Italy – We are in Ostia, one of the sets of Netflix’ mafia series Gomorrah. The concrete jungle with graffiti and weed growing everywhere looks pretty dodgy and is in strong contrast with Ostia Antica, the well preserved ancient village just outside the town. It seems road workers and plumbers have been on strike for decades, but the Italians can get away with it; The food, the endless handing out of compliments, the brilliant weather and the relaxed vibe compensate all. The vibrant restaurants and beach houses are filled with Romans that want to escape the city, and in the end it is the people that make a place.
One of my hotel neighbors is looking at the ocean from his enormous balcony. I need a hand to prepare my bike. The Italian kindly follows my commands to firmly push the valve extender of my disk wheel while I blow up the tire. I wonder whether he has a clue what we’re doing but it works out perfectly. Grazie mille. The neighbor on the other side, a 40 yrs old Londoner, also escaped his tiny sixties-style room and is installing his girlfriend’s super posh zipp-wheeled carbon DI-2 shifted timetrial bike*. I’m sharp on spotting competitors so I ask him: “Nice bike! It looks very profi, is she competing tomorrow?”. He replies: “No no, she is doing her first triathlon, the sprint this afternoon.’” I think about the old roadbike I borrowed for my first triathlon, which I equipped with aerobars for my first Ironman and with which I qualified for Kona. I ask him to wish her all the best. Two hours later he returns with a blush on his face: “I forgot it is a drafting legal race, so no timetrial bikes allowed and so I had to rent a bike for her”. I cannot hide a loud laughter: that was easy money for the bike shop, bike case manufacturer, the airline and the bike rental store in Ostia.
Under the guardiancy of our teamchef, who also functions as taxi-driver, photographer and supporter we carefully explore the courses. The ocean looks calmer and easier than the road, but once we get acquainted with all the potholes we feel confident we will be doing fine. We carbo-load at our favorite restaurant where the instructions for a pasta pomodori and birra non-alocholica are well received. They are also fine with postponing the prosecco they offered until after the race. No problemo! – you see, relaxed folks those Italians. On race morning I finally feel recovered from last week’s the insane training volume, and I listen to my friend, Appolos Hester. “No matter what the score is, you are going to finish fast. Its an awesome feeling that you know you are going to be successful” – his sentences will be the headlines in my thoughts today.
Bang! Off we go! The plan is to get out of the water with the first, or second group. The first 300m I’m still in the lead, but then the wild ocean waves destroy my rhythm. It is my second open water swim of the year and I desperately miss the lines and tiles of the pool. After 500m I’m hanging on the end of the elastic band and slowly also loose connection with the last group. I feel like Tom Hanks losing his only friend, a football, in the movie Cast Away. I want to scream but a huge sip of water fills my lungs. Over to plan B. Plan B? There is no plan B! So you better go back to plan A. Lowest resistance, highest propulsion. Lowest resistance, highest propulsion. I try to visualize the pool where I managed to stick to Tracy Markham’s** feet every once in a while.
I succeed to swim back to the group, albeit the last, but we are with 9 of us so that means I can still make it to the left column of the results if I bike well. At the turning point we finally have the current from behind and allowing us to surf back to the beach. This is particularily easy with the extra buoyancy that doesn’t only come from my new wetsuit but mainly the 2L of air that is locked up in my stomach. I regret I don’t know how to burp on command: it takes 15 minutes before it is released.
As the first girl of the last swim group I exit the transition zone to have my début at staring-at-the-asphalt-only cycling experience. This time I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether there were predator birds, trees, or beaches along the road – the coach will be happy with that. Only some pink rays of light from Yvonne van Vlerken’s unicorn bike travel through the visor of my helmet, as I try to time the gap with her, 2 min 30, not too bad. Not knowing what is to come next on the run the words of Appolos are ‘it is an awesome feeling when you are successful’ repeat in my head – because I know this is a great bike split.
At the second transition a super friendly and top Belgium athlete, Sofie Goos, starts talking to me.
”Which position are we?” Honestly, I haven’t got a clue. “I think we’re 10th and 11th”, she continues her monologue. “The girls up front were drafting. Did you see that?!”
I want to tell her she just used up her complaint card for the day, but I say: “Well, then we should have had a faster swim. Come on, let’s go for a run!”
She takes off and disappears at the horizon. I’m thrilled that I put some spare gels in my bra in the transition because the organisation suddenly doesn’t hand out gels like they promised. There is only 1 aid station with one 70 yrs old volunteer who is desperately trying to help all the hundreds of athletes. I feel sorry for the poor man, but also for myself as I’m left with the choice between hitting the wall or upsetting my stomach***. I go for the 50-50 option, sucking up the gels only halfway. Luckily we have my teammate’s girlfriend supporting, who buys me a cold bottle of water. I feel like I’ve been wandering in the desert for weeks and finally find an oasis. It is in my hands. But now I need to decide whether to drink it or spray it over my over-heated body. Again I go for the 50-50 option. My teammates Mark and Milan are doing amazing. They support me during the race, which is a great motivator. But unfortunately I’m getting passed by more girls than I hoped. Technically I’m running fine, I also don’t feel empty or tired but I just cannot accelerate. Potentially because I haven’t raced at all for so long, or because of a run injury this winter, or because of lack of talent, but I’m in team4talent so I’m sure I must have talent.
After 4h11 (the bike course was 10k too short) I finally remember why I did this to myself: its an awesome feeling when you’ve completed a race. So many emotions, feelings, happiness squeezed into just a few hours, it is so intense. And it is great to be part of the team and to compete with the pros. Some people ask me whether I’m disappointed. I executed (the majority of) the plan, didn’t make mistakes and I think I gave all I had. So I can only be disappointed in that others were faster but not in myself, right?
The race organization had some beginner issues, but as the Italians: they get away with it. Great experience and I’d do it again for sure.
* At least worth 4 to 5 thousand euros
** A South-African insanely fast swimmer from my squad.
*** If you don’t drink while taking a gel during exercising at high intensity you can really mess up your intestines. If you don’t eat carbs you may get a ‘hongerklop’.
Pictures: Ingo Kutsche and Andre Kwakernaat (and google images)