At times in life you can put in a vast amount of work, only to be dealt a crappy hand or for things to just not go your way. Regular readers of this blog (Hi Mum), will know that I’ve had a decent run of results this season (by my standards anyway), so for something to not quite go to plan should probably be expected. Unfortunately, this had to happen at my ‘A’ race of the year, the Outlaw iron-distance triathlon.
This was going to be my second of these crazy events (Swim 2.4 miles, Bike 112 miles, Run 26.2 miles), the first one being Ironman Zurich in Switzerland pretty much 12 months to the day, one year ago. I’d stepped it up a level in 2017, and a post documenting my training in the lead up to the event highlighted how much of my free time outside of balancing work and a suffering social life I’d committed to get me to the start line in Nottingham. I felt in the shape of my life and ready to put down a solid performance across all 3 disciplines.
Katie and I headed up to Nottingham on the Friday night in the now customary white van – this one having the delights of fully functioning air conditioning to save a repeat of stripping off on the motorway a la Norwich 2 weeks previously. We’d decided not to take the option of camping on site over the weekend (which turned out to be a wise move, as it absolutely chucked it down for most of Saturday afternoon/evening), instead opting for the delights of Jurys Inn, a hotel I knew all too well after staying there for my good friend James Bosher’s stag do.
It wouldn’t just be me taking part on Sunday. Team BrownTown were making another appearance in a long-distance triathlon, with my old school friends Lewis and Brownie taking on the swim and run respectively. They were being joined by Jack, a fellow Clapham Chasers, who was bringing his considerable bike prowess to the table. Lewis and his better half Amy also travelled up on the Friday, and the 4 of us had a top-notch burger for dinner chased down with a couple of beers to settle any pre-race nerves.
Saturday morning dawned with a trip to parkrun obviously on the cards. Brownie came over from Leicester to join us at Colwick parkrun, just across the river from Holme Pierrepont – the venue for Sundays race. After a brief photoshoot and some light-hearted banter centred around Brownie’s lack of training for the following days marathon (‘lack of’ is probably an unfair description – I’m not sure there was any training whatsoever), we lined up amongst the masses.
Lewis, Katie and I ran together for the duration before Lewis decided to be a gentleman and let Katie edge ahead in the closing stages – duly finishing as first female for the second time in her parkrun career. I ran exactly 21 minutes for the 5km; I hadn’t set off with any real plan, I just wanted to run at a controlled effort and stretch the legs out. We then had a chance to watch Brownie and Amy finish – Amy putting in an impressive performance, especially considering she hadn’t run for over a month!
We headed over to the event site to register and collect the various stickers/timing chips/free stash before having a quick wander around the expo – I very nearly convinced Katie to buy a wetsuit, but just couldn’t quite get the sale over the line. I’ll keep trying. We then went to the mandatory pre-race briefing which allowed us to get a quick sauna session in before the big day – the tent was fairly toasty.
I also had to rack my bike the day before (standard practice in these bigger events), so I gave her a fond stroke with a promise to be back tomorrow. If I knew of the hell she was going to put me through, I don’t think I’d have bothered. Thankfully, this was all the pre-race ‘admin’ done, so it was just a case of getting the feet up in the hotel and catching up with the Tour de France.
By the time the evening rolled around, Jack and his lovely girlfriend Helena had arrived to complete our crew for the weekend. They’re both awesome triathletes and it was great to hear a bit about their recent adventures – Jack has been doing some insanely long cycle rides all over the show and Helena has been smashing it up on the age-group triathlon scene.
Luckily, by this point, Brownie had cleared off; we’d only had to put up with him for a few hours. The 6 of us headed out for an early dinner, where we proceeded to chat about hopes and expectations for the following day, alongside all manner of things triathlon and running related. I was worried we might be boring Amy at this point, but I’ve been reliably informed Lewis will be buying her a brand-new bike in the very next future – how kind of him.
An early night was on the cards with the alarm clock set for 3am – a silly time for anyone to be getting up for anything other than a holiday. With our hotel being stag-do central, I knew it might not be the most restful nights of sleep. What I forgot to consider, was the fact that most of them would still be out at 3am, so I’d be up before they got back! I slept through until about 1.30, and then dozed on and off until my alarm went, springing out of bed, ready to rock and roll.
