It’s 04:30am on Sunday 13th September and my alarm has just gone off. Must be time for Challenge Weymouth!
Warning – this blog post is quite lengthy. You might want to get a cuppa before reading!
Bushy, Mike, Curry and I had traveled down to Weymouth on the Friday to register and collect our gear for the Sunday. Bushy, Mike and I were competing in the full event, with Curry competing in the half distance event. By way of a reminder, the full event was a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles on the bike then at 26.2 mile run. An Ironman triathlon that very few attempt. In Weymouth there would be 500 full distance athletes, and 700 taking part in the half.
Arriving at the Weymouth Pavilion to register on Friday Bushy and I were asked our first question of the weekend “are you doing the full or the half?” “Full”, we replied in unison. The guy smiled, said well done and advised us to go upstairs to register. I couldn’t help but notice that his smile was a rather wry one. Did he know something I didn’t?
|Weymouth bay from Pavilion balcony|
We soon had out timing chips, transition bags and complimentary Challenge Weymouth backpack and we were out on the balcony where we caught our first glimpse of the finish line. I must admit there was a lump in my throat. It was becoming very apparent that at this point there was no going back. I was going to compete in the ultimate endurance events. I had never felt less ready.
I was staying in a nearby village (massive thanks to Giles’ folks for the house) so I said goodbye to the others and went off to find the house I was staying in. We met up again later that evening for the pasta party. Put on by the organisers, this was an opportunity to eat as much pasta as you can stuff in, check out some of the other competitors and be introduced to a few of the pros who would also be competing.
|Pasta Party selfie|
In 2015, Challenge Weymouth was also doubling as the ETU Long Distance Championships, meaning that there would be athletes representing their countries at various age groups. There were also the usual elite amateurs and professional athletes competing at this Challenge event.
The pasta party was again in the Pavilion, and I think it is fair to say that the building could do with a bit of an update. I described the inside decor as being like “the worst wedding you have even been to.” You can see for yourself what you think from my lovely selfie I took.
Following some brief interviews with some of the better known pros, we stayed for a bit to listen to the strangest band I have every heard, eventually parting ways and agreeing to meet up again in the morning to rack our bikes and drop off our transition bags.
This was new territory to me. On Saturday we had to leave our bikes in transition, along with 2 bags. These are the bag to take you from swim to bike, then another bag for bike to run. My usual style is to do all of my preparation at the eleventh hour; however on this occasion I was forced to be organised and have all my stuff prepared to rack on Saturday.
Meeting up with the others on Saturday I had packed my bags and was confident everything was in place as I had double and triple checked. The bike was popped onto the rack, the bags put in place and then the rest of the afternoon was free to meet up with some of my gang of supporters and relax as much as possible ahead of the race on Sunday.
Relaxing with my wife in our accommodation the night before the race I was feeling good. As usual, I was convinced I had done nowhere near enough training. I am fairly sure that 99% of triathletes feel exactly the same way, especially before an Ironman race. Other than this niggling doubts about my training, I was extremely excited for the race and genuinely looking forward to it. My wife Cat had clearly gotten all the nerves that I should have had, as she was very worried about the race and mostly my welfare during the race. An Ironman is not to be taken lightly.
Waking up at 04:30am I felt sick. This was nerves and I knew it. Forcing down a cup of tea and a bagel we gathered the final bits and bobs I would need and headed down into Weymouth. Arriving in transition it was dark. I checked my bike to make sure the tyres hadn’t mysteriously deflated in the night, added some rice cakes into my transition bag for eating on the ride and then met up with Bushy, Mike and Curry. Soon it was time to put my wetsuit on and join the other athletes in the “holding pens”.
Before I did that I wanted to make sure I said hello to Rooke, Louise, Mr Palmer, Nicola and my Mum and Dad who had all come down to support. Dashing around at the last minute I managed to see them all and get a big hug from everybody. My wife had been with me all morning and she gave me a final hug and I was off with Bushy and Mike to await our turn to swim. Curry would go later on in the half distance race.
For some bizarre reason they were playing extremely ominous music at the start. The sort of music you would get if you were waiting for a ride at Alton Towers. It did little to calm my nerves, but luckily I was not really feeling that nervous. All the hard work was behind me. The 100’s of hours of training was done. All I had left to do now was 140.6 miles in less than 16 hours and I would be an official finisher. I would also be an Ironman. Just writing these words brings a grin to my face. Little did I know at the time what sort of journey I would have over the remainder of the day. At this point I was still unsure I would even finish. So much can go wrong and up to 10% of Ironman entrants can fail to finish on a bad day.
