It’s probably a bit ridiculous posting a race report more than two years after the event, but I wrote this post shortly after and then never posted it because at the time I didn’t have a suitable blog. It sat in the drafts folder of my work-related tumblr for two years and I thought that now I have this blog I might as well dig it out, tweak it a bit, and post it here.
I’ve never really been nervous about running events. I’ve done three marathons and an assortment of shorter races, and I don’t recall ever feeling particularly nervous before them. It’s odd, because I remember the almost crippling nervousness I used to feel before rowing events back when I used to row, but for some reason running has never held the same fear for me. I think it’s partly because all the ‘bad stuff’ that can happen at a marathon – not making a PB, struggling and having to walk a bit, or just being in huge amounts of pain for an hour or two – doesn’t hold any great terror when it’s a purely personal event that I do solely for my own satisfaction. I know that even on my worst day ever (actual injury or medical problems notwithstanding) I can always finish a marathon, and if my time isn’t what I hope it is then that’ll just inspire me to do better next time.
Anyway, I say all that by way of an introduction to the fact that I was really, really nervous about the Ironman. Why was that different? Lots of reasons, I think; partly the sheer additional logistics required (getting a bike to Lancashire, and then setting up two transitions in locations 10 miles apart, and not forgetting any of the various odds and ends without which a triathlon becomes difficult or impossible) and partly the fact that so much more bad stuff can happen in a triathlon, especially an ironman, and especially when you’re a weak swimmer and a mediocre cyclist. The 2.5 mile swim scared the hell out of me, and the fact that apart from the 17hr overall cut-off there are several intermediate ones meant that I was distinctly nervous about the possibility of being forced to end the race early.
I felt somewhat better once I got all my kit put away at T1 and T2, which at least took the logistical fear out of the equation but I didn’t sleep much and, as 6am approached and I made my way down to the lake in the early morning gloom and began to get ready for the swim, the slightly grander fear, of swimming a 2.5 mile open-water course in close proximity to 4,000 flailing arms, wasn’t abating much. I got into the water, swam gently out to the start line (or rather, to a point well back of the start line; to stay clear of the most rapidly flailing of those arms) and tried to breath gently while I listened to the national anthem and waited for the start.
The air-horn went, the mass of white hats in front of me powered off, and I began a leisurely stroke to the line.
200 metres in, I began to think I wasn’t going to make it. I don’t know why – I’d done close to the full distance plenty of times in training (well, three times), but for some reason my breathing was shaky, my wetsuit felt constricting and I didn’t seem to be going anywhere much. I powered on, forcing myself to do 20 strokes of front crawl before allowing myself to come up, sight, and get my breath back a bit. I can’t quite remember how long it took to decide I wasn’t going to have to pull out, but the first twenty minutes or so were definitely pretty bad psychologically. I think it was only as I got to the first big buoy and started the short length to the turnaround point on lap 1 that everything began to settle down and I managed to get into a consistent front crawl. After that, things improved and I hit the exit ramp with an unspectacular but comfortable (for me) twenty minutes to spare before the lap 1 cut-off. A brisk(ish) walk round and back in the water for lap 2 and I was beginning to feel more confident. The second lap took me almost bang on an hour but generally felt much better apart from being kicked in the face and promptly getting severe cramp in my calf about 500 metres before the end. I managed to stretch it out and power on and then was hitting the exit ramp again, and this time off to transition.
The bike leg started ok; it’s always nice cycling through beautiful countryside on largely traffic-free roads, especially after a tough swim, but it pretty quickly became fairly gruelling. The Bolton Ironman is famous for a couple of nasty hills, both of which you have to go up twice. On the longest hill there was a lot of support at the top, which was very nice, and a good long downhill stretch afterwards although to be honest I didn’t take as much advantage of it as I could have done as I’m simply not confident enough at cycling fast downhill on winding roads. If I was to do another Ironman this is actually something I would want to specifically practice, as well as just getting the distance in, as I could have gained more time simply by being faster downhill. The other hill was short but steep and a lot of people around me (i.e. the slower ones) were walking up it. I just about managed to griz my way up it both times, although moving barely faster than the people walking. I was keeping an eye on my time and was pretty comfortable that I would make the cut-offs (there is an intermediate cut-off after lap 1 as well), although not by a huge amount. It certainly wasn’t a quick ride. I also probably didn’t really have enough nutrition for the bike leg – there were stops where both water and sports drinks and energy bars were being handed out but I could have done with taking more of my own.
Anyway, all things come to an end eventually, and so it was off on the run. It’s pretty crazy starting a marathon and thinking “well, nearly there now!” but that’s the nature of an Ironman. Of course, I wasn’t really nearly there at all, I was still about six hours from finishing, but it’s all psychology. Again, initially the change of sport was a nice rest after nine or so hours on the bike, but the run pretty quickly turned into a grim slog, especially once we got into Bolton town centre and started the three laps necessary to finish. Going up and down the same little hill over and over again, and passing the finish line several times was pretty demoralising, especially as with each lap there were fewer and fewer people on the course. I did make a few temporary friends and chat to people, and one of the only good things about the lap system is that you get to run for a bit with people much quicker than you, which is nice. The other good thing is that I was able to see my parents, who had kindly come to support me, several times rather than just passing them briefly once.
I did end up walking for fairly long stretches when I simply couldn’t run anymore. I was pretty happy that even at a walking pace I was going to make the final 17hr cut off, so I wasn’t too nervous about that, although there were people elsewhere on the lap circuit who were clearly going to be much tighter, or even miss it altogether. Continuing on after more than 16 hours when you might not even get a finisher’s medal takes great strength of will and is really brave if you ask me.
I was incredibly grateful to the two people who spent hours standing by the course with a mist-spray bottle of water, cooling down anyone who needed it. The official support stations were also decent, with pretzels and sports drinks and even coca cola which I eventually started on for the final lap, when I needed whatever energy I could muster.
I managed to run the last mile or so, and going down the last stretch and finally being able to take the left turn to the finish instead of starting another lap was fantastic. It was dark by then but there were still lots of supporters out, and of course my parents there. There’s the famous ‘Jake Bate, you are an Ironman’ over the tannoy, and then a medal, a photo, and stumbling off to buy a slice of pizza and head back to the hotel.
Overall I was, of course, absolutely delighted just to finish within the cut-off. I would argue that the 17hr cut off for an Ironman is relatively speaking a much harder standard than the average 8hr cut-off for a marathon (though there’s no official time limit for a marathon of course, and cut-offs vary considerably) and, while I believe that pretty much any reasonably healthy person can do a marathon, even if they end up walking most of it, I don’t think that’s the case at all with the Ironman, so I am proud to have done it. I’m particularly proud given that I could barely swim more than 100 metres when I started training, and up until a month before the race I honestly thought I might have to pull out as a result.
All that said, a time of 16hrs 22mins is not spectacular by any means, and there are people much older and arguably less fit than me who do an Ironman much quicker than that. I went into the event just wanting to beat the cut-off, and I did that, but I don’t think I got the time I could have got if I’d been a bit more committed to training, particularly doing long enough rides on the bike. I will do another Ironman some time I hope, although I’m not sure when as it is a huge training commitment, and I’d like to get a time that is a bit more representative of what I think I’m potentially capable of.