Ironman is a wonderful beast. An oxymoron of ferocious simplicity. On paper, it is the easiest thing in the world to execute. You just swim, then cycle then run. The difficulty comes from maintaining momentum. To keep going when everything hurts and the will to stop can feel so momentous.
Even the best in the world recognised it. Chrissie Wellington, Ironman World Champion times oft quoted her favourite poem, Rudyard Kiplings ‘If’…
“And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them: ‘Hold on!'”
There’s a reason why people describe it as life changing; Pivotal; mesmerising, addictive; humbling. It’s addictive to be around whether you are there as supporter or participant. And just one week ago we arrived at our final Ironman destination of 2016. The official pirate champs in Mallorca.
I’ve had three Ironman entries for this year and started none of them. I don’t view that as a failure, rather as a lifeline. During our time battling with businesses, mental health, physical health, homelessness, bitterness and heartbreak. These respites have offered a hook to hang our coat on. A time of respite and rejuvenation.
And now, when we are almost nearly there, it was symbolic that three days after our arrival on the island, I crossed the Ironman finish line with my beloved whilst supporting my most loyal friend.
Ironman is unforgettable, each bringing moments of its own specific challenges with each event.
As we left the hotel early on race morning, the sky was still dark. luminescence from lightening rattling around us from the surrounding mountains and combined with a strange dense humidity. It was clear even without an official forecast that this time it would be environmental.
We had a coffee then made our way down to the beach to watch the swimmers, who at that point were huddled into self seeded time bays. The darkness lifted with a spectacular sunrise, revealing cumulus clouds heavy with rain. Many photographs were taken as we watched first the elites and then the numerous age groupers make their way into the water to start their day.
It was race time!
Once they were off, we made our way to the exit of T1 to watch riders come out and onto their bikes. Slowly at first the first male, then second, then not long after the first female brought bikes to the mount line, swung over legs (or if brave enough roll the bike first for a moving mount) and set off. A trickle became a critical mass causing many comedy moments. Shoes flying off bikes, people riding into others, bottles being cascaded over the road. And then gradually pirates started to come through and we shouted and cheered and arghed until it was time to go for breakfast.
Much refreshed and energised later we made our way to the run course to cheer the runners on the final leg of their triathlon, the marathon. It’s often barely possible to conceive of running a marathon after a 2.4mile swim and 112 mile cycle ride.
The organisers tend to plan laps for the run. This works really well from a logistical perspective, ie only needing to provide three water stations rather than many. It also benefits the runners from a psychological perspective, ie easier to break the run down into chunks and normally plenty of support from both fellow athletes and supporters. Normally, I’d avoid a lapped marathon with a passion but I absolutely love lapped Ironman runs.
We found ourselves a spot on an ‘out and back’ portion on the coast near the port. We settled ourselves into a bar and enjoyed a late lunch and a beer or two.
Then the rain started, gentle potter patter at first and then got heavier and heavier. Then came the wind and the thunder and lightening returned. Even bigger and louder than before. Although a few of the elites and faster age grouped had made it to the run course now, talk turned to the slower age groups who would be approaching the only real climb and technical descent on the bike course.
The fact it had been treacherous out there was already apparent. Athletes passed us with grazes and cuts, bruises and in one case an arm in sling. Determined to carry on despite their injuries. And we all got wetter and wetter as showers turned to torrents. Even under canopy we got soaked and more importantly cold. Up there on witch mountain it would be bloody awful!
We went back to the hotel for a regroup and change of clothes and then returned to our spot once the rain eased a touch. By now there were many athletes out on the run course. Three pirates had not made it, we felt sad for them and then turned our attentions to those who had made the cut off. These included Penny, by the skin of her teeth by all accounts.
Pen marched passed us, her face set but managing a smile. I knew she had programmed her watch to one minute walk and then one minute run and she was following it fairly closely on the first lap. The miles averaged out at around 15 minute miles and I knew from experience, it would be tight but at that pace she would make the 16 hours and 10 minute cut off.
By this time several pirates had passed us. All looked comfortable or determined with gritted teeth. A fair few we probably could have quoted ‘If’ at. We stopped drinking and spent more time at the barriers shouting encouragement. It was a tough day out there and every bit of energy we could give them would potentially help.
One poor ‘Tyne and Wear’ rescue guy got abuse every time he went past. We shouted ‘ha’way the lads’ and ‘Canny bag a Tudor’ at him loads. He seemed to enjoy it.
On the second lap Pen asked for something salty and we managed to track down some salted potatoes and crisps for her. She was lucky, the barman mistook our peanuts request for ‘peach schnapps’. The mix up was soon clarified.
By lap three she had slowed down, crisps were taken but slightly more reluctantly and I feared for her finish. It was clear she would have to speed up but at this stage it’s so difficult to do it. By now we had worked out what order people would arrive in. And when ‘Fraggle’ arrived for one last time looking tired but determined asking ‘What time is it?’, our reply of ‘don’t worry you have plenty’ was true.
