Following her amazing achievement at the Staffordshire half Ironman, Eilidh was
invited bullied into sharing her experience, which I very much enjoyed living vicariously through. It just goes to show how much can be achieved in a relatively short space of time with commitment, dedication, and hard work!
12th August, 2015, I spent a lot of the day logging in and out, and in and out again of the Ironman website pondering whether or not to enter the Staffordshire 70.3 race.
Rewinding slightly, I had watched Triathlon at the Olympic and then the Commonwealth Games with no real knowledge of the sport but decided I wanted to give one a go. I had dabbled in some running, kept generally fit but couldn’t swim (like really couldn’t swim – after a few near-miss drownings as a kid I just never learned so had a fear of water that I couldn’t touch the bottom of and generally steered clear of it), and didn’t own a bike.
I had joined the facebook page of Fleet Feet, the local triathlon club, but just watched from afar for months until I spotted a post about beginner’s bike skills. So off I trotted almost a year to the day of Staffordshire for what was my first outing on my new bike, yes I should probably confess it sat there for a few weeks with me being too scared to get on it.
A few weeks later, I’d been to a running track session and finally plucked up the courage to go along to the first swim session. I had taken a few private 1-2-1 lessons, basically just to get over my fear of the water, the first of which consisted of me using a kickboard to get as far down the length as I could until I could no longer stand up, then turning and coming back. By this point, I had signed up to the local Westhill Novice triathlon which included a swim of 400m, a 15k bike and a 3k run. Easy, right?
Westhill was a disaster, I breast stroked after panicking in the water, got sent on the wrong route on the bike and basically walked the run because I was so disappointed. This was the extent of my triathlon experience sitting staring at the screen pondering if I’d be able to do a half ironman distance in the 10 months that I had before race-day.
One thing I will say about Fleet Feet, the people there make you feel like you’re 10 feet tall. Despite not being able to front-crawl more than a length, being one of the slowest people on the track runs (despite actually being a not too bad runner), and not having a clue about anything bike related, they were welcoming and made you feel like anything was possible. So Fleet Feet: I blame you for making me click on the enter link. A couple of $$ lighter and I’d entered a half-ironman.
Fully understanding the enormity of what I had just done, I quickly sought out a training coach, I knew myself well enough that if I downloaded a plan from the internet I would make every excuse under the sun not to do it, I’d bimble along until about April then make some sort of excuse and pull out of the race. I have never really stuck at anything, I dabble in things until I get bored and then find something else to do. I’d quickly gotten to know fellow Fleet-Feeters quite well so armed with my training plan, and some training buddies I was off on my merry way to being a half ironman (not a full ironman).
In the run up to Christmas I started to get fitter on my bike, started to swim better after a video analysis pointing out the very obvious flaws in my stroke, and I had somehow found some real speed and endurance whilst running. Rachel, Roz and Ny were my faithful weekend warriors, rain, hail or shine they were out with me on a Sunday morning pedalling through icy cold temperatures. I had signed up to do a few races in the run up to Staffordshire as ‘training’ – 7 in total (Monikie Duathlon, consisting of a series of 3 Duathlons, Balmoral 10k, Baker Hughes 10k, Lumphanan 10k, Turriff Sprint Triathlon and Loch Loman Standard distance triathlon). I was making steady progress, had a really good race at the first of the Monikie Duathlon series but had done something to my foot/ankle/calf which didn’t quite feel right. Rachel has talked about my gimpy running in a few previous posts – my gammy foot/ankle/calf put paid to any of the fast running I was becoming accustomed to. In fact it was pretty much the end of any form of run training for months to come.
Any race distance, 1500m to a marathon to an Iron Distance triathlon has such a focus on the physical aspect of training. Put the hours and the miles in and you will see results, but no-one really talks too much about the mental aspect of training. At least not that I saw a huge emphasis on. This was by far the most challenging for me, training with buddies is good, but when they all start to get faster and fitter and you seem to be getting left behind it is very difficult to stay motivated to do training activities, everything starts to feel like a chore and the fun very quickly gets sapped out of it. Rachel, Roz and Ny have pretty much listened to me moan, complain and whinge for 8 months about not being able to do anything, I’m getting slower, I can’t swim, my foot hurts, I’m putting on weight, I’m tired. They deserve a medal for sticking with me in the run up to the race. They have mopped tears after training and races, and encouraged me to keep going and basically man the f**k up consistently and regularly.
