August 2018

Ironman UK 2018: The Race Report

And so the day was here. After nine solid months of training, with lots of highs and lows, the day was here: Ironman UK 2018. What was it like? Is it worth the £480 entry fee (or whatever I paid)? What did I honestly think about it?  

  It started as with every other Ironman athlete race morning: after about six hours sleep, my alarm went off at 3am and I was out of bed in a flash. I was staying at the Premier Inn Bolton West hotel – they had laid out a breakfast spread for all Ironman athletes and supporters: Hotels are very aware of the Ironman race and most will do this. The breakfast spread consisted of those small pots of Tesco just-add-biling water porridge and those kid-sized cereal packets. Most of the other guys in my hotel (clearly not IM first-timers) had brought prepared breakfasts with them – one guy had brought with him a tub of cornflakes, muesli and dried fruit and then added milk. Two porridge tubs and I wasn’t full – luckily I had bought a bagel and banana from the supermarket as a back up (plus in line with my race day nutrition plan). A lot of people talk about how hard it is to eat at 3am – for me this was pretty easy peasy.    

When I’d left my hotel room, it was such a nice touch to see that the corridors of the hotel had been covered with Ironman motivational quotes.  

  My taxi took me to Black Horse Street where I hopped onto the shuttle bus. The journey to becoming an Ironman had officially started (while my support crew were still asleep – they would wake up at 5am and meet me before the race started).  

   As we drove to Leigh, I grinned while seeing people coming back from a night out. I seem to have the habit of being up early like the Midnight 2 Midnight run and backwards London Marathon. The bus arrived at Leigh. The sky was slightly less dark. We walked through woods – I don’t know if someone knew the route – we all seemed to be following each other until we started heading towards the huge bright sports lighting: we were there.  First thing first: I headed to T1 (the transition area for the swim-bike), and couldn’t find my bike: urgh, that’s what they call ‘race brain’. Eventually I found it and pumped up my tyres. Some people had been really clever and covered parts of their bikes with plastic bags: it had rained overnight. “Duh, why didn’t I think of doing this? But does it really matter? It better not rain today.” There was a sense of camaraderie in T1 as we all set up our nutrition on our bikes, re-pumped up tyres, shared pumps and Bodyglide and helped each other out with wetsuits. With 2500 athletes present, it still felt like there was a community and within this community, I bumped into some of the girls I knew from London who were doing it. We were all so excited about it.    

With the wetsuit, goggles and swim cap on, I headed to the start line – after my trillionth pre-race wee – gulped down a smoothie and gel (following the race day nutrition plan).  I’d struggled to decide on where I’d self seed: my training had shown I could do the swim in 1 hour 25 minutes, but equally some bad sessions had shown my pacing could put me in 1 hour 50. Jon, my coach, suggested I hang at the back because I’m still a new open water swimmer and not 100% confident (remember, Ironman is my second triathlon,  I only started open water swimming in March this year and was only conquering my deep water phobia from November). So that is what I did – self seeding at 1h45: at least if I swam faster, there’s nothing stoping me from doing so.

After playing the national anthem (you read that right) and AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, the gun went off and the rolling start began. It felt like forever before I got into the water. The water temperature was 24 degrees and we all had given a huge sigh of relief when they had confirmed it wouldn’t be a non-wetsuit swim earlier in the morning.    

In terms of water temperature, Pennington Flash’s water feels as warm as its temperature which is something I’m not used to: Royal Docks water and West Reservoir water (both in London) have lots of pockets of cold water and often feel cooler than they actually are. I started swimming and my heart thumped: oh my god, I am actually doing this. “You better not DNF on the swim now” I thought.  The swim at Grafman Middle Distance – my first ever tri in April – had been my worst nightmare when I’d panicked a lot in the water and I was determined it wouldn’t be the same at IM.    

