In the run up to the World Championships, Rhalou takes on an Ironman 70.3 relay in Austria’s Zell Am See.
A sucker for a challenge, when I received a call from the Austrian tourist commission asking me to participate in a triathlon relay, I immediately said yes. Their cyclist had dropped out at the last minute and they needed a stand-in. The only catch was I had one week to prepare. The promise of a fancy bike loan and a long weekend in Austria sounded like fun. Feeling fit from marathon training, I figured I could wing it. But then they mentioned the fateful word ‘Ironman’ and I had to sit down for a minute.
The Holy Grail of the events world, the fabled Ironman is whispered in hushed tones amongst the fitness community. The name alone sounds like serious business. And we’ve all seen that YouTube video of two women wobbling across the finish line in Hawaii.
Luckily this was a 70.3 distance, but with 90K of alpine mountain to conquer, there was still a strong chance I was going to die, and I’d only signed up for one third of the challenge. Lord knows how the triathletes soon to undertake the whole distance would be feeling. I invested in some extra strength chamois cream and developed a last minute relationship with God.
Set to host the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2015, the weekend was something of a trial run for the new course before next year’s event, which will be the first time the World Championships are held outside North America. Upon arrival, it was easy to see why the Ironman machine chose Zell Am See for the event. Nestled in the Austrian Alps roughly an hour’s drive from Salzberg, with its crystal clear lake, picturesque mountains and penchant for nude saunas; the little town is the perfect location for a triathlon.
After our race briefing I was relieved to discover my fellow teammates were journalists as opposed to hardened athletes, so we agreed to focus on simply getting round the course alive. With my performance directly affecting our runner’s chance of participation, the pressure was still on. But with 100 qualifying spots for the World Championships up for grabs, the atmosphere amongst the serious contenders was considerably more intense.
On Sunday morning we jostled amongst the anxious masses to watch the swimmers descend upon the sun-dappled lake. Located just a kilometre outside of town, the swim start and transition were all at the same place, which eased the logistical nightmare often associated with triathlons. Fortunately for me our superfast swimmer came in at 39 minutes, which gave me extra time to tackle the bike ride. Surely I could complete a 90K course in less than 4.5 hours? Following a tense time-chip swap in the relay tent, I set off feeling confident.
I spent the first hour trying to keep my cool while countless eager traithletes whizzed past me. More and more cyclists overtook me as we gradually climbed higher into the mountains and I started to feel giddy. I concentrated on grinning inanely at the spectators, who could sense my ineptitude and rewarded me with the loudest cheers. But their encouraging ‘Up up up’ chants coincided with the elevation and as we began the 1292 metre climb, my confidence began to wane.
Several cyclists dismounted on the final monster hill and I felt smug for the first time all day. But then the mountains decided to show me whose boss, so I was forced to get off too. To add insult to injury, the heavens chose this moment to open and several billion tons of mountain fresh Austrian rainwater hammered down upon my weary head. And then I discovered that cycling downhill in the pouring rain is actually really, really hard. Cold, tired and a little bit scared, if it had just been me, I might have quit at this point. But the thought of letting my teammates down spurred me on and against the odds I kept going.
My persistence was finally rewarded and, as the roads began to level off, the clouds parted to reveal a stunning panorama of snow-capped mountains. I put my foot down and, whizzing through fairy tale Austrian towns with unpronounceable names, I started to enjoy myself.
Aside from a deceptive out-and-back section in the last 20K, the final stretch was great fun and I thanked the tri Gods I had stuck with it. I even picked off a few cyclists, feeling immense relief mixed with respect and awe for all the crazy triathletes undertaking the full distance.
As I sped round the final corner I spotted our PR girl Martina waving maniacally at me. ‘You’ve got one minute,’ she shouted across the sea of exhausted cyclists preparing to run. I dropped my bike off and sprinted through transition faster than I’ve ever run in my entire life, nearly knocking my runner Stephen over as he grappled for our timing chip. He set off for the run with literally one minute to spare, leaving me to drown in a pool of relief.
Shaking with adrenaline, I dragged my feet to the finish line to devour a huge plate of pretzels while waiting for our runner to come through. 1:50 later Stephen careered across the finish line with a huge smile on his face and I felt so immensely proud of our makeshift relay team that if I hadn’t been so dehydrated, I would have started to cry.
Although a relay team is by no means a match for the full Ironman distance, taking on just one of the disciplines (having not trained sufficiently) was a real challenge and a nice little taster of what’s in store. Being part of a team was also a huge incentive to keep going and quadrupled the post race celebrations. But will I brave the full race distance and join the ranks of bona fide Iron-men next year? It’s one challenge I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of winging at the last minute. But I’ve got cosiderably more time to train and some unfinished business to attend to, so if I get the call again, I suspect I will be saying yes.