How many have you got Liam? “I’ve only lost one so far”, I think was the reply. I was the same really, just half of one gone. What are we talking about?! Toenails, and the lost art of not losing them during a long endurance event. These are the silly thoughts and questions that run through my head on a glorious Wednesday evening in World’s End, Castleconnell before my first official long-distance triathlon (Cork 2019 does/doesn’t count depending on who you talk to!). Hardman 2021 in Killarney was the big question mark, the event that I signed up to while casually been driven to Tayto Park, 8 weeks previous when the ‘God knows what iteration’ of Covid restrictions lifted and allowed a slightly bigger entry field into the event. “Will I do it?” I asked my wife. This question must be put into context: IM Cork was yet again on the cards earlier in the year, and as everyone knows was yet again deferred until 2022. I had been doing some bike and running up until mid-May when IM pulled the plug for another year, and I dropped the running like a hot spud. From then until this moment in July, it was bike only, with the Limerick TC’s TT series keeping me honest every Wednesday evening. No swim training since pre-Covid. With 8 weeks to D-day, this was going to take some serious effort.
My wife replies “what would it involve training wise?” Me trying to sound upbeat and confident, while staring down the endless lane inside my mind’s swimming pool, said “just back to running and have to get going on the swimming I suppose”. “Shur why not” was the answer. Those three words were all I needed. Permission slipped signed, it was back to basics – swim before work & run during the lunch break one day, turbo before work & run during lunch break the next day & repeat for the next 6-7 weeks’ weekdays, with a long bike on the Saturday’s and a long run on the Sundays. At least I wouldn’t be out done on the effort front!
Just like the day itself, all the days leading up to the event, were great in terms of the support. Whether it was going on a longish run on a Sunday with Garron Mosley, doing a group Zwift ride on a Saturday morning, meeting fellow LTC members, Neil and Eileen Foley in OBB for a quick spin around the island or Stephen Teeling Lynch in the same place at the crack of dawn before work. All the bits of advice along the way and group spins helped immensely in what can sometimes be a lonely enough sport to train for.
Back to the week before and World’s End, Liam Dillon is the aforementioned Liam. A short 1k swim with Liam, chat & float, before leaving the wetsuit to dry for the last time before the big day on Saturday. Like two auld fella’s the chat went on a bit longer after talking about aches and pains, excuses, and the course ahead of us. Then the legend that is Liam Liddy shows up for a dip and we re-hash all the above topics again, surely easing the thought overload, safe in the knowledge that I’m not the only one slightly anxious about the weekend, and the task at hand.
Earlier that same day I done the last-minute ritual of a bike check – up to Nenagh and back on the old Dublin road. Sun cream on at 9am – a possible sign of the weekend weather ahead? Looks like those long runs in the preceding weeks of a heatwave might be put to good use. I was just after cursing out loud, a bockity section of the hard shoulder, near the Five Alley pub, when Ross Higgins appeared on my shoulder out of nowhere! He probably thought I was some kind of lunatic swearing out loud, but when we got chatting and I mentioned what I was preparing for at the weekend, we had a great conversation, while churning out the km’s. He was immensely jealous of me, and at that moment in time I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why!!
He gave me some great bits of advice, from the course layout and nutrition on the run, but the one that stuck in my head was the “don’t cash in all your chips on the bike and save something for the run”. The image of that day is still stuck in my head; me in the TT position, on a TT bike, trying not to push myself too hard, going around 33km/h. Ross in the upright position on a road bike, doing the same speed, while barely breaking a sweat!
And so, to Killarney we headed on Friday evening. Dinner before going – didn’t want to be going around Killarney looking for somewhere to eat that night. Arrived in the B&B nearly right across the road from the start. This was good for getting to the start the following morning, but unfortunately, proved bad in terms of sleep as it felt like every truck that drove past the B&B that night was driving right through the middle of the room……proximity to the busy road was one issue, but the real problem was that in 2021, the B&B had single glazing ☹ Not even double glazing, no, it had single glazing. Should have gone with a hotel, but because I only booked 8 weeks out this was the best I could get, as Killarney is a busy spot.
