I’ve made no secret that my triathlon dream is to qualify for Kona. I like public goals. Stick it on a flagpole as your motivation. Anyhow, after getting so close last year I could hardly deny it’s the goal. The problem is that this is as binary as goals get. You either achieve it or you don’t. Simple.
In golf, the sport I spent my younger years obsessed by, there’s a phrase ‘there are no pictures on the scorecard’. A lucky 4 from someone that didn’t get near the fairway, thins one through the trees but somehow holes a long putt beats a 5 from someone that cracks a 300 yard drive, flushes a long iron to 8 feet then 3 putts. As a golfer I was the former – a mean short game meant I often beat people who hit the ball much further and better than me. I was really annoying to play against. My Ironman racing has seen the boot on the other foot. I have been the equivalent of the big hitter who gets into great positions but has the yips with the short stick. Ironmans’ South Africa and Bolton in 2013 saw me off the bike in great positions and run down out of the Kona slots. As great as a 9.30 in South Africa felt, the scorecard shows that I came back home without a Kona slot.
I waited a long time for another crack. I went back to South Africa in April. Then someone, let’s call them ‘The Dream Crusher’, on the flight deposited their bronchitis in my face. I started the race, and even came off the bike in 8th in AG but common sense prevailed and I found myself turning left to get pizza and ice cream at half way on the run while my friends duked it out in the heat.
Take 2 was Sweden in August. This time a stomach bug 3 days out meant I couldn’t get away from the bathroom long enough to even reach the start line. At 7am on race day as the gun went off I was on a train leaving Kalmar having collected my bike as transition opened at 5am.
Having laced silver across the palms of Nirvana Europe to get a late entry to Wales (4 weeks after Sweden) I found myself lining up on North Beach, Tenby for a last throw of the dice in a season that promised much but delivered little. 2nd at Windsor and 1st at Swashbuckler were signs that I was in decent shape, but I only truly measure myself by Ironman performance. I wanted to have the best race I could. Squeeze everything out of myself (not in the way I did at Sweden) and run the back half of the marathon strong. ‘Don’t be shit’. If I did that then Kona would take care of itself.
The stunning sunrise distracted us from the ‘challenging’ water conditions – 1.5m swell, wind, an incoming tide. As a decent swimmer it was fun – mainly as I knew that it would be horrific for the slower swimmers – but it was damned hard. 64 min was 8-9 min down for me, but as I don’t wear a watch (for exactly this reason) I wasn’t to know. It was slow for everyone. 13th in AG / 70th overall was about par.
Wales is arguably the hardest Ironman in the world – sea swim and a hilly marathon punctuated by a brutal bike course. 3,000m of climbing, stunning views, wind, incredible crowds lining the towns, in particular the climb out of Saundersfoot which was louder and more spine tingling for me than Solarberg in Roth. On the first lap I went through there with Tim Male, a friend from Thames Turbo, and we had grins like kids on Christmas morning. As a light guy, strong rider, and disciplined user of a powermeter on a course where people have a propensity to blow their legs off, the Wales course is perfect for me. Or at least it would have been. If my legs had bothered to turn up. It started well enough, settling in to my power target and letting a couple of groups go up the road, knowing that I’d see them all later as usual. But from about 50k onwards I kept having to revise my power down as the perceived effort and heart rate felt too high. This was foreign territory for me – I’ve never felt so weak on the bike. Unsurprisingly the chimp came out to play. ‘Why bother with Ironman?’ ‘Why don’t you stick at Olympic distance? You’re good at that’. ‘Sell the bike, go back to golf’.
I thought back to one of my favourite quotes…..
I felt like a fish trying to climbing a tree.
The chimp’s argument was valid – if I’ve underperformed in the marathon off fast bikes that felt easy, the marathon off this bike was likely to be a disaster. However, despite a few hours in the chimp’s company, I stuck to the plan – kept feeding him (sugar can shut the chimp down) and tempered down to a level that felt sustainable – I was just having a poor day and was 15-20 watts down on normal. Having said that, in the back of my mind there was a memory that Black Line London friends Deenzy and Mike have run into Kona slots after poor bikes. You never know.
