Six years ago I was on holiday, talking to my wife’s niece, Kathy with a large glass of vodka and coke in my hand (not my first or last that day and many other days too!) I told her that I was going to train to do an Ironman triathlon. When she asked what it was, I explained that it was a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, then a marathon. I felt slightly ridiculous and embarrassed saying it because it seemed so far away. How could I expect her to take this seriously when it just seemed unbelievable to me? People who did these kind of things were just superhuman athletes, way beyond the comprehension of ordinary, out of shape middle aged guys like me, even if I had been a reasonably decent distance runner some 20 years earlier. I could not even begin to comprehend the suffering involved in managing any one of the three disciplines individually, let alone back to back in a single day. Six years later, with many thousands of miles of cycling, running and swimming and several thousand hours of training done, I can finally say I achieved my dream – I have completed an ironman distance triathlon at the Outlaw event in Nottingham. Not bad for someone who still can’t really swim with confidence!
To say this was tough is a massive understatement. As I walked towards the start and looked down at the cold waters of the lake I really began to seriously doubt myself for the first time. What if I freaked out and started hyperventilating as soon as I hit the water and just couldn’t do it? Imagine the feeling of failure and knowing that you lost your nerve when it mattered most. Six years of training and knowing you’d never do it after all. I’d never been in a lake with 400 people, let alone 1400 and I was terrified. My plan was to let them go and settle into a steady pace at the back untroubled by flying arms and feet. I managed to do that just about but was aware that 90% of the field had already disappeared into the distance.
After about 30 minutes I looked briefly at my Garmin and was horrified to note that I was just passing a marker that said 1000 metres. And there was me thinking I was getting close to the turning point at 1800 metres! No way would I ever make the cut off – it was all over already – I must have been swimming all over the lake instead of in a straight line, because I knew my swimming was a bit faster than that, however weak! I couldn’t even see the turnaround because of the rising sun blinding me! The only time we saw the sun all day and just when it wasn’t wanted!
After what seemed an eternity I finally reached the turnaround. I no longer had the heart to consult my watch. I must be well over an hour already and way outside the cut off – there was only a tiny handful of swimmers anywhere near me, the rest could not even be seen in the distance any more! This was getting embarrassing! The swim never seemed to end – my Garmin later revealed that I had swum 4.1 kms instead of the 3.8 kms required because of poor navigation skills. When I finally dragged myself out of the water I expected to be told thank you, but no thank you, it’s over for you mate. Instead the helpers pulled me out of the water and shouted that I had 12 minutes to get out on my bike. I looked at my watch and couldn’t believe it only said 2:03 mins! I’ve done it I thought! I couldn’t believe it – the gods of Triathlon must have been smiling on me after all!
As I jumped on my bike 10 minutes later, I thought ‘I’ve done it – all the hard work’s over, just maintain a steady 24-25 kms an hour over the flattish bike course then a marathon – I’ve done these distances before many times and now just go through the motions and it’s yours’ I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although the bike started off at a nice steady pace 26-27 kms an hour for the first few hours, I couldn’t stay in the aero position because of the aching around my neck and shoulders from the swim. I knew I could go faster but just didn’t feel strong today – just 2 hours sleep, the stress of rushing to the start after getting lost en route and the emotional trauma of a lake swim had left me feeling very out of sorts. I was also aware that I needed to get ahead of the game in the early stages of the bike because it could get wet and windy later on which would slow me considerably. However, I figured I had so much time in hand I could stop for a good half hour in transition, change out of wet clothes, make a cup of tea etc. Little did I know! The wind started to rise then the rain started, slowly at first, then steady, then torrential, riding through deep puddles, into what seemed like an endless howling headwind. Garmin revealed that my average speed had dropped from nearly 27 kms an hour to under 24 kms an hour. OK, it’s tough but never mind you’ll still have 20 minutes in transition, it’s all under control! Then the realisation that it was slipping away. I had to stop and just get out of the torrential rain for 5-10 minutes. I was so angry with myself and the gods – all these years of training and you put this on me! Every other year the weather had been beautiful for this event and you give me this! I was shouting aloud to release my anger and screaming at myself to just keep driving on regardless. Thoughtless drivers showered me time and time again with buckets of water from the deep puddles on the road, cutting me up on the busy main road. Still 80 kms to go! No way it was going to happen today. It was all over and I’d miss the cut off. At 58 I’d never get another chance. All these thoughts scrambled in my head, but I just kept ploughing on regardless. Finally 5 kms to go, although this was part guesswork because Garmin had finally decided to give up, freezing in the torrential rain, just like me. I had given up the ghost frankly and just wanted it to be over. At least I’d be warm and dry again. Part of me was glad I wouldn’t make the cut off – at least I wouldn’t have to run a marathon today. I had a good excuse – the weather beat me, nothing I could do about that.
In my anger about the injustice of it all I got out of my saddle and blasted out all my anger through the pedals, all the frustration. Marshals were holding back cars, ready to reopen the closed roads. They turned to do so, saw me coming, saw I wasn’t in the mood to stop no matter what and let me through! Others stepped out as if to stop me further down the road, looked confused, then let me through! Suddenly I was in the water park again, but hey I must be 10 minutes outside the cut off anyway, but at least it’s over at last!
A young female helper came over to me and offered to rack my bike for me. I was waiting for the dreaded words, ‘sorry mate, you’re out’. I couldn’t contain my joy when she said ‘you’ve done it, you’ve beaten the cut off’. ‘How long have I got to get out on the run? I aske, thinking there’s no way I’m going out there for another 5-6 hours drenched to the skin. ‘Take as long as you like, she said, you’ve done it!’ I walked into the changing room in a daze ‘I was going to do it after everything that had gone on, my elation was unbounded. Only a marathon to do! I knew it would be tough still but I knew that with my ultra running experiences, I could walk/jog this through in less than the 6 and a half hours remaining.
And that’s exactly what I did. I made sure I got ahead of the game early, as on the bike. I went through half way in around 2 and a half hours, despite the ever more torrential rain, splashing through deep puddles along the towpath by the River Trent, a boring boring run course, but thankfully pan flat. The hamstrings started to cramp up in the last 10 kms and then I could only walk, but I knew I had a good time cushion by then to beat the cut off finish time of 17 hours which had long been my only goal in this ‘race’. A few stragglers came past towards the end like we were racing and I was right towards the back end of the field in the end. Completely irrelevant! What did it matter if I finished in 14 hours or 16 hours 59:59? Nothing mattered, only the pride and joy of finishing this fantastic goal. High fiving my way down the finishing funnel, I crossed the line knowing that nothing would ever be the same again. A very tough day at the office, indeed.
My thanks to all my fellow athletes and coaches at Abingdon and Vale Triathlon Club, without whose expertise and support, none of this could have happened, as well as the brilliant marshals and organisers of the Outlaw Triathlon for making such a miserable day heroic.
Please visit my website at http://www.flowfitness.org.uk