Athlete Journal Entry 41: I’m An Ironman
I’m an ironman.
Well, sort of. Melbourne has been throwing up all kinds of crazy weather this year and we’ve had a record run of hot days, which was making me wonder if completing the Ironman was actually going to be possible. With only a few days before the race there was a very real possibility about coming in off the bike after five to six hours of riding and face the prospect of having to run a marathon in 35+ degrees Celsius. The day before the race, the event organizers decided to change the 3.8km swim loop into two 1.9km loops to allow it to be kept closer to shore for safety, as the seas were massive. That was then changed to a single 1.9km loop as on the morning it was even bigger with eight to ten foot swells. So while I did the whole event, I haven’t actually completed the full distance because the swim was changed.
As an indication of how rough it was, when the male pros started two of them took about ten strokes and turned around and came back in! The problem for us age groupers was that with 2,000 people crammed into about 900m of water there’s not much space for actual swimming. It was like being on a roller coaster. You’d be on the top of a swell and look down and see thirty people right underneath you and then a second later you’d be in the trough looking up and see a big wall of water with people everywhere. There was not much actual swimming going on as people were fearful of not going in a straight line. The process seemed to be take about four or five strokes, then stop, look, and repeat. It took me 22 minutes to swim to the far marker and ten to swim back in.
With strong winds the bike course was always going to be a challenge. The Melbourne bike course has a reputation for being very fast, and last year there was no wind at all. Held on a freeway, the road surface is incredible and has the potential for being very fast. The course is two 90km loops that are kind of flat with small ups and downs in both directions and only one little climb each way, just near the 45km turnaround point. The bike course actually turns a little as it heads out, so at one point you are either riding with the wind or a cross wind and the next minute you’re riding directly into a stiff headwind.
There were moments I was riding as hard as I could on my small chain ring and barely moving and others where I was in top gear, cruising along at 50km/h and breathing through my nose with a big breeze pushing me along. At other times, because of the high walls of the freeway the wind would come in and push you one way and then rebound of the walls and push you straight back the other way. There were plenty of crashes due to the conditions and people running deep-dish wheels and discs.
The run course is mostly flat. In fact, for the first half it is completely flat and then goes through about ten kilometers of hills before flattening out again for the run home. By this stage the wind had changed direction and was a gentle tail wind the whole way home – a good thing because by the time I started running my legs were pretty tired from all the hard work on the bike.
There’s not much to say about the swim. It was rough. People either got pulled out or dropped out for safety. Easily the roughest conditions I’ve ever swum in. Add in the thousands of others and it was like swimming in a mosh pit in a washing machine. I took a moment to appreciate what I was about to do just before the start and celebrated my first ironman by peeing in my wetsuit (I’ll say for warmth). Swim time – 32 minutes.
Once we hit the shore it’s the weird run to transition. I find in a wetsuit I don’t use my feet much. When you stand up and try to start running with all the blood in your back and shoulders two things happen: your heart rate skyrockets and you’re quite shaky and uncoordinated.
The transition for Ironman is pretty cool – you run into a tent and grab your bag (you’re given two colours, Blue for Bike and Red for Run). So you grab your blue bag and tip it out as it’s got all your bike gear. Meanwhile you’re stripping your wetsuit off and making sure you haven’t got sand between your toes because that is going to become very irritating after you’ve ridden 180km. Once you’ve got your ride gear on and made sure to apply Vaseline in the appropriate spots you clip clop out of the tent with your bike shoes on and head towards your bike.
I was amazed at how fast people took off at the start of the bike. I was midfield at the end of the swim but I was getting passed non-stop at the start of the ride. I saw a few guys I know from the Jodi Lee ride I did last year and also from the MX12VIP group, but after a quick chat we each went back to doing our own thing.
I did the ride in six hours and change. Not fast by any stretch of the imagination, but a good example of exactly how windy it was. At this point it wasn’t that hot but I went through eight bottles of fluid. Four of those had about 600cals each and I had one of those each hour for the first four hours. Those were supplemented with a gel that contained 100cals. It may sound like a lot, but I ride at about 30cals/km and in four hours I rode 120km, burning 3600cals so with 60km still to ride plus a marathon after I was already in the hole by 800cals. I rode the next part of the ride drinking Gatorade and water (two bottles of each).
I rode evenly paced throughout the whole ride and rode past a lot of people on the final 45km section. A lot of people had blown up by riding too hard early and were now paying the price.
Getting off the bike is bliss after such a long ride. The temptation is to get off and run like you see the pros do. I tried that for about three steps before I realized my legs weren’t going to cooperate straight away. Into the transition tent and grab my red run bag and then proceed with the world’s slowest transition.
