IM Barcelona 2022 – Eoin O’Reilly

I had a plan, it was a good plan, a simple plan. All the right things a plan should be, but as a famous boxer once said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Barcelona proved that to be very true…

For once (see previous race reports for context) there were no surprises leading up to the race. Flights were on time and hotels didn’t collapse, there had been no word back from the bike hire but I was confident that was just an oversight. Met up with Richie in the airport and we grabbed some food, chatted away and watched the world go by until it was time to fly. The flight was a little bumpy but no major issues. Steve had organised transport so trip to the hotel was sorted, we got to enjoy a pretty spectacular lightening display but thankfully all the rain had been a lot earlier in the day (Steve got a bit wet (and only slightly lost!) on a reccie spin we found out later. Into the hotel and dropped the bags and headed out for some food. Tomorrow was registration and hopefully there was a bike to be collected.

Registration was pretty seamless. Decent bag but crappy swim hat again. Managed to keep the number tag loose enough that I could take it off without needing a scissors (bonus!). The tee-shirts with the names on the back had all sold out for the full which was disappointing, we were told to check the website. Post registration it was on to collect the bike. The shop did exist, but there had been a fire 2 weeks previous!

Thankfully they still had a bike for me, it was as nice and shiny as the one in Mallorca but I was certainly relieved. After a quick change we headed out for a short spin to make sure everything worked. The roads were busy and the “flat, fast” course that was promised was not to be found. After the bike Richie and myself went for a short run and then it was time to pack up the various bags and drop them to transition. Split transitions (70.3 and Full) meant it was very busy but no issues. Bike racked, bags dropped and timing chip collected all that remained was to soak up the atmosphere and get some more food.

We have a relatively late (08:25) start so no need to be up at just after 03:00 as we were in Cork. Up eat, down to transition for final bike check and prep and then down to swim start. There were 4 brave souls toeing the start line for the full – Steve, Richie, Mark O’B and Lennie. Lennie obviously the shy one as we didn’t see him all weekend. Steve, Richie and myself caught the start of the 70.3 and it was obvious from the line of swimmers that the current was quite strong – as Richie explained tides and sighting techniques I was just thinking how much I hate swimming… We met up with Mark and some photos were taken. The last of 70.3 people were in the water and soon Thunderstruck was booming out and it officially time to start the 2022 edition of IM Barcelona.

Rich had asked for expected splits earlier in the week and I was confident, based on my training and previous races that I could achieve my goal of going under 12hrs so I had said 1hr25 for swim, 5hrs45 for bike and 4hrs30 for the run. Remember that line about plans and punches? The fist 300mtrs into the swim were an indication that any hope of going sub 12 was going to border on a miracle – it was rough – both from a tide perspective and from people punching, kicking and generally swimming over you.

We had to swim out to a bouy and then turn right – so initially swimming sideways to the current and then headlong into it. There was going be around 1.8km of swimming with it on the back straight but I had to get there first! I’m not a fast swimmer, for the majority of my longer swims I need support (pull bouy or kick pants), my swimming has improved but I’m definitely closer to lane 1 than lane 3. 300mtrs in and I had to stop to have a word with myself, long day ahead, break it down. I was now swimming into the current. It felt like slow progress – oh look a jellyfish! Yes the water was clear and I could see all the way to the bottom so why the fcuk did I seem to be a target for all these people – anywho just keep swimming.

Hard work but making progress. Soon it was time to turn left, again this section was across the current. 100mtrs to navigate until the nice long back straight but the water was a lot lumpier now. Getting harder to sight, had to time it so I was on a swell to see the next bouy. Again more contact but sill moving the right way. As always, the turns at the bouys are chaotic but I was eventually turning left and onto the 1.7km back straight with a strong current pushing me along. A far amount of swell here and oddly I was starting to feel queasy – that’s new to me. I was trying to find a rhythm and concentrating on moving between the bouys but it wasn’t easy. Seemed like progress was very slow and felt like I was moving backwards at times. The feeling was really hammered home on the final 2 turns. Short cross current section was bad but 2nd last turn back into the current for about 500mtrs was an absolute beast.

Stopped a few times just to get bearings and try determine if I was going to be sick (the question why am I doing this was asked more than once, never again crossed my mind a few times too). Soon I had my head back in the water and was trying to get it over with as soon as possible. Finally made the turn and now less that 100mtrs to go. There are people spread out everywhere – I feel like I’ve been in the water for 2 hours. Even getting up out of the water is hard. Eventually find my feet and the swim leg is done. Thankfully it’s not 2hrs but well over my target time. Watch stopped at 1:38:55 so I’d need to go a bit faster on the bike if I was to make up time. Shouldn’t be a problem on a “fast, flat course” I hear you say.

