There was a moment, at around 15km into the marathon, when it all became very real. I was running past the area where the finishing chute was located and I could feel the music pulsing from the speakers and the energy from the crowd. I heard the words ‘You are an Ironman’ for a finisher and it suddenly became harder to breathe. My head went a little light and my vision blurred slightly – it finally dawned on me. I was actually going to do this. I was actually going to become an Ironman.
“2:30am is not the morning. It is still last night.” That was the general gist of the wake up process that I went through on the morning of Ironman UK 2016. The Lady and I had tactically gone to bed at around 8pm the night before to give ourselves the best chance of feeling refreshed on the Sunday morning of the race. This tactic more or less worked, as I ended up getting around 4-5 hours of sleep all told. This was despite the adrenaline and nerves coursing through my body, as well as the pain of a pulled muscle in my upper back that was threatening to derail the whole thing.
Fortunately, my back/neck was feeling manageable, so the first hurdle of the day had been cleared – I would be ok to race, albeit possibly a bit conservatively. I pottered around the hotel room, ‘in my own head’ as I like to say, downing my now usual pre-race breakfast of porridge mixed with a good helping of nervous energy on the side. Some encouraging words from The Lady brought me back down to earth, and helped me focus on a last minute swim gear check before loading everything into the car for the pre-dawn drive to the Macaroni Stadium.
Getting down there, we walked straight on to a shuttle bus to take us to Pennington Flash, which was fortunate – because it was rather chilly! Keeping in mind that it was around 4:30am and I was rocking around in shorts and a pair of flip-flops, in retrospect this shouldn’t actually be that surprising. The bus smelled of Red Bull and adrenaline, so it was with relief that we hopped off the bus and made the short walk through the golf course to Pennington Flash. If it wasn’t real enough at this stage, the sight of floodlit triathletes tooling around with their bikes certainly made it so.
Trudging through a rather muddy transition area, I made sure that my nutrition bottles were filled up, my painkillers were in my bag (for my back pain, not as a matter of course) and I even managed to wedge a small pack of Skittles behind a drink bottle for use later. I then had a quick chat with some of the gents around me, all of whom seemed to rather experienced in the process. They all said the same thing though – ‘this will be the last one’. At first I couldn’t help but wonder if they always said that, but then as they talked through the sacrifices they had made to get to this point, and what they were looking forward to getting back, I genuinely started to believe at least a couple of them. It made me consider what I had given to the training, how far I had come and what I had given up to get to this point. Luckily we made some jokes about drowning in the swim that lightened things up a bit so we could all just get on with it.
A quick, Superman style change in one of the Port-O-Loos into tri shorts was all I needed to now be ready to get changed for my swim. After knocking that on the head, I went back to The Lady to get changed into my wetsuit and drop my ‘After Race’ bag full of my street clothes on the back of a truck. There was not much left to do at that point other than dance a little nervous dance, forget to put lubricant on my neck to prevent chafing, kiss The Lady goodbye, and head into the swim pen labelled ‘1:20’, as they did not have a 1:30 self-seeding pen.
The wait in the pen seemed to go on forever. I had my ear plugs in expecting a prompt, 6am start, however due to delays for reasons I still don’t know about, we didn’t get moving until around 6:15am. Once we did though, the adrenaline started to course and I had to take some deep breaths to lower my heart rate. I didn’t want to peak before I had even started the race! Once again, the tension was broken by a comic moment that I suspect I may never forget. As I was walking down towards the lake, we were being slowed by the race organisers, and I felt a pair of arms reach across the front of me from behind, and start to pull me in. As I turned around to find out who this phantom hugger was, I received a shocked look from a man who could only manage ‘wait, you’re not who I thought you were.’ This was only made funnier by his also wetsuited girlfriend standing to my immediate right who burst into laughter as I hugged the man back and told him to ‘get in here and give me a proper hug’. Clearly the nervous tension was getting to other people more than me.
Finally we were ushered towards the start line, though we were held for a brief moment as – unbelievably – the first pro athletes were finishing their first 1.9km loop of the swim just as we were entering! It was around 6:19am that I finally hit the ‘start’ button on my Garmin, and after a long wait, my Ironman journey was truly to begin.
Swim (1:23:55, ranked 1157th out of 2094, top 55% of all racers)
That doesn’t read so impressive, does it? Top 55% Ugh. I actually had a blinder of a swim, though you might not know it by looking at the statistics there. I was aiming for a 1:30 swim, and if I am even mildly honest with myself – I didn’t train too much for the swim pre-race. I mean, I did some token sessions here and there, including a few long, slow swims of 3.8km to ensure that I knew what to do – but I did precisely zero speed work on the swim. I fancy I could probably swim a decent time if I, you know, trained for it in any meaningful way whatsoever.
