A Day in the Lakes - my half Ironman Experience

It's 6:30am Monday morning ... I'm wide awake. I'm late! I don't set an alarm, but during summer I often wake up at sunrise to ride my bike. I like to get up whilst the world is still sleeping and cycle whilst there's no traffic on the road. But it's Monday and I'm late, I go to move to get out of bed, the searing pain through my legs reminds me why I'm not cycling today. Now I remember yesterday. I DID IT! I'm a half Ironman athlete!! 

THE IDEA

I don't know what's wrong with my head sometimes. When I dramatically changed my diet and lifestyle five years ago, part of that was to begin exercising. I fell in love with 5km runs at my local park on a Saturday morning and eventually began cycling to them. The idea of a triathlon entered my mind. I've always loved water, so the swim didn't seem too challenging, and if I could increase my cycling distance I'd be all good. I signed up for a Sprint Tri. The swim was 400m in the leisure centre pool, followed by a 25km cycle (I borrowed a mountain bike off a friend) finishing with a 6km run. I absolutely loved the day. Everybody was so kind and supportive. I wasn't the fastest, I wasn't the slowest, there were people from every ability level - it was inclusive and fun! I did a few more of those over the years and really enjoyed them. I eventually bought my own bike ... this one which is great for on the road but also lets me cycle on gravel and uneven ground. 

Sprint Triathlons I've done

https://www.britishtriathlon.org/events/south-manchester-triathlon_10873

https://www.britishtriathlon.org/events/wilmslow-triathlon_10788

https://www.britishtriathlon.org/events/peak-district-triathlon-at-chatsworth_6172

Somewhere between that first experience of triathlon and yesterday I made a decision ... one day I would complete Ironman. Ironman is the ultimate. Organised by the World Triathlon Corporation, it consists of;

  • 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim
  • 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride
  • marathon 26.22-mile (42.20 km)

I loved the idea and I assumed the association would give me a week or maybe even a month to complete these epic challenges. No. They have to be done in that order - consecutively! Was this even real? Do people do this?!

The race I did yesterday is classed as Half Ironman https://www.trihard.co.uk/events/a-day-in-the-lakes-triathlon/

  • 2km swim
  • 78km bike
  • 21km fell run

RACE DAY

3:18am. Ten minutes before my alarm is due to go off and I'm wide awake. My heart is racing, I'm trying to catch my breath, I've been dreaming about the race. Quick shower, check, double check, triple check I have everything. New bike helmet (the mice in the shed chewed through the strap on my old one over winter) wetsuit, water bottle, bike pump, towels, change of clothes, socks, trainers, compass, whistle, waterproofs - all packed into my Aldi bag for life. My dad arrives at 4am, we've already loaded my bike onto the rack the night before, and it seems to be staying put. We set off up to the Lake District. 

6:30am and we're driving across the campsite at Pooley Bridge. Ullswater lake looks big and cold! It's quiet. Athletes are still sleeping. I register, get my race numbers and time chip tag. People are beginning to wake up and take their bike into the transition (transition is where you place your bike, helmet towel, snacks and trainers for when you come out of the swim. Usually a lot of metal racking with race numbers in order. You position your gear and leave it there ready to go). 

The queue for the mens loos is long!! I've never seen a toilet block queue that way round before. There are definitely far fewer females competing, but the ones that are look super fit. The guy parked next to us on the field is building a contraption behind his car. It's a static bike stand into which he puts his bike and begins pedalling. I'm assuming it's a warm up - although why you'd want to when you've got two to three hours on the saddle coming up I have no idea! Am I out of my depth? This looks serious. 

8am race briefing. The water is 13C. The only temperatures I can compare that to are 28C (my local outdoor pool which feels lovely) and 16C (the temperature at Poor Knights Island in New Zealand when I couldn't wait to finish my scuba dive because it was freezing) Yep, 13C is going to be cold. The race marshal suggests we go in 5 minutes early to 'acclimatise' ... I'm not sure I want to, but equally I don't want to struggle breathing from cold water shock. I stay to the side and at the back and a couple of minutes before the race is due to begin I wade in. It's actually okay. I don't mind open water and usually swim without a wetsuit, so in my neoprene I feel fine. 

