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How The Hell Did I Get Here!!!
Sitting, half-naked, in a marquee on the banks of Le Lac D’allier, with a dozen similarly disrobed men around me as I applied Body Glide to my nipples, I paused – for just the briefest of moments – to consider how my life has changed over the last few years!! Here I was, about two-thirds of the way through an Ironman race, having just stepped off of the bike after a 112 mile ride – preceded by a 3 mile swim (which should have been 2.4 miles – but for my dodgy sighting) and about to set out on my first ever full Marathon in temperatures that would have UK Health and Safety folk urgently waving clipboards red flags and all I could think about was how to pace the run – rather than where the nearest bar was. Contrast that with the former Ian – who would probably have still been in the swim at this time; probably floating face-down and this really has been quite a journey!!
Casting my mind back, I believe that the first time I ever heard about the Ironman was way back when my staple diet was 20 cigarettes a day accompanied by food that would be declared (by me) unfit for Human consumption unless the manufacturer had managed to turn every ‘Traffic Light’ symbol on the packaging red!!! I vaguely recall watching a news report about some guy that was doing an Ironman and, at the time, probably thinking, “Yeah – like people do that!!!” But then, just a few years later – and at a point where I had renounced the virtues of tobacco and saturated fats; having discovered salad and cycling – I recall seeing a Facebook post from my old boss, an enthusiastic Age Group triathlete, where he had taken a selfie at the briefing for the Outlaw Triathlon. Juxtaposed against his concerned looking face was a PowerPoint slide on a big screen which read, “Swim – 2.4 Miles. Bike – 112 Miles. Run – 26.2 Miles’. Looking at it, I wondered how many days the event was over…..but reading the subsequent comments, I realised that he was setting out to do this all in one day! Ye Gods!! The rest – as they say – is history; I got fit(er) and loved it: discovered multisports and loved it: did my first Triathlon and was utterly hooked and then, one day in August 2016, found myself standing on the start line of my first Ironman race!!
Time To Step Up
With two half-iron events under my belt by the end of 2015, I’d already made the decision that 2016 would be my Iron year. The only decision left to make was…which race?!?! As many of you reading this will know, the incredible range of Iron distance races available is now, frankly, vast!! Each has it’s pros and cons – so you need to make a decision based upon what is going to work best for you. Let me give you an example – Wales is hilly; don’t pick Wales if you hate hills. Wales has a sea swim; don’t pick Wales if you prefer a lake. Wales may be subject to bad weather - don’t pick Wales if you prefer sunshine…..in fact…..Just don’t do Wales!!! Get it!! And so when James Bunn posted on the East Essex Tri Club (EETC) website that he was entering Ironman Vichy in 2016, it appeared that I had found the perfect race; not only was this course relatively flat (James’ description – we’ll discuss this later!!) but a good many of the club were also going to be there (based, obviously, upon James’ description – we’ll discuss this later!!). And so it was that one boozy evening in December 2015 – after having badgered my poor long-suffering wife for weeks – I finally found myself staring at an email from Ironman Europe, confirming my place in the 2016 edition of Ironman Vichy! Crikey!!
It’s odd how that registration email already starts triggering a sense of pride! You sit there thinking, “yeah – I’ve entered an Ironman; I’m rock hard!” And these are easy thoughts to harbour with a few beers on board in mid-December. But what I was not really computing, at this stage, is just what you have to put yourself (and your family) through to even get to the start line. As someone who almost compulsively trains for around 20 hours per-week, I thought this would be a breeze. In fact, Pete Garrod even went as far as commenting that I was one of the few club members who wouldn’t need to change a thing about my training in order to finish it. But, as kind as this was, I knew he was probably wide-of-the-mark. Whilst I was no stranger to putting in the hours – I tended to train against a, “whatever I fancy” sort of plan – rather than a, “what I need” sort of plan. And so, swallowing my pride, I sought advice on just how to prepare your body and mind for a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike and all topped-off with a full marathon!! My chosen advisor was the sage Kevin Baldwin – who was brutally honest about my training habits and steered me toward the ‘bible’; Don Fink’s excellent ‘Be Iron Fit’. Using a combination of Mr. Fink’s plan and my own regular habits, by late August 2016 I was in a place where I was beginning to feel like I could actually become a bone-fide Ironman.