But I digress. To hit my goal time of 1 hour 30, I needed to swim in the region of 2 minutes, 20 seconds for every 100m, so it was slightly surprising after the event to see that my first 100m split was 1 minute, 37 seconds. Clearly I had not heeded the advice to not go out hard early. After that though, I settled into a really nice rhythm, and dare I say it, actually enjoyed the swim. The water was a nice temperature – except for the moment when some trickled right into the small of my back and sat there pooled and cold! I really focused on sighting the turn buoys correctly though, and to be honest, swimming in a straight line. I managed to stay out of the way of the pro athletes who were swimming by on their second lap, and rather than worrying about pace or time, focused on my breathing and kicking – even though my left quadricep was feeling a tiny bit sore late on in the first lap.
The course was split into two 1.9km laps, which enabled me to break it down ‘one lap at a time’. Aiming for a first lap split of around 45 minutes, I couldn’t control my jaw dropping when I saw 39:32 on my Garmin as I exited the water. I wasn’t concerned about going out too fast any more, I was more focused on trying to go sub 1:20! I quickly hurried around the ‘Australian Exit’ to commence my second lap, my mind racing with the mathematics of what I would need to do. Just bloody swim should have been the answer.
Entering the second lap, I was feeling good, but could clearly feel my pace starting to drop. I tried lifting, kicking a bit more and working with a three strokes/breathe cadence, but eventually I settled down into a ‘just finish’ cadence. I was relaxed, ahead of schedule, feeling good and doing an Ironman. The second lap was a bit of a blur to be honest, and much quieter given that only slowpokes were left on the course at this stage. When I reached the final turn buoy before the swim exit, the thought occurred to me that if the officials told me that I had another 1.9km lap to do – I would be absolutely fine doing so. I’d more concerned about the time I would have ended up swimming! Fortunately, I was waved through to transition with a swim time of 1:23:55 – 6 minutes ahead of schedule and with no pain in my back, neck or anywhere else for that matter. It was all coming together nicely.
Bike (7:17:42, ranked 1157th out of 2094, top 55% of all racers)
As a side note – based on the Excel results for the race, I had the exact same finishing position on the bike as I did the swim. I wonder what the statistical probability of that is!
I took my time in transition, wanting to relax, lower the heart rate and make sure that I set myself up as best as I could for the bike. Drying my feet with a towel, checking nutrition, cleaning my sunglasses – these were all things I did that morning that I had never bothered with before. It was 14 minutes, but 14 minutes well spent I think.
Traipsing through the mud of transition, I was shaking – not from excitement, but from cold! A volunteer even shouted out ‘It’s ok Sean, you’ll be warm soon enough!’. They clearly knew what they were talking about.
I had repeatedly described the bike course as ‘lumpy’, and it certainly rang true for me at least. I had not trained for hills (nor speed on the swim), but rather had conditioned my body to handle 180km of cycling, or 6/7 hours in the saddle. This was a mistake that was borne out early and repeatedly during the bike leg.
My main goal for the bike was a sub-7 hour ride, though I felt that I was rather strong on the bike compared to other disciplines – so a sub 6:45 or even 6:30 might be on the cards. I started the bike off in this vein, averaging around the pace I would need for a 6:45 for the first 25km or so. Then I hit Sheep House Lane.
Sheep House Lane is the ‘famous’ climb of Ironman UK – lasting around 5km and topping out with a gradient of – at worst – 25%. It starts off with a hill that feels like it is straight out of a sportive in the south of England, but then after a bit of a false flat, feels like it keeps going on and on a bit. In a normal cycling sportive, it would be quite a bit of fun – a nice little climb. Knowing that you need to run a marathon later on in the day though, gives it a slightly different dimension. My pace slowed to that of a snail and I tried to keep my heart rate down (unsuccessfully) and spin up it as much as I could. I was also not helped by my chain dropping off at the foot of the climb, even though that was easily remedied. It was worth the effort – if for no other reason than to come across the caravan of guys dressed as Mexican wrestlers, dancing on the side of the road at the top of the hill. If the hill climb isn’t seared into my memory forever – that certainly will be, and with a massive smile on my face too.
It was on the downhill sections that I had hoped to make up some time, and the way that I was catching people on the true downhill made me feel that either my descending skills were developing nicely, or I was riding like an idiot. I definitely suspect the latter. I even managed to sit on my top tube for a bit for some ‘pro descending’. Sadly for me, the ‘flat’ sections were lumpy and windy enough to prevent me from making up too much time, and rather than sitting around the average speed of 26/27kph that I had hoped for – I was busy battling around the 24kph area, meaning the sub 7-hour bike leg was getting more and more unlikely as each kilometre passed.
