After 4 successful Ironman races I was beginning to feel reasonably relaxed about the build up to Ironman UK, 2016. Registration was no hassle and apart from a bit of traffic around T1 for bike racking I got back to race briefing at Bolton Wanderers’ stadium in a pretty calm state. This would be my first Ironman UK wearing my club colours and with 28 other COLTs competing I wasn’t going to be short of company out on the course. At briefing I bumped into Jenny Evans, Chris Wild, Annette Quarry and Kel Evans all COLTs and all seemed very positive about the prospects for Sunday. With the pre race rituals now complete I headed?off to the Premier Inn at Chorley where Billy Winn had booked us a room. This would be Billy’s first Ironman, but he is as strong as an ox and I was confident he would get to the finish line. I wasn’t to be dissappointed.
I actually got a reasonable pre race sleep for the first time – Ironman obviously holds no fears for me anymore! But that didn’t stop the alarm going off at 3:15am?to enable us to get our breakfast down (croissants, jam and coffee is my personal preference on race day). With that we headed for Bolton to catch the bus down to Pennington Flash for the swim. Transition was the usual hubbub of quite and purposeful activity as everyone checked their bikes, queued for the loos and put wetsuits on. I maintain that triathlon is the only sport where you can stand around semi nude in public and smear lubricant on yourself without getting arrested. I bumped into yet more COLTs in the shape of Karl Wakeman and Chris Horner and wished them luck before joining the long funnel of athletes queuing for the swim. Optimistically I stood in the 1hr 30 section hoping that my altogether dismal swim form would improve on race day. Alongside me were Sarah Patterson and Sarah Jane Holden. It’s fair to say at this point in the proceedings as we funnelled down to the swim start we were fairly giddy kippers.
It turned out I was a bit optimistic but at 1:40:16 it wasn’t as bad as it could have been (my swim at Bala Half Ironman in June was 57:49 and a real blow to my confidence, repeat that on race day and I would be looking at close to 2 hours!). My first lap was 48 minutes and I felt fairly strong, but as I got out of the water to loop back for the 2nd lap I was shocked to see the svelte frame of John Hodkinson, one of COLT’s best swimmers, jogging into transition to start the bike! He had already finished the swim and I had another lap to go!. The second lap at 52 minutes was a bit slower, but again, I felt fairly comfortable and the overall time of 1:40:16 was probably as good as I could hope for given the state of my swimming this year.
On to the bike…
If there was any chance of beating my Ironman PB from Regensburg in 2011 it would be from putting in a solid bike split backed up by my fastest Ironman marathon, quite a tall order. Nevertheless I started strongly. The race route winds its way up through the lanes from Pennington Flash to Horwich, all uphill, nothing steep, but I was powering my way along quite nicely and organising my nutrition and hydration as I went. The first checkpoint was on Babylon Lane, or, more correctly, COLT Alley. It is here that the non racing members of COLT gather to cheer on their club mates, and everyone else. It’s fair to say that COLT Alley has attained legendary status at Ironman UK and I was looking forward to my first time up in COLT kit. I wasn’t disappointed. I was met with a wall of noise and bouncing people with just a narrow tunnel to cycle up. Picking out faces was almost impossible and before I knew it I was halfway up the hill in way too high a gear, I just hadn’t noticed as I floated up! There would be two more ascents of Babylon Lane before the finish.
The next appointment was Sheep House Lane, the marquee climb of the bike course. To be fair, it’s not that tough, just long with a steeper section at the top. I took it really steadily as I knew that to charge up it this early in the race would burn too many matches that I would need to save for later. Kudos to the nutters in the Power Ranger outfits and their dodgy disco sounds and even dodgier dance moves at the top. They raised a smile, and they would still be dancing 3 hours later when I went by again. This race has certainly come on since the first time I did it. Back in 2009 none of the pubs around the course were open. Now they had ice cream vans, sound systems, breakfasts, bouncy castles and crowds. Instead of moaning about road closures, the locals are making it a grand day out. Meanwhile, after the descent from Sheep House I was battling with fierce crosswinds on the exposed section north to Wheelton. This would soon turn to a strong headwind as the course turned westward through Chorley and out to Croston. This was not good news for fast bike times. I still felt really good though, and set personal best after personal best on Strava segment times before coming to the bottom of the second major obstacle on the course, Hunters Hill. Although much shorter than Sheep House, it’s steeper and I think more difficult, especially on the 2nd lap where you tackle it after almost 100 miles. Here the crowds, whacky costumes and sound systems were out in force yet again, urging us on. It was a massive help!
