IMUK 2023 – The Road to Bolton Part #1

Suffering at speed is not for me; I find it deeply unpleasant. These days I like to be able to take full breaths but that doesn’t mean I don’t work hard or love a challenge to get me out of bed in the morning.  I quietly get on with my off the radar training and do pretty much everything in competitive isolation. This suits me. But the trouble with this approach is that to break new ground and push myself out of my comfort zone, I need to go a little bit longer.  Despite being far from exceptional in my athletic endeavours, I can claim to be ludicrously disciplined in the face of a big scary goal and so I was excited to embrace the challenge of a long distance triathlon; not only the distance on the day but the volume of training needed to have a chance at getting to the finish.  It is this endurance that fascinates and motivates me.  It is me against the finish line and keeping my head during all the hours in between.

And so this is how I ended up signing up for Ironman UK and it turned out that for me, there were many reasons to choose this specific Ironman. You will note that not one of my reasons includes the challenging bike course with close to 3000m of climbing; that was firmly in the cons list.   Reasons ‘for’ were something like this:

  • I wanted to do an Ironman branded event; judge all you want and I know there are other organisers who are cheaper and friendlier but I am happy to pay a lot for closed roads. I just am and it’s my money.   
  • An overseas Ironman sounds appealing but I had no idea how training would go. Getting to the start line is a challenge in itself and I did not want to commit to an even more expensive event overseas.  Also traveling with a bike seems stressful.
  • I did not want, under any circumstances, to swim 3.8km in the sea which ruled out Ironman Wales, the only other UK Ironman event.

So Ironman UK it was with the overarching goal of just getting around and justifying the hours of training and sacrifice.

I signed up in July 2022 and fast forward 12 months, I made it to taper. 30 weeks of structured, progressive work and prior to that, maybe 10-12 weeks of regular swimming, riding and running but without the pressure of a plan. For most of the training I could breath happily in Zone 2, but I also ticked off some ‘balls to the wall’ bike sets on Zwift.  It took the best part of a year to build up to 2nd July 2023; far from insignificant.  A whole year of keeping the main thing the main thing.  My friends and family forgot what I looked like; the sacrifices are real but for me, justified.

Fortunately, I didn’t do this alone.    I had a training partner who also lived and breathed the blood, sweat and tears of the last year.  My husband, Huw, signed up as did two other friends.  One of the two friends decided this year wasn’t right for her so deferred to 2024 (unknown to her that 2023 would be the last Ironman UK), but our other friend stuck it out and also made it to taper.  I haven’t asked him what it was like training with a married couple.  He missed the ride where I fell off my bike and in an enraged, vengeful tone, blamed Huw so I’m hoping it hasn’t been an issue.

Ironman UK was a terrifying goal and the only way to temper this fear was to put the work in.  Graft.  Nothing glamorous or newsworthy. Just showing up every single day and chipping away.  And the end result come race week was a weird type of fitness.  It was the sort of fitness where at the start of a 6 hour ride I felt incredibly tired from the accumulation of the weeks training and two hours later I was still tired but it hadn’t got any worse and I hadn’t slowed.  I could just keep going.  I wasn’t always happy about it but on I went.  This endurance is clearly what was required but I missed the feedback from having fresh legs and good days.   I rarely felt good. I took longer to recover than Huw. Perimenopause does that but I mitigated this as best I could with protein dosing around my training and at mealtimes, HIIT or sprint intervals on the bike instead of fatigue inducing FTP intervals and of course, my favourite, lifting heavy in the gym. Lifting heavy became my insurance policy against pretty much everything. 

Finishing our first ever 3.8km swim in June

It turned out I had a few problems with triathlon training.  More than I thought.  Let’s start with the swim.  Swimming was the most soul destroying and morale busting part of my training.  I actually got slower the more I trained.  I kept waiting for that breakthrough swim but it never came.  I never loved swimming but now I’m pretty close to loathing it.  I may never swim again.

I have more to say about swimming.  I hate been cold.  It really affects my mood but also it affects me physiologically.  My body starts to shut down and I don’t function well.  You could say that I feel the cold more than most.  The cost of living crisis during the winter of 2022/2023 threw an unexpected problem my way.  There used to be a sign at the entrance of the leisure club in which I trained that displayed the pool temperature.  It mysteriously disappeared.  The pool was always lovely and warm; some would argue too warm to train but there were no complaints from me.  Suddenly, the pool was bloody freezing. Many complained but clearly there were cutbacks to be made and I had no choice but to get in and train.  I hated every single swim.  By the end of the long swims, I was so cold, it took up to 4 hours to recover and get warm again.  They totally wiped me out for half a day. I may never get in that pool ever again.  If I had been rewarded with faster times that would have been something but no, add the cold and wet (I hate that too) to the itchy skin, the bloated stomach from breathing irregularly, the constant smell of chlorine, the goggle marks that last for hours, and the tedious chore of hair washing,  pool swimming was firmly at the bottom of my list of things to do ever. Even on holiday.

Winter Riding 🥶

Let’s move onto the bike.  Winter riding was miserable.  You need so much kit that takes forever to put on before you leave the house and even then, cold hands and feet was just how it was.  I don’t find riding particularly relaxing.  I am far from at one with being on two wheels and there is no switching off like I do when I run.  Cycling is an assault on my senses; watching out for potholes, listening for cars, anticipating gear changes, fuelling. I used to have sore hands from holding on too tight and I struggled to take my left hand off the handlebar to signal.  When I did, I veered into the right hand side of the road and was all over the place.  It occurred to me I would be better suited to the warmer climes of locations with right hand side driving but it was what it was and  I always felt huge relief when I rolled into my drive and unclipped; I had made it through another ride relatively unscathed.

Thankfully the Shropshire Hills are very scenic
Sunshine at last!

A nod to all the hills.  The loop on the IM UK bike course boasts an infamy, a notoriety if you will because there is so much climbing in the 3 loops.  We devised our own loop here in Shropshire with a similar distance and crucially, similar if not more elevation.  So we had the hill training covered.  Every single week we did hills.  Every. Single. Sunday. 

And finally, the running.  There is only so much training an average human with average ability can fit into a week and given running often has the highest risk of injury, we took a leap of faith and whilst we ran regularly, we only did a long run (for us that was 2 hours or more) every three weeks.  We did one 3 hour run in the whole build up.  This was a difficult concept to wrap my head around but the endurance was there.  The 3 hours run felt no different to a 2.5 hour run.  We could keep going despite the accumulated and expected fatigue from the training for all the other disciplines.

And so, none of it was easy.  We rarely felt good.  It took up all of our time and energy and yet despite all of this this, I gleaned an element of satisfaction and achievement out of all the training so much so that if this opportunity had been taken away from me, there would have been an Ironman training shaped hole in my life which I would have missed.

During taper I was searching for motivational books to read and programmes to watch; anything that I might be able to draw on and use on this day that was inching towards me.  I guess it was a case of the training was all done but what else might help?

I read “IronWar’ by Matt Fitzgerald and this quote got me thinking:

‘The desire to continue versus the desire to quit – the athlete is this and this alone until he chooses one or the other.  And when the choice is made he briefly becomes either persevering or quitting until, after he has stopped at the finish line or, God forbid, short of it, the stripped away layers are piled back on and he becomes his old self again.  Only not quite.  He is changed, for better or worse’.

Unnerving but interesting.  Would we become persevering or quitting?