Ironman UK 2018 – Pre-race & Swim

**(Ironman UK preview blog here)**

Ever since I got into triathlon, there was one race that I’ve always wanted to be a part of. It takes place in Kona, Hawaii; the Ironman World Championships. I stay up every year watching the online coverage and then count down the days until the official highlights video is released so I can watch that as well. I’ve followed people I know and respect taking part in this ridiculous race, dreaming that one day that could be me going toe to toe with the best in the world. But I always thought it was more of a pipe dream than a realistic prospect.

Things had been moving in the right direction though. 2 minutes and 44 seconds separated me from the ‘big dance’ last year in Ironman Wales. Close, but no cigar. B+; must try harder. I went away and formed a plan for 2018. I’d stalked my way into a friendship with ex-triathlete Paul Burton, and for some reason he agreed to work with me on improving my biking. This quickly evolved into putting together my entire training plan, as well as bombarding him with hundreds of ridiculous questions per day.

One thing I’ve been guilty of in the past is racing too much. I can’t help it; it’s what I love doing and get the most enjoyment from. But we agreed that more of a structure was needed. This meant no spring marathon focus; if I wanted to be a decent triathlete I needed to work hard on my swim and bike, and not worry about running a fast marathon. I promised I’d just use the London marathon as a long training run, and stuck to my word, and the plan.

I won’t go into detail about my training leading up to Bolton, as I wrote about this in a post in the lead up to the race, here. The summary was; I was in the shape of my life, I’d put in so much hard work, and was ready to put it all on the line.

Pre-Race

Having put all my racing eggs squarely in one basket, I wanted to travel up early and get familiar with the course and do all the admin including registration, so I could spend Saturday relaxing before the race. I drove up on Wednesday afternoon, just in time to watch as English hearts were broken in a world cup semi-final.

Justin and Gemma Cleary had opened up their home to us for the weekend, and both Katie and I couldn’t be more grateful. We’d met them during our trip to America 3 years ago, and since then stayed in touch online and met up down in London. The atmosphere was super chilled, and it really felt like we’d been friends for decades. We hung out in the evenings and I bored them with hours and hours of dry triathlon chat. They introduced me to something called ‘Love Island’. I’m still not convinced.

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I went for a short swim first thing Thursday morning before heading out into the Lancashire countryside to ride one lap of the new bike course. Unfortunately, the route had to be altered a week before the event due to moorland fires in the area; something completely out of the organisers hands. A particularly nasty, steep climb had been added, followed by a twisty, technical descent.

Feeling like I needed to seek out some extra drama to stop people falling asleep half way through reading this, I decided to pick a fight with a tractor. I cruised around a blind corner to find the narrow lane filled with this metal behemoth. I had seconds to choose between being crushed by his massive front wheel, or taking shelter in a rather nasty looking thorn bush. There was only ever going to be one sensible choice.

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After ungracefully extracting myself from my prickly prison and checking the bike was fully functioning, I carried on to complete the rest of the loop, slightly shaken up but still in one piece. Unfortunately, the bike was playing up, and had been before my detour into the shrubbery. Sporting Director Paul instructed me to take it in to a local shop ASAP.

Turns out that the chain-rings on the front cassette (the sharp teethy bits by the pedals for the non-cyclists amongst us) had completely worn away and needed replacing. I’d had the bike serviced just one week previously and this hadn’t been identified. Bugger.

After madly calling what seemed like 57 different retailers, all who either didn’t have the right part or weren’t able to deliver it to us before the race, we eventually found what we were looking for. I cannot thank Bikeshak in Altrincham enough for remaining calm and sorting it out whilst I completely lost my head. I had the bike back by Friday afternoon, ready to race.

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Before picking up my bike, I headed down to Pennington Flash, where the swim would take place, for the organised ‘practice swim’. There had been worries about poisonous algae in the water in the build up, and I’d been making regular trips up north to deposit more of the stuff into the lake in the hope it might spread. Unfortunately, the algae had cleared and it looked like the full swim would be going ahead. Balls.

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After making a few new friends and having a leisurely, algae-free swim, I dried myself off (after asking complete strangers for topless photos, obviously) and headed back to Manchester to await the arrival of Christina Froome herself (otherwise known as Katie).

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Christina Froome rolling into town, complete with Sainsburys shopping.

Saturdays wouldn’t be complete without a trip to parkrun, which doubled up as a perfect chance to stretch out the legs. The 4 of us headed over to Stretford parkrun, where Katie and I ran the course together, enjoying the novelty of the last 400m as it finished with a lap of the track. There was an incredible chap, Arthur, taking part in his 200th parkrun at the age of 88; what a legend.

