It all started about a year ago when Ian returned triumphant from Ironman UK 2013, together with the unmistakable m-dot calf tattoo. It didn’t take long for me to get more inquisitive about this Ironman thing, so I pre-registered for a place – which basically meant I got an email out of the blue one day back in October saying I had better be quick as there were only 50 places left- i-phone in hand on the top of Birkrigg trying to get a signal, and credit card in the other, and I was a few minutes later an aspirant ironman with a place in Ironman UK 2014 – a slight pang of guilt followed for not discussing it with Naomi first (she’s forgiven me – I think!).
The lead into Christmas and the new year was spent riding the wave of excitement and putting together a plan to start training in earnest on 1st Jan – yeah right, as if – I think it was the 10th I actually did start!
7 months later, and after hours, weeks and months of training, doing something in each discipline every week, longer runs and rides at weekends, and having the awesome UTC as a focal point for my training and support, the week had arrived – heading off to Bolton on the Friday morning, meeting Paul bizarrely parking right behind me at the Macron stadium (having followed me all the way but I was already too focused that I didn’t see him!). It dawned on us that it was getting rather warm already and it wasn’t even the weekend yet! It all pointed to a being a hot race day (you’ll see later that we were not short changed on this front!).
Together we went to the main hub of the registration marquee, which was also the Ironman shop, where I spent a few subsequent hours over the next two days spending a few quid! – compulsory hoodie, t-shirts for the kids and making sure I didn’t wear any of it until I had actually finished in fear of “ the kiss of death!”
Registration complete, sporting our new swanky (and they are) ironman branded sports bags full of race numbers, number tattoos, swim hat, transition bags etc.… and goodies, we headed off to a practise session at Pennington Flash – the swim venue. This proved very useful and I recommend it to anyone doing the IM to see it beforehand – it helps get over the initial nerves of a new venue, and to overcome the stench of goose shit at the get in pontoon! It also gave us a taste of the pomp and ceremony that was to accompany race day – banners, branding, cameras etc.…We headed for our digs for the next few days and nights, and out for a relaxed supper, feeling excited and a tad submissive to the scale of what we were about to undertake!
Saturday marks the Ironkids event in the morning, which Ian and Paul and families took part in – it was chucking it down with rain at this point, making it a nice wet event for the kids – since Naomi and my kids were not arriving until Sunday during the race, I had the benefit of a lie in, leisurely breakfast and relaxed morning, until meeting Paul again for the logistical crux of getting our kit to both T1 and T2 for tomorrow.
An early (ish) night was in store after meeting Ian and Francis, and Paul for a pasta tea, together with half of the Ironman village of athletes – we were by now unmistakable with various branded clothing, compulsory wrist numbered wrist bands from registration, and the occasional person who had already put their number tattoos on – I saved that task for later that evening, wondering if I would wake up with it on my forehead by accident!
I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night – 1 hour to be exact – but I managed to stomach breakfast at 3.30am surprisingly well, and headed out into the misty and drizzly fresh air to catch the shuttle bus with Paul – we sat at the front of the top deck like two excited school kids.
T1 was a mass of yellow bike covers, spotlights, 2000 excited/anxious/scared athletes (we are repeatedly referred to as athletes throughout the day – felt more like a prisoner with my numbers on each arm, and behind the barriers of T1!). Start gun was an hour away, and all that was left to do now was don the wetsuit, check the bike and add my bottles to it, and find a subtle bush – the queue for portaloos was bigger than the queue to get in the water!
I managed to see Ian and Lee too before starting the swim to wish everyone luck and then it was time to get on the pontoon, into the water, and warm up swim to the start buoys – trying to jostle for position towards the bottom right hand end to avoid the chaos in the middle, and allow myself a longer lead into the buoy with clear water to my right – nice plan – badly executed as the gun went off, and I found myself suddenly in the middle of a washing machine with fists and feet – I got kicked and swum over numerous times before the first sighting buoy – and that was only 200m done! It was going to be a long and brutal swim. Hanging on in there and managing to find a space, I settled into a rhythm and got round the first loop relatively unscathed from then on. Exciting the pontoon and running round for lap 2 seemed weird, but actually felt great, and none of the wobbles I normally get! The crowd lining the pontoon helps! Lap 2 went well, but slower, deciding not to push hard at tis point, saving that for later on the bike/run. I got out in 1hr 35mins – by no means last, but still greeted by the empty feel to T1 bike racks – at least it makes your bike easier to spot when its one of the only ones left!
