Sufferman; The ambition, the myth and the reality of Ironman


A Mother was concerned her Son was eating too much sugar

She feared his teeth would rot away

One day she heard Gandhi was staying in the nearby village

She took her son, to see Gandhi, She thought Gandhi would tell her Son that sugar was bad for his teeth.

Off they went to visit Gandhi

On arrival the mother spoke to Gandhi

“Gandhi, will you tell my son, not to eat so much sugar, please tell him it is bad for his teeth”.

Gandhi looked at the mother and then at the son

“Come back in a week’s time and I will speak to your son” Gandhi replied

The mother was confused, but returned home and made the trip again a week later.

On returning the following week, the mother said “I have returned, will you now tell my son, that sugar is bad for his teeth”

Gandhi looked at the son “Son, listen to your mother, she is right, sugar is bad for your teeth, you should not eat so much of it”

The mother, looked confused “Why could you not have said that when we visited last week?”

“I had to stop eating so much sugar myself” Gandhi replied.

I first heard the Gandhi Story while spending time with Teach For India in Mumbai. A trip that has influenced me in many ways.

I retold this story, to the girls at The Gateways School, a few weeks ago, whom I had been invited to speak to at their end of year sports awards. A story I first heard, in Mumbai, told by Miliand, a young teacher, teaching in a Mumbai Slum school, whom I had the pleasure of getting to know while I was on the Teach for All global conference. Miland was on Teach For India's 2 year leadership program, myself, on the UK equivalent, Teach First. A powerful story. A story that made me realise that I was not following the values I was trying to convey to the pupils I was teaching at the time. The values of following ones passions and dreams. I loved teaching, but it didn't give me the work life balance that allowed me to follow my passions as much as I wanted. I changed jobs, relocated to Yorkshire and have since tried to live the value of following my passions, dreams and challenging myself.

Sport is my passion, pushing myself, chasing challenges, adventures and becoming the best athlete I can be is my dream. That is the journey I began and am living. As I looked ahead to my 4th season in Triathlon, I looked at what events inspired me, what would push me to my limits and really challenge me. The Ironman had captured my imagination thanks to Jo, who had given me the book Ironwar: Dave Scott, Mark Allen and the greatest race ever run by Matt Fitzgerald for my Birthday last year. It tells the story of Ironman from its roots to the famous 1989 Allen vs Scott Iron war battle, charting the journeys of Triathletes Dave Scott and Mark Allen. This book cannot fail to inspire and that was it, I was inspired. Ironman UK, Bolton, 19th July 2015 was my target.

3.86km Swim

180.25km bike

42.2 km run

11 hours 48minutes. I did it, I finished my first Ironman. And a lot happened in those 708minutes.

From happy to broken.

I won’t repeat old ground, take a read of the previous blog posts if you are interested in the preparation. The winter wonders and woes of Ironman training, the races that acted as a warm up, Slaying the Slateman and Ousting the Outlaw. But the Ironman, it’s called Ironman for a reason, not comfyman! (Thanks for that quote Claire). It’s a different beast.

Two weeks before, it was confirmed, I had a place in the Pro start line, I upgraded from the age group category of my original entry, following my win at Outlaw Half. Why? Well why not. I wanted to have a crack at racing the best athletes, starting when they started and having the chance to win some prize money and to see how I would get on in the pro field. I would rather be a little fish in a big pond, rather than a big fish in a little pond. Ambitious, yes, in hind sight the right decision? Yes,I learnt a lot in the race and from the other pro women, so it was a great opportunity.

As a pro, it’s all plain sailing, someone carries your gear, they tell you what to do, you get driven around, 3 course meals laid on tap. Ok that’s not true, at all. Nothing changes. I was sat in the Harvester pub on Friday afternoon, opposite the Macron Stadium, the pro briefing was at 3.30pm, I had work phone calls from 11-3pm. So I travelled over the Pennines early, made my Orange juice last a very long time, while I sat in the corner of the pub completing my work. Being on the pro start line still means paying the bills at the end of each month, many of the pro’s I would line up next to on Sunday morning also juggle ‘normal’ jobs alongside being a triathlete. If you ever want to know how to fit 25hours into 24, these are the people to ask!

However a big perk of being on the Pro start was staying at a homestay with Philip, Lisa and their three daughters. My Leeds Bradford Triathlon club mate, fellow Pro and all round superstar Eleanor Haresign had arranged this and I was just gate crashing. We had lucked out! Philip and Lisa were superb hosts and they made us feel right at home. Thank you Lisa and Philip for being absolute star hosts, curry post race along with champagne to celebrate and Philip laid on an immense post IM breakfast buffet of pancakes and bacon butties. What a star, alongside side kick Steve, really Steve deserves a blog post all for himself, probably titled ‘Steve, the right hand man, saviour of many on the Ironman run due his tic tacs and jelly babies”. And well done Philip for your 2nd Ironman, top result. I have learnt on many occasions, and staying with Philip and Lisa confirmed this, that racing is more than the race. The people and experiences along the way make many memories that will last far longer than the life of a finishers T-Shirt.

