We had a loose plan for this potentially life changing event. Stay together. Look after ourselves and each other; fuel and hydrate just as we did in training and of course, keep moving forwards.
My main concerns and worries as we loaded the car up for our drive to Bolton on Friday 30th June was the weather. The forecast was far from perfect. A chilly start, and a moderate wind with substantial gusts. The wind was threatening to make a hard thing even harder. The blustery weather I could do nothing about but the cooler temperatures I could. I had packed warm cycling kit knowing if I get cold on that long bike, it could be game over for me.
I also felt on the brink of an injury. I was suffering with a sore hamstring, which I could feel when I walked let alone ran. Towing the start line of a distance I had never done with a niggle did not fill me with confidence. I can tolerate a fair amount of discomfort but could I withstand it for an Ironman?
Arriving in Bolton, we were immersed in Ironman world. We registered, were tagged with our wrist band, handed our ruck sack – it suddenly became very real.
After hanging up our run bag in T2, we made the decision to drive the bike loop. Although we had ridden it on our bikes on two occasions, Ironman had kindly changed it and we had heard that there was some awful climbs and sketchy descents. As we drove the loop I desperately tried to pay attention (not my forte) and I came away feeling like it was either up or down. The hills were really going to test our training – we had done our best.
Saturday morning was Huw’s birthday. We had already decided to celebrate a week later but it’s a weird feeling ignoring the actual day. We were awake at 5am and so we pottered around. Checked our bike bag. Again. We went for a short 20 min run on some nearby trails. My high hamstring hurt every step of the way. I was worried but I joked that by the time I got to the run on the day, everything would hurt anyway, so maybe I wouldn’t notice it.
Saturday lunch time brought a wobble. I was feeling strong in my head and trying not to let in any negativity. We had adopted a can-do attitude despite the winds and the extra hilly bike loop but then our friend called to tell us he had just done the athletes’ swim in Pennington Flash and the lake was shockingly choppy. He sent us video just to reinforce his already vivid description. I let the fear in briefly. The whole thing felt impossible. I’m not a strong or confident swimmer; how would I get through 3.8km of rough water? And then the hills on the bike in the wind? My sore hamstring? Everything felt stacked against us. Our chip shop chips that we had treated ourselves to for lunch were hard to eat through the rising panic and tears.
After blurting out a barrage of negative, desperate, and unhelpful narratives, we decided it was probably best not to dwell on any of this and so managed to overthrow the wobble. With the forecast for race day being a calmer morning with slightly less wind, we breathed a tentative sigh of relief and took that as a win. We didn’t mention the 40mph gusts on the bike or on my sore hamstring. Control the controllable, right? And that meant getting our bikes ready.
At Pennington Flash we racked our bikes and stared out at the lake searching for something that wasn’t there. Reassurance? A guarantee that it would all be OK? Huw had said that when we look out at the swim course it will seem a long way. This had helped manage my expectations as the course looked OK – doable. The buoys were evenly spread out and it was a simple course to navigate and sight through. I felt OK about it. The waves and the chop were quietly terrifying.
The rest of the day passed eating, drinking and kidding ourselves we were relaxing.
A ridiculously early bedtime of 7pm was had and remarkably sleep did come. When the alarm went off at 2am the words of Eminem filled my head:
‘Success is my only mother f*****g option,
The instant I opened my eyes, my heart was pumping and I felt wired from the off as we started our last minute preparations. Plaiting hair. Porridge. Preloading electrolytes. Too early for a poo? It was here. Do or Die. For better or for worse. Persevering or quitting?
We left our Airbnb at 3am, drove into Bolton and parked the car. Is it me, or does it always feel momentous leaving the car and wondering what will happen during the time that passes before you get in it again? We walked through a very quiet Bolton town centre and got on a shuttle bus.
On arriving at T2 we were surprisingly relaxed, the atmosphere was buzzing with nervous excitement and we set about carrying out all the last minute checks and prep that needed to be done.
