Having not raced over the Ironman distance since my 3rd place finish in Port Macquarie in May, I was anxious to toe the start line again. Having set the benchmark in Australia, a podium finish was once again the goal for Ironman Sweden. For the first time I was invited to be part of the pre-race pro press conference, as well as give a few words of advice on stage at the pre-race pasta party, which along with interviews with local media, really made me feel like I "belonged".
The deep water start was frantic as ever and I was working hard to try and keep with the leaders. After a couple of hundred metres I was at the back of a large front group, but only hanging on by a thread. Soon the inevitable happened and I lost touch with the feet I'd been following. Any thoughts of surging to try and catch back on were quickly squashed as I watched the group gain time exceedingly quickly. Fortunately Christophe Bastie soon joined me and set the pace, the two of us alone behind the front pack. Ever so often I'd move out of Christophe's wake to check the pace was honest, which it was. I wouldn't have gone any quicker had I been at the front, so I took the opportunity to sit behind him and try and conserve as much energy as possible. After nearly missing the swim exit, I came out in 55:31 with a big 6 minute deficit to the leaders.
After a smooth transition the 112 mile ride loomed and we had close to ideal conditions. For close to 20 miles I had Christophe for company, who again was aggressive in doing most of the leading. The pace was solid and I made the decision to let him go, as I was pushing a little harder than I would have liked. With an hour on the bike Tom Lowe passed me, which wasn't a surprise at all. At this point I still had Christophe in sight and knew that if I could stay with Tom, there was the potential to ride with the two of them. After a few minutes of work I realised that trying to hold Tom's wheel wasn't feasible – at least not if I wanted to have a good run. From that point on, with less than 30 miles gone, I was solo through the Swedish countryside. The crowd support through some of the residential areas was great and people made a real effort to cheer everybody on.
I went through halfway in slightly under 2:15, which was the point that the wind picked up and slowed everyone down. What had been perfect conditions were now more challenging. Unfortunately this also coincided with the start of some stomach problems I experienced during the day, unable to keep my nutrition down. This is a rare occurrence for me, as in 13 prior races this had never happened. At first I wasn't too concerned, however, with 90 miles down I went through a rough patch, no doubt caused by the calories and fluids lost from bringing up my nutrition. Doubts about the run started to arise and I was adamant I wouldn't be able to run well on an empty stomach and tired legs. In my mind I told myself that if I could keep it together until T2 then I'd be able to pull out and be done with it. With only a couple of miles of the ride remaining, I caught up with the main group, although by now there were a few athletes off the front. Still convinced that I'd pull out in T2, I passed the group and pushed on. As I dismounted the bike with a ride time of 4:35:41, the inevitable happened – my competitive side kicked in. Any thoughts of pulling out had vanished and before I knew it I was on the run course.
I was quickly passed by 4 of the group who set off at a frantic pace, but I remained conservative and bided my time. The first of three laps was spent focussing on getting in as many calories as I could, trying to make up for what I'd lost on the bike. Thankfully my system was cooperating again and I was keeping everything down. The run course was quite varied, taking in the busy streets on Kalmar as well as some more rural roads and residential areas. Wherever you were the crowds were always cheering and giving you positive energy.
After the first lap the skies clouded over suddenly and you could smell the storm in the air. It wasn't long until the light level dipped considerably and we were running through torrential rain, with the roads completely puddled. At this point my mindset had shifted completely and there was nothing but positive thoughts. I had my mental cues going through my head and was focussed on was reeling in those ahead.
The rain didn't last too long and soon cleared, the humidity level picking up slightly. I'd gone through the halfway point in a touch under 1:25 and – now in 6th place - I upped the effort level and made up a couple of places, but it wasn't long before my pace started to slow. The last lap was a struggle, but then again, it always is. As any athlete will tell you, that's when it's crunch time. With 3rd place a long way up the road, my concern became holding those behind at bay. A 2:55:47 run split had moved me up to 4th in a time of 8:30:30.
The crowds at the finish were as fantastic as they had been all day, which will be one of the resounding memories I take from this race. One place shy of my pre-race goal, to feel slight disappointment would have been understandable, but the three athletes ahead of me were on another level. In many ways it was a day to be proud of, not necessarily from a performance perspective, but from a mental one. The urge to pull out after the bike was so strong, so to come through that and put in a solid run was a big positive.
There's no doubt that Ironman Sweden – though a fairly new race on the circuit – has established itself as one of the premier European Ironman events. This is down to the fantastic team behind the event and of course the local community of Kalmar and the island of Öland. It really is a race that I'd recommend to anyone looking for great crowd support. Congratulations have to go to winners Horst Reichel and Leanda Cave for their dominating performances, and of course a big thank you to my homestay Thomas Höög who was a fantastic host and made my time much more enjoyable.