My run training had become such a hit or a miss that the 8 of my training races quickly became 1 DNF due to gammy foot, pulling out of 3 due to gammy foot, completing one but with a massive swollen gammy foot at the end and 1 near death experience (slight exaggeration) swimming in Loch Lomond in freezing temperatures finishing with a swollen foot. So pretty much – not the easiest of rides in the run up. Thankfully my swim and bike were making reasonably good progress. I wasn’t fast in either but I was consistently seeing gains in the distance I could swim or bike without feeling like I’d been battered at the end or without having to stop several times.
Before I knew it, 10 months had flown by and it was race week – having pretty much felt like I would never be able to complete it I somehow sailed through the first few days of the week feeling great. I was sleeping like a log, very much enjoying the lighter training load and feeling good about the weekend. I’d taken Thursday and Friday off work to get organised and travel. Packed with a kit-list the army would be proud of, a sports massage to give me a boost and I was off. Everything seemed to revolve around this weekend, I’ve missed social engagements, not seen nearly as much of friends and family as I should have done and I almost felt a little sad that it was going to be over soon.
My awesome chauffeur, travel companion, race manager and boyfriend was with me for the weekend. Having raced longer distances more times than he’d care to admit – who better to keep me on the straight and narrow for a few days and calm my nerves on race day? Travel plans, agendas, etc. had been joint decisions, but when it came to race prep it was pretty much all orders must be obeyed and I was to do as I was told. Which for anyone who knows me, will find quite hilarious but I took on board the wisdom and set off excited and nervous. I’d booked us a hotel in Gretna Green for the Thursday night to break up the journey, which I found highly amusing but also very conveniently across the road from a Nike Factory Outlet. Friday morning, armed with some new sneakers and sports attire from the neighbouring outlet village, but with absolutely no shotgun wedding we made the second part of our journey towards Staffordshire.
At the start of this journey, I was presented with a water bottle and informed that I must fill it up at least 4 times for the day. Yes sir. Without knowing when I had signed up, only reading it afterwards, the race was a split transition meaning that Transition 1 (Swim to Bike) and Transition 2 (Bike to Run) were about 15 miles away from each other, so pretty much a logistical nightmare. Our plan was to go to T2 on Friday, register, go to the race briefing, drop off my run bag in the T2 tent, have a wander round the expo and then not return seemed great. Arriving in a monsoon and thunder storm quickly changed that however, having to shelter in the expo for around 40 minutes I made a run for the briefing tent and then found Alan making friends with the cake stall (good lad). I was too flustered to think about my run bag and just wanted to get out of there, get checked into our hotel and sort out my transition bags without the stress of being rained on, struck by lightning and trying to hurry.
Saturday had a similar theme, I had one final training session to do. A very easy bike, with a 10 minute run to get my legs moving. I was awake super early, was up and out of the hotel by 6.30am and back in time to have breakfast by 8am. There were a few MAMIL’s outside the hotel on my return with very expensive looking TT bikes and pointy TT helmets, feeling sprightly I gave them a ‘MORNING’ and informed them that I had encountered quite a lot of standing water on my outing due to yesterday’s rain so to watch out, I was greeted with a cross between a snigger and a grunt and off they went on their bright shiny steeds. Oh well then – miserable gits.
Again we had a well laid out plan for the day, go to T1, rack my bike and bike bag, scope out the swim course, head back to T2 to drop off my run bag (which in hindsight I admit was annoying), and then I was under strict instructions that I was to sit down, nap, watch a film, read a book whilst Sergeant Race Manager went out for a cycle. Deciding that I maybe wanted to go for a walk, the threat of locking me in the room put an end to that so I did as I was told and did chuff all for the best part of 4 hours. I napped a bit, watched a bit of Game of Thrones but eventually I was relieved of captivity and ready for my debrief of the cycle course which Alan had gone out and cycled. The jist of it was: it’s rolling, a bit uppy in parts. General wisdom and advice was take it easier on the ups, push on the downs and the flats. I am somewhat of a bike wimp however, so pedaling and getting up to any sort of decent speed on downhill’s, especially on corners is a challenge. If there is a rock, gravel, sand, pot hole, I slam on my brakes and go round them like cycling Miss Daisy or in the case of cattle grids at Loch Loman decide I’ll go over it, change my mind at the last minute and unclip both feet to then trundle over it at low speed praying that I don’t fall over.
