Ironman Switzerland

I decided to do my second Ironman race in Switzerland. After melting down in the heat of Ironman Korea last year, a race in more temperate climes held an attraction. With my transfer to working in the South Caucasus countries I also figured the logistics would be a lot easier. So on July 13th 2008 I found myself lining up to start a race in about 15 degree weather with rain. So much for wanting cooler temperatures – once should be careful what one wishes for …

I had three goals for the race: (i) finish; (ii) not to injure myself; and (iii) finish as well as I could given my fitness. I succeeded in (i) and (ii), and crossing the line with my long-suffering wife at 14:22.52 I can probably say that I even managed (iii). But talk about a long day …

Ironman Switzerland Finish

An Ironman race is very challenging with a 3.8 km swim, 180 km bike ride, followed by a 42 km marathon. There is this great scene in the Rocky III movie where Mr. T is asked what he predicts for the fight, looking at the camera he said “pain”. And that is what I was expecting today as I was severely under trained for the event.

You have to respect the Ironman distance as it puts a huge demand on your body. Last year’s effort took 13:38 so it’s a long day. At the start of the year my coach Margie and I devised an excellent training plan to get me up to the necessary fitness to race Ironman and better my previous year’s time. By the time of the race I should have done some 171,000 yards of swimming, 2,759 miles of cycling, and 523 miles of running.  Unfortunately, my work situation at the World Bank resulted in a ridiculous travel schedule: In the six months before the race I spent over 3 months travelling for work. With my February leave in NZ, I had only a total of six weeks in D.C.

While I was able to keep my running up – I was at 97% of my goal distance – swimming was more of a challenge–not all hotels had pools–so I was only at 31% of my goal (53,000 yards), and 21% of my cycling (586 miles).  In fact, I had managed to get a total of 51 miles of cycling in during the six weeks before the race. At the end of May in Armenia I had one long ride of 60 miles. My second longest was about 30 miles dawdling along the river in Munich on a sunny Sunday! While I hoped that my long history of riding would carry me through, I knew it would not be pretty. Still, I could only do my best on the day of the race, which is how it is with any race.

I flew into Zurich on Friday morning, having caught the 04:10 flight to Munich from Tbilisi. This was the end of a seven week business trip which took me Washington-Munich-Yerevan-Paris-Baku-Istanbul-Beijing-Wuhan-Beijing-Munich-Baku-Tbilisi-Munich-Zurich. Lis was to fly in later that morning. Two friends from my TriCats triathlon club, Joanne and Theresa, were also there. We had planned to stay at the same place, as well as some former TriCats as well – Kristin and her husband Hugh, as well as Amy. The former were now living in LA and Amy in England.

I assembled my folding “girlie” bike (Lis’ term) and then helped the others with theirs. What do IMGP3189 I mean by a “girlie” bike? Well, this is a folding bike which fits into a small suitcase. With 20 inch wheels it is a mere shadow of my regular triathlon bike (the sexiest bike around – a Cervelo P3 with Hed 3 carbon fibre race wheels thank you very much). But when faced with so much travel before the race it was the only viable option. I couldn’t schlep a large bike case on that many flights.

It was a beautiful sunny day so Joanne, Theresa and I decided to cycle over and go for a swim in Lake Zurich before registering and the 14:00 race briefing. I left Lis a note for when she arrived telling her where we would be – although I was not optimistic she would find us. She is directionally challenged at the best of time and with over 2300 athletes, volunteers and support crews around it would be a bit of a zoo.

The lake was lovely and I swam for 30 minutes, getting used to myIMGP3185 wet suit. The water was clear and not too cold, so I didn’t expect to have the same problem at Columbia triathlon with an asthma attack caused by cold water. Afterwards, we lounged in the sun and I chatted with a couple of athletes from Toronto – who else would every wear a ‘Maple Leafs’ hockey team hat: they are perennial losers.

I was truing the wheel of my bike when Lis arrived, with Sasha and Vincent, two triathletes she met at the airport who were also staying at our hotel. The bike boxes they were carrying were dead give   aways. In fact, the hotel was full of triathletes – probably because of its good price on Expedia.

IMGP3183We went over to the race briefing in a sweltering tent where we were told all about the race, what we were and were not permitted to do. Lots of rules, but this being Switzerland it is to be expected 🙂 It was, in fact, a very well organized race in all respects except one: toilets. With 2300+ athletes they were too few and too far between. However, IMGP3186they had lots of food and drink which was better than any other race I’d been to before. After the race breifing we wandered over and Lis cooled off in the lake. Poor girl doesn’t take the heat very well.

