Updated: Dec 7, 2022
It had been over 4 years since the last Iron Man triathlon (Iron Man Nice), but having left the Army I would have a bit more time to get some training in. The Army had been fantastic for developing my running (setting a new course record at The Wall ultra in June), but it wasn’t always easy to get decent time in the pool or on the bike. I was confident that I could bolt on a 3-hour marathon, but what could I put out on the swim and bike. I had the luxury for Iron Man Nice of not having a job, and could train to my hearts desire (or lack of). Now I was training before and after work and at weekends. With a better understanding of training methods and 4 years of military conditioning, I was a far stronger and prepared athlete. Whether I could dedicate the time to do a 9-hour Iron Man was however an unknown.
The summer was great for training, and following an 80/20 principle (80% of training done at low intensity, 20% at medium and high intensity) I was on track for a faster time. I planned for plenty or rest and a couple of tune up races a month out including a half distance “Woburner” triathlon at which I came third, and a half marathon where I also came third… things were shaping up nicely. I travelled out to Barcelona and then Calella, with my bike on the Wednesday. It was 24 degrees and sunny at midday, perfect conditions for cycling, but quite hot by running standards. On Thursday with my bike assembled, I cycled the 90 km bike loop, (turns out the motorway is not a great place to be on a bike) but overall was happy I would be able to sustain an average 36kph for a 5-hour bike split. On Friday I swam 3km of the course, and overall it felt like it was time well spent on recce, (time on recce is seldom wasted). Saturday was a big rest day, with a massage and stretching on the beach.
I racked my bike and noticed almost everyone was letting the air out their tyres. I have seen it before and know people do it in the fear of them bursting in the heat. I knew my tyres could take a lot more pressure and the heat of the day was already passing. A quick check across some online tri forums and the verdict was it was unnecessary…why make it more complicated than needed. Back to the apartment for final preparation and an early night.
Woke at 0600 after a slightly restless night, but otherwise feeling ok and ready. I had a large bowl of porridge and coffee, checked I had my swim kit and street wear bag, then set off for transition. It had rained that night and was still drizzling on the way to transition. I went straight to my bike and it looked fine, front tyre good, rear tyre looked ok, quick squeeze…….uh oh. Turns out there is a reason people let the air out and pump them up in the morning. The old “Army Tom” kicked in. I was immediately flapping, then I reminded myself to breathe, “condor moment”, time check (1-hour until the start). Observe (still some air in the tyre… not burst). Orientate (where is the nearest pump, spare kit, mechanical assistance tent). Decide (ask to borrow pump, if that fails, use Vittoria tyre sealant and gas, if that fails change tyre, if that fails seek assistance, if that fails someone else would be short a bike in T1). Act (pump borrowed) tyre inflated and holding pressure, check wheel over and all looks good. Back in.
After a quick warm up in the sea, I lined up near the front of the 1hr 05 min pen for the swim. Tempted to go at the back of the 1hr pen, I thought better of it, having experienced the washing machine in two previous mass beach starts. The music blared out as the age groups were set free in a “rolling” swim start. This was the most pleasant Iron man swim I have ever experienced, with minimal thrashing, kicking and drowning of fellow competitors. I only gulped a little seawater and had one elbow to the eye, which filled that goggle with water…relatively unscathed. I settled into a good rhythm and soon found myself flying past those in front. It felt great to actually enjoy the swim. The turnaround point came at about 30 minutes of swimming and I only gradually passed those in front now. Perhaps I should have gone in the 1 hr zone in a bid to hang on to others feet for a better time. Out of the water and onto the beach in exactly 1 hr 5 mins, as I had predicted, I would need to make up 5 minutes on bike, as I had planned based on a 1,5,3 breakdown.
Could have swum a little straighter
Straight on the bike with shoes clipped on. The first 3km were littered with speed bumps and narrow windy roads. The first loop was crowded despite the rolling swim start, and almost impossible to not be in someone’s draft. Often you would overtake the person in front only to find you would have to then overtake the next 3 people in front of them. Alternatively, someone would pull out mid overtake and you found yourself having to wait for the person in front to move . The marshals were reasonable at this point, in not awarding penalties. After a while the jostling settled and I was able to settle in to a good pace, flying along at a speed of 38kph. There was a bit of a headwind on the way out, and my heart rate was a little high at 160bpm. On the straight road back to Calella with the wind now at our backs it went down to a more comfortable 155bpm. However huge trains of cyclist started to form of 20+ individuals. I was determined not to be caught out and end up in a penalty box, so kept my distance. The marshal would approach the rear of the train and give the rear guy a penalty each time. The rest would then spread out, wait for the marshal to move on and form up again. Harsh for the rear guy and poor form from those “middle lane drivers” causing it. I reached the half way roundabout in 2 hrs 27 mins, averaging 36.5kph, perfect pacing for a sub 5hr bike split.
