Every time I’ve sat down with the intention of writing a piece about my Kona Ironman race experience, I’ve been put off by having to re-live the experience! This time however, I’ve finally pushed beyond just writing the title. It’s not that the race was a ridiculously traumatic experience and I’m wishing to suppress it (well, actually, elements of the swim certainly were), it’s just that it was a particularly brutal day of punishment that’s left me with an overwhelming feeling of frustration.
Of cause I was exceptionally happy at having actually crossed the finish line of my second Ironman in the space of three months. However, I was not particularly happy with the process it took to get there! After the UK Ironman I was ecstatic to have crossed the line, in what was a great time for me personally, and executed all three disciplines as well as I could have hoped. If I’d have left it there I would have finished happy to round off my career on what I felt was a high. I hadn’t thought it possible that I’d ever be able to string the three Ironman disciplines together; but I did. I had a great swim, made no mistakes and even enjoyed it a little bit! I had a good bike, sensibly reigning in the tempo and exertion to ensure a well-paced race. I even had a great run, just going under four hours in an Ironman marathon and doing so at an even pace without stopping the whole way. That to me was perfection – as much as I could have hoped it to be! Yet I now report that Kona was not the same and I’ve since been left with the frustration of not having executed my personal perfection – just the feeling that I hate to have! In Kona it was the complete reverse. I didn’t handle the swim well and I finished off a pathetic wreck, whimpering, walking and stopping throughout the run – not how I wanted to do things!
The day before the race and the morning itself I felt really good. It was a nice feeling to finally feel like a more established triathlete who knew what they were doing. I’m now used to the procedures leading up to and during the race itself, so I didn’t have any of the panic of not knowing what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be going. More importantly, it felt so great to be there on the Big Island of Hawaii, in Kona itself, amongst the greatest Ironman athletes in the world.
During the week preceding the race the small town of Kona had transferred into this athletic hub sporting excellence. Beautifully tanned, super skinny people sped about in every direction, their bodies sculpted to perfection, embodying the complete, ultimate, long distance multi sport machine. I watched in awe as these people slipped through the ocean waves, powered their bicycles across the land with ease and skimmed effortlessly along the road whilst running. They exemplified gladiatorial proportions of combined power, endurance, speed, skill, technique and psychological strength. I knew they would eat up an Ironman event in a day’s training if they wanted. On race day what we would be seeing from them was a demonstration of their superhuman ability to execute three disciplines one after each other, with each discipline in isolation being at close to top elite level – just awesome.
The Pro’s were indeed incredible and I was in awe. But my concern came from knowing that most of the other age group competitors were not far behind that standard. This was the World Championships after all! I was facing a gulf in finishing time between myself and most others in the majority of age groups which could amount to several hours. Now that was a daunting feeling. I certainly felt intimidated and more than aware that I was well out of my depth at this event! However, I reminded myself that I had actually achieved something good having reached a standard to be here in the first place. I also reminded myself that despite being one of the stragglers in this race, there was nobody else there who had an Olympic Gold and Silver medal! Now I don’t regularly puff my feathers up with confidence fuelled by that kind of pompous, self-importance, but there are times when you have to draw upon whatever you can to fight the fear! It was a thought that helped me wipe away the insecurities and think actually, just how unbelievably exciting it was to be there and how privileged I was to be partaking in the thick of it.
My race morning started well and I woke up enthusiastic to get the day going. Down at the course hundreds of athletes funnelled in tightly through the check in area. We showed our wrist bands, got weighed in, had our race numbers printed on our arms, did last minute organisation bits to our bikes and bags, then dropped off our finish line bags until there was nothing left to do but pull on our swim caps and goggles and wait patiently as one by one everyone filed down the steps onto the beach and into the sea. I was on my own. There were three friends of mine racing too but I had lost sight of them. I was desperately trying to spot one of them but it was impossible to distinguish individuals. At this point I really needed to see a friendly face, to get some re-assurance from and to share the moment in wishing each other good luck. I was trying to forget about how badly my swim sessions had been going out here. Before leaving the UK I’d been going great in the pool. I’d been doing some work with a swim coach and I’d been making good progress, completing some really challenging swim sets and session lengths. However, since being in Kona, it just wasn’t clicking. I’m not sure why? I suppose it most likely had to do with not having a wetsuit and being in the open sea conditions, exposing technical weaknesses, lack of specific swim strength and all round inexperience of swimming. This year in particular, as it turns out, the sea was being super rough. To top it off I really don’t like the sea and no matter how much I tried to blank out where I was when I was in the water, it was pretty much impossible to distract myself and stop feeling freaked out.
It was my turn down the steps and I jumped down to reach the sand. It was there that I saw three friendly faces smiling and waving back! I was so happy that they had waited for me. I felt the relief flood over me and I smiled and waved back as I walked over to them. We had a group hug and wished each other well for a great race, then began to make our way into the water and towards the vast pack of swimmers that had now accumulated out by the start line. I heard a shout of “mind the rocks” just as I smashed my shin hard against those said rocks. I gasped as the pain shot deep into my leg. That really wasn’t the time or place to be going and smashing my leg to pieces, I had to ignore the pain and keep going. We found a suitable area to tread water for the last few minutes and there the anticipation built. “We’re actually here in Kona!” we screamed excitedly “oh my god, this is it”. “Sixty seconds till the cannon goes off”. I could feel the back of my neck tingle and with a last few deep breaths I rehearsed my drill off the start; nice and easy, no effort, breathe deeply and relax. “BOOOOOM” the cannon fired, the echo reverberating through the skies and the water and the frenzied attack began. Never, until you actually experience it can you prepare for the onslaught that was the mass swim start at Kona. Arms, legs, fists, heads, feet, splashing, pounding, white water were everywhere around me. Pushing, pulling, punching, grabbing, choking, coughing spluttering, drowning…..”oh my god I can’t breathe, oh my god I’m drowning”. Now I can give as good a fight as the next person amongst the melee of it all, but what was happening all over again was my worst fear; I began hyperventilating.