Lisa and Philip had a living room full of minion outfits left over from the previous weekends village event, we couldn’t resist!

Onto the event. In the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about what happened in those 708minutes. I have had a whole mix of emotions and thoughts.

In the Initial days after crossing the finish line, this is how I felt:

Relief: The initial emotion on crossing the line

Pain: So much pain in my legs during the marathon, I have never felt anything like it. Indescribable pain.

Pride: I was proud of how I managed to dig deeper than I have ever dug to finish that marathon, my first marathon, after 3.8km of swimming and 180km of riding. There was a lot of digging myself out of a very dark deep pit of despair and pain.

Gutted: My goal had been 10.30-11hours. I finished in 11.48, my marathon was 4hours 5minutes, I had been aiming for 3 hours 30.For 8 months I had been working for this race. Blood, sweat and tears had been shed and this wasn’t the outcome I was dreaming of.

Bewilderment: Why had my legs given up at 12miles on the run, like a sniper had jumped out and shot them, bang. And there was nothing I could do but shuffle the rest of the way.

It will hurt they said.

You will suffer if you don’t get enough food and fuel they said.

You will hit the wall in the Marathon at some point they said.

You will stop and walk, but the crowds will carry you through they said.

The myths are true. It all happened.

The reality:

11hours 48 minutes. 10th pro female. Longest ever bike ride, longest ever run, 1st Ironman.

3.8km swim. At 5.55am in Pennington Flash lake My debut Ironman adventure began. I exited in

My biggest learning point from the swim: If you swim 5 times a week for a 2 year period, you will improve and you will do better than you think. Consistent swim training, equals consistent swim race improvements. From Outlaw Half I had learnt that if I cannot initially keep with a swim pack, all is not lost, I can put in a surge and catch them up. I learnt I could do this at Outlaw half and this is what I applied at Bolton, the initially speed to get on feet wasn’t there but I stuck at it and feet I found, and then passed.

180.6 km bike. 6hours 31minutes. My plan was to ride well within myself, to save as much energy as possible for the run. Using Power and heart rate data, I wanted to ride within 70-75% of FTP at 75-80% of max HR. Mission accomplished. Average Power (NP) = 160 (73% of FTP) and Heart rate= 140bpm (78% of max). The first three quarters felt easy, too easy, but that’s what I was aiming for. The final quarter a bit harder, but I still felt fine. I was just a bit cold I thought, and the final few miles I felt I was running out of fuel, I was starting to feel light headed. Oh no I was bonking big time. (Terminology for the non cyclist: FTP= Functional threshold power a geeky stat cyclists use to work out pacing and test fitness, Bonking= running out of fuel)

My biggest learning point from the bike: In hind sight the error came in the nutrition, I knew nutrition could make or break my race. I had calculated how many grams of carbs I would require, using 1g carb per 1kg of body weight per minute. 49grams of carbs every hour. Fine, in normal weather conditions. The weather was not a nice summer’s day, it rained, a lot. From 6.50am onwards for the first few hours, it was windy, and pretty cold up on the moors. I was wearing shorts, sleeveless Tri top, arm warmers and a gilet. I thought I would be ok, I thought I was tough! I can handle some wind and rain I thought. I could, using a lot of calories to keep warm. More calories than I realised. I finished the 180km bike, feeling faint, light headed and not seeing straight, I had bonked big time (bonked= a term to describe running out of fuel and hitting the wall). And to those who asked, "Did you manage to pee on the bike?" No, I didn't! how the heck do people relax enough while sat on the seat to pee? Had to do the jump off, dash behind bush technique.

The bike course had a bit of everything, wind, rain, hillys and incredible support, especially on COLT Alley (named after the super support of City of Lancaster Triathlon Club outside Philip and lisa's house! Yes that's You Tanner, my partner in crime with your pink compression socks on!)

42.2km Run. 4hours 5minutes. I was not in a good state in T2, racking my bike, putting on my trainers, I knew I wouldn’t make it to the end of the road, let alone complete a marathon unless I had some fuel. I had a fuel belt, I put it on and consumed everything in it that was meant to last me till mile 9 when I would see Adam and Emily on Bark Street at the personal zone. 3 Gels, 2x250ml bottles, 1 of OTE energy drink, 1 of Coke, an OTE duo energy bar and a handful of jelly babies. Thank god my stomach is made of steel! Downed in the first 2minutes, I perked up and started to see straight again. Maybe this was going to be possible. I reached half way in 1hour 47minutes. If I could just keep this going. Bang! A sniper had jumped out and shot my legs. That was it, the most painful experience ever. I had officially hit the wall and there was no step ladder to get over it. I walked, I stumbled, I felt sorry for myself but I decided to put one foot in front of the other. Left, right, left right….and eventually I would get to the finish line. And I did. Eventually.

