Try a Tri to Ironman, why and how I came to stand on the start line of Ironman Barcelona 2017!
I had never really been big into fitness, sporty in school but as soon as I hit college and my twenties the sport was dropped for nights out and it pretty much stayed like that until I had my kids in 2009 and in 2013. So to get back in shape after the kids I picked up running and loved it. At this time my dad and my husband Ian were big into running and were doing lots of races, half marathons and full marathons – something I never saw myself capable of doing. However in 2011 after a chat with my brother Brian (who himself was on the beginning of a life changing journey) we decided to push ourselves and train for the Solas centre 10 mile run. We came up with a training plan, ran 3 times a week, slowly building up the distance and chatting the miles away. Following on from the Solas run we decided to keep going with the training for the next few weeks and take part in the WAC half marathon in December. We had a great and enjoyable run, finished in a good time, and I was hooked on the feeling I got from these longer distance events.
For the couple of years from 2009 to 2013 I continued running, I was never serious or competitive, and I wasn’t ever very quick or winning races – I just loved the feeling of going out to clear the head after a day in work, and more importantly having a good ole chat with whoever I was running with – and it’s all still pretty much the same today. In 2013 when my youngest was 4 months old I decided to do my first marathon, being on maternity leave with some free time on my hands I thought it was my perfect chance to have the time to train and do it! So I trained with my dad this time, and finishing the Dublin marathon with my dad by my side in October 2013 is probably one of my most memorable running experiences – after all how many people can say they ran a marathon with their father? To this day my dad is a great running companion to me and we have completed countless events together while having a good laugh and not taking anything too seriously.
I first heard of Martin Kirwan and Focus on Fitness in 2012 when Brian and his wife Katie started training with him, the changes in their fitness and physique was amazing, and they spoke so highly of Martin so I thought maybe it was something I should try. In January 2014 I started training with Martin, I loved his approach and it suited me down to the ground. Every week Martin would put my plan up on training peaks, where every run had a purpose, instead my usual where I was just running miles for the sake of it. For me being accountable, having to load my workouts up on training peaks worked great as it knocked the lazy streak out of me. With Martins guidance I completed two more marathons, in London and Paris, countless half marathons, 10 milers and 5 milers.
How I came to do an Ironman
For some reason in 2016 I lost my running mojo, I was skipping runs, and the ones I was doing I wasn’t enjoying. Maybe it was the whole competitive side to it, everyone seemed so caught up in paces and times, and none of this really interested me, I run because I enjoy it, it keeps me in shape, and it’s my ‘me’ time. I think I just started to feel under pressure like as if people would be judging my runs and times. Silly I know. So I decided to mix it up a bit and signed up for a Try a Tri triathlon in Athy in June 2016. I only had a few weeks training before the event; I bought a cheap bike and borrowed a wetsuit from Katie. As I hadn’t cycled since I was about 12 my cycle training consisted of me doing a few short spins in and out of Tramore then running off the bike, I also started some group swim lessons with Eoin Lyons – however as I couldn’t swim I hadn’t given myself enough time to progress very far with that prior to Athy.
The day came for Athy and along with Brian who did the sprint, myself and Ian, my dad and my brother Nicky all took part in the Try a Tri – a real family affair. As I couldn’t swim I got through the 250 metre swim distance by doing a mixture of breaststroke, doggy paddle and anything else I could think of that would get me though it without having to put my face in the water! We all finished in one piece and I got brave and signed up for another Try a Tri in Fermoy two months later. Fermoy was completed in the same way as Athy, paddled through the swim, struggled on the bike, and somewhat enjoyed the run. So needless to say I wasn’t immediately hooked on Triathlon.