Besides being warm, the water was grimey and murky, and I think I had drunk goose pooped-water. Well, at least there were those things to distract me. And it worked. I was in my zone. I thought “who are even these people that describe Ironman swims as a washing machine?” And just right then someone pulled down my legs, another person’s elbow nearly hit my face and I felt someone else scratching me. At first I got a bit panicky – uh oh, the washing machine has turned on. But quickly I learnt to literally kick back. I’m not quite sure whether retaliating with an aggressive approach is the correct approach to way to swim in a large pack but it seemed to work and I found my groove. Swimming in the last leg of both laps was hard though: the sun was facing our direction and blinding us as we headed towards the swim exit. The swim buoys were really hard to see at at one point I couldn’t tell if I was swimming in the right direction. I think the race organisers could have put out more buoys on the last leg to help guide us with the blinding sunlight.    

The swim was organised with an Australian exit – meaning it was split into two laps that involved running out of the swim exit after lap one and running to the swim start to recommence the swim lap one more time before getting out of the swim exit and heading to T1. In the second lap, I felt so comfortable in the water and I was so happy – I could tell I’d massively improved in terms of water confidence since Grafman Middle Distance. I even would go far as saying I really liked Bolton’s swim. There were loads of safety kayaks along the course, so it was practically impossible to veer off course. And if you ever need to stop for whatever reason, you can stop at a kayak (as long as you don’t use them to help you go forward).    

As I headed out of the swim exit, I looked down at my Garmin – ok not the time I wanted (1hr 25) but it fit well within my plan B time (1hr 45). Words can’t describe how happy I felt knowing that after months of stressing about the swim, wondering if I’d be able to do it within the 2hr 20 cut off time and stressing out over how unconfident I felt in the water, I had actually done it. I think I very nearly said to myself “oh I could do that again.” But anyway, I ran into T1. The bike was where the party started.

  In T1, my wetsuit had quickly come off. But I couldn’t put my socks on – I swore out loud accidentally. Another athlete turned around, laughed:  “I know how you feel mate.” Tick tock, tick tock, oh ffs Mara, just leave the socks. So, with socks twisted around my foot, not on properly, I shoved my feet into my cycling shoes and tried to put my helmet on. Note – tried. Turns out my race day braids were a bit too bumpy for my helmet and I had to loosen the helmet to put  it on my head – oh ffs. I swore again ; oh my gosh, Mara, really? Tick tock, tick tock. The sun was out, but the clock was ticking away. No time for sunscreen. I downed my SIS caffeine shot, and ran out while putting my race belt on. Damn it, I can’t find my bike. Really Mara? Come on, someone has been diagnosed with a clearly severe case of race brain. Bike found, I ran with it to the mount line. and clipped in. Let the games begin! Wait, no. My race belt was becoming uncomfortable:  I’d put my gels on it to save me time for the run. It had seemed fine during training rides, but on race day, it just kept bugging me.

After  I cycled out of Pennington Flash and onto the main road, I pulled out the gels from my race belt and shoved them into my trisuit. Right, now the party can begin!    

The aim was to cycle the first few miles up to the beginning of the multi-lap slowly, getting my legs used to the pedalling after the swim. All was fine. The crowds were out. I was actually doing this. It felt surreal. I felt high. The route had been changed from 112 miles to 95 miles because of the Moors fires affecting parts of the course. This had meant the first of the two major hills had been taken out.    

Communication about the fires and the bike course had been poorly handled by Ironman. The fires had been going on for over a month, but only just over a week before the race had they actually communicated anything to us.On top of that, the swim had been close to being called off due to toxic algae, in the lead up to the race. They left us in the dark for far too long and when they announced the shorter,  new route, it rightly caused a lot of scandal and anger. I completely understand why they gave us a a new route (it takes a long time to plan major events particularly when road closures are involved) and to be able to prepare a last minute alternative route that was nearly 100 miles is sheer good work. But Ironman  had recently hired a new Communications Director for the EMEA region- I know because I received the job role advert in my emails and very nearly applied. This was a perfect opportunity for them to test their crisis management skills. And I think they absolutely failed on this -Ironman UK’s social media was absolutely quiet. People received different responses from the customer response team about what was happening. The very least they could have done when they were initially aware of the impact of the fires on the course was to send an email to every athlete stating they were aware of this as soon as possible. Ironman UK were a mess.  