I had a quick bit of porridge and a last minute faff with my gear before heading over to the event HQ with Lewis and Amy. Lewis provided great company in transition while I sorted out my bike and transition bags, setting up my drink and food for the ride, before making use of the facilities a couple of times. We said goodbye to the girls before Lewis and I hugged it out and headed our separate ways, having agreed to line up in different starting areas.
They started letting us in the water 10 minutes before the off, so I went to find myself some space near to the front of the 60-70 minute section. The MC was getting both the crowd and competitors hyped up, but I just spent a few minutes thinking about all the effort and time I’d spent in getting to this point, and telling myself I need to make the most of this opportunity.
The start of the Outlaw is a mass one, with everyone setting off together, so it’s quite a sight seeing a couple of thousand heads bobbing up and down in the water, all waiting for the buzzer to sound. We were counted down from 10, I started my watch on 2, and started swimming on go.
The first couple of minutes are always eventful, with everyone fighting for the same small spaces in the water, limbs flailing everywhere you look. I quickly got into my stroke, before the first problem of the day surfaced – my wetsuit had come unfastened, and water was flooding into it down my back. I stopped and tried to refasten the velcro, immediately getting swam over by the people behind me, who obviously weren’t going to be stopping or swimming around me.
I seemed to have sorted it, so kept on swimming, only for it to come undone within 30 seconds. Again, I stopped, and was immediately overwhelmed by all the bloodthirsty sharks behind me, as I struggled to stay afloat and mess around with the velcro at the same time. This happened four or five times before I eventually accepted the inevitable; it wasn’t going to stay fastened and I’d have to swim the entire 2.4 miles with the zipper half done up and a suit full of water.
I knew there was nothing I could do about it, so I tried to just relax and focus on what I could control – keeping a smooth stroke and holding a steady effort. I couldn’t quite believe how quickly we got to the half-way point at the end of the lake; I was so surprised that I nearly swam into the turn buoy. I had a quick glance at my watch; 33 minutes or so, pretty surprising in the circumstances and this gave me a nice psychological boost.
From here it was a straight shot back down the lake to the swim exit, but this seem to drag on forever. I also started to feel disorientated and dizzy; something I’ve never experienced in open water before. It wasn’t stupidly cold water, but I think with my wetsuit open, I’d suffered as a result. I could feel myself beginning to tire and was thrilled to see the exit arch looming ahead. A volunteer hauled me from the water with 1:08 on the clock – if you’ve had offered me that at the start I’d have bitten your hand off, so all things considered it was a good swim.
Swim time: 1:08
I ran through the changing tent, dispensing with my wetsuit, cursing at it as I fumbled with my bike helmet and shoes. I was shivering from the cold and felt horrendous; I’d never experienced this in a triathlon before so the timing wasn’t ideal, but I kept telling myself if was a long day and things would soon change.
I ran with my shoes in hand to my bike, before slipping them on with all the grace of an elephant on a pair of ice skates, hopping on after crossing the mount line and setting off on a journey that unbeknown to me was to be one of the least enjoyable in my brief time spent so far in this silly sport. I know everyone loves a transition stat; I passed 71 people in those 3 minutes and 35 seconds, moving up from 287th to 216th.
The 112 miles starts with a lap of the lake we’d just swam in, so I tried to use this to calm down and settle into a rhythm. The problem was, I couldn’t really see straight; I felt horrendous, dizzy and completely out of sorts. Not ideal when you’re trying to steer a bike around other riders and numerous stray geese whose Sunday morning splash had been rudely interrupted.
Still, I remember thinking as I skirted round the edge of the lake that I’d much rather be out of the water as I glanced at those still making their way back from the very top end with a fair way still to swim. As I exited the watersports centre, with just over 4 miles completed, something didn’t feel quite right with my bike. I glanced down and my heart sank; my rear tyre was completely flat.
I quickly pulled over, trying to stay calm despite still shivering from the cold. I hadn’t had a flat in over 3 months and thousands of miles of riding; I couldn’t believe this was happening at this precise moment. It was a struggle to change the tube as my hands were shaking, but I eventually got a new one in after checking the inside of the tyre to see if I could identify the cause – nothing there as far as I was concerned.