Bike check ☑️
Fuel on bike ☑️
T1 bag ready☑️
When the time was right, we pulled on our wetsuits (It won’t surprise anyone to know I took the thermal option), handed in our white bags which we wouldn’t see again until the end, and nervously headed towards the swim start where there were lots of other equally nervous swimmers loitering around the various estimated time boards. 06:00 arrived and the National Anthem was played followed by AC/DC Thunderstruck. I have watched many swim starts on YouTube these last few months and I always felt very emotional hearing the familiar guitar riff now synonymous with an Ironman start. I thought that on the day it would really impact me and whilst I wasn’t completely unaffected, I found I didn’t really have the capacity to let emotion in. I was focussed on whatever lay ahead.
“Success is the only mother f****** option,
This ability to detach, that I didn’t know I had, saw me through the whole day.
The line of pink hats in front of us started to disappear and we shuffled closer to the jetty until it was our turn. I had decided I was going to adopt a sort of squat and plop entry into the water which was effective if not graceful and suddenly I was in and swimming. The swim was an uncompromising battle to the end. It was choppy, I found it cold and there were arms and legs every which way; all people like me just trying their best. The only way I found to get through this relatively unscathed was to shut down fear along with my manners and try to own the space I was in. For me this was an aggressive swim that was utterly fixated on counting the buoys and checking to my left to make sure Huw was never far away from me. Focusing on these two things was enough to drive out any other thoughts and after the two laps were done, we eventually made it to the swim exit.
An equally ungraceful exit from the water, a struggle with my wetsuit on the run to T1 with Huw announcing we swam a 1:13! Very pleased with this but no time to celebrate or analyse. Shivering uncontrollably, I got ready for the bike. Layers were the answer for me on this blustery, chilly morning. I had come prepared for this so no excuse to be cold. But I was cold. For about the first 90 mins I was really unhappy on the bike. Shivering away. Using up all that energy trying to get warm. Eventually though I did dry out and I realised I hadn’t thought about how cold I was for a while.
So, the bike course. At Bolton, as with all events with any serious elevation, it’s all about the bike. The bike has the lion’s share of the day both in time and distance and athletes need to be able firstly, to handle the course and secondly be able to run a marathon straight after. Pacing and managing effort have never been more important; whilst the bike is important, the run needs protecting. Over-bike and you can harm your run but equally not being able to manage the course sufficiently well means the cut off becomes a real concern, or you stagger into T2 not in a great state to start a marathon. It’s a delicate balance of effort, taking opportunities of free speed (downhills or tailwinds), recovery, fuelling and rarely going into the red. Redlining is costly both during the bike course but also later in the day on the run. Best to avoid.
Taking all the above into account, we had estimated we could comfortably cover the bike course in around 8 hours including a couple of loo stops and the refilling of our water bottles with our bags of Tailwind.
The day itself had different ideas. It was overcast and cool and windy. A moderate breeze with some strong gusts. To say it was demoralising that most of the headwinds and cross winds were on the descents and any flat-ish portions of the course was an understatement. Our climbing was good. Our training in the good old Shropshire hills had prepared us well for the 3000+m of elevation. We passed lots of riders struggling with ups but there was nothing there we couldn’t handle. The descents however were terrifying. The crosswinds and gusts made me akin to a piece of tissue paper blowing in the wind. I held on for dear life trying to be brave on what should have been fast descents, but also not wanted to end up in any nearby hedges. All opportunities for free speed were robbed. It says something when I didn’t feel I could fuel on the downs or the flat because I needed both hands on the bike to stay in control through the gusts. I fuelled on the climbs because that was easier. My shoulders ached from holding on too tight, my chest, my neck, my core; all utterly fatigued from the tension of gripping the bars so tightly.