Thankfully, there was some comedy (other than of the Mexican wrestler variety) to be had throughout the ride. I managed to high-five prominent British author and triathlete Andy Holgate (of ‘Can’t Swim, Can’t Ride, Can’t Run’ fame) at one stage, though he seemed rather bemused by the whole episode. At one stage while riding past a convent, I veered quickly across to the other side of the road to photobomb a group photo being taken by some nuns. Though they were laughing, I did hear one of them say ‘naughty Ironman’. I may or may not be smited (smote?) as a result of this photobomb. I hope it was worth it. I also got a laugh out of a line of fellow participants when entering a port-o-loo that was described as ‘dire’ by its previous user. My repeating of her assessment from within said port-o-loo generated a line of laughter from outside, however this may have simply been nervous giggles from those who were considering following after me.
After pushing fairly hard through the ‘flat’ sections, I came across ‘Hunters Hill’, which also had some great crowd support sections, but with a gradient of around 5% on average – was a bit punishing on my poor legs at this stage. I was feeling a bit fatigued, and had a long way to go.
Distance events are often spoken of in the psychological as much as the physical, and I think the Ironman bike section is good evidence of that. It is a grind. A long, long grind – especially when you find yourself on the slower end of the spectrum, and you’ve got the spectre of a marathon hanging over you like Damacles’ sword. For me it was 20 minutes at a time – every 20 minutes I took on some nutrition, checked my watch, drank some water and put my head down for the next 20 minute section – be it hilly, slightly more hilly or windy.
At some point along the line, I gave up on a sub 7-hour bike leg and focused on damage limitation instead. I knew that because of my faster than planned swim and transition, I had something like 15 minutes up my sleeve – which I intended to use wholly. That was fortunate, as Sheep House Lane and Hunters Hill the second time were punishing! I had nothing left at this stage in all honesty, and went into sportive mode as I put my head down and simply pushed up the hills as fast as I could. I was sweating hard, my heart rate was at around 108% of maximum (true story) and all sense of an Ironman marathon went out the window in a blaze of glory. If I was going down, it wasn’t going to be walking up this bloody hill – I am going to smash it. Embrace the Suck!
Needless to say, all of this exertion had an affect, and with around 10km to go on the bike leg – things started to get a bit hazy. I had pushed hard – too hard – and though I had intended to limit nutrition late on in the bike to prevent getting sick on the run; I may not have gotten to the run had I not poured Skittles down my throat and eaten a piece of banana loaf without chewing. I would later learn that my average heart rate on the bike was 75% of my maximum, whereas it is supposed to be closer to 65%. I rolled into the second and final transition after a slightly disappointing and challenging bike leg, knowing that I had only to survive the marathon to become an Ironman. I had the added bonus of knowing that if I could achieve my goal of running under 5 hours, I would manage to go under 14 hours for the total race as I had targeted. It was a massive boost to see, decked out in an ‘Ironman Supporter’ t-shirt, The Lady – looking fantastic, and cheering me on. I hadn’t seen her since before the swim, so to see her some 8 or so hours later was amazing. I had enough energy to do a flying dismount (and not crash) and head into transition to put some sunscreen on and start my run to the finish line.
Run (4:41:25, ranked 735th out of 2094, top 35% of all racers)
After forgetting to put sunscreen on, I ran out on to the marathon course and immediately settled into a fast-ish, but comfortable pace. I got in another wave to The Lady, and thought hard about how I was going to ensure a 7:00 per km pace at the backend of an Ironman marathon. Not that hard though, as my first 5km splits were 6:16, 6:24, 6:03, 5:38 and 6:10.
The front of the marathon was made much easier by the presence of my ‘Team Castelli Brothers’, Sam and Shan who I met running up the first hill that was a bit rude of the organisers to introduce less than a kilometre into the course. As ridiculous as it sounds, Sam, Shan and myself were all wearing the exact same Tri Suit, and we must have looked the sight running stride-for-stride through the early parts of the marathon. The distraction was welcome, and I felt enough energy to be able to engage in some banter with locals who were out on their streets having parties to cheer on the ridiculous people running by. I was also fortunate enough to listen to Sam explain why he thought it was a good idea to do his first triathlon as an Ironman – and his first marathon. When he further explained that he had a bet going with a mate that he would be able to drink a beer after the race – I thought ‘this is a guy worth talking to!’. Crazy bastard.
The run course consisted of roughly a 10km point-to-point run, before the final 32.2km being made up of four 8km loops to glory. The loops were fairly hilly – the run out of Bolton Central was uphill all the way, which had the fortunate benefit of meaning that the run back in to Bolton Central was downhill all the way. The plan was to walk the aid stations and run the rest.
