My brother, Chris, raced his first Sprint, Olympic and 70.3 triathlon distances in 2013, finishing the 70.3 (AKA a Half Ironman) in under 5 hours. This year he did a full Ironman, which consists of:
- 3.9km (2.4 mile) swim
- 180 km (112 mile) bike ride
- 42km (26.2 mile) run
There are a number of different events at this distance, but he wanted to do an Ironman-branded event, meaning race locations were limited. Ironman UK is held in Bolton and I’m not sure I’d be happy to put all that effort in only to end up back in Bolton. He chose the Austrian edition, in Klagenfurt, a town in Carinthia.
I’d watched his Half Ironman (partly in my capacity as chauffeur) and when Chris told me about his plans for Austria I floated the idea of coming to watch this race. He didn’t seem opposed to the idea so I did what I always do when there’s a holiday to be planned and started a spreadsheet.
Ryanair used to operate direct flights to Klagenfurt but these are no more, meaning a stopover. After fiddling about on kayak.co.uk for a while and staring at maps I decided that if I had to change planes then it may as well be somewhere good. I also discovered that accommodation in Klagenfurt was booked up and the only place to stay was the campsite – and figured that if I was going to camp there then I should camp everywhere. This is how I came to go camping… in Venice.
After three days in Venice, I took the train through the Carinthian mountains to Klagenfurt. The scenery was off the scale: blue lakes, rugged rock faces and tiny mountain passes. As we got closer to Klagenfurt the mountains calmed down and rounding the Worthersee itself it became clear that we were nearing triathlete territory, with at least 100 people out running and cycling along the lakeside path.
The next morning, my brother came to the campsite to check on his bike – he’d had it brought to Austria by Race Force, who were super nice and unfailingly friendly. We went for coffee by the lake and chatted tactics, icecream and ducklings. After a stroll around the Expo I headed for a hike around the south side of the Worthersee. I’d brought a hiking map and was pleased to have it. Trails are well marked in Austria but a map was still useful. I was also glad to have my hydration rucksack as I didn’t have to worry about carrying (or worse, running out of) water.
The next day I ran to Krumpendorf, following the race route (feeling like a fraud), before doing some laundry and going to meet Chris for coffee. I went on another hike, this time on the north side of the lake, getting the train back from Portschach. I drank 2 litres of water, an iced coffee on the train and several non-alcoholic beers back at the campsite. Hot stuff!
That evening I put the finishing touches to the banner I’d made for the next day and tried to sleep, thinking about how the competitors must be feeling.
Race day. I woke up and fussed about in the tent for a while, not quite sure what to do. I had breakfast and decided to get up and go to the Strandbad. It was just before 6:30am and the place was packed. Competitors, some wet suited up, others unzipped, milled around. I had no idea where my brother might be and decided not to worry about it as there was no way of finding him and nothing to gain if I did find him.
I pushed my way forward but couldn’t see the elites set off as there were still too many people in front of me. The competitors got into position, some posing for photos, and there were lots of announcements – including a prayer and the national anthem. The gun went and the athletes started running for the water, and fireworks were set off.
It’s funny to watch several thousand people swimming together, like a westsuited shoal.
The swim course was mainly in the lake but the final 1km would be along the Lendcanal, so I went there. I found a spot by the footbridge, near a pair of sausage dogs, and sat down to wait for the first athletes. I couldn’t believe their speed! Someone behind me pointed out Faris Al-Sultan, a triathlon celebrity. It was very hard to tell anyone apart as everyone wore black wetsuits and swimming caps – the only difference was that the elites had colourful hats, the first wave had blue hats and everyone else had white hats. I saw a white hat overtake a blue hat and saw someone else try to swim into some steps.
I gave up trying to spot my brother in this wetsuited mayhem and headed out onto the bike course, using the coaches laid on by the organisers. There was a choice of destinations: the two climbs on the course. I chose the second as I thought that would give me more time to get there, although it occurred to me that I’d told my brother I’d be at the first one. I had a snooze on the bus but woke up in time for our arrival in St Egyden, wandering up the road a little so I wasn’t too near the blaring sound system.
As I cheered the riders coming past (getting a few high fives and grins) I started to worry that I wouldn’t see my brother. He wouldn’t be looking for me, I didn’t know what he was wearing and everyone was coming past so fast. I was concerned that I would miss him AGAIN and I wouldn’t have an idea of how he was doing. I had a rough idea of what time he’d be past given the finish time he was aiming for and knew he’d be making up time on the bike leg so might seem further back than he should be.