Happily she did great.
So far, so good, all pirates out on the run course had made it over the line. Now for the final one…
No one came for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes oh my goodness, where is she. I was just vocalising my theory of the organisers stopping her when over in the distance I could see the familiar run of Pen. She had got this far but she looked like she was in pain. Her face set and weary.
Oh goodness. I felt for my mate. I’ve been there and it feels grim. We’d established that we were roughly eight kilometres from the finish at this point and she had roughly 1 hour 15 minutes to do it. Possible but it would be so, so close and she would certainly have to move faster than she had been.
After a day of standing up, my muscles, especially my feet, we’re killing me. But I knew what needed to be done. The small miserable part of me hoped she would say no, and when I uttered ‘Do you need some company’, she considered and then replied ‘yeah, that would be welcome’. It was without regret I set in next to her and joined by one other we walked and ran the out and back portion to G and the others.
At that point we were joined by G and Shiraz, our small collection growing to a group. For a brief moment I fantasised that our band would be an ever growing band of pirates.
It had a film fantasy ending to it, which was snuffed out when we passed through town and then right onto a soul destroying loop of pavement and darkness. The people leaving transition with bikes and medals and glory drowning out their own pain put me in mind of Michael Collins, son of John Collins (the inventor of Ironman) who had once taken over 24 hours to complete the race. When he was interviewed about it later he said… ‘A bad day is when you’re walking in the marathon and you’re walking through town and you see the paperboy and he’s delivering the paper with the results of an event that you’re still in. Now that’s a bad day!’
So no fairy tale finish then, just each of us gently nudging Pen on, to run when she could but most importantly keep going. Eventually, we got to a water station with no water laid out. Only coke and Powerbar. We urged Pen to go on while we sorted it and having eventually located and filled four cups with water, had to adopt an ‘It’s a Knockout’ style run walk to catch her up without spilling it all.
Job done, we were just setting back in when a Bloke on a moped turned up and started using Pen onto the back. ‘You’re not going to make it’ he said, ‘get on the back and I’ll drop you off round the corner from the finish’ he cooed, ‘no one will know’.
He got the full force of British indignation for that one.
And although he was persistent, we formed a bubble around her to protect her. She had made clear she wanted to get to the finish under her own steam and we would do anything to enable her to do it, even though by now it was apparent to all that she would be outside the cut off.
Moped guy didn’t go away but had to be content to follow at a pace behind us. Pen had now said, no more running but had set a walking pace that was challenging enough for us all to try and keep up with. We were a quiet group but formed of resilience and fortitude. As we completed the last ‘out and back’ portion and then turned right towards the beach, we knew she would make it, even if it was the wrong side of the fireworks.
I’ve never been so proud of my friend. I tried to tell her but couldn’t stop the tears from building and the lump in my throat expanding. Eventually, I blurted it out, before words failed me and I’m not sure she got the full extent of them. But now I can write them at leisure and she’ll know how much she means to me.
We turned left and over the bridge which was steep as a mountain and at that stage must have felt like one and now we were one the blue cycle path and the home straight. Less than a mile to go.
People started to walk towards us along the path. Many would stop and cheer, and we would thank them before passing. Soon after, rather than just offering congratulations, they started to say ‘they’re waiting for you’. It was all rather odd.
We were joined by Hollywood (I think) who smiled and said ‘They’re waiting for you’ before joining us. Stranger and stranger.
Then the magic happened. One by one, pirates would come up to us, and utter ‘they’re waiting for you’, and then tag on to the ever growing group. The group became a critical mass. Rather than have to create a diversion and shove Pen up the finish funnel against objected as we had feared and planned for, we began to see she would be welcomed with open arms.
Seren appeared with a pirate flag and the same greeting, ‘they’re waiting for you’. It was unbelievable. Pen walked faster and faster, gathering energy from the masses. Hollywood complained enough to ask her to slow down. We all laughed and pushed onwards and upwards, like we were in the final stages of the last battle or Narnia. (Or even The video of Vindaloo if you prefer).
Now the M Dot was in sight, glowing red in the darkness. Home and we were so nearly there.
More and more pirates joined us. All with the words, ‘they’re waiting for you’ and ‘now, we can join you, we’ve been allowed to come down the carpet with you’. Pirate flag aloft and Pen breaking into a run for the final time that day, we escorted her down the finish chute to the greeting of the announce Paul Kaye and the male and female winner of the race.
Pen had nothing to prove, she was already an Ironman five times over and though in this race she was deemed as a did not finish, she finished. She had held on, and done it in style.
On the evening they presented her with a finishers tshirt and a medal at the awards ceremony the next day. Me, I got to cross the finish line of another Ironman and though I’ve not completed a race this year. The symbolism was not lost on me.