International Ironman – Pain & Perseverance

Barcelona Ironman marks significant milestones in my ironman journey. A flat, fast and furious course with gigantic waves in a stormy sea; tightly packed, rapid biking and a gruelling run in the Spanish sun. My first battle in the international arena, third go at full distance, fifteenth in age group, smashing my PB by 2 hours.

My story starts, with the usual minor mishaps that seem to follow me on all of my sporting adventures.

The biggest up front worry I endured was packing the bike. Initially I paid for airfreight, `but lost my ‘putting the bike back together’ nerve and sent it by Ironman bike courier. Seeing my carbon baby locked in the back of a stranger’s van with hundreds of unaccompanied bike companions was heart wrenching to say the least. The lack of control feeling shared with others I met first at the bike shop car park who later became my most awesome Ironman crew.

I arrived at Ryanair check in with my suitcase and non-refundable unused bike box fee £160 down already. (Lesson to newbies! Don’t buy airfreight if you are going to use a courier.) Having pencilled in 30mins slack as I know myself well – I’m front of the check in queue as I manically try to find my COVID passport and passenger locator forms – safely saved in 3 places that I struggle to access under the pressure of the people in the queue stares.

Security runs smoothly bar a comment re the volume of electrical items I have to support my quest. Bike computer, Garmin, bike lights (yes, over the top but I panic), phone, back up phone, laptop, chargers, gear chargers.

I’m soon up in the air, meet an interesting lady from Hong Kong called Chania, then we’re down. Through customs and into a waiting taxi, booked through booking.com.

Ten mins out taxi driver tries to deposit us in some random Barcelona back alley. I advise that we need to get to Calella which is much further than this. Few calls. Evidence of payment. The address on his screen, with Zip code matches that on my paperwork. I’m massively being attempted conned at midnight. Thankfully large boyf (Adam) has accompanied me on this quest and takes on roll of bad cop.

We are back on the road again discussing quite merrily how I would have probably got out and spent the night sat on my suitcase.

Get to hotel which has a Benidorm feel about it and a Titanic theme inside. Fountains that look like popped champagne fizzing over greet us. The decor inside looks like the Titanic ballroom entrance with a plush wooden staircase and cleverly positioned mirrors to give a double stair look (remember the film when she comes down for dinner with Jack) and a large copy of the Kate Winslet sketch from the film with her boob out.

Checked in, out for dinner, nowhere open so we find a pub and have a beer and a packet of crisps for tea. Prep of winners.

Day 2. Meet my fellow Stafford co-ironman-ers and support crew. There’s 8 of us in total. Two that I met at bike drop. Then we head up the road to collect the bike. Pedals on I test it, and all is well so head back to hotel.

In our room I realise to my dismay I have lost my phone – with all my travel documentation and credit cards.

Thank the lord for find my iPhone and the good character of the bike transport crew as I establish I have left it there, caught up in the excitement of the day. We are shortly reunited.

Next me and the iron guys take our bikes for a spin along some of the iron route. It’s beautiful. I can watch the sea, waves crashing on the beach and sun shining brightly in the blue sky. Bikers are everywhere testing the route and I feel I have been transported into a real-life version of Zwift.  The dual carriage way is immaculate and I’m on my friend Simon’s wheel soaking in the beauty when bump, hiss. I’ve hit the only object on the pristine road.

Simon is none the wiser, so I pull over. I then realise the posh new bike I’d built such a strong emotional bond with over my many miles of training, does not have quick release wheels. I am seriously stumped. I look in my tool kit and the pump has gone missing in transit. I ring Adam and I’ve entered mild panic mode. He’s asking whether I’m to the left or right of the hotel and the fact it depends if you’re looking at or away from the sea gives me brain freeze. I mutter ‘sea’ a few times then Simon two appears (part of our crew), I hang up and we assess the situation.

I take the inner tube off the wheel rim and realise it can’t get off the bike with the wheel attached. I put it back on and fill it up with air from a canister and realise that pesky hole hasn’t miraculously self-healed.

