Ironman UK 2013

I’ve been putting off this blog for a few days now. The body and the mind have been simply too exhausted. (I’ll do another blog on the recovery from IMUK next week)

Ironman UK. What can I say except WOW, WOW, WOW, what a surprise and such an experience on so many levels. I’ve raced at a number of Ironman branded events around the world, but I have to say without a doubt Ironman UK was the best experience I’ve ever had.

The course was a challenge, the organisation fantastic and the atmosphere was something to be experienced.

But it nearly didn’t happen on race morning for athlete number 1343. (Yours truly)

I’ve always prided myself on my organisation for races. My morning ritual is pretty much down to a fine art now. Up out of bed early. Some muesli and some tea, then get the support team out of bed and bundle them into the car ready to be at the start in plenty of time.

Only IMUK threw up a challenge. I’d organized for our accommodation to be about 10minutes from the Stadium where the shuttle buses would run from. What I didn’t take into account though was the main bridge between our accommodation and the Reebok stadium was closed for repairs necessitating a 20min detour around the roads and motorways around Bolton. I’d driven the detour many times over the days leading up to the race with the GPS just to make sure I knew where I was going, but as with all things, the best laid plans can go awry.

So on race morning, full of confidence I thought I’d give it a go without the GPS. Except, you guessed it, I missed the M61 turnoff in the dark. Necessitating another 20min detour as I drove around the dark roads of Bolton. What was worse was in my panic I couldn’t remember the address for the stadium. When I did finally sort it out on the side of the motorway. The GPS was saying an arrival time of 5:20am at Reebok. I then had a 20min shuttle bus ride and a 10min walk to the start.

With a gun time of 6:00am, to say I was stressed was probably an understatement. In the car I was voicing the front page of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. DON’T PANIC! In increasingly panicked tones.

It also probably didn’t help when I finally did reach the shuttle bus when one of the attendants on seeing me said. ‘OH SHIT AN ATHLETE, what are you doing here; you are supposed to be at the start!

0430_13974The bus ride was a nightmare. We seemed to stop at every red light on the way to the road down to Pennington Flash. I’m not sure what the lady sitting at the side of me thought but I perhaps wasn’t in the most talkative or relaxed frame of mind.

One thing that was going through my mind was the mantra my coach (Brian) has drilled into me over the past couple of years, ‘Control the controllables and ignore the rest’ Panicking wasn’t helping and I spent most of the time trying to relax. I couldn’t control when I got to the start. If I was late I’d simply have to make it up. My mission was to arrive at the start calm and relaxed. There was no point in burning more energy stressing when I couldn’t control the outcome.

As it was though, as soon as the bus arrived the volunteers and officials were fantastic. They fast tracked me off the bus and with a quick sprint to T1 I was there with 10min to spare. Thankfully my gear was already setup from the day before so all I needed to do was put my wetsuit on, drop my street clothes and join the line ready for the gun to go off.

Not the most auspicious start what had been billed as one of the toughest Ironman races in the world, but hey I was there and ready to rock and roll.

The beginning of an Ironman swim has been described as akin to aqua rugby. When the gun goes off all hell breaks loose. 1800 odd athletes are all scrambling for exactly the same bit of water. Arms and legs are flailing everywhere, people swim over you and you get hit and kicked in pretty much every part of your anatomy.

For this reason, people take different approaches to try and minimize the damage. Some start at the back, some start wide in order to try and find some clear water. My personal strategy is to start as close to the front as possible. This might sound counter intuitive, but my thinking is that if everyone is trying to start at the back I will go to the front. This has served me well in my previous races as the really fast guys get away and if anyone wants to come past me then they have to deal with my feet first.

With such a late arrival at the start however, my normal approach wasn’t an option. This time I was right in the middle towards the back of the group and once the gun went off I was right in the middle of the Ironman ‘washing machine’

Within seconds I’d been kicked, punched and pushed under. Then in swift succession came a thump to the side of my head knocking my goggles off and a kick in the jaw from a wayward set of feet. (From which I can honestly say I saw stars!)

But instead of panicking I actually found myself laughing and enjoying the experience. As bizarre as it sounds, it was actually fun. (Yes I know I’m a bit strange) and I quite quickly found myself getting into my stroke, whilst simultaneously fending off blows and keeping away from the feet in front of me.

