Here’s another race report: I’ve just completed #IronmanDublin 70.3 and I’m sharing my story in the hope that it might encourage others to have a go next year. As long as you plan properly, and train far enough in advance, this is a race that anyone can do.
Sprint to Olympic to Half-Iron
For me, this race was the culmination of three successive weekends of effort: a sprint triathlon followed by an olympic distance race and finally, this half-Iron distance at Ironman 70.3. After nearly a year of no racing, my poor body must be wondering what is going on. If I was on my own in this, I’d have been worried about the possible negative impact on my health, but one of the reassuring aspects about having a coach is my confidence in his ability to judge me: if Eamonn Tilley says it’s safe for me to do it, I always know that it’s going to be OK.
An early start for the race
So on Sunday morning, my alarm was set for 5.30am. A glance out the window revealed a clear, still day: perfect racing conditions. After a quick breakfast, I was on the way to the race start, arriving by 6.15am. The Ironman organising team had done their usual efficient job, insisting that all bikes and other kit was delivered the previous day. So all we needed to do on race morning was to bring the drinks and food to stash on the bike.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about longer distance events is the need to eat on the bike: I set my Garmin watch to remind me every 20 minutes during the bike section of the race to eat another mouthful of energy-rich food. The body’s inbuilt energy store – in the form of glycogen – supplies most of the energy needed for exercising, but this runs out after around two hours. So during an event like the half-Iron distance, taking over five hours, you need to give yourself more fuel along the way. Most triathletes have discovered for themselves what happens if you don’t eat on the course: you run out of energy, hitting the infamous “wall”. In this state of energy depletion, you can hardly put one foot in front of the other, yet you still have to somehow reach the finishing line. Not an experience to be repeated, which is why all experienced long distance triathletes make sure that they stash a mini-picnic on their bike.
Once my bike was good to go, I paced out the route in my mind: the swim across the bay, the exit from the swim up the ramp and along the sea front to the changing tent, then the run to the bike and out onto the road. It’s easy to get confused under the pressure of the race, so I always find it helps to go through this transition mentally just before the start.
Penned up with pent up energy before the swim
The race entrants were herded into holding pens before the start of the race: we had to choose our estimated swim time, and then we lined up with others who planned to go at the same pace. It’s always a social occasion, chatting to each other as we wait for our ordeal to begin. I bumped into Deric Ó h’Artagáin, the TV3 weather man: time for a quick nervous pose for a photo. We then stood to attention as the Irish national anthem was played, and we were off. There were over 1500 swimmers, so we were ushered into the water in batches: three, two, one, GO!, three, two, one, GO! Over and over again, with four athletes being released at each “GO!”. When it was my turn to GO, I was disappointed to see those around me gently paddling into the water: this was a race, for goodness’ sake. I couldn’t help myself – I roared COME ON! GO! GO! GO! I have no self consciousness on these occasions: I was hyped up and in full Braveheart mode.
I’d practised the swim route with ET Sports last weekend, so there were no surprises: it took me 38 minutes to swim the 1.9k. The water was flat and still: it was an easy swim compared to the turbulent, choppy, tide-pulled ordeal that it might have been. You can’t have 1500 people in the water without some congestion, so I had the usual kicks to the head and elbows to the face that are part of the triathlon experience. That’s never fun, but you learn to take it in your stride. You just move away and carry on.
Swim to bike: water to road
The swim to bike transition went well for me, my feet slipping into my bike shoes easily – the practice of races in the past two weeks had helped.
I then hit the main glitch of my race: for some random technical reason, my Garmin 735XT watch failed to connect with the Varia Vision screen attached to my sunglasses. The “waiting to connect” message kept flashing at me. Not what I wanted to see. This has never happened before, and I guess it was just Sod’s Law that it happened during this race. I depend on the Varia Vision to find out key statistics during the race: my heart rate, speed, cadence and distance covered. You can’t easily take time out to adjust technology during the pressure of a race, but I did my best, pedalling furiously with my legs while I pressed start, stop and reset buttons on the watch and the Varia Vision. After fifteen minutes of fiddling with it, I successfully sorted it, but there was one remaining problem: I had inadvertently pressed the “lap” button on the watch, which had activated the switch from “bike” to “run”. This meant that I was now looking at my “run” statistics even though I was still on the bike. It was only a small problem: I could still see my heart rate on the Varia Vision, and that’s what I use to judge how hard to push myself. Technology makes racing far more controlled and enjoyable, but occasional hiccups like this are inevitable, and they are part of the learning experience. If it happens to me again another time, I’ll be able to deal with it a little better (stay away from that “lap” button!)
