I'd heard triathlon was fun and when I realised that competing in an endurance event like Ironman would allow me to combine self-improvement with fundraising I navigated to the Ironman UK webpage and within 5 minutes I was £375 lighter after signing-up for the July 2012 event as a Rotary Charity Fundraiser. I was completely unaware of the change that was about to happen in my life.
At that time I couldn't swim! No, seriously I couldn't swim. I could just about manage two laps of breast stroke in the local 25m pool. What’s more I didn't own a bike and I hadn't ridden one for more than 20 years, although I had been doing a few 5K Park Runs and I was always a decent runner at school. Though at 45 years of age (ahem), school was a long time ago!
I’m now over six months into my Ironman journey, so it’s a good time for me to take stock of what I’ve achieved, identify my key lessons learnt, and review my plan for the next part of the journey.
First I’ll share some details of my experience on the day in Bolton, and then I’ll write some of my thoughts from looking back over the preceding six months of training and preparation.
I’m relieved to be able say that I successfully completed the Ironman UK course on 22nd July, but I’m also a little frustrated that due to a couple of physical set-backs on the day I finished in a disappointingly slow time.
During the Australian exit between the first and second laps of the swim I badly twisted my ankle on an unmarked step beneath the red carpet at the swim exit, which meant I had to complete half the swim (2.4 miles) and then complete the whole of the bike (112 miles) and the run (26.2 miles) with painful, damaged ankle ligaments. Fortunately I was able to find the mental strength to get back in the water and try to continue swimming through the pain rather than pulling out of the race early.
As it turned out forcing myself back into the water was a ‘good’ move. As I completed the second swim lap I had time to think about all the support that my family and friends had given me over the previous six months; especially all the help with fundraising, encouraging me through my early morning tiredness, tolerating my evening grumpiness, and simply getting on with life on the many weekends where I was unavailable due to swim, bike, and run training priorities. I also thought about the support and goodwill that many of my colleagues had shown me and I thought about the donations that I would miss out on for SPICE if I didn’t manage to complete the course; but most of all I thought about the time end energy that I’d invested of myself over many months to get myself to this point. It was my time and I decided I wasn't wasn't going to let it slip away without a fight.
I began to feel the lake water cooling my ankle and was able to regain sufficient composure to convince myself that I could still finish the race despite the injury. I completed the swim in 1 hour 39 minutes and limped toward the swim-to-bike transition area feeling pleasantly surprised that my swim time was only around 10 minutes slower than my typical training times over the same distance, which was a massive lift to my spirits.
The ankle injury forced me to completely re-think my overall race plan. My race preparation should have enabled me to achieve an overall time of around 13 hours, but that would now be impossible on my damaged ankle and so I quickly conceived a new plan, which was simple: finish the race at all cost before the 17 hours cut-off point!
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long into the bike ride when I started to notice some strange stomach activity that quickly developed into stomach cramps, and which lasted for the whole of the remainder of bike and run! In any normal situation the serpent swimming around in my stomach would surely have caused me to throw in the towel, but Ironman is far from a normal situation, and I was somehow able to change my thoughts such that the stomach cramps actually became a useful distraction from the pain of my ankle, which was relegated to a light and ever so slightly boring throbbing pain rather than the constant stabbing pain that it had been since the swim exit prior to the start of the stomach cramps.
One very real problem with the stomach monster, which I simply couldn’t afford to ignore if I wanted to finish, was how it was effecting my nutrition plan. Clearly the ankle injury meant I couldn’t cycle as fast and I would have to walk rather than run during the marathon, which together meant it would take me nearly four hours longer to complete the overall course. However, although that was very disappointing it was still manageable and not of itself dangerous.
