Ironman UK, Bolton — 4th August, 2013
On 10th September 2012, I paid my entry fee for Ironman UK. I’d run my first couple of marathons that year, and raced my first two triathlons. I had the bug. I was fitter than I’d been in a long time, and leaner. But for me, the mere thought of Ironman was something way beyond my capability, or my comprehension. I’d only been riding a road bike for 4 months, and I could barely swim four lengths front crawl.
That’s why I entered. I liked the idea of a challenge, and it felt like a good dream to have. Oh, and there was also the influence of Andy Holgate and his book. But more about that fella later.
So for the next 11 months I trained, read everything I could about competing in Ironman, joined a fantastic triathlon club (NEWT), took whatever advice I could get … and I dreamed about crossing the finish line and hearing those thrilling words, Tim, you are an Ironman! In truth, it became something of an obsession. I’m sure that sound familiar to more than a few reading this. I know I’m not alone!
I’ve got a lot to say about Ironman, how it’s changed me, and my journey to get there. I know this report is likely to go long. Therefore, I’ve split it into chunks, so you can hopefully dip in and out to read the relevant bits.
On 2nd August I drove to Bolton with my family to try to make this dream come true.
The journey up to Bolton was a bloody nightmare. Is it only in the UK where mile upon mile of traffic cones appear without any visible roadworks actually being undertaken? It was hot, the aircon wasn’t working, and a 3 hour journey took more like 5 hours. I was getting more and more stressed, because I needed to get to Bolton in time to register the kids for their Ironkids race, meet my mate Andy Baxter (a fellow IM virgin), and get over to Reebok Stadium to register and attend the race briefing. As the slow motorway miles ticked by, I had less and less time. And getting stressed is something I really didn’t need.
We arrived just in time to register Dan and Ellie for Ironkids––phew!––dropped stuff off at the hotel, then we all took off to the Reebok Stadium. As the stress faded, this was when the nerves started to jingle. We registered, received our Ironman wristbands, collected our numbers and transition bags, then went to the briefing.
More nerves. It was an upbeat talk, but also businesslike, with lots of emphasis on what not to do (don’t litter, draft, run down the finishing chute with a loved one … or else you’ll be DQ’d). But when the guy asked how many were first-timers, and about 80% of those in the hall put up their hands, I felt a bit better.
After the briefing, Andy B and his family headed back to the hotel and we hit Frankie and Benny’s for a spot of dinner. I was getting excited, but still nervous, and very conscious of how my knee was feeling.
A strained knee ligament is the injury that kept me from proper training for the 6 or 7 weeks leading up to Ironman. I did loads of swimming, but very little biking, and no running. I’d been following the Fink competitive plan, so I missed out on most of my long rides and runs. The longest ride I did before Ironman was 73 miles, the longest run 14 miles. Not the best prep for the biggest, longest, hardest race of my life.
Hence the nerves.
Back to the hotel, a quick drink in the bar with Andy and his family––I had one pint, thinking it’d help me sleep––then I spent an hour alone in my room preparing kit and transition bags. I only checked them three times, a bit of a record for me.
On Saturday morning it was Ironkids! A real thrill watching my daughter Ellie and son Dan racing down the Ironman UK finishers’ red carpet, and they loved it too, putting in great performances. I was also delighted to meet a guy who’s become a good friend without us actually meeting … Andy Holgate. He spotted me before the Ironkids races and we chatted, drank coffee, watched the races. Andy Baxter and I picked his brain for any last minute advice. Top bloke. And like a droid in a Star Wars novel (which he actually is … check out the name Ironholgs on Wookiepedia), he’ll appear again later in this story.
Once Ironkids was done, Andy B and I headed out to drop off bike and bags and drive the bike course. We took my son Dan along––it was that, or go shopping with my wife and daughter!
More nerves … arriving at Pennington Flash, seeing the choppy waters of the lake, the hundreds of bikes already racked, the bags already hanging there, and knowing that within a little over 12 hours the race would be underway. My knee felt … OK. Was I confident? Quietly.
We drove the bike course. It didn’t seem too bad, and the one bad hill everyone had been talking about, Sheep House Lane, was a bit tasty, but no worse than many I ride around here when I’m training. I’ve done the Blaenafon Triathlon, I kept thinking as we drove up, and up. And there was a reward. The view from the top was beautiful, and the long, sweeping descents would be loads of fun.
