What’s so great about this half-Iron distance triathlon?
Dublin Ironman 70.3 happens at the ideal time in the triathlon season, which runs from April to September. After steady winter training, most triathletes start to race in late April or May, consistently working hard at progressing their fitness in June and July. By the time August comes around, many have been swimming, biking and running several times a week for over four months, which is ideal preparation for the serious challenge of the half Iron distance.Most triathletes track the hours they put into training and racing using fitness watches, making it easy to monitor exactly what they’re doing. It’s a challenge to put enough time into training while still maintaining a balance of work and family routines. For me, eight hours a week seems to work well – that’s an hour a day, Monday to Friday, three hours biking on Saturday, then a day of rest on Sunday. I competed in roughly one race a month; just enough to keep me on edge.
A late decision to enter the race
I enjoyed doing Dublin Ironman 70.3 in 2015, but wasn’t planning to do it this year: it’s a big challenge, not to be taken lightly. When I returned from holidays in mid July and I heard that slots were still available, I was tempted. I was feeling fit. Why not go for it?My coach, Eamonn Tilley, as always was the key to my decision making. He has many years of experience watching and guiding triathletes, and when he told me that he reckoned I was able for the distance, that was enough for me. There was only 3 weeks to go till the race, so Eamonn tweaked my training regime to suit the distance: a few longer bikes and runs, and some serious open water sea swims were added in. My simple aim was to complete the race faster than last year: not an easy task, as I’d had a great race in 2015, at 5 hours 12 minutes.
The week leading up to the race is crucial: getting enough training to keep up the fitness while not so much that you end up burnt out. Plenty of sleep is essential: resting the body in preparation for the onslaught.
The final build up to the big day
I did a practice swim on the Ironman course in Scotsmans Bay at Dun Laoghaire on the Friday before the race, just in time to see the hundreds of empty bike racks being lined up at the transition area in preparation. The newspapers were full of stories about Lions Mane jellyfish, and one of my co-swimmers suffered a few stings to her hands, but it seemed more like a nettle rash than the dramatic hazard mentioned in the media. The race organisers reassured us that they’d done everything possible to minimise the jelly fish numbers, so I put the thought to the back of my head.
Finally… race day arrives
My alarm was set for 4.30am on race day, Sunday 14th August. After a carbo-loaded breakfast, Eamonn picked me up, giving some last minute coaching tips on the car journey to Dun Laoghaire. By 5.30am, I was at the race village, which was already thronged with athletes, It’s an early start, but the pre-race adrenaline means that there’s no risk of feeling sleepy or tired. The weather was perfect: overcast and windless.I’d had my bike serviced prior to the race: mechanical failure of the bike is a triathlete’s nightmare. Despite this careful preparation, I had managed to have a minor crash when cycling home from the bike shop, and there was now an intermittent squeak from the back wheel that worried me. I was relieved that the Wheelworks specialist cycle mechanic team were there, checking out bikes free of charge. They could find nothing dramatically wrong with mine, but they did mutter about bearings and spindles, so I wasn’t completely reassured.
The Ironman race starts in waves, and I was in the last one at 7.45am, with the rest of the over 45 year olds. It’s more of a conveyor belt start than a single rush: the electronic chip that you wear around your ankle is logged automatically as you cross over the start line, and then it’s repeatedly checked in at various other points around the course to make sure that you don’t cut any corners.
The nervous build up to the race was released at that point: I found myself charging down the beach into the waves, at full tilt, shouting as if heading into battle. The yelling must seem ridiculously melodramatic to onlookers but I love the excitement of it all, and I can’t hold back. The cold water soon put a chilly stop to my fervour.
I swam steadily, looking up every 10 strokes to check that I was still on line for the yellow buoy that marked the turning point. Ten minutes into the swim, my goggles fogged up, and I had to turn onto my back to take them off and put them back on again. It’s frustrating when that happens, but at least they weren’t leaking. The fogging must have been linked to temperature changes, with a hot/cold interface between the icy water and the warmth of the increasing blood flow to my head as I gathered pace. I must remember in future to keep the inside of the goggles dry at the start.
I finished the swim in 38 minutes, three minutes faster than last year, so I felt positive as I rushed through transition and onto my bike. I knew that I had to cycle the 90km course at 33km/hour to match my 2015 time, so I kept an eye on my Garmin watch as I pedalled as furiously as possible though the closed streets of Dublin city centre. I was doing well, averaging 32km/hour until the first hill, 20km into the ride. As the gradient increased, my back wheel began to make an ominous squeaky sound, then it seized up altogether. I had to jump off and carry the bike up the hill. Once I’d reached the summit, I hopped on again, and the wheel was spinning freely once more. It must have been something to do with the change of weight pressure with the hill gradient, and the only blessing was that the course was relatively flat. I’d only have a few hills to carry the bike up. My dream race time was now impossible but I still hoped to reach the end successfully.
