Swissman Tri – how extreme was it, really?
The Swissman is the newest addition to the ‘extreme’ series of triathlon events that make up the Allxtri events - you may have heard of the Norseman and/or Celtman. Each of the events has a distinctive local style about it. Previously I’d heard a little about the Norseman including diving off a boat into cold fiords and something about uphill marathons. I’d never thought seriously about doing another triathlon, let alone an ironman length event. Besides, hadn’t I done enough in my youth?! I’d only ever participated in one ironman – 1996 NZIM – in which I’d finished as 2nd elite female, but it was in a totally relieved state as the long distance training simply wasn’t my cuppa tea.
So how did I get caught up in competing in another IM distance event, and especially in one that could arguably be considered one of the toughest and most extreme in the world?
As some of you will be aware I spent 10 years racing as a professional triathlete with highlights including ITU World Cup Series Champion (won 4 World Cup events) and ITU World Long Distance Champion (4kS-120kB-30kR). Of the 10 years living internationally I spent 7 seasons based in Paris and racing throughout Europe. I loved the variety of events and especially the tough hilly courses. I have spent the last 12 years as a happily retired & somewhat chubby coach with great tri memories.
Early in 2013, with my 50th birthday fast approaching, I started to think about an appropriate celebratory activity to undertake. I couldn’t ignore the fact that undertaking a triathlon would be appropriate so I made a decision to enter the 2014 Wanaka Half IM. Shortly after entering this event, my friend Paula Drew pointed out an event she’d seen online – the Swissman Extreme Triathlon. I had a look at the video and course photos – love at first sight!! All I could think was ‘wow’, mountains, mountains, and more mountains. Not just mountains but finishing alongside the mighty North Face of the Eiger! What a challenge that event would be, I mused! Another lure being that a support team was required to assist the athlete throughout the event and it was compulsory that a supporter completed the last 10k alongside their athlete. It must be extreme!
So I immediately proceeded to get in touch with the event organisers to ask if I could enter the 2014 event and bring some other Kiwis with me. I was told that they hadn’t actually tested the course as yet but given it proved safe, they’d run an event in 2014 with a field of 250 and entry by lottery.
I watched with interest as the first event was completed and proved a success. Time to start training for this super event! The organisers opened the 2014 edition to 250 athletes and I managed to get my entry confirmed. That’s when the real work started ….
Anyone who knew me during the last year will have known that I was training for the event but probably didn’t realise what a challenge that was for me. I’m sure everyone considers that a former World Champ would have no issues completing an event with a year-long lead up. People may feel that ex-champions don’t feel the same stresses and strains as other people – it simply isn’t so. I’m understating things when I say that it was hard to get in the mileage. I never actually ran after a long bike ride - I was never motivated enough! I spent an awful lot of money on sports specialists and masseuses (when I couldn’t con my partner into taking pity and giving me a massage).
The Wanaka Half came and went – I really wasn’t very fit, but managed to get through the event without walking! I finished the event knowing I had a lot of hard training ahead of me if I was going to complete the Swissman.
Fast forward five months – shortly before the Swissman, even though I only managed one 180km bike ride (thanks Peter Kane) and even though I didn’t ever run off a long bike ride I was sure I’d manage OK and would probably produce 5:15ish per km pace for the run.
So Swissman event day snuck up – forecast to be settled weather. Conditions turned out to be beautiful - 22 degree lake temp; 20 degrees over the high alp passes; and 30 degrees during much of the run leg.
We all got onto the boat that took us to the swim start at 4:15am. At just after 5am the hooter went. The swim was going really well until I got my first ever cramp, within an event, at about 400m from the end – ouch. That wasn’t in the game plan - however I was the first woman to exit the water in around 55 mins. On the bike I rode the first 50k with the eventual women’s race winner. At the 50k point, and very suddenly, my body decided it was 50 yrs old, going on 100yrs, tired and wanting a break ….. perhaps a little early in the day but there was no denying it was going to be a challenge! For the following 50k, until the top of the first major climb, I was really in a nasty dark place where monsters and serpents lurk. It felt like the entire field rode past me in that section! Not only did the terrain tilt up to around 10 percent gradient at times, but the first major climb - The Tremola - had about 14kms of cobblestoned road surface. I rode around 9kmph up that climb with short spurts, riding in the concrete gutter, at 12kmph. With so much of the event still in front of me, I was fairly worried during this stage. However I gained inspiration from the cows that rang their bells in support as I continued forwards and upwards to just over 2km vertical altitude.
