Ben and I took the red-eye back from New York on Thursday after an exhausting barrage of meetings and facing a mountain of work to get done. However, before we got down to that, I knew somehow, somewhere I had to find a wetsuit for the weekend. In a fit of madness some months earlier, I had decided to apply for the UK Ironman and it had very inconveniently decided to occur that Sunday.
There were several reasons why deciding to do this might not have been a great idea:
1. I had never done an Ironman before. In fact I had never competed in a triathlon before.
2. I was suffering from a fairly nasty case of jet lag and was having trouble keeping my eyes open.
3. I had never swum in open water before, or for that matter even worn a wetsuit.
Still, working on the basis that there’s no point in doing something unless it’s going to challenge you a little, I hired the last wetsuit in London packed my bags full of energy bars, gels, my trusty steed and a well-worn pair of trainers and headed down to Sherborne.
Sherborne on Saturday afternoon was a festival of endurance. A huge triathlon expo was selling everything you could possibly ask for and even those not wearing the coveted ‘athlete’ passes looked disturbingly fit. Racking my bike and preparing my transition bags, I gawped at the bike porn surrounding me, muttering ‘Ben would love to see this’. An entire field of carbon forks, aerodynamic time-trial frames and disc wheels made my Scott Speedster look fairly forlorn, hooked over its metal post. In a few hours I would see whether it (and I) could hold up against this competition.
At five the next morning I forced myself into my hired wetsuit, checked my bike tires and stuck my swimming hat on to swim out to the start. Bobbing up and down, the clock hit six and I prepared myself for the klaxon blast. Suddenly people started passing round the message that there would be a ten minute delay, I took off my goggles in annoyance, which was exactly when the start klaxon sounded.
Fumbling with my goggles and swearing to myself I kicked off and started the swim. At this point I realised that the water was completely opaque, there were no handy lines along the bottom to guide me and several burly blokes had worked out that the most effective propulsion strategy was to kick me in the face.
Still feeling jet-lagged, with at times people swimming over me and wishing that I had done a few more laps in the Kentish Town public swimming baths, my body went into automatic. Unfortunately it went into sailing rather than swimming mode and I proceeded to tack from side to side up the course. I think I must have added at least half a mile to my eventual distance and gained several new friends in canoes who kindly pointed out that I should really be swimming in that direction.
As I hit the swim finish I was grabbed by a bunch of hands who pulled me out of the water, while someone else unzipped my wetsuit. I stuttered along towards transition with my entire body feeling devoid of energy and my brain feeling distinctly fuzzy. Everywhere around me, people were falling over as they went through the change from aquatic to land-based and their minds tried to catch up. I remember thinking ‘how the hell am I going to be able to do the bike let alone the run if I already feel like this.’
Transition was a daze, as were the first few miles on the bike. I think I only really woke up when I saw the 10 mile marker go by. The 112-mile course was three laps over every hill in the county. They weren’t hugely steep, but their constantcy was sapping strength from everyone. Every so often I would hear the whump-whump sound of a pro with disc wheels flying past me. I tucked my head down and focused on my nutrition strategy. Words from a thousand conversations with Ben such as glycogen depletion and electrolyte replacement had been seared into my brain and I knew I would succeed or fail in part on how I ate. Every 20 minutes, hungry or not, incline or descent, I wolfed down a third of a GO bar and drank a mixture of Energy drink and water. It felt like I was eating constantly and other people seemed to be doing the same. Powerbars were embedded in the tarmac like roadkill.
112 miles later I was beginning to feel like roadkill and I wondered whether I had enough left in the tank for the marathon. Triathletes always talk about the transition from bike to run in reverent tones, it can cripple you for the first few miles as your body gets used to different muscles working. I was dreading getting off the bike and falling straight over. However, maybe I had taken the 112 miles too easy on the bike because I started the marathon feeling something I never expected to feel at this stage: strong. I immediately started surging through the pack, running at a steady pace past people walking or jogging. I hit the first steep hill and ran straight up it, amazed that my body was allowing me to do this after having been going for so long.
The amazement started to flag around the 13 mile mark when the course went on to the most soulless bit of dual carriageway in England. All I could see were hills of varying steepness with little prospective ironmen toiling up them for miles ahead. After a while I fell in with a local guy called Hamish and we chatted as we jogged up the interminable hills. ‘It would have been nice to make it in before nightfall, but I think that might be out of the window’ he said. Bugger that I thought. There’s no way I’m coming in after sundown.
I had eight miles left to go and an hour and a quarter until nightfall. I picked up the pace and accelerated away from Hamish. Nutrition strategies went out the window, my calves started to scream and I knew the rest of the race would be run with my head, not my legs. The miles started to drop away and I kept going faster, I was passing people at a rate of knots and got the occasional cheer as I legged it through Sherborne village.
Coming through the gates, I had four hundred metres to go and the crowds started to cheer and ask for high fives as I passed. I crossed the line in 13 hours and 45 minutes, having run the marathon in four hours and 24 minutes. It wasn’t a great time by any stretch of the imagination, but I had achieved what I set out to do, complete an Ironman. I’ll concentrate on speed next time. . . .