I remember “watching” the Ironman live tracker when club members Angela, Dave and Rich did Ironman Frankfurt in 2016 and swearing to myself that I’d never ever put myself through the hardship of a full distance race. It looked like a horrific ordeal.
I remember going away on a training camp last year and almost entering Ironman Lanzarote on a whim with 4 weeks to go to race day. I was a single click away from signing up. Luckily, sense prevailed and I put the phone away before I did something stupid.
While I was doing the sensible thing, I was always wildly jealous of everyone else who was entering and completing full distance races. The FOMO is very real when you know other ordinary people around you can get to the end of a full Ironman.
So last November, I put in a secret entry for Ironman Barcelona and went about selfishly recruiting training partners that could share the training load and also the race experience. Full distance triathlon or an Ironman as it is more commonly known is a selfish thing… don’t let anyone tell you different. The training to get you ready for 3.8km swim followed by 180km on a bike and then on to run a marathon (42.2km) requires significant time and dedication; time away from family and friends, no going out partying on Fri and Sat nights when you’ve to be up early the following morning, no other real hobbies, lots of sweaty dirty clothes, lots of food, the list could go on and on…
Not understanding the training requirements and also knowing that I needed to be accountable to someone, I recruited Danny from PSI to provide the training plans and make sure things were going in the right direction. It also helped that he is our club swim coach so I could ask questions face to face after swim sessions. I’m selfish like that.
Between one thing and another, I had a bad start to the year with zero training done in Jan and Feb. When I got started in March, my times were so poor for everything that I turned off Garmin, Strava and everything else that people could see. I just didn’t want people looking at how bad things were. Unknown to myself, I think this was a masterstroke as we got into the training. It meant I wasn’t constantly looking at what others were doing and comparing myself. It also meant that others weren’t looking at my progress or lack thereof and making judgements or recommendations. I did say you need to be selfish and only focus on yourself.
Two main goals were set for the season; 2hrs 35mins at Hell of the West in Kilkee and 11hrs for Barcelona. Mostly, the training sessions got done. I swam probably less than half of what I wanted and averaged about two rides a week when I wanted to hit three rides a week. I don’t think I missed a single run session as running is something I both hate and am pretty useless at.
I raced Athy double olympic early in the season to get some distance in. I probably wasn’t ready but that’s never stopped people in the past. It was a good marker for where I was at. My swim wasn’t great, sighting was extremely poor. The bike was fairly ok, I was most happy that I stuck with the nutrition and pace plan instead of trying to race people on the road. My run was still rubbish. But I got to the end and had a marker down for the year.
Next up was Hell of the West olympic distance and I didn’t know what to expect. Training was going ok but really not sure where I was at. The swim went well, I got out of the water with an old teammate having drafted off me all the way around which I was happy with as he’s a pretty savage athlete. Again, pretty good bike and stuck to the plan. Run? Well my run was still pretty rubbish and slightly down on my time from last year. Not happy with that but I came in on 2:34:55 which was 5secs under the target. Not all bad!
Next up was Tri Limits half distance in Tyrone. Reports from the previous year was that this was a great race, flat course and fast. A quick recce showed that it wasn’t flat. It certainly wasn’t full of hills but it just wasn’t flat. Throw in the worst rain of the year and a decent bit of wind and you had a recipe for a really tough race. Again, I swam quite well even though my time didn’t reflect it. I got lucky on the bike when I decided to throw on arm warmers as it was extremely cold, windy and constant downpour of rain. The organisers made the sensible decision of calling most athletes in after two laps of the bike. By that stage, I was one of the few who were on lap 3 so I had the pleasure of finishing out the full 90km and heading out on the run. I got through the run in a time I was fairly happy with so not a bad day. I also had a moment in T2 which can possibly be described as both my lowest low and highest high in triathlon. I won’t go into it here but showed my determination to get to the finish line. Happy to have that one finished and I flew out the next day to do a little recce of the IM Barcelona course.
The next 10 weeks were getting into the main “long” weekend sessions. With Rich doing Barcelona also and Graham racing IM Italy two weeks before Barcelona, we had a nice core group for all the long spins. It’s definitely easier to get out when you’ve made commitments to others to go. I don’t think there was ever a weekend when anyone had to go alone which really helped. The first of the longer brick sessions (bike followed immediately by run) went dreadful. I had nothing left after the first 5k of running. I managed about 12k of the prescribed 15k. I had fueled poorly so lesson learned for the following weekend. That went better. At this stage, I was making notes on what was working and what wasn’t working. I’m not a fan of running at the best of times and even less a fan of running laps on a long run. However, I found that laps worked great as I could do a 30sec stop at the house for a mouthful of water and to take a gel every 6-7k. I’d be doing this on race day so this was great practice. Also, my mind is easily fooled into thinking it’s only ever a single lap. Even after three laps, you can convince yourself that it’s still only a single lap. It really gave great confidence and I was learning what nutrition I needed and what pace I could manage. Maybe it was naivety but the race couldn’t come soon enough as I’d enjoyed the final ten week training block.