Andy B went off to the Ironprayer, and my family and I visited Pizza Hut. Lots of nerves now. Appetite not huge, but I forced some food down.
Back at the hotel, my wife sorted out my number tattoos (a bit of farting around with one, and Ellie had to run down to reception to get a waterproof marker to put it right!). Because we’d paid for two rooms, I had one to myself that night. So I bid my family an emotional goodnight. Tracey gave me a hug and some words of encouragement. My kids Ellie and Dan did the same. I was welling up.
It had all come down to this, and the next time I saw my family would, hopefully, be on the run into Bolton.
I slept OK. Had maybe 4 hours sleep, and the alarm woke me at 2:30am for breakfast.
This was it.
I ate some bloody vile instant porridge, a banana, toast and jam, couple of cups of tea. Then Andy B drove us through a busy Bolton town centre to Reebok Stadium (Bolton was still filled with drunks at 4am in the morning … what a contrast, they were puking and staggering and sleeping in gutters, we were off to undertake the hardest one-day endurance event in the world!). From there we jumped on the shuttle bus to Pennington Flash.
We didn’t chat much. I think the sheer size of what I’d taken on had really hit home. But I was also excited about what was to come. I’d trained for close on a year with this one single day in mind, and whatever might happen––knee giving way, exhaustion, bike crash, punctures, cramp––I was going to do my bloody best.
I was racing in my dear Mum’s memory, for my family and friends who’d put up with so much Ironman talk from me, and most of all for myself. To prove that I could do it, and to revel in what was possible. A little over two years ago I’d been three stones heavier and unfit. And now? Positive mental attitude was vital––whether you think you can do something, or you think you can’t, you’re right.
On that rainy bus ride, I thought I could.
The ten minutes before the swim was the worst nerves-wise. I stood with Andy pretty close to the front of the queue, and again we weren’t chatting much. I think all the talking was going on inside our heads. Shook hands, wished each other good luck, and we entered the water.
I was keen not to start too close to the front, as the deep-water start was one of the things worrying me most.
The klaxon fired, I started my timer … and all nerves vanished. I’d been hoping this would happen. In their place was excitement –– (This was it, a year of preparation, training, worry and confidence building, and now I was racing an Ironman!) –– and I couldn’t hold back a grin.
As it turned out I had started closer to the front than the back, but the washing machine must have been on slow spin. I received and gave a few accidental punches and kicks, but nothing too bad, and I soon settle into a rhythm.
It was a two lap course, and the first turn buoy must have been 800m away. Not easy to sight. And it was my sighting that caused me most problems on the swim, especially on the return leg when we were swimming into the rising sun.
Lap one done in about 42 minutes (pleased with that) I started lap 2 confident and calm. The swim was pretty uneventful, other than a few more collisions. I made the mistake of following other swimmers as they also zig-zagged, and I reckon I probably swam more like 2.7 miles. I also managed to pee in my wetsuit for the first time ever (delightful, I know!), in an effort to save time in transition. Must admit I had to pause and bob a bit to do so.
Out of the water in 1:31, wetsuit stripped to my waist and pirate tri-top on display, I got just a taster of what the day would bring with some shouts of ‘Come on Pirate!’ In fact, considering it was 7:30am, the support at the swim was amazing. Hundreds of people lined the route into T1, shouting and cheering everyone along. It felt fantastic. All nerves had vanished, and now I was just enjoying the day.
Somehow I spent 7 minutes in T1, but the time went quickly. Out to the mount line, and the first part of my race was done.
Within a couple of hundred metres I knew something was wrong with my bike computer (moral of this story … and one that follows in the ‘run’ section … don’t rely on tech!). I’d replaced the batteries, and in doing so it had reset to km/h. I didn’t know how to switch it to mph, and with my contact lenses in it was difficult looking at things up close. So I left it, and spent the next couple of miles trying to mentally convert what km/h speed I’d have to hit to stick to my intended pace of 17mph.
The bike involved a point to point ride of about 14 miles, then three laps of about 33 miles. It was a nice ride on mostly closed roads. Even roads that weren’t closed were heavily controlled, with cyclists being given right of way. Excellently organised and planned, it made for a (mostly) safe and enjoyable ride. There was one incident I saw on an open road where one dickhead in a souped-up crappy car screamed along the road beside cyclists, and when a car came in the opposite direction he had to slam on the anchors. He came so close to a collision, and he’d have taken out at least three cyclists if that had happened. He left with abuse ringing in his ears from plenty of people, but I suspect he hears that a lot.
