Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Brian Carroll's Race Report from Switzerland...

Brian Carroll sent me a great race report...

From: Carroll, Brian
Sent: Thursday, July 17, 2008 11:27 AM
Subject: FW: Swiss Ironman Race Report: HUP HUP HUP

Hi Mitch, hope you enjoy some summer reading from my latest Ironman Adventure!!! Hope your summer is going well.

Swiss Air flight LX 053 touched down peacefully on wednesday morning, July 9th, in the hub of central Europe--otherwise known as Zurich. Surrounding me in seats 22B, 23AB and 24AB were my very own Brendan's Buddies NICU Race Team made up of Brendan himself, his two brothers Tom and Keith, my wife June (Brendan's Mom) and my 18 year old niece--also head cheerleader--Marie. A bit fuzzy eyed, we were soon greeted with a tribute to the Swiss princess of childhood stories, Heidi herself. As the airport train shuttle whisked by hundreds of still pictures of Heidi, a really cool nickelodeon-style movie was produced. It showed Heidi in the mountains, then Heidi as a teenager, then Heidi all grown up. I don't recall that part of the story, but we all remarked on how filled out Heidi became!
Getting the triathlon bike and all our gear through customs was very efficient because, after all, we were in Switzerland. One rent-a-van later from Hertz and we were on our way to my friend Rolf's house for some pre-race training and visiting through the Swiss countryside. Rolf trains for Ironman with me. Since Rolf grew up in Zurich, we chose the Swiss Ironman because it gave us a chance for our two families to meet each other. Plus, doing an international Ironman would be a real hoot! Rolf's family was kind enough to host us at the family boat house along the pristine shores of Lake Constance. It was in a wonderful swiss-style area that touched the borders of Germany and Austria, which were both visible from the front deck. Just picture the gingerbread-style homes along with snow-capped Alps on the horizon, reflected in the blue/green waters of the lake, and you get the picture. Add a bottle of white wine, some cheese and of course, chocolate and this is what I call jet lag adjustment. The kids just called it fun to swim.
The three days before an Ironman can contain some real stress. Checklists run through your mind. Calorie counting becomes habit forming. Equipment checking becomes obsessive. Practice swims can get all your dry gear wet. And so forth. 
The Boat House provided an oasis from the mental clutter. No television. No phones. We were busy, though, because the food needed to be bought for each meal with a short stroll to the neighborhood grocery market. The kids needed to be supervised in the water. Dishes needed to be set and cleared by hand. We were back in a time of my childhood...before everything became so technical. Maybe that's why people seem so much happier in Europe. I wondered if my kids missed their guitar hero as I watched them being pulled on a rubber tube behind Rolf's motor boat.
Heaven can wait. I've got an Ironman to do. Off to Zurich for the race registration, bike check-in--and the focus begins. The blue sky over the Alps was quickly being replaced with storm clouds and lightning on the day before the race, thus adding to the drama. How wet will it be? At least the rain kept many people out of the Ironman logo shop. I had my pickin's over the latest Ironman shirts and gear. Pretty cool stuff to wear at a local race back home. As the weather soured more, I went a little crazy at the vendor booths trying to find the ultimate bike shirt that could keep me dry and comfortable should the weather even worsen on race day. I bought some kind of high tech bike shirt with detachable sleeves which promised me a cure. $200 later...we'll just see.

Race Day. Trying to comment on sleep the night before an Ironman is pointless. You just don't sleep. So you get up at 4:30 am to muddle about and eat some pancakes and eggs. Kisses to the crew as they sleep and off to the race at 5:00 am. One second after leaving the comfortable hotel, it hits you. I mean the rain. It not only hits you, but it hits and hits and hits you. Downpour is an understatement. Hail was the only thing missing from this picture. I grab a cab to the race with my three bags of triathlon gear. The day begins. This is tough. But Ironmen eat tough for breakfast. I'm good to go. No need for sunscreen. I meet Rolf at the bike park trying to ignore the moans of 2000 athletes who collectively mingle in mud and slop. Ever the optimist, Rolf greets me with "Hi Brian. Do you think they'll let us wear our wetsuits for the bike ride?". We quickly decided putting on our wetsuits is the best strategy to cope for the two hours before the race. An Ironman must be always thinking. Use your equipment for absolute advantage whenever possible. Good thing is Europeans aren't caught up with nudity so much. Switching from wet clothes to a wetsuit goes unnoticed. Soon, everyone seems to come up with a similar idea and a wetsuit army is born.