I was staying with Rich for race weekend. My brother in law Conan was also over for his first full distance race. After landing, we all did a 20k ride out the road. We pushed on a bit harder than race pace which was good to get the legs moving and the heart rate up a bit. Dinner in the hotel followed by a coffee in the town square and early to bed. The following morning, we had short enough swim in the sea… no wetsuit need. At least one of us squealed like a baby when they got in the water but I won’t name names. We got to race registration and athlete briefing in between a few coffees and a pastry (or two). The bikes along with our bike and run bags were racked and the evening was ours to get prepped. Between fighting for bathroom time to shave legs and do the rest of our prep, we got dinner and probably the earliest I’ve ever gone to bed before a race. The reality of doing my first full distance race had kicked in and I was more worried by my lack of worry than I was about the race itself.
I had a pretty good night’s sleep and we were both out of bed at about 6am. Down to breakfast where we caught the first two rounds of the McGregor fight and then the sky just opened up with thunder, lightening and a downpour of rain. It had been expected but still not exactly what you want before you start the race. By the time we were leaving the hotel, the rain had stopped and we were on our way. Last minute checks with the bike and our gear bags and it was onto the beach for race start.
Ironman have you self seed into different starting pens based on your expected swim time. I sat myself at the back of the 60min pen as I expected to be a bit quicker than 65mins but not on 60mins. The sea conditions weren’t great with a lot of chop and pretty decent waves crashing the beach. Lots of people were knocked back onto the beach by waves so it was a matter of diving like a surfer under a wave and getting out past it. I swam a pretty lonely race as it was difficult to sight due to the swell on the way out. The turnaround point felt like it would never come. On the way back, I figured that staying in the deeper water away from the beach would be a good decision as the closer you go to the beach, the harsher the waves were trying to throw you out onto land. As it turns out, my watch stopped about 400m into the swim either from me hitting someone or someone hitting me. I had no idea what my swim time was but I didn’t think it was bad given the conditions. It turned out to be a 67min swim which I wasn’t disappointed with given the limited swimming I’d done this season. A fair result.
The bike course had changed in the week before the race to add in a couple of hills. The explanation was that it was to sort out the drafting which plagues IM Barcelona every year. In reality, all it did was add some hills and extra distance to the course. There was still a huge amount of drafting which is really annoying when you are trying to race honest. I did let my opinion be known to some of those drafting and I won’t write here what I said. It made no difference to them. I’ll just call them cheats and leave it at that. I came off the bike in 5:16 which was down on where I wanted to be but I had stuck to the HR and cadence plan almost perfectly. The time will be the time.
I was least looking forward to the run… a full marathon after 3.8km swim and 180km on the bike. Who in their right mind would do something stupid like run a marathon after that? Or why? Off I set running too quick. I looked at the pace against my HR and with HR exactly where I wanted it, I made a decision to leave the pace as it was. HR is what was on the plan and it was good. On my second lap, I came across both Rich and Conan. This was the first of them I’d seen since the morning on the beach. Like everyone on the run, they were doing their own race and going through the same hardship and torment that everyone goes through during the run section. A few words of encouragement exchanged both ways and we were separated again. I felt relatively good and ran strong for the first 21km but the will to stop was growing. I talked myself into running until the end of the second of three 14k laps. Then I was going to walk 100m and run 900m for a few km. I think I did this for about 9km and ran the remainder. The 100m walk gave me good time to recover a little and it was possible to run the 900m well. I only dropped about 20-30secs per km for each of those 9km. Then I was right back on my pace. The target time was 4:12 for the marathon. I came in on 4:08. The run is the thing I was happiest with for the race.
In the end, I came across the line in 10:42:30. Had I been able to pee on the bike instead of getting off twice, I’d have broken 10:40. It niggles a bit that I didn’t hit 10:39:59 but I’m not unhappy. The hard work was done in training and the race pretty much went to plan. How could I be unhappy?
I texted home pretty much immediately after I finished with two words “never again”. It turns out that you shouldn’t be allowed near a phone for at least an hour as that “never again” is almost certainly a lie. Within an hour, the hardship has almost disappeared and the thoughts of doing it again are quite strong. You should be kept away from the Ironman website and credit card removed from your possession for a few days or you will sign up to do it again next year. I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ll learn for next year.