Down to check-in at the golf club, and I met the two Liam’s and the Foley’s. This was Eileen’s first attempt at a full distance too. Bike racked, new hoodie on, and we posed for the mandatory pre-race photo, followed by trying to get our bearings on the swim course as the buoys were been dragged out by the boats. 3 main buoys forming a triangle, with some intermediate marker buoys too. The setting was ideal and very picturesque, in stark contrast I was sure, to the feelings of pain and tiredness I would be experiencing the following day. I even saw a few random deer on the golf course when leaving. Quick recce of T2, as it was a split transition race, where we came across a couple from Cork doing the exact same thing, and their kids doing the exact same thing as ours…. legging it for the playground.
Back to the B&B & so ensued a night of hell. Didn’t sleep great that week, but Friday night was the pits. Slept from 1-4am, 3 hours in total. Many thoughts went through my head…. if I leave now I’d be back in Limerick in 1hr 15 at this hour, good sleep and then drive back down tomorrow? …I wonder what kind of noise insulation the car has?…..why did I leave my swimming ear plugs at home when cleaning out the gear bag? Up the following night/morning and had the mandatory bowl of porridge and a banana. Gear on and out the door. As if the single glazed windows weren’t bad enough, there was a load of lads down for a golf outing, and some of them were in the room next door – they were still up with the lights on and talking loudly just after 5 when I was leaving.
Down to transition with the box of gear, check tyres and brakes…. all ok. Gels & bars on the bike, bottles filled, and Garmin on. My new wetsuit on (my only piece of triathlon indulgence in the last two years!), and chat nervously with Neil & Eileen, and Sinead Walsh, another LTC legend. 6:30 came and the man himself, Alan the race organiser, gave a great speech. A quick and nervous salute to Garron and Andrea Cullen (who had made the trip to lend their support to all athletes, especially the LTC athletes on the course and in particular Eileen, doing her first full distance), and tiptoed into the shallow water (literally as the rocks were all over the place beneath the surface). The swim was 2 x 1.9km laps. The first lap was grand, felt comfortable and kept up with Eileen, who is a better swimmer than me. Second lap was where it unravelled a bit – after the first buoy I felt a knot coming on in my stomach, and my pace dropped significantly. After the second buoy, with the bright lights of transition in sight I couldn’t hold it down any longer and got sick twice, in quick succession, while swimming, in the water. Something I’d never done before that day. Swimming is not my strength & trying to keep moving, stay afloat, keep breathing & not choking in the water was a real struggle. At that point I don’t think I could have got any lower, and was seriously contemplating throwing the towel in, but I kept it moving and got back into a rhythm, albeit a slow one. I don’t think it was motion sickness or anything to do with what I ate that morning and have since put it down to being a bit physically exhausted from the lack of sleep the night before. Once out of the water I was ok again, just having to re-start my whole nutrition plan from scratch. Just over 1.20, I was aiming for 1.15 so not too bad all things considered. No issues with temperature – thanks mainly to my new wetsuit…. a winter thermal job. In times gone past I’d be shivering thanks to my skinny frame. A slow T1…. I took my time – long day ahead, and the sole aim of the day was to cross the finish line, so no point taking stupid risks. Overlapped with Eileen for a bit in T1, as no surprise, she was out of the water before me. Traded a few tales from the swim, she hit the road and I finished up soon after. Got the thumbs up from Garron & Andrea, and others as well, who I can only presume were Lisa Horgan and Roisin Doran, who were on the run course later on, cheering everybody on. T1 was such a blur I don’t know who was cheering me on!
On the road, and I had planned to have a gel once settled, maybe around Torc, for that added edge up Moll’s gap, but with what happened in the swim I delayed the onset of any gels for around 2 hours and took the safer option of some solid food instead.
