“Ironman…. What the f*ck were you thinking?”
I knew the question was really calling my sanity into doubt and was intended to be rhetorical. I pretended it was a real question. They probably didn’t expect a long monologue on some of the thoughts that went through my head before, during and after my Ironman event. That’ll teach them!
The thing is, Ironman can be as much mental as physical. A lot of stuff goes through your head: positives, negatives, mad thoughts, random stuff, ……or maybe that’s just me?.
This isn’t so much a race report as an admission of madness, a confession of the mind and a way to judge your own inner thoughts.
I did an Ironman two years ago, my first, I loved it. An inspirational day, a celebratory uplifting event albeit with a very difficult last hour trying not to faint and/or soil myself in front of crowds of cheering people. Med-tent, IV drip, unbelievably sick. Sh*t happens. (If you want to read about it’s here ( KH_IM_Barcelona)) Couldn’t wait to do another!!
Apparently Ironman is a bit like childbirth, you can forget the pain, see the highlights and want to go again.
I had a lot of thoughts, they are not all here, but this is still a long read. Coffee?
Fuelled by alcohol and fading memories, David and myself agree the Ironman itch needs to be scratched again. Both felt we had better times possible. Barcelona 2018 looms, return to the battlefield. Copenhagen is discussed, two club mates have partaken in 2017, written reports and the appeal of the new adventure location wins over the previous venue. We have both moved to a new veteran’s Age Group, maybe there aren’t enough stupid older people to fill that podium, visualising slimmer, fitter and perfect training, glory beckons. Sign up. Ironman-pregnant again!
Two others from the club (Belpark) volunteer independently: Ian and Niall (Dual-Citizenship: Belpark and Lanesboro). We try to press-gang many others. Several consider, Ella succumbs. Enid Blyton sharpens her pencil: “Famous Five go to Copenhagen”. A WhatsApp group is born.
The swim + bike training goes well, I swim better than I ever have, I cycle better than I ever have. I complete loooong cycles, etc.
The run training is a long chain of injury, stupidity and despair. Achilles injury last June, off training. Race ‘Lost Sheep’ in September. Off all running ‘till Christmas. Gentle start end Jan, brutally rapid build to a March Half Marathon. Injury returns. Off for another 6 weeks. Return to training damage the ankle ligament other leg. No training, Race Howth Aquathon, injury returns. Almost no training, run at Athy double as part of build up to Ironman in June. Injured again. Spot a pattern? I hate aqua jogging, but have to do some. About 5 weeks to go, return to run, build weekly 5k, 10k, 15k, 20k. Stupid fast build. Plantar Fasciitis. I ask what causes that: too much running or too much increase in mileage too quickly. No shit, Sherlock? !!.
I have NO IDEA what will happen when I try and jog/walk/run a marathon, but it ain’t goin to be pretty.
In amongst the run injuries my neighbour opens her car door and totally smashes me off my bike, shoulder damaged, head smacked, prone on the ground, quite hurt, I quickly stop my Garmin Watch and think my Ironman is over. Rational eh? Shoulder would rule out swimming and biking too. She is traumatised by the noise of me hitting her car, screaming, flying through the air and smacking my helmet on another car and the ground. One-armed, when I can finally get to my feet, I have to comfort her and tell her she will be OK! Gotta laugh. When the snow hits in Feb/Mar, I cycle on my mountain bike on empty roads for about 5k and feel like I am still training when others aren’t.!
When five becomes four
Probably fearing sharing a weekend away with four smelly boys, Ella makes weak excuses and withdraws, citing some exaggerated nonsense about a medical career and having to be on the other side of the world. Claims to be a doctor, everyone knows young Australians in Ireland are baristas by day and barmaids by night. Doesn’t let the team down though, sticks with the morning sea swims, the build-up races, the WhatsApp group and remains cheerleader #1 from afar. “Famous Four go to Copenhagen”
My weight remains solidly way too high, nearly a stone heavier than my previous attempt. 4 weeks to go, I start to starve myself. Clever eh? I crash my weight down to 14:1 with one day to travel. On travel day the scales shows a 3 pound drop. Second time in 30 years it shows a 13. Last time was Ironman too!. I know the 3 pounds drop is wrong, I know if I step off the scales and back on it will correct, I know it will say 14. I fight with myself and walk away. Tell myself its 13. Take the good (fake) news!.
