Yesterday I competed in the Ironman World Championships, St George Utah, which, bar grief, is hands down the most difficult thing I have ever done in my entire life! A 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride then a full 26.2 mile marathon. Challenging alone, but this was at 90oC heat, riding up steep mountain tracks, with 20 mile inclines, then running a hilly exposed marathon exhausted. This is my story.
At 3am I was wide awake having slept surprisingly well considering the day ahead. In hindsight my obliviousness to what lay in store was a blessing. Today was going to be one of the hardest of my life.
Breakfast, shower, coffee, and with my final race day bits compiled I was ubering it to the Ironman village for our shuttles out to Sand Hollow Reservoir, out in the desert for the swim.
Rows and rows of American yellow school buses met me smoking in the early morning darkness and I jumped on a full bus to be ferried to the start, filled with excitement and anxiety. The sweetness and contrasting sharpness of every Ironman morning.
At Sand Hollow I checked my bike and pumped my tyres then went out to watch the lake as dawn broke. It was so beautiful, the orange sky lighting up the mountains and the water that were to test me to the very core. Boats and canoes ready to help swimmers all around the 2.4 mile swim marked out with giant buoys. Drones and helicopters buzzing in the sky ready to capture the pinnacle event of the Ironman season.
The professional athletes began first as the ironman cannon blasted, echoing around the desert, and I watched them gliding through the water counting cadence seeing if I could glean any final tips to help me through race day. The atmosphere was electric.
Then it was my time to join the queue to swim. Wetsuit on. My mind was racing. I was panicking about doing the marathon in the heat. But I decided whatever happened, just getting to the start line of the Ironman World Championship was in itself a lifetime achievement. I would give it a go and see how far I could get.
The music blasted out and Michael Reilly the voice of ironman shouted out words of encouragement. Then I joined the lines of swimmers. Ten at a time released on 10 second intervals. I was at the front, then it was my turn. I ran into the chilly water and I was off, racing the race of my life.
Swimming into the sun was tough. I couldn’t see where I was going and I didn’t want to get swum over so I kept to the left hand side of the buoys. Swimming a little bit further but less stress than battling for position. After a bit of a wobbly start I got to the first turning Buoy then it was the long straight down the lake. Here I found my rhythm. One, two, three, breath, one, two, sight, repeat. My mind cleared. It was a mindful experience. I likened it to yoga meditation. The calm before the event. The time passed quickly and calmly until the different age groupers began catching me and overtaking. But it was enjoyable and soon I could see the exit. I was running up the ramp. Section 1, complete.
US Ironman have 4 times more volunteers than European Ironman so I was treated like royalty! Wetsuit peelers are completely new to me but I lay on the swim exit carpet and duly had my wetsuit peeled off by 2 exuberate American volunteers. Then into transition and on the bike and off.
The start of the bike was fun. I had a power goal and I hit it squarely. I seemed to be picking off racers all the way with no one overtaking me. Riding up and down hills in the red sand desert. Sand Hollow reservoir looking beautiful glistening in the sun.
Then I hit a massive wall. We started in an urban area, the natural beauty less prevalent to take my attention. The heat started ramping. There was no breeze. I was overheating and really struggling. I started seriously considering quitting. It was too hilly. Too hot. I had no preparation in this environment. My pace slowed. I told myself completion was the goal.
Then at forty miles my nemesis took hold. Foot pain. My feet had swelled in my shoes, and my toes pushed agonisingly against the front of my shoe. I’ve been here before and had brought bigger shoes to ward this off, but I was unable to recreate race day conditions in training, so this was unwanted and unexpected.
I took Nurofen which had a moderate impact. Then I practiced on my breathing – remembering having babies. And I could just about tolerate the pain for a while. Then it became too much. I pulled over and took my sock off, and had some relief, for a while. The relief gave me a second wind and I began powering on. At 60 miles I knew we had a 20 mile incline, so I agreed with myself to get to this point then my race began.
At the bottom of Snow Canyon I began to really enjoy myself. We were out in an Indian Reserve and the landscape was epic. Red sand, weathered red rock mountains. I watched the mountains imagining faces in the eroded contours. I felt them watching me in the race of my life.
Then foot pain resurfaced in both feet. I stopped again and took my other sock off. Then my right foot swelled further and it became intense. I undid my shoes and shifted my weight to find ways to cycle that I could bear. Then the inclines got tough and despite my feet I managed to ride up in my lightest gear – still at high power. I ran over a dead rattlesnake. Then I was at the top.
The ride down Snow Canyon was phenomenal. Topping speeds of 44mph. Big gusts making me wobble, but zooming past people at insane pace. I was grinning from ear to ear. This was amazing!! Almost 10 miles of flat out was pure joy. But the time at speed meant I was unable to drink. As I entered the second loop unknown to me I was getting dangerously dehydrated.
Back in the reserve I was feeling extreme foot pain again. I tried to think my way out of it. I thought of my bike buddies and felt them riding with me in spirit. I thought of my family. Then I thought of Leo. My baby who died at 5 weeks.
I put Leo on my aero bars in my mind and he rode with me for a bit. I sobbed for him. I thought the reason I do all of this is because I lost Leo. Endurance sport helped me endure the grief. I will never fully get over it, but I have come so far because of it.
