We did it! We did an ironman! We completed the Lakesman in the Lake District on Sunday. Strap yourself in because this is going to be a long one...
2 houtThings did not look quite so rosy on Monday when my left hip and lower back was quite painful when I was walking, which continued over the next couple of days. The physio suggested my back was just tight and I needed to stretch/trigger point it with a ball - but needless to say as a perennial worrier, I was worried!
We made the long drive up to Keswick on Thursday, both openly excited and quietly nervous - Coralie about her IT band which had limited her running, and me with my OAP's back. We settled into our B&B, then went for a swim in the lake. Stunning!
Apparently during the hot spell in May, Keswick went three weeks without rain, and the water was shallow enough that I was able to stand up out by the island in the middle.
Buoyed by our swim (see what I did there?) we decided to drive the first part of the bike course to help us visualise what the biggest hills looked like, which I'd definitely recommend to anyone, especially if you're a bit apprehensive.
Feeling settled, we headed out for food - I was craving fish & chips out of the paper, whereas Coralie found a pub. As you can see, Harry Potter leant her his cupboard under the stairs for the evening...
Onto Friday - safely unpacked, fed, watered, we then registered. I was still really struggling with my left hip, and it was again painful to walk, let alone try running. My worst nightmare all week had been completing the swim and cycle, only to run out of transition for the marathon and have to stop immediately and walk 26.2 miles.
We frantically searched for a local physio - the replies we received were: no reply, "I actually live in Carlisle" and (my personal favourite) "Sorry I retired two years ago" - however we were recommended someone based in Keswick who had one free appointment at 5pm on Friday. Bonus!
He informed me my pelvis was tilted forwards due to tight hip flexors, and the glute had gone into spasm. I didn't really care what it was, I just wanted to fix it in 36 hours! He was honest enough in saying there's not really anything I could do before Sunday other than continually stretch my hips and batter the glutes - and he duly obliged, as did Coralie who spent most of the weekend with her elbow in my bum (not like that). I also messaged Noel Thatcher who kindly sent me some advice and exercises/stretches, underlining his status as the nicest man in the world!
Feeling more positive, it was time for dinner with Coralie's cousin Vince who has taking on the half ironman, and Mike - parkrun stats guru and good all-round egg (I'm not talking about the shape of his head) where numerous pizzas were devoured. Then - bed!
Saturday was really exciting, but also the longest day ever! I've never known time to go as slowly as it dragged with the ironman looming. My glute ruled me out of parkrun #49 and instead my bum had a date with a spiky rubber ball and a hot water bottle. I also decided not to put any posts on social media pre-race just in case I wasn't able to complete the run.
The transition area opened at midday and after packing and re-packing our bags at least a dozen times, we made our way over there. This was particularly fun/stressful for me, being my first triathlon, as I did not really know what the hell I was doing.
My bike - now affectionately known as Rusty - got to see some of his new friends. Some of the bikes I would genuinely be terrified of touching, let alone riding, and I'm pretty sure there were several that were worth more than my whole entire life.
We covered the bikes in bin bags to keep them dry with the overnight rain forecast. Seeing Rusty inside a bin bag was quite symbolic of his status amongst his peers. The racks were in number order, rather than first come first served, which meant Coralie and me were next to each other.
This would mean we'd be able to see how each other was doing during the race based on whether the bikes were there or not. As I secretly wanted to take down Coralie in the swim, this was very pleasing!
After the race briefing that evening we retired to the B&B ready for the big day that was finally here. Unsurprisingly we slept terribly. The alarm was set for 3:45am, so we tried to go to bed at 8. By 10:30pm I was still wide awake with nerves about my hip, excitement, apprehension, the works.
I must have eventually nodded off as next thing I knew it was 3:30am and I was out of bed and off downstairs to toast my bagels! My hip actually felt the best it had all week, which boosted my spirits. Packed and ready, and with two heat patches and a hot water bottle on my bum, we made the short walk down to the lake to meet Mike and check the bags for the 3756th time. It was then I realised I'd left my Garmin at the B&B. Oh FFS... back I went and got it.
