Ironman 70.3 Portugal 2021 Vitor Oliveira

Lanzarote, May 2019. That’s when I watched my first Ironman event. I saw all kinds of people finishing that exhausting race. People that I thought that they would never be able to finish and people that I considered less fit than me. Seeing that changed everything for me. I decided that I wanted to challenge myself to do that but on the other hand I questioned if I would ever be able.

I decided to join a triathlon club. I joined TriTanium. The aim was only to do an Ironman event, at least a 70.3. I never really had big interest in shorter distances. The training was aimed at that 70.3. Eventually, I decided that the best one for me would be the Ironman 70.3 Portugal since, it was on a territory that I knew so probably it would be easier to organise the logistics. Also, 2 great friends were participating in the event.

I took 3 weeks of annual leave and I decided that I would spend the first 10 days at my parents’ home training and then I would drive down to Cascais.

This was very important as, later I found out, I was not ready at all for this race and these 2 weeks before the race where very important to learn a few things. A very important thing to mention is that before this 70.3, I had none to very little experience with triathlon races. To that date, I had only done 1 try-a-tri, 1 super sprint, 1 sprint and one 1500m swimming event.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a good triathlete but from the 3 disciplines if I had to pick the best one, I’d pick the cycling because I’m just terrible at the other 2. So, I decided that I would dedicate some extra time to the bike, first because it is the largest section of the race and second, because If I could win some positions, it would be on the bike.

I arrived in Portugal on a Saturday. I got someone to disassemble the bike and put it in a bike bag in Dublin and I got another mechanic to put the bike together again at home, in Aveiro on Monday.  And then Tuesday was the day. First challenge was to see how fast I could do 90km on the bike. I choose a route that was mainly flat. I pushed as hard as I could and up to 60km I was doing an average of 32- 33km/h, which I was very happy with. However, I made a huge mistake… I ignored my nutrition needs and only brought 3 gels, 2 cereal bar and 2 bottles of water. Temperature was around 23-24C, I got quickly dehydrated and had no more gels or bars after 60km.

After the 60km the cramps were unbearable, often I had to stop pedalling because my leg would get completely stiff and would not move. I was suffering and I felt that I could not get home on my own. I thought about calling my mother to come to collect me but I was afraid that then she would not let me go to Cascais (yep, mammy still rules!), so I just kept pedalling through the pain. I arrived home in tears (not literally otherwise mammy would have a word to say!), I had a shower and sat down to eat and the cramps where just hitting in every single muscle of my leg.

I would have cramps while seated, while lying in bed, while walking, while changing position in bed…man, don’t even ask me how did I manage in the toilet! For the rest of the week my legs were in bits, my running and cycling were affected and even If I did not stop training, I had to reduce the pace and the training load a lot.

On the following Tuesday, I drove down to Cascais to meet my friend Darren who has over 10y of triathlon in his legs and who is a doctor. I spoke to him about my lack of preparation nutrition wise.

Obviously, he came to me with the lecture about how nutrition is also of part of training for triathlon and even more when you are thinking about doing 70.3… basically he called me a donkey and he was right. I could have compromised my participation in the event that I most wanted to do.

He brought me for a cycle for a course recognition, but the aim was to train nutrition. He was doing the Ironman so he already had his nutrition plan prepared and because we are roughly the same height and body weight composition, I just adopted his strategy for the bike.

The gels that I used were from Aptonia (Decathlon brand) and the brand’s suggestion of use was 1 gel every 45-60min for exercise up to 3h. So, basically the plan was to have one gel every 25-30min and 2 salt tablets every hour. We doubled the gel dose because one, I would be exercising for way over 3h and two, the bike course was extremely hilly so I would using way more energy. They were the only gels that I had used so far, they taste nice, and I knew I could easily get them in Dublin, Aveiro or Cascais. I would also take 2 salt tablets every hour.

That what was my friend’s advise, and I took his advice as doctor! I also had my water with electrolytes and some cereal bars.

24 of October 2021, racing day.

I could not have had worse night of sleep, the bathroom called me 4 times during the night and I woke up at 5.30am to bring the bike and all the gear to transition time.

Strangely, I did not feel nervous or tired during the long walk from the hotel to the transition area. Had breakfast at 8am and race would have a rolling start with the pros at 10.10am. I only got nervous and extremely pale when I had to position myself at the start. You would have to locate yourself on the bay with the time that you thought you would finish. I put myself on the over 40min bay.

