Malcolm, you are an Ironman

So you spend a few hundred quid a year before the actual event, then spend the months leading up to it getting up at daft o’clock to get a few extra miles in on the bike or run, lock yourself away in a room on the turbo for hours on end, feel constantly hungry, for what? A day of pain and torture, competing in whatever weather is thrown at you and 30 seconds of glory running down the finishers chute, is it really worth it? Oh yes!!

My IMUK experience started on the Friday as I went up to the Macron Stadium to register and attend the first race briefing. Not having done anything like this before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was so smooth. Give the helper your race number, she gives you a form. While you’re signing your life away on it she disappears into the racks and brings you out am IMUK rucksack. In it are your race numbers, 3 bags, a race program, swim hat and some other bits and bobs. While she’s giving you that, you also get your wrist band with your race number, and once that’s on, you become an athlete, an ironman in waiting. This gets you access to athlete only areas and also means you only wear short sleeve shirts until the race so everyone around sees the band and knows that you are in the IMUK race.

I had a quick mooch around the IronMan merchandising, which given the costs of entry, I thought was quite reasonable. I also had a look around the other stands in the expo, and picked up a bike cover from the Powerade stand to cover the bike in transition once I’d dropped it off.

Then, it was off to the briefing. As there was two, I thought it would be a reasonable split between the two, but it felt like everyone was in this one. Whilst they had a serious message to get across, it wasn’t too overbearing, particularly when they said something like 1600 out of the 2000 were first time IronMan racers. Made me feel a whole lot better, and I’m sure it was the same for alot of others around me. I hope I’m not the only one who did this, but I couldn’t help looking around at everyone, eyeing them up and trying to think if they looked like they’d done more or less training than me, looked fitter or just generally looked like they knew what they were doing. To be fair, there was quite a mixed bag, some obvious first timers, some who’d done a few full distance races and a handful of Mr Universes so looked like it should be ok for Sunday. Getting out of the Macron car park after the briefing was a nightmare so I just had another look at the Expo, grabbed a drink and eventually set off when the traffic had cleared abit more.

Saturday was always going to be a messy, long day as had to deposit gear at T1 and T2 and also had my two little ones doing the Ironkids. Drove into the centre of Bolton with the kids, parked up and soon got a taste of the atmosphere. Could hear the commentator on the Ironkids and there was groups of parents with kids in their green, Ironkids shirts. My 5 year old was off at 1145, and 3 year old at 1220 and by 1115 the heavens had opened. Fortunately, it was still quite warm so me and the other IMUK competitors could wear t shirts to show off our athlete band to everyone else, and those that didn’t could use the IMUK rucksack. To be fair to IronMan, they put on a really well organised event, the biggest of its kind apparently and it ran so smoothly, which was a common theme of the weekend for me. They even had Craig Alexander there starting the races, handing out some of the medals and just generally being there. My 5 year old had her picture took with him, even though she hasn’t got a clue who he is, or what he’s done. The two little ones both had the same run, a 500 metre jog with Dad around the Town Hall and up the finishing chute for their medal. The oldest was a little nervous but once the helpers got everyone doing some warm ups before hand, she got into it and tore off around the track. The youngest wasn’t keen at all and had to be carried round by Dad, who was being extra careful not to slip in the wet and put himself out of the race the day after. After we were all reunited and medals were shown, we went our separate ways, kids and mum home to refuel after their Ironkids and dad to park his equipment.

First stop was the Macron again. This was to dump the red transition bag that had the running gear so a nice easy, quick drop and back in the car to Pennington Flash where the swim would be and T1. The weather had picked up abit by now but because of the numbers of people at the Flash, the overflow car park on the grass was being used, and it was getting quite muddy. I got the bike out and waded through the mud and water towards T1. I knew they’d want me to put my helmet on as I went in, but it didn’t stop me not doing it and having to get to the bottom of my transition bag to find it. Bag repacked and into T1 where you had your picture took on entry with the bike and numbers showing, presumably for security. I found my rack, row E about half way down and hung my bike up, then had a brief wrestle with the bike cover to keep the elements off it overnight. Into the tent to dump the blue bag with the cycling gear and on the way out, pick up the timing chip. All done, all very easy and all very real now.

