2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim / 112-mile (180.25 km) bike / 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run
Accompanied by my long suffering wife, we arrived at the Reebok Stadium outside Bolton at 4pm on Friday, allowing plenty of time to register. To make the whole operation of depositing my kit in two different transition areas less stressful, I wanted to attend the Friday race briefing, freeing up more time on Saturday. The briefing was very similar to the Tenby one, with the competitor rules reiterated, although it was to become apparent that only a handful of people must have been listening!
Things were getting very real, and every hour closer I got to race day, the more anxious I was feeling. I couldn’t help wondering if the theory of Don Fink’s “Be Iron Fit” training plan would work in practice. We were staying in a guesthouse that was 15 minutes walk away from the stadium, so dropping my running bag off was a breeze. Once at Pennington Flash a casual glance at the still lake put my mind at rest a little and I busied myself with racking my bike. I faced the usual problem of using a big bike, by having to rack my bike using the bars and brake levers, rather than the saddle. A very friendly race official showed me the ins and outs of T2 and with my run bag racked, it was time to chill out (if only!).
The good thing about being near to the stadium was that there were lots of places to eat on what was a huge retail park. My wife had booked a table at a well known Italian food chain and after a calamari starter, I went for a simple pasta dish that would sit gently on the stomach. What arrived looked like a child’s portion and didn’t taste anything like its £14 price tag, so after a lengthy exchange of words with management, it was struck off the bill, leaving me still hungry!
By the time we got to our beds, had a hot chocolate and affixed race tattoos, it was time to try and get some sleep. I managed about three hours sleep and at 3am tried to eat some porridge to no avail. I was feeling surprisingly spritely at this ungodly hour, although I was in a sombre mood as the dreaded swim loomed ahead. As we queued for the bus to take us from the stadium to the start, my mother in law appeared and wished me luck.I was now nervous beyond belief, and was very monosyllabic (sorry). Before I knew it I’d put my water bottle and Garmin on my bike, gone to the portaloo and fought my way to the back of the swim queue, self seeding for a 1:50 swim. I passed Pete, my training partner, who’d placed himself more towards the middle of the pack. Vicky, who I’d met open water swimming in Ellesmere Lake, gave me a big smile and some encouraging words. There was only time for a quick chat with the other nervous swimmers in the slow section, before the line of neoprene clad athletes snaked down toward the start. I was overjoyed to see my friend Sarah right by the start line, and my wife and mother in law cheering me on.
Once I was over that timing chip and into the water, panic was replaced with grim determination. Having regular buoys along the route gave a sense of accomplishment as I plodded along. Occasionally swimmers on their second lap would swim over me, but I kept going and was very happy to get to the Australian exit. Half way through the swim my time was 55 minutes and I was confident I’d get through the swim. I thought the second lap would be easier with hardly anyone else left in the lake, but I received a kick to the chest that shocked me and could shake a couple of other swimmers that were going at the same pace as me. Finally I was out of the lake for good, but being pulled out of the water too zealously by a volunteer caused me to pull my calf muscle and I limped to T1. My plan on the bike was to go for comfort and made my way straight to the private changing area where I completely stripped off and put on my cycling shorts and jersey – goodbye 15 minutes! The struggle to get out of my wetsuit aggravated the pull to my calf muscle and running to the mount line was uncomfortable. T1 was thick with mud and I started off not being able to get my left cleat engaged in the pedal. Being one of the last swimmers out meant the first part of the point to point part of the bike route was a lonely affair. I was cycling quite gently as the calf pain subsided and only when a clump of mud fell off the bottom of my shoe, did the cleat properly fit in the pedal. Someone looking official with a fluorescent coat was shouting at me and I stopped to see what the matter was, only for him to ask me a question about the road still having cones on it. I gave him a very curt “I don’t know!”, annoyed at being stopped needlessly and continued on my way. Soon other athletes were appearing in the distance and before long I was overtaking other cyclists in ever increasing numbers!
I looked at my bike computer and noticed that 10 miles had passed already and then I started counting down in 10 mile blocks. After successfully refuelling with gels, bars and bananas for the first hour, my stomach became unhappy and I stuck to banana and energy drink for a while. When the distinctive turn for Sheephouse Lane was upon me I braced myself for the climb as all of a sudden there were a glut of others cyclists on the road. I didn’t want to go too quick round the first lap, but the squeaky wheel of someone trying to overtake me, but not being able to, annoyed me into increasing my cadence and soon I was enjoying the views at the top of the climb.
The crowds and yells of support were really encouraging, with the climb being reminiscent of the supporters on the cols of the Tour de France. From there was the fast descent and an uneventful hour until Hunters Hill. Hunters Hill was a shorter, sharper climb, but it didn’t tax me as I enjoyed more support from the crowds. I was half way round by now and psychologically in a good place. My mental maths wasn’t so good as I’d miscalculated that I wasn’t going fast enough. After a caffeine gel I upped the pace, fearful that I’d miss the cut offs. I was working my way past lots of cyclists, soon getting onto the second lap and feeling more confident. By Sheephouse Lane the second time round people were flagging. I passed a man and woman pushing their bikes, renouncing their decision to enter the competition! On the steepest part of the climb reams of people were off and pushing, but I felt good… despite worrying I’d run out of energy due to not eating as much as I felt I should. I think I’d heard enough people shout “dig in” or “don’t stop” by now and come the second time up Hunters Hill a lot of competitors were pushing bikes, but this time “supporters” were throwing sarcastic comments to them – oh the shame!
I was feeling quite smug and glad the the end was in sight when I cockerel darted across the road. “Man falls off bike when cock gets caught in wheel” (there’s a joke there, somewhere), swerving with my swerves, to the point where I thought we were going to collide. Luckily for both of us we parted company without incident and my next near miss was almost hitting a traffic cone getting past two competitors cycling side by side.
Before I knew it I was negotiating the bike rack of T2 trying to find my number, then back into the changing room to completely change clothes and waste another 15 minutes! With the amount of time left, I was uncharacteristically confident, although I still couldn’t face solid food. I managed the first 12 miles without having to walk, then added the occasional speed walk up the inclines. By now I was being entirely powered by flat Pepsi and energy drink, with a cup of water to cool my head down. I was travelling in a little bubble of euphoria, chatting to friends who were supporting me and feeling quite confident. I did shut my mind off to the aches and pains of my lower legs and the toe carnage that was going on in my socks!
The lap band envy kicked in as it felt like I’d never get the red, blue and green bands that I needed to end the run. Once I had two bands I was suffering from lap band sympathy, thinking about the poor souls who’d got so far to go. The saying about not judging a book by its cover was so apt, as I saw competitors who were a lap ahead of me that looked like they’d just got off the sofa after years of inactivity. Conversely, chiselled models from fitness magazines were struggling behind.
I’d lost all concept of time by now and was getting a bit bored of running, so knowing the finish line was close got me to put a spurt on. I knew I wasn’t far behind Pete, as we’d passed each other near a turnaround point, so I wasn’t surprised to catch up with him on the last little hill before the finish. There was about 50 meters to go when we were rudely pushed out of the way by a couple of blokes racing to the finish, but I think ending up finishing in unison was the perfect end to the journey we started out together on.