To race or not to race…

So I have a confession to make – two actually! I said I would NEVER do an Ironman. Also if I’m honest I never really thought I could do it. Just shows – never say never! So what changed? Firstly the Long Course Weekend in Tenby. This year to my delight I was able to take on the whole thing- an Ironman in 3 consecutive days! It took away the fear factor, the unknown – especially my first marathon! I’ve done all 3, now I just have to link them together on the same day!

The second reason…I got sick! Let me explain. As a hockey player I had an engine for repeated high intensity efforts, this transitioned well to age group olympic distance triathlon. Going Pro meant I had to double that distance, I struggled at first, but with time I developed a genuine preference for 70.3 – long enough to need some strategy but still basically racing at threshold, no holding back.

Midway through last year I lost the ability to smash myself, to over-ride my body and push a high threshold. I dragged myself through several races in Asia to finish the year and expected the break over Christmas to ‘sort me out’. I got worse. Much worse. I was forced to stop completely – almost no training, no physio work. There’s something about turning 41 while living in your sisters spare room, no job to show for yourself and supported by family that makes you ask ‘what am I doing with my life?’.

The forced time out brought me many unexpected blessings, and I was relieved to finally get to the source of my issues when I was diagnosed with Lymes Disease. Now 4 months into treatment, its not gone completely, but I feel human again. What does this have to do with Ironman? Well all that time I’ve had to train at a low heart rate. In fact l’ve still not regained that top threshold – its just not where it used to be. So Lyme forced me to go long – I almost have no choice if I want to continue racing, at this level anyway!

The obvious choice for a first Ironman was Wales – I know the course, I can drive there, it’s a cheap experiment (if you discount the $1000 fee I pay Ironman for a year’s pro license). I had 8 weeks between LCW and Wales IM. It was not easy. I was juggling part-time physio work in London– a job I love but its physically shattering. I got sick, struggled with my gut and found myself having to adapt and shorten sessions. I ventured to Finland for a half distance race and was so demoralised by my performance .The week following the race my health dipped and my doubts got the better of me…”Can I really race pro again after all these setbacks? Who am I kidding?’ I felt rotten, my training was terrible, and a frank discussion with my specialist in SA reminded me that I was dealing with a dangerous illness.

It was a Tuesday. I decided to withdraw from Wales, I stopped training, ate chocolate, drank wine for the first time in months and cried – a lot. I genuinely thought its time to close the book on triathlon. Saturday I was committed to racing the National Sprint Relay Champs in Nottingham with Team Sponge. I went along, it was only a sprint, and I couldn’t let the team down. At dinner that night I received a pep talk like none other from Lucy (Gossage). Her rationale- with such a small pro field in Wales I’d be nuts not to start and see how I got on? The test to see if I had enough fitness was to keep up with her for a 6 hour ride in the Peaks the next day. I felt ok on the bike, better then I had in months no doubt due to 5days of rest I’d just given my body. Ah alright, lets do this thing!! At the very least I could walk the marathon and pay off my ironman fees!!

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Talked back onto the start line. Tenby looking picturesque behind us as we pose after the pro race briefing.

It seemed my body could cope with the bacteria but not exercise AND the bacteria, so my strategy was race fresh not fit. I’d managed the LCW without much volume and that kept my nerves from getting the better of me as I contemplated the task ahead. Also my long suffering twin sister, Dallah, had left her 3 kids in SA with my even more long suffering brother-in-law. Dals and my good friend and training partner Paula were roadside to support me. I felt so brave with them there.

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Minutes before the race start, this photo captures the great friendships and camaraderie on the tri circuit.

Standing on the beach listening to ten thousand people singing the Welsh National anthem was spine tingling. I felt utterly grateful to be there and ready to embrace the day. My main objective was to be economical in each discipline. To avoid red-lining at any stage, my body had shown me I couldn’t recover from any threshold efforts. The swim was a delight – I felt so comfortable in the water. The second lap I needed to surge to stay in a pack, but I kept a lid on my effort. Exiting almost bang on an hour was a good start. I tailed Goss out the water only to wave goodbye as she sprinted up the hill for the 1k run to transition. I had a plan to stick to – no red lining!

