A few days ago I attempted my first triathlon, it was an Ironman, it was the Welsh one, yeah THAT one…
I signed up for the event nearly a year ago, my life is now very different and as much as I wish I could have crossed the finish line to hear those words, often spoken of as immortal – ‘you are now an Ironman’, it wasn’t to be. There is a list nearly as long as the event itself as to why I didn’t make it; reasons, excuses, same difference, right?
To date I’ve run ten marathons this year and you may have seen a happy me with a medal at the end of each one, yes I’ve made it to the finish line but of those ten, four were painful experiences. My second, I entered the ultra distance but so broken I could only make the marathon finish line in testing wintry conditions. The London marathon, the one I had always wanted, well I experienced the worst cramp I’ve ever had and it destroyed my race. Edinburgh, I hit the wall at mile 16 and then had to run the hardest ten road miles of my life. The following week, the fourth in four weeks, my body was feeling it, a tough marathon course in the beautiful but hilly Lake District, I ran my slowest marathon time and felt wrecked. BUT I made it to the finish line, so would think okay, that was tough but you got there, so keep it up, you haven’t been beaten, defeated yet…
Four weeks prior to Sunday I was in John o’ Groats, Scotland finishing my length of Britain cycle, it was a special moment, a proud one, a happy one, a momentous one in every sense of the word. Great. Fantastic. Are there any limits as to what is possible? NO!!!! Well, maybe, sometimes, occasionally..
It’s been a surreal four weeks, the first I was still elated and living off of probably the biggest high of my life. Ending with a camp, good people and getting me back into the wild, much needed after a week in London. It was my birthday a few days later and as fun and rewarding as that day was it feels like a turning point. Since turning 26 I’ve been stuck in a rut, I’ve lost my zest for life and it hasn’t been great in all honesty. I thought I was ‘resting’ but looking back now I was just being lazy. I lacked discipline and any sort of forward thinking, my training and attention to diet wavered, therefore lacking energy. That low you hear about sports people or adventurers getting after a high is now relate-able. 90% of my thoughts since returning to London have been about my ride and planning another one at some point in the future, rather than focusing on what I’ve already got coming up. On the state of my mind, I had concussion the weekend prior to the Ironman, I’ve never experienced that before and it certainly has knocked me in more ways than one. I’ve had headaches come and go, it’s been a tad scary when you expect to wake the next day with everything back to normal and it just isn’t.
So, enough with the excuses (reasons) – what actually happened at Ironman?
I believe the human body is capable of some incredible feats by doing two simple things; ‘train it & fuel it’ as straight forward as that. I did neither sufficiently. This year I’ve run ten marathons (including a 100Km ultra), cycled the length of Britian solo and unsupported, created a FUN-RUN series and tried to make it to Project Awesome as often as possible. An Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile swim (in Wales case, at sea), 112 mile cycle, 26.2 mile run. I have done very, very little swimming this year, one swim in the calm Adriatic sea off the coast of Croatia, two weeks beforehand does NOT compare in any whatsoever to the Welsh coast. I walked by the sea on Friday evening and in stormy conditions, nerves of fear shot through my body. It really hit me how awful this could be. Thankfully, skies were clearer Saturday morning, although everyone in town said conditions are changing all the time, so nobody has any idea of race conditions, great.
On the long list of preparation for any triathlon is sorting your gear for three events, more bags, more equipment, surely this was meant to be a relaxed day? When sorting my bike gear I realised I had forgotten to bring my cycling shoes, the ones I’d spent two weeks getting to know so well… so had to pick up a pair from the shop in town. Well I had to stop by there anyway as when I went for a gentle, short cycle Saturday morning my chain jammed up. It seemed a few things were already starting to conspire against me. Having never even done a triathlon before I thought it would be worthwhile attending the hour long briefing, I learnt a fair bit in terms of how things would pan out, as I said with a scattered brain I had barely even looked into the course. However, ask me now the one thing I remember – ‘all Ironman courses are tough, then there’s the harder ones, the hardest one, then there’s Ironman Wales’ did I really need to hear that??
Sunday morning, alarm goes off at 04:15, I wake up instantly. This is it. I decided I would walk to the transition (final chance for bag drop) which was about 20 minutes away to clear my mind, if that was possible. As I put my wetsuit on, and walked towards North beach, I was surprisingly calm, heading to the back it was good to talk to others who were also not the best swimmers. The elites were off, and we slowly began edging forward until..