I was telling myself I’d only lost at maximum 10 minutes and there was plenty still to play for during the day. I got back riding and down into the aero position whilst having something to eat and drink, knowing I needed to keep my energy stores up to give myself a chance of having a solid day. However, 6 miles later as I navigated a roundabout I felt my back-wheel skidding all over the place, nearly sliding out from underneath me. I looked down – completely flat again.
I just couldn’t believe it; why was this happening, today of all days? Luckily, Coach Dan had just the night before talked me into taking 2 spare inner-tubes as opposed to one, so I was able to stop and quickly change the tube. Again, I checked the tyre for anything that may be causing the issue, but everything seemed fine. It was incredibly frustrating but seemingly out of my control, so I just carried on and tried to put it behind me.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I could repeat this stop-change-continue story at miles 15, 30 and 39. Having used up all my spares, it was a case of standing forlornly at the side of the road, hoping someone would come along with the offer of help. Thankfully, my fellow competitors were absolutely awesome and I had numerous offers of help and assistance. Without the help of 3 or 4 different individuals whom I’d never met before, I wouldn’t have got anywhere near the finish line.
There were many occasions during the first half of the bike leg where I just wanted to pack it in and go home. All my targets and goals had gone completely out of the window, I was freezing cold, and when I couldn’t be bothered to stop and change the tube again I was just crawling along with a flat tyre, refusing to get off and fix it yet again.
My dad had got up at the crack of dawn and driven all the way to Nottingham to support, and I heard him shout as I went through Car Colston, reminding me of the effort people had made on my behalf this weekend; I couldn’t just give it up because things weren’t going my way. My Uncle, who lives locally, was also out on the bike course; seeing him was a real boost to shake me out of my negative mental state.
After what seemed like days I reached the aid station at mile 51 at the top of the climb into Oxton, which I’d ridden up with a completely flat rear wheel. This was being manned by the Leicester Tri club, and I knew a friend from my school days, Tom Wasley, would be helping here. I bored him with my trials and tribulations, unsure how to continue from this point.
Luckily, there was a mechanic present and after much deliberation we decided to put a new tyre on my rear wheel, after both agreeing we couldn’t see what was causing the problem, but thinking this wouldn’t harm my chances. Charlie, from One Step Beyond (the event organisers), also very kindly sourced me a small hand pump so I’d be able to continue pumping up the tyre if it kept losing pressure. Tom’s friend from Leicester Tri also kindly donated me some arm-warmers as I was still absolutely freezing – these were an absolute life saver and I’ll be forever grateful for all the awesome help I received here.
I was back on the road and finally moving at a reasonable pace, but I’d already been stopped for nearly an hour and a half, and knew I still had such a long way to go. It was just a case of ticking off the miles and trying not to think of the bigger picture. When I could ride freely, I was still sticking to my power targets and giving my legs a good old workout.
I was so frustrated by this point, and remember at times just screaming out loud to myself; I just couldn’t believe this was how it’d all panned out. I was riding angry, and pushed too hard round a sharp turn, and found myself face down in a hedge at the side of the road. Thankfully the bike was in one piece, but I seriously considered staying there for a while – it was strangely quite comfy. Obviously, this was ridiculous, and I quickly got up and got on my way, with nothing but my pride damaged.
112 miles is a long way to ride when things haven’t gone your way, and I’d be lying if I said that some points during the ride didn’t completely suck. I saw some guys passing me on some of the out-and-back sections, over 30 miles ahead of me on the road – these were the guys I’d been hoping to be riding near and I found this pretty gutting. I tried to take my mind off it by offering encouragement to other riders and trying to smile at those offering support at the side of the ride, of which there were plenty.
Thankfully I had no further problems with my bike – that was something at least. I kept telling myself to keep moving forward, but in all honesty, I was fading in the last 20 miles, and with nothing to push for, it was hard to hold the same intensity levels. The legs felt sapped, and I think it would’ve actually been easier to ride all the way through than to keep stopping and starting; this really threw me off my rhythm.
