2018’s aim was to set a new Ironman PB, 2019's was to qualify for the world championships in Hawaii. 2019 had got off to a great start with a 3rd place at the multistage “Ultra X Sri Lanka” ultra-marathon. Confidence was riding high that my run form would be in great shape, and a 3hr ironman marathon should be on the cards in Bolton, as it had been in Barcelona last year. Given Bolton’s hilly course, the training focus was on the bike.
Apart from a growing Achilles/ankle niggle, things were looking good for Bolton. I ran the risk of tubular tyres without carrying a spare. During the descent of sheep house lane (-17% gradient) I skidded off the road. Somehow managing to stay upright I made it round the next corner, until “bang", the sidewall of my rear tyre had blown out. The foam canister I was carrying proved useless as it spurted straight out of the hole. An hour later the mechanics got to me but couldn’t help. My race was over.
I decided that Langkawi in October would give me enough time to fix my ankle injury and then build up fitness again. Unfortunately despite every treatment (RICE, Sports massage, physiotherapy, custom insoles, and visits to Osteopaths, Injury Specialists and Doctors) my ankle remained injured. I pushed ahead with training deciding to focus on the bike as much as possible in the hope that my ankle would heal. A tumble in the Sierra Nevada in Spain meant the loss of my bike shorts along with a side of skin. Swimming was off the program as well now. My last ride in the UK before flying to Malaysia, saw yet another collision, this time with a car, which mercifully did little damage to me or the bike.
I arrived in Langkawi feeling confident in my bike fitness (less so in my bike handling), but nervous at my ability to swim or run. What confidence I had, soon dissipated when standing at the luggage carousel, I realised that my bike would not be joining me in Langkawi. At this point I genuinely wondered if God was trying to send me a message here that I shouldn’t race. I went out to recce the run on Tuesday afternoon, instead of the bike course as planned. As soon I opened the door, the lightning came, and the heavens opened. I went out, knowing I needed to test my ankle for race day. Heading back after 14km, I was passed by another runner. I stuck with him for a kilometre as he cruised along at 3:45/km pace. Overtaking him on the inside as I pulled off for my turn, he looked at me and said “really?” I explained it was my exit, and chuckled as I realised it was none other than Javier Gomez. My ankle pain was manageable, and I was content given I had been running in only underwear. More panicking, and phone calls on Wednesday, eventually brought news that my bike would arrive in the small hours of Thursday morning. Reunited I had time to assemble my bike and recce the course on Thursday before racking on Friday. Things seemed to be looking up.
0500 reveille. Scoffed down a massive bowl of porridge with peanut butter. Headed over to the airport for the shuttle to T1. Not a single person in sight at the shuttle pick up point. After 30 mins a crowd of another 20 athletes had formed and were eagerly awaiting the buses that never came. Luckily one of the other athletes who had driven there, gave me a lift, and we ended up running to get to T1 in time. After dropping off my street bag, it was straight into the water for a practice swim before heading to the start line. At this point I realised that my stomach was still uncomfortably full.
The water temperature at 28 degrees Celsius, was very warm. With a high five from Craig Alexander before entering the water, we set off. After 5 minutes the water was becoming uncomfortably hot, and my stomach began to feel more bloated. As we swam out from the shore the sun came over head, increasing the already suffocating heat. On the second lap I started to get a stitch and came out of the water slower than planned in 1 hr 10 mins.
I stuck to my race plan of holding an average 35kph for the first loop while the conditions were marginally cooler. I tried taking on water from the start, however my stomach was having none of it. Anything that went down, came back up with bits of undigested breakfast in tow. I resorted to pouring water from the aid stations over myself to try and keep cool. I gradually managed to take on water but had to resort to eating cliff blocks and gels much sooner than planned. Unfortunately it was not a closed course with locals driving along the same roads we were racing on. Otherwise the bike course was spectacular with beach views, and tropical forest sections full of Macaque monkeys.
At 90km’s in the temperature, humidity and sun were all heading up. With my stomach out of action, I knew I had to ease off or risk blowing up entirely. A drop in speed resulted in being able to hold down food and water. A load more gels and I managed to survive the final part of the bike for a 5 hour 16 minute bike split.
I knew straight away it would be a struggle. The lack of run training, meant that the run form wasn’t there to be called upon as usual. The liquid that had finally stayed down during the bike was now sloshing around my stomach, and once again I was in survival mode. So badly stung from the Bolton DNF, I promised myself I wouldn’t give up on this race even if “the wheels came off”. At 3km I had shaken off my bike legs and had found my stride. A guy on a moped from behind said “Looking good”. I turned to acknowledge his encouragement before realising it was 3x Ironman World Champion, Craig Alexander. “Thanks…its Crowie” I exclaimed. “You’re running as fast as any of the pros… pace yourself”. I took his advice and dropped it back to 4:20 pace and exchanged a few more words with a legend of the sport. My experience from 250km in Sri Lanka had taught me that the biggest limiting factor in those conditions was the heat. I took full advantage at the aid stations trying to cool off as much as possible. I saw “Crowie” again at 8 km, “pace yourself” he reinforced. I could only nod now as the fatigue began to set in. I dialled it back to 4:40 pace. I hadn’t pee’d since the start and knew I was on borrowed time with the lack of nutrition and hydration. I tried a gel, but again my stomach was having none of it. A can of coke in my special needs bag along with an icy water bottle helped keep me going for the second lap. It was coke only at the aid stations for the reminder of the race. After the second lap there was only 10km left. I said to myself I would hold this pace then empty the tank in the last kilometre. Across the line for a 3:24 marathon (24 mins slower than the year before in Barcelona). Little did I know at the time what impact that last push would have….
I shook Craig Alexanders hand at the finish and thanked him for his support on the run. My time of 9 hrs 55 mins was 25 mins slower than I had planned. I was still happy to have raced, and overcome the various challenges to make it to the finish line. I headed to the results publication and roll down ceremony early the next morning. I had come 4th in my age group of 76, 34th overall out of 1,235 (including the pros) and was the fastest Brit in the entire field. It was a new best, yet it stung to have finished off the podium, and likely missed one of the 3 available slots to Kona. The roll down ceremony proceeded, with no slots rolling down to the M25-29 age group. I had a feeling the guy who had won the age group (coming 5th overall and beating Kona qualifying professionals) would be taking his spot. I had seen the guy who came third at the centre already, so my hopes rested on 2nd place not taking his slot. The flying Frenchman marched up to accept his place from Craig Alexander. Second place was called out, and immediately a young Japanese man sprung up out of the front row, and bowed as he accepted his slot. My hope waivered as the only chance I had, seemingly disappeared. “First call for Ivan Kharin?” said the announcer. A gentle applause faltered as no one came forward. “Second call for Ivan Kharin?” I looked around behind me thinking he was adding dramatization to his acceptance. “Third call for Ivan Kharin?” asked the announcer. Without knowing it I was up and walking towards the front before the announcer even said my name. “First call for Thomas Joly de Lotbiniere”, I could hardly believe it, I had got a slot to The World Championship!
One thing I live by is to never give up, even when you are suffering and things fall apart . As two time Ironman World Champion Chris “Maca” McCormack once explained, if he was in pain, then he knew the guys around him were in as much pain, if not more. Hence, when asked the question of “What do you do when the pain comes?” he responded “When the pain comes, I smile”.
On closer examination of the tracker app, I saw that I had taken 4th place by only 21 seconds. Not only was the margin so small, but It had happened in the last few hundred meters from the finish when the pain was at its worse.... I smiled.