Forestman "IronMan" Triathlon 2009

Target: 13.00 Finish Time: 12.59 !!!!!

I'm writing this a week later and I have to say I got such a high from this race that I still feel great :)

Ironman distance triathlon was the target I set myself around 2 years ago when I first started going for swimming lessons to help get over the frustration of being injured and inable to run. As a total non-swimmer, overcoming my fear of the water was the hardest aspect of the training, but I finally cracked it at the Marshman back in May when I really enjoyed - and I can't believe I'm using that word - the swim section of the race. That, and a visit to the Blue Seventy lake at Reading for a 4km training swim had got me over my swim nerves, so it was just the bike that stood as a major challenge. And the run - well, I'm a runner first and foremost, so that didn't hold any terrors for me. When it came to Forestman weekend, the only thing that seemed scary was the split transition and the need to have all my T1 and T2 items packed in bags well in advance of the start - I was quite worried about getting the wrong thing in the wrong bag and ending up missing something vital at the lake or finding the wrong shoes in my bag at T2! Fortunately, when I sat down to meditate the night before the race, a real sense of peace descended and the doubts dissolved, leaving only my sense of purpose and the knowledge that I was doing something really significant for me - my first "Ironman". I slept like a baby for the whole 5 hours and was up and ready to roll at 3am!

It had rained all night and was still spitting when we got to the lake in the competitor's bus with well over an hour to go before the start. I checked the bike over and started getting into my wetsuit. After the inevitable faffing with transition bags, I left my glasses in the change tent ready for T1 and got into goggles and swim hat. I had a few moments to contemplate the lake as the clouds began to clear, and by the time Richard Iles stood up for the final briefing, the sky was a pale wash of blue with just a few wispy clouds tinted orange by the pre-dawn rays from below the horizon. Kokila arrived with my daughter Jemima and mum in law Pat - I was amazed all three of them had got up so early to give me a sendoff and also amazed that Kokila recognised me among all those wetsuits and green swim hats!

After the briefing came the blessing - a local minister offered a really beautiful prayer for protection in the lake and in the forest, and also asked that our eyes would remain open to the beauty of nature. Now there's a guy who understands what endurance sport is about! He was sincere and soulful and greeted with a few moments of silence then a round of applause. I wish all races started like this - for me they always do, with an inner prayer of some description or a moment of meditation, but it's special when everyone shares that moment. Lots of us were first-timers, so bet there was some praying going on even from the agnostics! There's a video of the start here (right click and download before playing).

So, into the water for the briefest of warmups and then the countdown was upon us and the thrashy start to the swim began, with all 120 competitors going off together. There was the usual melee, but I don't have a problem with this (surprising for a novice swimmer, but I actually find all that thrashing around in the water good fun - it makes the swim more exciting). I was soon into my stroke, happy in the relatively warm lake and my super Zoot wetsuit that makes me loads more buoyant and insulates so well. I tried to draft other swimmers - careful to get my hands in those bubbles but not actually touch the feet - and the first lap seemed to come by without too much trouble. The sun rose over the trees and turned the water surface golden. I was sighting well, no mist or leaks in the goggles, and I was seeing the buoys nice and big, taking the inside line around each one and keeping to the best line on each straight. I strayed towards the bank once or twice when I lost concentration but I really didn't swim many extra yards, thankfully. I got into repeating songs and mantras to push the minutes past and get me through to the end of the swim. Lap 2 seemed tougher than expected, but still not that bad - it raised a little anxiety as I assumed lap three would be correspondingly harder. When the last lap came, though, the only hassle was the sharpness of the sun in my eyes (I only breathe on one side, so I couldn't avoid it) and the expected tiredness and discomfort didn't come. I sped up. By the time I got to the home straight I felt great - even a little on the warm side, unbelievably - and exited in 1.18. My support team were there - grabbing a snap of the leader and of me coming out onto the jetty - and I was smiling as I ran past them up to the change tent.

T1 involved grabbing a chair and my T1 bag, emptying it out onto the grass and then wrestling my suit off, which is always tough but expecially after such a long swim. Once I'd won that particular bout and the suit was back in the bag, I got my gilet on (to make me ready for any conditions) and my helmet and number belt then the bike was in my hands I was jogging the long matted exit to the road.