The Long Drive South
The months between the start of my training plan and that day in late august literally flew past and then, one Thursday morning at 04:00, I found myself standing outside my house and strapping the bikes onto the car for the long drive south; following Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin in their Plutonium-powered BMW!! And in some ways the constant struggle of our plucky little Mini; trying valiantly to run with the big boy, would be a perfect metaphor for how my race would pan-out.
Before I continue, I’d just like to take a moment to reflect, once more, on the reasons that I entered this race – this will become important as you read the rest of this race report. So, to recap, the reasons for selecting Vichy as my inaugural Iron race were: (1) James Bunn said it was flat (2) James Bunn said the swim was easy (3) James Bunn said it was easy to get to…..and……(3) James Bunn had persuaded most of the EETC to race it. What, of course, none of us realised at this point was that James’ promises were about as factually correct as the campaign propaganda forced upon the UK electorate by the ‘Leave’ campaign in the run-up to the end of the European Union as we know it!!!
After a 9 hour drive across France – including the ‘pleasure’ of a trip around Paris’ Peripherique (Hmm…Easy, eh James!), we found ourselves pulling into the Ironman car park and making our way, with Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin, to registration. Kevin was there to show me the ropes – which I was thankful for – and in a little under 15 minutes I was back outside proudly clutching my event
backpack and nervously fiddling with the competitor wristband now permanently attached to my right wrist.
Inevitably, Susan and I were drawn into the Ironman Merchandising tent and doing all the things that I suppose you would on your first IM……looking for my name on the official T shirt……oohing and aahing over Ironman branded stuff…….parting with cash for no apparent reason………wondering if I actually needed an Ironman M Dot Ice Cube tray and wondering if a pair of Ironman branded underpants could be justified. When you find yourself in an Ironman Merchandising tent though, and need to answer the question, “But do I really need it?” the answer is always, “Yes”. You may not know it at the time – but one day that M Dot branded egg cup may well just save your life!!! Possibly!!!
Run (or ride) To The Hills!
With a couple of days to acclimatise before the race we had planned an East Essex Tri group ride around the bike course on Friday. Optimistically, I’d suggested to Kevin that we ride one loop of the full course – effectively the IM 70.3 full course (56 miles) – which would get our eye in nicely before Sunday. Ridden at a steady pace on this (allegedly) pancake-flat bike course, I’d figured that wouldn’t take too much out of the legs and would also give us some valuable insights into just what lay ahead of us on Sunday. But as we drew closer to Vichy, the temperatures were rising steadily. Just before we arrived in town, I saw Kevin’s arm waving from the passenger window of his car – testing how hot it was outside the air-conditioned comfort of the Baldwin Express. He rang me almost as soon as his arm was back inside and said that we’d need to revise the Friday ride plan; owing to the heat. I’d already been thinking this myself so it was comforting to hear that even Kev was in the same place.
The Friday ride was great fun though – an easy twenty miles through lovely French lanes, with motorists who, generally speaking, were not intent on killing you and with the early morning sun not yet hot enough to take the skin off of your neck. But what was evident – even in this short preview – was that the course was far from flat. To be fair, none of the climbs were particularly long but they were punchy with undulating sections in between.
After another day wandering around the Expo and finding reasons to buy even more branded merchandise, the East Essex crew met for dinner at the typically French Buffalo Grill!!! It was a great evening with some great banter and many laughs to quell the pre-race nerves. And those nerves certainly needed quelling as it was confirmed that the water temperature had exceeded the limit for wetsuits; both the 70.3 and full Ironman races would now be non-wetsuit. These were going to be tough races for all concerned (Hmm…Mr. Bunn…..’Easy’ swim, eh!!!).
Be Not Afraid!
As an epically bad swimmer, I should have been more concerned about this than I was. But, in training, I’d regularly been putting in full 3.8K swims in the pool – so I knew I was good for the distance. My time was also not a concern; averaging around 1:35 for the full-distance swim. But, spectating at the 70.3 on Saturday, I was reminded just how tough the swim was going to be as countless Triathletes needed assistance from the safety boats. One guy had a near-death-experience right in front of us; floundering helplessly around in a frenzy of foam and white water as panicked arms and legs flailed uncontrollably. The safety crew reached him in seconds – but I dread to think what the outcome may have been had they been further away. I later learned that 15 athletes had to be assisted on the day – compared to the 5 which is normal for this race.