With the bags deposited, wetsuits on, it was time to make our way to the water. This was the moment when it all sunk in what we were doing - there was nothing left to think about, plan, pack, organise, worry about - it was just time to race!
My favourite! It was time to see whether cramming in nine training swims after a six-month hiatus was sufficient for the first leg of an ironman. The answer was, not really!
The countdown began from 10 and then we were off! It was my first experience swimming in a big pack all starting together, so I expected chaos - but it was surprisingly calm. I think the main reason for this was I was near the back, where us slugs take things easier.
The route was roughly one mile out down the lake, 0.4 miles across the middle, and then a mile back. I just tried to do my own thing, focusing on getting to the next buoy. However every time I thought "great, one more buoy and then we turn" another one popped up, then another one, then another one...
I got so disorientated as to where we were in the lake and how far was to go, then I got a big stitch in my right side, which was excruciating for around five minutes before easing off. Looking back I ate too much for breakfast, too close to the swim.
Towards the end it definitely felt like it was never going to end... then as if spotting a mirage in the desert, I looked up and saw the finish in the distance! I was totally confused as I was certain I was on the right hand side of the lake, not the left, but I wasn't going to question it and charged to the ramp...
I say charged, but it was more like a slow death. Forget front crawl, my new swimming stroke is slow crawl. At one point one guy overtook me walking, and two more breaststroked by, but who cares? It was over and I was free! Although clearly I wasn't THAT happy...
Swim - 1:36:02 (212th / 288)
My first time in transition! I stripped off my wetsuit as quickly as possible, and put a jersey and shorts on over my damp tri-suit to keep me warm. I reached my bike to find Coralie's nowhere to be seen - damn! She beat me! I headed out of transition and it was time to put the much-maligned Rusty to the ultimate test - 112 miles around the Lake District.
During the week the wheels (which are both buckled) had been rubbing on the brake pads, so I decided to loosen off the brakes completely, banking on the fact we wouldn't need to stop much...
Chrissie had given me some tips on how to approach the bike leg tactically. She said generally people use up too much energy on the climbs by staying seated in the saddle, chugging away out of pride, and then because they are spent, they use the downhills to coast and recharge.
She said to be much more aggressive - for the climbs, stick the bike in an easy gear and get out of the saddle to power your way up to rest your back. Then, when you have a descent, be aggressive again and pedal continuously, rather than free wheeling, and use it as a chance to bank lots of time.
We had a dreamy tailwind out of Keswick and I was making swift progress... It was at this point I threw up all over myself!
I can't quite really figure out why, but I spent roughly the first 75 minutes of the bike leg (during which I saw Coralie) repeatedly vomiting yellow bile and acidy liquid all over myself.
I have no idea where it was even coming from or what was causing it. Each time I tried to throw up out to the side, the wind just blew it back all over my jersey and shorts.
It was at the mile 25 mile mark I begun to wonder what the hell I was doing. Here I am in the middle of nowhere, covered in sick, I've pissed myself, I'm unable to eat and drink, and I've still got 87 miles to go until I have to run a marathon! This photo pretty much summed up my mood...
In fairness, peeing your pants whilst cycling is actually a hard skill to master, but very beneficial, even if your socks end up a little bit damp...
It was time to stop panicking and come up with a plan. I decided to stop trying to force food and drink down because it obviously wasn't happening, and just concentrate on the next 30 minutes. By the two hour mark my stitch had subsided, the drink stayed down, I'd turned off the water fountain in my shorts and I began to eat as much as possible to make up for lost time, ready for the outrageous tailwind along the middle coastal section.
