Four weeks before the big day and I find myself on the run leg of Ironman 70.3 St Polten, the last of many practice races. Sprinting past a number of athletes, the screams from the German-speaking spectators was inspiring. You’re going strong, I kept thinking, just a few more kilometres to the finish line.

A few days before heading out to Austria, it was looking unlikely that I would compete in my very first M-dot race. Major obstacles at work, BA strikes and other matters made a simple journey quite stressful. “It would be good to have an official M-dot race under your belt before Nice”, said coach Fi, “just so you’re aware of the atmosphere and you can practice any strategies, such as nutrition, before your A-race.” Boy was she right.

Firstly, if you haven’t done an M-dot race, it is like nothing you have experienced before. The crowds, the volume, the standard of the athletes, the bling, it’s overwhelming and very intimidating.

For this race, I was trying out the following for the first time: carbon race wheels, tubular tyres as opposed to standard, compression calf guards and concentrated nutrition with profile bottle during the
bike leg. (The latter involves formulating a concentrated liquid of about four portions, marking the bottle and creating the mixture in your profile bottle with the water that’s handed out during the race).

Arriving at the hotel late on Friday evening (after our chartered Titan Airways flight from London to Vienna), I assembled the bike with the kind help of Martin Lynch (a few team members of Triathlon Europe got there the day before). Part of the preparation was figuring out a way to carry a tubular tyre with me (these cannot fit into a normal saddle bag). Folding the tyre four times and placing a gas cannister and lever into it, I taped the entire mass to my seat post. There’s a one in a million chance of getting a flat on tubular tyres.

We got to the race site for preparation on Saturday morning. Unlike other races, this event operated with clean transitions (just like Ironman France); your kit is kept in bags within the transition areas with space to change in tents, therefore no clutter around the bikes. Three bags were provided: Street Wear, Bike and Run. With the exception of your Street Wear bag, all had to be filled and handed in the day before the race. There is no room for error.

On the morning of the race, we arrived with plenty of time to get to our bikes and fill our water bottles. Nothing was left for us to do but get changed into our swim wear and prepare for the start. Martin and I were part of the first wave, we changed and got to the start line just in time to see the pros head out 5 minutes before us, soon enough, I was bobbing up and down in the water, ready to go.

Swim – 35:29
Nervously waiting for the countdown, I stared to my left and at the bank we stood on before entering the water. It was full of first wave participants, looking to my right, ahead of me and behind me, I realised I was smack in the middle of the action with little room to manoeuvre. Not good. The gun went off and the first thing I felt was a kick in the jaw, followed by a slap in the face. Carnage. My goggles came loose and filled with water. I swam a few metres ahead and let people go by, sticking to the side of the pack, I swam the rest of the distance comfortably.

Transition 1 – 8:28
Out of the water and into transition area 1. Some athletes had put flowers on their bags to differentiate it from the masses. I grabbed my bag and headed into the tent. It was a windy and muggy day, do I take my gloves or not? I packed everything into this bag, from leg warmers to the kitchen sink. Why? I could not find my gloves. Tipping everything onto the floor, I managed to scramble around and retrieve them.

Bike – 3:01:45
Off and away, 90km of flat with an 8km hill towards the end of the ride, racing with tubs felt great and my average speed was 32kmph. 20km through, a man in a police bike zoomed by screaming and pointing at my rear wheel. I had a flat. It took me 14 minutes to change my tub, a notoriously time consuming process. Inflating the tire was also a nightmare, I finished up the gas canister and the wheel was only half inflated. (Later would I realise that my extension valve was not screwed on tight enough). Stuffing the old tyre into my back pocket, I decided to go ahead and finish the bike course with caution. “Watch out on corners with tubs that aren’t fitted properly, they could come off the rim”.

Transition 2 – 4:03
Into the transition area and time to switch tops. (Completely inefficient, will not happen on race day as I shall compete in a two piece tri suit). Smoother than T1, I head out onto the last leg of the race looking forward to my strongest discipline.

Run – 1:30:13
About 8km into the run course, I decide to take a gel. Reaching into my back pocket, I feel around and find nothing. They must have fallen out into the bag. At the next aid station, I grab a Powerbar gel, shoving its contents into my mouth, I gag and spit it out again. It was a tough run but I pushed ahead despite my depleting energy levels. What else could go wrong?

A few kilometres to the finish line, the crowds were still strong. I ran past Mario, a slightly heavier athlete. “Zupa, Mario!”, came a shout from the spectators, “Zupa, Tarek!”. Despite all the technicalities of triathlon racing, and all the hours of training, it is almost impossible to predict what will happen on the big day. Regardless, we can enter the race prepared, by listening to our coach and focusing on our goals. After all, this is a choice for most of us, we have to approach it with an open mind, willing to learn from our mistakes as well as experiences. Oh, and a little bit of comedy helps along the way.

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