Once I started the first of the three laps, the support really amped up. I heard the famous Colt Alley before I saw it, and then a guy leaned into the road when he saw me and screamed, “COME ON TIM!” It was Andy Holgate, and the sheer enthusiasm and delight he and his fellow Colt supporters exuded powered me up the next hill.
I was happy to hear another “Go, Tim!” from Hannah and Rich from NEWT, I didn’t know they’d be there and it was a really nice boost.
I quickly came to Sheep House Lane. There must have been 500 people on the green at the bottom of the hill. This is the point I’d be turning off to head for transition in a few hour’s time, but for now there was the bulk of the bike course still ahead of me.
I didn’t find the hill too bad, and I overtook plenty of people going up. That’s a big advantage of living in Wales, where there are hills within a mile of my house in any direction. The support was massive going up the hill, people choosing places where racers would be going slow enough to see properly. Plenty of writing chalked on the road, too, including the delightful ‘Sweating Like A Pig’. Obviously aimed at someone in particular, but right then it fit pretty much everyone.
At the top of the hill was a campervan, music blasting, and a load of guys in mankinis and wacky wigs. Cheering, shouting, prancing, posing, having a drink, they were fantastic, and I was surprised to see them there for laps two and three too!
What goes up must come down, and after hitting the top of the hill and enjoying some glorious views, the big sweeping descents began. They seemed to go on forever and I reached around 40mph several times. Great fun, and a nice way to see the average speed knocked upwards after the hill climbs.
The next few miles of the course were a bit more lonely, with support in a few random places. Then it was in towards the end of the first lap when the crowds began again.
One of the great aspects of the race is having your name on your number. It worked on the bike and was even better on the run, and that small personal touch really gave me a boost at times. Kids loved it especially, shouting “Go on Tim!” when I passed. I did lots of waving over my shoulder.
I met a couple of people on the bike whom I’d only spoken to on forums before, which was nice. TylerTonka and I traded places for a few miles, then I think he went ahead and I didn’t see him again. My average was hanging around the 27 km/h mark, I was eating and drinking well (I hate Powerbars. There, I’ve said it. They taste like cattle feed, and if I hadn’t also taken along some of my homemade flapjacks, I think I might have puked). I also picked up plenty of bananas at the feed stations (peeling them with my teeth … yuck, banana skin is horrible, isn’t it?).
Second lap went well. I saw a few racers taking a rest by the roadside, one guy had taken a tumble and was being helped up, a few mechanical issues. I cruised on, taking care to eat and drink well––must have eaten 4 bananas on the bike course. Another jet-engine volume “COME ON TIM!” from Holgs got me smiling again, and the second climb of Sheep House Lane went well.
The third lap was when I started to feel the burn. Due to my knee issues, I’d never cycled more than about 75 miles before Ironman, so the last lap was literally unknown territory. My average came down, climbs became more difficult (hello, bottom gear), and I felt the first twinges of nausea from all the energy bars, drinks, and the several gels I’d taken. But the support got me around, and I was chuffed to be able to finish Sheep House Lane for the third time without pushing my bike (there were a few walkers by then). I was also pretty pleased to see some expensive bikes passing me on this third lap. I might only have an entry-level aluminium beast, but I love my Giant, and it had kept me ahead of these £3,000 beauties for a good portion of the bike course. Nice.
The third lap went on … and on … and on, so much so that I had to concentrate to make sure I hadn’t done another lap by mistake. Really, that’s a stupid idea, but for a few troubling minutes I had to wonder.
But no. The turn for transition came, and a few miles later I rolled into T2. I almost fell over when I got off my bike, legs were shaky. But I took off those horrible bikes shoes to walk to the changing hall. Luxury…
I spent 13 minutes in T2 (too long, Timbo … could do better!), eating fruit & nut mix, changing my socks, making sure I was ready for the run. I was feeling GOOD! Over 9 hours of racing done, and I felt fresh and eager to hit the road. The only worry … my knee. It had given only a few light twinges during the bike, but I knew that the run would be the big challenge.
But then, it’s only a marathon.
