My IRONMAN Journey 2017 Steven Johnstone

My IRONMAN Journey 2017

 

Steven Johnstone

It all seems a little strange being asked to write a race report for a flippin IRONMAN! Up until 2013, I had spent the majority of life donning the cricket whites or perhaps spoiling a good walk by hacking my way round a golf course. Yes, I did the London Marathon 2 and a half stone ago, but very little time and energy had been devoted towards individual pursuits.
Apologies in advance if you get to the end of this report and realise that you will never get that time back, but I do hope that I can pass on some seeds of contemplation, inspiration and action to others, similar to those which I benefitted from having read race reports in the past.
In late 2013, my nephew Charlie, then 2, developed Neuroblastoma (childhood cancer) and as you can imagine it had a huge effect on family and friends. We arranged numerous fundraising activities including a Coast 2 Coast bike ride as well as deciding to take on the ‘Bomber’ Quadrathlon. This for me was the first significant step up from the sprint distance which I completed for the first time in 2013. Charlie taught me so much during his recovery (yes, he is now 2 years into full remission), that despite how hard triathlons are, you are not fighting for your life! I saw Charlie a few days before the big day and asked him to write his name on my arm, so that I could glance down at any point and remind myself that things were not as hard as they sometimes seem. He was and continues to be my inspiration!
Hitting the button
Lucy, the kids and I were abroad in August 2015 when the registration opened for Staffordshire 70.3 2016. I remembered that we had just got back from the pool and I asked the question….Can I go for it? Lucy’s reply was ‘yes’, so I hit that button before she asked the next question ‘how much is it?’
The confirmation of entry appeared on my phone with a couple of seconds to spare…I’m in!
Fast forward 10 months and Staffs 70.3 is complete, got the t-shirt, medal etc In the build up to the event Ian McBride had given me a 15 point advice guide on completing a 70.3. Point 15 said….
‘BASK in your well-deserved glory, contemplate how the hell do people do a full then a few days later start looking for a full’n ’
I remember thinking during the 70.3 that this was my Everest. While Ian’s guide was really useful and much appreciated, point #15 would not be followed through! Lucy was more than happy with this as she was not at all open to the idea of going long!
Four weeks later on a Sunday morning I turned to Lucy and said ‘I think I want to do a full IRONMAN’. Oh shit, that wasn’t the response I was expecting, lets just say that she did not share the same excitement as I did. Looking back, I realise that this was just because she was anxious about me taking on this sort of challenge.
In August 2016, while Lucy was on a girls weekend away, some of the lads and I were enjoying a couple of beers in the garden when the subject of a full IRONMAN came up. Cut a long story short (thank goodness I hear you say), within 3 hours I had received ‘a sort’ of approval from Lucy via text (she must have had a few) so I hit that button!
I then set about making sure that the house was absolutely spotless, dishes done, washing out, kids fed etc before Lucy arrived back from her weekend away!!

The ‘so so’ Training
Despite making sure that I recovered ‘very very’ well following my 70.3 which was now over 2 months, I took the decision to get the family summer holiday out of the way first before getting into the ‘serious’ training. While up in Scotland, I did go for a couple of 3 milers and my goodness, did I drag my arse around that loop! I was out of shape and I knew it. How the hell was I going to complete 140.6 miles of torture?
After spending the next 4 weeks considering the answer to that question, I decided that I best get cracking. Up until Christmas I decided to get back into enjoying my sessions again rather than focussing on data and what Strava said!. I started getting into a training routine and set myself a goal of getting through the storm that is Christmas, with minimal waistline and multiple chin damage. I borrowed a Watt bike from work for the festive period and can honestly say that no clothes were hung over it!
This is when I suggested to Lucy that I get a coach, to basically guide me to the start line. We had a chat about it and agreed that this would be a good idea all round. I just felt that this would be the right option for me, making sure that ‘Big Brother’ was watching and that there was nowhere to hide. I had followed Don Fink’s programme for the 70.3 but it was too easy to adapt the sessions or skip one or two here and there.
I contacted Steve at Off That Couch Fitness and met with him just before Christmas to go over a few things and find out how it would work etc. We agreed that I would start a formal training programme at the start of February and before then to concentrate on base fitness.

