2nd October 2016, 08.00am Calella beach the start line of Ironman Barcelona.
How the chuffing hell did I end up here?
To paraphrase my culinary hero Keith Floyd “Well dear reader if you’ll come over here you’ll see”. Indulge me in a small Scooby Doo moment and step back in time, to 11.16am Sunday October 23rd 2005 because that’s where all this nonsense really started, and it started with a bang. By a bang I mean a near apocalyptic full on explosive bang.
The funny thing about getting hit by a car is that it doesn’t hurt to start with, but later on it really stings. So there I am laid on my back in the middle of the road waiting to get loaded onto an ambulance, to cut a long story short there followed 7 months off work 2 of which were in a bed in the living room and then 2 in a wheelchair, some painful physiotherapy and eventually back onto the bike. In the middle of all this our youngest son Torin decided he wanted to follow dad and get into cycling. Shona quite understandably given my accident decided she didn’t want him riding on the road and did some research and we ended up at Quibell Park with him riding the track there. Torin showed some talent and was asked to join Lincsquad Youth Academy development squad, shortly after that I was asked if I‘d join the coaching team.
So there I am coaching cycling in a triathlon club and after a while I found myself thinking I probably ought to have a go at one. So the 25th September 2011 saw me starting my first triathlon at Lincsquad’s own Brigg Sprint. I really enjoyed it and vividly recall Phil Binch (who was later to become a good friend) saying “well done triathlete” and me saying am I? To this day I’ve never really thought of myself as a triathlete though, just someone who does a few triathlons a year. The next few years saw me having a go at more tri’s ending up doing a ½ Ironman distance race at the Cleveland Steelman in 2014. That first ½ distance race sowed a seed – could I really do a full distance Ironman race? By the time I repeated Steelman the next year I thought maybe I could, a chat with Dave Hinch whose advice I valued and could trust meant I started looking around for the right race. The choice came down to Bolton or Barcelona, Barcelona was a far easier sell to my main supporter Shona J
3.00pm on October 5th 2015 saw me clicking the enter button on the Ironman Barcelona website, I was in!! You idiot how on earth do you think you’re going to drag a battered knackered overweight 52-year-old body around an Ironman?
Training started in earnest in January, but after Christmas, New Year and family birthdays I needed to shift some weight. Serious dieting ensued, really applying what I already knew about eating the right food meant I managed to lose a couple of stone by the end of April. A week in Mallorca on a Real Fitness/Off That Couch triathlon training camp was the perfect kick start to my summer training after a winter of bike rides. Warm weather training really is fantastic and I was very lucky to be able to go out there once again. This year Steve and Dean had a new swim coach on board and Michael Barnett managed to totally revolutionise my swimming. He spent time watching me swim took me to one side and gave me just two simple things to work on, I’ve always joked that I hate swimming, that’s not strictly true but it’s always been my weakness and I’ve never really enjoyed it. Michael’s help plus encouragement from my ultra-swim nutter mate Dave Wells meant my swim changed from being the discipline I wasn’t even sure I could complete to being something I was enjoying and stopped worrying about. I was able to get some serious swim training done during a holiday with Shona in Croatia and finally notch up the magic 2.4 miles – big box ticked and I knew I could at least be able to get out on the bike leg. Back home from the Adriatic sunshine and it was time to get the miles in on the bike, at least being a cycling coach I knew how to do this. It was a case of getting my position on my TT race bike tweaked slightly so I could ride it for 112 miles and still be comfortable, I knew I needed to get off the bike at the end and still be good to run. I also altered my nutrition so that I was training on the same nutrition that was going to be available in Barcelona. I didn’t want to have to carry a load of food with me I wanted to use what I could grab at the feed stations. I bunged in some longer rides and also tried to make them mentally hard too by stopping at home part way through and then making myself go back out again, I also went out looking for headwinds to ride into – not difficult to find in northern Lincolnshire! As a coach I also knew that I need to look after myself and do everything I could to avoid injury, for me this meant that any interval or high intensity work I did was on the bike rather than on runs. My running was pretty much all long and steady with me really trying to work on my posture, Shona is my biggest supporter and a great runner herself but she had always described my running style as somewhere between awful and shocking. I needed to follow Steve Clark’s advice – stand up straight and push my hips forward. Really this and ramping up the distance made up the bulk of my run training. I’m sure that I could have improved my running still further but I managed to avoid injury and that was my main aim.
