“The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”. That is the story of my attempt to race Ironman Copenhagen. Rather than being out there pounding the pavement, I ended up watching the race since I didn’t have a bicycle, in spite of the efforts of myself and a number of Danish triathletes. In the end, it was not meant to be. It just gives me an excuse to come back another year—with my own bike—and do what must be one of the fastest, and best supported Ironman races anywhere.
The Genesis of a Crazy Idea
For our 25th wedding anniversary my long suffering Danish wife Lis proposed a trip to Europe. She wanted to visit Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. I suggested that we reverse the order and ever observant, she asked “what is on” … Well, Ironman Denmark is August 18th and since we would be in town I might consider racing.
Now, there is a not so fine line between confidence, optimism, and hubris. Racing Ironman Copenhagen six weeks after finishing the 4,418 km Tour Divide mountain bike race would cross two, if not three of those. After all, the race manual was clear that: “Competing in an IRONMAN race may cause serious damage to your body.” And that is if one is fully recovered and properly trained.
My view was that if one adjusts one expectations, then an Ironman isn’t that hard. After all, it is over in a day whereas the Tour Divide was 22 days of continuous racing. I had my residual Tour Divide fitness, my wet suit, so all I needed to do was to overcome the small challenges of not having run or swum in months, no time to train, no proper nutrition, and no bike (my time trial bike was in New Zealand and I was not about to drag my Tour Divide bike throughout Europe—and they might not allow a mountain bike in the race!). While I managed to get around the fitness aspects (to a degree) the bike would prove to be my undoing.
My training would be sporadic at best since after the Tour Divide I had two weeks in Toronto, ten days in Washington D.C., a week in Switzerland, a week in Germany and then I’d arrive in Copenhagen three days before the race.
When I arrived in Toronto I learned that I could still enter the Toronto Triathlon Festival (TTF) which was an Olympic Distance Race (1.5 km swim, 40 km bike ride, 10 km run) to be held in twelve days. Great. I’d use the TTF as a brick training weekend, and then just figure out how to get my swim and running up to the Ironman distances (3.8 km swim, 180 km bike, 42 km run).
For running I decided to try the ‘Runners World’ magazine ‘SmartCoach’. This is a tool which lets you put in a recent race time and then proposes a program. I loved what they said when I told them I wanted to train for a marathon in six weeks:
The RUNNER’S WORLD SmartCoach has provided the training program you selected. However, you have asked for a program that doesn’t allow you sufficient time to get in optimal shape. Please consider changing your race plans. If you go ahead with your plan to enter this race, be prepared to run very conservatively.
Thanks for the reminder that I wouldn’t be in optimal shape. They suggested that I run only twice a week with a build up to a long run of 27 km then hope for the best in the race. I guess they figure if you can run 2/3 of the marathon you can make it to the end. The runs were a combination of tempo and longer runs so I decided to run as much as I could without overdoing it, and build up as quick as I could to longer distances.
For swimming, it was really just swim as much as I could for as long as I able, and try and get the body used to it again!
I had a road bike in Toronto and Washington D.C. which were fine. Once I started travelling it was a bit more challenging. I ended up hiring a mountain bike in Switzerland and in Germany a three speed, upright bike. I have to admit that I was in more pain on the German bike than I should have been. I just find that upright position so weird …
I did some good hard riding when we were in Switzerland including a long 7+ hour 100 km ride which I felt was good training for the race. How can 100 km put you in a good frame of mind for a 180 km race? When it is on a mountain bike and you climb 3000 m over two mountain ranges in the ride.
Swimming was easy in Toronto as there was a good pool near my mother’s apartment. I got myself up to 3.2 km of lengths in the pool within two weeks before total boredom set in—and that was with my underwater MP3 player. Since a wet suit is worth another 10%+ I figured I could last the 3.8 km open water swim, but it would be hard. While in D.C. I got a few swims in outdoors. I wasn’t able to swim in Germany but went for a swim in Switzerland at Interlaken lake near Thun. I swam up the river against the current into the lake which was really hard work, and then enjoyed zooming back. Was great to have my wet suit on and get the feel of open water swimming. I do enjoy being free of the pool.
Unfortunately, the Thun swim showed that I was not yet fully recovered from my ‘incident’. When I was in D.C., some three weeks before the race, I passed out while at church and did a face plant which resulted in six stitches to my eyebrow. For some inexplicable reason my blood pressure collapsed (80/40). The ambulance guys couldn’t find a vein for the IV and after three failed attempts on my right arm switched to the left. Lis and I got to spend several hours in the hospital where they failed to find any reason for the ‘incident’. Perhaps it was the 25 km run I did that morning? Who knows. Anyway, they wanted to keep me in for observation but I declined and checked myself out. I felt fine (and Lis who was a cardiac nurse agreed), except for my right arm with the failed IV punctures/bruising, and the crack on my head.