A lot of people suggested that this wasn’t an Ironman and that they’d find a way to include the lost 17 miles into the day. Well, even if the course was shorter and lower elevation, it was much, much tougher than the original route and I can’t imagine many of those people actually did do 17 miles on their bike after crossing the finishing line. The organisers were aware of this as they had even given us a whole talk during the race day briefing about how anyone caught working those 17 miles into the race could lead to a DQ.  

The new route had included a replacement evil hill called Angelzarke. I’d spoken to a few Boltonians before about the hill and the volunteer I mentioned here, had given me a few tips on how to go up the hill. It is a nasty hill climb. Having done a recce of the original route in June, Sheephouse Lane was far easier than Angelzarke. Unlike Sheephouse, it can come as a surprise – as you turn into a corner, the steep hill is suddenly there. I’d been advised to change my gears just before I turned into the hill, which worked. Plus, there were loads of spectators who were clearly cyclists and knew the evilness of the hill and they shouted at us before the corner to let us know the hill was coming up thick and fast. Thank god for them and the SIS extra caffeine espresso gel I took 10 minutes before the hill. I love climbing up hills, and the slow slog up hill was tough but I loved it.  I could hear many of the male athletes’ bikes coming to a grinding halt as they climbed up hill, and some were walking. Now, I think it is absolutely fine to walk up hill with your bike if you need it – but I  had to grin. The ladies were powering up the hill (#girlpower) but with my chunky monkey Marathon Plus tyres, I was going past men who were walking it up with some of the fanciest bikes and gear you’d ever seen – it just goes to show that cycling isn’t necessarily about the gear you have – you are the engine. I reached the top and felt loaded with so much endorphins. But then, we hit the descent. While I love to climb hills, I get so anxious over hill descents on the bike.

My Bolton people had warned me about this and a brick wall that comes up afterwards. The descent was horrific. It felt never ending. People zoomed by me. I had to descend with the brakes mostly on as I went downhill. It was a sharp, steep, never ending descent. My heart was in my mouth. My life was flashing before me : oh my gosh I have to this all over again for one more lap. I never want to do this again in my life. Why am I doing this? I want to go home but I’m not even 60 miles in. And where is this brick wall? If you love descents, then you’ll love the fast descent down Angelzarke. The descent down Sheephouse is more forgiving and much easier if you’re not a kean bean when it comes to descents.  

Finally, we came to flatter ground. The brick walls were there. Along with several athletes being attended to by the medic team. Yeap – this was very obviously a crash hotspot on the course – but it was well manned with a marshall and a medic team. The  course was actually pretty well signed (including on Angelzarke) when we needed to slow down, when overtaking wasn’t allowed, when we were going to reach live traffic etc and there were lots of marshals on the course. What I didn’t like, or expect, was the live traffic. I had thought the entire course was going to be closed roads. Not sure if this was because of the new route, but the marshalls manning these points were brilliant.  

The roads on the new part of the course were full of potholes, but they were very well marked in bright orange, pink or green – so very noticeable. Anyone who complains about pothole visibility on the course needs to go to Specsavers. Equally, those who complain about the potholes need to realise that A) roads in England are generally terrible when it comes to cycling B) The new route was planned last minute due to circumstances outside Ironman’s control and so there wasn’t time to fix those potholes C) Given the state of England’s roads, they can’t be expected to fix every single pothole on the course. They repaired a large majority and clearly marked out the ones they didn’t fix. Bolton locals must love Ironman as the organisers work with the council to fix the majority of potholes for the race.  

