I stared at the sea from the hotel breakfast table at 4:30AM on the race morning. It was already windy and the waves were building up. In 2,5 hours I´d be finally starting the 226km journey towards the Ironman Kalmar finish line.
It had been a long week of waiting. I´m happy when I can keep myself occupied with training knowing all the work I do eventually builds up towards the race. However, on the race week the tables are turned. All the work has already been done and it´s more or less a waiting game – and honestly, I suck at it.
Kalmar is a small town in southern Sweden and during the race week you can see the tension building up everywhere. The finish line is built at the main square and Ironman flags take over the streets. The 2700 race participants start filling up the restaurants with their support crews and there´s always someone swimming, running or biking around the town.
With only short workouts scheduled I had plenty of time for the race preparations. The overall stress was lowered by the checklists from previous year and I packed my bike and transition bags with confidence knowing I had everything I needed for the race. The previous experience on the race route and transition area also helped me get mentally prepared for the race day.
On the race morning I woke up right before the alarm went off and was more than ready to get going. From the weather forecast I knew to expect a hot and windy day and looking at the sea from the breakfast table I figured at least the later part of the forecast was pretty accurate. It was still dark outside, but the wind was already up and the sea looked pretty restless. I consider myself a decent swimmer and reminded myself I had done 4+ km swims a number of times throughout the season in varying conditions – it´s going to be just another long swim today.
After checking the bike and gear bags left to the transition area on the previous day I headed to the Kalmar harbor for the swim start. The party was already up and it wasn´t even 6:30 in the morning! The harbor area was packed with spectators and the DJ and announcers were warming up the crowd for the race start in 30ish mins. I hugged my daughter goodbye, dropped the “street gear” bag I was going to receive after the finish line and worked my way to the queue leading up to the swim start.
It was a “marthon like” rolling start and I picked a slot at 1:05 swim group considering I´d improve my 2014 swim time by 4ish minutes. Then it was just waiting. After pro start at 6:55 the line was starting to get nervous, competitors put on their swim goggles and the chitchat died down. It was about time. I felt a bit emotional – this is the moment I had been training for spending 500 hours in pool, running or on the bike throughout the last year. Gun went off and the line started moving – time to enjoy!
I entered the water on the rightmost end of the pack considering it would give me some space to maneuver in the first turn if it got too crowded. After the first couple hundred meters the swim course got out of the harbor bay and we started working our way towards the open sea. That was the spot where the headwind hit us.
I knew to expect formidable waves due to the wind forecast and the practice swim a day earlier but still I was surprised how big they were. The navigation was pretty tough and it was very difficult to see the buoys marking the course. I figured I could spend all day trying to spot them and slow myself down or just pick some toes to follow and trust the person I´m following knows where he/she is going. I decided to go for the toes and check the whereabouts every now and then.
The first 1ish kilometer of the swim was direct headwind and the pace felt way slower than normally. Not seeing around didn´t really help and when we finally got to the first turn I was relieved to find swimming to sidewind much easier. There, I could actually find my own swim rhythm and work myself up to the swim pack to get some proper drafting from the swimmers in front of me. The next 1,5km was the most enjoyable part of the whole swim – until we turned to direct tailwind and the waves were behind us.
I eagerly started the tailwind part of the course expecting it to be the fastest one and knowing it would lead us behind the breakwater shielding us from the waves. It was all good until I felt a strange twitch in my stomach – something was about to come up. After spending a good while going up and down with the waves my stomach decided it had had enough and I needed to stop briefly to exit my breakfast, energy gel and liquids consumed before the race. Once done, I continued swimming but the stomach still had something to deliver. After the second stop there was nothing left, so I could continue swimming but needed to keep the pace relaxed enough to avoid further complications. I was lucky to finish the swim in 1:15h, which was 6 minutes slower than a year ago and full 10 minutes slower than I had hoped for.
After the swim I was feeling strong as I had kept the swim intensity down on the last part. I did a quick transition and was on my bike at 1:19h, 5 minutes later than a year ago. Not a good starting point considering I had a plan to improve my previous time quite a bit.
I knew the bike course in Öland would be windy as well but I needed to try to pick up the lost time on the bike to allow myself a realistic shot to still get to my overall target time with a decent marathon. I put my head down and started pedaling.
After crossing the Öland bridge to direct headwind, the course turned south and the wind came from the side. It was pretty annoying, made the eating and drinking a bit risky but it actually didn´t slow down the speed as much as I had expected. There were only a couple parts on the course where the headwind was really bad but then again, we had good sections of tailwind where the speed rose up to 60km/h with very little effort.
