The Build Up
After Dubai 70.3 in January this year I was looking for another challenge. I had done one Ironman (UK) in 2015 and had sworn after that I would never do another. But I just couldn’t get excited about another 70.3 and realized I wanted to see what I could achieve over the full distance. I had qualified for Kona in Ironman UK but didn’t take the slot so that itch was there and I wanted to see if I could get there again.
I chose Italy for a number of reasons as well as the pre-race food and post-race wine.
It was at a time of year when the kids are in school so my absence is least disruptive. I am working full time now so arranged for the kids to go to the UK for 5 weeks in the summer and stay with my parents. I figured this would leave me plenty of time to commit to training with all the early mornings and exhaustion this would entail. My parents could also join me at the event which was great – my Dad is both the bike mechanic and chauffeur as well as good company.
I also purposely chose a flat bike course. Living and training in Dubai I just think it is very difficult to be competitive on a hilly course without going to Hatta every weekend and even then I think we are disadvantaged compared to the Europeans with hills on their doorstep.
I did realize it would be very tough to qualify for Kona in Italy as there would likely only be 1 slot for and I am also 39 this year so at the very top of my age category. However, if I did manage to sneek it I would be 40 for Kona the following year and this was appealing.
I really committed to training. I started using Luke Mathews as a coach back in September 2016 and for me having an excellent coach has made a huge difference. I don’t like to miss a session and see Training Peaks turn red and apart from in the swim (I only do Masters swim sessions) I generally do as I am told and try my best in every session. I trained hard and there were a number of 2am starts for 5 hour bike rides at Al Qudra. I only maxed at about 16 hours a week though – I often wondered if I was putting in enough volume but trusted in Coach.
I also took up pilates once a week to strengthen my core and engage my glutes. I believe this made a difference. I became a lot stronger on the bike – my zone 2 pace seemed to move from around 31 kph to 34 kph for long rides at some point and I knew I had managed to turn my cycling into more of a weapon. My running pace increased as the weight dropped off a bit (I didn’t really try to lose weight – it just came off in the process) and as the race got closer I was feeling excited to see what I could do.
Sadly Coach was taken sick in Africa about 3 weeks before the race. This was obviously very concerning and left me without my usual feedback for this period. I suspect I am quite demanding as an athlete as I do like feedback after the key sessions and I began to second guess myself a little without Coach there to help.
Then there was a small disaster when I woke on the Sunday before the race feeling terrible – very dizzy and sick. I called in sick and hoped it would pass. It didn’t and by Tuesday I was forced to go to the doctor and also to accept that there was a possibility I couldn’t race. The doctor diagnosed an inner ear problem and gave me drugs which could help with the symptoms but said it could be weeks until the vertigo passed. I took the drugs, crossed my fingers and set off to Italy feeling somewhat concerned and unable to walk in a straight line let alone complete an Ironman.
The event itself was brilliant. Cervia is a great little seaside town only an hour from Bologna airport (Emirates fly direct). It has loads of hotels and restaurants and without paying too much money we stayed in a hotel from which we could see the swim start from the balcony. Italy is a fantastic place for pre-race carb loading and the logistics were all so easy with the 1 (very long) transition. Highly recommended to everyone – particularly suiting us in Dubai with the flat and non technical bike course.
I arrived on Thursday with the race on Saturday so didn’t have too much time to spare but the time difference worked to my advantage and I didn’t feel rushed. My Dad put the bike together and I registered on Thursday.
On Friday I went for my pre-race training of very short ‘swim-bike-run’. All was good – the sea was calm, the weather was lovely and I was feeling ok. The drugs seemed to be working and while I wasn’t 100% I felt a lot better and was getting more confident I would be able to race.