The original bike route had some respite between Sheephouse Lane and Hunter’s Hill. But, the new route we’d been given  was continuous hills. A warm up to Ironman Wales (it’s known for its hills). No room for respite. Rolling hills after hills after hills. My Garmin GPS died the night before the race so I couldn’t track my pacing and ended up trying to work on feel. About mile 60 (actually I have no idea – total guess) a sharp pain in my chest began and stayed there until the end of the race and a sharp pain in my abdomen began to fester. I refused to get off the bike. I slowed down a bit and for a while, whenever I heard the sound of a vehicle, I pedalled faster, thinking “oh hell no, that better not be the sweeper van.” In reality, the sweeper van was no where near me – I was struck by paranoia and the sound was actually the course marshalls’ motorbikes. The pain in my abdomen continued. Another girl on her bike was suffering leg cramps and we took it in turns to pace each other even in the visible discomfort we were both in for a bit. I popped into special needs on the last pass and took ibruprofen, hoping the pain would go away and puffed on my inhaler. It didn’t. Well I just had to suck it up and deal with it. Time to pedal hard.  

The crowds were incredible. I never thought it would happen, but loads of people in the crowds recognised me from social media. It felt so weird for people to shout out my name and The Fit Londoner – but equally such a motivation boost. It is so true what they say about the crowds. Lap one, they were all out there in force. At both Hunter’s Hill and Angelzarke, I saw the crowds literally helping to push cyclists go forward or they’d tap your shoulder and cheer you on as if you were a Tour de France cyclist. If there were upcoming twists and turns on the roads ahead, they’d shout out warnings to you.

A lot of the people in the crowds were clearly cyclists who knew the route well – when there were points to lower or increase gears, they’d shout out helpful guidance “think about changing gears soon, mate.”   What I would say, after talking to my support crew, was that for spectators, Ironman  didn’t provide much help in suggesting good places to watch, nor did they provide suggested driving routes to get there. The Spectator Guide wasn’t that helpful and wasn’t provided in advance like the Athletes’ Guide. With road closures, my crew found it hard to get to any of the major cheering points and I ended up seeing them at a really random point on the course. Lap two, there were fewer crowds. Hunter’s Hill was empty. But there were still some points where the crowds were out in full force. Besides Angelzarke’s steep descent, I really liked the challenges of the bike course and being able to get up Hunter’s Hill and Angelzarke on both laps without walking it up were some of the highlights for me.  

And of course, we can’t forget the famous Wrestlers of Sheephouse Lane. These lads dress up as wrestlers and throw a party on Sheephouse Lane and are absolute heroes when it came to cheering us on. This year, they were at the top of Angelzarke and didn’t disappoint.

  As I finally got to T2, I could see lots of people were already out on the run. The path down Chorley New Road towards T2 was never ending. This didn’t feel like the best of set ups. The path was very narrow with the multilap run course on the left. If there were lot of athletes on their bikes going down that path at the sam time, it would have been very hard to overtake. And it felt never ending. Oh my god, every time I saw a right turn, I thought yes, time to get off the bike and run. But no, no, no, it was many more metres to go. Ironman playing games with your mind right there. When T2 came, I racked my bike and ran as fast as I could, to take my shoes off, and put my trainers on. The sun was in full force now, so I sprayed sunscreen on my arms and face, running onto the course whilst rubbing it in.   The run was pure carnage. I’d never seen anything like it. People were hobbling. People were throwing up. People were walking. People were farting (and probably praying they wouldn’t need imodium). People were just about jogging.

