This was my 5th time toeing the start line of an Ironman. My first was in 2015 in Mallorca where I struggled in the heat to a 14:08:11. I followed this up in 2016 with Frankfurt and another 14 hour effort just increasing my PB with a 14:06:43. 3 months later I was in Calella, Spain for Ironman Barcelona. I pulled out after 90km of the bike sick. 2017 I tried in Spain again, only to pull out 13km into the run. I’d been sick again and knew it wasn’t going to be fast and just wanted it to end. This was my 3rd time trying to conquer Ironman in Spain.
Training started well, but for the last 3 months I have been nursing a knee injury. I tried not running for a few weeks but that made no difference, so I continued to run but had to keep the distances down and give myself time to recover afterwards. The day after every run I was in pain. I also didn’t swim that much. I logged 29 swims all year and a dozen of those were club swim in the Irish sea. Cycle training was better but i didn’t really race this year so wasn’t feeling as strong as usual.
Race morning saw the forecasted rain arrive and it was hammering down whilst Ivan and I were eating breakfast. It was stopped by the time we headed down to transition to start the race.
Transition pre Ironman is fascinating. There’s a lot of people showing nerves and the odd person sat zoned out listening to their own music. You can feel the tension in the air, and the music is pumping over the PA system creating a great atmosphere. Tyres were inflated, bottles put on bike and I headed out of transition and on to the beach and into the swim start pens that were marked off by expected finish time. I was hoping to go faster than 1:15 so moved up to the next area – 1:05. The pro’s set off and very soon it was the Age Groupers turn. 50 minutes. 60 minutes. Then 1:05. It was a rolling start. You queued up and every 3 seconds, 6 people started. Beep, Beep Beep, Go.
I ran to the sea just as a huge wave crashed on the shore knocking two people next to me on their backs. I waded a little further and I was then swimming. The chop in the water meant you had to try and time your sighting when you were on the crest of a wave. I managed to get to the first turn buoy without incident and was just trying to concentrate on keeping my stroke long. On the long outward leg I found sighting difficult at one point I looked up to sight the buoy only to see it 50m to my left. I ignored it and just set sight on the next one to correct myself. I swallowed a lot of sea water during the swim, had my goggles dislodged by the crashing of the waves and was kicked a couple of times by swimmers who were breast-stroking but after around 1:14 I was nearly at the exit. As I stood I cramped in my right hamstring and fell on to the beach – waves were crashing over me as I tried to drag myself up, and the water rushing back off the beach was trying to pull me back into the sea. A volunteer grabbed my wrist and eventually got me to my feet and I hobbled over the timing mat and into the changing tent. I tried stretching my leg and couldn’t get rid of the cramp. Eventually I just sat and it eased. I got my helmet, and shoes on and made my way to the bike and then out of transition.
On to the bike and out through Calella town. Lots of shouting as people try to overtake on narrow roads, and we make our way to the two-lap course. Once we get to the roundabout we are on course and the first of the laps is underway. It’s pretty congested at the start as nearly 3000 athletes are all starting the bike at roughly the same time.
I ignored the crowds and tried to settle into the bike and my plan to keep my power easy and get through the 180km without expending too much energy. My goal was to keep power in a low zone and to average <210w. Nutrition wise I was using a product called tailwind which should give me 200 kcals an hour. I took it easy up the hills and at the end of lap one was on target for a 5:30 bike split and it all felt relatively easy. Lap 2 started and as I hit the 100km mark I knew I was struggling. I couldn’t hold 160w on the flat and had no energy at all. On the hill everyone came past me as I pushed a low gear until I eventually got to the top and then enjoyed the break as I coasted back down to the bottom. I got to the far turnaround point and was at rock bottom, but knew I only had about 35km to go. I was struggling to turn the pedals over and every slight incline felt like Everest. With 10km to go I was struggling to hold a straight line. At the last aid station I grabbed 2 bananas and an isotonic drink and pulled in. I ate the bananas, sipped the drink and put my head down onto my tri-bars. There was 2km to go to town, then 3km through the winding streets. I got back up and somehow managed to get back to transition. I sat in T2 wondering how on earth I was going to get through the marathon.
I laced my runners up, pulled my visor on, fastened the race belt and started to run. Plan was to walk aid stations and run the 2km in between. First aid station was after 250m. I grabbed a slice of orange and a coke, walked to the last bin whilst sipping the coke, binned the cup, and then started to run. About 500m later my right hamstring cramped. I had to stop and try and stretch out and then after a little walk it eased and I was able to run again. I got to the finish line turn and set off for the first of 3 laps. 500m later my left hamstring wanted in on the party and decided to start cramping too. I couldn’t stretch it out, walking was painful at first, but doable, anything faster and both hamstrings started cramping. I was 2km into the run leg and had 40km to go. I reckoned on that being around 7 hours if I could sustain a 10 min per km pace. I had already decided quitting wasn’t an option.
I saw Ivan for the first time as he was on his second leg. He looked comfortable and encouraged me on.
The loneliness of the long distance runner is often talked about, but the loneliness of someone walking a long distance event is much worse. You’re alone with your thoughts whilst being overtaken by a constant stream of runners, and well-intentioned supporters urge you to run. At the busier areas I pulled my visor down low and looked down at the ground, I just wanted to walk in peace.
I was constantly taking on the same every 2km – coke and an orange slice and by the 10km stop was feeling ok. Still couldn’t run but mentally I’d accepted it. As I completed the first lap and made it back to head through transition an angel appeared. Well not exactly, a lad from Portmarnock Tri Club asked how I was doing and gave me ibuprofen after I told him. I took these at the next aid station and carried on with the walking. A few km later, around the 18km mark, I felt like a sniper shot me in the legs. Both hamstrings cramped and I had to sit down. No matter what stretching I did I couldn’t get it to ease, every step caused them to cramp. I decided to try a little run and miraculously, that didn’t cause them to cramp – or the ibuprofen had kicked in and I couldn’t feel them. I ran, walking the aid stations for the rest of the marathon. A couple of times I took a walk break but generally I managed to run. It was amazing how many people were walking and how many I managed to overtake – although they had probably already overtaken me earlier.
With just over 1km to go I hit the last aid station and settled into the same routine. Orange slice and coke and walk to the last bin. A bloke started shouting at me “You haven’t done all that training to walk!”. He was lucky I didn’t have the energy to smack him in the face. As I binned the cup and started running again he probably thought he was the best motivational speaker ever,
As I came up to the finish line I was ecstatic, emotional, glad to have finished and so happy to get that monkey off my back. At that moment in time “You are an Ironman” are the sweetest words anyone could ever say to you.
Finishing time was 13:10:42 so nearly an hour quicker than my best despite it nearly being a disaster.
The splits were:
Swim – 1:14:48
T1 – 8:22
Bike – 5:53:18
T2 – 9:38
Will I do Ironman again? In the words of Ironman themselves – “Anything is possible”