I WANT TO BE AN IRONMAN – WHY?
It is a difficult one to answer, but through telling my story I believe I have my answer.
The seeds were sown years ago when I did my first triathlon in London and a rather more obscure memory of Forest Gump! The idea that someone could choose to run and keep running on and on.
Endurance is the ability to endure a difficult situation without giving way. The capacity to last and to suffer pain without expressing fear; to grit one’s teeth and do what has to be done. For me, this is what the Ironman encapsulates.
I have found myself in difficult situations and have felt engulfed with fear. I have suffered physical and emotional pain. I have chosen the easier path. I knew that if I did an Ironman, it would give me the chance to confront all those demons, my internal saboteur.
To do this was an almost impossible dream, but I truly believed that through dedication and personal aspirations that I could turn this dream into reality.
The idea of doing an Ironman came to fruition probably a couple of years ago in the form ofa dream. Then I realised that if you truly want the dream to come true you have got to tell someone about it. So, one night just over a year ago, I told my brother that I wanted to do an Ironman. His response was quick and to the point. It only takes a few words to change one’s life, and what my brother said, changed mine!
He said, “Great idea, I’ll do an Ironman with you! Let’s do the Austrian Ironman.”
Thank you Jon.
And so the journey began. It involved successfully entering the Austrian Ironman. Now that is not easy! Online entry opened at midnight on 29th June 2013. Jon was on holiday in Turkey, so Nick and I sat with computers on laps, fingers poised counting down the minutes to midnight. The clock struck 12 and I filled out my entry form and Nick filled out Jon’s. Heart pounding, palms sweating, with rather frustrated husband by my side, I completed my entry in 7 minutes and waited for confirmation that I had made it… then perhaps within a minute an email arrived. I had successfully entered the Austrian Ironman 2014.
Yes Nick managed to enter my brother successfully in 9 minutes. Online entry closed at 12.22am on 30th June 2013. There was no going back, and the little voice in my head that had hoped that I wouldn’t get in was silenced.
So I needed to learn how to swim, ride and run. Yes of course I could swim a few laps of the pool, ride around on my bike and run for a bit. But I needed to learn how to swim 4 km, cycle 180 km and run a marathon, consecutively within 17 hours.
I trained for 9 months following two online training programmes. Without these I would have lacked discipline and direction. The programmes gave me the necessary advice and structure that I needed. I shared many training sessions with my cycling buddy, Hayley, and an especially memorable 24 mile hike along the South Downs Way. On the days that I lacked motivation, just being told to go for a run for an hour or ride for 3 hours was all I needed. Routine.
My training became my religion; I was obsessive and utterly self-absorbed. It took over my life for 9 months. And the kit….I needed so much! For many, shopping is their therapy, buying those great heels or that dress that you have been wishing to buy for so long. Well, sweat wicking fabric, wet suits, bike seats, carbon wheels, inner tubes, these became my therapy.
Mental preparation began at an early stage; I knew that my mind was my greatest enemy. I spent a lot of time on visualisation. To be alone for up to 17 hours is a long time to get lost in one’s own thoughts.
Injury and illness were a persistent threat. Through education, I learnt to manage my body, constantly stretching out those aching muscles and learning to understand the importance of nutrition in training. With the help of a physio and sports masseur, I managed to remain relatively uninjured.
But allaying the dreaded illnesses was not so successful. I developed a persistent cough that was particularly bad after training sessions. My GP’s diagnosis were of little help, prescribing antibiotics and inhalers of various types with little effect. At 6 weeks to go I became very ill, I had come down with flu that went straight to my chest. I developed sinusitis and bronchitis. I was bedridden and unable to train for 9 days. I felt my dream had been shattered. It took about two weeks to get my fitness back, but I believe I had lost too many critical weeks of training. I finally got referred to a respiratory consultant with 10 days to go, at least 3 months after my first doctor’s appointment. This was only made possible as a private patient. He confirmed what I had suspected for some time that I was asthmatic. Symbicort Inhaler and steroid nasal spray in hand, with 10 days to go; I set about re-evaluating my target. I lowered my expectations and reminded myself that all I needed to do was get to the finish line within 17 hours.
I suppose, perhaps selfishly, I started this journey alone, but I always wanted to share this experience with my family, as they had witnessed many of the highs and lows of my training and absence. I wanted this journey to be as memorable for them as I hoped it would be for me.
So we all went to Austria together.
Now Klagenfurt is situated in Carinthia by the beautiful Lake Worthersee. As we drove into the picturesque town, my heart leapt into my mouth and I was almost blinded with tears.
IRONMAN was here, it was everywhere!
