Completing the Journey

If I told you this was the story of how an 800 meter runner became an Ironman in his first triathlon having never swam or cycled when entering the event via a sudden burst of inspiration 5 and a half months before hand and was using a £350 bike he’d borrowed from a friend I wouldn’t be lying. What happened in between however was the making of this special journey.

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The background.

One night in early January I lay in bed considering my goals for the sporting year ahead. I had several, all of which were tough yet achievable targets but I felt something was missing. I wanted to do more, be even more ambitions and do something completely different. It was then that an article popped up on my Facebook news feed from the 2014 adventurer of the year Sean Conway. It was entitled ’10 people who inspired me most in 2015′. Sean is a huge inspiration in himself so I was very intrigued to see who had made his list. To my surprise as I scrolled down I spotted the beaming smile of my very own little sister. Elise is currently nearing the end of running the entire 5,000 miles of the British coastline having started in November (https://www.facebook.com/elisecdowning/). No more inspiration was needed. It was time for me to step things up a level.

Due to family commitments my challenge couldn’t be a multi day one so one event stood out and that was Ironman. I had always been in awe of anyone who had completed this and thought how much I’d love to give it a go but was put off by the fact that running was the only one of the three elements I’d ever taken part in. I looked up the date of the UK event and it gave me six months to train for it. Before my head had a chance to overrule my heart I signed up.

The following morning I woke up wondering if it had all been a strange dream but sure enough in my inbox was an email confirmation of my entry. It was time to get training! I contacted my sister to ask if I could borrow her bike but she told me she’d already lent it to a friend and it was currently in Cuba so that wasn’t the best start. I then spoke with a friend who coaches swimming and booked myself in for a block of 5 lessons the first of which though wasn’t for a couple of weeks. Another friend then offered to lent me their bike so I was in buisness. (Please read my four blogs entitled ‘My Ironman Journey’ to find out how my training progressed from here on in).

Pre race.

The UK event takes place in Bolton and is centred around the Macron football stadium which is were I had to be to register by 1pm the day before the race. I set off on Saturday morning for the 2 and a half hour drive along with my Dad who was coming to support me for the weekend. Registration complete I had a look around the merchandise shop and brought a couple of bits but held back from getting any finishers gear as I didn’t want to tempt fate.

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I still had a busy day ahead and next up I had to check my run to bike kit bag into transition 2 which was also at the Macron stadium. Then after some lunch we headed on the 20 minute drive to Pennington Flash where the swim was taking place. There I had to rack my bike and check in my swim to bike bag. This was my first look at the lake I would be swimming two 1.2 mile laps of the following morning and the first time that I started to feel a little overwhelmed by the occasion.

Seeing the shear number of top quality bikes racked up amongst mine, which several people had previously voiced their opinion that it might not make the 112 miles required, concerned me a little. I also still had the lingering worry surrounding what had been described as the carnage of the swim start having never done a swimming event before. My mind was put at rest a little by a chat with Nick Rose who I bumped into by the lake. Nick is an experienced Ironman and has finished 3rd in his age group at this event in the past. He has attended some of the Parklands Jog and Run sessions I coach when in Northampton for work in years gone by and gave me a few last minute tips for the swim. (The following day Nick put in an awesome performance to win the 45-49 age cat. and finish 35th overall).

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I then headed back into Bolton for the mandatory race briefing held inside the football stadium. There were only two of these so more than half of all competitors were present. I was now feeling pretty calm and relaxed but the announcer got me excited several times explaining how race day unfolds and leaving us with those famous words we all wanted to hear the following day “You are an Ironman”.

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It was now gone 6pm and we still hadn’t checked into our hotel so that was next on the agenda before heading out for dinner. My normal pre race meal of a freshly made stone baked pizza was consumed before a shower and a few last checks I had everything I needed in place for the morning then I tried to get some sleep. My alarm was set for 3am!

Race day.

I climbed out of bed at 3.15am having had as good of a sleep as I could have hoped for, got kitted up into my tri suit with tracksuit over the top, had some porridge and a flapjack and did the 20 minute drive from hotel to shuttle bus pick up, again at the Macron stadium. On the bus for 4.20am we arrived at the venue for the swim with an hour to go at 5am.

The swim.