I had to stop. It was no place to be stopping though. There was plenty more of the same right behind me that came piling over the top of me. I looked at the frenzy going on for as far as I could see to my left, to my right, in front and behind. I had to regain my composure quickly. As soon as I could I tried to swim again. I had no idea where I was heading, I couldn’t sight for the waves and the arms and the splashing. All I could feel was the pounding in the water hitting my body hard. I didn’t know if I would take in air or water when I turned my head to breathe. It was no good, after a few more minutes it kicked in again and I was forced to stop. Convinced my only fate was drowning and that I hadn’t a hope in hell of being rescued amongst this commotion (quite frankly everyone looked like they were drowning), I decided to make a beeline for the right hand side of the pack where the lifeguards were strung out on their surf–boards. Having originally strategically placed myself as far away from the edge to avoid being dinner for any hungry shark that happened to be passing (yes my fear of the ocean extends to the sea life within – big AND small), I now found myself choosing to take my chances of possibly facing my biggest phobia, rather than stick to fighting it out in the mess of it all. Now that was saying something!
Eventually I managed to settle into it and somehow crawled my way out to the halfway turn buoys. By this point my shoulders were really starting to burn as I was deliberately pulling myself right up out of the water to ensure I took air not water into my lungs and to make sure I could sight and keep myself orientated. The stretch back seemed to take forever and not only was I having to contend with busted shoulders I was also now unable to use my legs as I was constantly cramping in my calves, feet and even the front of my shins. Now this was an experience I hadn’t had before so by the time I eventually reached the finish I was pretty mad that not much had been going right. As I got upright onto the sand and ran back up the steps I saw blood running down my leg where I’d hit the rock before the start. It was a stark reminder back to 1hr20 previously and I laughed to myself as I yelled in my head “yes…I survived!”
However, this personal triumph and positivity was knocked back as soon as I changed and ran into the bike transition area. I was so slow on the swim that transition was practically empty! On a positive note, I didn’t have a problem locating my bike though! Out of transition I jumped on my bike, settled into my more familiar form of locomotion and ate up the first 15-mile loop around town fairly comfortably. As soon as we hit the Queen K Highway that was when I committed and put my foot down. My frustration at the swim fuelled had an urgency to try and make up for lost time. The bike was brilliant fun though and I revelled in the course which followed the highway straight out for 50 miles and back again. To most people that kind of long, boring, continuous, rolling course plays havoc with their minds, particularly when there are sections where you can see about 3 miles into the distance. But that’s my favourite type of course and the kind of mind battle I prefer. It was made even more interesting as the winds were blowing angry that day too and were the toughest winds I’ve ever ridden in. They were particularly harsh crosswinds, so we had not only the challenge of fighting the winds in order to keep moving forward, but also to prevent getting blown off sideways!
I was confident on my Specialized Shiv bike with Enve wheels and rode technically well in the conditions, committing hard and taking every risk and advantage on the fast downhill and crosswind sections as I could. The sun and the heat were pounding down and I was so thankful for the last minute decision I made two days earlier to put an upright aero bottle on my aero bars. I’d been using a regular bottle and cage mount between my aero bars that had worked fine. But the re-fillable aero bottle that you don’t have to remove, but can instead drink from a straw that comes up from the bars, was my saviour. I would have struggled in the windy conditions to take my hands off the bars to drink a decent amount through the five plus hours. I’m sure it would have been disastrous had that been the case. With the aero bottle I was able to take frequent sips (and frequent long gulps!) at any point on the bike course, even in the rough cross winds or downhill at 60kmph. I’ve never taken on so much fluid during exercising before so this was definitely a physiological boundary I’d not been functioning in before.
On the bike I pace myself using perceived exertion, watt output, heart rate and to a certain extent average speed. During the whole ride I felt great and I rode controlled within the power and heart rate limits that I’d established for myself and been producing for previous training and racing. I was really positive coming in off the bike that my combined feel and data feedback suggested I’d ridden sensibly and was in good condition to transition to the run.
My only annoyance with on the bike section however, came from being a stronger rider but due to my weak swim, starting so far down at the beginning. I had to spend the whole time overtaking other riders and because of the strict and hard to adhere to drafting rules, I couldn’t ride my an even steady pace. I’d either be stuck at the legal distance riding too easy and too slowly, or having to constantly accelerate to pass others. There were lines of riders strung out for miles and sometimes it would take several accelerations or a push of several minutes until I could find a gap to ride steady. Throw into the mix rolling inclines and descents which people ride at different paces, riders who were going too hard in the first half of the bike, guys who didn’t want to be overtaken by a girl, paranoia that you’d be an inch too close or take a second too long to pass another rider and get a time penalty etc. and it became a constant to-ing and fro-ing, trying not to annoy somebody, get annoyed by them or worse, get a penalty. This kind of fragmented tempo riding can be physically quite damaging. Although I didn’t really have a choice in the matter it probably left me fatigued in a way that I hadn’t anticipated and may have contributed to my reduced run ability in the early stages of the marathon.
Although I’ve never run big distances in training I’ve never transitioned from the bike and felt daunted by the prospect of facing a marathon. For the most part I’m just ecstatic to have got through two thirds of the Ironman and happy to relieve myself from the excruciating pain of being doubled over on the bike for so long! Also, the run is the more enjoyable and social part of the whole race. It is here that you get to see the faces of other competitors, give each other a quick “hey”, maybe exchange a short conversation or even give an encouraging boost to one another when it’s needed. It is also on the run where the crowds come out and cheer and provide street side entertainment and distraction. Out there on the first part of the run course on Alli Drive the crowds were out and it was an incredible atmosphere. I started strong and felt fine. I was running a good tempo, nothing brilliant, just a steady base to tick off the first few miles and create a nice rhythm. I aimed to play it exactly as I did for the UK Ironman – can go harder, could go harder but won’t. That’s about the feeling that it needs to be to ensure a constant pace that’s sustainable through to the end.
