After months of build up and years of waiting I have finally done it – I am Ironman! Here is how the day went…
They don’t mess around in the Ironman world, challenging your mind and body before the event even starts! Having spent around 7 hours registering and sorting transitions the day before, race day begins harshly with a 3.15 am alarm call, which feels like it has only been moments since I managed to finally got to sleep. Dragging myself out of bed I pull on my tri-suit and down a bowl of porridge (which turns to be the closest I come to solid food for nearly 12 hours).
The journey to Shugborough is actually a lot easier than expected, probably because no sane people are out roaming the country lanes of Staffordshire at 4 am on a Sunday, other than an ever-increasing convoy of competitors as I get closer. It makes a nice change beginning a race without having to sort transition there and then, so I am able to park up and jump straight on a shuttle bus to the lakeside start.
The mood on the bus is pretty quiet, so I take the chance to get in the mood with a bit of the Rocky soundtrack (the only way to prepare for a race!) as we approach. Once we arrive though, things began to kick off with a really buzzing atmosphere and I am staggered at the amount of people here. My last race of this distance had 250 people; this has over ten times that number!
As I wander into transition to check my bike is still there from the night before the first person I see is one of the pros, Will Clarke, part of the GB Tri team at the Beijing Olympics. And then the man himself, Javier Gomez appears, looking absolutely freezing in a jacket and beanie hat – Galicia this ain’t! Everyone is suddenly super excited, and to be fair he takes it all in his stride, happy to pose for pictures with anyone willing to approach. He is about 50 odd places away from me (in a field of 2700 bikes this is practically next door) so close I can see what type of gels he has on his bike, and for a moment I feel a little embarrassed at the fact my steed is one of the cheapest in the whole park. but actually that is what this is all about. As I have said before, in how many other events around the world can you race against your heroes?
As the clock counts down we make our way to the swim start. In typical Ironman style there is loads of music, and AC/DC’s Thunderstruck seems to be the de regueur song of choice. I chat to some of the other guys in wetsuits & green swim caps who are about to set off with me, and most of them are also doing this for the first time, so there is a mixture of nervousness and excitement, no one really knowing what to do so we just shuffle about in our bare feet. trying to stay warm. The announcer introduces the pros one by one, they make their way to the edge and a minute or so later are off, meaning only one thing: It is my turn now. As they say in Bad Boys – This shit just got real!
Swim – 41.26
There are so many people around me in the water I barely notice the claxon signalling the start, but there is no way of missing what was just a few moments before a relatively calm lake, becoming a washing machine on full spin, as 500 arms and 500 legs simultaneously start splashing. Before the start I had planned to try to get to the side to avoid the worst of the scrum, but once I got in the water I was too caught up in the moment and missed any opportunity, and as a result found myself right in the middle of everything – Nothing for it but to get the head down and go for it!
It takes around a minute just to get through the starting buoys and into some clear water, but with most of the nervous swimmers hanging back and most people looking to pace the swim, we all find a little space eventually. I guess it is the adrenaline but I feel like I am flying away, and although I am conscious of being whacked by various flailing limbs, do not register any pain. At one point someone switches to breaststroke far too early, and as he effectively puts the brakes on right in front of me I end up doing a flying head-butt into his ribs. Nothing I could have done, so I shrug it off and continue, doubtless him doing did the same and thinking twice about stopping in the middle of everyone space next time.
After about 5 minutes I realise my first mistake, in that having expecting a cloudy day I am wearing clear goggles rather than my tinted ones, so as the sun beams down from a perfect blue sky I can see absolutely nothing on my right side except its glare. This is bearable on the first half of the swim, but makes things a lot trickier after we turn as I can no longer see the turning buoy’s properly so have to rely on watching the other swimmers to ensure I am heading the right way. At one point one of the yellow buoys actually seems to be getting further away from me and I fear I must be swimming backwards, until I realise it is actually the race leader from the wave that set off 10 minutes after ours, who has already caught us and is working his way through our group…
It is not unusual to feel very tired towards the latter stages of open water swims; remember this is nothing like a pool swim, as you have no opportunity to touch the sides and rest, or even ease off as if you do slow down someone will just cannonball into you as mentioned earlier. There is also the cold to deal with, the slight discomfort of wearing a wetsuit and good old-fashioned exhaustion from swimming. But I have none of this here. The chilly 16 degree water feels like a bath to me, and looking back I honestly do not remember feeling particularly tired. You also lose all track of time, and given this is a single loop race with no direct line of sight to the finish line it is hard to know exactly where I am, and I can not tell at points if I have been going for 5 minutes or half an hour.