Nico passed me like a train at about 140k – I think he saw I was in a mood so didn’t hang around. Then another friend, Dave Rowe, caught me at 150k. We ended up riding the last hilly section back to Tenby close to each other. The company and prospect of running with a friend perked me up. At the time my mindset was that it would most likely be a social 3.59 marathon to cap off a disappointing day
Our support crew told me I was 11th or 12th off the bike. After that ride I didn’t think I was capable of running into the 6 slots – and I don’t think they did either! But Dave was 20 seconds in front of me he so was a good rabbit to chase. Kona may have been out but why not sign off the season with a decent run? I stuck to the plan of jogging the first lap easy – ignoring the Garmin as the course was either up a steep hill or back down a steep hill. I was up to 10th after a lap and was encouraged by the gang that I was still in the race. I wasn’t convinced. But my legs felt alright, I was on about 5:10/km pace which wasn’t so bad on such a hilly course, the gap to Dave (who looked pretty good) was stable and whilst I heard that Nico was up in 2nd in his AG he was only a few minutes up the road, so maybe I wasn’t doing that badly?
As I came back into town on lap 2 at about 19k there was a seriousness in Deenzy’s voice when he shouted ‘ you ARE in this race, you’re looking great, 8th and 9th are close’. Christ, he might actually be telling the truth. If my mates had come all this way and I was indeed in the mix (I had absolutely no idea how) then I owed it to them and my coach to give it a go. In that instant my mindset changed, game face went on, and the chase started.
The first surprise was that when I went to push, my body responded immediately. It was on. Controlled aggression. Flirting with bonking. Eating, drinking, pushing. Saving a bit for lap 4. Past Dave then back into town at the end of lap 3. Position update – up to 9th but 8th is slowing. Their belief was infectious – now we all believed it was possible, most importantly me. I saw a mate, Rich Lewis, in town with 11k to go. He ran into the Kona slots here last year. His reaction sticks with me vividly… he just howled (he must have been on about 10 pints by that point) ‘they’ll crack, Paul. 6th to 8th could be walking… THEY ALWAYS CRACK!’
I emptied the tank on lap 4. I passed 8th near the bottom of the hill. Now the Garmin, which I was ignoring earlier, was a huge motivator. My average pace was improving every step and I was, unbelievably, negative splitting the marathon. This was the feeling that James, Nico and I have been talking about for months. I had no idea where 6th and 7th were. I kept thinking ‘funny things happen in the last 10k of an ironman. THEY ALWAYS CRACK (thanks Rich)!’ If 7th was getting ground down, I would find him. If 6th was walking, I would find him. In truth, I thought I probably had. I passed maybe half a dozen people on their last lap. No idea what age group they were in. Then at the final out and back with 2k to go, I noticed someone was closing in on me. He looked in his 30s. Now I was both hunter and hunted. Back into town for the final 2k, massive crowds, clipping curbs and corners, overtaking people on their last lap with surges that they wouldn’t bother to chase. As I hit the red carpet my pursuer was still there. Great. A ‘sprint’ finish after 10.5 hours. I held on by 5 seconds.
While I was ‘relaxing’ on the floor after crossing the line, my pursuer shook my hand and I saw M30-34 on his race number. Was that the 5 seconds that would be the difference? I had no idea. After how I felt for about 6 hours of that race where I had resigned myself to it being another bad day to cap the crap year, to finish like that was emotional (especially when Dave’s wife Sharon and our support crew were all there crying). The marathon was only 3.33 – not breaking any records. But in the context of a day where I had all but given up, the pros only ran 3.05-3.20s, a course with 500m of climbing, and a run where my final lap was my fastest, to be running 4:40s at the end of arguably the world’s hardest Ironman… well that was incredibly fun and I was proud to have overcome the chimp and ruined myself. To be looking ahead for scalps instead of looking over your shoulder. I turned a rubbish day into a good day and never gave up when I really, really wanted to. Knowing I can do this will be invaluable in future races and my ability to deal with whatever obstacles get thrown my way.
