Well here it is.. the penultimate post for my Ironman “Journey” – still hate that word
What a day. What a year. I must stop crying. Why are there no hashtags on my mac? I need to hashtag emotionalwreck. Urgh.
I’m going to write about Sunday 13th September – Ironman Wales day – from waking up to getting home after completing it.
First a little background. I have never done a triathlon. I have never done a marathon. This time last year I couldn’t swim more than 50m without coughing up half the pool and I didn’t own a bike. Wait – I’d never even ridden a road bike. Clips and cleats? Those are for hanging washing out right?
You should all know by now that I signed up for this around a year ago. I have been training 6 days a week, sometimes twice a day, hell sometimes 3 times a day to be ready for yesterday. So what was it like…
My alarm went off at 5am. Amazingly I had managed to get some sleep. A solid 6 or 7 hours but I woke up in a bad state after having nightmares about an army helicopter crashing into my bike whilst it was waiting for me in transition. DO NOT ASK.
Fortunately this was just a dream and I got out of bed and straight into the kitchen to try and eat some breakfast. It was still dark outside but the forecasted gale force winds and torrential rain seemed to be biding it’s time to raise it’s awful ugly head. So that was a promising start. I managed to eat 5 spoonfuls of oats and drink two sips of coffee with 3 sips of lucozade. I got washed and got my swimsuit and wetsuit on. I was only doing the wetsuit up to my waist as I had to get into town and load the nutrition and fluids onto my bike.
Arriving in town it was still pitch black. People were walking up to their bikes with torches. I loaded on my two water bottles and twenty million energy bars and checked the tyre pressure. Everything seemed ok. Dropping off my bag with my clothes for post-run I met my parents and incredibly supportive friend Erin (who has travelled for ten hours in the space of 36 hours to be there with me) and we walked towards the beach. The athletes surrounding us were strangely quiet. You could feel the nerves and the fear and the general anticipation. As we approached the beach a sign told us only athletes were permitted past this point. Mum and Dad got me zipped into my suit and it was a highly emotional goodbye for now.
Walking down to the beach I dropped off the bag with my shoes and bottle of water. I will explain that later. Down to the sand and I found my fabulous friend Abi, we also bumped into a guy I had been training in the sea with on the day previous. Good vibes. Loud music. Warming up. Smiles all round. We had been told we wouldn’t be allowed to warm up in the sea as it would still be too dark but thankfully the sunrise gods had smiled and it was light enough for us to get in there and throw some water down the fronts of our suits. This takes away the initial shock when you first enter the water to start swimming. Your body goes into shock with the cold and you struggle to catch your breath. Not fun when you are trying to get into your stride! We were then told to assemble according to predicted swim times. Amazingly, Abi, me and the guy from swim training were all aiming for 1 hour 25 to 1 hour 30 so we were together to run into the water. The Welsh national anthem was played and the crowds were starting to get rowdy. Countdown for the professional athletes and five minutes later we were off. I hit start on my Garmin and dove into the sea. Goggles flew off. Great. Ok get them back on and lets go. Stroke stroke breathe, stroke stroke breathe…. Argh this is awful. Water in my goggles. Choppy waves. Can’t find my stride. This went on for the first 500m out to the first buoy.
Thankfully we cornered the first buoy (cue lots of kicking and elbowing – lucky I’m scrappy) and we were setting off on the long stretch. Now then, to put this into perspective. Remember that very depressing scene at the end of The Perfect Storm where Mark Wahlburg is just kind of floating around waiting to die? Well we had waves/swell similar to that. I was swimming UP walls of water and crashing down the other side. Luckily I have grown up mucking around in big waves and it didn’t scare me but I learned afterwards that many people were sick in the water and some were clinging onto the lifeboats within the first 800m. Rounding the second buoy we headed for land, onto the beach, run around a little lane, back over the timing chip mat and back into the water for the second lap. Now I was really getting a good pace. I was swimming alongside lean triathlete machines and I was matching their pace. LET’S GO. Stroke stroke stroke breathe REPEAT. Second lap done. Onto the sand and running up to the bag I dropped off. In this bag were my trainers from walking down earlier and my water bottle. Wetsuit unzipped, trainers on, water poured into my mouth, spat out, water over my face and I was off running up the horrifying steep ramp for 1km to my bike.
