The world is full of people taking on monumental challenges that to most people seem crazy. All things are relative though and comparing yourself to someone who’s packed up work to cycle round the world or climb Mt Everest is pointless. Challenges are personal, from losing weight and giving up smoking, to taking up running and entering your first race. What is important is the word challenge – the whole point is to push yourself, to achieve something you didn’t think you were capable of.
This is where the madness of me taking on an Ironman triathlon was born. Since losing weight and becoming more active, I’ve taken part in a wide range of challenges including running, cycling, triathlons, obstacle course racing and treks. All have been a challenge in their own way but with my 40th year approaching, a crazy notion to tick off something that in my mind was the ultimate physical challenge was starting to brew.
For those that don’t know, an Ironman triathlon involves a 3.8km (2.4 miles) swim, 180km (112 miles) bike ride and finishes with a 42.2km (26.2 miles) marathon. Swimming is not something I’m very special at and certainly not as these events always are, in a lake or the sea with no luxury of holding the side every few metres. Having previously cycled over 100 miles in one go and also completed a marathon on a separate occasion, I couldn’t even contemplate how you could combine the two with a dip in the sea and still be alive.
But, I couldn’t afford a mid-life crisis sports car, so the Ironman was to be my 40th year project. Ironman events sell out notoriously fast, some in less than a few hours so early commitment is needed. Which is lucky, because they also require a ridiculous amount of training. Of course, the volume of training is all relative to your goal. Someone aiming to simply complete the course inside the cut-off time of 17 hours may require less training than someone aiming to place high in their age category with a goal of qualifying for the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Either way, there’s no hiding from it. My official training plan ran for 30 weeks up to the race, with some weeks peaking at over 15 hours of training.
Fitting in the training hours starts off fairly easy because their aren’t too many and the intensity is modest. However, that soon changes and weekday training is often before and after work. On the plus side, you get to eat loads! On the downside, you get tired and grumpy. Some people choose to do their training with a club or friends, others on their own. In my case, I did some training with friends but on the whole, did most of it on my own. My theory being I’d be on my own for most of the race, I might as well get used to my own company.
Apart from a few small injuries along the way which interrupted training, on the whole it went quite well. One of my practice races was the Cotswold 113 triathlon. This is half the distance of my main race so a good one for checking on progress. Apart from some cramp towards the end of the run, the race went to plan and showed I was well on track.
My choice of Ironman was Kalmar in Sweden. I chose it for a number of reasons but primarily because I wanted it to be abroad and in the summer so that my training wasn’t all through the winter. The summer weather in Sweden is fairly similar to the UK in that it doesn’t get overly warm but does have decent amounts of sun. I traveled to Sweden with Gwyn, a long time friend and annoyingly good athlete.
Kalmar is a fairly small city in the south east of Sweden. Although small, it is of great historical importance and is a beautiful old city. Just off the coast is the island of Öland reached by the 6km Öland Bridge. A large part of the bike course would see us riding round this small island (renowned for the wind).
We arrived a few days before the race to allow us to relax and get our bearings, along with race registration and pre-race briefing. It also allowed some time for exploring the town and sampling the food, although nothing too adventurous for fear of it disagreeing. Ironman events are superbly well organised and the transition areas (swapping between disciplines) are run like clockwork. What you do need to do though is make sure everything is in the right bag! Get it wrong and you’ll have no bike shoes when you need them.
