My first Ironman

My first Ironman
21 July 2015 Janine

Race Day finally arrived.

Well, one thing about days is that no matter how far away they may seem, they always come around. And just like any other day in the calendar, after having it in my diary for twelve months, July 19th
2015 duly arrived. It arrived exactly two days ago, preceded by a week of mounting nerves, starting with my first Iron related message early on Monday morning that simply said ‘IRON WEEK!’, and finishing with me, covered in Torq gel, sweat and bits of banana.

Now a proud IronWOman, I have now decided that (for me at least) the only way to mentally prepare for this race is just to experience it. Since I booked the place at Ironman UK in July 2014, I’ve had a bit of a blank spot when trying to get my brain to understand what it was going to feel like. I was a bit blasé about it, and always a bit scared by people’s reactions – ‘you have to cycle HOW far?’ ‘And then you have to run a marathon? You’re mad!’.  I had sort of put it to one side, and instead, concentrated on methodically doing the training by the book, so as to be as ready as possible for whatever race day threw at me. (‘The Book’ being Don Fink’s Be Iron Fit book below (bible for Iron Man newbies))

Luckily, throughout my training, I’d experienced many different situations which stood me in very good stead for the race, not least cycling in hurricanes, wind and lashing freezing cold rain over the winter. It was windy and rainy yesterday, but I was prepared and unfazed, albeit cold in places. The extreme cramps at the Immortal Half taught me what not to do (wear shorts that are too tight for me, eat too quickly off the bike, get anxious about cramps, eat fibre the night before, or swallow a lot of lake water). And the hills of the Wiggle Dragon Ride gave me a ‘that’s not a hill!’ mentality towards Bolton which was useful, if all lies with 1700 metres to contend with!

I have pretty much been nervous about doing an Ironman since I signed up, although I subconsciously decided to park that thought and replace it with training. In race week, the apprehensive nerves started to build, and I was doing odd things like tapping leaves on my run and over-tidying and list writing which are not my usual behaviours. Come race eve, the adrenaline had almost become too much and I  had a distinct feeling that I just wanted to start the race so I had something to use all this nervous energy on. I pictured myself thrashing out the swim with the adrenaline, and I felt more relaxed at the thought of it. At the race briefing the night before, there was a quiet tear – this had been such a build up.

I went home, quietly nervous with anticipation, and it was lights out by 8pm. This of course did no good as I tossed and turned until 11pm. I eventually got about 4 hours sleep, waking at 3am for porridge. I was FAR too nervous to eat anything, but I diligently forced down more than half of an enormous bowl of oats and boiling water and left the other half to congeal as a present for my midnight return!

Iron buddy from my running club Mark was so uber excited. We were meant to meet in reception at 4.15am to leave, but at 3.45am he text me to say he was all ready to leave whenever I was! Unfortunately for Mark I still had to straighten and then plait my hair (lots of good female triathletes wear plaits you see) And despite the fact that the first discipline in triathlon is the swim, I always wash, blow dry and straighten my hair on race morning. It’s all part of my mental preparation.

As we left for Pennington Flash, the rain lashed down from the darkness. As we neared the drop off points, there were headlights everywhere, people with race bags and devoted friends and family with golf umbrellas. Mark and Lucy (Mark’s wife) and I, walked to the lake and Lucy took a photo of us in our wetsuits, rain still dribbling down. The sun was coming up. There was the usual pre-tri series of events: check tyre pressure, oil chain and go to the loo. In the loo queue I made a big mistake by giving my nutrition (‘special needs bag’) to a random guy who offered to drop it off. (He dropped it in the wrong pile and my bag with £30 worth of nutrition, an inner tube and some facial wipes never appeared). Never again will I do anything except drop off my own bags!

At 5:50AM we headed to the pens by the lake into a long queue of blue-hatted people looking bewildered, exchanging nervous and cold teeth-chattering grins with each other. I saw Mark who was queueing up near the front, exclaimed ‘I’m really scared!’ gave him a big good luck squeeze and headed to find the ‘1hr 20’ bit of the pen.