These are scenes I don’t think I’ll ever forget. While most of the crowds on lap 2 of the bike had disappeared, the crowds were out in full force. For some reason, many kept calling me Amanda, which gave me a big grin. The legs didn’t feel too bad but then I remembered that Jon told me if I feel good in the first 20 minutes, I’m probably going too fast, so I slowed down. Finding that pace was hard. And on top of that, lap one was never ending. See, the thing with Ironman, is they like to play mind games with you. Four laps around a route that is predominantly not scenic – apart from the run through Queen’s Park, and even then, that segment is brutal with the hills. Then on top of that, you run past the finish line on each lap which is a real tease. For each lap completed, they gave you a different coloured band. Handy because on that fourth lap my mind was all over the place and I couldn’t remember if I needed to run another lap or go to the finish line.    

The pain in my abdomen continued in the run. I was so bored of gels that I stopped taking them and just drank the on-course energy drinks and bananas. What I didn’t envisage was the hunger. At lap 2, hunger kicked in. I didn’t want  a gel, nor did I want to eat one of the on-course savoury biscuits (tasted like salty paper) or look at another banana. I wanted food and I wanted something savoury. My stomach grumbled at one point, I was so hungry. A family were offering watermelon, shortbread biscuits and other food, which I took on. At lap four, I remembered I had packed a Chia Charge original flapjack with sea salt in my special needs bag for potential hunger. I was near the finish line so too late to grab the bar. Ah, so that’s why people people pack pies in their special needs bags.   While lap 1 was about figuring out the course, lap 2 I was in deep, deep pain. Lap 3 felt a bit better and 4 was the victory lap. At lap 2, I resorted to walking through the feed stations and running at other times. At one point, I saw a guy throw up on his first lap. I went over to him and asked if he wanted a paramedic: “no, I am not DNFing now” was his response. I asked if he wanted water, and he refused, saying that was what caused it. Yikes. Like I said, the run was pure and utter carnage. But within this carnage and chaos, there was a feeling of camaraderie- we were all cheering each other on and helping each other out. A couple of athletes recognised me from social media and we had some banter. As we ran round the laps, I saw Ironman finishers in the crowds carrying boxes of Dominos pizza. That food craving I had suddenly changed to excitement for the finish line as I remembered they said we’d get pizza at the end. Mentally powered by the very thought of food at the finish line: typical.  

  As the final few metres came up, the final rush of adrenaline kicked in. I felt a bit emotional. I was actually finishing it and becoming an Ironman.

  As I ran down that chute,  Paul Kaye shouted out ‘Mara, you are an Ironman!’   “Who me?”*

  Yeah, you hun.   *Disclaimer: this conversation took place in my head.   After that, I headed to the medic tent – turns out the sharp pain in my chest was because I had pulled a chest muscle, and the pain in my abdomen was because I’d pulled a muscle there as well on the bike. The doctor gave me a telling off for not seeing a medic on the course – but just like that runner I saw throwing up, I didn’t want to risk having to DNF. Then, we headed to the Athletes’ tent. Remember the volunteer Team Leader I mentioned before? He saw me, gave me a big hug and told me a massive well done. See what I mean about the volunteers being absolutely amazing? The volunteers at the feed stations, and the resident who showered runners with his hose pipe were heroes. Not to forget the man and his children who threw bottles of ice cold water at us as we ran in the boiling hot weather.   But anyway, remembering the pizza I saw on the run and thinking we’d be given whole pizzas, I headed to the food area where there were piles of pizza and other food. Nope, I wasn’t interested in the sweet stuff, I wanted something savoury. But imagine how I felt when it turned out we only got one slice per person. I’d never felt so disappointed before! Sorry Ironman UK, but with the money you make from us and the total cost of buying pizzas from Dominos, couldn’t you have given us a whole pizza each? Yeah, I still feel bitter about the pizza.  

I quickly got over that though. I thought about how I had spent nine months learning new things, facing fears, stepping outside of comfort zones  yet enjoying the process enough to lead me to race day, despite many (including coaches) telling me I would DNS (Did Not Start). I had done it and I had become an Ironman.   So which Ironman do I sign up for next?   P.S. ladies, how cool was my trisuit? I bought it from TriSirena. Thank me later.