Most riders stopped at the top of each of the 3 cols to put on extra clothing - at 20 degrees there was no way this Kiwi was doing that! I sped down the descents, loving every twist and turn along the way. It was mind-blowingly exciting and worth every hard rotation spent on the upward legs. By the way, the climbs were taking around an hour, or more, each – nothing in the Wellington region would have prepared me for this terrain. When the organisers called this event an extreme triathlon, they clearly meant that it was both extremely beautiful and extremely difficult. The second climb up Furkapass was 2400m, and the 3rd climb to Grimsel pass topped out at 2100m.
In the final massively long descent we traversed numbers of tunnels and in one I came close to seriously damaging myself – I’d taken note of the tunnel during the course reccie and had rehearsed in my head that I’d have to take it easy through it and out the other side. There was a corner in the tunnel and a large lump in the road just coming out of it. So I stormed into the tunnel and had forgotten I was going way faster than we had been in the car – what was a tight corner in a vehicle turned into a death trap at speed on a bicycle, especially as Murphy’s Law came into play - I was met by 2 cars and 2 motorbikes coming in the opposite direction in the tunnel. I knew I was likely to cross the centre line and was fortunate that the motorcyclist saw what was happening and swerved out of the way. Thank you Mr Motorcyclist.
Some 40km later, I transitioned to the final marathon leg. A fortunate coincidence meant that my nephew Linden was based at Kandensteg International Scout Centre a few kms away at the time of the race. He rode a MTB beside me for a large portion of the marathon, providing me with drinks and much needed moral support. The first 2km gave a sense of what was to come - straight uphill (like Tip Track), then traversing behind a picturesque waterfall before slowly descending through leafy forests to run alongside Brienzsee lake.
I was jogging along relatively well until we got onto the flat and into the open sun. At that point, and in temperatures of 28-30 degrees, every cell in my body was saying “walk …. walk …”. So I did and for a very long way - in fact, until we got way up the valley and closer to Grindelwald. At this point, my brother David had joined me on the journey and he endured stints of jogging and walking as I worked at maintaining a reasonable level of effort. Number one supporter, Ange, was managing the support logistics and was preparing herself for the final 10km uphill slog – the section of the course that climbs 1000m in altitude and requires that the athlete’s supporter accompany them to the end of the race.
It was with delight that we finally made it to Grindelwald and the compulsory gear check-in. The 10km ascent alongside the North Face of the Eiger was to be the event highlight for me. It was ‘hands on knees’ stuff for the first half of the climb but it eased off slightly as we got higher. Ange and I even helped a farmer move his calves (each with a baby bell) on the way up! It was absolutely quintessential Switzerland – pastures of wildflowers, cows chewing grass and the most stunning alpine scenery surrounding us. I had read a lot of mountaineering books describing murderous climbs up the North Face, and here to my delight, we had unobstructed views of the vertical stone face for the remainder of the race. It was sublime to watch the colours change on the rock slopes as the sun limped lower in the sky
I can’t explain how wonderful the whole thing was. The final feelings of elation at the finish line in Kleine Scheidegg were a combination of numerous things: being in a stunning location; the satisfaction of a goal achieved; the sheer delight of rising to a challenge and the utter relief of achieving that challenge. I felt overjoyed and thrilled with the achievement and the event itself – more satisfaction than I’d experienced when winning any of my World, European or National titles.
I felt the euphoria that comes from an awareness of having experienced great fortune and great health on the path to creating great memories with friends and family.
I have to remind myself that these feelings only come by setting significant, personally meaningful challenges for oneself – I plan to set more challenges and push my boundaries to create some more outstanding memories in my 2nd 50 years that replicate those of the first 50!
Thank you Ange, Paula, Swissman organisers and all friends and family who’ve supported me along the way. My achievements are your achievements.