Be warned – this is long.
How do you prepare for a double ironman? Well, clearly I wasn’t certain but was pretty sure it would involve quite a bit of swimming, cycling and running topped off with a massive amount of eating and boring everyone I know to death about it. I decided as usual to ignore any specific training plan and make it up as I go but typically a weeks training would have three days cycling to work (15- 35 miles a day depending on how I was feeling), two days running to work (11 miles a day), two swim sessions (1 hour each) and then something long at the weekend, either a bike or run. This was always pretty unstructured but by the time the race came around I had managed four marathons, a 35 mile run unsupported on the hottest day of the year, about 6 rides over 100 miles including a 165 miler and 112 miles on a full suspension mountain bike with knobblies. My swimming is quite strong so had only done one session more than an hour but thought I would get away with this. I’d also raced an Ironman and a half ironman putting good performances in during both so hoped I was ready.
So with a car full of kit and food, having bored everybody to death over the previous year I set off to Lichfield unsure as to what I had really signed up for. Recognised a lot of people from the previous year when I had crewed for Russell and had a few beers in the bar the night before with some of the other racers – was great to chat to others in a similar situation to myself. My race wasn’t due to start until 14:30 but I still had a nervous nights sleep and I woke with cramp in my foot which wouldn’t go away. I suspected this might turn out to be an issue during the swim…
After what seemed like forever it was finally time to start the race. Chatted to the two other guys who I was sharing the swim lane with and it was decided I would head off first. One guy was a bit slower than us other two but he was a real gent at moving aside as we came to lap him. Swimming felt excellent and I knew I was going at a decent pace – I could see I was fastest in the pool which gave me a lift. My vague plan was to stop every 20 minutes for a swig of energy drink. I ended up timing my stops so that I had time to take a drink and get going before anyone overtook me so I would not have to overtake them again. This all seemed to be going well and I checked at my time at halfway. Went through the ironman swim distance in 1:04 which I thought was pretty good going in a 25m pool without drafting (especially as my PB is 1:02 on a short course with a lot of drafting). After about 200 lengths my lack of swim training started to show and I was slowing due to the cramp in both my feet. On one push off from the wall my calf cramped which was really quite an inconvenience. I could see Claire and Trish getting nervous watching as I was obviously in a bit of pain. Still, only about 70 lengths to swim so I stopped for a lot more fluid hoping this would relieve the cramp – it did but only slightly. I now was being very slowly caught in the lane by the other quicker swimmer and was able to stay behind him and draft for the last few laps. Got out of the water in first place with about 2:12 on the clock so was pleased the cramp had only cost me a few minutes.
I had decided that my mantra for the race should be ‘Don’t Faff’ so had a quick T1 and out onto the bike. It became immediately obvious to me that I should have done more in terms of long swim training as I was tired. Normally, after an ironman swim I don’t tend to feel it at all but getting on the bike now I felt completely drained. I wasn’t sure whether this was due to the time of day (as it was now nearly 17:00) but I just couldn’t settle into cycling. This was going to be a long day, and night, and day. I had decided to do the bike course without my HRM as I thought it would be uncomfortable and did not have a speedo either so just took it at what felt like an easy but sustainable pace. I had chosen to be without a speedo so that I would do all the calculations in terms of laps rather than distance as that would be far too intimidating. The bike course is 16 laps of 14 miles on an out and back course that undulates gently. However, the wind felt like it was swirling and so it never seemed like a headwind or a tailwind but one that gradually ground you down. None of the solid food appealed to me so got most of my calories through copious amounts of fluid. This did mean I needed to stop every couple of laps at the portaloos but at least I knew I wasn’t dehydrating. Occaissionally I was able to eat some solid food so did have pasta and managed some mars bars as well but mainly resorted to a mainly liquid diet. I also decided my race shoes were uncomfortable to changed to my touring shoes which are much more forgiving. Dusk began to fall so I donned my warm cycling jersey, high viz gear and turned my lights on.
