My first Ironman experience

Swim for 3.8km, bike for 180km then run a marathon: that’s an Ironman, or long distance, triathlon. When you tell a non-triathlete that you're embarking on such a challenge, the usual response is "you're mental!". What would possess someone to do such a thing?

The decision to ‘go long’ and train for Ironman for me was motivated by personal reasons. Last summer, after almost 14 years together, my husband decided to leave me. No warning, no rational discussion, no recourse. It felt like something that happened to me, not something I was able to affect.

Dealing with this was distressing, to say the least. There were difficult financial repercussions. There was obviously emotional turmoil dealing with the betrayal, anger and grief. But there were real and present physical effects to deal with: anxiety symptoms like difficulty breathing & chest pains were a regular occurrence for months, but I also had weeks with a level of pain where it felt like even my actual bones hurt.

This has altered my perceptions of what's difficult and what's important. Given that I was enjoying my recent training for shorter triathlons, the idea of pushing it further just didn't seem all that difficult. Far from being a crazy move, I think it was the most rational decision I could have made. The routine and physical demands forced me to look after my eating and sleeping. The sheer physicality of it all kept me in touch with how I was feeling. I had more free time than most (I am self-employed, but lost interest in work for a few months), I had no-one else at home for the training hours to effect and the commitment and hard work required appealed to me greatly. I didn’t just want to train for an Ironman, I needed to. I've always been fairly stubbornly enthusiastic about what I took on, but having my relationship, and what I thought was my future, taken away from me has made me really want to grab what I could in the present; to work hard at what I could control, and make a success of, for myself.

Fast forward 10 months of training after my first half ironman, finally, the big race of Ironman Switzerland was here...

Ironman week
After a good race strategy meeting with my coach on the Sunday evening, I felt calm and relatively confident about the race. I essentially just had to do what I'd been doing in training. My mind accepted this logic. My body rebelled. On Monday morning I woke up feeling nauseous and on the verge of vomiting. This lasted all day. I had a physio session, where my physio, himself an experienced country level Olympic distance triathlete, told me I had to calm down; that the nervous energy would exhaust me within days. He checks over my legs, where I've had some recent issues with my ITB on right and glutes on left. He advises that I won't cause long term damage if I run through the pain, that I can be assured will come on the run. He tells me, "remember however you do, what time you finish, whether you finish at all - this doesn't define who you are: you'll still be the same Keavy".

My body had calmed down. I got a spray tan and felt pretty good, looking forward to the race. A long sports massage session revealed some new problems in my left hamstring. He did some strength tests and asserted "oh! That's not good". More than a strain, less than an obvious tear. He can't work on the area as it would likely increase any bleeding or small tears. Ideal solution would be to rest for a few weeks. As that's not an option, I've to ice & compress the area during the remaining days. Compress it during the race. Ice it upon finishing. We'll deal with the repercussions afterwards.

Jo E, herself just completed Ironman Austria the week before, kindly drives me to airport and reminds me "there are only 3 things you can control: your nutrition, your pace and the thoughts inside your head".

I feel nervous and sick again throughout the day's travel, arriving in Zurich exhausted and shaky. Receiving support from friends on Twitter and Facebook really helped, with one top tip from an experienced Ironman athlete at home:

I decide enough is enough of this crap. I've worked too hard to have this ruined by feeling nervous. My mind needs to kick up a gear now and I debate with myself what exactly is the fear - not finishing? No, I will finish. Pain? Ah yes, it's just the unknown of how bad that will get on the run. Well how bad could it be?! I will still finish. That resolved, I start to feel calmer and happier.

Thursday & Friday
The remaining days go much smoother. Friends from the Glasgow tri clubs start to arrive, my official support buddy Morag arrives. I do a gentle 3hr bike along part of the course, a little open water swim, even a 30 min run: all good.

Upon registration I see an earlier glitch where I was listed as being from Finland, not Ireland, hasn't been changed in the race bib:

I found that quite amusing, and wonder will I pick up extra support from the very few Finnish names on the starting list. I look up the numbers, and Morag jokes that no matter when I place, I'll still be the first female Finnish woman in my age group, that no-one can ever take that away from me!

The race briefing is long and not particularly informative. It's so crowded that many of us have to stand, not ideal for legs that really want off their feet as much as possible. Afterwards, many of us are left with unanswered questions or slight confusion. People wondering, "Are we meant to put our transition kit in that blue bag? Will I get a penalty for getting naked in transition?!". I did hear there was a 16 hour time limit for the entire race, shorter than the typical 17, and cut off time of 4:45pm for the final leg of the bike.