Reaching the top of the ramp I saw my parents and Erin standing cheering, the look of relief on my parents faces that I hadn’t drowned was pretty clear! Into transition. Find my bag amongst 2000 others, wetsuit off, no time for shame, cycling shorts on, shoes on, crop top on, vest on, scotland flag headscarf donated by Dad on, glasses on – out the tent to find my bike. There she is! The little beauty. Running with my bike towards the mounting line, jumping on, clipping my shoes in, smiling and waving to the incredible crowds and we are off for 112 miles.
Now my bike was 7 hours and 30 minutes so I am not going to go through every tiny detail. The important parts to mention are the cut off times – miss them by 1 minute and you’re out of the race. You wheel over timing chip maps around the course which tracks your progress. Not going fast enough? You get pulled off and gently told you won’t be carrying on. I was making good progress and felt fast and comfortable. I knew this would be my strongest part of the day. I went flat out on the descents, often over taking guys on ££££££’s of time trial bikes – that felt pretty awesome. I pushed hard in the high gears on the flats, making my body as flat and streamlined as possible. The climbs? Well they were hell. They were steep, no, they were HELLISH steep, they went on forever and there were loads of them. I dug deep got out of my saddle and powered through. First big loop of the bike course was done. I sped through town and saw my parents and Erin again. This time with a SIGN! Oh my god I cannot tell you how happy that made me. Dad was going mental screaming GO GO GO! Mum and Erin were cheering. It was truly amazing. The best part? The forecasted horror show of weather hadn’t materialised and I was cruising through the bike course with blue skies and a light wind. Ideal. Ok, the second loop, this was repeating part of the first loop. The part with all the hills. God those Ironman route planners are mean. The crowds were amazing. Everyone with properties on the course was out on the roads drinking and cheering us on. On the hills they were standing at the sides, sometimes 3 or 4 people deep. The music was blaring. The cow bells and whistles were deafening. I spent 100 of the 112 miles beaming from ear to ear. It was truly magical. HARD…. but incredible.
I knew I was going to make the bike cut off and the relief was immense. I worked out that I had been racing for 9 hours and 45 minutes and I had 10 hours and 30 minutes to get back to transition for the marathon. I racked my bike, tried not to cry with relief and got back into the tent to get my biking gear off and insanely tight compression skins and trainers on. Hair tied up. Sunglasses back on. Race belt and caffeine gels round my waist. Out the tent and setting off with a nice comfortable pace. Running towards the centre of town I saw mum, dad and erin again. Another sign! Amazing! I reassured them I was feeling ok and set off for my first lap of FOUR for the marathon.
Ooooohhhhh myyyyy godddddd —- how much do I wish I’d checked the marathon course before the day of the race. It was absolutely insane. 5km out and 5km back into town times 4. The first 5km was ALL uphill. The entire course was running against the traffic of other runners aka when I was running (limping/walking/crying/shuffling) OUT of town, the people running back INTO town were on the other side of the road. Very depressing. Anyway – I was constantly checking my Garmin even though I knew I had plenty of time. I was so keen to break the 15 hours and 30 minutes my coach and I had worked out but I knew my pace wasn’t going to get me there. Time to switch to Plan B. Just get over the finish line Cat.
Upon completing each 10km we were given a coloured band to wear around our arms. The order went Yellow = 1st lap, Blue = 2nd lap, Red = 3rd lap and finally Green meant you were on the home straight. Running out on the first 10km with my yellow band and seeing people with all four colours around their biceps? Pretty demoralising but I kept going. This was when it really started to get interesting… First lap was good. Decent pace and I felt ok. I was stopping at the aid stations for water and bananas because I was so hungry and couldn’t face another slimy sugary salty gel. Blergh. Back into town and rounding the corner I saw my support crew (you know who they are by now… mum, dad, erin – the real heroes of the weekend, they stood and cheered me on for SEVENTEEN HOURS) This time they had a new sign – it read We (heart) you Cat – well that was it. I completely lost it. Burst into tears and tried to shout that I was ok as I continued along the road and out of town for the second lap. This time I told myself I would walk up the hills and run down them…. yeah that kiiiiiind of happened and kind of didn’t. By now my IT bands (the outside of your thighs) were starting to scream and every placement of my feet felt like the muscle being stripped from the bone. Just keep going. Just keep going. If I repeated that in my head once I repeated it a hundred times. The only good thing about the marathon course being back to back with other runners? I saw people I knew. It was incredible to shout their names or hear my name shouted and just a “you ok??” – “yeah… no… yeah I’m ok” and then they were gone.
