Below is the story of one of the most gruelling, painful and hardest days I’ve ever experienced, but also a phenomenal day and one that ranks as being one of the very best and most rewarding of my life! It’s a long one… be warned!
The day started early… very early! Having got to sleep pretty quickly at 9.30pm’ish the previous night I was woken by a door banging at 12:30am, and that was that… sleep done. I tried to get back to sleep over the course of the next couple of hours, but I was just too wired. I ended up flicking through facebook posts, worrying about little details, and chatting with friends still awake from the previous night on messenger!
I finally got up at 2.30am and put the kettle on to boil some water for my pre-athletes breakfast porridge and to make a cup of tea. By 3.00am I was downstairs fuelling up and getting plenty of water and a coffee on board. At 3.20am I went back to my room to don my tri-suit and tracksuit, double check my swim bag, and prepare myself to leave. At 3.40am I left the hotel full of excitement and a degree of anxiety over the day ahead.
The whole organisation of the Ironman event was excellent from start to finish, and my brief walk from hotel across the road to the stadium brought me to the complimentary athletes shuttle bus that whisked us all of on our way to Pennington Flash. On the way I bumped into Peter Whent, who I have met ‘virtually’ through this blog and the Ironman Journey Facebook group. It was nice to meet another face and to spend some of the journey having a general chat about triathlon and life in general. Another really nice guy that I’ve had the pleasure to meet on this journey, and someone whose path I hope to cross again at another event in the future.
We arrived at the drop off point and made the short trek over to T1, where I soon bumped into Chris Platts. We had provisionally planned to try and meet up and to start the swim together. As it happened, our race numbers were very close, and as such our bikes were on the same rack and very close together. We had a good hour and a half until race start and having Chris’ company at this time was invaluable. If I’d been on my own I’m sure that I’d have got lost in my own thoughts and started to stress myself out. As it happened I was remarkably calm and excited.
The time finally came to put our wetsuits on and make our way down towards the water’s edge. My plan was always to get fairly towards the front of the age groupers and try and find some swimmers with a similar estimated finish time – this didn’t quite happen as I didn’t speak to anyone other than Chris in these final moments. My parents arrived, and managed to find us just before we got herded into the water which was nice. I said my farewells to them, and Chris and I put our goggles on and got into the water with an electric atmosphere around us. We started to swim out towards the front of the age-groupers, and soon found ourselves at the very front. This wasn’t really quite the plan, but I was well up for it. I know my swimming is pretty strong, and felt that I should be able to hold my own up there. It was now just a case of treading water for 10 minutes while they continued to get the remaining athletes into the water and ready for the start.
This was it – I was vaguely aware of the National Anthem playing, but was more concerned with listening out for the count-down warnings and keeping myself in a position that gave me as much space as possible. 10 seconds to go – kayaks started pulling out of the way, and those of us on the front line did a final goggle check and started creeping forwards waiting for the horn. I wished Chris good luck and a good race… and then we were off.
I started out steady, pleased to have space all around me and able just to get into a good rhythm. I was aware of a lot of swimmers around me, but none were so close that we were hitting each other. I did know that I had some sitting on my draft though but I was quite happy with this though while I still had my own space.
As we progressed towards the first marker buoy we were clearly funnelling in towards each other as we all tried to pass the buoy as tightly as possible. I had a good first turn, keeping out of trouble and set out on a slightly wide course for the second buoy to try and keep my space. All good so far, I went round the second buoy and headed back towards the end of lap 1. I could see my pace was ok, perhaps not as quick as it could have been, but quick enough to complete the swim in an hour and leave me feeling fresh for the rest of the day.
As I swam I was full of adrenaline and excitement – this was it – I was on the swim leg of Ironman UK – it was all actually finally happening. I was feeling good, and confident and happy to be starting the race with my strongest discipline – a real confidence boost for the rest of the day ahead.
Lap 1 done, it was a quick exit from the water and jog down the timing mat, passing my cheering parents, and back into the water for lap 2. There was now a fairly big group of us, all fairly evenly matched on pace entering the water in the same place and all looking for the most direct line to the first buoy. This is where my pace came down… we were a pretty big group and we were all starting to get on top of each other. I tried to pick off some swimmers to draft, but got frustrated with them swimming slower than I wanted to, so tried to find space to pass, dragging a whole load of swimmers with me in my own draft. As we got about half way towards the first buoy I started to get caught up with slower swimmers in front of me, and those behind me starting to try and swim over me. I got fed up with this and tried to pull out to the side to make some space – once again taking a bunch of swimmers with me who insisted on drafting me, and then trying to go past. Again I got fed up with this and decided to put my foot down and try and shake them off a bit. I picked my pace up and got clear of the pack and had a good run into the first buoy. At this point I had caught up with, and was starting to pass some of the pro racers who were identifiable by their differently coloured hats. This was a nice feeling!
