Today I received the ultimate dream come true. The holy grail of triathlon. A chance to compete in the Ironman World Championships in its birthplace, Kona Hawaii.
Yesterday I came 7th in age group at Ironman UK, Bolton. It is this placing combined with a large dose of luck, that has become my ticket to compete in the race I have always hoped, for but never truly thought possible. Very limited numbers. An exclusive club of world class athletes. The best race in the world.
Ironman UK, was a most unexpected key to unlock my Kona dreams. I nearly gave up, a lot. I went on a deep emotional journey, I discovered new parts of me, I let myself grieve and I felt the healing virtue of tears. But I turned up, and I did it and that’s what made this happen.
My journey prior to Bolton is grounded in a period of sadness. One month ago I lost my dad, my hero. A week ago was the deep annual grief I feel at the anniversary of losing my baby Leo to SIDs. Two weeks ago we lost our beloved family pony Rosie. The days and weeks preceding the race have been a roller coaster of traumatic memories and difficult emotions. Yet I’m not one to give up, so I trek over to Bolton, solo, to race in a race that will change my life.
Its just after 4am in the morning by the time I find myself walking through the gloomy woods on the way to Pennington Flash lake. As I focus inward I think about those I have lost and I feel them walking with me. Dad is walking next to me. He will be with me today. Tears trickle down my cheeks as I tell him silently this one is for him.
I tell myself to get in the zone. Things to do. I check my bike, and get ready for the swim. Soon I am hemmed into the swim start pens chatting to fellow competitors. Rain is pouring down on us with the Ironman theme tune blasting. ‘Living in the halls of Fame’. The crowd move forward toward the start. Then its my turn to jump into the dark waters of Pennington Flash.
I’m in with the masses swimming out to the far edges of the pond. I try swim drafting and chase different toes. I follow a person very bad at siting so I drop him for a more linear swimmer. As the pack opens up soon I am on my own but the time passes fast. I am out through timing then in again for another lap. My swim is strong as I continue drafting and try a new arm technique. An out and back course, I turn the buoy for home then charge on down. Suddenly my leg twinges with cramp. Next thing I know I have agonising cramp throughout both legs. The worst I’ve ever experienced swimming. I can’t move.
I realise to my dismay that I need rescuing. I roll onto my back and start sculling, awaiting rescue. The canoe boats don’t even seem me… In a bid to continue I start doing back stroke. Then I think I may as well save myself.
I turn my feet to sharp right angles to release the cramp a little then begin swimming again pulling my lifeless limbs. I think of the less abled Ironman swimmers who have to swim like this all the time which gives me motivation to continue. I tow myself to the swim finish in this manner then I am fished out by volunteers and began the trot to bike transition.
No socks and a fast transition. I am on the road. Powering through the streets of Bolton. A local rider with a South African accent gives me some tips about where the road is smooth and where I should ride. The start of the race goes by quickly then soon I am on the first of 3 testing laps of hill after hill after hill. First a 6 mile soul destroyer. My South African champion tells me that when I reach the round house, a house that meets its description, I’d have broken the back of the hill. I pedal on with zeal and eventually meet the marker. Then over the top for the first of several descents. I am held back from going flat out due to pot holes and uneven road surfaces plus cyclists drifting across the road, denting my enthusiasm. Then I begin the start of another 4 mile climb.
We are riding out in the rolling hills of the English countryside. At some point I see a large factory chimney high above me. By the time I reach the pinnacle hill of the first lap, the chimney is far below. Towards the end of the lap there is an immense decline where I have built my confidence enough to call out to competitors to move so I can overtake. I max out at 45.3mph. But every down must go up. Soon I am back spinning my pedals to reach the top of yet another big climb.
The crowd is awesome including a huge team of Oompa Loompas! The best are out in the hills when I need them most, a team of super heroes calling out support on microphones with blasting music and signs saying ‘you’re our favourite’!
Then I pass transition on to lap 2. I start strong then I hit the round house hill and suddenly I hit a wall. I start to doubt myself. I think what’s the point of all this. I’ve done the Ironman World Championship in Utah. I am tired. I don’t want to do this.
I look around me for inspiration. I see horses in a field and hedgerows. Then I think of my dad, and Leo and Rosie pony. Then dad is driving beside me. He loved his Porsche with gold wheels and I imagine him driving next to me in his heavenly version. Baby Leo is sat with him. Dad drives quietly alongside me willing me support. Then I think about Rosie cantering by me too. Her mane is shining and her coat is golden. Then, when there is no one near I let myself cry. I sob. And sob. For them all. Tears I’ve held locked up inside.
We always remembered Leo by rainbows and I pass a man with a rainbow umbrella. A sign from heaven. Then the sun comes out and the tears reflect with my sunglasses and the light, and I see rainbows. I cry rainbow tears.
The hill is challenging and the tears come so hard I can’t breath. I ask my imaginary support crew to meet me at the finish and they let me be. I feel at peace. I put my soul back into the climb.
