"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Ironbourne Long Distance Triathlon - July 18th - 2021
I'd trained on and off for two years for this. Covid-19 had invevitably led to the cancellation of the 2020 race after I had spent the spring of that year building up my running, swimming and cycling in preparation for this, my second attempt at the full Iron-distance. I switched to a summer of shorter and faster road running instead once I knew the race had been pushed back a year and when the winter came, I started to lengthen my runs and build up to a spring 2021 marathon. After that, when it looked as though there would be a green light for the race in 2021, I ramped up my cycling distances and made weekly trips to Clevedon for a long swim in Marine Lake and a run over the delightful trails of Poet's Walk. To put it succinctly, I had worked very hard and stayed very focussed to make it to the start line of this one. And it was no ordinary start line - the race was set to begin with a jump off the end of a pier.
After the chaos and uncertainty of the day before the race (arriving in Eastbourne to find our hotel, booked and paid for just 3 days before, had actually closed down some time ago) I was up at ten to four on a warm, clear and totally still morning to see the sunrise over the channel as I made my last preparations. Transition laid out and food/drink stowed on the bike, I walked down the prom in bare feet to the warmup zones marked out between the breakwaters, then picked my way over the pebbles to test the water. It was milder than I expected and I was soon comfortable in the placid waters in the shadow of the glorious pier. Its golden domes reminded me of Bodhnath in Kathmandu, although the function of the two places could not be more different. Somehow it had a certain splendour that seemed in keeping with the momentous nature of Iron-distance triathlon. So many people do it that you can easily forget what a big challenge it is. Like the marathon in running, or the 400k in Audax cycling, it has a certain completeness about it. You can't take it lightly.
I had a chance to meditate on the sea, which was virtually waveless, before we were allowed on to the pier, middle- and long-distance athletes making their way to the end where steps led down to the platform where we would all have our individual jump-start. I was eager to be in as soon as possible so I got in the first half dozen pink-hat swimmers and watched each jumper in the blue-hat crew to see how they fared. Everyone looked a little nervous as I bet none of us jump or dive to start our training swims! The drop was only a couple of metres, thanks to a high tide just before the start. Wnen my turn came, I stilled my mind, held on to my goggles and leapt out into space over the sea. Landing in the water in a torrent of golden bubbles, time stood still as buoyancy overcame gravity and I slowly floated up towards daylight. One side of my goggles had dislodged a little and let the water in, which was a slight irritation, but I knew I couldn't delay the person behind me by faffing with it there and then, so I swam a few strokes out to sea then rolled on to my back to try and clear it. Then I was aiming for the first turn-buoy and the swim was underway.
The water was lovely - not as clear as I'd hoped but still much more lucid than the waters of Marine Lake where I had done every single stroke of my training. My body felt good in the mild temperatures and there was no problem with crowding - I barely touched another swimmer the whole way round, even at the buoys. The challenge came from sighting and route-finding with no lakeshore to follow and no clear "pack" of swimmers to get in behind. I'm sure I went over-distance, but that's not unusual. From the first buoy we swam south towards Beachy Head then around a second red marker to swim shorewards. I had the route clear in my head but there seemed to be more buoys than I had anticipated. I followed the mass of swimmers as best I could and after the second turn I was swimming towards the pier and under it - there was a crowd of supporters high above us and I could hear the cheering, which gave me a lift. After that it seemed a long way to the third turn then came the tricky scenario of managing the strong southward current as we swam out to sea heading for another turn-buoy. It was hard to guage the strenght of the drift, but we all took a reasonable line and got around the buoy. Here everyone seemed to be swimming way out to sea - was that to get into a stronger current? I just went with it and it seemed to work - I felt supernaturally powered-up, as each stroke seemed to take me double the anticipated distance. I felt more at one with the water than usual, it's not my natural element. Perhaps my anxiety about the jump start and the low sea temperatures had made me tense and now that had all evaporated things just seemed to flow.
