In a nutshell: cold, very wet, but extremely fun.
My good friend (and fellow LA Tri member) Paul Warzocha convinced me a year ago to sign up for and race Ironman Switzerland. At the time, I could not run a mile, swim a length, or bike around the block. Putting aside that a better base of fitness would have been adviseable, as it turns out, signing up was an amazing decision as Ironman Switzerland was a fantastic race.
For those who have never been, the race is held in Zurich, a great town that has a nice blend of old European charm and modern city amenities, set around the pristine Lake Zurich. The Ironman is a big deal over there, with ads about the race found literally everywhere and fan turnout rumored to exceed 150,000 people. But enough of the generalities and on to the race.
In the days leading up to the race, it was HOT, with temperatures in the 90's and not a cloud in the sky. The water temperature had been creeping above the wetsuit legal limit (at least for Switzerland, which apparently does not adhere to USAT's higher limits). Given all the hot weather, I had foolishly assumed that hot weather gear would be all that was necessary. Bad choice as it turned out.
The day before the race, the weather turned cold and began to rain . . . hard. Paul and I scrambled around to acquire rain gear as the race organizers made clear it would rain (but only a little they promised) during the race. I learned that the Swiss, while nice, are not above a little price gouging as I paid an exorbitant fee (I refuse to say how much) to buy a gortex shell to keep dry.
I arrived at T1 at 5:30 a.m. to set up and the rain was coming down so hard that I was soaked within five minutes. The organizers provided bike bags but everything was outdoors and the transition area was set in a grassy park that allowed water to pool and mud to form. Within an hour or so, the entire area looked like the finish line for a mud run. Despite the downpour, people were in high spirits and there were dozens of race volunteers in bright green jerseys herding us to the swim start. Fortunately for me, my transition area was right next to the gate, which made finding my gear a breeze and gave me a straight shot when entering and leaving, which cut down on my mud intake and time.
Unlike year's past, this year was a water start, approximately 100 yards off the shores of Lake Zurich. The course was a two loop affair, where all swimmers had to exit and run across a little island after the first loop. Although the Swiss are reputed to be organized and methodical, the start was not well-designed as roughly 2200 swimmers were spread along the beach but all had to funnel into a narrow channel to make the first buoy. Like many racers, I am not a fan of the chaotic mass start. I can only describe the beginning of this race as being thrown into a washing machine where too much detergent was added as there were bodies everywhere and tons of churning water. (I must have been hit or kicked every other stroke for half the swim.) Add in that it was pouring, which made the normally clear waters of the Lake fairly murky, and it was a wild start and my bruises (physical and psychological) are only beginning to fade from it.
Although I am a mediocre swimmer, I found myself in the pack for most of the swim and before I knew it, I had completed the first lap. Getting out of the water, the runway across the island was lined five deep with screaming fans -- something I had never before encountered but admit that I liked. The fans were literally right on top of the athletes. I raced the 40-50 yards across the island and dove back in. The second lap seemed (and was) longer given the configuration and the pack thinned out as people swam off course (the buoys were hard to see in the rain). I exited the water in 89 minutes -- hardly blazing but I was thrilled given that this was my first Ironman and I felt relaxed and not tired.
Upon reaching my bike, I found it -- and all my gear -- semi-submerged in a murky mess of muddy water. Someone had knocked my helmet, gloves and shoes into the water and so my bike leg started with gear that was soaking wet and mud covered. I pulled on an LA Tri jersey and arm warmers, which I kept on for the remainder of the race. I spent a few too many minutes trying without success to wring out my gear, gave up, and left T1 in a not so impressive 9:52 transition time.
The bike leg is a two loop course that starts off for the first 30-35K around the lake and is flat and very fast. There are two significant hills on the course. The first, aptly named the Beast, is a 3-4 mile gradual climb with a few segments of steeper climbing mixed in. The race organizers said the Beast got as steep as 13%, but it did not feel like it to me after many, many trips up our own Las Flores. The second hill is called Heartbreak Hill and is very steep but extremely short (maybe a third of a mile) and is only a a few miles from the end of the bike loop. Fans were massed at Heartbreak Hill (threre had to be 10,000 plus on that hill and all of them yelled very loudly). The best part was that the fans spilled into the street as you were climbing the hill and you literally had to weave through the fans, who were only inches from your bike, to make the ascent. (For those who have watched climbs in the Tour de France, it looked and sounded a lot like that.) The race organizers also had a couple of live bands that were road side and as you crested the hill, they called out your name and tri club affiliation. (As I sported LA Tri Club gear, our club got an international shout out.)