0430_18932The IMUK swim is a two-lap affair on Pennington Flash (a water reservoir). About 1km straight out, 1km back then repeat. For the whole of the first lap the traffic was heavy as I was continually bumping into other swimmers. Then before I knew it I’d finished the first 1900m and was out of the water in 35min, which was on my predicted IM swim time pretty much to the second. Given my start and ensuing issues I was pretty happy with that. The second lap was much better, the swimmers had thinned out considerably and I actually found myself in clear water and having a chance to catch my breath.

According to my Garmin I came out of the water in approximately 1hr13min. Just a few seconds shy of my Ironman Western Australia swim time. Given everything I was very happy with this performance.

Into T1 and there were bodies everywhere. And different to other Ironman events the boys and girls were all changing together. However, there was no time to stand on ceremony so it was a complete strip and into my cycling gear. There is always the question of whether you should do your Ironman in the same gear or change each transition, however as the bike and runs are so long I much prefer to take a couple of extra minutes in transition and be more comfortable on the ride (and run).

Overall my transition was quite good. Except for stuffing up the timing on my Garmin as I stopped it completely rather than pausing it for T1, I was soon out looking for my bike.

And I was amazed. There were still many hundreds of bikes in transition.  My swim had obviously been much better than I’d given myself credit for.

But any excitement was short lived. Once out of transition, it was onto the bike and straight uphill. The IMUK is rated (depending on how you rate the difficulties of Ironman) as one of the 3 toughest rides in the world and it definitely didn’t disappoint.

The first part of the course is a point-to-point ride, to get you out from Pennington Flash and onto the loop course. You could describe it as undulating. I’d prefer to describe it as granny gear and grinding uphill with no relief downhill as most of the descents are technical and you’re trying not to fall off.

Sheephouse lane (the dreaded climb) was brutal. Maxxing out at 17.5% it kicked initially then settled into a long grinding climb. About half way up there is a little relief and for the uninitiated you think you’ve reached the top, only then you’re disappointed and up you go again. My normal cadence is around 85-90rpm. On a steep climb I might drop to 50rpm or so. I was down to 25-30rpm, putting all the force I could into the pedals just to make the bike go forward. At the side of the road were supporters screaming at us to keep going. I would have stopped but I was terrified that if I stopped pedaling I’d fly backwards and probably break something. (Like my neck). There was no respite, nowhere to unclip and nowhere to fall off safely. The only choice was to keep grinding it out.

I have no idea how I actually made it to the top. The half a dozen guys in man-kini’s with blowup dolls and sheep just before the summit do stick in my mind, I’m not sure if I was hallucinating, but the terror of what would happen if I stopped next to them forced me over the top.

And what a relief combined with disappointment. After such a long climb I was expecting a huge descent. Again IMUK proved why it is so difficult. Instead of a terrifying descent, we simply flicked through a few corners then had to brake hard so as not to go off the road and into the water strategically positioned right before a 90 degree turn to the left. All the speed that I’d built up was lost. (I understand that in previous years some athletes have mistimed this corner and ended up coming off the bike and back in for another swim). Then it was straight back into a heart breaking granny gear hill again.

Again and again this was repeated around the course

About 2/3rd of the way around the first loop I hit a real low mentally. The stress of the start and the brutal introduction to the ride had stripped away any confidence I had. I remember thinking that ‘there is no way I can do this’. In fact I’m not afraid to admit that I was so low and upset at failing after all the training that all pretenses were stripped away and tears flowed. It’s funny how Ironman does that to you.

That being said, if I have learned one thing about Ironman, it is that these feelings are often transitory. Sometimes it is food related, sometimes it is other feelings coming out. When I get into such a funk, I do tend to keep going to see if the feelings will pass. Unfortunately the feelings didn’t pass quickly this time and I was getting worried about being in a low for so long.

I use all types of tricks to get myself out of a funk. I.e. Visualizing the finish, extra food but nothing was working. Then out of the blue I saw a little red headed girl (about 9) standing on at the side of the road on her own with a sign. “You are a hero in my eyes” Now that really made me cry but for another reason as I remembered why I was doing this. My Ironman is about inspiring and supporting others. This time though it was an unknown 9 year old child that inspired me and brought me out of the funk.