The atmosphere was exhilarating and we were to spend the next 5 days absorbing every moment. Jon and his family had already arrived and we joined them in the campsite, situated on the edge of the lake, right in the middle of the Ironman village.
Setting up camp is not an easy task, but fortunately I have a great husband. So with 36 hours to go, I buried my head in my event bag, then got on my bike and left. Sorry Nick! Our children are very used to camping and know the rules. So they got on with being kids and ran, cycled and scootered with exploring and wild hearts.
Ironman is a brand name for this event, like Hoover is to vacuum cleaning. It’s massive. The Ironman village hosted a plethora of shops and stalls and we were certainly a few pounds poorer for the pleasure. They also host ancillary events for the family. As I mentioned earlier, we felt it was very important that our children experienced what is involved in this sport. So they were entered for the Ironkid event that took place the day before the main event. It was a baptism of fire for them but I hope equally exciting and memorable. They swam for 50m in the lake assisted by many lifeguards and officials and went on to run 450m to the Ironman finish line. It must have been thrilling for them, especially the medal and the goody bags that followed. I have to admit there were a few nervous tears, but we hope their memory of the day is of their success and experience.
Once the family were settled back into their late afternoon routine, Jon and I got back to our preparations. I had missed my transition preparation slot, but that was not too much of a concern. It was only when Jon told me that we had missed the briefing that I realised my plans had gone a bit array. Due to this, as Ironman virgins, we had no idea how transition worked. As a result, it required two twenty minute walks to transition and a very amusing process, whereby Jon asked me to check our transition bags together. Jon had got it right and I had got it wrong! It made me laugh as my mistakes were basic triathlon errors.
Pre race food is crucial, so our minds were very focused on what our support crew prepared for us. So once preparations were complete, we settled down to a huge plate of spaghetti Bolognese and then bedtime. Porridge was on the menu for breakfast once we had returned from final checks at transition. At 5.30am it was time to get our wetsuits on and say our farewells.
As we walked down the road alongside the lake to enter through the Strandbad, I experienced a sense that I was part of something greater than I had imagined. There were 3000 competitors all heading through four pairs of doors and all wearing wetsuits. To my right, an athletic man was sick behind the door.
We were here and it was now, everything that I had devoted a year of my life, was happening now.
The crowds were massive, the helicopters were hovering overhead and the names of the elite athletes were being announced. Jon asked me if I was ok, my big brother really looked at me, my nerves were crushing me and I was meant to say yes.
The elites and a few extra brave souls set off at 6.45am, thundering down the beach with the overwhelming sounds of the crowds and helicopters overhead. It was our turn next, all two and half thousand of us, filtering onto the beach in a swell of rubber. I had my senses knocked back into me, by the overzealous arms of a fellow athlete. Blood was drawn and my lip swelled. I laughed for the first time, this could only happen to me, but the nerves were quelled and I was ready.
The gun went off. Jon and I held back to avoid the maelstrom of arms and legs, so we entered the lake at walking pace. I felt the water on my body and the familiar pressure on my wetsuit, and I finally realised that I was meant to be here and that I knew what I was doing. I took my first few strokes and I felt completely at ease. The hours in the pool had paid off, I swam for 1.24hrs and I loved every minute of it. I excelled in my own excitement and relief. 6 minutes ahead of my target, I exited the water and strolled casually to transition!
In the meantime, our support crew had managed to find the perfect spectator bridge along the canal. Even though heard after the event, their tales of a mass of seals passing by (as seen through my daughter’s eyes) meant a huge amount to us.
Well back to transition, yes perhaps I do have a few tales to tell about my rather lengthy transitions. My transition times were a true reflection of my personality. Over this past year I have most certainly accepted my compulsion to check that the front door is shut several times before going to bed and that everything that I want to be in order is as it should be, especially in my mind. Well, I realised that this is me and it is what I’m made of, and that I should learn to use this desire for routine and methodical behaviour to my advantage.
I had everything worked out in my mind and my transition bag was very full of all that one might need for any unexpected circumstances, but what took me slightly by surprise was that transition came with your own personal assistant. She proceeded to remove my wetsuit, fantastic, these wetsuits are tight and well and truly suctioned to you. Then, she started to unpack my bag and lay it out on the bench for me, chamois cream and all!
Transition done and everything that I didn’t need back in my bag. Twenty minutes later I exited transition.
Cycling is an amazing sport, you pick up speed quickly and it’s relatively easy to maintain a good speed with little effort. I felt good and well prepared for a 180km bike ride. My pockets and paniers were laden with energy bars and plenty of fluid and Carinthia is beautiful. We followed the lake for several kilometres with the fantastic views of a Bolivian style castle. I knew not to take any nutrition on for 45 minutes whilst you get used to the cycling, so I just enjoyed the views and was certainly not too disheartened by the amount of time trial bikes that shot past me at this stage. I reminded myself that my bike wasn’t even a carbon frame!
