On 16th September 2018 I finished my first Ironman 70.3. It was a fantastic event and experience, one in which I felt all the highs and lows I anticipated in the lead up: nerves, excitement, frustration, desperation, relief.
A friend and I signed up for the 70.3 on the 6th February this year. We had been looking for a challenge to occupy our time and minds whilst undertaking a year without alcohol. I had previously trained for a 70.3 back in 2010 before kids were on the radar. When marriage and kids came along training fizzled out, but a seed had been planted and I always felt I would revisit it in the years to come. When my friend suggested Nice 70.3 all the other options we were considering went out the window. For me, the half Ironman was it.
Had I known how much gear I needed I may have chosen a different endeavour. The bike, cycling shoes, bike tools, saddle bag, bib shorts and top, water cages and bottles, tri shorts and top, elastic laces, tri belt, wetsuit, energy gels and bars, goggles, swim fins and paddles, Garmin GPS watch, flights to Nice, bike bag, entry to training events, 70.3 entry… the list goes on and on. I thought I would save a tonne of money being off the booze for a year, but on the contrary, I’ve never spent at such a rate in my life!
I gradually worked my way into the training. I joined a swim club and got in the water twice most weeks. Weather and my inability to buy the right size cycling shoes prevented me from getting out on the bike for nearly two months, but by late April I was in the saddle. I was building into the run nicely. I completed the Cardiff triathlon (an Olympic distance event) in late June, and Velethon Wales 140km ride in early July. Notably, an IT Band problem flared in the Cardiff triathlon that prevented me from running for the next 6 weeks. In August I did some great rides and swims in south of France and Monaco. I worked my way through the knee pain on the runs. I really enjoyed the training and the improvement.
The build up to race day was exciting. My nerves fluctuated; at times I was totally calm and confident and at others uncomfortably nervous and questioning my preparedness (and sanity). I relaxed in Monaco with my friend and his family, ate loads of pasta, and squeezed in a couple of gentle swims and runs to keep the body moving.
On race day we were up at 4:25am and out the door just after 5am. Upon arrival at the transition area, last minute preparations were made: strapping gels, bars and bananas to the bike, slapping on suncream and putting on my wetsuit. Before leaving the transition area I stepped in a portaloo to try and clear myself out completely, but the two coffees I drank earlier had failed to do the job entirely. This made me a little concerned, but there was nothing I could do about it now. I was on the beach by 6:30am. The sun was starting to rise as nearly three thousand athletes, looking like a coloney of seals in their black wetsuits and swimming caps, nervously waited for the challenge that lay ahead.
I finally got in the water nearly an hour and a half after first getting onto the beach (lesson learned, choose a faster predicted swim time to get in the water sooner). It took me a while to settle into a rhythm. but once I did I felt strong, faster than the 40 minutes I had swum in training. I thought maybe I could crack 36 or 37 minutes. But as I stepped onto the beach and looked down at my watch I was gutted to see… 40 minutes! “Damn” I thought, “Why can’t I swim any faster?!” (We later discovered the swim leg was 300m further thant the 1.9km it was supposed to be).
I felt really good on the bike. Aside from the cone-helmet wearing, aero-bar, serious competitors, I was generally doing the overtaking. I pushed pretty hard up the hills and went as fast as I could on the descents. I found myself singing out loud in the latter stages — “Shut up and dance with me” — a summer playlist song my kids love played on the beach before the race started. As I made my way back into Nice I kept checking my watch. I was just going to miss my target time of 3h 10m. Total time by my watch was just over 4 hours so hitting my target overall time of 5h 30m was out of the question. Despite this I was still in good spirits and determined to push as close to it as possible, I pulled into, and shot out of, transition as fast as I could.
The run was where things started to unravel. It turned into every bit and more of the grind I envisioned. When I realised I wasn’t going to be able to sustain the pace I needed, my head dropped and I got down on myself. From then on, in my head, I felt like a failure. Which made the rest of the 21km a hard, painful battle. My mind began looking for excuses to stop: “Your elastic laces are too tight! You can’t feel your foot. You have to stop and sort it out.". “Feel that pain in your knee? You’re going to need Ibuprofen”. “What are you doing this for?” “You didn’t do nearly enough training for this.". “That’s a shit coming on. You better stop and walk, otherwise you’re going to disgrace yourself.” Admittedly at the 5.5km mark I did need the toilet, and was bemused that there wasn’t one until the 9.5km mark. That aside, for the rest of the race I simply focused on getting through to the next nutrition station, every 2km or so. At each I would take two waters, one to drink and one to pour on my head, an orange quarter or two and a coke. I’d then stroll through the water fountain. After all that I felt recharged enough to push through to the next station.
I finished in a time of 6 hours 11 minutes. I was relieved to be done, but disappointed in my time, and that my mind had got the better of me.
In hindsight my downfall was three-fold. One, I didn’t do enough training. Two, I was too optimistic about the time I could expect. And three, I didn’t prepare myself well enough, mentally, in case things didn’t go as planned and got tough. For the lack of training, my injuries were partly to blame. Not being able to run until 6 weeks before a half marathon -post a 90km ride was not ideal. But if I’m really honest, I was complacent. As race day drew closer I thought I was ready because I had done a 90km ride and a 21km run separately and felt comfortable. In reality I should have prepared my mind to feel the way I did in my most recent brick (83km ride and 16km run): battered. I should have trained in this state more, to get accustomed to the grind and the mental battles I would experience in the race.
All said and done, despite the disappointment, I’m proud of myself for getting it done and the commitment it took to do the all the training. I think a couple of seeds have been planted: 1) to defeat, and not be beaten by, another 70.3, and 2) to do a full Ironman. Watch this space.