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 has been 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 2021 focused getting fit.
If anything COVID has taught the world is that certainty is anything but certain. With just five weeks before IRONMAN Canada's rescheduled date, that event was 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 to a 9 hour time change. A vacation in an Italian seaside village made that easy. I got some swimming, biking and running in too.
Race Day: The Alarm Goes Off
I think I slept well all things considering. My first task is to carry my water bottles to my bike.
If you have read any other race report for IRONMAN Italy, you already know that the transition area is very long. This year, everyone is made to enter the transition from the end furthest from the swim start. It is a full mile of walking just getting to my bike.
Bike is ready and I head back to the hotel. An anxious feeling is taking hold. I work through it and put my wetsuit on. After a bite of a croissant and a sip of a cappuccino, I walk across the street to the starting pens.
The Swim: Enter the Medusa
Yesterday, from my hotel room (6 floors up), I watched the crew set the buoys of the clockwise, ⌐ shaped swim course. Seeing the entirity of the swim course from above was a bit intimidating for me.
I am still processing yesterday's feeling about the swim course. The sound system near the start line is pumping music like a nightclub. I use that to drown out my anxiousness.
I estimate my swim time to be somewhere around 80 minutes. I find a spot in the 1:10/1:20 corral. Behind me are the 1:20-1:30 and 1:30+ corrals; maybe a couple hundred people.
Slowly the masses shuffle toward the starting gates where 8 athletes are being released every 12 seconds.
It is almost my turn and I take a one last glance behind me. There are just a couple dozen people left to enter the water.
I am starting at the back of the pack.
There is a "thigh high" swell rolling in this morning (guessed based on the swim marshals on stand up paddle boards). This makes sighting the first buoy a touch more challenging. Fortunately, a sailboat is further out and I am able to use its mast to sight off of.
Two days ago, it took me 9 minutes to swim to the first buoy. With this morning's swell, it oddly feels like I am there quicker, with less effort.
I stop to dump the water out of my goggles before getting to work on the long leg to the southern turn buoy.
I think I need to "find some feet" for a bit of help through the water; no luck. The crowd I am sharing the water with seem oddly nervous. I swim around one person, then to swim around the next.
New tactic; I swim my own line in clean water, 30m off the buoys. This works.
Getting to the south end of the swim course means a right turn toward the beach. The next buoy being a right turn back north.
I am swimming effortlessly by myself but at the turns, it is congested with other swimmers.
One thing that I really need to make peace with are the jellyfish; or medusa in Italian. I am handling them well today but stinging line from my chin to my right ear on let's me know they are not harmless.
The stinging is tolerable; the vaseline I applied to my face, hands and feet beforehand is helping. Overall, there are fewer jellyfish today compared to swims earlier this week.
My line to the final turn buoy is not my best. A confusing, red fisherman's buoy has pulled me and a number of others, a little bit off the offical swim course.
At the buoy, I turn left for the home stretch.
Just over 70 minutes, I am upright and crossing the timing mat; I feel like I could swim that loop again.
T1: A Long Strip Of Soft Sand
Just out of the water, I jog the soft sand to the transition area. A quick bio break in a available port-o-john and now where did I rack my bike?
It is a long trek to my bike, then a long trek to the bike exit, everything in transition goes smoothly.
Riding out of Cervia is a series of roundabouts before the road turns west toward the salt flats. Were there flamingos to be seen?
Yes, hundreds and that is pretty cool.
Just like any morning ride after a pool workout, I my legs feel heavy for the first bit of the ride. Today, maybe a bit heavier; it feels like there isn't much juice to squeeze.
All the people that I passed during the swim are starting to return the favour. Lots of people whiz by me on the way out of town.
Regardless how awful my legs feel, I stick to an effort that I think is appropriate. I open a gel and continue toward SS3bis (the expressway closed just for the race).
It is astonishing the amount of litter on the course; dropped bottles, dropped flat kits, stuff strewn about the road. A nice pair of Oakley sunglasses randomly discarded and I start a monetary tally of the "leave-behinds" to help pass the time.
I reach SS3bis (20 km into the ride). I am expecting my legs to have come around but there still isn't much doing. Both hamstrings are tight and my left glute isn't right either. Nothing to do except pedal and eat.
At the 30km mark, the ride crosses over to the southbound lanes of the expressway. A slight tailwind helps the effort going south. I am spending time sitting up while my legs continue to feel quite unhappy.
I open another gel and just as I am about to enjoy it, I am stung by a small wasp! Once on the lip and once on the tip of my tongue. This little guy gets me better than the jellyfish.