However, thoughts of “I can do this” rapidly disappeared as my legs began to disengage. Between mile 3 and 5 it was like the power drained out of my legs and somebody gave me a 20kg pack to carry on my back. On the bike I’d been doing the overtaking, yet on the run everybody was overtaking me! Now that’s a demoralising feeling! One by one they’d go by and I’d watch as their feet pitter-pattered in double time and they flew past me as if they were being carried along a travellator in the airport. I was totally disconnected from my legs and feet, there was no spring, no acceleration in my stride, just flat-footed, lolloping, minimal movement that was just about taking me in the right direction but at a rapidly decreasing speed. It was not good. I made it to mile 6 and my whole body became limp and my face was gormless. The crowds were shouting all the great stuff that I wanted to feel inspired by but instead I wanted to scream back “no it’s not a ‘great job’ and I’m not ‘looking good’, I’m looking rubbish, I’m going rubbish and this is what should be happening to me at mile 26 not mile 6.” I was in trouble already and no amount of positivity would drag me from this slump. How was I ever going to get through the next 20 miles?
I can’t describe how hot it was because it was so hot and I was so wrecked I was beyond the capacity to feel and describe. There were aid stations every mile and there started the incremental battle. My stomach was sloshing uncomfortable with fluid but I had an unquenchable thirst. Each aid station went on forever with a variable fluid feast of water, energy drink, coke, cups of ice, ice cold sponges, more coke, more energy drink, more water. I’d grab the first cup stop and down it. It wasn’t enough. Grab another, stop and down it. Walk a bit more, throw a cup of ice down my vest, throw a cup of water over my head, squeeze an ice cold drenched sponge over me then proceed with running through. This was a procedure that took well over a minute and increased at every station. By mile 12 out on the incessant Queen K Highway again, I was walking into, through and out of the station. Every stop it got harder and harder to start up again. I was in agony. My hips, knees, ankles were killing and my fatigued bad running form was exacerbating the problem. My head was dropped and I’d shake it slowly and grimace as I ran past spectators I knew. This was the only form of communicating my discomfort and suffering that I could muster.
I was reaching into my vest top and pulling out ice cubes to melt on my neck or even to suck on and crunch up so I could brush it round my gums to try and cool down. I even stopped at the roadside one time loudly cursing the pain in my knees and melting ice on them to try and numb it. It felt like it was a never-ending road. A couple of moments distraction came when on the other side of the road a mass of motorbikes and cars came hurtling past with the lead Pro men and women athletes. Wow, they were so fast. I felt a moment of awe and inspiration and was reminded of how privileged I was to be there doing Kona. This didn’t last long as the commotion died down and it was back to the stark contrasting shuffle of mine that could barely be called running. I eventually reached the turn into the energy lab, but before I descended onto the iconic stretch of road that is known so famously as the real suffering area, I stopped in a porta-loo for the third time. Everything bad was being thrown my way in this run including an upset stomach. Imagine an unflushable porta-loo as used by several hundred time-pushed athletes. That’s bad enough. But imagine that porta-loo being baked in the scorching sunshine all day and you might come close to understanding why venturing anywhere close to these porta-loo’s was a horrendous on every occasion! Heading past the energy lab, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I developed the worst and most painfully dose of hiccups I’ve ever had. Every hiccup, with a vice like grip, twisted and turned my insides and threatened to throw up the contents of my stomach. There was nothing lady like about it and each hick-up would render me bent over yelling “argh”. It was embarrassing to say the least and lasted the majority of the energy lab stretch.
With the energy lab section done and turning back out onto the Queen K Highway I faced the last 6 miles. Although it was slow I was nevertheless, bit-by-bit, crawling it in. By this point I’d really had enough and in a fatigued but defiant furry I stuck my head down and fought the whole way back. I didn’t need anymore fluid or energy, I just needed to stay well away from the feed stations, keep going and not stop. I’d suck up the pain, I’d dismiss the fatigue, I’d just keep moving forwards because that meant getting closer to the finish line and closer to ending the misery. Besides my innate stubbornness to commit to getting across the finish line, my motivation during that grim moment came from knowing that there were 60, 70 even 80 plus year old men and women out there and they would manage to cross the finish line. So if that’s not motivation for a 32 year old to quit their whimpering, get their butt into gear and start shifting along, then I don’t know what would be!
That last 1hr of running back into Kona town was the best feeling in the race. I wasn’t running pretty and I wasn’t running fast, but I was doing it, I was accomplishing the epic Kona Ironman battle. The road had become quieter and lonelier and the blazing heat gradually subsided as the sun started to go down. I had a view across the sea and watched the last rays of sunlight disappear over the horizon and a blackness envelope the skies. This quietening down of the race and closing down of the day gave me solace that I was reaching the end and it would be ok. Turning the corner off the Queen K and knowing I was entering the last mile was the best natural painkiller ever! Assisted by the descent down the sharp hill leading into town (which hours previously I’d dragged myself up as if climbing a mountain), a new lease of life flowed into my legs. The contrast from the quiet, dark Queen K to the crowded streets, lights and thumping music in Kona woke me up and lifted my spirits. It was fantastic to finally be on the final section, the iconic Alli Drive where for 30 years so many Ironman athletes have become legends. What sport do you have that opportunity to share that experience? This time on Alli Drive I was smiling and those shouts of “great job” weren’t agitating me. I was agreeing with them! It may not have been the best, but it was my best, and the best I could do on that day. I’d had bad bits, I’d had good bits, I’d creamed part’s of it, I’d struggled in others, I’d suffered, I’d been rubbish but I hadn’t been beaten. I’d accomplished it. After starting out in Ironman training only 10 months previously, I was able to run across the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman in 11hrs 39mins, arms in the air and become a 2 x Ironman finisher!
