This may be the longest yet, sorry!
My Ironman Journey
So my journey starts in 2017 after my 30+ year love affair with rugby came to a natural end I was looking for a new challenge. And there it was, my inspirational friend Steve Cook taking part in an Ironman as a Para Athelete following a horrific road traffic accident, I decided there and then that I would complete an Ironman. The fact that I hadn’t even attempted a triathlon before wasn’t even a consideration.
I decided I needed help so tagged along with Steve Smith and came to a GRY TRI swim session, I used to swim a bit (24 years before) how hard could it be? It took about 25m to find out, as thats all I could manage without stopping for breath. I thought to myself shit how many lengths is 2.4miles!
Next up I joined the Chain Gang, not really ridden the bike much (and when I did I wasn’t good) so which group fast, medium or slow? obviously fast! (my stupidity knows no bounds!). And we were off 22,23,24 mph, I was just spining the legs, this is brilliant, I feel great, in fact so great I think I’ll take a turn of the front, and I work my way to the front, effortlessly move to the front and pull the pack along, at least thats what I expected in my mind, the reality was a little different and went something like, ‘Oh my god whats that? Wind’, ‘shit wheres that been hiding?’ ‘Come on Neal don’t make yourself look stupid, come on legs!’, legs -‘sorry that us finished’ and after 15 secs I start to slip gracefully down the middle of the chain, and as I passed Steve I manage to gasp ‘Whatever you do don’t go on the front’, surely Steve would listen to my hard earned advice, and 5 mins later as Steve slide gracefully down the middle of the chain I thought to myself ‘nope!’.
Next up my first ‘long’ distance run (10K) after a couple of 1 mile training sessions, and as expected my performance was less than inspiring.
So if I was really going to achieve this I needed help, thats were Steve Clark of Off That Couch Fitness comes in, and following a swim assessment Steve started to build a training programme specifically for me (I have a medical condition called Crohns and a damaged AC ligament).
So the training started and through the winter I spent many an hour in the pain cave (also know as back bedroom), watching movies and box sets (if anyone needs to know anything about American history I’m your man).
It was at this point I decided to set some targets; swim 1hr 15, ride 8 hrs (adjusted to 7hrs 30 following route change), run 5 hours, weight 175lbs (I was 189lbs).
I followed the training set by Steve, followed the advice about diet and committed fully.
6 weeks out from the Ironman I held the Neal Markham Half Ironman Invitational Classic, completing the distances in order to experience some of the feelings, it was great to get through it and gave me huge confidence for the big day plus I came in first place (out of 1😀).
So as the big day approached I started to taper and it was here that I really noticed the improvements in all 3 disciplines, I was feeling confident that I could achieve the times I’d set, and then disaster, my Crohns started to flare and I wasn’t very well at all, I was doing all I could to get myself sorted but it wasnt looking good, howeverthere was never any intention of not doing it.
I registered on the Friday and went back to the accomodation and spent a relaxed evening with friends. Then up early to go rack my bike, arriving at the same time as Steve we start to walk over and we see Ben Barton Bycroft with his new steed, and in true Ben style rides up and down the road once ‘to get used to it’ and that was it🙄
We racked the bikes and blue bags and walked the route from the water trying to remember the bag and bike position. Next we were off to Transition 2 and again we walked the route from the dismount to leaving transition.
Great now to Frankys and Bennys, sat near the experienced guys Les Thompson and Dan to see if I could pick up on any pearls of wisdom, main subject was tyres bursting in transition due to heat (thankfully I’d let some air out before I left, still had a bit of doubt though😨).
And then back to the hotel for an early night, I couldnt sleep, not through worry or excitement but heat, it was boiling, I was so pleased when the alarm went off!
Race day- weight 172lbs
Breakfast was porridge with water rather than the usual milk and it was disgusting! No worries it was a minor thing, more importantly my Crohns had decided it also wanted to be involved in the day, and I couldn’t get off the toilet, this was bad, very bad!
We arrived at the Flash, checked the bikes tyres were good, releif (went to the toilet), meet up with everyone (went to the toilet) and then into the wet suits. There were a lot of worried faces, but for me I felt ready and was looking forward to starting.
Swim 1hr 13mins 12secs
I’d spoken to the coach about seeding and he said go 5 mins faster than your fastest swim so 1hr 2mins! I started walking up looking at the athletes got to 1hr 5mins and thought everyone looked really good so didnt go further. I looked left and there was Steve Cook, he gave me a big hung and we chatted about nothing in particular. Then Thunderstruck started and I found myself becoming emotional, my eyes filled (which wasnt good as I had clear lenses in my goggles), I looked around and I could see it was affecting others. And with that the gun went and we were off, I pushed forward and entered the Flash and immediately I was in clear water, this great I thought, then I looked and realised I was going the wrong way! I adjusted slightly (a lot) and then I was in the washing machine! I started to find my stroke and thought things were going well, shit I hadn’t started my watch! OK done, now I’m off. It quickly became apparent I’d seeded myself wrong, I was passing everyone, but I was having to do a lot of swimming to avoid people which slowed me, I continued passing people all the way to the first turn (or the water wrestling bouy as I like to call it!), everyone converged on one point and somehow I managed to get my left arm in the zip strap of a guy and it wrapped around my watch, we both stopped, he was just a little stressed! 😠I freed my watch and left (quickly), things started improving with a bit more clear water, and then someone’s touching my feet, I moved left, then to the right but he didnt pass, and then I realised he was drafting me. I was over the moon, my first Ironman and I was being drafted, nice one! (I feel pro) I then turned for home and immediately couldn’t see a thing, the sun had risen and the glare stopped any sighting. I just looked for swimmers around me and carried on.