An area of improvement for me is definitely around power and specifically power meters. I’m what some people would call “flying blind” at present, and basically just going by feel and average speed. Something I need to invest in over the Winter. My Garmin is set on 5km laps, so every 5km I can see if the numbers are good or bad when it beeps. On an extremely simplified level < 10minutes is good, as its > 30kph average, and > 10 minutes is bad as it’s < 30kph average. & so began the score keeping in my head….. 9 minutes 40 secs, that’s 20 seconds in the bank & so on! The cycle in total was fairly uneventful, just looking for landmarks, distance to the next town or village, and multiplying it by 2 (as I was trying to average around 30kph), and then trying to beat that time to the next town, e.g., Kenmare to Sneem was 26km x 2 = 52mins, so the game was to get to Sneem sub 52minutes, a bit like a manual version of ‘beat the sat nav’ game when driving the car! Whatever gets you through.
The upside of a poor swim – you pass out loads on the bike….. that’s my reason for a poor swim and I’m sticking to it! Nothing to do with only learning 5 years ago from scratch! Before I knew it, I came across Sinead Walsh and Liam Liddy separately, around the 70/80km marks, when we had a good NE tailwind behind us. I just offered words of encouragement to both. Liam told me Liam Dillon wasn’t far ahead, which I thought was amazing or else Liam Liddy was mistaken, as I would class Liam D. as a far better athlete than myself. Up the Coomakista climb which I didn’t find too bad and down the fast descent into Waterville. It’s funny the things that strike you as you cycle around the country – I had watched the videos that Alan from Hardman had put up earlier in the week around transitions and water stops, and I found them very entertaining – he’d tell you snippets of local knowledge and mentioned that JP McManus owned Waterville House just on the left on the way into Waterville. A week on from Limerick’s win in the All Ireland and there was a helicopter planted in the front lawn of Waterville House. I had a little laugh to myself as I put 2 and 2 together and figured JP was probably still in the country, and on his holidays in Waterville as we flew past!
I hadn’t really planned on stopping for a new water bottle, but I was running low so opted to pull in for a quick changeover of bottles and off again. 1 stop strategy going well so far. I later found out I passed Liam Dillon out here without even knowing it. Caherciveen involved a bit of slowing down, as the main street is narrow, and some cars were taking it nice and handy on their Saturday morning ramble. The long slow climb out of Caherciveen was a real leg-zapper, and I’d go so far as to say it was worse than Molls Gap and Coomakista, as it seemed gradual but endless. I passed a few more fellow competitors out here. You know you’re going well when you pass somebody out, salute them, they say nothing to you, and then you realise they’ve a full-on TT helmet and rear disc wheel on!! Obviously going through their own struggles.
All the way through the cycle Bob Marley & ‘Could you be loved’ was bopping around in my head (it had infected my ears from the drive down the night before, better than Matt Cooper & the Last Word I suppose). Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse just over Kells Bay there was a woman playing a harp. Yes, I too thought I was hallucinating at this late stage in the cycle, but no it was very real! And so, Bob Marley was ditched, in favour of Lady Gaga, and the opening notes of Telephone. Great song…. I just had to make peace with it for another 45 minutes or so of the bike leg!
One of the best moments of the day was undoubtedly seeing the LTC support crew on the left-hand side around Mountain Stage. I even had time to shout a smart remark to them about my nutrition. It gave me a definite lift, as aside from seeing Liam and Sinead on the course, it was a lonely enough auld spin.
Worse traffic than Caherciveen was to come, as we had been warned that morning, there was some Olympic athletes’ homecoming on in Killorglin. Of all the days. There were major traffic queues, so I had to carefully negotiate these, a sweeping right-hand bend, 90 degree left across the bridge and on the home stretch back to Killarney. Passing the B&B on the way back in I gave it a grimace, as I thought back to the lack of sleep, again. Downing all gels and the remains of the water bottles I got ready for the run. T2 was beside the playground in Killarney, with a nice long road leading up to it. Plenty of time to get into a good road position and get the powdery feet out of the shoes for the first time in nearly 6 hours. Flying dismount and despite a narrow angle between the traffic light crossing and bollards, I didn’t collide with anything and stayed upright with good speed too…. I think I shocked a few locals who were watching, as I remember a few of them exclaiming at the incoming speed! The bike was 5.40 by the Garmin, which I was happy with. I’d never gone faster over that distance and elevation before. Every hour I’d do yet another mental game in my head and cross check the average speed for the preceding hours’ racing while on the bike. The jury’s out but I think I won that mental game too! For the first 5 hours I was averaging 31kph bang on every hour, with this dropping to 30.5 I think on the last 40 minutes.