The heat, the lack of fluid, the lack of salt gave my thoughts intensity. The faces I’d imagined in the mountains became much more vivid. The brightness of the sky. The road winding ahead seemed to meet an aeroplane trail and continue into the sky. The bright redness of the sand. The landscape so familiar from cowboy movies.
The second climb up Snow Canyon is much steeper. And i was dehydrated. My legs started twinging. I was flickering in and out of cramp. Only a half bottle of Gatorade to stand between me and a full blown cramp that could easily finish my day. I had a half bottle of water too. I asked the marshals how long to the next water station. They said 2 miles. I inched up the incline, spinning to avoid cramp. A girl was hyper-ventilating so I asked a marshal to send help.
I saw the water station but it was a mirage – just a van. It was so hot. I doused myself in water and sipped Gatorade until I was all out.
Then I was at the top and zooming back down Snow Canyon. The water station was way further than 2 miles but I charged down, back having fun. At the station I grabbed more Gatorade forcing myself to guzzle it. I shoved Ice down my tri suit. I drunk and doused myself in water. Then I was back on the road, flying down into St George for the run. I hit transition. Phase 2 done.
I took my time in transition. I was fully aware the next piece was going to be very, very hard. A marathon, after a gruelling bike ride, and a long swim, at 90oC.
I trotted out, remarkably in nowhere near as much foot pain as I’d become used to. The start of the marathon is a 2.5 mile climb which I attacked positively. Then I felt the twinge of cramp. Then it was full on cramp. In the back of my leg, the front. If I lent to move it, it was in my abdomen. I could only move forward stiff legged at less than a walk pace.
I’d done less than a mile.
I hobbled into the first feed station and downed Gatorade. I started again, this time managing a little trot. Then cramp was back with vengeance. An Irish guy saw my predicament and asked me if I needed salt. I said yes and he gave me a small tube. I thanked him. My guardian angel!
Then I ambled forward, licking salt, downing Gatorade. The sun beating down on me, but a slight desert breeze, as I tackled the St George streets. The race is basically 4 hills. The first sapping my exhausted body of energy.
I was seriously sun burned on my back where I’d misapplied lotion in my race frenzy which was impacting my temperature control.
Then I don’t know what happened. Whether it was the heat, the burning, salt overdose, lack of sugar, exhaustion or a combination of all of those things, but suddenly I was seriously ill. I felt sick. My head was spinning. I had done barely any of the marathon.
I pretty much walked the first half of the Ironman World Championships marathon, battling with panic attacks and the absolute urge to give up. My breathing was out of synch and the dizziness made me terrified I was going to collapse and die. All a self replicating circle of awfulness. I half closed my eyes and tried to be mindful to calm myself down. I watched my heart rate on my watch to ensure it wasn’t stopping. I ate everything I could to boost my sugar levels.
I have been here before, but it is a horrible, horrible, dark place filled with uncertainty and anxiety. I don’t know why I get like this, or exactly what it is or how dangerous it is which adds to the downward cycle.
I thought if I give up then what? This feeling will still be here. Getting me to a hospital would take time and who knows if they could fix it. I thought of my kids. I thought of Leo and how he had died so this was nothing. I thought of Julie Moss who I met earlier in the week – iconic for finishing an ironman crawling over the line. I remembered the words from Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman at the Ironman dinner. “Whatever happens out there just let it fall off your shoulders and lie on the path behind you. Just keep moving forward.” A metaphor for my life.
I keep moving. I keep panicking. My head keeps spinning. But surely I can walk a marathon?
At each food station I eat and drink what I can. Then after what feels an eternity I am back at the start and finish. I can give up now if I want. All my stuff is here.
But for the first time in 3 hours my spirits lift. Its cooling off. My body chemistry seems to have rebalanced. Joanne Murphy – the Irish voice of Ironman shouts me some encouragement at the turning point. I decide to keep going.
Then I actually get second (or is it third now) wind. For the first time in forever I feel a trot won’t give me a heart attack or make me collapse. I decide to trot for 100 counts. I do it! Then I think I’ll do it again. Then I think I’ll get to the food station. I’m doing it. I’m back in this.
Then as I turn the corner my legs literally give way beneath me. And I’m on the floor.
A guy helps me to my feet. I’m covered in blood. My knee and my finger dripping.
But it doesn’t hurt. I’m beyond pain. The guy is concerned but I laugh it off.
I get to the station and pour water over my wounds and decline a band aid as its too small for my ample grazing.
Then I’m off again.
I’ve agreed with myself to run down hill and walk up.
Its dark and atmospheric. As I near a pond there is a chorus of frogs croaking my support.
On the walks I chat to people. It is like a zombie apocalypse now. People trudging. Limping, wounded but determined to finish. I grit my teeth. One foot after the other. Keep moving.
Four miles to go. Three miles. Two point nine. Then I’m trotting. Counting to 100 hundred over and over. Then we’re near the finish. I can hear the crowds. I’ve got this. I could still collapse. NO. I’ve got this. For Leo.
Then finally utterly exhausted I hit the red carpet. My emotions are intense. I’m over joyed. I’m crying.
Then I’m over the line to those incredible words – “Lorna Hopkin you are an Ironman.”
The biggest medal I’ve ever had is place round my neck. The weight of the journey pulling on my burned, wetsuit torn neck.
I’ve done it.
I am a World Championship Ironman.
The toughest of journeys to get here. And the final drive the toughest experience of my life.
Never give up.