2nd lap was slower and I knew I was in trouble. Starting the 3rd lap —- I fell to pieces. I was now walking, quickly to be fair but my whole body was shutting down. I was getting colder and colder. My eyes were half open. I couldn’t form a sentence and I couldn’t bring myself to smile at the spectators. It was dark. I was alone walking up a closed off dual carriage way and I was tired. SO tired. I actually yawned twice. Every time I stopped to pee I just wanted to curl up in the portaloo and go to sleep. Yes – in a PORTALOO. I kept going. When I was given my 3rd band I burst into tears. Uncontrollable heaving sobs. I wanted my mum. I wanted to go home. Strangers on the course checked I was ok. I just nodded. Then a ray of shining wonderment appeared. ABI…. my amazing stunning new best friend that was also competing and who I hadn’t seen since we entered the water for the swim. She was going strong. She was on her last lap. “Are you ok Cat?” she yelled…. “No not really” I cried. She walked with me and put her arms round me and told me I would make it. Then my knight in shining armour arrived. Sean, Shaun…. maybe his name was Sam. He put his arm around my shoulders and said “I am going to walk with you. My knee is wrecked so we can do it together”. Sean/Sam was a total stranger but I have never been so grateful. I sent Abi on her way to smash that finish line and Sean (Sam??? I was delirious by this point) and I started to walk together. He tried to keep me talking. Asking me questions. I can’t remember what they were. I just know he gave up after a few minutes because all I could do was focus on the tarmac in front and stop myself throwing up. We were nearly back into town and I was only getting worse. I was now shivering and I could feel my eyes closing. I was starting to worry I would collapse and not finish.
I walked past a competitor that had finished and asked if I could have her silver foil. I walked with that wrapped round me for a few kilometres and threw it off when I got into town. I had a couple more caffeine gels and some flat pepsi and set off for my last lap. I was determined to make it. I kept thinking about all my messages of support. My parents. My sister. My friends… You all kept me going. I can’t tell you how much you helped in those last few hours. So 4th lap. I was doing ok. I’d lost Sean/Sam to a toilet stop a while ago but I was picking up the pace a little. And then it started to rain. No – then someone did the ice bucket challenge to me. It was howling wind and raining so hard spectators were running from the streets to get to any form of shelter. I was wearing a lycra vest and my compressions skins. I’ve never been so cold. My support team were STILL out there as I rounded the corner. I did my best to smile and say I was ok and I set off for my last lap
First aid station I saw people wearing plastic ponchos whilst handing out the flat pepsi and various other sugary concoctions. Did they have any of these wonder ponchos left? No…Did they have bin liners? HELL YES. Hole in the top for my head, no need for arms, best life saving bin liner you have ever seen. I tucked my hands under my arm pits and carried on up the hill. It was now pitch black and only intermittently lit by floodlights. The only positive was I was ahead of other people still completing their third lap. Keep going keep going. I eventually got the golden (GREEN) band and that was it. Game face on. I started chatting again to the people around me. I was laughing. Swearing. Marching on. Homeward bound. Bin liner of life I love you. Let’s do this.
Into town. Blowing a gale. I found my new favourite person. A woman in a red top. No idea what her name was but we ran the last 2kms together. Yes. RAN. I ripped off the bin liner as we reached town. Hiiiii-YAH. See ya later bin liner from heaven. I’ve got a finish line to cross. Up the cobbled streets. Past the pubs of shit faced people screaming my name (it was on my bib number), past the girls in giant pink afros, past the gorgeous Tri Training Harder Tri Club guy that had led the swim session. High fives all round. As I rounded one of the final corners I hugged the man in the high viz jacket making sure we went the right way….. and then there it was – Right for more laps…. Left for finish line.
