Since the day I started triathlon I’ve been blown away by the warm welcome, the friendly atmosphere and the enthusiastic passion for their sport that all triathletes have shown. A willingness to engage novices and newbie’s in their sport with gusto and delight is quite a distinctive and defining trait of the sport of triathlon and in particular from the Ironman breed of triathlon competitors. Messages of “welcome to Ironman”, “you’ll love it”, “Ironman is brilliant”, “you’ll get hooked”, “ironman is a great day out” and “you’ll want to do another one” certainly helped to raise my anticipation and enthusiasm of the new world I’d thrown myself into. So I began my first full Ironman with a curiosity to find out more about this enjoyment that so many were describing.
The day of the Ironman arrived and it began early with a 3am wake up call. I’d rehearsed my early morning routine in the half Ironman event in May, so I felt at ease with what I was doing. On the 20 minute bus ride to the start, whilst I polished off the last of my breakfast, I felt relatively relaxed and nerve free. I also felt relief that the weather forecast showed it was set to be a calm and warm day. I was one of the first groups of athletes to arrive at the course and got straight to work getting myself organised and ready. I knew there would quickly be an influx of competitors and crowds making it difficult to move around, queue for the toilets or find a small space to do last minute stretching, so I hurried through my preparation to get ahead. As the day dawned the numbers of people around increased. Everyone busied about, the music started playing and the commentator started the build up to the 6am swim start. The atmosphere was palpable as anticipation and excitement built amongst everyone.
In my previous articles I’ve documented how I feared the swim and struggled with it during the half Ironman. Because of my bad experience, and knowing how important is was for me to get a good start to the day, I tried to make sure I was as fully prepared for the swim as possible. This came down not just to the physical swim training but also to the mental preparation. There were 1300 competitors all getting into the water for a deep water swim start. It took some time to get everyone in the lake, so for early entrants there was a fair amount of time spent waiting in the water. I was in the water for about 10 minutes and was careful to try and conserve energy whilst treading water and trying to keep warm. Thankfully it was a good distraction for me! Because I was more concerned about keeping myself afloat, I found I wasn’t becoming concerned about the mass of bodies that were now surrounding me in every direction. Just as I started shivering and my teeth began chattering from the cold, the hooter sounded and we were off.
The mental rehearsal of the start that I’d been through time and time again served me well. My strategy was to set off being very slow and deliberate, almost pretending I was moving in slow motion like an astronaut walking on the moon. In reality I wasn’t moving that slowly, but that thought helped to counter balance the rush of adrenaline, keep my body calm and stop myself from over working. I wasn’t fazed by any of the ankle grabbing, knocks to the head, swimmers in my way, swimmers changing direction underneath or over the top of me, and I wasn’t put off when the swell of white water or splashing prevented me from getting full breaths of air. I could feel the panic and rush from people around me but I remained calm and kept a constant rhythm. I knew that after around 10 minutes it would all settle down. Gradually it did and I felt great confidence that it was all going so well. I found a really good comfortable pace and actually began to enjoy the swim, especially because I was moving past other swimmers with ease! Even as everyone bottle necked around the buoys I wasn’t affected by it. It was so brilliant to be having a much more positive experience compared to my last race. We had to swim two big laps but get out after the first lap, run past spectators and jump back in for the second lap. I deliberately kept my effort low for the first lap. It was a good marker point to get too and as I got in for the second lap I was so happy that it was going so well. I knew I was going to be able to get through the 3.8km swim trouble free.
Exiting the water in 1hr 8mins, running past the cheering crowds and into transition was exhilarating. I took my time in transition, got myself organised for the bike and downed a bottle of recovery drink. On the bike I could feel it was still a chilly morning but I got my head down for the first 14 miles of the course which took us out to the main bike course loop. The main loop was about 33 miles which we went round three times. My strategy was to work solidly but not too hard out to the main loop and over the first lap to get a good average speed in the bag. At that point I assessed the effort and knew I was comfortably inside a good time. I eased off through the second lap to keep my heart rate under control and focused on getting enough fluid and nutrition in. On each lap we had to go up a long nasty steep climb which was a severe lung buster and leg-burner. Minimising the damage from these climbs was my priority so I approached these sections as easily as I could but maximised my effort for the downhill or tail wind assisted sections of the course. For the third lap the wind had picked up making it harder work, but as I was still on good time so I backed off a fraction more to conserve my legs for the run. This was the part I feared the most!
