Spectathletes – the real Ironmen

Written by AJ Hatzis, Philip's youngest brother.

AJ has raced and won medals for Great Britain's Age Group rowing team and also holds a prestigious Henley Royal Regatta champion's medal but has since retired from competitive sport and is now more of a completer rather than a competitor.

AJ (holding cup) was once a competitive athlete...

When Philip suggested that I come to Zurich and support him, I thought, why not. A trip to Zurich, a cultural hub of Switzerland, the Alps, a large lake and sitting in the sun saying "looking good Phil!" or "allez allez allez allez" as he shot past me every few hours. How wrong I was.

Before I begin this perilous task of completing a blog about a triathlon event, I shall put forward this disclaimer; I am not a triathlete. As Phil's younger and better looking brother, I have not yet subjected myself to the trials and tribulations of jumping in a body of water, riding a bike and then crawling over a finish line.

Similar to an Ironman, I shall start at the beginning and hasten as fast as I can to the finish line, culminating in the immortal words, "AJ, you are an Ironman... supporter."

The life of an Ironman is tough. The life of an Ironman supporter is obviously not as tough, however, it presents it's own plethora of challenges and hurdles that one must overcome. I had only ever watched Phil as a tiny, small, insignificant cog in Team Phil's well oiled machine, with many other people (our mother) doing the jobs that are required of an Ironman supporter. In Zurich, alas, I found myself as the only cog in Team Phil.

AJ (The one sniffing Phil's Back in the photo) was accustomed to help from others when spectating. Time to prove what he could do!

Due to extenuating circumstances, much like a bike tyre puncture, but replace bike tyre puncture with a double wisdom tooth extraction, I arrived in Zurich really quite sore, tasting blood in my mouth, and later than I had initially thought. Similar to an Ironman finisher I imagine. Doubly similar, I was just glad to actually be there.

I arrived and immediately went to supper with Philip. Pasta, of course. We sat and made small talk over dinner, I could see Philip was mentally and physically prepared, while I was neither. We wolfed down our food (I got a small plate, Philip got a large - we finished at the same time) and headed back to the hotel for an early night, in preparation for an earlier start. Philip did all his pre-race preparations, I packed my rucksack with enough Neurofen and paracetamol to calm a rhino, and I quickly descended into a deep sleep, excited, nervous and eager for the race to start.

When I say eager, I must admit when the alarm went off at 3.45AM, I wasn't sure where I was and was immediately concerned with two things; the alarming pain in my mouth and the pain the alarm was causing me. However, I soon became aware of my circumstances, and jumped out of bed, jumped in the shower (Philip didn't shower, slightly vulgar, but I suppose not necessary), and ran down to breakfast. If you ever want to visualise nervousness, go to breakfast at a hotel where many Ironmen and Ironwomen are staying. Their faces, as they quietly nibble at whatever food they chose are quite a sight. Philip chose a conservative breakfast of oats and milk, while I went for the subtle full English, bran flakes, yoghurt, fruit and coffee. I had a lot of watching to do - I needed all the energy I could get! We left the hotel, with the promise of a short taxi down to the race start, and saw some drunk people getting in a taxi, and I chuckled to myself. "What different lives we lead," I thought. Unfortunately, those cunning drunks were stealing our taxi and we then had to share two taxis that we managed to flag down at 5AM. A minor setback, but we were prepared and we were down with plenty of time for the competitors to make final checks and for me to stand there with a bemused expression on my face as I thought about the race before me. Suddenly, there was a noise that I could only describe as a cross between an 155mm Howitzer going off and another, identical 155mm Howitzer going off at exactly the same time. I dived for cover. The experienced supporters laughed at me. "Someone needs to replace zer tire," a smug German accent said. At this point I realised how over my head I was as I saw Philip for the last time before the start. I positioned myself precisely at the swim exit to cheer him on as he exited the short 2.4 mile swim.

Philip exiting the swim... easier to spot when the red becomes visible.

For those of you not accustomed to figuring out which black wetsuit clad triathlete is which during a swim exit, I propose to you the following test. Find about a thousand non-identical twins, dress them in identical clothes with identical hats, have 10 Jäger Bombs in as many minutes and then try and figure out who is who. Black figures shot past and I looked nervously at my watch as 50 minutes approached. I saw Philip about sixteen times before I saw a flash of red! It was Philip. "Go on Philip!" I shouted at his back. Right, well I had nearly cocked that up, but job done, onto the bike, and the suitably named Heartbreak Hill.

Heartbreak Hill – one of the few points the crowds were behind the barrier!

Heartbreak Hill could be the most suitable name for a hill since someone called Mount Everest a 'bloody big mountain'. The incline and the bends leading up to it seemed excruciating to me on foot, let alone after one lap of a tremendously long bike ride. As a polite British person, I positioned myself behind a barrier, with a great view of the athletes approaching the crest of the hill. Unknown to me, in Switzerland barriers are more of a gentle guideline than a hard enforced rule. So as the crowd moved to surround the road with barely enough room for your average American to squeeze through, let alone a bike hurtling past, I waited for Philip. My task was to try to tell him his position (he was 5th out of the swim) and distinguish which number in his age group was leading. Cyclists zoomed past when suddenly, another flash of red, gritted teeth and it was Philip! "Go Phil, go!" Like that he was gone, and in all the excitement I forgot to even mention his position or who was leading or by how much. Well, at least he had my support. Onto the transition between bike and run, hopefully he moves slower then.