For the whole of the second lap I was worrying about climbing back up Sheephouse Lane. They say that fear is only worrying about some thing in the future. Every expert recommends that when you are worrying you should come back into the present. And that is exactly what I did, I came back to the present and began to admire the beautiful scenery around me. Unfortunately becoming ‘present’ to what was happening in the moment also brought and explosion of pain in my legs. BIG MISTAKE. It was so painful, (my quads hurt, my hamstrings hurt, my back hurt), that my mind immediately went back to worrying about the future it was easier and far less painful. J

But at least I noticed that the scenery on the entire ride was simply amazing!

Just before the second climb there was an amazing surprise. I joined the City of Lancaster Triathlon Club (COLT) last year on a whim. Mainly because I’d read the book Can’t Swim, Can’t Bike, Can’t Run by Andy Holgate and I thought it would be amusing to join a club of crazy triathletes in another country.

COLT alley was just amazing. If you’ve ever seen the Tour de France with spectators within inches of the bikes shouting and screaming, banging drums and rattling cowbells you might just get a slight indication of what it was like. And given I was decked out in COLT gear, the support reached fever pitch as I went through. Talk about uplifting, I felt on top of the world.

But it was a short lived tingle of excitement and adrenaline, as the dreaded Sheephouse lane was straight after COLT alley!

This time though, somehow it wasn’t quite so bad. Mentally I was beginning to sort myself out. Again, with the steepness off the hill, falling off wouldn’t be an option however I had by now figured off that if I fell to my left, I might just have the chance of falling ‘into’ the hill as falling to the right would end up with me falling off a cliff which certainly wasn’t an option.

As I ground it out to the top, the dreaded mankini men appeared again, this time with a blow up dinosaur. Again I certainly wasn’t going to stop and ask why they were there, even if this time they were in the middle of the road offering me beer!

0430_38270On a separate note. I really do need to examine my mental health if I hallucinate men in mankini’s with blow up sex toys offering beer, when things get tough!

About half way around the second lap, I had one of those ‘you can’t go anywhere’ moments. I’d just come through the major feed station and been cheered on by my wonderful support crew. Janette, Daniel, Emma, Kate, Neil, Jason, Marie, Imogen and Oliver (who says I have no friends) when another athlete noticed my COLT top on.

The conversation went something like.

(Other athlete) WOW Colt alley is amazing, you guys are so organized and so supportive.

(Me) Yes they have been fantastic, though I’m a remote member from Australia and not part of the local crew

(Other athlete) Oh you must be Scott from Australia. I am friends with Neil, your wife’s cousin!

Not only was Janet (the Other athlete) friends but she also trains with Neil (who is not involved in Triathlon at all), and got a podium place in her age group to boot. I tell you, I’m 22,000km from home and I still can’t misbehave! J

By the third lap things were starting to really hurt, but I knew I would make it. It was going to hurt and it was definitely going to be a grind but nothing would stop me getting through the last of the 180km. The only real highlight was coming down the one hill and and finding the road completely blocked with cars.

For the most part IMUK is done on a closed course for the bike, but managing 180km of roads around the UK without having to make some compromises must be an impossible task. The volunteers were amazing on the roads, controlling traffic and giving athletes the right of way. But obviously, stopping traffic on every ‘A’ and ‘B’ road was a challenge. On coming down one hill with 3 other athletes we were confronted with a row of stationary cars. There was no room to pass on the left so it was over onto the wrong side of the road to get past. Riding into oncoming traffic (even if it was very slow) was an ‘interesting’ experience, but for the most part the drivers were polite and let us through. Thankfully this was the only problem I had with cars on the whole bike course, which is a real feather in the cap for the organizers.

The last hour back to T2 was simply a grind. The heavens threatened to open (but didn’t) and it seemed to take an age to battle to the finish. COLT Alley was there again, but instead of going up Sheephouse Lane we peeled off to the right and onto the High School for our next transition.

T2 was a bit of a war zone.

I was stunned by the number of run bags still lining the floor. With a ride time of 7.5hours I thought that I must right at the back of the field, but there were still literally hundreds of other athletes still out on the course battling it out or perhaps missing the stringent cutoff times.

