**This is the 3rd post detailing my race at the 2018 Ironman World Championships. You can find the swim here and the bike here**
Excellent. We (me physically, you mentally) have successfully negotiated the swim and the bike, with just my bread and butter to come. The run. That’s where it all began for me, and it’s always been by far my favourite part of triathlon. I’ve just got to lace up my trainers and go for a little jog. That jog being a marathon, in what appears to be a giant furnace.
Sticking with the theme of the day, I charged out of transition with the look on my face of a small child that had stumbled upon the world’s greatest amusement park. Triathlon Disneyland, remember. Loads of people were commenting on the fact that I looked like I was having far too much fun, but I just couldn’t quite believe I was here, running the marathon in Kona.
I spotted Katie within the first few hundred meters and gave her a wave. She seemed to be chuckling away at something, but at the time it was unclear to me what was actually so funny. I mean, I run with my arms so far out to my sides it looks like I’m pretending to fly an aeroplane, but she’s seen that millions of times.
However, I found out later that the volunteer has plastered so much industrial level sun cream on my face, that it looked like I’d just come out of a full facial. All that was missing was the cucumbers around the eyes. Still, better safe than sorry, right?
The initial mile through town was amazing, and I allowed myself to get carried away with the excitement of all the support and energy on the course. I’d run through this scene in my head so many times, and now it was actually happening. Barring complete disaster, I was going to finish the Ironman in Hawaii, even if I had to walk it home from here.
After a rather enthusiastic 6:35 first mile, reality well and truly kicked in. Who had turned the oven on? (Well I had, but that was an earlier story, and I’m pretty sure I’d switched it off…). The first 7 miles take you along Ali’i Drive and back, with the route lined with supporters cheering, barbequing and drinking beer. It’s like one giant triathlon party that you’re kinda invited to, but you can’t drink the beer yet and have to run a marathon.
After a couple of miles I spotted James Ellis and his girlfriend Sian who gave me a shout. Seeing James was hugely inspiring; we’d trained together in the build up to the race, but with 2 weeks to go, he’d had a bike crash and broken his shoulder, any hopes of taking part gone. Despite this, he was out there cheering on others and offering out support, which can’t have been easy in that situation. On multiple occasions when things got hard, I thought about James not being able to race and how lucky and privileged I was to be in this position. I’m sure James will be back in Kona to race in the near future, and I can’t wait to follow him when that time comes.
No amount of training could’ve prepared for the conditions I was now facing on that run course. I’d come into the race with some fairly lofty run goals, but I realised from pretty early on that the name of the game was survival. I’d subconsciously already made the decision to walk every aid station in an attempt to keep cool and take on enough nutrition. I think in hindsight this may have been slightly over cautious, and I could’ve been a bit more ‘switched on’ through these opening miles.
Looking around, I just couldn’t believe the carnage that was already ensuing. Not even 5km into the marathon, there were more people walking than running, with many quickly discovering that they’d probably pushed a little too hard on the bike and were now paying for it hard. I just fixed my gaze into the distance, and constantly told myself to slow down and ease into it, terrified of over-cooking it.
Considering this early slowing of pace, alongside walking every aid station, I think in the end I maybe gave the race too much respect. Normally I love a gamble, rolling the dice and then finding out whether or not I can hang on during the closing stages. Where had this sensible Joe come from? I wasn’t sure if I liked him or not. It was as if I’d decided that finishing safely and ‘enjoyably’ was infinitely more important than risking it and digging myself into a hole that I couldn’t emerge from.
I took the turn on Ali’i drive to make the journey back into Kona. This road is by far the best part of the run course; there are people outside their houses with hosepipes, soaking you with freezing cold water – it was absolute heaven. It’s also the only part of the course with any kind of shade, so I went hunting for it whenever I could, like a fair-skinned Scot holidaying on the Costa Del Sol.
I got another boost coming back into town as the were crowds building and the excitement levels rising with the professional leader not far away from the finish line. I then hit the notorious Palani Hill – nothing too strenuous, just a steady 100ft climb over about 0.3 miles. Opinion is split on how to manage this, but I’d already decided to walk it to keep the heart rate from spiking, saving my energy for later on.