Stuck.

Simon one and Ian another member of our crew, figure something may be amiss and return to us adorned with a 6mm alen key and save the day. Simon goes to use my second gas canister before we realise it’s not a bike gas cannister. No thread to attach to the pump. Possibly a relic from my ex-husband’s cafe days and utilised to create whipped cream.

Support crew save the day and we are soon pedalling back with a large shopping list of bike related repair materials to purchase.

Bike deposited at repair shop. Registered. Ironman hat as souvenir purchased. Wander to swim start. Get foot massage by big Spanish guy (Ironman service not a random) (Did wake up in Hawaii once with a tramp tickling my feet. (That’s another story!)))

Back to bike. Stickers on. Back to transition. Checked in. Big pasta dinner with support crew. Each course delivered randomly. One person got main and starter together, one nothing, another main, another delay then starter. Like a gigantic pasta game of Russian roulette.

And sleep.

Weird ironman anxiety dreams. It’s on an elevated metal road with holes in. We catch the half ironman competitors and are ordered to wait. I miss the start. I’m at the start. Awake, asleep, then bang, its 5am. Lie there listening to early iron-break-fasters. We’re not planning to eat until 6am but my blood is pumping. I’m shaking with adrenaline. So up and down. Sit with the Simon’s. And we choose between the eclectic mix of carbohydrate-based goodies for breakfast. A large jacket potato or pasta don’t connect with me. This is an Ironman advocated hotel, so we commend their have a try attitude.

I opt for honey on toast and some fruit. Coffee pumps me up even further. Back to room. Guzzling water. Then we are all walking down the sandy path to transition to load our bikes with bottles and computers and to check our tyre pressure. Motivational music is blasting out and we are getting ready for this!

Wetsuit on and down to the swim start. Half ironman (70.3) goes before us, so we watch the swimmers group in holding pens.

The wind has picked up and the waves are huge, crashing on to the shore. On the speaker we are told the course has been shortened to 900m which is a bit disappointing but looking at the chaotic waters it makes sense. A strong cross wind means swimming to the right is near impossible.

There are rescue boats and jet skiers poised to help then the swimmers are off. Diving in and getting washed straight out. Veering off in all directions. Its carnage. People are being rescued all over the place. Plucked from the sea, panic stricken.

My anxiety turns into excitement. I’m thrilled for a battle with the sea.

Then it’s us. I’m in the holding area. Reunited with the Simons and Ian. I chat to competitors. Everyone is in this together. Fist punch. Hug. Wish luck. The ironman theme tune is on and the hairs on the back of my neck bristle. This is it. Two years of prep. This is my moment.

Then we are moving. I’m at the start. I cross the chip sensor and it beeps. I’m off. Running into the roaring sea. I am an Ironman!

I dolphin dive in then I’m swimming out hard and confidently. I expect the side current will push me to the buoy, so I just go for it. The waves are huge. I can see people 3 or 4 meters below me. But I’m floating high. The waves catch me and I’m soaring through the water.

People are treading water and doing breaststroke and panicking but I just power through. I pass buoy 1 and then there’s traffic. Someone elbows me in the face and others start swimming over me, so I get mad and fight my way through to get my space.

Then it’s all nearly over. I’m blasting back to shore. Wave after wave driving me forward. Like a surfboard. At the beach a huge wave lifts me. Then I stand up to get out and another drags me back then catapults me forward and I literally fly out of the sea headfirst. I think I’m going to be knocked out – which oddly doesn’t concern me in my heightened state. Then I hit the sand hard, face first. I scrabble out – I don’t want to be pulled back into the swirl.

I watch the crowd look at me with concern.

I wipe my face expecting blood but I’m ok. I shake away the dizziness then I’m off running through transition. Everyone else is walking! Why?!

Get to bag. Helmet on. Gel guzzled. Gloves on. Bike. I’m trotting down the carpet in my cleats then on. Bike PC on. And I’m off. Nose streaming in protest to its beach bashing.

