Hmm. Where to start? It’s certainly been a weekend to remember, trying to get fit for a Half Ironman in four and a half months was always going to be a tall order. It seemed so easy back in January when putting in that online entry. Oh how wrong I turned out to be.

Training was plagued with problems from day one. Various running injuries meant I came into the race having not done anything longer than a 10k. Swimming had luckily gone a tad more smoothly, I had at least managed to get in a couple of open water events before the big day. Not surprisingly the bike leg was the only stage I felt truly prepared for, having cycled from Land’s end to John O’Groats a few weeks beforehand my endurance was better than it had ever been.

I underestimated the amount of extra equipment that would be needed for the move into this new sport. Wetsuit, tri suit, open water goggles, race belt and a new saddle just to name a few. On a student budget this proved to be far from easy, many hours were spend trawling the internet searching for review articles in an attempt to find the brands that gave the best value for money. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the last few years it’s that you really don’t need the most expensive kit to put in a good performance.

I realised why the entry fee had been so high upon arriving at the venue the day before. With 2,500 participants organising the race must have been a logistical nightmare. Fifty six miles of closed roads for the bike course, the seafront set up for the run and a large section of beach taken over for purposes of the swim. Seeing the Ironman banners sent a wave of excitement through me, after months of thinking about it I was finally here – about to take on the challenge.

Race day morning was the usual affair. Wake up at 4:30, force down a massive bowl of porridge followed by an extra strong double espresso and get out the door as quickly as possible. It’s hard to describe the combination of nervousness and excitement that I felt when walking down to the startline. I’d invested so much time, money and energy in the race that at that moment in time my greatest fear was that of not managing to finish. “Beep, beep, beep, beep”. Went the countdown, the only other sound I could make out was that of my heart beating. Time to go.

The Swim (1.2 Miles)

Oh Shit”. The very first thought that popped into my head, I’d made the first mistake of the day and it might well prove to be a very costly one. It’s the first thing I would tell anyone doing their first open water swim – warm up in the sea / lake and get used to the temperature. In my defence I had tried, only to be told by an official that it wasn’t allowed. For anyone who hasn’t experienced it cold water shock is absolutely terrifying. The minute my head went underwater I gasped uncontrollably, struggling to breathe. It’s a reflex that you simply can’t override.

My only hope was to carry on and hope that it passed. Any thoughts of getting a good time went out the window in those first two hundred metres, now I was worried about making the cut-off. At first I was forced to use breaststroke simply because it made it easy to keep my head out of the water. A few hundred metres in and I hesitantly switched to freestyle, luckily the shock had passed and I managed to get into something resembling a decent rhythm. I breathed a sigh of relief, being pulled out of the swim would have been a truly soul destroying way for the race to end.

The water wasn’t quite as calm as it looked, I was caught unawares by large waves more than once and ended up taking in a few mouthfuls of disgusting seawater. Not surprisingly given that it was Dorset in September the temperature wasn’t what you might call toasty. Reaching the buoy marking the last turning point was a big milestone, I knew then that I was at least going to make it out of the water. The tide was with me on that homeward bound run in to the finish, exactly what you want when you still have the prospect of the bike and run at the back of your mind.

Having been caught up in the early adrenaline rush that inevitably comes along at the start of a race I had been blissfully unaware of another issue. Inspite of the very generous application of a large amount of vaseline my wetsuit had rubbed the back of my neck raw. In a shorter event that would have been a relatively minor concern, as it was I had cause to worry – that nagging soreness could prove very detrimental during the remaining five hours or so of racing still to come.

The Bike (56 Miles)

This leg I was looking forward to. The course suited me perfectly, rolling and technical with some familiar roads it could have been purposefully designed to allow me to redeem myself after the early difficulties in the water.

I’d spend a lot of time thinking about bike setup prior to race day. In all but the very worst weather conditions a Time Trial bike is the fastest option. I decided not to make any further changes to my position,  my flexibility is good enough to be-able to stay low and therefore aerodynamic for a relatively long period of time and not end up stiffening my lower back muscles (i.e. ruining the run prospects) in the process. I opted for a short tailed aero road helmet rather than a pure TT one, this meant I could move my head up and down without incurring a massive amount of drag. In the interest of practicality I opted for ordinary water bottles rather than the aero variety, the last thing I wanted was to lose one on course and arrive at the start of the run in a dehydrated state.

My Cannondale Slice was billed as “a bike designed for triathletes, not time triallists” and now I understand why. It might not have much in the way of fancy features but it’s a very comfortable ride, the brakes work well (unlike on a lot of TT bikes) and it’s light enough to make the hills as painless as possible. For that course the setup really was ideal, if only the swim and run could have gone so smoothly.

