Icarus Takes Flight In The Bolton Skies

Paul Burton & Troy Squires - Bolton finish line

Being run out of a Kona slot in the last 5k of the marathon at South Africa in April is the preamble here. It stings a bit (actually, a lot). I got fit again over the summer and training suggested I was in good shape, so I was hoping to be in the mix after the bike again and that the run and strength work I’ve done since South Africa would make the difference this time. The start list looked more competitive than last year, where 10.21 got the last Kona slot in my AG, but a solid race should see me take one of the 6 slots. I thought sub-10 would be the minimum needed, but 9.50 is where I really needed to be and that was something I was perfectly capable of.

Swim

My swim really came together over the summer, and I was expecting to go about 56 minutes. Conditions were perfect with none of the chop of the previous day, and a significantly more chilled out bunch of competitors compared to the physical affair in Port Elizabeth in April. I never really found any feet I liked, but felt strong and relaxed so was happy going solo. Seeing 55 and change on the clock (maybe a bit short?) was a good start – 8th in AG and 44th overall, feeling fresh as a daisy.

Bike

I felt good from the off. The heart rate came down quickly from the rush of T2 and I set to work at my power target. The course was empty so it was clear I’d had a good swim, especially when I passed George Dunn (a Kona potential guy in my AG and strong swimmer) pretty early on. Also I didn’t pass Troy (who’s in my AG – not as strong on the bike but a better swimmer and similar runner), which suggested he was behind me from the swim – first time I’ve managed that.

Also to plan was being caught by Graeme Buscke, at 30k. Whilst a rival in my AG, he’s a friend and similar strength on the bike. We were expecting to be pretty close at some point and had discussed working together if we both felt it right at the time. We swapped around every 5-10 minutes with the other dropping back 15-20m, and set about a Pac Man routine. A couple of other guys got stuck in, but none hung about for long – other than Tom Babbington, a fellow Londoner in our AG, who promptly took off at a pace I didn’t fancy. At 150k we caught a Swedish guy called Marcus (the guy to beat from my homework), and soon after Tom came back at us as I thought he might given his earlier heroics, so it seemed we were at the head of things. I eased off a bit and span the legs out ready for the marathon. Graeme pushed on up the road but I was relaxed – there were six slots, not one. My stomach felt fine, which was a relief after an ‘experimental’ strategy for Ironman 70.3 UK left me in the bushes the entire run. Which is suboptimal, it turns out.

One thing I must mention is how uplifting it is to see friendly faces supporting on the long and lonely bike course. Amongst those were my girlfriend, Nico’s wife, my parents and aunt & uncle. They had a military precision plan to see us a number of times – which worked as I saw them screaming their heads off and jumping around like loons five times on the bike. Massive thanks to all of you – it makes such a difference.

I rolled into T2 with a split of 5.19 and was greeted by Freespeed’s Sam Baxter seemingly very excited about my position (I suspect he still had some alcohol running through his blood as he had been tweeting people at 4am at the end of his Saturday night). The helpers in T2 confirmed I was the third age grouper at that point, and Graeme and the other were only one minute up the road. The plan had worked a treat – plus I didn’t feel I had pushed particularly hard and the power data was spot on target. Ride for show, run for dough though – time to test my hard earned run fitness…

Run

Sometimes you get off the bike in an Ironman ruing your bike pace and knowing a long day lies ahead. Others you get off and feel great. Today was the latter. Graeme’s girlfriend confirmed we were 1st and 2nd in the AG. I did the maths – a 3.30 marathon (the pace from my last 2 Ironmans) would be 9.50. A low-3.20, as I was hoping to run, would be plenty. 7 hours in, my day could not be going better.

That didn’t last all that long. Not for anything I did but there were a number of guys close behind (the first 7 in my AG reached T2 within 5 mins of each other), and most ran the first 10k like they stole something. By the time I reached the main loop at 10k, 3 had overtaken me, and all were in my AG (including Marcus and Tom). By 21k I was still feeling fine but another 2 in my AG had caught. Hang about, this wasn’t fair or in the plan! I was 8th age grouper overall on the course and 7th in my AG. The cheek of it!

I covered the first half of the run in 1.43 – not far off plan – and as hoped the early pace of my rivals was beginning to pay, and they had all slowed down to my pace. In fact 2nd through to 7th were all within 5 minutes at halfway. Seeing friends that were also hoping for slots (Troy, Nico, Dave Rowe, Jon Heasman etc) all 15-20 mins behind also gave me a boost – I was feeling good and was in the mix. For some reason none of them were (or so I thought…)

So I got over the early disappointment of falling behind in the race and was ready to pounce if any blew up. Game on and time to suffer.