About 200m to go on the first lap my mind had left, what was it Paul said ‘just keep swimming until you touch the ramp’ and as I did so I stood up and was out, I heard some screaming to my right and saw Sarah acting like a crazy woman (it was great😎), round and back in (I was loving it) and off again, more space and reasonably uneventful, until the final turn for home, again I couldn’t see a thing but employed my previous tactic of watching where other swimmers were going. Everything was working fine and then ‘dink’, I’d swam into the safety boat, not the canoe but the big red boat, I looked up at the guy, he didnt say a word, but his look said ‘pillock!’, I kicked off and I was away again (I dont think anyone saw it).
Last couple of hundred meters, I looked to the right and saw Dave Hodkinson, I passed him but couldn’t help thinking he may not make the cut. I left the water checked my watch 1hr 10 plus at least a couple of minutes for not starting it, I was worried for Dave.
Transition 1 – 8mins 47secs
I was straight in, wetsuit off, everything in my bag was in the correct order and it went on as practiced, then out, oh look a toilet without a queue, it would be rude not to!
Bike – 5hrs 57mins 41 secs
I was so looking forward to getting on the bike, not because I dislike swimming (I love the swim), but because I’d bought a new helemet with intergrated visor and it looked great😎
I suspected I was 5th out of the water for the club and I also knew there were some fabulous cyclist just behind and expected to be overtaken in the near future. But there was something wrong with the bike, I was peddling hard but my speed was 13.5mph and my heart rate 150+, this was bad, I checked the brakes – fine, I looked to make sure nothing was jammed – fine, OK two options stop or carry on, a quick calculation I can make it at 13.5mph average so I carry on.
Then after a couple of miles the heart rate drops ~120, the speed picks up 19,20,21 mph everything is fine (it was the first time I’d done the full swim, ran to transition and straight in the bike).
I start to feel great I’m down on the bars pushing a nice gear, high cadence, low heart rate, the miles start to pass. I enter the loop and get my first experience of a feed station (because of my condition I use Tailwind so only need water and bananas), I grab a water and start to fill my hydration system, dam, missed the bananas, dam, missed the rubbish area, now I have a dilemma, as I remember that littering is a DQ, is throwing an empty water bottle littering? I can’t risk it, so I have the crazy situation of riding up the next hill with a bottle in my hand! at the top there is a lady walking with her husband, I hold out the bottle and she instinctively takes it – result! 😎😎
Back on the bars and I’m off again, the replacement Sheephouse is coming up, we didn’t see it in our recce 3 weeks before but I watched a video on Facebook and know its a 90 degree turn and immediate 20% incline. I’m already in my low gear as I turn, nightmare there’s about 4 bikes almost stopped smashing the gears and and a couple uncllipping (if you fail to prepare….😎), I aim for a small gap and I’m past. I know it flattens and then rises again so I keep everything under control.
I know I’m at the top when I see the wrestlers, and then down the very techinical descent (I know this is technical due to all the chatter on Facebook), I stay hard on the brakes, I’m not prepared to bin it for a few seconds (but some people are!😲).
And then I’m back on rolling roads and before long I’m on the flat. Then at about 30 miles I hear ‘now then’ I look to the right and see Chris Chalk with a big smile on his face, he floats past me and with a couple of slow deliberate pedal strokes he’s gone, inside I’m over the moon, its taken longer than I expected to be caught, I know I’m riding well, everythings going great.
And then at the most remote part of the course I need the toilet, I’m looking for a suitable bush / field when I spot a portaloo, no it can’t be, it must be a mirage and as I get close it will disappear (like an oasis in the desert), no its real, I’m saved!!!
I’m already planning the order of getting my gear off, I’m in and out in a flash. Back on the bike and Im off (has anyone else gone past?).
A couple of miles later comes Hunters, I can hear it long before I see it, I know its coming, I’m changing my gears slowing my heart rate and then I turn onto the hill, people, cow bells, music its like the Tour, I love it!!
I’m grinding my way up and Jacko appears on my right we exchange a few words (or in my case gasps) and hes off.
Back onto the flat, back on the bars back up to speed 22, 23, I’m loving it, its the best I’ve ever felt on the bike, there was no bike envy today because today I was loving my Cube, this is great.