Into the tent and see Richie getting ready to head out to his bike. Get a few words and then he’s gone. I sit down as I need to slow everything down. Stomach not great but can still manage a gel so that’s positive. Wetsuit off and bike gear on legs still working so off to the bike. Watch had developed a mind of it own (most likely due to contact in the swim) so I’ll need to just record each leg individually – more for seeing home long I have left!.

Grab the bike and out of transition. It’s a long walk/run to the mount line and them the first few km are neutralised through the town so enough time to settle in and get a drink. Soon at the big roundabout marking the turning point for the laps and out onto the course proper. Right after the roundabout you head up a drag (see not flat) and then you notice the wind (it’s not going to be fast either). The long day I forecast in the swim was getting longer, still at least I wasn’t the photographer whose 2 tripods had blown over with the wind…the bike course is a complex out and straightforward back in.

The outward leg now has a number of u-turns and mini out and back sections, some with quite tight turns, This means that finding a rhythm is hard. You do get the odd break from the wind but at no stage are you simply head down and push thinking I’m onto a PB time here. The wind seems to be getting stronger and I’m worried that my stomach content may soon see the light of day. My plan is to keep plugging away as I remember reading that ginger and cinnamon can settle your stomach and the 226er bars have both. The Gatorade is also quite tasty so despite all my complaining I keep turning the pedals. There are a lot of people out on the road and as I approach a bunch I know that to get past them all will require a fair increase in effort – I don’t think I have that in me at the moment so I ease off and just as I do that a bike marshal appears on my left. They cruise up to the bunch and there is a fair amount of whistling and pointing, some people get the point, but others seem oblivious until a blue card appears and then the conversation changes. This will be repeated a few times throughout the days.

I see a feed station ahead but it’s on the other side of the roundabout – I need to navigate an out and back first, damn! The good news in the turn back towards the food station is with the wind. The difference is incredible. So I take advantage and coast for a bit. Onto the aid station – grab bananas and bar and a Gatorade, which I immediately drop!! Somebody must like me as I find another dropped bottle just after the feed station – can’t risk running out of fluids so I grab that despite protests from behind. The wind continues and the turnabout sections get tighter – I’m still not feeling 100% but the drink and bars are helping. The last little surprise is a nice little 1km hill up to the turnaround point. The wind disappears but you notice the heat. Spin up the hill passing a good few people and I allow myself a smile when I see the sign for the Special Needs or Steve bags as they are now known.

Turn around and back down the hill and heading back towards Calella. Immediately you notice the lack of wind and you and now averaging well over 30kph as opposed to struggling to get to 25kph on the way out. It’s head down and take advantage. No silly turnabouts on the inward leg so it’s just a question of staying safe. I still have to repeat the outward leg and not confident stomach issues are fully resolved so I’m not maxing the effort to try make up time. I’ve resigned myself to just keep going and try finish the damn thing. Approaching the last feed station before the start of the 2nd lap I decide I need a nature break. Legs suddenly decide now would be a really good time to cramp/seize. Pain in the quads is new, normally is my back – lots of new experiences today. Exiting the facilities gives me an idea that the wind is still there. Mount the bike, avoid the guy crashing into the bin and promptly get knocked over by another athlete. Ouch!

No real damage so grab more bananas, bars and drinks and head away. See Steve powering up a hill which is good. He’s still moving at least. Another up and down and them around the roundabout for lap 2 – oh hello headwind…again! The 2nd lap is easier in the sense I know what’s coming. Stomach starting to feel less queasy and more crampy – uh-oh, tyring not to think about that. Just keep fuelling as that seems to be working. As I said it’s hard to keep a rhythm on this course but I soon seen some dots on the road ahead, unfortunately they are stopped! It’s Richie – cramps he says and orders me to keep going. As I head back to another turn point I see him up on the bike again – will take more than cramps to stop a multiple HardMan finisher!

 I’m not on the final part of the outward leg – still with the headwind and some very dodgy bike handling. See one guy trying to place a bottle in a saddle mounted cage and skidding into a ditch. He says he’s fine when asked so I keep going. Now onto the little hill and passing more people, still a good few bike marshals around so I’m being mindful. Top and the hill and turnaround to start the final 50km or so. See Richie on the way down the hill “Push like FUCK! Richie” scares a few of those around him but he’s moving so I’m happy.

The inward leg is less eventful – the pace is slower that 1st time around as the helping wind has lessened. I’m concentrating more on bananas and fluids now, still not convinced stomach issues are resolved. No more excitement at aid stations and it’s a relief to be turning off the roundabout and back into the town. Town section is supposed to be neutralised so I’m taking it easy. Get passed by another Irish last so I figure what the hell and pass the pedestrian paced riders ahead of me. Tight turn, under the railway and there’s the mount line. Watch stopped @ 6:48:225 – over an hour slower than hoped but at least it’s done! Just the small matter of a marathon to do now.