Now reaching the end of my writing I’ve also found I’ve reached the end of a journey. I started this piece frustrated that I didn’t live up to my expectations of a perfect performance. But I’ve reminded myself how I’ve learnt so much and done so much along the way. Those are the important bits. I’ve also reminded myself of the most important thing about taking part in sport and being an athlete. Yes, it’s about aspiring to produce the best performance within us and it’s about searching for perfection in order to achieve it. But doing something well is sometimes just simply about doing it. What drives us on to repeat training and racing again and again is actually the thrill of the unknown. That is what defines sport. We are writing a new story every time we walk through the door to embrace a new goal, challenge or race. We open ourselves up to a new opportunity to experience and to learn and in return it offers us a unique dose of emotions, scenarios and personal exploration from which we can grow. That is real the beauty of sport. Not perfection.
Well, Kona is certainly a long way away from the UK! Three flights and 26hrs later we arrived in Kona, picked up our luggage which had thankfully all made it through to the other end of the journey with us, collected our hire car, grabbed food on the go and navigated our way to our accommodation. We had pretty much been awake for 48hrs so to arrive at our destination at 11pm was perfect to crash out for a good night’s sleep. It was stunning to wake up the next morning to glorious sunshine, the beautiful site of the sea and baking hot temperatures. A welcomed relief from the dismal, cold of the UK – woohoo!
I was fortunate to be able to come out to Kona for 11 days before the race to acclimatise to the time zone change and the hot humid conditions. I’m glad I did because I’ve settled in well and feel fully adjusted. I’ve also been able to get some good training in on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway where the majority of the 112 mile bike course goes. It’s pretty simple – straight out for 50 miles and back again. It’s a long, straight, gently rolling course edged by fields of lava along the coast line. This is where the legendary Ho’omumuku winds blow giving Ironman athletes an added mental and physical challenge to contend with. The temperature usually extends into the 80 and 90 degrees in Hawaii but along this road it can exceed 100 degrees due to the reflected heat from the black lava fields and black road tarmac!
I’ve also been doing some run sessions along the main Ali’i Drive where much of the Kona life goes on. The run starts along this section of road but is also the last section for the finish of the race. The majority of the run course also goes along the Queen Ka’ahumanu Hiyway, but also diverts down a road past the legendary Energy Lab. Here it is said to be like running into an oven and the worst comes as you turn around to run back uphill and slog it back for another 10 miles. Bucket full’s of ice is the order of the day!
As you can imagine, this Ironman is renowned for being the ultimate test; the ultimate suffer-fest in fact!!! I can’t remember the last time I trained in baking hot conditions like this? I think it must have been some time back whilst I was rowing (a good 10 years ago!) when we used to train in Europe in very hot summers. But that would be a couple of hours at most, not for at least 11 hours solid. It is very bizarre just going outside in the heat and seeing sweat beads form on your legs – yuck! I have the confidence I’ve survived a half and full Ironman now, and I know that I prefer hot conditions to cold conditions, but I’ve no way of knowing just what it’s going to be like or how my body will react when I do it. I’ve hopefully done everything to be aware of the conditions I will be facing and have prepared to deal with them properly.
So you may have noticed I haven’t yet referenced the swim section? Having had concerns and worries earlier in the year about my swimming ability, I thought I’d finally overcome them having reached a better standard and having gained a lot more experience. My swim performance in Bolton was very hopeful. However, I feel like the swim has become my nemesis again and I feel like I’m back at square one for this Ironman. The course goes almost 2km out to sea and back again. I hate the sea. I have a phobia of the sea. It’s a very long way and every session I’ve done out here has gone badly and done nothing for my confidence at all. The surf has been up quite a lot with lots of swell and waves and I have been well out of my comfort zone and struggling. Not being a strong swimmer these conditions easily throw me off the relaxed and flowing rhythm that I need to maintain to see me through. It quickly becomes disrupted and I end up having to muscle it through. This is not good because my arms quickly blow. These are the kind of conditions where I could really do with having a good leg kick – something I haven’t yet mastered!
But hey, there really is nothing I can do about it now. I know I was having good training sessions before I left home. I had been set some challenging training sessions and been given some good technical coaching by swim coach Alan Rapley from which I had made definite improvements and become a stronger swimmer than I was. The conditions may be tougher for sure (especially because we aren’t allowed to wear wetsuits which is definitely of benefit to me) but I will make sure I draw confidence which is founded from knowing that I have a habit of rising to the challenges I face. I won’t be thinking of the bad sessions I’ve had or the worries that I won’t be able to do it. I’ll be pretending I’m in a regular swimming pool and not out in the open ocean! I’ll also be aiming to stay positive and think about how race day is always completely different to training days.
It’s been really exciting over the last week as more and more athletes have been arriving and Kona town has got busier and full of the world’s best tanned, ripped, tiny triathletes. Believe me, there is not one of those definitions I fulfil!! It’s great to watch everyone going to and fro on their bikes, on a run or out for a swim and it really is an honour to be part of this event and experience another world championship in another sport. Gradually over the week Kona has been taken over by the Ironman with signs, merchandise tents, expos, product branding, product stands, transition areas being built up and yesterday the finish area and stands being set up in the street. Things really ramped up last night where several thousand people (athletes, athlete’s supporters, Ironman organisers etc) gathered for a welcome banquet where the whole vibe of Hawaii and the history of the location and this Ironman world championship which has taken place every year since 1978 came to life for everyone.
Today I did a last little spin on my bike and a quick transition into a short run to loosen my legs, then went to check in my bike and both my run and bike transition bags. Having done this a couple of times now it’s all automatic and I know what I’m doing. It was nice to not feel like a complete novice for the first time in triathlon! I was taken round the transition area by a volunteer and shown exactly where to go and what I will need to do tomorrow morning. So, for the rest of the evening there was not much else to do other then prepare a few final bits for the morning, eat a good meal, do some stretching to be in tip top condition and finish off with this quick blog. Now it’s time to hit the sack and see if I can get some sleep before a 3:30am wake up!