The next problem was that my power meter wasn’t working. I thought the batteries just needed changing and set off to get new ones but after a lot of fiddling and wasting of energy we had to conclude we couldn’t get it to work. So I was to race without power. After training all summer to know exactly how many watts I could push on race day I felt a little alarmed at this but tried to relax and remind myself it was just riding a bike – I would be fine. Just don’t push it too hard on the first loop were everyone’s words.
So race day dawned and I woke up feeling excited, nervous and happily not dizzy any more. I ate 3 wheatabix, a muesli bar and a banana and drunk some Italian coffee. Stomach wasn’t quite right and I vomited a bit back up but I put this down to nerves and hoped it would settle.
Swim (53 mins)
We gathered at the swim start and I ambitiously lined up in the sub 1 hour swim section. I am a strong swimmer and knew I wouldn’t be far off this and I also knew most people overestimate their ability so decided to get near the front. Rhonda managed to spot me and we caught up for a hug and good luck messages before we went off – it was great to be there with a friend.
Off we went and I quickly felt dreadful! I don’t often enjoy the swim (I mainly train in the pool) and within about 500m I had convinced myself my legs ache already and it wasn’t going to be my day. But obviously there wasn’t much choice but to carry on and I did manage to settle into a rhythm and relax. I overtook a lot of people even though I thought I had started near the front.
It was a 2 loop swim with an Australian exit. The sea in Cervia was so shallow that coming into shore and out again was exhausting and disrupted my rhythm. I settled back down and soon enough I was back in and running for transition. I didn’t wear my watch so had no idea of time.
Transition 1 (7 mins)
The transition zone was literally a mile long so we knew transitions would not be quick. Maybe because I knew this I didn’t hurry very much because looking at the results I did lose some time there.
I put on my Castelli stealth top to make me extra aero and protect me from the sun and off I went.
I have never managed (or really tried) to clip my shoes onto my bike and do them up as I go along so I had to run the whole transition zone in my cycling shoes. We were specifically told in the briefing that we were not allowed to carry the shoes down and put them on at our bikes and with the transition being so long this did cost me time.
Bike (5 hours 28 mins)
We had also been told in the briefing that the bike course was 185km – 5km extra for good measure! The course was 2 loops with 1 short (ish) but steep hill around half way of each loop. Otherwise it was flat.
I got going and felt ok. I let myself settle down and just drunk water to start with before having a mars bar after an hour. I enjoyed the mars bar and it seemed to go down smoothly.
On the first loop I was being overtaken by hundreds of extremely fast European men in packs. I know there were some drafting police out there as I saw plenty of people in the penalty tents but clearly there were not enough. I consider myself to be a strong cyclist these days – I can certainly get round Al Qudra pretty quickly but on the roads of Italy this seemed to have disappeared.
With no power meter to gauge how much effort I should be putting in it was rather demoralizing but I did know my speed was ok – I was still averaging around 34kph, the fast men must have been going about 40kph.
The hill passed on the first loop without too much trouble. It was steep but it didn’t go on too long so it was manageable. I began to feel very average towards the end of the first loop. I was tired, my back and neck were really hurting and my tummy wasn’t happy and I wasn’t even at 90km yet! I took a gel and vomited it back up – things were not looking good. I told myself ‘this is just a phase’ – just keep peddling. I was soon back in town where I knew I would see my parents and this gave me a boost. I smiled and waved and headed out for the second loop.
A strange thing happened on the start of the second loop and I began to find my cycling legs a bit. The fast men had stopped coming past me quite so much and I found myself with more similar level cyclists and then I even started catching some people. My stomach settled, I kept fueling and I began to feel good again. The hill seemed to have become a mountain but after that it was back into town and I began to feel very happy and excited that I would soon be off the bike.
Only a marathon left to go! 183km per my watch.
Transition 2 (6 mins)
I had an enormous smile on my face coming into T2. It is always a relief to get off the bike without any mechanicals. I didn’t rush too much through T2 and stopped to go to the loo. I changed my top and put my running hydration backpack on. This was something I had decided to do on advice from Brett Sutton at his training camp. It meant I knew I had everything I could possibly need with me on the run and all my own nutrition with me.