But, on Saturday afternoon and putting this to the back of my mind, I hopped aboard the bike and rode across Vichy to rack for the race. This was, for me, a surreal experience. In my mind, I’d ‘seen’ myself doing this a thousand times. But, now here I was – astride the Planet X and with a rucksack full of transition gear on my back, winding my way through the back streets of Vichy! Frankly – I still don’t think I was taking it in – even at this point. After racking, the opportunity to watch Susan and Victoria race the Iron Girl 5K (in 36 degrees of heat) helped draw the mind away from negative thoughts.
Preparation; Preparation – Preparation!
In the run-up to a race, I’ve always got a clear plan in my head of how I will prepare. And my plan for my first Ironman was very clearly laid-out in my mind. Basically, I’d wanted an early night on the Saturday – after a carb-heavy meal of pasta, washed down with water. After 8 hours of deep, restful sleep, I would then rise early on Sunday morning and, after an hour of Pilates and quiet contemplation, consume a nutritionally perfect breakfast of porridge, fruit and nuts before being whisked by magic carpet to the race. In reality, however, things panned-out a little differently!!!
Firstly – let’s discuss rest and nutrition! Make no mistake – these two are every bit as vital as training in preparing you for the race. And because they’re so important, you really need to pick a hotel that is (1) quiet (2) close to the venue (3) air-conditioned – if your race is in a hot country or locale and (4) attuned to the nutritional requirements of endurance Athletes.
The Hotel Les Nations in Boulevard De Russie was none of these!! Situated a little over 2 miles from the venue, it was unbearably hot (lacking even the most basic air-con in the rooms), served only a typically French ‘continental’ style breakfast (hmmm….croissants and cheese before the swim start, anyone!!!) and also provided no safe storage for bikes – meaning that you had to literally carry your bike up a winding spiral staircase every time you wanted to ride it!! Having said all of this though, it was cheap!!! And cheap hotels are good – because they leave more cash available to spend on M Dot branded bottle openers and cuff-links at the Expo!!!
By the time that race day arrived, I’d not managed more than 2 hours continuous sleep in the preceding 3 nights, had fed myself mainly on sausage sandwiches, frites, pizza, croissants and pain-au-cholat and hydrated through a combination of Vin Rouge and Biere!!! In fact, my pre-race evening meal was sirloin steak washed down with a cheeky red!!
But, despite this unprovoked assault on my digestive system, when the alarm sounded at 04:00 on the morning of Sunday, August 28th, I actually felt race-ready. In some ways, that could have just been my body responding to the reduced (or removed) training load over the previous few days but equally, it may have just been the amount of adrenaline coursing through my veins when race day finally arrived. Notwithstanding all of this, I did still feel slightly detached from reality.
Making my way down to breakfast with my lovely wife – and my race number tattoos proudly displayed, I was actually looking forward to the two pots of instant porridge I’d brought with me from Blighty. And I’d even planned to nick a couple of sachets of honey from the buffet to go with them. But, sitting at the breakfast table – with the porridge ‘cooking’ before me (I borrowed some water from the buffet tea urn), all I could think was, “Why does that look green? Porridge isn’t normally green; is it? Nope – that’s definitely green!!!” Of course, the porridge was not in fact green; it was just the dodgy lighting in the hotel restaurant. But at this late stage, superstition is the key!!!
I tried to eat and enjoy. And Susan did a wonderful job as soigneur – shuttling urgently between breakfast table and buffet to bring me what I needed and desired. But by 04:50 I’d had enough and we began the slow amble along the river to the venue.
Cometh the Day!
walking in just a tri-suit, the morning felt cooler than previous days. In fact, by the time we reached the river, there were Goose Bumps on my arms. Secretly I began wondering if the full iron would be a wetsuit legal race. I was already planning how I’d get back to the hotel to collect it if this was the case. Obviously, it was never going to be – but walking along the banks of the Lake in that fresh morning air, I did wonder just how warm that water was going to be when I hit it.
