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The Early Bits
It’s been three days now since I staggered up that cobblestone-covering red carpet in Frankfurt’s main square. Three days in which my body has begun to heal. Three days in which I’ve tried – but failed – to adequately recall the pain and suffering I was enduring at around 5.30pm that hot and sunny afternoon in Germany’s financial capital.
The day started well enough. In fact, the background to the race had been superb. This was to be my third Ironman after completing Austria in both 2007 and 2008. I’d dropped my time from 12:10 first time round to 10:42 last year and felt confident in setting my sights on a further improvement to 10:15 this year.
I won’t go into the details of my training year as they are catalogued on my blog but I can tell you that I was in superb shape. My coach, Mark Kleanthous, himself a veteran of 29 (count them) Iron distance races, had once again brought me to the peak of fitness and I was confident of hitting my target times in Frankfurt although I’ve always been the first to say that, on the day of the race, we are mere pawns in the hands of the chess-playing Iron-gods.
It was my second season at Team MK (Milton Keynes), and mixing my training with that of some of the stronger athletes had brought its benefits. I left for Germany on Thursday feeling confident, fit and focused.
The Build Up Bits
I soon discovered Frankfurt is nothing like Austria’s Klagenfurt. Where the latter offers a village like atmosphere for the athletes, with all events and meetings in one area, Frankfurt has no such luxuries, utilising the main square for its central hub and finish area, an expo that spills onto some fairly undistinguished streets and a lake that sits in a disused (but not unattractive) quarry some 15km or so from the centre of the city. There were sixteen of us from Team MK along with our various partners and a few children and we chose to stay at an out of centre hotel in the business district, equidistant betwixt city and lake.
Fiona (my wife), Erin and Alice (my daughters) plus my mother, my father, one of my brothers and my friend Carl were all making up ‘Team O’Neill’ and arrived prior to race day with their custom designed bright orange Team MK Supporters’ T shirts.
We cycled to the lake to rack out bikes, where we each athlete had their own personal helper that stayed with them from entering and leaving transition. A slight complication to racking was that Germany is a split transition race, with T1 at the lake and T2 some distance away in the city. Bike and Blue (T1) bag along with red (T2) bag were left at the lake and the red bag would find its way back into the mean streets of Frankfurt.
The Swim Bits
Two thousand seven hundred people swimming together. Damn, it’s a drag. But you have to make the best of these things. If you allow fear to stalk your heart it will eventually own you so you have to harden up and show it the door. Just don’t think about it and get on with it was my plan. I positioned myself just behind the start line, one row from the front and prepared to swim. I’d hit 63 minutes both previous swims and, armed with my new Zone 3 Vanquish Wetsuit (schoolboy error – it chewed a gash into my neck whereas I’ve never had any problems in two years with my Snugg) I was confident of coming down a minute or so.
The canon went off with more of a fart than an explosion and we were away. The first lap would be 2.3km, followed by a short sprint across the beach, then down back into the water for a further 1.5km loop.
I’ve never been as closely packed in a group of swimmers before for such a period of time. So much so that I was unable to produce any rhythm, each stroke feeling forced and having to be manufactured to fit the space available. I was constantly being assailed from all sides, legs being pushed down into the water by flailing arms from behind and – to be fair – my arms doing the same to folk in front. For the first time in any triathlon race I had my goggles knocked off and had to adjust them, causing further mayhem as Gunther and his buddies swam through me.
But… hey ho… these things are sent to try us. The first loop was the worst. I went a little wider on the second loop but still managed to exit in 60 minutes and staggered up the sandy 200m incline towards T1, passing within a metre of my eldest daughter who didn’t recognise me… I’d forgotten that everyone was in a black wetsuit and red hat !
The T1 Bits
It’s a big old area, that T1. I’d opted to have my blue bag next to my bike so ran straight to it and whipped off my wetsuit, shoved some bananas in my back pocket, stuck on socks and shoes and grabbed my trusty Cervelo from its rack. As I was about to leave I heard the name of my coach called from the water. We were racked near to each other so I shot out of there like a bullet from a gun. It had been a slowish transition of 6:24 but I knew I’d pick up some time in T2 where I always transition pretty quickly, so wasn’t too worried.
The Bike Bits
Time to settle down and get into a rhythm. The 15km or so stretch from the lake to Frankfurt is motorway and super fast. It’s a strange feeling in the cool of the morning with no cars at all on the roads, barrelling towards the skyscrapers of Frankfurt. My good mate and Ironman Tom Wiliams had told me the race could go ‘kaput’ here if it’s hammered too much, so I chose to let the big old German boys (and girls) hammer past as I munched on my banana and sipped water with the sole ambition of being up at my target average speed of 21mph by the time we reached the city.