And so to race day. Not much sleep was had as much through nerves as the anticipation of an early start. Eating breakfast at 4am is never much fun. Arriving at the transition area there’s a sort of tense calm with everyone in their own little world doing last minute checks on bikes, pumping up tyres, putting on wetsuits, queuing for that last minute personal admin. Then the time comes to make your way to the water. For something that’s supposed to be fun it felt like a walk to the gallows to me. All the months of training had brought me to this moment but it was still an unknown of whether I’d finish, or be dragged from the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
Considering the early hour of the start, the water’s edge was packed with crowds ready to cheer us on. The atmosphere did a good job of distracting momentarily from the task ahead. But that task had arrived. The pros get a headstart (I’m not sure they needed it!). I positioned myself what I considered far enough back in the 2000+ swimmers such that I wouldn’t get run over. However, a quick glance behind showed I’d grossly misjudged this and was way too far forward. All too late though and the race was underway…..and I was soon underwater. Swimming in a mass start in open water is often described as a washing machine effect and for good reason. You get pushed under, punched, kicked and swallow gallons of water. Obviously all accidentally, but less than pleasant.
Kalmar was a two lap swim course which at least meant a short section of cheering as you completed each lap. All I can say about the swim is I hated most of it and the end was the biggest relief ever. One discipline down, two to go. 1 hour 23 mins so far. Transition from swim to bike involves peeling off the wetsuit and kitting up for cycling. I treated myself to a whole 7 minutes but soon enough, a bike was calling.
The weather was perfect for cycling apart from the wind which proved a massive physical drain on me browse this site. The Kalmar course is probably as flat a course as you could manage over a distance of 112 miles. The downside of flat is there’s nowhere you can just freewheel – you’re pedaling the entire time. After a short time on the mainland, you cross to Öland by way of the bridge which for us involved an amazing cross wind. The island is very quiet but it didn’t stop the supporters. In the small towns they were out in force and along the way, people sat out the front of remote houses cheering us on. Before crossing back to the mainland I managed to pick up a yellow card (slap on the wrist) for riding too close to the bike in front. This means a stop at the next penalty tent for a few minutes. The rest of the bike course went well although towards the end really felt like it would never end. I was still in denial about what was left to be done. Just over 6 hours after leaving transition, I was back and ready for a sit down. Another 7 minutes before trying to stand and run.
No sooner out of transition I found myself running with Jodie Swallow, the eventual winner of the women’s race. I say running with, she went past me like I was stood still. She was also 30km into her run to my 500 metres. In my plan for the race, I’d always thought if I could run well for the first half, I could soldier on for the second half. All good plans and all that. 3km in I was already struggling. I decided this was just because of the cycling and soon I’d perk up. Good to stay positive. I flatly refused to walk on the first lap (of three in total). One thing Kalmar does as well, if not better than most places, is provide amazing support. The run is quite simply a hideous time but with constant cheering and encouragement it’s surprising how it keeps you going. Your race number has your name printed on it and having people call your name is a real motivator. What is hard is being offered a beer and saying no thanks!
After the first lap, it was time to change tactics as my legs were killing. One thing I love is eating. And on the run course feed stations are rarely much more than a few kilometres apart. So, I turned it into an all you can eat buffet. I’d run between courses! Run to the next buffet and treat myself to a short walk and a snack. And I stuck at this until I couldn’t face any more. By then, I only had half a lap to go, which was only about 7km. Only! That was still 40+ minutes of running and by now I was running round speed ramps rather than climbing over them. For a good few kilometres the course winds its way through the parks and streets of the town. Past bars and restaurants, packed with supporters. It’s an amazing atmosphere. Having had to run past the finish line on the first two laps seeing the blue carpet on the third lap is the greatest feeling. All pain you felt disappears. You get a spring in your step and you high five a thousand people on the final straight. And after over 12 hours of racing, I finally heard the words I’d been waiting so long to hear. “Mike…..YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!!”
I crossed the line, collected my medal and couldn’t believe I’d done it. I also nearly collapsed in pain, little knowing how much pain and stiffness was waiting the next morning! Gwyn then appeared, already changed! As I said earlier, an amazing athlete.
While others were struggling to eat, I was demolishing piles of free pizza and a cheeky well earned beer.
Something I never really dreamed I could do had become a reality. It goes to show, if you set your mind on doing something, there’s really no reason you can’t achieve it. Set goals. Follow your dreams. Push yourself. Achieve and reap the rewards.