2021 IRONMAN Italy - Emilia Romagna
September 18, 2021
This is the story of my first IRONMAN triathlon.
I first registered for this race in the fall of 2019 with the hopes of participating in the 2020 event. Unfortunately, a certain global pandemic had other plans.
Italy's hardship with COVID-19 was well documented and I all but abandoned hope of travelling to Italy for this race.
My desire to complete an IRONMAN remained. I registered for IRONMAN Canada and that race's return to Penticton BC then spent the balance of this past year focused getting fit.
If anything COVID has taught the world is that certainty is anything but certain. With a matter of weeks before IRONMAN Canada's rescheduled date, that event was further postponed for yet another year.
Ciao Italia! Piacere di rivederti! 🇮🇹
Getting to Cervia
Travel from Canada to Italy required Carina and I to have proof of full vacination, negative COVID antigen tests 48 hours before our flight and a contact tracing form that was easy to complete.
This was our first big trip since COVID-19 turned the world on its ear. Delayed flights because of a mechanical issue and staff shortages made for a very long day of travel. We started our day at 8:30am Saturday in Victoria and arrived at 9pm Sunday in Cervia.
Ironically, we flew over Penticton enroute to Italy.
Luckily, I was able to get some sleep on our very delayed flight between Toronto and Frankfurt. Luftansa accomodated us on a later flight from Frankfurt to Bologna and we took the train for the final leg of our trek to Cervia.
Once in Cervia, we stayed at Hotel Orchidea; we could not have asked for a nicer location.
Our room was spacious (room to unpack and build my bike) and had a gorgeous view overlooking the beach and the swim start. Stephania and her entire staff at Hotel Orchidea were exceptional too! Kind, helpful and very accommodating; they made our time in Cervia an absolutely wonderful experience.
Seafood, Pasta and the Beach:
Arriving late Sunday night, we had Monday to Friday to adjust a 9 hour time difference and to vacation life in an Italian seaside village.
Fortunately, beach life was easy to adjust to.
Race Day: The Alarm Goes Off
I think I slept well all things considering. My first task was to walk water bottles to my bike.
If you have read any other race reports for IRONMAN Italy, you would know that its transition area is very long. Everyone was made to enter the transition from the end furthest from the swim start. It was a full mile of walking before getting to my bike.
By the time I got back to the hotel, an anxious feeling had taken hold. I worked through it, put my wetsuit on and after a bite of a croissant and a sip of a cappuccino, I walked across the street to the starting pens.
The Swim: Enter the Medusa
Yesterday, I watched crew set the remaining buoys for the clockwise, "L" shaped swim course. From the vantage point of my hotel room (6 floors up), the distance from the first turn buoy to the southernmost turn buoy (the longest leg) showed me just how long the swim was going to be. To be honest, to see the entirety of the swim course was a bit intimidating. I had swam the distance in training but that was in a lake and without this picture.
I guessed my swim time to be around 80 minutes so I set myself up at the back of the 1:10/1:20 corral. Slowly the group shuffled to the starting gates where 8 athletes were released every 12 seconds. I must have misjudged the queue because there were 2 substantial groups behind me (the 1:20/1:30 and >1:30 groups). Those corrals maybe contained a couple hundred people. By the time I had shuffled to the start, there may have been a couple dozen people left to enter the water.
I was starting at the back of the pack.
There was a building, "thigh high" swell rolling in this morning too (guessed based on the swim marshals on stand up paddle boards. This made sighting the first buoy a touch more challenging but fortunately, there was a mast of a nearby sail boat that I was able to use. Two days earlier, I swam to first buoy in choppy conditions in 9 minutes; this morning with the swell, I felt like I was there quicker with less effort.
At that first turn buoy, I stopped to dump some water out of my goggles and began the long leg to the southern turn buoy.
I was hoping to "find some feet" for a bit of help through the water. That never happened. The crowd I was in the water may not have been as comfortable as I was. It was swim around one person to have to swim around the next. That wasn't going to work so found my own line, 30m off the buoys and swam my own race.
Getting to the south end of the swim course meant a turn toward the beach and the next buoy being a turn back north. Up to that point, I was swimming effortlessly by myself but at the turns, there was the expected congestion with other swimmers.
So I did get a couple practice swims in before race day. One thing that I really needed to make peace with was the jellyfish; or medusa in Italian.
I experienced a stinging line from my chin to my right ear on the leg north too; it wasn't bad as I did apply vaseline to my face, hands and feet beforehand. Overall, there were far fewer jellyfish today compared to the two swims I had earlier in the week.
My line on the way north to the final turn buoy may not have been my best. There was a red fisherman buoy that pulled me and the crowd off the offical swim course and after the final turn, I made a mistake of swimming in with the swell and not quite toward the swim exit.
After 70 minutes in the water, I crossed the timing mat and felt like I could have swam that loop again.
T1: A Long Strip Of Soft Sand
Getting out of the water, I jogged the soft sand to the transition area. A quick bio break in a free port-o-john and I was off to find my bike. Apart from the long trek to my bike and the long trek to the bike exit, everything went smoothly.
Riding out of Cervia was a series of roundabouts before the road turns west toward the salt flats. Were there flamingos to be seen? Yes, hundreds and that was pretty cool.