THE SWIM

8:30am the klaxon ... they're off! WE'RE off! It still feels surreal that I'm part of this. Like sharks cutting through the water, slinky black wetsuits glide ahead. I'm bobbing about in bright blue at the back. My lungs are burning but I feel okay. I'm not competing against anybody else. My mission is to finish. I see a safety kayak to my left, a man with a bright green swim cap is clinging to the front. BREATHE the canoeist is shouting. "I can't" he gasps. This isn't good. He looked good. A slinky black shark is quitting and I'm not at buoy one - what chance do I have? Ignore it. Onwards. I see more rescue kayaks, the rib is plucking swimmers out of the water. The previously calm lake is turning into an ocean, waves are hitting me square in the face, I'm drinking water every time I breathe. Keep going. Round the buoys at the end, I can see the shore. Twice round. I have to do this twice. I'm battling the wind, the waves ... I'm never going to be able to do this twice. A safety kayak is beside me "ONCE" she shouts "YOU'RE ONLY GOING ROUND ONCE". I've been penalised. I'm so far back they don't trust me to swim again. "WHY?" I'm shouting between gulps of breath and water. "CONDITIONS". I suddenly realise it isn't just me, everybody has been called out of the water. The inflatable buoys have blown off their moorings, the wind is howling. "DO YOU WANT TO HOLD MY KAYAK" she asks. No, I can't stop. If I stop I won't start. I'm last, but I'm fine. I see my dad on the shore, he's been looking out for me - phone camera in hand. The cheer from the crowd is huge. I'm on my feet, stumbling over rocks beneath the water. They're clapping and cheering and I'm on dry land. "I did it dad, I didn't quit!!". I'm smiling. 

Into transition. I'm not the only straggler. Wetsuit off, vest on, trainers on, helmet on. I don't need water as I've swallowed half the lake. I'm on the bike and out of there. 

THE BIKE

9:30am The bike feels good. I'm catching my breath. My lungs are burning and every time I try to breathe deeply it hurts. Sing. That always works on my morning bike rides. Rocketman - yep I'm pedalling against that driving wind, the rain has started falling and I'm singing Elton John. Cyclists begin to overtake me. These will be the 1/4 Ironman who started their swim behind me. They look professional, their gear is streamlined and slinky like those wetsuits, their tyres are pencil thin. It's fine, I'm not competing with them ... my mission is to finish. I'm competing only against me. Keep going. 

I'm feeling good. I'm now on Queens greatest hits in my head. Channelling Freddie! Surely I must be somewhere close to halfway. It's hilly, but that's okay, I'm used to cycling on hills. I overtake somebody - I'm not sure how that happened. It's the only time I do so in any part of the race. I will know when I'm halfway because the full circuit is two laps. I'm trying to look out for memorable things. A church, a field, a shop, a sign post. I know I'm going to be at the back on my own for round two and I don't want to take the wrong turn. Shap ... a sign for Shap. Wait! Shap is a little village in Cumbria that's often on the news as being the first to close when the snow gets bad. Because it's bloody high up!! Maybe we cycle past Shap? No, the road gets steep ... we're cycling into Shap. Somehow I make it, I'm on the A6. The halfway marker feels like forever away. As I cycle past I'm wondering if I can really do this. Same again PLUS my run. Maybe I've taken on to much. Ignore that, sing Rocketman ... I'm all good.

There's the church, there's that village with the blind bend - I almost get taken out by a car in the exact spot somebody got knocked off their bike last year. I'm not fast, but my speed is steady. I'm on a long straight and I don't recognise it. What if I should've turned? Did I miss a sign? Maybe I'm so late they've taken the signs down? Then I begin thinking about the run. I don't know the fells here, the marshals will have come down and I'll be left searching for the right track. Maybe it's time to admit defeat. Never. Rocketman. Keep going. 

1pm I'm back in transition. I've never been so thankful to put that bike down! I need to eat. I can't eat because I feel sick, but I know I have to. A banana and a bit of water. A marshal dressed in red tells me he'll be running with me and 'number 45' ... there's somebody else in transition? Number 45. I'm not on my own. I spot my dad! "what time?" he's asking. I don't understand. I shout back "what time is it?" it's 1 o clock. Is that good or bad, I'm not sure. "How long do you think it'll take" he clarifies. I'm trying to think. Half a marathon takes me 2 hours on the flat. My legs aren't even working right now and I'm running up a mountain! "THREE HOURS?" I guess. "are you sure?" he's asking. Maybe he's calculating whether he has time to go for lunch and a pint! It's cold, it's raining .. if I were him I'd rather be in the pub! I'm still calculating whether I should actually set off for this run at all. Is this insane? Probably. Let's do it ...