Passing a deserted finish and T2 area by the river further added to the Marie Celeste feel of things and I pushed on into the suburbs of Frankfurt. The roads of the bike course are super smooth and fast, and I was ultra comfortable turning my legs over at my target pace. The hills on the course are really nothing to speak of, more interruptions than real climbs and my only problem came on the cobblestones of ‘The Hell’ in a village outside of Frankfurt, where my aero bottle was catapulted from my handlebars. I made a judgment call to stop and replace it as it was early in the race but, as what seemed like hundreds of cyclists shot by me, I found I couldn’t get it fixed back on and, in the end, I had to leave it there, in Hell. I’d lost about three minutes but hey, it was a long race.
There were no incidents on the bike and, unlike last year in Austria, none of my team mates passed me. Apart, that is, from Coach K… who must have slipped by unseen as I administered CPR to my water bottle. I caught up with him a few miles later and we exchanged a few words before I headed onwards.
Heartbreak Hill is Ironman Germany’s answer to the Tour de France climbs and, with its narrow, spectator-lined passageway it does create a fantastic atmosphere for the cyclist. But it’s quickly over and you’re then downhill all the way to Frankfurt and able to pick up some of the time lost on the climb.
I arced through the streets of the city and saw Team O’Neill and several of the MK crowd cheering me on at a corner. Their shirts were a flash of colour in what I remember as a grey and formidable landscape.
Round, past T2 I went, pushing a little harder as the wind got up but still feeling comfortable. It’s worth noting at this point that I’m still relatively new to cycling and all my bike work is done on ‘feel’. I don’t look at heart rate or work with power. I simply push on the pedals and ease up if I feel I’m working too hard. Maybe I’ll need to change this in the future. But that will be then and this was now. I pedalled on, the second loop bringing no surprises and – as ever – my nutrition being forced down. Three Torq bars, two viper bars, a Buzz bar, a gel, numerous bananas and 3 litres of carbo drink should have been enough, you’d think. Besides which, I couldn’t eat a single thing more by the end of that ride. I was also drinking water whenever I could get it from the aid stations but hadn’t managed to have a pee which I was vaguely concerned about.
Nonetheless, I shot around the second lap slightly slower than the first but still ended at my required average speed. My goal time had been 5 hrs 20 mins and I’d taken 5 hrs 21 mins including my water bottle stop on The Hell. Looking good.
Or so I thought.
The T2 Bits
In, out… shake it all about. 1 minute and 36 seconds. Pretty much as fast as an amateur can be. Off out onto the run course; I was under my target time of 8 mins for both transitions.
The Run Bits
Okay. So, until now, everything’s gone well. My big improvement this year has been my running, especially my running off the bike. And I had two strategies. Strategy one was to run a 3:45 marathon for my target time of 10:15. Strategy two was to try for a faster marathon and get close to 10 hours.
It was too hot for strategy two. I knew that straight away. The heat had become progressively more intense during the day and it was now lunchtime. Apparently it got up to 33 degrees Celsius at one point on the run course but for now, let’s say it was around 30 degrees for most of the run.
The course itself is four 10.5km loops leading to a 200m finish chute. It’s lined with spectators and crosses the river twice, for the most part keeping close to the water. The support was superb and I ran out to see my parents cheering me on.
So, choosing strategy one I slipped into an 8 minute mile or so pace. Actually, this was too fast and I should have been running at 8:15 pace for the first half and 8:45 pace for the second.
Lap wristbands are (confusingly I think) given halfway through the lap rather than at the end, so I went through tunnel 1 whistfully looking at tunnel 4 but with only 5km under my boots. At the end of my first lap I was feeling pretty good.
Lap 2 required more effort and, in hindsight, I must have been starting to fail at this point as I distinctly remember choosing not to look at the distance markers for fear of seeing how far I had still to go. I just hid behind my sunglasses and desert hat and figured it was going to be a tough day at the office.
And so it proved to be. I walked at most of the superbly manned and stocked aid stations (every 1.5km in Germany and boy… did we need them!) taking on a gel and water before running again. But this was part of my strategy and it didn’t disrupt my rhythm too much at all. But, come the end of Lap 2 I was – although still roughly on time – no longer looking at my watch. Put simply, I could only hope to be able to control my pace from this point in. Things were out of my hands.
The final half marathon is something of a blur. Maybe your brain protects you from the true awfulness of what you’ve put yourself through. Maybe it wasn’t that bad and I’m exaggerating it. Maybe we’re all a SIMS game on the computer of some other civilisation somewhere in space. Who the hell knows? All I can tell you are the bits I remember.
I remember at about 18km being passed by two Team MK members, Les and Keith who were running strong but a lap behind. I was desperately trying to do the math and wonder if they would catch me but, at this point, I was having difficulty remembering my name, so complex pacing calculations were beyond me. I ploughed relentlessly on.
I remember forcing myself to set short term goals. ‘Get to the bridge’ kind of thing.
