I’m sitting here scratching at the tattoo residue on my arm, reflecting on what can only be described as one of the most special weekends I have experienced. It wasn’t something I’d planned on getting embroiled in, I don’t really like the extended training when I’ve done marathons in the past, and I’m not really sure how I got entered in the first place….
No, I do. David Gibbs.
David Gibbs is the kind of guy who can make this kind of event seem achievable. We’ve trained together for a couple of years now and I’m only just appreciating the determination that must be encapsulated inside him, occasionally leaking out a bit and mutating into enthusiasm, only to infect those around him.
Last year he’d got himself entered into the Calderdale Way Ultra, a 50-mile trail race over the hills near Rochdale. Somehow as I’d run a marathon, I managed to get roped in to run the second half with him….. That one didn’t end well though, did it Anna…? Somewhere between this and the Team Relays and I was entered into the Ironman in Maastricht. I decided soon after it was time for another marathon to kick my training off properly. Again, Dave stepped up his training helping me to maintain my motivation in the process, and decided nearer to the event that as he’d done most of the training he might as well do the event….. The Christmas Marathon around Holme Pierrepoint, 8 ¾ laps of cold misery. I took nearly 10 minutes off my marathon PB though. Daves response “that’s Ironman Training”
The New Year rolled around and Turbo sessions were added into the training plan, getting along to worship at Coach Cannings cathedral of pain where possible. I spoke to the others about plans, and decided to have a look and Andy Porte’s training plan….he’d tweaked it to include his London Marathon build up but the bones were on the internet and it didn’t look to be too heavy a training load. I started to put sessions onto the calendar, trying to squeeze in between Claire’s plans for London Marathon, and the Coast to Coast in a day before the Ironman. I knew that with such a busy year she would need to be concentrating on her training as much as possible.
One of my first tests of the year was a last minute trot along the Monsal Trail Half Marathon in March, another run with Dave. Uphill all the way out, then downhill back and another PB.
Our Long Weekend for Anna Gibbs, Claire and Andy Porte to run the London Marathon in April allowed me a parkrun, then led into my first Tri of the year.
The Ancholme Sprint Tri was decided to be a Club Champs, so I thought I’d enter as a bit of a fitness gauge. After another close race with Dave on what turned out to be a warm spring day I surprised myself and came out with the age group win, training must be going well.
Next up was North Lincs Half Marathon, another race I enjoy, but this one turned into a baking grueller, nobody expected it to be so warm…. But I managed another PB, this training malarkey is actually paying off!!!
That turned out to be most of my run training done, outdoor cycling started with regular trips to work and the occasional longer ride at weekends, the first was back from the Grantham Tri where Suzie and Freddie (Dave’s kids) had been racing. That didn’t start well for me though…following a puncture the day before it turned out that my tyre hadn’t seated on the bead correctly, and a couple of miles into the ride home I decided it needed looking at properly, next followed a comedy tour of Grantham trying to find an open bike shop or even Halfords to get it looked at. We were soon back on our way though and spinning along at a fair old clip, stopping at a coop north of Lincoln for some much needed fuel, Snickers bars and chocolate milk sorted us out.
Sportives were entered and run through as shakedowns, trying to get equipment comfortable, get used to eating on the go, and find the correct pace for an ironman bike split. Matt Porters Flat and Fast was a good pacing run, but I was feeling very tired at the end, and the Ross Tiger later on allowed me to sort my nutrition, but again I was struggling for the final 5 or 6 miles. Pleased to get off the bike I blagged a cold drink from Mark Turner and instantly felt like I could manage a run.
I didn’t, but I could have…..
The summer seemed to be in full flow with glorious temperatures, Claire and I even managed a nice ride out together one Saturday, with a brick run planned after, but this had to be cut short as we were both getting too hot.
In the final couple of weeks run up to the event I was beginning to get itchy feet. I wasn’t going to get any fitter. I couldn’t fit any more long runs or rides in. I just wanted to get to the start line.
I’ve not mentioned my swim training up until now, partly because I’m not a good swimmer….I’ve been improving slowly for the last couple of years, really relishing the open water when the temperature allows, I’m able to almost keep up with Claire in a wetsuit. Anyway, with various events and life getting in the way, I had still not completed the full iron distance swim. It took a couple of trips to Hatfield to find the time to get it completed, but the boost in confidence it got me was fantastic. I was actually beginning to think I could do this.
The weekend finally arrived, collect additional support crew, drive to Harwich, sleep, arrive in Holland, drive to Maastricht, panic when the oil light on the car lights up, then relax a little after I just topped it up, arrive at the house and try and get things unloaded and sorted out a little.