Up at 6. Heading off to race start, to properly view and practice at the actual swim start. Found the Olympic distance race is on, access impossible. I was annoyed that I'd wasted the time and energy for a fruitless journey (also that it wasn't mentioned in the race briefing). I return to the hotel and lie in bed, eat-snooze-eat-snooze-eat for about 5 hours. Morag shops for more food, and prepares my sandwich for mid-bike. It feels slightly ridiculously lazy!

Late afternoon, time to go in and rack the bike. At transition, I'm in with a bunch of Irish women, and there's a warm sense of camaraderie and some funny chat about, being Irish, who's going to bring Barry's tea and Nice biscuits for transition the next day! The torrential rain has finally eased, the cheesy music is blaring and there is a definite Euro flair to the colourful lycra walking around!

A group of us go out to an Italian for dinner. I'm bothered by flies in the restaurant, super conscious that anything could still go wrong. You're really aware, despite all this training to become fit and strong, just how fragile your body is, especially in these last few days. There's a bunch of American athletes here already (out to dinner wearing their tri suits!!), it must be an OK choice. I order pasta with a basic tomato sauce. After a few mouthfuls I decide it just doesn't taste that nice and put it aside, order a margarita pizza instead. Return to the hotel and my stomach confirms it did not like dinner. Oh well, no big deal. Morag helps organise, check off and pack all my race kit. We paint my nails in an attempted Irish tricolour, for something amusing to look at on the bike, and chill out watching a movie before getting to sleep around midnight.

Sunday, Race day
Up at 4am. Force myself to eat 1 and a bit bowls of a pretty minging muesli. And a white roll, with banana and honey.
Stomach still a bit upset. I figure this is probably normal nerves and don't bother finding any medicine.
5am get on the coach and head off to transition.

Transition is tightly packed and more chaotic than I would have expected - we just have to dump our 'special needs' food in plastic boxes, no bags or label provided to identify your stuff in advance. Women can be heard saying, "don't worry, I'm really slow in the swim too". The men can be heard saying, "Yeah I'm really strong on the bike, and a pretty fast runner".

The swim
As we're all moving in lines towards the swim start, we realise that it's already 6:45 so there's no time for a swim warm up. Still in line, we hear the pros set off at 6:50. At the swim start, the beach is just a sprawling mess of athletes. There's no noticeable organisation, no noticeable areas for the planned separate women and men (or very brave women) starting areas. Remembering the women's start was meant to be on the left, I walk towards the very left of the crowd on the beach. Finally there is an announcement that oh, we'll be starting in one minute, just get into the water!! So much for the deep water start!

There's loud music blaring, crowds cheering, cow bells ringing out: the noise was immense. The sprawling mess of swimmers is easily 200m wide. I couldn't see the first buoy and it was impossible to tell from the wide crowd which was the correct direction to head in. I knew the direction was towards the sun, so I just headed that way. After a good while I finally caught sight of the first buoy and was annoyed to see it was several hundred metres to the right. Sighting is usually not a problem for me: at Vitruvian and Bala halfs I could have touched each buoy on the course. After the first turn, again I couldn't see the 2nd buoy and followed the general mass, constantly trying to sight a buoy and adjust course. Again I had to make a substantial adjustment to get on course.

Navigation problems aside, I was pleased with how I swam. I remained relaxed and just concentrated on my technique the whole time. Hands wide, lift that shoulder, catch the water, push it back. Over and over again. I felt good, I felt 6' tall as I glided along. The only good thing about the swimmers being so sprawled about was that I didn't get much of a battering at all. When I could spot someone getting too close I swam a few metres with one elbow out to protect my head and block any incoming blows. I did give a few pre-emptive kicks to guys who were veering towards me. Middle age men are the worst can't-swim-in-a-straight-line offenders.

My guts were churning on the 2nd swim lap, but I tried to put it out of my mind. I'll be out soon enough, deal with that then.

Two volunteers pulled me out at the finishing mat, and pulled down my wetsuit zip. I shouted thanks and shuffled off to T1.

I had already decided I couldn't care less about getting changed in public, the tiny change tent meant an extra walk and lost time. Getting a racer back sports bra onto a damp body proved tricky though! My supportive friends gave a good wolf whistle from behind the fence which gave me a laugh! Bike and rider ready, off I went...