I was having problem with the rear gears and the “Bike Doctor” didn’t want to work on it since it wasn’t a “real” bike so I borrowed a stand and made some adjustments myself. In fact, he didn’t believe that I was going to actually do an Ironman on the bike, until a couple of other athletes assured him I was. The gears would be slightly problematic for the race, but manageable. Needed to replace the cable housing but that was too much trouble.

I was very tired after my travels so we headed back to the hotel where I had an early night. Two nights before a race is critical for sleep.  Saturday the sun was gone and it was raining big time, this would continue all the way to Monday morning.  However, Lis and I still went out for a wander around Zurich for a few hours. It really is a lovely town with the lake and the hills. We happened upon a boat jousting competition where two boats went at each other and two fellows tried to knock the other off a platform at the rear of the boat. It was watched by loud crowds and a boisterous band, but the jousters weren’t very good. As often as not both ended up in the water!

We went out for dinner with all the others, as well as Amy’s mum, Betty and Kirstin’s parents Bill and Mary. We ended up at an Italian restaurant which I left early to check my bike in. We were given specific times that we were to be there and woe betide us if we were outside of those times. The rain was quite heavy by now and IMGP3190I felt sorry for the people who had come a bit early to drop their bikes off; they were waiting under the trees, although eventually they let everyone with numbers below 2000 in early. There was another triathlon on that day and so the logistics were a bit complicated. I was grateful that they had plastic covers for our  bikes so all we saw was a sea of white plastic.

Another early night, and an even earlier morning as we were to be out the door at 05:00 into a taxi to go to the event. IMGP3199 Lis grabbed the photo of us at the hotel before we left.  She had wisely decided to follow about 06:00 on the tram rather than wait in the rain. It was raining heavily and quite cool. Not the best day for a race. My small wheels are a bit difficult to control in tight turns on wet roads so I’d need to be careful.

The race was very similar to regular triathlons insofar as the swim was next to the transition area, we would then exit the water and run to our bikes where would change – there were no changing tents – then out with our bikes onto the road, with two laps of 90 km. We would  return to the transition area where we would don our running gear, and do four laps of a course around town to cover the marathon distance.

IMGP3205By the time I got to the transition area to start setting up I was already cold and wet. So I quickly donned my wet suit to keep warm. There is a process to follow in preparing for a triathlon in order to help things go smoothly. I put food on my bike, drinks, spread out my gear so that I could quickly put on my cycling kit and then later my running kit, and then carefully put my plastic bike cover over everything to keep it dry.IMGP3201

Lis and I had arranged to meet at a tent and we also bumped into all the others as well so got some good photos taken.  As you can see, we are all smiling, in spite of the long day we had ahead of us!

For the 7:00 start there were no waves, just a mass start of some 2,300 athletes, although the 60  professionals did  leave 5 minutes before the IMGP3204rest of us. It was a water start so we swam out to the start line and treaded water waiting to start. I was grateful that the lake was fairly flat and I  even managed to fool myself into thinking that it was not raining that heavily any longer!

Soon the  hooter went to start the race.  I had decided to hang towards the back of the crowd as I’m not a strong swimmer and it is always very brutal the start of the swim – lots of full body contact. Not only did I not get beat up, but I almost immediately found clear water and was able to get into my rhythm: stroke-stroke-stroke-breathe left-stroke-stroke-stroke-breathe right, etc. Since I was not overly worried about being bashed, I concentrated on technique and so the swim felt really good. Even at the buoys, there were relatively few people and I didn’t get hit or kicked once.

I often have problems sighting the buoys, but they were very large and distinct so somehow I was able to also swim in a straight line. It was very strange as there were some 2,300 others around me. I mentioned this to Amy afterwards and she also found it the same.

It was a two lap course and we came into a small island where weIMGP3213 ran across the timing mat – this ensures we did actually do two laps – and Lis was there cheering me on. It was back into the water and once again I found clear space and got back into my rhythm. It was a long day and I did not want to go out too fast in the swim, but I was very pleased with my 1:23 for the 3.8 km. This was some 7 minutes faster than Ironman Korea, and I felt as though I had hardly worked the entire swim.

IMGP3216 In the transition I took off my wetsuit and put on my cycling gear, including extra food in the pockets for the ride. The fellow next to me was naked as he put on his shorts – one can tell it’s Europe! Amy mentioned that after the race she went for a massage and there was room with 50 tables, and everyone was just in their underwear (or less). The hot tubs were full of naked athletes. Definitely not the USA or Canada!