The streets are narrow and filled with drains and potholes, but this is a race, so I’m overtaking and getting frustrated with dawdling riders not keeping to the right.

Then we are out on open roads, and we are flying. I keep getting caught up in intense pelotons, but I pick off each rider then I’m at the front, then catching more. Thin roads mean its only really safe to ride 2 a breast but the pelotons don’t care. It’s dangerous. I nearly touch handlebars. People veer and shout, but this is exhilarating.

A guy’s chain comes off and he literally goes head over heels banging his helmet hard on the road.

The first segment of the bike is done, and I am on fire. Race day adrenaline. Insane sea swim.

But eventually the adrenaline subsides, and I literally start falling asleep! My eyes are closing on the bike. I think there is no way I have the energy to continue for another 9 hours of this.

Thankfully I’ve been here before and I know everything changes. Just need to sit out the slump until some other chemical wizardry happens in my body and I get second wind.

I eat an energy bar which takes 5 minutes as its disgusting. I need to have nutrition every 20 minutes. I had a weird shaky lack of sugar incident biking at 80 miles few weeks back which made me unable to speak and scared me a lot. So, I’m disciplined with my food and drink consumption.

Soon my 2 bottles of energy drink are gone and I’m replacing with gator aid. Then I see a nasty crash at the food station. A man pulls a woman down and their bikes bang hard on the road. I have a flash of fear as this is so easy on this tight route.

The stormy winds are relentless as we power up the coast. Off to the right twice up hills then down fast. I’m way over 30mph. This is when I buzz.

Turn around point then we are flying home. I’m at 25mph cruising like a boat. No aero bars so I am a sail! I love this, picking off bike after bike racing down the road, beach, sea, I’m in the zone. My average speed creeps from 19mph to 20 mph. Then I’m at the halfway point.

Back into the fierce wind. But now I’m tiring and my average speed drops. It’s hot. My freshly massaged feet are expanding in my shoes. This hasn’t happened in these shoes in cold Britain. Then my toenails are being crushed against the front of my right shoe. And my left foot is painfully digging into the side of my left shoe. Left doesn’t hurt bad because right is in agony. I shift positions.  But the pain is intense.

I persevere but then I decide I need to take my sock off to give my foot space. The roads are treacherous, so I think of a safe space to spot. Then it comes to me. The penalty boxes! Where bad riders take time out for drafting. I pull up and a Spanish guy acts confused. Why am I self-punishing? I point at my foot then just get on with it. I pack my sock away then I’m off. Gutted I’ve lost a bit of time, but I have a few minutes of respite from pain. Before it starts again. I loosen all my Velcro straps on my shoe. I’m considering taking the whole shoe off and riding barefoot.

Then I think I’ll cool them down. I tip water in and again I get respite. But this is killing my time. The wind, and foot issue has lost me a lot on that push up the coast for the second leg. If I shuffle toe position, douse with water, open Velcro fully this is bearable. Head down and I am powering. A guy commends my strength on the bike. I use the interaction as a chance to share my foot pain with a stranger. Ironmen are odd bonding experiences. Your lives are entwined for a brief moment. You connect deeply with strangers you will never see again. Its emotional, spiritual. It’s part of the reason we are all hooked.

Pain, power, pain, power. I can do this. Sixteen miles to go. My average pace is creeping up. I count to 400 and I get 0.1 mph average speed faster. This makes the time go faster. I’m at 19.4mph average then we’re back on the pothole narrow streets and I’m done, bike at least. I’m off. Feet surge with pain. I take off my shoes, and I am hobbling. Both sides. I try and run but I’m hopping in agony. I know this. Pain may not last forever. Nothing lasts forever. Push through. Never give up instantly. Persevere and things change.

Transition.

Trainers on. And I’m chilling. I have a bad rep for transition, but I need a wee and I want to sun lotion up. I take my time then I’m running. Steady. My goal is to run all of this.

