Monday 23 July 2012

Ironman UK 2012 - race report

(photos, stats and links to follow)

3am. The alarm was supposed to go off, but I was already awake by 5 minutes having got to sleep some time after 11pm.  Hot and noisy hotel room, but not too bad at all as race nights go.  As it's an Ironman race, all the transition stuff is packed, racked and no need to worry about it on race morning.  We just needed to get to the start, put water bottles and tool kits on the bikes and get into our wetsuits. Bolton's split transition areas makes for quite a bitty feel and no festival atmosphere around the tiny expo and setup at the race start.

So, the ambience was a bit odd, but Paul Kaye and Emma Jenkinson were doing a great job in geeing up the supporters and athletes.  Me, I felt calm.  No nerves.  It felt weird, but not in an unsettling way.  Despite a really long day ahead, I felt oddly blank and muted.

The swim start was called and we filed down into the practically tropical 18C water to bimble over to the starting line.  The water was silty and murky; visibility practically zero you could see very light coloured things once they were 3-4 inches from your face.  That made for fun not getting kicked in the face throughout the swim and in fact that's exactly what happened.  The entirety of the first leg to the first turning buoy, someone was on my toes.  Not just tapping them, but scratching and grabbing at them.  I got angrier and angrier until the first buoy, at which point the kicks in the ear, neck and chest as the washing machine cranked right up to maximum and everyone converged at the point.  And it didn't get a lot better after that - I had my goggles knocked off with a fist, got a dead leg from an elbow in the calf, winded with a kick in the chest, elbows in the head, shoulders and back of the neck as well.  By far the harshest race swim I've experienced and at one point I was so pissed off with two guys who closed in on either side of me from behind, squeezed closer and simultaneously hit me in the head on each side that I stopped and swore really loudly at them to get their own water.

The shore run between the two laps was over marshily wet, muddy grass, but not too bad then back in for a second go at the water punch up. Exiting for the end of the swim wasn't much less violent than the swim itself with lots of people desperate for an extra few seconds in a race that if they're putting in swim times similar to mine, they're unlikely to be competing for a Kona slot (not -quite- true as my swim isn't all that bad).  Up the grass runway into transition, listening to Paul egging the omelette about swim times being so good that people leaving the water now must have trained with at least three swims a week of 3.5-4km per swim.  Hmm... Not quite!  He does do a good job of bigging up the effort and achievement though, god love him!

Transition... Well, it wasn't all that slick.  Just under 11 minutes of faff, it turns out.  To be fair, I'd rather be comfortable for 180km on the bike than a whole lot faster in transition, but I'm sure I can do better than that.  Wetsuit off, muddy feet cleaned off, bike socks on, energy bar wrappers opened and put back into my cycling top.  Top on, shoes on then helmet and clip-clopping out to find my bike.  Or I would have done were it not muddy grass in transition.  Bike was easy to find, given the very useful permanent, high race number for the Ultimate Challenge series. The speed bumps out of T1 are known for launching drinks bottles out of their holders and on the second bump I was no exception with my aero-bar mounted cage vibrating on its sling and dropping the bottle into the grass verge.  Thanks to the pre-race thinking session on "what if..." I stuck to my plan of picking up the bottle and not letting it lie where it was.  My plan was to have two bottles so I stuck to it.

The spur up to the laps of the bike course was flat, fast and I was happy to get down onto the aero-bars early and for all of it.  The first little bit I was really very worried as my gears were being tricky, not engaging well and three of the cassette rings resulted in loud clicking noises when using those gears.  Clearly they were not well adjusted when I changed the wheels over from my road bike and got a bit worse when I did that.  I thought I'd spend the next 8 hours pissed off and stressy over it, but it didn't get that bad.  I felt great and came to the first aid station, picked up a fresh bottle and then worried that I'd not had all of the first 750ml bottle.  My nutrition plan was 1 gel, half an energy bar and 1 bottle of Gatorade per hour.  1x 500ml Bottle.  The nuance was lost on me until a bit later on.

Up and onto the loop and Sheephouse lane turning was lined with loads of supporters with cow bells, clappers, bangers and a lot of love.  The route to the finish line to the right was blocked off, the pros wouldn't be coming through for a while yet.  Starting up the lane of the hill, lots of smiles came as the chalk on the road had some great slogans and messages, including a "GO WIGGO!" and various others.   A hand-painted sign with "what would Voigt say?" and then "SHUT UP LEGS" were great.

Sheephouse Lane (the hill) was eaten up by my lovely TT bike.  I passed quite a few people up the hill and a good few more after the false summit, then whooshing down the swooping, sweeping curves of the long descent into a villagey bit where there was a sharpish bend, a blue "POLICE SLOW" sign and a copper waving to slow down.  I thought there was a dangerous bend or drop, but it turned out to be a crash where some poor guy had a car turn straight into him as he was finishing the descent.  He was sitting up and talking, but covered in a blanket and being tended to by an ambulance full of paramedics.  Yes, this was a closed roads race, but local access carries on.