..I’ve just crossed the start line in my first triathlon! Into the sea! One of reasons behind holding back was your chip time goes when you cross the start line and therefore to miss out on the ‘washing machine effect’. It was still busier in there than I had ever experienced before, suddenly you’re getting washed this a way and that a way whether you like it or not. You’re allowed to hold on to lifeguards boards but not gain any forward momentum. The swim was two 1.2mile laps in a triangular fashion. Halfway to the first bend, I clung on to a board, I needed to catch my breath and regroup, I checked my watch and I realised there was no chance I would make it before the cut off. Another swimmer opposite me also realised, we talked to each other, the lifeguard, he asked for a safety boat to get taken back, I was so close to getting out what felt like a death trap, the only reason I can think of as to why I didn’t was the mental strength I’ve gained from my marathons. I decided to at least get to the first buoy marker, even if I was last. I tried my best to get some sort of rhythm going, however the sea had other ideas. As I closed in on that buoy, it got busier on the bend and of course was another blow to know I was now getting lapped, again I clung on to have some sort of rest. I told myself to just keep going and see what happens. I could barely see anything, it felt like I was swallowing litres of sea water making me feel sick but seeing the occasional arm I kept trying my hardest to make some sort of progress, even if it was in a limp breast stroke fashion. I remember asking myself how many sharks have you seen try and walk? Why are us humans trying to swim!? We were born on land for a reason! Anyway, at least I was still thinking and then the second buoy slowly became visible and then very slowly began getting nearer and nearer. I knew everyone around me was on their second lap and nearly finished their swim but with my mind already away from racing it was now about just trying to get round one lap. As I turned round the second buoy and headed back towards the beach, I felt like I was going nowhere, my back beginning to ache, being overtaken from both sides. Yet without noticing I suddenly saw the beach, then swimmers standing up and getting out the water. I managed to just check my watch and realised against all odds I could actually make it before the lap one cut off. I tried my absolute hardest and rushed out the water, having been in the water over an hour I was a little jelly legs but had to get over the timing mat which officially starts the second lap. I had made it in 1:14, one minute to spare, the race referee stopped me briefly to ask me how I was and said I can go ahead but I MUST swim faster, if you don’t think you can, stop now. Down on my knees, I doubted I could swim faster but what a weak way to go out. I rose up, looked out at sea, spectators around me cheering ran back into the sea. Just over waist deep, a strong wave hit me, it knocked me down physically and mentally. I backed off and sat there, if I was gonna get back in I had to do it within ten seconds(from a mental viewpoint), I didn’t then it slowly hit me, still dazed my Ironman was over.
A lifeguard and medic came over to check me, take my race number and officially end my race. I felt physically wrecked. That was the furthest I had ever swam, the toughest conditions I had ever swam in, the first time I had ever swam with people in race conditions. It took me back to my lowest moment of my short swimming life, standing pool side in tears of fear in front of over one hundred people at a cub scout swimming gala. No tears this time, just that bad feeling of having been beaten. I was escorted over to a ‘recovery’ building, this sounds bad and I wish a bad race upon nobody, but it was reassuring to see others in there. We all had different stories, from the youngest competitor on the day, just 18 years old to an elder member who was questioning if he could do another Ironman, having already failed to complete the course on his last attempt. This made me thankful my year didn’t depend on this one event.
As I came to terms with lets say failure, I made my way to transition to collect my bags and bike. It was a different walk through town, personally to know I won’t get the chance to race through here and socially with people fully aware I was a drop out and a few ‘well done’, ‘there’s always next year’, sometimes you just rather not hear anything, I acknowledged those with a the weakest of smiles.
Making my way back to my base, I decided I was looking forward to the cycle the most, so there’s no reason why I can’t jump on my bike and go off in the opposite direction. The bicycle has become a good friend over this summer, on this occasion it was my route of escape to clear my mind. I was on new roads and felt like a weight of pressure had been lifted. As I chose my turnaround point I realised a return ride would then equate to half the distance of a Ironman cycle. I had just swam half the distance. Maybe I should try a little run as well?…I followed the coastal route back and sneakily rejoined the last few ten miles of the actual bike course. I had felt pretty beat at certain points of the return ride, facing some mega hills but with the crowd support pulling everyone up the hills I felt like I was in the race and the support keeps you going! I got back to my base, which is a great spot anyway; both bike and run courses go along outside as well as an aid station, full of action! I swapped my cycling kit for running and headed out. The marathon run course is conveniently four laps, so I got to run through town twice, on the second I lapped up everything, the support is quite incredible and lives up the billing of being the most well supported Ironman in the world. The bike course is said to be the hilliest on the Ironman circuit and the run has to be right up there as well! As I neared 21Km and the completion of my second lap I felt somewhat blown away by the people around me; all ages, all backgrounds, all with their own journeys to getting them through to the finish line, no more so than seeing a guy on crutches limping the marathon course.
After a shower and the consolation achievement of a half ironman triathlon, although with good breaks between each discipline and I will never say I have done a half iron! I headed into town to cheer all the amazing athletes. You know it’s a long one when you start just after sunrise and it’s well after sunset you finish. Even I felt like the swim was days ago, goodness knows what those still running felt like. Going to the red carpet and finish line was difficult, especially when the first thing you hear is ‘ADAM YOU ARE AN IRONMAN’, he wasn’t the only Adam. After thinking what might have been, I snapped out of that and into my usual self and loved cheering everyone through. What an epic achievement by everyone who finished and has finished in the past. I had respect beforehand, but even more so now. If I had sum up Ironman in a word, I would say intense.
What have I learnt? – You can’t cheat an Ironman, if you don’t train as required you get caught out. This is not a cheeky 5Km! Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. If you are committing you’re life to something make sure you do everything you can to succeed, in my case I didn’t commit everything (actually hardly anything) and I’m thankful I have other events to focus on. You can always take something away from an event, everyday, however small or insignificant it may seem.
So, with all I’ve undertaken in my ‘Year of Endurance’ in a quest to push my body to the limits, I’ve now found my limits…..for now anyway 😉