Dear Friends & Family,
The wolves howled and the crowd cheered at Muskoka, Canada and I had finally completed my first ½ Ironman!
I was so thrilled when my beautiful daughter Alexandra (just 4) ran out with to complete the final 20 metres to the finish line with me. The race photographer caught the moment as we finished the 70.3 mile race.
Organised by the famous and most gracious Lisa Bently, the long day involved a 2km swim, followed by a 94km cycle, finished off with a 21km run around the beautiful Muskoka lakes.
The day started early with a staggered swim start. 1,750 nervous athletes gathered together, differentiated into age group by swim caps of various colours, waiting to be called to the start line. I counted 8 buoys outlining a ‘U’ shaped course around the lake and made up my mind to just focus on the buoy in front of me and not to worry about the finish line. I lined up close to the back of the field and to the right of the bunch.
The lake water was surprising warm and despite the usual bumps and thumps at the start I was fairly comfortable for much of the swim. I was happy as I passed the 7 buoy and looked up in anticipation of the swim exit only to realise the course was rectangular and I had another 4 buoys to go! It got very tight towards the end as my swim wave caught the stragglers from the wave in front while the faster swimmers in the wave behind caught up and we all tried to exit up the 6ft wide steps. The race marshals helped us out of our wetsuits (How fantastic is that? We should have this at every race. I hate getting out of my wetsuit; actually I find it hard getting into the blasted thing!).
A 400 metre run up hill to the transition area, a wave to my girls in the crowd, and I was feeling reasonably good. Certainly a lot better then I had expected. A quick check of my watch and I realized that I was a few minutes ahead of my target and I said a little thank you to my swim coach John Doyle. I took plenty of time at transition. (Note to self: I really must learn how they leave the bike shoes in the pedals, only putting the feet in when actually cycling along. It is so uncool, not to say uncomfortable, to run along wobbling in the shoes). Then when I really couldn’t put it off any more I pulled the bike off the rack and ran out to the bike mount line.
On the bike and about to tackle the 94 km ‘lollipop’ shaped course. Lots of hills on the way out and again on the way back. I felt much happier facing those hills knowing that my buddy Tom and I had scouted the course the week before. After about 10km I fell into a steady pace and started to really enjoy myself. I started chatting to those cyclists around me (mostly going past me at the start it should be said) and waving at all those supporting at the side of the road. The crazy Irish but its meant to be fun right? I learnt something about physics too. A wonderful older but tiny lady (age underdetermined, but definitely in her golden years; where we all had our ages written in marker on our calves she just had a smiley face! ) kept passing me going up hill and I kept passing her going down. This was partly a strategy on my part as I was trying to build as much momentum going down hill as I could so that I wouldnt have to struggle so much going uphill. After a while though I just got embarrassed by how easily this lady cruised past me. At 15 stone I am just not built for the bike. As I started to catch her on the next downhill I stopped pedaling but to my dismay still kept gaining on her. I drew alongside her, apologized and pointed the fact that I wasn’t pedaling, she smiled and told me that it was just physics. It was only later that I realized that it was the nicest way I had ever been called a fat bas***d!
As the cycle continued, I remembered that I had been told that the purpose of the bike is to ‘feed you for the run’. I had bananas, gels and Power bars on the bike along with 2 bottles of Gatorade and a bottle of water. It is really hard to push food into yourself when you are not hungry and cycling along as full pace. The bananas were fine but the gels were disgusting (especially the plain vanilla). The Power bars were tasty but too chewy and took ages to swallow down, not fun when you are trying to gulp the air in as you tackle yet another hill! At this point, I remembered all the articles I had read and advice I had been given about not trying anything new at race time. I had only ever used an isotonic drink on the bike up to this point.
The last 10km back to the transition area was tough (normally a ½ IM cycle is 90km. This was 94km to close the loop around the lakes) but thanks to a great bike fit (thank you Aidan Hammond) the problem I had previously with a tight hamstring off the bike didn’t materialise. Now I have a confession to make. I had almost no long cycles under my belt and with only one training cycle longer then 90 minutes (when I did a 2 hour cycle around my home in Wicklow), I really hadn’t a clue how my cycle would go on the day. My old Trek 1000 road bike had done me proud and I was thrilled to check my watch and see that I had taken only 3 hours 20 minutes to compete the cycle. I was well ahead of my overall goal. I was desperate to see Alexandra and Isabelle (my daughters) and what a boost it was to hear them shouting my name as I cycled past.
Bike racked, gel swallowed down, running shoes on and off to run my ½ marathon and I was mentally feeling great. 21km on an out & back course. Physically I was feeling ok too except that I was dying for a pee. No way was I embarrassing myself by stopping to use one of the many portaloos around the transition area with all the massive crowd of supporters cheering us on. I flirted with the thought of just letting go as I believe many do (does it not chafe or smell?) but I also had visions of a Paula Radciffe moment further out the course. I was so uncomfortable that something was going to happen regardless. I was delighted and massively relieved to see a portaloo at the first aid station. Cue hurried divesting of trisuit. We have to design these things with a long-john’s style flap at the front for quick release!