By the time we arrived at the venue, the place was absolutely rocking; spectators already installed in deckchairs ready for the long day ahead and a steady stream of athletes making their way into Transition for last-minute bike checks and to deposit their Street Wear bags. With track pump in hand, I joined them. When I racked the bike, I’d had the foresight to deflate the tyres. Opinion is divided on this but there are enough anecdotal accounts of people finding popped tyres in T1 to justify the few minutes it takes to do. Although I’d come prepared with pump and tools, the lighting in Transition was more what I’d call ‘mood’ lighting than ‘work’ lighting and I really struggled to see what I was doing. This resulted in me breaking the end off of the front wheel’s Presta valve as I clumsily removed the pump. Luckily the tyre was up to pressure at this point so, after a brief conversation with Dave Murray and Nick Feint, I decided to simply screw the dust cap on as tightly as I could and not let it bother me. By now, dawn was beginning to break and, over the PA system I was hearing announcements that there was just 5 minutes until the Pro-race start. I used the remaining few minutes to drop my Street Wear bag off and then did the slow walk of a condemned man to the swim start.
Unlike many of the field I knew exactly what my swim pace would be sans-wetsuit and so seeded myself into the 90-110 Minute pen. Dave Murray joined me here and we whiled away the minutes to the start by exchanging banter with a guy from Cambridge Tri. But both Dave and the other guy (whose name I didn’t catch) observed that they’d expected to see more people in this slot than there actually were. In fact, I understand that at Bolton / Wales etc. this is probably the busiest start pen so this meant that either the field at Vichy were going to be really fast – or a lot of people had seeded themselves incorrectly. As it turned out a combination of these two factors was at play here; the amount of people that I swam past during the first lap testament to this.
The Point of No Return!
Stepping onto the starting jetty and hearing the beep as the timing chip registered my intent I knew there really was no going back. I wouldn’t say that I was fazed by the prospect of the non-wetsuit swim (and certainly think it was troubling me less than many people). But I wasn’t relishing it either. A moment later I was standing on the edge of the pontoon and being instructed, “Don’t sit down – no diving”. And so, with a simple (and in my mind) graceful step; with one arm folded neatly across my chest to hold my goggles and the other more-or-less down by my side, I slipped into the water like a Scuba diver stepping from a boat. What had not occurred to me is that Scuba divers adopt this pose to send them deep……which is exactly what happened to me; Jesus, that was scary! But, after a few panicked seconds – which felt like minutes – I finally broke surface, grabbed a lungful of air, stuck my face in the water and got on with the swim.
To be fair I could see why wetsuits were banned from the moment I started swimming. Even at this early stage in the day the water was warmer than my local gym’s pool. And, merciful Heavens, it was clam too. Settling into a steady freestyle I felt really good. But my right calf felt crampy – something it does from time-to-time. Risking nothing, I kept the pace slow and even which seemed to keep it right on the verge of feeling like it was going to cramp – but was still moving me forwards fairly efficiently. By 500 Metres though I was actually loving the swim – warm water – not too many people around me – only one or two little punch-ups near the start – early morning sun glinting off of the glassy surface of the lake and, to either side, the lovely backdrop of Vichy in mid-summer.
The swim course seems simple enough here – two laps – one taking you a fair distance in a straight line down the lake before returning in a straight line and then a similar second loop that takes a meander into the far corner before turning back towards the start. But those of you who have swum with me will know that my sense of direction in the water has a certain random quality about it at the best of times. And a couple of times on this first lap that had been evident. In fact, at one point after the first turn, I almost found myself swimming back along the outward first leg and then had to re-trace my route to get back on track. Again, I didn’t let it worry me as I was sure I was covering ground (or water) quickly enough to leave a good margin before cut-off. But, as I exited the swim at the mid-point turn, a quick check of the Garmin revealed a lap one time of 1:07. Bollocks!!! I’d really taken it easy, hadn’t I!! If I didn’t dig deep now there was a real possibility of missing cut-off.
Running along the pontoon to take the plunge for the second lap, I was stopped briefly by a marshal who explained the route for the second leg to me. As nice as this was, I knew where I was going and his good intentions had just cost me precious seconds. It also stopped me launching myself back in; in a graceful dive. But, stepping from the pontoon into 6 inches of water, I did have to say that the lack of a mid-point dive was probably a bonus!!!