Between buoy 1 and 2 I managed to stay in a reasonable bit of space, but still had some drafters hitting my legs and feet and trying to make the occasional attempt to pass. When they did, I just pulled to the side a bit and then picked up my pace to create more space.
The final run into the swim exit was pretty busy as we all funnelled in again, slowing down the final approach. Out of the water, that was part 1 done – in a time of 1 hour and 1 minute at an average pace of 1:25/100m. A pretty good result but I know I could have done under an hour had I pushed the pace a little and kept out of trouble with other swimmers. Still, I wanted to take it at a steady pace and not over do it before the ride, and this I achieved.
My exit from the water and into T1 was fine. I had a little dizziness as I expected, but shook it off as I ran toward the bag tent. Into the tent I found my bag straight away and got a chair to start getting changed in. I moved at a reasonable pace but didn’t over rush it as I wanted to make sure I didn’t make any rookie mistakes like forgetting my number belt or not putting my helmet on. I made the decision to stick my cycling jersey over the top of my tri suit as it wasn’t that warm yet, and I wanted the jersey pockets to stick my nutrition in. T1 done from exit of water to bike mount line in 7:33 – could have been quicker I guess, but quite happy as I was confident I’d done all I needed to and had forgotten nothing.
Out onto the bike then – I had been warned about the speed bumps leaving Pennington Flash, and sure enough bikes in front of me started losing water bottles as I had been warned they would. I kept it steady and controlled and joined the main road with everything still intact, ready to start the 25km drag up to the main bike course. This part of the course is a steady climb – nothing steep, but just continual.
Off the back of the swim, and with it being a climb my heart rate was elevated out of zone 2. As such I made the decision to keep the pace steady and try and get my heart rate back into zone 2 – I didn’t want to be hammering the glycogen stores too early. This seemed to be the general strategy of those around me – no-one was riding at a particularly fast pace, just steadily making their way up towards Rivington.
I had quite a lot of people pass me at this stage, but I wasn’t concerned. I was prepared for the fact that my swim time would put me ahead of some pro’s and a significant number of quick age-groupers, and knew these would all then pass me on the bike leg!
We got to Rivington and started the infamous Sheep House Lane Climb. I was buzzing at this stage – full of smiles and waves for everyone, thanking them for coming out to support us. I had a great climb, spinning away quite happily and passing loads of people on TT bikes. My Scott Foil aero road bike with its compact chainset was in its element here. I was in high spirits, first climb up Sheephouse done and feeling good. I then made my descent towards Belmont, and finally my heart rate came down to where I wanted it. The roads are then undulating for a while, and once I was happy that my heart rate was well under control I began to pick the pace up.
The next 50km or so went really well. I was averaging over 30km/h despite a very steady start and was feeling in great shape. However things took a turn for the worse around this point. Suddenly my stomach didn’t feel too good. I’m still unsure whether it was because I took on too many gels too early in an attempt to compensate for the swim, or whether it was the Powerbar shots that I was using. I had used these before but not that often. I don’t think it was that though really – my feeling is that it was a combination of too many gels, too much electrolyte drink before the race and during the first part of the ride mixed in with race day nerves and excitement.
Either way, I had no choice but to ease off the pace a bit, and back off of all nutrition. Anything I tried to take on just caused me further stomach cramps. This continued for the remainder of the first lap and into the second. On reflection I reckon that my stomach must have caused me the most issues for about an hour during which time all I could tolerate was water, and then after about another half hour I was able to start eating banana halves from the aid stations again.
I kept the gels in reserve for when I knew a big climb was coming up, such as on the approach to Sheephouse Lane for the second time. My stomach did settle and I was able to pick the pace back up a bit again. I couldn’t even stand the sight of Powerbars, so kept it simple with water, banana, plus the odd bit of flapjack, jelly babies, and the occasional gel.
