So on the 12th November 2014 I clicked ‘ CONFIRM ‘ and signed up for my first Ironman race. I recall a wave of horror go through me as I asked myself ‘ what have I got myself in for ‘, but there was an element of excitement also and I looked forward to the months of training that were to come and my journey to hopefully finishing a long distance triathlon. With two half ironman distance races under my belt it was the logical next step.
Got down to training and worked towards getting a good base in place over the winter. My running was very poor so had to try and get that one sorted. Added Yoga and Pilates to my training as my core strength and flexibility were shocking. Had never really worked to a structured training program before so got myself an ‘ off the shelf ‘ training program that had been used by others in the club ( terribly unscientific – I know ). Was not going to make the morning swims with the club so swimming would have to be on my own and while I cycled with the Rob Kenneally’s crew for most of the winter I knew I would have to part company with them as we were on different training paths.
There was no shortage of good advice from lads in the club that had completed Ironman. Had never trained before using heart zones but what was clear from the advice I got and the training program I picked was that low intensity training would be a big part of the process – keeping the heart rate down, becoming more efficient, pacing myself and putting in the hours.
So the months went by and in March I eased myself into a 30 week program which would take me through the base, build and peak phases of the process. Training went pretty well. Stuck to the program fairly closely but a few injuries that I picked up along the way meant I ended up avoiding a lot of the high intensity interval sessions towards the end for fear of making them worse ( I found that training for an Ironman is as much about getting to the starting line as it is finishing it. )
September saw the start of my taper and the end of the peak phase of training. While the training was enjoyable and the months of base training had given me a good foundation for the hard work, the hours were long and it was mentally hard being out on my own most of the time, particularly as the weather wasn’t the best. It was nice to see the training hours steadily reducing as race day got nearer.
The day arrived to pack my bags and I landed in Barcelona on the Wednesday before the race in the middle of a storm. Thursday morning saw a return to nice weather so was up early and got in a run. After breakfast I collected the bike and gear bag from Ship my Tri Bike and within half an hour was out on the road. The bike route is a 2.5 lap circuit with only about 500m of climbing. It’s a fast flat circuit with a smooth surface ( and no potholes ) – a joy to cycle on !! Most of the climbing is a series of pulls for a few kilometres out of Calella. After an hour of a spin I returned to the hotel, took it handy for the rest of the day and rested. It was Friday afternoon before I took to the water for a swim. By then the lumpy seas had settled and a half hour swim in the warm Mediterranean ( with a wetsuit ) felt just brilliant.
There were 2600 signed up for this Ironman ( 40% were doing their first ). The hotels in the area were filled with participants and their familie – picking them out wasn’t a problem – all you had to do was look at the balconies for bikes and wetsuits! My own hotel was busy with triathletes coming and going. There were over 160 Irish taking part – the fourth largest country ( more than the Spanish ) and a good share of them were in my hotel. The support of the Irish would be incredible on race day.
Transition opened Saturday afternoon. The bike park was on an astroturf soccer pitch. Bike and Run bags hung on racks in a marquee nearby. Checked and rechecked the bags, hung them, racked the bike and got back to the hotel. Three very important people arrived that evening – Anne-Marie and our 2 boys, Conor (8) and Cian (2). It was exciting to know they were coming out and having them there on race day would mean a lot to me and hopefully a great experience for them. After getting dinner out of the way I took them down to the beach to show them where transition and the finish line was. My plan had been to be in bed by about 9:30pm but of course that was never going to happen as with 2 wound up and excited boys, settling them was always going to be a challenge. Cian in particular seemed intent on making sure I didn’t get sleep, particularly when half an hour after lights out he was bouncing up and down in the cot shouting ‘ Mama look at meee’. That was the last straw for me. I grabbed the 2 spare blankets from the closet and retired outside to the floor of the balcony. To be honest apart from the mosquito bites and a few ants it wasn’t a bad nights sleep at all !!!
