It is at times like these that you do start to question your choices in life. It was dark, raining, 10C and I was standing in a long queue of mainly United States citizens about to embark on my first Ironman in conditions reminiscent of a bleak late-November day in Southsea.
Still, I’d travelled 4350 miles to do this thing, so I would…or freeze trying. My journey started back in April when, on the back of a good time at the Hever Gauntlet half-distance event the previous September, I was in with a (small) chance of an age-group place at the European Championships in Ibiza in October (best of luck to our clubbers who are going, grrr). By June, and with 70 people chasing 20 slots, I knew my luck was out. I’d completed 3 months of training and decided to “go long” to be able to carry on and build for the rest of the summer. With the autumnal European events full, I scanned the Ironman web site and duly entered IM Maryland, inspired by Kelly Stokes’ and Rob Arkell’s heroics from 2017. Work promptly intervened to make this date impossible, so an extra $75 secured my place at Louisville (apparently pronounced “Loo-a-vul”) instead.
I got to know very well the potholes and ponies of the New Forest, as well as the sea front and Eastern Road, during several long training sessions, and all too soon it was time to pack and fly. After a flight in the crew bunk rest area on the Dreamliner to Nashville (as a co-pilot of it for BA, flying on a standby ticket, and with a full plane, I was actually very glad not only to get on but also to get a private seat, TV and bed to myself!), there ensued a 3-hour drive north to Kentucky, and a reassembly of my bike, where I managed to cut through a Di2 cable in the half-light of my AirBnb’s basement!
A drive of the bike course in cold but clear conditions and beautiful sunshine revealed definite hilly undulations but smooth roads and nothing very steep or scary. The next few days consisted of picking up race-day bags and registering at the Ironman village, looking at the logs floating by on the swim course in the Ohio River, racking the bike on the Saturday, spending the rest of it watching the amazing scenes at Kona (Nigel, was that you waving a Union Jack in Lucy Charles’ face at the start of her run??)…and then listening to the pouring rain all night!
And then there I was, questioning my sanity etc. When the pros couldn’t make any progress upstream against the now beefy current, they delayed the start (more standing around in drizzle, darkness, cold and ignorance for the rest of us), shifted the marker “boo-ees” and set us all off on a shortened, 1-mile downstream dash. I managed barely to miss a bridge pontoon and, thanks to long practice sighting across the current on Southsea spring-tide days, navigated my way to the exit steps while many others went wide and struggled to get out. 15 minutes to swim a mile, exit and run up a jetty? Good river-based shove there, methinks.
A massive 10 minutes in T1 (12+ minutes in T2, frozen hands to the fore) was spent struggling with the addition of three layers (why are arm warmers so hard to put on?) and on to my dripping, recently-new bike for the first flat 10 miles out of the city. Cold, cold, cold. This was going to be possibly quite un-fun. Soon afterwards, the first hill arrived and I was very glad of the climb and chance to warm up. Some über-bikers razzed by, I overtook some mortals and we did our best to get round in one piece, with smiling grimaces for the poor sodden photographers. A dropped water bottle and three stops to get nutrition from behind me slowed me somewhat (hands were too wet and cold to do much gripping) but I was very glad of the purchase and application of some Rain-X hydrophobic spray on my visor. A final return on the flat 10 miles into the city, strangely into another headwind, rounded it all off and it was time to stretch the legs and possibly warm up a little…?
No, not really.
My legs were amazingly fresh for (the start of!) the run and I enjoyed the extremely loud, all-American support in the city centre, thinking “this is great, I like running, I like Americans”, exchanging bantz with runners and spectators alike. Almost four hours later, serious, concentration face was on, in pain I was, staving off my usual dodgy tummy revolt and twinges of cramp, both fortunately successfully. Plod, plod went my sore feet, tumble, tumble went my watch’s pace display.
A walk-thru-aid-stations-then-run strategy certainly worked until the end, when the pain of restarting the running part soon made me just carry on past the last several, potential bonk be damned. When someone shouts (and you know how Americans talk, let alone holler) “pretzels, chips, Gatorade, oranges, grapes, Red Bull, bananas, Cola, water” like the world’s weirdest shopping list in your right ear every 1.5 miles, you soon feel not very hungry, more than a little deaf and a sense of dread as the next aid tent heaves into view.
And guess what? I never even heard the man shout “Rupert, you are an Ironman”, perhaps he forgot or my ears were still ringing with pretzels and Gatorade? Apparently, it’s iconic and features in every book and story I’ve read about journeys to IM glory, but I just blinked, stumbled and went looking for a space blanket instead.
Still, it was good to finish (the start of lap two came within 100m of the finish line razzmatazz), with loads of people banging on the hoardings, high-fives etc, but quite bizarre running into what seemed to be several car headlights on full beam. Good for the camera, not really to see where you’re going when on stumbly legs. Miscommunication with my finish-line volunteer meant I walked another mile to the start to get my warm clothes, shivers kicking in, only to be told the bag was at the finish line. So off to the empty medical tent for 30 minutes in front of an industrial heater, to warm up and dry off my wet bike clothes, before returning to “5th and Liberty” to get a couple of slices of pizza and my warm kit. Still, I did pick up a natty disposable blanket that I’m sure the dog will like.
Results, coz we all like results:
- Swim (1550m) – 15:19 (47th 45-49AG, 465th overall)
- Bike (178kms on my watch) – 6h02m (41st, 343rd overall)
- Run (41.6kms) – 3h52 (24th, 225th overall)
Final – 29th out of 274 AG, 262nd out of 2032 finishers (they had to send a big yellow school bus round the bike course for the DNFers! Results show 850 DNF and DNS)
Impressions: great event, nice IM organisation (sorry, organiZation), really good bike course control, effectively a closed route over 112 miles of KY countryside, no mean feat with all the side roads blocked by police cruisers and stern looking officers (one lady heard to shout, in the typical American polite style, while I was running: “No, sir, you ain’t crossing this f%@&=#g road, no way, sir!” as a car tried to pull out), flat run (amazing how teensy inclines become 45 degree couloirs when you’re fatigued), super-friendly crowd and volunteer support. Actually, surprisingly, good value for (a lot of) money: nice medal, t-shirt and cap, rucksack (with wet storage compartment, no less), closed roads, warm river (19C), no alligators, and friendly folks all saying “Congratulations” as I skulked past in my space blanket.
And, to cap it all, as I unloaded my kit in the suburbs at 9pm, feeling tired, sore, but in a happy place, an old randomer happened by, discussed the event, said well done, that he would like to travel to London to “meet the Queen” one day and that he was 100% Native American. No headdress but a fist pump from a friendly stranger – imagine that after the Great South, a fist punch more like. As he put it, “Aho” from Looavul!
Rupert Rhodes, International Ironman