Once at Pennington Flash again I checked on my bike, almost everyone around me was pumping up their tyres but mine felt ok so I chose not to. I spent the majority of the remaining time queueing for the toilet before donning my wetsuit, handing in my kit bag and getting in position for the off. You had to queue according to your predicted swim time. I put myself in the 1 hour 20 minute pen which I was confident of achieving after my 2.65 miles swim in training the previous Sunday. I took great encouragement from the amount of people queueing behind me with slower predicted times.

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In a nice tough we then stood to observe the national anthem before the pro men were set off first at 5.55am. A minute later the top women went and at 6am everyone else started to go. We entered the water in groups of 6 or 7 at a time so it took around 12 minute before I reached the front and then it was go time.

Although it was very early the weather had been kind and the water wasn’t too cold. I stuck to my game plan of staying relaxed and calm and just concentrated on my breathing. It was a different experience to have so many others around me but it was a lot less busy than I was expecting and I was happy with the amount of room I had and held my position well. As the lap went on I began to get into my stride (or should I say stroke?). There were a few hairy moments were I was knocked hard but I felt comfortable. It seemed to take a long time before I got out for a short run back to the start for the second and final lap but as I looked back to my relief there were hundreds of swimmers still in the water behind me, some a long way back.

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I always seem to feel stronger as I go on when swimming and this was no acceptation. As we spread out gaps appeared giving me more room and I started to pick people off one by one. The second lap went a lot quicker and I got out and began to strip off my wetsuit feeling full of energy and ready to hit the 112 miles on the bike.

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It was several hundred meters from the swim exit to the transition tent and my dad had managed to spot me and run alongside me feeding me the information that I’d completed the 2.4 mile swim in around the 1 hour 20 minutes I’d predicted (exact time was 1:21:54). The most pleasing thing about that to me was that it was almost an hour inside the cut off time meaning I now had an extra hour to complete the gruelling bike course.

The bike.

My transition wasn’t the quickest but I had planed to take it easy, give myself a breather and just make sure I did everything I needed to do. It was then time for the bit I’d been dreading. I’d done the swim and I knew I could complete the run. The cycling was going to be the making or breaking of this entire journey. It didn’t start well. Within 200 meters, before I’d even got out of the swim venue I was looking at my watch rather than the road and hit a speed bump knocking my drinks bottle from its holder. I had to get off, backtrack a few steps, replace it and get going again.

For the next 20 or so miles, like everyone else, I had to be carful of not breaking the new drafting rule which mean I couldn’t be within 15 meters of another bike other than when overtaking or being overtook. The officials on motorbikes were keeping a close check on it but for me this wasn’t much of a problem as I was used to riding alone anyway having done all of my training solo. After this initial period the checks died right down.

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The infamous Sheephouse lane, a long and steep climb which took you beep into the Lancaster hills came a lot earlier than a was expecting it which gave me a boost as I was able to hit it fresh, although, like the swim, this course was also two laps meaning I had it to look forwards to again deep into the route.

The course was nothing short of amazing. A near perfect mix of stunning countryside and small villages with streets lined with spectators roaring you on. The roads were smooth and there were marshals aplenty. Not at any point during the whole distance did I have to question where to go. All this contributed to a much easier ride than I was expecting. In fact, for large parts I was in disbelief of just how well it was going.

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Doing the 100 miler I did back in early June was ideal preparation. Not only did it confirm to me that I could get the distance in but it actually make this course feel secondary in terms of effort levels required. Although the total elevation was similar the Northamptonshire hills were relentless. A huge chunk of the climbing on this course was made up of two big inclines on each lap meaning the rest was mostly flat(ish) riding.

As the miles ticked by my pace stayed well inside the requirement. I was flying past the feed stations without feeling the need to stop and rest. It was going so well I didn’t want to stop. So much so that I held a wee in for over 50 miles. Finally with approximately 90 miles covered I had to give in and relieve myself. Apart from that short stop the only other two occasions I got off the saddle were when my chain came off which only took 30 seconds each time.

As I reached 100 miles I was still feeling good and pushing a pace as fast as I did most of my much shorter training ride in. I knew the only thing the would stop me now was a mechanical fault. Amazingly I managed to get through the complete course without getting a puncher. Something I’ve rarely done in the build up.

