I wrote this quite a while ago, but sort of forgot about it. Here it is, 3,470 words about my first IronMan, at IM UK in Bolton; it’ll probably take you as long to read it as it took me to do it, but there’s an exciting twist at the end so it’s worth reading just for that…
I lay awake on the bed in the hotel staring at the ceiling. I knew the alarm was going to go off at any moment, and that later in the day I was going to regret having not got more sleep. Nothing I could do about it though so I got out of bed and started thinking about breakfast. It felt very early. It was 3:30am, it was very early.
I stood in the bathroom for a bit looking at myself in the mirror wondering what the day was going to hold. I also spent quite a while wondering if I should shave. After wasting some time there I finally remembered I had to get on with eating breakfast!
I made a bowl of instant porridge with boiling water from the kettle and a liberal application of hope that it would come somewhere close to cooked without a microwave of simmering for 2 minutes. It did, and went down quite well.
I had a second bowl, a couple of bananas, a chocolate chip brioche and half way through the second my body did what it always does on race morning and announced “NO MORE!” I forced the rest of that one down, retching slightly as I did so, and sat on the side of the bed happy with what I’d just eaten, but thinking about the trailer for a film called COLD.
“What the F**K am I doing here?”
Trailer Here, it’s amazing though the F-bomb’s dropped early! http://player.vimeo.com/video/23336972
My parents had come to support me, and they soon knocked on my door. I don’t really remember what we talked about; I suspect I was a bit quiet, and sounded sulky. Sorry about that!
We got to the start without issue and I gave my bike a last check over; in my sleepless state I’d been worrying that my brakes were rubbing my tires, I came prepared with my torque wrench and a few other tools I might have needed, but they weren’t rubbing; I must have dreamt it!
I chatted to some others in the area, the guy with his bike accross from me had an interesting race plan– “I want to be home in time for tea” What time’s that? I asked “About 7, and I live an hour away”.
I did what was needed, went to the portaloo, got my wetsuit on and was heading down to the water. Someone said “we should get down there, there’s space but it’s filling fast”. I’ve made the error of being among the last in the water before – I didn’t want to have to swim through the crowd again.
I was out at the start line with about 20 minutes to spare. I thought this was too much time, there were too many people behind me; I’m not a great swimmer and I shouldn’t be at the sharp end of the swim. I swore a bit, accepted it and moved to the outside of the group, to some clear water. I waited, I tried to relax but my Heart Rate was well over 110bpm no matter what I did. I started to get cold as the final people were getting in the water and I knew it wouldn’t be long.
In the last big race I did I distinctly remember it seeming very quiet because I was focussed on the start; then I’d been confident in where I was but this was the opposite. I wanted everyone to SHUT UP. I couldn’t hear the announcer, there were too many people around me and I was cold. I was starting to panic that I’d messed my race up before it had even started, and why hadn’t it started? It was already gone 6:00.
And then everyone went. I never heard the start, but everyone was swimming so I went too. I hit the “Start” button on my watch and went for it.
When 1,300 people start swimming it can be like swimming through a rinse cycle; though being to the outside of the course wasn’t too bad. I had to push a few people away who were swimming in diagonals, and a few times tried to breathe in other people’s wake – that doesn’t work so well.
I found someone to follow who had a really strong kick which meant it was easy to keep track of him, though a face full of bubbles was a bit disorientating.
I lost his feet at a turn buoy to someone who was even more determined to get them than I was to keep them, and so I started swimming on my own for a bit looking out for someone else to follow; soon another serious kicker came scything through the pack and I got onto his feet with the vigour of a fat kid on a smartie.
To be honest, the swim was pretty uneventful; I expected an hour of being beaten up and to come out in 1:10 at the very best. The beatings were limited, and I was out in 1:07… I’ll take that, though it adds to the general belief, that swim as short.
Swim time: 1:07:16, 375th, 34%,
Transition 1: Swim to bike.
I can’t pee and swim without breaking my stroke, and since I was trying to chase people I didn’t want to do that, the result was in T1 I had to stop in a portaloo for a pee that Austin Powers would have been impressed by.
I took my time over getting everything on; I jogged to my bike, having spent nearly 5 minutes in T1! I saw my parents as I came onto the bike, and assumed I’d be lucky to see them again until the run. Now only 112 hilly miles away!
Oh, that’s further than I’d ever ridden before.
T1 time: 0:04:38 (I said it was slow!) 224th, top 20%, 69 places gained!
I was pleased to have driven the start of the bike course the day before; to describe it simply it goes north from the lake for about 15 miles, there are then three loops of 32 miles and a few miles off the end to the Bike-run transition. I’d ridden the main loop in July, and had driven through the aggressive traffic calming measures including chicanes and alp sized speed bumps
I felt a few drops of rain. This wasn’t on the forecast. I’d left my jacket at T1, thinking I wouldn’t need it, I would be too hot with it. I realised I’d have to suck it up; nothing to be done about it now. It came to nothing, and soon we were on the loop.
