and went, that was 150m plus 500m, heading out to sea now for 300m plus 300m around another buoy before heading back to shore – apart from some congestion at the buoys where people were slowing to turn progress remained ok. Somewhere on this leg there was either a buoy missing or I miscounted as I found myself heading for the Clube Naval and the exit ramp with just 1 last buoy to round. It was still a way off but to be heading for the last buoy when at the farthest point out at sea is more than mildly comforting – then, there it was, after a slight smack from behind I readjusted my legs, a decent cramp in my right hamstring hit – ok, not to panic, what was it they used to say… …don’t eat before you swim, you could get a cramp and sink… ok, not reassuring, I was calculating maybe 300 or 400m to go, shut the legs down, drag them along, it will ease, won’t it, keep the arms going, breathing was fine, pull up the toes, hmmmm not really easing but not getting worse, and still going forward. It did ease although not fully, decision made, no more using the legs on the swim, just in case. I got my final smack at the last buoy which leaves 30m to the exit ramp I could take anything at this stage I was visualizing my bike mount with relief. Plenty of helpers to get us onto the exit ramp, goggles on head, hit the watch, caught sight of the time 38 mins, I’ll take it, off I go – 600m uphill to T1, plan was to run it… come on legs, no one else seemed to be running, dam sub 45 min swim group. The streets to T1 were lined with spectators, motivating, not only had I survived the swim, my legs were now moving, i was running, passing many of my fellow sub 45 swimmers unsure why I started speaking French – pardonnez moi!! as I passed.
T1, is always a welcome sight but today it was an oasis, I was still running, unzipped the wetsuit at the last moment, found my bike bag, stomped off the wetsuit, drink, gel, helmet, glasses, number belt, repack and hang the bag, on the move – almost a full lap of the perimeter to reach my bike conveniently stacked with the AWA spots close to the exit, I was still running, out of T1 up the hill to the mount line, still passing walkers, on the bike, pedal pedal pedal, get my feet into my cleats and straps closed without incident and back through town to a nice hum of well wishers.
The bike was really 2 parts – from Cascais to Lisbon up the coast 25km and back, rolling without being hilly as such – then a 40km up and down to Sintra via a loop of the Estoril former Grand Prix circuit. Part 1 was fast, on a highway, roads were closed, plenty of room for passing. Disappointing to see, as I settled into the task, I was passing packs of riders, riding together, benefiting from drafting each other. Having never started so far back in a swim I was seeing the race from a different perspective. I settled into a nice rhythm and was passing a rider or two or a mini pack every few hundred meters it seemed, keeping spirits high. The rollers were a nice challenge and Portuguese roads with serious pothole issues required vigilance. I had taped 2 gels to the bike with a plan to take them each 30 mins for the first hour and add water from aid stations. I had one 750m bottle with an hours worth of juice for the second hour. The first 50k was quick, I can’t be sure of the time but from the gps I’d estimate in region of 40kmph. Estoril was amazing although dropped the chain on the way in requiring a quick pit stop. We climbed up to Sintra without hitting anything too steep, nothing comparable to the Wicklow mountains where the bike training miles had been logged, close to the summit we caught some wind on the way up but it was more impactful on the decent. Having clocked 70/75km safely I took a bit of care to get back down the hill. The last 10km was back on the flat, seafront, those moments that you live for, close to two thirds done, still riding, still passing folk who’ve run out of gas although more sporadically now, no more packs. Adductors were starting to talk to me, as if sensing what they were going to be asked to do next. Back into town, I spot my hotel coming up, 25 degrees, pool area looked full of sun worshippers, who would care if I pulled in now and spared myself… …I would… Close to T2, slip out the feet, a little early, pedal pedal pedal, bumpy car park into transition, jump off the bike hitting the watch 2hours and 38mins effort, pleased with that. Now how far can one go on adrenaline. About to find out. Bike racked and take my seat in T2, drink, runners on, sunscreen time, bag packed and rehung – decent buzz around, time to get moving and find a pace, any pace to start chalking down the kms. 21 to go.
My god – how hard can it be, how excruciating, how miserable can 2 hours and 20 minutes of life actually be… according to Garmin my fastest km was just below 5km, the average was 6.45km. It was a hot, hilly 2 laps – at no stage was it in any way comfortable. I had decided I was going the distance and so it would be. I got off the bike sometime around 11.30 in the day, the course would officially close to athletes at 4.30. The maths told me I had about 5 hours to get the job done. My feet were warning me to get it over with… I started with the promise to walk the aid stations every 2/3/4 km – I ran straight past the first one, dam adrenaline and a handful of gels I had, assured me I didn’t need to stop… I just about made it to the second one – comfort break required. No comment. Cue approx 2 hours of shuffling a little, walking, drinking, shuffle/jog, walking – trying to run down hills. The first lap was demoralizing with the strong runners still out on the course. The second lap was one to remember. The pain, the hopelessness – the finish line when it eventually came, was magical. Each competitor knows who they are the moment they cross the line.
Who was I today? Today I was the winner.