Back home to see my Ironkids and it was feet up, carb up and hydrate. Bed by 9 and to be fair, probably managed to get to sleep by 1130, only to woken at 230 to my Ironman alarm.

This is it, this is what you’ve been doing all this shit for for the past 6 months, just believe and you can do it. Everything was ready so downstairs and made myself the traditional IronMan breakfast, porridge, banana and coffee. Was hard work spooning it down but it was needed so made short work of it. Last time I was eating at this time in the morning, it would have been something considerably spicier with a large amount of liquid sloshing about inside me, but I’m a changed man now, hopefully. Sneaked out of the house so as not to wake anyone and off I went. First thought was it was foggy, where’s that come from? Then after what felt like no time, I was back at the Macron parking the car.

I’d arranged to get the shuttle bus provided by Ironman down to the Flash, so parked up, walked down to the bus, got on and it set off, again, all very smooth. Another thought came into my head about the last time I’d been on a bus at this time. Probably was the same time I’d been eating at this time but it would have been the all night 263 to Altrincham coming home from Rockworld in Manchester, times have changed abit.

By the time we’d been dropped off at the Flash and wandered over to T1 it was about 430. Had some space either side so quickly got my bike sorted with the drinks and nutrition for the ride. Once that was out of the way, quick toilet stop and it was time to change into the wetsuit. Went into the tent to change as there were some seats to sit on which made life a little easier. The changing areas in triathlons make me laugh as its full of blokes asking each other to zip each other up, and this was no different. There was abit of nervous laughter and jokes but it generally felt quite serious, guess it was finally here and everyone was trying to get prepared mentally. I’d emptied everything out of my bag, lubed and got into my wetsuit, just need to put on timing chip now. Shit, where is it? Looked in bag, through my clothes, everywhere, it had vaporised in the journey from the bike to the tent. Slight flap, went through everything again and it still wasn’t there so got my shoes on to go to the officials, and there it was, in my shoes for safe keeping so I didn’t lose it!!

I remembered a few people saying it took ages to get into the flash, so once I was suited up, I dumped my white bag which had my change of clothes for the end of the race with a helper and made my way towards the water. There was already a fair queue, but nothing like the toilets!! I could hear everyone was getting called to the water and we started to shuffle forward using both the exit and entrance to get in. As there were so many first timers, everyone seemed to be aiming to be at the back on the right to avoid the fisticuffs at the start at the front so I just kept to the middle but held back a little.

The national anthem came and went, then it was the klaxon and away we went. I waited for the biff, and waited and waited and nothing, was pretty impressed with that start, what’s to worry about?? Tried to get a drag off the swimmers in front but they were going at some strange angles to where I was sure we should have been heading so I just did my thing. I might not be the fastest swimmer, but I’m quite confident and I knew where I was heading, and the water was quite murky which meant it was a little difficult to pick up on feet in front. The swim to the first buoy seemed to take an age, and my hat managed to work its way loose a couple of times which was annoying. Went a little wide on the first couple of turns to avoid any aggro as there was a little bit of bunching and on the leg back to land, found myself in some clear water. Think I was giving a tow at this point as I felt a few taps on my leg but I was quite happy, in fact I was quite fletered to be doing it, and I was in my comfort zone, swimming quite comfortably. I could see the buoy I was aiming for quite clearly but it seemed to take an age to get to. All of a sudden, there’s more bunching but the volunteers did a great job of getting us out and onto dry land to run around to start the second lap. Exited the first lap in 46.18 which I was a little disappointed with as I was hoping for south of 40 but felt good so just cracked on with the second lap, and more importantly from a personal pride point of view, I hadn’t been lapped by the professionals which was a slight worry that I had.