Swim 2.4 miles.
Standing on the cold shores of Lake Zurich, I look out over the water and hear rumbles of thunder. Sometimes for safety, the swim in an Ironman can be cancelled if lightning is around. Part of me wonders if this is a good thing. Its that little voice in your head that says, "Hey, what the heck are you doing out here 3,500 miles from home, standing in the pouring rain, staring at choppy waters in the middle of a thunder storm?" No time to wonder anymore because the cannon fires and the swim race has begins. I somehow forget it was raining. Arm stroke up, arm stroke down, head to the side, head down. Hundreds of laps in the pool before the race, and it's the same motion. The only problem is that I can't see anything without my glasses in the middle of Lake Zurich. I have no idea where to go. I look around, laugh at my situation and bear down to follow the closest yellow swim cap next to me. As long as there is someone to my right, I have to be going the right way. No 10 foot tall buoys here. Only little pumpkin sized markers every 100 meters. Good grief, now I have to convert meters into miles. Welcome to Europe.
Bodies banging each other in water depths of 200 feet really wakes you up. I am more alive in that moment than I have ever been before. No looking down, it was dark. No looking behind because hundreds of yellow caps were coming after me. No looking ahead because I couldn't see where I was going anyway. The only place to look was to my right. Keep someone there. At all times. Ooops, I looked up, and for a brief moment, there was no one there. I pause, look around, and sure enough, I have been blown off coarse. Regroup. Refocus. Stay calm. Coach Steve says draft behind a swimmer for less energy expenditure. So I try it and get kicked in the head. Then it hits I turn the right for a breath, I see a swimmer doing the breaststroke. Ah ha. Doing that motion keeps his head above water so he can see where he is going. I keep him to my right for a full mile before somehow we lose each other in the chaos. I fumble around a bit then presto, another breaststroke swimmer. My day is saved. I don't even bother looking at my watch. I just stroke one arm at a time. Keeping aim on my yellow-headed target the best I can. Out of the water and a friendly crew of Swiss race volunteers grab my arm for exiting assistance. They are very attentive to detail here in Switzerland.
Race time: 1:37:09.

Bike 112 Miles.
No changing tents here in Europe, so I'm once again surrounded by lots of buff. The rain I never seemed to notice during the swim was inescapable as I whisk my bike off to the start of the bike route. Warnings from the locals as I exited: "Remember your tire is only 1/2 inch thick."  I race off with a dozen or so riders. The names on their race numbers were storybook: Jon, Hans, Franz, Igor, etc. I remembered as a kid that bikes had fenders over the back wheel. If the kid in front of you splashed through a puddle, no back spray. I'm no kid anymore, and these race bikes don't have fenders, front baskets or any other amenity that made bike riding so much fun in the rain as a youth. I was happy to have my glasses back on, but now I was getting sprayed by the rider in front. If there ever was a poster boy for lasik surgery, I was the guy that morning. I wished I had Elton John's wiper glasses.
Mercifully, the first 18 or so miles were flat along the shores of Lake Zurich. Not much of a view, since the dark clouds looked like they were attached to the ground. The first water station was filled with joyful volunteers who did not seem to mind the weather. Along the race route, people lined the sidewalks yelling, "Hup, Hup, Hup". I had no idea what they were yelling until I finally figured it out six hours later--"Go, Go, Go!."  My Swiss German isn't very good, but the genuine enthusiasm of the locals was contagious. My name was on my race number so when possible, fans would yell, "Hup, Hup Brian". I passed along rural farm lands where men tending their crops would stop for a moment and yell, "Hup, Hup". Small children would be in their windows and doorways yelling, "Hup, Hup". Not a single person stood motionless or quiet along the roadside. Each mile was sprinkled with shouts of "Hup, Hup". The only exception was the very professional police crew who patrolled the intersections at each corner. No "Hup, Hup" from them. Just serious work keeping us safe. Welcome to the efficient and friendly Swiss countryside!