It’s strange to sit here sometime after the event and try to accurately recall what unfolded over the next 80km. When ready to take on nutrition, I was struck down with severe stomach cramps. I couldn’t swallow my energy bars; each mouthful clung to my gums and was only forced down with gulps of water. Even my emergency chocolate gel failed to abate the cramps. My little voice reared its ugly head. Fortunately, with cycling, steady pace and momentum can be advantageous. I kept moving forward and reminded myself that everything else was functioning fine. However, I could not escape the fact that is crucial to ones success in the marathon, is what is eaten on the bike. And it was rapidly unfolding that I was unable to take on enough nutrition at this stage. To add to my woes, nobody stopped at the feed stations. I recall my first sportive, 8 months earlier, and my great joy at the sight of the flapjacks and jelly beans at the feed stations, and the obligatory stretch and toilet stops. So I had to satisfy myself with flat coke and banana on a flyby. This seemed to be the norm and the only food that settled my cramps.
Doubts did enter my mind a lot sooner than expected that I might not finish the bike ride, as my pace was down and I could miss the cut off time. The dreams of that medal began to fade. I finished the first lap 15 minutes off pace, but then I heard the familiar voice of Nick from the crowds, and I felt happy for the first time in a while. Even though off pace I stubbornly thought well I’m going to stop here and relish in their joy. So I got off my bike and held tightly to my family. I savoured the smell of my children’s hair and the softness of their skin as I kissed their cheeks. It’s at times like this that you really notice emotions and Nick’s eyes told a thousand tales of hope and companionship. Very few words needed to be said, but I got back on my bike and I knew exactly what I needed to do to finish the next lap.
The jagged edges of my weakened mind were now realigned and I was set to take on the hills again. I knew I needed to pick up my pace, so I set some targets and used others to maintain my pace. I pushed hard, worked at the hills and enjoyed my bananas. But as you know the Ironman is not meant to be easy. The heavens opened. I’m English so that’s ok. I wasn’t on a time trial bike so I’m not that fast, not much of a risk of skidding. But I was feeling better and that’s all that mattered.
It seems strange to have not mentioned the spectators up until this point, but I only came to truly appreciate and enjoy their support at this stage. On reflection, I must have spent too much time dwelling on my nutrition issues in the first lap.
I have also failed to mention that in the latter stages of the first lap, I was over taken by the lead athlete. Now that was an impressive sight. The power and speed of this being that past me at least twice my speed, set me quaking on my wheels. I mention this at this stage, as I return to my experience with the spectators. Now, as you can imagine, I was thoroughly enjoying my moment of fame. I knew I was coming up to one of the largest spectator hotspots in this event as I could hear the noise for quite some time beforehand. They were often at the top of hills, so I was not going very fast. The crowds were cheering and clapping and it was thrilling. Though I couldn’t quite believe this was for me, so I had to check whether the lead athletes were on my tail and about to overtake. They weren’t and this noise was for me, wow!
My heartfelt thanks go out to all those that lined the streets and villages of Carinthia on that day. The rattle of the cow bells, the music and words up up up up were fantastic and a true thrill for a rather tired mum from Medstead.
I beat the hills and I hushed my internal saboteur. No punctures and no sore knees and shoulders, I came into transition 6 minutes off my target time. I had just cycled 180km in 7.36hrs.
Right I’m back in transition again, now this one was different from the first, because I suffered from something I definitely had not anticipated. I walked into the transition tent and experienced a very dizzy spell. It felt like motion sickness, and I was off balance. My lack of nutrition could have been an explanation but I am very prone to travel sickness and dizzy spells, and this felt exactly like that. I sat down on that familiar bench and tried to compose myself. I then went into autopilot and set to work on my transition routine. Methodically I worked through my kit change, strapped my knees, prepared my feet, and filled my belt with gels. Time was irrelevant in this transition. I was not well and panicking was not an option. I needed fresh air and to get moving again, so I took my first gel and walked out of transition, again twenty minutes later.
Now, one would like to think that after completing two of the three disciplines, you are two thirds of the way through the event. But this is an Ironman and again it is not meant to be easy. No, this is where the Ironman begins.
So I’m walking out of transition sucking the life out of my sachet of vanilla gel, whilst adjusting my number belt at the sight of hand gesticulations of an official. Then I hear my name being announced telling me that I have 7 hours and 20 minutes to complete the marathon.
