Paul’s Ironman Journey …
Attempting your first Ironman is known as being a journey, rather than just an experience that lasts for one day. This idea of a journey is so true though, as the actual ironman, whilst it seems like a long time during the race, is over in the blink of an eye, compared to what you have to do to get to the start line.
The sacrifices that are made by your loved ones (and your bank balance) are as important as the need to continually put your body through tough training sessions, even if you are fatigued before you’ve even left the house. There really is no let up. You are continually tired. Now that I’ve recovered, I’ve written this blog telling the story of how I decided to enter and complete Bolton Ironman 2018.
I watched the swim at Pennington Flash with my daughter in 2016 and was awestruck at how amazing the athletes were. I didn’t know anyone competing as I’d only joined Striders a few months earlier and didn’t even know St Helens Tri existed. I didn’t for a minute think I’d ever be capable of such a feat, having completed only up to a Standard distance tri at this point, still being unable to swim front crawl and never having cycled more than 25 miles.
Fast forward to a year later and I watched the swim again. By now I’d completed a half ironman (minus the swim as it was cancelled due to a fast flowing river) and could manage to front crawl 1500m slowly, but non-stop. I then went and watched the bike route. I saw all sorts of shapes and sizes, all sorts of bikes. It wasn’t the elite field that I’d previously considered it to be. The thought was now in my head “If they can…..so can I……”
I entered with the intention of “just getting round” and upped my cycling distances to around 70 miles by Christmas. At this point I found out that fellow Strider Richard Seville was on the Endurance Store Coaching Programme. I saw the sessions he was doing and in comparison mine looked paltry. Unfortunately at this point…. “just get round” turned into “I want to do well”. After speaking to Richard I also joined the programme in January.
All of a sudden things got tough. 9 training sessions each week; 3 swims, 3 rides and 3 runs with a huge emphasis on the bike. Two of the bike sessions were maximal efforts that I completed on a turbo early morning while my daughter slept, or in the gym on a wattbike. Once when the wattbike in the gym was broken, I had two exercise bikes next to each other, with different resistances set on each and jumped from one to the other every 30 seconds, for max effort/recovery/max effort/recovery etc….. I got some strange looks in the gym that day. When you are used to racing in a one piece lycra suit though, you get used to not caring what you look like!
The runs gradually increased from 90 minutes to 3 hours. The rides quickly increased from 60 miles to 100 miles. The runs were generally completed alone, though as they got longer I found myself doing an hour alone on a Monday night, which took me to either Striders or the St Helens Tri long runs. I’d then do an hour with company and flowing that, have to force myself to do another hour alone when everyone departed. This was way better than doing the whole run solo though.
The long rides were tough. No café stops, solo rides, warm water and not enough of it being carried. The weather quickly changed though, from the rides being cold and wet (or even replaced with a turbo due to ice), to being 30 degree heat and sun! I say no café stops….one of the rides was so warm and I’d run out of water an hour earlier. I saw some people walking out of an ice cream shop & I couldn’t control my desire for ice cream…..I popped in….no one will know!!! ……. Then I heard “BOOTHY!!!!” I look in the queue and Paddy and Gill are in there. They promised they wouldn’t tell Richard and then promptly put a photo of me ordering a big milkshake, on one of the Striders facebook pages. Richard threatened to tell the coaches….it was well worth it though.
Training was non-stop and I have to admit it was difficult being a single parent for the majority of the week. I had to identify my Rosie-free time at the beginning of the week and plan my sessions accordingly. Unfortunately this meant my long runs or rides would coincide with snow, rain, cold or all three! There wasn’t an option to swap these out to another day though so I had to just plough on regardless, as I was worried that if I missed the 60 mile ride this week, then I wouldn’t be ready to step up to the 70 mile ride on next week’s plan. My family were pretty shocked when I took my turbo on holiday with me, but nothing left them more speechless than when they were all inside eating curry and drinking beer and I started running laps of the garden and didn’t stop for 2 and a half hours…..that was pretty tough as I could see them all drinking and eating in the window (which I passed every 60 seconds)! I had used that many babysitters for training that I didn’t dare ask for another one, whilst it was possible to run in the garden and keep an eye on Rosie who was trying to catch a bird with a cardboard box! The strava map looked like I was trying to colour the garden in.
