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  • Writer's pictureDr Victor Thompson

Ironman survival story - part 1 - the physical and psychological challenges

Ironman triathlon sports psychologist psychology photo

After the 2005 season was over and done with, I set my sights on preparing for the 2006 Ironman Switzerland, in Zurich in July. I had raced triathlons for 10 years and was looking forward to the challenge of the longer distance: a 3.8 km (2.4 mile) swim, 180 km (112 mile) bike, and 42 km (26 mile) marathon run – a long day. Training had gone reasonably well. Preparation had been pretty good, not perfect, but good-enough. Whoever thinks that their preparation has been ideal? As an athlete and sports psychologist, I don’t think that I’ve met anyone – even professionals – who say their prep has been perfect.

The day started out warm, with the temperature set to rise. Waiting for the 'race' to kick-off, adrenaline was high. I felt pretty wired. I knew that I should be tempering my level of arousal, as I wasn’t needing to bolt out of the blocks for a 100m sprint. I was facing over 10-hours of steady effort racing. Being over-aroused now and starting-off too hard, could hurt my overall race time, and cause me to feel like a fridge had be placed on my back after about 10-minutes into the swim – when I’d have another 50 minutes of swimming to go. In the minutes prior to the start, it was time to remind myself of the swim course, of how hard or what level I wanted to start at and maintain, that I was well prepared, that I was ready, that I’d do my best and that is all that mattered. Okay, let’s bring it on. This is going to be a good challenge and a good day.

When the starter’s pistol was fired, 1800 of us triathletes set-off for our 3.8Km swim. I ran into the lake, tried to let things settle, to find a rhythm and some space, while being bashed a bit with other swimmers’ arms or legs. This is what I expected. Let it settle. It will settle. Find a rhythm. It took a while to find this, but I knew that it would, this is as expected. Then as I approached the end of lap one, there was a pinch point, going around an island. There was a few minutes of busyness, a bit more contact and stress. Okay, this will settle soon. It’s okay.

The second half of the swim – the second lap, was quieter, things have settled a bit more. Towards the end of the swim, it was time to think about the swim exit. This will be another pinch point. To think about the steps at the exit. Once out, what is my route to T1 where my bike is, what level of effort will I exert? Okay, I’ve got this covered.

The swim exit went as expect. A bit more contact with swimmers as we headed for the steps and tried to get some traction as we got out of the water. Okay, not too quick to T1, a steady pace. Don’t go too hard, today is not a sprint. Let others sprint past me, I’ll probably pass them later in the race. Or, if they are faster, then they’ll stay ahead. Either way, it’s okay to go my pace.

Onto the beginning of the bike course, I was focusing on letting things settle, finding a good rhythm, a good pace. Then having a drink, seeing how that settled in my stomach. I haven’t had any nutrition for over an hour, completed an hour of pretty hard swimming, so stocks are middling, but I don’t want to risk throwing up now, if there’s any dodgy lake water swilling around my stomach. So, easy does it with my fluid, gel and bar intake.

The bike course was 180 Km or 112 miles. It was 3 laps, with 500m of climbing each lap. Lap 1 went okay. Early on in lap 2, I developed a bit of cramping in my stomach, nothing major, just a not-so-great sensation. I problem-solved: what could it be? What might help? More water, energy drink, something to eat, a break from drinking or eating? A change in position on my bike, sitting more, standing more? Over the next while I tried each of these options, but nothing seemed to help that much. The stomach cramps and discomfort only got worse. I even stretched for a bit when I stepped off the bike to have a pee. Nothing seemed to help. Ah well, finishing the bike section and getting vertical for the run might improve things.

I got off the bike a bit later than I’d hoped, but still felt okay about the time. Something I’ve not mentioned to you until now, is that this race was our triathlon club’s long distance or Ironman championship. So, there were 15 of us from my triathlon club who were racing. I’d won or podiumed in some of the shorter club champs before, so I wanted to try to win this one. I’d not seen any club members so far, so that meant that either they were still ahead, or I was still the rabbit being chased by my clubmates. There is a different psychological challenge when a rabbit being chased by others, compared to being a chaser trying to close down the gap on those ahead. In my experience, it’s easier psychologically to be the chaser. Being the chased, creates more pressure and tension for most of us. If I was in the lead, then anyone behind would have to be going faster and maybe harder to catch and pass me. Knowing that, made things a little easier. But all this was secondary to my gastric discomfort.

On the run, things felt hot. Later I learned that the temperature hit 36-37 degrees C. I knew on the run that fluid intake was important, so was dousing myself with water at the aid stations and trying to run in the shade when I could. The run course was 4 laps, of just over 10 Km, making it the full marathon distance.

A quarter way through the run – or was that half-way? I stopped at a port aloo to respond to some of my gastric urges! Wow, this is sweltering. Once inside, I dropped one of my energy bottles on the wet floor. Oh dear! The floor wasn’t that clean. I knew that I needed to take note of which of my 4 bottles this was, so that I’d take the gel from this one last. Within a few seconds I realised that I’d forgotten which bottle this was. This isn’t a good sign. Does this mean that mentally I’m losing it a bit? It looks like it. Okay, I need to be careful. Keep on top of hydration. Try to get some energy in. Keep going.

I was pleased to see the finish line. My finish time was 11-hours 41-minutes. Immediately when I stopped moving, I felt retched. With nausea, I thought I might be sick. Maybe I’d feel better if I get some flat coke, to settle my stomach, get some energy in. I found the drinks table, took a coke, sat in a nearby chair and sipped the coke. With my head swirling and my stomach churning, I got the urge to vomit. Bent double, I vomited several times. Lots seemed to come up. I stayed bent double until someone came to help. They took me off to the medical tent. There, I was hooked up to an intravenous drip to help rehydrate me. Things got fuzzy from here on in. I was aware of feeling cold, having a blanket put over me. Of one or a few people asking me questions. Then I was encouraged to get up. This seemed REALLY hard. I couldn’t do it. Was that two people helping me? It got vertical, then felt like I was passing out.

Next, I was being spoken to by some woman. She was rubbing my arm. She was telling me that I was in a hospital, on a ventilator, they were reducing my sedation, soon they were going to see if I can breathe on my own. Then I drifted off to sleep….

I’ll write the next chapter to this story in one of my later posts.

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