As hoped, 1 of the top 7 did explode. Great news. Unfortunately it was me. Not so great.

Things got tough at 25k – just a phase I thought, and Tom in 5th and the guy in 6th were still close and not actually getting away from me.  Then at 27k my heart rate plummeted, hands went numb and my pace slowed. Interesting. I’ve not had these symptoms in an Ironman before. I diagnosed low calories, as my legs felt fine. Time to refuel aggressively…  but it went from bad to worse. I’d only brought enough gels on the run to get me to halfway, and I was relying on coke at aid stations beyond that. Having just gone through the aid station coming out of Bolton I had 3k up a hill to the only other aid station at the far turnaround point at 30k. During that harrowing time my pace bled and everyone was getting away from me. It was slashing down with rain, which I hadn’t noticed before. Pretty miserable, truth be told.

I eventually got to the aid station, knocked back as many cokes as I could get my hands on then started running again. Except I couldn’t – I felt I was going to pass out. Whoa. This felt like my first marathon in New York in 2005 all over again, except worse. I walked for 100m and tried again. Nope, not happening – running would have seen me on the floor. So I started walking and, frankly, gave up on trying to rescue a decent time out of the ashes of my explosion. If it wasn’t Kona then I was not burying myself to try and get a 9.59 or a 10.05 or whatever. The head was gone. My support crew looked gutted when they finally saw me trudging down the hill. A couple of hugs, and all I wanted was for the ground to swallow me up. ‘You know you don’t have to do this’ came from a (rather concerned looking) Mum, but I think we all knew that, well, really I did. Whilst I had given up on the race, a DNF – with them haring round Lancashire cheering me on all day – just wasn’t cricket. The remainder of the ‘race’ went from miserable, to ‘run 1 min, walk 1 min’ with a Danish guy who was on his first lap (he had a loooong evening in the rain ahead of him), to eating a world record number of crackers, to discovering, oddly, that my legs were now working again. I started to run before seeing that Troy was a couple of minutes behind at the final turnaround. I waited for him to catch up, we lamented our disastrous days, then jogged down the hill to a bromantic finish chute celebration. That last 15 mins with Troy rescued my day as it was great fun. We’d both laid it on the line and come up short, but we finished together. 35 minutes behind where we needed to be, but the pain was over and we had smiles on our faces. There are bigger problems in life than an Ironman gone wrong (although in the midst of it going wrong, it doesn’t feel like it).

The post mortem suggests a combination of bike pacing and insufficient run fuelling were to blame. The latter is my own fault, as whilst the aid stations were pitifully far apart (3k gap is a lifetime in an Ironman), in the fog of a race I didn’t notice and double up to account for this. Lesson learned for next time. The former is also something I am learning about and keep having to adapt around. By no ‘standard’ metric of power or perceived effort was that ride too hard, but I clearly need to change my race preparation or execution because, frankly, I’m a strong runner and it’s time to show that in an Ironman.

Having said that, as someone who likes to flex his biking muscles I’m delighted that the Kona slots in my AG went to the 6 guys other than me that gave it some horns on the bike. They all went 5.11-5.20, and whilst everyone’s marathons may have suffered as a result, the guys that rode conservatively failed to catch any (other than little old me). Lieto, Vanhoenacker and Keinle would be proud. I’m particularly pleased that Graeme hung on for the AG win by 10 secs from the Swede. After a number of poorly executed Ironmans, he finally nailed one. As I felt during the race my AG was indeed pretty fast compared to the others. The 6 slots went down to 9.50, whereas the other youngish AGs went down to 10.15. The curse of M30-34 for me in 2013.

Given that, it turned out that the friends in other AGs I assumed were out of the Kona slots actually weren’t. Nico, Dave and Jon all got their slots, each with the gutsy run that would have got the job done for me. Nico and Deenzy are the two friends I’ve trained most with the past few years, and to see them both reach our shared holy grail is amazing and I’m proud of any small part I’ve played in helping them. Also, note to any other Kona aspirants, getting called up on stage to collect a lei for a rolldown slot is way cooler than just turning up the morning after the race and getting one in exchange for a credit card. When Nico got his name called (in Afrikaans by his countryman, Paul ‘The Voice’ Kaye), we went a little bit mental.

Onwards and upwards for me. No Kona trip but the dream is alive and I’ve learned loads again this year – certainly more from this failure at Bolton than I did from the close-but-no-cigar success of South Africa.

Two big thank yous:

Firstly, as ever, to the Black Line London crew. The journey is more important than the destination anyway. Especially when the journey involves Budgie Smugglers (sorry again, Paul S!).

Secondly, the support crew. You were amazing when I was doing well, and even better when I wasn’t. Next time… there’s always a next time. Hopefully my wings will be glued stronger together next time.

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