The year of course saw other races come and go, a 15 minute PB at Slateman, a 5 minute PB at Brigg Bomber and a 10 minute PB at Steelman were the highlights. Training continued to go well with confidence growing that I might be able to actually achieve my target of getting round, there remained for me the big looming concern of making the cut-off for the bike leg. I had to finish the swim and bike in under 9 hours 10 minutes or I just would not be allowed to even start the run – it’d be game over and all the training, expense and sacrifice would have been for nothing. I was getting quite worried about it despite some very good friends doing their best to reassure me that I’d be fine.
So Thursday 29th September saw Shona and I checking in to fly from Manchester to Barcelona with Dave Gibbs along with Anna and the rest of team Gibbs, Freddie and Suzie – Team Lincsquad Ironman Barcelona support crew, I’d be leaning on this support an awful lot. Check in had a few hitches but I’ll let Anna deal with them… J
Our hotel was great 400m from the finish line and across the road from the beach – thanks Steve Grocock for the tip off it was the perfect base. The next couple of days flew by, I was just a bag of nerves and Shona worked hard to keep my calm, Dave was simply brilliant he organised me and really meant that I didn’t need to think about anything, I was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time because he made sure I was. Anna kept Dave calm and Freddie and Suzie entertained as well as lending me Dave when I needed looking after. I genuinely couldn’t have asked for anything or anyone better. Saturday saw race briefing, Iron kids for Freddie and Suzie, Iron Girl for Shona and Anna, bike racking and transition set up for Dave and me, with Dave coming back a second time to look after me yet again. It also saw me really struggling to get topside of the nerves, this was helped by a veritable flood of really fantastic messages of support from friends and club mates. I was properly touched by some of the messages they meant a lot and I was to be honest a little overwhelmed by the sheer number I received – thanks to all of you who dropped me a note of any sort.
So off to bed, very little sleep of course but the alarm did sort of wake me up at 05.00am, down for breakfast laid on early by the hotel and then changed into tri suit and that long walk down to transition and the start. Into my wetsuit a quiet moment with Shona and then off to the start with Dave. The last bit of looking after by Dave was to make sure I had a quick warm up swim and then there we were –
“2nd October 2016, 08.00am Calella beach, the start line of Ironman Barcelona.”
The funny thing was my nerves disappeared, I stood there looking at the sun rise over the Mediterranean listening to the voice of Ironman Europe – Paul Kaye, music playing, 3000 other athletes, thousands of spectators and I thought – you’ll probably never get another race as good as this enjoy it and soak it all up. It was simply the perfect start to the day’s racing ……………………………. until there was a power cut and the start arch collapsed!
The music stopped and the pa system packed in. It was soon sorted though and after a 5 minute delay it was game on. The pro’s all went off first and we had to wait what seemed like an age before it was time for our swim pen to start, Dave and I were in the 1 hr 25 min pen following advice from Dave Hinch to get in a faster group stay on the edge and get a bit of a tow. Into the water find a bit of space and get into your rhythm Stephen, it was like swimming in a bath, in fact much warmer and it’d have been non-wetsuit swim, but it wasn’t thankfully so just concentrate on keeping the stroke tidy, grab a quick tow as folks go past for a few strokes and relax. To be honest I felt good, in fact I felt great everything went pretty much perfectly apart from a lot of people with no idea of how to sight swimming over or under me but no real issues at all. Pretty quickly I’d made the first 2 turns and was heading for the last one which would take me back to the beach and into T1. I was out of the swim onto the beach, press the watch button and take a quick time check 1hr 32 minutes – a massive swim PB, 15 minutes better than I’d ever done, feeling really happy I heard Shona shout me, stopped for a quick kiss and then off to get changed ready for the bike. I had a peanut butter energy bar ready with my kit which I ate while I was getting changed, carbs and a good protein hit after the swim was going to be needed. Out of T1 onto the bike a cheer from Shona and Team Gibbs and was off. I was feeling great my swim had given me a huge confidence boost and also a massive time boost to help towards that bike cut off pressure.
112 miles on a bike is quite a long way, you have to manage it carefully, go too hard and you’ll burn out take it too easy and you’ll not be allowed to start the run, you have to measure your effort. Thankfully my cycling knowledge meant that whilst I’m not as fast as I may once have been at least I’m efficient and don’t waste too much of the energy I do have. The long training rides on my TT bike meant I could hold my aero position easily for long periods of time, I was also able to pick good lines through the corners without slowing too much, in fact on each of the two laps I touched my brakes less than half a dozen times. It’s about not wasting that free speed and I can’t pretend I didn’t feel good when I found myself passing people who quite simply couldn’t ride a bike properly, the coach on me was spotting all sorts of horrendous things going on! First feed station was just after the start of the main climb in the lap, grab a couple of bars, swap empty bottles for full and off. The climb came at the perfect time to sit up and eat, it was hot so I’d been drinking plenty but still kept at it. A quick shout to Dave who was coming down the hill and looked very very fast. As I was on the climb I felt good passed a few folks struggling saw a few other people getting pinged for drafting.