At the south end of the expressway, the bike course exits to the west, leading up to the town of Forlimpopoli. My lip still hurts enough that I've forgotten about my legs.
Rocca Albornoziana, an amazing 14th century fortress is on my left and to my right, a second Aid Station is handing out water and calories. I stock up with a couple gels for the next section of the course.
The scenery through this section of the bike course is picturesque; vineyards, trees, along a quaint country road leading to "the hill" and up to the village of Bertinoro.
The community support is growing the closer I get up to the village at the top of the climb. I keep the effort in check.
Bertinoro, just like back at the beach, has music pumping, people cheering but before you can soak it in, the route turns back downhill.
The route flattens again near Santa Maria delle Grazie di Fornò and makes a return to the closed expressway. Riding northbound, it feels like I am on autopilot.
Time flies by and I before I know it, it is time to retrace the route south.
It is getting later in the afternoon. Off in the distance, a ominous thunderstorm is forming near the town of Cesentico; to the east of where I am heading. Bertinoro to my southwest, is still basking in sunshine.
I am looking forward to climbing that hill one more time; it is a nice break from the mostly flat bike course.
One drop, quickly turns into two and after making a lefthand turn at the foot of the hill, drops turn to rain. With a loud crack of thunder right overhead, the rain turns into a deluge and the road up to Bertinoro becomes a river in an instant.
The music is still pumping but the crowd in Bertinoro is nowhere to be seen. I would be taking cover from this storm too.
My second descent off the hill is an precarious exercise braking in wet with carbon rims.
The momentum that I enjoyed flying down this hill two and half hours earlier, is not to be had this time; my focus is staying upright.
I am off the hill and the rain continues 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.
It is my last trip north on the expressway. the rain bouncing off the asphalt so hard that it creates an amazing rainbow effect on the surface of the road. Turning off the expressway and on to SP254, the rain continues to come down. Some sections, I ride the centreline because the lane was awash.
Even the flamingos in the salt flats had left to find shelter.
The rain finally eases just as I roll into Cervia.
Despite the foul weather, that last 40km is a new personal best (1:16:57 @31.2 kph). My mood is great and I don't want this bike ride to end.
Two phases complete, one to go. I nail a rolling dismount off my bike and slowly make my way down the long transistion to my run kit. I am ok with the long walk as every step helpes to shake out the longest ride I've ever completed. My glutes and hamstrings in particular are tight/fatigued from the ride; everything else, back, neck, stomach are all good.
Running shoes on, I head out of T2 feeling pretty good, or at least far better than I could have imagined. A large crowd is met at the intersection of Viale Milazzo and Viale Cristoforo Colombo, the cheering is electric.
My task is to walk the aid stations and pick away at the distance in between. That works through the first 19km (about 2 hours). Now the clockwork effort of this run becomes a slow fade to a shuffle. I give myself permission to walk.
Interestingly, I am ok with it.
The aid stations have Maurten gels, water, Gatorade, a Red Bull branded cola, bananas and some energy bar that I am not familiar with. I stick to what was known to me, the Maurten Gels for as long as I can.
The further down the road I go, the more I want something sweeter. Gatorade is the first to disagree with my gut. I switch to the cola which sits ok with me until the last lap.
The sun is long below the horizon; dusk is turning into night. Most of the crowds that lined the streets earlier are gone. I suspect half were athletes now in bed, getting some sleep before the 70.3 tomorrow. The other half being family of the particpants of this event, most of whom have already crossed the finish line.
I am on my last trip around this 4 lap course, making my way to Milano Maritima. I grab a banana from an Aid Station, it is the only thing that seems to sit with my stomach now.
My abs are sore, my quads are especially sore.
My sad shuffle once again turns into a walk.
Something in Italian is said to me. To my left, another athlete passes me and he encourages me to run with him. Despite the language barrier, we work together to push through the soreness.
I stay on his shoulder as we weave through the north end of the course. He spends some time on my hip as we make the final turn south.
We walk the final Aid Station. It is now just one table with a bit of product, the tents and most of the tables have been disassembled and packed up for the night.
I check my watch, I am going to finish.
I never get to a "dark spot" mentally (whatever that means); I was in Italy after all and thankful for the moment, the people and the unique experience I was having.
A little more than a kilometre to go, I see my biggest fan up ahead. Carina gives me a kiss, hands me a Canadian flag before racing me to the finish. She'll beat me there tonight.
I couldn't have asked for a better experience for my first IRONMAN distance triathlon.
Getting to/from Cervia was relatively easy.
The people of Cervia are very welcoming and the hospitality industry of the region is more than prepared to host a full and half distance triathlons over the course of a weekend.
I am not a fan of swimming with jellyfish.