I’ll not go into the Night Run, but the participants came back absolutely buzzing about the route and the atmosphere, saying if we have anything like the support on race day they’d just had then we’d all love the run. Saturday and the IronKids arrived, we finally got everyone out of the house and down to the park in time to get them registered and racked up, it was our Freya’s first big event and she’d let us know she was a bit nervous, mostly concerned about getting lost on the course. I assured her that if she was as good as her dad there would always be someone to follow. After her bouncy warm-up the race started and off she went, 100m run and straight out onto her bike course, it wasn’t long before she was back in again and off on her second run. Around she went and the next we saw was a great big smile crossing the line, she grabbed her medal and a drink and came over to the group, our first Ironkid of the day. All the kids did the club proud, racing well as the heat of the morning rose to 30 degrees.
It was getting close to racking time and I was beginning to get nervous again, I still had to sort out my bags before getting everything down to transition. We returned to the house and got everything squared up, making final decisions on what I was going to race in on Sunday and loading up my bags, blue for bike, red for run then took them down to the city centre where transition was located.
There were 6 of us heading back to the house and only 5 seats in the car, so Dave ran the 3 miles back to the house, an acclimatisation run, he made really good time and we finally caught up with him going back on to the complex where the house was located.
We got a fantastic surprise when we walked in, all the kids and supporting mums and wives decked out in their matching t-shirts putting finishing touches to signs for out on the course.
A wave of relief had seemed to descend over the athletes, resting in the hot tub trying to relax while the best support crew ever got to work with our own pasta and rice party. It was soon time to put the kids to bed and we followed shortly after, setting alarms ready for silly O’clock on race day.
4AM and I’m up and on it, teeth brushed tri-suit on and ready for a cup of tea. Breakfast was porridge, courtesy of Anna getting up and making sure we were fed and watered. Time for a last photo and off we went, we each had our white bags with change gear for after the event and our wetsuits inside along with hats and goggles. Arrival at the transition again and time for tyre inflations and final kit checks while we waited for the 6AM announcement of impending doom.
Its been mentioned before but the recent heatwave had raised the water temperature of the river and the past few days would also have been non-wetsuit swims so it was in the back of all our minds that it would probably be the case no matter how much we hoped for the rubbery reassurance. The announcement came and our wetsuits stayed in their bags, off we traipsed to the swim start.
A final loo stop and the queue was joined, self seeding around 10 minutes slower than previously expected, we slowly edged forward, and nearing the supporting crowd I could see Freya, a big hug and I was holding back tears, looked round and Mark was in the same position, we would be doing this for the kids.
It was our turn to enter the water, it certainly wasn’t cold, very much like a pool temperature, but the surroundings meant everything felt very strange, I was off but soon found myself struggling to relax into any kind of rhythm, so a couple of strokes of breast stroke while I got myself together and back into the crawl. Still not feeling it so I tried to change my breathing pattern, that helped a little I was able to sight every other breath and was on my way. The 3 bridges we had to pass seemed to take a long time to pass on the way out, and the turn buoy seemed to be moving away. Eventually I rounded it and began the return leg, I remember thinking it had been a bloody long way to get here and just hoped I would be able to make it all the way back, the bridges taking even longer to pass on the way back, around the final turn buoy and over to the swim exit, now was my time to try and wee before getting out of the river, relax, I slowed my stroke and the relief began to trickle. I couldn’t stop swimming and the trickle soon stopped. I was about to exit the river, helped up the ramp and staggering out to the transition tent.
1st change of the day, I was going to be a long time on the bike, so I knew I had to be comfortable, tri top off and a quick towel down, bib shorts over tri shorts for extra padding and cycle top on. Heading out I knew the toilet was near, heard a big cheer and looked up to a sea of blue supporters’ tops cheering me onto the bike, a quick wave, and I told them to hold on while I stopped for my wee. This time I was really going, another cheer and I was leaving T1, onto the course through the city and out into the countryside.