The run down from the hill was fast but then the leg out to the end of the loop and the turnaround point seemed endless. Once round the far end it was time to head back to Calella to complete the first lap, but then – boom headwind a proper Lincolnshire style one too! Speed drop and heart rate up, so be careful don’t go too hard, quick “pit stop” for the loo at the next feed station, restock the drink and food and off again. Stay aero in this wind and ease off a little so I don’t overcook things. The crowds along the route were great, bands in café bars, families by the roadside, marshals and police shouting support, a bagpiper and a Welsh flag being waved. Drop back down the hill to the Calella roundabout though and the noise was massive, in the middle of it all were my support crew shouting and yelling and probably melting in the heat of the sun. The second lap was much the same except this time I spotted another Lincsquadder Graham Cowan, also on his first Ironman, quick shout to him and keep it going. I also ended up with Miguel – España 35 to 40, sat on my wheel for at least 10 miles, I kept trying to pull away thinking I don’t want to get pinged here for towing him and the referee thinking we’re working as a team, he was having none of it though and just stuck there like glue. In the end I gave in and sat up so he had to go past me and rode easy for a mile or so to make sure he was up the road away from me. No sooner had I done that than a referee bike went past me, I could see Miguel sat on someone else’s wheel up ahead so the nasty side of me sat there hoping they gave him a 5 minute penalty! Then it was up the climb to drop down to the Calella roundabout and into T2 changed and off onto the run. Bike time 6 hrs 19 minutes, total race time so far 07.59.33, everyone else was right I‘d had no need to worry about that 9 hour 10 minute cut off. Also I’d hit my “other target” of being out on the run before Steve Clark had finished the whole race the previous year – his time for that was a stunning 8 hours 57 minutes! But now he’s officially less than a marathon better than me J
I’ve never run a marathon! It’s quite a long way really. I had done a 20 mile run in training and a few ½ marathons and I knew I would be ok on the run as long as I’d looked after myself on the bike, plus I’d always had this daft idea that my first ever marathon would be at the end of an Ironman. Out of T2 onto the run course and the crowds here were just massive, the boost was just huge and I can honestly say my legs felt great, no heaviness at all just time to run. Down through the noise to the turn at the finish line wave to my support crew on the way past and then stop for a quick kiss from Shona as I start my first lap of the run. I kept an eye on my pace because I knew I needed to manage this on the run too and it’s something I have to concentrate on far more than on the bike where years of experience help me to ride properly on feel without needing to worry too much about numbers. My first two miles were too fast so I eased off once I was into my stride and the crowds started to thin out a little. It’s not easy to back off the pace with all that support but I needed to keep calm and remember it was quite a long old trot I had to do. So ease back on the pace and keep fuelling, my plan had always been to walk the aid stations, a lot of people whose opinions I trust with loads of Ironman experience had told me that this would work well for me and it did. Run 2.5 to 3K, walk and drink isotonic stuff because you’re losing salts by express train speed in the heat, run to the next station, walk grab a gel and drink again and repeat. This worked really well for the first two laps, boosted hugely by the crowds and a quick kiss from Shona every time I went past my crew. My only change was to grab a handful of peanuts on every other one of my feeds to supplement the carbs in the gel, I needed something savoury and I knew the protein would help too. Onto the third and last 8 mile lap watching someone else peel off and run down the finish chute as I turned for that last lap – that’ll be me next time I’m here, what a lift that thought was. Final kiss from Shona “see you at the finish line” and away onto the long lonely loop out to the turn point. Everyone knows there are dark places on the run, my friend from Cardiff Triathlon Club Ricki Morgan told me to use the memory of him walking into a karaoke club when the sh*t hit the fan at 22 miles. That memory is one of the funniest things I’ve ever witnessed and as soon as he’d sent me that message I knew I’d use it, the thing was I had to use it a mile early!! The last 10K of that run are the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve been lucky enough to do some really tough things in my life but nothing came close to those last miles. My legs were screaming at me to stop; my feet were crippling me with what I would later find out to be a crop of 7 blisters on my right foot with a mere 4 on my left. But there was no way I was walking unless it was my only way of forward motion, stick to the plan. I was struggling to eat because of “Gastric Stress” well to be honest it was more like “Gastric Armageddon” but you get the picture. I dragged myself round back to the crowds again for one last time and then I could almost see the finish. Now I had another battle, to keep a lid on my emotions, thoughts of all the people who’d helped me and of people who had never had the chance to do something like this. A friend from many years ago who got me into kayaking, climbing, mountaineering and also gave me my love of photography, Richie died on a Christmas day aged 23. Shona’s dad who treated me like his son died 5 days short of his 50th birthday and my friend and clubmate Christian who lost his life after an accident on a ride training for an Ironman. All of them flooded into my thoughts on that last drag to the finish and made me realise how lucky I was to be here doing this.