Just like every morning ride after a pool workout, I was expecting for my legs to feel heavy in the beginning. Today was no different. It felt like there wasn't much juice to squeeze from my legs and it didn't take long for everyone that I passed in the water to return the favour and whiz past me on the ride out of town.
Regardless to how my legs were feeling, I stuck to the effort that I thought was appropriate, had a gel and continued toward SS3bis (the expressway closed just for the race).
I was astonished by the amount of litter on the course; dropped bottles, dropped flat kits, and more than one behind the seat water bottle carriers strewn about the road. What looked like a new pair of Oakley sunglasses randomly discarded had me start a monetary tally in my head to pass the time.
Upon reaching SS3bis (20 km into the ride), I was expecting my legs to have come around but there still wasn't much doing. Both hamstrings were tight and my left glute wasn't right either. Nothing to do except pedal and eat.
There was a water station at the 30km point and from there ride headed south. There was a bit of tailwind to help out the effort and I did spend more time sitting up and while my legs continued to feel less than fresh.
On this first trip south, I was about to enjoy another gel when I was stung by some sort of insect (wasp?); once on the lip and once on the tip of my tongue. That guy got me better than the jellyfish did.
After turning off the expressway, the bike course headed westerly, leading up to the town of Forlimpopoli. At the second aid station beside an amazing 14th century fortress, Rocca Albornoziana, I grabbed water and a couple gels for the next section of the course.
The scenery through this section of the bike course was really nice; vineyards, trees, views and a false flat to the foot of "the hill".
Back home, I have a hill that mimics the ride up to Bertinoro; I felt prepared and my legs started to come around (sugar intake caught up with the effort perhaps).
The community support grows the closer you get up to the village. It is a brief time were the music is pumping and people are cheering in Bertinoro before the route turns back downhill.
From Bertinoro, down to the flats near Santa Maria delle Grazie di Fornò and back to the northbound lanes of the expressway, I felt like I found a nice groove. The trip back to the north end of the expressway felt like it was going by quickly and before I knew it, I was turning around at the north end and rolling south.
By this point in the ride, it was getting to be late in the afternoon. In the distance, a dark, ominous thunderstorm formed to the south east near the town of Cesentico. It was a bit of a relief to see Bertinoro basking in sunshine, west of that weather system.
After a quick restock of gels at the aid station in Forlimpopoli headed for the my second trip up the hill to Bertinoro.
One drop, quickly turned into two and after making a lefthand turn at the foot of the hill, drops turned to rain. With the crack of thunder right overhead, the rain turned into a deluge and the road up to the village became a river in almost an instant.
They kept the music going but the crowd in Bertinoro left to take cover from the storm. The descent off the hill was a very precarious exercise in wet braking with carbon rims.
The momentum that I enjoyed flying down this hill two and half hours earlier, was not to be had this time around; my only focus was keep myself upright.
After the hill, the rain continued to hammer down. Despite living in a wet part of the world, I have never pedalled a bike in the type of rain that was falling from the skies this afternoon. Heading north on the expressway for the last time, the rain bounced off the asphalt so hard that it created an amazing rainbow effect on the road. Turning off the expressway and on to SP254, the rain continued to come down. Some sections, I was on the centreline of the road because the rest of the lane was awash.
Even the flamingos in the salt flats had left to find shelter.
The rain finally eased just as I rolled back into Cervia. Despite the foul weather, that last 40km was a personal best (1:16:57 31.2 kph). My mood was great and I (almost) didn't want the bike ride to end.
Two phases complete, one to go. I nailed a rolling dismount off my bike and slowly made my way down the long transistion to my run kit. I was ok with the long walk as every step helped to shake out the longest ride I've ever completed. My glutes and hamstrings in particular were pretty tight/fatigued from the ride; everything else, back, neck, stomach were all good.
With my running shoes on, I set out on the run feeling pretty good, or at least far better than I could have imagined. Heading out of transition and on to the course, the crowd that gathered at the first intersection of Viale Milazzo and Viale Cristoforo Colombo was electric.
My task was to walk the aid stations and pick away at the distance in between. That worked through the first 19km (about 2 hours). Up until that point, the run was like clockwork but a slow fade turned into giving myself permission to walk. Interestingly, I was ok with it.
The aid stations had Maurten gels, water, Gatorade, a cola by Red Bull, bananas and an energy bar that I wasn't familiar with. I stuck to what was known to me, the Maurten Gels for as long as I could but the further down the road I went, the more I wanted something sweeter. Gatorade was the first to disagree with my gut. I switched to the cola which sat ok with me until the last lap. In the end, a half a banana was what worked during the back half of the run; or at least until the last aid station with 4.5km to go.
Through it all, my mind remembers more walking than running but in looking at what my Garmin watch recorded, I really shuffled more than I strolled. I never got to a "dark spot" mentally; I was in Italy after all and thankful for the moment, the people and experience I was having.
On the final 6km, I was accompanied by another finisher and despite the language barrier between us, we worked together to push through to the finish line. One thing that I was able to experience in those final kilometres was that that the pain levelled off and I was figuring out a way to cope with the help of my new running partner.
I couldn't have asked for a better experience for my first IRONMAN; it was fun.