They say you get what you pay for. The Ironman experience is taxing, and not just on the wallet. The time and sweat that’s required to get to the start line is as draining as the price tag; but the experience is incomparable. The Ironman brand completely took over the town of Calella for the weekend, and we felt like VIPs at the party.
Although we were staying in Barcelona, we’d hired a car for the weekend. Zoe and I drove up the coast to Calella on Saturday to register and check out the lay of the land. Straight away, the scale and grandeur of the event was obvious, with huge marquees set up on the beach to house the race organisation, and an artificial football pitch given over to racking for the thousands of bikes that would be lying in wait for us when we got out of the water.
Having checked in at race HQ, we were issued with stickers and bags, and left to figure out the logistics. A blue bag would hold our bike kit, and a red one our running gear. Meanwhile we had a white bag, into which we put our street gear to change into at the end of the race. This forced us to mentally run through each transition, ensuring that we had everything we’d need. A good exercise, as it helped to calm the nerves. The bags were left in another huge marquee alongside the bike pitch. The racking was for bikes, and bikes alone – even helmets had to be kept separately in those bags.
We hung around the expo for a little while, browsing the Ironman merchandise, and people watching. Calella is ostensibly just another Costa Brava resort, probably more used to tubby drunk tourists. I have never seen a more skinny collection of human beings. Athletes from all over the world stalked around, all wiry calves and waspish torsos.
On the morning of race day, we woke at half past four in order to get up to Calella and relax a little before the start. In the pre dawn darkness, Zoe and I went into transition to check on our bikes and get into our wetsuits. The enthusiastic MC was already thundering encouragement over the PA system, and doing little to calm nerves. Zoe was particularly emotional, and had been (needlessly) stressed about the sea swim. Her nerves were coming to quite a crescendo, so I was trying to contain my nervous energy and stay calm rather than jack her up even further.
Then the MC almost caused a collective coronary, when he announced: “Triathletes, the water temperature is 21.5° so it will be a non wetsuit swim… for the pro athletes.” That pause between the first and second half of his sentence can’t have been more than half a second, but it was long enough for our entire lives to flash before our eyes. Zoe was so shocked in the moment that her legs literally went from under her. She sat backwards on the ground and started crying with shock, then relief at the realisation we would actually be allowed our neoprene safety blankets. We laughed and hugged as she kept sobbing, getting out the pent up emotion, and mildly confusing the Ukrainian next to us.
There was time allotted to get into the water for a warm up, so we trudged down the beach and sploshed out into the Mediterranean. The beach fell away very quickly, meaning that there was very little running through the shallows to be done; and the sea was relatively calm, so there were no breaking waves to worry about. I didn’t really do any swimming beyond a dozen strokes, but it was good to remove some of the mystery and confirm that the water was warm.
The race had a rolling start, which meant that we put ourselves into pens according to our expected swim times. I was forecasting a slightly faster swim than Zoe, so we had one last hug, and I moved forward to the 1:20 pen. What we hadn’t bargained for was just how long it takes to get almost 3000 people into the water in small groups of six.
I ended up standing alone on the beach for about twenty minutes before I actually got into the sea. This could have been an opportunity to get nervous again, but I pushed that away, and just took in my surroundings. The sun was peeking through the early clouds. The first swimmers were already well on their way. A Babel of languages jostled my ears as others nervously chattered. The dance music chugged along. The MC continued his high pitched excitement.
I had prepared well for this challenge. My body and my mind felt ready. I had been fretting a little over a slight calf niggle over the last couple of days, but now, as my feet sank into the sand and looked out to sea at the pros thrashing their way to the first corner, I let calm settle over me. I slowed my breathing, started to think about the race, about the plan, about the finish line. As other athletes nervously fretted around me, I felt poised.
When it came, it came quickly. I hadn’t moved for a long time, but suddenly we were shuffling forwards. I was funnelled into one of six starting gates with three other athletes in front of me. Every four seconds, an official said, “Go!” and off went another half dozen. “Go!” “Go!” Now I was at the front of the queue. “Go!”
The rolling start worked. Considering the huge number of swimmers, there was very little traffic. I got jostled going around the first turn, a pinch point about 250m from the start; and then there was a bit of heavy going about half an hour in as I found myself in the middle of a cluster of swimmers. But that aside, my swim was free of any heavy contact.
The thing is, though… it’s a hell of a long way. I have swum the 3.8km distance a couple of times in training, and I did the Wales Swim in Tenby to replicate the sea experience. At Tenby, though, there was an exit onto the beach after one lap before swimming around a second time. This time, there was no such respite. We swam out to the first turn, through 90°, and then southwards parallel to the beach for over a mile, before turning and coming back.