I took it easy for the first couple of miles. I wanted to use my Garmin simply for pacing, but the bastard thing didn’t pick up a satellite for the first 3 miles (again … don’t rely on tech). I didn’t worry too much though. I took it easy, chatting with a lady called Claire from Chepstow who was also doing her first Ironman.
I felt good, the knee was behaving itself. But I wasn’t going to relax until at least the halfway point.
The run into town was nice, taking in some canal towpath and a few quieter roads. I passed a couple of Pirates (sorry, didn’t get names!) and we chatted a bit. It was good being able to talk to people, and I settled into a steady rhythm, aiming for between 9:30 and 10:00 minute miles. I know that’s nothing impressive, but it seemed the most sensible plan, and I wanted to stick to it. Keep to your race plan! That’s what I was told, and it was working.
Hitting the first lap of the run in and out of Bolton town centre sent a tingle down my spine. The support was massive, all along this 3 mile stretch of road (after the run in, there were three-and-a-half laps back and forth before the finish). People shouted and cheered, and with my Pirate top now on view (I’d biked in my NEWT cycling top) I lost count of the number of “Go Pirate!” or “Aargh!”s I got. Great, encouraging, humbling. The Pirates are a fantastic group of people, and it was wonderful having so much support from both spectators and runners.
And then ahead of me I saw my buddy Andy B! Andy had been pretty certain that he’d clock a 2 hour swim, so I’d just assumed I was ahead of him. Turns out he did a 1:42 swim, so somewhere on the bike course he must have passed me. I just can’t think where! I caught up and we ran together for a bit, chatting, both now confident that by the end of the day we’d be Ironmen!
Feed stations … they had Mini Cheddars. I can’t tell you how welcome they were after a day of Powerbars, gels, and bananas. I scooped them by the handful, coughing out loads of crumbs and having to double back for another drink. But still … nice.
And then a highpoint of the day (actually, two highpoints close together). Andy H was waiting at the bottom of the slight hill into the town centre, screaming me down, high-fiving, and the man’s enthusiasm is palpable. He loves this sport, and he was largely responsible for me being there. And I didn’t even punch him. Still two laps to do, though.
Then I saw my family. That was lovely. They were at the railing where 1000s lined the route through the town centre, and I ran over and gave my wife a kiss (probably sweating and sticky from gels etc, sorry babe!), and ruffled my kids’ hair, then I was off again, just a little bit emotional but with spirits lifted.
And here is the hardest part of the run. As well as being supported by thousands (all encouraging me by name, many shouting “Go, Pirates!”) … the turnaround was behind the town hall, and I could hear people finishing. I could see people running in towards the finish and hear the commentator and the roar of the crowd, and I still had about 15 miles to go. Tough. But it drew me on, and I ran back out of town on a high.
There was a band, a music station set-up, dancers, drinkers outside pubs, people camped outside their homes with barbeques and beer, family supporters … so many people, all loving the day and cheering on the athletes. Just amazing. It kept my spirits up throughout the run, and even when my energy was flagging and it started to hurt, the crowds pulled me on. I’ll admit I wasn’t too fond of Bolton as a city, but I love Boltonians.
Second lap done, saw Andy H and my wife and kids again, and then it was into the final 6 miles. I was feeling good! I’d managed to run the bulk of the marathon (by the end I reckon I’d run 23 out of the 26 miles, walking feed stations and that slight hill up out of town. Chuffed with that.) My legs were tired but my knee wasn’t too bad. It was saying, ‘Hey, Tim, I’m here, and tomorrow you’re going to know it.’ But it didn’t scream at me on the day, and that’s what counted.
Last lap. Amazing. I ran it all, loving every minute, and getting a bit choked when I thought, This is it, I’m running towards the finish, I’m going to be an Ironman. The last year had all converged towards this moment, and a Pirate supporter shouted at me from the crowd and said, “Milk it!”
I ran into the dogleg that led to the finish. Crowds were screaming. The commentator’s voice welcomed racers in, though the whole finish area was still hidden behind the truck that held the big screen. And then at the one point where there weren’t many people I saw Andy H again. He was shouting me on, and I’m not sure what I said in reply. I think it was something like, “This is brilliant, I’ve done it, it’s great!” I wasn’t the mess of tears I thought I’d be, I think the excitement was just too high. I ran past him and turned into the finishing chute.