With a few days to go, the usually dormant WhatsApp group suddenly leaps into regular action, as the combined stress of 4 ‘athletes’ concentrates on the details of a self-imposed fear-fest. Where can we get bread rolls? What happens the bike between collection and when we have to leave it into transition? What are u putting in your ‘special needs’ bag? Group experiences allow you to take on big challenges, somewhat because they make you verbalise the fears and laugh at them and somewhat because peer pressure keeps you from avoiding them. Is a shared WhatsApp group a good idea? Fabulous. Where else can u share your feelings like a ten year old girl without fear of rejection?
I did the last Ironman in 12:30. That’s my main goal. I believe I can go sub 12, with one caveat: running!, after ‘12’ anything is possible. Anyone who asks gets a fairly honest: “I can swim, I can bike, I’m in good shape for those, with the lack of run training the marathon could be anywhere from 4:30 to 9 hours”. That’s basically starting the run around 7 hours into the event and see what happens. I am not a ‘contender’ in this racing, I take on the challenge of completing.
In the Fri/Sat our little band has loads of gallows humour and shared experience. There is loads of logistics, funny little ‘on-tour’ moments… a 4k cycle allows Ian 3 separate chances to prove he can’t cycle on the right side of the road. During the banter we discuss what we say if one of us overtakes another. “C’mon mate, you’re doing great”, “Chin up, buddy, we’re going to be Ironmen” type of thing. Finally we adopt Ian’s suggestion – a more traditional Irish-lads style of ‘encouragement’ from Bruce Willis, Die Hard: “Yippee Ki Yay, Motherf*cker”. That should help.
The last time I did the race my stomach contents fought me. It’s mad, but the many visits to the loo in the morning bring a thrilling happiness and big smiles: Mostly empty. I love this photo ‘cos we agreed a pre-race photo togged out and ‘ready for action’. Unfortunately Niall was in the long poo-queue so we went to the line and asked next in line to let Niall step out and also take a photo of us! (Does Niall look a bit less happy than the rest of us?)
Garmin Watch ahead of injury; Crash diets; Self-deception on weight; Social media for caring/sharing; Toilet excitement; Insults as encouragement, photo opportunity poo-queues…… Just me?
Swim Start. The pro race is launched. We’re on. Penned in with the red-hats (1:06 or better swimmers), the tension mounts. A small percentage female, a small percentage very young fit males, but the largest posse by a mile is middle-aged men. Knotted stomachs, banging music, nervous laughs, strangers well wishing…the time nears and the Ironman announcer builds the atmosphere. They know their posse, the final track blasted to raise the juices, even with knotted stomach I find it funny to see heaps of middle aged men in wetsuits, goggles, tightly cropped race haircuts under red swim hats suddenly start to move involuntarily with almost imperceptible headbangs at the opening screaming guitar of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck.
Adrenalin charged we are fired six a breast, six seconds apart into the water.
The swim is my strong bit, my launch platform for a great day. I am not worried about this bit – I got it covered. This is where my year of brilliant swimming pays off, extra hours, video feedback and noticeable improvements this year. My day starts to unravel immediately. I can’t find a rhythm in my swim, my stomach feels bloated and sick, I am going backwards through the crowds unable to find or catch toes (drafting is allowed in the swim). I struggle to find my stroke and that destroys my concentration on things like sighting, I find myself way off-line and swimming solo into a bunch of tiny Jelly fish.
Everyone has an “Internal DJ” right? (IDJ) That little self-mocking, sarcastic, dramatic, representation of self, who plays the soundtrack to your life? Slightly mad? Sometimes music, mostly lyrics. Always appropriate in some form. From sub-conscious and usually a surprise.
IDJ: wakes up and laughs at me: Theme from Jaws
I fight it but instead of energised I am swimming exhausted. Previous day we have swam the difficult last turnaround to know the path to follow. I swim the wrong way. I am overtaken by many orange-caps (the next and slower wave). I finish and know it’s not great and glance at my watch. I have somehow stopped my watch in the swim, so I don’t know my time. I am despondent, I know I won’t know my race time throughout the day.