T1 went steady, again, wanting to avoid any post swim dizziness – 8mins later I was heading out the T1 chute, supporters cheering, and off onto the closed roads of Leigh heading for Arlington and the start of the bike “loops” – a point o point of about 12 miles and then onto two 47mile loops before heading to the Macron stadium for T2. The 12 miles to the loop are uneventful and relatively fast, being on open dual carriageways and retail park areas – all closed or coned off – a benefit of an even like this – felt like I was in the TDF!!
Once on the “loop”, the infamous sheep house lane comes up fast – here I saw Macca again at the bottom of the hill – it’s a steady climb, never steep, but relentless and constant until the top – a great atmosphere with crowds lining the bottom and top a la TDF style – and chalked names on the road – inspiring you to the top. Its then downhill to a sharp corner and a long stretch where I think I reached my max speed for the race of 68kms/hr.! The rest of the loop is technical in places with some hairy corners, and potholed sections, interspersed with lovely country lanes and flat open stretches, all in all meaning the average speed can be respectful over the distance. Feed stations every so often making a welcome break and onto loop 2 – with legs getting heavier and so the big two hills becoming a bit more of a grind. I was pleased with getting up Hunters Hill without bother though, which spurred me onto the last 20kms to the end of the bike leg, coming into T2 feeling like I couldn’t get off that damn saddle quick enough after 6hrs 57mins. Ian and Paul got round in just over 6 and a half hours each, putting them now over 30mins ahead of me. I did not know this at the time, but knowing they were ahead somewhere!
The run leg of any triathlon is always my strongest, and the start of the marathon was no exception – I started strong, with a feeling that if I could settle into a steady pace I was used to, I would be on for my target of 13hrs overall – it was now 8hrs 45mins after I started, so I had to do a 4hrmarathon to achieve this goal. Then the first hill came up, and my head and legs suddenly felt heavy – and I realised for the first time that day, how hot it was getting – it was now close to 27 deg, and the sun was out! A 10km first leg takes you along the canal, which affords a bit of shade on occasion, and I found my pace again, only to be hit again with a steep hill to take me onto the start of the town “loops’ – I found myself “walking” for the first time ever in a marathon – but I looked around, and I was certainly not alone!
Once on the “loop”, I dug deep and got a pace going to complete the first one- it felt like a long way, and I had to do 3 of these before heading into town for the last time. The town part of the loop is amazing – streets lined with branded barriers behind which hundreds upon hundreds of spectators and supporters are cheering you on – you also pass tantalisingly close to the finish chute – knowing you cannot enter it until you have the 3 different colour wrist bands!! “Band envy” became something of a reality for the next 2 hours – counting down the miles and digging deeper and deeper, especially on the hilly parts. Macca and Paul Dewar were there on the bend after the hill to spur us all on – thanks again guys – you were amazing that day. I passed Ian and Paul going the other way about ½ loop ahead of me on the 2nd loop, and realised I had closed the gap somewhat, and could potentially gain some more on them. Naomi and Rowan had managed to make it to the loop to see my last two laps, and the finish, which spurred me on again, and made me avoid any further “walks”!!
I passed Paul on the last lap, and made my way further towards Ian, but knew that he was going stronger now and still had 15mins or so on me on the last lap – too much to gain in a few miles!
The feeling of getting the last band was one of sheer relief and carried me all the way to the last time down the hill into town – I picked up speed as does everyone I’m sure, carried by he euphoria of what is about to come as you enter the finishing chute and “glide” towards the finishing arch, the big screen showing you to the world, and the compere shouting the words “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” – awesome – truly incredible and emotional moment. Apparently I reached out to “high 5” many hands on the way in, including Leonie Millburn’s, who was standing right next to my wife and son, and I didn’t see them – such is the focus and trippy feel of the finish!!
I met Ian in the finisher’s tent for pizza (!) and we had only just sat down to have it when Paul appeared – we then enjoyed a nice post race snack together before heading off UP a flight of stairs in the town hall for our post race massage – and time to get aching feet and legs into a pair of flip flops!!
A top day out – and a hard day at the office for sure – but as my first Ironman – I can also say I thoroughly enjoyed it (some of it retrospectively of course!) – and I can recommend it to anyone who is wanting to stretch their tri experience a bit – “anything is possible” right?
Job done – Ironman UK 2014 – her are our results (out of 200 athletes – UTC all over it!)
Ian Smith-Ward: 12:48:40 566th
Greg Bartlett: 13:04:39 673rd
Paul Millburn: 13:12:06 708th
Lee Beckett: 14:19:41 1082nd
Mick Sutter: 15:46:31 1434th