When I saw just where we were I swore a little. The bike course is pretty hilly, but there’s one HILL. Sheep House Lane. We would have to ride up it three times, and there was an aid station near the bottom, so we’d be carrying full water bottles up it… OK, a full 800ml water bottle can’t weigh much more than 800g, but I’d hoped to be able to ditch all the liquid out of them to save weight for the way up.
The first time up didn’t feel too bad, I remained seated through most of it and wondered how the people that were struggling around me were going to fair over the next two ascents. I tried to look cheery for the photographer at the top. I pretty much failed!
It was around here I met my adjacent number – I was 1192, he was 1193 (hello Stephen Birchall!) and our paths would cross many times through the rest of the ride. This was a great aspect to the race; there was a group spirit. Each person had their strengths, Stephen had a more aerodynamic set-up than me and would pull away on the descents and flatter sections, but I was a slightly better climber and would catch him back up. Each time we’d have a quick “how’s it going” sort of chat, and then push on. When I was having a down patch, someone else would be up which helped me out. When they were having a down patch, I tried to encourage them along too. I had a feeling of “we’re in this ridiculous pursuit together, so let’s help each other out”
And so the bike went on without too much drama. I felt like I was riding within myself, but even then I struggled on the last trip up sheep house lane. My nutrition strategy had been based on a tried and tested Mule Bar products; the food on offer during the bike leg meant that you’d struggle to get in more than about 300 calories per lap with what was on offer, but I was working on the principle of 350 per hour, with a lap taking around 2 hours.
Being a pessimist, I was carrying nutrition for an eight hour ride, and even then I wondered “what if it takes more than 8 hours?”
So, the nutrition I’d tried in some of my long training sessions was a Mule Gel every 20 minutes on the 20, 40, 60, 80, 100 and then a mule bar on the 120. This worked out to be about 350 calories an hour. Winner.
Until I ate the first bar.
I don’t know if it was the position on the bike, what I was drinking, the effort I was putting in, or what. But the bars that had been a treat on long rides suddenly just sat in my stomach. I worried I was going to vomit, I worried I wasn’t going to be able to eat another thing. I worried I wasn’t going to be able to find a toilet and it felt like one might be required at short notice!
One of the things I learnt running London to Brighton was to go with what your body will take in, forcing the issue will leave it upset.
Based on this experience, I switched to just some water and waited for it to settle down. It soon did, and I went back to just gels, grateful for having packed enough for 8 hours!
The crowds were great. I loved the couple who had come to the end of their driveway to watch; they were sat drinking tea on my first lap, by the second the gentleman in his 50’s was trimming the hedge under her guidance, and by the third lap it was looking good. That made me wonder how long I’d been out there. That seemed like a normal thing to do on a Sunday and once again I wondered:
“What the f**k am I doing here?”
The crew from COLT tri club deserve an honourable mention, as does everyone at the bottom of Sheep House Lane who really responded when I yelled something like “I can’t hear you”. Their cheers helped that last ascent, there’s a Heart Rate Spike to prove it!
I also got to see my parents another three times, they arrived just as I descended from The Climb on my first lap, many hours later the shout of “see you on the run course” brought a huge smile to my face, and must have been great to hear on their aching feet.
By then I’d climbed The Climb for the last time, I knew I’d make it onto the run. My feet were hurting for only the second time in many rides in these bike shoes; why now shoes? Why? I was in bits from the way my shorts were chaffing. At least 8 races plus training, and now they chafe. Why shorts? Why? But I was having fun.
I know, weird, eh?
I gave my bike to the cadet at Bike-Run transition and said “look after her, she’s treated me well”. I’m not sure why my bike is female.
Bike Times: 6:36:33, 417th bike split, 34%, now 373rd overall, lost 67 places.
I took my time to change into some compression socks, I also took off my cycling jersey and pulled another one on. I had a tri-top underneath, but wanted and extra layer in case it got cold. I grabbed some bits of nutrition and stood up.
Woah there legs! Get back underneath me where you belong… Soon I was capable of walking, which was a start, just a marathon to go!
I realised this was my last chance for a proper toilet, so had another epic wee – happy I wasn’t dehydrated! I also washed the salt and other crap off my face; a waste of time, but left me feeling refreshed.
T2 time: 7:17, 643rd, 58%, left in 373rd place, only dropped 3 places!
Out onto the run I met up with Paul Fowler, for whom I’d been crew when he did a double ironman earlier in the year (Double Iron… silly, silly thing to do! But he did an awesome job) He was here supporting and as a volunteer; he had run along next to me on the bike course when I missed a bottle, and now he dropped everything to run along with me for a few hundred metes, told me where he would be on the run course and commented on how smooth my running looked.
It felt smooth too, my knees were up, I was landing well, and just gliding along. I felt great. I was running 8:00/mile. Which was much too fast. So I slowed down, back to my goal pace of 8:55.
My run strategy was a pretty basic one: Run at 8:55 per mile, and hang on for as long as possible. I’d hung on to some painful put quite fast 5k times this year, is the same principle, right? Just 8 times as far.
