From Ultra Marathon to Half Ironman - a Painful Journey. A Beginners Story.
(This is NOT a guide or recommendation how to properly prepare for it. Please consult a coach for that)
I really like running. Hence, I started settling in this beautiful little comfort zone of running already a while ago. It simply didn’t scare me anymore no matter how long or technical it was. Ultramarathons in the mountains, deserts or ice deserts? Here we go. 8 hours, 10 hours, 15 hours of running? YES PLEASE.
As you can see - I deeply needed a new challenge (Not saying there is not enough crazy ultra races out there - they just excite me more in a positive way without anything scary about them). That was when I came across that idea of signing up for a triathlon - swimming? Jesus no, I am scared of water. biking? Never cycled anything longer than a class in a spinning club.
But which one is suitable for me? Which distance? This is when some deeper research started - I didn’t like the idea of sprint/olympic distances simply because the overall effort of a 2-3 hour event just doesn’t seem like a real challenge. Full ironman? Maybe not yet. Half distance seemed perfect - a little swim, a 3 or 4 hour bike ride and a cute little half marathon at the end. To make sure, I sign up with a „quality“ event, I decided for „ironman“ as that was the only brand I knew. Gdynia fitted my schedule and also, flying all across the planet to Boulder City
for that was too much effort (Little did I know about the terrible travel plans I made for Poland).
Some weeks prior to the event, I did my paper work. First impression? That stuff is expensive! Compared to a normal marathon (About 100 Euros fee, running shoes and ready to go), everything about it is a lot more costly. The sign up was about 250 Euros and even though I already had a race bike, there were many investments coming up.
Open water scared me for many years. Even though I worked as a dive instructor (which makes me super comfortable whenever I am under water, being able to move and see everything around me), being at the surface without the ability to see what’s underneath still isn’t pleasant for me.
So this is where I started - learning how to swim properly. I booked a swim coach and we started from scratch. Trying hard to learn the crawl stroke, I spent hours over hours at the local swimming pool. Maybe two months just weren’t enough to reach a proper swimming level when starting from where I was. We soon started to work on my breast stroke which made me way more comfortable. I trained about three times a week until my shoulder started to get inflamed - all in all, I spent most of my triathlon preparation on worrying, planning and working on my swim style.
Talking about cycling - my mind just ignored that part. Somehow, I didn’t care about it, didn’t properly think about it and only cycled three times a week - twice at my local spinning club and once with my bike Ella, exploring the area without really reaching some significant mileage.
Running is my safe haven so no special preparation there, also no cross training and nothing triathlon related. No bike fitting (Jesus, I didn’t even prepare on how to fix my bike), no serious structured training. Remember - my goal was to leave my comfort zone and try a new challenge, not shooting for a serious finishing time or anything. Only planning all that and going out there and working with a swim coach was already wayyyy out of my comfort zone.
Probably my least favorite part when it comes to this event. Initially, I simply booked flights from Munich to Gdansk - an easy 1 hour flight without any hassle. Hahahahahahahahahaha. Still laughing about that.
A week before, Lufthansa tells me that there is no space for the bikes on that connection as the plane is too small (Cityline - they look like small private jets and apparently don’t have any storage space). At that point, flights to Warsaw or Pozen would have been 1000+ Euros. A train connection would have been more than 14 hours and Lufthansa cargo would have charged around 1000 Euros for two 10 kilo race bikes on a separate plane. Time was running out and I ran out of ideas. In the end we were flying to Berlin, taking a rental car with a 7 hour drive one way. Spending 14 hours of my birthday weekend in a rental car wasn’t exactly my idea of a perfect weekend but seemed to be the only option.
Flying with the bikes
Talking about a Lufthansa connection here - I simply called the service hotline BEFORE booking the new connection asking if there are spots available (in general about 5 spots per plane - if you are traveling with your bike, make sure to book and request early) and ordered some very basic bike bags from amazon. They were just fine for that purpose and had a little cushioning. Just drop the bike (tires removed) at the bulky luggage belt one hour before take-off.
Expo and Pre-race day
1.5 days into travels, we arrive in Gdynia about 3 PM and go straight to the expo. The whole area is massive and a whole lot bigger compared to the marathon expos. The bib pickup is super quick and the goodie bag comes with a very decent backpack, a swimming cap and some sunglasses. Everything is explained well and after renting out new wetsuits (the ones that I bought the day before were way to small) and a new trisuit (the zipper broke), we were ready to check into the hotel. Yeah, you are right, what a mess. Organizing the equipment only one day before is not your perfect go-to-strategy for a half ironman.
