BY ROSS STUART
My Ironman journey started as drunken banter with a friend outside a bar in Tokyo. Neither of us had done any triathlon before but, within a week of returning to Hong Kong, we had signed up for Barcelona and there was no turning back. Gulp…
We had about six months to train and I was really fortunate to have met so many supportive and like-minded people along the way. I had already been cycling with the RMRH crew for about a year and Richard Hall kindly agreed to write a training programme and guide me along the way. My next stroke of luck was bumping into Fen and the Swim Labbers. That led me to the Tritons and my first ever triathlon at the 70.3 in Korea. At that stage, I also met Paul Fisher. He, too, was a total beginner and coincidentally had signed up for Korea and Barcelona! Fellow Triton Marc Geddes was also racing.
Training had been going well until a sudden bout of pneumonia put me in hospital for 9 days just 5 weeks before the race. I asked the organisers about deferring my entry but they said it was too late and that the stint in hospital would give me fresh legs…
Barcelona is the biggest Ironman in the world with about 3400 athletes. Seeing all of those bikes racked and ready to roll is quite a sight to behold. The race is actually in a small coastal town called Calella, just north of Barcelona. It is well organised and the logistics are straight forward.
PHOTO: Race Day
Before the start: checked my bike, transition bags and nutrition. Rechecked, checked again and then just one final check… The moment before the race starts was an incredible mixture of emotions – some nerves, an element of pride about having made it that far after so much training and, above all, masses of excitement. Time to go, go, go!
Swim: I bumped into Paul on the beach and we seeded ourselves (optimistically in my case) at the back of the 1 hour pen. It was a wetsuit swim that was one clockwise lap of a large rectangle. The sun was coming up, the water was crystal clear and conditions were ideal. The swim was a bit of a scrum at times, particularly around the buoys, but I was really happy that it went broadly to plan. I managed to find some good feet to follow, didn’t burn too many matches and felt relatively relaxed throughout. I was so pleased to finish it and see that I was out of the water in 1:03. I later found out that Paul had a cracking swim of 1:01! All of those sessions at the amazing Swim Lab paid off!
Bike: The bike course is known for being fast. It was two loops along the coast towards Barcelona and had a couple of long hills but is really picturesque. The road surface was super smooth and a far cry from the roads in Sai Kung! My plan was to hold 190 watts, take on board lots of nutrition, concentrate hard and hope for the best. There was a headwind going in one direction but it wasn’t significant and I managed to keep on track. With so many athletes on the course, there were a few crashes and the course always seemed busy so you had to be very careful. It was really fun but I was relieved to finally finish it 5:11.
Run: It was such a strange sensation to jump off the bike and think (naively) to myself that there is "only" a marathon to go. The run course was roughly three flat laps tracking the shore. There were lots spectators at one end of the course but the vast majority of the course was eerily quiet and it felt like all of the runners were in their own heads, fighting their own personal battles. I told myself to get the first lap out of the way, hang in for the second lap and then I would find a way to get through the final lap, no matter what. This was very much unchartered territory so I wasn’t sure how to pace it but decided to use heart rate as guide. That seemed to work well on the first lap but the second half of the second lap was where the hard work really started. That was the moment that people had warned me about – when you will be totally exhausted and your mind will start trying to play games. Those kilometres are the ones that you train for and where it really counts. I kept running and things got better on the third lap when I knew that I was so close to home. In the last couple of kilometres, the crowd was amazing and it was almost surreal to be approaching the finish line. Just before I turned onto the red carpet, I saw Paul starting his final lap, looking happy and really strong. Finally, the finish line! High fives with the crowd and hearing those words "You are an Ironman!". Absolutely overjoyed and exhausted. Final time was 10:11.
Paul finished in 11:28 and was delighted. Marc finished in 10:22 so we must have close to each other all the way.
Massive sincere thanks to everyone who supported me along the way – RMRH, SLabbers, Tritons and especially my family for their patience, encouragement and being a constant source of motivation.
Looking forward to the next one!
BY MARC GEDDES
How long does it take to forget the pain of the last race, to forget the tedium of airport loops, to forget the toil of having to go out to meet a threshold, rather than the desire to go out and train for feel and enjoyment. In my short experience of Ironman, around 18 months. At least that is the period of time which had passed before the brutal memories of Langkawi had passed, replaced by the excitement of a new challenge ahead.
Ironman Barcelona appeared on my horizon. The perfect opportunity to spend time travelling in Europe with family, a more than thorough introduction to pintxos and the many varied wines of Northern Spain, not to mention the chance to race outside of the tropics, itself a novelty.