The stomach cramps on the other hand were a very different proposition. There was a high-risk of dehydration and a danger that I might end up being unable to finish due to exhaustion if I didn't act to keep myself energised and hydrated. I'd used all the sports gels I'd packed pre-race, and the sports gels and drinks that were available free at the various feed-stations dotted around the event course were unfamiliar and eating them was in itself a risk as I wasn't sure how my stomach would react to them. I resolved that it couldn't get any worse, and I decided to try to force down a whole load of unfamilar sports and gels fluids in order to try to stave off dehydration and enhaustion.
Unfortunately most of what I was consuming wasn’t staying where is was needed and I was feeling increasingly weak and dehydrated. I can’t say with any certainty what was the cause of the cramps. All I know is that they were incredibly painful. I was forced to become more familiar than I would have liked with many of the portable toilets dotted around the bike and run course… along with various hedgerows, walls, and at one point during the run into Bolton I was reduced to asking a spectator for use of their bathroom. I will be eternally grateful for the kindness shown to me by the spectator in Horwich who allowed me to use the bathroom in his house. It saved me from having to suffer indignity and embarrassment on top of the pain I was already dealing with from my heavily swollen ankle. Thank you very much kind Sir!
Amazingly, somehow my body did manage to absorb enough sustenance from the various sports fuels that I’d been trying to force down during the bike and run, and although I ended-up walking for most of the run, and despite all of the other set-backs on the day, I eventually made the finish outside Bolton Town Hall at just before 11pm in an overall time of 16 hours and 45 minutes.
I was presented with my finishers medal by Daniel Halksworth, who was overall race winner earlier in the day. It was great feeling to be presented with the finishers medal by an elite athlete like Daniel. The joy of completing the Ironman UK course and then being presented with my medal by Daniel is obvious from the Run 247 TV video footage of the event below.
Fast forward to 25mins 25 seconds for footage of one very tired but happy Ironman UK finisher.
After presenting my finishers medal Daniel asked “are you gonna come back next year David?” Although I felt like saying “you are obviously also completely mad… no of course I am not coming back next year, nor ever…”, for some reason the words that actually came out of my mouth were “yes absolutely, that was awesome!”.
At the time of writing this post, Bolton is a couple of weeks in the past. I’ve recovered some of the 5kgs body weight I lost on the day of the event, but my ankle is still quite swollen and I’ve only just got on top of the stomach problems. Nevertheless, I’m able to reflect very positively on the whole experience and I’m also extremely pleased to report that we’ve smashed the £1,500 fundraising target by successfully raising almost £2,000 for SPICE and cancer charities from individual donations and various fundraising activities.
So far my Ironman journey has taught me that finishing is about both mental and physical strength – probably in equal proportion – and for the majority of competitors it’s all about finishing. On the day anything can happen, and those who do finish are those who are able to adapt, stay calm and positive, overcome adversity, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other until the finish line. Perhaps that is a good metaphor for how to approach life in general.
In the bigger picture, the training and preparation that’s needed before the day requires an immense amount of support from family and friends, and also plenty of goodwill from colleagues and associates. I've got tremendously supportive and tolerant family and friends, which is essential, and my job means I've got some flexibility in my working day, which is useful and appreciated; but I've also had some great support from local businesses such as Absolutley Ice and the Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook, who both very generously supported my fundraising activities.
Here are some thoughts based on the swim, bike, run training experience from the six months leading up to Bolton:
- Swimming: Learning to swim has been my biggest achievement this year by far... irrespective of what happened in Bolton! I have cultivated a love-hate relationship with swimming - I love open water swimming, but I hate being caught up in the washing machine at the start of a swim race.
I've had some great swim coaching from Toby Haddock, and one the smartest things I did was to join a local triathlon club in Windsor, which gave me access to great advice from other great swimmers like Hayley Morris, and several accomplished Ironmen and women who gave me great advice. It also gave me reduced price access to great open water swimming venues at Liquid Leisure in Datchet and a beautiful, peaceful lake at Little Marlow, which is a perfect training lake for Ironman at Bolton.
I have to say learning how to wear a wet suit before going for a swim was priceless advice and probably saved me significant embarrassment (yes I did originally think that the zip goes to the front - not cool).