As usual with my triathlon races that have open water starts, I chose to keep to the back and the side during the first part of the swim. Positioning myself alongside Bushy and Mike I turned to both of them and had a final hug and words of good luck. The starting horn sounded and I waded into Weymouth Bay to start my swim.
When you are my level of fitness, the name of the game in Ironman is to take things nice and slow. I settled into my swimming beautifully and was glad I spent so much time training in the Solent over the summer. I got one elbow the ribs and kicked in the face as the bunch thinned out, but this was nothing to worry about and I felt relaxed and was swimming well. Overtaking quite a few people I was constantly telling myself to slow down; however I was not swimming particularly quickly and felt great as I slowly moved my way up through the pack. The swim was out for 700 metres, along the coast for 500 metres and then back to the beach to complete the first lap. There would be two laps to total 3.8km (2.4 miles). Rounding the first buoy I was swimming strong and feeling great. Round the second buoy I was on my first trip back towards the beach. 1200 metres swum, only 2600 metres to go.
Arriving at the beach I stumbled out of the water only to hear a shout of “Snooky!” Bushy has swum his first lap at almost exactly the same speed as me and as we made our way along the beach to start the second lap we exchanged some words. We were both so pleased to be one lap done and started on our Ironman journey. Into the water for the second lap, I was presented with considerably larger waves on the way out. The weather was closing in and the swimming was becoming much more challenging. Never the less I swam on. Round the first buoy, underneath me I saw an absolute whopper of a jellyfish. It was about 10 feet below me, but the crystal clear water of Weymouth Bay meant I could see it in all its glory. Hoping not to bump into one of these beauties, I swam on through the choppy conditions.
Round the final buoy and back towards the shore I felt my left calf start to cramp. This is standard for me during long swims. I almost always get calf cramp. I tried my best to keep breathing and not to tense up and managed (by swimming more slowly) to get to the shore without the calf properly cramping. As I climbed onto the stony beach I saw my wife and the support crew shouting and hollering at me. It was great to see them and I gave them my biggest smile as I made my way up the beach and across the road into transition.
Into transition, I grabbed my T1 bag and made my way into the changing tent. Presented with all manor or semi naked men, I spotted a clear changing bench near the exit of the tent and made my way towards it. Once again I head a shout of “Snooky”. Turning in the direction of the shout I saw Bushy, one leg raised onto the bench towelling himself dry, as naked as the day he was born. Now Bushy is called Bushy because of his extremely hairy nature. Not a single inch of his body is hair free. Seeing him in all his hairy glory was hardly what I needed; however I took a spot on the next bench and started chatting to him about what was to come. 112 miles of cycling. I couldn’t wait.
|Past my support crew|
Changing into my cycling gear we were on our way to grab our bikes. Bikes collected we were soon out of transition and off on the bike leg.
There are strict “anti-drafting” rules in place at most triathlons, so I settled into my riding with Bushy about 15 metres in front of me so I could not be accused of any cheating. Once again, the name of the game was to take it very very slowly. There was a long way to ride and Ironman competitions are full of stories of people going too fast on the first part of the bike leg and suffering for it later on. All I had to do was eat and drink on schedule and keep the pedals turning round. At some point into the first lap (around 20km in I think) I overtook Bushy going up a hill. He hates hills so this was not a surprise.
Onwards on the first lap of the bike course every time I needed to stop for a wee, or went through an aide station to top up my drink Bushy was behind me. I later found out that his entire tactic on the bike leg was just to keep me in view and he knew he would be doing OK. We had a target time for the bike leg of less than 8 hours. Having completed the swim in 1.5 hours, this would leave us 6 hours for the marathon (when you allow time for transiton).
|Awesome banner my wife had made|
100’s of speedier riders were flying past me but I didn’t care. This was my race and I was racing it on my terms. It was not a case of finishing fast, just a case of finishing. Ironman is tough and must be respected. There was nothing to be gained by riding quickly and then being unable to finish the race. At the end of the first lap (90km, or 56 miles if you prefer) I was feeling strong and gave a huge smile to my wife and others as I turned the cone near transition to start the second lap.
There were a lot fewer riders on the second lap. Most of the full distance athletes were ahead of me. Also all athletes who were competing in the half Ironman had gotten off their bikes after one lap to start their running, so the course was nice and empty. Soon after starting our second lap Bushy rode up alongside me and we started chatting. There was no risk of being in trouble for drafting with us riding side-by-side, plus I don’t think that anybody really cared about us as we were so far towards the back. As we rode on chatting I was loving my Ironman bike ride. I was riding in beautiful scenery with one of my best mates by my side and best of all, I was competing in an Ironman. I felt superb.