I had done open water races several times by now, and always been fine. But the fact that today was race day kept interrupting me with ‘ooh but what-if’ thoughts. It helped to learn at race briefing that if I needed a rest or suffered from cramp, I could simply lie on my back and pump my fist in the air, which apparently would result in a boat or canoe for me to hang on to until I was ready to go again. (What a service! This is what a £400 ticket gets you then.) As it turned out though, this wasn’t needed because I loved my swim. I finished in 1hr 17mins, and apparently it was a bit too long a course too. 
For the very first time ever, I suffered zero anxiety on the swim. Not one tiny ounce of panic. Not a scrap of breast stroke needed nor my usual breathing issues at the start. I just breathed calmly, and enjoyed it. I should have had more faith, the training and open water races in the Cotswolds and Lanzarote had paid off. I really enjoyed running across the ramp for a timing chip recording after one lap. I just grinned all the way down and plopped myself back in for lap 2. Just as I headed out for my second lap, the rain set in after a bit of sunshine on lap 1. It was so heavy that I had the sensation of being pushed down into the water. It was atmospheric, and I just kept remembering that all of those 6am swims, the endless laps in the pool, it was all for this moment, and so I tried to remember all the corrections for my stroke that I’d learned. 
Alas on the second lap I swallowed a lot of lake water, and a man decided to try to swim over the top of me. My legs got pushed down by his flapping arms and torso, so I did my usual trick when this happens and flip my ‘flippers’ a bit so as to shake said man off and swim away. Not too hard though (one man ended up with a black eye and couldn’t ride his bike!) Mostly I had my own space, the rolling start (as opposed to mass start) worked like magic, and at 7.22am after starting at 6.05am, I was out of the water with a HUGE grin on my face and headed to T1 and the changing marquee,  on the way I ran past the bike transition area and was pleased to see that nearly all of the bikes were still there. I had no idea what my swim time was but this indicated that it must have been pretty good!
The scene in the marquee was atmospheric and warranted a “WOW!” upon arrival It was essentially a steam room. The heat from the bodies had caused a thick mist, there were people faffing around in the mist everywhere, and naked bods behind poor excuses for screens. I pulled off my wetsuit and grabbed my bag hanging on the hook. My plan was to wear my tri top on the bike but it was too cold outside to leave a wet top on for a 112 mile ride, so I whipped it off and stuck my jersey straight on, adding my rain jacket and castelli cap to keep the rain off my face. As I wheeled out of T2, I was laughing at the sheer craziness of what we were all doing in this early morning pouring rain. 
The T1 Tent, the day before (picture thick with steam and rushing bodies everywhere!)
My T1 was relatively quick, everything was going to plan thus far, except of course the rain…
The Long Road to T2 – 112 Miles

The bike course was flipping challenging. We climbed 5600 feet in harrowing head winds and rain, interspersed with sunny spells that whilst lovely, did make the clothing situation less than fun. In the end I stopped three times to mess around with it. Cold/wet clothing (L), dry/sunny clothing (R).

The first hour of the bike was just me getting my rhythm, sipping water now and again, and holding off from eating until about an hour had passed.

The first trip up Sheep House lane was good fun, there were people lining the road and holding up signs and blowing horns and the like. I got a lot of shouts of ‘do it for the girls’ and ‘well done lass!’. There were so many awesome signs including:

It’s OK to Cry
Pain is temporary, Ironman is forever!
Smile if you peed on the swim
Tap For Power! (Pow symbol held by excited child, left (I did and it definitely worked)


The sun peeped through the clouds a bit but it was a false yet mildly warm alarm, and at the top of Sheep House the rain set in, along with gusty winds. This was not good timing because there’s a long stretch up quite high before a descent that feels really exposed, and the wind did a good job of trying to blow me off my bike – I grimaced in what felt like a chilly wind tunnel.

I ate regularly, chomping my way through Nakd bars and a Clif Bar from the top tube bag on my bike. I felt good. Unfortunately, my ‘special needs’ (food bag) was missing on the bike course thanks to the man I gave it to ten minutes before the race, and so I had no refill for my now empty bike bag. A woman gave me a cheese sandwich which was lovely of her but I paid for the lack of food with a cramping body which started to hurt at around 70 miles.

It was really hard to get the nutrition right on the bike – I didn’t want to eat too much that I’d have gastro issues, but also needed to fuel properly. I filled my bike bag with  halves of bananas that were being handed out instead, and this seemed to help. I got a second wind of energy along with some super fresh legs and a big smile on lap 2. I was now chatting to other competitors, and whooping and fist pumping to the crowds who cheered even louder and shouted out my name. On the second lap there was the most magical tunnel of joy i have ever experienced. A long line around 20 metres of people cheering so loudly, they were extremely close on both sides and it put a huge smile on my face and goosebumps on my arms! Incredible support.

The Final 30 Bike Miles

The last 30 miles on the bike felt pretty boring and lonely, I spent the time just chopping up the remaining miles in my head in this way and that, (“ooh, 30 miles is just the Clevedon Loop! “ooh, 3 miles is just cycling to work!”) At around 70 miles I was looking forward to getting to a century, but when 100 miles eventually arrived I didn’t feel like smiling about it – I was in too much pain, my body had cramped up and I just wanted to stand up straight! Every now and again I spent some time in the drops, and I can honestly say that this felt as good as lying in an arm chair in terms of pain relief. I couldn’t spend all my time in the drops for terrain and back reasons, but those drops had never felt so good.

By this point, I had decided that I wasn’t going to get off the bike again until the end of the bike, and when 112 miles and the Macron stadium eventually arrived much to my joy, getting off my bike was the most glorious feeling. As I walked through transition with my bike, I said ‘I don’t ever want to see my bike again!’ and a whole crowd in earshot laughed – this amused me greatly because I wasn’t anticipating that anyone would hear me let alone find this funny!