The remainder of the course is set going through little hamlets around Zurich with tons of traffic circles and cobble stones. Given the rain (which continued to come down hard for most of the ride) and that traffic was intermittently permitted on the course, it was a fairly challenging and technical ride. I also should note that there were a number of very steep descents, including a hair pin turn at the base of Heartbreak Hill. The organizers clearly posted signs warning of the turns and actively prevented use of aero bars but still there were a significant number of crashes and I saw several people leave the race on gurneys covered in road rash and blood -- yikes.
Given the rain, fan turnout on the course was lighter than expected, but still very respectable. At most aid stations they had live bands and I saw and heard thousands of fans yelling "Hop Hop Hop" (which apparently is the Swiss way of saying, "go go go"). While it was weird to hear so many languages being yelled at me, the fans and aid station volunteers were amazing and really helped keep every racer going. (The aid stations were fairly typical, or so I am told, of what you could expect at any Ironman event, gatorade, water, gels, etc.)
Given the rain and hills, I finished the bike leg in 6:39, again not blazing but I had been told to dial it back on the bike and go easy. I did that and I finished the bike leg feeling strong. I literally flew up Heartbreak Hill the second time and I heard several people yelling "Go LA" although I never did see who it was.
Confession time. I have never run more than 13 miles. Never. Not in training or in a race. When I left T2, that thought was squarely in my mind.
The run course was basically a four loop 10k course set around the edge of Lake Zurich and it was packed with fans. I mean, there were tens of THOUSANDS of fans -- all yelling at the top of their lungs and in many foreign tongues. As with the other legs, they had several live bands playing, as well as loud speakers playing 70's disco music on a perpetual loop -- think "YMCA," "It's Raining Men," "I will survive," etc. and you get the picture. In other words, for most of the run, your ears were being blasted with input, musical and otherwise.
When I started the run, the rain had subsided and was barely coming down, although there were times when it picked up again. By early in the first loop, I was suffering fairly bad leg cramps in my calves. I saw Paul briefly on the first loop and we smiled (er, grimaced) at one another and trudged off. I employed the method of running (as much as I could) from aid station to aid station and walking the aid stations. This worked well for me, although every time I stopped to walk, thousands of people would immediately exhort me to "Hop, Hop, Hop," which made me fairly self-conscious about walking and definitely pushed me to run more (and faster) than I thought I could. I pause here to note that most of the racers in this Ironman were small, foreign, and damn fast. I saw very few people walking during this Ironman and I saw quite a few people running at a pace I could not sustain in a 400m sprint.
As a means of verifying your progress, the race organizers gave out colored wrist bands after each lap (yellow, red, black and finally light blue). By about mile 13.1 I would have given all that I owned to get a light blue band. That said, my legs actually felt alot better, having eaten every pretzel at every aid station, and my running actually began to speed up. Although I was definitely not flying along, my pace at this point was respectable and I was passing a number of other runners.
The final mile or so of the run is made down a major road and there were probably 20,000 or more fans lining the street all yelling enthusiatically for each runner. As I approached the last couple hundred yards -- and no one was near me -- the fans were doing the wave and calling out my name and exhorting me on. I have done a ton of races and athletic events, but I never experienced anything like that in my life. Truly, it was exhilarating and I flew down the last mile or so and into the chute barely aware of anything except that I was about to finish my first Ironman.
The finishers chute looked, or so I am told, much like other Ironman chutes and also was packed with fans. As I crossed the line in a modest 13:57:49, my name was called out and apparently I was told in Swiss German that I was an Ironman. The announcer also said to say hello to the largest (and best) tri club in the world, our very own LA Tri Club. For all of have completed an Ironman, you know the feeling here. For those who have not, I can say only that I felt euphoric -- and, no, it was not just the endorphins talking.
THE SUM UP
For anyone who wants an international race, I highly recommend Ironman Switzerland. Other than the swim start, it was well-organized, with beautiful courses, great fans, and a very supportive city backing it up. Everyone in the city that I met was extremely friendly and very nice to deal with. Language was not an issue as everyone either spoke excellent English or was good at understanding my silly efforts at charades. Had the weather been better, there would have been even more fans, and as it was there were thousands and thousands. Having never done any other Ironmans, I have nothing to compare it to, but I can easily say I am glad I chose the race as my first Ironman.