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Still feeling rather shocked at how well things had gone I approached the final few miles. I said to myself “I’ve got this” and felt as happy as one could be knowing they still had a full marathon to run. Amazingly I managed to get through the entire 112 miles without going through Amy bad patches. I couldn’t quite believe it.

With the Macron stadium back in sight I rolled into the bike racking area and jogged to the bike to run transition tent. I had stuck to that 4 minute miles average pace throughout to finish in 7 and a half hours (exact time 7:31:54) so again I took my time ensuring I had all I needed. I was on a real high. I knew I just had to do what I do best now, which is run, and I would be hearing those four words on the red carpet before I knew it.

The run.

As soon as I set off I heard some familiar voices shouting “go on Chris”, it was my dad once again (as well as the swim exit he’d also popped up three times on the bike course) but this time he’d been joined by my mum. It was great to know they were both going to share what was going to be such a proud and accomplished achievement with me. I may had only ran a few hundred meters but I now had every belief that I was going to finish.

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I was full of running and hitting sub 7 minute miles and overtaking people with almost every stride. Several even commented on how well I was going. Running at a good pace just feels more natural to me and I’m always more comfortable when I’m doing it. I rarely slow due to physical fatigue, it’s almost always mental tiredness and predictability that eventually came.

Obviously having been awake since 3am and already covering a significant amount of milage were two huge contributors but the layout of the marathon course was the overriding factor in my mind. After some pleasant early running along a canal, a steep hill (which reduced me to a walk for the first time) brought me into the start of three and a half out and back laps in which I had to pass the finishing area three times before I could run down it to collect my medal.

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Prior to race day I had visions of a sub 4 hour marathon but always knew I was going to be content with making it that far and that I would try to just enjoy it and soak up the atmosphere. As I began to get more and more tired I decided to treat it like at ultra meaning I would walk the hills and stop briefly at all feed stations. This strategy was working well but I must admit the more time went on the less I was able to enjoy it. I just wanted to finish.

I ran every other part of the course and in spurts got a respectable pace going. I was still overtaking people the entirety of the way. It was especially pleasing when I went past those I recognised who had passed me while on the bike.

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Positive thinking got me through a big part of this run. I kept telling myself the distance I had left to run wasn’t a great deal in comparison to what I had already done and that it would go quickly. That was all true.

As I approached mile 24 without even thinking about it my legs just seemed to take off again. My watch had died around half way into the run but the next mile must have been well below 7 minutes and the first half of the next one followed suit. I then slowed going up the laps main hill for the final time and grabbed a quick cup of water and headed into the town centre’s high street where the crowds had been getting bigger and bigger all day.

This was it, my moment was about to arrive. I had a group of runners just in front of me. I picked up my pace again and sprinted past them all to ensure I had the finishing straight to myself. I showed the wrist bands you had to collect after completing each lap to the marshal and he waved me into the red carpet. I spread my arms in triumph and waved my hands to get the sizeable crowd going (not that they needed anymore encouragement). As I passed through the finishing arch I raised my head up to the skies in disbelief. I had made it. The journey was over.

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My only disappointed I could give of the entire day was that even though I finished alone I didn’t get the famous shout out from the announcer but I wasn’t going to let that bother me. I was an Ironman and nothing would or ever will take that away from me.

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A feeling of great pride mixed with exhaustion immediately took over and I began to feel hugely emotional. I had the medal around my neck already but I had to take a few moments to compose myself before I was able to speak to the ladies at the baggage collection point then a couple more minutes before I was able to get myself in one piece to see my parents. They were there waiting. My mum had already checked the online tracker and was able to tell me that I’d ran the marathon in 4:19:27 and my total finish time was 13:35:29. This was within my predicted time so I was happy with that. I was also almost 3 and a hour inside the final cut off time.

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I then went into the finishers tent, gathered my kit together and got changed. It was then time for one final trip to the Macron stadium to collect my other two kit bags and my bike. As per everything else this was a smooth process. If there is a better organised event out there I’d be very surprised.

I had some food, a celebratory cider then did the long drive home (obviously I wasn’t actually driving). Although it was now late enough to be dark and I was so tired I was on too much of a high to get hardly any sleep and instead spent most of the journey chatting to my dad about the day.

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I finally arrived home at 1.30am and got in bed at 2am. I had now been up for 23 hours, covered 140.6 miles swimming, cycling and running and most importantly became an Ironman.

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