Ironman Barcelona (Calella, Spain, 30 September 2017)

“You are a superwoman,” said the Catalonian lady marshall as I stood restlessly in the 1.15.00 start pen at Ironman Barcelona. She looked meaningfully into my eyes whilst clutching both of my shaking hands between hers. I was one of only 300-some women taking part, a mere twelve percent of the 2500 competitors who would eventually cross the finish line. We were all super women.

We shuffled slowly and eerily quietly towards the start line, to be let off in small groups of five or six, a rolling start to avoid the splashy battle that tends to commence any triathlon event with an open water swim. A year of training had come to this, my first, and hopefully only, long-course triathlon: 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and a 26.2 mile run. It would start, not with a gunshot, or a cannon sounding, but with a simple beep and two Spanish men lifting their arms to let me pass.

As the sun continued its fiery rise, I accepted my fate and finally launched myself into the sea for what would be one gigantic lap. The Mediterranean was deliciously warm and fantastically clear, but not entirely calm. I sighted the first buoy and swam directly out to it, concentrating on slowing my slightly rapid breathing whilst not getting slapped in the face by the chop. The rolling start meant turning around the first buoy was as easy as manoeuvring around my local outdoor pool on a cold winter’s day (i.e. when no one else wants to swim in it). It was then just a matter of continuing to swim straight along the line of yellow buoys, trying to hop on someone else’s feet to save some energy and gain some speed. I spotted several blue hats on the bottom (blue for boys, pink for girls…really Ironman?!), one pair of goggles, and, rather sadly, a plastic bag, plus one reasonably sized jellyfish. I swam over him as swiftly as possible, strangely grateful for the giant barrel jellyfish I’d seen in Tenby at LCW. I’d seemingly trained for every eventuality.

It took a long time to reach the final buoy, the current was quite deceptive. I turned, swam another hundred meters or so and turned again, all without incident. The return journey felt super swift in comparison, this time orange buoys flew past like I was on a mission. But then, I suppose I was. I could see the big yellow finish arch on the beach, just one last choppy turn and it was back in to shore. Swim done: 1.18.19.

T1 took me 15 minutes. Yep, practically a day. Don’t ask, or judge. I ate a sandwich – peanut butter and Nutella with a dash of salt – to fend off the post swim (h)anger I often experience. I changed into cycle gear for comfort, I applied sunscreen and I went to the loo. At least when I left the tent I was confident I had everything I needed for 112 miles on the bike.

The first three kilometres (we suddenly went all European) were around Calella’s small, speed bump-filled streets so they allowed drafting and told you not to pass. Then it was out of town for two and a half fun-filled laps. It was busy, and therefore hard not to get caught up in small packs at first. I tried passing a couple of women who were cycling too close, but the drafting marshalls whistled at us all and I worried we’d been penalised for something. Surely they’d make it obvious if so? People would pass and then slow right down. I’d furiously cycle past them again as I needed to keep my speed up to beat the cutoffs. Finally I found some space and realised it would be a headwind for twenty-some miles out. Thankfully that meant a tailwind for twenty-some miles back again, but still. I found I could ride the return leg at 20 mph without a lot of effort, which was nice.

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Lap two got windier. Somewhere on this lap the inside of my left knee started to hurt and I had dark thoughts about not being able to cycle 40–50 more miles with the pain. I kept trying to eat and drink but everything was now also making me feel queasy. The people at the front of the race kept hurtling by on the other side of the road in massive groups, it was like the bloody Tour de France, so much for non-drafting, the cheating fuckers (much darker thoughts).

Coming towards the turnaround there was a massive Ironman support crew, with loud music and people cheering. They were playing “Eye of the Tiger”, by Survivor, a personal favourite. I did my best not to cry.

At the turnaround I had to holler at some idiots who decided I would be stopping for them on the zebra crossing, ffs. I had a loo stop and swapped my bottles. I had been successfully cycling through the aid stations up to that point ditching and collecting bottles on the move, a massive achievement for me and not something i’d trained for. Back on, I cycled past some nude sunbathers, getting more of an eyeful than I really needed. I felt a little delirious, so tipped some water over my head and made for my special needs bike bag. I swigged a can of coke and ate some salt and vinegar crackers whilst popping a couple of pain killers. I felt better immediately, perhaps it was all mental.

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At the next turnaround I knew I only had about 20 miles to go and no room for excuses. Even slow old me, who really doesn’t like cycling very much, was going to do 112 miles in about six and a half hours. My sister and a friend were on the roundabout cheering me on, again I found myself welling up.