Even though my Thun swim was two weeks after the ‘incident’, the swim and my wetsuit compression really aggravated the extensive bruising that I still had from the missed IVs and my arm was in a continuous moderate pain. Really bugged me during my running and riding. I decided that it was best to forgo any more swimming and just run and ride when I could. Talk about sub-optimal training!
The knee pain that I developed during the Tour Divide race had largely subsided, insofar as it was no longer so prevalent during the ride and didn’t start until about 20-25 km in the run so I was cautiously optimistic that it would hang together for the run. The physio in Toronto assured me that there was nothing structural and it was nerve damage. Later a new pain started on the other side of the knee, but it was intermittent so I figured nothing major. After four knee operations on my right knee I’m a pretty good judge of knee pains! Just to be sure, I decided to have one of my Oxycontin pills from my Tour Divide medical kit with me on the run in case the knee blew out and I needed to tough it out to finish. I didn’t use them in Ironman Brazil when I passed a kidney stone just after the half way point in the run, so hopefully they would not be required in Copenhagen.
I had to find a bike in Copenhagen to rent/borrow for the race. Lis called nine bike shops in Copenhagen but none could help. I put a post to the Danish triathlon web site and several triathletes offered to help. Given that I had not been on a time trial bike for six months, and I was getting the bike two days before the race, I knew my body would not be happy as it takes some time to get dialled into the time trial position. But beggars cannot be choosers! At least I had packed my bike shoes and pedals.
Lis and I arrived Thursday night in Copenhagen and Friday just before lunch Michael from Fyn brought my very nice Giant Time Trial bike to the hotel. Frederik who kindly loaned me the bike had used it in the Race Across America (RAAM) where he and Hans had just missed setting the record by 3 h (took them 6 days 22 h to San Diego – Annapolis!). Frederik had put on his training wheels as I didn’t want to race with his nice tubular Zipp 808’s.
Michael and I went to the race expo to register and I attended the pre-race briefing. It was held in the Radhus which is the old City Hall. A magnificent building, it was where the Danish royalty had meetings. We all sat on the floor while they walked us through the race and the rules. A very large contingent of international athletes, and I was not the only New Zealander!
When I got back to the hotel I started working on the bike fit. It was not good. Besides the fact that Frederik had a very aggressive aero position, I also could not lower the seat far enough for me not to overextend my legs when riding. No hope of surviving a 180 km ride with the bike, or if I did, to run a marathon. I tried some of the others who offered bikes but couldn’t get one arranged in time to be in Copenhagen. We tried Lis’ uncle, but his bike was too small. Frederik came through with the perfect bike – Hans’ training road bike. But that one had the seat post fused in place and while Hans was willing to let me take it to bike shop to see if they could force it to be lowered, I knew it would be very bad for the carbon frame so declined to take him up on the offer.
By now it was the morning of the race. One bike shop offered me a road bike, but was a piece of junk. And that is from someone who was running out of options! The Cervelo guys at the race expo were helpful, but their bikes were all going to Germany that afternoon and after speaking to the local dealer they were unable to scrounge me a demo bike. So in the end, I accepted that it was just not meant to be and that I would end up watching the race. Disappointing, but as a Christian I believe that there is always a bigger picture that one needs to keep in mind. Perhaps I would have injured myself? We’ll never know. On the positive side, at least I didn’t have to get up early the following morning …
Copenhagen has the best supporting crowds I’ve ever seen at an Ironman race. I skipped watching the swim and wandered down to watch the bike race and then the run. As the bike course was next to my hotel I didn’t have far to go! It was fun walking down the streets of Copenhagen with the racers zooming by, and I planted myself at the entrance to T2 where the racers were dismounting from their bikes. I’ve never spent time watching this and it was very instructive—on what not to do! A large number left one shoe on the bike (either practice before hand or don’t try to leave your shoes on the bike); quite a few were trying to unpack nutrition as the race officials were trying to whisk away their bikes; and too many kept riding past the dismount line and almost crashed into other racers or officials. Very entertaining at times, and very scary as well.
Frederik joined me and I went over with him and his friends from Fyn to watch the run. Hans was there as well having finished his ride as part of a team. He broke 5 h for the ride which is impressive—but not surprising given his strength in RAMM. Every part of the course was lined with people and the enthusiasm and support for the runners was incredible. Unlike Ironman South Africa where you had extended periods in the middle of nowhere, I don’t think there was anywhere that the crowds were not two or more deep along the entire length of the course.
I ended up sitting in the bleachers at the finish line. The joy and energy of the finishers was palpable and there were such positive vibes all around. Things got very animated when Crown Prince Frederik—the next king of Denmark—crossed in a very respectable time of just over 10 h. The crowd went wild and I recorded it on the video below.
While I am disappointed not to have raced, it was still an incredible experience to watch Ironman Copenhagen. I’ll definitely be back—with my own bike this time—as with a flat course (but there is a lot of wind!) and such an amazing crowd, it is a fun fast race in a very beautiful city.