I wondered about the elevation. I had studied the route by map and knew that sooner or later my luck would change from flat to something a bit more sinister, like a Swiss Alp. Yes, I was not in Kansas so where was my first Alp? I was eager to meet the so-called first hill, the "Beast". At the 50 kilometer mark (back to metric now), the Beast said hello. Out of no where, the road starting looking up. Not north, but up. Vertical up. Straight up. The Mount Washington Auto Road kind of up. The "Beast wants to eat you up" kind of up. It was raining. I was wearing my new $200 special material bike shirt. I was ready to say hello. I only looked ahead of me 10 feet at a time. Never up. I kept peddling. Peddling. Peddling. Some people were yelling "hup" but I didn't really notice. It just kept going up. Previously on the flats, my speedometer was reading 18 mph. I looked and saw only 6 mph while on the "Beast". Grind. Grind. Grind. "I've got to earn this Alp," I kept saying to myself. 10 minutes went by. Then 15. Then 20. Six miles later, I reached the summit. The rain-soaked crowd at the top was going crazy yelling "Hup, Hup". The road was painted something in German, but I think it said that I conquered the Beast.
What goes up does go down. And down it went. Blazing. Smokin. Rubber burning downhill. Only problem was the road was covered with water and my rubber bike brakes were wetter than a fisherman's boots. I recalled the warnings when I exited the bike park two hours earlier. What made the downhills more interesting where the occasional rotaries I encountered in the little villages. Ugh. I'm a husband and father of three kids so some common sense prevailed. Keep it slow, and live another day. The speed did help dry the rain from my cool technical bike shirt I bought the day before. That day, the shirt was worth $2,000.
A dozen or so riders and I were having fun trading places racing down the hill. It was not just an Ironman endurance contest, but a race as well. USA pride on the line. Nothing like good, heart-pounding adrenaline under competitive situations. If the feeling could be pushed even higher, what would happen? I soon found out as I encountered yet another Alp, the so called Heartbreak Hill. What makes this so special is its location. It comes at mile 54 of the first 56 mile loop. And it's vertical. Staircase vertical. Even more pitch than the Beast. But mercifully shorter. About 1 mile in length. Going up, I could hear thunder. Not rain cloud thunder but some kind of sustained low groan that only built up in volume the closer I approached Heartbreak Hill. I couldn't see ahead of me because the twisted road was built up the Alp in a switchback manner that allowed only a 100 yard view at a time.
As I drew closer, my eyes popped wiped open. Over 2,000 screaming people lined both sides of the road, Tour de France style. It was something I had only seen on TV, but I was now living. Thousand yelled, "Hup, Hup, Hup Brian" as they announced my name across a loud speaker. People were moving me along by running up to the back of my bike and taking turns pushing me to the next person. I barely turned my pedals as one after another, someone pushed my bike over the steep summit. I was emotionally affected. I felt genuine affection for the Swiss people all rallying to help some unknown athlete, me, accomplish a seemingly impossible task. If there was ever an Ironman moment I could treasure, this was surely it. I was so overwhelmed by the moment that I don't even remember the ride down the other side. 

