Ironman Switzerland Journey Concludes

Ironman Switzerland 175
Ironman Switzerland Photos and Video

Yesterday, I completed the Ironman Switzerland race in Zurich in 11 hours and 5 minutes. The Ironman race is comprised of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run for a total race distance of 140.6 miles. Or, in the European metric style, that’s a 3.8 kilometer swim, 180 kilometer bike and a 42.2 kilometer run for a total of 226 kilometers.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time training for the race this year. According to the training program I followed (LINK), I spent approximately 460 hours in the 36 weeks leading up to the race swimming, biking and running. That doesn’t include the time spent getting ready for workouts, traveling to the pool, gym or ride location. And, it doesn’t include time spent getting gear, food and other supplies needed for the training and race. Competing in an Ironman race is certainly difficult, but deciding to spend the time training for the race changes your lifestyle months in advance.

Training for and competing in Ironman Switzerland has definitely changed my life this year, so I wanted to share (and save) some thoughts and musings from the race. Without further ado –

Race Day Report
I participated in the race with my friend Sean Kevelighan. I met Sean while working at The White House, when he was serving as the Press Secretary for the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB). He now works for Zurich Financial. While he lives in New York City, he has traveled numerous times to the Zurich Financial headquarters in Zurich and has a sense of the city. That was helpful in the few days leading up to the race.

On race day, we gathered up and took a cab with our gear to the start/finish/transition area at 5:30. It was just a couple kilometers from the hotel, but we decided we’d need to use all of our energy for the race and decided not to walk.

After arranging all of our gear in the transition area, it was time to get ready for the swim. With wetsuits, goggles and neon yellow Ironman Switzerland “powered by EWS” swim caps on, we just had to wait on the beach for the opportunity to get in the water. Amusingly, the race director said at the briefing that the EWS logo side of the swim cap had to be on the right side of your head so the media cameras could capture it). The professionals started their race at 6:55 and we were then allowed in the water at about 6:57.

At 7 a.m., the gun went off and chaos ensued. The swim is always a mass of swinging arms and kicking legs, but this start seemed to be more of a battle than the Ironman Wisconsin swim last year. The water in Lake Zurich is incredibly clear and tastes like bottled water. The clarity allows for a pretty good picture of all of the bodies swimming in a pack. It wasn’t until the first turn (approximately a half mile into the swim) that I felt that I had some space to swim and wasn’t getting kicked, swam over, grabbed or shoved.

In an open water swim, you don’t have the luxury of looking at the lines on the bottom of the pool in order to stay swimming in a straight line. So, sighting to the turn buoy is the way to judge if you are going in the right direction. Some people are pretty good at doing that, while others are not. There was one swimmer who was particularly disruptive in my area. He was in a bright blue wetsuit, so it was easy to pick him out from most of the other triathletes wearing black wetsuits or ones with a few bits of color. He swam just a bit faster than me, but was swerving back and forth. Imagine Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading a NASCAR race after downing a 12 pack of Budweiser. Bluesuit was careening from left to right, causing swimmers to veer into and swim over each other in an effort to keep moving forward. It wasn’t until the halfway point that I was able to get a good distance from Bluesuit and the mayhem he was causing.

In my view, the swim is the easiest leg of the Ironman, but it is also where the race can be made or broken. If you panic and spend quite a bit of time jostling around, you’ll expend precious energy that you need for the bike and run. While the swim in Zurich was chaotic, I felt like I developed a good breathing and stroke pattern and was able to keep consistent progress. I had hoped to beat my time of last year’s Ironman swim (which was 1:13) and was happy to come out of the water in 1 hour 7 minutes and 56 seconds.