Mostly this was down to me getting my eating and drinking regime just right. I knew how much food I could tolerate from all my practice rides and just meant sure to keep on eating on schedule. A rice cake ever 30 minutes, followed by a gel every other 30 minutes. 1 bottle of drink per hour to wash it all down. Plus we both had our secret weapon, a couple of brioche each. These are delicious when you get fed up of gels and rice cakes.
Bushy and I also started to overtake a few people as we approached the 80 mile mark. Clearly our “slow at the start” tactic was working and some of our fellow athletes were struggling. On and on we cycled. We discussed that at the pace we were going at we were looking at around 7.5 hours on the bike. Not bad at all. At around the 100 mile mark I could sense that Bushy was starting to struggle. We had been cycling for over 6.5 hours and had a long uphill drag to go before a quick descent into Weymouth. Keeping my pace going, I knew he would stick behind me and not let me get too far into the distance. He is a competitive sod and wouldn’t let me get away that easily.
I too was starting to struggle a bit, but I knew that I was almost there on the bike. 100 miles done. 12 to go. Seems amazing even writing this now, but I was really feeling OK. Up the final drag and then a quick downhill into Weymouth we were then riding the final straight along the bay into transition. We could see all the runners plodding along the seafront and would soon be joining them. Little did I know how tough this run would be.
Into transition we grabbed our T2 bags and then back into the changing tent. Unfortunately it had been raining a bit and when I got my running gear out of my bag it was all soaking wet. Putting on wet gear is never the nicest. I must admit I was not happy with the organisers for leaving everybody’s gear outside in the rain to just get wet. Surely they would have a contingency planned for rain. We were competing in England after all.
|These were well earned|
Anyway despite me grumbling about this, Bushy and I were soon out of transition and running together on our first of 4 laps. The plan was to collect an armband at the start of lap 1. Once you had collected all 4 armbands you only had that remaining lap and you were done and would forever be an Ironman. This sounds simple enough, except that the distance we had to cover was a full marathon and we had both already been exercising for over 9 hours. Marathons are hard when you are fresh. They are even harder when you have just finished a 2.4 mile swim and an 112 mile bike ride.
Needing to be factored into this was the weather. It was incredibly overcast, very very windy and only looked like getting worse. As the wind whipped up it blew sand into our faces as we ran down the shore. At this point we hadn’t even collected our first armband. How ever were we going to get this run done?
The support was excellent as we slowly jogged on, stopping at each feed station for a drink, some crisps, flat coke (nectar to a triathlete) or an energy gel. I was struggling to stomach anything but knew how important it was to stay hydrated. The marathon stage of an Ironman is where I was most likely to fail. Running is not my strength. I had suffered crippling cramp when I ran at Brighton Marathon in April and that wasn’t that long ago. What was going to happen?
|I think we have one armband on here.
Must be end of lap 2
We managed our first couple of laps with no major incidents and soon had two armbands. We were approximately half way done and then the weather turned on us. Severely turned on us. The wind remained, but it started to rain…….HARD. Quickly I was soaked through, having put on only a running vest to run in. The running conditions were awful and we had at least 2 hours of running still to do, if not more. Pushing ourselves through we got our third armband and were back along the shore into a hurricane on our next lap.
At this point Bushy really started to struggle. His head was down and his pace slowed hugely. We had been running non stop, so I suggested we started to adopt a walk/run strategy, walking for a bit to help recover and feel a bit better. This was working OK, but Bushy was still in big trouble. Remarkably I felt OK and he told me to push on so he could chase me. Once again his competitive nature meant he would not let me go so I pushed on, regularly calling back to him to make sure he was still with me. We had been side-by-side since the second lap of the bike race and there was no way I was going to leave him behind now. It was dark, raining like a monsoon, windy as you can imagine and we needed each other more than ever.
|Between lap 3 and 4.
Bushy starting to struggle at this point
As is the way with endurance racing, Bushy had hit “the wall”. This is notorious amongst distance athletes and all you need to do is push through it. Once you get to the other side you start to feel better and get a “second wind”. I knew if Bushy just kept going he would be OK, and sure enough he was. It was around this point that we worked out we had 10km to go and more than 2.5 hours left before the race cut off. I knew that we could run 10k in 2.5 hours. I just knew it. A huge rush of euphoria hit me as I started to genuinely believe I would complete the race.