I pick a random number:10 and decide to add ten minutes to my recorded swim time and will use that to judge my day until I get a race time. I should be in a good place in my head, positive thoughts, but it’s a bit darker in there than it should be!
Transition 6mins. Not bad. and we’re cycling.
IDJ: Queen: Bicycle Race: ….I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike…..
Bids for freedom.
My stomach bloated, my mood low, I start. I remember my hydration/nutrition plan. Start with water/electrolytes. Don’t eat anything for at least 20 mins until body has settled. Less than 10 minutes have gone and my aero-bottle makes a giant bid for freedom. It has that Irish sense of independence, it probably yells ‘Tiocfaidh ar la’ as it goes. It bounces and empties its contents spectacularly. Brakes grabbed. Tyres skidded. Shoes unclipped. Bike dropped. Route reversed. Bottle retrieved. Time lost. Average speed down. Humour goes down another step into that dark basement.
I try and calculate, its 20k to first aid station, I haven’t had a sip of water or anything since before the swim, I have to drink, so the only choice is the energy drink I have in the other bottle, not great for the needed water and not great for a bloated stomach you want to calm. My stomach doesn’t like me and my head is joining the club. The basement gets darker.
I have got the bike course from Dee (last year’s competitor) and loaded it in my computer, it spends the first half hour telling me I am off-course, Roadworks or something has changed the first piece of the course. Mildly distracting.
I am riding to heart rate and power. Keep heart rate circa mid 140’s and power circa 180 Watts. My Garmin bike computer configured to make the two fields large and in my face to keep me focussed. Heart Rate looks OK. My power is through the roof. I am cycling at 350+ Watts, I am (a) Chris Froome (b) on steroids (c) both of the above or (d) about to blow up.
I give myself a good talking to. “Calm down Keith, FFS, you are barely half an hour into it and you’re burning the power”. Lecturing myself, using my own name to be sure I listen!!. Don’t keep looking at the power reading, just go on feel and let it calm down.
I glance again in a few minutes, I am delivering 440 Watts now. That’s stupid hard. Really stupid hard. Breathing OK, Heart Rate OK, Brain a bit slow, but suddenly it dawns, the ultra-reliable power meter has decided to make today its sick day. I am racing to Heart rate and power….power is broken. There is more than 160k left of the cycle. The lights are fully off in the basement, it’s a dark place now!
My sarcastic IDJ drags a track from the archives and laughs at me to a song from my Dad’s era: Burt Bacharach: Three wheels on my wagon: “Three wheels on my wagon…I’m still rollin along….Chrerokees are chasing me…”I didn’t even know I knew this song.
I get to the first aid station fill my water bottle, drink some extra at the station and re-fuel the energy bottle. Road is flat, fast and I have water, the view along the coast is gorgeous. The mood should lift, but I am struggling with my stomach and I am hating try to force-feed myself nutrition. My stomach is rejecting the nutrition bars, I don’t want to eat them. I try a slice of baguette (turkey/cheese/Bovril) not easy to consume either. Nutrition is vital, this is not good.
It stays pretty dark. I think the Bungee cord which may have dragged me back to the light just broke!
Various cyclists overtake and others get overtaken. Often seeing the same people multiple times. Usually just their rear-end. Finally some chinks of light, I get the average pace back up over 30KPH and after a long time staring at various Viking rear-ends the cyclist in front has a nice rear end!, it’s definitely easier on the eye than most of what I have being staring at so far. Here’s hoping it wasn’t a bloke with shaved legs and a pony-tail, ‘cos there is a fair amount of those around today. These little moments lift the mood.
IDJ: Meghan Trainor: All about the bass: I’m all bout that bass, bout the bass, no treble….
At midpoint-ish, my special-needs bag awaits, with more energy drink, sandwiches and bars. The second half of my nutrition. I contemplate as I approach for the last few minutes and decide to abandon it. I have not managed even half of what I brought for the first half of the ride. I know it’s an admission of trouble, I try and tell myself that I don’t need it. Funny, the admission of a problem, brings a calmness and a focus and a slightly brighter view of the cycle. I look at my average speed now just over 30KPH and know the target should be to repeat the first half. Just 3 hours left of the cycle!
