“Give me your hand, you have to get out of the water,” a heavy Danish accent demanded a second time, “We must take you out of the water. You cannot continue.” A large set of arms hoisted me onto a yellow stretcher. My body began to spastically convulse uncontrollably as if I had fallen prey to some sort of Jellyfish exorcism. I closed my eyes as the rescue craft cut across the choppy and frigid waters of Amager Strand.
Within a timeframe of less than a minute I went from swimming in my first full Ironman to watching my race disappear on the back of a medical jet ski. The past ten months of my Ironman journey ended, just like that.
I was just 600 meters from the swim finish.
The long, long road to Ironman
12 months out
In August of 2015 I successfully raced my first 70.3 half-Ironman in Gilford, New Hampshire–“Timberman”. I was extraordinarily proud of my achievement. I trained hard, overcame some fears, executed well and felt 110% afterwards. Naturally I did what anyone would do–just one week after my half-Ironman I registered for my first full Ironman taking place the following year in Denmark.
KMD Ironman Copenhagen was selling out quickly and for some reason I felt strongly that this was my race. I entered my credit card number and plunked down the hefty $800 race fee, this of course only after some solid salesmanship to my wife. [One does not simply commit to an Ironman, much less one 5,000 miles away, without some prior consultation.]
I chose Ironman Copenhagen for a few reasons. Yes, the course is relatively flat and comes with 200,000 wildly cheering spectators; but I also have a special connection to Scandinavia.
I don’t want to date myself too much, but a looooong time ago I spent my entire senior year of High School studying abroad in a small Danish farming village on Denmark’s middle island, Fyn. Considering I had to bike a total of 20 Kilometers to school on a daily basis (in terribly inclement weather no less) one would think I would be a much better cyclist. I’ve since maintained a long-standing relationship with “my Danish family”, specifically my Danish sister, Sus. In fact, I even designed the logo and website for her successful catering business.
Before the start of one of the swims one of the members passed me and said, “Uh, hashtag, too much!” Maybe referring to my painted toenails or swim trunks, not sure, but it wasn’t super friendly.
11 months out
“Lobsterman”, a scenic Olympic distance triathlon off the coast of Maine, capped the end of my tri race season for 2015. During the triathlon, I found myself envisioning my full Ironman with each passing mile. I imagined coming out of the swim with a giant smile on my face. I imagined the Danish countryside with its brilliant gold mustard fields and thatched roof homes. I imagined the four-loop run course in the heart of Copenhagen with its proud cheering spectators. And I imagined hearing the words, “David Ziegler-Voll… you are an Ironman!”
10 months out
After Timberman and Lobsterman I spent the next few months focusing exclusively on running. One of my last goals of 2015 was to qualify for the Boston Marathon at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C.. The hard work paid off and with less than a minute to spare I earned my BQ*. My plan for November and December was to give the feet a rest and focus on becoming a more efficient swimmer.
9 months out
My friend Kyle had recently completed Ironman Mont Tremblant and became one of my go-to consultants for a litany of never-ending questions regarding all things Ironman. One valuable piece of advice he gave me was to join a masters swim program. Talk about intimidating! Masters swim is essentially a national organization of local swim chapters that facilitates swim workouts by certified coaches. I joined a LGBTQ swim group close to my neighborhood; I didn’t feel like I had the warmest reception. [Before the start of one of the swims one of the members passed me and said, “Uh, hashtag, too much!” Maybe referring to my painted toenails or swim trunks, not sure, but it wasn’t super friendly.]
My main goal was to increase my endurance in the water and improve my free stroke. I’m not sure that my technique drastically improved, but there’s no doubt that four months of masters swim greatly improved my PE (perceived effort) and swim distance.
8 months out
With more than a half year out, my wife and I started to sort out the logistics of our upcoming travel abroad. After some evaluation we determined two full weeks in Europe would be necessary. In consideration of the Great Ironman Copenhagen Registration Accord the travel planning for my race included a post-race stopover in Spain. (In exchange for a race week in Copenhagen we would then spend a full week in Barcelona. Sounds terrible, right?)
We arranged to visit with my Danish sister for the first part of our Denmark excursion with a supplemented stay at a small Air-BNB in Copenhagen for pre and post-race.
Around this time I started mixing in some runs to my routine and researching Ironman training plans. Along with the regular Masters swims, strength training and run workouts, this is around the time I began thinking critically about my future IM training.
7 months out
I started getting a little concerned about my lack of strategy for the race. I felt confident competing in the half-Ironman distance based on the informal guidance from my peers, but I knew that to be able to successfully complete the full distance I would need more than a stock plan and random tips from YouTube. There was a whole component of the race I knew nothing about–otherwise known as the 4th discipline, i.e., swim, bike, run, nutrition.