Lucky me. I get to do the entire 56 miles once more.
Race time: 7:23:22.

Run 26.2 Miles.
Pulling into the bike park for the bike to run transition, I was happily greeted by the smiling faces of my proud family. It was a bit more lonely on the second bike loop because the crowds had thinned a bit. So seeing my family as I finished the bike ride was a joy. I stopped, posed for pictures and tried to assure everyone all was well. My dashboard of vital signs were checking out with positive indicators. The day was such a visual treat as the rain began to let up enough for some postcard views. No worries about race time, so I let about 10 minutes slip away as I chatted with the family. They were so relieved I was perky. It was a good idea to reassure them by spending some chit-chat time. It's a long day for them as well. Waiting is stressful. As they checked my progress before I arrived, they encountered a second Brian Carroll on the race course. Yeah. As if one of me wasn't enough, now there are two. My wife June was asked which Brian Carroll she wanted a race update on. (I passed along a chip mat every 10 or so miles on the bike route that send a progress signal to the info booth.) I guess the other Brian Carroll lives in London so I was easy to distinguish. Hope he did well. Us BCs have to stick together.
My wife got a kick out of me changing from my bike pants to my run pants, in a...well, "open" manner. I gave her a kiss and a prediction I'd be done a little after 9:00 pm. I was going to keep a steady effort and not blow my heart rate up too much on the marathon. Funny that I actually looked forward to running a marathon. Off I went with a wave, and the next adventure segment began.
Shuffling my feet along, I worked my way to each water station. My speed felt comfortable. I soaked in the noisy crowd all yelling "Hup, Hup" who gathered as the rain let up. I'd say about 25,000 people lined the 6.4 mile race course. I had to run it as four loops. A bit mentally tough, but mercifully flat. The run went along the Lake marina with beautiful Old World-style ferry boats that helped passengers migrate from one side of Lake Zurich to the other. I received a colored wrist band for each loop I completed. Yellow for loop 1, red for loop 2, blue for loop 3 and green for loop 4. The torture was starting a marathon and sharing the road with runners wearing their red and blue wristbands. They only had 10 or so miles left while I had the whole 26.2. Never mind, just stay relaxed and one loop at a time will pass.
And so it did. I looked around for Rolf. Where might he be? Then around a corner, there he was, as if on cue. Darn, he had one more wrist band than I did. Looks like he's got me by one lap. "See you at the finish buddy", I said. We both smiled the best we could.
All was going well until mile 12. For some reason I started getting a bit dizzy. A quick self diagnostic pointed to some dehydration. I guess I couldn't drink enough rain! Maybe I was hoping it would pass through my skin. Too bad it doesn't work that way. Just in time, I passed a volunteer handing out warm chicken soup. I forgot how good warm soup is on a rainy cold day. I savored each sip and took a short walk break. When finished, I realized I screwed up by not taking two soups. The solution lay in running to the next, then to the next and then to next aid station. I couldn't get enough soup...though each subsequent serving was not as hot as my first. My spirit was growing, and I was back. It just took 6 more miles to get me there.
The crowd continued to roar and shout "Hup Brian" as I passed. The Ironman gets you mentally beaten down, and this course is no different. After each run loop, I was forced to take a U-turn right in front of the finish line. As I turned, the runner next to me ran toward victory and the end of his day. I, in turn, went off to face another 6.4 mile loop. With each loop, I faced fewer and fewer runners along side of me. Thoughts came to me of my early 5:00 am runs around the river in Mystic, CT when alone and tired, I would make 6.2 mile loops before the sun went up. It's just me and another loop. I ignored the other runners alongside me.
I wanted to see my kids and wife. Time for the day to get over with. I looked at my stopwatch and tried to see if I had a chance to finish under my personal best Ironman time of 14:24:07. The only problem there was the mathematics it takes to figure that answer out. Remember, all the signs are in kilometers. Ugh. I was at the 33.5k sign and wondered how far I needed to go. Let me think...was that 6.2 miles for each 10k? Do I divide the 33.5 by 6.2 then multiply by 10 or do I divide by 10 then multiply by 6.2? Then, how many miles divided left by how much time on my watch that read 8:15 pm? Darn. I was tired. Way too much work. It's easier to exhale, get the bad air out of the lungs and just go for it. Pass as many people as I can. Run them down. Get out of my way. Pick off each one. Hup. Hup. Hup. And, hup I did. Some fire burned and fueled whatever was left in my legs to hup as quickly as I could.
I figured I had 5 or so miles remaining. Looking at my watch as I read another kilometer sign looked promising for a best time record. But then I remembered the extra .4k of distance I forgot to calculate. Darn again. I thought I was going to make the best time only to be wrong in my distance. Never mind. Hup. Hup. Hup. The rain continued to fall.
No U-turn this time at the finish. Straight down the yellow-carpeted finish chute. I ran as hard as I could. With only 10 meters to go, my niece Marie threw me an American flag for the finish line photo. I saw huge smiles from my wife and kids. Then flash! The finish line camera went off. The American flag was help high above my head. A volunteer put a medal around my next. I looked at my watch: 14:22:12. A new personal Ironman record for me.
Race time: 5:03:46.

Finish 140.6 Miles.
Lots of people have hobbies. I collect finish line photos. I cover a special notebook at home with them. Photos from many races and from many venues. "Stay composed for my finish pictures", I told myself. I gave my wife June a huge hug, and the camera snapped. Great shot. I hugged Brendan next and flash, another great shot. One by one each of my family members posed at the finish line. The Europeans around me thought it all a bit odd that I was not moving myself along in an efficient manner. I was clogging the queue. And what's with this flag around his shoulders? The camera continued to click and my scrapbook is better for it. Rolf joined in the photo fun at the finish. What a great wingman. The day is done. Now to get out of the rain!

Post-Race Note.
While in Switzerland, we all celebrated Brendan's 9th birthday on July 10. A quick trip across Lake Constance from Rolf's boat house and we had birthday ice-cream in Germany. Very memorable to spend Brendan's birthday in two countries. Amazing how this 1.5 pound newborn had grown into such a handsome and special young boy. We are reminded we are all Brendan's Buddies as we help raise money for the UMASS Memorial NICU. Thanks to June, Brendan, Tommy, Keith and Marie for being such a great band of cheerleaders on such a wet miserable day. It isn't easy being part of the Iron Crew for Brendan's Buddies. Special thanks to my friends Rolf and Joan who hosted our visit with such patience and encouragement before, during and after the race. You all made it a special day.
Stay tuned for more races and more fundraising. We've got a NICU to help.

Brendan's Dad

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