Second lap was pretty much a repeat of the first, had my own space, was into a rhythm and sighted ok. Just plodded along, keeping an eye on if I could sneak a draft from anyone but it didn’t happen and soon enough, I was turning in for home. Again, bit of bunching at the exit, but the volunteers did a grand job getting us out of the water. Finished it in 1.38.02 which again, was a little disappointing. Wanted to be on the bike 90 minutes after the start so I was already going to be about 20 minutes down on my estimate, but on the plus side, that was one stage over with. Didn’t want to run through the exit lane until I had got my balance properly, nothing worse than a rubber clad Bambi trying to rush into T1, especially as the cameras were there. The jog into T1 gave me my first taste of being in front of a crowd, and absolutely loved it. Grabbed my bag and into the changing rooms. Had already decided I was going for a full change prior to the event, not a chance I was going to do 112 miles on a bike in anything other than my cycling shorts so T1 was abit of a faff,especially as it was quite crowded in the changing area. I was also quite methodical about what I did so I didn’t forget anything such as my race belt which I did in the Wilmslow sprint, it was a long day and an extra 30 seconds won’t matter was my thought, although that almost came to bite me on the arse later.

Gentle jog to the mounting area and away I went, on the 112 miles I really wasn’t looking forward to. First two thoughts were don’t fall off clipping in and don’t fall off over the speed bumps and two minutes later, that was achieved. On my way out of the Flash, I saw an ambulance coming in with lights on and thought “poor sod, not even got onto the bike and someone’s being carted away”. Only on the Monday did I find out it was for a chap called Andy Holgate, the author of a couple of triathlon books that have probably inspired a number of people like me. He was riding behind someone who launched their nutrition over a speed bump, he had nowhere else to go other than over it and that put him off the bike, into hospital and out of the race.

The first few miles went quite easily. Just tried not to get carried away, work within my average speed aim and when I could get my speed up down a hill, take the free speed. I’d recce’d the course a few weeks before, so sort of knew my way around and what was coming, the ascent of Sheep House Lane being the first big obstacle. Came round the corner to the start of the hill and could see the first big group of spectators. Probably didn’t need the smell of the food as I’d have swapped a sausage barm that they were having for my apple crumble energy gel in an instant but that was soon forgotten as I started up Sheep House. I’d spent a morning doing ascents up here the previous month so knew what to expect but the spectators gave great support and encouragement, it really was a big help. Sheep House can probably be broken down into 3 climbs, the worst for me being the longer, steeper one with a 90 degree left hand bend at the top so you lose momentum to climb to the summit. Just after this bend was a big group of supporters, parked up for the day having a party with loud music and lots of encouragement. Its groups like this at locations like this that give a big lift to people like me who need all the help they can get. And a little further on was a group of blokes dressed in afro wigs, speedo’s and mankini’s, not your average dress code for being at the summit of a hill, but very much appreciated by the competitors I’m sure, made me smile and forget some of the hurt which was well needed.

Sheep Hill done, and now the descent. To be honest, I’m not great at downhill, I don’t trust myself with the speed but this time I tried my best to use the downhill to my advantage, seemed to be a little quicker but still had people coming past me. It was around here that I started with a pain in my left shoulder blade. Everytime I looked behind me, tried to get on the aerobars or hit a big bump, I got a really bad pain in my shoulder, felt like I’d been stabbed and a couple of times it made me yelp out loud it hurt so much. I wouldn’t blame this entirely for my bike time, but it did slow me down a little. For the next couple of hours, it was really all I could think of and whether I was going to be able to finish, it hurt so much. People say that you go to some dark places in an IronMan triathlon, and this was it. I knew I was going to hit this at some point, but I wasn’t quite prepared to be hitting it so early. I just concentrated on how much I’d done already, not on how far I had to go, and it dragged me out of my hole. The other think that helped perversely was the other big hill on the loop, Hunters. I’d not cycled up this, only driven so I knew what it looked like, just not what it felt like, and it hurt!! Steeper than Sheep House but not as long is a simple description. There were some walking it already but I was determined to make it up, and by keeping on the bike, it changed the pressure points on my hands, which in turn gave me some relief from my shoulder pain, so thank you Hunters, I think!! There was also a short, sharp hill just after here that I wasn’t ready for and once I got to the top, I cramped in my quads quite badly so had to pull over. I stretched it off, popped a salt tablet and set off again a little bit gingerly.