The Time Trialling I’d done in the early part of the season was really paying off, it was easy to settle into a constant rhythm and keep my mind on the task at hand. My pacing strategy was rudimentary but had served me well in the past, keeping to an average of roughly 80% of my maximum heart rate and not allowing it go above 90% under any circumstances. I felt good from the first pedal stroke to the last, soon losing track of the number of people I managed to overtake. It’s beyond satisfying to pass people on bikes that probably cost four times as much your own, usually sporting all of the aero gadgetry money can buy.

I was under no illusions when it came to the likely times I’d record for the run and swim (i.e. pretty abysmal), the one thing I was set on was a fast bike split. Luckily my legs delivered, a time of 2:41 translating to an average speed of 21mph was better than I could have hoped for at the start of the day. In keeping with the advice I’d been given by more experienced triathletes I took it very easy for the last mile, hoping against hope that I had enough left in the tank to make it to the end of the run.

The Run (13.1 Miles)

Now the real race began. Everything up until this point had been about arriving at the run in the freshest possible state. Now I would know if I’d managed to get it right with pacing, nutrition and hydration. I took my time in transition, making sure everything was as comfortable as possible. My run split was never going to be spectacular, this was simply about finishing the race.

Upon setting off, the enormity of the task that still lay ahead hit me. Your mind has a tendency to play nasty tricks like that towards the end of a long event when fatigue really begins to set in. I had to take it one step at a time, never thinking beyond the next mile marker. In terms of pacing it was completely unknown territory, setting a target speed would have been unrealistic – everything would have to be done on feel. To make things easier for myself I decided to drop to a walk when arriving at an aid station, walk the length of that station (usually about 50 metres) and then resume running. Another tool with which to ease the psychological burden of the race.

The course itself was straightforward, 3.5 laps up and down the sea front. Mercifully flat but quite mentally demanding, having some variation in scenery to focus on really makes a difference during a long run or ride – allowing you to take your mind off the fatigue. My neck was still sore from the swim, a constant irritation that I had to try and push through. Without wanting to go into too much detail the energy gels I had consumed on the bike had gone straight through me, necessitating an emergency pit stop at mile three to avoid seriously compromising my dignity. Triathlon is many things but glamorous is not one of them.

Character building is a term that I’ve used around quite a lot in previous posts but during the last lap of the run I really came to understand it’s meaning. Every fibre of my being was telling me to stop. All the external motivation in the world isn’t enough to keep you going when such deep fatigue sets in. That desire to finish has to come from inside, somehow you have to find it within yourself to say no to what your body is telling you and just keep running, one footfall at a time.

It’s strange what goes through your mind in that situation, an amazing clarity that I’d never felt to such an extent before. I simply didn’t have the energy to lie to myself or push things to the back of my mind, everything peripheral was stripped away leaving the bare bones of my personality. As you might imagine this lead to one or two large revelations, I won’t go into them here.

Only when I saw the finish line did I allow myself to celebrate, I was going to finish this race. It had taken me right to the very limit both physically and mentally. I can honestly say I fought back tears in those last few hundred meters. Never before had I experienced such elation upon crossing a finish line, I might only have finished in 428th place overall but the sense of achievement that came with simply getting round was almost indescribable. Half way there.

The Lowdown 

Delayed onset muscle soreness wasn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep, I’m writing this whilst bleary eyed and yearning for the third espresso of the day. I’ve just about had time to process the experience, it’s certainly not one I’ll ever forget. After a long and hard four months it’s time to relax for a few days and get my mind off training and racing.

I’m no longer going to hesitate when calling myself a triathlete, the transition from bike racing now feels fully complete. Yesterday further reinforced my conviction that it’s sensible to spend next season focusing on shorter races so as to refine my skills for this new sport. I can’t yet face the prospect of entering another half Ironman let alone a full one with the knowledge that it’s going to hurt as much as yesterday did. 2019 Seems like a much more realistic prospect when it comes to realising that particular dream.

Finally there is a long list of people I need to thank. First and foremost my family, there aren’t many people in this world who would get up at 4:30 to drive someone to a race as my father did. I’m not always the easiest person to put up with in the days leading up to a big race, their tolerance is very deeply appreciated. A shoutout should also be given to all the spectators on the bike and run courses, having a crowd encouraging you provides a real morale boost especially when the going is tough. I certainly wouldn’t have got round without the help and advice of a few more experienced triathletes beforehand, those tidbits of information are real lifesavers. Big thank you therefore to everyone who took the time to answer my questions. Last but not least I have to give a mention to the organisers and volunteers who made the race happen, it can’t be easy to provide for the needs of 2,500 athletes.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Living on a Prayer

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