My goal for tomorrow is quite simply to do my best. That’s all it comes down to. I’m excited and apprehensive all at the same time, but once the cannon fires at the start of the swim at 7am I will fall into race mode and it will happen. I’d like to string together a good race like I did in Bolton (with fingers crossed that no bad luck things happen) and see if I can get a quicker time. It’s another race and another challenge where I will apply my training, my learning and experience and hopefully cross that finish line saying I could have done no more.
I will leave you with this year’s Kona Ironman motto “Aa Na Maka O Na Aa” (The sparking eyes of my roots) which is about remembering where you have came from and drawing strength from that to guide you on your path forward. This is exactly what I will be doing tomorrow – remembering the successes and over coming’s I’ve had in the past and knowing I am stronger and better for approaching new ones. Never be afraid.
In my previous blog I spoke about my dilemma in accepting my slot for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I’ve been reprimanded by many for such inexcusable despondency towards that opportunity! But get to the finish line of a 2.4mile swim, 112mile bike ride and 26mile run and immediately be told you’ve got to repeat that all over again in less than three months time; I think I can be forgiven for the lack of enthusiasm. Even more so when the following morning, signing up and handing over £500 for the pleasure of doing another Ironman is accompanied by an inability to navigate movement without excruciating pain in much of your body. There is a particularly harsh process with Kona qualification of having a one hour time slot the following morning after your race, to turn up and accept your place or it gets rolled down to the next person. I was told that many had succumbed to these justified and common sense thoughts and feelings and turned down their places, only to regret it later on. If there is one thing I don’t like to do, that is put myself in a position where I will feel regret. So I staggered and winced my way to the signing up desk and crossed my fingers that my current pain, discomfort and memories of the worst parts of the Ironman would fade away pretty quickly!
If I’m really honest about my first Ironman, I thought that I’d been granted some kind of miracle to actually make it to the finish line. With that stroke of luck I wanted to quit whilst I was ahead and not tempt fate by doing it again. Next time I wouldn’t be so lucky, all the things I thought could or would go wrong would surely happen the next time? But I have a habit of saying that about every success I’ve had in my sporting career. I’ve never quite been able to say that my win was because of my hard work or simply because of being good. I always say it must have been luck. Maybe that’s why I keep throwing myself into new challenges – to test myself again and again. However, I think that the allure of new challenges for me is probably more to do with testing my failure point rather than testing my run of luck. I’m not afraid to set out to do something then find out I can’t. I’m ecstatic that I achieved what was a very tough target in doing the Bolton Ironman, but now the bar has been lifted and I’ve chosen to accept this new challenge.
I’m not in this Ironman event with a chance of winning, so I have to look at other areas I can identify which will be my own personal winning markers. I’ve assessed the challenges of the Kona Ironman and set some personal goals for the event. I want to see if I can repeat my previous accomplishment – get across the finish line and become a 2 x Ironman finisher. This time the challenge will be intensified as I will have to deal with the notoriously harsh environmental conditions in Hawaii – intense heat, high humidity and strong winds. I want to execute a good race having prepared well and I want to execute a good race strategy to deal with these intensified conditions. I will need to have tolerance and control to overcome them rather than be overcome by them.
Because of the heat I will be adapting a nutrition and hydration strategy to cope. For example, in the heat the body uses more carbohydrates but conversely, in the heat it is harder to digest and absorb carbohydrates. Also, the increased heat will lead to an increased sweat rate and a necessity to stay adequately hydrated with sufficient electrolyte replacement. To be successful this is something I can’t afford to get wrong but it has been made difficult because I haven’t had any opportunities to trial nutrition and hydration strategies in similar conditions. Other aspects of Kona Ironman that will be an amplified challenge include the swim and the bike discipline. In my previous Ironman event the swim section went better than I’d hoped. This time however, the challenge will be taken to another level because the swim takes place in the sea and no wet-suits are allowed. This will be really testing for a weaker swimmer like me and also made especially harder as this is a World Championships with the standard of the entire field being so much higher. I will have to make sure I execute the swim at my own pace following my own plan and not get caught up in the pace of or be intimidated by faster swimmers.
Although the bike section thankfully doesn’t have the steep climbs that Bolton had, it is going to be a long draggy type out and back course. This means it will be about staying in the aero position for a long time with no technical sections to break things up and will be a fairly relentless grind along a bleak road for 56miles and back again. With the sun beating down hard, the heat rising off the lava fields and an impending marathon in the same conditions, I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the wind isn’t blowing too hard as this would significantly increase the physical and mental demand of the whole race.
So how have the last few months shaped up? After Bolton I took almost three weeks off. Amongst other things, I spent time catching up on some MSc work, had some time away in London enjoying the Olympic Games and also started making progress on some work projects and events. As well as having a busy life to get on with, I also needed to rest my body for quite a while. For starters, it was over a week till I could put proper shoes on my feet because both big toe nails had come off from the pounding I’d given them in the marathon! Ideally I would have carried on training so as to make improvements in my fitness and not lose anything but I was pretty tired and it took a while to feel normal again. It was important to make sure I was fully recovered before embarking on another Ironman push.
When I got back into training again it was tough. Fitness takes a while to gain but is quickly lost and it was apparent straight away that I’d slipped back a fair bit. With Kona not far away I quite quickly began to feel a little stressed by it. I didn’t just want to be maintaining form from Bolton; I at least wanted to make some progress, especially because the Kona Ironman is a World Class event with the best Ironman triathletes in the world. This time it was more serious and I was frustrated that I faced so little time to do be able to do much about raising my standard. This coupled with many other distractions that I had going on meant I didn’t have a great start to things. I muddled my way through to the end of August but eventually acknowledged that this wasn’t quite the way things should be. I wanted to be better for Kona, but wasn’t going about things the right way. I know the drill to fix things like this – write a detailed plan, stick to it and knuckle down to some hard work! It’s simple but should be the basis upon which any goal you’re working towards should be set. It establishes your intentions making them tangible rather than abstract and avoidable. I wrote out a life plan for the whole of September stipulating training sessions, work time, focused recovery time and a very small amount of social time! I put down exact timings for everything each day and aimed to stick to them as rigidly as I could.