Joining a club has also given me access to great guidance about what triathlon events to enter as preparation for Ironman.
- Cycling: My bike is a four year old Cervelo road bike. I bought it second-hand - it cost me less than a decent wetsuit, and I absolutely love it!
The Sunday morning rides with B2P Triathon Club have been a great way for getting me out and helping me to build confidence, and saddle endurance. I never realised just how beautiful the scenery is in many places across the South East of England (I’m from Yorkshire and I tend think it's all a concrete jungle down south, which obviously is not true!).
I've had so many adventures cycling but one in particular stands out in my memory. One Saturday back in April I thought I'd cycle the 120miles to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire on my own to meet up with my brother. My brother is an accomplished cyclist who at the time was training hard himself to complete Lands End to John O’ Groats by bike in nine days. Inspired by my brothers ambition and spurred-on also by my own need to build some long distance rides into my Ironman training, the ride north to meet my brother in Melton Mowbray seemed like a great idea. Our plan was to stay in a nice hotel, eat good food and then also cycle back home the next day. However, it rained on the way up, I got extremely cold in my summer gear (how naïve of me to think it wouldn't rain!), my saddle endurance wasn't anywhere near as developed then as it is now. My choice of roads was not great as it included some long-stretches of busy A roads around Milton Keynes – a part of country where car drivers seem to have major issues with cyclists being on road! I have to admit that I got the train home the next day, and I wouldn't recommend building that journey into your Ironman training plans, but it’s fun looking back and I learnt a lot about the importance of planning and preparation for long bike rides.
My cycling knowledge and endurance has since improved due to opportunities presented by the cycle sportive circuit, which offers lots of safe and well organised long distance cycle rides that can help build endurance in preparation for Ironman. The infamous King of the Downs in particular has some very stretching hill climbs.
I’m tempted to say that I am now able to cover the Ironman bike distance comfortably, though actually I don’t think cycling for 112 miles is ever going to feel comfortable!
- Running: Before the day of the Ironman UK event I hadn’t run a marathon distance event in any context. Though all the books I'd read and the advice I'd received was that it isn't necessary to complete the distance during a training programme. Instead I was focused on training for specific durations at predefined heart rates.
Heart rate monitors are fantastic training devices - I would say probably the single most important gadget to buy if you’re considering training for an endurance event. This one device helped me to overcome a chronic calf muscle problem that was the result of over-training and an inappropriate training programme.
Many runners, myself included, fall into the trap of thinking that if only they can only run faster for longer in training then they will be better endurance athlete. Which is completely false, and the heart rate monitor is a very useful tool for helping runners to manage and overcome the natural instinct to over-train.
It’s been a fantastic journey so far and I can’t wait for my ankle ligaments to heal so that I can get back into the gym and continue with my training. My next triathlon will be a much shorter standard distance triathlon (1.5k swim, 40km bike, 10k run) called Steelman at Eton Dorney during September. Eton Dorney is the rowing venue for the Olympics and a great place with lovely clean water, and no cars to navigate on the bike and run sections. I’m really looking forward to it.
I've met some really inspiring people over the past six months since starting this journey, and I’ve learnt a lot about myself the people around me. I intend to continue with the training and I also plan to enter Ironman UK for 2013. In the short-term I’ll reduce the training intensity so that I can focus more time on my family, but still with one eye on what I need to do to prepare for next year. Hopefully I can stay injury-free and retain my current levels of fitness so that I am able to improve my time significantly next year.
Finally, it’s not too late to sponsor me… please donate something from my JustGiving webpage.
50% of your donation goes to SPICE (Special People on ICE) and 50% goes to a group of cancer charities. SPICE is a special needs ice skating group based in Slough who work with young people up to the age of eighteen who have a wide range of additional needs - Autism, Aspergers Syndrome, Downs Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy to name a few. SPICE is raising money to travel to Canada in 2013 to play ice hockey against other special needs teams from across North America.