As I reached the far point of the course and turned, I looked at my watch and saw 38 minutes – bang on the planned schedule of 2:00 per 100m. The swim was going well, with the only problem that I had a bit of a headache, caused I think by the tight fitting swim cap. I have a big noggin, so the thick cap was giving me a good squeeze, but this was no real problem.
Unfortunately, on the way back, I started to get a familiar feeling of nausea. When I did Tenby, I had felt really sick on that second lap, so this morning I had taken some sea sickness tablets to stave off that nausea. They hadn’t worked. I was also having trouble sighting the buoys on the way back, and ended up weaving around quite a bit. My Strava file shows a big change of direction half way back, and I do remember looking up at one point and seeing that I was swimming away from the beach when I ought to have been parallel.
I wasn’t too concerned about the straight lines, though. I was more worried about the fact I felt really sick. Just as I reached the final turn buoy that sent us back to shore, I felt my stomach spasm and I had to stop swimming. I trod water for a moment, lifting my goggles onto my forehead. There was one dry heave, followed by one very wet heave that seemed to just eject a flood of salt water from my stomach.
I always knew I was going to have to show a lot of guts to complete this race, but I wasn’t expecting to show them to the concerned looking kayaker who was heading in my direction. I didn’t want to try to communicate with him, so I gave him a thumbs up that carried a lot more confidence than I felt, brought my goggles back into position, and swam back to shore.
This seemed to have done the trick, and the nausea which had beset me for the last half hour had now vanished. I felt fine all the way into the beach, but this had stored up problems for later. I would have stomach trouble for the rest of the race.
The plan was always to take my sweet time in T1, and that part at least went like clockwork.
Getting out of the damned water was a bit of a struggle as I clawed at the sand with my hand before delightedly planting a foot on terra firma and standing up. The sand was loose, and the movement of the water almost toppled me backwards. Fortunately, there was a phalanx of green shirted helpers along the beach, and it took two of them – one seizing each hand – to haul me ashore. The final swim time was 1:22, so the second half was a bit slower than the first, but under the circumstances that was hardly a surprise, and I was just pleased to be moving onto the next phase of the race.
I started running up the beach, but the shifting surface sand meant I was exhausting myself unnecessarily, so I walked until I reached the solid astroturf then gently jogged into the tent. There were three rows of numbered hooks all festooned with red and blue bags. Reasoning that getting this transition done right was more important than getting it done fast, I found my bag, whipped out my WTC towel and got stuck into drying my toes before putting on my socks and shoes. I took as much time as I thought I needed, but it ended up being not quite enough because I left without my sunglasses. This didn't really end up being a problem, and probably made for better photographs, but I was a bit annoyed with myself for the error, and even more annoyed that I had paid good money for those never to be seen again shades.
Anyway, freshly clad in shoes and helmet, I clattered out to find my bike amid the sea of saddles, and wobbled out to the mount line. I was glad to be out on the bike leg, which is undoubtedly my favourite of the three. My stomach felt really empty, but a Soreen slice took the edge off, and I wound through Calella, enjoying the twisting first couple of kilometres as large crowds applauded us out of the town.
After leaving Calella, the route took us along the coast road towards Montgat, with a 15km inland diversion which took us up a shallow but persistent climb to Argentona before returning us to our coastal road.
I set off a little bit too fast but reined it in, resisting the urge to chase cyclists who overtook me. A couple of small undulations were handled well, and I felt great. At this point, I was really enjoying myself, waving to kids on the roadside and smiling broadly to anyone who looked my way. When we turned right onto the hill to Argentona, my legs felt fantastic. I dropped into the small ring and spun my legs, and found myself overtaking lots of cyclists who had come by me in the last few kilometres.
A 180° turn at the top of the hill, and I flew back down, still overtaking. At this point, I also saw Zoe for the first time, coming up the hill on the opposite side of the road, only around ten minutes behind. Brilliant. She’d got into the water after me so if she was only ten minutes behind on the road, that meant that her swim must have gone much better than she’d feared.
Back on the coast road, I reached the turnaround point at Montgat, and started the long straight road back to Calella. Now I realised why the speed had been so high. There was a mild breeze that had been blowing me along the coast, and was now slowing my progress. It wasn’t particularly strong, but noticeable, and I was glad that I’d held back a little on the way here.
Nearing Calella, I started to get mild stomach cramps. I'd been worried about the ill effects of puking in the sea, but I had decided to stick to my pre race nutrition plan rather than risk being underfuelled. I was drinking water with dissolved salt tablets, taking a gel every half hour, and regularly eating energy bars and Soreen. Now I was concerned that my spastic stomach wouldn't absorb anything after this morning's rejection.
