5th August 2018 07.15am the bank of the river Maas, the start line of Ironman Maastricht : Limburg.
How the chuffing hell did I end up here?
Now regular readers of my race reports will be shouting that I’ve nicked that intro from another one, (those who are also need to get out a little more often!). However, how on earth did I end up doing another Ironman? Back in 2016 when I raced Ironman Barcelona I genuinely thought that it was my one and only long course race and that after that having proved to myself that I was good enough to “go long” I’d settle back to finding some nice interesting half distance races to do. The problem is though that no one tells you, because no one really can, just how brilliant running down that red carpet to hear those words “You Are An Ironman” feels. I loved Barcelona it was a brilliant race a fantastic experience and after a while I realised that I wanted to experience all of that again.
So there I was along with my partner in crime from Barcelona Dave Gibbs and 5 “Ironman Virgins” stood on the side of the river ready to rock ‘n roll all over again.
This time the whole race experience had gone up several notches though, there were in total 25 of us there from Lincsquad, 7 racing and a truly wonderful support crew, most of us were all staying together in a huge house a little way from the race area where the athletes had been royally looked after by our support crew.
So once again a quick Scooby Doo moment back to the start of the year and training beginning with my usual mix of some running and an awful lot of work on the turbo – I know it’s not for everyone but it really works for me and like so many folks trying to juggle real life with this whole nonsense that is Ironman triathlon it’s the most time efficient way of getting quality bike training in. I’d really enjoyed my training for Barcelona but thought I could improve on things a little so tweaked my sessions and overall plan, it actually meant that I did less in terms of time but I felt ended up with me being stronger than 2 years ago – that old adage of quality over quantity. As before the “winter fuel allowance” needed to come off so I had to shift a couple of stone to get back to a sensible weight, never easy but having a big race as a target always helps. As ever Shona was super supportive and certainly helped me with this and again brilliantly understanding of those training sessions that I had to do. It does help though that she trains too and had some serious targets herself, not least a 9-hour ultra-marathon the Hell On The Humber, Mad Hatter, a mere 36 mile run for her! It really does help having someone who gets it as far as training is concerned, that and the fact that She’s a much better runner than me means I have a partner to make me work on any runs we do together.
April meant Mallorca again for another Real Fitness/Off That Couch training camp. This was once again a great week run by excellent coaches, this time though Dean Kirkham ran an extra run workshop that he’d not done before, that hour with Dean simply transformed my running, he’s a bit of a genius.
Back from Mallorca the first test was a cracking club sprint triathlon, next up though was North Lincs ½ marathon and I really wanted to do well on that, my mate Kerry Padley wanted me to as well and she dragged me round to a 2 ½ minute pb on a sweltering day. After that it was a great fast Beverley 10k trying to chase Shona – and of course coming up short, then it was Liverpool Rock ‘n Roll ½ marathon with Shona where we stayed together for the whole run and Shona improved her pb by 15 minutes! Add into that my now traditional bit of daft at the Bomber my first ever sub 6 hour ½ Iron distance at Legerman, a fantastic holiday in Montenegro with Shona where I once again got my swimming up to scratch. I also dropped in a couple of sportives with a lot of the guys who were going to be racing Maastricht with me and I felt I was in good nick and ready to go. We also got to go and support friends and clubmates who were racing their first Ironman at Ironman UK in Bolton, what a fantastic and emotional day that was.
So training done it was time to catch the overnight ferry from Hull to Rotterdam and a lovely overnight in Antwerp for Shona’s birthday where she went for a birthday run – I was sensible and sat with my book in a bar and had a small beer, oh and some chips – diet time was over so I could get some carbs in!
Arriving at Maastricht the next day and meeting up with the whole team was great, off to registration, race briefing, check the river which looked epic and then back into town to support the adults in our support crew who were doing the Maastricht 5K Nightrun. That set the tone for the level of support all the athletes got over the weekend from the residents of a truly beautiful city, they were class one bonkers – just what you want!
Saturday saw us back n town for the Ironkids races which were just brilliant, duathlons for the very young kids but full-blown river swim tri’s for the older ones, Maastricht really sets a very high standard for the whole race weekend experience, and the Lincsquad youths most of whom I’m lucky enough to coach did the club proud. Later we were back in to rack bags set up transition and then it was back to base where our support crew cooked fed, watered and pampered us. Jo Findley who was with us gave us all a pre-race massage which was just perfect, then it was bed and set the alarm for daft o’clock.
