My first Ironman adventure…
A short story about my first Ironman 70.3-mile race (6h50m) – by Jess
I always wondered what it would be like to run a marathon. But I never really wondered about an Ironman… that just seemed ridiculous and super human… not to mention, I couldn’t even swim or ride a bike this time last year, so naturally it wasn’t even on my mind.
Fast forward a year and on 20 May 2018 I was stood on the beach in Calella as the sun came up in spectacular fashion ready to take on Ironman Barcelona 70.3. I couldn’t quite remember how I’d been convinced to sign up! It must have been something to do with the peer pressure from the Greenwich Tritons. So many of the team were already signed up it seemed like I would genuinely miss out if I didn’t go!
I stood there with thousands of athletes (penguins!) excited by the challenge and didn’t feel the distance was out of my depth and I was confident to race the distance. But I had my doubts about the upcoming race. I have never done a triathlon in open water and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make the cut off times on the bike leg. I have, on more than one occasion, whinged to anyone who would listen, but I was also determined this would not be self-prophesising. I have always started every race I have put my name on, and I had no intention of bailing now!
THE WEEK BEFORE
We flew to Barcelona with the Tritons on Thursday evening and we stayed at a hotel near the race site in Calella. The location was brilliant – walking distance to everything you could need.
After arriving, Clinton immediately reassembled the bikes to make sure that nothing has fallen off or broken during our flight. It was a mammoth task and I was happy to just sit and watch!
The days leading up to the race we had some good confidence building sessions. We tested out the new Tritons trisuit that, up until this race, we hadn’t trained in. We also did a few open water swims in the Mediterranean Sea and went out for a spin on the bike. The weather was perfect, being warm but not oppressively so.
SATURDAY (THE DAY BEFORE RACE DAY)
We didn’t have a huge amount planned for this day as Clinton and I both wanted pretty much a full day of rest. So we had a bit of a lie-in and sorted our transition bags and at 3.30pm we headed over to the transition area to rack our bikes and hang our transition bags.
The bike racking area itself was on a synthetic football pitch so it was super flat and clean.
It was easy to find my bike ‘slot’ and all the racks were clearly marked.
Then we headed over to the large transition tent to hang our bags ready for race day. The transition tent was large, clean and well set-up. I hung my bags on my numbered hook and then had a quick look of the routes I would be taking on the day! I made sure I was sure of the route I would be taking from the water up to the transition tent and my bags. Then the route from the tent to my bike and out to the mount line. It was all nice and straight forward.
After our race morning breakfast at 5am, Clinton and I started the 20 minute walk to the race site. It was a little cooler and darker than I had expected. After setting up my transition, and doing a warm-up, it was time to get to the sea for the swim start.
Swim (1.9km) – 38m30s
I made my way to the rolling start boxes. I was anticipating a swim of around 37 minutes so intended to go into the 37:30 pen and look for someone to draft off. For some reason I could only see 32:00, 35:00, 42:30 (and slower). No 37:30 so I made my way to the middle of the 42.30 pen. The swim start was incredible in every sense of the word, dawn had come and gone with the sun rising over the horizon, 2,500 athletes looking more like penguins than Ironmen and the wonderful feeling of having got to the start of my first Ironman 70.3!
As the pros were being announced I tightened the goggles around my head… then my goggle strap snapped! I have literally NEVER had this happen before so I swore at my luck and started to panic and figure out what I was going to do. I decided to reposition the snap and then fasten the end bit with a knot. It worked and thankfully didn’t snap again! I took a deep breath then we’re off!
The swim course was a single loop sea swim of 1.9km. You swim directly out for 300m before making a 90 degree right turn and swimming a straight 750m. You then make another 90 degree right turn, swim 100m before turning 90 degrees right again to head back along the long straight for 500m. Finally, you make a 90 degree left turn before swimming 200m back to the finish. I have never done a race in the open water before and I was starting to really panic because of the people swimming over me, next to me and behind me. I was swallowing way too much salt water and I was constantly getting knocked or elbowed or cut off by other fellow swimmers. At the first buoy (about 300m into the swim) somebody kicked (or elbowed!) me in the face knocking off one side of my goggles but thankfully my other one was still in place so I was able to navigate with one eye. I kept putting one hand in front of another and just focused on the breathing.
