Yesterday was the Milton Keynes marathon and it was a difficult day. Having trained for the Ironman (although not being able to start due to the birth of my son) last year it seems there is always a time when one doubts whether it is possible to complete the distance. Yesterday was one of those days.
The marathon was the worst I have ever completed, the slowest and the most painful. I started slowly and got slower. The first half was steady but hampered by pain in the back of the thighs on any uphill incline that forced me to back off. Around 16 miles I felt sick and dizzy, and by 20 miles I could barely move. cramping up in the buttocks and legs. The last 6 miles took nearly an hour and a half and when I could run it was at such a slow pace it didn't feel worth it. It felt like my body did not want to run a marathon yesterday and I hobbled over the line in a time more than an hour outside my marathon best.
On reflection, and trying to see it more positively, I had been ill in bed for a large part of the day 2 days before the race. I probably should not have even started. So I do take some confidence that even when everything hurt and I just wanted to stop, the determination and persistence was there to ensure I finished the job. In that respect the training was valuable. As an indicator for the Ironman, the lack of stamina and endurance has been unsettling, hopefully spurring me on to more effective training in the run up to July.
I hope to look back on this weekend as a turning point.
7th July 2017
The Ironman is now just over a week away and things have not been going so well. Back and leg pain has continued to hamper my training, especially in running, so I have been visiting an osteopath (even osteopaths need treatment sometimes!) and working extra hard on the relevant strengthening and stretching. I have also had to ration my runs and have only completed a single 9 mile run since the Milton Keynes Marathon - not nearly enough but I'm hoping the natural fitness base from swimming and biking will carry me through. The pain has been bad, affecting my daily life and it has reaffirmed to me how exhausting it is to be in constant pain. I see this often with my patients - as their symptoms improve the change in their energy during our sessions is usually very noticeable.
16th July 2017 - race day!
It's race morning. The alarm wakes me at 3:15am. An early start to ensure a solid 1000+ calorie breakfast and that I get to the transition area by 5am to set up my bike. It is estimated an Ironman triathlete burns between 8500 and 10000 calories during the course of the day, so a large breakfast is essential. The pressure of the situation gets to me though and I eat too fast, feeling quickly too full and unwell to eat enough. Hopefully this won't hamper my performance later.
The swim begins at 6am. There is a lot of nervous tension as the long line of athletes in the "rolling start" makes its way to the water's edge and out into Pennington Flash. Each seems to deal with it differently, some checking and re-checking their hat and goggles, some joking and laughing, making light of what we are about to put ourselves through. I feel tentative and slightly un-nerved. I have no idea how my painful leg is going to react to the many hours of strenous activity I will put it through and I rate my chances of finishing as only about 50%. If I was my own patient as an Osteopath I would have recommended not to even start and I made a commitment to my wife that I would stop if I felt I was doing any damage to myself. But here I am on the start line of an Ironman triathlon, a time when I should be feeling my absolute fittest and I am really not. In fact I'm barely able to walk for 20 minutes without needing to sit down. It feels crazy and my doubts surface, I am quiet on the start line. However, I know I could have done no more to prepare and nothing has been left to chance. I have carefully selected, and practiced with, every piece of kit I will wear, every piece of nutrition I will consume and all the equipment I will use.
Once the swim begins my focus changes to the action of the swim stroke, and avoiding the myriad limbs of my co-triathletes flailing around. 2500 is a lot of people to squeeze into a lake and the robustness of the scrum is a surprise. A small part of me enjoys the hurly-burly and my pre-race doubts are quickly forgotten as I climb out of the water after 2.4 miles to see I have hit my target time right on the button. A short run to transition and a quick change into my bike kit, taking the time to wear extra padded shorts and gloves, a few mouthfuls of flat Coke and I'm off on the bike.
The bike course is long and very hilly. My leg pain makes an appearance after 45 minutes and is at its worst, like a cramp through the whole of the front and back of the hip and back. I can relieve it by standing up on the pedals and this is what I have to do every few minutes which thankfully also makes me go faster! The bike course is 2 big loops plus a couple of extra bits and each loop contains 3 big hills (not the 2 I remember from my practice run). Towards the end of the first loop, the professional triathletes begin to fly past. Their speed and ease is frightening!
It doesn't feel easy to me but I make good progress and after 90 miles my leg starts to feel better. The 2nd time around the big hills feel as if they've grown but I manage to stay on the bike to the last and finish strongly through to the transition area at the Bolton football stadium. The bike time of just under 8 hours is a bit slower than I'd like but well within my overall targets to leave enough time for it all to fall apart on the run but still make it to the finish on time.
There is a 17 hour total time limit for the race and I have to be on my final run loop by 10.20pm. The legs are heavy as I start to run but I find there is more energy and bounce than I had expected. I hold things back a bit though and stick to my plan of running for a few mins then walking for a few to preserve energy for later. The run course is undulating with a couple of big hills on which we will complete 3 full loops after we run around 9 miles to meet the loop halfway. It takes a long time to get there but I reach the centre of Bolton for the first time well ahead of schedule and see my team of supporters. It's my son's first birthday and he gets a sweaty birthday hug which keeps me going for a few miles. By now I am walking all of the up-hill sections but remain quite strong on the flat and downhill parts and I have a growing sense that my body will hold up and I will finally finish this challenge.
I reach my last loop, well ahead of schedule and although everything hurts, I manage to run virtually the whole of the last 2.5 miles and reach the "red carpet" of the finishing chute, replete with supporters, flashing lights, loud music and a compere announcing my arrival. My wife and son are waiting for me there and after a congratulatory hug and kiss, I cross the finish line in 15:35:34. A medal, a massage and a jacket potato with chilli-con-carne await in the hospitality tent before I hobble out to meet my family with whom I share a tearful hug.
The Ironman is complete! A total time of 15.5 hours was the limit of my ability on the day, and given the problems I had over the previous few months, a pleasing overall performance. The whole experience was fantastic with the streets of Bolton lined with supporters doing their best to keep everyone going. There was a real camaraderie among the athletes too and many encouraging words were shared as we all battled our way around.
18th July 2017
A few days later and I am hobbling around like a man 30 years my senior. There is a great sense of accomplishment and also a feeling of getting my life back - no longer will I have to get up before 6am to go for a 4 hour cycle and 2 hour run on a Sunday. The pressure on family life has also been difficult. Now I can swim, cycle and run when I like, and hopefully find more pleasure in it. It has been a fantastic experience through which I have learnt a great deal, but the presence of race-day loomed large for a few months and it feels good to be free of the pressure it exerted.
Am I happy I have done it? Definitely.
Will I do it again? It's a simple question with a simple answer - No!