10 min read

Pleuni’s Race Report Ironman Barcelona

'Try really really hard to catch up on those girls'

Lined up with 13 female pro’s we started Ironman Barcelona last weekend. It would be my 11th full distance and my goals were to go for a PB and/or top 5.

The race nerves didn’t show up earlier than the night before the race and I felt very zen and relaxed because I had a long taper. [Tapering is the period prior to a race where you down scale your training volume (hours) but typically not training frequency (how many times you train per day) in order to peak at race day. The optimal length of a taper varies per person and training strategy.]

My approach normally comes down to training my socks off until the weekend before the race, have a short taper that comes with insane race nerves (because you feel tired) and lethargia but also with waking up at race morning like a fully charged nuclear bomb ready to explode. This time I had no choice but to do a long taper as I snapped my back two weeks prior to the race and it needed to recover. My physio Joost Vollaard and manual therapist Hidde did a great job helping me out the past weeks and we decided I was good to go again.

Having tested both types of taper now (with a huge bias obviously) I like the short taper better. Let alone because you can enjoy food better without putting weight on and you get a bigger kick from showing up at the start line feeling like a bomb. It is like the thrill when you go sky diving: the way up in the plane and the moment before the jump is more exciting than the long slow descent hanging in the parachute.

It was my third time racing in Barcelona. I was ironman-baptized here and just love the place. The Ironman speaker knows me by now, I can sing along the spanish start theme song, the hotel manager has introduced my race pasta on the menu, Andre gets to play with his drone and the other 3500 participants are thrilled to see the legendary support team of my cousin Elise and sister Floor again alongside the course. We were having a lot of fun and I was all set.

Bang! Off we went. I knew there would be a couple of serious swimmers and my aim was to be in the second swim group. It turned out to be a bit more spread out immediately. About five girls took off way too quick for me, 2 were slowly drifting away in front of me (at 15 meters or so) and I got left between them and the others. Here I managed – for the first time in my professional triathlon career 😀 -to speed up and swim towards the two girls that were about to drop me. This micro achievement really boosted my spirit!

That happiness was slightly destroyed when already before the 1km mark some agegroupers were passing by. I didn’t check how much later than us these guys were released into the sea, but it must be shortly after us as this usually doesn’t happen at all, or only at the final hundred meters. What would this imply for the crowdiness on the bike course?

Anyway, I clamped on onto the tail of my little mermaid competitor pro and left the water at 1.01.24 – 7mins behind the first woman, a gap we had anticipated on and about what I am capable of now so that is good.

In T1 I took over two girls so I think I must have been 6th. In the first kilometers the use of aerobars was strictly forbidden as it is a narrow bumpy road. Knowing exactly how to take which turn and where to pay attention I managed to get onto the mainroad very quickly. From here it is a 2 loop course along the coast with one climb onto the highway and back. There are a couple of roundabouts but for the rest it is pretty straightforward.

My wattage aim was 230 in the first loop and see if I could push more in the second. I’m in the saddle, looking at the road in front of me, neck in turtle position and letting the legs do the work, riding about 38km/h when all of a sudden I find myself smashing the ground, sliding across the asphalt towards a fence at the side of a roundabout. My first thought was this wasn’t happening to me. But you quickly realise it IS happening to you. OMG. This so came out of the blue! The road may have been slippery, but it to me didn’t look like it was. Was there a lid? I still don’t know.

A volunteer helps me to get up. He gives me my bottles back. I check my bike and see it is scratched but not too much damaged. I’m in a shock and for a moment I’m just silent and staring onto the road where I see three pro girls pass by. Then all I can think of is getting back on the bike. I check the damage to my body and flush the wounds with water. After a minute or five I realize my hip is swollen with about the size of an courgette and only now I start to feel the pain. I clamp my jaws together. The first hour my motivator to keep going is that if you stop cycling now I might become anxious about crashing, so I just have to keep on cycling.

