Alan Heade – IM Barcelona Race Report

Even with a headache and throbbing leg, Alan made me laugh out loud. I especially liked the reference to Marijke simply because it’s so true. Excellent read Alan, thank you.. I’ll be joining you on the sidelines cheering everyone on..

Ironman Barcelona is not actually in Barcelona. It’s in Calella, a picturesque seaside town located about 50 km from the centre of Barcelona. It’s handy enough to get to even if we had some last minute concerns over the Ryanair flight cancellations fiasco. The 2017 race is notable for 2 reasons. Firstly the race weekend coincides with the Catalan independence referendum, and secondly Marijke is not doing it ! Boarding the flight at Dublin airport and the queue is all shaved heads, m-dot tattoos and lean physiques. There are over 300 Irish registered for the race – the 4th most represented nation out of 73.

Thursday and Friday are taken up with all the usual pre-race routine of registration, bag packing and bike racking. And then the moment arrives – race day. After the usual race day brekkie of porridge, honey and raisins I take the short walk from the hotel down to transition. I set up the bike, have a quick practise dip (water temp of 20 degrees !) and then I’m on the beach in the middle of 3000 amped up athletes. Only 140.6 miles to go.

If I had to sum up my swimming in a single sentence it would go something like this – slower than a wet Tuesday in Termonfeckin. It doesn’t matter how many swim camps or coached sessions I do it seems I’m stuck with being a limited swimmer. 3 weeks previously I did the Glendalough swim in what was my first attempt at 3.9 km in open water. To say it went badly would be an understatement. A horrible swim in horrible conditions. I remember staggering out at the finish and shivering with hypothermia. A medal was hung around my neck. I was so traumatised I took it off and f**ked it in the lake. Later I checked the Garmin – 4.7 km ! Ah jaysus. It’s not swim coaching I need, it’s a trip to Specsavers. Now I’m about to repeat the experience. I think there’s a bike and a run afterwards too.

I line up in the 1:20 pen. The swim is a single loop course of 3.8 km and the final turnaround buoys are so far away I can’t even see them. The plan is to go with slightly faster swimmers and hope that I can catch a draft. And it works like a dream. In the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean I can see all around me and manage to stay on feet for the full swim. Out in 1:19. Happy days.

It’s a short enough run up to T1 to get changed and then out on to the 2 ½ loop bike course. The first 3 km are on narrow streets and are neutralised. No aerobars. No overtaking. I try to settle the heart rate until we hit the outskirts of town and then it’s down on the bars and settling into a comfortable pace. The outward leg on the first loop is into a slight headwind and goes smoothly. I’m getting water and salt tabs in. I’m using gels and High 5 drink. I take the turnaround at Montgat and then the tailwind carries me half way back to Calella. I’m enjoying this now until the 100 km mark when it starts to go wrong. I can feel my stomach shutting down. Now I’ve got a problem. I know if I take another gel that my stomach will throw it back at me. And if I don’t take it I’ll run out of energy at some point. The lesser of the two evils is not to take it. If I puke then I’m risking dehydration. And I know I have no choice but to slow down. The harder I push the more glycogen I’m burning and if I’m not getting the fuel in then it can only end badly. I thought I had an iron stomach but I just don’t get race nutrition. I’ve been eating dodgy curries from the local Chinese for years and never had a problem. But race nutrition is a whole different ball game. I give up on the Isogels and sip from the High 5 drink whenever I can tolerate it. I’d hoped to get around 1800 calories into me on the bike but I’d say I got less than 1000. I know I’ll pay for that at some stage today.

The last half loop out to Llavaneres is painful and I’m glad to make it back to T2. It’s a slow bike time for me on such a fast course but after the stomach problems I had it was all about damage limitation. A quick change from the cycling gear into the trisuit and I’m off onto the run. Only a marathon to do now…

Well this should be fun. I tore a hamstring back in January and didn’t run again until the end of April. It’s been niggling me since and I’ve needed massage and dry needling every few weeks just to maintain some level of run volume. My longest training run was just 25 km. Hope it’s enough.