Second lap, I appreciate even more the crowds who gather at various points and cheer like we matter. They are fabulous. They help. They make you smile. Nutrition remains impossible, but I am a little more philosophical.
IDJ: Rag’n’Bone Man; Human: Take a look in the mirror /And what do you see /Do you see it clearer/Or are you deceived/…..I’m only human after all…
About 150k-ish into it, I am overtaken by a few cyclists, tucked in aero position, scorching pace compared to mine. Raises my mood a lot: They must be really sh*t swimmers!!
I bring it in at 30.3KPH, just under six hours. Not bad, but I am not in the mood to realise it’s OK. I wasn’t giving credit to the bit of wind, the hilly section, the technical turns in the towns.
Half a banana (maybe real food will be better?) and we’re ‘running’.
You enter the run to a cacophony of noise and support, the Danes have come out in droves to support. They are brilliant. Famous for the three B’s: Beer, Blondes and Bacon, there’s another arrow in their quiver: Brightening. The piece I have dreaded for months, the run, has the most positive start to it. Who knew?
My head is in a bad place about the overall race, my plan was around 7 hours to start the run, I don’t know what time I am at, but I know it’s outside that. I am OK to take a risk, I have no idea what the legs are about to do, I expect to walk a lot. I run to feel, legs feel good, I am close to a 4 hour marathon pace. That’s too fast, but I am going to blow up anyway. I should slow down and settle, but what the hell?
I know the battle is mostly mental.
IDJ: The Cranberries: Zombie: In your head, In your head, Zombie, Zombie, Zombie, ei, ei, What’s in your head?
The wheels come off around 6-7k. It’s not the legs, although everything hurts. It’s the stomach, the lack of nutrition/hydration gave it no chance. I am bent over with stomach cramps and trying to vomit with no contents. I am severely de-hydrated and slightly aware of it. I try and continue, I fight with myself to not give-up, it’s close. Very close.
I re-start. I am ‘running’ so slow and presumably weaving so much that a medic steps into the race to see if I am OK, she walks backwards asking me questions to check I am ‘compos mentis’, she can walk backwards faster than I am running!
Into the aid-station, think clearly, drink a fair bit of water, hydration is problem #1. Drink two cups at every station from now on. Can not take any food, have jelly ‘Blok’ energy sweets, get one down. That’s problem #2. Will continue to run and walk every few mins or add aid stations. That’s problem #3, so we have a plan…. Water and an occasional sweet, and a run/walk strategy. Let’s go.
IDJ: The Proclaimers; I’m gonna be (500 Miles). But I would walkrun 500 miles/And I would walkrun 500 more/Just to be the man who walksruns a thousand miles/ To fall down at your door…..
Da da da (da da da)/Da da da (da da da)Da da da dun diddle un diddle un diddle uh da/Da da da (da da da)/Da da da (da da da)
Lost in the “Da da da (da da da)” bits, I notice a spectator staring at me, damn, I am completely tone-deaf, I hope I wasn’t doing that out loud.
The rhythm is endless, little walks, runs, pains, frustrations, despair, moving yourself forward, but progression is relentless too, so positivity shows through occasionally. Sometimes it feels impossible, but mostly just focus on the next 5 minutes.
Often the walk bits have a brief exchange with a fellow journeyman. All helps. Occasionally a cheer from a known face: Niall’s brother and sister pop up all over the place with helpful cheers.
I ditch the nutrition in my pocket (gels etc.), abandon my special needs (run) bag, and commit to the handful of Bloks I have left and hope. I drop a packet of Bloks as fingers betray me, but am so stiff in the legs, I am unable to bend-over sufficiently to pick them up. Abandon them too, 3 sweets left. Gulp.
You gather a coloured armband on each lap; as you are on 3rdlap, it is OK to be overtaken by someone half my weight and twice my speed with one or two less armbands….I will still beat u home speedy-pants! Joy from others misery?
On a run, there is nothing that escapes the potential for pain…..Judging by the sudden and severe pain in the groin some anatomical appendage has decided to use this day to escape when all the surrounding muscles are distracted. I think it is trying to tunnel through ligaments and tissue with a pick-axe. Intense agony. The pain lasts less than 5 minutes during which time I come close to calling it a day, it disappears as suddenly as it arrived. Body is a strange thing. To be fair this is unusual, used to the knees and ankles starring in a tough day out, it’s a welcome relief to return to the stomach and calves hurting. The removal of the intense pain is actually a huge mental lift and suddenly I feel like I will get there.