It was then out of transition and  onto the bike. I was grateful that I had brought along IMGP3217some arm warmers as it was very cool riding given the rain and the temperature. Others were wearing jackets but I would have overheated.

As mentioned  above, it was a two-loop course which started off for some 30 km along Lake Zurich and then headed into the mountains. The map below shows the course. The transition area was just below the top left.


Being Switzerland, there were a few hills to climb. The elevation chart below shows the ride elevation profile. The first climb into the hills wasn’t actually too bad, but then after some up and down we came to what the locals call “the Beast” which was a long, steep climb. There was a second descent before a second climb, which seemed to be interminable. Both steep and long. Coming down from this was fun, and then it was back along the lake. There was one further climb, called “Heartbreak Hill” which was very steep, but fortunately people would be lining the route like in the climbs of the Tour de France which would make it a bit easier, at least psychologically.


It was good to be on a bike again and the riding was quick along Lake Zurich. I told myself to hold back since I was not confident how the riding would go given my lack of preparation. Lots of people passed me on their very fancy triathlon bikes, which at least showed me that I did have a good swim time!

A lot of riders commented on my bike since it looked so out of place in a triathlon. I had tried it out on the Columbia Triathlon in May which was 25 miles and hilly and it was acceptable, but the hills here were a different story and since it is not a good climbing bike and I began to pay for my complete lack of cycling training. Usually I don’t mind hills, but I found it exceptionally hard work. Even though I had a good cadence I just couldn’t make good time up the hills. I felt like I was standing still at times – in part because of my small wheels. For the same gear and cadence each revolution moved me 20 inches compared to some 27 for regular bikes. Anyway, no other option but to persevere and put your head down and spin the pedals.

The scenery was stunning. There were green fields with cows, goats and sheep – and yes, the cows do have Swiss cow bells. IMGP3218In fact, even the goats and sheep have them. They come in all sizes and have a very distinctive sound to them. The Swiss are very keen on their cow bells and Lis took the photo to the left of some locals with slightly oversized bells.

The ride took us through numerous small villages which were all immaculately kept. I’ve never been in a place where everyone takes such good care of their homes. There were picture perfect churches with their steeples going into the sky. It was by far the prettiest ride I have ever done in a race.

I managed to stick to my nutrition plan. Every 15 minutes I had a bite of my energy bar, supplemented by gels and energy drink. Although one is burning about 700 calories an hour, it is only possible for your body to process about 270 cal/h so you need to be careful not to eat too much.  However, too little and you ‘bonk’. I had mixed the energy drink to six times the normal concentration so all I needed to do was to grab a water bottle at the refreshment stops and then add the concentrate. The refreshment stops were relatively frequent and very well equipped so there was sufficient food and water for everyone. At one station the announcer said (in German) “Here comes Christopher Bennett on his ???? [didn’t understand] bike”. It definitely got me attention! Children seemed to really like it – pointing and smiling.

I knew that I was very well hydrated by having to stop to relieve my bladder five times during the ride. I feel sorry for women who can’t just pull of to the side of the road and do their duty – I saw several running into the woods (probably Americans as Europeans would likely not be bothered!).

After the mountains it was down to the lake again and over  towards Heartbreak Hill. By mile 50 I was in trouble and I wondered whether or not I could finish the ride, let alone do a IMGP3223 marathon afterwards. The mountains had already taken their toll. I continued on, slowing down a bit and ensuring I kept to my nutrition plan.  I didn’t find Heartbreak hill too bad, and it was fun having all the crowds there.  There was a loud band, lots of cheers, and eventually I crested. Unfortunately, I missed Lis-who got the photo to the left-but I did see Betty, Bill and Mary just past the crest. At the bottom of the hill I felt like stopping: there was the Lindt chocolate factory! Unfortunately it was closed so I had to continue…

Lap two was not fun, as I knew what was coming, but at least the rain was letting up which meant the roads were less slick. This let me take advantage more of the downhill runs where I remember my friend Kat’s comments “momentum is your IMGP3224 friend”. I managed to hit 65 km/h on the steepest section. Quite the adrenalin rush on my girlie bike. Eventually I made it back to the transition with a 6:50 for the ride. I’ll take 26+ km/h for 180 km after no training on a non-climbing bike! Especially given that I was being passed by some guys on top bikes with aero helmets at km 160. I won’t use that bike for an Ironman distance race again. It is not too bad for shorter distances, or courses without long, steep grades, but the Ironman distance seems a bit much.