As I got into the change tent I saw Goss run out, she hadn’t put any extra layers on. I got flustered and thought ‘don’t waste time here’. Oh how I came to regret that stupid decision. There were gusts of 40mile/hour, rain and a feel factor of about 10 degrees with me wearing just a tri-suit and not even a pair of socks! I was frozen in minutes and genuinely concerned about hypothermia. I didn’t warm up until we hit the hills at 70k, though I did pee on the bike a few times and that warmed my feet up nicely (you can say ‘ewwww’ but I was not stopping and I was so wet anyway!).

Wales Bike

Wet, cold and filthy on the bike! It was treacherous – even with my visor up the rain was so heavy at times I could barely see where I was going.

I caught Rachel Hallam and Kate Comber just before the steep climbs up Wisemans Bridge and Saundersfoot. I like climbs and I felt confident I could drop them and solidify my place in 2nd. The support was incredible. Even at remote parts of the course people were cheering and the scene up Saundersfoot was like a mountain stage of the Tour de France! I was feeling good and I gave the biggest smile as I passed my sister and Paula to reassure them I was loving this.

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The support all day was immense – especially up Saundersfoot. It made this a very special race.

Then it was into the wind again and I noticed my speed drop off. At 130k Kate passed me and I realised I had forgotten to eat for the last hour and I was beginning to bonk (that means ‘hit the wall’ for the non-tri peps reading this!). I had a small bar of dark chocolate that was frozen but I crunched it down with some water. I had one more gel in my back pocket that I decided to save for the final climbs. I kept Kate in sight and did my best to regain some form. I simply had not taken enough nutrition with me – a rookie error made worse by the cold conditions which increase your metabolic demands.

The final steep climbs loomed, I reached for my gel to find my pocket empty! My numb hands must have dropped it at some prior point. I gritted my teeth and crawled over the climbs. At the 170k aid station I took on 2 bananas and a whole bottle of carbohydrate drink that I devoured on the descent back into town.

T2 was ridiculously slow. My feet were so cold and too sore to run barefoot on the concrete – I should have left my cleats on! Kate was in the tent when I got there and I resolved to pass her on the run. With socks and trainers on (oh the bliss!) I headed out and was surprised how good I felt. The carbs had kicked in and I was so happy to be safely off the bike and not feeling the cold. I passed Kate after 6km and I knew I was running too fast. Each check of my garmin showed a pace I didn’t expect and one I might not sustain for the marathon. I forced myself to ease up and make sure I held onto second place.

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Running my way to my first Ironman finish and second on the podium.

I don’t think there is a town that does supporting like Tenby! As with the swim and the bike, the cheering on the run was immense. The 4 laps meant I saw my sister often too. The run literally passed in a blur and before I knew it I was heading towards the finish line. Wow what a feeling- finishing my first Ironman, and after so much uncertainty. I’m so grateful to Goss for talking me back onto the start line, and to my family for their unwavering support despite real fears I would kill myself trying to finish.

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If there is one word that sums up my feeling on the finish line, its gratitude. I look up and thank God for getting me here.

Every race I have a scripture that I memorise to get me through the dark moments. My Wales verse was Joshua 1:9 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” It is this I am most grateful for in life – that wherever I go, whatever I set my hand to, I know the Lord is with me.

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The moment you dream of – on the podium in a shower of champagne.

I remind myself of that now as I write this in Langkawi, preparing to take on Ironman Malaysia in a few days time. It will be an entirely different beast to the Welsh dragon, a fire breathing one as it will be hot, hot, hot!! I cant wait to race and I look forward to sharing the story with you after. The next blog I hope to be more prompt in writing and less verbose! Thanks for reading.

God Bless

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