To say that I was nervous would be an under statement of epic proportions. I had spent the last 18 months preparing for this day, not just physically, but mentally too. The previous day I had spent registering, setting up split transitions, attending race briefings and a practice swim. I had tried to follow the bike route in my car, and managed to get lost. With all the logistics of getting things set up, my Garmin had logged 11.4 miles of walking. So much for staying off my feet!
None of that mattered. When you build up to a big race you have plenty of time to imagine what race day will be like from worst case to best case scenarios. If like me you are of relatively modest ability you hope for that best case scenario knowing the conditions could be key in your ability to get round. My worst case scenario was rough water for the sea, and strong westerly wind on the bike. Rain? put a jacket on, Cold? put more layers on, Heat? plenty of fluids. But the wind? That was my nemesis. Only snow could have been worse and although it was Scotland, I felt that was unlikely in July.
So imagine my growing consternation as the forecasts began to come in, and the race day approached. First it became clear that I would be cycling into a westerly headwind with gusts up to 25mph. Not the worst wind ever, but not much benefit to be had from tail winds on a point to point, east to west route. then I went down to the practice swim. #%&*! People were been tossed around like corks in a pre-school play bath. Suddenly no one was interested in the temperature of the sea (one of our favorite Facebook topics for months!), all we could think is how the hell are we supposed to swim in this!
But let’s get back to that start line. Clearly the build up so far had not exactly helped me gain confidence, but 2 things were clear to me, the same 2 things which got me round Ironman UK in 2011. 1) I was going to start, 2) I was going to keep going until someone made me stop. I completely expected I was going to attempt the swim, miss the cut off, and spend the rest of the day in the pub. This was disappointing, but at least I’d get a couple of beers instead of fighting headwind for 56 miles on the bike. My prediction turned out to be wrong.
Go! The swim was shortened due to the rough condition, down to 950m with a cut off of 35 minutes. We were told to try and kick hard to get out to the first buoy and then the next section was easier. This is exactly what I did, for the 3 seconds when I wasn’t distracted by tidal waves, swallowing water, people being rescued by Kayaks and generally scenes that were more reminiscent of disaster film than a recreational sporting event which we’d all paid around £250 to enter! Anyway, I made the first buoy and quickly realized that they had been lying about it getting easier. If anything more people were doing breast-stroke at this point the recover from the first stint, about 70% of us I reckon. Once people got their bearings and their wits, we would strike out for the next buoy, sometimes managing up to 8 strokes before being randomly tossed aside by another huge wave. This routine of: get your bearings, swim, get hit by a wave, try not to drown, stop to get your bearings again was repeated many, many times. When I reached the turnaround point I was pleased, until I turned around and the sun was shining straight in my face, making it nearly impossible to spot the next buoy. So I followed the crowd hoping they knew what they were doing. They didn’t, and I corrected my course about 100m later when I figure out where I was supposed by be going. After what felt like for ever, I was finally swimming towards the beach. I stood up, got knocked over by another wave, stood up again, staggered to the T1 chute, looked at my watch and saw I’d done it in under 31 minutes. Damn!
In T1 I spent 3 minutes trying to find my kit bag. My brain had clearly discarded this information in making way for thinking about survival, so I staggered up and down the (clearly numbered) aisles until I eventually found it, and then spent the next 10 minutes trying to dry off/warm up/put my bike kit on (and if I’m honest – see if I could still miss the cut off by being slow in T1 – I really needed a beer!).
The bike started well. the first few miles went West to East so I had a tail wind. I wasn’t putting in much effort and I glanced down to see I was doing 20mph! This is normally break neck speed for me and was the first indication of the issues I was going to have in the other direction. After the easy first few mile we headed inland, up some shallow climbs, and began to feel the pressure of the wind. In total I was on that bike for 4 hours and 31 minutes. I don’t remember much of it, and the bits I do remember I struggle with the order it came in but it went something like this: Long, long tortuous drags uphill into headwinds, turn a corner, battle a cross wind for a bit, turn a corner, back into the head wind. Pass a village – great support and cheering from locals, back into the headwind. feel like I’m not moving, try pedaling harder – has no effect, try a lower gear, has no effect, wonder how the people who are passing me are making their bike move faster than 10mph, gradually sink into a pit of self pity and despair. Check my watch (might make the cut-off if the 2nd half is easier). Pass another village. Go through a feed station. Smile! get a round of applause for hitting the bin with my empty bottle. Grab an energy bar. Head down, Cycle into the wind again. What’s this? A downhill section” Go hell for leather trying to make up as much time as humanly possible. Steep hills section, lots of narrow roads and twisty corners. Try not to die, succeed! Feed station again. Other cyclists are pulling over for bananas and a loo break. No way I can afford to stop. Glance at my watch – need to do 16mph average to make what I think is the cut off (average speed at last race was 15.6mph). Downhill for a bit, Go For It! Uphill again….. the time it took me on my last race passes by, my estimated time passes by. I now need 18mph to make the cut off and I still have to go up Arthur’s Seat at the end. I get a good downhill section and start to gain confidence, I take a sharp left onto an uphill, miss my gears, and fall off into a grass verge – now that was funny!
As I take the last few miles (I don’t know how many as my Garmin was knocked by the fall and thinks I’m in T2), I wonder how to explain to my son that Mummy wasn’t able to finish the race. I find this deeply upsetting, but I realise I can probably get some kind of good teaching moment out of it. It’s the taking part that matters, and all that. I feel guilty and embarrassed being applauded into Holyrood park as I know my race is over. They should clap for the real athletes. I’ll just cycle over this last hill. I see the runners on their half marathon and wish I could be as good as them. At least I can stop soon.
I enter T2, rack my bike, nip to the portaloo, pick up my kit bag (I know exactly where it is). No one seems to have noticed me or care what time it is. When I calculate later I was 19 minutes after what I expected to be the cut-off due to the short swim. I am still inside the original cut-off. Helmet off, trainers on – they are going to let me run. THEY ARE GOING TO LET ME RUN! Go, Go, Go! I see my husband and son, and have to stop to give my son a big kiss on the cheeks. And then, having no idea how long I may have left to finish the race, or when someone might realize they let me on the course by mistake, I run like my life depends on it. There’s a long hill. I run up it. There is a long dark tunnel where you can’t see what your feet are landing on, I speed up as I have no idea how fast I’m going in the dark. I start to pass people. (I later learn I lost 400 places on the bike, but regained 200 places on the run!). I have what must be the best run of my life. In my previous event my legs folded after 8 miles, this time they just keep going and keep going. I’m trying to cover as much ground as I can so that when I’m forced to walk I still have time to get to the end. It never happens, and I run all the way to the finish. Everything that went wrong on the bike, went right with the run, and at last I achieve my goal. I’m enjoying myself!
I run down the famous Ironman finisher’s chute to record a time of 7 hours 49 minutes. Even now, 3 days after the event, I’m not sure if I’m and official finisher of if someone at Ironman HQ is about to DNF me for my long bike split, but I crossed the line, I have my T-shirt, my engraved medal, and I know I got round that course.
Taking part in any endurance event takes you on a journey. It’s not just about the race day. It’s about your training, the sacrifices you make, the support from friends, family, training buddies and coaches. So many people help, influence and support you on that journey, and come race day you want to repay them (and yourself) for all the hard work that’s gone into it, by giving it your absolute best. I think that’s what I did on Sunday. It wasn’t my best physical performance, or even my best mental performance. But I wasn’t leaving that course unless I was forced to do so. In fact stopping (willingly) never even occurred to me as an option. And as my club coach and brilliant friend put it “There you go then!”