I amuse myself at the thought now, but that seemed like plenty of time to run a marathon. I thought perhaps there is a chance that I might finish and get my medal. It is so important to dream and have hope; it is your kindred spirit when times are not so good.
I was under no illusions about my marathon; I knew I would not be able to run the whole way, due to my lapse in training and my dysfunctional lungs. But my dizzy spell subsided and I started running. I saw my brother well into his second lap, he looked on good form and that lifted my spirits and spurred me on. I had hoped to run the first 15km, but at the sight of many walkers and the return of my dizzy spells, I admit to walking much sooner. It seemed to be a rather regular occurrence for many of the athletes, and gave me the confidence to follow suit. Fortunately, I passed Nick whilst running, so they were positive that all was relatively ok for me. Having only had one pee stop throughout the day, I was desperate to find a loo. I was taking on lots of water and coke and was obviously well hydrated. There were many red cubicles on route and to save you from any unacceptable thoughts, I will say no more about this matter.
The marathon was two laps and my first was very hard. The gels seemed to work for about 15 minutes, but the dizzy spells would return regularly. I became afraid that I would fall over or possibly faint during this time. Fear is debilitating, I have lost the power to speak in presentations, and I have been frozen to the spot in a tennis match. I had thought that I might die when I got stuck in a couloir. I knew that my fear might end my dreams of becoming an Ironman. I was lost in my mind for long periods of time beating myself up over my negative thoughts. Oh those damn voices.
Many of you may well be saying, why put yourself through this. But it is for these reasons, to overcome my fear, to silence the voice of doubt and to succeed in my dream, to cross the finish line and hold that medal, would be my victory. So I imagined that medal and that finish line as I had for a very long time.
Sometimes we choose our battles, but sadly some battles choose us. I chose this battle, but I fought it in spirit alongside those that have not chosen theirs.
The athletes and crowds diminished as I embarked on my second lap, I felt very alone and tired. A few km into the second lap I caught up with a woman that I had seen on the bike course, by this point I was desperate for company and social interaction. I asked her if I could walk with her for a while. Now this was a very good decision. She was very accommodating considering I was a complete stranger. I asked her if she had any ideas on how to get to the finish. She announced she would be walking 4 miles an hour and would finish at 11pm. I liked this woman. Hannah was her name. And I liked her plan.
I wasn’t alone anymore. My voices were silent and I started to feel more positive; I seemed to be managing my dizzy spells with more confidence. We had 12 miles to go and I made a very good decision. I asked Hannah if she was happy for me to join her and walk the rest of the way. After all, speed was not of the essence as shown in my transition times. For the first time that day, I genuinely believed that I could finish this event.
We walked and we talked and we kept each other going. Well I like to think that I helped Hannah, but in truth it was Hannah who quashed my internal voices and talked me through my many dizzy spells. We got water for each other and Hannah picked up extra gels. We shared this special time.
But of course this is an Ironman and you are not meant to enjoy it!
The heavens opened again, it was dark and we walked through a terrible thunderstorm. Now that was unfair. I recall one memorable episode. Ahead of us in the dark we saw a finisher probably heading home. He smiled at us as we congratulated him but he proceeded to give us a great bow with both arms outstretched. In our dismay and surprise, he said that what he had done was easy, but what we were doing was greater than anything he had achieved. Simply put, we had been out there on the go for almost 16 hours and he had finished hours ago.
The last few km were very difficult, it was dark and I was unable to focus and visibly swaying. Believe it or not, I started talking to myself. Intermittently, Hannah tried to focus my ramblings with one answer questions. However, we maintained our pace and passed people who were not in a good state. As we came back into the park we could hear the voice of the man announcing the finishers. We were so close, yet it felt like an eternity. I told Hannah to go ahead as we decided we must run through the finish line. I couldn’t believe it as I ran that last 100 meters on complete empty. I had nothing left but my dream of success. I saw Nick and Jon, as I passed through the cheer leaders. I recall the tears of joy and relief on Nick’s face. I felt on top of the world as I crossed that finish line. I heard the words, Laura you are an IRONMAN.
Time was not my goal. I held the medal in the palm of my hand. Its weight told me of a journey that I have travelled and the paths that I will continue to follow. A journey of self discovery and shared dreams.
This dream had to be shared, because I could not do it alone. I achieved this dream and I share my success with my 11.20.15 hrs fellow Ironman, Jon, with my husband, Nick and our children, Jessie, Evie and Leila, with my family, my friends, my training partners, my many generous sponsors, The Murray Parish Trust for their support and of course Hannah.
Thank you to all.
I AM AN IRONMAN – ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!