I got talking to a Canadian athlete while changing into my run gear and his sentiments matched mine exactly. In his words ‘That bike course deserves respect. I’ve done a number of these Ironman races now and I’ve never experienced a ride that tough’ My thoughts exactly.

In T2 I had a decision to make. Previously I’d decided to wear an old running shirt for the marathon. Mostly because it was comfortable, but really because it was a bit more flattering. Nothing is worse than running around in Lycra with everything bouncing around. Especially when I’m still carrying a few pounds too many. (Another post on this later). But there was a problem. If I wore my normal running shirt then the COLT guys wouldn’t recognize me. So it was either look good or look fat but get a huge boost from the COLT supporters.

I took the latter and it was probably the best decision I could have made. The COLT support again was fantastic, but better still there were a number of other COLT runners out on the course and it was fantastic to be able to offer and get support from a similarly crazy bunch of guys and gals.

Now officially the Ironman guidebook states.

 ‘The IRONMAN UK run course starts with a six mile point to point run. From T2 at Rivington & Blackrod High School it passes through Horwich, down Chorley New Road and onto Regent Road. Runners then travel along the canal path at Middlebrook re-joining the road at Overdale Drive. At the top of Overdale Drive athletes turn left to join a lapped circuit along Chorley New Road. Turning just before Beaumont Road (A58) athletes then head back all the way along Chorley New Road onto Bark St and into Lemans Crescent via Knowsley St. Once at the turn point in Le Mans Crescent athletes repeat this circuit three times before entering the finish funnel in Victoria Square. Athletes have 17hours from the start to complete the race”

All this sounds great but the organizers neglected one small detail. It is the general convention with marathons are held on relatively flat courses. Maybe someone forgot to tell them, or perhaps they thought, let’s continue the theme and make the marathon bloody hilly as well!

So after a 3.8km swim and 180km of hills it was time for another 42.2km of running hills as well. Oh well they do say that Ironman is character building.

Right from the start, despite the hills I felt good. My run training has been excellent and within minutes I found my running legs. It wasn’t fast, but it didn’t need to be. I’d simply set myself the task of getting started and then trying to keep a consistent pace until around 15km. After that, come what may I would finish.

The first part along the roads and along the canal were fine and for the most part it felt like I was out for an easy jog along the canal on my own. At first I thought I was hearing things but in the distance I could hear bagpipes. I didn’t think much of it at first until I reached the top of Overdale Drive. After a very steep climb (everyone was walking) I came upon an amazing spectacle. A full bagpipe band, supporters everywhere shouting and cheering and hundreds of athletes slogging it out on the marathon course. It was a bit like joining the game Lemmings!

I have to say that when I first announced that I was going to do Ironman UK everyone said ‘WHY? Bolton is such a horrible place. It’s rough, unwelcoming and make sure you don’t leave your bike unattended as it will be stolen in an instant.’

How wrong people can be. The Bolton crowd was AMAZING. Friendly, supportive and only too willing to help. Words cannot describe how amazingly supportive they were.

The marathon course was nothing more than a huge party, yes the runners were out there grinding it out but the supporters were having a great time as well. I wish that every race I’ve been to was so inspirational.

The first lap flew by. I used my normal approach of running races on coke. (Coca Cola, not the other stuff J ) But around the end of the first lap someone offered my a new drink ‘Powerhorse’. Now normal rules would dictate that you should never try anything in the race that you haven’t used in training. However as I was starting to feel a little flat I thought the extra kick might be useful.

WOW! Powerhorse was more like rocket fuel. I ran straight through to 30km without any issues at all. Given the pace, I was going to not only break my Ironman Marathon record but probably my overall Marathon record as well.

But then on the last lap the wheels started to fall off slightly. I’d consumed bucket loads of coke, powerhorse and a day full of gels. My body started to rebel. The legs felt good, but I really thought I was going to faint. Every time I pushed hard I started to wobble.

So for the last lap I dropped back to a powerwalk. A clix biscuit and some water half way through the last lap made me feel much better which suggests the issue was definitely food related rather than the distance.

