My Ironman 70.3 Barcelona Experience

It’s taken me a while to publish this as I needed time to remember as much detail as I could because (without wishing to spoil the ‘punch line’) I’ll likely never do something like an Ironman 70.3 again! And, just in case I begin to toy with the idea, this’ll hopefully serve a reminder of why it perhaps wasn’t quite for me.

So ‘future me’, listen up!

(It’s faaaairly lengthy. The blog that is…a true reflection of the race, perhaps)

So an Ironman (IM) is a brand of triathlon that run events for both the full distance triathlon and the middle distance triathlon. I did the Ironman 70.3, a “middle distance triathlon”, more commonly known as a half-ironman (but you won’t find me calling it that, as half IM makes it sound like I have unfinished business with the whole, which I very much do not!)  The ‘half’ (so note, the full IM is double all this) entails a 1.2 mile (1.9km) swim, followed immediately by a 56 mile (90km) bike ride and finally, assuming you haven’t missed the cut off points for the previous two sections, a 13.1 mile (21.1km) run – a half marathon to nicely finish off your day with. This totals 70.3 miles, which is where the name comes from.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an incredible experience and one I will certainly never forget. The thing is, though, recently I’ve done some very very cool events that I would describe in a similar way, but which didn’t require months and months of training – training that I feel perhaps was tougher and more tiresome than crossing the finish line could quite make up for.

Let’s briefly touch on the training, then we’ll move onto the main event.

TRAINING

Just before Christmas I asked my colleague Rob what events I could do in 2016, as I wanted to make it a year of adventure and fun. At his suggestion of a half ironman I pretty much just laughed in his face. But he went on to explain that it’s completely different abroad and that I could make a really great experience of it – plus he felt that with my existing level of fitness I’d certainly be able to get myself around the course if I wasn’t too fussed about a specific finish time. This was before I went on to break my foot, argh! And so, after a frustrating 4 months off phys I was raring to go and enthusiastically signed up, praying my continuing foot niggle would hold out.

My aim in training was to just do enough to get me comfortably to the finish line without giving my social life up for training. Two colleagues, Clem and Rob, signed up to the same event so we could encourage each other to train when needed. This included Rob inviting us to a “marketing team lunch” only to open the calendar invite and realise that instead of a nice meal out, we’d be doing swim-run session. Waaaa.

I didn’t follow a complex plan as found it tricky to work something rigid around my social plans. Instead each week I just aimed for 2 x bike, 2 x run and 2 x swim, with one being interval/hills etc, and the other being slower but longer. For the run I used BMF Run Club in Hyde Park for my intervals and for my long run I’d go out at lunch times and jog alongside the Thames for an hour or so. Alternatively I used obstacle races at the weekends to tick that box. I swam near work at lunchtime and managed to get a couple of open-water swims in a week or so before race day – I love open water swimming but only in fair weather and despite a late May race, I wasn’t ready to brave the cold sooner than mid May.

The bike element was definitely my biggest problem area as I found it hard to get a) free weekends for a long ride and b) companions for my rides. And in my bid to keep my training fairly sociable, I ended up doing quite a few rides where I’d go out for more of a ‘pootle’ with friends, chatting away up and down hills rather than smashing out the speedy rides. This certainly came back to bite me on (mountainous) race day, but even in hindsight I know I wouldn’t have wanted to approach it too differently – life should never be taken too seriously unless you’re in it to win it (and even then it’s debatable). My godsend was probably the triathlon training camp I went to in Wales that was a great fun weekend away but also incredibly invaluable last-minute training, particularly for the hilly bike course.

Approaching the race I was happy that I could cover the full distance of each discipline comfortably, so was confident about crossing the finish line – I’d done a couple of brick* sessions (*training with two disciplines back to back, such as bike then run) but not the full distance, but that’s perfectly normal and I was reassured by those more experienced than me that I’d be fine, reminding me that all I needed to do was finish in order to get a PB.

I was pretty relaxed about it all until I spotted this video (below) of Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham crab crawling their way to the finish line of an Ironman! This could very easily be me if I got my nutrition or hydration wrong, agh! This video played through my mind approximately 32 times during the race.

