Coach Soraya – My first IRONMAN and 12 tips to make yours successful too!
Coach Soraya joined us in 2019 and it happened to coincide with her first attempt at an IRONMAN. She had chosen the famous IRONMAN Austria to be her first attempt at toe-ing the line and describes below her experiences. We can see how her passion and emotions run through her race experience. It is very clear we will see her doing a few more IRONMAN distance races in the not too distant future! Soraya has provided us with her twelve top tips which she wishes she had known before starting!
It’s 2pm on Thursday 4th July. My mother and I reach our hotel in Maria Worth, not too far from Klagenfurt. It’s a hot day, so we decide to go for a quick swim before heading to the Ironman village. As I jump in, I notice how warm the water is, and the first thing I tell my mother is "oh shit, non wetsuit swim”. Good start!
We walk into the Ironman village to register. My first thought: “oh my god, 3 days to go”. I'm there a day before the rush (Thursday), so I can take my time to explore the expo and contribute properly to the Ironman money making machine! I ask about the water temperature, and sure enough, it’s above 24.5 degrees. Like most of us, I had been in denial that a non wetsuit swim was possible so I failed to plan for that eventuality. What do I wear? The options are: swimsuit, tri suit or swim skin. I start looking for swim skins and am ambushed with sales pitches: you can save 3sec/100m on your swim time with this swim skin (200 euros) or, look how well it repels water (salesman throws a glass of water on me). I’ll be honest, these sales tactics nearly work on me, but I decide to go back to the hotel to think about it. Realistically, the max I will save is 2 minutes. 100 euros a minute. Worth it? Absolutely not. Not for me anyways (if I was trying to qualify for Kona then we would be having a different conversation). I decide to swim in my tri shorts and a crop top/bra.
Tip #1: think about what you will wear in different weather conditions, and train in all the options: wetsuit/not wetsuit, very hot, very cold, rain...etc. As you all know, never try something new on race day!
It’s 4am on Sunday 7th July 2019. The alarm goes off, but of course, I’m already awake. The pre race adrenaline has already kicked in and I couldn’t sleep much. Today is the day I will (hopefully) become an Ironman.
I get up and have my usual 2 white toasts with peanut butter, banana and honey. I then pray that I manage to go number 2 - yes, you read that right. It would be rather annoying to suddenly feel the urge half way through the swim! I do what I have to do, get dressed and off we go to transition. Just before heading out, I go through my final checks.
Tip #2: always have a checklist. No matter how experienced you are, “race brain” will probably get you at some point, so be prepared. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.
I’m in the car with my husband. Behind us, 3 more cars carrying 10 more people. 10 poor souls that came to support me and had to wake up at 5am because of me. But honestly, at this stage, I don’t really care (self centred much?).
As I enter transition, a sudden wave of emotion overcomes me - I tell myself “come on Soraya, hold it together, it’s a long day ahead, you can’t start crying now, already!”. I get on with my pre race prep: pump up my tyres (it was very hot the previous day so I had let them down a little when I dropped my bike off), add nutrition, and set my cycle computer.
Tip #3: if it's very hot when you drop your bike off, let some air out of your tyres and pump them back up on race day (remember, heat increases the pressure). There is a strong chance that there will be a pump in transition on race day.
Bike is ready - she’s looking good. I’m on my way out of transition and oh oh, I need the toilet again! Nerves, what can you do? So I join the queue - luckily it’s not too long as I’m quite early.
Tip #4: arrive early to avoid the toilet rush/stress. At 70.3 Staffordshire, the queue for the toilet was over 30 minutes long. Sometimes there is also a lot if traffic driving into the race start area - something to consider if you're driving. Don't be the person to be caught with your trousers down!
I meet my family outside transition and off we go to swim start. It’s a rolling start, so I position myself in the <1h10 starting pen (my goal). My husband gently reminds me that people tend to be rather optimistic about their swim times, so I make my way to the back of the <1h group. Before I know it, I hear 5 beeps and a volunteer say “go” to me. I’m off! I know most people get nervous about a non wetsuit swim, but let me put your mind at ease: it’s fantastic. You get no chafing around your neck, you feel fresh but not cold (the water won’t be cold as wetsuits were banned), and you don’t have to bother with taking the wetsuit off after the swim and putting it away into your bike bag (not to mention then carrying a wet wetsuit back home).
Tip #5: don’t let unexpected things throw you off (easier said than done, but this is a mindset you will need to master). Think positively and remember, everyone is in the same situation.
Half way through the swim I remember that I forgot to take my energy gel before going in - oops, there’s that race brain acting up. I finish the swim in 1h09 - pretty much where I thought I’d be. However, even having started at the end of the <1h group, no one near me overtook me, and I overtook lot’s of people. It’s annoying that people don’t respect the starting times, but it is what it is.
Tip #6: be realistic about your target swim time range, but start at the quicker end of it because a) people are too optimistic and b) you might find good feet to draft off (people that know me, know how much I love drafting!)
The swim went by quickly and in no time another volunteer holds out his hand to help me out of the water. I am greeted by my amazing support team - all shouting “Go Soraya”. A little bit of energy right there (better than the missed gel) - I’ll take it. I run to my bike bag, put on my tri top, shoes (no fancy mounting to flying mount), helmet, sunglasses and race number. A quick gel, and I’m off.
Tip #7: if you are planning to wear socks, which for long distance I would recommend, then putting some talcum powder inside them helps with getting them on with wet feet.