If you’re not cheating you’re not trying hard enough
Out on the second loop and the sun finally came out between showers that had already caused a few to crash out on corners. During the only “descent” on the course, a rider overtook at about 50kph and decided that 50cm off my front wheel was far enough to tuck in again. At that speed I thought there was no point trying to overtake him again, but I didn’t particularly want to use my brakes and lose that hard-earnt speed. I sat there, stuck in his draft waiting for him to pedal away from me, then 15 seconds later I heard the rev of the scooter behind me as a Marshal pulled up. He held up his hand and shouted “5 minutes”. I dropped my head in despair, then looked at him with my hands turned up as if to say, “what do you want me to do, that guy just cut me up”. I didn’t know if Iron Man marshals would be more akin to football referees (and I could hurl abuse at him) or more like rugby referees (where I would need to be respectful of his decision). There was no point in arguing, I was in another riders draft, however much it was my fault or not. I felt that rather pathetic feeling of anger, and sense of “it’s not fair” having been so careful. As I descended the hill, I thought about what had just happened; where was the Marshalls blue card, did he really give me a penalty or was it just a warning? I whizzed past the penalty box at the bottom of the hill and thought best to stop off on the way back. My mood was sour, and it was clearly affecting my performance. My speed dropped to 33kph and I realised I needed to rally, and not let this ruin the race. I took on nutrition and tried to get motoring again as people had started to come back past me. I looked behind to see that I was now leading out a bunch of drafters! More anger, which spurred me on until the penalty box. I slammed the brakes on and dismounted my bike, shouted out my number in Spanish and tried to work out who was in charge. I looked at my watch to make sure I wasn’t kept over the time. One woman was taking photos of the bikes, another was running around with a clipboard, and one guy was trying to keep times using only his wristwatch. The marshal who bagged me arrived on his scooter, and I asked if I was meant to be there. “don’t worry you will be in transition soon” he said. Hmm, not exactly an answer to my question. All this was going on while another 20 equally disgruntled cyclists screamed at those in charge …. organised chaos. I made the most of the time, stretched off, ate a gel, and drank some water. I looked at my watch which had already gone over 5 minutes, and finally the guy said I could go. My legs had got a little stiff and I believe that the mental impact as well as the penalty could have cost as much as 10 minutes. Never the less I came into T2 with a 5hr 4 min bike split.
I just managed to dismount before the line, but it wasn’t the pretty dismount I had practiced in training. My legs were feeling heavy after the bike, but they would last the run. Socks and trainers went on in T2, then cap, sunglasses and race belt on the move. I felt good to start but not all that fast, then I checked my speed to see that I was doing 3:45/km (6-minute miles). After going so fast on the bike, I was suffering from a bit of “speed distortion” and knew I couldn’t sustain that pace for the whole marathon. I dropped down to a more comfortable 4:10/ km and 160 bpm. After an hour, the temperature was high and I was slowing to a 4:20kph pace.
Hot stuff coming through
I went through halfway in 1 hr 27 mins but the course was now becoming crowded with so many people on a 14km loop. By the third loop I was down to 4:30/km, fighting my way through the narrow course clipping oncoming runners. As I went past my sister and Dad there was no high five or smiling this time. I was in the pain cave, locked in a battle between my mind and body. The last few miles approached and I was on 3hr marathon pace. One last push got me back to 4:16/km pace, any faster and my legs would cramp uncontrollably. Another athlete ran into me causing both of my legs to cramp up. I hobbled the next 50 m kicking my legs out to the side to shake it off. I weaved my way through the other athletes, shouting “track”, and shouldered my way through. Down the red carpet, arms raised and across the line in 9 hours and 16 mins.
I slowly made my way to the recovery tent, drunk on endorphins. I grabbed a beer and a pastry and then made my way to the exit. It was great to have my sister and father receive me on the way out. I saw the results published on the tent wall, 81st overall but 12th in my category, which had been incredibly strong. I discovered later that I had beaten 10 of the pros, so not all that bad! I had secretly hoped that I might have been in contention for Kona qualification, so was annoyed over the penalty, and disappointed despite setting a new PB. Then I remembered that was the whole reason I had signed up for this race, and I had achieved that goal. It was a pleasant reminder that I had come a long way from my early races, and that it was still a sport that I absolutely love. Coming so close to qualification (2.2% faster to qualify) has only strengthened my resolve and determination, as I truly believe I still have a lot more to learn and gain.
The other reason I did the race was to see if I should focus more on triathlon or on ultra running. I think the verdict is clear as to which I perform better at (winning first ultra this year and clocking the second fastest run time in my category in this race), however I like the sport of triathlon too much to cut it out. I also strongly believe that despite impacting on the time available for running, that it brings its own benefits and improvements to running. With a focus to try and set up my own training business for triathlon and endurance sport, it is no bad thing to keep pursuing full distance triathlon even if I never make it to the pro level. I have signed up to IronMan Bolton for July 2019, and can’t wait to get back into training. Feel free to come join me on the journey!