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By the afternoon, the nerves had really started to kick in now. Katie and I went for a walk to get some fresh air. Normally, I wouldn’t include details like this, but this was key in getting me in the right frame of mind for the following day. She was such a calming presence, and took time to listen and help with the worries I had about the race. It really put my mind at ease, and I knew she wanted this as much as I did.

I went for an early dinner with the extended support crew; Mum and Dave the Lion had arrived. I’d been looking forward to all of us getting together all week and it was another great thing to do the evening before to try and switch off from the event. Supporting battle plans were made before heading home for an early night.

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I slept relatively well before springing out of bed when the 3am alarm went; I was absolutely amped. I wolfed down breakfast whilst reading all the messages of luck I’d received in the previous 24 hours; it was all rather overwhelming. Turns out I have more than 2 and a half mates – thanks guys.

Katie was up 20 minutes later and before I knew it we were bundling everything into the car and off out into the darkness. It was a quiet journey over to the start, but I had a theme that I kept running through in my head for the day; relentless positivity. I wasn’t going to let anything throw me out, however major. Just concentrate on the process, one step at a time.

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The couple of hours before the start passed in a whirlwind. I went for a short jog to get away from the madness and spent a few minutes relaxing and just staring out at the lake. After a quick snap with the other Clapham Chasers taking part on the day, I said my goodbyes to Katie and wormed my way into the swim start holding area.

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Martin Rutter joined me there and we shared a brief, nervy chat, before wishing each other luck and exchanging a hug. The national anthem was played and a few people murmured the words, most just using the last few moments to gather their thoughts. The gun went and we started shuffling forward towards the water.

Swim

Despite my best attempts, the lake was algae free and we were running straight towards it. After leaping in with all the grace of a warthog, I quickly began thrashing down the long, straight section to the first buoy. The course was basically a giant rectangle, which we had to do twice.

The rolling start (5 swimmers every 5 seconds) meant it was pretty spaced out and I had much more room to swim in than usual. I still had a few people trying to swim over me, but nothing too major and no kicks in the face. Winning. Ray from Swim Canary Wharf had given me a few key things to think about during the swim, and I ran through these every few minutes, ticking off the distance.

As we made the turn out at the far end of the swim course and headed back home, it was clear we’d be swimming absolutely blind as the sun was rising directly into our faces. I just put my head down and swam, hoping I wasn’t veering wildly off course. The safety kayakers I’d see every so often confirmed I was heading in roughly the right direction.

The peace of having your head down in the lake was broken as I hauled myself out at the end of the first lap, running the 50m section on shore and passing all the spectators who were screaming their heads off; GBH to the ears. I heard a mate Ross shout ‘cracking first lap Spraggins’. The lying toad.

I’d taken my goggles off for the short run and as I put them back on as a dived back in; they’d completely steamed up. Rookie error. I stopped and cleared them in the water to get my sight back, promptly getting swam over and dunked in the process. That’ll teach me.

Time to focus now; it’s easy to let the concentration waiver in the second lap, especially as you’ve been swimming for nearly an hour. Whenever thoughts drifted ahead to what was going to happen on the bike, or more importantly, what I was going to have for tea, I forced my mind back into the moment of swimming as smoothly as possible.

Making the final turn for home I was blind again and just stuck to someones feet, hoping he was going the right way. The noise from the PA system on shore was getting louder and louder each time I took a breath, so I knew the end was near. It’s always a relief to get the swim over with, being my weakest discipline by far.

Swim – 1:10:45. 26th in AG. 255th overall. 

Luckily, I chose not to wear a watch with in the swim, for exactly moments such as this. Seeing that time coming out of the water, after all the hours I’d put in, would’ve been completely deflating. It turns out that the swim was slow/long and times were a good 5 minutes slower across the board. Being completely unaware at the time, I just got on with the job at hand.

I jumped out and began my customary charge towards transition; mowing down anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way. I dropped my swim hat and goggles but there was no way I was turning back for them; they’d done their job for the day. I lay down in the tent and asked a friendly chap to yank off my wetsuit. What a legend.

I ran to my bike, saying a quick prayer to the puncture gods as I grabbed it off the rack; ‘please not today’. The aquatic adventure was behind me and it was time to find out if placing all my faith in bike training and Paul Burton had paid off.

T1 – 03:18

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Part two can be found by clicking here…

5 thoughts on “Ironman UK 2018 – Pre-race & Swim

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