What a relief to finally get on the road to head down to Exmoor on Friday 14th June. For the past 2 days I found myself pacing around getting mentally prepared, unable to think about anything else. I was peaking too soon, feeling like I used to get the morning of a rugby match, I needed to calm down!
The Saturday morning race briefing for the novice triathletes certainly made my ears ‘stand to attention’ when the Ironman official congratulated us on signing up for the toughest 70.3 on their entire international circuit!….I’d heard that the Exmoor venue was tough but to hear it in person suddenly made it all seem very real.
So with our race bags packed and racked in transition and with our bikes checked and put on the racks, we (I was staying on-site with my old university friend Scott in his caravan) turned in hoping to get a decent few hours sleep before the day of reckoning arrived.
My alarm clock for 4.30am wasn’t required as the morning birdsong woke us at about 4am. Having managed to force down a bit of breakfast, get well-hydrated and give the bike tyre pressures one last check, we got changed into our wetsuits and met for the 6.30am gathering. We were then walked down to the lake where the more cavalier got straight into the water. I and many others stood on the side knowing that we were set off at 7am sharp.
The playing of the National anthem over it was time to get ‘switched-on’ and start thinking about the next 1.2 miles. With a one-minute to go warning I finally walked into the water and was pleasantly surprised at how warm it felt (13.9 degrees I was told…..the Slateman was 12 degrees and felt painful as soon as I got in!).
Having swam one kilometre in the Slateman a month earlier in a much colder 12 degrees lake, it had never occurred to me that the swim would be anything other than an enjoyable yet challenging encounter…..oops!
So as me and a thousand other triathletes are making our way towards the first buoy it suddenly becomes apparent that all is not well.
My usual relaxed (by my standards that is) breathing that I’ve become accustomed to in the many miles I’ve swam in the pool in training just isn’t there. As I’m gaining on swimmers in front of me I’m having to stop, whilst less considerate swimmers encountering me in their path just swim right into me, all of which suddenly leaves me gasping for air…..I’m having a panic attack in the middle of Wimbleball lake!!
I try and compose myself but I don’t know what to do, I’ve never encountered this before, it’s not been a feature in my training and all of a sudden my mind is focused exclusively on survival.
I can’t swim frontcrawl (my normal stroke) as I don’t have the air, I’ve even started doggy-paddling in blind fear, I can’t breast-stroke….and the scariest part is I don’t have the reassuring pool floor nor side to regain my breath as I used to in the early days of my swimming training last Autumn.
A swimmer behind me asks if I’m ok and unfortunately for him gets too close as my immediate instinct at this point is to grab him as I’ve got something to hold on to….I quickly realise the mistake I’m making and let go in an instant but it just goes to show how your mind can very quickly turn to panic driven behaviours.
I recall from the race instructions that if we should get into trouble to lay on our back and raise an arm in the air….I do this several times but still no sign of the kayakers supervising us all. I’m really starting to worry now as even floating on my back isn’t calming my breathing. Just as I’m about to start screaming for help I see a kayaker paddling over to me…the relief!
With that two other swimmers take the opportunity to have a little rest holding on to it also.
After about 3-4 minutes my breathing has normalised. During this period all I can think about is the shame and embarrassment of returning home having to tell everyone that my very expensive triathlon was over after only 10 minutes into the swim, but equally I really wasn’t prepared to die for preserving honour! I would have been quite happy just holding onto the kayak for another 5 minutes but I guess I was stopping the chap from supervising the remaining wave of 900 or so triathletes who were about ready to go (15 minutes between waves 1 and 2).
So in a rather blunt manner the kayaker asks “so are you quitting or what?” This is all I needed, I’m no quitter I thought! The water ahead was now clear, so I went for it, and the rest of the swim was a pure joy. I got into a lovely rhythm, nobody swimming into me nor obstructing my path and barring a few twinges of cramp in my calfs the remainder of it was incident free.
I just wished the swim was a little longer so that I could have gained some of the lost time, as I had caught up and passed a lot of the swimmers in front of me but to be honest I was just thankful to still be in the event and without wanting to sound too melodramatic, I was genuinely elated to still be alive!
I got out of the water on 51 minutes (minus 5 minutes for my little cufuffle!) so all in all I wasn’t too disappointed with that.
Next came the fun bit, trying to run from the lake up a hill with jelly-legs whilst trying to unzip the wetsuit and still look cool for the camera!
My T1 time was quite long as I ensured that I was well-dressed for the impending 56 miles on the bike as although it was dry at the time, the forecast wasn’t great. So in my cycling jacket and winter gloves I found my bike on the rack and headed out for the start of the cycle.
The 56 miles were divided into 2 x 28 mile laps. During lap 1 the rain and wind started and suddenly my extra time taken changing into warm clothing seemed the sensible choice.
Making good ground on those in front of me with my recently fitted tri-bars (an extra 2mph just for slouching forwards!!) I pushed on, making up time on the fast flat sections and then inevitably losing out some time on the many steep-hills, but I was getting up them at least unlike some who were already off their bike and pushing (I certainly empathised as when I rode the Exmoor Beast sportive in 2011 I pushed the damn thing up the hills more than I rode it!)…..the infamous toughest 70.3 mile title was starting to make sense!