The first time I ever heard about an Ironman was when Brian signed up for Ironman Lanzarote in 2013. To me I could not get my head around how it was possible for someone to complete such an event – that distance in one day, crazy, or more so why would they even want to!! Following on from this Brian completed two more Ironman, and when he signed up for his fourth Ironman in Barcelona in October 2016 along with Katie I decided to go over to support and spectate. Having seen Ironman Barcelona first hand I had mixed thoughts, were they all nuts, how was it possible for the body to do such a thing, but also the thought was in the back of my mind – maybe, just maybe it was something I could do. Given the fact I was not a triathlete and I couldn’t swim, the thought alone was ludicrous!! But the thought wouldn’t leave my head and after a few days of mulling it over I broke the news to Ian that I was considering doing an Ironman. I then broke the news to Brain and Katie and asked them to come to the pool with me to see if they thought I had any bit of swimming potential in me (as I foolishly thought anyone could cycle a bike and training for that would be no bother to me, little did I know!!). So off to the pool we went, I spluttered through about 15 metres and got the thumbs up from Brian and Katie. Another few days of indecision followed and then with Ian’s support I took the leap and signed up for Ironman Barcelona which was taking place on 30th September 2017. And so it all began….
As most people reading this will know an Ironman it is a long distance triathlon of a total of 140.6 miles, a 2.4 mile (3.8km) open water swim, 112 mile (180km) cycle and a 26.2 mile (42.2 km) run – a grueling distance finishing with a marathon. As if that isn’t bad enough there are also time limits to finish each individual discipline and the Ironman overall. If not finished within these time limits, you will have a DNF (did not finish) and having invested months in training and preparing for an Ironman, a DNF is probably close to the worst nightmare for Ironman competitors, and something that haunted me for the duration of my training – and in particular the bike cut off, with Barcelona having a shorter cut off time than other Ironman events. I didn’t have years of cycling in my legs, had never taken part in a charity cycle or sportif, and the furthest I had ever cycled was 20km on maybe 8 – 10 occasions.
Telling Martin I had signed up for an Ironman was probably harder than telling anyone else, I was afraid he would think I was mad and tell me it would be too much for me. But Martin didn’t bat an eyelid, he told me it would be tough but anything was possible, and if I was consistent with my training, there was no reason why I couldn’t do it. I knew this Ironman was going to be a huge endeavour for me both mentally and physically, so having Martin plan out all my sessions and guide and advise me over the 11 months of training was invaluable as it left me to concentrate on the training itself. Martin started by planning out some milestones to hit over the winter months, hitting the 500 metre mark in the pool, then 1000 metres, getting to 2 hours on the bike etc. I immediately thought ‘what the hell have I done’, even these distances seemed impossible to me let alone an Ironman.
The training was tough and intense and meant finding a lot of extra hours a week to fit in lengthy bike rides, swims, runs and some strength work in the gym. For the average person with a full time job, this is extremely challenging, add in a couple of children and it made for a busy year!! With kids you have to make a choice: you can miss your sessions, you miss time with the kids, or you make sacrifices, for me it often meant sacrifice and that sacrifice was less sleep in order to get my daily training session done before the kids woke. So during the winter months it often meant up at 05:30 and down to Kingfisher for a swim session or gym session. Doing an Ironman also means having to be extremely organised outside of training – getting everything ready, organising the kids, food prep, gear prep etc, and without Ian’s support over the 11 months I certainly wouldn’t have made it to the start line.
The training was 6 – 7 days a week, with my focus the first few months being on learning to swim and putting time in on the bike, along with some running and strength work. I began swim lessons with Waterford Tri Club in Splashworld and also with Eoin Lyons of Swim Fast Coaching, and before I knew it I was swimming lengths at a time and loving it – it may sound cocky but even in those early months I wasn’t worried about the 2.4 mile Ironman swim, I knew I would be ok and I would get through it within the 2 hour 20 cut off. The bike was another story, I hated it, and I always felt I was on the back foot with it trying to build up distance every week, learn to cycle with cleats, use tri bars for the first time etc, so I really struggled with every cycle. Having a bike accident in March didn’t help matters, completely knocking my confidence and putting me out of swimming and running training for five weeks with bruised ribs.
As the months went on the sessions and the distances increased, it was amazing to see how the body and mind adjusted and got used to the level of training, for me it became the norm and just part of my everyday life and routine. Martin had set out some races over the summer months for me to get experience with a racing environment, swimming and cycling in a group, transitions etc. This worked great for me as it took my mind and focus off the Ironman itself and gave me smaller goals to work towards. The races picked were:
TryAthy Olympic Distance
In June, the plan from Martin was to stay relaxed and controlled, and as this was my first proper Triathlon event the most important thing was to enjoy it. And enjoy it I did, the 1500 metre river swim with a rolling start was lovely and relaxed, with no kicking or punching – always a bonus! The cycle was ok, and the run was lovely, tough at the end of the previous two disciplines, but enjoyable, and all I could think when I was running was look how far you have come, this time last year you struggled through the Try a Tri distance.