All set and feeling much happier and maybe even a little lighter I set out on the remaining 20km. I planned to run all the way and walk through the aid stations (situated every 2 km) having a power gel and a cup of water at each station for the 10km on the way out and switching to Coke/Pepsi for the 10km on the way back. I thought I was moving reasonable well and I was definitely ‘running’ but looking back at the photos I certainly don’t look it (The Ironman Shuffle). I stopped at about 5 km to help one of my new buddies (one who kept pace with me for most of the cycle) who was suffering the most wicked cramp. His leg was twitching like crazy and I thanked the salt tables that I had taken on the bike that I wasn’t in a similar state. I moved on and unbelievably he ran past me at speed about 5 km later! No gratitude!!
The sun was really beating down now and with very little shelter on the run there was nowhere to hide. The run was mostly uphill on the way out and I was happy that I was running/shuffling up them all, comforting myself with the thought that I would point myself downhill on the return and let momentum take its course. My friend Tom passed me going in the opposite direction, as I was at the 8km and he at the 12km mark approx. He had started in an earlier wave then me and is a much stronger swimmer so I was thrilled to be so close to him. He was looking good and we exchanged a high five as we passed. I was really happy for us both at that point as I knew we would both finish. Tom lives in Toronto and we used to ring each other throughout the year enquiring after each others training. He is a great friend and it was very special for me to be doing the race with him.
The race was going so well. Tough, very tough but I was coping and even passing the odd runner (a very novel experience for me!). Only 7 km to go and the run back in is through a lovely, though very undulating, glen. I turned off the main road and it was at that moment the wheels came off. Nothing dramatic. No collapse. I slowed to a walk at one of the aid stations. It was on a little rise and when I went to run again there was nothing in the legs. No panic. Walk to the top of the rise and start running again. The little downhill helped but there was really nothing left in the tank. I was religiously following the nutrition plan and was now drinking Pepsi at each aid station. I was struggling with that too though as I could fell it sloshing around my stomach and I knew that my system wasn’t processing it anymore.
This is where the battle line was drawn. I knew I would finish. If I had to crawl I would. I knew I had some time on my side and that even with some walking that I would hit my target. But boy it hurt. Legs like blocks. Sun crushingly hot. Those relentless up and down mini hills just destroyed any rhythm. Still I ticked off each 2 km and now, back on the main road, I passed the last aid station. Almost afraid to admit that I was going to finish, I walked the last big hill. I was trying to save a little energy to run the last section where the crowd was gathered. Even in that state ego plays a part! I turned the corner for the last km and knew I would do it. 400 metres to go and there was Tom with all his family shouting encouragement and telling me to hurry if I wanted to hit my target of 7 hours. I dont know where it came from but adrenaline allowed me to stride out and practically sprint the last 400 metres with the crowd shouting on. I looked and looked for my girls to share this moment with me. The finish line was in site. I was in a full sprint and then from out under the barrier ran Alexandra shouting with excitement. I picked her up and we went over the line together. Unbelievable. I was so thrilled. Just past the line I was presented with my finishers medal. I indicated that it should be put over Alexandra’s head but she (just 4 years of age) told me, ‘no dad, you wear it. You won it’. (At that moment I realized that, if she ever asks, I will have to say yes to the pony!).
Later I checked my time. Because we had gone in waves the finish clock showed the time for the first wave but I would have to deduct time for my waves later start. I was very happy with a total time of 6 hours 52 minutes. I had hoped that if I could finish that I would be in or around 7 hours (I had no idea but it was as good a target as any). A swim time of just over43 mins delighted me. I swim like a stone and I had thought that the absolute best I could hope for was 45 mins. The cycle took me 3 hours 23 mins I didn’t know whether to be happy with that or not. The run was where it all went pear-shaped. 2 hours 37 minutes for 21km. I know its cheeky given that I had never run farther then 12km in training but I honestly thought, in ignorance, that I would be 30 mins faster then that. My overall goal was to finish. My secondary goal was to beat 7 hours. Both achieved and I am very happy with that. Dom O’Hanlon said it best when he said ‘good swim, solid bike… we’ll work on the run for next year’.
Hanging around after the race was great fun. They had lots of food (pizza seemed popular) and various drinks. We sat in the sun with our families and watched our girls play together (Tom has 3 girls around the same age as mine). Our immediate reaction was similar. A pride in our achievement but humbled nonetheless by the race and we both were in total agreement that we could never do a full IM. I mean no way. No chance! Problem was that we had already signed up for Ironman France to be held in Nice next June 2010. By the Tuesday after the race we had managed to delude ourselves enough to agree to ‘give it a go anyway…’.
A wonderful holiday (we stayed 2 weeks) and a fantastic race. Many thanks are owed to my family who put up with my absences and my whining when I was too lazy to train, but not too lazy sit on my arse and complain that I should be training! To Tom Clarke my distant training partner who didn’t mind when I told fibs about the amount of training I had done (I counted a hour walk pushing Isabelle in the buggy as an hour towards my weekly training target). To Tom’s family, our dear friends, Bridget, Blathnad, Siofra, Tara and Ronan who let us invade their house for the duration. To Jamie Bray (Ironman) who lent me his bike bag and told me the day would fly by ‘like your wedding day’ – he was right, though it didn’t feel like it on the last section of the run. To Dom O’Hanlon (Ironman) who planned the race approach and nutrician strategy for me and advised all throughout the year. To all my friends in the Wicklow Triathlon club who trained with me. Finally, thank you to all who sponsored me. I sincerely appreciate your support and together we raised much needed funds for Barnados and Hope House, two very worthy charities.
PS Please see attached, as promised, the appalling pictures of fatty Conor dragging his sorry carcass around the course.
Thank you all.