I had to just keep eating to plan, and deal with any consequences further down the line. It would have been suicidal to stop eating trough fear of being sick – without fuel, I wouldn’t complete the course, so I had to just keep pouring in food and drink, and hope for the best.
At Calella, we looped around a roundabout to repeat the lap we’d just completed. There was a huge crowd gathered at this pinch point, and I belatedly saw Pam and The Boy waving their homemade banner. That sent me back out with a huge smile, and it lasted until the second climb to Argentona. The going had felt harder, and now on the slopes, I felt laboured. People were going by me, but I just let them go and focused on keeping a regular pedal stroke. I was only racing myself today, so there was no point in worrying about how fast everyone else was going.
I had no pain in my legs, but my stomach was complaining. Every time I took a deep breath, a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm me, but the bigger risk for me was that this intestinal problem might get into my head. It was the mental side that would do the damage, so I shook it off and just kept smiling. I started singing out loud to myself, working through quite the repertoire of Pulp songs; Common People swallowing up several kilometres.
I am really pleased with my mental fortitude at this point. I had always known that something would go wrong during the race. If you do anything for thirteen hours, you can’t expect it to go perfectly. But the success or failure of the day would be defined not by the obstacles Ironman presented, but how I overcame them. Disco 2000 is how I overcame them.
The second lap was also rendered more difficult by a cloudless sky. We'd been forecast clouds all day, although I'd still coated myself in sunscreen just in case. Now, in the mid afternoon, Team Cloud abandoned any pretence of being on our side, and went home for a few hours. The sun beat down, and my water intake increased.
The bike feed stations were excellent, and enabled you to roll through slowly, grabbing bottles as you went. I took a couple of opportunities to roll to a stop, however. Once for a pee, and once to put my spare salt tablets into fresh water. This had always been planned, and getting off the saddle, even for a minute or two, allowed the blood flow to my numb nethers, and helped me to stay mentally on track. The plan is the plan.
The last 3km brought us back through that technical section of winding, speed bumped streets. This gave me a good opportunity to knock off some speed and enjoy the crowds. As well as Pam and The Boy with their banner, there were thousands of spectators in the town. It seemed every athlete had brought two or three fans, with the Irish bringing an even bigger and louder contingent. The shouts of “Come on, Wakefield!” in a thick Irish accent were most welcome.
I arrived at T2 with a final bike time of 5:58. Bang on target, although the second lap had been quite a bit slower than the first. With my stomach now lurching around, I wondered about taking a toilet break. I even considered making myself sick – I felt as though three or four deep breaths would probably push me over the edge. In the end, I decided that I'd just push on and see what happened: what will be will be, but if I was going to puke again, there was no need to hasten the inevitable. I changed shoes, bagged up all my bike equipment, slathered myself once again in sunscreen, and headed out.
The run course consisted of three laps. The business end was the area between transition and the finish area, where insanely loud crowds of people cheered and encouraged. We then ran north along the promenade, and then slightly inland before a turnaround point sent us back to the finish area. This course design meant that there was an out and back element, but it only lasted a couple of kilometres. Whilst I’d been able to wave a cheery hello at Zoe after each bike turnaround point, I wouldn’t now see her again till the end of the race.
My plan for the run was to pace it at 6 minutes per kilometre, and then walk through every feed station. There were six stations on each lap, so this meant a recovery walk every couple of kilometres. I wanted to do this from the very start, saving energy for the end, and so I had to consciously slow down for the first couple of kilometres.
This would have been fine, but for the persistence of this sick feeling. The cramps on the bike leg had turned into a more settled feeling of nausea, as though I had a completely undigested brick of energy gel and Soreen in my stomach. Again, I reasoned that I had to take on fuel or I just wouldn't finish, so I stuck to the plan, walking through the stations taking on coke, bananas and oranges, then continuing to jog on.
I was feeling worse and worse with every feed. My legs were knackered, and my feet sore. (By the finish, both little toes were completely made of blister.) But it was the nausea that was governing tactics. The second lap was really very tough. The sun was setting, and I was going through a very dark place. As I approached the finish area, still with another 13.5km lap to go, I really wasn’t sure I would make it. My pace had slowed dramatically, and I started to feel really spaced out. The raucous encouragement of the huge support by this time was not helping. I felt every shout like a slap in the face. Loud music made me flinch, and my emotions were very close to the surface. I didn't even see the Allen Support Crew at this point, such was my bubble.
Leaving the busy area, I reassessed and made a decision. When circumstances change, the plan needs to change. I needed to walk, but I didn't want to just walk the whole of the last lap. I decided I would keep running till I reached the first feed station, but then instead of just walking the twenty metres through the station, I'd take on food and keep walking for a bit longer – until my swimming head came together – before running to the next one.