The final part of the marathon is where the action really starts to heat up. At Ironman WA there were bodies everywhere, but this time in the cooler weather there wasn’t so much carnage. Certainly plenty of people were struggling but no one appeared to be pulling out.

In fact this stage in the race is where the Ironman spirit really comes to the fore. If you are struggling there will be countless other competitors offering you support or a kind word. In return you offer as much encouragement as possible to everyone around you. Everyone is suffering, everyone is fighting their own demons, but it is from that spirit of shared suffering that an amazing camaraderie grows. It is something I really love about Ironman. No matter if you come first or come last, everyone has undertaken an amazing challenge and if you have done the training and are lucky on the day, for the most part you should triumph.

0430_41773The last part of the marathon was a bit of a blur. My legs were hurting, I was tired, I wanted to faint, to vomit and collapse all at the same time. However there was no way I was going to stop at this stage. The crowd were screaming and whilst I couldn’t run, I was most certainly was power walking as fast as I could.

Before I knew it I’d collected the requisite ‘3 bands’ and entered the finishing chute. Without a doubt it is something I will never forget. The noise, the cheering, the pandemonium was amazing. I pulled up my pants, straightened my top, checked myself from head to foot and ran down the red carpet to the finish.

I do have a few memories from that last few metres. One is seeing Andy Holgate from the COLTS at the beginning of the chute as well as another COLT member. Between them they had stayed until the end until ‘every’ COLT was home.

An amazing effort.

I waved to my beautiful wife Janette, my son Daniel and his girlfriend Kate, my Daughter Emma and my supporting family including my cousin Jason and his family. All of who had been there for me right through the day. It’s a hard day for the supporters and they do an amazing and selfless job of making sure that the Ironmen and Women have all the support they can during the race.

I’d love to bottle those last few metres, but before I knew it I was across the line. Scott Longden, ‘You are an Ironman’

Finish time around 14hrs 35min.

9minutes slower than Ironman WA but I am absolutely ecstatic with the result. I was an hour slower on the bike but give the hills I was happy I’d given it a fair shake. My run though felt brilliant. I’d knocked around an hour off my Ironman WA result off the back of one of the toughest bike courses around.

So in reflection,

What went right.

  1. I paced the race well
  2. I had a good swim
  3. My bike was good
  4. For the most part except for the last hour or so my nutrition seemed to work well on the day
  5. My run was fantastic


What can be improved?

  1. I really needed to get to the start earlier. Getting lost on the way to the race really disrupted the start and affected me into the bike
  2. I need to get my weight down. There are no more excuses now. I’ll do a separate blog on this later but without a doubt my diet and my weight is the real elephant in the room that is impeding my performance. From bike to run, if I can get over this issue then there is the possibility that instead of just finishing I can start to be competitive. Now that would be novel.

On finishing this rather long blog post, I can’t finish without thanking so many people that helped me to make the day so amazing.

There is no way that you can make it to Ironman without having a team of people with you, supporting you and helping you towards an impossible goal.

Firstly to my wife, Janette. Thank you! I love you! One day I promise to go on a holiday without a bike being involved.

To Daniel, Emma, Kate and Neil. Thank you for standing around all day and cheering me on, even when I felt low, tired and grumpy. Without your support I wouldn’t have made it around.

To Jason, Marie, Imogen and Oliver, thank you for coming to see your crazy Australian relative put himself through torture. It was amazing to have you there as part of the fun.

To Andy and the COLT crew. WOW, just WOW! Maybe we can start an Australian Chapter of the COLT’s. If I could just bottle 5% of the energy you guys put out then we would be on a winner.

To my coach Brian. Brian you are amazing and inspirational. I hope I’m able to inspire just a fraction of the people you have. If I can manage that I’ll be content.

To my support crew in Australia. Peter, Matt, Brett, Merv, Richard and countless others. Thankyou!

A HUGE thankyou to IMUK and all of the volunteers. Without the volunteers there is no way such an event could go on. I made a special effort to thank every volunteer personally as I passed. If I missed you then, THANKYOU, you guy’s did an amazing job.

Finally THANK YOU to the people of Bolton. You might get a bad rap at times, but without a doubt you showed all the ‘Doubting Thomas’s’ how to do it. And do it in style!