On the first 40km I tried to get some energy and liquids downed as I was all empty after the swim. Once I was sure the stomach was doing ok, I picked up the pace and started working on the time gap I needed to close. I set my heart rate to the planned level, kept my head down and enjoyed the ride. After coming back to Kalmar from the 120km Öland loop I found myself feeling surprisingly ok and calculated I should be landing to sub 5:30 bike split if I kept the current pace. Luckily, the 60km mainland loop was better shielded from the wind and I realized my speed was actually going up. I was still feeling strong, kept the planned heart rate and ended up finishing the bike at 5:25h.
It´s always a relief to get off the bike. Once you enter T2 and switch to running shoes it´s all up to you to finish it – no more risk of punctures, bike crashes or other equipment failures. Just putting one leg in front of the other for 42ish km.
The afternoon was sunny and the whole town was out. The announcer was speaking of 60 000 spectators along the course and it wasn´t difficult to believe it! My legs were feeling pretty good considering I had just finished a 180km bike and the people lining the streets were getting my spirits up. “Heja Teemu!” – “Bra jobbat!” – “Go Finland!” – I high fived the kids, gave “thumbs ups” all the way and smiled!
When the run route led out of town I realized it was getting pretty hot and I was running a lot faster than planned. I needed to get the pace down and ensure I´d get enough energy and liquids at each aid station. I started the aid station rhythm that repeated every 3ish km throughout the run: Water on the head, electrolyte drink / water for drinking with an addition of energy at every other station.
It worked rather well for the first 18ish km until my stomach gave some signs of distress again. I decided to make an unplanned stop at the aid station toilet to avoid smelly and probably humiliating experiences with the crowds in Kalmar. I can´t tell how annoyed I was spending valuable marathon time sitting in the toilet and I was counting seconds to get out. Once done, I decided no more stops whatever happens and continued running.
After the unplanned break I was feeling pretty ok again but couldn´t get any more energy gels down so I switched to coke for energy. There was still 24km to go and I was on a mission. After the first run lap in Kalmar my daughter had told me my friend was running ahead of me and I had decided I needed to catch him before the finish line. For a good while I had been trying to get my head around to how he had actually got in front of me in the first place. I would definitely have noticed him passing me on the bike or run. I couldn´t come up with any other explanation than him doing the swim faster than me regardless of starting way behind me and being typically a slower swimmer!
The long day was slowly starting to get to me and when I crossed the Kalmar main square at 28km and started the last lap I have to admit I was already struggling. My pace had dropped down to 5:40ish and with the short aid station walks slowing me down I was barely clocking 5:50 splits. I also noticed the 11h overall Ironman time should be doable but would require me to get the pace up to 5:45 with aid stations included so I´d need to run at roughly 5:35-5:40 range. And I still hadn´t caught up with my friend who was supposed to be ahead of me. I kept going.
First half of the last 14km lap was a real struggle but once I saw the 36km sign and realized there was only 6km to go I started visualizing how short a 6km run actually is. I picked the pace up a bit and did a self check – how do I feel at this pace and more importantly can I stay this way for the next 30ish minutes? I figured it didn´t really feel good but should be doable for 30mins. I also decided to skip the rest of the aid stations as the finish line was getting close and there would be plenty of energy and liquids waiting.
The last 3km was a blast! The finish line was getting really close, the route headed back to Kalmar city center where the streets were lined with people and I was getting sure the sub 11h finish time was going to happen. Regardless of the slow swim and windy bike I was about to finally cross the finish line with a 10:xx:xx standing on the watch!
When the last straight 500m to the finish line opened up I put all in and sprinted while cheering and smiling for the crowds. The clock stopped at 10:51:52h.
In the athlete garden after the finish I immediately started looking for my friend. I needed to find out where and how he had passed me and congratulate him on getting way below his planned target time. I looked everywhere including the medic tent but he was nowhere to be found. I sat down and started eating and drinking getting back the calories lost on the road.
After an hour had passed and I was about to exit the athlete garden to go call my friend from the hotel he suddenly stepped in – he had just finished the race! After laughing on me chasing him for 28km on the run we realized my daughter had seen him running by before me but actually one lap behind me. Still it was a fun run trying to catch up guys in red tri suits just to find out they were someone else.
I was happy to end my triathlon season in a successful race in Kalmar. When watching the last finishers during the heros´ hour just before the finish line was closed I felt the familiar sadness and “emptiness” of an ended season. For me it´s difficult to train without a clear long term goal. Doing a sub 11h Ironman has been my target for six years since I bought a bike and running shoes and started swim lessons.
Now I´m really happy it´s done but I´m already up for the next challenge!