I was soon passed by Kate Stannett's friend from Ipswitch Tri club, Jayne, doing her first Ironman too, but clearly a lot faster than me (and in the same age category as me too!).  She said hi, introduced herself and we parted ways as she sped off ahead to a great finish time.  Good work! The next aid station, I decided to change my pick up tactics and only carry one bottle as the aid stations were roughly an hour apart at my pace. So I didn't need to carry an extra 750g weight up that hill the next two times.  Not sure whether that wasn't more than cancelled out by coming to a stop at each aid station to take a bottle.  Hopefully I'll get even better with bike handling so at the next race I can take a bottle on the move.  180km of race certainly got me a lot more confident on that bike - eating and drinking with confidence now on the move.

I think it was on my first lap of the bike that I was passed at great speed. Fraser Cartmell and the TV crew, shortly followed by the guy who won the race in the end... My God, he was shifting and I shouted after him "GO Fraser!".  Not sure he would have heard really.  About 10 minutes later another pro came through, followed by Sam Baxter!  Sam came in 5th overall in the end and that was including the pros.  Man alive he had a good race!  He was in front of Simon Oliver, the Welsh pro, by quite some margin at that point in the race.  Way to go Sam :o) For me, my backside was getting sorer and sorer, it was really very windy for all of the laps of the bike loops (TT bike was absolutely the right choice there) once I'd got off the long spur up to the loops, and I was starting to get mentally tired of cycling by about the 6 hour mark.  I stopped for a wee twice and for fresh bottles 5 times (missing the first and last aid stations due to mental screw-up around 500 vs 750ml bottles).  Worse than the mental tiredness was that I had stuck to my nutrition plan really well and had 4 energy bars, 6 gels and 6x 500ml Gatorade and was really REALLY sick of energy bars by that point.  I forced down one more bar, the last two gels and another litre of Gatorade but couldn't manage the energy bar.  The thought of it was making me gag.  I knew I had a peanut butter and Nutella bagel in T2 that would cover the deficit of that bar, so didn't push it.  I think I did pretty well with the plan, especially with the last two Gatorade bottles being so sticky it was incredibly difficult to get them out of the rack to drink.  Really quite a struggle!

The last 60 minutes of the bike was hard.  I felt fine, but sleepy.  I kept finding I'd stopped pedalling and was free-wheeling and had to remember to pedal some more.  I was up on the base bars a lot more, less aerodynamic, but less tiring on my aching neck.  I did get down on the bars a few more times to overtake a few more people on the last fast stretch, but it was getting unsafe with how heavy my head was and I couldn't look forward in that position any more.  Half an hour of that and I was passed by two giants who expressed it quite well "come on lass, let's get off these f*****g bikes!".  Yeah.  My arse had well and truly had quite enough of sitting on that seat. The final time of hitting the lap split junction and all the supporters had buggered off!  No cow bell and clappers for me.

T2 had bike catchers and a very odd atmosphere.  At that point in the race the athletes are a lot more strung out and transition is less busy than T1.  There were only a few benches and some other, quite surly athletes as well as the usual jovial ones.  I was glad we'd slapped on some single application sports sun cream before the race as it had been very sunny on the bike and I was a bit coloured even with the sun cream on.  I'd packed more of the same stuff for T2 and this time it was factor 30 as the sun was predicted for late afternoon.  As it was, it came early. I spent ridiculously long in T2, eating my bagel, changing socks, having a wee in a proper loo and... I'm not exactly sure really.  Anyway, I filled my run bottle at the first aid station with more Gatorade as per the plan, but I felt really very very sick from the energy bars and gels earlier.  Coach Rich's race strategy notes said that If I felt sick, I needed a higher water to nutrition ratio.  On the bike I just couldn't have managed that, but on the run I decided to make it through 500ml more Gatorade and then switch to water.  That really worked and over the course of the 5 and a bit hours of the marathon, I slowly felt less and less like I was going to throw up.  The last hour of the bike was pretty hideous in that respect.  It was odd, my body felt strong, it was my mind that was tired and I felt really vomitous and that persisted into the run.

I started the run feeling strong, sick in my belly and like I just wanted to go to bed soon please.  It was hot, sunny and I'd been up for 12 hours, 9.5 of which were racing.  Thankfully there was a shady, tree-lined run for the first portion and I kept to the shady side of the street as much of possible until we got to the path down by the stream.  It was nice along that stretch and the lack of shade was traded off by people in the gardens that backed onto the stream having barbecues, beers and cheering us as we trotted slowly on.

The weird thing about the run overall was that my heart rate was quite low and I could have pushed harder, by quite a bit, but my head had all the safety controls in place - this isn't the end, there are two more races to get through (and this is why I still feel weird about this Ironman instead of ecstaticly happy) - so my pace stayed right where it was.  I was well-fuelled, well managed in terms of effort through swim and bike, so there was plenty available to put in a quicker run than I was. At the top of the spur, the route turned left.  I was expecting right so that threw me off straight away.  I chugged through most of the Gatorade and by the first aid station was ready enough to refill with water once per lap thereafter.  Cadets were happy to fill up my bottle with cool cool water.  And the best bit was... Ritz crackers!  Yes!  Something salty!  My God they tasted good!