It feels good to be off the bike and out running on the 3 loop course. The beach is lined with support and most of it seems to be Irish. My stomach has settled a bit but I can’t take any more gels. So I start fuelling with flat cola which works for a while. Then I switch to banana and orange slices. I still don’t feel great but at least I’m getting some fuel into me. Halfway through the first loop I see Marco who is a lap ahead of me. He’s bandaged up after a spill on the bike and is having his own stomach problems. We run together for a bit and then I stop off to grab my special needs bag where I’ve packed a ham sambo. I’m hoping a bit of real food might ease the stomach discomfort. And it does for a while.

The return loop takes us back down to the beach towards the finish area where the PA system is blaring out Justin Bieber. Do they not realise we’re suffering enough as it is ? For the love of God make it stop ! I pick up the pace to escape the grievous bodily harm my ears have just been subjected to. I’m into the second loop now and further down I see the local police hurrying down the beach. They’re probably on their way down to arrest the DJ for crimes against music.

The second loop is largely unmemorable. I was focussed on maintaining pace and getting whatever fuel into me that I could. Taking the turn again and I’m out onto the final loop and back down the beach. There’s brilliant support here but why is there always some drunk standing around at races with a pint in his hand roaring at everyone to speed up ?

Then I’m at the final turnaround at Santa Susanna and I suppose this is where I hit my bad patch. We’re miles away from the finish area out here. There’s nobody to cheer us on. It’s pitch dark. I’m in the back arse of nowhere and it’s really disheartening. My quads are shot, my stomach is in knots and one of my hip flexors is giving me trouble. But then I remember I’m in the hardest hour of the hardest race I’ve ever done. It’s supposed to hurt. Suck it up princess. Spurred on by this new cheery disposition I pick it up again and head for the final 7 km stretch. The run became a jog and now the jog is a shuffle. But at least I’m moving forward. And as much as I am suffering I’m actually enjoying a run that I was dreading.

I’m running down the beach for the final time and am about 500 metres from home now. I can hear the sounds of the PA system again and this time sweet music reaches my ears. Scar Tissue by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’s better. Much better. My spirits are lifting now that I know I’m going to make it.

I take the turn down the chute to the finish, stumbling on the uneven surface and falling over through sheer fatigue. I’m about 100 metres from the finish line and I choose now as the time to do a faceplant. Get up ya muppet. Then I’m on the red carpet and there’s noise and lights. I must have watched dozens of Youtube videos of people crossing the finish line at an Ironman. Now it’s my turn. And after 12 hours and 21 minutes of hard work there’s no sweeter feeling than hearing Paul Kaye say the words, ‘Alan from Ireland. You are an Ironman.’

The aftermath is all a bit of a blur. There’s food and beer in the recovery tent but I can’t touch any of it. Can’t even look at it. It’s tradition at Ironman races for competitors to hang around and cheer on the last of the finishers. I’m too sick to do it though. It’s the one regret I have about the race day experience. My wife and daughter are waiting outside and they tell me that I look okay. Which comes as news to my stomach. I collect the bike and gear and head back to the hotel. I check the phone and there’s loads of texts and messages from the whatsapp groups. Thanks to everyone for the well wishes.

A couple of years ago a consultant doctor told me that if I didn’t stop running I’d need a hip replacement by the time I was 50. Well I reached that landmark this year and still have the original. And it was about the only part of me that wasn’t hurting afterwards. I wake up the next day feeling like I’ve gone a couple of rounds with McGregor. It’s not pretty. My stomach feels better though. Time to get up and start moving around. I know today is all about recovery – or Oktoberfest as they called it over there. I spent most of the day horsing back pints and eating half my own body weight in pizza and German sausage. No better way to bring the curtain down on a brilliant weekend.

Calella is really nice place and an ideal location for a first Ironman. A pleasant swim in a flat calm and warm sea. The bike course is mostly flat and on as good a road surface as you will get. The run is also flat with the first half of the loop along by the beach. The second half is a bit grim and uninspiring but overall a really good course. The political backdrop to this year’s event was a bit of a concern but ultimately made no difference to our race. Hopefully that situation will settle down soon.

It’s back to doing a few sprints for me next year. I’m giving the Ironman races a break for now. I’ll be out offering my support too. I’ll be the one standing there roaring drunk with a pint in my hand telling yiz all to speed up…


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