My thoughts started to turn to the upcoming marathon, and how I was going to approach it after my last 6 hours of hell. I thought about jogging around and saving my legs, so I could get back into training quickly and put all this behind me. But then I realised that wasn’t my style, and resolved to giving it everything I had, telling myself this would qualify as an incredible training session and great for improving my mental strength.
As I rolled down towards transition, I heard my dad and friends shouting encouragement at me, but all I could do was shake my head and grimace; I was absolutely gutted. One of the bike catchers took my bike off me, as I stopped the watch in 6 hours and 41 minutes, a long way off my target time of 5 hours. I’d fallen from 216th to 678th position.
Bike time: 6:41:45. Average power – 209W. Normalised power – 215W.
I jogged into the changing tent, which was by this stage full of exhausted bodies strewn all over the place. I took my time; what was a minute here or there going to do now – I’d rather make sure I’m comfortable and ready to run a marathon. I chucked some socks on and pocketed some energy gels, before donning the customary headband – maybe I should start wearing it on the bike as well for good luck?
After a quick stop in the loo, I was out of transition in a quite leisurely 4 minutes, but had still picked up 27 places in that time.
My head was all over the place as I started the run, but thankfully the legs felt springy and full of life which was a good sign. I saw my Dad again alongside the relay crew, and I had to avoid eye contact as I was already feeling quite emotional – I didn’t mean to come across as rude, I was just quite upset with how things had turned out.
You open with a lap of the rowing lake, and I followed the advice I’d had from people in the build up to ease into the run. I still went through the first 5 kilometres in 21 minutes, but I felt relaxed and my breathing was well under control, so I decide to just run to feel and let the pace decide itself. I was already passing people left, right and centre, but some of these were on later laps, as much as 13 miles ahead of me on the road.
After 2 miles, I saw Katie from way off, smiling and waving to make sure I could see her. At this point I knew I was in trouble, as the emotion of the day had been simmering under the surface for the last 6 hours on the bike. As I approached her I completely lost it, breaking down into tears and telling her how sorry I was and that I’d let everyone down.
The amusing part here was that I didn’t actually stop running, so I was chugging along at sub-3 hour marathon pace, sobbing away whilst trying to talk at the same time. It must’ve been quite a sight. I immediately felt bad as Katie then didn’t see me for another 10 miles and must’ve been concerned about my current mental state. I just couldn’t help it – I was absolutely devastated with how things had turned out.
I was also getting several puzzled looked from spectators now, as after I passed Katie there were plenty of other people out supporting; they must’ve wondered who this kid was, running along comfortably but crying away to himself – what a lunatic.
After this, I had some serious words with myself and pulled it together; it could be a lot worse – I’m lucky enough to be out here doing what I love, and the run is by far my favourite part of the day. I still had a chance to lay down a decent performance and prove to myself that I can run a good marathon off the bike.
After a loop of the lake the run took you out down the river towards the centre of Nottingham. The sun had come out by this point and there were loads of people out watching and cheering, which made for a great atmosphere in those early miles. The aid stations were fantastic, with all the volunteers giving out relentless energy and positivity alongside the offerings of water and various energy products.
I passed Brownie on a couple of occasions going the other way, who despite looking tired was soldiering on like a trooper. For someone who will happily admit to neglecting the training aspect of running a marathon, he put in a real shift during the day and it was nice to be suffering alongside someone else out there (in a good way).
I had another slightly heart-breaking moment at the half-marathon point, passing the finishing area to see the timing clock showing ‘9:29’. I found myself wondering how close I’d have been to that finish line right now if things had gone my way, but here I was with another 13 miles to cover before I could even start to consider stopping. One chap was finishing at the time, and I watched him throw his arms in the air, understandably delighted. I was made up for this random person I’d never met before, and remember thinking I’ll do absolutely everything to try and make sure that’s me next time.
I went through 13.1 miles in 1:30:37, but I knew it was seriously unlikely I’d run the second half of the marathon quicker than the first, so a run of under 3 hours was out of the question, at least for today. Now it was a case of ticking off each section of the run course instead of thinking about the bigger picture – concentrating on staying hydrated by taking on some water at every aid station.
