In the prior 25 weeks I had done 250 hours of training: swimming a total of over 120km, cycling over 3000km, running nearly 1000km, doing various strength training exercises and incurring various ailments ranging from joint pain to injuries I picked up in bike crashes. It had been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, from the low moments in midsummer where I was certain I wouldn't be ready for the day and thought I wouldn't finish, to real highs like the view from the start line, the support from family and friends and ultimately realising that I could finish - and in under 14 hours.
Thankfully the bikes came out of their flight boxes in one piece. Jim and I took a gentle shakedown ride from the hotel down to the registration area to suss it all out. The whole of Alcudia town was busy with the event, from the expo and athlete sign up all the way to the 600m-long transition area. Before seeing it, I hadn’t appreciated how massive a triathlon for 2600 entrants and 20 thousand spectators would be. We walked around town, collected our race packs and wandered around feeling generally overwhelmed by the scale of the event. The staff at the event were welcoming and helpful, and it was a great sign for tomorrow’s race when even Signing On is a slick VIP experience.
We went for a brief swim to check out the water. It was crystal clear and relatively flat, but tasted very very salty. After months of swimming in a freshwater lake it’s a horrid taste. Jim nearly jumped out of his shorts when he saw a ‘massive’ fish… Is 7″ massive? The water was warm and we assumed it would be non-wetsuit for the race. Although my wetsuit is a bit of a crutch for my crappy swimming I felt happy that it was non-suit, I knew that it would make my swim 10 mins slower but without the restrictive wetsuit and hassle of changing in T1. If needed to, I could make up time by pushing a little harder on the bike.
With Jen’s eye for detail and organisation (and despite my having dragged her to a triathlon on her 40th birthday) she was really kind and adopted the role of team manager. She knew by heart where we needed to be, what time everything closed and opened, when the briefings were, what time bike check-in closed… It added to the experience having our own dedicated coach.. Thanks Jen
In the ‘Athletes Garden’ on the beach, we ate pasta and listened in at the briefing (over an hour) where the organisers run through the rules (and penalties for breaking them), the start, the road closures, the aid stations and finally announced that it would be wetsuit-illegal. There was a mix of booing and cheering from the crowd, some of who had stricken faces at the idea of the long swim without their wetsuit.
Doing a few final checks on the bikes before we rack them up for the night, I noticed a cut in my new front tyre. It was big enough for the tube to be bulging through… I picked up a new tyre in the expo while Jim checked his tyres too. We rolled our bikes half a mile through town to the transition area, and Jim’s front tyre was flat. There was also a new cut in his front tyre, which seemed a bit strange since we had only just checked them over… We repaired it and racked up the bikes.
The transition setup was very efficient. All of your kit is organised into numbered bags. Absolutely nothing is allowed on the floor. The bags are blue for bike kit, red for run, and hung in dedicated areas ready for you when you run through. We dropped off our kit and put the big yellow plastic pajamas on our bikes for the night.
Race day – Saturday
Up at 4:30 and with no appetite, I forced down a couple of bowls of dry chocolate muesli and some carb drink while I did some final familiarisation with the bike route. It was a relief to put on a tri suit and not have to think about the wetsuit at all.
By 6am we were back at the transition area for final checks and to prepare for the start. After we had both had tyres split yesterday just rolling around town, we both decided to tape a spare tyre onto the bikes. Couldn’t bear the thought that we could get this far and suffer a DNF because of a tyre failure.
The start line is right on the beach and all of the athletes are gathered together in the swim pen. From the start line in the dark, you can hardly see the first buoy in the water, let alone the first turn buoy at 1.2km. The atmosphere was electric and I was absolutely buzzing – a mixture of fear and excitement. Dawn was just breaking.
First the 50-odd Pro Men start, followed 2 minutes later by the 20 Pro Women. They fly off the start line running until the water is deep enough to swim. It’s 3 minutes until 7:35 and our start. That three minutes was over in a flash. I remember the gun fired and suddenly I’m running into the water with over 2000 others around, hundreds in front and hundreds behind. Too late to turn round now.
Race – Swim
The swim was packed. People to the left and right, people in front, sometimes people underneath as you accidentally swim over one another. Arms are flying and feet are kicking. No-one can help it, but it’s inevitable that everyone is bumping and hitting whilst the pack slowly spreads out. Overall it wasn’t too brutal but I had (and probably gave) a few kicks in the face… Pretty unpleasant.