With it all to do now I threw caution to the wind, engaged the legs into a purposeful (for me) two-beat kick and started focussing on keeping the elbow high in the catch whilst consciously increasing my turnover rate. In no time I was passing other swimmers – which is good. But equally, I was still chasing phantom buoys. During this second leg I managed to wander so far off course that a safety marshal had to blow his whistle and point me in the other direction; before I took off randomly towards Paris!!
Swimming in to the finish I could see the East Essex crew on the quayside – and I could also hear my name being called. I saw James’ family cheering me on in their East Essex Support Crew shirts and even managed to give them a wave in my final few strokes. The Garmin showed 2:11 as I exited the swim; in before cut-off and with two minutes shaved off of the second lap (even allowing for the increased distance). Analysis of my GPS file later showed that I’d swum over 5K (as opposed to 3.8K) and that my pace in the water was exactly as predicted – so it was really just the bad navigation that had cost me.
But none of that mattered at that moment in time! Here I was – the bloke who, two years ago couldn’t swim 20 Metres – having just completed a full Ironman swim within cut-off!!! Happy? You bet!!!
My Time to Shine!
Running into T1, I was both elated and a little confused. Ironman racing is unlike any Tritahlon you’ve ever done before and instead of simply running back to my bike to find a neat pile of kit laid out for the next discipline, I now had to locate the Transition bags, which I’d racked yesterday. To be fair, by the time I hit the bag racks, there were probably less than 100 in there. But I still gave the Marshal in attendance the comedy spectacle of me twisting my arm around to read my own number tattoo in order to be sure I was picking up the right bag. Understandingly, she grabbed my wrist and led me directly to them!!
Pausing for a moment in the change tent the adrenaline was beginning to wear off a little and the first of the many different types of pain to be savoured throughout the race beginning to make itself known. Foolishly I’d assumed that a non-wetsuit race negated the need for Body Glide on the usual abrasion points. But I was now learning that a Tri Suit will do you as much (if not more) damage in a 5K swim as a wetsuit will; the two strips of raw, abraded, flesh along the base of my neck now stinging like acid burns. Applying factor 50 sunscreen to this was like an act of self-harm and I actually winced out loud at one point – before deciding that this was very un-Ironman-like and biting my lip for the second application. But, my God, did that hurt!!
James Bunn was in the change tent at the same time as me. We exchanged a few words before running out to the bikes. One of the pluses of exiting the water towards the back of the pack is that you have very little problem finding your bike. And, by the time I hit the bike park for T1, the vivid blue of the Planet X could have probably been seen from space; there was so much clear space around it. After a brief check that the front tyre was still inflated, I ran the bike to the mount line and hopped on.
Just like at Fambridge, I’d planned to manage the ride at Vichy using a PowerFile course, uploaded into my Garmin bike computer. And, just like Fambridge, the power prompts started to kick in from the first turn of the cranks. But, unlike Fambridge, they stopped abruptly after two miles. So, at this point, I could either park up and faff around trying to sort it – or devise another plan. Plan B was easy to pull together – simply ride to around 80% FTP and keep the heart rate Z2.
Not only did this new plan make the going feel pretty easy (whilst still maintaining a good average speed) but I also knew it was saving the legs for the long run that lay ahead. I was also passing other riders without too much effort which felt good. And I was absolutely loving the bike course. Riding on closed roads was a first for me – but to get to do this in France was absolutely awesome (and I don’t use that word lightly).
Seriously, if you ride a bike and have any interest in cycling at all then racing in France should really be on your bucket list. In almost every village that we passed through, the locals had gathered to watch the racing; greeting every athlete with enthusiastic shouts of ‘Allez, allez, allez’ as kids ran alongside the bikes also shouting, ‘Allez, allez monsieur’. This encouragement never grew old. But you also begin to feel a bit like a Pro as the local Gendarmerie waved you straight through junctions and also as you launched empty bidons to the roadside (God, I’ve always wanted to do that) before grabbing a fresh one from the outstretched arm of a volunteer at the feed zones (God, I’ve always wanted to do that too!)
While we are talking about the bike course, let’s just revisit item one on the list of reasons for choosing Vichy as my first full Ironman; James Bunn said it was flat!!! Indeed a good portion is flat but it kind of culminated in an ascent toward the end of each lap.
