By Alison Hughes
For anyone wondering, an Ironman is a full distance triathlon. A 3.8km lake or sea swim followed by a 180k bike ride followed by a marathon (42km run).
It’s a hefty price tag to enter and months of training. So why would we (a 50 something mother and her 25 year old daughter) put ourselves through that?
I toyed with the idea of an Ironman for a few years. I’ve done a few marathons and long distance cycle sportives and I like an extreme challenge. In the end I entered Nottingham Outlaw in Jul 2021, which is an ironman distance triathlon. It’s a bit cheaper and without such strict cut-off times (Ironman is a brand).
I thought this would ‘scratch the itch’. Crossing the finish line after 15 and a half hours, to hear “Alison Hughes you are an Outlaw” wasn’t enough. It’s an iconic part of the Ironman experience that you cross the line and they say your name. For some obscure reason I needed to hear “Alison Hughes you are an Ironman”.
I need to do an Ironman
I started to research races. Ironman UK and Ironman Wales were both ruled out as they are notoriously hilly. Hard races and hills are not my forte. I’m also an awful swimmer so anything with a potentially rough sea was also ruled out. There’s no such thing as an easy Ironman but I wanted the easiest one I could find. Copenhagen ticked the most boxes and in October 2022 I booked my place.
At this point my daughter Caitlin decided she would do it too. I think she must have inherited the stupid gene. As, when she signed up to the Ironman, she had just run the London Marathon. And in an impressive 3 hours 56 minutes, but had never done a triathlon. In fact, she didn’t own a wetsuit. Had never swum outside a pool, and only been cycling for a couple of months. After I gave her my old bike. Although she did take to cycling quicky. Apparently it’s the same leg muscles as rowing which she did all the way through her teenage years.
I’m a really slow swimmer. The Ironman swim cut-off is 2 hours 20 minutes, and swim + bike cut off is 9 hours and 30 minutes. With my rubbish swimming, by the time I got my wetsuit off and transitioned on to the bike. I was only going to be left with about 7 hours for the bike leg. That’s punchy for me and at the pace I cycled Nottingham Outlaw I’d have missed the bike cut-off.
The Ironman is notorious for enforcing this strictly. My husband’s cousin was not allowed to start the Wales Ironman run. Just because he finished the 112 mile bike ride 90 seconds too late. Although in fairness to him he finally crossed the finish line 2 years later!
I’ve spent money on swimming lessons and video analysis. Attended swim coaching sessions with a local triathlon club. And watched hours of YouTube swimming videos but so far I still only have one swim speed. I’ve still not given up the hope that one day the swimming is just going to ‘click’. But I knew the focus of my training had to be getting faster on the bike. I’m a runner by background so was confident that leg would be fine.
Focus on the bike
So the key part of my weekly training plan was the bike. It consisted of 2 Wattbike sessions using ‘TrainerRoad’, a Richmond Park lap session, and a long ride at the weekend. I fitted a couple of runs, swims, and a boot camp and/or weights session around this as well. Up until May this wasn’t too bad. I mostly work from home and I’ve been in the same job for ages. I work pretty long hours with lots of late nights. So my team had no issues with me disappearing for exercise sessions during the day. I just treated the exercise sessions as ‘not optional’ and fitted everything else in around that. Caitlin is a morning person so her training involved lots of getting up at 5am. Yeuch!
The fact that lots of others in NMV were doing Ride London at the end of May was great. It built the long ride distance perfectly. We did lots of rides with Nayana in particular, which were generally great. Although I think we all still have nightmares about Col de Skelly.
Ride London was a great day out. Completing this in just under 5 and a half hours boosted my confidence. Perhaps I could make that cut off time? Even with legs tired from the swim. No NMV peloton to pace me or the long lunch break in the middle.
After May, however, the training got serious and was NOT FUN. Lakes opened and I remembered that lake swimming is cold and unpleasant. And that I can’t swim in a straight line when I can’t see the lines in the pool.
A lake trip, long run (I worked up to 20 milers) and a long ride took up the whole weekend. And when I did go out it was overshadowed by the knowledge of what I had to do next. The weather also seemed to turn against us and Caitlin. And I did a few very wet and cold long bike rides. But no pain no gain, and it was only for 2 months.
August was a 2 week holiday in Crete during the ‘taper period’. Yet again the swimming technique failed to click in the tiny villa pool. I had to give up on the attempted sea swim, as the crashing waves were making me sea sick. It did nothing other than panic me. The 16 mile run doing 5k laps with a different family member on each lap was entertaining. Although I regretted the lap with a whinging 13 year old. I suspect the quantities of wine were also not really recommended for an Ironman taper.