Then it was pretty much do it again for the second lap. I’d got half way in exactly 4 hours which again was slower than I wanted but bearing in mind my shoulder, at least I was still going forwards. Before I got to Sheep House the second time, I had to go down Colt alley. This is a stretch of road that the COLT tri club have made their own. First time round, there wasn’t too many people there but this time was different. I turned onto it to be greeted by a mass of people, 4 or 5 deep on both sides with horns, whistles, drums making a right racket and giving so much encouragement. There was only room to get through single file but it was such a buzz I forgot about any aches and pains and piled through there with the biggest smile of the day so far. Top experience and thanks to all at COLT who make that area their own.

Sheep House wasn’t much fun second time around, but plodded on up, probably quicker to walk to be honest but got up there then enjoyed the descent. Being towards the back meant there wasn’t as much support this time round as quite a few had headed off to the run, but there was still a fair few offering words and encouragement, and believe me, it was appreciated. If Sheep House wasn’t much fun, then Hunters almost killed me. The steepest hill on the course coming in second time round at about 95 miles in just isn’t funny, and I’m sorry, it beat me and I had to walk the last bit. Having said that, I was still moving forward and if this IronMan malarkey was easy, we’d all do it.

All the way round, I was aware of the time. Yes it would be tight to make cut off, I’d got about 20 minutes to spare at the pace I was going but I was probably one puncture away from a DNF so I was so careful to not go down potholes or ride over too much rough as my tyre changes weren’t the quickest and I wasn’t going to DNF because of that. At last, the final feed station came round just before 4 o’clock. The guys there gave the group of us some encouragement saying we had a good 15 minutes in hand and congrats, get down to transition and the run. About a mile down the road, it split, left to do the laps, right to T2 but there were a number of cyclists stopped in the right lane so we added to the jam. It soon became clear that the guy who was stopping us was a race official and he was telling us we hadn’t made the cut off. Now normally I wouldn’t argue with an official, but this time he was just in the wrong. We’d just been told we had 15 minutes by the guys at the feed station, the handbook said 4.15 at this feed station, the briefing said 4.15 at the feed station and we were just past 4.00. Fortunately, after a chat we were allowed to carry on, and I rode that last couple of miles as quick as I’d been all day. I knew as long as I completed the bike I’d finish so riding into T2 was a great feeling. Finished the bike in 8.22.51 which again I was disappointed with but bearing in mind my shoulder injury and the fact I had finished, I had to be happy.

The volunteers took my bike and I shuffled towards the tent where I got told I had 15 minutes to get into transition, which was about 10 feet away, even I could do that!! Bib shorts and cycling gear off, running gear, fresh socks and lots of talc on and I was off on the marathon, even remembered to turn my race number around the right way.

The weather had got noticeably warmer over the last couple of hours and heading out onto the run without the flow of air from the speed of the bike, it felt very warm. There was an aid station just out of T2 so I took some water on and poured some over me to keep my temperature down. I tried to run and actually felt ok so continued a few hundred yards only to be faced with a nice, big hill. Nope, walking that, and the next hill round the corner!! Onto the main road and got my act together and started to run. The plan was an 8 minute run followed by a 2 minute walk and keep that going as long as I could. Whilst it was hot, I felt ok so just kept at it. I felt my watch buzz at me so looked down and it was a distance alert, I’d got through 3 miles and that gave me a real lift. Not because I’d done that distance but in my mind, I felt good, I had a decent rhythm and more importantly, it felt like the time had flown so bring it on.