 

RACE DAY SET UP

The Barcelona Ironman 70.3 doesn’t take place within Barcelona, but instead 60k north, in the small seaside town of Calella. Think naff beach resort with plastic clad bars and you’ve got the right idea. Sadly we weren’t there for the sangria or vodka shots. Instead, we negotiated our hefty van around the small one-way system, parked up and headed for registration. The good news was our names were definitely on the list and we were definitely doing this. Cripes!

We racked our bike in the sunshine and hung our bike and run bags separately on the numbered hooks inside the marquee.

It took quite a bit of thinking about, as I’ve never had a transition like this before,  where the bike was separated from all your kit. It definitely helped to have pre-organised kit bags on the day of the race though, as you just pick everything out the bag you need for that stage of transition, chuck it on, and off you go.

There was music playing and the sun was shining so it felt a little like a festival – the illusion, sadly, quickly shattered by copious athletes jogging and biking around the seafront fully clad in their entire tri suits. I felt a little bit out of place in my denim shorts and am still wondering now if there was actually any reason for them choosing to wear their heinously unflattering and completely unattractive (certainly on my part) race gear a full 24 hours before the start gun.

We met Rob and Lash for lunch but it was clear the nerves had started to kick in as I sat very quietly and barely spoke. In fairness, it was about time. This was the first time I was actually worried about the race apart from the day I hit “buy now” on my entry.

We soon headed off to our house outside of town, in Blanes, for a HUGE bowl of pasta, gallons of water and an early night.

 

RACE DAY

Another problem with the small town of Calella is its lack of parking (well, probably only an issue once a year when 3,000 athletes descend) so on our third van-lap of the town we conceded to parking in a 20 minute bay and praying to the spanish pay and display gods that it’d still be there on our return. Stressful start. We hurried to the start area to get last minute checks done on bikes, add water bottles etc, and with all our faffing ended up having just 5 minutes to do all that and get our wetsuits on, argh! As I raced to put my “Street wear” bag aside I hurried through a mass of wetsuit-clad bodies and slipped on a ledge, twisting my BAD ANKLE! OH MY GAAAD, the worst timing possible – after 3 months of jumping off obstacles onto my left foot, and even alighting trains with low platforms onto my left foot first I’d managed to twist it just seconds before the race started. Nightmare! Too late to do anything about it, I hobbled to the start line and flamingoed around on my right leg.

 

SWIM

The swim had a rolling start, so we began on the beach and positioned ourselves in order of our expected swim time. Gradually, in small groups, our race began, running under the start line and into the sea. Clem and I had popped ourselves between the 40 and 45 minute swim time, which turned out to be exactly right. Within minutes we were crossing the start line, under the inflated race start arch at the exact same moment. I wouldn’t see Clem again for another 6 hours! I wasn’t sure how far out to sea I should try and get before I started swimming, but this decision was made for me as I hit the first wave and tripped inelegantly into the water. This was it, we were swimming. I was later told by a friend I made on the bike leg that if it had been 1 degree colder they were considering cancelling the swim but I actually found it a really pleasant temperature…although this could have nothing to do with the natural sea condition and EVERYTHING to do with my bladder timing itself perfectly to warm my wetsuit just as I dived into the first wave. Haha, nailed it!

I set off and found I wasn’t as surrounded by other competitors as I’d expected to be – maybe they’d put two and two together regarding the warm water around me….mwa ha ha. As I reached the top of each wave I could see blue and pink swim hats all around but I mostly had enough space to settle into my stroke. In the first 100m I had swallowed 2 full mouthfuls of salt water, because I was raising my head forward to sight rather than to the side. In all my training, whether pool or lake, I’d not yet contended with waves, so it took some getting used to. I reached the first turning point and took a tight corner around the buoy. Things started to bunch up and I could have stuck with the group, but I couldn’t find anyone who was consistently the same pace as me to tuck in behind, and ended up constantly bashing into people or having them swim into me and grapple at my feet, spoiling my rhythm. Instead I popped myself just to the outside of the masses where I had a clear line to just swim at my own pace and in my own space – a teeny bit more distance being my preference over being clonked round the head.

I swallowed more water along this length of the swim too, counting 6 full mouthfuls in total on the swim. Half a pint? Ugh.

Something else I wasn’t prepared for was how sea sick I’d get.