It was a new experience for me in a triathlon to have such a single straight line of buoys to one side. Any time a buoy appeared, everyone seemed to swerve towards it, and the whole pack is pushed in that direction. Constantly people are tapping your toes drafting in the swim, which I have learned to ignore, but occasionally if I slowed up because of someone in front, they would touch the timing chip on my ankle. This happened a few times… I thought “Don’t you dare rip my timing chip off!!”…
The swim course was laid out in two oblong loops with an ‘Australian exit’ run on the beach between the two loops. At about half way around the first loop I found a bit of space. Actually this turned out to be because I was a good distance from the buoys. I figured I would have wasted some time by going too wide, but being in the open water on my own was a relief and I stretched out and tried to swim tidily. I glanced at my watch and had been terribly slow for the first 1.3km, nearly 45 minutes. At this rate I thought I might not make the 2h20 cut-off. I had also felt a sharp pain in my neck while I was swimming but just tried to ignore it. Later once at home I had a big red mark. When I had it checked out it turned out to be a pretty big jellyfish sting.
The water was very deep but clear enough to see all the way to the bottom. There was a few little fish around and with the sun just up and shining through the water I began to enjoy the swim. On the leg back to the beach and staying wide of the buoys I felt I had a really good rhythm and pace and was swimming faster. As I swam into the shallower water, some people were wading and walking up the beach, but I had no intentions of wasting any time so I swam until it was too shallow and then ran, and I was pleased to have made the 1km swim back in just 16 mins. With just an Olympic distance swim left to do, I was on track to finish the swim in my expected time of under 100 minutes. On the short run on the beach, there were hundreds of people cheering and clapping, and I saw Jen cheering and shouting for me.
On the second leg of the swim I managed to keep reasonable pace and line, but still a bit of bumping and getting dragged towards the buoys when they appeared. I couldn’t understand why my tongue was all swollen up and my nose closed but it made breathing a bit tough. I guessed it was just dehydration from all of the salt in the water and just worked hard on getting as much air as possible, so switched from bilateral breathing to breathing to the right every other stroke.
Nearing the end of the swim I was struggling to work out what to sight for, with lots of kayaks in the water and the low sun it was tough to see. My GPS track shows I wasn’t very straight, but I got back to the beach. Even finishing the swim relatively close to the back of the field, there were spectators waist-deep in the water cheering and clapping, shouting “Great job”, “Vamos Vamos” and “it’s only 9:05, keep going!”. I didn’t expect the crowds to be so big, and for the support to be so strong.
SWIM SPLIT 1:36:28
Race – T1
T1 went smoothly, I picked up my blue bag and swapped my goggles and swim hat for shades, helmet and bike shoes. Because of my slow swim, it looked like most of the bikes were already gone… This is a pretty familiar feeling from most of my races, but I know I can normally make up time overtaking better swimmers when we’re on the bike leg.
Race – Bike
At the start of the bike, there were lots of riders with full aero helmets and very expensive bikes. Unusually I felt slightly intimidated, I thought they’ve probably finished a long event before and know all about pacing. After about 5km or so at 27kph on the flat I figured they were just slow and spent an hour or so at 32kph picking people off.
At KM20 on the ride I saw Jim blasting down a hill on a return leg looking super fast, and worked out that he was about 40 minutes in front of me.
The first aid station at KM30 was chaos. Bottles everywhere, a mixture of riders stopping and others blasting through and a big queue of frustrated looking racers waiting for the portaloos. I hadn’t quite pictured how the aid stations would work, but the volunteers were brilliant. They were holding out bottles and shouting Agua or Iso and others holding out half bananas and Powerbars. I dumped my empty bottles, grabbed two bottles of Iso and carried on.
My mouth was still swollen and really dry, and in the first hour I drank two full bottles. It took a few hours before that feeling went away. It was uncomfortable to eat anything, but I was concerned that I could run out of energy so had a couple of energy gels that don’t require any chewing.
At about KM50 I saw a rider ahead sat at the side of the road. I thought he was hurt and asked him if he was ok, and he just pointed at his bike and shouted ‘tools’. I stopped to see what was up, his steering had become loose and he didn’t have a 4mm Allen key. Pretty bad prep on his part, but only took 5 mins to get my tools and help him fix it. His english wasn’t great and I don’t speak Russian but he looked pretty grateful.