I pointed at my number and the commentator shouted, “And here’s another Pirate. Tim, you are an Ironman!” I jogged down the red carpet, arms aloft, looking around to see if I could see Tracey and the kids. I didn’t––the crowds were big, lining the Town Hall steps on one side and the grandstand on the other––but I knew they’d be there.
I crossed the line in 14 hours 12 minutes. That was it. Ironman.
I’ve bloody done it.
Medal, finisher’s photo, then into the recovery tent for … PIZZA! That was the best pizza I have ever tasted. There was also cake, water, melon. I picked up my tee shirt and went to change, eager to see my family again. Changing was fun … almost fell over a few times. But I felt bloody fabulous.
Outside, the first person I bumped into was Andy H. Then my family found me, and we had a big hug and a kiss, and I’d done it.
But … I was still buzzing, and Andy B had yet to finish! I bought a coffee the size of a family car, and we went back into the grandstand and waited, and cheered Andy in. What a finish!
We all waited there together right until the end, watching everyone else finish including the last finisher, Steve. Poor guy was suffering badly, barely able to walk, and he finished something like ten minutes after the cut-off. But I still think they gave him a medal and called him Ironman, because he was. That’s determination and bravery.
Back to the hotel, and my wife had bought me a couple of beers. Bless her. So at midnight she had to help me in and out of the shower because of my stiff legs and tiredness (and it’s funny how chafing only makes itself known in the shower following a race), and the four of us sat up for a while, chatting, my wife and I having a drink, and it was just about the best finish to the best day ever.
I think the very nature of Ironman is that you push to get there, push hard, harder, again and again. And so since I’m that way inclined, I’ve already thought the race through and done the inevitable analysis, wondering how I could have done better. Could’ve saved 10 minutes in transitions, 10 minutes on the swim if I’d sighted better, maybe 20 minutes on the bike if I hadn’t been injured …
But then I really think about what I’ve done, and it’s still sinking in. It’s insane. Just think about it. Swimming 2.4 miles, then cycling 112 miles (for me that’s from here to Tenby, the entire length of the South Wales coastline), then after all that setting off to run a marathon. All within a time limit. It’s the most challenging one-day endurance event there is, and I did it. Trained for a year, through one of the worst winters we’ve had, early morning runs in the rain, late night runs in the dark with a head torch, long cold lonely bike rides, endless laps of the pool and lake … and I loved pretty much every minute of it.
Ex-chubby bloke, ex-unfit bloke, now an Ironman.
I know that my family and friends are pleased for me. I was humbled to hear how many people were tracking me online all through the race, my wife Tracey was busy texting back and forth with people all day. I was delighted to be able to raise over £1,700 for St David’s Hospice, a wonderful organisation that really helped look after my mother when she was terminally ill.
I’m proud of what I’ve done. I know Mum would be too.
Without wanting to sound like one of those actors with an interminable ‘thank you’ list at the Oscars, I wanted to mention a few people who have really helped me so much. A year ago the idea of finishing Ironman seemed impossible, and it would have been without…
Andy Baxter, my new Iron Buddy. Andy started the ‘Fatman to Ironman’ thread on the Runner’s World forums, and he and I started swapping emails and sharing ups and downs in our training. We met up and raced the Grafman half-iron distance race together, and I’m so thrilled that we both got to finish Ironman together too. We done good, mate.
NEWTS, the best triathlon club around. I’ve only been a member since the beginning of the year but I’ve made a lot of friends there, and advice and feedback from members and coaches has been invaluable.
The Pirates. Go Pirates!
Andy Holgate. Ironholgs, the best droid there is. Not only would I have not done this without reading his books and getting inspired, I could not have done it without him. No doubt about that. He’s a top bloke who loves triathlon with a passion, and he’s become a good mate.
And my family. Bloody hell, did they put up with a lot. My kids Ellie and Dan were always interested in what I was doing, and I was so delighted that they were there to see their old man become an Ironman. And Tracey, my wife, who listened to me talking about training and injuries, raised an eyebrow every time a new Wiggle parcel arrived, and whose support became even stronger as the race grew closer. I love them. And Tracey and the kids know I couldn’t have done it without their support.
I’ve heard it said that you either do one Ironman and vow never again, or you get the bug. Me? I’m already deciding whether to do the Outlaw or Ironman Wales next year, and the year after that … I quite like the look of Ironman Canada.
After all, anything is possible.