Katie popped out of the crowd at this point; perfect timing, as I was able to walk side by side with her and give her a brief update of how things were going. I think the summary was: ‘This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m going to finish, even if I have to walk from here.’ Of course, I didn’t plan on doing that, but I had no idea how I’d be feeling in 10 miles time. She neglected to tell me how much of a douche I looked with sponges giving me a pair of square shoulders and the suncream still clinging on.
Once up Palani, the fun and games well and truly begin. You’ve then got 7 miles straight along the Queen K highway, before running 2 miles down into the infamous ‘Energy Lab’. Once down there, you make the return journey, retracing your steps back out of the lab before the long 7 mile slog back to town. All of this in 35-degree heat with zero shade and no supporters: after a mile or so on the Queen K, spectators are prevented from carrying on any further. Am I selling this to you yet? Just remember, we’re all doing this for ‘fun’.
I was trying to distract myself with absolutely anything apart from the fact that this was really, really hard. I thought about friends and family back in the UK, tracking me as I passed through each timing point. I thought about the number of times I’d dreamt of running down this stretch of road. But each time my mind would wander back to the present: ‘How is it possible that we’re still running uphill?!’ The road seemed to just climb away into the distance, a never-ending line of runners spread out as far as the eye could see.
Each aid station was about a mile apart, so I just focused on travelling from one to the next. I walked through them, stuffing ice down the front of my shorts and under my cap in an attempt to keep cool. I’d then drink some water and Gatorade, moving on to coke (the liquid version) during the second half of the run. I was also popping salt tablets like they were going out of fashion. Reaching the end of each station, I trotted off in search of the next one.
I saw the pro-men coming the other way, with Patrick Lange looking in complete control. I got a bit of a buzz seeing Joe Skipper firmly installed amongst the top-10 and looking strong, before roaring at Lucy Charles as she came past in second place. Sharing the road with athletes of this class was an absolute privilege.
After what seemed like an eternity, I turned off the Queen K and trundled down towards the energy lab. At this point, everyone was looking death warmed up, and it was just a battle of who could slow down the least. The urge to walk was getting stronger, but barring the aid stations, I just slogged onwards, dreaming of that first beer at the finish line.
Cheyne Murphy passed me going down into the lab. He’s from Queensland, Australia, and I’d stumbled across his blog this year and spoken to him a couple of times via social media. We managed to catch up a couple of days before the race, and here we were, both halfway around the world, sharing the same patch of road and laughing at how ridiculous this race and whole situation was. Small world.
It hardly seemed possible, but it was even hotter down in the energy lab, with no breeze and the tarmac just radiating heat. I finally reached the turnaround point, telling myself that ‘all’ I had to do now was run the 10 miles or so home towards the finish. Easier said than done. At one point I put my entire head in a bucket of ice, and if you’d have told me the water was sizzling as I did so I definitely would have believed it.
I pulled alongside another Brit, Nick Rose, who had given me some invaluable advice in the build up to travelling out and during race week. Although both pretty whacked, we noted that a sub-10 finish was within grasp if things didn’t completely unravel, and from this point that was a carrot dangling in front of me. It was awesome to share a part of the race with Nick – hopefully we’ll get to race together again in the future.
After I’d hauled myself back up onto the Queen K, I loosely calculated that 9 minute miles would get me home in 10 hours. Come on Spraggins, you can do that. Burton will quit and disown you if you don’t go sub 10 from here. We’d had so many chats about how amazing it’d be to close the race out strongly, running past people in the final hour. Right now that was almost laughable; if I’d have known back then how hard this was going to be, I’d have kept my mouth firmly zipped.
However, I was definitely moving forward, passing many more than were passing me. Unfortunately, it was around now that my toilet troubles from previous races returned, and I had to duck into the portaloo twice in the last 6 miles. Not the speediest process when you’re wearing a one-piece trisuit and you have to unzip it and pull if off your shoulders on the fly. Nick seemed surprised when I then passed him for a second time in as many miles, the word ‘stomach’ the only explanation needed.