The remainder of the southern bike loop back to Alcudia was pretty good and I settled into a pace which I reckoned was sustainable without wearing me out before the run. The sun was shining, the wind was gentle and the roads were fantastic, I was having a great ride.
Between KM80 and 90 I swapped places a few times with a Danish guy in my age group, he would crawl past on the climbs and I would pass him on the descents. After a while it becomes funny when you keep passing by the same riders. He pointed out the number of people drafting, some pretty big groups at a time, thankfully the motorcycle officials were out and giving rider penalties for cheating.
Back into Alcudia the crowds were lining the streets. Clapping and cheering, all ages and all nationalities looking like they’re enjoying watching the event. I imagine every rider gets the same boost from them I did. I liked to sit up and clap in return, it must be just as tiring to stand for hours clapping and cheering while you look out for your friends in the race!
Jen had been carefully studying the Ironman live tracking website which gives pace, distances and split time at a few locations in each discipline. I guessed in the morning that I would be riding past our hotel at about 12:30, and although I was ten minutes later than planned, she was stood in the road waving and smiling. I wanted to know how Jim was getting on, but it’s hard to have a conversation from a bike at 30kph…
The volcano ride I had done a few weeks before gave me a pretty good idea of what the Lluc climb would be like. 11km at 5-7% would take just about an hour. Unfortunately at the start of the climb the soles of my feet were unusually sore, as though they were cramping. I’d never felt this pain before and it went from being mildly annoying to seriously painful in about 20 minutes. I tried loosening my shoes, tightening them but nothing helped so I stopped and took my shoes off to stretch my feet out. It didn’t help much, any pedalling and climbing for the rest of the ride was distractingly uncomfortable.
The route up the mountain is also used on the Half Ironman route, and racers like it, I can see why. The views all the way up the mountain are spectacular, and although there were no crowds here there were a few sheep and goats in the fields for company. They weren’t very sympathetic about the intensive nature of the climb or my sore feet, though.
Thankfully it wasn’t far to the top of Lluc at just under 600m elevation and there had been welcome respite from a few false summits on the climb. There isn’t much at the top, but I was really looking forward to the descent. It had looked excellent in the pictures and I love to ride downhill at pace.
The road was perfectly smooth and for tens of hairpin bends I passed every rider that had crawled past me on the climb, even back when I was stopped mucking about with my shoes. I had had to disconnect my front brake, but was blasting down and loving it, particularly as the roads were closed and it was dry and sunny with excellent visibility, it was great fun carving through the corners all the way down to about 150m elevation.
Here the route ran through a few quiet villages and along some very rough roads. Over a distance of about half a mile both of my bottles had bounced off the bike and disappeared. Eventually I got to the final stint to San Pablo and Alcudia through a tough headwind which made progress frustrating and slow at around 25kph a lot of the time, but I was still on course to beat my planned bike split of 7 hours.
Bike split – 6:54:52
RACE – T2
Jen had worked out when I would be coming into T2 and had waited for me to arrive, waving and cheering me on. T2 was uneventful, I made sure to get some sun cream (turned out to be a bit too late) and stick on a tee shirt to save my shoulders where the tri suit had been rubbing all day. I also put Voltarol gel on the soles of my feet before new socks and trainers to kill the pain from the bike shoes.
Race – Run
At the beginning of the run I was cautious but feeling ok and jogged at a gentle pace, figuring I could still finish the event even if I walked some of the distance. I hadn’t ever run a marathon, my longest training session was half the distance at 22KM and I didn’t know what it would be like. I had heard all sorts of horror stories about blowing up after 25KM and quite a few people had suggested that for your first IM race, walk through the aid stations instead of running. That sounded like a good idea. It turned out to be great advice for brief respite as well as a way to avoid slipping on dropped cups, discarded gel packets or the puddles by the water stations.
Half of the run was an ‘out and back’ along an unremarkable main road, the other half a loop along the beach promenade (past the finish line) and out around the harbour. Each full lap was 9km and the last segment the remaining 6km. Most of the competitors were jogging, some plodding, some walking and many looking like zombies. Occasionally a Pro female leader would run through with a bike following them through the crowd and making sure they weren’t baulked.