I interviewed a few coaches but ultimately it was proving to be way out of my budget. [Read: a monthly car payment.] It was only mid-winter and I was already starting to rack up plenty of unexpected and tertiary Ironman expenses. My heart was set on one coaching service in particular, E3 Training Systems. With nothing to lose I wrote the company a letter proposing a mutually beneficial trade–their professional level triathlon coaching in exchange for my design skill set.
6 months out
One half year sounds like a lot of time, but ask any Ironman triathlete in-training and they will confirm that six months out is practically tomorrow. I started going into panic mode. Despite my best efforts, without a training plan my race would certainly be jeopardized by self-doubt. So many questions… When do I ride my first century (100 mile bike ride)? How does someone with my specific body composition properly fuel for 140 miles? What’s my race pacing strategy to avoid the dreaded bonk? When should I begin to taper?
My weekly Masters swims continued and I peppered my workouts with sporadic indoor bike training sessions–but mostly my routine was inconsistent and devoid of any structure. Some weeks had random 17 mile runs thrown in and some weeks just a handful of shorter track workouts. Due to Boston winter constraints, my paltry rides were limited to my indoor bike trainer. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
And then I received a message from E3 coaching in response to my email.
5 months out
I met with my future E3 triathlon coach (and four-time Kona qualifier), Jana, and the owner of E3 Training Services and we worked out an agreement to exchange services. I had a professional Ironman coach! Jana and I clicked instantly… I can’t tell you how proud I was to have her as my coach.
This. Changed. Everything.
I am sure there are plenty of athletes out there that have completed 140 miles without a coach; however, having professional triathlon guidance provided me with much needed confidence. The shackles of doubt were instantly removed. There were no unanswered questions.
During the first month of training I was thrown off by the lack of intensity of the workouts. I had a hard time following the plan when it came to the run days. For example, staying in a Zone 2 heart rate for thirty minutes seemed counterintuitive to me (and painfully slow). I was quickly reminded that I wasn’t training for a marathon; rather, I was training to be able to run 26 miles after a full day of swimming 2.4 miles and biking for 112 miles. It didn’t take long to trust my coach’s plan.
I also became part of the sponsored E3 tri team and ordered a pretty bitchin’ E3 team tri-kit. (I know this sounds silly, but rocking a team tri-kit really made me feel #legit.)
4 months out
My weekly workouts gradually increased in effort and it became clear the bike would be a major point of focus. I invested in a professional bike fit at a local tri shop and made some minor upgrades to my bike set-up.
Six weeks into my official training and I hit a wee snag. I was heading out for my first substantial outdoor ride of the year when the free-wheel of my rear wheel broke. Essentially, as I pedaled downward there was suddenly no resistance causing my leg to snap down unexpectedly thus causing my back to experience acute pain.
The discomfort was different than I’ve experienced in the past and made most of my workouts impossible. Naturally, I thought my training was over. Luckily, my coach was very patient and didn’t give up on me. Jana implemented an addendum to my training plan to improve my core strength, flexibility and balance.
As the weeks went by I found myself still struggling with acute pain and even a four mile run was, at times, too much. Jana assured me we would get through this and that I had plenty of time to get back on track.
I had my back imaged to rule out any serious injury. While the MRI revealed evidence of some arthritis and disc degeneration, the pictures hadn’t changed since my previous scan of three years prior. (I had a total of three readings just to be on the safe side.) This was good news but also frustrating because I still wasn’t able to effectively train at maximum effort.
3 months out
Eventually I was able to slowly rebuild fitness while taking extra precautions with my fuck-crap of a back. I had several injections and continued to work with my amazing physical therapist, Stephanie, at Boston Spine & Sports. (To illustrate the degree of my commitment to complete this race, in total I visited: two spine surgeons, two chiropractors, one sports massage therapist, one physical therapist and exactly one acupuncturist.)
My coach began administering and integrating various performance tests to maximize my potential. One test in particular, the sweat test, was extremely revealing. Essentially this consisted of weighing myself naked on a digital scale, running for exactly one hour (without consuming anything during), recording the air temperature/humidty and finally weighing myself a second time after stripping down and drying off any excess sweat. (The same test was repeated on a bike as well.) Even on a cool 63°F evening run I was extremely shocked to discover that I lost almost two pounds of sweat in just one hour. Two pounds! So what’s the point? Understanding an individual’s rate of sweat loss can determine a specific athlete’s prescription to properly hydrate and refuel, i.e. how often, and how much. The 4th discipline was coming into play.
