My Ironman Journey: Year 2

After a really fun first year of triathlon, the bug had truly hit and in the Autumn of 2015 I signed up to my first half Ironman distance race – The Outlaw Half. I’d heard great things about this race, and the fact that it sells out the day it goes on sale speaks for itself! So I signed up and spent the winter wondering and worrying, and itching to get back to proper training. A half Ironman felt like a proper serious distance, and it was one I’d really have to think about and plan for, especially making sure my distances were up to scratch and my race nutrition was all planned and well rehearsed.

A winter of itching to get back to training led me to book onto another big first race – a marathon! I chose Manchester Marathon partly due to its proximity to my parents’ house, and partly because the race info insisted it was a flat PB course so it was sure to be easy, right?? Through the winter and spring, the marathon training really gave me something to focus on. I was running most of my long runs with my new run club, and I was loving the social aspect and camaraderie. The weather soon improved though, and by March I was probably doing more cycling than running! I was back loving my bike again and running had become a chore. My training dropped off before the marathon, though I still managed to complete the race. It was someway short of my target 4h time at 4:27. I hated the last half of the run and the spectator support ran out just when I need it most – mile 15 to 21. Once I could sense the finish line though I picked up the pace and bounded across the finish line! It was the first big race my parents and siblings had been to watch, so it was awesome having then cheer me along and ply me with food and drink at the end! Plus I got another free ‘isotonic recovery drink’ (beer) so my Dad and brother didn’t do too badly!

With the improving weather, my love of cycling returned with a vengeance and I was cycling most evenings and weekends. My run training dropped off, but thankfully I still had miles in my legs from the marathon. I was still swimming a couple of times a week, now with a local triathlon club which helped improve my swim fitness and technique no end. Not long after the marathon in April, the May half Ironman rolled around and once more I was driving up to a race venue after a night of minimal sleep ready to throw myself in a cold lake!

At 7am, as the sun rose over Nottingham, we gingerly entered into the cold cold water and waited for the start horn to sound. And we were off! The swim went similarly to London Triathlon – I managed to draft for a while until I got bored and switched to breastroke. This was something I needed to get over! Still, I was happy with my 1.9km swim time of 47 minutes. The cycle ride was smooth and flat. OK, yes, there was one hill, but everyone I had spoken to had immensely exaggerated the scale of this hill. I was up and over it nice and quick, and began the gentle descent back to the T2. I averaged 28kph over the 90km, which I was super happy with. I guess not having to stop at junctions or slowing for traffic/pedestrians makes a big difference! Onto the run, and I paced it well and with only a small amount of walking I finished the 21.1km flat route in 2:10. Another red carpet finish chute (I could get used to this!) and I was done! 

I loved loved loved the Outlaw Half! It was the most well organised, well supported (spectators and volunteers) race I’d ever done. After a summer of saying “I think I’ll just do cycling from now on”, it totally reinvigorated my love for triathlon. In fact I loved it so much, and loved the race so much, that come Autumn 2015 I was signing up for the big one – the full Ironman distance Outlaw!

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My Ironman Journey: Year 1

I took three years of progressing through triathlon distances before I did my first Ironman distance race, so I’ll chronicle each of those years in this mini blog post series…

At the end of 2013, I decided that my first year of triathlon should culminate in an Olympic distance triathlon. Typically this is a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike and then a 10km run. I booked onto the London Triathlon, an annual race with huge range of distances and waves running over two days. I booked onto the Olympic distance race and crossed my fingers that I would be fit enough to finish by the time August rolled around!

So with this in mind, at the start of 2014 I booked onto a number of multisport races in order to progress my skills and improve my fitness through the year. My first multisport race was a chilly early March duathlon at Eton Dorney, run by Votwo. I’d run a 10km there earlier in the year and knew it was pan flat – so I was all set for an easy start to multisport racing! The newest part to me was the so called ‘transition’, where you switch from running to cycling and later back to running again. Apart from running out with my helmet on (oops!) the race went smoothly. The biggest surprise to me was how my legs felt trying to run again after cycling – everyone describes the feeling as jelly-like, but to me my legs felt stiff as wood! And although my watch said I was running a good pace, it felt like I was going really slowly. I guess that’s the effect of having just cycled at a much a faster rate and having to get used to the surroundings going past much more slowly!