I notice the time is around 8:50. Uh oh, that means my swim was really slow. I had expected to do around 1hr 30, possibly a bit under, but on the day it was 1:47. I was annoyed about my navigation and that I hadn't studied the swim course better in the preceding days. Even if the buoys weren't clear, if I'd had marked spots on the landscape at least that would have helped. Crap. That's been and gone, concentrate on the present...

I concentrated on getting my power up (I ride at around 110w, yes this is pretty feeble) and maintained that well for the first flat 30km around the lake. Just focused on my technique, thought about how my feet were moving, pushing and pulling with my legs. Simple and steady. At the 30km aid station I need to stop and use the toilet. I think surely my body will settle down now. I focus again on my power and my pedalling: I'm doing well, performance wise I feel good. I stick to my nutrition strategy like clockwork: half a gel every half hour, few glugs of 'Go' drink every 15 minutes, just like I've practiced a zillion times in training.

The course winds through several villages, and it was just amazing to see the amount of people out to support us. Brass and drum bands played at main villages, families stood ringing cow bells, everyone shouting "Hoppa! Hoppa! Hoppa!" or "Allez! Allez! Allez!". I cycled through it all with a big smile on face, lifting a hand occasionally to say thanks for the awesome support.

I saw a twisty downhill approach and prepared my head for a descent. At the first turn I remember laughing thinking "Is that all you've got?!", it didn't scare me at all. Lanzarote and Mallorca training trips really paid off!

The first big climb, 'The Beast', was a steady, in-the-saddle climb. Again the amount of supporters made it perfectly enjoyable to enjoy the atmosphere, be cheered on with the near constant "Hoppa! Hoppa! Hoppa!" and my favourite, a big sign that read "Dude! You look good!". On training rides I think over all kinds of things going on in my 'real' world, sing songs, daydream. It was pretty awesome to realise that I was completely focused on the race: this is what I've worked for for 10 months, I am here, I am racing. The mind was constantly just checking how the body was: doing a body scan to check for problems, sending messages on what to adjust; keeping an eye on the clock for when to eat & drink; keeping an eye on the power output and a feel for the intensity for when to pick it up or back off; checking if the breathing was relaxed and the mood was good. Checks complete the mind would say "you're doing good" and repeat.

Except, I wasn't 100% doing good. The stomach was still churning, cramps were getting uncomfortable, but I know there's another toilet stop at the 60km mark. I don't need any drinks or food from any aid stations, having already decided to control my own nutrition and carry 3 bottles, and have Morag hold 2 more. I had left a sandwich, a few more gels, chocolate and an extra drinks bottle in my 'special needs' food bag. As I pull in at the end of this aid station, I think I've just passed a table with a random collection of plastic bags about 20m back and ask a marshall "is that our food?". The language barrier causes some confusion and she offers "you want some food? A banana?". "No, that food, in the bags, is that the athletes' food?". Oh never mind, I need the toilet and head for the portaloo. When I get back to my bike, she helpfully is ready with 'bags of food, yes' in the form of powerbar gels. Thanks but no thanks given, I cycle off again.

There was a 15% descent back down towards the lake, momentum cut with a sharp right corner at the bottom, then another flat stretch around the lake, heading towards 'Heartbreak Hill'.

(Friends finish their preparations!)

This was pure Tour de France style, steep but short hill, spectators out in force, parting to let you through. I actually looked behind me thinking "am I blocking the path of a pro that they're cheering for?!", but no it was just for me. It was an absolute joy to cycle through, I was smiling the whole way, almost brought a tear to my eye! Morag was at the top and ran along beside me, shouting encouragement and swapped an empty for a full drinks bottle.

My time for the first 90km was 3:51. I was pleased enough with that, as I've been around 3:40 for 90km loops along my A77 or Loch Lomond training rides, with no hills and stops!

Lap 2 started and my stomach cramps got worse. In all my training I've never experienced any stomach problems, so I wasn't too sure what to do. I tried to just breathe deeply, talk down the discomfort. I couldn't take a breath down into my stomach, it just caught. I try standing up for a while, to see if stretching out of the tucked aero position helps me breath deeper and eases the cramps. I started struggling to keep my power up, sinking down to 90w on the first flat section. This is not good, I decided to start asking for help. At the first small aid station I stopped and asked a marshall if they had any tablets that would help. Confusion arose, bags were searched, marshals conferred, one thought there was something in a car and went off to look. I waited. And waited. She came back empty handed. Ugh, wasted time! I stopped at the main aid station at 120km, and I'm already 13 minutes down on this section from the 1st lap. I used the toilet and was delighted to spot an actual medical tent at this station. Bingo, they'd obviously have something, right? The med team conferred, searched drawers, bags, read instructions on what they thought might work. Offered me boxes of liquids to read to see if I thought they might help. Not knowing any German, I had no bloody clue, but suspected a liquid with a pipette didn't look anything like the Imodium tablet I probably needed. I declined, realising this is wasting too much time and I better just get on with the cycling.