I was finally able to get my run mileage up – on June 5th to be exact. This was an important run because I had previously been experiencing acute pain right around the four mile mark and this 8-miler filled me with confidence. My subsequent runs over the Summer wouldn’t all be 100% pain-free, but for the most part I was feeling optimistic about my training.
I began my early morning open water swims and was very lucky to have eager friends willing to keep me company at 5AM floating in Walden Pond. (Yes, that Walden Pond.)
2 months out
With only a few months left of training I was still very nervous about my lack of long rides and the challenges I faced with getting through them with my back issues. Again, Coach Jana assured me I would get through this. (Starting to see a trend here?) The weekends began to concretize as long, solid days of workouts. Saturdays: open water swims immediately followed by long rides immediately followed by short runs. Sundays: long runs.
My longest ride of the year at this point was only 40 miles. The following weekend I rode 53 miles. The weekend after that I raced Musselman, a 70.3 half Ironman in Geneva, New York. I finished in a little over six hours, but I didn’t feel strong. [Wordy race report here.] The bike was killing me. I just couldn’t fathom how I was going to be able to complete a full Ironman with my back discomfort and overall weakness on the bike.
But… I am very stubborn and continued to do everything I could to keep powering through my workouts. The weekend after Musselman I rode my longest distance ever of 70 miles–this in addition to the mid-week workouts of early 5 AM swims at Walden Pond, pool workouts, runs and evening rides.
1 month out
My last month of training was insane. My longest open water swim was nearly three miles. Three miles! My weekend rides culminated with a 90 mile trek and, finally, my first-ever century (100 miles). Oh, and one additional century ride for good measure. These were some of the hardest, longest and most brutal days of training–but also the most rewarding. There really wasn’t a moment of my time not devoted to this race. And it wasn’t just the training… it was getting to the training. The stretching, foam rolling and constant body care. Visits to my sports PT. Preparing race meals, cooking homemade bike nutrition, bike fits, bike care… the list goes on and on.
And then of course the things I wasn’t doing: hanging out with friends, casual social runs, home projects, maintaining my poor website. As my wife so aptly put it, “you’ve become that weird roommate that’s never around.”
My back and core became stronger and I was able to complete all of my workouts with little discomfort. In just two months I went from struggling on a 40 mile ride to successfully completing back-to-back centuries. My confidence was building and I was starting to see all of my hard work pay off.
1 week out
Triathlons, in general, are a logistics nightmare. Leave it to me to add an additional challenge to the sport, i.e. internationally transporting a bike, bike gear, wetsuit, race fuel… 90% of everything I packed was for my IM. I brought two pairs of jeans and a handful of t-shirts for two weeks abroad.
So many amazing people did so many amazing things for me during my last few weeks of training and taper. A large group of people joined me on my last 19 mile run. A complete stranger lent me their travel-approved bike case so I didn’t have to buy or rent one. My physical therapist lent me her body buffer so I could give myself a nice pre and post-race massage. My running club threw me a surprise send off party and presented me with cards, hugs and well-wishes. The love and support I received was unreal.
We arrived in Denmark and spent the first three days acclimating to the time change in Hillerød at my Danish sister’s home. We were able to relax, get plenty of sleep and enjoy some amazing Danish meals.
2 days before
We checked into our flat in Copenhagen which ended up being a little smaller than expected, but then again, everything in Copenhagen is relatively compact. After dropping off our loads of luggage my first order of business was to take my bike to a local bike shop to be reassembled. Next time I will learn how to do this myself, but for my first Ironman I wanted to be certain that my bike would be 100% ready to go. (I love the Danes. After inspecting my bike, the mechanic said, “You have very nice wheels… very nice components… the frame? Not so nice.”)
I then took the train to the convention center to attend the mandatory race briefing and to pick up my race credentials (helmet stickers, bib, timing chip, gear bags…). During the race briefing I almost started to cry when the speaker told us that “everyone here is going to be an Ironman”.
One would think that being such a shallow body of water the temperatures would be relatively warm; relative to the Baltic Sea, this is true… but the Baltic Sea is very fucking cold.
I came home and started to prepare my race bags and sort out my nutrition. A bit about the race bags: During an Ironman there are thousands of athletes. Because of this, Ironman requires that participants sort their gear into Ironman branded color-coded plastic bags–one for bike gear, one for run gear and one for post-race clothes/needs. Each bag is labeled with the athlete’s bib number. During the transition from swim to bike and bike to run, a volunteer hands the appropriate bag to the athlete–he or she changes–and then hands the bag back. No items are allowed in the actual transition area.