So after the obligatory porridge and a trip into town there I was – “07.15am the bank of the river Maas, the start line of Ironman Maastricht : Limburg” along with Andy, Claire, Drew, Dawn, Dave and Mark. Now this is of course all very normal for race day, what wasn’t though was the fact that it was a non-wetsuit swim, 26.5C water temperature means you don’t get the neoprene, if you’re a poor swimmer like me this is a really big issue. However I genuinely didn’t let it get to me, just re-set my expectations and knew I’d be slower and crack on. So a few manly handshakes all round a quick moment with Shona before I was in and off. The water really was very warm, I got into a rhythm as best I could but I really do struggle without a wetsuit, swimming full distance in the current of a big fresh water swimmer was tough – very tough, even Claire our resident fish and by far the best swimmer amongst us found it tough. It was a case of plodding on talking to myself and getting it done, I won’t pretend that I wasn’t disappointed with 01.56 when I checked my watch as I got out of the water though and my legs were already tired from having to use them so much to keep going. Still into T1 nice and quick of course because I had no wetsuit to take off!! Out onto the bike and a huge cheer from Team Lincsquad all dressed in their race specific Lincsquad Maastricht Support Crew T Shirts – flipping ace!
The bike loop is quite lumpy with some very sharp bergs to climb 8 to 15% so they keep you honest, but really great I loved it, the first lap was hard but I kept controlled rode to my numbers and was really happy to spin through in 3 hrs 20min. Lap 2 was great too until bang and a loud hiss of a rear wheel puncture, so stop and fix it. Thankfully I had a tyre boot because the tyre itself was trashed, tube in CO2 on ready to go and bang tube burst on me, my fault silly mistake and I should know better. So start over second tube in and use the hand pump to get 60 or so psi in and limp home keeping the bike safe from pinch punctures. Into T2 with no little relief to start the run in 9 ½ hours and out onto the run.
Now I may be a dyed in the wool cyclist but to be honest Ironman is all about the support you get on the run, at Maastricht it was truly exceptional, we had our support crew who were just great, really such a huge help when you need a lift, but the residents of Maastricht itself were wonderful, they had moved their living rooms onto the pavements and with the help of the odd beer or 20 just cheered shouted encouraged all afternoon and evening long. There were hosepipes spraying us in the 30C plus heat, kids collecting sponges from the aid stations and setting up their own sponge stations, there were a few places on the run where was like being in a nightclub or a rock gig, it really was immense. I felt good on the run, I had Dean in one ear talking to me and Shona in the other making sure I kept things ticking along nicely, run until an aid station, walk through them taking on isotonic liquid, food and water and then run again. Sponges down the front and back of my suit to stay as cool as possible and just keep taping it out. Laps 1 and 2 were good, lap three was predictably harder but at mile 18 my buddy Ricki Morgan from Cardiff was there in spirit with me again to keep me going, everyone should experience karaoke with Ricki once in their lives, the memory of it will make you laugh through the darkest of times!! Shona had walked out on her own to meet me as I came towards the end of the toughest lap – she knew what I’d need too! Lap 4 was great though, I was tired but who cared, time to reach for the “red ambulance” coke at the feed stops, thank the marshals and the party animals who’d been there all through the run and round to grab that final yellow band on round to the finish square.
So the big question – did I spot my wife this time round as I ran down the finish chute? Yes I did, she gave me a flag to wear down the final ramp and so I ran round the corner to Paul Kaye who shakes my hand and says “Stephen representing Wales – You Are An Ironman”. What a fantastic finish to a wonderful day.
The numbers weren’t what I’d have liked but the thing I’m proudest of is that I didn’t let things get to me, my target was gone with that non-wetsuit swim, sitting by the side of the road my legs starting to cramp fixing two punctures in the blazing sun was really tough but I managed to stay calm and re-set expectations again and then crack on. My run was great, a pb by over 10 minutes, when I started it my legs were trashed but a bit of a talking to myself and some sensible pacing meant I enjoyed it more than any run I’ve done before.
As with last time you never do any of this stuff on your own, so a few thanks are in order. Lincsquad is a great club with great friends – loads of messages of support meant a great deal. The team we had with us in Maastricht was simply the best, it’s not possible to thank team Corfield, Findley, Gibbs, Hobley, Porte, Porter, Riby and Turner enough, they were spectacular.
Once again though it’s the people you share your life with who you need most, both Truan and Torin were great with support and listening to endless prattling about training, targets, sessions, power outputs blah blah blah. As ever though it’s Shona who deserves more thanks and credit than anyone, her support defies belief, yet again not a single complaint all the way through my training, we’ve spent over 2/3rds of our lives together and she still never ceases to amaze me. Just like last time I love you and my finisher’s medal is every bit as much yours as mine.
So my final thought is this :- since I finished Barcelona nearly 2 years ago, a lot of folks have said some very nice things to me about that day and what I achieved, I’ve been touched by everyone one of those comments. However, I’m not amazing or brilliant or any of those things at all, I’m just a normal bloke with a fantastic group of friends and family to support me, who decides every now and again to go and have a go at something difficult and a bit frightening. Have a go, take a deep breath and go and meet whatever challenge scares you a bit head on and see if you can beat it, trust me if you do there are few feelings finer.