Rusty was squeaking, clunking, and generally hating life, but I think he loved the sea air and the views because I was motoring at a decent pace, even if I was repeatedly overtaken by people riding their rocket machines. Generally though Rusty was fast up the climbs, but on the flat and the downs he was pathetically inadequate.
20 miles had whizzed by but it was too good to be true. We turned off the coastal road immediately into a windy, lumpy country road-style section, back into the strong headwind. This section of the ride just so happened to be called "Cock" - and after an hour of gunning it on the flat, it was sapping on the legs and the pace plummeted.
The highlight of the Cock section was passing Mike (who is not a cock) and cheering each other on. Mike got a puncture immediately after seeing me, so he still believes I dropped nails in the road for him! We'll never know...
By this point, my back and my hips were really hurting, particularly on the right side, and the fears I had had about being unable to complete the run started to return. Trying to forget about it was impossible, so instead I continually changed my riding position and massaged my glutes with my thumbs whenever I could.
The headwind was deceptively strong, particularly from 80 miles onwards, and numerous people were suffering on the way back into Keswick. A couple of guys were even forced to walk their several thousand pound bikes up the hills (I didn't laugh at them I promise). The wind was relentless and I was seriously flagging due to a couple of very sneaky hills at the 100 mile mark (just what you want).
When we eventually made it back into Keswick, it was a relief to turn into the town and see the crowds having escaped any punctures or mechanical issues. Overall I'd managed to eat four Eat Natural bars, some jelly babies and a peanut butter sachet, meaning I'd got some food down me to fuel for the run, and amazingly Rusty had delivered the 110th best ride of the 288 bikes - what a little trooper!
Having said last week my dream A-goal was to finish the swim and bike in a total of 8 hours, I arrived at the dismount area in 7:59:20. All that stood before me and my first ironman was a marathon. But would my back and hips hold up?
Bike - 6:15:58 (110th / 288) - 149th overall (stats here)
After racking my bike, stopping for a wee, I headed into the transition tent covered in sick, urine and peanut butter, which for those wondering is not a strong look. My back was a lot stiffer than I had thought as I was unable to bend down to take off my cycling shoes - instead I had to find a chair and prop up my foot. Terrified, I decided to do some back stretches much to the marshal's confusion - I think she thought I was dead, probably because I smelt like a corpse.
To be honest by this point I was just procrastinating. The moment to run had come and I didn't want to leave the tent and find out if I was going to able to do it - this was reflected in the fact it took me over 9 minutes to finally leave (compared with the day's fastest bike-to-run transition which was 67 seconds!).
When I eventually did leave the tent, I immediately realised I'd left all my run nutrition in my bag. Heartbreak! I was stuck with three disgusting energy gels which almost always make me sick, and which I had to carry...
Then something amazing happened - my legs felt incredible! Despite being unable to bend down to tie up my laces, I had no back pain, no dodgy glute, and even the grumbling achilles that has troubled me of late gave me the day off.
Being my first triathlon, I don't know if this feeling is normal, but the buzz I got from starting the run knowing that all the things that could have gone wrong - the swim, mechanical issues on the bike, punctures - those things were now no longer an issue - it was just time to run and I had 3 hours and 51 minutes in order to hit my sub-12 goal. Let's do this!
Having watched Coralie in a few triathlons in the past year, one thing I've noticed is - and please don't take this the wrong way - but most triathletes can't run! Or at least they don't seem to enjoy running very much. Most are decent swimmers, really really strong cyclists, but running always looks like hard work...
So going into the run, as a runner my plan was to use chasing people as motivation when the going got tough - by that I mean I could focus on catching the person in front, rather than just completing tmhe distance and having that demoralising feeling of staring at the watch every 30 seconds.
The course was five laps, with each lap made up of road and trail sections - mainly flat and featuring the "highway to hell" which is a stretch of straight road you run up and down four times each lap.
Chrissie had told me to try and run the marathon in 3:30, but my first lap was slightly quicker than I was aiming for. I was on a massive high knowing I was not as broken as I thought I was, and knowing the sooner I was done the sooner I could have a lie down and a cup of tea!