Into T2 and first job was to find my box and runners. Bike thrown onto the rack, runners, visor, and gel belt on. I then saw my wife and two kids for the first time that day, as I didn’t want them getting up at 6:30 for the swim. Relayed my swim story to the horror of my wife and then hit the run course with my special needs bag in one hand and water bottle in the other. I left my special needs bag at the food table and forgot about it then until later that night, when it was too late to get it back! The run was 10 x 4.2km laps out to Castlerosse hotel/golf club and back over a small hill (that I’m sure grew in size and elevation) to the playground over the 10 laps. I actually asked Alan from Hardman during one of the short water stops: “any chance you could get rid of that hill next lap”, to which he replied, “it will be gone next time round”!
The leader passed me out on one of the first few laps. Good size for a triathlete I thought…. small and skinny, and he looked to be flowing up the hill, compared to my diesel engine chugging along behind him. The heat was intense from around halfway on the bike and only seemed to get hotter as the day went on. I gave my wife the gel belt after lap 2 or 3 I think – I wasn’t going to be needing that! I stomached two Cliff bar energy jellies but did not want to pull the pin by having any more gels and go all out for the remainder of the run. Taking enough fluids on, and keeping them down, while moving forward was the order of the day. I’d say the inexperienced onlookers or locals around T2 thought I was mad – every lap I would stop and pour two glasses of water down the back of my head. It was something to look forward to every lap!
Another time down by Castlerosse there’s some horse trails and while 4 or 5 of us, in various stages of pain and immobility were slowly moving along we witnessed somebody being chucked off the back of a horse they were on, in the middle of a training ride and landing on the ground, on their back. Despite what we thought before then, at least things weren’t that bad, and we were still moving!
I said it already, but the support was unreal and genuine. You can tell fake support – some kids, who their parents tell them “come on now kids, give these people a clap”, and the kids in the baking heat, just wanting to get it over with, say: “go on, you’re doing great”!! While there was some of that, the overwhelming majority was genuine – the blue shirted man on the right going down the hill before the switchback, the lady telling us to smile near the cattlegrid, going up the hill, and the three complete strangers on the back section of the course, in the middle of nowhere, offering their support every lap, that I recognised from the swim exit that morning, to name but a few. Of course, the support from my fellow LTC members’ Neil, Lisa, Roisin, Garron & Andrea back near T2 was very welcome every lap. Needless to say, my family were fully behind me as well and located after the switchback in the shade (good choice) & my kids even ran 20-30 metres beside me nearly every lap. It all made a real difference as you felt you couldn’t give up or start walking in front of them.
I met Sinead on the run and offered words of encouragement “keep it moving”, and met Liam Dillon without knowing it was him, as I thought he’d have a different trisuit on. Then I was hugely confused as I thought I was unlapping myself, as I didn’t know I had passed him on the bike, so I was trying to figure out what was going on!
I afforded myself the luxury of walking the hill on the last two laps of the run and made it home in just under 4 hours. I was probably aiming for a bit faster than that – 3.45, but in that heat, and at the end of a long day I was happy with the result. At the finish line I just sat down and had the best cup of tea and plain chicken sandwich in a long, long time! No more sugar or energy gels!
I hung around the finish for an hour, where I met everybody; all the support crew, Liam D. and even the Cork couple we met the night before at the playground. We cheered Eileen on, as she was on her 6th or 7th lap and doing great, before we headed for the B&B.
Overall, it was a great event, probably made better by the fantastic weather. Despite Kerry losing to Tyrone the same day and getting various updates from the marshals around the run course, everybody down there was still in great form. I would definitely do it again. If I could just figure out a way to stop losing the toenails I’d be sorted!
Photo credits: Silvo Kalcik & Brian O’ Mahoney