I guess one of the good things about this race is that it’s a late start of 8:45. Got up at 5:45 and got breakfast out of the way. Picked up the kit and said goodbye to the family. While they were to follow me down shortly afterwards I wouldn’t see them again until the run. It was about a 20 minute walk to transition. Checked the bike and my gear bags one last time and got into the wetsuit. Hoped I had not forgotten anything. An announcement came out over the Public Address – someone was being called back to their bike as they had a puncture – went back to check one more time.
On the beach triathletes were standing around with family and friends while some were gone into the water swimming. The sky was overcast but broken enough to see a cracking sun rise. I hadn’t been too nervous on the run up to race day….felt I should have but wasn’t. Maybe it was the mind telling me that I had the work done and I was as ready as I could be. There on the beach however I suddenly did get nervous. Decided to get the cap and goggles on and went in for a warmup to take my mind off things. Once I negotiated the shore break I swam out a few hundred metres – the water felt good. Turned and headed back in. At waters edge I stood up and got hit from behind by a breaking wave. Losing my balance I fell over and smacked my ankle off a buoy in the water. It hurt, and within minutes it and a few of my toes were black and blue – months of being careful and wrapping myself in cotton wool I get injured minutes before the race – just typical !!!! I hoped it didn’t come back to bite me on the run.
As the clock ticked down I watched out for the family but there were so many people on the beach I was out of luck. The public address called on people to start lining up for the swim. A rolling start on the swim was being used to cut down on the carnage of huge groups of swimmers of varying capacity swimming off together at the start. The idea was that everyone was corralled up the beach in order of your estimated swim time…so the faster swimmers were to the front and the slower swimmers were to the back. Once the swim started the whole group ‘poured’ into the water over the course of 10 minutes – your time started once you crossed a timing mat at shore edge.
Took up my position in the 1:15 – 1:20 section of the queue. I had intended being further forward in the 1:10-1:15 group but basically I couldn’t get past the crowd to get there. Stayed where I was and waited for the clock to run down. The public address put out a good playlist of music that steadily raised the tension as that big moment drew near. It was just before the pro men headed into the water that the nerves I had disappeared. It was a bit of a surreal moment for me…I looked around and was surrounded by people from all over the world lost in their own worlds. Some people stared at the sky, others the ground, some had their eyes closed and seemed to be praying – not many spoke. The pro men headed off at 8:45 followed shortly after by the pro women. At about 8:50 we were off. It still took about 5minutes to make our way through the queue to the timing mat. I ran to the waters edge, dived in and I was off.
The rolling start meant for me there was no climbing over anyone or being climbed on. Settled into a steady pace and sighted for the first buoy. It was the only turn to the right. Once round I started the long leg down along the shore, keeping all the buoys to the left. While the seas had settled a lot there was still a nice swell out there and so the buoys were not the easiest to spot at times. Managed to pass pretty close to each buoy, making sure I didn’t have to swim more than I had to. The leg back in was a bit more challenging as that swell was head on and from the right. Despite this I really enjoyed the swim and before too long I could see that last turn buoy to take us back into the beach. Once round it I could see the crowds on the beach. Did my best getting out of the water to make sure I didn’t have another shoreline mishap and was quickly into the changing tent. Was lucky that my bags were hanging on a spot that was close to the end of the tent, so I was able to grab my bike bag find some space and dump the contents of my bike bag on the floor. Whipped off the wetgear, bagged it and got the bike gear on. Had decided to go with the LTC cycling bib and jersey – took those extra few moments to ensure that the sunblock went on properly and off I went out on the bike. On the way out I saluted a few people that had Irish flag. Anne-Marie and the kids were among them and shouting at me but for some reason I never saw them.
Anyway hit the bike course out past the lighthouse and got going. The day was perfect for cycling –the cloudy skies stayed and kept the temperatures down while the wind stayed light. While I felt ok and was pushing a good average speed in the high 30s my average heart rate was high and 5% higher than planned. While it would have been nice to get a mega fast bike time, I still had a marathon to run later in the day so eased off, brought the average speed down and also the heart rate.