The Training
Ok, here we are at the start of February 2017, I have 23 weeks till race day and after work I will be meeting up with Steve C for an initial meeting and bike test! The first 10 minutes confirmed that I had made the right decision in taking on a coach. While Steve asked me for details of any planned events (Paul Kirk and C2C in a day), he made it very clear what he wanted me to do alongside them and when…..excellent I want someone to tell me what to do!
By the end of that weekend I had test results for all 3 disciplines and Steve had indicated relevant HR zones and paces depending on the aims of each of the sessions to follow. Now I just had to wait for the sessions to come through on the web based application ‘Training Peaks’. I remember being sat on the couch (ha ha, unintended pun) one Sunday evening waiting patiently for the first week of sessions to come through – ‘they’ve been uploaded’ I shout to Lucy, she’s just as keen to know so that we can start thinking about how we are going to start juggling all the plates. Ok, 9 sessions, 3 of each and a total of 8 hours for week 1 – I’m buzzing with the excitement of starting this programme.
The Training Peaks software requires you to upload your training data before giving you a RAG rating. Basically, you want the screen to go green, anything amber or red, suggests that you have not fully met the training goal. This was just what I needed, no place to hide and even the most simplistic form of colour coded feedback fuelling my determination.
In fact, there was one particular Sunday night where we had returned home from a busy weekend away, and yes, a few bevvies had been consumed, often used to wash down plenty of fast food. Given that it was a Sunday, I knew that I did not want to push forward my 6 mile run to the start of the following week, and I certainly did not want a red flag against the session. I remember that run as the most difficult session of the whole programme, dragging my sorry backside round with a sore head and indigestion. I gave myself the biggest bollocking that night, but made damn sure that I got that green light!
Throughout the training journey, it was inevitable that I was going to think about possible timings on the day. While I gave this some considerable thought, the only real target was to give myself what I referred to as a ‘buffer’ time, just in case I happened to have a puncture etc, I did not want to go into panic mode. Each time I met with Steve C, I was interested to see if he would mention predicted times – he didn’t, and while I initially thought that this would help with confidence, I’m pleased he didn’t as it helped to take pressure away and focus on the enjoyment of the journey.
Despite the pressure that the training placed on the family routines, I was to lucky to have Lucy and the kids 100% behind me every step of the way. I loved the little things they did for me at various points during the journey.
In mid April, things took a couple of steps back.. During a running interval session with repeated 30 second sprints, I was half way through the penultimate effort, when I felt like I had been shot in the back of my right hamstring – ‘bugger’! At first I thought it was a disaster, but soon realised after a couple of days that I could still bike and swim with the use of a pull buoy. This is where I benefitted from having a coach and a voice of reason. Steve C text me and reassured me, making it clear that I should stay off the running for the next 3-4 weeks and that we would build again in good time for the day.
Throughout my training, I had the pleasure of sharing swimming lanes, open waters, and roads with others. The Coast to Coast in a day was not just an incredible experience but one which gave me that increased level of confidence on the bike. It was a long day in the saddle but a pleasure to share the route with Steve, Stu and Neil. I would certainly recommend it as a training ride.
The week before IRONMAN, I was fortunate enough to be able to swim the Lincolnshire Edge as part of my final preparations. It was just before we set off that I bumped into Steve Cannings. He commented on my ‘numbers’ being good (Strava) and that I had done the hard work. This sort of feedback is like gold dust to a newbie. He was right, I had followed my programme pretty much to the letter, having swum over 70 miles, biked 2500 miles and run approximately 450 miles…surely I was ready. This really helps to know and remind yourself of in those final days of preparations when the irrational thoughts try to creep in.
Steve Cannings also gave me that final piece of advice which stuck with me right up until the start line and throughout the race ‘Steve, don’t wish it to be over, enjoy every minute’!
The Morning
My vision of it lashing it down on the morning came true, but ‘trust the weather forecast’ I kept telling myself. A quick Face Time call to my brother in Auckland, although I’m sure he couldn’t see me given that it was pitch black – it was just good to hear his voice and get that last minute encouragement from him. I went to see ALF and check his tyres were ok, filled the food bag up and made sure the aero bottle was topped up. Bumped into Steve Clark on the way to drop off my bag, quick hello and handshake was just what I needed. Steve Clark has an effective way of keeping things simple, no fuss, no drama.
Right, wetsuit on and white bag handed in, bugger still got my cap on, best go back and hand that in too (never got that back though). The next thing I remember was saying cheerio to Nick and Steve and finding my position in the self-seeded line up. I decided to go for the 1:15 marker. Then it arrives, AC/DC and Thunderstruck, ok, shit…its real now! I find myself rubbing my palms together and doing small jumps on the spot…I want this to start.