My first triathlon was a pool-based sprint distance race; a sprint race is typically half the distance of Olympic. This was the Lutterworth Flashman, a small race run by the local triathlon club. It was a 400m swim, 18km bike and 5km run, so slightly shorter than half Olympic. I remember quizzing the poor race director to death about all the logistics of my kit – where to leave my swim kit and how to lay my bike kit out and whether I’d need my race belt etc etc. She was very patient with me, even though I’m sure she had much better things to be getting on with, like managing a race! The race went smoothly (again), although I ran out from transition with my helmet (again!). The Flashman was such a friendly and well organised race so after a couple of years on hiatus, I’m glad to see it’s now back running at a new venue.

My next race was a step up again – this time progressing from a pool-based swim to open water. Eek! Like I mentioned in a previous post, the thought of what’s beneath me in a lake doesn’t bother me. The thing I worried about most was the cold. I hate that first time you get into an indoor heated pool – and that’s usually somewhere between 25 and 30℃. So the thought of plopping myself into cold 15℃ water, wetsuit or not, was rather off-putting! Still, I managed it, and after a very slow totter into the water, I began my first open water sprint triathlon (courtesy of Votwo again). This time the distances were truly half Olympic, so 750m swim, 20km bike and 10km run. It was an evening triathlon and because of work commitments I had opted to be in the last wave. Which meant that when I finished it was getting dark and they’d already started packing away the finish line! Slightly embarrassing, but the race still went well for me, I was just slow!

Eventually August rolled around, and with that came my season’s A’ race. I didn’t sleep much the night before because I was worried about how it would go. Looking back this seems silly – if it all goes wrong, it doesn’t matter! You just drop out of the race and come back another day. Anyway, the newbie triathlete in me was pooing her pants. The drive there was odd, as they’d signposted most of the route but not all, and finding the entrance to the Excel was a nightmare! After a stressful half an hour circling the venue and getting totally lost, we eventually found the car park entrance. Thankfully we’d left buckets of time, so we still had an hour to get me registered, set up transition and squish myself into my wetsuit. After an incoherent briefing, my fellow triathlon ladies and me all piled into the water and then a horn sounded and we were off! I managed to draft someone for a long way, until I got bored of front crawl and began to breastroke instead. It was only in my third year of triathlon that I stopped breastroking in triathlon events. It takes a lot of mental strength to keep your face firmly in the water for the entire time! I felt good about my swim and when I got out my time was 33 minutes – far faster than the 45 I was expecting! I know I was drafting but even now this seems fast, so I have my suspicions about the accuracy of the swim course. Anyway, swim done and I was onto the bike! This was the bit I was looking forward to most, after a summer of cycling with my new group I was loving the bike! Unfortunately I hadn’t thought to read the race manual in much detail, nor listen closely to the briefing, and I went the wrong way. The wrong way!! Rather than doing one and a half laps to make the 40km, I managed to do two full laps, making my total bike distance 55km. I was mortified! Still, I managed to finish and came off the bike with my target total race time of 3 hours in tatters. Oh well, all I could do now was run. And run I did. Three laps of a curvy turny route which didn’t give much chance to get a good pace going. But the best bit was the finish – RED CARPET! I bounded down the finish chute like I hadn’t just done my longest triathlon to date with the biggest grin across my face! I was met at the end with a medal and a cold beer (alcohol free, apparently this can be justified as an ‘isotonic recovery drink’!). I finished the race in about 3:30, so half an hour longer than my target 3h, but I put that down to my extra long bike. With a successful race behind me and a post-race burger inside me, suffice to say I was pretty happy!

After a great event, we unfortunately got stuck in the traffic trying to get around the road closures for the triathlon bike route (ironic) and it took us 3 hours to get home. It took the shine off things a bit. But still, I was so happy to have trained well up to the distance and successfully completed the race. And the fact that I’d actually done a much longer bike gave me confidence that next year maybe I could another distance which was brewing in my head – half Ironman!

My Ironman Journey: Back in the Saddle

Once I’d decided I wanted to try triathlon, the discipline which I was most excited about was the bike. I used to love tearing around campsites when I was little and cycling to friends’ houses, so the thought of getting a bike was pretty exciting. Through the winter of 2013/14 I was going to more and more spin classes at the gym, which really helped with my general fitness as well as getting me ready for cycling. In January 2014, I bought myself a snazz new bike through the cycle to work scheme. It was a road bike – I’d previously only had mountain bikes – called a ‘Scott Speedster 15’ and it was black and purple and very shiny. I imaginatively named it ‘Bikey’. For a few months, ‘Bikey’ lay relatively unused, partly due to the cold weather and partly because I just didn’t know where to take it; I worried about getting lost. Everything changed in June when I found a local cycling group and started cycling with them. I built up group riding confidence, discovered some great roads for cycling (and some not so great roads!), and dramatically improved my bike handling skills.