THE RUN

I'm half jogging, half striding up the mountain. Number 45 overtakes me. I'm officially last. That's okay. My mission is to finish. I'm jogging past hikers who are so lovely and supportive. There are marshals at every key turn. They're kind and smiling and cheering me on! They've waited for me in this horrific wind and rain. I'm hurting but smiling big time each moment I see them. The marshal in red who spoke to me in transition is behind me. Every time I run, he runs. When I slow to walk, he does the same. He's far enough back to give me space, but close enough so that I know he's there. I need to wee. Ignore it. Nope, I really need to wee. I'm on open fells and I really REALLY need to wee. What do people do in these situations? It's raining heavily. Would anybody know if I just wee'd now? Is it even possible to run and wee in clothes? It will be in a minute, I'm desperate! I stop, "I NEED TO WEE" I'm shouting at the marshal behind me whilst trying to take off my vest and suit. Who the hell thought a full suit would be a good idea? It's wet, clinging to me, the wind is howling, I can't even get the stupid thing back on properly. Done, we're off again.

"Keep going" the marshal says, "you'll hit the feed station soon - I'll catch you up". Feed station. Fresh water and food. My heart loves the idea, my body is saying 'I'm going to vomit'. No food. Don't eat food. You will vomit. I already feel sick. Two lovely ladies are waiting for me at the feed truck, arms outstretched with cups of water. I sip one cup, I want to gulp it but that's not happening. I will be sick. "How far" I'm asking them "from the road it's just 5km" she says! I KNEW IT. Not far now. "but first", she adds, you run into Martindale and back". Martindale? How far is that? In unison both ladies reply "we don't know". Oh, they know. And the fact they're not telling me means it's bad. If it was good, they'd tell me. They must know. It's going to be miles isn't it. This isn't good. Onwards to Martindale. Past the church, there's another marshal. He's stood in a little stone courtyard in the middle of this valley, surrounded by huge hills, wind howling, rain driving down. He's waited for me. He probably hates me. I'm smiling, "THANK YOU" I shout, I'm so grateful. He runs with me "come on!! You're almost at the turning point" We turn. "I can hardly quit now can I", I say to him "who would come and get me?". He tells me the option is there. "We can rescue you, it depends where your head is at". Where is my head at? "I'm getting to that finish" I tell him. I want my medal. "Well get your f**king arse in gear and MOVE IT then" he's shouting at me, like that bloke off SAS!! He's right. I'm ridiculously thankful for his words. Like an army cadet running beside a screaming commander I'm off again. I will not quit. 

Back to the feed station, the ladies are still waiting! Arms outstretched with water. Do I want a flapjack? Heart yes. Body no. It's a no. I'm going to be sick. "You knew" I shout "You knew that bit of the run was far!!!" - they assure me they didn't know the exact distance but from the time it had taken some runners they felt it wouldn't be easy. I'm grateful they didn't tell me. And there it is, as I hit the road ... the 5km to the finish marker. 

I run 5km almost daily with James who lives next door. That's to the little white gate, just past the Navi pub and back. I imagine the distance in my head. I can do this. The marshal in red is behind me again, tailing me. All these people waiting out here just to ensure I make it back. For the first time I want to cry. NO TEARS. DO NOT BLOODY CRY. Sometimes my legs won't work, bits of the road are uphill and I'm marching those sections. There's the 4km marker ... I honestly thought I was at about 2!! It's taking forever but I will not stop. Some tourists bounce onto the road from a side footpath. "Hello" they're fresh and smiley "can I ask where you've come from?" I look up, my eyes must be staring at them like the devil! I don't have the energy to run. How can I start giving tourists directions? Besides which ... I have no idea where I am. I'm following little fluorescent flags and waiting for my marshal to shout at me if I go wrong. "bbluuurghh" I speak a noise. She looks a little taken aback "sorry she says, are you okay? Can you not speak?". The marshal behind me is talking to her, explaining that I'm nearing the end of a gruelling race. I was hoping my dishevelled state, half ripped race number and soaked vest might have conveyed it - but the marshals words do a better job! She's clapping and cheering. Everybody is so damn kind. I'm going to cry again. DON'T BLOODY CRY.