At that moment I realised that I only had a nutrition strategy for the bike. I did not think about the swimming or the run. I only had a spare salt tablet to take before I jumped on the bike but nothing else. So, I realised also that before I had my first gel, I would have swam 1900m (roughly 45-50min swim if I swam in a straight line), ran 800m to the transition area and would be already at least 25min on the bike.

So, probably I would need something before that! So, I left the starting bay and I ran to Róisín who had my bag and grabbed an extra gel and put under the wetsuit on the right leg. It was the best thing I did because I finished the swim exhausted physically and mentally. When you jump on the water, you can hear the speaker and the music and all the adrenaline is pumping and you feel awesome.

But as you get further away from the beach, you stop hearing any noise, you start seeing people passing you and then, you start seeing less people passing you, you start feeling lonely and I started questioning if I would make the cut off time. I was already feeling defeated thinking that I would be pulled from the race once I arrived to the swimming exit! I decided that I would just keep swimming, I would not look at the watch in any circumstance and more important, I would not look back to see if there was any people behind me. Basically, I said to myself that I would only interrupt my swimming to get out of the water at the exit. Eventually, I started hearing the music very far away again, I thought was a relief… I was closer to the end of the swimming.

I did one of my best swim ever with a pace of 2.16min/100m however, I swam 2,277m in 51.43min. After the matter, more than my sighting, the main problem was that as I was getting tired, my arms were crossing my midline, which made me shift my position at every stroke, making me swim much more than

what I needed. I made the cut off time and that gel was immediately taken as I left the water, and it was so badly needed. I ran the 800m to the transition area and the place was practically empty, very few bikes left. That made me take another important decision. I would not empty my bladder until I recovered some positions back. I had no time to waste and I needed to be on that bike ASAP.

T1 took me 7.38min, not too bad.

Jumped on the bike and on the first meters the chain jumps out. Great! Mr. Smart here decided to be a pro and have his shoes already clipped on. Great idea but then, the elastic band got stuck on the chain.

So, that brilliant idea made me lose more time than anything else. Chain back on, hands all mucky and back on the road. I knew that the first 10-12km would be mainly flat and then it would be always hill up to the 30km mark, with an ascending of over 450m. After that it would be an amazing downhill down to below 200m where I reached a maximum speed of 70km/h, how insane and stupid! It could have gone so wrong! But I was really dying to go to the toilet and had already passed a set of toilets!

The rest of the cycling was pretty nice with the highlight being cycling on a F1 course, “Circuito do Estoril”. I finished the cycling in 3h35min in pretty good shape and managed to recover a few good positions!

Man, I could not believe it! I was back at the transition again, it was mind blowing how did I manage myself to come this far without wetting myself! Racked the bike, took out the helmet, changed the shoes, put 2 spare gels on the racing belt and ran to the toilet. T2=6.02min, quite impressive if you think that I had to unzip and zip back the trisuit and deal with my numb private parts!

Back on the road, my head started thinking again that I really didn’t study the nutrition for my 21km “run”. I knew that there was a hydration station roughly at every 2.5-3km according with the race brief (there was not!). So, I thought, I would take 1 drink at each station starting with water, then on the following station, the isotonic drink, then redbull and then the cola and then repeat again.

I would keep the 2 gels for when the legs or the head would start telling me to give up, which only happened twice, thank God (the first episode was quite strong as my hydration strategy did not go well, keep reading)! The first station arrives, and I grabbed a bottle of water. Quickly realized that I could not drink running as I started coughing so, I drank walking. But then I realized that I would not want to run with an empty water bottle in my hand and I would not want a penalty for littering. I drank as much water as I could before the last trash can that was available and obviously it was not a good idea. After that I could only walk as my stomach felt too full but that gave me time to think.

I noticed that on the hydration station there were cups with redbull, isotonic drink and cola but the cups had less than half amount of content. I thought that maybe if I had the 3 on each station, it would still be a reasonable amount of fluids with electrolytes, caffeine and glucose, quick to drink and walk through the hydration area and not too much to upset my stomach. That really worked well! Eventually also I had to also run with a bottle of water in my had

because I was sweating a lot (26C, strong sun in mid-afternoon) but drying very quick (coastal road, sea breeze was lovely) so I had to wet myself as there was only 1 shower on the race course. I did not manage to be always running, I had to walk for good bits but I finished it. A lot of the positions that I had won during the bike, I lost again during the run but I knew that I going to happen. I finished the run in 2h31min and it was the best feeling in the world crossing that finish line.

I finished the race in 7h12min50sec and I want to feel that happiness again! I signed up for the race again as soon as they opened the registration! To conclude: Nutrition is the 4th discipline and requires its own training time.

Watch Vitor’s race video here.

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