This lap I get ever braver in my descents, charging by more and more people. On the down hills I am loving it. Battling with the gusts and the riders. It is incredible.
Lap 3 round house hill breaks my soul again, but this time I reach out to fellow riders. I chat to a guy from Birmingham who was doing his first ever triathlon as a pub bet! Then a guy from a local club. All saying words of encouragement to get one another round. Then I am on my own again and desperate for the loo. I stop at the water station and lose a long time waiting for the loo. I am feeling sad again and my heart isn’t in it. I decide I will finish the bike then if I don’t want to run I will call it a day. I take some Gatorade and banana and I pedal away.
At the edge of the feed station I pass an ambulance and a body is lying on a stretcher with a paramedics coat covering the face. I feel fear flood through my veins. We do this for fun. No one expects to end up that way.
I ride on. Nearing the hundred mile mark and my spirits lift. The hills are a chore but the miles race by in the downhills. Some more phenomenal sprints in the open countryside then back into town and then to transition two. My heart jumps as I see my partner has come to support me.
I am still not feeling fully committed to the race but I agree with myself to begin the run. My feet are bleeding from being rubbed but I haven’t even felt it. Historically Ironman has gone hand in hand with intense foot pain. New shoes, physio and a bike fit have saved me. A bit of blood is nothing.
I start the run and I see my partner again cheering me on. I go over and ask if I should give up and we go for lunch. He tells me to get this finished. Still not planning a completion I think I will ‘sprint’ (after 9 hours hard exercise) to the first feed station and take it from there.
At the station I drink and eat and walk. Then I merrily run to the next food station. No pressure on myself to finish makes this quite joyous. I bound away in my new trainers that don’t hurt. Walk. Eat and drink. Pep talk to myself, then bound off again. I bump into a guy I train with and we do a station together, chatting, flat out for me in my condition, up a hill. Stop. Let him go. Then off again.
This becomes my pattern. As my legs get tired it goes slower. I am breathing like a train as I push from station to station. But keep on going. The course is basically up then down, for 4 laps. Counting food stations mean that before long I’ve done over an hour and a decent chunk of the marathon. I collect my first lap wrist band and I am having fun.
Lap 2 goes quickly too. I am chatting to people I’d met on the bike, seeing people from my tri club and being spurred on by the crowd.
But then I started feeling really sick plus I need the loo. I go to the loo and lose more time. Lap 3 is hard. But I focus on food station to food station pushes. Up the hill is long-ish. I count out the seconds, 1,200 between stops. I get in the zone. My face is set in a grimace. My mind is focused. I am thinking of nothing but the seconds and making it to the next station. I grit my teeth. Then I think of dad and his determination dealing with being sick. If he could deal with that with such bravery I can deal with this.
On and on. Then exhaustion and those worries of pushing myself too hard creep in but they are countered by thoughts that I have dad and Leo on the other side. Foot after foot. Counting. Food station. I am so sick now I can only mouth some coke. But I needed the sugar else the terrifying dizziness I’d faced in the World Champs in Utah will come back. I feel twinges of cramp so I lick salt.
Twenty miles is a big milestone but then the miles seem to just get longer and longer. I keep going.
Then I am in the town centre. The crowds are back in mass. Dad is by me again. Hat over my face hides me sobbing. Then I am bounding down the red carpet pushing away the sadness for my beaming photo. I’ve done it again. I am an Ironman.
I finish and I eat pizza then go off to find my partner. I am still crying under my visor. I tell him what I’d thought about. The race has been tough. They all are. But my mind has been pushed too. I feel I’ve been through the wringer. But I also feel that being able to cry has helped me to heal. It wasn’t about winning, or even finishing this time. It was just about doing. I had nothing to prove and nothing to stop me quitting. But I did it.
As we head home I check through the metrics and I am pleased. Best swim ever, despite requiring a near rescue. Solid bike. And a strong (for me) run. I stopped in the bike and in the run and I had taken time in all the feed stations so I was extremely surprised to have achieved my best position so far – 7th in age group.
To achieve a place to race at the world championships in Kona I needed to win my age category, but there is still a chance I can get a space if places aren’t taken and roll down the age groups. It is my partner who suggests we take a leap of faith and drive back tomorrow to see.
The next day we drive back to Bolton Town Hall and join the array of winners and hopeful placed candidates. Joanne Murphy, the voice of Ironman, congratulates all the winners and hands out trophies then announces the rules of roll down. She begins with the older women. When it gets to my age category 40-44, the winner takes the first Kona place but an extra one has rolled down from a higher category. Second place turns hers down. Third has already qualified. Then as each name is called three times I realise 4th, 5th and 6th aren’t there to take the places.
Joanne calls out my name. I stand up and shout yes to a place! I walk out on stage and collect my ticket to my dream then return to my seat unable to stop shaking. I literally can not believe I have got to this point in my journey. A chance to race the very best of the best. Not a back door entry through All World Athlete status but right in through the front door with a full on qualification.
Hawaii has always been the ultimate dream. Now I have a chance to succeed.
Roll on Kona.