As ever, the entertainment was in abundance – including a guy in a lion suit who saluted me a couple of times and a woman who high fived me every time I went past (all 4 times) and said ‘woo-hoo!’ every time anyone did. She was brilliant. The atmosphere on that run course was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced – full stop – and as I said to The Lady later on, if you could guarantee that kind of support at another Ironman, I would seriously consider doing it.
I wish that I had something more detailed to say about the Ironman marathon, but it just all clicked in an otherworldly kind of way. You dream of days like this. I held my form and technique nicely and ticked the kilometres over, resting at aid stations and whenever I was able to see The Lady, who had found an oasis of calm in the middle of the Bolton maelstrom. Nutrition worked amazingly, as I was able to keep down banana, Pepsi, a tiny bit of Red Bull and water over the course of the run. I probably started to feel a bit wobbly around 24/25km, which is understandable, but the pace was held, the technique held – to the point that people were commenting with some astonishment ‘you look really good!’.
I spent a lot of the run keeping an eye on my average pace, which was hovering around the 6:10/6:15 per kilometre marker. Right towards the back end of the run, around the 35km mark, I really started to find myself wobbling, and slowed quite a bit. The hills became that much harder, the nutrition that much harder to take on, the heat felt just a little bit more. Looking at my watch and realising how much scope I had while ensuring that I finished under 14 hours, I took to walking a bit on the downhill section back into town. I wanted to enjoy the finish line, not stagger over it into the arms of a waiting St Johns Ambulance person. I walked a kilometre and then ran a kilometre, before starting to walk kilometre number 41 when I heard a voice call out. It was Sam – ‘c’mon Sean!’ he was shouting out. Sam was convinced that we weren’t going to make it in under 14 hours, so he hustled me towards the finish line in something of a jog/shuffle. I found myself in the strange position of running a 6:18 split in kilometre 42 of the marathon at an Ironman – all thanks to Sam.
I can’t say any more than that the marathon went pretty much perfectly. As ever, context is everything, so consider this. In my first ever open marathon, I went over 5 hours at Edinburgh – a course so downhill that you can’t qualify for Boston on it. In my second, I ran 4:51 on a flat, London course. In my third I felt I had cracked it a bit, and ran a 4:39:36 – once again in Edinburgh. It was only this year in Rome that I finally ran a time that I felt happy sharing with people – 3:48:39. Let me summarise this – I nearly ran my second fastest ever marathon in a freaking Ironman. Of course, that is as much a reflection on poor previous marathon performances than anything else, but even still, that’s pretty fucking awesome. I ran 4:41:25, a shade under 2 minutes over my second fastest marathon time.
It was then my turn to head down the finishing chute for that ‘magical dance down the red carpet’ the race MC had been talking about during briefing. With around 400 metres to go, Sam gave me a nudge to get out of there, so I turned the boosters on and broke into a sprint. Adrenaline completely took over at this stage, and I had what can only be described as an out of body experience. I shimmied left and right, faking some rugby moves before heading down the chute – high-fiving everyone I could touch. Leaping up into the air and pumping my fists, I completely lost my mind. I have this look of disbelief that is indescribable in terms of feelings. I even managed to pull out a Superman chest-rip motion at the finishing line which in retrospect makes me feel like a knob! I didn’t care in that moment though – I was invincible. Four years after cooking up the scheme to do an Ironman, this was my time, my seconds on the big screen to celebrate the journey as much as the result.
I had done it. I am an Ironman.
Post Race (13:46:57, 969th of 2094, top 46%)
My two aims in this race leading in to it were to enjoy it, and ideally go under 14 hours as a time. I was loathe to pick a goal time, as the first time you do these kinds of distances you should really just aim to finish. To manage both goals is brilliant – especially managing that time goal so comfortably. I bumped into one of the guys that I had seen at the start of the day when picking up my bike, and summed it up nicely to him. I said ‘You just want to know that at the end of the day, you went as fast as you could have.’ I certainly did. Am I disappointed in the bike leg? Sure – I’ve already done some analysis and I will take a deeper look at exactly where I lost the most time. But as an experience? It’s up there in the greatest things I have done in my life, period.
The question most people have asked since I finished is ‘will you do another?’. I don’t have an answer to that question just yet. My feeling is yes, but the time commitment to it is massive, and there are so many other things in my life that I want to achieve. Right now, I am enjoying the moment – this one that I worked so hard to get to. The one that made all of those 4:45am wake ups on Saturday mornings, or sitting for hours on a turbo trainer, or running in the rain, worth it.
So where to from here? Who knows yet. But that’s the fun of it.