I scanned the clothes, bikes, faces, helmets of everyone coming past. What if I hadn’t missed him and something terrible had happened? What if he came past at a time that meant he wouldn’t make his target time? Would not hitting the target be better than not finishing? Keep scanning. Stop panicking.
The moment I saw him I knew it was him. He stared at me and I started jumping up and down, waving my “Iron Lamb” banner. He high fived me and continued up the hill and I grinned to myself for a full ten minutes. He was looking happy and focused and not remotely tired.
There was about 2 hours before he’d be back on the next lap, so I went for a 10k run, where I got lost and accidentally ran into a river, looking at my map. I was back in place for lap 2, occasionally ducking for shelter during the rainstorms.
This part of the course had a commentator and he pointed out some notable athletes, such as the youngest Austrian. By this point he must have been there for 4 hours and was running out of things to say, so he was shouting out the names of the riders coming past, as their race numbers had names and nationalities on them. Spanish riders got a hearty “olé!” and he’d started shouting “god save the queen!” at anyone British.
This lap I spotted Chris at the bottom of the hill, just as the commentator saw him and shouted “god save the queen, Chris!” – and I could see Chris looking for me. I waved the banner for all I was worth and managed to get a few photos, before waving him off… and making a split second decision to chase after him for a bit, up the Rupertiberg (I didn’t last long).
Feeling happy, I headed back to Klagenfurt. I dropped by the campsite to use the wifi and see how Chris was doing on the online tracker. I made a miscalculation both in terms of timing and the course logistics – the course (a figure-of-eight, twice) was mainly two directional, except for around the central bit where there were some one-way sections. I stood by a one-way section wondering why no one was going the other way for a few minutes before realising my mistake and tearing off in the other direction, managing to miss him entirely.
Luckily I only had to wait another 10k for him to come back, so I had a picnic lunch and got the banner out again. I spotted him quickly – he was, helpfully, wearing a visor – and could see he was looking for me. He threw me his gel belt and I asked how he felt. “I feel great!” he said, and he looked it, as he ran off out of view.
I looked behind and realised the course snaked round the corner, and that if I ran, I might make it over to him again. I sprinted across the park, hurdling children and small dogs, shouting Chris’ name like the terrible spectator that I am. I snapped a couple of photos and went to get an icecream and to see some people finishing.
Another 10k later, I positioned myself just after an aid station, feeling like I was in the wrong place and on the wrong side of the road. Smiles had been replaced with faces of grim determination and tiredness hung heavy in the air. Chris came past, not looking happy but not looking in any danger, no limping, gurning or crying – a vast improvement on many people I saw (myself included) at the London Marathon.
After some deliberation I went to the finish line. It was emotional: some athletes looked triumphant, others looked destroyed. One stopped at the top of the ramp and proposed to his girlfriend. A couple of people ran in with their children before that was banned (harshly, the ban was imposed when one little boy was half way to the finish). I kept checking the online timings. There was a checkpoint at 40km and another at 41km, and I’d worked out when he needed to be at both in order to hit his target.
He crossed 40km. I stopped checking the timings and stood on the barriers to get a better view. I saw his white visor bobbing along the lakeside path as he headed towards the finish and I started filming. He turned the corner, raised both arms and ran to the finish, crossing the line in 10:56:20. I burst into tears and ran through the crowds and the Expo to the finishers area.
Chris had become easier to spot as the day progressed, as I instantly spotted him lying on a pile of wood chip. I called his name and he pulled himself slowly to his feet and came over. He looked exhausted but happy and relieved. I gave him a hug through the fence and he went to find a foil blanket and to see where the medics were, as he was feeling unwell. The finishers area had a Weissbier stall and he grabbed two glasses of that, one for him and one for me, and we walked to the Irondome to be nearer the medics.
15 minutes later Chris came out of the Irondome looking refreshed, holding a donut and another Weissbier!
We spent the evening hanging out with the Race Force crew and watching the final competitors. Ironman events have a 17 hour cut off – anyone due to finish after that gets pulled off the course. It was dark and had been raining, but the atmosphere at the finish was great, the commentators still enthusiastic and the cheerleaders dancing to europop (one thing I’ve learnt about triathlon events is that they love a bit of europop), and the final athlete looked extremely happy to see us/the finish line.
That night it didn’t stop raining, my tent flooded and I was forced to abandon and dry out in the shower block, before throwing the tent in a skip and going to the airport – to find I’d left my penknife in my hand luggage, resulting in a thorough frisking.
I’m in awe at my brother and how he did such an amazing thing, and I’m glad that I was there to support him. He trained really well – and smartly – where every time he trained he made it count. It’s inspirational. So much so that I may have entered a triathlon of my own…