As I approached the 112th mile and second transition of the bike section I was hugely relieved. I’d spent nearly 5hrs 45mins in the aero position and my body was screaming at me to get off and straighten up. Getting off the bike and running to get my transition bag I was acutely aware that I was pretty much bent over double stuck in my bike position. I braced myself that the run was going to feel quite uncomfortable for the first mile or so! In transition I slumped on a chair reluctant to do anything in a hurried fashion. Having stopped, I now began to feel the tiredness and I the enormity of the next run section began to dawn on me. “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do this” I whimpered in despair to the volunteers who were helping me with my bags. “You will” they chirped back encouragingly. As I let out a big sigh and trotted off to run a marathon they raised my spirits by telling me I’d do great!
Gradually I felt my back straighten up and my legs began to loosen. My body started to respond, clearly much happier that it was doing something other than hunching over bike handle bars. For the first few miles I skipped along at a comfortable pace. But I was hugely uncomfortable with a bloated, painful stomach and feelings of nausea. It was to be expected as it’s hard to consume the quantities of fluid and food that’s needed and digest it whilst doing exercise. My body was making sure I didn’t force anything else down it by making me feel ill. Ideally, during the first hour of the run I should have been taking in lots of energy and fluid but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel like I was lacking in energy so I made the decision to consume nothing more until I felt better.
It wasn’t until the 6th mile that I started to feel more comfortable and resumed a steady intake of sipping energy gels and water. By this point my pace was no longer comfortable. The course had taken us along a canal and up round a super steep hill which was so steep I pretty much had to crawl up over the crest. It was like someone had taken a sledge hammer to my legs. ‘Bang’ – they blew big time and their working capacity was reduced by about 25%! There was still a huge distance to go but I tried not to think about it. My legs were only capable of doing what they were doing, I had no control over making them go harder and I accepted my slower pace. In order to protect my hip which I feared would be my main limitation and prevent me from reaching the finish, I ran with a shortened, higher stride rate. The feeling for most of the run was not a feeling of propelled running, but more of a ridiculous shuffle which at times felt like my feet were barely leaving the ground. But I was going to do whatever I had to do to keep going whilst being sensible about my pace. Crossing the finish line in a slow time was preferable to trying to run faster, which would only gain me a few minutes, but risk blowing and crossing the finish line in a really slow time or not at all.
Waves of bad patches came along which required a lot of focus and concentration to battle through. At easier points it was nice to focus on the masses of spectators who lined the course and carried us through the run. Exchanging words, shouts or waves of encouragement with other competitors and spectators spurred me on and helped distract from the fact I was running a marathon! The real struggle came in the last 6 miles. By that point you’ve come so far and the end is in sight, but there’s still a huge amount of effort required which by this stage feels exponentially harder. My overwhelming memory of this part of the Ironman where I was closing in on the finish is of feeling no pleasure or delight whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, my enthusiasm for Ironman was not as effervescent as those messages I’d received! Trance like, as I placed one foot in front of the other in a bid to get closer and closer to the finish line, my thoughts went to those many people who had exhibited great adoration for this epic endurance even. I thought of those athletes who had seemingly developed an addiction to Ironman having completed multiple (up to 14 in one case) Ironman’s in their lifetimes. “WHAT is fun about this?” I whimpered to myself. “WHY would anybody want to do this again and again?” I vowed right then and there with increasing intensity as each mile passed by, that I would certainly NEVER be doing another Ironman EVER again. In fact, I vowed I would NEVER ever set any more physical or athletic challenges ever again. I began day dreaming of a normal weekend where I would no longer be forcing myself to go out training, but instead be having a warm and cosy breakfast in bed, reading the papers and operating at a more leisurely pace for a day or two. That thought of the finish line representing my passage from dedicated, goal-driven athlete to ordinary lay-about spurred me on.
I thought the finish would never come, but it did, eventually and it was exhilarating! How I wished I could have experienced a burst of that exhilaration 6 miles previously. Suddenly the pain and the lack of energy dissipated and extreme joy and elation hit me as I rounded the final corner and ran up the finishing carpet high five-ing the crowd. I had done it. I had completed an Ironman. I heard the announcer shout those special words “You are an Ironman” and I raised my arms in celebration as I ran under the finish clock reading 11hrs10mins. What a fantastic end to this challenge which I’d only started seven months previously. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to complete it let alone finish it in a respectable time. Completing it in this way and seeing the hundreds of other competitors achieve their dream too shows the Ironman moto ‘Anything is Possible’ really is true.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt however, is to never say ‘never’. Ironically, after celebrating my great achievement and what I thought was the end of my physically demanding lifestyle, I found out that I’d finished the Ironman 6th overall and 2nd in my age group. This has qualified me in my age group for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii in October. But what an opportunity and what an honour to have a participation slot to take part in the biggest and most coveted Ironman event in the world. So my aspiration of lazy, inactive weekends are being put on hold for a while longer as I’m going to be demanding one last final effort from my body to do it all over again!