For whatever reason my bike legs weren’t there – it cost me 10 minutes compared to how I’d expect to ride – sounds like very little, but in the context of the race and my goals it’s huge. But I adapted the plan, stuck to the process and got to the finish line as fast as I could have gone with the cards I was dealt that day. I wasn’t shit.
I finished 8th in my AG and 32nd overall in 10:38, up from 45th off the bike. Sadly (for me) 6th and 7th didn’t crack after all. With 6 Kona slots it was always going to be touch and go. I heard on Sunday night that the guy in 2nd would not be taking his slot, so I went to the awards with hope and a credit card – but it wasn’t to be. Nobody else declined and I missed out by 1 place. Again.
I’ll finish with the words of Roger Barr, a good friend of mine. We’ve been united by a common goal and he gets it. He qualified in 6th place in his age group at Ironman UK this year and in his race report he wrote this, which nails it:
“The gap might be small but there’s an infinite gulf between 6th and 7th. The guy in 7th is frustrated, annoyed, regretful and faces at least 6 months of hard training before he can try again. His mind is full of “if onlys” and he sat there at the roll-down hoping for a slot to roll only to see all 6 snapped up in front of him. The disappointment of the day itself where he hurt himself harder than he hurt before compounded by a restless night’s sleep and then the huge disappointment of a roll-down ceremony where it didn’t happen. He has to explain to people that he didn’t get a slot. Over and over. After all that training. All those early morning sessions. All that sacrifice. I’ve been in his shoes and it hurts. He may never qualify. He feels like it’s his nemesis. The holy grail. Many of you reading this know the man in 7th because they’ve been there. Those same people have also qualified. I missed out in 2004 by 16s and it haunted me for years.
The guy in 6th has found inner peace, is on continuous high, wakes up and pinches himself, he thinks about it at least a few times every minute, has a trip of a lifetime ahead, will spend the rest of his life knowing he’s taken part in the Hawaii Ironman. The world’s most iconic endurance race. A race that most triathletes would love to do. Something he’s had dreams about as a grown man. It’s literally changed my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity, talent, luck, strength, understanding family that allowed me to achieve it.”
I’ve been that “guy in 7th” and missed out by a single place twice. Despite having friends around you, that slot ceremony where you miss out feels like the loneliest place on earth. I couldn’t be happier for friends new and old who got leis and podiums – Charlie, Dave, Howard, Tom, Duncan, Claire and, in particular, Nico who executed a perfectly controlled race for the first time – I’m convinced it’ll mark the breakthrough to some great Ironman racing in his future. My performance was up there with some of those guys – but the scorecard says no lei. The Ironman gods don’t do sentiment.
However, the desire to be that “guy in 6th” burns as bright as ever. I love this sport, I love the challenge and the mental and physical jigsaw, I love the people I share it with and even if I don’t ever make it, I don’t regret a single minute of trying. But I will get there.
A couple of thank yous:
Without the support and belief in me from the Black Line London guys at Wales I might have given up. I definitely wouldn’t have arrived at the finish line in the manner I did, utterly spent. More importantly, perhaps, without the wider Black Line London group and other training friends, I don’t think I would have made the start line. We’ve shared goals and hundreds of hours of training. They are some of my best friends, they have my back and we share adventures. Doing this sport alone is fine, but sharing it is what it’s all about.
Optima Racing Team – the passion and commitment that James leads with is shared by each and every member of the team. It has created a performance environment that is infectious. I joined Optima and James’ coaching late last year to get involved with a couple of key sessions each week to address my weaknesses and I’m delighted to be seeing the fruits of our labour. I can’t wait for next year.