The second lap was similar and the first 10 miles were all sub-8:00 min/mile pace. It was so awesome to see and high five Coralie and Mike on each lap of the run - knowing they'd also survived the bike and overcome both their recent niggles. At this point I thought "ironmans are so much fun!" - alas this was premature.
Clearly this is all going way to smoothly and things did then take a bit of a turn on lap three. Mentally it was so bloody tough - we still had 15+ miles and three laps to go, on which you had to run by the finish line each time. I was beginning to feel really hot and wobbly having not eaten or drunk anything.
I'm not entirely sure why as they certainly don't fail into the "tried and tested" category, but impulsively I grabbed a handful of Haribo gummy hearts and two cups of Coke and buried the lot in one go. It tasted like liquid gold and I thought "Boom - run nutrition sorted" - Hmm, not quite. One mile down the road and I was bent double amongst the trees vomiting some kind of weird brown gunk into a bush!
That was probably the darkest moment. My pace dropped, I walked for a minute or so and still wasn't even halfway. It sounds cliche, but I really really wanted to just stop and sit down. I convinced myself I needed the toilet, just so I could go into a portaloo and sit down for a couple of minutes.
But the thing that got me moving again was that I knew how happy I would be with a sub-12, and how annoyed I would be if the reason I missed it by a few minutes not injury, but because I stopped - and not through all of my physical worries I'd had pre-run. I'd been so worried all week about not being fit enough to complete, I just couldn't give up because I was tired.
So at this point I started doing some maths, which is not easy after 10 hours of swimming, cycling and running! I thought to myself, if I would be happy with 11:59:59, there's no reason to push the pace and risk blowing up, so I calculated that I had around over 2 hours 20 mins to complete 14 miles, and therefore I would ration that time.
I decided to push the pace where there were crowds, and on all the flat and downhill sections, working on the basis that if I could run 3 x 8 minute miles on each lap, I would bank enough time to give myself a few 20 second walk breaks. It worked really well, and the pace picked up on lap four, running fast 17th, 18th and 20th miles.
Onto the final lap! It's so hard to put into words how that felt. Having passed the finish area for the fourth time, watching the leaders finishing, I headed out through the park, knowing that 5 miles stood between me and my first ironman. All the months of training, planning, early mornings and financial commitment - this was the lap that was going to make or break my aspirations.
I knew I had an hour to run 5 miles, so as tired, exhausted, frazzled and shattered as I was I just had to keep moving, and I knew that one fast mile would be enough to clinch it, even if I had to walk the rest. I hadn't managed to stomach any food or risked the gels (which I eventually threw in the bin), so I had nothing more than a few sips of isotonic drink throughout the whole marathon. I was officially knackered, and getting pretty sick of the highway to hell given I was now going up it for the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th time!
I ran the first two miles in 8:04 and 8:32, but then had to walk for a bit as I was starting to wobble again. I walk/ran a 9:23, followed by a mainly walked 10:31. I could easily have kept slowing, but I wanted to finish strongly. As soon as we got to the far end of the highway where the gradual downhill began I made a really big effort to focus on one cone to the next, and covered that mile in 8:32.
Sub-12 was in the bag, the pressure was off, I could hear the finish zone and I got to enjoy the glory final mile through the town, the crowds, and the amazing volunteers. I charged down the hill to the home straight, high fived loads of random people and crossed the line in 11:43:48, finishing with a 3:35 marathon - the 17th fastest marathon on the day, taking me from 149th position to 61st place overall.
But most importantly I finally got to sit down for good :-)
Run - 3:35:17 (17th / 288) - 61st overall (stats here)
The feeling at that exact moment - sheer joy, utter relief, total exhaustion, immense pride - I wish I could bottle that as it's impossible to describe. Without doubt one of the happiest and proudest moments of my entire life.
