The road to the Ironman world championship in Kona Hawaii (we all got to dream), will no doubt be a bumpy journey, and the Staffordshire 70.3 at 29oC was a somewhat uncomfortable bump in the journey so far. Yet setbacks in life, are a blessing. The best of learning curves, forcing a rethink, rebalance and re-strategy for the future.
So my 3rd go at the Staffordshire half ironman, that conveniently sits right on my doorstep, was nowhere near my fastest, which somewhat rained on my Ironman parade. Yet I achieved my first ever top 10 Ironman position in age group leading to my deduction that the bits that killed me off, mainly being the hottest day of the year, had the same impact upon my fellow competitors.
Let us first remember I am a mere Brit. Bit of Irish heritage and some roots into Scotland but that’s as far as my recent gene heritage stretches. Definitely no hot climate evolution to lean upon in there. Brought up on grey drizzly summers with raincoats and jumpers. Frigid trips to the seaside with rainy board game days or playing in the sodden garden with snails fleeing watery homes.
Hot days although bountiful in my memories eye, are somewhat of a rarity. And in present day, not readily available for practice training sessions. As a warning one of the few hot days of training this summer left me confined to bed after a 12 mile run delivered a strong dose of sun stroke.
So an ironman at 29oC was not really what the doctor ordered, but possibly what the coach did with a gruelling full ironman planned in the Barcelona sun in October.
My day begins with the usual drinking enough water to fill a bath and the associated panic pee at Chasewater’s port-a-loos. An act of generosity letting a fellow competitor call me out of the queue to help him pump his tyres up meant I lost my space and the pee was slightly more panicky than usual.
We then joined the queuing masses and awaited our timed delivery into the Chasewater lake. Out on the Tannoy warnings were delivered to advise us to keep our wetsuits down until our turn to join the splashing lemmings, as even at 7am there was a clear risk of over overheating.
I got into the water at 7:15 with a new strategy to improve my cadence by singing the 1977s hit ‘Stayin Alive’ in my head. The water is 21oC so positively steamy. All goes very well bar I have completely lost the ability to pee in my wetsuit. Kind of like in a dream when you don’t pee. And I’m worrying the impact this will have on my transitions if the loos are all occupied. I’m not yet a seasoned athlete ready to pee on the bike.
Then I’m out, trotting through transition. On the bike then I start trying to turn on my brand new never used Garmin bike computer. Few nervous shouts from competitors as I inadvertently weave as I press every button. But then its on and I’m off. I’m sure any experienced bikers reading this will think I’m mad not to have got a bike computer prior to the actual race – but I am an ordinary and this is my journey to enlightenment.
So I know the route as I’ve practiced it many times, at 18.5mph. The only purpose of this technical wizardry is to help me ride at an average speed of 20mph. I’m off, fast, but then I figure the end of the race is bumpy and I need to keep it high now. Unfortunately my lively start means my legs feel full of lactic acid early on. But i push through and break up the hard with the soft and play tag team with some competitors – overtaking then them against me. I don’t want to draft but I’m fairly sure this pees them right off, but it does makes us all go faster.
A while in and I’ve made a few tag team friends – an insanely tall guy who I catch up on the hills. Pierre with incredibly brown legs and a lady with some awesome plaits.
Riding round the Staffordshire hills is great fun bar the fact I’ve overdone it on the gels and I’m feeling a bit sick.
Up and over Blithfield reservoir is beautiful then I head down hard to keep my speed up before tackling the hilly Cannock Chase part.
As I traverse the climbs amidst the piney scented forest, I’m disappointed as my average time sinks to 19mph. My legs are tired and I don’t want to finish myself off on the climbs. But then we are all heading down again so I push hard. As we hit Tixall bridges I fly over the bumps and past my plaited friend. We race to town and I get by her on the last mile – driven by my bike computer and a huge desire to finish on a nice round 19.5mph average. I just achieve it.
Bike in, first stop loo, that darn missed wetsuit wee! No one has used it so I claw at the unopened loo role. Then trainers on and my plaited opponent thanks me for some great racing. Then I’m off. But my legs will not function. So I’m just counting them and willing out the first dreaded jelly leg mile.
I complete it and I get some control again but it is so hot. Its getting on for midday and I continuously douse myself with my bottle of water. At the first water stop I’m greeted by my tri club dressed as hula dancers.
They top up my bottle and encourage me on. I neck some isotonic then I’m off again. But legs won’t co-operate. The sun is burning and I just shuffle along. I’m counting. I’m thinking angry thoughts. I’m thinking emotional stuff to kickstart my body but I can’t get anything out of me. So i have to commit to trotting. Practice for a full ironman I tell myself to keep things positive. I’m gutted I can’t get more out of the tank as I see bikers following the lead women only a few miles ahead.
Having given up the battle somewhat I take to enjoying the race. I stop at every water station to top up my bottle and take immense pleasure being jetted down by hose pipe outside a run/bike shop. They understand our pain.
The trudge up to Stafford Castle is a long and gradually steepening. Getting up the final mound sees many competitors walking, but I feel happier trotting. Stafford tri club are there to meet us again dressed up as the knights of the castle. Here I love wearing my Staffie tri kit as they really motivate me on.
Then I speed up slightly trudging round the castle and repeat the course. The Redbull stand really does give me wings as I’m so hot. Then I run through a mist machine and I see rainbows that keep going on and on and I sob. They remind me of Leo the baby we lost at 5 weeks. When he passed we saw a really unusual half rainbow in the sky that I’d never seen before above us at the school fete. A sign of hope and love.
Then I’m back to being tough. Keep on trudging, tipping water on my head, drinking water, being hosed, gulping warm coke, feeling despondent about my time but without the strength to speed up. There’s an ambulance for someone and I start to worry. Another guy is hobbling from cramp. People are walking. But I keep on going. Into town and my friends cheer me on.
Then its nearly done. I turn off the laps to the finish line, suddenly surprised its over with more left to give than I thought. I do a full blown sprint finish down the ironman red carpet with my name called out on the speaker. Then I stop panting in the heat grab my medal and celebrate with the insanely tall tag team guy who finished at the same time as me.
Pub for a celebratory beer which cheers me up. I check out my stats and I have personal bests on everything bar the run which was 20 mins slower. Ninth in age is my best rating to date, and I later see its got me to 38th in age for Ironman GB – after only one outing. So I’m happy-ish. Happier still with a pint of lager warming my hot blood.
But I’ve seen my Achilles heal. Running and heat. I’ve got something to work on and 10 weeks to the big Barcelona event. I need to train my brain to run faster and comfortably. I need to run with people and with spirit. I need to see just how far an ordinary ironman can get.