It is difficult to do justice to the enormity of the IRONMAN experience for those who haven’t witnessed it, but here’s a brief attempt.
Imagine the atmosphere at the London Marathon when the sun’s shining and the crowd are there to cheer on their loved ones as they achieve something super-human. Feel your spine tingle at each high five between a competitor and a child leaning over the hoardings. Think of all the boards, placards, signs, messages of support carried by kids / wives / husbands / parents for their competitor. Think of tiny cobbled streets with a runway of only 2m wide for the athletes with baying crowds lined all the way along both sides of the barriers 2,3,5 people deep. Think of a whole town that comes out for the most instantly recognisable sporting brand in the world. Everyone knows IRONMAN.
And think of that feeling as you run down the red carpet the final 50m in front of the grandstands erected in the town square, with IRONMAN’s famous South African announcer Paul Kaye – “the voice of IRONMAN” as he whips the crowd into a frenzy deep into the night as each runner trots through the line to hear him call your name and say “You are an IRONMAN”.
All that stands between you and that life-changing experience is the small matter of a 3.8k swim, a 180k bike ride and a marathon. Which, briefly put, involves doing 1:30 hours of front crawl with people climbing on your back and trying to pull your goggles off, and then cycling for 6-7 hours while fuelling your body to run a marathon.
I settled on Kalmar in Sweden – honestly – because it was the only one that still had any spaces left by the time my slipped disc and sciatic condition was sufficiently on the mend for me to even contemplate it so I only entered in May. My plan was simple – I had started ramping up the cycling miles from 1 March, I braved the local Lido on 1 April when it was a brisk 12Deg in there [I hate chlorine so I barely swim in Winter], and I figured to start trying to do more running through June/July.
I did a few “prep” events including a coast to coast cycle “Chase the Sun” in June where I had to drop out after 12 hours and 170 miles with dehydration & exhaustion as well as a few cycling sportives and had finally learnt that cycling long distances is all about fuelling and not working too hard. My shiny new Garmin 735 with its wrist-mounted Heart rate monitor keeps me honest and I’ve found that a combination of bars, salt tablets and masses of water, combined with keeping the HR below 135 is my “safe zone”.
For those who don’t swim much I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s taken 3 years to get to the point where I can finally breathe 3 strokes in open water (makes the stroke so much more symmetrical and keeps the length) and swim comfortably for over an hour. It’s a great whole body workout with zero impact. The tussling in the water is never intentional, but when you have 2,700 competitors starting together and swimming round some tight turns and narrow channels the congestion is unavoidable. I work on a theory of people tending to bounce off me – I have stayed rigidly at 80kg weight through the process but have moved it around – mostly from my tummy to my shoulders – so I’m pretty confident in my ability to hold my line.
The ride is as flat as a pancake with the first 120k being through the World Heritage site on Oland and then back to the mainland, crossing what was Europe’s longest bridge (6k). However the infamous Oland wind was brutal. When it was behind we were all cycling at 22-3-5mph sitting up, but when in the face everyone was huddled over their aero bars doing about 12/3/4. Remember there’s no drafting allowed in triathlon – it’s an individual time trial. As I was coming to the 100k point I started to feel tired and really tried to keep the HR under 130 to conserve energy. As each 10k marker came up I felt more and more exhausted and frankly was sick of being sat on that damn bike. And as the final 20k came along it’s impossible to not start thinking “how the f### am I going to go and run a bloody marathon now”.
The run is always three laps in IRONMAN and they give you a coloured wrist band on each lap so you run through the crowds and the cobbled streets three times. I intended to run around 8:30pace, aiming for 3:45 but I was so relieved to be off the damn bike and feel great using different muscles that I got a bit carried away with a couple of quicker miles that I may be paid for a bit later. The 2nd lap was awful. Stomach cramps, toilet stops, walking, incredibly tough. I took a closer look at the food on the fuelling stops (Kudos IRONMAN, there’s one every 2k) stocking water, isotonic drink, coke, red bull, fruit, energy bars, and – to my surprise – salted gherkins. My stomach told me what I needed and salt it was. I took a painkiller, drank coke, gobbled gherkins and managed to get my legs back a bit and get going again. My better half, Suzannah, was a star and kept popping up in different spots and walked/ran with me for a few hundred metres which really helped.
So, finally, my turn to run up the red carpet. The stops and walking had meant my A target (<11:30) and B (<12) had gone. But IRONMAN is about Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D for all the different aspects of the race. Plan C it was to be – finish strongly and in a respectable time.
So I ran the final 200m down the straight, showboating to the crowd, high-fiving all the way along, on an incredible buzz of energy and adrenaline. On the red carpet I did a Makwala and dropped for a few press-ups for the crowd, got to my feet, found Suzannah, blew her a kiss, showed off my guns, and jogged the last 20m to hear Paul’s famous voice,” Lloyd, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
I always say this at the end of my crazy race reports, but I really can’t recommend it highly enough!