Although the bike course is only 7 miles out this does feel an awfully long way and I mentally split the route up. First section was from the race HQ to the garage at the bottom of the hill, second section to Kings Bromley. Then Kings Bromley to the roundabout and then finally on to Yoxall and the turnaround. The second section of this felt like the longest and on the way back was easily the hardest as there were no landmarks. Eventually, I ended up splitting this up further so that I ticked of 10 different arbitrary sections along the route. As night time fell, I also was unsure how easy my lights were to see from the front so thought I would some more lights. I came into the pits and added a glowstick to my head and one to my right hand shoe. I also knew this would make me more recognisable should I need it. At about 23:30 I received my only piece of abuse as a passenger shouted ‘You W*****r’ out of the window of a passing car. This amused me immensely so I replied with a cheery wave – I liked that they had politely waited behind me until it was safe to overtake and then give me abuse.
Each lap was mentally a bit more draining and it was dark out there. I never realised how much of a mental lift I would get from the villages and seeing street lighting. During these events you have to take every single tiny little positive and one of these came in the form of the most random supporter ever. A guy had parked his car in the dark in the middle of nowhere and was sat out all night in a chair with a cowbell cheering every rider as they went past. This small act made me smile every time and helped to give me a lift through some of the dark patches. In the transition area it was increasingly difficult to rush, my ‘Don’t Faff’ mantra had gone to the more lengthy ‘Don’t faff much but maybe have quick sit down occasionally – go on you deserve it’. I really appreciated the hot soup in bike bottles I received a couple of times although learnt after the first time round that soup which is scolding hot when you receive it is stone cold after less than 5 miles. August, yes, warm, no. Claire was doing a fantastic job keeping my spirits up through the night and every time I looked forward to coming back to transition. I started desperately counting down the time until dawn as I knew I would get a great lift when this arrived.
However, at just after 3am going away from transition on the loneliest and darkest stretch of road I got a puncture. I wasn’t sure initially but decided I couldn’t ride another 11 miles to get back to transition. To be honest my mind was not working at full speed at the time and didn’t work out my options very well. So I stopped, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere to try and change a tub which I have only done at home, in the light with a track pump and loads of time. And then I phoned Claire instead. I asked her to bring out my spare front wheel to my location at Kings Bromley marina. I then tried to change the tub myself, got the new one on and then couldn’t get the valve extender to go on. I tried this for about 5-10 minutes but to no avail so decided to wait for the cavalry. The amazing camaraderie of the event showed through though as every single rider asked me if I was ok and needed help – amazing. In the meantime Claire had found someone to give her a lift out with my wheels. I’m sure she was stressed out by running around after me but didn’t show it ( I hope I thanked the chap who drove her out but don’t remember). I had lost a bit of time but there was nothing I could do so hopped back on my bike and continued on my way. The first light of dawn started to show through and I my mood lifted. 224 miles is a very long way to cycle but I occasionally chatted to someone doing the triple and couldn’t comprehend 336 miles. I calculated I should get off the bike at about 8am which was going to be a massive relief. My wrists were hurting more than any part of me so I actually spent a lot more time during the last few laps on the aero bars to try to relieve the pain until finally, I was on my last lap. Thanked all the marshals who were amazing and had stayed up all night and was so relieved after getting past the last hill and the final bit of terrible road surface. I came in to transition after about 15:30 on the bike and at this point running two marathons seemed like it was preferable to cycling.
Changed into my tri suit and went to put my socks on. I have been using socks with individual toes on them to prevent me getting blisters and they have worked really well in training but when I went to put them on I realised I had packed two right feet. Bugger. So I put my cycling socks back on and although I did have some running socks I would change into a couple of laps later they weren’t ideal.
42 laps of a 1.2 mile circuit awaited me and I thought, I’m going out for a walk, I may be some time. At this point I felt pretty knackered but relieved to be running. I jogged a bit, walked a bit and jogged through the woods noting the stairs on the way in (these might be fun in a few laps time). Suddenly felt really hungry and got a marmite sandwich after my first lap. Then quickly followed this with another and then a bacon sarnie as well. However, my energy levels were rock bottom. I kept eating and drinking but had nothing in my legs at all and after only a couple of laps was down to walking pretty much the entire lap. I had put my garmin on at some point to have an idea of pacing but after 15 miles or so I was averaging 16 minute miles and gave it back to Trish with a polite ‘I don’t give a f*** about this f***ing thing anymore’. Trish was very nice and said ‘You’re doing really well, keep it going’. Both Claire and Trish were doing all they could to keep my spirits up and Claire had walked a lap with me but I was feeling very low by this stage. I still had over 30 miles to go and my original hopes of maybe being in the top 5 had evaporated. I had also missed the chance of getting under 30 hours as at this rate I would be finishing in the dark after 33 hours or so. My feet had also started to blister so I went to the medic at some stage and had a couple of bits taped. A few more laps down and I approached the marathon point. This was like torture – running a marathon is hard enough but the prospect of walking the next one with blisters and the pain after all I had already completed was awful. I decided after lap 21 and the marathon to come in, get my feet taped up again and take some ibuprofen. Whilst having my feet taped I looked at my watch to see that I had less than 6 hours until 30 hours were up. It had taken me 6:20 for the first marathon so I knew there was no chance of making it. The physio was stood next to me and I thought for the first time in my life I should try having my legs rubbed down – always try new things on race day. I couldn’t feel worse so lay down for 15 minutes whilst my legs were wrenched about. For the first time I realised why some people shave their legs as having every leg hair ripped slightly out really hurt. However, I was in loads of pain already so it didn’t matter.