During training I learned that mentally, I couldn’t handle knowing I was out for a long ride so I never looked at time or distance. We planned our routes and stopped when they were done. On my Garmin bike computer, all I had was average speed, power, cadence and heart rate. I adopted the same strategy on race day. I had no idea how long we had been riding or the distance. I just knew we had three loops and it would be over when they were over.
We had started to slow during the later stages of the third loop but we were aiming for 8 hours and in my head it was still 8 hours. The thought I could be on the bike for longer would have loosened those bolts that were holding the wheels on (metaphorically speaking!). As it was, the 30-40mph gusts, the crosswinds and headwinds had cruelly stolen 30+mins of our bike split away but it wasn’t until we were off the bike that I realised this. In the moment on that bike nothing phased me. I accepted everything that was thrown at me, felt it and let it go. I rode the hill I was on, the mile I was in. I never let my mind wonder to thoughts of life off the bike.
But my tired battered body did eventually make it off the bike and I found a second wind as it dawned on me that we had made it to T2. We had always said, if we made it off the bike, we had a good chance of getting to the finish. I was happy and I felt good (all things considered!) but then I looked over at my partner in this absurd adventure and he did not look as if he was feeling the same. I reined in my elation at being off the bike and we shuffled into the transition tent. Huw was grey and exhausted. He sat down whilst I busied myself getting his run bag and a drink. And then I got my run bag and together we just went through all the motions of getting ready to run. The intention to run overruled anything else. We got out on the course and got moving. We started just by walking. Walking was good. We were moving forward. Let’s just do this for a while. And then Huw quietly suggested trying a run so we did that. And before we knew it, we had reached the first aid station. Huw went straight for coke – liquid cocaine for the weary triathlete. Almost as soon as the sugar flooded his blood stream, he picked up, he looked better and we started running. Our plan to get round this thing running for 9 mins, walking for 1 minute was back on the cards and we ran for a full 9 mins and it felt good! It felt like we had covered some ground and we were back in the game! Incidentally, my hamstring didn’t hurt! No pain at all!
Time to focus and get through it. Now I knew Huw was OK, I felt myself shut down to pretty much everything again. Keep moving. Walk through the aid stations. Take on fuel. Walk up hills. Lots more hills. The run was not a marathon but 4 loops. Just 4 loops. And it was over at the end of the 4 loops. My brain could cope with 4 loops. It could not handle 26.2 miles.
I should be able to write about the support on the course, the people we saw, the other runners, the drag up to the turn around point on New Chorley Road and the way the course mercilessly went past the finish 4 times before it was our turn on the red carpet but I felt very impassive throughout the whole thing; emotionless. It was what it was and I would stop when I was done.
Some advice for anyone who has had the opportunity to support family or friends at one of these. Please do it if you can. It meant so much for us to see our people; the people who knew what we had been through and how hard we had worked to get to this day. Our sons, our daughter and son in law and our amazing friends. Seeing them all there willing us on, not doubting us, was the only time I felt anything on that course. Their support broke through my focus and it was amazing. It helped more than they could ever know.
Just before our 3rd lap, we both took a caffeine gel and felt surprisingly good; in fact, I’d like to loosely use the term ‘nipping’ along; it was probably far from nippy but indulge me. Despite the fatigue and the warning that the third lap would be the worst, it was our best. It was the lap however, that we passed our friend. We had seen him a couple of times on the bike and he got out onto the run course ahead of us and looked as though he was having a great run. We realised we were catching him and as we passed him, we had to make the decision to either stay with him and make sure he got across the line or leave him to his demons. Still feeling OK, we decided that staying with him could be quite annoying for him; an overly buoyant married couple on a caffeine buzz was probably not what he needed. Huw admitted that if that was him, he would want us to keep going and leave him to his misery. We checked he was OK. Walked with him a while, made sure he got some coke at the next aid station and then carried on feeling like the worst friends ever. Spoiler alert. He finished!