The Swim
We nudge towards the start, the crowds are amazing and whether they know you or not, they give you that look as if to say ‘go smash it’ which is most likely intended to be received as ‘you silly bugger’. I press the button on the Garmin, quick check to make sure it has started and then before I know it I’m in the water and off, off, off! Thank goodness for that, I can have a wee now! I go to the left in the hope that everyone else is going in search of room out to the right – good call I tell myself, as I find space and get into a good rhythm from the start. Not much to talk about in the first lap, other than the corners were ok and I didn’t get a bashing. Shortly after the second turn I can see the exit and I feel myself putting in a bit more to get there. Out of the first lap and start the short run to begin the second lap, quick glance at the watch and it reads 35:00. Back in and I start again. This is where I start talking to myself ‘ok, don’t be an idiot and think you can beat that time, you can afford to go steady and still come out with a respectable time’. The resident demon on my left shoulder is responding with ‘nah, get your arse into gear and smash it, you could go sub 1;10 here’. The resident angel on my right shoulder won that debate with me exiting the water at 1:14. I take my cap and goggles off and start wrestling with my wetsuit before stopping to give Lucy a kiss as I go by.
Bike


I find ALF and tell him that he best be on his best behaviour. I had made up a peanut butter wrap and left it on my handlebars, having taken Steve Dolby’s advice and stick those up my tri-suit legs for later on in the ride. I’ve mounted and on my way with a yell from Nick Fish to ‘have good ride’. Over a couple of speed bumps and at the third I lose my aero bottle, ‘hmm, that’s never happened’. With only 14 miles to the first feed station, I decided to just have my aero bottle so unless I go back for it I’m scuppered. I recover the bottle and as I try and re-position it I realise that the frame has cracked and there is no way it is staying in place. Ok, so I have no fluids for the first 14 miles and yes, I could do with a drink after that swim. Don’t’ panic, I tell myself, it’s not as if I have dropped a pint or anything, it’ll be ok – and it was!
My best man comes from Adlington, where the famous Babylon Lane or COLT Alley is, so I have fond memories of the place and was excited to get there first time round. Just as I was thinking that COLT Alley was a bit of an anti-climax, this guy on the bike next to me just said ‘next time round, it’s going to be bloody jumping’. He was absolutely right, exactly as the photos suggest, people spilling out on to the road with cow bells, banners, whistles and more. You file through the narrow gap in the crowd, feeling a million dollars.
At about 20 miles, the tummy started to rumble in ways that you would prefer it not to. This wasn’t the norm and I wondered whether the peanut butter wrap had been a bad idea. I had read the warnings about trying new things on the day and this was the one example of where I had fallen foul. Thankfully my stomach and all that is connected to it looked after me and after about an hour things started to settle down.