Totally understandable in a boat, but….swimming?! The nausea settled once I came around the next buoy and was swimming the same direction as the waves, but when we turned again for the final length of the route it hit me again. This time it didn’t clear as I headed down the home stretch towards the race arch. I managed to glance at my watch and see I was on for a sub 35 finish, I would have been well chuffed.

Heading towards the race arch was another error I made though! What I actually had to do was go around another buoy on the corner BEFORE the race arch, but the sun was glaring and the buoy was black so I hadn’t spotted it (nor had many swimmers around me) so we were heading off towards the arch and in totally off-course. By the time I realised, I’d probably added at least 200m to my swim! Idiotic! With the confusion too I lost a lot of time…4 or 5 minutes I think. I decided not to worry as I could make up time on the bike or run.

Re-routed, I eventually made the shoreline and was helped from the water, stumbling and feeling mega sick.

I tried to run to transition but my foot didn’t cope too well without the support of a trainer so it was definitely more of a very gentle jog. I was super fast out of my wetsuit and into my cleats though – I very much appreciated the little bench – cue gasps from competitive athletes everywhere, but yes, I much prefer putting my shoes on with a little sit down rather than wobbling around precariously. As I ran to my bike I forced myself to have my first energy gel. It didn’t sit at all well on my already sicky-feeling stomach but after the afore mentioned video of the crab-crawl finish, I forced it down.

BIKE

“Barcelona is a really tough, hilly course, isn’t it?” – I have been asked a lot since finishing. YES! It bloody is tough and hilly!!

The bike route wove in and out of the town of Calella for several km before progressing up towards the mountains. There were speed bumps and sharp turns, where I saw a couple of guys fall off their bikes really early on, so took my time, hoping to make up the pace later. Ha! Make up pace?! From the moment we left the town we were climbing up hill and no one was smashing out ‘pace’, that’s for sure. Slow and steady at first, and bearable, but it wasn’t long before we hit the first proper mountain climb. I only really understood the true meaning of a Spanish hill when I was half way up the first of 3 mountains. Fack! I was NOT PREPARED FOR THIS! (Not words you want to go through your head less than an eighth of the way into the ride). My laps of Richmond park and morning commute could never be enough to prepare me for how steep and long the hill climbs would be! It was mainly my competitiveness that helped me up – I remember spotting a girl in pink errrrrthang up ahead and despite her actually having a pretty epic-looking bike, I couldn’t let HER beat me! Haha, too pink to win! Fortunately I actually passed her pretty quickly, but it’s a strange feeling being in a race with everyone around going at such an un-competitive speed. 

Of course all the while there were people sailing past me too – mostly on mega-uber expensive bikes and sleek helmets – some passed me even as far as 20k into the ride. All I could think was, “how terrible must you be at swimming to have got so far behind me – you should NOT BE HERE?!” There was no way they belonged anywhere near me – I don’t mind smashing past a pink monstrosity, but when your front wheel costs more than my entire bike you know you shouldn’t be riding up back with moi.

Even though it’s a race, the uphill made it hard to really push it for the entire course. My head kept dropping and I found myself questioning, amongst other things:

  • Why was I doing this?
  • How I’d be able to convey how hard it was
  • How I’d manage to deter my future self from signing up again
  • Whether I’d actually make it to the end
  • What would happen if I didn’t make it to the end
  • If i got puncture or my bike broke, how far I would like to be from transition in order to just run with my bike rather than DNF (final answer decided on was 3 miles out)
  • Was it actually hot, or was my body over-reacting to the sugary gels and the moutainy climb. Oh god, was I ill?
  • If I was sick, would I stop or do it over my shoulder. Who WAS behind my shoulder?
  • Whether I’d want dinner and beers that night or just bed. Mmmm….bed.

As well as the questioning phase I went through an exercise-induced tourettes phase too, where I uttered every profanity that came to my brain, regularly. Swearing was more successful than humming or singing, but less successful than just having a word with myself, such as reminding myself my Mum has done loads of tough challenges and she’s really gritty so I needed to be more like her. I still felt SO sick though so my body often struggled to respond with anything.