After a quick transition (some transition practice and a concise transition layout helped me eviscerate my T1 – meaning the transition from swim to bike – time from last year), I was out on the bike. The bike course was two loops near Lake Zurich with a portion heading into surrounding hills. On the bike, my mindset is to go as fast as possible with the least effort expended. The first portion of the bike was a fast, flat ride along the east side of Lake Zurich. I was really surprised that I was getting passed by nearly every biker. I was going about 22 miles per hour in that first stretch (my goal was to go about 19 miles per hour for the entire bike – I averaged 19.4), but was getting passed frequently. Resisting the temptation to “race” every triathlete who passes you is important to having a consistent race that goes according to plan, so I just kept reminding myself that they were blowing through their energy reserves and I’d have the opportunity to pass them later in the bike or run.

The turn to head away from the lake and into the hills is a critical gut check point. I was sticking to my food and hydration plan of 100 calories of food (Gu, Gu Chomps, banana, PB&J, etc) every 45 minutes and almost 200 calories of Gatorade or PowerAde every hour. Along with the food intake, I planned to take one Endurolyte electrolyte capsule (LINK). The first serving went as planned, but a problem arose when I went for serving two at the 1 hour 30 minute mark of the bike. I realized I had dropped my Ziploc bag of Endurolyte capsules (which had been in the little pouch near the handlebar stem of my bike). That’s bad news, as the Endurolytes help me prevent cramping by replenishing lost electrolytic material while not having to force my stomach to digest even more food or Gatorade. More on that later.

The ride in the hills southwest of Zurich was very pretty. Smooth, rolling roads through small Swiss villages and farms made the time go by quickly. I particularly enjoyed the farms, with the brown Swiss milk cows and fields of corn. It reminded me of home and the whole purpose of the “Tri for Ned” (LINK).

“The Beast” was a long, steep climb during the hill section of the bike loop. The switchback road was a challenge and I wish I would’ve switched my cassette to the lower-geared version that I used for the hilly Ironman Wisconsin ride last year. On the second lap, “The Beast” gave the first glimpse of the leg cramps that would come later in the race.

After “The Beast,” the steep downhill was a welcome rest and a way to make up considerable time lost during the slow climb. If you didn’t watch your speed, you could easily get a bit out of control. As the race organizers said during the informational briefing, “don’t ride faster than your guardian angels can go.”

During the ride, there wasn’t as much chatting between riders as there had been during Ironman Wisconsin. I suppose the variety of languages and the stoic nature of the Swiss contributed to the silence. However, I did talk off and on with a couple of riders. Pete from the UK rode up beside me and startled me when he said, “with freckles like that, you must be happy with the cloudy weather.” Pete was a redhead with similar complexion. He was a strong rider and I ended up running for part of one of the four marathon legs with him. Another rider I spoke with was Andrew, who was also from the UK. He pulled up alongside me during the second bike loop to inform me that he planned to follow Andrea, an attractive and speedy German woman who had just passed us both, for the rest of the ride. True to his word, Andrew did his best to follow Andrea until she pulled off to go to the bathroom later in the ride.

At the end of each of the two bike loops, “Heartbreak Hill” was the final challenge. The steep, winding city street which rises above Lake Zurich was lined with screaming spectators cheering on the riders as they slowly climbed the incline. It was pretty impressive and reminded me of the mountain climb scenes from the Tour de France. At the top, an announcer with a loudspeaker called out each rider by name. “Scott Stanzel, from THE Seattle, Washington, USA!” greeted me as I reached the peak. It was a nice energizer heading into the final few miles. I had hoped to break six hours on the bike (last year did 6:33) and was very happy to come in with a bike time of 5 hours and 45 minutes.

My transition to the run was quick, as I didn’t change clothes other than shoes and swapping a hat for the helmet. This is probably too much information (but it is actually important to the course of my race), but I hadn’t taken any bio breaks during the day. During the bike, I had consumed about 100 ounces of Gatorade, PowerAde, water and Coke. Still, I was not hydrated enough to precipitate a bathroom break. Hydration management is one of the most critical aspects of completed an Ironman race. I once read that the best guide on hydration is that if your urine (I know, TMI) looks like water, you are in danger of overhydration (LINK) problems (rare for an Ironman). If it is lemonade colored, you are in good shape. If it is comparable to apple juice or something darker, you are running the risk of dehydration (LINK). Unfortunately, I was in the last category. That, coupled with the fact that I hadn’t been taking the Endurolyte capsules that I accidentally dropped early in the bike, meant that I was on my way to cramping problems.