I very, very carefully packed my gear bags. Forgetting something, like say… a bike helmet, would be a nightmare. I don’t suffer from any OCD tendencies, but I must have checked my gear bags a dozen times.
I visited the grocery store to pick up ingredients for my pre-race meal and race nutrition. Because my on-course nutrition needed to chill for 24 hours I spent the evening preparing my go-to carb-bomb potato rice cakes.
Everyone expects to sleep horribly the night before a big race; hence, the penultimate night’s sleep is so unbelievably important. Unfortunately I slept like complete fucking garbage. Just could not sleep.
1 day before
This is a big day for Ironman athletes. My morning started with “a big breakfast”. Essentially eating everything and anything. I felt like shit because I didn’t sleep well, but by the afternoon I started to feel a little better. I dropped off my bike at Amager Strand and said goodbye to my gear bags… they would be waiting for me early in the morning. I scoped out the swim as the buoy’s were in place and realized what a long swim I had ahead of me.
By mid-afternoon I was back home studying Coach Jana’s race plan–19 detailed pages!
This is why having a coach is so vital! My race plan included everything from what to do three days before the race to what to eat and how to execute my swim/bike/run in great detail.
I ate my standard pre-race meal (quinoa, avocado, sweet potatoes, chicken) and went to bed. Because our flat was small my wife headed out to Copenhagen’s Pride festival to try and give me some quiet time.
And then the fireworks started. Awesome.
…the Danish medic looking after me took off his clothes to keep me warm. Um, so to be clear, the medic took off his clothes *to give me his clothes* to keep me warm.
I actually had a modicum of sleep and woke up alert and ready to go. I made my breakfast (coffee, weird danish bread + peanut butter + banana) and hydrated with plenty of water and Skratch. Race morning can be very, very hectic so I made sure before hand that I knew exactly which train to take and how to get to the transition area/swim start.
It was dark and cool when I arrived at Amager Strand, a man-made lagoon designed to give the Danes a protected and shallow body of water to swim. At its deepest the lagoon is only six feet deep. One would think that being such a shallow body of water the temperatures would be relatively warm; relative to the Baltic Sea, this is true… but the Baltic Sea is very fucking cold.
Denmark had a cooler than normal Summer, I believe the recorded temperature of the water on race morning was 60°F/15.5°C, air temperature 55°F/13°C.
I dropped off my race day clothes bag which included my phone. (Phones, cameras, GoPros are expressly forbidden on the course.) My last blurb to the world was, “Whatever happens it’s been quite a journey.”
It was time for my warm-up swim.
Unfortunately, the warm-up swim area was not in Amager Strand, but rather on the other side of the lagoon which is essentially just the Baltic sea. I am very curious to know what this water temperature was… I’m all but certain it was much colder than the lagoon. I waded in and could not believe how debilitating the water felt; despite my wetsuit, I could feel the deep cold burn of the briny black waters of the Baltic Sea. It took me three attempts to dunk my head under water and on the final submergence felt my lungs collapse as I exhaled any bit of life in me.
But I did it. I warmed up and became comfortable and acclimated. I didn’t have any doubt about this swim.
The warm-up swim ended and athletes were asked to line up in their respective swim wave. Much like standard marathon or half-marathon races, I’ve noticed more and more triathlon swim starts implementing a self-seeded approach to institute a calm rolling start. I know some triathletes like the thrill of running into the water en masse, but it’s also dangerous and doesn’t add or subtract anything from an athlete’s ability to complete the distance. Self-seeding also removes age and gender bias. Starting a swim start by gender and age groups assumes that “this group” swims slower (or faster) than “this group”. In reality, each group will have fast and slow swimmers that defy gender or age.
Per my race plan, Coach Jana instructed me to line up at the end of the 1:10 wave or the start of the 1:20 wave. (To be clear, the amount of time I predicted to finish the swim portion of the Ironman, e.g. 1 hour 20 minutes.)
The race started. I corralled myself into line and waited for my turn to be signaled into the water. I wasn’t nervous or scared, but I was shivering before I even entered the lagoon. My legs were shaking.
Before I knew it Ironman Copenhagen began and there I was swimming along in my very first IM. The water was cold, but I felt ok. I was surprised at how shallow the water was. I was also surprised by the amount of jellyfish… not small little bits of jellyfish floating about, but rather big pillowy jellyfish like one might see at a major metropolitan Aquarium. Huge. I didn’t get stung, but I routinely palmed these creatures and felt them touch my feet.