Had a couple of ibuprofen and set out again hobbling quite a lot. After a few hundred meters the pain in my legs started to go down and I was able to jog a bit and then magic happened. I was able to run. And not just hobble and jog but really run. I tried not to get carried away and still walk the uphill sections but it was difficult not to go for it. The joy on my face must have been visible to anyone as I suddenly went from 21 minutes a lap to under 11 minutes for some of my laps. I was absolutely flying round and completely loving every second. Every bit was elation as I flew past people who had been regularly overtaking me for hours. I just couldn’t believe how much difference having the massage made (or was it the 15 minute lie down, or the ibuprofen) but it was incredible. I had a strange hallucination running through the woods at one point which felt like my legs were floating which made me calm down a bit and make sure I got some more food and drink inside me. I think in my excitement I had forgotten to eat properly for a few laps. I also thought I should take note from the chap who had completed a deca ironman when he told me to calm down and slow down. He might know what he is talking about. I did start looking at the clock again though and decided that 30 hours might be in my grasp after all. I was going fairly well and although I expected the wheels to fall off again I wanted to get as close as I could. I always do a lot of maths whilst racing as I try to work out at what point I could walk to the finish and still get within my arbitrary target. I needed to time a walking lap so I asked Claire to join me. I walked fast but timed it at around 18 minutes so I started working out times. When you are really tired simple maths becomes really hard but it is a great way to keep the boredom away as you constantly need to re-evaluate. I think with about 9 or 10 laps to go I knew I could walk the rest and get under 30 hours.
The size of the grin that appeared on my face was amazing. I just couldn’t help it and felt fantastic. Yes, my feet hurt and when I walked I could feel lots of blisters but it didn’t matter. I would be a double ironman in less than 3 hours. I was able to keep a decent pace so that the time kept coming down. I finally got to my last lap which you run anticlockwise so that I could high five all the other competitors. Thanked all the marshals on the turnaround and the two guys manning the junction who were brilliant all day and always encouraging. Really tried hard not to get too emotional as I high fived everyone coming into the finishing chute and finally crossed the line to receive my medal from Steve who shook my hand and gave his congratulations. I had finished a double ironman in 29:20:20 – the hardest day and a bit in my entire life but also one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. Not sure what time I did the second marathon in but suspect my previous IM marathon PB of 4:43 may have been broken.
Afterwards I got a beer and went to see the physio to have another massage and a check on my feet which were in quite a mess with at least 5 big blisters (and 7 more I would discover over the next few days). We didn’t stay for long afterwards – Trish had to get home so left soon after and I was keen to sleep in a real bed. Thankfully Claire drove myself and her back before we finally got in at about 1:30am on Monday. I slept pretty well that night and hobbled around a lot on the Monday. I actually thought I had sunburn on my legs until I realised the pain was caused by every leg hair being ripped out slightly. A small price to pay for the good it did.
Big thanks to Steve and Eddie from Enduroman for organising an incredible race. The atmosphere for a small event was amazing and the personal attention they provide is awesome. Thanks to the marshals who volunteered to be out for hour after hour cheering people on. Thanks to Trish for being wonderful support and forcing me to eat and drink when I maybe didn’t want to and finally thanks to Claire for her support on race day and putting up with my training and continuously talking about this one event for 8 months.
I thought ironman was tough but this was a whole different level and my respect for anybody who even started the triple is sky high. Incredible event.