A month or so out from the event and I couldn’t have been happier. I hadn’t missed many sessions, and what I had missed was intentional, as I’d decided I would benefit more from recovery and then going hard again, rather than continually grinding myself into the floor. Then the little problems crept in. I picked up a slight injury which I believe to be tendonitis. I couldn’t run more than 10 miles without getting pain. Twice I had to cut my long run short. I decided that I’d done plenty of distance and just do some short sharp efforts over the last 5 weeks and that it would be enough to get me through the marathon without needing to do any more long runs. This gave the injury enough time to heal, and whilst I didn’t feel the pain again in the weeks running up to the event, I did wonder if it would flare up on the marathon or not.
The heat which we were blessed with this year, not only made training tough, but had one more card up its sleeve. Fires on Rivington Pike caused ironman to re-route the bike less than a week before the event. This was a nightmare for me for a few reasons. Firstly, I had practiced the route religiously and knew how fast I could take every corner, where I could stay on my tri bars, where to back off. Now I had a climb and a descent that I was clueless about. How hard do you push the uphill when you don’t know how much more there is to go? How do you carry speed round a corner if you don’t know what’s around the bend? Secondly and most importantly….the bike route was reduced from 112 miles to 95 miles!!!! WILL THIS STILL BE AN IRONMAN?? I’ve worked so hard to become one and now it might be snatched away from me before I’ve even started! There was also the possibility of the swim being cancelled due to toxic algae. This is stress I did not need in the last few days!
During the months of coaching, I’d been tested every 8 weeks to see the progress I’d made. This consisted of sitting on a watt bike, with a heart rate monitor and respirator on, whilst the resistance was increased by 20 watts, every minute, until failure. These were horrible. The aim was to be above 4watts/kg and ideally aim for 5 watts/kg.
I was tested in January, March and June and increased from 3.67 w/kg, to 4.51w/kg. I was massively happy with that and the gains I’ve made on the bike are showing massively on the road, as I’m getting PRs on strava segments, even when I’m on a low intensity recovery ride!
Four hours sleep, 2 croissants with Nutella at 3.30 am and I was in the car on the way to Pennington Flash. Bike loaded with nutrition, wetsuit on, nervous toilet visit and next thing I was stood in the pen with 15 minutes until go-time! For 12 months I’d wondered how nervous I would feel stood there and I honestly did not feel at all nervous. I was calm. I’d done all the miles, over and over. Swam the distance every week for months. Cycled up to 130 miles in a day (visited a friend in wales for 3 beers and then cycled back! He thought I was mad). Plenty of long runs, topping out at 21 miles. Most of the training was carried out solo, with no stops, carrying my own nutrition, exactly as I had planned today. This was just a training day, with others around me. It was just a well catered day out to collect my medal.
I seeded myself at 1hr 10m for the swim, having completed the swim in training in 1hr13m. I was in the water only a minute after the pros started. It was immediately carnage. I got hit in the head, kicked in the face. All the usual. Other than being blind on the return to shore and following a few swim caps that I could see in front of me that were so off-course, that we had to be fetched back by a paddle boarder, the first lap went ok. Second lap I held a better line, but over compensated into the sun and was a little too far the other way this time. I had no idea what time I’d done, but felt I’d swam well, other than getting lost a bit. As it happened it was way slower than I anticipated or expected. Reading a lot of blogs it appears that even the pros and age groupers had their longest ever swim time so I suspect it was a bit long and that the “alternative route” that I swam added even more distance on. Either way, I wasn’t bothered about ten mins or so extra. The important bit was to get out of the water with no fatigue and I felt great at this point.