We met Chris who was also doing the race, had a champion’s dinner, and I was tucked up in bed by 8.45pm. Thanks to the 24 degree temperature, and the hotels AC being on the blink our hotel was like a sauna but I did manage to get a good few hours of quality sleep.
A 4.25am alarm call on the Sunday. Race day was finally here. The hotel breakfast opened at 5am but due to feeling like I was going to puke, breaking out in a sweat at the mugginess and temperature in the hotel I forced down an instant porridge pot and then just moaned and complained until we got in the car and set off. The car park was around a 15 minute walk to the swim start so we piled onto the courtesy bus (I wasn’t allowed to walk – needed to conserve vital energy sources). My poor bike was soaked from the rain overnight, so I gave it a good rub down, lubed up the chain, put bottles and my nutrition for the bike on it, and then left to watch the pro swim start and get organised. Chris was off in the wave before me so we wished him luck and waited until I was called forward for my start. By this time, I had no chat – my chat is pretty bad at the best of times but even more so when I’m nervous.
I had hoped when I set out on this journey that I would be able to not just complete the distance but do it in a respectable time. As the race got closer, and my hit or miss run training dragged on my calculations had me finishing somewhere between 6.45 and 7.00. All being well, if I encountered any problems, I had every chance of taking that well into 7 hours +. I had wanted to do the swim in around 45 minutes, my target bike was about 3.45 – 4 hours and the run was pretty much survival but I thought if I ran/walked I might be able to do a 2 hour half marathon.
The swim was a 1900m swim, straight line to the first buoy, a sharp left turn, a huge long straight line to a second buoy, and then some navigating round another 2 buoys to make up the total distance. The swim was a rolling start, not deep water as is traditional in triathlon. I thought this might work in my favour, as the deep water starts are nothing short of carnage and I tend to panic in the water anyway. I need my own space and if anyone or anything touches me I freak out, and get angered fairly easily.
You were required to line up along a fence, which had pens based on your estimated swim time, 2.5 minute increments from 25 minutes up to 1 hour. I put myself at the back of the 42.30 minutes, thinking that I’d be able to draft someone for a while and maybe get pulled along – what an idiot, I can’t swim even remotely close to people or objects so this was a ridiculous plan. You were shimmied along a jetty to wait for the clock, once the hooter went the fastest swimmers entered the water, crossing a timing mat and that was it, the race had started.
As I gazed around waiting on the jetty, I realised I was the only female, everyone round me was male and pretty big. Oh sh*t. I was right to be worried, as I took my turn to ‘walk’ down the jetty the force of people around and behind me in the rush to get in the water was complete carnage. I tried not to panic, kept my head down and just kept swimming. This lasted for about 50m before I had to lift my head up and break out some granny breast stroking, the melee of splashing arms and legs meant that I was swallowing water every time I turned to breathe, if I panicked this early on I knew it was game over. I could get round the distance breast stroking but it was a long old way to go, I likely wouldn’t have made the cut off and it would have sapped a huge amount of energy doing so. I kept my granny breast stroking going until the first buoy, which was maybe 150-200m. I needed to compose myself, not panic and throw away months of training.
After I passed the first buoy, I managed to settle my breathing and heart rate and get back into front crawling. Bubble bubble breathe, bubble bubble sight breathe. I was ok, I was moving forward and I was comfortable. I had started to catch up with some people and overtake others. Open water swimming is a nightmare I’m sure when you’re in a fast pack, but when you’re a weak swimmer and you’re at the back with people who alternate between front crawl, doggy paddle and breast stroking it can be tricky to steer clear of flailing arms and legs. I got swam into a few times in quick succession by the same person, getting irate I lifted my head to shout at him to get out of my way, and put somewhat of a sprint on to get passed him and clear of his random diagonal swimming. When I say sprint, I mean a few quicker turns of my arms to propel forward – my sprint swimming is only a few seconds per 100m faster than my endurance swimming.
