The Ironman Vichy Race – I came to Triathlon late. I’m old and I do too many other things. But that Ironman mantra “anything is possible” had wormed its way into me. Some days it seemed silly but other days possible. I had done a middle distance and a marathon and I hadn’t died. But my wife hates triathlon, feeling abandoned and angry, so I’d put it off.
But the idea kept coming back. Other folk did it. Bob Pringle was encouraging, drank coffee with me, recommended Don Fink’s book and I was hooked. I signed up for Ironman Vichy.
As always, training is mostly planning and habit. Don Fink had a tidy schedule and is good on motivation and anticipating problems so I stuck with him and, for the first time in my life, did what I was told. I planned it all out, wrote my target times on a notice on the bathroom mirror to make it public in the house and braced myself.
Age and domestic resistance weren’t my only challenges. I had mistakenly signed up for the Manchester marathon with my son at the start of the training period and then, immediately after it, for a hernia operation which I’d put off for ages. These confused things but I started the schedule early, trained for the marathon through the first weeks of the programme and made a gap for the operation. Looking back, it all went OK. The operation went smoothly and I was into the pool and onto the turbo in the first week. After 3 weeks I felt back in there and that I’d not lost much fitness. It’s simply amazing how one can train steadily more each week and keep up with what life throws at you. But being old means each task takes longer and recovery is slower. I was seriously tired most of the time and I think I was unprepared for this. One is doubly disabled by the time lost to training and then being reduced to looking blankly at the wall rather than mowing the lawn. I tried to be affectionate and caring but it wore thin with my wife as all the family and household jobs I should have done slipped from week to week. The whole family pays! If I hadn’t had the marathon and the hernia then I’d have got more baseline training in which might have helped with the tiredness.
But I plodded on, bought a posh watch and heart monitor and a good turbo trainer and followed the programme, increasing intensity and endurance steadily each week. Nutrition was big thing for me. I slowly realised just how much one has to eat to keep going. I continued to learn right up to the race. Expensive fructose/glucose gels were a big enabler. Made even more important because of the extra time I took, both in training and racing on the day. I’d done long rides before but never without a break. You have to find a way to get the food in comfortably and reliably.
I complicated the challenge further by delaying booking transport and accommodation until after my operation. It’s all so expensive! And I may well have had to pull out. But by the time I realised I was going to be OK, the only accommodation was camping. I booked the last remaining pitch in Vichy, on a campsite about 5 km from the race and about 2 km outside town. And on top of this, my ecological concerns meant taking the train not the road. I managed to book the bike onto all the necessary trains from Sheffield to Vichy and back. And Ady kindly agreed to take my tent and other gear in his van.
I plodded on with the long bike rides, increasing 10% a week and managed 3 at the full distance by the end. Swimming was slow but steady with about 6 full distance swims in the pool and 3 in open water. I did 2 short open water sessions without a wetsuit but for no more than half an hour… see later! My running maximum was 20 miles but I had built up very slowly and felt much better than I had when training for the marathon earlier in the year, probably because of better nutrition. I had no idea how to train for the French heat, in our cool english air but my daughter Esme who has run in Africa said to get a hat. But the training becomes a part of ones life, with weekly new achievements and that inexplicable bliss of rest, warmth and shower after moving further than one ever thought possible.
As it approached, I tapered, rested and worried about packing and transport. Got out my home made plastic bike bag, in case I had to dismantle the bike on the French trains, practised with the Allen keys and worried some more.
Then I was off! Nancy and Ady had my bags of non essential stuff, I had a bivy bag in case they were delayed and I had all the bare race necessities, just in case they never arrived. I rode the bike to Sheffield station with my rucksack on my back and then from St Pancras to Brixton for the night with the grandchildren. Up early and biked back to St Pancras to book the bike on the Eurostar for an uneventful trip to Paris. I had a very hot, hairy ride across Paris to Gare St Bercy for the train south to Vichy. Vichy was hot and pretty and the ride to the campsite pleasant. Who needs a car!
Ady, Nancy, Millie and dog Dexter arrived later that evening. What a pleasure to have company and reassurance from experts who had done all this before. We settled in and had a few days to acclimatise and do the last bits of training. Dynamics of our group were interesting with Ady nervous about getting in under 10 hours, Nancy doing the half on Saturday and me scared stiff about surviving. We registered, saw the others from Sheffield and kept ourself quietly together but for me it was mostly mentally preparing. Scared stiff!