The day had to be going too well because on the way back to Calella to finish out the first lap I was coming through a roundabout and felt the back wheel kick. I looked down to see I had punctured. I cursed my bad luck as I pulled in. The road surface was clean and smooth – why did I have to be the guy who found the one piece of glass or tiny pebble on the road? Anyway, whipped the tube out and swept the finger inside to make sure nothing was inside the tyre before I put the new tube in. It was then I spotted a hole in the side wall of the tyre : cursing my luck even more I thanked my lucky stars that I had brought a spare tyre with me. Two marshals ran up and started asking me something – hadn’t a clue what they were asking me – my Spanish was as bad as their English. Got the tyre and tube on and double checked nothing would be pinched before the CO2 went in. Got a round of applause from the locals as I hit the road again. It had taken me about 10mins to get myself sorted. Heading along the road I was praying I’d got it right – thankfully I did.
On run down the hill to the end of the first lap at the edge of Calella there was a huge crowd of people lining the edge of the road. The support was impressive. It was great to see all the tricolours and even better to get the cheers for Limerick when they spotted the club gear. The rest of the bike was uneventful thankfully – churned through the miles while keeping the food, fluids and electrolytes going in.
Rolled into transition after a 5:45 bike. Back in the transition tent I changed into the LTC trisuit, donned the running shoes and got going again. Running is my weakest of the 3 disciplines. I never had it in my mind that I had to do a marathon – just 4 laps. Ran down to the turnpoint near the finish line which effectively marked the start of the 4 laps. Met Anne-Marie and the kids, gave them a quick hello and cracked on. The area up near the finish was where all the crowds and support were camped out. It was great getting cheered on and again having the LTC trisuit on drew a few more shouts both from the supporters and from the other runners. I even got a hi from Eimear Mullan. The route itself was flat apart from two underpasses. The surface varied between flattened sand, roads and footpaths. Changes between these became more of a challenge later on when it got dark.
The first half of the run went fine. It was the 3rd quarter that my stomach started cramping up. Though I hadn’t drank much of it I figured that it was down to either the red bull or coke. I usually have a good stomach which can take most of what it gets. At the start of the last lap I felt aweful – all I wanted to do was get sick – maybe I should have – I might have felt better. Anne-Marie said ‘ 1 more hour ‘ and on I went. At the next aid station took on water and soon felt better. I had a sniff of the finish line and I was nearly there. The legs started to tire in the last 5km and found myself stopping to walk for a few short stints. In the last 5km I also realised I was on target to get in under the 12hrs. As I broke away from the run route to go down to the finish line I checked my watch. I saw 42km on the watch. I was there.
During training I’d often imagined what it must be like to walk those last few yards to the finish. I certainly had watched the coverage of other races and seen the elation of people crossing the line for the first time. Met Anne-Marie and Conor and recall getting pretty emotional. Ran down the red carpet and high fived the guy saying ‘ Ken, You are and Ironman ‘.
It was a brilliant feeling. Crossed the line and collected my finishers medal. I was so happy and so relieved. Moved into the finishers tent. There were two queues – one for food and one for massages. After my stomach problems food was off the list and to be honest while a rub down of the legs would have been nice I just wanted to get out to the family. Having them there made the finish all that more sweeter and it was as much their Ironman as it was mine !
Taking part and completing my first Ironman was undoubtedly one of the most exciting and rewarding days of my life. Of course I couldn’t have done it without the support and encouragement of my wife Anne-Marie, the kids, family and friends, who encouraged me all the way. A big thanks also to everyone in Limerick Triathlon Club especially Mike Clancy, Keith McInerney and Adrian Kirby.
To anyone thinking of attempting an Ironman I would say get it right in your head, make your world right for it and go for it. It is very achievable if you are willing to put in the effort and time in training - you will get there. That sense of achievement when you cross the finish line is worth it. Will I do another one ? Absolutely.