IDJ sneers: REM: Everybody Hurts: When your day is long…The night is yours alone….When you’re sure you’ve had enough….Well hang on…..Don’t let yourself go….’Cause everybody cries….And everybody hurts sometimes
Last lap, I am struggling but know I am on the last lap, I see David 200m+ ahead, it takes a while but I haul him in… 3 feet behind…ignoring all around us…I yell “Yippee Ki Yay, Motherf*cker” and slap him hard on the back. One guy stares a bit! I know we are both walk/run, so suggest we walk for a minute, but I have to make him slow his walk. We chat, I feel miserable, but he has been vomiting, struggling twice as much and is a lap behind. If this is a “most miserable” competition, I am a surprise loser…I’ll have to give him this one. Eventually I speed on, half a k later I have easily opened a scorching 10m lead!
On every lap, I notice the wooden boardwalk which you run on for the last 200m before the turn up the finishing chute. I crave that final wooden boardwalk, it’s the moment I am heading for. With a look at my watch from 2 or 3k out I realise if I drop the walks I could finish the run under 5 hours…the new target. The mood soars. The boardwalk approaches. I tread my first step on it. Emotion explodes. IDJ whips out Vangelis in soaring crescendo: “Chariots of fire”, I cry. The misery, exhaustion and elation erupts in tears and snot bubbles, 40 seconds to get it under control before the finishing chute and photographs!
I run the chute elated. (the pictures don’t show it!)
Cross the line, head towards the bags, Niall steps in and gets me to a seat, I can’t understand his questions or follow his directions, my body and mind have left, I try and collapse and vomit, he finds the medics who eventually re-set the whole body with coke and salty crisps. Thanks Niall, much needed.
Headbanging middle-aged swimmers; Internal soundtracks; Unreasonable mood-swings; Lecturing myself; Strength from others struggles; Risking results for nonsense; Singing aloud in public; Pain removal as motivation; Emotional basket-case…… Just me?
Food, Pints, Sunshine, Laughter, War Stories, Future Plans. Repeat.
Walk part of the run course, see the famous mermaid statue near the course. My favourite piece is walking along the path recognising where you had to jink left to avoid the poor pavement and realise I had run past it 4 times yesterday and not noticed the (ugly) sculpture nearly the size of a house in the middle of the path. That little bubble you live in when suffering has poor visibility.
A fairer assessment of my race means I should have been happier. 12:15 overall. I would have taken that. A sub six hour cycle, on the day was good. The negative vibes came from a disappointing swim and not expecting it. I let it get to me, was mentally prepped for a bad time on the run, not on the swim. Yet, I finished Age Group 48thout of 115 (top-half), and in the swim 17th out of 115, pretty good. I did the marathon with severe cramps, huge lack of nutrition, hydration and electrolytes, I went under 5 hours, I hadn’t trained… It was pretty great for me and the circumstances. Kudos for not quitting. When I looked up my Age Group, only 3 from Ireland were in it including myself and David, that’s a sort of podium!!
Beer fades the memory quicker, bravado returns, and talks of future derring-do emerge, mobility doesn’t: none of us can even get out of the chairs easily at lunchtime. Love it. The pain fades. The stories and the highlights dominate. Chat to others. Super day. Fantastic weekend. Great company. This is not the last chapter.
Over pints Ian mentions that in his suffering he actually found himself talking to himself out-loud. Fabulous news…. It’s not just me.
- A coach and a plan are vital (Happy Days)
- Loads of it is mental
- Training: Legs and arms are part of it, so are head and stomach.
- Try and remember to enjoy it (I forgot a bit!)
- If I can do it, anyone can
- You don’t have to be a great athlete, just keep going
- However bad you feel, its feels amazing later/the next day.
- Last time I had stomach issues, I didn’t pay enough attention to practice
- If you are not trying to win, the overall experience is so much enhanced by doing it with others, the group dynamic is a fantastic part of it.
Loads of people live the experience with you and much thanks goes to my wife. Also coach, physio, training mates and all encouragers along the path.