I find my mind drifting and I’m often thinking of Dave hoping he made the cut.
I turn the corner in a small village I see Steve Cook again, he gives me the big thumbs up.
I turn another corner and I’m back in the Tour! people everywhere, excellent.
I changed my feed station strategy after the first, now I stop at everyone, fill my hydration system, get a banana (peel it and responsibly discard the skin) and I’m off (not the quickest but its working for me).
The replacement Sheephouse again, get into gear (it appears everyone has learnt), about halfway Sam appears ‘oh its you Neal, I’ve seen the GRY TRI top for ages and couldnt figure who it was, you must have had a great swim’ ‘I didnt think so’, I tell him not to wait and bid him farewell and hes off (inside I’m bouyed because now I know I’m riding way above what I expected to).
I make my way round to Hunters a second time, I’m telling myself once I’m over this the ride is in the bag. I struggle to get up my legs are shot and if I’m honest I think if there hadn’t been all this people I’d have got off!!!
Then its over, i’m on the flat back up to speed and there is the T2 sign, I still feel good, now 5 miles to go, I start talking to the bike ‘please keep going no mechanicals now’, in my head I’m doing rough calcs and know I’m going to be in just before 6 hrs, I had planned 7 and a half!😲
And before I know it I’m riding in along side the marathon, I see Dan and Les.
Transition 2 -12mins 09 secs
I dismount, rack the bike (toilet – obviously), and take my time, kit off, fresh pair of socks, suncream, grab some food and coke from my bag.
Run – 5hrs 34 mins 35 secs
I walk out eating (i had read to do this somewhere), got a bit of banter from the crowd, ‘thats it Neal you have a picnic no need to rush’, I finished eating and started my run, everything is feeling fine, I don’t feel overly tired, I’m stopping at every feed station for water (ive brought my own salt tablets – Lee told me about them) and I’m carrying gels that I’m used to.
First lap I run completely I pick up the first band, back through the town centre and into the park and that hill!😲.
It was at that point I realised I still had 20miles to do and that I needed to be realistic (it was blisteringly hot), I decide to walk / run, walk up hills and run down and that was the tactic.
I’d seen Damo and Paul come in on the bikes and as I was walking up the hill I saw Dave come in on the bike, I can’t explained how pleased I was to see him (it gave me such a lift). And then ‘Band Envy’ starts, I find I’m looking at everyones wrist, and when I have more bands, inside I’m laughing, but when i have less I’m erm less than happy!
I think it was the second lap when I saw the travelling GRY TRI support crew and it was so great to see them😁😁, the encouragment they were giving was just fantastic ‘you’re looking great, you look strong’ I know theymust be lying because I feel knackered, but it gives me a huge lift 😎😎😎😎
Also all the families of the GRY TRI guys were going crazy everytime they saw the shirt and the banter we was getting from the crowd it was excellent.
But the heat was relentless and had it not been for the guy with the hose pipe I’m sure I’d have stopped #hero
Somehow I’m on lap 3 and then I see Ben come in, I remember thinking thats it we’re all in, and again I was bouyed, until the blisters started on both feet I was gutted, same socks and trainers that I’d used throughout my training, I knew they were bad but kept going.
I recalled something I’d read the night before ‘run if you can, walk if you must, crawl if you have to, but just keep moving forward’, and that was my mantra for those last two laps. That kept me going, that and seeing everyone else, i kept seeing Steve and he looked so cool and relaxed and I was telling myself ‘come on Neal man up, everyone else is managing this’. Later Steve explained that everytime he saw me I looked stong and it spurred him on, that might have been the case but he was spuring me on too.
Third lap down, I hear my name its Steve Cook in the centre, I go over he gives me a big hug and im off again.
Last lap, no more band envy I’m the one being viewed with envious eyes, I want to finish strong so start to run (the feet are killing) I repeat the mantra, slowly but surely its getting there, I see a couple of our guys ‘last lap?’ ‘yeah’ ‘great news, well done’ and with that I’m through the park I have the last band all I have to do is finish.
I look around theres 5 of us who are finishing, I want to be on the red carpet alone, I start to speed up, I’m almost sprinting ( but only in my mind, really I’m hobbling fast – there is video evidence) 1 gone, 2 gone, 3 gone, shit I can’t get past the lady and theres not enough space to drop back, bugger and then she walks, I’m so happy I go past her, I think I can hear people shouting my name but I don’t look anywhere I’m just thinking about the finish, and then I’m there on the red carpet arms in the air ‘Neal you are an IRONMAN’. 13hrs 06mins 22 secs
If you are still reading I’d like to say a couple of thanks, firstly to the club in general everyone has been fantastic and the travelling supporters to commit to that travel awesome, second to the more experienced and stronger members, who on rides, swims or runs give a simple well done (it means a lot to us newer developing members), thirdly Steve Clark for the programme and making adjustments when my condition demanded it, fourthly Paul the Charirman for the advice and for answering my stupid questions but never making me feel stupid, and to Sarah who has given me so much support during this.