To combat cramping, you have to take in enough electrolytes to replace the ones lost during exercise. That means drinking Gatorade and PowerAde, as well as eating the Gu gels or Chomps. The problem arises when you’ve consumed so much liquid and sweet gels that your stomach cannot digest it quickly enough to keep up. So, you end up with an upset stomach and electrolyte deficit that you aren’t able to fend off because it is difficult to consume anything more and you risk throwing up all of the fluids you’ve taken in.

On the first lap of the run, I worked to drink plenty of water and PowerAde – while ignoring my upset stomach. It didn’t really work and I soon had to back off the sugary Powerade. During lap two, I tried to have some of the warm chicken broth (they actually have it at aid stations for this very purpose) to calm my stomach and provide some liquid with high sodium content. It wasn’t very easy for me to drink soup while running, so I switched to munching on pretzels (also at aid stations) for some salt without the sweetness of Gu or PowerAde. During lap two, the cramps materialized. Both thighs, hamstrings and calves locked up. A fellow triathlete saw my issues and handed me an Endurolyte tablet to help. I took it, but knew it’d be a battle for the last 14 miles.

During lap two, the battery on my Garmin 405 died (the life is only about 8 hours, which is partly why I ordered the new, 20 hour battery life Garmin 310XT [LINK] – which I had hoped would arrive before the race). So, I didn’t actually know how fast I was running. I didn’t ask anyone else, as I just figured I’d try to complete the race as quickly as I could. This became a blessing and a curse. I didn’t obsess about how I was slowing down in the second half of the marathon, but I also didn’t know how close I was to breaking 4 hours in the marathon. A few more minutes shaved off the marathon would have also led to me breaking the 11 hour mark for the entire race. Psychological and meaningless barriers really, but ones I still noted.

The run became a real struggle. Striding out in a way that didn’t cause cramps and taking whatever I could keep down became the mission of the last 10 miles or so. I ended up having more Coke towards the end of the race. It was a different taste and I think the caffeine helped wake me up and mask some pain.

As I kept moving through the last lap, I just kept telling myself to put one foot in front of the other. I only looked down so I couldn’t tell how far I had to go. On any normal day feeling the way that I did, I wouldn’t have probably walked from the living room to the kitchen. But, training for the Ironman helps you learn how to compartmentalize nagging pain and perceiver through the miles. I couldn’t wait to get to the finish line and feel the satisfaction of completing the race.

My friend, and now fellow Ironman, Sean passed me during his second lap while I was on my fourth. We joked about who came up with the idea of doing Ironman Zurich, which provided some much needed levity.

In the final mile, I tried to pick up the pace and come in strong. My fourth lap was faster than my third, as the finish line motivation is strong even when you are feeling awful. In this video (LINK coming soon, technical difficulties), my brother asked me how I was feeling. My answer of “like dirt” was the polite response.

During the final paces, running through the gathered crowd and knowing you’ve accomplished something significant brings a wave of emotions. As I ran towards the finish and saw my time for the first time (I assumed I’d be closer to 11:45 because I thought I’d slowed down more during the run than I actually had), I was surprised and elated. The sacrifices made in order to complete hundreds of hours of training, the support from friends and family, and the memories of my Dad overwhelmed me. I sat in the recovery tent for quite awhile soaking it in. It was an incredible day I’ll never forget.

Note: I couldn’t have finished this race without the unwavering support from friends and family. I’d like to thank everyone contributed to my “Tri for Ned” (LINK), read/endured my posts on Twitter (LINK) and Facebook (LINK), cheered me in person (Mom, Ken, Steve, Allen, Tony, Julie, Marilyn, Alex) and sent gifts to help me with the training and race (Veronica, York). You made this Ironman journey very memorable and special. I can’t thank you enough.