I’d rediscovered cycling and rediscovered that sense of pure freedom that only cycling brings. I love exploring the UK countryside and admiring the incredible scenery. I also love that cycling and cake are so intricately interwoven that I soon knew of every bike friendly cafe within a 50km radius of my house!

Now that I’d embarked on all three of the triathlon disciplines, there was only one thing left to do: Enter A Triathlon!

My Ironman Journey: Tackling the Swim

Not long after I took up running, the seed of triathlon planted itself in my head. I’m not entirely sure where it came from, although I do remember one of my friends talking about a super sprint race they did around this time, so possibly I was inspired by that. I always loved cycling and swimming when I was younger, so adding those into my new run program seemed to make sense. I read lots of information on the internet about triathlon and how the format works, and discovered that front crawl is the triathlete stroke of choice. I had swum sporadically during my adult life, mostly a few lengths of breastroke (I remember once thinking 24 lengths was my limit!) but it was a long time since I’d attempted front crawl. Time to learn!

I signed up to adult front crawl lessons at my local leisure centre and began (re-)learning the stroke. We slowly progressed through swimming widths to lengths, and then at the end of term we had a swim test where I officially ‘qualified’ to enrol on the intermediate class starting next term. In the end I did adult front crawl lessons for about a year and finally wasn’t swallowing the entire pool every lesson! I was even bilaterally breathing and at my final swim test, I managed to swim about 50 lengths in 30 mins. Success!

During this first year of swimming, I tried open water swimming for the first time. I went along to a ‘first timers’ course run by British Triathlon at Shepperton Lake, which is a lovely beach-entry lake West of London. They gave us some classroom teaching and then let us slowly (very slowly!) enter the water and start swimming around. It was cold and weirdly restrictive to wear a wetsuit, but I didn’t find it creepy or worried about things touching you like others. I always loved water and playing in seas/rivers on holiday when I was little, so maybe that helped. After getting used to the water, we did some exercises in sighting then course (turns out I naturally swim in circles!) and drafting other swimmers to save energy. It was a really great course and incredibly useful for a total open water noob like me!

So now that I was regularly running and swimming, there was just one last triathlon discipline to try: the bike!

My Ironman Journey: Couch to 5k

Three years ago almost to the day I started the Couch to 5k program. From never ever running before in my entire life, I had at some point during Summer 2013 decided that I should figure out what this ‘going for a run’ lark is all about. I searched the internet for beginners running and up came the Couch to 5k program – a 9 week walk/run training plan for complete beginners aiming to run 5 kilometres (3.1 miles). I know now a slow build like this is most definitely the best approach to running, allowing your body to adapt to both the physical exertion and the greater impact on the knees/joints. So on the 19th of August 2013, I downloaded a Couch to 5k app to my phone, popped my headphones in and off I went. That first run was 20 minutes of 60 seconds jogging, 90 seconds of walking. The app allowed me to listen to music while a very nice lady gently encouraged me to start or stop running. That first walk/run felt kinda easy, probably owing to the fact that the program plans for a slow build and also that, while I was pretty much a couch potato, I still had youth and the occasional hill walk and zumba class on my side.

Through August and September I continued on the program at a slightly faster than planned rate – at 3 sessions per week I instead probably averaged 4 or 5, turning a 9 week program into six. As I progressed, I planned my finale run (and first 5k non-stop run) to take place at Leamington Parkrun. Parkrun is a free weekly timed 5k run taking place every Saturday morning in parks across the UK. It’s an amazing creation, and has significantly contributed to the wealth of new runners like me taking up the sport in the last decade. It’s a great place to do your first 5k; the atmosphere is so supportive; whether you run, walk or plod, everyone is made to feel welcome and included, all ages, shapes and sizes. I remember giving it my all, forcing myself not to walk at all (even though I really wanted to) and feeling so happy when I finished (I finished!!) in a time of 30:23.

Credit: David Hawtin

After parkrun I continued running round about 3 times a week, starting to progress slowly through the distance to my new goal of running 10k. A fortnight’s holiday to Vietnam didn’t help my cause – the jetlag and 2 weeks off my newfound sport made the first few runs back feel horrendous! But nevertheless by November 2013 I was ready to sign up to my first 10k – the Coventry 10k.

Looking back now, having done so many other running/multisport races, Coventry 10k is a fairly poorly organised affair with an inaccurate course, insufficient toilets and a manual ‘hope they spot you’ timing system. Still, it was good enough for my first attempt at a longer distance race. It was a nice crisp November morning and as far as I remember, the race went well. I was more than a little surprised by my finishing time of 55:41, but I largely put that down to the slightly short course and perhaps being fitter than I initially thought.