The course is a 56 mile loop that you repeat twice (for the full Iron). When you look at the profile (which I probably should have done before booking) you can see that each loop is essentially a steady, but increasing, climb away from Vichy followed by a short, sharp descent back into the city. The real ascent happens in the last 20K or so of each loop and whilst there aren’t any epic climbs, the ascents that you hit here get increasingly steeper and run one-after-another. I spent a good part of this section out of the saddle which, as it turned out, was a bad plan. In the months running up to Vichy the increased training load had aggravated a tendon issue in my left foot. This usually starts giving me issues after 60 or so miles. But at Vichy it had started to make itself known at nearer to 40 miles. It manifests itself as a searing pain – like a red hot nail driven through the ball of my foot as I push down on the pedals.
By the end of lap one the usual intermittent pain had become constant and I began to worry how I’d cope with the last 20K of climbing if it persisted. But this race is called Ironman and, just knowing that, makes you do things you normally wouldn’t. In an effort to quell the pain, I unclipped my left foot and rode one-legged for a few miles (Smiffy’s one-leg-drills paying off here). God only knows what the other competitors thought when they saw me. But I hasten to add that I even passed a couple of other people riding like this – which probably just looked like I was showing off. This eased the pain but it returned as soon as I clipped back in. With the climbs approaching – and out of options – I decided to smash out some standing sprints in a big gear to see just how much pain I could take. I’ll be honest, this wasn’t fun!! But the strangest thing happened – after three or so big efforts the pain reached a peak and then began to fade!! I’m really not sure why that was – maybe I’ve done some permanent nerve damage or something – but all I know is that I was thankful for the respite as I got out of the saddle into the final 20K.
The descent into Vichy is steep and fast. There had been rain during the bike leg also so I was now approaching this, frankly, terrifying descent on damp roads. It’s not too bad through the forest sections – where all you have to worry about is getting slowed for the next bend. But as you approach the town with traffic calming measures, greasy white lines and roadside ‘furniture’ all around it really focuses the mind. In fact, the organisers had even sign-posted this section with ‘Slow’, ‘No Aero Bars’!!!
My goal for the bike had always been to go sub 6 hours and so returning to the bike park in 5:59, I was fairly happy with what I’d done so far and I was even happier that the front tyre hadn’t let go after the earlier valve failure. With hindsight, I know I could have pushed harder on the bike. Also I know that I could have made my life easier by taking less ‘stuff’ along on the bike with me. In an effort to cover every eventuality, I was carrying four bidons, six gels (taped to the top tube and in a Bento bag), three spare tubes, tools for every occasion, two Co2 inflators and even a spare mech hanger (taped to the top of the seat post). Yep, it’s fair to say that your average aircraft carrier probably puts to sea less well-provisioned!!
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance-Runner!!
And this brings us right back to where I started this report. Sitting in T2 I was actually still feeling really good; the pain in my foot had subsided and I knew there was at least still 42 Kilometres left in the legs. T2 is always the quick one and after dumping my cycling kit into my transition bag, covering anything that might ‘rub’ in Body Glide and slapping on some more factor 50 (and wincing once again when it hit the now raw skin on either side of my neck) I was setting out on the run.
The run plan was even simpler than the bike plan; run two laps (of the four lap course), run / walk the third and then simply make it through the fourth. And this all went to plan in the first two laps – where I comfortably held around a 12 min/mile average! Perfect!! The support here was amazing – and on every lap you get to run through the finish-chute where the shouts and screams from the crowd are an instant lift. The East Essex Massive had gathered on the entrance to the finish chute and on every lap were ready with cowbells, shouts and high-fives. My God, what a feeling it is to hear them shouting for you – genuinely urging you on with every step. And then, shortly after that shot-in-the-arm you run through the lanes where you collect your lap bands.
Lap bands serve two purposes; one official and one unofficial. The official purpose if to denote to the course officials how many laps you’ve covered – so you should never be crossing the finish line with fewer than three of these in a four lap race. But the unofficial purpose is far more useful – they let you see if there is anyone out there who is a lap behind you!!! It’s small-minded I know but after lap one – and with my single red band proudly displayed on my right wrist – I was intently looking for anyone with no bands (especially if I was passing them). To be honest, there weren’t many – but to the one or two I did see, I exchanged a sincere smile and a look that said, “Go on buddy – you’re doing great”, while all the while I was just thinking, “Yesss!!!” It works both ways though and plenty of other athletes – one or even two bands ahead of me – came past me in their final few Kiolmetres before Ironmandom. I simply looked at them, envied their bands……and then kept looking for runners with one band less than me…..”Yessss!”