The pain in my legs was indescribable, a feeling I never want to experience again.

My biggest learning point from the run: A marathon is a long way, I had taken 30minutes longer on the bike than i had planned in my mind, so i started faster than i should have, playign catch up. Catch up, des not necessarily work in a marathon, especially when your body had dipped into a point of low fuel reserves. But however painful it becomes, you can keep going.

Pictures speak louder than words. Yes it hurt, a lot.

I thought I was going to be great at Ironman. I’ve got bagful’s of energy, I love a big old day out. What could go wrong!? So I had never run a marathon, but I grew up on a Sunday diet of long runs. I was going to be great at the long bike ride, 180km, sure I had never done that far in one day, but I have done loads of long rides. I mean before I even started cycling, in the proper sense, I loaded my panniers up and cycled on my hybrid bike in Trainers, baggy T-shirt and shorts from London to my child hood home in Bristol, because the National express bus seemed a dull way to travel. I was going to be great at Ironman, I loved an adventure and Ironman was one of ‘The ultimate’ adventures, a proper challenge. Totally unfounded belief.

I wasn’t as great as I thought I would be. What had I expected?

A big old fun day out, where I skipped up the hills on my bike and sailed through a marathon? Truthfully, I didn’t know, I had plucked my ‘goal times’ out of thin air, based on looking at previous results from Bolton and my own results from Outlaw Half. First lesson in Ironman goal setting, a half is very different to a full Ironman. Iroman UK is very different to other Iornman races; hilly, small rural roads make for a tough cycle and an undulating run, it is a tough course. It is one thing being an optimist, and hoping for the best, it is another thing achieving ones expectations.

In truth, I was as well prepared as I could have been, I couldn’t have given any more, in terms of effort, commitment and dedication in the 8 months prior. Sure I spent a lot of time aqua jogging rather than running, but that allowed my Achilles to heal and I started and finished the race injury free. I was fitter than I had ever been, sure I got nervous, very, very nervous in the lead up to the race, I began to doubt myself. But when the gun went off, I was committed, I stuck to my plan, I swam hard, I cycled within myself, I ate and drank what I had planned, but the weather took far more energy out of me than my nutrition could restock, I suffered. My legs held up for half a marathon, then I dug deep, and I am proud to know I dug myself out of the biggest, darkest hole I have ever found myself in. I finished my first Ironman, and I was only 48minutes outside the time I had my hopes on. 48minutes, flipping heck that's not much over an Ironman. Therefore as the weeks have passed, my reflections have changed and I am proud of what I achieved, I finished my debut Ironman on one of the toughest Ironman courses out there, on a truely challenging day in terms of the weather.

Well done BigSuz, pat on the back, have a beer. You did it, you finished your first ever Ironman, in the Pro field in only your 4th season in Triathlon, geeze lass congratulate yourself on the achievement. Especially as on route, completing your longest ever ride and longest ever run, your first marathon.

Finally a huge Thank You to everyone who has been part of the journey. You all know who you are. But here are a few shout outs. To the Alba Rosa riders who have shared many miles on the road. To the LBT and Leeds Masters swimmers who have helped me plough the lengths, at some especially early times! To Coach Lou, for being the voice of calm, wisdom and encouragement throughout. To those who have kept me company aqua jogger ourselves into oblivion (huge thanks Kirsteen!) To Tanner, my partner in crime and agreeing to join the adventure and becoming an Ironman in Bolton aswell. To everyone out on the course on the day, the LBT gang of Ady, Sarah, JP, Craig, Simon, Fiona, Louise, Natalie et al (sorry I can not remember everyone but I heard you all at the time) To Adam and Emily for cycling across the pennines from Leeds and handing me drinks, OTE gels and encouragement and so much love on Bark Street. Lisa and Philip for your hospitality over the weekend, Steve for being the dream right hand man. To Ele for sharing the adventure, your help and support was incredible. To OTE for fuelling my training and the racing, to Raceskin for providing me with race kit and training gear, to Sarah at The Movement Theraphy Centre for keeping my body in one piece and to Always Aim High events for your support especially the Salomon trainers, I only lost one toe nail! You have all made me a better person over the last few months as I embarked on this crazy adventure. Thank You.

Thanks Ele, It was a pleasure sharing the journey with you and all the other Pro women. Well done Lucy Gossage on the dominating win. Hard lass like!

Good Luck with your own adventures. It may seem crazy, It may seem foolish, it may seem impossible, but it may just be about putting one foot infront of the other and getting to the end.

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