I’d made the second buoy which you couldn’t even see from the swim start it was so far away in the distance. The waves were 15 minutes apart, so I knew that at some point I’d be caught by the fastest swimmers of the wave behind me. It was inevitable. I managed to hold out for a quite a while, before I was engulfed by a spear head of Michael Phelps-esque swimmers from behind me. Give them credit though, they parted like the holy sea and went round me without too much bother, so thank you black caps for not swimming over me – courteous swimmers.
There was a sharp right turn to get to the exit which I had scoped out the previous day, but I for some reason thought there would be some sort of arch or bright banner at the exit. Nope it was a concrete ramp that you couldn’t see particularly well, but eventually I figured out which direction to go in, got to the ramp, found my feet and I was out. 1900m in 48.09 – slower than I had hoped but not by much.
I tend to get a little motion sick swimming open water, so took a second to determine if my legs were alright and then ‘pranced’ up the carpet towards transition. I stopped to take a call on route (I dropped an ear plug). Having raced a few weekends ago at Knockburn I watched a lot of the fast people in transition, and noticed that the trick seemed to be cap and goggles off in one swoop, pull arm of wetsuit off and leave cap and goggles inside, pull wetsuit to waist, do a stampy stampy dance to get the legs off and Bob’s yer uncle! My wetsuit stripping consisted of cap and goggles off – check. Pull opposite arm that I’m holding my cap in off – fail. Pull the other arm out, get it stuck on your watch, drop cap and goggles, try to pick up with one free arm and one stuck in wetsuit, keep running with one arm attached for a while, decide you can’t do it like the pros, walk for a while to rectify arm situation, sit down, roll around on the ground to remove rest of wetsuit, realise you’ve lost ear plugs somewhere on the way. Wetsuit removal – fail. [Haaaaaaaaaaaaa!!]
Ironman events give you a colour coded bag for your bits and pieces so you have to find your bag on a rack, and then put everything back inside and drop it back off at the exit of the change tent. Cycle kit on and time for some more prancing to find my bike, my point of reference was the first red skip. Lovely. There was a bit of congestion at the exit to bike racking but some nice gentlemen held back and let me through first. Cue my awesome bike mounting skills and I was off. Garmin on, timer set.
The first km or so on the bike was to get out of the park, along the dam wall and over some speed bumps. Here we go: pedal, brake, pedal, brake, oh gravel, brake, pot hole, brake. Once I got out onto the open road, I took my time to get into a rhythm, ate a power bar, and set on my merry way. Alan had warned me on his recce that there were some hills and a bit of gravel on the first part of the course, old English houses with giant hedges on either side meant that it was difficult to see round corners, an uneven road surface and steep down hills meant I was in trouble for the first section.
I had set my garmin up so that I had the course elevation on the screen, and my heart rate on my watch, plus a time alert every half an hour to eat. It was hot, and I drink a lot generally so I was very strict about when I needed to finish a bottle to swap it at the aid stations. I knew once I had passed this relatively horrid section and joined the main road, it was fast and flat for a while and I could afford to push quite hard until the next steepish hills. I had Alan’s voice in my head, easy on the ups and push on the downs and flats.
In the run up to the race, coach Ken had me doing the most vile intervals where you pushed until you puked for about an hour and then rode easy for a second hour. I am quite lucky that my heart rate recovers relatively quickly so I knew I could push pretty hard initially and take it easy later on before pushing again to the finish. I kept my eye on the elevation graph and the time alerts, but managed to spill more of my first scheduled gel over myself and my hands than I did in my mouth so was clarted in sticky energy gel, snot and sweat as the first hour ticked by.
I was very clear with myself before the race that I was not going to look at the speed or distance I had gone. I knew the aid stations were approximately 12 miles apart so decided that was how I was going to gauge where I was, or how far I had to go. When my time alert went off at 1 hour, the screen on my watch changes as well as vibrates when the alert happens, I glanced down and it said 34km. I thought I had looked at it wrong, it must have said 24km. Curiosity got the better of me and I eventually looked a little while after that and was right – it had said 34km and I quickly realised that at 1.5 hours I was pretty much half way through the bike course. Where the f*ck had that come from? I can pedal away but I am not fast on my bike, I had been over taking people but mostly on uphill’s, they would catch me again on the downs and people were consistently pushing then easing up to eat or drink so I just figured it was the nature of the race/distance.