Later it would transpire that I spent a whole FIFTEEN minutes in T2. Oops! First of all I couldn’t find my bike because despite the fact that I had my number written on me no less than six times over at this point, I had forgotten it and was looking for the wrong bike space. My brain had really slowed down, I was confused. I eventually racked my bike and ran to the marquee to look for my T2 kit bag. I went behind the screen, towelled down and changed into my run kit, adding vaseline to my feet and factor 50 to my face and body. I even offered sun cream out – I was being far too relaxed. I hung my bag up in the wrong place which wasted another couple of minutes, and eventually ran out onto the 26.2 mile run course. Being stood up straight at this point felt like lying down and being massaged by angels in comparison to sitting on my bike…
Hello marathon! 
Started steady, massive slump in the middle, massive effort at the end to pull it back.

Setting out, my legs felt OK. Not great, not terrible – just ok. I was running at 10 minutes miles and feeling comfortable. I had 8 miles to go to join the beginning of the 3.5 lap course to the finish, and spent that time thinking about how wonderful it was that if i held this comfortable pace for 4.5 hours I’d have myself a jolly good marathon time for an Ironman. Ho ho ho. If only I had known what was to come… 

By 12 miles my whole body had cramped up. I looked at my watch and I was running at 14 minute miles, which is precisely the same as a fast walking pace. I’d had the idea that I’d be ok to run at about 9 minute miles for the marathon because ‘I am a runner’. And thus, I was completely unprepared for the reality and instead, I felt like I was someone who had got very drunk indeed, and then been beaten up (perhaps mugged in a drunken state) and then woken up and told to run a marathon. In short, I felt slumped of brain and so painful of body that I literally could not propel myself forward with enough force to make a jog. Not even a yog people!!!

And so ALAS – I adopted a walk/run strategy for 5 miles. UG. On these 5 miles, I looked pretty damn pissed off. I was hating Ironman and feeling really annoyed about the fact that I had trained for a year and of that, 6 months by The Book, and I was still in so much pain and unable to run. PAH.

What I wasn’t banking on however, was that in endurance events like this, you get ‘winds’ of energy, and I had a little treat waiting for me around the corner! Hip hip hooray! Each lap from point to point (finishing chute to Redbull station and back) was 5.3 miles. So every 2.6 miles I had some Coke and half a banana. When I had 2 laps left to go (11 miles), I decided that I could run after all, and now had the task of running a decent pace if I was going to pull a sub 15 out of the bag. Oh dear. I did not want anything with 15 in the title, because I had originally signed up for Frankfurt, and although this is a flat and therefore easier course, It has a 15 hour cut off time and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do that on a hard course.

I also knew that I would have been unhappy with a 15+ enough to have to re-do Ironman. And therefore, I was running so that I wouldn’t have to run this course again. It hurt a lot, but my mental focus was really good – and as such I decided to run a sub 11 min/mile for the last 11 miles, and I actually managed more like 10/mm, and on the last lap, 10 up the hill and 9.30 back down again. By this point, the pain had disappeared from my legs. I’m sure adrenaline helped, but I was running free, I shot down the final hill at 7.30 min/miles. Pumped my fist around the final line of people who cheered loudly and excitedly for me as they realised it was my last lap and I was headed for the chute. Over the last 8 miles, I had just kept thinking, only 8 miles and then that’s it… only 7 miles.. only 6, hang on.. etc.

I flew through the finishing chute and completely forgot about my finisher photo. No leaping or arms in the air for me. I just felt ecstatic! I was through and out the other side, I looked back at the carpet behind me, sort of shrugged my shoulders in my head and walked towards the massage tent, seeing Mark along the way who asked how I was feeling, to which I replied ‘fucking awesome!’ 30 mins later I was sat in the medical tent with a temperature, feeling absolutely horrific, shaking all over and feeling dizzy and sick. I hugged Lucy Ducker and the nurse a lot and cried. The doc forced 3 bottles of water down me which helped (over 3 hours) and sent me home with 2 paracetamol. Back at the hotel I fell asleep eating jaffa cakes and woke up next to a medal.

I feel very lucky to have had so much support even though I was at the race without anyone there to specifically be there for me. (Although my entire family were at home cheering at the telly!) I’ve had a flurry of good luck cards, and a flurry of well done cards, and many supportive messages. Some people have even said they are inspired by me which is really lovely! If anyone from Bristol wants to take on the challenge I highly recommend Llewellyn Holmes,  who is a fantastic and supportive triathlon coach.

Party time!

Comment (1)

  1. Anonymous 3 years ago

    Congrats Janine, been keeping tabs on your progress since you came for a ride with us. Nice write-up too.
    – BSCC

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