Having this plan made me more organised and focused and it was a lot easier to go about life and fit everything in. I’ll probably not get this opportunity to race at Kona again so I want to make the most of it. I want to take this opportunity to learn more about the sport, learn more about myself as an athlete and push my boundaries some more. If I can avoid finding my failure point but instead achieve this new set of targets I’ve given myself, cross the finish line and maybe knock some time off my previous Ironman time, it will be a win for me. The Kona Ironman is a historic, epic event and an immense athletic challenge. Watch any video montage clip of the annual race and it fills you with a buzz of excitement, anticipation and wonder. I don’t know quite why this is but I’m honored to be in the position to find out the answer first hand!
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!
Having swum, cycled and run myself through a half Ironman distance triathlon, I can now officially call myself a triathlete! However, I’m after a bigger title than that. I want to be able to officially call myself an Ironman. I’m currently engulfed in a daily countdown until my big Ironman challenge. There are fourteen days to go. It is a momentous day set in my diary where all my planning and preparation will end and I will need to bring everything together as well as I can to achieve my goal. I’m very well prepared for this type of countdown to a big performance having faced multiple World Championship and Olympic events. However, this time I’m facing the pressure not to produce world class times and win, but the pressure to make sure I get through the event itself. Never in my career did I contemplate maybe not even finishing a race!
I’m not in any way concerned about my physiological ability to be able to do it. I’m more than well equipped with an engine that will take me the distance. However, my engine may have its limitations. It’s very well adapted and tuned to perform like a race car, but not like a diesel engine which is probably a better requirement for a long endurance event. I trained for years to perform optimally for six to eight minutes in a rowing boat. I then trained for several more years to fine tune even more specifically to perform optimally at three to four minutes. Naturally my strength as an athlete is to operate at a percentage close to my VO2max and I’ve demonstrated I’m one of the best in the world at doing that. However, to be good at Ironman is about an altogether different type of endurance which I don’t quite have. This is what I find so fascinating about sport and human performance; just how varied and diverse the physiological requirements of every type of sport are and how individual as human beings our physical performance capabilities and specialities are.
I’m a very competitive person and I want to be fast, but I’m not concerned about being fast right now. I’m not even concerned about not making it through the 3.8km swim. I’ve gained loads of experience through both the half Ironman and my swim training since then. I’m confident I can do it. But I’ve dealt with that swim demon only to find it has now become the run demon. My concern right now is the possibility that I might not achieve my goal to become an Ironman because my body lets me down biomechanically during the run. I knew that having only started running in November, building up to marathon distance was going to be the biggest ask of myself and the discipline I’d be most likely to encounter injury. I started out being really diligent with my stretching and small niggles management. But as the training hours ramped up and the runs got longer it got harder to dedicate the same amount of time to pre and post training maintenance. Yet I seemed to be making big gains in my running with no adverse effects so I was pretty happy and positive that I was managing my training ok.
However, during the half Ironman I noticed for the first time in ages I had an aching lower back whilst I was riding the bike section. I’ve recently concluded this would have been due to muscle fatigue in my back and shoulders from the swim. Getting on a bike and riding for hours in an extreme aero position is strain enough so there’s no surprise it grumbles a little doing it straight after a long swim. Going from a long swim to a long bike with tired muscles means finishing the bike with super tired muscles and not in the freshest of form to be embarking on a long run. It is at this point that all your biomechanical faults and weaknesses appear, and because of the high impact repetitive pounding of running you will begin to become all too aware of them in a very debilitating way! I certainly found this during the half Ironman. During the last few miles of the run I was surprised to have an old hip problem return when it had not been in issue in any of my training runs before the race. It really did become quite excruciating and had it been during a marathon run I would have been in real trouble.
The half Ironman experience really did show that the event deserves a lot of respect for what you are asking your body to do. You really can’t prepare for what it’s like to actually string all three disciplines together. Each of the disciplines alone are demanding enough, but dealing with and managing the knock on effect that each discipline has on its subsequent one is what makes triathlon the challenging sport it is.
Having done a time in Mallorca that I was more than happy with was great but knowing I’d have to go double the distance in only eight weeks time worried me. I was hopeful I’d be able to maximise the last six week block of training to set me up well but disappointingly I can’t report that has been the case. Having tried to extend my long training runs beyond fifteen miles has been impossible. It aggravated my hip so I had to lay off the running. To have spent the last few weeks being in self preservation mode rather than pushing on has been frustrating and to have spent what feels like more hours on the physio couch, massage couch, foam rollering and stretching than I have training is also annoying!
Having injuries, managing setbacks and not progressing how I’d like to is one of the things I’ve certainly had lots of experience in throughout my career, so this is nothing new! I’ve asked a lot of my body over the years, pushed it to breaking point on many occasions so it’s not in the best of conditions or as robust as it used to be. I’ve got some biomechanical weakness but during the years of training have ingrained incorrect movement patterns to compensate for them. Training for shorter duration events I can just about get away with it, but it gets more challenging for longer events. The big lesson I’ve learnt is that you can never hide from these weaknesses as they always rear their ugly heads at some point!
I’ve managed the last few weeks well and I’m a firm believer that setbacks happen for a reason. If anything this injury has made me take a few steps back and approach the last phase of my preparation very differently. It’s been with a lot of compromise and a lot more caution but this could be serving me well for the long term, setting me up to enable me to complete the full distance rather than fall to pieces mid way. I’ve gained more body awareness from the injury and will prepare my body more specifically in the last few weeks. It’s also given me more insight into my movement whilst running so I’ve now re-addressed my tactical and technical approach to the run which will hopefully be much better for me.