Finally though, the finish rises above the horizon, the unmistakable sight of a huge inflatable Ironman arch, and I haul myself up the slipway and onto my feet and the next stage.
T1 – 7.22
This is by far the longest transition I have ever done, in fact it was almost as long as the swim in my last triathlon (despite the fact my time was actually one of the faster ones for this leg of the race). To explain why, it starts with a 250 metre run from the swim exit to the transition tent, across a mixture of terrain from gravel to grass, which does not do my already frozen feet any good. From there I have to locate my transition bag on a rack of thousands which is not the easiest in a half-dazed state, change out of my wetsuit into my bike gear, and then hand back the swim stuff to be transported back for me. The krypton factor had nothing on this sort of mental and physical challenge!
Having handed my transition bag in the night before I discover I have made all the usual mistakes such as forgetting to unzip my bike top in advance and then being unable to do it with my icicle fingers, so I have to force my head through the gap like the rhino giving birth in Ace Ventura. As with my goggles earlier, I have made the same mistake with my eye wear: my yellow, light-enhancing glasses making the sunshine about ten times brighter than it already is, ready to test my retinas for the next few hours. Once ready I run out the other side to search for my bike amongst the two and a half thousand others, and make my way onto the next part of the course.
Bike – 3.48.17
The first thing that stands out to me on the bike course is the amazing closed roads. Now I have completed plenty of triathlons and the bit that always scares me is having to dodge traffic, with cars who tend to either hover behind you like a crazed stalker, or zoom past in full boy racer mode. And as for lorries, well they just do the latter! But we are extremely fortunate in this race to have the roads shut off for us, providing all the space we need, and giving me a massive confidence boost which I am able to translate into a bit of extra speed.
I tend to do most of my bike training indoors, and for some reason always forget how to use the gears on my bike properly, so it takes about 30 minutes or so of fiddling and clunking about until I settle on the best gears for hills and flats, but after a while I get into my rhythm and the first third of the race goes along at a fair pace. At this point I realise my third mistake of the day (after the goggles and sunglasses), as the cycling gloves I painstakingly pulled on in T1 turn out to be on the wrong hands. This means the soft gel padded bit is on the back of my hands, and the thin (aka useless) bit is doing nothing to protect my palms from chafing.
I do however get lot of love for my Pink Floyd cycling top (see above), mainly from blokes of a certain age to be fair, although given the triathlon demographics in this country that accounts for a fair proportion of the field, and despite the fact it is dark (side of the moon) coloured, I never feel over-hot wearing it.
I like to try to follow some personal rules on the bike, and one of them is you really should not get off and walk, but unfortunately I have to break this a few times. The first of these is actually not my fault, as on one of the earlier hills we hit near the start, whilst my legs are still fresh enough to conquer it, the guy in front of me falls off. This means I immediately have to do the same to avoid a massive pile up appearing on You Tube later, but it makes me lose all the speed I had been carrying into the hill, and I have no chance of getting going again. So I have to push the bike up to the top, although fortunately it is only about 20 metres or so until I am going again.
The second is more down to me, and occurs about two-thirds of the way through, in a place I now know is Blithfield Reservoir. The view from the hilltop approach is probably my favourite in the whole race, and I even slow down on purpose on the bridge in the middle to take it in, but I should have known better, as in triathlons what goes down, must come up again. And so we do, with an almighty steep climb straight after (I know it looks flat in the picture above but take my word on this!) and after holding out for over two and a half hours my legs finally decide they had enough and cramp up on me. As a result I have to swerve off course and dismount, and spend about five minutes pushing myself to the top of the hill. I even question whether I am hallucinating, as the solitary supporter cheering me on is dressed in a full Luigi (from Super Mario Bros) costume!
Fortunately after that there is a nice long downhill section which allows my legs to recover and gets me through into the Cannock Chase park section, which is just as stunning as the reservoir. Inevitably there is another hill though (as Javier Gomez later agreed in his winner’s speech, it was NOT a flat course!) and inevitably I find a new muscle group in my legs to get cramp in, which results in further few minutes pushing my bike to the top.
This time though I have the advantage, as I know what goes up, must come down, and after a fantastic lap around the park filled with cheering spectators, hit the fastest downhill descent of the day on a nice wide, empty road. Checking my GPS I am clocking over 50 km/h, the fastest I have ever ridden by some way! I really feel like I am flying, and within a few minutes I find myself inside the grounds of Shugborough, passing my car in the car park (always worth checking it is still there!) and in sight of transition…
T2 – 5.05
… but was I taking my eye off the ball too soon? You may have seen the pro’s on TV approaching their bike transition line, unclipping and standing on one foot to coast in, but mine is not quite so graceful as my leg has other ideas and treats me to another massive dose of cramp – right in front of all the spectators! Not being able to come off the bike properly I have to do a slow motion crash into the barrier to be able to stop myself falling off and potentially ending the race prematurely, until a marshal appears and holds the bike steady for me to dismount. Using my saddle as a makeshift crutch I then stagger into transition, calf still in agony from cramp, manage to hang my bike up to move on into the tent.