Almost miraculously, this worked completely. It was like taking a magic medicine. The longer walk enabled me to properly regain my wits, as I had hoped; but it also had the unexpected consequence of allowing the food to properly settle before I stated jiggling it up and down again. Whereas previously I'd been bouncing along with a burping belly full of fizz, now my body seemed to be able to deal with what I was throwing at it. My stomach didn't fully recover, but the nausea lessened, and I started to feel that I might finish this bloody race without puking on my boots.
The improvement was cumulative with each station. Whilst I can't say it was ever easy to get running again – it took an effort of will each time – it did become easier to keep going once I had hauled myself forward.
When I reached the feed station at the furthest point of the course, 5.5km from the finish, it was the best I'd felt since T2. I walked to the 5km to go marker, allowing the banana and energy gel to absorb, and then I ran. Telling myself (and the oblivious Russian fella at my side) that there was just a park run to go, I broke into a trot. Mentally swinging for the fences, I picked up the pace to 6.40 per kilometre, and blew through the last two feed stations without taking anything. I knew now I had enough fuel to get me to the line, so there was no need to risk the delicate equilibrium I'd found in my guts. That pace is hardly going to scare the horses at an actual park run, and it wasn’t even as fast as my first 5km today, but after the struggles of the last two hours, it was a triumphant way to finish.
As I approached the line, I was again responding to the voluble supporters, smiling broadly at the encouragement that had been so difficult to accept on the previous lap. Starting to think about my finish line photo, I took off the sun hat that I'd been running in. It had been redundant for the last two hours anyway, but it does make me look like a simpleton, so I stuffed it down the back of my trisuit. I also made sure there was a decent gap between me and the guy ahead, my vain desire to get a decent finish picture outweighing my vain desire to shave off a few extra seconds.
Coming to the finishing funnel, I didn't know exactly what my overall time was because I'd had my watch set to record the three different disciplines rather than the cumulative time. I knew I was going to finish the Marathon in around 4:50, but I didn’t know exactly how long I'd faffed around in the transition tent. And because of the rolling start, I didn't know precisely when I'd actually started, so it was impossible to tell for sure.
I knew I was around twelve and a half hours, and was chuffed to smash the thirteen hour target I'd set. In fact, Pam – and the rest of the world – knew my time before I did. Lots of friends had been following along on the online tracker which gives real time updates, so my time was broadcast instantly to the internet while I wandered through the finish tent, not learning my final result until I found Pam. I completed the course in 12:27.21, which is just fantastic.
I think I could perhaps go faster in a race with a freshwater swim which would avoid that sickness. My actual swim time was pretty good – just six minutes down on that par score of 1:16 – and the bike time was bang on track despite my worries. The run is where I suffered, and that would probably have been a little faster without the bad guts, but it’s impossible to say by how much. Besides, as I said earlier, hoping for the perfect race is a fool’s game. You deal with the circumstances that the race throws at you, and deal with them I did.
I am very pleased with the performance on the day, but it’s so much more than that. I feel enormous satisfaction at the execution of a twelve month plan. I trained for months, preparing body and mind for this rigorous examination. On the day, I was able to think on the fly, and adapt the plan to changing circumstances. Although there were difficult moments, my mind stayed as strong as my body. My mind as always been my weak link, so that is very cheering.
I need to make a couple of unpaid adverts for some of the people that got us to Barcelona and got me over the line. Bruce Cairns Travel Counsellor took care of all our flights and accommodation arrangements, taking lots of the pain out of the logistics. Ship My Tri Bike removed a massive headache from the weekend by transporting our bikes from Leeds to the start line and back. Colin McNeill at Raceskin is producing excellent apparel. The trisuit looked great, but more importantly was comfortable and functional. Twelve and a half hours, and the only chafing I suffered was on my hand, caused by the plastic Ironman wristband.
I’d also like to acknowledge the support and affection that has come from my friends and family, and in particular thank the other Wakefield Triathlon Club coaches who have helped me to prepare for this race. Zoe has been a fantastic partner, not just on the day, but during the months of training that led to the race, and for the twenty years I’ve called her a friend.
Finally, thank you to Pam and The Boy, who were stalwart supporters throughout what was a long and draining day for them; but also for their patience and forbearance while I have spent hours out of the house, and weekends away, racking up miles of training. I just couldn’t have done this without them.
And so there it is. I am an Ironman. So what’s next? I don’t have another Ironman race pencilled in yet, but I am sure this won’t be my last. There’s a phenomenon known as the Ironman hangover, and I am expecting that to kick in, but right now I am impatiently waiting for my bike to return on Friday so I can get out on the road and back into training.