Onto the canal tow path and still felt good, was catching people up and whilst not exactly powering past, it gave me a target and an incentive to keep going. I was trying to work out what I could do the marathon in and what my finish time would be. I started hoping for a 4 ½ hour marathon keeping at my current pace which in hindsight was a tad hopeful, but it kept me going. Coming off the tow path and onto the main drag, there was quite a chunky hill, and that was another longer walk but when we got onto the loop, it was packed with runners and spectators which gave me another lift. While I still had 18 miles to go, I could see the end now and started running again. The heat was taking its toll now so I had to make full use of the aid stations, usually taking a couple of waters to drink and a couple to pour over me to cool down. I also had a couple of gels to keep me going and after the second one, I began to feel quite bloated, and each time I guzzled the water, my stomach gave some serious grumbles, serious enough for me to stop running and start walking. This was probably my low point on the run as it looked like everyone had at least one arm band which showed they were a lap in front, and there were an awful lot who had two or three, I had none and a dodgy tummy.

Shuffled my way into the town centre, which was downhill, I could hear the crowds and just that gave me a lift. I also seemed to remember being told that the flat coke worked for tummy problems so at the next aid station, I tried some. Whilst I was having that, I saw someone waving and jumping up and down in the crowd, it was my young uns and my wife, and that gave me a proper lift. Gave them all a kiss, got told I stank and ran on. The coke seemed to have worked so it would be just that from now on, not risking anything else. The crowds in the centre were amazing, such a buzz running through there, strangers shouting your name, giving you encouragement, really good feeling. Didnt even mind running past the finishing chute listening to people being told they were an IronMan, I’d be there soon enough.

Back out of town, and the enjoyable run in down the hill became a slow walk out up the hill, didn’t see anyone run that all day. On to the main road and the support here was just as vocal as the town centre, although I’m guessing it had something to do with the large number of pubs on the road, the hot weather and the packed beer gardens. Half way down, I got my first armband for my first loop and another massive lift to keep me going. Tried some pretzels at the next feed station, but they turned to some kind of salty sponge in my mouth which seemed to take all the moisture away I’d just put in, still, sure the salt did me some good and the fact it was savoury rather than the sugary gloop I’d been on day was a nice change.

Back into town, I could feel my bladder was full, and this lead me onto another lowpoint, the IronMan portaloo. I’d been warned about this but nothing can really prepare you for it, opening the doors was like opening the doors to hell. There was everything everywhere and the hot weather had just enhanced the fermentation process, I came out of there feeling like I needed a 2 gallon tetanus.

The runners had started to thin out now so the ones that were left just kept encouraging everyone else, everyone was in it together and everyone was helping each other, whether it was words of encouragement or sharing painkillers, anything to help. The pubs were still full, as was the town centre and as I got my last band I started to feel quite giddy, I was going to finish and become an IronMan, I even managed to quicken my shuffle to what could almost be called a run.

Heading down the hill for the last time, I had a quick breather, I was determined to run the last bit through the town centre. I could remember the words at the briefing “Make sure you get a good finishing line photo” so I saw a decent gap between runners and went for it. Turning into the square this time I kept left into the chute and kept running down it. Onto the final approach, high fived a few and looked for the announcer to give me my moment, but he had his back to me, talking to the guy in front, I slowed and slowed until I got to him “Cmon, my turn now”, he’ll see me soon. Ended up having to stand in front of him pointing at my name badge but it was so worth it.

“Malcolm, you are an IronMan”

Brilliant feeling, so worth all the pain and something nobody can ever take away.

Got my medal, had my picture took and into the tent for the food. Sat down having my first slice of pizza when the devastating news came in, they’d run out of pizza!! Had a last sweep across the table for some cake and crisps, and then out to meet up with the wife and kids to get home.

Fantastic day, brilliant support all over and now, I AM AN IRONMAN!!

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