Tom made it through his first Ironman in Austria – just – but has he been bitten by the Ironman bug?
Ironman was something I’d been excited about, scared of and generally nervous about for a long time. I had no idea how my body or mind would cope with what was to come.
I think I was too overwhelmed to be nervous on the beach before the start – it was a very odd sensation where I felt a bit disconnected from my body although I remember trying not to think about the fact that I’d probably still be going in 12 hours time!
When the gun went off, I gave a little space to the athletes ahead and, fighting the urge to dolphin dive for fear of getting knocked out – managed to find clear water pretty quickly, which let me get comfortable even if there wasn’t a massive draft to be had. Coming from the right side of the start to merge onto the course, navigation was a bit ropey throughout, but especially so once the glaring sun dazzled me on the way to the Lend Kanal.
I was in a group swimming wide enough to have the kayakers shouting at us to try and move us back towards the buoys. Once in the canal section, things got much easier and I sped up a bit, coming out of the water in 1:05, which I was really happy with, especially considering the dodgy sighting. It was faster than I’d swum in training and I knew I had done at least a couple of hundred metres extra.
T1 went smoothly – for once I remembered where everything was and got through it without issue. I’d worn my Castelli Stealth bike top under my wetsuit, so that meant no time lost pulling that on over wet skin.
I tried to ignore all the men and women gunning it at the start of the bike and kept to my paltry power figure, keeping my legs fresh as possible. The course was pretty packed for the first 30km or so, with the marshals merrily blowing their whistles as people rode three abreast in an overtaking fest. I was glad to see that there didn’t seem to be much on-purpose drafting, with only a couple of shifty looking groups.
The bike route is absolutely beautiful, but don’t believe anyone who tells you it’s flat. Fast, yes. Flat, no. There are two major climbs per lap that required a click down to the 28th tooth on the back in order to stay in the saddle. The course’s famous speed comes from the descents – they’re wide, safe and on utterly smooth roads. In fact, there are only a couple of corners that you need to touch the brakes on.
My halfway split was about 2:45 but the hills felt much longer and steeper the second time around. Just after the last big climb on lap two, Kevin caught me and pushed on looking strong. He told me he’d recce’d the route wrong and managed to miss the hills on the bike. The day before he’d said to me, “I hope I don’t catch you on the bike because that’ll mean I’ve overcooked it,” so I was happy to see him, but also hoping Id catch him later.
The crowds were amazing throughout the race, especially on the hills, but I won’t miss the constant chants of “Pop! Pop! Pop!” Which still reverberate in my dreams.
Getting off the bike my left foot hurt so much I thought I might’ve done some serious damage to it. I hobbled through T2, impossible to ignore the pain and trying to avoid thoughts of my race ending prematurely. I’m pretty sure I’d just done the straps up on my bike shoes too tight though!
Once my trainers were on, I suddenly felt fine and was able to run – yes, actually run – quite well. I’m glad the days of instant-stitch-off-the-bike seem to be coming to an end. Sharon, Kevin’s wife, shouted that he was just ahead and once I was past the first turn point at around 8km, I saw the handsome devil in front and caught up to him just as we passed Shonsel going the other way.
My prediction of our own little Iron War proved totally unfounded – it was a brilliant boost to be running shoulder to shoulder with the Silver Fox. Perhaps too much so though – I think we might have pushed the next few kms a bit too hard.
We stayed together well into the second lap, but by that time, there was a bit more walking after the aid stations and a little less motivation to get running again. This was the lowest point of the race for me. When you’re still so far from the end that it seems impossible and you find yourself asking what kind of idiot takes on such a stupid event in first place.
My legs had also begun to twitch with the telltale signs that cramp was on its way. Luckily there was an aid station with salt sachets right next to me, so I swilled the salt around my mouth for a while, which seemed to help.
Pace slowing and being unable to bring myself to eat more gels, I started on the Coke, which brought me back to life a bit. I waited for Kev at the next aid station, but after that he told me to press on, so I picked my pace back up to about 5:30 per km and worked out that I might still be in for an 11:45 finish if I was lucky.
A haze of Coke, cold sponges and water dousing took me into the last 7km when the cramp started. Feeling vaguely embarrassed that I was supporting the cramp in my groin with one hand, I tried to ignore this new kind of pain and the constant ache as my calves began to seize.
I decided with just over 5km to go that it was going to be painful whatever, so I thought the quicker I got back, the sooner the pain would stop. Self talk and an ever decreasing distance to the line kept me running strong and under 5:00 per km. If my maths were right, I’d have time for a quick walk at each aid station and, with luck, would break 11:30.
The last couple of kilometres were painfully great – crowds cheering, the buzzing atmosphere helping me fly past other athletes. A few hundred
metres before the line, my toes all contacted involuntarily with cramp.
I’ve never been so glad to reach a finishing straight. I just wanted it to be over, so I took in the roaring spectators only briefly before crossing the line in 11:24:53 . It felt great to finally achieve that goal, which had probably nestled itself as a seed before I even did my first triathlon back in 2010.
Then I hobbled into the recovery area, space blanket on my back and alcohol-free beer in my hand. A good long sit on a bench was in order, then on to the free food.
Ironman has been a long journey for me and it’s had its ups, downs and led to lots of sacrifices. But the feeling of satisfaction is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Immediately afterwards I felt equal parts elation that I’d finally conquered Ironman and disbelief at what a ridiculous event it is in the first place. I was sure I would never do it again, but now I’m not quite as adamant that Austria will be a one off. In fact, I’m sure it’s just the start – but a hell of a start!