At mile 15 the forewarned ‘no-overtaking zone’ on a very steep descent with a sharp bend took one of I’m sure many victims for the day. A chap just in front of me rounded the bend and then lost control of his rear-wheel, resulting in an inevitable heavy ‘off’…this caused the chap behind him to take evasive action which ultimately resulted in him riding into my rear-wheel…..at this point i’m just waiting for the painful introduction with the road but somehow I managed to stay on (luck as opposed to any skill on my part) and continue.
Such was the gradient coupled with the wet conditions that I couldn’t even bring myself to a stop to check on the fallen cyclist although at the bottom of the hill we made the marshalls aware who quickly got onto their motorbikes to tend to the poor chap.
So having managed to survive my 2nd incident of the day my mindset is now firmly focused on simply getting to T2. As the rain and wind strengthen I go as fast as I dare and after approximately 3 hours and 50 minutes of very challenging cycling I make it back in one piece to T2…what a relief!
A quick ‘powder of my nose’, out of my wet cycling gear and into my running gear (making sure to wear my ‘lucky’ wrist bands….my 6 year old Ellie wore them earlier in the week and won 2 of the 3 races she competed in at her School sports day….the proudest day of my life after her birth!) it’s then onto what i’ve been really looking forward to, the mixed-terrain half-marathon (13.1 miles).
I had already taken the decision to wear my off-road shoes for the run as I knew it was mixed terrain, and what a choice that turned out to be. The rain had turned the 3 lap course into something akin to a cross-country race.
Having already mentally planned to take lap 1 steady in order to get my legs accustomed to running having been cycling for nearly 4 hours, the first 4 and a bit miles were fairly tough going but certainly nothing less than I was expecting.
Pushing on a little bit in lap 2 the realisation of my hard efforts on the bike being detrimental to my running performance sets in….I have nothing left to push! It’s now just a case of getting round.
Lap 3 starts and my body is starting to switch off. No amount of energy gels nor sports drinks (of which there were plenty from the 3 feed stations per lap) can satisfy my muscles demands for energy. I get a momentary ‘rush’ following their consumption, quickly followed by heavy tree-trunk legs again.
At this point I know I can walk it and still finish in time but that was never an option for me unless injury dictated. Thoughts of my little girl, my wife Helen, my Grandad who would have been so proud, Chris Brown who sadly I only ever had one encounter with in the pool (he was with Luke Osborne and Steve Beevers, and had me in stitches taking the p!ss out of Steve about how he only had one gear for swimming as well as how many bikes he had!) all helped to get me round.
I must thank Luke Osborne at this point too. Luke was giving me fantastic encouragement at the end of each lap of the run which made a massive difference so thanks again mate.
With the finish close I run up a rather steep and increasingly slippery mud hill for the last time with the sound of the finish area and announcer in ear-shot.
The finish area is fantastic, with a red carpet straddled by two lines of enthusiastic supporters all wanting to ‘high-5’ you as you go past. The ‘done thing’ for some is to slow down and soak up the atmosphere and high-5 the supporters and absorb your moment in the spotlight….but my head doesn’t work like that, if I’m not doing a ‘sprint’ finish then i’ve not tried!
So I round the bend coming out of the trees and then give it everything for the final 50 or so metres as i’m running along the red carpet towards the Ironman banner signalling that the torture is soon to be over….which it is in a total of 7 hours 24 minutes…and I couldn’t have gone a second quicker!
The feeling is quite euphoric and although I have nothing to compare it against, I can’t imagine another 70.3 ironman being any harder than that.
What this does mean however is that having completed a half ironman, the plan is to now enter a full ironman with Ironman Bolton being a possibility for 2014…..Helen is thrilled by the idea!
My university friend Scott did very well finishing in 6 hrs 13 mins, with my good friend Jim doing exceptionally well to finish in just over 8 hours, overcoming a number of very recent injuries to get round.
It’s actually Jim’s fault I find myself writing this. Having signed up for the Chesterfield 10 last year, I got a text from him panicking that it’s a 10 MILE race and not our usual 10K distance. So we completed it, Jim gets excited by completing a 10 mile run, the next thing he’s saying he now thinks he can do an ironman simply so that he can get the Mdot tattoo! So being the good friend that I am, I signed up for Exmoor a few days later to ‘call his bluff’ and now we’re on the road to a full one!!
Sorry for the novel but i’ve enjoyed reliving it all again. Personally I have learned the following;
1. My wife Helen deserves a medal also, for the patience and understanding she has displayed for enabling me to train at stupid o’clock before work, after work and times in-between!
2. If I can do it, anyone can….I mentioned the Exmoor Beast earlier….I genuinely pushed the bike uphill as much as I could cycle it, but with a bit of training I managed to stay on the bike all the way. Last year I could swim 25 metres before having to stop and spend a few minutes getting my breath back.
3. Spend as much time as possible getting accustomed to open-water swimming. Clearly I still need to work on this and especially getting comfortable with being jostled around.
4. If you think you can, you probably will…
Thank you to all the LQ coaches for getting me to the point where I can swim 1.2 miles (barring a little hiccup!),thank you to the LQ members for their support over the past few months, and I hope I can repay this over time with being able to get more involved with the club and the great events it puts on.
Right then, how do you get to Bolton?!
Oh, one last thing, now that the 70.3 is over my efforts turn to ‘The Viking No way’ charity run August 22-25th.
I shall be putting up more details over the next few weeks for those wanting to donate and or get personally involved with running the final few miles of the day with me…(I’ll be very, very slow!)