Try to run with the bike but the legs scream at me, so I settle into a walk. No hurry to be honest. Transition complete without falling over or getting sick and it’s out onto the run. 4 laps of just over 10km. again a new course with a teaser section down the red-carpet so you get to hear the announcers say “X You are an IronMan” as you turn around to start another lap – cruel. The first 6km are going to plan – I decided after Cork to now stop at every aid station – so far so good. Bananas are still working for me so I’ll have some please, sticking with water for the moment. Another case of so far so good, but not long after that it started to change. Stomach was starting to complain, not sure I could ignore these complaints so the brave step of portaloo entry was taken – and swiftly abandoned – not for the squeamish I’ll say and leave it at that.

As luck would have it the run course goes up and down alongside the beach and there are multiple bars along the route I spied a toilet and wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. False alarm thankfully but it was good to get some clean water to wash hands and face and the peace of mind was just as important. Even with my newfound peace of mind the remaining progress was slow – I was having to break it down – run for a but, walk for bit, run sections, run 900mtrs – walk 100mtrs – anything to tick of the kms. Saw Steve and he was moving well, he had been really worried about his leg but it didn’t look like it was causing him any issues.

There were two possible reasons for this the threats issued by Richie should he catch Steve (their story to tell) or the fact Steve had used all his medical knowledge to find ways to mask the pain. Either way he was well on the way to the right side of the red-carpet experience. My mind was wandering, body was fine, no issues but I was finding myself walking a lot more than planned. I needed to find a way to motivate myself again.

The halfway mark was reached in a little over 2hrs15mins so once again no chance of target time but I really no longer cared. I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t sore (yet!) and I wasn’t emotional – it was a whole lot of m’eh. The sight of Richie perked me up – just keep moving. The support at the top end of the course is very sparce – it’s not like Cork and I think that affected me a lot. I resolved to 900mrts on and 100mtrs off, by now the only bananas left were green so I switched to oranges and that helped. I got chatting to a few others and we all agreed there had been nothing easy about the day – one guy had done 12 IMs and this was the required 13th to allow him to avail of the legacy entry to Kona – not a chance he said, this had robbed him of his love for IM.

I could see where he was coming from, which worried me. My plan was always to run the last 5km but with 7km to go I decided I have walked enough. I finished my 2 orange segments set off on a run. The top end of the run is mostly on sand and not lit very well. It can be hard to spot people you know I manged to spot Richie “Just a Parkrun to go Richie” high 5 and all going to plan the next time I see him we’ll both be finished. I was remembering to say thank you “Gracias!” to all the volunteers on my way back down to the finish.

Encouraging those moving slower than me – all you have to do is keep moving, and I was soon on the home stretch – no more sand to run on and there were more people cheering at least. Round the final turn and down the right hand side of the red-carpet. Down the slope turn to be blinded by the lights and soak in the screams. My run was done in 5:15:21 giving me a total time of 14:02:39. There was some confusion but eventually I was given a medal I picked up my tee-shirt and wandered into the tent to get a tin-foil blanket and a drink. I needed to settle the stomach and keep warm and find Richie to apologise for IM being harder than HardMan and we could then try figure out where the flat,fast course lived…

Barca was the hardest race I ever done – not because I hadn’t trained or was ill-prepared but because it challenged me every step of the way. Swimming against a current, cycling into a headwind, running on varied surfaces in sub-optimal lighting conditions. These were the punches to the face that ruined my nice simple plan. We train to complete the distances – that’s the easy part to be honest. The mental side can be very personal and there’s no easy fix. Mark wasn’t able to finish – but he knows he made the right decision, I had to do the same in Cork in 2019. You learn, you adapt. You ask questions of other people in the club.

I really wanted to go under 12hrs – but after the swim I really just wanted it to be over, I knew 12 hrs was gone. I kept going because I’m stubborn – I was still able to move and I had time. I also wanted to finish as I had put in the long hours across multiple sessions and I was lucky enough to be able to take time off and Maggie and the girls understand that this is what I do. You need support from a lot of people to do this. It’s best if you travel in packs in this game – I honestly haven’t laughed as much in a very long time as I did over the 4 days “What’s your favourite humming noise?” and “North Pole” references will forever make me smile and think of Barca 22.

I’m already thinking of the Mallorca trip – and I may need more time off to recover from the pre/post activities than the race itself.  After that I’m not sure. I had a plan to do 5 full distance IMs but plans are fickle, as I have learned. For now, it’s time for cake and as many peanut M&Ms as I can find!

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