As I hit the 150km mark I started to cramp up in my left hamstring, and was also getting sore in the lower back from spending so much time on the aerobars. I was feeling pretty low at this point and made the decision to stop cycling for the first time and to get off the bike for a good stretch before the cramp got any worse. I also took this opportunity to sort out my jersey pockets – I had a good collection of sticky, empty gel packs by this point and it was becoming tricky finding the nutrition I was looking for. This brief break gave me a bit of a psychological boost and I set back off feeling jaded but knowing the bulk of the ride was done.
My left hamstring was still threatening to cramp and so when I shortly came across a portaloo I made the decision to stop again. I’d not been to the toilet since before the race and thought I’d better check for any signs of dehydration as the day was starting to heat up now, and my stomach issues had meant that I’d taken on less fluid than I had planned. This toilet stop was the best move I could have made at the time. It gave me the opportunity to stretch out some more, get myself sorted, and when I got back on my bike I felt rejuvenated and ready for the final 30km or so.
This was a really well timed break as I was just short of the steepest climb of the course for the second time – Hunter’s Hill. Had I not stopped I am certain that cramp would have got the better of me on that climb and I’d have been forced to get off the bike and walk it. As it was, although it was tough going, I spun my way up it overtaking quite a few people who looked like they were in as bad shape as I felt, and successfully got to the top relieved that the worst of the climbing was done.
It was now time for the final hour on the bike and the undulating route back to Rivington via Colt Alley. I was however now suffering from an aching right hip – particularly noticeable on the climbs. This plagued me for the remainder of the ride and I had to spend quite a bit of time massaging my hip with my knuckle as I rode.
Colt Alley was another very well timed section of the course. The support here was simply phenomenal with members of the public and the local tri club filling the road and making a huge amount of noise cheering us up the hill. They gave us a Tour de France type experience, drawing us up the hill through the crowds. This was just the boost I think we all needed at this stage. The lad in front of me went from looking completely broken, to being out of his saddle, climbing the hill, whooping and punching the air. This was it… the final climb. And pretty much all downhill from here back to T2.
Bike leg done in 6 hours and 26 minutes at an overall average pace of 28.4km/h – not too bad, but equally I know I could have, and should have ridden it quicker. Main lessons learned are to use more solid food nutrition in the first half of the ride and go steady on electrolyte drinks, and also that actually I shouldn’t be afraid to push the pace on the bike leg, even over that distance – I know I could have pushed harder and I don’t believe it would have affected my run.
I entered T2 feeling pretty battered and the thought going through my head was simply “… and now I’ve got to do what? This is insane, this is ridiculous, how the hell am I going to drag my already pretty broken body round a marathon, I’ve never even run a marathon, this is ridiculous”.
I sat myself down with my transition bag and slowly peeled my bike shoes and socks off, very carefully so as not to cramp up suddenly. I didn’t rush T2 – I needed to take a few minutes to get myself sorted and mentally prepared for the next stage. I sorted out the rest of my run kit, making the decision to leave my hat and sunglasses behind, and got ready to leave T2. On my way out I got a marshal to get me a bottle of water so I could take some ibuprofen as a precaution against the discomfort I’d had in my hip over the last hour, and in case any of my old training injuries flared up.
In no particular rush to leave the comfort of T2 I decided to make take a toilet break again, and then got ready to go. T2 time – 10 minutes.
Despite my hesitation to leave the comfort of T2 I found that I relatively sprung out onto the road and into the run. I was amazed how fresh I felt and couldn’t particularly feel the effects of the ride on my legs. I was suddenly full of life again, chatting away to fellow runners whilst running at a steady 5:00/km pace.
I stopped at the first aid station and tested myself on some flat coke – not good, best to stick with water! I got into a good rhythm and ran the first 10km very comfortably, maintaining that 5:00/km pace with heart rate very much under control and feeling quite light on my feet. At the next station I tried a hydro gel – that didn’t go down well at all – best to avoid gels once again!!
We then made our way along the canal and I was still running at a good and steady pace, before we turned and made our way up a short but steep hill. I made the decision to fast-walk this so as not to overdo it too early on the run. Everyone around me seemed to be adopting the same strategy so I felt good that this was the right move to make.
The next 5km or so continued in the same way, and then we entered the main section of the run course, and turned to run up the road. I was feeling good, got to the turnaround point and started to make my way back down the road towards Bolton town centre. As I came through the town the crowds were great, and I spotted my parents at the side of the road, and briefly stopped to tell them that I was feeling good and it was all going well.
I got to the town centre and saw where the final chute was, I still had a long way to go yet but now knew the layout of the course for those final few laps and therefore what I had to deal with. The run from town centre to the turn around point is basically all uphill, starting with a short but steep road, followed by the main drag.
