A Break From Our Usual Programming21 Aug 2017
I think that even on the way home from my first LEJOG ride in the summer of 2010 I was talking about an Ironman being the next challenge. My ability to ride a bike was proved, there was just the small matter of being a rubbish runner and worse swimmer.
I could run - it was just that everyone I ran with could run better than me. And I could swim, just not consistent freestyle for more than about 200m before having to change to breaststroke. I tried to fix the running first, persuaded that the (metaphorically and occasionally literally) barefoot running would help. It did - my running became relatively fluid and I was picking up speed, until I sprained my calf running in Berlin and had to walk home, in shorts, in February.
It took many weeks for this to heal, so I took up swimming between the riding. I managed to cobble-together a freestyle stroke that I could maintain, but I was never really, erm, fluid in the pool. I bought a swimming wetsuit though, and swimming in the sea in that was a pleasure. The pieces of triathlon were coming together.
I had quite serious Ironman ambitions for the summer of 2012, but these were scuppered by taking a job in London with a long commute. During the 2 years there I managed to keep bike fitness by commuting on the Brompton, but it was obvious that I was not going to have enough free time to devote to training. I worked at home for the summer of 2014, so that would have been a good opportunity, and I gained plenty of fitness from another end to end ride, but I was fatigued, working hard, and just not able to muster the enthusiasm to enter a race.
2015 and 2016 had me commuting to London again. I kept riding and running and spraining my calves, and had occasional affairs with the pool and sea, but my work was hard and unpredictable enough that I couldn’t see any way to enter a race with a reasonable chance of completing it. Some time in 2016 though I began to hatch a plan to organise my own event. That way if I did pull another calf muscle in training I could just postpone. I’m quite a low-key person too, so lack of crowds and people was attractive. The clincher though was that a personal Ironman could be point-to-point rather than starting and ending in the same place, a literal as well as metaphorical journey. This really appealed to me, and I began to plan my own Ironman distance event ending at my home in Alton.
You can pretty much ride 180 km and run 42 km anywhere, but finding somewhere in the UK to fit a 3.8 km swim is quite hard. There are lakes and reservoirs, but those allowing swimming and within 222 km of home were not big enough - I would have had to swim laps. Rivers have the problem of swimming with (cheating) or against (hard) the current if you want to journey along them. The sea has plenty of space, but also currents and tides and more chance of the weather making swimming impossible.
In the Spring of 2017 I resolved that this damn Ironman had to be dispatched before I was 50 in September. I told my clients that I would have to work from home over the summer or leave them, and they cheerfully accepted the latter. My bluff was called - I was going to have to do this thing.
I spent time browsing Wild Swimming sites and when I saw the swim from (Ladram Bay to Sidmouth)[https://wildswim.com/ladram-bay-to-jacobs-ladder-sidmouth], with its beautiful red sandstone sea-stacks, I knew it had to be done. From Sidmouth to home was about 120 miles, giving some leeway to make an interesting ride and run route. It was coming together.
I asked my mate Budgie, an experienced sea swimmer who had completed a proper organised Ironman 3 years ago, if he would do the sea swim with me to keep it safe. He said that if he was going to come down he was “in it to win it” and would do the whole event. So we were on.
I pencilled-in a date of XXXX-XXXX and set-to training. I started a regular weekly half-marathon on a Friday, and resurrected my swimming. I planned the cycle route, embracing the horrible climbs in Devon and the down-wind flats of the New Forest, and found that St Swithan’s and the Itchen Ways conveniently gave a running trail route from Winchester to Alton. I also visited a swim coach, (Julian)[XX] who pointed out my most obvious freestyle problems and gave me permission to wear floaty pants and breath on only my good side, so that I actually began to enjoy my pool sessions. It was all coming together.
Trying to find more help.
The day before
Jo and I got up at 5:30 on the day of the event. I ate a light breakfast and drank some tea, and then Budgie arrived at 6:15. We sorted out our cars and drove to Ladram Bay, walked down to the beach and found - the most beautiful calm sea, with the rising sun shining on the red sandstone. Gareth sent a message asking “How’s the sea looking?”. I replied with “No excuses”.
Jo took a couple of pictures and at 7:04 Budgie and I set off into the sea. It was warm enough and we soon settled into a nice rhythm. Budgie was only wearing floaty-pants, so I had to wait for him a few times, but we made good progress. Midway there were some weird moments when I could see the bottom of the sea, maybe 10 m down, and realised that, far from moving in a straight line, the swell was moving us perhaps 2 or 3 metres across-track with every wave. This was not a nice feeling, and encouraged swimming out into deeper water.