I passed MrTOTKat a couple of times and Matthew Pritchard, who was looking not in great shape at all.  A few other notable faces to remember for each lap as they passed and I got band envy even before I had any on my arm - the elasticated bands you get at the completion of each run lap to indicate how many you've done.  So, the run was up the spur, round the left end, down to the right end, past the finish line and a bit further, back to where the spur joins where you get a coloured band: yellow, pink then green.  This confused me a lot and I was convinced that it meant that I had to run up the hill past the finish spur 4 times, not 3.  I was not happy about that at all.

As the run progressed, my pace stayed roughly constant.  The numbers look odd on the GPS as there are a few aid stops to fill with water and a couple to wee as well.  The over-arching, growing feeling in my head was the urge to sleep.  I really wanted just to sleep please.  The counter-balance was the receding nausea.  I was getting more angry about the winding bit around the finish line around the shops of Bolton town centre - it felt pointlessly punishing.  Finally... I had three bands and was allowed to peel off left down the finishing chute.  The light was dimming as it was approaching 9pm (sunset around 21:25) and I'd taken my sunglasses off finally, though I was worried I'd start crying as I crossed the line it turned out I needn't have as it took a couple of minutes afterwards for that.  As I rounded the corner onto the red carpet, Emma called out my name as an Ultimate athlete and before I knew it, I was high fiving all the way down the red carpet and over the line.  I was an Ironman.  Emma told me so.  I was smiling and waving until I got out of view (so I thought) and before the finish line photographer wanted to take his photo of me with my medal.  I did not feel great at all.  I hadn't heard Emma telling me I was an Ironman, or maybe I had.  I just wanted to sleep or be sick or both.  But I grinned dutifully for the photo and head into the finisher's tent.  Where I sat down on the first free chair I could find and was quiet for a minute or two until a volunteer brought me a slice of the promised pizza.

I took a desperate mouthful and it felt wrong.  Someone brought me an empty box.  I wanted to throw up.  I spat out the remains of the second mouthful and lost the first one in almost exactly the state it had gone in.  I really really wanted to sleep and be sick and die and make it all stop.

I was desperately disappointed.  My emotions had been switched off since the day before and everything of the day had built up to a head.  I sat some more and sobbed loudly for a good ten minutes.  Proper, shaking, snotty sobbing.  I felt utterly robbed.  When I should have been on top of the world for completing my first Ironman, I couldn't feel it because it's not the end.  Only half the job is done.  There are two more races to go and Wales is hilly.  Collecting myself a bit, I got up and went out of the tent to find out where MrTOTKat was.  He'd finished an hour and 40 minutes before me.  It was all a bit confusing and I sat down outside for a bit, still really very down. MrTOTKat arrived and I found Kate Stannett waiting for her massage so I chatted a bit, then went and got some potato wedges as I was still desperately hungry for salty carbs.  Thankfully those stayed down.   And then some pizza and after a massage another couple of slices of pizza and humanity was being restored.

I don't know what to think right now.  A lot of lessons learned.  Perfect technical execution of the nutrition plan, but I need to find a way to avoid feeling so sick for 1/3 of the bike and all of the run trying to recover from that.  I got a lot more used to my TT bike over the 180km and I'd like to investigate a better/more comfortable saddle to avoid the soft-tissue damage as much as possible.  I'm sore in the quads and my knees are stiff, but nothing worrying.  My toes are tender and my feet ache - perhaps slightly bigger trainers for this sort of temperature and a long run in future.

Yes.  I am an Ironman.  But it hasn't sunk in.  My own brain has sabotaged the celebration.  I am not allowed to be happy because the journey isn't over yet.  Any sane person would be celebrating the achievement but I won't until I get to the end of the Ultimate Challenge, or I fail before that happens.  It may be through no fault of my own that I fail, like Russell Cox who crashed out of UK 70.3 with a quite spectacular mechanical failure of the rear mech shearing off his bike and almost through the chain stay.  It won't be through lack of training, fitness or even last minute preparation.  But it could still happen.


  1. Yes, it could. But you're an Ironman. That's a pretty damn elite club of people.

    I think it might sink in a bit as time goes on; it's not on the same scale at all, but whenever I pass one of my exams, I never really feel pleased, because I know there are still so many to go! But the being pleased bit does sink in eventually, usually after a week or so.

    You've done amazingly well, learnt a lot, and will (I have absolutely no doubt) come out of this much stronger and better prepared for the next, once your brain has had time to process it all.

  2. Part of the journey is over. You've achieved your original goal and are officially an Ironman.

    Try not to tooo do much analysis at this stage, when you are nowhere near recovered from the massive effort that went into yesterday. Time to do more detailed investigation into how to avoid the cycle nausea and numb bum when you've settled back into routine at home.

    Enjoy the rest of the journey with the other Ultimate Althletes and celebrate each milestone along the way to the finish line in Tenby.

  3. The point though is that should aliens land with a sprocket case disintegration ray, you've already done the longest race they let humans do. So bollocks to them.

    Learn the lessons you can only learn by doing one of these and then go make sure if you don't complete the 4 it really is because of those aliens.