This gave me a massive boost of adrenaline and I decided to keep pushing, I felt amazing, my legs felt good, I wasn’t tired so hunkered down and pedaled and pedaled. My plan had been to take it easy on the ups but to hell with that, I was flying by my standards, so decided to push harder on the hills. Men don’t like it when they realise they are being passed by a female, they speed up and pedal faster. Even more so when they are on a flashy TT bike with a pointy hat and dick [not a typo, I changed it] wheels. ‘Oh hi there, I like your disc wheel, yes I’m a girl on a road bike, overtaking you.’ My run was going to be vile regardless so I may as well enjoy this part.
People had warned me that when you started to race longer distances you inevitably hit a low. About 2 hours in after I’d had my fun overtaking people the heavens opened and it absolutely bucketed it down. Oh bugger, it was all going so well until now. Thankfully it was still pretty warm so the rain didn’t cool you down too much, but it did make my cornering and descending somewhat slower than it had been the previous hour. I tried not to panic as I passed several people who had obviously been a bit gung-ho in the wet conditions and had come off their bike. First aiders were out in force and road rash a plenty. I was slightly worried by the design of my tri shorts that I’d be a bit exposed as I bent over on the bike, displaying a slightly sheer ‘breathable’ panel across the bum, I had nothing to worry about as I passed a victim of road rash who had completely ripped his shorts and was limping round the course with an entire bum cheek of material missing, and a gash on the exposed flesh!
The last out and back loop of the bike had a fairly hefty hill on it, which had people barrelling down the other side of the road. Oh brilliant – a fast descent in the wet – my favourite.
The spectators on the course were brilliant, I suppose when you’re told you’re confined to your house for the best part of the day so Ironman can close the road what better to do than have a party, and get drunk on your front lawn. Which is what most people did. The final climb was pretty relentless, it was long and steep but about half way up there was a little old couple sitting at the end of their drive way shouting ‘Welcome to the Birches Valley – we’re John and Mabel and we welcome you to the Birches Valley’.
I had been playing cat and mouse with a guy in a University of Dublin trisuit for most of the last 20 or so miles, I’d overtake him on the hills, he’d get me on the downs. He’d overtake me then pull in hard in front of me, so once I was passed the final aid station I decided I was fed up of the back and forth so went full gas on the flat to get past him. I was coming to the end of the steep down from the loop and I hadn’t seen him again so thought I must have lost him, but just as I turned back in towards Shugburough estate the bugger went flying past me, splashed through a massive puddle and completely soaked me! So my arrival back into T2 I was clarted in mud!
Even though I said I wouldn’t, after I’d looked at the time and distance in the first half, I kept a close eye on the time the whole way back in. I had slowed slightly but was pretty consistent. I passed Alan at the mount line wearing a fetching rain poncho, with a bike time of 3.21.17, total race time of 4.15.39. Well within my target time.
The run was the bit I was most scared about, I had swim anxiety but the run was where it could all fall apart. I had run maybe 30 miles in the run up to the race, I had only managed to get up to 9 miles in one training session and I had no idea if my gammy leg was going to hold out. I had tucked away some paracetemol in my bike bag to take before the run in the hope that it might give me a fighting chance of getting round. Trying to pop tablets out whilst on your bike ends in them crumbling, and you having white powder stuck to the energy gel which is caked on your face.
I spent a little bit of time in T2, squirting water down my legs and arms to get rid of some of the mud, changing into dry socks, giving my nose a good blow and composing myself for the trauma that was to come. The run was a three loop half marathon, with a hill in the middle of each lap. I knew that there was an aid station around about every 1.5 miles so my strategy was to walk the aid stations but run as much as I could in-between.
I hit the first round of the hill and was already struggling, only about 1 mile into 13 long miles. The aid station was at the top and I was bursting for a pee after a failed attempt to go on my bike. There is nothing dignified about triathlon, but people very openly talk about peeing on their bike whilst in a race. I took the rain as perfect opportunity, closed my water bottles in anticipation, but got stage fright and couldn’t go. So there I stood waiting for a free portaloo, with my gammy foot throbbing, wondering how on earth I was going to get round 3 laps.