By lap three I was into resource management. The run had started in the hottest part of the day with direct sun and 36 degrees (97 in old money) temperatures. From the very start this had been an issue and dehydration was a natural concern – as was heat stress. The organisers had planned brilliantly for this with an aid station / feed zone about every two K. These were life savers – they’d give you as much fluid as you needed, energy gels, carb drinks, Ritz crackers and even delicious quarters of fresh orange. More importantly, they had hoses at every stop to hose you down and I took full advantage. But every time they hosed me down, it washed body salts and the remains of sunblock into the abrasion wounds so each hosing was both a blessing and a punishment. To be fair though – after 20K – there’s so much pain everywhere else in your body that you simply don’t worry about it – ask the man for a dowsing, grit your teeth and enjoy. I managed hydration by taking just water and supplementing this with salt tablets twice every lap. Energy-wise, I steered clear of gels; opting simply for the Ritz Crackers and segments of Orange. It worked; at no point during the run did I feel dehydrated or hungry.
At the mid-way point of lap three though, I was into one of those dark places that the seasoned Ironmen in the club had warned me off. Try as you might – at this stage, irrational fears and the dreaded demons of doubt creep in. As much as I knew I was strong enough to keep running – and maybe even pick up the pace – the pain across my shoulders, now creeping down into my back and chest, concerned me. From the moment I entered my first Ironman, I’d wanted to come away with just three things: (1) Medal (2) Finisher’s shirt (3) Tattoo. At this point irrationality had me thinking that I may also come away in a body bag if I didn’t moderate things a little – so I did. What had started as a run-five-walk-one strategy turned into a walk-four-run-two and then, on lap four a walk-hard-run-when-you-can strategy.
Although this felt a little like failure (in my head, I’d always wanted to run the whole thing) I was far enough ahead of cut-off to have actually had a sit down for an hour and still finish with a brisk stroll. One benefit of still being out on the course at this time was that the encouragement from the crowds – and even the everyday folk of Vichy became more intense and more sincere. I have to take my hat off to one group of athletes who, following their own finish, had gathered in a bar by the riverbank to encourage those still running. Each time we passed they heartily cheered us on – running alongside us and just making us feel great about ourselves at a point where most of us were having near-death-experiences. In my last lap, a guy ran up to me and shouted, “East Essex – you are awesome!” He ran alongside me explaining that this was genuine – he had raced the race earlier and knew what we were going through. He also spurred me on by saying – if it was easy they’d call it Football!! And then instructed me to run!! I ran!!! But, equally, the support now offered by the locals was telling – their earlier, “Allez, allez” shouts now turned to a simple stare followed by the single word, “Courage”!
In the final few K of the final lap the sun was a distant memory and darkness had descended. Running alongside the lake I could see the glow of the finish chute off to my left – and hear the enthusiastic bellows of the race commentators as other competitors crossed the line. Although the commentary was in French, I was still able to pick out the occasional words and always able to pick out the, “YOU ARE AN IRON MAN” shouted as athletes made the finish. The pounding music, the screams from the crowd and the baying of the commentary painted images of a latter-day Colosseum in my mind and I knew at this point that it was only a matter of time before I entered that arena to satisfy the crowd with the conclusion of my own suffering.
Even at this late stage though there was still racing to be had and all through the final few K I traded places with a guy from Northants Tri. It was all very good-spirited though; he’d get past me, I’d get back past him, we’d run side-by-side chatting and then one would take the lead again…..and so on and so forth. Running into the final section of barriers before the finish chute though I decided to consolidate my lead and, digging deep, ran as hard as I could. Finally there was open space between us – not much of a victory I know but a small-enough victory for me at this late stage.
SPARTAN – PREPARE FOR GLORY!