Something that helped was that with your nationality and name on your bib, I made loads of ‘bike fweeeeends’ who would see I was British and ease up beside me for a chat. My favourite was a chap there for his friend’s birthday who was hoping we were nearly finished…when we were just 25k in. I felt sorry for him, knowing how he was already struggling, and glad to know I wasn’t the only one.

Every 5k my watch vibrated and let me know how fast I’d done that distance in. It started off fast and I thought, “wow I might actually get this done in around the 3 hour mark”…then the next 5k came and my time had massively dropped so I decided not to worry, I could make that time up. After the third 5k timing came in even slower I panicked a bit. I kept trying to do the maths of how long my swim had been + what my bike could be if I made up time, and therefore how fast I’d need to run to get a 6:30 finish time. Another 5k later and I decided to well and truly scrap the time. Perhaps I could get a 6:45 but who cared about the time.

Every half an hour I forced myself to have a gel – alternating between Raspberry flavour high 5’s – light and almost watery, and Salted Caramel GU – thick and gunky but like a pudding. Probably comes as no surprise that I managed to think about pudding, even during a race…

By about half way into the ride, all I wanted was some lovely cold water to wash the sugars/gels down with. Unfortunately, on advice I’d been given, both my water bottles were filled with sugary energy drinks which, despite being warned of the problems if I don’t stay hydrated, I just couldn’t bear the thought of. Not only did I not want the sweet water drinks, but I also couldn’t work out when to actually have it. I find it hard drinking whilst going up hill, I had to have my brakes on most the bendy downhills as the corners were so tight, and I was tucking into a little streamlined racing position on any of the straight, fast flats, and didn’t want to grab my water and slow myself down. The result being that I had about half the liquid from each bottle, and another few gulps of water bottles I grabbed from the water stations. Probably not enough.

Enough though, that I started to need a wee. What should I do?! I’d been informed that most people just wee on their bike. I’d not seen anyone doing it but I’d also not seen any toilets on route and I decided my only option was to just….go in the saddle! Just as I began the process though, disaster struck as I rounded a bend and saw not only a small village but people dining al fresco. ABORT, ABORT!! I had to have a sudden change of plan and managed to avoid a rather awkward situation. I think this gave my body such a shock that I was fine after that. No loo break required.

But anyway, the miles slowly added up, and after a few hours I started the last 5k downhill ascent back into Calella and my second transition. Nowhere near the hopeful 3 hour mark I’d hoped for earlier, but with the hills and my less than dedicated training schedule, 3:45ish was alright. I cannot tell you how much I wanted to be off my bike and running. Running was my ticket to the finish line so I was surprisingly desperate to just get going!

 

RUN

I was off my bike and into my trainers as fast as I could, and set off out of transition. I found a water station minutes later and poured 2 cups straight over my head. It was so cold, but felt absolutely wonderful. A friend pointed out that if I was struggling to keep drinking (which I do during a run as it gives me a stitch), at least by throwing it over myself I’d cool myself and it would act like sweat on my skin, saving me from sweating so much of my existing water out. Clever. Moments later I saw my cousin and her family on the sideline, cheering loudly. It couldn’t have come at a better time, and was just what I needed to see. I gave them a big hug (and later had to point out that it was just my recent dousing of water that soaked them, not sweat) and continued on, grinning and feeling a little more buoyed up by their support. After just 1 mile we got to the finish line. Unfortunately this was the split point, and with the finish line in sight, I had to switch back on myself for another 1 of 2 laps. Kill me now!

I settled in to a 9.5min/mile pace that although I knew was slow, was around the 10min mile that I knew was sustainable. After 5 miles this had slowed to a 10.5 min/mile but I thought, “So what, at least im still running”. Shortly after throwing another cup of water over myself I realised I needed the toilet, and despite the advice I’d had for on my bike, I thought it was beyond socially unacceptable to just wee yourself running. I nipped into a portaloo and it was only after I tried to pull my tri suit back on that I realised, now sopping wet from the aforementioned cup of water, I was going to have all kinds of trouble. The next mile included me hopping around as I ran, trying to readjust the fabric that had bunched so awkwardly and be able to comfortably move.