I got my medal and my t-shirt and then realised I had nowhere to go or nobody to talk to! Sigh. I stumbled over to the athlete tent on my own where free food was available. I piled up a huge mountain of potatoes, gravy, beef, veg, took one mouthful, then realised I had absolutely no appetite.
When I stood up I suddenly felt my back and hip were SO painful. I could barely walk and it took a good five minutes to cover the 100 yards to the finish, where I waited for the others - mainly because the thought of moving again was excruciating!
I saw Coralie start her last lap as Mike was finishing, and both looked truly elated. Then an hour later watching Coralie running down the home straight in the pouring rain was a really special moment, seeing how she has put in so much to get to the start line, and knowing what the three of us had all gone through to make it to the finish. You can watch her finish video here and it's brilliant!
We both wanted fish and chips afterwards, but as we arrived the guy was literally just turning the sign from open to closed - 9pm on a Sunday night is clearly not the time to try and get a battered sausage in the Lake District.
From the post-race elation, to the Monday DOMS. Good lord! I've experienced that post-marathon John Wayne waddling feeling plenty of times, but ironman soreness is on a whole another level.
Firstly, like a marathon, your legs are shot because you've, well, run a marathon. But on top of that, they're also completely broken from the 112 miles of cycling you did prior to even starting the run. So that's your lower half absolutely trashed, and that's before you've even remembered the 2.4 miles you swam to start the day, which shreds your upper body too!
Honestly, waking up on Monday morning felt like I'd been hit by a bus. As Coralie put it, the only part of your body that isn't sore is your forehead... and even that is sunburnt! But we laughed off our hilarious physical state with a cup of tea in bed with our shiny new Lakesman mugs.
As we packed our bags on Tuesday to come home, I couldn't figure out why my cycling shoes were wet, so I put them on the heated towel rack to dry. When we returned to the room after breakfast, it absolutely stunk - at which point it dawned on me that the reason they were soaked was because they were full of urine, which had subsequently heated up nicely on the radiator, and the smell was in fact the aroma of warm piss. A fitting way to end the trip...
All things considered, overall, my first ironman experience was incredibly positive (despite covering my cycle gear in wee and vomit). I hit all my time targets, I don't think I could have done any of the sports any faster than I did on the day without bonking, I had no bike problems, and I even managed to not get disqualified despite not knowing what the hell I was doing in transition. And I couldn't have asked for any more than that in my first triathlon.
Having both said it would be a "one and done" event, we have already entered next year's race! :-D So already looking ahead in terms of improvement (because I'm a competitive perfectionist!), I'll definitely look to do more swimming because clearly nine swims in nine months is not ideal training! And I'll need some lessons to improve.
I need to stop faffing in between legs because I spent over 16 minutes in transition, compared to around 3-4 for the faster people. And I'll need another bike as Rusty doesn't have another ironman in him! I just need to think how to afford a new one, but at least I have 12 months to work that out.
And for the marathon, I'll need to remember to take some food with me for the run and eat something!
I can see now why people get addicted on ironman. There is no doubt it's a rich man's sport where having money gives you a massive advantage because you are effectively buying time. There is a lot of ego and willy wagging, which got a bit boring. And there are also some horrifically tough moments where everything is telling you to stop...
BUT that feeling of crossing the finish line is so immense it's the hook that keeps people coming back for one more try. It certainly got us. Although now my triathlon journey is over, I can honestly say if I never see a bagel or bottle of Lucozade again, I'm absolutely fine with that!
It was extra special sharing the experience with Coralie and Mike. Whilst it's great to have friends and family supporting you on the sidelines, going through the experience together definitely brings you closer. Particularly with Coralie - we went to Keswick last year for the first time and fell in love with it within minutes, and it feels like a place where both of us are at ease, so to complete our first ironmans there is something we'll never forget.
Thanks to everyone who read these blogs and for all the supportive messages before and after the race. See you soon - Tom.