I was just ticking off the miles now. 10km to go. 5 miles. 4. Any unit, kilometres or miles, I didn’t care, it was another step closer to the finish. Coming into the last 5km, I noted I had just over 30 minutes to go sub 10. My mum has recently taken up running, and meaning absolutely no disrespect to her, this is the kind of time she does 5km in. I imagined I was just out for a leisurely stroll with her, and not being cooked alive after 9+ hours of strenuous activity.
I crested the final hill on the Queen K, now back at the top of Palani, and suddenly my emotions switched from misery to near elation. I had a mile to go, a fair bit of it downhill, and I was going to finish. There wasn’t going to be a final emptying of the tank; I was going to enjoy every last moment and soak it all in – a little glory lap around town.
I ran through the streets, taking up all the offers of high fives and being told I looked far too happy for someone at this stage of the race. I’ll never be able to pin down in words the emotions I went through during that final mile, but thoughts of the years of hard work and commitment to get me to that point were certainly flying through my head. This really made the reality of the situation hit home; average Joe Bloggs, the kid that was fairly useless at sport as school and enjoyed a jam donut or 27, was about to finish the Ironman World Championship. Scenes.
I turned onto Ali’i drive with 400m to go with a lump in my throat. For me, this was the most famous finishing line in sport, and I was at the head of it. Both sides of the roads were now packed with people, and I grinned from ear to ear, scanning the faces for any sign of Katie. I spotted her and stopped, dishing out a rather sweaty hug and smooch, unbothered about the people passing me in the final stretch. It definitely wasn’t about the finishing position today (One of the rare times you’ll hear me say that!).
I sauntered down the final 100m, scarcely able to believe that I’d actually done it, before crossing the line, punching the sky and promptly nearly falling off the raised platform which represented the finish. Thankfully, one of the volunteers was paying close attention, and she caught me just before I toppled off, with fellow Brit Gary Laybourne also offering a helping hand.
Run: 3:34:36. 50th in age group. 434th overall.
Overall: 9:49:15. 62nd in age group. 553rd overall.
If you’d have told me I was going to run a 3:34 beforehand, I think I would’ve been slightly disappointed. This isn’t for one second saying that 3:34 isn’t a good marathon time, but each individual puts a certain expectation on themselves, and I wanted better than that.
However, after experiencing the conditions and taking everything into consideration, I’m proud of the way I performed on the day. 4 years ago I ran the Paris marathon in a near identical time, finishing and thinking I might never be able to move again, so to clock this in lukewarm temperatures after a 6 hour warm-up isn’t the end of the world.
Quite amusingly, that’s also a 40 minute ironman PB for me, with the caveat being that I’ve only ever done hard, hilly ironman races. I’ll be looking to put that one to bed at Challenge Roth next July.
After crossing the line, every single finisher is allocated their own volunteer to wheel them away (quite literally in some cases) to the recovery area. Ruth Purbrook had flown past me in the finish chute, promptly slapping my bum (as agreed) on her way to an age-group win and 3rd overall amateur finishing position. I was constantly looking around for her, before realising she must have been ushered away to be drug tested. I had to wait until later to congratulate her properly on what was an absolutely phenomenal achievement.
The recovery area was like a battle field; athletes collapsing all over the place, some in a pretty bad state. Apart from walking being a bit of a struggle, I was ok, and limped over to be given my medal and finishers t-shirt, catching up with Matti Weitz, a chap from Switzerland who I’d trained with whilst working out in Zurich. He’d lost about 4 toenails during the course of the race, but finished in an awesome time despite being hit by a car just a few months ago.
I plonked myself down on the ground with a few slices of pizza, but was still struggling to force any food down. For those that know me, that will come as a huge surprise. I caught up with a few more Brits that I’d met during the week, as we swapped tales of the day.
Meeting people like Paul Lunn, Simon Lovelock, Tom Van Rossum, Chris Wallace, Dan Anderton and Rob Arkell this week has been truly inspiring and also highlighted just how far I’ve got to go if I want to make that next step and try and compete with these lads. They all soundly beat me on the day, but it’s really given me extra motivation to go away and work on my weaknesses and be that little bit better every single day.