The first 8 miles or so I was feeling pretty good; apparently I ran up to 42nd in my age group and it was easy!
There was a steep up from the canal I’d been running along to the main loop, and here I had my first proper walk. A few times before I’d power walked to get my breath back, but here I walked – faster than a stroll, but not a fast walk.
People were clapping and cheering, I distinctly remember saying “don’t clap me, I’m just walking”. Ah, the mental descent had begun!
I ran down the road into down-town Bolton and saw my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law and their two kids. I was unbelievably moved to see them; I felt pretty bad about the fact that the kids had come out, they’d get bored (they’re 3, and 1), but it would be nice for them to see their grandparents and they wouldn’t be here for long.
As I turned around I high-fived my brother; I felt pretty good. At the aid stations I had a gel and some water, making the most of my ability to get calories in while I could. I had another chat with Paul who asked how my guts were and left me with the comment “don’t get bloated”.
I picked up my first of three bands at the turnaround point and I was pretty pleased with myself. I ran back down the hill into Bolton, and I saw the family again; they were still in the same spot, it was great to see them. They’d been there for about an hour now, the poor kids.
They were on an out-and-back section, so I’d see them twice per lap, and it was on the way back through the second time that I lost it. I ran through them, but right there I was miserable. As I ran up the hill I started thinking about how much things hurt. My feet hurt from my cycling shoes. My left hip and hamstring hurt. My shoulder ached. I was feeling bloated
“What the f**k am I doing here?”
I walked a lot that lap. And I mean a lot.
Paul tried to cheer me up; it’s funny, I said I didn’t want him to run with me and I wondered how he must have felt with me jogging along next to him at the double IronMan. I didn’t think my “Suffering” was enough to warrant his attention. I knew I was just lacking commitment, I wasn’t “man enough” for the job right then, but I also knew it would come back around.
And so the walking lap continued. People streamed past me, I tried to see how many laps they’d done by the bands we were wearing on our wrists, but soon I stopped caring. I knew I’d missed my goal time of 12 hours from the time splits my GPS watch was giving me, so what was the point in carrying on hurting? Walking wasn’t so bad.
As I came back on my family I think I said “This is really hard” struggling not to let my voice break, and to not cry. At that point it was hard, really hard.
I saw some friends from races who’d done a different IronMan the week before – I tried to joke “no-one said it was this tricky” went through the town loop, and saw my Mum and niece in a different place; I nearly cried again, and as I passed my brother and Dad said “I’ll see you at the finish line”.
The finish line; that sounded like an appealing prospect. I had another low bit as I went through and aid station and joined the other walkers going up the steepest part of the run. I said to the guy next to me “Do you think we can run to that aid station?” he commented it was up hill but would give it a go. I ran on and we were together for a while before he decided to drop off – he did have another two laps to go, so I couldn’t blame him, but I ran on, remembering to thank all the volunteers as I wouldn’t see them again. Which was a beautiful thing, nothing personal, they’d done a great job, but I was going home!
I thanked the groups in the crowd I’d had a laugh with along the way.
And I came down to the woman who was checking wrist bands with this horrible moment of doubt…
“I do only need three, don’t I?”
She confirmed I did and I started to run down the finish chute. Four and a bit years since my first triathlon I was coming down the finish chute at an IronMan. I tried to get the crowd going, and they responded. I crossed the finish line.
Iain MacNaughtan, YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN!
Is what I imagine they said. I didn’t actually hear them. I looked up at the clock 12:15:40. I said to myself “That’ll do” and a volunteer took my timing chip off.
Run times: 4:19:36, 52%, 581st run split, 449th/1,112. dropped 79 places on the run.
I was gutted I’d not heard them say my name. Here was that focus I’d missed at the start line; the focussed silence. Where had this been when I was struggling on the run? Where had this been when I was worried about puking on the bike? When I was scared about the swim start? Now, the one time all day I definitely wanted to hear everything going on, it was here; near silence.
A volunteer offered me a bottle of Gatorade. I think she was unsure if she should take me seriously when I responded “I’d rather lick a badger than drink any more Gatorade. But thanks for the offer.”
Seeing how impressed my family were with what I’d done, the IronMan blues started to come in at the sides. I knew the run was 2 miles short. I was stoked to have finished, but I knew that given the pace of my last lap it wasn’t my body that had let me down on the penultimate lap, it was my head.
In the last few hours of the race I’d been plotting my next IronMan; the equipment I’d get. The changes I’d make to my training. The time I would spend in the pool, and the desire above all to get my head into shape, so it didn’t let me down again.
Since the race I’ve felt odd. I enjoyed it, but I wonder why it took me so long to do one? I wonder why people seem impressed by what I did? I swam, quite slowly. I rode, quite slowly. And I ran, quite slowly. It’s just not that big a deal.
My sister once asked “do you think you’ll ever be happy with a result”. I doubt it. But it’s the problem with moving the bar, especially if you’re doing it half way through an event!
I lied about the exciting twist. Sorry.