The Sofitel Soppot though has the perfect location and is the perfect hideaway. We install the bikes, prepare all the equipment and re-read the instructions for the race day again and again - it’s our first triathlon ever and there are numerous questions popping up. After the pasta party in my room, I really start shitting my pants. At night, we return to the transition zone and get everything Ironman-ready - my bike even gets some minor touchups before being checked in.
The alarm goes off super early and I jump into my trisuit (wearing a sports bra underneath). I braid my hair (WORST idea ever) and grab a quick breakfast: Poland offers a billion variations of meat for breakkie which is not my number one choice, so I just settle with some bananas.
Once we reach the start area, everything is super busy. People running around, doing their final preparations. I jump into my wetsuit and a pink swimming cap and jump into the sea to get used to the feeling. First time trying out a wetsuit and it feels great.
Starting Signal! The elites run (Yeah, run!!!) the first 50 meters into the water and are gone. Luckily it is a rolling start, so I am literally the last person going into the water, as I get kicked out with my pink swim cap. NOBODY had the desire to tell me that this was not allowed, so I have to change into a matching blue cap before starting. What a shit and nervous situation - my nerves are on edge while I enter the water all on my own.
The first 400m suck big time. I forget every single detail from my training and just strike out wildly without significantly moving forward. I can barely see a thing (My lash lady did a very horrible job the days before and my goggles are filled with wild and black lashes), can’t breathe and JESUS CHRIST there is a billion jellyfish in the water.
10 minutes in, I start to refocus and my movement improves a lot. I overtake some guys and make my way back to the next buoy. Stroke after stroke. I overtake many crawl strokers while doing a breast stroke and things start to be more positive. A few breaths later, I already reach the finish and crawl out of the water with about 49 minutes for 1.9k (remember - I couldn’t even swim when I started), my knees are shaking.
In the transition zone, I am super chill, get out of the wetsuit and grab a bite. I put on sunscreen, socks, my bike shoes and OFFFF on the hunt for Ella. She is the last bike in the whole row (Yup, I started LAST) and I run off with a big smile.
90k ahead - the longest ride I ever had was about 60. The road quality is suboptimal and I am super thirsty. The first hills pop up and I fight. There are four aid stations in total and I almost fail them all. Either I miss to grab the water bottle or they simply didn’t have food (or didn’t understand any English), but overall, this ride is a very tiring experience.
After 30k, my energy levels are super low and my eyes keep on closing because I am so exhausted from the swim. Swimming always made me super tired in training, but it never reached that level of exhaustion. I keep on going with a shitty speed of 20km/h on average and - never mind - somehow I survive 4 hours with the worst back pain. Of course, I never had a bike fitting or ANYTHING preparing me for that (I guess, spinning class doesn’t count). Tears of relief and joy roll down my face as I finish the cycle part about third to last after 3:59 hours for 90k.
NOW - RUNNING!!!! I meet some fellow ultra runners in the transition zone and we start some easy and fun conversations while slowly getting ready for the heat. 21k ahead! The 7k loop has to be done three times and comes with three water stations which seems really doable for me. In the first round, I overtake my boyfriend and I am full of joy and happiness. No stupid bike underneath my ass, just me an my running shoes! In the end, it was of course tougher than a usual halfie due to the heat and my shaking legs, but totally fine and easy. I sometimes wait and try to catch up on my BF and even get lost once. On a loop course. Sure.
The police officer showed me the wrong turn and my brain was too tired to notice, which added another kilometer to the game. I was about to punch him tbh. FINISH LINE FEELS! After a final sprint, I reach the finish line after 2,5 hours for the halfie +1k. Not great (my PR is a 1:49), but you know, I am happy.
What a fucking journey. So many months of overthinking and shit planning. I am totally aware that I didn’t nail my preparation for sure, but I reached the goal. The goal of kicking my lazy ass out of it’s comfort zone. I mean - I swam two damn kilometers in the sea full of damn jellyfish. I spent FOUR hours on a bike with my ass being sore AF. I crossed the finish with a smile and some tears in my eyes (If you wondered: I wasn’t even last, as I overtook some more folks during the run).
Can I do better? For sure. Will I do better? FOR SURE. You know what? There is a full ironman waiting around the corner next summer.
And I already fell in love with an amazing Tri-Bike (Happy birthday to myself, this could have been a Hermes bag haha), booked spots for bike courses, a triathlon camp and am looking for a Ironman coach. Ironman will fall! Sub12 will fall!
PS. Ella, I still love you, but this story has to go on without you. Thanks for carrying my fat ass across that finish line without busting. Yours truly, Marina.
PPS. Sorry Ella, you will have to share the bike spot in my room with another girl and she will be a lot lighter and thinner than you are. Still love your curves, though