I also caught up with Helena Hayes, a good friend from back in London. She’d been training like an absolute demon in the months leading up to the race, and ended up finishing 10th in the world in her age group; an absolutely incredible result! I was delighted for her and it’s nothing more than she deserved. Being fairly new to the sport, it’s scary to think how far she could go in the next few years. I’ve heard fruit bowls are really coming into fashion these days.
By this point I was pretty desperate to see Katie, and could just about muster the energy to move the 400m or so through the transition area and out into the open. After what felt like an eternity I found her, and we shared a rather emotional hug, before I collapsed on the grass, quite happy not to move again for a while.
Eventually I decided to go and collect my bike and wheel it back to our apartment, where the first of many cold beers awaited in our fridge. Unbeknown to me, Katie had also decorated in celebration of me finishing (glad one of us had total faith in me), which was absolutely amazing and I was rather overwhelmed for the 74th time that day. She’d also come through with a present that every guy dreams of; matching Hawaiian outfits; get in!
We went for some food, more beers, and met up with Chris at 11pm to watch the final finishers come in, including a 86 year-old Japanese man, who beat the cut-off with 10 minutes to spare. Can I just say that again. 86 years old. I wonder what we’ll all be doing when we’re 86? I can only hope I’m doing something as inspirational as that man.
We wandered back, absolutely exhausted, but once I got into bed I still couldn’t sleep; my mind was buzzing with thoughts of the day still flying around. I still couldn’t quite believe I’d taken part, and finished, in the Ironman World Championship. It’d been a goal for so many years, and now, rather too suddenly, it was over.
I think at this point of my triathlon ‘career’, a few well deserved thank you’s are in order;
Katie – I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, do any of this without her. The support and advice she gives me is absolutely immense and means the world to me. She has to put up with me either training or talking about training on a daily basis, allowing me to follow my dreams, and for that, I can never be grateful enough. We get to go on so many adventures like this together, and it just wouldn’t be the same on my own. I’m a lucky man.
Paul – All jokes about Burtons Bellends aside, this man has been the key to unlocking what little talent I had and helping me fulfil my potential. When we met at Ironman Switzerland 3 years ago I don’t think he quite knew what he was getting himself into, but after constantly barraging him with questions, he agreed to take on the role of ‘Sporting Director’ this year. Despite being the worlds busiest man, he’s given me so much of his time and energy, and unfortunately for him, has now ended up with a friend for life. I do let him draft me in training though, so I guess that’s fair.
Family & friends – They’ve put up with me missing social events, being a bore, but still pretend they’re interested in what I’m doing. During races (this one especially), the thought of them supporting me and all the good luck messages I received, really spurred me on when times got tough.
Clapham Chasers – What an incredible bunch of people. I’ve had the privilege of being able to train and improve with them over the last few years, and it’s been an absolute joy. This thanks is to each and every one of you; if we’ve ran, rode or swam (unlikely) together even just once, or failing that just had a quick chat about triathlon – it all means so much to me and it’s an amazing club to be a part of.
Ray at Swim Canary Wharf – Even though I’m not swimming with the sharks (yet), working with Ray has seen my swimming improve so much in the past 12 months, and I’ve seen my Ironman swim time drop by around 10 minutes in that period. The skills he’s taught me have been invaluable, and I look forward to chopping another 10 minutes off that time in the next 12 months..
Readers of this blog (!) – The comments I received are an absolute joy to read and really are so motivational. It doesn’t matter if I’ve never met you before, just knowing that someone other than my Mum is reading is inspirational and makes me want to keep cranking out the race reports.
So, that closes the Kona chapter. What next? I’m actually finishing writing this a good 2 weeks post-race and I’ve already enjoyed some much needed downtime and over indulgence. It’ll be a few more weeks before I’ll think about any kind of structured training, but I do have a few ‘fun’ races scheduled in the meantime.
Looking ahead to next year, I’m already signed up for Challenge Roth in July, and it’d be rude not to dust off the trunks for London in April. I’m sure there’ll be a blog about it. Would I go back to Kona? Most definitely. Not in 2019, but we’ll see what happens after that. Maybe Katie and I will have to race it together one year..