I was surprised to see a Lincsquad top in front of me and soon realised Coach Canning’s can’t have had that bad of a swim after all. A quick chat and I was on my way spinning up the first of the hills, the Bemelerberg, then on to the Geulhemmerberg, before reaching the second feed station. I’d planned my fuelling to take on a bottle of the on-course isotonic drink at each station and either a bar or gel. This worked really well as the signage for the upcoming aid station gave plenty of time to empty a bottle and get ready throw the empty bottle into the recycle box. Collected a bottle and bar without stopping, bottle into my cage and bar in jersey pocket for later in this stage. I left the village and decanted the bottle contents into the hydration system between my tri-bars. This was also working well except for the squirts and dribbles as I upturned the bottle before getting it into the rubbery opening, the drops and dribbles then proceeded to splash onto my bike stem, top tube, knees and shoes with every bump I went over. Not a problem with water but the sugary isotonic solution provided by Enervit soon gave my bike a candied effect and left my knees sticky. One thing I’ve learned about Ironman is fully closed roads make for a great cycle event, until a local decides he’s going to chuck a U-turn and cross the cones into my path…. while the residents all commanded an excellent grasp of the English language, I would suspect he learned a few new words to add to his vocabulary. I regained my composure and continued along a dual carriageway over a bridge around a corner and saw the third of the hills. This was the Hallembaye, around a kilometre and a half of wide tarmac stretched between the countryside up towards the sky. As the incline started, a gazebo was blaring dance music at the bottom surrounded by people cheering us onto the hill. While it’s not a ridiculously steep hill, I was soon losing gears to keep my legs spinning, all the way passing by the local crazies who’d travelled out to a stretch of road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to cheer on a daft bunch of cyclists. Hup, Hup, Hup, Hup, Hup….. any recognition of their efforts increased the shouts and cheering further encouraging me up the hill. I wasn’t going to be beaten by a hill, not in front of these guys. Near the top I recognised Andy Porte, didn’t have much breath for a chat this time, but recognition of effort was mutually shared, it wouldn’t be long before he cam back past me again…. The downhills were a blessed relief, though often interspersed with blind twists and turns, and on a couple of occasions hidden bonus hills around the blind bends at the bottom of a descent which really kept you honest. The third aid station approached. I’d only done around 27 miles, but that was the worst of the hills behind me, for this lap at least. This middle third of the course was fairly rolling through Belgian towns and countryside, and where there weren’t enough rolls the organisers constructed a couple of scaffold bridges over busy main roads, not massively high, about 2 storeys, but quite steep up and down. Another aid station passed, and I was onto the section I’d foolishly been looking forward to. The canal was flat and wide with a great surface, unfortunately, when I got there the breeze had also funnelled itself along it making my anticipated quick and comfortable stretch into a slog…. not to worry though, I had to come back down the other side too…. I could see the exit hill up to the bridge crossing, up and over, then flying back down the hill on the other side…..cue the change of wind direction…. ok, we go around and follow a branch back into town, it can’t be a head wind there too…. can it…? The last few miles back into town were fairly well sheltered from the breeze and the relief of seeing the buildings growing in front of me was great. Cobbles had been mentioned before the race, but I wasn’t anticipating the impact hitting them at around 20mph would have on me and my bike, the additional effort required to keep the speed up while holding onto anything that isn’t bolted on is actually quite draining. They thankfully didn’t last too long. I soon heard the horns and cheers of the Lincsquad support crew and gave them a brief smile, unable to wave while holding on for grim death, I’d managed to get halfway around, in my mind that was half the day done, only one lap and a run to go…. The second lap felt increasingly uncomfortable, I was enjoying the hills, but the flatter sections were draining, I’d been too’ing and fro’ing with Dave for a while chatting as we passed each other, being very careful not to appear to be drafting, fortunately Dave was stronger on the flat and I was able to pull him back on the hills. The lap ends on the flat and Dave passed me and pulled away a little around the final canal stretch and I thought I’d be working hard to catch him going into the run. Onto the cobbles again and this time no support, they’d already moved on to bag up a great position on the run. I entered T2 trying to maintain a trot to rack my bike, looked up and there’s Dave, arms in the air saying, “look at this I’m on fire”. Under both his arms were matching red rings where his arms had rubbed against his tri-suit. ” That looks sore” I said. “It bloody is, and my shoes have crippled my feet again!! I’m going to pull out, can’t run like this!” he says to me. “Come on get greased up, you can’t stop now..” I replied. Seated side by side in the tent I could see he was suffering, but still got his shoes changed. “It’ll take 20 minutes to get my running feet back…!” he complained. I thought that was a good sign and suggested finding the medical tent for some Vaseline. He sent me on my way while he drank a chocolate milkshake, but I was confident that I’d see him on the course soon. Dave seldom gives up!
It turned out afterwards that he’d asked for he medical tent at the exit of the transition tent only to be sent back to the other end of a long area to get greased up, an extra half mile!!
