I felt a massive sense of relief running out of the water – I had just achieved a goal that I had felt serious doubts over for a year and I was still in one piece, more than 30 minutes off the cutoff (2 hrs 20 mins). To top that, I saw my first supporters as soon as I stepped on the mat – my lovely friend Ian and his 8 year old daughter who was filming me run out of the water – and I was just beaming as I ran towards transition, grabbed my bike bag and ran into the changing tent. At Ironman Zurich there were no wetsuit strippers or volunteers in the tent so I wrestled my way out of my wetsuit, into my bike shoes, whacked on my helmet (which proceeded to sit crookedly on my head for the next 112 miles) and ran towards my bike. One of the few advantages of being in the back of the pack was that it was easy to spot my bike (most of the other bikes had gone) and I felt just happiness clipping into my pedals and getting started with my ride. This, I thought, is something I can do. A wave to my mother and friend Jay and her son Ian who saw me within the first 100m and I was off on the longest bikeride of my life.
The first 20 or so miles of the bike course skirt lake Zurich and are more or less flat. I was cruising along at 17/18 mph, overtaking some, being overtaken by others and feeling incredibly comfortable and happy to be out there. Maybe, I thought, this would be the occasion where I discovered that I was actually a much better cyclist than I thought I was and I would surprise myself and others with a blistering bike time. Somewhere, in the far reaches of my mind, I thought about the climbs to come, but I pushed those thoughts away and coasted along in aero, feeling smug and confident. I ate some gels, drank my sports drink, and felt generally entirely in control of myself. After about 20 miles I reached a roundabout where the first aid station was (and the first real supporters – fans along the bike course were very far and few between) and though it was the beginning of the hills I felt strong and confident heading up the first inclines. This incline was also where I started seeing others who I would then see for the rest of the bike course and I started cheering others on when I could see their names as I overtook them. All was well for the first hour or 2. I climbed, descended, ate, drank and felt positive. After about 3 hours I reached the biggest climb in the race nicknamed The Beast. It’s steep, windy, and just goes on and on. I tackled it bit by bit and was only mildly discouraged when someone cheered me on and said “you’re nearly there” and I panted out “how far to go?” and they said “only 2km”. 2kms? Of this? My heartrate was off the scale, my pace was dropping to around 5mph and it just didn’t feel like it would ever end. Once it did, I coasted down some hills. And this is where I started to worry for the first time. I was nowhere near halfway through the bike course and was heading towards another nasty, long incline before heading back down to Lake Zurich and tackling another steep climb – and only THEN would I be halfway. The cutoff for bike and swim combined was 10 hours and I was trying to calculate the average pace I would need to keep to make that cutoff. By the time I had climbed the next long dragging climb my addled brain was beginning to realise that I might be cutting it very fine with the bikeride. All these climbs were slowing me down enormously and I was beginning to worry. I headed down towards lake Zurich and tried to push the pace once I was back on the flat, speeding past the race village and heading towards Heartbreak Hill, a very steep climb which is lined with spectators crowding you up the hill in single file. This was also where I was due to meet my father as it was the only place where supporters were allowed to give you food and drink and I was running low on everything (special needs was not well-managed at the race so I had opted to get my extra food and drink off my family rather than risk not being able to find my stuff amongs 2500 other bags). I climbed up the hill hard and was so happy to see my father and then Adam and the kids, Jay and Ian and their kids. I stopped the bikes and my lovely crew took off the empty bottles, replaced most of my drinks bottles and race food. I could barely speak to them as I was out of breath and beginning to panic, only telling them I was afraid of the cutoff and I needed to go – quickly.
The next 30 miles or so were the lowest 30 miles of the race. I wasn’t experiencing a mental low due to tiredness or hunger – I was realistically panicking about being pulled of the course and disqualifying. The wind had picked up by this stage and I only managed about 14/15 mph average along the lake. People would overtake me and disappear into the distance. I overtook nobody. I was mentally composing a Facebook update outlining how I’d been disqualified and taken off the course. I thought about what I’d do with all the expensive Ironman kit I’d bought. Ebay it? I couldn’t face having to send it to people who had completed the course. Burn it, I decided. I was imagining lighting the barbeque in our rented apartment and throwing all the clothes on it. And then I finally got a grip of myself. “Do not give up” I told myself. I made a very definite decision to turn my attitude around. I decided to forget about saving my legs for the run, realising that if I don’t hammer it on the bike there would be no run. I decided to FORCE myself to smile, to push and to be positive. If I were going to be taken off the course, they would have to pull me. I wanted to feel I had left NOTHING out there if I disqualified. So I started pushing. Up the hills I started to catch people. And I was relentlessly encouraging. I shouted “Do not give up!” to everyone I overtook. I was surrounded by people who were in the same dark cave I’d been in for some time, all of us aware that we were balancing on the edge of disqualification. At this tail end of the race and in the hills miles away from the race village, there were no officials chasing us down to see if we were drafting and so, although we did not cycle side by side we were constantly overtaking each other and chasing each other down and I felt, for the first time in this race, like I was part of a bigger group. I’d worked out that I needed to maintain a 14mph average (even during the hour of uphill cycling) to stay in the game and once I’d hit the last big climb, I knew I was going to make it. I didn’t allow myself to think about the possibility of a technical problem but started to hammer it downhill. A somewhat dangerous strategy – I passed two ambulances dealing with cyclists who had come off their bikes on the steep declines – but I felt I had nothing left to lose. And then right at the bottom of the hills I saw my parents who were waiting for me. I shouted at them “I’m going to make this!” and hammered it.
I hammered the flat bit round the lake where I saw Adam, Ian and Jay and all the kids – who went crazy when they saw me – and hammered it past the race village and up Heartbreak Hill.
I hammered it back on the last bit towards the bike in, where I could see official vehicles coming the other way following the final cyclist still in the race towards Heartbreak Hill. I didn’t allow myself to feel relief until I had crossed the mat (in about 9:40, so with 20 minutes to spare) and had racked my bike. Before the race I had felt occasional worry about the marathon, thinking I had given it too little thought, but all I could think now was relief. This – finally – was something I knew I could do. After 9:40 hours of balancing on the edge of what I believed I was capable of, I finally started to believe I was going to be able to do this.
Next installment to follow shortly!