Loop 1 was completed in 2 hrs 46 mins, comfortably a personal best, and in truth, a little too hot a pace. I was concerned that if I carried on pushing this hard into the wind I would leave nothing left for the run. I backed off a bit, but not before I whizzed up COLT Alley for a second time, which was even madder than the first – the crowd had swelled considerably. Going up Sheep House I could see Billy Winn just ahead of me. He looked in great form and was storming up the climb. I caught him on the cross wind section before he took me again on Hunters. I also passed Simon Vaukins who was going through a bad patch at the time and was struggling up the climb to Brindle. I needn’t have worried though as he obviously recovered to finish strongly. Despite my more conservative approach to lap 2 my legs were feeling very tired by the time I hit Hunters and I had a real struggle getting over it. But once out of the way I could put the hammer down and head for COLT Alley one last time before rolling down the long straight road to Horwich and the Macron Stadium before starting the run. I clocked 6:58:42 on the bike which considering the very windy conditions wasn’t at all bad. I’d also overtaken 62 people in my age group and had moved in to the top 100 so, although I’d hoped for a 6:45 split (which on a calmer day might well have been entirely achievable) I think my time was a decent one.
The weather was improving all the time and by the time I struck out on the run the sun was blazing. I was pleased that I had kept up good nutrition and hydration throughout the bike leg (SIS gels and Etixx energy bars, with acouple of Etixx caffeine gels thrown in) because the run course was a really tough proposition in hot conditions. My strategy was simple: run between feed stops, walk the feed stops to ensure I got hydrated (water and flat Pepsi) and food (bananas and salted tortilla chips) and walk the hills of which there were many. I was running strongly and reached the halfway mark in about 2 hours. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sustain this pace for the second half and I was going through my first really bad patch of the whole race at the start of the second lap of 3. I was perhaps being a bit too efficient in taking on water and food and was feeling a bit queasy. I walked quite a bit further on the climb out of the town centre than I had on previous laps, but words of encouragement from my family, and lots of COLTs on the sidelines kept me going and I picked up my stride again. I could see plenty of people struggling in the heat, but Billy wasn’t one of them. Every time I saw him passing by on the laps he was running strongly. Others, like Jenny Evans and Karl Wakeman looked like they were having a really tough day out (both finished with great times – Jenny was 7th in her age group!). Meanwhile, I was still running the downhill sections and flats quite strongly. I’d never gone this deep into an Ironman Marathon still running before and if I could hold it together on the last lap I would be under 5 hours for the first time. Once I made the turn at the top of the course I abandoned food at the feed stops and just took on water and Pepsi for the long downhill to the finish. I crossed the line in 13:54:48, my best time out of 3 attempts at Ironman UK and smashed my run pb by 27 minutes.
Once I acquired my medal I headed for the athlete recovery area. This is the one aspect of the race organisation at Ironman UK that needs improving, in my opinion. The food choice was very limited, fruit, cake and tortilla chips. They had run out of pizza and were sending out for more. I’d like to have seen hot soup on offer at least. I find that my stomach is in a really delicate state after an Ironman and soup is the one thing that really appeals. I couldn’t eat the pizza, forced down some fruit and a cup of sweet tea before going out to meet the family. Kirsty and the kids (and dogs) had been out on the course all day cheering everyone on and were pleased to see me back in one piece, but were equally keen to get home (as I write this, the dogs are snoring contentedly at my feet). I headed back to the Macron Stadium with Hannah to pick up my bike and it was here that I had my usual post race wobble. Luckily, one of the team spotted me shivering and handed me a recovery blanket. We stopped at Rivington services for Hannah to pop out and get me a tin of Heinz chicken soup and got home at 10:45pm. A very satisfying day out.
All the COLTs mentioned in this blog finished:
Chris Wild 11:00:16
Chris Horner 11:46:45
Jenny Evans 12:13:11
Karl Wakeman 13:12:15
Kel Evans 13:32:16
Billy Winn 13:42:10
Simon Vaukins 14:10:27
Annette Quarry 14:41:08
Sarah Jane Holden 14:52:45
John Hodkinson 15:21:54
Sarah Patterson 16:31:49
Full results can be found on the Ironman website here.
Pictures courtesy of Jamie Quarry,