Wicklow Harbourman Olympic Distance
In July, again the plan was the same as Athy, stay relaxed, controlled and enjoy it. But this race was far from enjoyable for me, the swim was frantic, I had my goggles pulled off, legs pulled, I was kicked and punched – I couldn’t understand it, if you’re down at my end of the field we’re not exactly going to be winning the race, why were people being so crazy? It was so bad I thought about pulling out half way through the swim, but I gave myself a big cop on speech and just tried to keep going. Yet again the cycle was meh, I was at the back end of the field again even though I was cycling hard, and the run was tough with it being such a hot day. But Olympic distance number two was completed as tough as it was, now just one more race before Barcelona.
Ironman Dublin 70.3
In August. The instructions from Martin were to treat this as a training session, just like many of the brick sessions we had done the weeks beforehand as it was just a stepping stone to Barcelona. The most important thing was to finish this race feeling good so that my confidence was high in the lead up to Barcelona. After my experience with the swim in the Harbourman I was nervous going into this race, so my plan was to swim out away from marker buoys keeping away from the crowds, this worked perfectly and I got through the 1.2 mile swim with ease. The cycle was tough, it was far from flat as I had been told, but I was still happy to get through it in a decent enough time for me, even if I was again at the back end of the field. The run this time was tough as I had a really bad stomach causing me to stop numerous times, but I got through it and finished with an overall time of 6 hours 50 minutes, ecstatic!
Now all that remained was Barcelona. Completing the three races were invaluable and I took lots of lessons learned from them. I knew what to do in the swim so as not to panic and get caught in the crowds, I knew that there was nothing I could do about the cycle it was always going to be tough, I also learned never listen to anyone when they say a route is flat, and I knew that my nutrition on the bike and run needed to be changed to sort out the stomach issues.
Up until Dublin 70.3 the training was actually ok and manageable but following on from this it went up a whole level. The last few weeks prior to the Ironman were definitely hard, encompassing the usual 4-5 mid-week sessions along with 6-7 hours on the bike on Saturday followed by 3-4 hours running on Sunday. But I can honestly say I enjoyed it all, week on week, month on month seeing my progress. The one thing I didn’t expect when I signed up for the Ironman was meeting and forming friendships with so many new people over the months of training, from the lads at the swimming lessons to the track sessions and all the other Focus on Fitness gang also heading to Barcelona, it was great. And especially in the last couple of months having the company on the longer sessions with Katie, Tricia, Bernie, Anne Marie and Maggie definitely helped me to get through those tough long days.
Usually swimming is the discipline most people find difficult and cycling people feel the most comfortable with. For me it turned out to be the opposite, I loved the swimming, and found the cycling a real struggle – more so because I knew with being so new to cycling it was going to be really tight for me to make the bike cut off time in the Ironman. I had calculated out that I needed to hold an average pace of approx 25km/h for the full 112 miles in order to make the bike cut off, and this didn’t take into account toilet stops or any potential mechanical failures. Panic was starting to set in as I wasn’t hitting this pace in my training. I had my own head wrecked thinking about it, and I probably wrecked everyones elses head talking about it. But I got told by loads of others that I would pick up a good 1.5 – 2 km/h on the day in Barcelona with the roads being so good, so I kept telling myself that between this extra speed and the fact that we wouldn’t have the windy conditions we had here in Ireland all should be ok.