This short little stop caused me to stiffen up even more, so now I felt like I was just waddling along. Hello 11 minute mile. Again, I reminded myself that I just had to cross the finish line, so this was fine so long as I kept moving. By this point I’d also done some more tricky maths and worked out that I was probably still just about on track for a 7 hour time…but at this point I was also really not fussed about what the bloody time was, I just wanted to finish!

As the course looped around on itself I was able to see other runners behind me. I spotted Clem and gave her a wave, but she wasn’t far behind me and was looking strong. I decided that I wouldn’t let myself stop running at all, as Clem was bound to overtake me but the more I ran, the closer to her finish time I would be. The second time I saw her though, she said she was really struggling and wouldn’t catch me up. I disagreed as I was now slowing down even more (if that’s even possible!) – at this moment, I found myself matching the chap next to me stride for stride. Sebastian and I settled in beside each other, keeping the same pace as we trotted along. After a mile, having not spoken to him, I introduced myself and we had a little natter. He was from Ecuador, so had made quite a trip to be here. We stayed like this, side by side, chatting and running for about 4 miles.

Then, with about 3 miles to go, I heard the sound I’d been listening out for for the past hour. The heavy breathing of Miss Clementina Elphinstone! She’d caught me up, yaaay! She was really finding it tough but joined me and Sebastian and off we went. We had a small break for some water and Sebastian went on his merry way. Another 5 minutes later and Clem was full of beans, sharing all her stories about friends she’d made on the bike ride. It was ideal, as at that moment my head had dropped too and I was seizing up. We helped each other along like this for the next half an hour, delighted that we were about to finish the race AND together.

For the last mile the crowds were quieter than I’d expected but a few people said, “ooh girls, COME ON GIRLS!” and Clem and I responded with waves and grins which caused everyone else to start cheering and waving. We totally played up to it, creating a buzzing excitement the whole way to the finish line. This time as we rounded the final bend we could at last head towards our finishing straight, down the red carpet on the finishers tunnel. Even as we raced over the finish line, neither of us knew what time we’d finished in, so we couldn’t believe it when we heard that we had managed to sneak over the finish line in under 7 hours…with just 24 seconds to spare! Even though we hadn’t really had a time in mind, it felt so good to say, “ah well, we did it in 6-something..” and to be the same pace TO THE SECOND of each other was fantastic. Couldn’t have ended the race any better, and was even more of a sign that there’s no need to do it again as you just couldn’t top that!

Only 0.01% of the population do an ironman challenge. That’s 1 in 10,000 people. Only 18% of that figure are female – that’s 0.00083%. Out of 550 women we were in the top 150, so that puts us in the 0.00017% fittest women, according to ironman, in the world.

Do what you like with those stats 😉

After thoughts…

Regardless of the time it took, what makes it harder than anything is that by being a race you just don’t stop, and you’re constantly pushing above your comfort level to make sure you’re working your hardest. In training or a social ride, while I might push hard for various sections, I can stop for a breather if it gets too much. It’s incredibly hard to replicate the race until you do it.

Of all the events I do, the one thing I look for is how much fun I can have doing it. I don’t like the pressure of having to train for just one event, so would rather take things on for the fun of it, knowing my base fitness will probably get me around. So with the Ironman 70.3 it was a little different as I did have to train and it did have to begin to slightly take over my life. As soon as it felt a little bit too much like serious training I actually enjoyed it less, so had to slow it down and remind myself that I signed up for fun so training must be fun too. The feeling at the end of the race was incredible but I’m just not sure if it outweighs the overriding pressure and stress I got from the training – and think if you want a challenge that pushes you hard but makes you feel good, there are a hundred other events I’d recommend above an Ironman for pleasure and enjoyment.

But 0.00017%….I can be pleased with that.

 

7 Comments

    • Haha thanks, I expect that whilst you could probably relate to a lot of this, your training stood you in slightly better stead than me..!

  1. Massive achievement which you should revel in for as long as humanly possible. no normal human would do such an activity. you are awesome! (and an Ironman/woman!)

    • Thank you, you’re so right – it’s beyond normal isn’t it! Team IM!!

  2. Crikey Bon! What an amazing and incredibly tough thing to have done! Massive congratulations for doing it and finishing it! X

    • Thank you!! Never even utter the word “Full Ironman” to me though. Neeeever gonna happen! xx

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