As a first timer there are going to be things you learn. The biggest lesson I learned was that when you have a race belt that you plan on sticking gels onto you should do that pre-race, not when you’re tired and sweaty. It took me forever to get the damn things in the little loops. At the same time I had a Snickers and a can of Red Bull (which was probably a mistake for reasons I’ll explain soon).
On the way out of the tent onto the run course I stopped to pee and was worried when I saw that I was pretty dehydrated. This is why the Red Bull was a bad idea. The gels already have caffeine in them as does the Red Bull and caffeine is a diuretic meaning I was going to lose more water as the day went on. Bike time – 6:10.
If you’ve read any of my journals leading up to this you know one thing to be true: I suck at running. I don’t suck as badly as I did a year ago but I still suck. This is not false modesty but statement of fact. I don’t think I passed a single person on the run except right at the end when they were either crying or vomiting.
The first 4km of the run went pretty quickly. In fact I remember thinking to myself that I’d done 10 percent and was cruising, knocking the first 4km off in 6min/km pace, putting me on track for a four hour run. I was still cruising when I passed the 7km mark, but then about ten seconds later I felt the first twinge of a cramp. I slowed down a bit and it was still there so I stopped running and walked. If all my troubles over the last year have taught me anything it’s that if you give the body time to settle down it can come good.
The aid stations were about 2km apart so at every station I had two lots of water and some coke. (For those who don’t know coke is the best sports drink on the market – high in simple sugar and with a little dose of caffeine). By the 12km mark I needed to go to the bathroom urgently. Luckily for me there was a free porta potty at an aid station. Instant relief and while my stomach no longer felt like it was going to explode I still needed to get a lot of fluid in to handle my dehydration problem.
That took me 22km to solve in the end but eventually my body came good just in time to help me get through the hilly section. I’ve been steadily gaining confidence in my running over the last few months. I’m certainly far better than I was and even though I’ve had some pain in my Achilles I haven’t been tearing muscles every time I’ve put my runners on in months. But four months of running isn’t really enough to run a marathon, or to even be able to run the hills during an Ironman marathon, as it turns out. My plan at this point was walk the hills and run the rest, walking at aid stations to get in fluids as I haven’t mastered how to drink out of cups and run at the same time yet.
The final kilometers are amazing. I passed a woman with about 1km to go who was just sobbing uncontrollably. I asked if she needed a hand and she said she was fine. The body does funny things under extreme fatigue. The final stretch seemed to take forever. I could see the lights and the big screen and hear the announcements as people came over the line so I knew I was close but it seemed to go forever. I turned the final corner and saw the arch and just kept trudging forwards only to realize that the actual finish was another 100m past that – a final kick in the nads from Ironman.
Finally crossing the line in 12:19 to hear, ‘Andrew Read, you are an Ironman!’ was a relief. I thought I was pretty good until one of the helpers grabbed me. I wasn’t about to nose dive as many do when they cross the line, held together only be sheer force of will, but every time I tried to tell him I was fine and move away I’d stumble a bit and he’d have to grab me again. Run time – 5:15.
After receiving my T-shirt, towel, and finisher’s medal I moved out to where my girlfriend and my brother and his family were waiting. I don’t recall much other than my nieces telling me I was gross and sweaty and not really being able to talk and swaying in the breeze as if I’d had a few too many drinks. Having stopped running I was getting cold quickly and starting to really need to sit or lie down. The walk to my girlfriend’s car was slow and took forever.
It’s been an amazing year. I’ve learned so much that I haven’t even started to process it yet. It’s very easy for coaches and trainers to presume to know things they’ve never experienced and act as if they have a cure all for your sporting needs. I’ll be honest and say that I was in the same boat not long ago but now know that most strength coaches would do themselves a world of good by getting out of the gym and even going and doing a marathon as they would learn an amazing amount.
I’m not finished with this yet. I feel a little cheated that I didn’t do the full distance but I am determined that if I do another I have far more miles in my legs so that I can ride stronger and run the full marathon – right now I have unfinished business with ironman, but it may take me two to three years to build up to where I am running well enough. I am looking forward to reducing my training volume and being able to lift some heavy weights again now that I’ll have the energy but I’m certainly not going to stop all the fitness work as the difference it makes in my daily life is incredible.
I got exactly what I wanted from Ironman. I wanted a challenge. A massive, scary challenge and that’s exactly what I got. I was pushed to places in my head where I doubted myself for months straight and I made it through them and not once during the race did I ever contemplate not finishing. It’s easy as we get older to become complacent, to settle and be comfortable. I wanted to know I could still rumble if I wanted to, and even though my time isn’t great it’s actually satisfying. I swam faster than I did at the 70.3 four months ago, in far worse conditions, and I ran the first half of the marathon at the same pace as at the 70.3 after double the ride too and finished the marathon at the same pace. I’ve improved and that’s what this was all about.