Before long I made the right turn at the far end of the course and headed back along the 500m straight. At this point the glare of the rising sun made sighting very difficult. There were long periods where I was unable to pick out any buoys or sighting landmarks. I was forced at times to rely on other swimmers for guidance hoping that everyone else could see better than me and were hopefully going the right way! Eventually the last turning buoy appeared and I was just so relieved. I knew by then that I would finish the swim even if the tide turned against me. I was determined to get to the shore. I managed to finish the swim in 38:30.
Transition 1 (swim to bike) – 9m57s
The swim to bike transition was pretty uneventful apart from being unusually unsteady on my feet, but by the time I had changed into my bike gear I was fine and the unsteadiness had cleared. I spent about 10 minutes in T1 – so definitely room for improvement there!!
Bike (90km) – 4h12m
The bike course has a total of 1400m of climbing over 90km so I knew it was going to be a challenge right from the start (especially since I was just using flat pedals), but I decided that if I could stick to an average pace of 20-21km/hr I could make the cut off time.
The first part of the bike felt good. My energy was soaring, I began to feel energy returning to my legs and I started to push. The course was difficult in the sense that it was so hilly, and that made it a bit of a mental trip to try and keep myself in check. It was exhausting, and I was feeling the effects of the hill about 15km in!
Coming down the first hill was cold and I cursed myself for not putting on my arm warmers before heading out on the bike. Rather than stop to put on my arm warmers though I decided that moving was the best way to stay warm and I tried to pedal a bit harder.
Heading back to Calella I heard Stephen yelling “come on Jess” as he passed me on the descent! It caught me off guard, but got me moving a little quicker. I tried to catch up with him but I never did (until the run)!
At around 88km I began to recognise the route back to Calella and I was suddenly caught off guard by an intense wave of emotion. I felt like punching the air and shouting with joy even though I still had the run to complete. I knew that if I could do the bike I would very likely finish the race. Ironman for me and like many others wasn’t just about an endurance triathlon it was also about dealing with my fears and being out of my comfort zone. So many things could have gone wrong on the swim and the bike – and I was so thankful that I was able to get through it.
Transition 2 (bike to run) – 3m58s
Uneventful really! I didn’t have to switch shoes as I rode on my trainers so all I had to do was take off my helmet, rack my bike and go! I did see Stephen at this point and I was determined to catch up to him on the run!
Run (21km) – 1h45m
I started out with a really great pace, and the encouragement and cheers from the crowds and the Tritons kept me going. Seeing the Tritons on the course also helped me to keep pushing through. I stayed under sub 5:00/km pace and kept ticking people off as I passed them. I saw Sophie and that gave me another push as I knew she had a problem with her calf, and she was still gritting her teeth and running, that made me suck-it-up and go harder! Just at the 20km marker, I found the last little bit of power I had left and started to kick. I don’t know what my pace was, but it felt fast!
Completely spent, in a time of 6h50m, I crossed the finish line! I had achieved what I had set out to do 12 months previous. Something that a year ago was beyond me and not even part of my imagination.
Then it was time to take advantage of being in Calella with some amazing people! At the awards ceremony, we were thrilled to find out that our club came third in the EMEA TriClub Championships (Division IV).
After we went on the stage to collect the award, we headed off to an Italian restaurant for some post-race celebrations, and some great pasta. The evening was full of laughs and good times, and I couldn’t have been in better company than the Tritons.
I have to thank everyone who has supported me this year. The Tritons have been the most amazing support network I could ever imagine.
It was daunting and I wasn’t sure if I could make the cut off time but I was so glad I did. I’ve been training for six days a week, sometimes twice a day, for the last six months and it’s so rewarding after such a long journey to see the training paid off! Ironman Barcelona 70.3 was the most amazing journey of self discovery scattered with highs and lows along the way. To have shared it with such a great group of people some of whom where friends starting out others who are without doubt now friends was an added bonus.
I would recommend anyone thinking about doing an Ironman event to just do it! You don’t need to be good at all three disciplines – most triathletes have weaknesses. The most common weakness is swimming, and this was mine, but this didn’t stop me from entering! There’s been a lot written recently about how athletes learn to endure. It’s a trendy topic. The new book Endure is a solid look into how much our limits are real and how much they’re in our minds. (Spoiler: a lot is in our minds). I think there is a lot of truth in that in Ironman training. When doubts, negative beliefs or fatigue set in, you just need to go on. Hopefully next time I do an Ironman event I’ll be stronger and faster!