After the first lap I collected the first of four coloured bands (proof you’ve done the distance) and started lap 2 when I saw Jim on the return path. He was looking pretty hot and bothered but was still running, and already had three bands. I was so relieved to see he had made it. We stopped to talk. I asked him how he was, and how was his knee. He just said “Knee has been completely fine, I smashed the ride but I feel terrible now.” I figured I might feel like that too in a few laps.
I was managing to jog most of the time at about 6:00/km pace, and sticking more or less to the plan of walking each aid stop. My legs were pretty sore and stiff but I had more discomfort from digestion. The sun was still blazing and the temp still around 30C. As I was boiling hot, trying to keep taking on fluids seemed a good idea. I’ve never liked running with much food or fluid in my stomach, it was pretty uncomfortable and unfamiliar to be digesting Iso drinks, water and the odd gel while I ran. One of the aid stops had Coke which didn’t go down well at all. Another had small cups of Red Bull which, despite the disgusting taste seemed not to be too hard to digest.
I think the second lap was the hardest. Once I had done 22km I felt like I had broken the back of the distance, and from this point on this was my longest ever run, I was setting a new PB with every step. With less than 2 hours left, the end was in sight. On this lap I caught up to Jim, and we worked out that he could finish in under 11:30 and if I kept moving I might just get in under sub-14, which had been my original guess a few months back.
As I left Jim to take the fork for the finish line I heard the announcer call his name. I really enjoyed hearing that he had made it!
The last two laps were slow but pretty consistent. With the little GB flags and our first names on our race numbers, every spectator could see your name and it was such a boost for people to be shouting “Go on Andy, you’re doing great, keep it up!”, or “Go team GB!”. The streets were packed with people and the support from the crowd was incredible.
I think this support, coupled with the fact that I wasn’t sure where Jen was going to appear next, is what kept me running instead of walking. It was so tempting to stop.
When I collected my yellow arm band for the last lap, I walked along looking at my watch, I was on 12h54 elapsed. It seemed I should be able to make the finish line by about 13h30 but trying to work out what pace I needed to run seemed to be tough to work out. I walked for another 10 minutes trying to calculate the required pace. It’s ridiculous that I couldn’t work out the simple sums like 36/6. I felt quite confused and the more I thought about the arithmetic, the more I confused myself. I stopped trying to do the maths and figured I would just run the remaining 5km as fast as I could manage.
I ran at just over 5 minute/KM pace and it hurt so much I could hardly see, but I just got to the finish chute at 13h30. Jen had run down to be there and greeted me at the finish line, and met me afterwards to congratulate me and take a picture. She looked so happy that I had finished, and had later we found out she had walked an astonishing 25KM during the day to be there to support us from several different points!
RUN SPLIT – 4:44:11
Race day – Saturday – After the finish line
I saw Jim in the Athlete’s garden looking pretty ill with a blanket around his shoulders, sat shivering in a chair. Within 5 minutes I was feeling the same, hit by an instant wave of tiredness, nausea, cold, and very stiff legs. Lots of people were in and around the medical tents looking like they needed the attention. Behind the finish line looked a bit like an Army field hospital, broken athletes everywhere. We sat and talked, feeling sick and sore.
Jim and I met Jen and sat together for a while, clutching onto bottles of water we didn’t much want to drink and feeling very gradually less nauseous. Eventually we moved on to collect our bikes and bags from the transition area, and got back to the hotel at about 11pm.
Lessons learned / what would I do differently
As it says on the side of the Powerbar drinks bottles all over the event, “You are stronger than you think”. This is true.
I should keep learning to swim. I spent much longer in the water than I needed to due to slow swim pace.
I was too concerned about conserving energy for the run and didn’t dare ride at my regular pace. I feel as though I could have cycled at a higher speed and still been able to run a decent time.
I didn’t need to carry as much nutrition, I was comfortable digesting the bars and bananas provided on the bike course and I could have saved some weight and prep hassle.
From training to planning to registration to the race, Ironman is an overwhelming experience. I can see why 75% of the entrants at this race are returning after previous races and I already feel it may not be my last long distance race. When Jim and Jen asked me on Sunday whether I would do another, I said No. On Monday it was a Maybe. By Tuesday it was already turning into a yes...