By this stage on the 2nd lap there were few athletes still on the course. The marshals were relaxing and having water fights at several stations. There were few spectators left on the course. I'm feeling physically awful. I try to say "I feel good" out loud a few times, but remain unconvinced. Around the 130km mark I notice the time is 2:15 and remember the 4:45pm cut off rule. Horrified, I realise there are still climbs to go and I'm dangerously close to not making it and can barely control the tears starting. "Get a grip, there's still work to do" I tell myself and push on. The course winds it's way on, and at one turn the marshall doesn't signal anything, there are no signs, so I follow what seems like the natural turn. As I go down a fresh looking descent, my heart sinks and I realise I'm no longer on the race course. I pass another athlete who has obviously done the same. He starts cycling back up and returns to say that it's OK, there's a paramedic van going to lead us back around to join the course. The van and other cyclist are faster than me, and I struggle to keep them in sight. I have no phone and no money with me. I have visions of me having to knock on house doors to ask for directions. But I continue along the wrong roads, eventually catching up with the van. I later learn that the detour was a substantial extra U, mostly of an uphill drag, similar to 'The Beast' incline, back to rejoin the course.

(My bike leg)

I was really angry that it was possible to go off course, at a bloody Ironman race. It's becoming far too regular an occurrence for me to have the race support lose interest when it's only a few slow stragglers left on a course.

Back on 'The Beast' climb. There are no supporters left out to cheer me on. This time, it's much more of a struggle. Focussed still on turning the pedals. I notice the noise of a motorbike right behind me. Have I done something wrong? Obviously I'm not drafting, there's no-one else in sight! The noise of him trying to control a giant motorbike to drive really slowly right behind is really irritating, I wish he would piss off. Sadly I realise, he is here to stay now, I'm so slow I have a bloody motorbike escort.

The 2nd lap has been so disrupted, I don't stop at the next aid station, trying to pick up some momentum. I know there is a large aid station at 150km so plan to grab a last drink there. I no longer feel like I need the toilet, but the stomach pains are still present. As we approach the station, I see the data team unplug the timing mat, which annoys me thinking that now my friends in Glasgow won't be able to see my current status. Turn the corner and notice the aid station is completely packed away, just the spilled drinks on the road to mark the spot. So disheartening. I pull over anyway. The marshals stop packing and offer to fetch me a drink, I take a few sips of Coke and swap an empty bottle for a plain water. It's 4:15. They tell me I should have passed this station by 4 and I won't make the final bike cut off. I start to cry again and cycle off. Stop 20 metres away from them and ask my motorbike guy, "is that true? Can I still make it?". In a stern Swiss accent he says "You have taken too long to here." I let out a few more tears and try to catch my breath. I can't believe this is happening, this way. He tells me I can get picked up now by a car, or I can cycle back anyway. I'll cycle back, obviously! OK he says, "then I will keep you safe".

I decide to hammer it as best I can the final stretch. We passed two men, fellow stragglers, with their own motorbike escorts, who were idling their way back. Delighted, I overtook them and we sped along. Now that traffic and pedestrians were out on the roads, he blasted his horn to clear the way for me. It was a total thrill! Finally got to the road that passes T2, the bike cut off point, and a group of about 20 referees stood blocking the road signalling for me to stop. I know, I know. It was 4:50pm. They gave me a round of applause and I was escorted into T2. My escort said "5 minutes, that's tough". Indeed.

My referee escort racked my bike, helped me gather anything I needed from transition (erm, I dunno... nothing) and guided me round to the finisher's garden where I could have a shower, eat and collect my regular clothes. Bless him, he tries to make some chit chat, "So are you from Finland originally, you have an Irish accent now no?"

In the finisher's garden it was mostly the elite and top age group men, with about 5 top women who had finished already. All incredible athletes in peak physical condition. Everyone was walking around, rightly proud of the medal around their neck, waiting in line to pick up their finisher's t-shirt. I felt like I had a sign over my head: 'impostor'.