The summer in Hong Kong passed quickly, with training progressing in leaps and starts. Hot days feeling strong in the hills or at the airport, interspersed with the usual regrets, hangovers, sleep deprivation and nausea associated with trying to lead a full life outside of the rigorous demands of Ironman. Tuesday night sessions taught by Fen at Swimlab which were excellent, along with some longer open water swims with the Sunday morning group; gave me greater confidence in what has always felt the least natural (to me!) of the three disciplines. The tedium of using Zwift around a busy work schedule made me long for the hills and the feeling of being back in nature. Still, the gains were quick, and although I failed to train adequately for longer endurance, I felt strong and fast as the race approached.
Landing in Madrid a little over a week before the race, promised a period of unusual tapering. Skipping through vineyards, wheels of cheese, evenings of pintxos, snoozing through flamenco shows, and a horse back ride through La Mancha that Don Quixote himself would be proud of, it is fair to say that I arrived in Callela feeling a little heavier and sluggish than I would have liked. Still, to not have enjoyed everything Spain has to offer would not be in the spirit of adventure. In the end, you just get on with it.
PHOTO: Easy Taper Ride on Horseback
After the history and charm of Barcelona, Calella unfortunately tended to evoke feelings more akin to Thomas Cook than Antoni Gaudi. Still, the sea was inviting, the sun was shining, and my focus at this stage was on the race. The usual checking and rechecking kit, pizza versus pasta dilemma ensued. Two other Tritons, Paul and Ross, were also racing. Unfortunately owing to the logistics of race preparation and traveling with respective families, we weren’t able to meet during the days there.
PHOTO: Triton members Ross & Paul
After around half a decade of not having worn my wetsuit, I was relieved to find that it still fit well enough. Ironman Barcelona bills itself as the world’s largest ironman, and I knew that the water would therefore be a frenzy of activity. Indeed, the rows and rows of bikes during check-in had really driven home just how big this race is.
And so, with wetsuit on, goggles at the ready, and generous scoops of Vaseline around every conceivable pain point, I was surprised at how calm I felt whilst surrounded by the throngs of competition, buzz of nerves, and incessant announcements. Perhaps the steady calendar of halves around Asia had helped to inoculate me from these pre-race nerves. I focused on slowing my breath, and finding a quiet spot in my mind.
Gradually the crowds filed into the froth of surf, each about to embark on a personal journey of highs and deep lows, exhilaration and pain. My turn came, and suddenly I was in the water, joining the mellee. The swim course is a clockwise 1 loop, and we were fortunate to have good conditions. Buoyant thanks to the wetsuit, I focused on sighting and breathing, trying to find a rhythm. Given the larger crowds, I naturally moved further left in an attempt to find my own space. This worked to some extent, but the sheer number of competitors meant plenty of bunching at turns, swimming over legs, and a few knocks on the head. Finally I rounded the final turn, exiting the water in 1:07.26.
I sprinted through the rows of bikes, overtaking at least (!) two competitors during this leg, only to miss my row, back up, and duck under one to find my bike. Too long horizontal in the water, clearly taking a while for the blood to get back to the brain. Onto the bike and determined not to make some of the same mistakes as Langkawi, I focused on slowly eating a couple of bars, and rehydrating. The bike course starts with quite a few tight turns and speed bumps around the town (great for spectators), before heading out on a two lap course heading south.
PHOTO: Happy to be out of the water
The biggest challenge at this point is to hold back when every fibre wants to race. How little I had taught my body about what it was about to endure. I eased back on the inclines, and enjoyed the cool air (for a change). A few near misses with some very aggressive cyclists, and large drafting packs although I did also see penalties given. Otherwise enjoyable scenery, and the kilometers flew by. Arrived back in Calella with a split time of 5:09.59.
Onto the run. Every part of the preceding close to six and a half hours is really just preparation for this grind. My own fault for not training properly, but I knew this is where I would break. However, despite this knowledge the first few kilometers felt great. A switch to a different muscle group after so long on the bike was a welcome change, and I stupidly allowed myself to imagine for just a moment a reasonable marathon time. Could this be the race where by some fluke, my body just raced hard? Unfortunately there don’t seem to be many shortcuts in this sport. In training we must have the mindset of Sisyphus, or else in racing we will be crushed by the rock, and this run felt like the rock.
Three laps of tremendous support, of family pushing me on, of a determination to finish juxtaposed by doubts of running that distance today. The aid station intervals lengthened, the walks became longer, the sugar delivered through cups of coke less effective, and the faster pace slowed to a jog. Gradually, as is the case in every race, the distance narrowed and the concept of finishing became more tangible. Finally a few turns, a large crowd, what felt like sprint, a line, an announcement, and shuttled through into the finishers tent. Was that it? 3:56.53 split, and therefore a 10:22.18 total. And now to relax.