As I waited by the entrance to transition, I thought to myself that I hadn't eaten anything. Then I reminded myself that Philip probably hadn't either (High5 bars and gels don't count as actual 'food'), so I should probably stop complaining and get on with telling Philip the information. 

AJ doing his duty in Bolton 2012 – 'Telling Philip information'

9th place and 10 minutes behind the leader, wearing black, red and white. He zoomed into transition, I blurted out "9th, black red and white, ten minutes." Realising that he probably didn't have an Enigma code breaker, I should probably try and relay that information slightly clearer on the run. 

The run loop in Zurich can best be described as a labyrinth with no string to guide you out, overly filled loos and faces that can only be described as "pained". I positioned myself, and suddenly heard Philip shouting my name. My first thought was I don't really need the support, but thanks Phil. Then I remembered my job, and starting a slight jog, I shouted the information clearly and then waited for him to loop round and make sure he knew exactly his position. While on the cycle I relied on my eyes and guile to establish Philip's position, on the run this was impossible as there were four laps, so everyone was mixed in. I got onto the Ironman website and athlete tracker, and texted Chantal rather sheepishly saying "I don't know what position he's in, need updates every half an hour or so." I waited nervously for the duration of marathon, switching between looking at my phone and the course. With every glance of the phone, I thought I'd missed Philip. Then with every look at the course, I saw him. Except it wasn't him. You'd be surprised how many triathletes wear red tri suits and white visors. Change it up a bit Philip. 

Suddenly, it was his final lap and he was 1 and a half minutes behind 3rd place and a guaranteed Kona slot. In the confusion and an extremely poorly timed wee stop, I lost him during a crucial time. Note to other spectators: like the athletes, pee yourself - it's perfectly normal at Ironman events and no one will judge you. The race is more important. I then saw him running away from me, and I took flight to try and get the crucial information to him. Alas, he's a shifty guy, and he ran on to a bit where I couldn't follow him, so I would have to wait for him to come all the way back, before saying he was desperately close to 3rd. I waited, and waited. I was sweating as much as the athletes at this point. (This could speak more to my horrific fitness levels than anything else, but I was nervous) Suddenly I saw the guy in 3rd, and timed exactly how far Philip was back. Forty-five seconds separated them and I said to Philip "you're 45 seconds back from third, dig deep." I knew if there was any man that could cut down that time, it was Philip. I sprinted as fast as I could to the finish line, but all I could hear was the commentator saying how fast Philip was sprinting, and that he finished in 9 hours 29 minutes. A personal best, but as a former competitive sportsman, I knew that would be bittersweet unless he got the Kona slot. I quickly checked the Ironman website, and my biggest fear popped up on the screen. Fourth place. My heart sank, and I checked the guy in third's time. Thirty seconds separated them. After nine and a half hours of competition, thirty bloody seconds. I made my way to the area where competitors could meet their supporters and family and waited for Philip. No sign, so I sent a quick text and went to the food area and just sat down. I was mentally drained, slightly physically drained, so I can't really imagine what Philip was feeling. 

9 hours 29 minutes. A PB, but was it good enough? Or maybe he's practicing the hula for Hawaii?

Eventually, Philip emerged and we chatted about the race. A knee injury resulted in his fourth marathon lap really slowing him down, and in reality he'd performed an incredible feat to finish where he had and in the time he had. As I said, this was rather bittersweet, but Philip was in high spirits, looking at the race logically, knowing that he could have gone much faster without the knee injury, and he'd left every shred of energy on the course. He'd performed extremely well, and there was still a chance for a Kona spot with a roll down. We waited around to watch people Philip knew finish, before returning back to the hotel for an extremely well deserved sleep for us both. 

As it turned out Philip got a spot to Kona from the roll down. In one word for me, relief. I could start feeling less guilty about peeing when I did and losing Philip at such a crucial time. Philip was going to Kona, and if I can, hopefully I will too. However, my journey as an Ironman supporter for the weekend had fortunately come to a successful end. What a journey it was. I now appreciate much more what my mother had previously done, while I minced around the course. I learned a lot from the weekend, namely:
  • Don't ever ditch your duties to pee.
  • Ask the athlete you're supporting to get a bright pink wetsuit.
  • Bikes go very fast, even uphill.
  • Experience the trials and tribulations of your athlete, no solid food during the race.
  • After what may seem like an excruciatingly long amount of time, half a minute still makes a difference.
AJ (left) was the only cog in Team Philip's support crew (and yes he is bigger than Philip)

If you're reading this and trying to decide whether to support that idiotic friend/sibling/spouse in their next triathlon endeavour, I strongly encourage you to go. I have never competed in an Ironman, but with every cheer, every "allez" and every random name you read on someone's bib as they run past you, you see their faces change from excruciating pain to maybe half a smile, maybe a grimace, but I like to think it makes a difference. For Team Philip, it is onto Kona, and the big island. With any luck I'll be there and won't be the only cog for Team Philip, as I don't think my heart can quite take it - and I hear Adult Nappies in the humid island conditions are unpleasant at the best of times. Despite no commentator announcing it, I can now say "AJ, you are an Ironman... supporter."