It’s cooler than the previous day, but hot nonetheless. Beautiful scenery and a fantastically fast course. I look at my average speed and power, and think to myself, slow down, you will pay for this later. But I’m having such a good time, and I know some slower sections are yet to come, so I power through. As I approach Moosburg (80km into the bike), I start looking out for my support crew as I know they took the bus to that point. Surely enough, I hear my dad’s voice “Soraya!” as I shoot past him, then I see Luiz’s aunt and uncle, and as I begin the climb, I see my brother, his wife and my step dad shouting me on. Shortly after, I see Hubby with his classic “go Wifey!” cheer, then my mum screaming at the top of her lungs “allez ma fille” and running after me. Then my mother in law jumping up and down with her banner, and then her cousin running up the hill after me shouting “vai Soraya”. I can’t begin to describe the energy and emotions that resulted from this - my heart rate is probably over 200bpm at this stage and it will take at least 10 minutes for me to calm down after all that excitement! I have to be honest here, I genuinely believe my cheer team was by far the best one there, so I feel like I had an unfair advantage on other competitors!
Tip #8: if your friends and family offer to come support you, say yes! The more the merrier.
Heart rate back under control, I make my way to the special needs bag which is located by km 95. I know it’s not the most race-like attitude to take, but I stop to eat my sandwich and banana. Sandwich and pipi stop on the bike cost me 8 minutes. To me, 8 minutes well spent as it meant I didn’t have to survive the day on gels and energy bars alone.
Tip #9: make sure you eat solid food on the bike even if it means you have to stop. Especially if it is your first Ironman - you don’t want to get to the run lacking energy because you didn’t eat enough. In my next Ironman, I will have a sandwich in my pocket and eat it on the go, but I will eat one nonetheless.
Feeling energised, I set off again for another 85km. At this stage, I’m thinking, “you know what, it’s not that bad, I’m more than half way through the bike and then it’s just a marathon - I’ve done one of those before”. As we get to the second encounter with my support team (Faakersee) at approx 120km, I feel my energy levels drop a little. Quickly, I chug at the very dense energy liquid in my bottle. I start to panic a little and start calculating what I’ve been consuming. Conclusion: I am a bit behind on my liquids. It’s ok, what’s done is done, but I must stay on top of it now.
Tip #10: be on top of your nutrition, know what you need to consume and when. Know it inside out. Remember: race brain will affect you.
My family do not disappoint, they provide another boost of energy. I now have under 50km to go. As I leave them, the sun slowly disappears and I see some dark clouds approaching. The storms that were promised are getting dangerously close. My legs are also starting to fatigue but I try to pick up the pace, as I don’t want to be caught in a storm. With 15km to go, it starts to rain. 3km later the sky is falling on us. I can’t see more than 2m ahead of me, and the cross winds are threatening to take me with them! I’m stuck in a low gear as I have just finished a climb, but can’t risk changing my hand position on this descent. It is what it is - what could have been a lovely 40kph+ section became a perilous 25kph section with branches flying everywhere! I am expecting to see a black flag signalling me to stop at any moment, but I see nothing so I carry on. As I approach the dismount line I see (and hear) my support team - completely drenched, but 100% true to their objective of the day: to cheer me on. Knowing I have all these people supporting me gives me an extra bit of warmth.
I get to transition and decide to go for a full change as I am drenched from head to toe. 12 minutes in transition - I took the time I needed to recompose myself. I was in there for so long that by the time I come out, it’s no longer raining. Here we go, just a marathon left now. I start running and feel ok. I start a little fast and hear hubby telling me to slow down, that I still have 42km to do. Wise advice! I stick to my target, a slow 6min/km, for the first 13km. At 14km, still no sign of my family, and my pace is starting to drop. My legs are just not responding. It is obviously because I am not sticking to my nutrition plan, but race brain thinks otherwise.
Tip #11: practice practice practice your nutrition otherwise you will not stick to your plan and/or you will spend half your race in the toilet
One toilet stop later and 20km into the run, I finally see Luiz. I greet him with a slap on the shoulder and an angry “what the f*** man, 20km!?” - what an entitled reaction! Oops. Thankfully he knows about race brain too so doesn’t really mind! From then on, my support team is back in action. I’m more than half way through my marathon and I can taste the finish. Just keep going. I’m already thinking about my next Ironman, and how my run must be stronger next time. I’m not even finished with this one, that I’m already narrowing down the list: off the top of my head, maybe Zurich or Vichy.
With 15km to go, I see my dad (76 years old - not sporty at all, but active). He starts running next to me and I say "oh god, if you can keep up then I REALLY must be going slow". He managed to stay with me for 200m, quite a feat!
I see my mum as I run past the waterfront for the last time. I have 12km to go. She sprints past me (I have never seen her run so fast in my life), and turns around to take a photo. She misses it and yells: “Wait. Stop. Photo!”. This, to me, is the funniest moment in the race. I don’t know whether to slap her or hug her! I just shrug and keep going. I mean seriously!?
The last 10km are the most surreal - I find a pace (somewhat north of 7min/km) and realise that actually, I can keep going for a long time like this. I can’t go faster but I can go further. Before I know it, I see the finish line. Conflicting emotions rise: disbelief, relief, happiness, sadness and disappointment that it’s over. I can’t hold the tears back this time: I am an Ironman.
What I thought would be my one and only Ironman, is now the first of what I hope are many to come. I have learnt a lot about myself in this race. I thought it would be the hardest thing in the World, when in fact, it wasn’t. I would hardly call it easy, but if you train (and listen to your TTH coach), then there is no reason why you couldn’t do it. Now it’s time to train some more and get faster!
Tip #12: trust your programme and trust yourself. If you train for it, you will do it. #anythingispossible #BelieveStriveAchieve