Whenever I get improvements in my ability I have a habit of increasing my targets. But I’m making sure that I don’t lose sight of the enormity of the challenge and give it the respect it deserves by implementing a strategy which will see me across the finish line. This will not be about pushing my physiological limits! I’m coming into the taper phase of my preparation where I can do no more. The hard work has been done so it’s all about resting up and focusing preparing for the day itself. I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to write my next column where I can tell you all about the epic day itself!
Note: Through her Ironman efforts Rebecca is trying to raise money for Scope, the official charity partner of Ironman UK. She has raised just over half of her £2000 target but needs more support. Please visit her Just Giving site http://www.justgiving.com/Rebecca-RomeroandNick-LloydIronmanChallenge and donate if you can. Just £1 will make a difference….it all adds up! Thank you.
I settled down for the 56m ride and one by one I passed other female competitors who had exited the water ahead of me. I aimed to keep my intensity consistent throughout the ride, trying to keep a balance between doing enough to gain from my strongest discipline, but not give too much so that I wasn’t able to complete the run section well. As this was my first triathlon I wasn’t quite sure how to pace the bike but erred on the side of caution as I didn’t want to be blowing on the run. Having closed roads was a unique experience and added to the excitement of it being a race. The course was fairly tough having a 14km long climb up into the mountains. But this variable terrain served to break the course up into different sections and alleviate any monotony there might have otherwise have been. The memory of the swim faded away as I enjoyed chasing the mile markers and knowing I was hitting my pace targets. It was about half way through the bike course whilst I was calculating an estimated finish time, that I worked out my swim time must have been a lot faster than I’d thought. This revelation gave me a boost which stayed with me through the rest of the bike course and back into the transition area.
Again in transition I took my time making sure I had everything to ensure I could keep going through the run. I even put Vaseline on some hotspots on my feet for fear that the hot conditions might blister my feet. I didn’t want to be hindered by anything. Surprisingly still full of energy I ran out of the shade of the transition tent and back into the now 27 degree heat. A couple of strides into it and I felt an irritating sharp point under the ball of my right foot. I knew straight away it was a bit of gravel picked up whilst running barefoot through transition. I’d just spent a few minutes obsessively putting socks on and double tying my laces. There was no way I was stopping, especially as I’d got off to a great start with my legs feeling fresher than I could ever have hoped. I wriggled my foot around and the bit of gravel sat a bit more comfortably. I could cope with it as it was, if it became more irritating I’d stop and sort it.
I ran the first mile by feel as planned then checked my pace. I was surprised to see it well over half a minute per mile quicker than I’d anticipated my pace would be. Feeling easier than I’d dared hope and in a nice comfortable rhythm, I decided to stick with the pace and see how it felt after a few miles. With 13 miles to get through I didn’t want to go for heroics. But as I was checking to make sure I wasn’t going above this pace I judged that I was running at a sustainable intensity. At this rate if it became a bit too much, I had plenty of room to adjust pace and still do an OK time.
The run was best element of the whole event. It was a three loop run so the course got busier and busier as more and more competitors left their bikes and joined it. It was a great distraction to have lots of people around and the crowds had gathered too, so the support and the cheers spurred me on. Having three loops made it a psychologically easier way to tackle the distance. The first loop was exploratory and new as I had no idea where it went. The second loop was a focus on keeping the pace steady and I carried on running nice even splits. The third and final loop was the home run where I fought through the now severe burning sensation in my foot and an increasingly painful hip. The conditions had also become a factor and many competitors were struggling to cope with the heat but, as mentioned in the previous column, I seem to be solar powered and thrive on it! I saw runners who had blasted around the first lap reduced to a walking pace in the third. I was relieved to have paced myself well.
The run down to the finish line was exhilarating. I was so proud and excited to have got through it all. The finish clock read 5hrs27mins as I passed under it and was overjoyed to have broken the 5hr30 marker. After collecting my bags and cooling off in the shower, I met my boyfriend and went straight for a well earned ice-cream. I sat down and gradually began to feel the aches and pains that adrenaline had masked so well. But the happiness of achieving my challenge was by far the dominant feeling. “I did 5hrs27!” I exclaimed. “No you didn’t” my boyfriend replied. “You did 5hrs17”. Puzzled, he had to explain to me I’d forgotten to account for my start time being 10mins after the pro’s start, which was when the race clock started. That revelation that I’d gone even quicker was a feeling better than any medal podium top step I’ve ever stood on!
Race Splits: Swim – 36mins, Bike – 2:39hrs, Run – 1:50hrs
It was 7:45am and over 1,000 of us gathered on a sandy beach, wriggling and squeezing our way into black neoprene wetsuits and brightly coloured swim caps. With goggles pulled down over our eyes our human identity was removed and anonymity reigned. I went for a quick warm up swim, had a stretch, did some mobilization exercises and checked the clock -7:59am. It was time. A minute later, as I reached the starting pen, the gun went and the Pro men and women sprinted off from the start line to begin their race. It was a perfect day, the temperature was already 20 degrees, the wind was still and there was not a cloud in the sky. The sea glistened as the sunlight bounced off the water and I watched as the first of the swimmers reach the first yellow buoy. With only heads, elbows and arms visible, they looked like a tight flock of birds skimming across the surface of the water.
I stood with all the other female competitors waiting for the start of our wave. My heart began beating faster and harder. My breathing became faster and harder. The mass of bodies around me clad in black was pressing in on me. Some of the girls were chatting and laughing, others were doing a few last minute shoulder stretches. I squatted down low to the ground trying to let the dizziness pass over me. After the buzz and excitement of the morning nervousness had finally taken hold of me. But the dizziness subsided and I stood up again regaining my full six foot height and a viewing point almost a whole head and shoulders above most others. Inconspicuous I was not! This was not the time to be mired in negative thoughts about the daunting 1.8km swim that lay ahead of me. Although I’d never swum the full race distance continuously or experienced a mass swim start, I was fully aware of the pitfalls of the inexperienced triathlete swimmer and was trying my best not to fall into them. I’m sure there are a good number of Ultra-FIT readers who have tackled triathlons and Ironman events and you’ll remember all these thoughts and sensations as you prepared for that first plunge.