SWIM TIME: 1 hour 24 mins 40 seconds
Unzipped my wetsuit, forgetting that I’d stored a spare pair of goggles under it, as I ran into transition. Mike Forber from St Helens tri caught me in T1 and handed me the goggles that he’d seen fall from my suit! I thanked him, but speaking to him later, found out that he’d slipped and fell whilst trying to pick them up, cutting his arm. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that they were only my old pair!
In T1 I grabbed my bag off the peg, emptied the contents and put all my swimming gear in it. I put my helmet and race belt on whilst simultaneously emptying my bladder on the floor and ran to my bike. Race brain kicked in and I started to leave with someone else’s bike until I realised that the saddle was different and there were no shoes attached to the pedals! I put it back and located my own bike before making my way to the mount line.
T1: 4 mins 47 seconds
Leaving Pennington Flash, my puncture repair kit leapt from my bike. I circled back and picked it up. A mile later it went again. Left it. It clearly wasn’t going to stay, despite not moving an inch on the last few weeks of training rides! Hope I don’t get a puncture!
The new route was a nightmare. There was a blind right hand corner, straight into a hill that was like the worst bit of Shaley Brow. I came round the corner in my lowest gear and had to avoid all the cyclists who were in the wrong gear and dropped a chain while trying to change down under load. Being clipped in, this meant they were all littered on the floor lying on their sides. This steep section went on and on and on. It was a killer! Way tougher than the original route was supposed to be.
On the descent there was another blind bend, into a narrow road with a small stone wall to catch out anyone who took the corner too fast. There were plenty getting medical attention at this point as the downhill was too steep to scrub speed off. You had to make sure you weren’t carrying too much, before you could even see the bend. You just didn’t get chance to make up the speed that you had lost while climbing. It was way too dangerous, with twists and turns. The strava screenshot below shows the route….I was longing for a flat bit for a bit of a rest! (the two highest points were the same hill on lap one and lap two, for some reason the elevation went wrong on the first lap, I didn’t find a shortcut……honest!)
The support on the course was excellent. I had family on the route, but also Striders & St Helens Tri out there. It was a huge boost seeing people regularly and the usual on course support of the Wrestlers at the top of Anglezark, COLT alley on Babylon lane and the Tri Hub disco on Hunters hill are all excellent. What an experience! I’ve done a lot of races in my time, but this is head and shoulders above anything else. Going up Babylon Lane was like being on a mountain stage of the Tour de France. The crowds were feet apart, leaving you a single lane path for you to climb the hill in between them, with horns blowing, cheers and pats on the shoulder as you go past. It was mental!
Amidst all the excitement I knew I had to stick to my plan which was keep my heart rate at 149bpm and my cadence at 70-75 rpm. I averaged 147 bpm and 71 rpm. I took the uphills really easy so that I didn’t burn too many matches that I would need later. I felt great most of the way round.
Bike: 5h 29m 03 secs (17.3mph avg)
I entered T2 having been tiring in the last 5 miles of the bike. Racked my bike, grabbed my bag from the peg and emptied it. Threw my cycling stuff in, socks and trainers on, Vaseline under the arms, loaded up with gels, cap on and hung bag back up before running out of transition. It was a pretty slick transition given I actually did more than I usually do in a tri (socks, Vaseline and trying to manipulate a draw string bag!).
T2: 3 mins 02 secs
Oh dear. This is where it all fell apart. I left transition and I could barely run. The training plan said to run at MAFF pace, not faster, “even though you’ll feel great”. My MAFF pace is around 8.15 – 8.30 a mile and this is what I anticipated I’d run at. I was struggling to keep it under 10 minute miles in the first mile. My whole body was screaming at me to stop. I just wanted to sit down. I could not run. Not for one mile. Never mind for 26! I did not “feel great”!!!