Ironman Barcelona 2017
The training was done and before I knew it we were on our way to Barcelona, I had decided to travel a day ahead of the family to get sorted with everything by myself without any stress. Myself Brian and Katie arrived on the Wednesday night, allowing us plenty of time on Thursday to sort bikes, register, get in a practice swim and bike ride and pack the transition bags. Thursday night we went to the pasta party along with Bernie, Tim, Anne Marie and Justin, we listened to the pros talk and I really started to get excited and could feel the whole Ironman buzz and atmosphere starting to build – it was just brilliant. Amazingly at no point from the time we arrived in Calella did I feel nervous, which is very unusual for me – I’m normally vomiting with nerves, I was just delighted to be there and tried to take in every minute of what was going on around me. Later on Thursday night Ian, the kids, my parents, sister Louise and brother Nicky arrived. Having them there was fantastic as it totally took my mind off of Saturday. Thankfully I slept like a baby on Thursday night as I knew Friday night would be a different story. On Friday we had a nice easy and relaxing day, time spent at the pool with the kids and the family, bike and transition bag drop off, lunch down at the beach and back to the pool again. Friday evening the 10 of us in the family headed out for dinner, again a lovely relaxed affair where there was no race talk or anything Ironman related spoken about, allowing myself Brian and Katie to switch off from the enormity of what lay in store for us the following day. With the long day ahead of everyone on Saturday we tried to have an early enough night, but as expected I didn’t sleep great tossing and turning for most of the night.
Saturday morning, and here I was along with 3000 other competitors (of which only 13% were women) on the beautiful beach in Calella waiting for the swim start. A few hugs and kisses to the family, a few tears shed and off we went to our respective starting points, thankfully I met Tricia at this stage as we were both in for the same starting time. Being with Tricia was great as neither of us were nervous, so while we waited to start we chatted, danced and sang along to the music pumping out, both of us just buzzing and loving the whole Ironman experience. The sun was rising over the ocean, there was a fantastic atmosphere, all my family were there watching and I couldn’t wait to get going, I finally had that ‘I’m ready to do this’ feeling.
My race plan was simple, take it easy on the swim as there was a long day ahead, on the bike just keep moving with constant pedaling, and the run – just survive!
The Swim was in beautiful clear blue water (very unlike my training swim sessions in Dunmore and Tramore which were often plagued with seaweed and jellyfish!), and with a rolling start it never got too hectic or rough with the crowd of 3000. I was hoping for a swim time under 1 hour 40 in order to give myself as much additional time as I could get for on the bike. From the very start the current was quiet strong which made for a tough swim and I found I was constantly being dragged off course by it, but I felt I was swimming well and was relieved to spot the 2km buoy marker ahead at which point we would turn. But as we swam to the buoy everyone kept going striaght ahead, what the hell, I looked and realised this was only the 1km marker, oh no, this current was much stronger than I thought, and I realised I was swimming slower than I had hoped because of it. Ok don’t panic, just keep doing what you’re doing and stay relaxed. Finally we turned and headed back towards the swim exit. Overall the swim was enjoyable enough and I exited the water after 1 hour 33 minutes, very happy with that time considering how the conditions were. It wasn’t until the following day when I downloaded my times that I realised I had swum an extra 300 metres due to the current pulling me off course! Into transition, wetsuit off, on with the cycling gear, quick bite to eat, grab the bike and off on the cycle.
The Bike was an out and back course completed two and a half times along the beautiful coast of the Costa Del Maresme – not that I got to enjoy the scenery that much! There are only two words to describe the cycle, windy and tough. I wasn’t expecting the wind to be so bad, that threw me, and also ruined any hope of picking up the extra 1.5 – 2 km/h people had said I would. The first loop went ok and I was a little above the average speed I needed. On the second lap the wind increased further and my fears for the bike were coming true, the wind was slowing me down, my average speed was dropping way below what it should have been and I was at risk of not making the cut off, my head was starting to go and I was in a bad place mentally. Lucky for me the other competitors from Waterford and Focus on Fitness were out on the road ahead of me, and with the out and back course we got to pass each other numerous times. Katie who knew me all too well from our long training rides could see when she passed that I was struggling, so with some (choice!!) words of encouragement from Katie I managed to pull myself together, put the head down and started to cycle as hard as I could. At the turnaround point at the end of the second lap Ian, Nicky and Tim were roaring at me to cycle harder and to keep pushing, I knew they were tracking me so I knew I still wasn’t safe yet. I kept thinking of my kids, all the weekends I was gone on them while training, of them waiting for me on the run course all excited with their posters and cow bells, so not making the cut off wasn’t an option – I just had to keep going as hard as I could. I can’t even begin to explain how horrible this felt, not knowing if my dream would end out here on the bike course, I was so anxious, I felt physically sick, and I couldn’t even eat properly with the way I felt. The half lap at the end was very lonely, there were very few of us left out on the bike course at this stage, each one of us going through the same struggle. At last I was on my way back to Calella after the half lap, about 8km out from Calella I spotted Nicky on the side of the road and realised he must have walked/ran out to that point. He was shouting at me, keep pushing….Ian is at transition…. Martin was on the phone… Oh Jaysus did I hear him right, did he just say Martin was on the phone, I must really be in trouble. Finally I was back in Calella making my way to transition, I could spot Ian waiting at the dismount line, I jumped off the bike shouting at him ‘Did I make it, did I make it!!’. Yes, yes you did. I started bawling crying and couldn’t move, I was never so relieved, I knew now that no matter what else happened today I was going to become an Ironman. After 7 hours 14 minutes of cycling I was done, making the cut off by 13 minutes. By now I had been going for 8 hours 57 minutes and still had a marathon ahead of me.