I was moving really well. At one point I sighted just behind me and saw a huge wave of swimmers on my tail–this freaked me out a little. “Just keep swimming,” I told myself. The 2.4 mile swim was an out and back with the unique experience of going under three bridges full of cheering spectators.
I was near the turn-around point and had a bit of anxiety when the water became very shallow, maybe three feet deep, and completely covered in seaweed. Visibility was tough and my arms were getting tangled in vines, jellyfish and very brackish water. And then I started feeling weird.
It’s difficult to know what something feels like until that feeling of that something is no longer there. I sometimes have issues with my fingers and toes going completely numb in cold conditions, but this cold sensation was different. My core felt dead. Sometimes people joke, “I feel dead inside.” I can say with certainty I know what this feels like. To say “I can’t feel my insides” has to be one of the weirdest and most difficult to comprehend statements made… but that’s how I felt.
I was on my way to the home stretch but I began having difficulty with physically moving my limbs. I wasn’t uncomfortably cold. I wasn’t uncomfortable. I was, however, in trouble. This is an important distinction. My body temperature was rapidly dropping but I kept swimming. And then I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t speak.
My head fell into my hands and I uncontrollably sobbed. I could barely breathe. I was completely overwhelmed with the reality that everything I had worked so hard for was suddenly gone.
I maneuvered away from the swim pack. The water was shallow enough to stand and I was hugging myself… a kayaker quickly paddled towards me and asked if I was ok. I think I said I was cold. Within a few seconds a jet ski medic team was by my side. I knew that my race would be over if they touched me, but it wasn’t a conversation to be had. I was suffering from massive hypothermia.
I was 600 meters from the swim finish.
Concluding a brief trip across the lagoon, I was whisked into a medical tent and wrapped in plastic foil like a burrito. After getting me warmed up enough to remove my wetsuit, the Danish medic looking after me took off his clothes to keep me warm. Um, so to be clear, the medic took off his clothes to give me his clothes to keep me warm. “You can keep the top but I need the pants back.” My wife was called and within an hour she was by my side. About 15 minutes later an English woman was brought into the tent, in tears, also succumbing to hypothermia.
Shortly before I was released I overheard the race announcer say, “Athletes, we now have half of the swimmers out of the water.” I would have already been well on my way on the bike.
later that day
I didn’t have access to my iPhone until after tracking down all of my gear and plain clothes bag. This took some time as I had to wait for the bags to be transferred from the transition area to the race finish. It was emotionally tough navigating through the city with the Ironman Copenhagen logo plastered everywhere–a constant reminder of what might’ve been. Worse, having to cross the run course to get back to our flat.
At the time I was sad, but ok.
We decided to drop off my bags at our flat and then have lunch.
I picked up my iPad. It was flooded with messages, Facebook posts and tweets.
“You got this!”
“Computer set up to track David!”
For a second time in one day I felt my lungs collapse as I exhaled every bit of life I had left in me. I broke down as if someone close to me had passed away. My head fell into my hands and I uncontrollably sobbed. I could barely breathe. I was completely overwhelmed with the reality that everything I had worked so hard for was suddenly gone. I thought about the people that showed up at my send-off party. I thought about my wife putting up with my year of training. I thought about my coach and her commitment to getting me ready for this race. I thought about my friend Maartje racing the Leadville 100 trail race that very same day–and my friends pacing her. I thought about my friends and family that stayed up late into the night staring at their computers, probably wondering why my stats weren’t updating.
It wasn’t failure. It just was.
I was devastated. And heart broken.
I posted a statement on Facebook explaining what happened. Over the next 12 hours I received an incomprehensible amount of responses, some from persons I’ve long lost touch with years ago. Each encouragement filled my eyes with enough salt water to warm Amager Strand to a comfortable 72°F. Coach Jana’s coach wrote, “Chin up David, it could have happened to anyone and it even happens to the best. Just last month, Daniella Ryf, the female world champion left the race after experiencing hypothermia on the swim. Four other pro athletes also were pulled out of the swim for the same.”
even later that day
My Danish sister and her entire family met us out in Copenhagen. They came to cheer, but instead brought us each a bottle of Danish spirits, took us to an amazing dinner and made me smile. (Not only did they host us, shelter us and feed us, they also came to support us amidst a draining experience.)
Feeling defeated I pointed my browser to ironman.com and started looking at late-season races. I messaged my coach and within a few minutes seriously started contemplating a way to salvage my season. Ironman Maryland: flat, windy, two loop bike course, three loop flat run, registration… still open. While the race environment was not nearly as enchanting as Copenhagen the course was almost identical.
It took no convincing.
My wife said, “You need to do this.”
My coach said, “We gotta finish what we started.”
To be continued.