As I came to the half-way point, I had the confusion of seeing two arches on the beach and I was uncertain as to whether one was for the middle-distance and one for the long. I waited until I was close in to the beach where I could see marshals waving us all towards the arch on the left and I was soon getting a hand out of the water then wading back in to begin the second lap. I made it to barely thigh-deep in the gentle surf before my legs protested at the sudden weight-bearing and I was happy to indulge them by falling forward again into a front crawl. It felt good to be back in the water but I knew this would be the hardest section - a long pull against the current to the pier and beyond. The right side of my goggles leaked now, I've no idea why, and that began to prove a distraction that sapped a little of my mental and physical energy. I kept one eye tight shut and sighted with the other. Suddenly there was a sensation in my stomach that came as a shock and I realised I had drifted too far inland and swum straight over the end of a breakwater. No harm done, I veered out into deeper water and rolled on my back again to try and sort my goggles out. I had to do that a couple more times but it paid off, as I was eventually able to sight with both eyes and take a good line to the pier and out to the turn buoy once again. From there I swam well out to sea as I had before and enjoyed the assistance of the current down towards the big wheel that was our sighting-point for transition. Like many others I was unsure when to turn in towards the arch and left it a touch too late - this meant many of us ended up downstream of the arch and past the next breakwater, pulling hard against the current to fight our way back on course. After that I felt the pebbles under my feet again and I was out of the water into the sun and the air, greeted by Kokila who was there on the beach and recognised me as I started to pull the wetsuit off to reveal my blue Sri Chinmoy Tri Team suit. She took a photo and cheered me on my way.
I ran most of the grassy slope to transition - at this point I had swum for 1 hour 15 mins, better than the 1.18 of my previous iron-distance race, but transition involved 300m of western lawns and beach so the whole thing took over 6 minutes. That included a minute or two of applying loads of vaseline to my feet, pulling on my jersey, cap and helmet and getting my food-bottles stashed in my rear pockets. After that logistical challenge I ran the bike out to the road ready for a hot 180k on the roads of Sussex.
It was all A-road at first and I was able to keep up a steady 18mph, cruising in the low 20s on good sections then staying at a reasonable pace on the slopes and into the light headwinds. The route was a bit to begin with, a succession of roundabouts and dual carriageways, but that meant I wasn't tempted to look up too much and I was able to stay more aero than usual. I spent as much time looking at the Garmin as the road on this section, figuring that if I could stay at around 18 to 18.5 mph on the good going, I would be buying myself some time on the two big climbs at the end to finish in under 7 hours. Although I hadn't told anyone this, my secret aim was to beat my previous iron-distance time of 12:57 which I did at the age of 41. Now at 53 I had lost some top-end pace and I probably hadn't done the same volume of training as I did back then in 2009, but I had certaintly trained smarter. It had all been focussed on the key sessions of long ride and long swim, with a marathon in the bank at the end of February to reassure me that I could do the run.
At the first aid station I made a loo stop and was glad to not have to queue - I had lost around 10 minutes at the Cotswold Tri doing that. Food and drink were going to plan, I was consuming lots of High 5 which was going down nice and easy and the strategy of the 3-course feed seemed to be working. In the first 2-3 hours of the ride I ate crackers and fruit-biscuits then I switched to energy bars and finally to baby food. All in all I propably crunched, chewed and slurped my way though 1500 calories. It may have been more. I was determined not to grind to a total halt on the marathon.
After the second visit to the aid station we headed off the main roads on to a glorious loop on B roads and good lanes through some lovely Sussex countryside. I was focussed still on speed, time and performance and didn't pay much attention but I am certain a part of me was soaking up the scenery and being nourished by it. The sun was getting very hot by now, with temperatures set to hit a real-feel of 31 Celcius later. Knowing that, I drank way more than usual. My body absorbed it all easily and probably could have taken more.
The second loop up the A road and back down to the final stop at Hallam aid station was the hard part. I began to find it mentally tiring keeping up the pace but my legs were willing enough and the average pace stayed at mid-18s. I started to feel pretty tired at this point with around 5 hours of riding behind me and the temperatures steadily rising, but I held off taking my "secret weapon" caffeine shot and stuck to my race plan. My feet were starting to hurt a lot over the pedals and no amount of adjusting my shoes seemed to help. Relief came on a mental level after the second loop when we headed off to the final part of the course through lanes and villages, to the downs and cliffs around the Cuckmere Valley. At 90 miles I took a third of the SIS caffeine shot and instantly I was overtaking. Soon the foot pain had disappeared too. I took more caffeine on board at the neutralised zone where we traversed some roadworks between two timing points and this 3 minutes was taken out of my race time (for safety reasons). The caffeine boost came at the right time and helped me through the winding lanes that took more concentration to ride than the easy A roads. Tiny hamlets appeared between tree-lined sections of lane, with ancient churches and old stone barns. Ahead of me I could see the smooth, green wall of the South Downs, stretching out to both horizons. A white horse was cut into the hillside and shimmered through the heat haze. I came out of this dream-like section to a view of the meanders in the Cuckmere river leading down to the sea, then I was on to the first climb at Exceat.