With just seconds before I entered the finish chute for the final time, I heard my name called. Kevin Baldwin beckoned me over to the barrier and I responded……..as Northants Tri ran right past!!! BOLLOCKS!!! Kevin explained that Susan had positioned herself to get a great photo, “Really milk this moment” he said. And I knew he was right. Here I was – for certain to become an Ironman and, to be honest, the finish time was largely academic. I ran into the finish chute and the crowd were in full throng. I milked it – high-fiving total strangers and waving my arms to rouse an even greater response from the crowd. I looked desperately for Susan because I really just wanted to hug her and share this moment but couldn’t find her and then suddenly found myself staring at the finish line. Northants Tri guy was standing by the barriers and we exchanged a knowing smile before he simply offered a hand out to say, “After you!”
In my mind, I’d crossed that line a thousand times before that point. In my mind I’d rehearsed wild arms-aloft celebrations…..or ones where I punched the air……..or ones where I beat my chest. But, on the day, I simply ran across and stopped my Garmin (which had actually already died by that point anyway). In a way it felt like an opportunity missed but when I later saw some video footage of it I took some comfort that it probably looked a lot cooler than an over-baked victory salute.
And then, you’re suddenly there – past the line – someone putting a medal around your neck – someone giving you a T-Shirt – someone else taking a post-finish photo…..the crowd still baying for the souls still suffering and the dream accomplished; – you are an Ironman!!! Let me say that again……You…..ARE…..AN……..IRONMAN!!! Jesus – even now I don’t think that’s sunk in.
Although at this stage I was not terribly hungry it would have been impolite to not take advantage of the post-race buffet (especially when this included Heineken on tap and hot crepes). I sat for a few minutes slowly sipping a beer, eating a crepe and running my fingers over that lovely lump of tin around my neck. Kevin Baldwin wandered in also – having finished over an hour before me he had now got an appetite and had come back into the Palais du Lac to top up on much-needed carbohydrates. I shouted his name – but he didn’t hear. And so I made my way over to him. We spent a few minutes exchanging stories and race notes and he said that he’d found the course particularly tough. In fact he said it was one of the toughest Ironman races he’d done. Given that Kevin is a veteran on six ironman races, this was quite a statement. Kevin left me alone with my thoughts (and another Heineken) and then after several more minutes wandering around like a lost schoolboy I finally got my head together and walked out to the bike park to collect the Planet X. Approaching my racking slot the rows all around were once again empty; the plucky Planet X hanging there like the last man standing. Emotion does strange things to you at this point and I recall physically hugging the bike and saying, “You did me proud today” before gently wheeling her out of transition for the last time.
I knew that Susan and the East Essex crew would probably be in their usual spot – by the ice cream tent outside the expo and so I made my way there. This was not easy though as it meant crossing a scaffold bridge – after 14 hours, 2 minutes and 45 seconds of racing – with my bike and two transition bags. As I struggled to climb the stairs, a Marshal spotted my plight and offered assistance; carrying my bags for me as I carried the bike. But no sooner had I reached the bottom of the stairs and said a sincere, “merci” to my helper than I spotted Susan! On the other side of the Bridge!!! Arse!!! I simply looked at her and mouthed, “HELP!”
I spent the next hour with Susan and the East Essex crew. Seriously – this was a fantastic way to close-out the day. We watched other racers finish – and fulfil their Ironman dream, I ate sausage sandwiches and drank more beer, we exchanged banter and race notes with Dave Murray and his family (who, it has to be said, had provided some of the best support on the run with their ‘Tap for Power’ signs) and then we watched Luke Bourdillon conclude his Ironman journey.
The Day Thou Gavest, Lord has Ended!!
Susan and I walked back to our hotel via the river – of course, a two mile walk is exactly what you need after a 5K swim, 180K bike and 42K run, isn’t it. On the riverbank we were treated to the spectacle of the end-of-event fireworks and this was the perfect way to end the perfect day.
A week on and my race numbers (or what’s left of them) still adorn my left arm and leg and I’ve just committed to having the M Dot indelibly inked onto my leg. This journey has been something I will remember and treasure for the rest of my life. But the effort that got me here was not mine alone. I have to give credit to my poor long-suffering wife who, for the last eight months has not really had a husband. She’s probably been aware that there’s a man living in the house; because his swimming, running and cycling kit turns up daily in the wash! And there’s someone who wakes her up at 4:30 most mornings. She’s been my rock through all these hard months of training and I’ve committed to her that I’m taking at least a year away from the long course to focus on her now. But even though I’ll probably get a 70.3 under my belt next year I know that a return to full distance is only a matter of time. Ironman – for life!!!