I remember getting my third wristband and thinking that I still had 15km to race and this was going to be one of the longest days of my life. At this point my brain was telling me to stop. To walk. But I knew deep down that I couldn’t do that. I’d done it once before in my first Ironman and I never got running again. To stop was death. That’s what I told myself. No matter what happened, no matter how bad it felt, no matter what the pain, no matter what my brain told me, no matter how many blisters (a lot) were now squelching under my feet, I simply had to keep running.
So I did. I set myself a rhythm and for the rest of the entire day I repeated the mantra to myself … ‘put one foot in front of the other, put one foot in front of the other, put one foot in front of the other…’ On and on I went, trying to fill my mind solely with my call to arms, thinking of nothing past and nothing present. Thinking only of the now. Of the stride I was running.
Of course, when I say ‘running’, the Lord only knows what I looked like. By this time my back was buckling and my torso was tipping alarmingly forward. I now think this is a consequence of severe dehydration but at the time only knew that my lower back was in agony and I was likely to fall at any moment. Believe you me, when you’re my size, its no mean feat to support nine stone or so of torso on a lower spine that’s made of jello.
Eventually, I got round to one lap to go. 10.5km. But I wasn’t really thinking about that, just focussed on getting to the next aid station and, you’ve guessed it… keeping on running. I’d lost the power to speak (genuinely) and was unable to acknowledge my daughters and family in any way, so intent was I on keeping running. I’d been passed by team mate Trevor on the previous lap, who gave me some words of encouragement and told me that two of our stronger athletes had pulled out.
Somehow I ended up at the fourth wristband chute and could see the finish across the river. But I still had 5km to run. 5km. My heart sank. It was too far. Just too far. And it probably would have been if, a couple of minutes previously, my good mate Aleck hadn’t run by and shouted at me to “dig in… whatever you do… whatever happens, don’t stop running”. And I knew he was right. I pushed on and the world seemed a very black place indeed.
Over the bridge I went, round and back along the shore, bent like a snapped twig, still running but knowing nothing other than that. The final aid station is 1km from home but I still had to walk through it and take on coke and something else I can’t remember. Martin’s voice cut through the haziness of my mind. He was on his third lap and had emerged from a portaloo to see a giant baboon lurching towards the finish chute. He cajoled and encouraged and talked to me all the way up until the point he had to carry on and I split off to the finish (thanks mate – I couldn’t say so at the time but I’ll continue to be grateful to my dying day).
I was nearly home but every step seemed so hard and so slow. But I wasn’t walking and that was what mattered. Because even there, even just 200 metres or so from home, I knew deep down that ‘walk’ equalled ‘stop’ and that’s not what it’s about, is it?
I lumbered around the corner, cheered on by the thousands watching, their voices pushing me forwards towards the finish line. I saw my girls… my beautiful girls, Erin and Alice, waiting for me in the finish chute. But all I could do was tell them they couldn’t be there, that it would be disqualification. (I now know that everyone still was having their photos taken with their kids as they finish – how unfair is that?). I staggered over the line, my head popped through a medal ribbon that someone was holding for me and half a dozen pairs of hands grabbed me. All I remember is being whisked off to the medical tent and thinking that this is what people on the gurney’s in ‘ER’ must see… hundreds of concerned faces looking down at me. Soon I was in the tent and hooked up to a drip and, slowly but surely, my life force returned.
The End Bits
I lay in the medical tent and, as I came round, put together the times in my head. Or tried to. My watch showed a marathon time of 4:10 and I figured I’d done the race in under 11 hours. Not bad for a bad day at the office.
Once I’d left the tent, I saw Carl, who told me I’d run a 4:08 marathon and pb’d my Ironman time by four minutes for a finish time of 10:38.
And I guess, that’s sometimes what you have to do to get a PB.
Thanks to all my team mates, my supporters, my training buddies throughout the year, especially Graham who made it all so much easier. Thanks too to Coach K, who has once again always been there when I needed him. Special thanks once again to Fiona, Erin and Alice for somehow understanding why an otherwise right-minded 46 year old feels he has to do this kind of thing.
So… how do I feel? Well, I feel absolutely delighted with my race. That I was able to have toughed out that time in those circumstances when it would have been easy for me to take a more palatable option told me something further about myself that I didn’t know. That afternoon, on a run course by the River Main, I found myself somewhere I’d never been before and I don’t mean in a geographical sense. When it came to it, when all the chips were stacked against me and my body was, quite literally, beginning to shut down, I searched for a solution. I found that solution not from any outside source, but from somewhere within, a place inside me that I’d hoped existed but – until then – wasn’t sure actually did. For me, the solution was to keep on running, no matter what. If necessary even until I dropped. It wasn’t the answer I’d wanted to find but it was the answer I’d looked for and to ignore it would have meant being untrue to myself. And from now on I can look myself in the eye every morning and know that I did the right thing.
This – and nothing to do with race times - is why I’m proud to be an Ironman.