Sadly it was not much longer until I no longer felt this way. My main issue was that I was freezing. The wind and rain had not let up for hours and I was in a running vest and shorts. Luckily we were on our final lap with only 6km to go; however I felt absolutely awful. I couldn’t stop shaking and I was more cold than I had ever felt before. Chatting to Bushy, I said to him how I had read stories of people getting this close on and Ironman and then failing. Being unable to make the final few kilometres no matter how hard they pushed. I was terrified this would be me.
|Start of the final lap|
Luckily for me, Bushy was there to spur me on. He reminded me of how far I had come and why I was there. Thinking about my supporters and all of the families that Chestnut Tree House support I gave myself a good talking to, sucked it up and started running again. I had come too far, trained too hard. No way was I quitting.
I owed it to my wife, my family, Steve and Lou and every single person who had sponsored me to get this race done. Even if I had to crawl I would get through this next 6km and finish.
We plodded on, walking for a bit then running for a bit. With about 3km left we just ran. Not fast, but we kept running. As we rounded the final point and had only 400 metres to the finish, we started to get a bit emotional. We had done it. We would finish. Bushy and I both had a tear in our eye but as he quite rightly said “man up Snooky, we can’t go over the line crying, we are Ironmen”.
I couldn’t have done it without him and told him so. He felt exactly the same way. We were so lucky to be similarly matched in fitness so we could bike the second lap and run the whole marathon together. Who knows what might have happened if we had to go it alone.
|And across the line we go.|
Through into the finishing chute and the music started blaring. I was going mental, shouting at the top of my lungs, hands in the air. We had done it. 140.6 miles (or 226km) of effort. 15 hours and 15 minutes. We were, and will always be known as Ironmen.
|The best hug EVER|
|L-R Mike, Bushy, Me, Curry|
Collecting our medals it was straight over to say hello to and most importantly give massive hugs to our family and friends. I saw my wife and simply said to her “What a thing” as I leant forward for the best hug of my entire life. The emotion I felt was like nothing I had ever experienced before or since. Utter relief combined with a huge sense of accomplishment. I was so pleased to see her, my parents and my friends. Our friend Mike had already finished quite a bit before (he is a fit old chap) and we posed for a group photo along with Curry who had done the half earlier that day too.
Challenge Weymouth was complete. Soon I was to be told that I had also hit my fundraising target. I was overjoyed. Not only was I an Ironman, but I had raised enough money to pay for a days care at Chestnut Tree House. Phenomenal.
As this blog post has become rather lengthy, I will spare you all the details of how I felt afterwards and how long it took me to warm up (but it was quite a while). What I would like to do is say huge thanks to some very special people who came down on the day to support.
To my Grazing Saddles buddies, their relevant WAGs, Palmer and Nicola, huge thanks for being there on the day to support me. It meant so much.
To my parents, thank you for braving the freezing cold conditions to support your son. Next time I will make sure to compete somewhere a bit warmer!
To Louise and Steve. From the bottom of my heart thank you for letting me compete in honour of your lovely daughter Amber. I hope that what I achieved in her memory lives long in yours. She may be gone but never forgotten. I shall continue to fundraise for her until I can no longer do so.
Bushy, what can I say to you. We trained together, spent endless hours debating eating strategies and racing strategies. It was an absolute pleasure to have you by my side during the event and I really do hope that perhaps we can do it again one day.
Finally, the biggest thanks and eternal love to my beautiful wife Cat. You suffered through my endless training, looking after our two girls on your own whilst I was cycling or swimming or running for hours on end. You put up with me talking incessantly about triathlon. You didn’t complain when I spent a fortune on triathlon gear. You were there to reassure me when I felt low and didn’t think I would ever be fit enough to become an Ironman. The biggest thing of all, you suffered emotionally more than I can imagine whilst I was out there on the course. The race was harder for you than it was for me. I am eternally grateful for the support that you gave me, for you allowing me to complete this huge challenge. I love you millions and trillions.
That’s it folks, the story of Challenge Weymouth. Sorry it has taken me so long to post this. Hope you have enjoyed the read.
Many people have asked me what’s next. Well keep your eyes on the blog for my future plans.
Finally there is a video on YouTube of Bushy and I crossing the line. The look on my face when I hug my wife perfectly sums up what becoming an Ironman is all about. If you are reading this and thinking of doing it yourself, my advice would be to get one booked and get out training. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Never to be forgotten.
Click play to see us crossing the line. Thanks to Neil for the video.