As we started the 4th lap, Huw wanted to talk about the finish. He was energised by how close it now was and was excited at the thought of hearing those 4 words. I however, could not let myself think about it. It still seemed too far away. Even when we got into single digit kilometres. I remained fairly detached from the whole thing. Poor Huw. He was approaching the finish of 12 months of hard work and sacrifice with a robot.
We approached the town centre and were perhaps 400m from the finish. Our sons were on the side excitedly shouting to us that we had done it. Wait. I snapped out of my running coma. What? We hadn’t done it yet. What were they doing there if we were that close? They pointed at the back of the finishing chute.
‘We are just going to run there to watch you cross the line.’
This took some comprehending. My disengaged brain tried to snap back to reality. We kept going and turned onto the road where the steps leading up to the town hall was on our left. It was only then that it started to register with me. Huw was so excited and I was dazed by the prospect of this finish we had dreamed about. We rounded the corner and there in front of me was the first timer’s bell. I rang it for what seemed like an age and the sounds revived me and the reality started to filter through my incredulous mind. The red carpet was in front of us. We were there, holding hands, raising our arms, crossing that coveted finish line.
What followed for me was a blur of tears and elation. The finish line was nothing short of wonderful but I do wish I had allowed myself to believe we were going to actually cross it. It was over so quickly! We heard those unforgettable words “You are an Ironman”; actually we heard the words “You two are Ironman!”. We had done it! My legs wobbled almost immediately but we shuffled over to get our medal then continued the shuffle towards the tent where we could finally rest. It was hard to comprehend that it was over even looking down at the medal around my neck.
Making our way towards the recovery tent we saw our friend enter the finish which was a huge relief so we stopped and watched him cross the line. The three of us were then back together genuinely all happy we had each made it across that line; he didn’t seem to hold a grudge on our decision to leave him on the 3rd lap.
We found seats in the tent and Huw being the more spritely of us went to get pizza. Patrick and I sat next to one another in utter disbelief. Mentally I was buzzing but my body was telling me something else. Having being reunited with my white street clothes bag I was attempting to get another layer on as I could feel myself getting cold but I had this persistent pins and needles in my hands and I was finding everything hard. It was at this point a lovely volunteer approached me and in a most concerned voice told me that I was a funny colour and was it OK if she asked someone to come and look at me? I felt OK. Tired and probably needed sugar but having functioned on sugar all day just couldn’t bring myself to have more. The next thing I knew I was being gently lifted out of my seat and guided to the med tent where I was given the once over by a lovely doctor who had seen far worse than me and after a series of checks and questions, diagnosed I was just knackered.
Keen to get to my family and friends now, I made my way back to Huw and even though I still felt sub optimal, opted to move slowly and begin the process of getting back to T2 to collect our bikes. My brain was focused but my body was all over the place; light headed, pin and needles and exhausted. Fortunately, when we met up with our family and friends I had my two teenage sons propping me up and we slowly trudged to T2. This trudge was long but we were Iron heros and despite feeling pretty rough, I could not have been happier.
It has been over three months since we finished Ironman UK 2023 and sometimes I still can’t believe it. Would we do another one? Never say never but I’m in no rush to commit to such a massive training schedule but I do wonder how much more I can handle.
As a result of spending many hours of training in my riding or running coma I feel like my brain rewired and became utterly tuned into the instinctive, the unconscious. My idea of suffering has shifted as the whole experience cemented even more what I already knew; that it was as much a battle in the mind as in the body.
The changes to me as a result of this whole experience are subtle. Too subtle for anyone who knows me to spot. I am still the same person. My athletic ability is pretty much unchanged; far from exceptional! I can’t run any faster. I’m still a pretty dreadful swimmer and my technical ability on a bike still has a lot of room for improvement. I am however, confident in my ability to persevere and not quit but then I’m a firm believer in progressive training and hard work and my training tested my endurance repeatedly. Anyone who works hard can get to that point. Those changes are achievable for all who want it enough so I guess it all boils down to how bad do you want it? Will you persevere or quit?