The second hill struck at 36km, and as I struggled along with the bike on my back, the first doubts about completing the event started to niggle me. But the bike was working well on the flat, and by the refreshments tables at 43km I had worked my average speed back up to over 30km/hour and I was once again hopeful.
That’s when disaster struck. At the refreshment tables, cyclists pick up food and drink on the move from the race marshals, and things can get chaotic. The cyclist in front of me wobbled over into my path as he tucked into some food. I did my best to swerve away, but his pedals clashed with my back wheel. Moments later, my bike shuddered to a halt. The collision had broken several spokes and my wheel was now properly buckled, jamming against the bike frame. There was no way I could go on with the bike, and I was only half way, so I wasn’t going to run the rest of it. My race was over.
Or was it? A marshal was trying to help me, and I suddenly realised that I knew him: it was Dave, my coach’s brother. He told me that a girl had just had to drop out of the race because she was feeling unwell, and that she might lend me the back wheel from her bike. I was very fuzzy at this stage: when you’re in a race the blood goes to your muscles, away from your brain, and it’s hard to think straight. All I knew was that I was saying “thank you, thank you, thank you” to a sad looking girl wrapped in a blanket, seated in the back of a car, while Dave and a Wheelworks mechanic were busily fitting her wheel onto my bike. Then I was off again. I had lost over fifteen minutes, but the race was still on.
It began to rain at this stage, and the roads were slippy, so I had to ease off a bit on the pace. I finished the bike in just over 3 hours with a pace of 29.5km/hour, much slower than my target of 2 hours 40 mins from last year, but better than not finishing it at all.
The bike-run transition went well, and it felt glorious to be running now: I’d had enough of sitting on that bike. I knew precisely what pace I had to run: 4 mins 45 seconds per km would make my run just faster than last year. My Garmin watch was set up with a “virtual partner” running at that pace, so I could see at any point exactly how well I was doing. I started fast, and was soon 20 seconds ahead of the schedule, so I steadied myself, and worked at keeping bang on the right pace. I found a running mate who was going at the same speed, and we agreed to stick together. His name was Mike, a 31 year old rugby player doing his first half Iron distance, and we were both comfortable enough with the pace that we could have a conversation as we ran. My Garmin watch told me that the pace was right, my heart rate was steady at 155 beats per minute, and everything was under control. For a while. There was one problem: it’s a half marathon, with 21km to get through.
All was well until around the 13th kilometre, just over half way, when the wheels began to go from the wagon.
First, I lost Mike. He couldn’t quite keep the pace, and he faded. Next, I lost myself. My body was just too tired at this stage. My heart rate went up to 160, then 170, then 180, 190 then finally 200 beats per minute as I struggled to maintain the pace. My heart rate had never reached those peaks during training. This was serious physical suffering, as my head told my body to keep moving while my body was shouting at my head to stop. A Bible quote kept running through my head: Isaiah 40:31, which is something like “If your hope is with God, you will run without tiring”.
This struggle seemed to go on interminably, as if the race would never end, but with hindsight, from looking at my Garmin watch data, it was just a painful half hour, from 13km to 19km in the race. At that point, the end was just 2km away, and the suffering faded: the finishing line was now in sight, and the sooner I was there, the sooner the pain would stop. I put my head back and pounded my way to the end, with Isaiah 40:31 egging me on. I finished the run in 1 hour 44 mins, just 30 seconds slower than last year.
An emotional finish
Sometimes the finishing line is in a public area, with supporters crowding around you. This year, there was an athletes’ only zone and I was pleased about this because something strange happened to me: I found myself weeping uncontrollably. I’m normally elated after finishing a race, but this time, my emotions went the other way. I held my head in my hands and cried my heart out. I could have stopped, saying “pull yourself together, man”, but it was strangely satisfying, letting the emotion pour out of me. I let the tears flow, with my thoughts drifting to hurtful situations such as the death of my mother earlier this year, making the emotion even deeper and more intense. It was over within five minutes, and I composed myself. Or so I thought. When I came out into the public area, I was greeted by my wife and daughter, and the tears started again. By the end of all this, I was an emotional and physical wreck.
I was shepherded over to the athlete’s recovery area, and after tucking into pizza, cake and cups of tea, I gradually recovered. Within a few hours, the usual elation kicked in, and I began to feel great. I had completed another Ironman 70.3 race, and despite serious set backs, I’d done it in 5 hours and 30 minutes, which was a respectable enough time. I was 36th out of 130 in my age group.