Suddenly it was Friday 18 August and I was boarding a plane to Copenhagen. I was with my husband, daughter, her partner Kev, and my 13 year old son Tommy. Watching anxiously as the yellow bike box kindly loaned (and packed) by Jeff was thrown about by the baggage handlers.
I’d pre-booked a mechanic to unpack the bike box and reassemble my bike. So it was drop off our cases at our AirBnB and off to that appointment when we landed. My shredded nerves were not helped when the screw snapped as my handlebars were reattached.
The mechanic said to leave the bike with him and he’d meet me at the Ironman village the next day. He would try and source a replacement. My husband did say the bike mechanic was the best £100 I’ve ever spent. As he would have been the one reassembling my bike otherwise. He didn’t want to think about the fallout if the snapped screw was ‘his fault’.
Saturday was race registration at Jollevej and a practice swim in the lagoon. I decided the temperature merited wearing my neoprene swim hat under the official race hat (to the hilarity of my family who think it makes me look like a gnome). Until this point Caitlin was relaxed about the swim but at the practice she was seriously freaked out by the seaweed that stretches up from the bottom so you have to swim through it (the lagoon is seawater but more like a lake than the sea as it’s cut off by a big spit of land and there is no current or waves).
Ironman is a big well organised event so the Ironman village was interesting and Copenhagen itself is a cyclist’s haven. You are given a ‘swim to bike’ bag that you pack with everything you need for that transition and a separate ‘bike to run’ bag. You drop those bags on a peg with your race number in each transition area and rack your bike in your numbered slot the day before the race.
Copenhagen in August is a bit like the UK in terms of unpredictable weather so we’d both brought a good range of clothing, but the weather forecast was looking promising. Fortunately the mechanic had fixed my bike and after lots of triple checking that we hadn’t missed anything from our transition bags we were all checked in. I was too nervous to be hungry but had to spend the day forcing down as many carbs as possible. So after a heavy dinner it was an early night.
20 August – Ironman race day
Up at 4am, force down some porridge and a 30 minute walk to the start. Into the wetsuit and a visit to check on the bike. It’s fair to say there were some very fancy bikes and lots of tri bars. Hearing the massive pop as a guy with a bike with the solid wheels and no visible spokes pumped up his tyre was memorable. We all stared as he ran off in a panic in search of a mechanic and thought thank god that’s not me.
You are given a colour coded swim hat and wave start based on your predicted finish time. Safe to say I was in a white hat in the last wave. Caitlin could have gone up a wave to be a purple hat but had opted to stay with me rather than risk being swum over (which does happen with triathlon mass starts).
A final hug from the family and we were herded into the start pen where they were playing loud pop songs and trying to pep us up. It’s worth noting that Ironman entrants are about 85% male so it felt like there was a lot of testosterone around. At this point I felt a mix of blind fear and relief that it was going to happen now and the nervy wait of the last few days would be over.
And then the klaxon sounded….
Ironman: The swim
My strategy was to swim the 200m out to the first buoy breaststroke to calm myself down and then switch to front crawl as I turned that buoy and headed up the lake (frankly my front crawl is about the same speed as my breaststroke, but a wetsuit is not designed for breaststroke and crawl is easier on the legs). In the end I did the whole race as a mix of front crawl and breaststroke, which is not ideal but got the job done.
Every few minutes you had to pull off handfuls of seaweed that had collected round your neck and arms and the water was very murky. You swim under two bridges on the way up the lake so your family can see you and shout encouragement, which was nice. Oddly at the end of the lake where you round the final turn buoy to come back the other way the water gets so shallow you can stand up. Most people just had a quick stand but I waded for about 5 minutes and had a nice chat with a Dutch chap (he was in a purple hat so must be an even worse swimmer than me if I’d caught him up).
Caitlin was out of the water in 1 hour 23, which is quite a typical time so she was very much in the main pack. She’s not very good at sighting either (i.e. getting your head up to have a look where you’re going without disrupting your stroke) but apparently she didn’t even try as she could see people either side of her so just relied on them to be going in the right direction.
By the time I climbed out after 1 hour 55 minutes there were only about 20 or 30 people still in the water so, after changing and shovelling down a banana, I had no trouble finding my bike in the now empty bike racks. At least the dreaded swim was over.
Ironman: The bike
I set off trying to ignore the nausea and heavy legs after the swim. I knew I had to hold about a 16 mph (26 kmph) average speed to safely make the cut-off. I’d hoped to bank a bit of leeway by going faster than this for the first 20 miles as they were flat – out through the city and along the coast.