BARCELONA 70.3 EMEA TRICLUB CHAMPIONSHIP (5h38m)
– By Clinton
Greenwich Tritons is my triathlon club and it was great that so many of us (36+ support) could make it down to the same race. Despite terrible luck for the team (3 flats, 1 fall, 1 asthma attack, 1 loose headset, multiple dropped bottles and gels, 1 missed cut off, 1 pulled out mid swim, 1 bad case of wheel rub, 1 failed time chip) it was still an epic event.
Getting a bus as a team to the hotels, meeting up for meals, wearing matching kit and tracking each other throughout race day made the whole process so much fun and more enjoyable than traveling to do an event as an individual. I look forward to doing a trip with the Tritons again! To top it off, the club picked up an award 3rd in category IV for the Club championship.
Swim – 1.9km (29m30s)
I had a fantastic swim! I was a bit on the nervous side because although in the pool I’d improved greatly since my last 70.3, I had only done a few open water sessions and swimming with a wetsuit does add extra strain to the shoulders, not to mention sighting and the brawling that undoubtedly occurs mid race. I swam 4 minutes faster than my last half Ironman swim in 29m30s – couldn’t be more happy. The swim itself was about 16 degrees, flat as the sea can get with clear waters. The only major difficulty was on the return leg. Swimming east along the beach we swam directly into the sun and sighting was nearly impossible. I had to put a lot of faith in my fellow swimmers and sight directly into that painful ball of light rather than any IM buoy.
Painful running up the beach – then what seemed like all round the transition tent to find my bag! Great to see a few Greenwich Tritons at this point!
Bike – 90km (3h8m)
This would have been a really lovely club ride… lots of ascent and some technical switchbacks to practise on. There were three hills in total, the largest and central hill marked the beginning of a long downhill where top speed reached 56km/hr.
It was not however a fast route for me trying to improve my 70.3 time from last year! Overall I cycled 3h8m. A few minutes slower than Staffordshire 70.3 but with nearly 500m extra in ascent. I honestly think Zwift has paid off in this regard!
I also had some mechanical issues to contend with. I was going up the first minor incline when I heard a horrible screeching sound, like my brakes were on. I reached down and wiggled the front brake and also made sure the back brake was loose – all while cycling along. Something was not right. I carried on, thinking it must be something to do with the brakes or some sand stuck somewhere or something and hoping it would just go. I thought it might be just needing some oil somewhere. To my relief it did go – from the bottom of the first hill to the top of the second I heard no further screeching noises.
On the last hill the screeching returned with vengeance resulting in a spectator yelling : “Vamos Vamos… you need a new bike!!!” After checking my bike after the race, a section about 20cm long has been worn away on the inside of my frame where the tyre has been rubbing. No wonder it felt as if the brakes were on at all times!
I had taken my bike for a 20km ride a few days before, and it was fine, so I don’t know what had caused this problem. I had switched to 25mm tyres, but had ridden multiple times on them. I can only guess that leaving the bikes overnight (getting wet) then over some dusty tracks led to some dirt getting stuck in there causing the scrape. Either that or something to do with the heat on the day. Whatever the cause it’s definitely something to get fixed before my next race!
Jelly legs as usual but otherwise all fine.
Run – 21km (1h49m)
I had two points of reference going into this run. The first was the distant memory of Staffordshire 70.3 where my half marathon time was 2h15. By contrast, my most recent half marathon event I ran 1h29. I really hoped my improved running would create a huge improvement in my overall time. And in a way this did happen – 1h49 was my half marathon time.
I do admit to being a little bit disappointed. I feel that I should be able to do much better – 20 mins off my personal best half marathon time is a bit much, especially considering how flat the course was. I will take it as something to improve on. I might have put in too much effort on the bike, or more likely not done enough Bike/Run brick sessions in the months before the race. When it came down to it, my legs, back, right knee were all so fatigued it was a wonder I didn’t go slower.
After finishing there was already a group of chilled Tritons sitting in the food tent. No wonder the team won an award with such class acts on the team.