I’m not used to having support so as I run under the tree arches along the Calella beach front, Adam trots by shouting encouragement and advising what time I should go for. I try to get up to the pace he advises but jelly legs are there. And goal is to run this. I increase my shuffle pretending I’m dancing the quick step. I get into my rhythm, and I break the race down into chunks. Three laps up and down Calella beach. Nine miles each. Each leg 4.5 miles. If I count it that’s 2,000 and a bit. I can run 4.5 miles no probs. My ironman starts at mile 18. Come on. Let’s get this done.

Then my feet play up again. This time its left foot. The protruding bone on the side of my foot is digging into my trainer. Again, I have learnt pain subsides, but this isn’t. Its throbbing. I decide to rate it out of 10. Nought or maybe 1. I can do this. But then I know I’m kidding myself. This is a 6 or a 7. It’s bad. It could stop me. But I know pain subsides. I take myself out of my body and look at me running in my mind. I take in the crashing waves, the runners, the trees, the train track, hotels, sand. But the throbbing pain keeps bring me back inside myself. I can do this. Pain changes.

It takes a full lap, 9 ish miles for the pain to lessen. I don’t know what happens. Maybe natural painkillers. Maybe you’re mind just gives up as you count through the pain. What’ s the point of pain if this crazy lady ignores me. Brain falling out with brain. But whatever. Nine miles in things are bearable and I begin to soak in the atmosphere.

The crowd is awesome at Calella. There are people dancing to YMCA, beer drinkers. A large crowd of OAPs briefly blocks our path. They are not giving up their holiday walk for anyone. Makes me smile. I see Simon, Simon, Ian and Duncan. My fellow competitors from time to time. So, in the zone they don’t always see me straight away. A bloody armed German comments on my sun burn. Lotion was in the run transition bag. Forgot to apply for the bike. There’s a line of beer drinkers who become more encouraging as the day progresses. Bikini clad girls. Drummers.

Simon’s wife and John a travelling supporter cheer me on as I approach the close of each lap. Adam gives me more encouragement. I’m guzzling gator aid at every food station as I feel the twinges of cramp. I eat gels and bananas until my body can’t take anymore. I feel sick. But I feel strong.

A guy by the side is covered in a silver blanket. Legs raised above his head. When I return again, he’s in recovery position throwing up. This race is tough and not everyone completes.

As the light subsides, I feel like I am in the ironman video. This is so cool. One more length of the beach. Four and a half miles. Count to 2,000. Then count some more.

Adam joins me again 2 miles from the end and I chat about my day as he trots along. He’s actually walking some of it. But I have my rhythm and I keep shuffling on. I’ve so got this. I pep talk myself. I hug myself in my brain. One mile to go. Adam still trotting outside the barrier. I pick up speed then feel all the blisters in my right foot pop.

Surge of pain again. I’m hobbling. Then 300 seconds later its gone. Brain really has given up.

I reach the final turn then head off to the right into the dark. I fear a broken ankle in the unlit corner. Then I’m charging. The red ironman carpet. I’m on it. The crowd cheers. My eyes prick with tears.

Lorna Hopkin. You are an ironman. Those words that mark the end of another journey. That strike pride in my heart.

I get my medal. Congratulate competitors. Grab my T-shirt then head out to my supporters and comrades. We sip beer and hug. We feel amazing. Bonded by our experience.

I later find out I came 15th in age group which I’m pleased with, and I can see ways to improve. Aero bars, shoes that fit. Adam has been following my stats and advised I was winning at first segment of the bike. I beat the winner in the swim, and she was only a few minutes ahead on the bike. And amazingly enough I was the fastest at transition 1!! Everyone is a winner if you break things down enough :-).

Barcelona gave new milestones. I can run a whole marathon now in just under 5 hours. This is my fastest marathon time to date. Nutrition was nailed. Now I’ve got to chip away at my run time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is Kona. I’m getting better. I’m getting stronger. I’m getting braver. Let’s do this. Tickly feet Hawaiian tramps await.

One thought on “International Ironman – Pain & Perseverance

  1. Great story sis, well done on getting through it and in such a good time! Almost makes me want to do another one. Almost!

    Like

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