It was very hot at 37 degrees. Bombshell for me was the ban on wetsuits, I would have to do what I had never done and swim the distance without. But there was nothing for it and we watched the half on the Saturday and supported the fantastic Sheffield group dealing with the heat. Some excelled. Some had difficulties. I watched and learned. Once the day came, most of my concerns fell away. There was nothing for it now but to do ones best.
The swim went OK for me. It seemed very long and I was desperately slow and very tired at the end. Most of our Garmins recorded the distance at 4.2km, more than 10% longer than it should have been. And I took 2hrs, longer than I had ever swum for, and without a wetsuit. But I managed somehow and got into the transition tent with my bag. Very cold. Arm warmers on and socks and cycling shorts and a great relief to be out of the water.
Bike was good. I managed to keep it slow but steady. I warmed up but didn’t get too hot, ate and drank and began to feel OK. I did the first lap of 60 miles in a time that could mean I’d make up the loss I’d made on the swim and I kept going. I was steadily passing a few people and felt encouraged. I think my mind has blanked out many of the details but I remember passing and being passed by the same folk, getting the food and the drink going and stopping twice for a wee. The second loop was quieter as the fast riders had all finished and it was very peaceful and pretty. Met up with H towards the end of the ride and it was a real treat to meet someone I knew, especially such a cheerful soul. I passed her and went on but she passed me again at the end and we came to T2 together.
By this time I clearly had a good chance of finishing in time and was optimistic that I could even walk if I had to. Coming out of the transition tent I got in a tizz thinking I’d lost my sunglasses. After recalling my run bag the volunteer pointed to them on my head! It was hot and cool by turns on the run, in sun and shade but it was not as hot as the day before. We had loads of support on the way round from all the folk from Sheffield. Four laps collecting a coloured band each lap. Ran most of the first 2 laps. Then I slowed. I felt sick drinking the Highfive energy drink which was the same drink I had used in training but tasted radically different. I couldn’t stand it and tried to manage on water and bananas but they were just not enough. Walking and running with a steady increase in the walking, I was really flagging. Then I found and ate some of my favourite gels which had been there my trisuit pocket all along. They really picked me up. Sarah who’d done the half the day before kindly offered to run with me but I was paranoid about being disqualified so sadly staggered on alone. A fast walker who kept passing me when I walked and then dropped behind when I ran said he’d learned how to walk fast as a child from his mother pulling him along in Bradford. The picture of pair of Lowry stick people in a Northern town cheered me up!
It was quite dark now but the end was in sight. I came into that terribly noisy stadium at the end substantially recovered having eaten something and was running well and feeling good. The man with the blaring microphone tried to read my name from my bib as I crossed the line but couldn’t cope with Bing. Who cares! I’d made it 14 hours 45 minutes with over an hour to spare and wasn’t last.
Got my medal and massage. Felt guilty about the supporters outside waiting so long for an old bloke but what a joy to meet up with everyone else and head home. Shared my tent with Jim and even though he’s so tall that his toes were in my nostrils I had a really good sleep. It’s a long day from 4 AM to midnight. Amazingly I was not too bad the next day either! Hardly stiff and felt fine packing up the tent and get ready for the journey home the next day. We had a delightful last meal with everyone from Sheffield packed into a little restaurant.
It was an early start before the others were up, I left my tent and bags for Ady to bring home and headed to the station. I had trouble in Paris, unexpectedly having to dismantle the bike for a Eurostar bike box. I had trouble reassembling it at St Pancras with a queue and no proper tools. But I just caught the Sheffield train and was home in time for tea.
As a post script… on my first ride after this epic I was a mile from home and my gear cable broke! Unchanged in nearly 3 years, if it had happened in the race I would have been scuppered… Lesson there for next time! What other lessons have I learnt? Plan a full year ahead, start the training scheme at the right time and without interruptions like marathons or surgery, if you can. Get your nutrition thoroughly sorted using exactly what you’re going to eat on the day. Book cool weather so that you can keep your wet suit on! Love your wife as best you can. And last of all, that most cliches, even when flogged to death by a commercial machine, can be true. Big things are possible despite difficulties and, with training, old bodies can keep going all day and well into the night…