My nutrition was minimal once onto the run, and I only managed a singular pack of Clif shot blocks worth a total of about 200 calories. I didn’t feel hungry or like I needed an energy boost so for me water was just fine. In future I know this may change, especially if I’m hanging on for dear life and need to up the pace in the closing stages.
Seeing my Dad at various points on the run course provided a huge lift, and he kept saying exactly the right things, keeping the comments positive and urging me on towards the finish. Katie also kept popping up at the more deserted sections of the run, and I was always so glad to see her, making sure to let her know I was ok and trying to make the most of a bad situation.
I only started to fade in the last 10 kilometres, by which point you’ve just got 2 laps of the lake to negotiate. It doesn’t sound like much, but after over 10 hours on the move, everything was hurting now. There were two aid stations – one at each end of the lake, and I bargained with myself to run between the two of them and only then could I walk through them while taking on a bit of water.
This was easier said than done and I took pretty much all I had just to keep moving forward. The pace had dropped but I was yet to run a mile in over 8 minutes, so I played a little game with myself, trying to ensure each split was below this mark, which seemed to help. I passed my uncle just before starting the final lap, who was there with my auntie and his dog ‘Nornie’. He shouted at me that Nornie was here watching too, with Norah also being the name of my late nan (his Mum), who had lived in Nottingham for a long time and I used to regularly visit whilst at university in Nottingham. I’ll admit to again getting slightly teary at this point.
Onto the ‘glory’ lap, still running (thankfully), but so ready for it all to be over. I’d run out of emotion and I was concentrating on picking off one runner at a time, just as something to keep me going. I rounded the top of the lake for the final time and made the turn for home. Entering the finishing chute was strange – I didn’t really feel that satisfied, just completely empty. I spotted Katie waiting, smiling away as she had been all day, and stopped for a quick peck and a sweaty hug.
I crossed the line, trying to lift my arms aloft in celebration, but I think I only got them as far as my shoulders; I was exhausted. I staggered straight into Jack and Lewis, who had just finished the last part of the marathon with Brownie. The 3 of the them all put down great performances, with Lewis swimming an hour and 22 minutes, Jack posting a quite spectacular sub-5 hour bike split and Brownie running a 4 hour 40 marathon – superb considering the aforementioned complete lack of training!
In the moments and hours after the race, as much as I wanted to celebrate, the overwhelming feeling was disappointment and bitterness. However, after receiving so many amazing messages from family and friends, they made me realise that there was plenty of positives to take. I’d run the marathon section in 3 hours and 10 minutes, overtaking 457 people on the run to move from 651st to 194th. I had the 7th fastest run split of the day, with the field containing some seriously good athletes. I proved to myself that I can put together a good run off the back of a long bike. I also was ahead of target on the swim, and that was with an open wetsuit that was flooding with water.
Run time: 3:10:25
Total time: 11:08:32
So, that’s ironman number 2 in the books. I’d imagined crossing the finish line so many times over the past few months, and the way it went down in my head was nothing like the way it played out on Sunday. But it just shows that sometimes however hard you try and however much work you put in, sometimes things just don’t go your way, and that’s tough luck. Lesson learned, lets shelve it and move on to the next one.
Ah yes, the next one. The small matter of Ironman Wales in just over 6 weeks’ time. In many ways, I’m very lucky to have a chance to make amends as soon as possible. However, it’s not a very long period between the two to be able to recover properly and get myself in the right place mentally. Right now, I couldn’t think of anything worse than another one of these things. I won’t lie and try and sugar-coat it; that marathon hurt like hell. But ask me again this time next week, and I’m sure I’ll be raring to go.
It was an absolute pleasure to spend the weekend with my family and some pretty awesome friends. I was being a grumpy bastard on the run, but their support was relentless and really helped me get a grip and start enjoying the day. My Dad was popping up everywhere, and it was brilliant to have him watch me race; it really made me want to do him proud.
For those who want to scrap the cheesy close, you can stop reading here. But I can’t finish without saying thank you to Katie, who not only puts up with me going missing to train before then getting dragged to the races during her time off work, but also this time had to deal with a pretty despondent boyfriend for a couple of days in the aftermath. Her support throughout was incredible, and it means the world to me to be able to share these experiences with her; I don’t know what I’d do without her.