The rest was unremarkable, just trying not to get over-excited, and staying safe. Then I was back in Calella, winding around the little streets, trying not to fall off on the crappy road or hit the speed bumps too hard. Bike done: 6.36.49.

T2 took me 12 minutes…I know, I obviously wandered into an admin vortex, but again, I was happy I was ready for my marathon run, although the sunglasses were a tad optimistic.

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I was nervous about my knee. I tried to run my legs in gently. The first mile or so of what would be three big laps plus a little extra bit was really well supported and I was buoyed by the sight of big sis and the Pompey Tri spectathletes. I may have been over-buoyed, I finished the first five miles in about 46 minutes. That wasn’t the plan. Then my knee started hurting. Was it in my head? This endurance stuff plays tricks on you after all. I told myself I could walk for five minutes, then I would try a little run, test the knee, which had stopped hurting the moment I stopped running. Was I going to have to walk the remaining 21 miles?

Everyone else was running. Where was this mysterious Ironman marathon shuffle everyone talks about? How had I managed to enter a race where everyone else was practically elite? Where were all the triumph-over-adversity Ironman types?

It started raining.

Actually this was a positive. I’m not good in the heat, being ginger and all. I started running, slowly, for ten minutes. That was ok. I yomped for five minutes (13-minute miling whilst walking). I could totally keep this up. I passed some people who looked like death. They were on their final laps. I told them they looked great. They very much did not.

I sipped water, tipped water on my head, drank copious amounts of coke, slurped SIS gels and sucked on orange quarters, aware I possibly hadn’t had enough nutrition on the bike. Then I worried I was drinking too much, because that’s what you do, you worry, and think, and overthink. I calculated how much time I had left, which was loads. I had this, it was just a matter of when.

The rain thinned the crowds, but the support was still incredible. My favourite were a really drunk young couple who must have finally had enough by my last lap as they sadly disappeared. Everyone who cheered my name was a god to me, I’ve never felt so capable. I ran ten, yomped five, until the final four miles. In the dark, at the very far end of the course my knee was no longer happy to do the run bit. But that was fine, I was still smiling. I calculated that if I did 13-minute miles for the last four, I’d still do a sub-five-hour marathon. I was ok with that. I only ever wanted to finish.

I thought I might run the last mile, but I couldn’t. I let some folk go past, checked behind to find no one else there and entered the finishers’ chute. I stood in the bright lights on the red carpet and showed Paul Kay my green “I will become one” wristband and pointed at my name. He told me I was an Ironman. I thought I would cry, but instead I was elated, grinning like a loon. I high-fived him and the Spanish compère. I jogged down the red carpet like my body was absolutely fine, looking for my friends. They were waving a Pompey Tri flag on the right at the end. I ran over, high-fived everyone in sight, posed for a photo still grinning and went to collect my very well-deserved medal. Run done: 4.50.16.

Total time: 13.13.35.

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Some notes
The medal: says 1 October, the original date of the race from before the Catalonian independence vote was called. I don’t mind; it’s just another reminder of the extra drama associated with this race.

Still the medal: it has an image of a lady archer on it. It turns out we cycled past this statue four times on the bike. So, I saw nude people, but missed the statue…four times.

My body: the minute I sat down in the finishers’ tent my knee gave up, I couldn’t bend it or put weight on it, which was awkward because I also needed a little lie down on the floor with my feet propped in the air because I felt a tad faint. Oddly though, once I actually succeeded in moving around on it, it loosened off again. Weird.

My body again: be kind to your body in the days that follow. Celebration is all well and good, but a load of beer and a curry may not win you any prizes with your gastrointestinal system the following day.

Support: the race would have been a damn sight harder without the support of many people, notably my big sis and good friends among the Pompey Triathletes. Thank you to them all for their support, advice, company, wisdom, and general awesomeness during training, in the pub, and on and around the course. You know who you are.

Overall: Ironman’s an expensive pastime, no doubt. I’m still not convinced by the entry price, but I am convinced by the fact that everyone who crosses that line is treated like an absolute champion. Make sure one of your pals videos the moment though as you’ll forget the details the second it’s over and it’s worth watching again, and again, and again. Trust me.

“Sarah, you are an Ironman!!!” (Still makes me want to cry.)

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2 Comments

  1. Brilliant Sarah! Very evocative and describes a very recognisable event, found myself welling up as those memories are linked. Brilliant, I hope it is not your only. Jo

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