I can see the boats in the lake - that must be near the campsite. My marshal is right behind me now. "2km to go" he says "you're nearly there, they've taken the markers down but you're nearly there". It's the first time he's spoken to me for miles and I'm so happy to hear I'm close! "What time is it?" I ask. 4:30pm. I've been running for 3 and a half hours. My dad will have had time for lunch and a pint! He's beside me now - my marshal. "Have you done many of these?", he asks. Oh god. I'm that bad. It's obvious I'm a newbie! "No, I've done some sprint triathlons but I've enjoyed longer distances in training so I wanted to give it a go" I explain. "You could do Ironman", he tells me. What? I'm last. I'm dying. I'm still not convinced I'm going to hit that finish line and he thinks I could double this distance?! "Out there on the mountain, you had a look" he tells me "I saw that look and I thought, this girl will not quit". He's right. My mind tells me I can do anything I set my heart on. "You marched" he continues "you never stopped, you marched up that mountain. I've found my voice from somewhere. We're jogging and having a conversation. "I was pretending I was in the SAS!!" I reply. He probably thinks I'm insane! 

THE FINISH

My marshals name is Mark. He's completed 24 Ironman events around Europe. Austria, Lanzarote (don't start with that one it's hilly), Germany (they don't do that one anymore), Bolton, Barcelona (that's a good one, it's flat). "You've got what it takes" he tells me again "you'd finish it". I remind him I'm struggling to complete half the distance right now! "This?" he asks "this isn't a normal half ironman! This is one of the most challenging courses in the UK". Is it? I should probably have researched a little better - although that might have put me off!! 1km ... I'm almost there. Mark tells me he's going to run ahead of me and find my dad. "please" I say to him "please tell him I'm okay and make sure there's a medal for me!". I'm back on the campsite. There's a lady marshal running beside me with with her phone taking pics, I'm smiling big time!! This is it. I'm going to do it! The tears are there again DON'T BLOODY CRY!!! "Your dad is so proud" she's telling me. DON'T BLOODY CRY!!! Through the field and there it is, the big inflatable finish line. There's a lovely group of people clapping and cheering and shouting my name.  I've done it, I'm through, I'm smiling my little face off!!!! 

The bike racking has all been taken down, the tents have packed up, the cars have gone. The first finishers were done four hours ago! Eight hours twenty four minutes. I'm the very last one over the finish line. They've run out of medals!! (but promise me one in the post) The marshals stayed on that mountain through horrific weather to ensure I got back safely. The ladies who held out food and water, the marshal who shouted a me like the SAS bloke, Mark the Ironman who ran with me and Jen who kept my dad company whilst he waited in the field. And all my lovely Instagram and Twitter supporters. I'm super grateful to every single person who valued my finish just as much as the first person to cross that line.

Believe me, you can do absolutely anything you set your mind to.

Full Ironman? .... watch this space ;) 

RESULTS 

https://www.trihard.co.uk/events/a-day-in-the-lakes-triathlon/results-a-day-in-the-lakes-triathlon/

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4 comments

  • Becky!! I think we passed on the way to / from Martindale and questioned briefly why we were volunteering (and paying!!) for such torture!! Huge congratulations to you too. You’re absolutely right, my mission was also just to finish and that helped make any nerves disappear. I hope to see you at an event in the future :) x

    Hanna Sillitoe
  • What a great read … that was my first every triathlon. My worry was I was going to be last but I had accepted it that I would be and you know what that was a weight off my shoulders. As what it was about was completing it therefore we were winners no matter what. It was a tough day but I crazily enjoyed it every minute had lovely conversations, spent too long in transition talking ha. But anyway a huge huge well done 👍🏼 you did it and don’t let it put you off doing a full 😁

    Becky Byrne
  • Awww Jen!! I think I might have credited you as ‘Jane’ in my blog and the thank you email I sent to the team! I shall blame my fathers hearing for that error ;o) Yes absolutely, do feel free to post. Not my finest look … but definitely my finest sporting achievement. It felt SO good to cross that finish line. I’m excited for my next challenge. I’m going to learn front crawl and train hard. You’re right, the mental strength is there … lots more training and I know I can do it :) Thank you so much to everyone who supported me – you were all so kind and wonderful. Hanna xx

    Hanna Sillitoe
  • Hey Hannah, it was me who was chatting to your lovely, interesting and very proud dad in the field (and I may have a super video of you running into the finish, full of smiles and steely determination – is it ok to post it on the TriHard Facebook page and then you can share it too?). Well bloody done, missus. Recover well, be proud, treasure that medal (when it comes) and get planning your training and entry for the big one. No rush. But it’s inside you & that’s more than half the battle. Jen xx

    Jen

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