It did also mean I was carrying an extra 2kg – I am not sure I would do it again!
Run (3 hours 39 mins)
I set off on the run and realized there was to be no light and bouncy feeling in my legs. (Not sure there ever is in a full Ironman?) They felt heavy and I felt tired from the start. But I was running at a decent pace. I knew I should not go faster than 5 min kms – any faster than that is not sustainable for me. The first couple of km’s were 4.55 ish and then I slowed to around 5’s and just tried to keep going around that for as long as I possibly could.
I am not the world’s best runner but I do have a very efficient running style (more of a shuffle!) and it tends to be better suited to the long distance. I just kept shuffling along feeling very average but telling myself just to keep going. It was a lovely 4 loop course with a section off road in the park. There was great support out there and at times I almost enjoyed it.
By 15km my calves had started cramping. I was very concerned this was happening already. I do tend to have cramping problems with my calves and fortunately in my magic backpack I had lots of salt tabs (as well as everything else imaginable!) so I started taking them religiously. (I was thirsty for days afterwards!) First one calf would go and then the other and then both of them together. I had to stop and stretch them off a lot for the remainder of the marathon but somehow then managed to return to running at the same pace. I was terrified they would go completely and I would end up crawling to the finish but miraculously they just about held up.
By 20km I was feeling very low on energy and turned to the coke and redbull earlier than planned. The stuff is amazing! I really do feel the effect so quickly from the caffeine and the sugar. I then had it at every single aid station after that and I am sure that’s how I got through it. I should have got rid of my backpack to my parents but I wasn’t thinking straight and my salt tabs were in the bag so I decided to keep it on - they were my lifeline. I ran the whole marathon with it on and when I got to the end I realized it was still over half full.
As I got towards the end I began to feel very happy and emotional. I realized I was going to achieve a time I hadn’t thought was possible. My Dad had told me I was in 2nd at some point early on the run and then I was overtaken by another girl in my age group so I presumed I was 3rd but that didn’t make any difference to me. I had put in a performance I was so proud of and really dug so deep I knew I couldn’t have done any more. Total time was 10 hours 14 mins and 44 seconds.
It turned out I was second in age group. Due to the rolling start the girl who overtook me was already in front of me – she had started the swim 8 minutes later than me. I was the 5th Age grouper home and also beat 4 of the professional women. But there was no automatic Kona slot as the female field was a small percentage of the total field and all female categories only got 1 slot.
This does seem a bit unfair but I know all the arguments and the mens fields are so much deeper. I also knew the score in advance so can’t complain. I went to the awards ceremony the next day to pick up my 2nd place trophy and for the Kona roll down but didn’t have high hopes.
I got very lucky and the winner didn’t take the slot. As Paul Kaye said her name 3 times I began to get excited and then I jumped out of my seat so quickly on the first mention of my name and paid the USD 1000(!!) to secure my Kona slot. This was the icing on the cake.
There were so many times I felt terrible and wanted to quit during this race.
You could look at the race result and conclude I had a great race and it must have all gone to plan. The truth is I am not sure it ever goes exactly to plan but I just kept believing and kept going.
I must have told myself 100 times ‘this is just a phase – it will pass’ and most of the time it did eventually pass and I felt vaguely ok again. It is a long day out and I reminded myself of all the training I had done, all those early mornings and sacrifices I had made. I thought of all the people tracking me and how much I didn’t want to let everyone down. I also thought of Coach and how much he would have loved to be racing – it will be a while until he is back on the start line (but he will be back!).
I must thank Luke and the other guys at Optimal Tri – you are clearly doing a great job. I must also thank my husband who is not remotely interested in Triathlon - he thinks I am mad but supports me nonetheless.
The inaugural Ironman Italy was an amazing experience and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to everyone – sign up now!