Now that running was becoming a triweekly occurance and I’d completed my first 10k run, I felt I could officially call myself a runner! I rewarded myself with a pair of snazz new trainers specially designed for running and signed up to the local running club. I didn’t know it yet, but my journey to Ironman had begun!

Day 15: Farewell Vietnam!

**WARNING** This post was draft written 3 years ago and I’ve only just my lazy arse around to finishing it. Everything from here on was written from a combination of notes and a fading memory…

I woke very hungry and hurried downstairs for the hotel breakfast. Back to the usual frankfurter sausages, but I didn’t entirely mind. I was ravenous! I had the morning to kill while I waited for my afternoon flight, so me and another couple of girls from the trip went for a little explore of Saigon. We went to a pagoda and saw some botanical gardens. We had fruit juices at another local hotel – mine was lychee flavoured, obviously! Then back to the hotel for a final pack and to catch the taxi to the airport. I was hungry again by the time I got to the airport and spotted Burger King. I couldn’t….could I? Turns out I could. I ordered a Double Cheeseburger and Fries and yes, it tasted the same as home. It felt so wrong but also so right!! Back to modern living already.

Thankfully the flights were uneventful. They served us chicken and beans (boring, but edible) and a beef pasty thing (weird, but edible). I watched The Artist – not one for watching while you’re half asleep by the way! – and The Big Bang Theory. I was too tired for anything more intellectually stimulating. I remember the 5 hour wait from midnight to 5am in Doha for my connecting flight was possibly the worst part of my whole trip. I just wanted to be home! And there was no where to sleep or even sit comfortably. So I was very bored and very tired. But eventually the flight was boarding, and 8 hours later I was back in London.

Vietnam was the first Eastern country I’d been to, and I went partly for that reason. I expected it to be entirely different from the UK/Europe/US, and it most definitely was! The food was amazing and the scenery was just stunning. I loved how basic it was and – quite frankly – how cheap everything was. It was a real novelty after being a stingey student for so long to not have to think twice about ordering something from a menu or having a second (or third!) beer. I loved it so much that my next stop (and next blog series) – Thailand!!

Day 14: Saigon

**WARNING** This post was draft written 3 years ago and I’ve only just my lazy arse around to finishing it. Everything from here on was written from a combination of notes and a fading memory…

I slept right through the night on my very comfy camp bed (although seemingly I sleep through typhoons, so a few crickets and mischievous rats were never going to stop me!). We had a breakfast of banana pancakes, which seems to be the standard offering to Westerners. It’s very yummy, but my tour group all agreed that we would’ve liked a proper Vietnamese breakfast instead – i.e. a noodle soup beefy broth called ‘pho’. We caught a boat to the mainland and transferred to a coach headed to Saigon. It was weird to be back in a huge modern city after so long in small towns and villages. I must admit I didn’t enjoy it as much, and wished we’d had a couple more days in the jungle or Halong bay instead of Saigon. We took a cyclo tour through the city early in the morning to visit the war remnants museum before the crowds hit. It’s a museum dedicated to the Vietnam war (which the Vietnamese understandably call the American war). It contains lots of the usual war museum stuff – tanks, planes, uniforms, guns etc. But one of the rooms was full of jars of malformed embryos in liquid. So very very creepy. The embryos were essentially miscarried as a result of Agent Orange being dumped on the land by the Americans (and associated troops). The museum walls said the negative effects of Agent Orange still persist in the country today. After a sombre morning, we then cycloed off to reunification palace. By this timing it was raining, which fuelled the already dampened post-museum spirits of the group. We eventually cheered up on a full cyclo tour, during which we were taken down the posh streets (Prada, Gucci etc!) and eventually ended at our final hotel for the trip. Our guide arranged for us to go to a lovely lovely restaurant for our final meal which had an AMAZING view across the twinkling lights of the city. I had an incredible beef curry, which reminded me of more typical coconut-based Thai-style curry – apparently this is typical of richer southern Vietnamese food. I also had a lemongrass/lychee cocktail which was soooo nice! It still felt weird to be back to richer Western-style living, but that cocktail and that food made everything ok! After dinner we were allowed up onto the rooftop for a proper look at the amazing view, and took a few final photos of the group as a farewell. It was bittersweet having to leave, but by now I was looking forward to going home. By the time we got back to the hotel I was shattered, and very ready for bed. So at that particular point I was rather glad of my Saigon Western-style mattress and Western-style duvet!!

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