I genuinely considered throwing the towel in, as I was so low, but so far from the finish. I could take feeling like this with 6 miles to go, but not 26. A marathon is tough if you are fresh on the start line. To feel like this with so far to go….well I just didn’t know if I could do it.
I got my head in the game, ran to the first drinks station and then walked through it. At this point I realised I’d missed the little baggie of salt sticks that were in my transition bag. Damn. I added a few mouthfuls of electrolytes to the cup of water I was drinking, and the cup of water that went over my head. I guess I can ignore my saltsticks alarm. I was now winging that part of it and hoped I’d manage to avoid cramp, despite having no idea how much salt was going into my body, instead of the perfect plan I had prepared!
Four miles into the run, my friend from work passed me and I considered trying to stay with him. No, a marathon is won in the last 4 miles, not the first 4. Let him go and run your own race. I stuck to my plan and the miles added up. Before I know it, I was counting down, rather than counting up and then I got into the last 10 miles!!!
My family were on the route for the first 2 laps. Passed them multiple times until they said “we’re all a bit tired so we’re going to the pub, see you at the end!” Fortunately there were plenty of other friends dotted about that got me through the last 2 laps and I’m grateful to all of you for turning up!
I passed my friend with 9 miles to go, he was walking and looked like he was going to be walking all the way to the end! I stayed with him through an aid station and tried to cheer him up. At this point I realised that I actually felt no worse than I did at the start of the run. Although I was pretty close to rock bottom at the start, I hadn’t deteriorated at all. The plan was working.
6 miles to go………………4 miles to go………..I need a portaloo. It’s now around 5pm and I haven’t relieved myself since 7.30am in T1, despite drinking so much water. I can only put it down to how hot it was. I stepped into a portaloo and the whole thing nearly fell over. I didn’t have the leg strength to counterbalance it and I honestly don’t know how it stayed upright. If we’d have fell over and I’ve had ended up wearing the contents of the portaloo……would I have continued to the finish? I guess I’d have had to! I think my finish line photo might have gone viral tho!!!
I was now heading towards the finish, you’d think that being able to run the last 2 miles, 1 mile, half mile without walking would be easy, as you always find a bit of energy towards the finish. No chance! I even had to walk within the last half mile. I was totally broken. My marathon was around an hour slower than I’d hoped for, but I didn’t care. I was going to make it!
The red carpet was amazing! What a feeling as you head down it. I crossed the line under my goal time of 12 hours. I was handed a bottle of water and a medal and I just looked blankly at a volunteer. I was absolutely bewildered. I didn’t know where to go, what I wanted. I was just totally done. She tried to direct me to the medical tent and asked me if I was ok. I told her I just wanted a sit down and a cry. I sat on a concrete block just after the finish line for a few minutes and eventually found the energy to hobble to the recovery tent. There is unlimited dominos pizza, and despite having nothing except gels in the last 14 hours, I just didn’t want anything.
Run: 4 hours 50 mins 42 secs
Total: 11 hours 52 mins 14 secs
My goal time of sub 12 hours was based on the full 112 mile route and I was worried that doing a 95 mile route would make this less of an ironman. The new route actually included an awful hill that we had to climb twice and the section of bike leg that was removed was a 30mph fast easy stretch out of Belmont so to be honest, I think we were robbed of a recovery section, rather than the route being made easier. The pro’s have all subsequently said that the course was way harder than normal and that’ll do for me!
That evening I had the worst chaffage I’ve ever suffered. Muscles that just did not work. I had to be helped to do everything. If I dropped something on the floor when I got home, it just stayed there til about Thursday.
Thank you to everyone who helped along the way. Family, supporters, coaches, run leaders, sponsors. You were all fabulous!
If you ever think about doing an ironman, but think you can’t, trust me, you can. As long as you do the distances individually, but often, over the 6 months beforehand, it will be enough. Commit to the training and the day will just happen. Thanks for reading, if indeed you did!