Looking back, with the exception of the bigger hills, the bike course has now become a bit of a blur – I guess that is a good thing really! Two things that do stand out are firstly, the times when I saw family and friends, especially coming back into the village of Adlington. I remember counting down from about 20 miles out, looking forward to this extra special treat. Seeing Lucy, the kids and close friends was just incredible and very emotional. I knew how Lucy was about this whole journey so I made sure that she was reassured with massive smiles. That high five from Jack was all I needed to get me to T2, thanks mate!
The second stand out memory was the words of encouragement received by spectators on the second lap. Instead of the usual cheers and shouts of ‘well done’ issued on lap 1, they were now starting to say things like ‘you’ve got this’. This was a massive boost to the confidence levels and with a little bit of thought, I was thinking ‘yeah, I have got this, I can bloody do this’. For me, it was a balance between getting excited and also remaining calm and measured about the fact that I still had a couple hours on the bike and then a marathon to do.
Everyone talks about Sheep House Lane and Hunter Hill as the real obstacles to overcome. Yes, they are hills and somewhat more challenging that what Lincolnshire has to offer, but they are ok. Having completed C2C in a day, I knew that if respected, these were not going to spoil my day out!
So, I passed Adlington for the final time, enjoying the carnival atmosphere taking place on Rawlinson Lane. Had it not been for the ruling about ‘outside assistance’ I may have accepted the pint offered by my best man Mick! Ok, so I have about 6 miles to go before T2, enjoy COLT alley for the last time and then go steady, don’t do anything daft and you will soon be at the Macron Stadium.
I hit the dismount line, got off the bike, albeit in instalments and somehow managed to work my way to the cycle racks. I’m sure at one point I would have preferred to get back on the bike. My initial thoughts were obviously directed to my lower back and how stiff it was, knowing that it would take a few minutes for me to straighten up, and I did. What was worrying was this new and sharp pain on the outside of my right foot, never had anything like that before. Oh well, with a total of 9 hours on the clock, I knew I had 8 hours to complete a marathon, and while I would not let complacency creep in, deep down I knew that there was a good chance it could be my day!
I didn’t rush in T2, in fact I was pretty calm about things as I knew if I hurried myself, I would forget something. Bit of food, washed my face and arms before slapping the sun cream on. One piece of advice that I would pass on to others is to take a lightweight flannel with you to tuck in your trisuit pocket during the run – just a simple thing like washing your face helps so much. Passed on the sun cream to a couple of other lads and made my way out of the tent and onto the run.
The Run
Ian had told me about the first hill on the run, which turned out to be a different hill to the one I had been expected. While this one was shorter, it was steeper. I took his advice and used this as an opportunity to straighten out a little more and have a little bit of an extended recovery from the bike.
As soon as I hit the main road I was into a run and for the first 4 miles I was able to keep to a 10 minute mile pace which I was quite happy with. Then I hit this period where I can only describe my mood as stubborn, fussy and diva like. While I had a couple of gels, they were not the ‘right’ flavour or I could not be bothered getting them out of my pocket and even if I did want to, I didn’t want to risk getting it all over my hands.