The 90km bike took me 2 hours, 45 mins, an average speed of 32.5km/hour, with an average heart rate of 145 beats per minute. I’d love to manage 35km/hour, like my Wicklow Triathlon Club team mate Liam Williams, who won my age group in this race, but it isn’t easy; more training is needed for next year. It was an easy enough course: flat apart from half a dozen small hills. It’s exhilarating whizzing through the empty streets of Dublin and the quiet lanes of the Irish countryside: they’d closed the roads specially for us.
My only gripe happened about once every half hour: a peloton of five or six cyclists whizzed past me, clearly breaking the anti-drafting rules, using their proximity to each other to minimise air resistance, allowing themselves to go far faster with much less effort. I know that many of these riders were spotted by motorbike marshals and given time penalties, but it’s still irritating. Rules should be rules, for everyone.
Bike to run: from a rock to a hard place
As is always the case, I felt great at the start of the run. My body had had enough of cycling and it’s a pleasure to stretch the legs. Sadly, this happiness never lasts long. With 21km to cover, it’s a long run and it’s hard to contemplate this with joy. I tried to focus on the moment, aiming to run at a pace of 4:45km/min. My Garmin 735XT watch beeped after every km, flashing up the average pace that I’d just completed, and this was highly motivating. I found myself running alongside a fellow competitor, Alan, who was keeping the same pace as me, and we ran together for the first 10km: this type of comradeship is part of the enjoyment of an endurance race like this. The best way for humans to get along well is to suffer together, and we certainly did that.
Alan faded on me at around the 10k mark, but we’d done well to hold the pace. Once he’d gone, it was harder on my own. My pace slipped to 5:00mins per km for the next six kilometers. And even that was tough. My body just wanted to walk. In training, it’s rare to do full distance, 21km, runs, at full pace, and I just wasn’t used to it. I found a couple of lads running at the 5 minute pace, and tucked in behind them: drafting is legal on the run section, unlike on the bike. I focussed on their feet in front of me. Enough of living in the moment: if I thought too much about that, I just wanted to stop.
The last 5km of the run, from 16 to 21km, was the toughest. It just seemed to go on and on. My pace slipped to 5:20/km and even that was difficult. I stopped once at an aid station to drink half a cup of water, but found it hard to get going again. I decided from then on that it was better just to run through these temptations: stopping doesn’t help. My heart rate on the run stayed at around 153 from start to finish: this tells me that I couldn’t have gone much faster. I was putting in the same effort at the end as at the start, but simply, the body and muscles were exhausted, so I couldn’t go as fast.
The end of the road: the pain had to stop some time
One of the highlights of Ironman events is the enthusiasm of supporters: on the bike and on the run, there were clusters of members of the public, cheering, clapping and giving encouragement. Athletes, like myself, may look dull-eyed and disinterested as they go by, but inside, we are delighted to get this support: it makes a huge difference. For myself, the Wicklow Triathlon Club support is the best: the club colours make it easy for us to see each other, and we have a shared experience of suffering from other races, so there’s huge empathy between us all.
After three 7km laps around the Phoenix Park, the end seemed to come quickly: a final sprint (not a cartwheel, like one of the lads behind me), and I was done. As I staggered into the finishers’ tent for a bite to eat and a free massage, I felt good. It was over. The battle had been fought and I had survived. The cool Ironman Athlete Tracker app on my phone told me that I was 6th out of 32 in my age group, but I felt sympathy for those behind me. Their running may be a little slower than mine, but their suffering is just as bad, and it goes on for longer. Kudos to all of the athletes competing: there is no easy way to get around that course.
And so to next year?
On the evening after the race, as I put my tired feet up beside the first open fire of the late summer, I reflected on the day’s events.
Ironman events are always well organised, with everything so well planned that you can be assured that your day will go as well as you can make it go. It’s all up to you, and the Ironman team is there to support you all the way through.
If you have never done one of these, regardless of your current state of fitness, do consider it. The journey involved will change your life.
As for me, who knows? Next year seems a comfortably long way away right now…
The photo above encapsulates my strongest memories of all the tough races I’ve run, far more than the smiling, posed ones. It was taken during the first 10k of the Ironman Dublin 70.3: I was struggling to keep at my target pace of 4:45 per km, and it wasn’t easy. I had found myself running alongside the guy in blue – his name is Alan – and it turned out that we both wanted to push ourselves to stay at that pace. So for around 8km, we ran beside each other – he encouraged me, and I encouraged him. This type of on-the-spot camaraderie is part of what makes triathlons so satisfying. The sport may be an individual event, but there are moments of team work within it, whether in training or in races. It’s about enduring the suffering alongside someone else, and encouraging one another through the difficulty.