So deep breath and remember the last piece of advice, get your number and name to the front, make sure that you have space for the finish chute so it’s all yours and enjoy that last 100m.
I never showboat on a finish, never hold my hands above my head because I never win, and for me all of that is for the winners, but this time bo**cks to that I’m having this, full airplane mode down the red carpet high five the crowds, (miss Shona I just couldn’t see her – oops!!) arms over my head over the finish line. And then shake hands with Paul Kaye on the line and he calls me a Rock Star and says those words “STEPHEN – YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”.
Then I look at the time on the finish board 13 hours 33 minutes and 13 seconds!! No that can’t be right, they’ve bu**ered my time up and got someone else’s up there – I’m not that good, but apparently I was!! Stunned and happy beyond words I staggered into the finish tent collapsed in a heap and then saw Dave who’d come looking for me to check I was ok despite being smashed himself – a true friend.
So there you go, the numbers were:
Swim 1:31:42 (a PB), T1 8:48 Bike 6:19:03 (a PB) T2 6:58 Run 5:26:42 (a PB) Total Race Time 13.33.13 (a PB) .
I always tell people I coach to look at their performance and be proud of it, we’re all too self-critical and I’m probably worse than most, but I can look at the times and also back on the race and feel proud that I delivered the best performance I possibly could have done.
Of course none of this would ever had happened for me without a brilliant supporting cast, so the “people of the wonderful thing” are:
Firstly Michael Barnett, many coaches have looked at my awful swimming, Michael stopped trying to make my stroke perfect and helped me swim to the best of my physical restrictions caused mainly by that bike crash all those years ago. Transforming my swim gave me a massive confidence boost and my swim on the day was the springboard to my whole day.
Steve Clark and Dean Kirkham, their Real Fitness/Off That Couch Fitness triathlon training camps have helped hugely and the advice I gained there on how to race an Ironman was a massive help.
Everyone who sponsored me for Meningitis Now, this was never a fund raising effort but folks said they wanted to give something and I’m grateful for that as are the charity, https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Cannings1 if anyone else wants to bung them a couple of quid.
Lincsquad as a club and all my friends and club mates there, the warmth of support and the advice and help from so many there was invaluable and meant so much to me, in both my training and on race day.
Dave Hinch, who probably has no idea until he reads this just how much help he’s given me over the years. The confidence to have a go, the understanding that it’s more than OK to just do it and enjoy it and that no one will judge you is something I try to pass on to others too – thanks mate.
Team Gibbs – Anna for lending me her husband and for wonderful support and help, Freddie and Suzie the best cheer team in the world bar none, and my partner in crime Dave. Your help and friendship was invaluable and I’ll never forget it, you kept me calm, you steered me to where I needed to be and I’ve no doubt sacrificed a bit of your own performance to make sure I was OK. Thanks isn’t a big enough word.
But at the end of it all it’s the people who you choose to share your life with who you need the most, my family have been beyond brilliant. Torin over in Manchester always asking how I was, confirming my rides were good and then riding with me whenever we got chance, when he told me on one ride in August that I was the strongest he’d ever known me I knew I was in good shape – he doesn’t give out praise lightly. Truan who really has no proper interest in triathlon, he’s had to put up with me talking about nothing but bl**dy Ironman all year and still been supportive of everything I’ve done. His Facebook post when I’d finished brought a real tear to my eye. Plus of course Shona, without her love and support this would simply never have happened, I’ve been absent either swimming, on my bike or running for 2016, we even had to plan our holiday around my training. The number of complaints, arguments, digs or grumbles I’ve received = zero. I love you and my finisher’s medal is every bit as much yours as mine.
A last thought is this, as I said I’ve never ever thought of myself as a triathlete, but perhaps now I am, and an Ironman one at that!