This first run up hammered me – I started cramping terribly, mainly in the left hamstring that had bothered me on the bike. I was glad to pick up my first arm band, but knew I was getting into a pretty bad way. I knew I needed to get some salt on board but electrolyte drinks were still off the cards. I took every opportunity to sip on some water, and also to throw a cup over my head as it was now really hot and largely exposed on the run course.
I had to stop a number of times on this climb up as the cramp was threatening to go into full spasm. I was relieved to get to the turn around point and start making my way back down the hill. I met a guy from Colts tri club at this point and ran with him for a while – he was in exactly the same boat as me, fighting the cramp and feeling the heat. I had made the decision to run without shades and hat – possibly a bad move, but on the whole I don’t think that was a big deal for me. I did do a lot of training over those final weeks running in the heat and that was always without hat, and this felt no different. I was actually glad not to have the burden of the extra kit. As I passed my parents I tried to hide the pain, but did fairly incoherently mutter that I was in a bad way.
I got back down to the town centre turn around, dreading the climb back up again. My pace got hammered on this lap as I had to walk so many parts of the climb to stop the cramp. During this lap I passed the friendly faces of Chris Platts, looking like he was battling cramp in the same way as me, Peter Whent who seemed very chirpy, and Ewen Lewis who was looking as relaxed as ever. I picked up my second arm band and bumped into the guy from Colts again who said straight away that he was in a bad way and thought that his race was over. He was struggling with heat and cramp and decided to make an extended stop at the turn around point and toilets. I did the same, which required a queue of quite a few minutes – not really ideal but also a fairly welcome break from moving.
I started off downhill and got hit by cramps straight away – this wasn’t good – I was now cramping and being forced to a walk going both uphill and downhill. I made my way back down to the town running what I could and breaking to a walk when needed. As I went down I started to do some calculations in my head. My ultimate goal was of course to successfully complete the Ironman course in the given 17 hours. However, I had long wished to try and hit a ‘dream target time’ of sub 12 hours. I knew by this stage that I was going to finish – I only had about 8km left to go, and I could walk it if necessary. However, my ability to hit my 12 hour target time was looking a little dubious. Based on my current progress I was not going to make it. Through the haze of my exhaustion I worked out that it was still possible to go under 12 hours, but I was going to have to do all that I could to get my pace back up again. I was going to have to average below 5:30/km for pretty much the remainder of the race – a tough call given my state. None-the-less, I was going to give it everything I could.
I was really glad to get to the town and the aid station where I broke out my run first aid kit and threw a rehydration salt tablet into a cup of water. I made my way gingerly through the town centre for the final time and turned to head back up the dreaded hill. About 100 metres in I got hit by a massive spasm in my hamstring that brought me to a halt. This was not what I wanted – at a time when I needed to push on, I had no choice but to stop and stretch it out and start slapping my leg to get it to loosen up again. A lad came past me at this point and encouraged me to run with him and shake it out – I took him up on his offer and soon got going again. As it was I was able to get back into a quicker pace, thanked him, and headed off on my own.
At the next aid station I threw another salt tablet into a cup of water of got it down my neck – I really needed to try and fight this cramp as best I could. I also now took on electrolyte drink, a gel and some pretzels – time to go for it! I made pretty good progress up the hill all things considered, helped along by a little girl with a bowl of jelly babies at the roadside – exactly what I needed at that time!
The crowds were brilliant and the increasingly drunken pub crowds were a huge source of support encouraging me up that hill for the last time. I got my final arm band and started to feel good again – this was it- top of the hill and then the run back down to the final chute. I was nearly there!
As I turned to go down the hill cramp struck me once again. I pulled back into the aid station and asked a lad if he had any salt tabs – he didn’t, but offered me his own final gel. What a heart of gold – but there was no way I could take it from him so I grabbed some red bull and some more pretzels and got on my way trying to shake the cramp out of my leg.
About half way down the hill I bumped into the guy from Colts again – he was looking happier now – the final straight. I ran with him right up to the steep downhill, at which point the increase in pace set off the cramp again. I let him go ahead so I could get it under control, and then made my final approach into the town centre on my own.
I was very aware of the fact that I was incredibly tight on time if I was going to make the 12 hour mark. I literally grabbed a final cup of water at the aid station and picked my pace up again. As I approached the final chute there was a group of runners running 3 or 4 abreast on their first lap. I apologised as I pushed past them but I was on a mission now.