I was on my way onto the final leg of this challenge, trying to relax and let my run pace settle down. Relax and slow down I kept telling myself, going too fast I knew this would not last so I tried again to slow and finally settled in to a comfortable pace that I hoped I could keep up for the first half at least. I was thinking the first 2 laps would be achievable, the third was going to be a black hole with the final lap passing by purely on adrenaline. I was trying to pass the time when I heard and saw our bunch, what a welcome sight, I was trying to see Freya along the line, high 5’s along to the end where I squeezed F for Power. The temperature had been rising all day and I knew Claire wasn’t looking forward to the heat, I asked how she was doing, and Anna and Jess assured me she was smiling and fine. A kiss and a cuddle for Freya and I was on my way, unable to get my breath while holding back tears for the next half mile or so, thankfully an aid station wasn’t far away, and I reset my breathing with a drink of Iso and a slice of apple. Off again, the support around the entire course was quite incredible, out of the city centre towards the suburban areas and the crowds ranged from families at the road side to full on street parties, hose pipes and sprinklers offered to cool us, and sponges collected and refilled by kids all around the course. Crazy people on the hills, once again with the “hup hup hups”, a disco campervan through the park that turned into a karaoke point, the bars through the city centre whose patrons were happily drinking us past on each lap. First lap over and I experienced collecting my first band, seeing the finishers chute and turning my back on it. Lap 2 and now I’ve got my first band I’m looking out to see what everyone else has. I approach the gang again, pleased to see our supporters, but left disappointed to hear Freya was playing in the park, at least I could breathe as I left, no tears this time!! Again the encouragement as you approached each different group of supporters around the course was fantastic, I happened to walk towards one group drinking and chatting and they’re saying well done and keep going so I begin to raise my pace to a jog once again to be cheered along at an even greater volume.
On the course I’d seen Mark Turner, looking happy early on, I’d gone past Andy Porte on the first lap after a brief trot together, and was happy to see Dave coming towards me on an out and back section early on lap 2. He was looking strong and determined, and I was confident that he’d finish. Second band collected now and onto the dark third lap, again pleased to see the supporters, and get another hug from Freya. She wanted to have a run alongside me, and Shona was lovely enough to look after her as she did. I kept it together until I was out of sight then the choking bubbled up again. I slowed to a walk and felt my left knee tighten up, this didn’t feel too good, but it wasn’t going to stop me, I started to run again and after a few steps of wincing the discomfort subsided. I could manage like this, each time started again after a walk I’d have the uncomfortable few steps with my knee, then just the usual pain of endurance running. It was getting into my head, I was running less and walking more, the heat was beginning to get to me and I struggled along, just keep moving…. Looking back, while it didn’t feel it at the time, lap 3 was no longer than the others, and passing through to collect the band was one of the best feelings on course, one more time past the finish line, next time I would be turning right….
Onwards, I made my way around the course, my last time around these streets, I’d not met these people before, and they’d spent their time today encouraging me and the guys, cheering us along and making sure all of these other strangers got round with as much of a smile as possible. I found this thought quite moving and made a conscious effort to thank as many of the supporters as I could. Chatting along for the last couple of miles with another runner I saw Shona had come out onto the course to get some photos, a smile and a wave and I knew I was nearly home. The final yellow band was gladly collected, and I was winding around to the finishing square. The cheer squad had gathered on the lead in to the finish area, I stopped for a hug from Freya again and a quick chat to everyone before making my way up to that final turn, right for me this time. Check that no one else is coming up behind and no one ahead of me, I’d been told to make sure this my Ironman moment. Onto the carpet and long to the finish arch.
I turned around to see Jess carrying Freya on her shoulders, leaning over for a cuddle. Freya got the best of me, unfortunately Jess not so much, her face planted under my arm while Freya had her hug. Happy and relieved that it was finished I blindly wandered through to the athlete area behind the scenes. I collected my precious finishers shirt and lined up for some pasta, still in a loose daze I heard Claire shouting my name. She’d only been in for a few minutes and was just sitting finishing her pasta. I ate quickly, and we soon joined the team to watch the rest of the guys finishing.
Hugs all round, I was surprised to see Dawn and Brad. On the course we’d not heard what had happened to cut Dawns race short and I was expecting her to be coming in at any time. The cruelty of a tight cut-off on a rolling start had spoilt her weekend. I’d like to think now it’s just a delaying of her celebrations, she can be sure that we’ll all be there to see it when it happens.
It was great to see our team mates running in to their Ironman moment, I would recommend to anyone with an interest in a finish line party to get along to an Ironman, it is epic.
Soon we were all back together, almost as we’d started, but now tired and weighed down with pasta and medals. Transition to collect bags and bikes and heading back to the house. In for a cup of tea before bed and a proper debrief in the morning.
Monday brought about the final battle, a trip into town for a sortie on the merchandise area bagging a couple of bargains now we can officially wear it. Then once again the support team shone, and we were all fed, watered and massaged. Without the team this trip would not have been nearly as much fun, and Claire and I can’t thank them all enough, not only for the support, but also for keeping Freya occupied all day.
Maybe it was the noise of the crowd, maybe the emotion of the moment but I still can’t be sure I heard those words. But I did it, I swam the Maas, I cycled through Holland and Belgium, and I ran around the city of Maastricht. I am an Ironman.