I was pleased that by the time I had arrived at the main loop my Kevin and Perry episode with myself had passed. I was now on the scalextric track as I referred to it, just 3 laps of this circuit and I’m over the line. Ok, reminder to self, 3 laps is 26 minus the 8 I’ve done, which equals 18 miles….bloody hell! Thankfully, I was in a strong place mentally, and just reminded myself that this was my longest run in training, but in this case, I get fed, watered, sprayed with water hoses and get to see family and friends along the way…you don’t get that on the Brigg, Scawby, Brigg, Bonby, Worlaby etc route!
Just as I entered the loop, I heard my name being shouted, it was Steve Clark aka ‘coach’…shit..stand up straight, get a stride on, look busy, smile etc. Steve shouted to keep going and while this was over in a second, my gosh did it help to refresh the focus and spur me on. It didn’t take long for me took me to realise that Steve was in fact 2 miles away from the finish line!
I was so lucky to have friends dotted about on the run course, some whom I had not seen for years and it was great to stop and have a quick chat with them before moving on. Lucy, the kids and the rest of the gang had positioned themselves in the town centre and it was absolutely amazing to pass each time to check in and have that time with them to assure them that I was feeling strong and for them to give me that much needed boost.
I was fortunate to speak to a number of people on the run, all of whom had an amazing story to tell and some who by simply knowing their chosen charity gave me some insight into their motivations and drivers. There were some amazing people out there and it was a privilege to share the course with them. The other people who are incredible are the volunteers who just keep going and ensure that they dish out the same encouragement to all athletes. The army cadets were particularly impressive, ensuring that they were so well organised with their refreshment feed station. They took particular delight in pouring water over my head!
While on the topic of feed stations, one bit of advice would be to not eat the tortilla crisps after you have left the feed station and no longer have any water…do you remember the cream cracker eating challenge? You know what I mean then!
I must say that I did warm to the volunteers who were issuing the lap bands. ‘Band envy’ is strong when you are on the course and the feeling of going through that final checkpoint and receiving your red band is amazing, you literally feel on top of the world, knowing that you are about 6 miles away.
The roads are now not as busy as they were when I first joined the loop. I had programmed my Garnin to just display running pace on the main screen, knowing that this would keep me on track. I figured if I was watching the seconds or distance tick over this might play with my head a bit. The overall aim was to get somewhere between 14 and 15 hours and I was confident that I was going to be close to the 14 hour mark.
It was at about the 23 mile stage as I turned back towards the town centre when I knew that I was pretty much there and that the next time I saw Lucy and the kids I would be running down that carpet. My pace started to pick up as I felt a new bounce in my stride, working my way into the centre of Bolton. This is where you can sense the well wishes from total strangers, noticing that you are the owner of 3 bands and that you have less than a mile to go. I realise that I’m grinning from ear to ear at this point, enjoying the various turns as you weave your way through the final stages of the run.
Bloody hell, I think…..that is the turning point to run down the carpet…..I check over my shoulder to see if anyone else is there and the announcer confirms that I have it all to myself…. “I’m on the carpet, I’ve only bloody gone and got to the carpet”.
This is it, just a few seconds of the journey left…a quick look to the clock which displays 14 hours and 6 minutes as I aeroplane my way into the finish line (I have apologised to Steve Clark for pinching his celebration) with a massive smile on my face and feeling amazing. As I cross the line, and this was not pre-meditated, I jump, clenching my fist before driving towards the photographer shouting ‘come on!’ (not sure where that came from, totally out of character), I’m buzzing, totally pumped, I am an IRONMAN!

I receive my medal and tin foil before being ushered into the tent for a jacket potato with chilli, which to be honest I’m not really too fused about. I collect my finisher t-shirt and head out of the tent to meet up with Lucy, the kids and friends. It was great to see them all and to also receive some outside assistance in the form of a bottle of Black Sheep real ale!
Looking back, would I do it again, absolutely, it was an incredible experience and a great day out!
I would not change anything about my personal journey. For those considering the challenge themselves, if you believe you can do it and you want it, then hit that button!
I decided to seek support from Steve at Off That Couch Fitness – best decision, he got me to that start line in good shape and with the mental mind-set that the hard work had been done. It was a pleasure to represent OTCF!
Thanks to all those who also helped with advice and support along the way. Thanks to those who trained with me at various points during the journey, you know who you are.
Thank you to all those who turned up to support on the day, especially the Fish and Hayton families, as well as the Moore gang from Adlington who made everyone feel so welcome and hydrated!


Finally, thanks to my wife Lucy and my kids Jack and Millie, your patience and commitment throughout has been amazing. Lucy, you put your fears and anxieties to one side so that I could realise my dream of being an IRONMAN. I am so very grateful for the selflessness you showed during the times where it must have seemed that ‘it was all about me’.


Time for me to focus on new and exciting challenges, but most importantly, to look forward to the enjoyment of watching others with their challenges. I will be back at Bolton next year as a supporter, watching a score being settled!

4 thoughts on “My IRONMAN Journey 2017 Steven Johnstone

  1. Wow what amazing read. Loved it from start to finish. Could feel a lump in my throat. You are a true gentleman. Good luck with whatever event you do next xx

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