I sat outside the changing tent, a bit dazed and just wept. I texted my coach & my mum to let them know what had happened. I texted Morag who was probably waiting somewhere for me to pass by. I texted Jo E to let her and my tri club friends, who I knew would be following the live results, know that I was a DNF and there would be no run splits to follow. I let my physio and sports masseur, also eagerly awaiting my news, know the result. I sent my status to Twitter and Facebook, knowing others were keen to hear how I got on. Then I switched the phone off, not ready to hear any responses. As I sat by the changing tent, tears streaming down my face, my eyes caught this sight and I realised this is not so bad a place to end up after all...

I went into the food tent, ate two bowls of plain spaghetti, drank a beer. Finally picked myself up, had a shower, and rejoined my friends to watch the others finish.

David Lindsay first in at 10:32. Kay McWilliam stormed in at 11:48. David Wilson followed in at 12:02. Robert Heron at 12:04. No sign of Alan McGinlay, although we later learned he had real physical problems and something had broken where a rib meets the sternum, causing great pain for him to breathe. The pain had started during his swim, but amazingly he carried on through the bike, and through almost 3/4 of the run.

What next?
My immediate thought at the end was "get me another race, immediately". The pacing, the distance, the nutrition, the mindset... I know I can do all these. But the reality is, an ironman race takes a lot of investment. The races sell out fast, so most people enter and plan a year in advance. The cost of entrance fees, travel, accommodation and food all mounts up to a substantial outlay: I'd say Ironman Zurich cost me around £1,800. Ignoring the cost of kit, coaching, regular physio and sports massage in the 10 months prior. It's a big investment.

It's currently 24 hours since the race. I still feel upset and bitterly disappointed. But also quite re-motivated. As I've been told, if Ironman was easy it wouldn't be such an achievement to complete it. I'll take a lot of positive experience out of this race: I was pleased with my swim and bike technique, I followed the processes I was meant to, I thoroughly enjoyed the distinct experience of racing, not training, at an Ironman event. I still had a long training day, that didn't cause any muscular problems. I suspect I swam closer to 4.5km! I cycled 170km. And more importantly, this has helped see me through a really tough year.

While there are some parts of the race organisation I wasn't happy about, and I can accept the commiserations of friends who say there is a lot of luck involved on race day, really I think what happened to me was my responsibility. I will learn not to make the same mistakes again:

In the immediate few weeks, I will relax from training a bit, maybe tidy the bomb site that my home has become, and enjoy hanging out with my friends. But the benefit of not doing the run is my legs are in no worse state than before the race, so really I think I could get back to training shortly. In September, a group of us are going to France to cycle Mont Ventoux. Some brave souls are racing the Triathlon du Ventoux, a gruelling course. For now, I will concentrate on improving my cycling strength and speed. I don't want to be anywhere near the cut off time, next time. I am completely motivated and committed to getting fitter, faster and stronger.

Future Ironman races?
About 6 weeks ago, when Zurich was looming large, I took a notion that maybe one way to lessen the pressure of my first ironman was to sign up for another one. Well, two actually! The possible options seemed to be Mexico, France and Lanzarote. I conferred with Sian Tovey and Karen Glendinning, both having done several Ironman races. They thought it was a positive move to sign up for more, while the fitness levels were there and places available. They both advised those races were tough choices, with France maybe being not just hilly, but too technical a bike course for me, but at least if I enter I'd give myself the option.

I knew I'd be in the U.S. for work mid November, which made Ironman Cozumel, in Mexico, at the end of November seem a feasible travel option. I signed up.

Same night, Ironman Lanzarote (May 2011) was still open for registration, but would probably sell out within a day or two. What the hell, I signed up.

Blissfully ignoring the finances of how to get myself through them, there are several other obvious problems with these choices.
Firstly Cozumel:




I may decide to cancel my entry in one or both of these. I'm not remotely done with Ironman though. It was a really disappointing day, but it's hardly the end of the world. I love this sport, and definitely want to 'go long'. I love that it's so tough, that it requires so much more than practising three sports. That's a whole other story, but part of what, I think, makes it so beneficial to life and work in general.

I love the people who take part in triathlon, you couldn't hope to be part of a better sporting community.

Finally, a huge thank you to my tri club friends who sent the most wonderfully understanding and supportive text messages on Sunday night. Since I've switched back online, I've also read some lovely messages from friends on Twitter and Facebook. I feel slightly embarrassed about the fuss, but I greatly appreciate the support.