Time: 7:58:52 (Third from last)
Let me take this opportunity to mention a few key details before I delve into a description of the actual event:
- I had signed up as part of a relay team, my job being to swim the 1900m open water section very rapidly, before drinking beer and cheering on the others;
- Despite seeing a specialist knee surgeon in Houston and having a cortisone injection in my knee in July, my running has not improved, and a 3k jog as part of a family-fun triathlon saw me crippled for two days;
- The runner in our relay (Eilidh) decided to just do the full event;
- The cyclist in our relay decided to get knocked up;
- I found out three weeks ago that the entry had been updated to a solo entry in my name;
- The event was a Scottish Championship event, and the people who had entered seemed to be taking shit seriously.
With zero half ironman specific training, I did some calculations and realised I could probably cross the line before what I thought was the 8.5 hour cut-off, knowing I would likely have to walk the entirety of the half marathon. As it turns out, there is no official cut-off for Aberfeldy, and they wait until every finisher crosses the line, which put my mind (marginally) at ease. The forecast of little wind, blue skies, and uncharacteristically warm weather also lifted my spirits, ever so slightly. But the reality was, I was not pumped about slogging it out on a course I knew I’d get a crappy time at. However, quitting, as they say, is for losers.
Van overstuffed, bodies belted up, we set off for Aberfeldy on Saturday afternoon, arriving in time to register, watch the Olympic women’s triathlon, and endure the 45 minute briefing. Then came a Fleet Feet dinner in the apartment we’d booked, before I snuck out in the dying light to walk to the nearest town, Kenmore, for a pint of Schiehallion and a slightly unsteady jaunt back to the apartment in the dark to collapse into bed.
After coercing each other out of bed at 05:00, Roz, Eilidh and I readied our kit bags and walked our bikes over to T1 in our pyjamas. What followed is now a haze of forcing food down our throats, mild panic about where we put our race numbers/goggles/swim caps/etc., and moments of regret when we allowed ourselves to reflect on what exactly we had signed up for (or, in my case, been forced into by deserters). We mustered at the swim start at 6:45 for our wave start, and a few group photos. Exhibit A shows smiling, eager faces, ready to tackle the challenge ahead:
Exhbit B highlights the stark contrast between knowing your photo is being taken, and a candid shot capturing the reality of crushing apprehension:
The voice over the tannoy announced a water temperature of 14 degrees, but as we edged ourselves into the calm loch as we approached our wave start, it become acutely apparent that this was a new level of bullshittery. My hands burned with intensity as they were plunged into the icy loch, and I wondered how easy it would be to get by in life without toes. A growing fury brewed as we impatiently waited for the man in the kayak to sound the horn, furiously slapping at the water with numb digits as soon as it sounded. So. I guess this is actually happening, was the less-than-enthusiastic thought that invaded my quickly-dulling mind. Thus began my now traditional countdown of ’99 bottles of beer’ (Ultimately reaching 6 before the end of the swim).
The water was ferociously cold, and by the time I hit the first buoy I was struggling to keep my fingers together. My face had started to acclimatise, though I knew it was only a matter of time until my lips went numb and breathing would become arduous. This happened by the time I reached the second buoy, which I only noticed when I was practically upon it, such was the intensity of the fog inside my goggles. The final stretch is where delirium set in, and the water became choppier. I remember looking forward to seeing my squiggly red line of a path when I uploaded my swim to Garmin Connect, but what I didn’t remember to do was actually start my Garmin. C’est la vie.
Finally, the finishing floats were in sight, and I had to be helped to steady myself out of the water by one of the marshals. The world was lilting, and I couldn’t feel my face, but I soon realised I was still wholly capable of spitting out expletives, as witnessed by Katherine on support duty (and some young, impressionable spectators – apologies).
The fact that T1 took me over 7 minutes bears witness to the state I was in after the arctic plunge. I was overtaken by around 50 people there alone, at one point struggling to free my hands from my wetsuit and standing there confused and helpless. I saw Roz enter transition and grunted some kind of recognition, before finally finding myself organised, and setting off, expecting her to catch me fairly quickly.
Having not looked at the elevation profile for the bike course in more detail than a passing glance, I thought we’d have a fair amount of reasonably flat cycling before beginning our first ascent of Schiehallion. This was a mistaken assumption, as the gradual climb began almost immediately, and after much huffing and puffing I found myself looking around me – and down – at the scenery below, realising I’d just finished the majority of the climb. After a few more undulations I was flying down the steeper side, trying to ignore the fact that I’d later be hauling myself out of the saddle – and my comfort zone – to climb back up.
What followed was a section of the Etape Caledonia, circumnavigating Loch Rannoch, during which point Roz caught me, handed over a Werther’s original, and anticipated from my primal grunts that I was not up for keeping pace. I challenge anyone to go back to work for a week after 6 weeks off and not feel like you’ve been hit by a bus come the weekend – I was done. And Roz was a speck in the distance.
By the time the second ascent on Schiehallion arrived, I actually contemplated pushing my bike up the hill, but I stuck to my easiest gear and entered that mental place where you just accept suffering and keep going.
At last I was on top, and fully aware that everything left on bike was beneath me all the way to Aberfeldy for T2. For the final 7 or 8 miles I just cruised on autopilot trying to brace myself for the tedium of my 13.1 mile walk, and the frustration that I would ultimately be overtaken by everyone still behind me over the course of the remaining few hours. I dismounted, handing my bike over to marshals, and was handed my transition bag. I changed into fresh socks and trainers, threw a travel bottle of sunblock in my back pocket along with my mobile phone and bank card, and tucked a tin of Jack Daniels and coke into my spi-belt, much to the amusement of the man next to me. As it was a championship event, I didn’t want to risk it being taken off me by one of the official Triathlon Scotland dragons marshals. And I needed every ounce of motivation I could muster, including the 12 fluid ounces in that can.
I set off of the half marathon at a steady walk, unmoved by shouts of encouragement to press on and ‘just jog slowly!’. Once out of Aberfeldy – and the beady eyes of the majority of marshals, I cracked the tab and started drinking. After about 5 minutes I heard Eilidh’s voice call my name from the rear, and she stopped for a few minutes to walk with me and check I was alright. I told her I was fine, but may be some time. After about ten minutes I was drunk. Having just exercised for the past 4+ hours, and only taken in 2 gels and one bottle of water, I was on cloud nine.
After about 5k I passed a feed station and the marshals offered water, bananas, or rubbish collection. I gave the universal sign for ‘gimme a minute’, tanked the remainder of my can, and handed it over to her as her expression reflected the horror she obviously felt. I said, “cheers!” and sauntered onwards with a shit-eating grin plastered across my face.
The remainder of the run is one long country road in the sunshine on and out-and-back course, enthusiastically cheering on people I knew on their way to the finish, and then beginning my lonesome journey beyond the halfway point, only meeting a handful of people left on the course. I texted ahead letting everyone else know how many miles I had left, telling them they had plenty of time to shower, eat, catch a movie, before I was to be expected across the finish line. They responded in the fading miles that there were only 4 people left on the course.
Less than half a kilometre from the end, one of those people overtook me. I finished third from last, and David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ started playing at a point where I have never felt less heroic.