This was it. This was my moment. This was a year of training. A year of early starts and tearful 10 mile runs. This was the finale. I could hear the smashing drums coming from the finish line. The screaming cheers as people went up the red carpet. None of that mattered though because as I came round the corner to climb the final hill….. my dad was there. He was standing waiting for me. He spotted me and started to scream and shout and cheer. I have never loved my family more. Through everything they have supported me. I shouted at Dad that I was ok. I shouted at him to start running with me. He stayed on the pavement on the other side of the barrier and we ran to the red carpet…
Then I was alone. There were crowds and crowds of people on either side of the red carpet. Paul, the Ironman commentator was there. I knew this was really happening. I could see the finish line arch. I could see the digital clock. I was there. I threw my arms in the air and closed my eyes. I was smiling. I don’t know how. I don’t know how my legs were moving but I floated along those last few metres and heard the beep as my timing chip went over the mat. Then it happened – this animal, raw, emotionally charged scream just erupted from somewhere very deep inside. I was doubled over and letting it all go. All the pain. All the emotion. All the panic and stress and fear that I wouldn’t make it. I had done it (I am crying writing this by the way – sorry for typos).
“Catriona!!! YOU…. ARE….. AN IRONMAN”
Those words will be engraved into my memory for the rest of time.
After screaming I punched the air and heard the other commentator tell the crowds I might be quite happy to have finished the race…. Understatement of the century. There was a man in front of me placing a huge heavy medal around my neck, as the weight hit my chest I fell onto him and hugged him. The winning female athlete was there. More hugs…. then I had to go straight to the medical tent in case anything was wrong but I was fine. I collected the white bag with my clothes. There were tables and tables of food but I just wanted to get out and be with my parents and Erin. I got my bag and my finisher t-shirt and went to put my hoody on. Abi appeared in front of me. She had finished two hours ago but she had waited to make sure I made it. I completely fell to pieces and cried and cried whilst holding onto her as tightly as I could. There is a special bond between two people that have trained together and then made it through one of the toughest physical challenges around. She kept telling me she knew I would do it. It is hard to explain how much love I felt for that girl in that moment.
I had to collect my bike and my two other bags containing the rest of my kit. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was desperate to get out to my mum and dad…. I grabbed my bike and handed over my timing chip
Then I saw them. Mum was crying. Dad was crying. I was blinded by tears. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I had done it. I was safe. I was home. I held onto my mum and dad until we managed to pull ourselves together. Erin was next —- this amazing, selfless, supportive, loving friend had been by my side every single day from the moment I mentioned signing up for this. She has lived with me through 5am starts. Through my tears. Through my injuries (loads of them…. jaw surgery, gastroenteritis… I could go on – the training gods really took the piss). She has believed in me from the start. I have never hugged someone so hard. I will never forget that moment coming through that gate. They all just kept saying “you did it”….
We started to walk back to the car and then my sister rang. She had been following my progress all day online. She had made sure people that couldn’t get the tracker to work were up to date with my progress. She rallied the support troops on Facebook. She was, is, amazing. It was so brilliant to talk to her. She was so proud. I can’t remember our conversation but I know I told her I had a wee on the bike. Yes…. ON the bike. She loved that story. Minger.
Wheels off the bike, bike in the car and I attempted to climb into the front seat… easier said that done. Phenomenal pain but it was over. Home for two sips of prosecco (I couldn’t stomach more than that and a bit of cheese), a very hot salty bubble bath and then I climbed into bed.
And that’s my story. The hardest, most rewarding day of my life. I am still trying to come to terms with the fact it is over. I don’t think it has truly sunk in yet.
I don’t want this to turn into an academy awards ceremony but I do want to thank each and every person that wished me well. Whether it was messages, chats at work, facebook, instagram, phone calls…. you have no idea what they meant to me. I’ve had messages from Australia, America and all over the world. I am truly humbled.
A number of people have told me I have inspired them or I am an inspiration. That is one of the most incredible comments. If that is true then let me sign off with the words that were printed on the water bottles handed out around the bike course
YOU’RE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK
And you really really are
(N.B – at dinner last night I was told by a local that the Ironman committee staged a crisis meeting on the Saturday morning. The weather forecast for Sunday was so bad they were contemplating cancelling the swim because it was too dangerous. Fortunately the weather gods were kind. How mad is this though? They sent a team of divers into the water to make sure no one was pulled under by the waves/swell. Glad I didn’t spot them when my face was in the water.)