Ironman Hamburg race report - Craig Burrows

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Coached athlete Craig Burrows raced Ironman Hamburg a few weeks ago, lets hear what he thought about this race and see how he got on:

Continuing the modus operandi of 2017’s ‘only flat races need apply’, Ironman Hamburg promised to be just that. With a fraction over 1000m of climbing (IM wales has almost 3000m for a comparison) and two loops of closed road German tarmac this had all the potential to be a PB course, and that's precisely why I chose it. After successfully negotiating personal bests in both Marathon and 70.3 distance this year it was time to turn my full attention to the one that mattered most.

Training: Sitting down with coach (Mark Whittle) we knew that breaking 10 hours would go right down to the wire. Everything would have to go to plan on the day from the controllable, such as pacing and nutrition, all the way down to the ‘acts of God’, including weather and mechanicals. One of the personality traits that I admire about Mark is that he won’t tell you something for the sake of appeasing you. When I approached him about breaking 10 hours he told me that he thought I ‘could’ do it but having a sub-3 marathon PB and sub-10 Ironman PB goal in the same year would make it very very difficult. He wasn’t trying to put me off attempting it but was doing a good job of managing my expectations and ambition.

So why 10 hours? Well, quite simply put, because I would have to hurt for it. I couldn’t just turn up at the start line and know that I would ‘probably’ achieve it. The challenge needed to scare me  and this certainly did. Was it was a stretch goal? Yes. Impossible? I didn’t think so. I achieved 11:00:13 last year at Ironman Weymouth and was delighted, but I knew I could go faster. But by an hour?

Training in the months prior to Hamburg appeared, on the surface, to be less intense and demanding than in previous years. My weekly training volume averaged 11-12 hours with only a few weeks reaching the dizzy heights of 18-20 hours.

Looks can be somewhat deceiving though as many months of training for April’s London Marathon and 3 years of long course experience ensured a strong aerobic base was built. I was in a strong position going into the training, and I needed to be. A large focus was placed on improving my bike with 2-3 tough turbo sessions a week supplemented by a longer endurance ride on the weekend. Running just ticked over and the swim, well, I tried.

DHG2K7oXYAAwzfH.jpg largeI was a complete shambles of a human in the build up to Hamburg. I struggled to hit my power numbers, complete easy runs and motivate myself to swim. I blamed the weather, family, life, anything I could think of that interrupted my training. The self handicapping had started, getting my excuses in early in order to shield my ego from inevitable failure. My mood at home was unmanageable as I became very irritable, short tempered and intolerant of things that I usually embrace. Having got engaged a month prior to the race Loz was thankfully still in a bubble of good feeling and fortunately in an understanding and forgiving mood.

Self doubt is inevitable, especially with a stretch goal. Nobody likes to fail and we naturally do all we can to save face when there is a chance of not reaching those goals. Tiredness and fatigue in the weeks prior to an event is normal and training will inevitably suffer. Usually I embrace it, this time I let it get to me and I took it out on those around me. In future I may just ignore the data and numbers for the last month of training and just go on feel.

The swim: My recent swim training and some well heeded pointers off a friend put me in buoyant mood as I zipped up my wetsuit on race morning. I will never be at the pointy end of the field upon leaving T1 but I was hoping to put in a swim time of 1:05 and be out on the bike by 1:10. Achieving that would give me a solid start to the day.

The 3.8k swim course consisted of a large (2.5k) loop which passed from one area of Lake Alster to another, and back again via a few tunnels. After a (not so swift) Australian exit I was back in for a smaller (1.2k) loop, before finally passing through the final tunnel and swimming through a crowd laden 100m to the exit. Confused? I was too, but the jigsaw layout did a very good job of taking my mind off the actual swimming part and the different sections helped me mentally break up the swim into smaller (more manageable) segments.

The (now standard) rolling start meant I went off with the 1:05 swimmers and before I knew it, I was in the water trying to find my first set of feet. The lake wasn’t the cleanest and rather than feet all I had to go on were bubbles. I tried in vein to find a swim friend, moving from foot to foot like a promiscuous veruca but it never lasted very long and I actually think I was focusing more on trying to catch a draft than actually catch the water. The swim was largely uneventful apart from the merging of swimmers to go through the narrow tunnels before it fanned out again. The support throughout the swim was fantastic, with spectators lining the lake, run to transition and most spectacularly the tunnels. The tunnels were congested to swim through and my rhythm and confidence suffered as a result. I came out of the water in 1:09, 5 minutes behind my target. It was going to be a tough day.

Swim - 1:09

The bike: It was only after the Ocean Lava bike leg that I felt a velo based confidence boost, I realised that day, in the cruel wind, that aero is everything. I carried this attitude into Hamburg and Andy from Cranc Cyclesport optimised my bike fit for a more aggressive approach, whilst still allowing me to (hopefully) run off the bike. Leaving T1 I had time to make up hoping those tweaks would pay dividends.

The course was two 90k laps. The first 25 miles of each lap saw you head South out of Hamburg and was the hilly(est) section of the route. Not only did it see you pass over the impressive bridges (usually closed to cyclists), mix of industrial harbour, urban towns and rural villages but it was also the part of the course that included a testing headwind. Here was a good chance to test that new position. There were two things that I could control on the bike; my effort level and my nutrition.