IMGP3225 I transitioned well and was grateful that I had packed dry socks in my after-race bag which I had left in the transition area, otherwise my feet would have been completely mush by the end of the marathon. The run started well and I was able to keep at my 9:30 pace for the first lap of 10.5 km. However, into the second lap I began to feel very unwell. My legs and lungs were fine, it was just a deep discomfort in my stomach/intestine area. Even though I was running I felt very cold and so decided to do the marathon runner’s survival trick: run/walk.

About km 13 I saw Lis and she grabbed this photo. Not the most inspiring position for a IMGP3228triathlete to be in! One is supposed to be moving … I asked her to walk with me for a while.  She kindly gave me her rain coat as I was very, very cold in spite of the running. Not a good sign. Relief really only came after I was able to make a few visits to the toilet and get rid of the contents of my system.  We walked about 5 km and then I was able to run again so I went off.

The run was essentially along the shore of Lake Zurich so I was IMGP3229glad that there were no hills. With four loops we were always seeing the other runners, although as the day progressed there were fewer and fewer. I saw Amy doing a great pace, as well as the others at different stages. I was not able to take food but after a while I could have a bit of water and Lis took this celebratory photo at a refreshment stand.

I was able to continue running – albeit very slowly at about an 12 minute/mile pace. The IMGP3238crowds were definitely thinning out now, but it was good to be moving along. Lis caught me showing off a bit. I ran along with Valerie, an older Canadian woman who said that with luck we may break 14 h. She had a vocal cheering section. . Unfortunately about km 38 when the discomfort kicked back in again with a vengence so I had another slow walk, before running in the last 3 km to finish. I had not been able to take any nutrition since km 13, and little water, so I was amazed that I actually finished. The marathon time was 5:57 so at least I broke 6 h! This gave me 14:23 for the race.

IMGP3240 Lis ran with me through the finish chute. One of the volunteers took this photo of us. I have definitely seen better days! But it was a long, tough day and I was glad it was over. All that for a medal, t-shirt and a towel. Psychologists would have a field day ..

I appreciated the towel as it was raining hard and I was quite cold. I went into the athletes tent to try and eat something, without success. I asked Lis to wait at the exit to the tent but she got confused and went to the transition area tent instead. I spent some time wandering around for her in the dark rain before I went over to transition IMGP3242 where I found her waiting. They were not strict and allowed her in to help me assemble my gear which was great as I was not in the best of shape by then, cold, tired and wet! I was pleased to make it home into a hot bath with a leg rub from my long-suffering wife.

The next morning I caught up with Amy who did a 10:52 and came 8th in her age group. An impressive performance for her first Ironman. Theresa missed the cutoff time for cycling by 10 seconds and was not allowed to continue to the run so was disqualified. Joanne came in just a few seconds under 14:00, while Hugh and Kristin finished together at about 13:40. I was the laggard at 14:22 but all in all I was pleased with how things went. Lis has suggested that with my World Bank commitments it may be impossible for me to keep on doing Ironman. Sage advice, but then again, as if I ever listen to my wife 🙂

Lis had made a mistake with our bookings so we had to check out that day as the hotel was full. We headed up to Murren near the Eiger mountain so that I could ‘recover’ by hiking in the alps (her idea, not mine!). It was very easy to get there. Train from Zurich to Berne. Change to a train to Interlaken. Change to a train to Lauterbrunen. Take a gondola up the mountain. Take another train to Murren. About three hours due to the excellent Swiss train system and at most five minutes wait between trains. We then had a 1 km walk to our hotel. Having to lug two bags – including my bike – I was not in the best of moods when we arrived, but the beauty of the area soon dispelled that.

The next day we were at  Jungfraujock some 3500+ metres up in the most beautiful place imaginable, hiking above the glacier in the snow.  But that’s another story.



7 responses to “Ironman Switzerland

  1. Fatastic achievement. Well done. Well engineered.

  2. Congrats on another Ironman! Not sure how you train with all that int’l travel, but it’s very impressive.

  3. Great report and impressive finish! Especially with that bike and those hills!

    There are 3 of us from the DC area heading to Switzerland this July. We are all members of Team Z and this will be the first Iron-Distance race for all of us.

    • Thanks for the complement! I wouldn’t say it was a great finish, but it was a finish 🙂
      Enjoy the race – it really is a beautiful bike ride, especially on a real bike!

  4. Moving to a small town outside of Zurich in a few weeks, after living in Ohio and racing IM Louisville. I hope to race IM Switzerland soon. Thanks for the great write up on your experience.

  5. heading to zurich later this month. thanks for sharing your race details…ive picked up a lot of ‘dos’ from your article 🙂

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