The rest of the transition is a bit of a blur, as I again have to locate my kit bag (red this time rather than blue) before collapsing into a chair to try to change into my trainers. Unbelievably I am back out and on my feet relatively quickly, with just the half-marathon to go between me and eternal glory.
Run – 2.35.01
This is my fourth ever half-marathon, and I have to say I am actually very pleased with my time considering how knackered I an right from the start. Partly because that cramp I acquired getting off my bike not only refuses to go away as the race goes on, but ends up staying with me for the next 48 hours, and the rest is probably my body getting revenge for the general punishment I inflicted on myself today. I am not sure how many people reading have run a half-marathon with cramp right from the start, but take my word for it, it does not help. As a result, the first lap in particular is more of a hobble at times, but as the race goes on I make myself ignore the pain and manage to get up a reasonable pace. About 30 minutes in my Garmin battery packs in (always good to know I can outlast a watch!) and I lose the ability to track my speed, although perhaps is is part of the reason I later finish about 10 minutes faster than I had planned.
Unbelievably for the third time in the race I had the wrong eye-wear, as having switched to dark sunglasses in transition the sun began to hide behind clouds, meaning I had to keep lifting them up to make sure I could see where I was going at points in the course – Hopefully this will be the last time I do a split transition race!
As before though, my running top proves to be a massive hit. I bought it last year for the Avenger but never ended up wearing it due to the heat, but there was no way I could leave it out today. After all, if you can’t wear an Iron Man top in an Ironman race, when can you wear it! Most of the other competitors are in serious running gear or club tops (this is not a place for people dressed as fridges or juggling footballs) so I am pleased I have something that is both functional and fun. The supporters certainly loved it, especially the kids who all gave me extra cheers whenever I pass. I just hope I have not shattered any of their illusions that Tony Stark might not quite be as fit as they thought he was!
As with the bike course, we have all been expecting a nice flat route, and it starts well with a lovely trek around the stunning grounds of the estate with thousands of my / Gomez’s screaming fans. From there we run into the adjoining village, before facing a hill around 1 km long which was less welcome. That said, although I walk a fair bit of lap 1 due to my leg, when I return on laps 2 & 3 I find I am able to jog up the hill and then really step on the gas as we descend on the other side. The course then winds its way back into the grounds and back to the start again for the later loops.
Having survived exclusively on carb drinks and gels throughout the race, it suddenly hits me about halfway through the run that I have barely eaten all day, and in that instant I transform from being too busy to think about food, to absolutely ravenous. The problem is there is not much food on offer on the run course, so despite feeling hungry like the wolf, the only thing available is half a small banana at one of the stations that I only pass once per lap. Thinking back exactly the same thing happened on the Avenger, so as a mental note to self I will need to bring some extra solid food with me on my next long distance run!
The atmosphere on the run is truly fantastic, and I spent a lot of time chatting to the others around me as we run together which turn out to be some of my best memories of the day. There are so many great people there, and with over 60% of the field Iron Virgins (first timers) and everyone is massively pumped by this point in the race, knowing they have met the cut off times and are on track to complete the course. My favourite moment is at one of the last water stations, where the guy running with me is so hot he ignores the cups being held out and runs to the main table, picks up the large jug of water and tips the whole thing over his head in an effort to cool down. I almost pop a rib laughing!
Finish – 7.17.12
Everyone talked in the build up about how the finish of an Ironman event is amazing, and they could not have been more right. Unlike my last race of this distance, where the only people who were still there when I finished were my wife, my sister and a few marshals packing things away whilst looking at their watches, there are hundreds of people lining the finishing chute, with a mini-stadium on either side, loads of music and the commentators half-way down calling out your name as you approach. I still can not quite believe the time I am on for, some 40 minutes faster than last year, proving that all that training over the last 18 months has been worth it.
Finishing is an unbelievable feeling, easily the best individual sporting achievement I have ever done, and in those few moments running down the finish chute and crossing the line, the stress of the build up in the months, weeks and days before the race, and all the pain I have incurred today is gone. I cannot stop smiling as I receive my finishers medal and hear those immortal words, “Congratulations, you are not an Ironman”!