Once on the bike I was quickly into an easy rhythm, trying to avoid the washed out flints from the night of heavy rain (we'd been warned these are a great way toget punctures). The course was twisty at first, though villages and along country lanes, with gentle climbs but no real show-stopper ascents. I began to get the gels down me in large amounts, remembering how my training rides had been really tough whenever I failed to get enough calories inside me. Soon I was munching mule bars too as I got out onto the A35 for the long "time trial" section of main road. There was a bit of traffic there, but not enough to worry about, and the section involved some long freewheeling descents which I thought of as "free miles" that I clocked up without effort. Of course, you pay for descents later by having to climb, and the first climb of note was on the Ornamental Drive, a beautiful lane winding up through ancient trees to the higher part of the forest. The descents were all easy, fortunately, with no hair-raising alpine sections! I came through lap 1 with an average speed of around 17mph, meaning I was on target for my 7 hour bike split. Lap 2 was harder - I think I had eaten too much too soon and sent all my blood to my stomach instead of my muscles. Fatigue set in and I had to concentrate hard to keep my effort level up.

This shot of me on the bike comes from event photographers, Evokepix.

When I was flagging, I let myself take it a little easier, knowing that surges of energy would come back when the energy food took effect, and sure enough after a tough lap 2 I found myself enjoying a reasonable lap 3. Switching from bars to just gels was a good decision and I felt myself getting strong again. The honey stinger gel in particular seemed to give me a real boost. I stopped at the aid station on The Plain for supplies, adding my own nuun tablets to the water they gave me in fresh bottles, and grabbing another bar just in case (I never ate it, perhaps it was a security blanket!). The guys on the aid station were superb - it was like being Jensen Button in the pits as they clustered around me getting whatever I wanted, putting bottles in the cages for me. Fantastic support. Shortly after that pitstop I had to emergency stop to avoid a horse that wandered out into the road - I think my tiredness was a factor as it didn't move that fast - I just kept heading towards it assuming it would either speed up or stop but this horse timed its move to perfection forcing me to stop sith a slight skid - no harm done and I was able to chicane round the horse as it got into the middle of the road and carry on.

T2 came around with an average of around 16.6 mph on the garmin, so I had broken 7 hours for the bike by around 12 minutes. The changeover was quick enough - I felt the hard part was over now, and that I could do that marathon! I bounded out of the tent and waved to my team, who now included mum and dad, before reality set in on the first climb. This run was hilly, and the sun was really beating down!

Once in the forest, I found the course had numerous steep-but-short climbs that were making lots of the competitors take walk breaks. I had enough hills behind me in training to run every one, but for sure they slowed me down a lot. I felt I was only just creeping along at a slow jog and soon decided that my 13 hour time target would be impossible. The heat was intense too, and half the loop was out in the open with no tree cover. The aid stations were superb, and there were plenty of supporters out in the forest too, so there was no shortage of encouragement. My team greeted me at the end of the lap where I picked up my wristband to show I'd done one circuit and ditched my bottle belt, having emptied it of fluid, keeping just a bottle with a couple of smart gels in it and some energy sweets.

As with the swim and the bike, lap 2 was the hardest. I found the smart gel superb, but there was hardly any left, so I had to save it for the end. I tried GO gel from the table but for some strange reason it was hard to get it down. I hadn't trained with Infinit, the drink they were dishing out, so I had to stick to plain water, which didn't seem to be enough to quench my thirst.

It was tough out there but I was always moving forward and there was no collapse point or wall-hitting. On lap three I tucked into the honey stinger sweets and the smart gel and once I had my blue wristband I knew there were only a few hilly miles of trail between me and my first Ironman finish. I had passed a guy from Hants Police earlier, and he came back level with me, so I realised I had slowed a little. I also realised I still had a kick left so I took off (relatively speaking - perhaps 10 min pace instead of 12!) and attacked the final hills on the lonely section of trail back to the main road. Once on the road, with all my fuel consumed, I pushed myself as much as I could and strode out on the undulating verges - soon I was past the Pub, on the pavement, seeing the wonderfully cheerful marshal dressed up sort of like a bee (real - not a hallucination) and getting directed into the holiday park for the finish.

I felt fantastic at the finish - and when I turned and saw the clock I felt even better. I had run the marathon without a watch, and really was convinced I was nearer 14 hours than 13. To get under 13 was a dream. The winner, after all, had taken ten and a half hours, which tells you something about that beautiful but testing run course! Still, the sense of achievement was all the greater for having run all those hills under the hot sun. I placed 43rd from 120 or so starters.

Thanks to my team!!!! You were all magnificent. Thanks to Race New Forest - a truly superb event. A great choice for one's first Ironman distance event - the support is so amazing, the course so inspiring - and a few little hills on the run won't stop you achieving your dream. Thanks to my bike for a trouble free ride! I highly recommend this event to anyone. I have a feeling I'll be back :)



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