I fought to get a grip of myself, summoned the positive thoughts I was more accustomed to having on race day and from it a confidence and calmness grew within me. I was ready. Or so I thought. The gun went and I jogged steadily down to the water’s edge. I’d positioned myself to the left side furthest away from the line of buoys on the right and away from the front of the pack. I was trying to stay away from the faster swimmers and give myself a wide berth from those fighting for the quickest line. I entered the water and kept my mind calm as I began a relaxed, steady stroke. I was unfazed by the bodies around me, I absorbed the kicks and ankle grabs and I navigated around slower swimmers in front of me (the very fact there were slower swimmers gave me a boost!) A few minutes in and with the first buoy coming into view, I dared to think I might actually make it through the swim fairly easily.
But this was no time for complacency and any relaxed thoughts about my new found swimming prowess were quickly submerged under the awful realization that I was hyperventilating. I thought I’d been breathing constant, steady, deep inhalations and exhalations, but I hadn’t. Despite the relatively low stress and strain on the body in these early stages, there was an artificially high ventilation demand which I couldn’t get on top of. It was only then that I remembered this happened to me in big rowing or cycling races too. The surge of adrenaline and nervousness causes this physiological response to happen. I would normally be able to actively control and settle into a rhythm without major disruption. But with the distractions of a new environment, the bright light of the sun flashing in my eyes disorientating me, a dictated and sometimes obstructed breathing pattern of swimming, the vibrations from the hundreds of arms and legs pounding in the water, I was not breathing effectively.
I was forced to swim breast-stroke. Not normal breast-stroke, I couldn’t even manage that. It was breast-stroke that you see grannies doing in the pool when they don’t want to get a single strand of hair wet! My thoughts went to the shore line and the spectators that would be pointing at the one ridiculous swimmer pottering in the water like a blithely unaware pensioner. Competitors ploughed past me and I heard their thoughts. “What a fool”, “Get out of my way”, they screamed. There was nothing I could do, the panic set in and I had to stop and tread water. For a second I thought it was all over. My first triathlon and I couldn’t even make it to the first buoy. What a total disaster. I flipped onto my back and ignored the giant arrow that was coming down from the sky pointing directly at me, highlighting my incompetence. I proceeded to do back stroke for the next minute until my breathing had restored itself. I flipped onto my front and used the buoyancy of the wetsuit to take the weight of my legs and body and took all effort out of my stroke. Executing a deliberately slow and long arm stroke with minimal power, I gradually found my stride and everything started to come together.
Now in the flow I began to pass swimmers and make some distance. That was, until I came across two particularly annoying swimmers who were becoming increasingly difficult to navigate past. Swimming constantly side by side they were in a continuous pattern of moving further apart and then moving closer together. Like a set of doors opening for you then closing as you try and pass through. Not quite the Argonauts and the Clashing Rocks, but nevertheless it was increasingly annoying! There were two other options. The sensible one was to go around the swimmer on the right. This would take me closer to the racing line and towards the turn buoy that was coming up. However, the swimmer on the right had a huge torpedo leg kick that was producing a fountain of water, drowning me every time I got close. Going to the right also meant planting myself right into a tight pack of swimmers. I wasn’t ready to engage in that. The other option was to go left around the cleaner swimmer and through cleaner water, so I went for it.
I had the speed, it wasn’t a problem to go around, but I quickly realised it was a big mistake. I’d messed up my line towards the turn buoy but had left it late to divert towards it. As I changed my line, I became aware that my position was now further away from the buoy than the majority of the pack I’d just passed. Much of the pack then overtook me just as we bottlenecked around the turn. What a waste of time and effort that had been. Relieved that I had made it that far and had managed to gain control of my swim, I swam in the mix for a few hundred meters across to the far side buoy where we were to turn again and follow another buoy line back to the shore.
But in that few hundred meters I found myself trapped on the outside in a familiar position behind the same annoying pair of swimmers. The torpedo leg kick was pounding against my chest. It created a wash preventing me from breathing and a fountain of water preventing me from sighting. I wanted desperately to get away from them but could find no way out. I shouted out loud in frustration; another big mistake. You can’t afford to do that whilst swimming. My relaxed breathing had been disrupted and stress and hyperventilation returned. Rendered helpless I was back to the granny-stroke again and helpless as I watched slower but less stupid swimmers pass me into and through the next turn. Granny-stroke took me around the second turn, past the safety boat which was capturing the whole embarrassing incident on camera, and onto the home run section. But I’d got that far and I wasn’t going to let it end there.
Psychologically it was easier to know that every stroke was going to take me closer to the finish rather that further away from it. I positioned myself on the outside of the pack which was now well in front of me. Again I was away from the racing line but I focused on getting my head in the water and my body straight. I stayed in my rhythm and at my own pace and passed swimmers one by one. As I caught site of the finish I started to feel brave. I reminded myself that I was doing this half Ironman to gain experience, so I maneuvered myself into the middle of a group of swimmers I’d just caught up. I had to get that experience and the confidence to be able to do it properly for next time. During the last few hundred meters I sensed for the first time what it was like to feel competent and to blend in with everyone else.
I was so grateful to feel my feet finally hit the sandy ground, to breathe a constant supply of oxygen and to know that I’d survived it. But at the same time I was a little disappointed. I had no idea what time I’d taken, but believed I must have been at least 50mins out there. Disheartened, I went into transition taking my time to hydrate and re-fuel and get all my bike gear on. Once out of transition on the bike and feeling the sun shining down on my skin and the gentle cooling breeze, my spirits rose. I’d achieved my first aim, I’d survived the swim! Now I was in my territory – the bike section!