That was not to be as I fought an absolutely brutal headwind. Caitlin told me later that the wind only started up after she’d been on the bike for half an hour so she missed the worst of it on that ride out along the coast. Typical! I realised this is why most of the other competitors were riding with tri bars. I tried to make do by riding on my drops.
By the time I turned for the first of two loops after around 20 miles I was feeling a bit panicky. I was only just above target speed. How could I keep this up the whole way? The lap was about 37 miles and undulated round the countryside. No big climbs but a lot of small bumps. Quite pretty but slightly boring.
Unlike Ride London where you are choca block bikes the whole time I felt fairly alone out there slogging round. I knew an Ironman is mostly mental so every time my brain tried to tell me to ease up a bit I reminded myself how badly I wanted this and kept pushing the legs and trying to ignore the voice telling me I wasn’t going to make it. Towards the end of the first lap there’s a slightly downhill faster bit, and for the first time I began to have a bit of hope. I was still on target average speed, albeit with nothing spare in the bank.
Psychologically the second lap was easier – I’d done it once so knew what was coming and I also knew I wouldn’t have to do it again. Holding the speed did get harder though and the panic about the cut-off time never left me. I also had to take some paracetamol as my bum and shoulders were starting to hurt from being on the bike for that long without a break.
Nutrition is a key part of an Ironman. Caitlin has a sensitive stomach so had taken a more creative approach including munching sandwiches on the bike but I went with a SIS energy bar or cake bar every hour and some jelly babies in my pocket. I had taken all the wrappers off the bars in advance which helped. But I really did have to force down the food. I wasn’t hungry but knew I would bonk if I didn’t eat.
The other weird thing that I’d been warned about but never experienced before was the water resupply. The process is that as you approach an aid station you throw your empty water bottle to the side in the designated area and then you ride past with your arm outstretched and a volunteer slams a replacement water bottle into your hand. A dangerous wobble at one point but it all worked and I’ve come home with a nice souvenir Ironman 70.3 water bottle.
Turning off the second lap with a 20 mile home straight to go I was still tight for time but thought for the first time I would make it if I just steeled myself.
Whew! That was a long and relentless 7 hours but I made the cut off. Caitlin was now over an hour ahead of me having done the bike in 6 hours 20. She loved it and smiled the whole way round. She’d been absolutely paranoid about getting a puncture and being unable to wrestle her tyre off or using up both her spare inner tubes.
Although she had bought a new bike by the Ironman, she was scarred by the 2 punctures before and during Ride London. She is still slightly plagued with guilt for ignoring a competitor at the side of the road pleading for a spare inner tube. I didn’t see him though so someone must have helped him.
My husband has video footage of both me and Caitlin coming into bike transition and the contrast is stark. Caitlin is annoyingly perky and beaming. I look on the verge of collapse. In fact I sat in the transition tent for 10 minutes eating a sandwich and the medic came in and fetched me some coke and salted crackers.
Ironman: The run
I was genuinely cheered up by my excited 13 year old shouting “You can do it mum” as I set off. It’s a four lap course round the city centre. On each lap you collect a different coloured wrist band. They’d designed it to try and show off the sights of Copenhagen so apparently I ran past the Little Mermaid 4 times, although it’s so underwhelming I never noticed.
Runners will know that 16 miles is about the point where everything starts to hurt so my strategy was to run the first 3 laps but run / walk the last one if I wanted to. Whenever I’ve done a standalone marathon 26 miles has felt daunting but, oddly, I felt close to the end even setting off. After the panic of missing the bike cut off I believed in myself to do the run – I was a runner long before I was a cyclist (and I’m not certain I’ll ever be a swimmer).
I told myself to enjoy it and in many ways I did. The lap course means there is lots of support along the route and you keep going past your family. I also got enthusiastic support from the family standing next to them every time as well who were clearly moved by Tommy’s fist bumping “You got this mum”.
There are also parts of the run where other competitors are coming back down the other side of the road so I saw Caitlin a couple of times and shouted David Goggins quotes at her knowing “Who’s gonna carry the boats!” would make her laugh. Nutrition was lots of flat coke and a bit of Gatorade from the aid stations and I only ate one of the gels I carried in the end.
The only low points were having to run past the finish 3 times and turn left ‘next lap’ before I could turn right ‘to the finish’ and doing the last lap in the dark (there were a couple of places where they really could have done with more lighting).
But fourth time round, 5 hours after the run start, 14 and a half hours after the swim start and 1 hour 45 minutes behind Caitlin, it was right turn and the feeling was out of this world. Lots of people since have tried to tell me I am an Iron woman but no. Alison Hughes YOU are an Ironman!