Nutrition wise, I get my calories from a mixture of watered down gels, Isotonic drink and solid food. Nothing revolutionary I know. My only do’s and dont’s are not to take on plain water as it gives me no nutritional benefit that energy drink can’t and I make sure I wee twice on the bike. If I’m fuelling well then i’m weeing well.

I broke the ride up into 4 parts and focussed on remaining as low as I could, even on the climbs, only emerging from my pads to collect fuel from the aid stations and to go to the toilet.  For the first 15 miles I felt pretty ropey. Whether it was disappointment with my swim or something more physical I don’t know but I wasn’t in the mood to race. I gathered my thoughts and began to settle into a rhythm, ‘I’ve come here for a fast time not a long time’, I thought. I began to eat the miles up and my power remained consistent throughout, even on the climbs I wouldn’t go above a ceiling I had set myself. Other races I’ve done I have fatigued and faded quite significantly towards the end of the bike leg but this time I felt good, I could have kept going and this was demonstrated by both loops of the bike being within a few minutes of each other (including a toilet stop). The second lap became more of the same but this time I knew what was coming. I knew where the wind, climbs, turns and support was and this made it go faster in my head. By far the stand out part of the bike course for me was disappearing into the ‘Wallring' tunnel at the end of the bike loop and emerging in the centre of Hamburg surrounded by thousands of people - what an atmosphere and what a welcome.FullSizeRender 7

The result of my vigilance in the aero position and my strict adherence to the nutritional plan was a 5:12 bike. I was genuinely ecstatic, but not only was it faster than expected but I got there by using less power than planned. A double whammy and now the bit I had been waiting for - the run.

Bike - 5:12

The run: The course was four 10.5k loops that took you from one end of the lake to the other and back via a few tunnels each lap. I started the run with a clear strategy in mind: 7:40 min/mile pace, a gel every 30 minutes and I would walk for 10s every other aid station. I started the run feeling fresh and found myself forcing myself to slow. I knew that if I went off too hard now then I’d suffer later. I even walked the second aid station despite not needing to. I am very much a habitual human and I need routine to function, so I started as I meant to go on.

I remember from previous Ironman races that walking an aid station would slow that mile down by however long I walked for, so this time I planned to run that mile 10-15s faster depending on how long I walked for. In my head it was a great idea. The first curveball came when I went under the tunnel and my watch lost GPS, it threw my pace off and I panicked, quickly speeding up until my watch had parity with my mind. Little did I know that the tunnel would rob me of a few hundred meters every lap and I would only realise later on. The second lap started the same as the first, feeling good and fuelling well. As the lap went on I began to feel a little heavy, not enough to slow me down but I did expect that feeling a little later in the race.

I completed the second lap and the first half marathon in 1:39hr. It was the beginning of the third lap that Loz collared me and told me to slow down, I looked at her like she was ill. ‘Slow down? We haven't come here to dawdle woman’, I thought (would never say). She had been liaising with Mark (Whittle) and they agreed I was running too fast and told me to slow down. I doubted the advice but Mark had got me this far so I had no reason to doubt him now. To be honest, I was welcome of the respite.

The transition from 3rd to 4th lap was as clear as night and day, it was like a sledgehammer had hit me. I left the crowded lake feeling human and embarked on the lonely mile that started the transition to dead man running. I was 18 miles in and my body and mind were fighting their own war,  one wanted to stop whilst the other refused to allow it. That last lap was physically one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to endure. I looked down at my watch and I couldn’t even read it, I was so delusional that I couldn’t even read the numbers on my own wrist. As I stumbled across the next aid station I walked and walked and walked some more, cramming as much coke into my mouth as I could. The 10 second rule was long gone.

My watch beeped for mile 23 and the clock lit up. It read ‘lap time 9:07’. I had just completed my slowest mile. This was the darkest place I had ever been and my body was giving up. I had cramp in both hamstrings and was running whilst simultaneously being sick. I wasn’t bonking, I was too far along for that, I was just pushing my body to the absolute brink of its ability and It didn’t want to play Ironman anymore.

I realised at this point that sub-10 was probably slipping away from me but I must be close. I genuinely couldn’t get my bearing of where I was on the course. It turned out I was closer than I thought, so close. I kept telling myself that the pain isn’t real, it’s all in my head. I just ran as fast as my little legs would allow, I picked up my last lap band and the finish was just around the corner - I could hear Paul Kaye’s infectious voice greeting the athletes, it would be my turn soon.

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The crowd on the finish straight was unreal, literally thousands of people lined the street and they were all cheering for me. I approached the red carpet in an utterly delirious and emotional state. I was running on fumes at this point and could barely muster a smile for my fantastic support team. I crossed the line in 9:54:09 with a marathon time of 3:21.

Run - 3:21

I had done it, I was a sub 10 Ironman. 9 hours, 54 minutes and 9 seconds - speechless.

Ironman Hamburg was a fantastic spectacle and an amazing inaugural event. The well oiled machine that is the Mdot brand put on quite a show. If you’re looking for a fast, accurate and very well supported Ironman then seriously consider Hamburg, I can only see this race getting bigger and bigger in popularity every year. What’s next for me? Well, fortunately, I am still at the stage of my life where I can dedicate time, money and effort to training and racing, so I will sit down with coach this week and plan for 2018 and beyond!