It felt like I spent forever in that first aid station. I had a few cups of water, took a gel, stretched out my legs, calves and feet and gave myself a talking to, and about 2 minutes later I was off. There was a good fast downhill from there through a village where you passed a pub which was hoaching with drunk people cheering you on in the street. I continued to run (pretty slow but it was running) high-fiving kids in the street. I didn’t manage to stick to my aid stations walking, I had to take a few walk breaks in between, but I was limiting myself to only walking for a minute at a time and then running again. First lap down, I ran passed Alan in the same spot, still sporting his fetching rain poncho.
When you ran through this area, you also got the smell of the bbq in the finishers tent wafting across the run route but it was lined with spectators and I refused to be seen walking in an area that was filled with people! The rain had meant it was muddy, I tentatively stepped around puddles for the first mile or so but after a while I was trundling through puddles and mud so was filthy.
The laps were good because you could pick off milestones: the hill, the pub with the music, lap band station, where Alan was standing. My second time round, I ran towards him and he was looking down at his phone so I very jokingly shouted ‘PAY ATTENTION’ as I went through which came out as a high pitched shrill shriek to which he looked thoroughly scalded, and the guys around him burst out laughing. He blamed the girls however, texting him constantly asking for updates! [Guilty]
I’d made it to the third lap but about halfway through I really started to tire; there was more frequent walking and comically an older man caught up to me and said ‘I’ve been chasing you for miles, every time I catch up to you, you start running again,’ which made me laugh. I had to walk for a fair bit after mile 11 so he sailed passed me, but when I caught him again at the mile 12 marker he gave me a pat on the back and laughed. When I passed the marker at mile 12, I sneaked a glance at my overall race time. It was 6.20 by my watch, so if I could do the last mile in less than 10 minutes I would beat my 6.30 goal, this gave me a massive boost and I somehow found enough energy to pick up my pace. I got my last lap band and turned towards the estate where the route funnelled towards the finish line. I passed Alan and Chris (who had since finished the race) and barrelled round the corner like a woman possessed.
Much to my dismay I hit the finish chute at the same time as some twit who went down it impersonating a jumbo-jet. Get the hell out of my way you idiot I want my 10 seconds of fame! I couldn’t get past his weaving so crossed right behind him which meant the boys couldn’t actually see me finish! I have no idea where that last mile of speed came from as I crossed the line, I was empty. My legs were like jelly, I wasn’t sure I was going to puke, faint or cry but I’d bloody done it. Run time of 2.10.14. I stupidly forgot to stop my watch as I crossed the line, it wasn’t until I’d made a quick trip through the finisher’s tent to join the queue for my t-shirt that I looked down and it was still going so I had no clue if my final sprint had made the difference. As it turned out, my swim was about a minute slower on my official times than on my watch, the starter timing mat was further back on the jetty whereas I had started the timer once I hit the water, so I was never going to make it in less than 6.30!
My overall race time was 6.31.08. Not too shabby for someone who bought a bike, learned to swim and had an injury in the space of just over a year. In the triathlon community, forums you read, Facebook posts and all there is a certain amount of credibility around longer distance racing. ‘Oh you only did a HALF ironman’ and ‘what was your time’. I was concerned by the numbers, I had a target in my head and I thought I would have been disappointed to miss that. It’s easy to say now that I was well within that target, but I can honestly say on reflection, if I had crossed the line in 5 hours or 8 hours I would feel the same elation as I do now. I needed a challenge in life, something to set my mind to and every hour of training, sweat and tears was worth it to feel the sense of achievement and accomplishment that I do now.
When training was going badly, when I finished every training race feeling disappointed and deflated, when I was knackered, cold, wet and having to cycle for 3 hours so the training peaks box didn’t go red – I hated it. I’m not going to lie about that, but it was all worth it. I have realised that the challenge was not in the numbers, it was in setting my mind and body to do something that I had not done before, and wasn’t sure if I was capable of doing. The challenge should not be determined by how it stacks up against other things/events/races, it should be determined based on the individual and the time, effort and road traveled to achieve it. No matter how big or small, a challenge is personal and it may not be challenging to another but it is important to you.