Running a marathon after being out there for so long swimming and cycling is difficult. There is no way around it. In a normal marathon, you will start when you are fresh, but a marathon in an Ironman will start when you are tired. This is where people break down. In the months leading up to Barcelona I had been told by others that had completed Ironman events that the run would be tough, and to expect to see sights I never would want to see again, people on their last legs having pushed their bodies to the max – walking, crawling, vomiting and all sorts. And the portoloos – well I won’t even go there, the less that’s said there the better!!
The Run consisted of the same loop completed 3 times, great for spectators and competitors. I started the run feeling good enough; it was a very slow steady pace as planned, but I was never so happy to be on my own two feet. Ian, the kids, and the rest of the family were at the 1 mile mark, I stopped for a few hugs and words of encouragement, got my head together and then off I went knowing I would see them again when I would pass that point five more times before hitting the red carpet. The out and back course also meant passing all the other Focus on Fitness gang who were taking part and it was a great boost seeing them and high fiving each other, I didn’t feel the miles passing. Brian I might add finished the Ironman 4 hours ahead of me – so I only saw him once on the run after which as he was sitting on a bench with the family cheering us on! I really enjoyed the run, chatting away to people around me, and soaking up the atmosphere from the amazing spectators. The only tough point was down the lonely road at the far end of the run course (think of the Green road in the dark and it wouldn’t be far off it), but this only lasted for 2 miles or so and we were back to the crowds again. By mile 15 my legs really started to hurt and energy wise I was depleted, having pushed so hard on the bike, and also not eating properly on the second half of it was starting to catch up on me. I made myself push on until mile 18 at which point I couldn’t run anymore, but I didn’t mind as I knew I had enough time left to walk the remaining miles and still make the cut off, and at this stage of the day most people were resorting to walking also. Luckily for me I passed my family again at this point and Brian told me Katie was just ahead so I caught up with her and could see Katie had just started to walk too, I think we were both just as relieved to see each other. In our training we joked about what would happen if we ended up together on the run, and now here we were and it was happening. We chatted and laughed our way through the 8 miles, encouraging others around us, and it was the perfect ending to the day getting to share the last few miles with Katie. I have known Katie for years, but training for the Ironman where week after week we were spending hours with each other slogging out the miles we became much closer, and finishing the remaining miles of the Ironman with Katie solidified even more the bond which we had formed in the months beforehand.
After 14 hours 45 minutes I ran down the finishers chute and red carpet with all the family cheering me on and got to hear the words I had dreamt about for months.
‘SUSAN YOU ARE AN IRONMAN’
What a feeling!!
The Ironman is the toughest thing I have ever completed, its hard to explain what its like to keep pushing your body for 14+ hours when your legs are crying at you to stop, but being strong mentally gets you through it, and if your mind believes you can do it then the body will follow.
This past year has thought me that I am stronger than I ever thought, and that nothing is impossible.
What advice would I give someone toying with the idea of doing an Ironman? Believe in yourself and just do it; life is too short to have regrets so live it to the max. And get a coach, having someone like Martin with his help, advice and expertise over the months will help immensely, and being so busy with training it is one less thing to worry about.
Try a Tri to Ironman….. done √
Would I do another Ironman? Absolutely (sorry Ian!)