When I was 14, I received a subject award at my school at an end of year awards ceremony. I can't remember the subject for which it was for, but I do remember stating as one of my life aims "to complete an ironman before I was 21". That was really stupid of me as I later found out! To put it in perspective, the others were "go to university" and "travel to India". The latter 2 proved to be significantly easier to achieve...
6 years later: After a year of training and a lot of money splashed out on the entry fee, I was standing at the start line for Ironman Weymouth with cheesy pop music blaring overhead. Myself and Andy Wilkinson (the former president of the club) had set ourselves the challenge. The conditions were perfect. Flat calm sea, the sun rising over the Jurassic Coast with beautiful hues skimming over the sea surface. In comparison, I was a storm, nerves preventing me from eating breakfast and leaving me empty before starting.
The start was rolling, meaning there was a continuous stream of people wading into the sea. I started about 5 minutes later, and with a squeaky (and not entirely genuine) "whoop!" I launched myself into the sea. The swim was by far the most enjoyable part of the Ironman. There was an eerie beauty to swimming out towards the sunrise, a sea mist surrounding the buoys. The first lap was surreal but welcoming, as I started to relax into a rhythm and realise just how hungry I was. The swim comprised of 2 laps of 1.9km (in reality turned out to be 2.1km) with an Australian style exit between the laps. In all honesty, I scarcely remember the 2nd lap aside from the finish.
With a weary step, it was straight out of the water. I managed to get my wetsuit half off before even leaving the water (typical that I manage this in an Ironman where there's plenty of time in transition rather than a sprint...). Transition was a mess, hundreds of bodies trying to hurriedly change into cycling gear, often reluctantly. Those who knew the bike course well were in no rush to begin tackling the contours of the route.
Ironman Weymouth bike course... 112 miles of 'rolling hills'. Several people whom I passed on hills scoffed this phrase out with disgust as they tackled yet another steep gradient. With over 2000m of elevation, the course is no flat haven. However, perhaps the most difficult part for those competing over the full distance is the realisation that all these hills have to be tackled again in the 2nd and final lap. This is where I struggled the most. My legs had plenty left, my body felt physically comfortable, but a failure to eat or stomach anything substantial left me hanging on a balance, a ticking time bomb in many ways. It would be fair to say I was running on empty for most of this. At the triathlon club they would describe it as a "bonk". My energy levels were feeling low, morale was low, and knowing I had to do it all again before tackling the run was a bitter pill to swallow.
This was the real low point of the race. People think the physicality, the fitness required must be the hardest part. But at that moment, my biggest barrier to completing was my mind. I've since proclaimed it as the arrival of "Darth Dervla", a side of me I had never previously had the pleasure of meeting. There was moments I considering stopping, a real fear I would keel over at any moment. Fortunately as I summit-ed the last hill of the first lap and forced down a gel, my sugar levels spiked and these thoughts drifted away. It became simple after that, every hill would be my last encounter with it for a long time. Each mile was a psychological boost and before I knew it, I was on my way into transition. I would have liked to have seen (as a medic I can't help but be curious..) what my sugar levels were at that low point. Most likely not healthy, but I managed to keep them topped up thereon after with a variety of gels.
Entering the 2nd transition was heavenly and passed by in a blur. I was soon on the run and pacing myself with a fellow competitor. I would finish, 5 hours later, within half a minute of her. Running with someone made the miles pass by so much quicker, made the sickness I felt creeping on me that much more bearable.
The first 15km seemed to pass by really quickly. We stopped at each feed station to take on fluids and snacks, and then paced our way to the next. I started to feel quite ill, my stomach had never quite settled from the start line, and my tactic of knocking back food in the hope I'll take something in wasn't proving to be successful. I urged my friend to carry on, whilst I took it a bit slower in the hope that it would pass.
The run was four and a half laps. You're given a band to put on your wrist after each lap as a way of indicating your progress. Receiving a band was a boost, seeing how many you still had left to obtain wasn't so much... On my second lap I came across my brother, who had a similarly tough day through means of a hangover. As I reached the next feed station, I was truly starting to feel unwell. At this point there was no doubt I would finish it, I had 20km left and 4 hours in which to do it in. I could have walked the rest. My brother asked if I wanted anything, but I'd already grabbed a gel and water from a marshal (and longtime rival/friend). The gel was a mistake, and to my brother's confusion I waved him away and took a few step backwards towards a bin. He had the fortune to witness my so called tactical chunder, as did several of the marshals who looked similarly horrified and sympathetic.
It might sound wrong, but the run was so much easier after that moment of glory. The sickness had passed and I was able to ease into a comfortable pace, made all the much easier by the support from friends who had travelled to cheer or locals failing to pronounce the name on my race number. I am truly grateful for their support; as the sun set and bodies seemed to breakdown around me, having friends and family to boost you was heartening and made the miles go much quicker (even if my running pace had slowed to a normal person's walking pace...).
As I rounded on my last lap, with less than 5km to go, I came across my running partner at a low point. A few words exchanged and she was back running with me (aside from a slight walk at the far point where Hannah Gibbs appeared out of nowhere to order me back into running...) and we were on the home straight. I can't describe completely honestly how I felt as I went along to the finishing line, but pure relief mixed in with some bittersweet joy, and I was side-kicking across the line.
Several people asked me that night whether I would do another one. To each I had said a resounding "no, never again". I was empty, severely dehydrated and tired. But less than 24 hours later after a few questionable meals, I was already considering what else I could do (Outlaw?!). My advice to anyone doing an ironman, nail the nutrition. Your body and mind will be grateful. And if you're considering whether you can do one, I believe anyone can do it with the right mindset and training. I foresee a few more Nottingham triathletes considering it next year... Will they take up the challenge?
Disclaimer: My brother's support was needed, and despite his hangover I am very grateful for his continued existence.