As I entered the chute I had to make a decision – keep going at current pace and potentially miss my dream time, or go for it and sprint the red carpet at the risk of keeling over with crippling cramp and end up crawling the finish line. I made the decision to go for it and started sprinting… as I joined the red carpet I could see the clock and could see that I was going to make it… just. I triumphantly crossed the finish line in 11:59:51 – just 9 seconds to spare! My run time was 4 hours and 14 minutes – well below my ability, but all that I could manage on the day after the swim and ride, the hills, heat, fatigue and cramp!
I was ecstatic – I had a medal thrown round my neck and the volunteers tried to get me to sit down, but I couldn’t – I know I would cramp massively so instead I paced around the finish area in circles until I saw my parents at the fence. I’d done it – 8 months of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, and I’d finally done it.. I’d become an Ironman, and in under 12 hours!
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur – a mixture of phone calls to home, a string of text and facebook messages received and replied to, food, massage, limping through town to my parents car, limping around T2 recovering transition bags and bike, limping around the hotel, shower, limping to the car and into dinner, limping back to the car, hotel and sleep! Lots of limping and no problems sleeping tonight!
The following morning I woke and felt ok – stiff and tired but ok. I showered and made my way to breakfast with my parents proudly wearing my Ironman UK 2014 finishers T-shirt. After this I needed to get on the road and so made a quick trip to the finishers expo where I was presented with a dilemma. Ironman UK 2015 priority entry was open – should I go and sign up for it all over again. I did actually desperately want to, as despite all that I had been through the previous day I would not have changed any of it for the world. I loved it… I loved every little minute of it – the people, the pain, the reward – it was all an amazing experience. Had it not been for strict instructions from my wife not to do another full distance while the kids are young, I would have absolutely signed up. As it is, I took the decision I knew I had to, and went and spent some money on finishers gear instead.
So that’s that – my journey to Ironman is complete. Or is it? This is certainly not the end of the road – I already have my place at Ironman 70.3 Mallorca 2015 booked up – if I can’t do full distance, I will do the next best thing! I’m really looking forward to the build up to that and all of the excitement of the big day itself. I’m also looking at Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire as an option plus another couple of local 70.3’s for next year. I’m also going to be focussing my attention on sprint and Olympic distance races to see how I can do with a bit of focus on short and fast, rather than long and slow. A pipe-dream of mine is to one day have the privilege of wearing a GB age group athlete tri-suit and having the opportunity to represent the country at one of the distances that I’ll now be focussing on. I will, I am sure, come back to the full Ironman distance race as I love it, and want to do more – it’s just all going to be about the timing!
For anyone that is inspired by my journey, and is considering taking the challenge of Ironman on for themselves, then I say go for it. The Ironman mantra is “anything is possible”, and this is so true – get yourself signed up and get committed – you’ll be in for the ride of your life!
In the true spirit of triathlon, and especially those taking on 140.6/Ironman, I am more than happy to offer the benefit of my experience to anyone that feels it might help them – just get in touch, I’ll be more than glad to help where I can.
Finally, thank you time – I hope I don’t miss anyone here, but thank you to everyone that has helped and supported me along the way – the race marshals, organisers and volunteers, the crowds and supporters for spurring us on, everyone that has contributed to my Macmillan Cancer Support fund-raising efforts, the organisations that have supported me (Ferndown Leisure Centre, Pedal’s Cycle Centre, One-Stop Colehill, Spire Cycles), the Ironman community for on-going support, in particular Ewen Lewis and Chris Platts – both friends for life I hope, Dan for inspiring me to take on the challenge of going long in the first place, and offering advice along the way, Alistair for continually giving me advice on anything and everything related to bikes, and of course my friends and family for putting up with all of my Ironman talk, for putting up with the impact of my training on social and family life, and particularly my wife and kids who have had to bear the brunt of most of it! None of it would have been possible without everyone’s input!
What happens now with this blog… well, a week on I’m back into training with a couple of rides, a few swims and a run under my belt. I will continue to work towards my goals, but I don’t wish for it to take up so much of my life as it has done over the last 8 months of my life. To this end, I will not be updating my blog on a daily basis anymore. I will use the time that it takes to spend on work and family matters. I may well decide to add to it every now and then when I have a race or a significant event, but I set it up as a diary of my journey to Ironman, and now that I have achieved this, I don’t feel the need to continue it in the same way.
Thanks for reading and I hope to see you all out on the race course one day. Happy training and good racing!! Dave