I really don’t know what the state of the current was during the swim, but as we tried to swim around the large groyne at the East end of Sidmouth beach we definitely encountered some resistance, so we headed straight to the beach. Jo and Budgie’s wife Sophie came down to meet us and we headed up the beach.
I jogged along the promenade to our car, where I poured a jerry-can of water over me to wash off the salt, changed into cycle kit, loaded up my jersey pockets and set off on the bike.
I’d spent some time researching pacing for Ironman bike legs. The advice seemed geared around using the bike to fuel the run - go too hard and you’ll both use up glycogen that is better spent later, and not be able to digest to keep it topped up. Aim for 60 - 70% normalised power as a proportion of your FTP, lower the slower that you’re likely to be and the less experienced you are. I resolved to aim for 63 % for the first half, maybe rising to 65 % in the second half if I felt good.
This plan was dashed on the cliffs of Sidmouth. At the end of the climb my normalised power was at 110%, and the 930 m of climbing in the first third of the ride left no way of bringing it right down no matter how gently I rode. But I tried anyway, cruising through the beautiful countryside trying to eat 360 kcal and drink 1 l of water an hour.
I met Jo every 20 miles or so for a 2 minute stop, topping up with fuel, water and encouragement. By half way I realised that the swim had taken a bit of toll on my energy levels, and I began to wonder just how hard the run would be. But on the whole the ride was easy, helped by having ridden the whole route a few weeks earlier.
At the transition on Shawford Down I saw Jo and Gareth waiting for me in the road. I took too long to change into running shorts in the woods, down some cold coffee, put on a Camelback, and then Gareth and I set off. It was nice and flat through Winchester along St Swithun’s Way and we made good time, despite discovering that the route hadn’t loaded onto my Garmin. Luckily I had recce’d this bit, and also had the RideWithGPS app on my phone to refer to.
The first meet with Jo was after 9.5 km and at this point I was feeling fine. The next stop, 5 km later, was at the top of a hill, and I was slowing down, but my boys were there to see my suffering, so I kept my head up and pressed on.
By the time of the next stop, just before Alresford, I was down to 7:30 pace, and the trail headed more uphill. Gareth was very encouraging as we passed through the mid-point of the run, but it was obvious that I was just getting slower and slower. I began to think that maybe I should have taken the advice to run-walk early, but I was still running, just.
Gareth peeled off at the next stop, the other side of Alresford, where I traded the Camelback for a bottle of electrolytes and plodded on. Beginning the 10 km climb to Four Marks I was covering a km only every 9 minutes, but, apart from stiles, kept running. At Ropley there was more coffee, an electrolyte top-up and a couple of ibuprofen before setting off. On this leg the sun set, and, despite having recce’d the section with Gareth, I lost the path as it got dark. The second time it happened I lost perhaps 5 minutes, but this was compensated for by a second-wind kicking in almost immediately, despite the trail still being uphill, and increasingly dark.
At the last-but-one checkpoint, at the top of the hill, it was getting colder and definitely dark, so I put on a long-sleeve top and head-torch and headed back down into the woods. At the last checkpoint Jo was no-where to be found, having reckoned without my increase in pace and popped into the pub for a coffee. She appeared but I decided I didn’t need any aid for the remaining 4 km, so set off again. I was back to under 7:00 pace until I again lost the path within 2 km of home, I think deliberately hidden by a new contractor’s yard.
This annoyed me, giving me the energy to run the roads home at quite a decent pace considering. Jo was there to cheer me home, take my picture, and watch me collapse onto the grass. I realised that I had no idea of the time - when she said it was 22:02 I thought, bugger, I’d missed out on the 15 hours. But then I realised that we hadn’t actually started until 7:04 - result!
How did my journey compare to a traditional Ironman (TM)? Well the swim was a little long, but probably only by the amount that I’d gain by poor sighting on a lake course. The ride would certainly have had a slight tailwind, but I think that on the whole that was cancelled out by the climbs and the net uphill. The run was also net uphill, and quite lumpy despite following the river for the first third. It was annoying to loose time and gain distance to getting lost, and I certainly missed having aid stations every mile during the run. To me the romance of making the journey home from our holiday under my own steam was worth it, but it was a lot more work than just turning up and racing in an organised event.
Overall, it wasn’t as hard work as I feared it might be, probably because of my conservative ride. Halfway through the run I thought that I was in for a long night, but whether it was the electrolytes, ibuprofen, caffeine or just old fashioned feeling better, it improved so that by the end I was feeling really quite good, certainly better than at the end of the single marathon that I ran. The fueling worked really well, bolstering my theory that my greatest athletic asset is my gut.
Another time I would allow myself to push harder in the swim and the ride, and expect not to spend so long in (especially the second) transition. I think that I have a sub-14 hr Ironman in me, but I’m not convinced that Jo will allow it out!