I knew the first section would be the steepest, but I wasn't sure how long the climb was. I as up and over pretty easily and on to a flat section then a brief downhill, before another slope kicked up ahead of me and I realised I was only around a third of the way up. I kept pushing and it slowly surrendered, the church at the summit a welcome sight. Once when I was around 15 or 16 years old I had ridden that same climb with a group of mates, heading to France. I vividly remember us getting to the top on that occasion feeling totally spent and emptying our bags and panniers in a desperate search for some food. We had only our teabags and a bag of sugar so we ate the whole pound of sugar with our fingers. Funny what you remember!
After the steep descent off the Exceat climb I slowed for the turn to Birling Gap, the heat really building up now. Vast, pale-green meadows filled the view and although traffic queues slowed me down a couple of times I kept the pace up pretty well and my average was still in the high-17s. Beachy Head was a switchback climb, and I must have looked pretty hot as a van pulled up alongside me with the passenger offering me a bottle of water out of the window. I said thanks but no thanks and kept grinding out the ascent. When I came over the top I had a stunning view of Eastbourne, looking like it had been teleported to England from the French Riviera. The road kicked up with yet another ascent but I was relieved to come over the brow of a slight rise and see that the course avoided that extra climb and instead swung down a right turn leading on to the final descent. I thanked the marshal at the turn, with more sincerity than she knew. Zig-zags led me into town and I had to weave through cars pulling into parking spaces along the sea front before dismounting with a bike time of 6:28. I knew I was in with a chance of a pb now so the pressure was on.
Transition was slow again, as I took the time to spray factor-50 sunblock over arms, knees and shoulders - something I would be grateful for later. They say in a marathon, the 20 mile mark is half way, and in Iron-distance you could say that the start of the run is half way. It is a world in itself. In this case it was a hot, dry, sun-soaked world. On top of that there were seafront crowds and four climbs to negotiate. It wasn't long before I was dying in the heat and I was very grateful that the race organisers had organised marshals with hosepipes every mile or two. This was a life-saver. Without that I am not sure how the run would have gone - I would probably have had to walk a fair bit.
My memory of the marathon is just that it was long and hot. So very long and so very hot. I took advantage of the hose-down at every station - front, back, then hat and buff too, holding them in the water jet to thoroughly soak them before pulling them back on. Even then the relief from the heat only lasted a few minutes and I was desperate for another spray by the time the next aid station came around. The loop towards Beachy Head began with a climb on gravel, the vegetation thoroughly mediterranean and certainly not looking anything like what you expect in England. Such a contrast from the Sussex villages on the bike course. I managed to run the whole thing, up to the turn, then coast down the slope to the baking-hot lower prom. Then came a long section through crowds of beachgoers, then into a quiet section past a shed that stank to high heaven of fish, out into a sun-scorched foreshore with endless boats dragged up on the expanse of pebbles that seemed to go on forever before the turnaround point finally came into view.
I ran slowly at first, short strides, drinking coke and water as I wasn't sure I could stomach the energy gels on offer. Soon the coke began to bloat my stomach and make me feel sick as well as exhausted so I switched to water. That helped in terms of making me feel less bloated but I was running out of energy and realised I needed fuel so I tried the gels. Fortunately they went down easily and gel and water kept me going through the middle phase. Here in this endgame of remorseless heat and fatigue, I sang and chanted mantras to myself and stayed cheerful throughout the whole thing. I could feel the presence of oppressive thoughts at the margins of my mind - thoughts of slowing down, of anxiety about how my body might react to the heat, of how I might hit the wall. Somehow I kept them at bay and set myself targets - get to the pier without slowing down, get through the crowds, get to the next cold-water hosedown, get to the softness of the gravel path, get up the hill without walking. Section by section the distance passed and I realised I was still well on for a pb. I knew how good that would feel, and that knowledge helped me keep pushing the pace. I got to the point where I knew I could collapse to brisk-walking pace and still hit my target and with the pressure off I manage to keep running and come to the final section with minutes in hand. At the final turn I was able to speed up and weave at a good pace through the beachgoers. Then I was on the blue carpet, surging for the finish line, summoning a smile from the fatigue.
This felt like a momentous race for me, probably because it had been so long in the planning and I had been so focussed in my preparation. Beating my 41 year old self at 53 felt special. The organisers put on an amazing event, with an inspirational course and enthusiastic marshals. The still day made for an easy swim and no serious headwinds on the bike, but the incredible heat made the marathon a real epic struggle. I'm glad I came through it and very happy with the pb. Now I have to think of my next challenge, as I don't have the free time or the money to do a race like this every year. Maybe it will be Audax, or fell running, or maybe both. Right now I am focussed on recovering from this, my second and my best attempt at Iron-distance triathlon.
full-res photos - 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9.10,11,12,13,14
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