Ironman UK was my second branded Ironman event (after Ironman Wales last year) and my second shot at the long-term goal of making it to the World Championship in Kona Hawaii. The course is one of the slowest on the Ironman circuit (although not as tough as Wales) with lumpy bike and run courses. I was racing with my Windmilers club friend Lee, who had agreed to take part after a few pints in the pub one evening.
My training had gone well, with really good consistency over the preceding 8 months. Based on my last 20 minute bike test, I had gained a few Watts on my FTP from last year. I had also been nibbling away at my running PBs throughout 2017.
Surprisingly, my swimming had also come good in the weeks leading up to the race. I had largely neglected swimming over the winter and spring (generally only swimming twice per week) until May. However, for the 2 months before Ironman UK, I had increased my swimming frequency to 3-4 times per week and started hitting some of my best ever times in training. 10 days before Ironman UK, I raced a 3k swim race in 42:25 (1:25/100m), only benefiting from drafting over the first 750m of that race. The signs were promising…
Swim (Time: 57:17 – 25th Fastest Overall Swim Time)
It was a 6am rolling swim start. I positioned myself around the 55-minute anticipated swim time marker as we lined up in preparation for entering Pennington Flash lake (knowing how many typically self-seed a little on the optimistic side).
We were soon in the water for the rolling swim start, and I was definitely overtaking others rather than being undertaken. The first lap of the swim was fairly uneventful and, following an Aussie exit run, we were back in the water for the second lap.
The second swim lap was much more dramatic; around a quarter of the way around the second lap I began to lap hundreds of slower swimmers who would swim a few strokes of front crawl before switching to breaststroke, accidentally kicking me in the face on several occasions. After the second swim lap, I exited the water (unknown to me at the time in 2nd place in my M30-34 age group) and had a fairly smooth swim-to-bike transition.
Bike (Time: 5:22:59 – 20th Fastest Overall Bike Time, 14th Fastest Amateur Bike Time)
The roads were wet from the overnight rain storms but fortunately there was only a little drizzle in the air as we started the cycle. I built up to my target power range fairly quickly and from then on concentrated on keeping fed and hydrated. Physically, I felt great, having done a full taper before the race. However I did feel tired (as in sleepy tired), likely because sleep hadn’t been as good as it might have been due to work commitments in the week preceding the race.
Much of the bike course had a lumpy elevation profile. There were two significant hill climbs which were each tackled twice (once on each lap of the cycle). These hills had the best support (apart for when I saw Lydia and my parents, obviously!).
The puddles and moisture on the roads started to dry up after a couple of hours. I did a decent job of building into the ride, tacking the loop around a minute quicker the second time around compared to the first lap.
The last hour of the cycle was tough as my legs started to feel weary. In the last 5k, I allowed my power to drop off a tad as I prepared for the second bike-to-run transition. I finished the ride with a normalised power of 242W (intensity factor = 0.71) and average power of 224W (variabiliy index therefore slightly high at 1.08). By the end of the bike, I was in 4th place in the M30-34 age group and only a second behind 3rd place (although again, I didn’t know this at the time).
Run (Time: 3:19:47 – 50th Fastest Overall Run Time, 41st Fastest Amateur Run Time)
I had what I initially thought to be a slick transition. However, having run around 10 metres out of the change tent, I then realised that my Garmin watch was missing from my wrist. Aarrgh, it was still in my transition bag! For a split second, I considered leaving my watch behind but wisely went back to collect it. This probably cost me 30-40 seconds in total, the annoyance played on my mind for a while.
Initially, my legs felt dreadful as I ran the short but steep climb out of transition. It was a relief when my watch indicated the first kilometer split as 4:30. Brilliant, I should allow myself to slow down a little! At 6km into the run, I needed another pee so stopped off at the next available portaloo to relieve myself. I must have been gushing for around a minute and once back running I quickly felt much better.
After 10km of the run and another short but very steep climb, I had reached the loop section of the run course. The loop comprised a single out-and-back road which ran from the suburbs of Bolton into the town centre with a constantly undulating elevation profile. I walked most feed stations in order to ensure that I took on some water and calories. By now, the weather had turned much warmer; the early morning rain was a distant memory and it was now a case of pouring water over myself to take the heat out of the afternoon sun.
Some sections of the run merely hurt. Other sections of the run were hellish agony. There were several occasions when I needed to have a word with myself to stop negative thoughts from prevailing. Around 25k into the run, my stomach began to turn and I was worried that I would need to stop at a portaloo. I wasn’t aware of my position relative to others in my age group and decided to bypass the loos as I didn’t want to risk loosing several vital minutes.
At 35-38k into the run, I had my darkest moments on the long uphill drag out of town. One kilometer was recorded as 5:29 on my Garmin as I needed to walk for a minute or so to pull myself together again. Finally, I was running the section of the loop back into the centre of Bolton for the last time and limply took up the pace slightly in the last kilometer to cross the finish line with a total race time of 9:48:00. It quickly became apparent how close the results would be; a Belgian guy in my age group crossed the line just ahead of me with exactly the same finishing time. Around 30 seconds after I finished, another chap (not in my age group) crossed the line in 9:47:59! I quickly found Lydia and my parents at the finish and we tried to work out my finishing position.
Post-race, I went for food and a massage. As with Ironman Wales, the post-race food was disappointing. The only hot food available was completely tasteless chilli con carne and a dry jacket potato. Alternatively there were orange slices or basic supermarket swiss roll cakes. It was nowhere near the level of facilities that are available after the Outlaw middle-distance and long-distance events and did nothing to dispel the feeling that Ironman over-prioritises financial profit.
I had come joint 4th in the M30-34 age group. Brian Fogarty had won the age group by a mile (well, many miles actually!) finishing in an incredible 9:02:54, beating all except for three of the professional athletes! I knew that Brian had also smashed Ironman Lanzarote in May and was fairly sure that he would’ve accepted a Kona slot in Lanzarote; if 4 slots were available in the M30-34 age group (as they were in 2016) then I would be going to Kona. If only 3 slots were available in the M30-34 age group, I wasn’t sure how the tie between the Belgian guy and me would be addressed!
Post Race (Finishing Time: 9:48:00, =23rd / 2,040 Entrants, 14th amateur and =4th in M30-34 AG)
Lee finished in a very impressive 12 hours 37 minutes. We met up back at our accommodation, had some pizza (very kindly picked up and cooked by Mum!) and then popped out to the “working mens’ club” around the corner for some pints.
The next day, we went to the awards ceremony. Finally, it was confirmed that I had a Kona World Championship slot. Mission accomplished, I’ve had a smile on my face all week since!
Qualifying for Kona at European races certainly isn’t getting any easier; the times required are faster than ever before. In-part this is due to the reduced number of slots available at each race (as Ironman have expanded, hosting more races in Asia). Another trend that I believe is happening is that competitive European athletes are travelling more to race, possibly to increase their chances of qualification. Looking through past results at both Ironman Wales and Ironman UK, the top places were generally taken by UK athletes. However, in the last year, the majority of qualification slots in the male 25-40 age groups have been taken by European athletes. The weaker pound sterling may also have made UK races more attractive to European athletes.