As I reach for the second loop, I see my family and team manager. I don’t see the point in telling them what happened as it will only worry them and remind me of the situation. I ask them what my ranking is. Ninth. And 9 min behind the leader. That means I’m not cycling much slower than her. But also that I need to run really fast to get a good result. I’m nearly home now and it is so tempting to pull out.

You get to experience a lot in years of racing but this is something new to me. It hasnt crossed my mind that this is also part of racing. I’m truly concerned about my hip and my lower back during the run whereas I shouldn’t even think of the run yet. I recall the book of the “Golfer and the millionair” and remember you need to embrase yourself with love and keep the darkness out. The thought of pulling out is darkness so I try to keep that thought out. I think of the motivational song we listened when we drove to the start “When the going gets tough the tough get ready” and I put that on repeat. Think of micro achievements.

What could be an achievement? Regardless of the situation: push 230 Watts as you planned on! Okay lets do that! After an hour I find another pro girl sticking into my wheel (at 1 meter..) at the descent at the highway. Damn. I’m only losing on my ranking. And wish for her to get the hell out of my wheel, you cheater! So I brake on purpose – showing that she needs to back off. Smart as she is she accelerates, takes over and jumps to a group of men in front of us. The rest of the ride I see her doing this and it really annoys me. Stay internally focused Howijimen, she has nothing to do with you!

I recall playing field hockey when I was young. My coach once said: if you’re a point behind, don’t go running harder, don’t change your strategy, just be patient and keep doing what you planned on as that eventually is the way you can get back into the game. I think that works for triathlon too. Let’s keep that thought.

After 3.5hrs of riding I find an extra reason to keep going: try really really hard to catch up on those girls who passed you when you crashed, show them what you are made off. If they see you pass they must think you’re made of steel. And so I ride away from the drafters behind me and the cheating pro girl. It hurts me, but it must also hurt them.

However, nobody – apart from the slowest agegroupers still doing there first loop – is visible at the horizon.

Then, again out of nowhere, at the same roundabout as where I fell earlier that day (so on the way back at 165km) I see the girls again. Yay! Yay! I caught them! Finally I have a smile again I gear up and push a little more, speed through the technical no aerobars zone and start the marathon a few minutes earlier than them (after a 4.44hr bike ride).


The first 15mins of the run the hip and lower back feel horrible. But running after riding 180k is never very comfortable at the first miles so I just keep going. Think of laps, not of the full marathon. If the pain is acceptable, you have to keep going. But after an hour on the run the stiffness only has gotten worse. Running downhill into a little tunnel I feel the courgette on my hip knocking on my leg begging me to stop creating more damage.

I make the very hard decision to call it a day, let the hip and wounds recover and most importantly; give my body some rest. You only have one body. You’re here to race, you’re not here to have a heroic finish and a permanent injury. But this sounds easier than it is. It has been a 6.5hr of wrestling and there is only 2.5hr/3hr left. All I feel is disappointment and disbelieve. Looking around I see most of the agegroupers sort of crawling. How must they feel?
So I start to run again, while I burst out into tears. It is a new experience to cry and run at the same time, I can conclude that smiling and running is better for your oxygen uptake 😄. I’ll remember that for next time. But ultimately I get to a stand still.

The supporters along the course and other participants scream at me not to give up. They are all so kind but I wish they wouldn’t be there. Then I see my boyfriend, who has always screamed at me in other races to keep going even when I was dehydrated and hallucinating. Now he says: “It is best to stop. The only thing you gain is pain and a longer recovery, you’re not going to achieve anything here. We know you can finish ironmans. But that is not what this is about. Next year you have another chance.”

The next morning I can barely move my neck. And also my ribs hurt. I feel miserable, and mainly because of not finishing. However, on the plus side: I have a female hip curve now. It is one sided but the Beyonce shape looks very good on my left half 😄.

Learning points:
* When you crash, nothing should change in your race plan or mindset. It is still the same race.

* Accept the loss and move on.