The official results from (LINK) are below. There were 2136 people who started the race and 428 men in my 35 to 39 age group.

Scott Stanzel
BIB – 1223
AGE – 36
Seattle, Washington, USA
PROFESSION – Public Relations

SWIM – 1:07:56
BIKE – 5:45:11
RUN – 4:04:27
OVERALL TIME – 11:05:00
OVERALL RANK – 762/2136

SWIM (3.8 km) – 1:07:56
PACE – 1:47/100m

BIKE (180 KM) – 5:45:11
90 km (2:46:35)
32.42 km/h
90 km (2:58:36)
30.24 km/h

RUN (42.2 km) – 4:04:27
RUN SPLIT 1: 10km 10 km (54:43) 5:28/km
RUN SPLIT 2: 21km 11 km (57:49) 5:15/km
RUN SPLIT 3: 31km 10 km (1:03:31) 6:21/km
RUN SPLIT 4: 42km 11 km (1:08:24) 6:13/km
TOTAL RUN 42.2 km (4:04:27) 5:47/km

T1: SWIM-TO-BIKE – 3:59
T2: BIKE-TO-RUN – 3:27

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This entry was posted on Monday, July 13th, 2009 at 5:41 PM and is filed under Triathlons. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

8 Responses to “Ironman Switzerland Journey Concludes”

  1. Aaron Whitney Says:

    Scott, you’re in inspiration, man! I’ve loved watching your progress, and was cheering you on from afar (thank Steve and York for their Tweets…it was great to feel up-to-date). Best of luck in the next go-round!

  2. Chelon Stanzel Says:

    I am very proud of you! It was really great fun to be there as a witness to your accomplishment. Mom

  3. Pooyan Aslani Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Thanks for the great description of your IM Switzerland experience. I am thinking about choosing between IM Wisconsin or Switzerland for next year. Since you have taken both, I really appreciate if could you help me to make my decision. Which one would you take?


  4. Scott Says:

    Pooyan, thanks for your question. I decided to make a new blog post based on your question. Good luck making your decision. I hope you’ll let me know which race you choose!

    My comparison of the two races –

  5. Alastair Mace Says:

    Hi, I’ve just read your article with great interest. I’ve entered IM Switzerland 2010 and it should be the same course. This will be my 3rd IM. Please can you tell me what your bike gearing was on the day? Best wishes. Alastair

  6. Scott Says:

    Hi Alastair,

    Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your question. I used my 12-25 cassette in Zurich. “The Beast” and “Heartbreak Hill” were two sections of the course that made me wish I had switched to the lower-geared 12-27 cassette that I had used at Ironman Wisconsin. The rest of the course was pretty flat and fast, however. So, my advice would be this — if you feel that you are a strong hill climber, I’d recommend sticking with the 12-25. If you need some extra help on the hills, go with the 27.

    I hope that helps. Let me know if you have additional questions.

    Good luck!

  7. Jeff Says:


    How do you compare Switzerland IM bike course difficulty to other IM races you have done? What about the run? I did IM Canada in 2009 and was hoping to select a race that was not quite as steep / hilly.


  8. Scott Says:

    Hi Jeff,

    The Switzerland bike course is pretty fast, I think. It is too loops, with two real climbs per loop. One is a couple kilometer long climb, but you race down the back very fast (so time is made up). The other climb is steeper and shorter and has a quick downhill after. The roads are smooth and good for riding.

    The IM Switzerland run course is four loops in the city. VERY flat with excellent crowd support throughout. So, it makes for some fast times. I’ve done Iroman Wisconsin, but not Canada. The bike in WI was slightly more turning, rolling and technical. The run in WI wasn’t too much harder. It was two loops in Madison and also had great crowd support.

    How did you like Canada? I was hoping to do that last month, but work prevented it. Considering it for next year.

    Best of luck!