I earned the nickname ‘snappy’ in the final days before The Bastion. It had been a long time since I had felt as nervous as I did before last Sunday, and Sunday had been a long time coming.
My parents arrived on the Thursday before, and with them and Wimbledon to distract me, I did start to relax, and mostly felt more excitement than anxiety about what was happening. I ate plenty, drink lots, packed and repacked 60 million times and napped. Training was minimal, but I didn’t worry once I wasn’t doing enough, as I knew I’d ticked off what I could and this was maintenance. The hard work was done; time for the victory lap.
A new warning light on your car is just what you want the day before you most definitely need to drive to Kent. On the way to having my final check and click with Leah, my magic chiro, something telling me to fix the engine flashed up on the dashboard, and I freaked out. Despite Dad and Mark telling me it was fine, that the car wasn’t going to explode, every panic possible was going through my head… only for the light then to disappear on the way home.
We headed up to Hever to register that afternoon, passing KM markers for the bike route on the way, which was terrifying. I had to keep reminding myself, as our car struggled up the long inclines, that I’d done this before, and had done more hill training than our little vehicle. We managed to miss the practice swim, but did find an ice-lolly, a cup of tea and various dogs. Registering was quick and easy and I came away with a fantastic goodie bag. I felt at ease around the other athletes, a completely different feeling from last year. I deserved to be there.
The team and other competitors were super friendly, and as we drove home after the briefing, having racked my bike, stowed my run kit and made some friends, I didn’t mind seeing the KM markers looming over the road. I was itching to get started.
Jumping in the shower at 3.30 isn’t something I’d normally do with relish, but today was ironman day and I just wanted to get there. As I pulled on my kit and plaited my hair, the butterflies in my stomach were doing a dance of excitement. Coffee in, breakfast in and off we went. The sun rose over the hills as we drove along the roads that I’d a few hours later be on again. I had my tattoos done by someone who remembered me from the relay the year before and couldn’t help but smile broadly at anyone I passed with a purple wristband. This was our day.
The hooter went and I was doing it.
“Keep your mouth shut”, was going round and round in my head as I swam away from the bank and the supporters. The water was a comfy temperature, but was pretty gross. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, and the only way of telling if anyone was in front of you was if you swam into the back of them.
I quickly found my rhythm, and on the first lap was careful to stay very controlled. A gentle kick, kick, like a propeller, high elbows and a strong pull. Breathe every second stroke. Look up periodically. Check you’re not swimming into the bank. The course was pretty easy to navigate – a straight line for the first section, nip round the buoy and head back down a narrower river-y type section back to the castle. I could feel myself pulling away from the various groups I ended up swimming with as we went down the river, and hearing the bridge calling my name, I waved up at my team and tried to give them a thumbs up. I felt good and knew I could step up my speed a bit on the next lap. I ended up swimming on my own for the length of the lake and as I went round the end buoy found another swimmer, and we swam the remainder of the lap side-by-side, occasionally bumping legs, arms and hands as we avoided the lake’s foliage. I saw my dad and brother cheering on the side of the lake as I cruised into the finish, and tried to give them a smile without swallowing the lake. Being pulled from the water by a cheery volunteer I couldn’t not grin widely, especially as race director, Brian, shouted that I was the fifth female out the water.
I ran/walked down the leafy chute to transition with the chap I’d been swimming with and we helped each other undo our temperamental wetsuits. I tried to take in what I’d done, and think ahead to what was to come.
Grabbing my stuff from transition (“I’m doing it!” I shouted to my mum) – hat on, feet carefully dried (needn’t have bothered), sunglasses on (needn’t have bothered), I pegged it to my bike.
Nearly falling off as I mounted, obviously, I was off. Let battle commence!
The hills start immediately as you leave the comfort of transition, and I realised I’d forgotten how tough this course really was going to be. I made sure not to get over excited on the first lap: just to maintain a pleasant speed and make my way up the hills without feeling like my legs were going to fall off. It was a little while before I found anyone else, and before I was passed. I took a bit of pleasure in singing “I’m faster at swimming than you” in my head, every time someone that knew how to ride a bike passed me. The weather started to turn pretty foul as we went through the Ashdown Forest, but I tried to ignore it and just wished I wasn’t a muggle and could use that spell Hermione does on Harry to repel the water from his glasses during a quidditch match. I spied my friend Andy at the top of forest and gave him a cheery wave.
50K came around quite quickly in lap 1, and I began to get excited about seeing my team back in Hever. The sign for the car park appeared, and I thought back to last year when I’d seen Laura, and shouted, “it’s not that baaaaaad”, as I went past. Oh, how I’d regretted that after 100 miles… I came round the corner and saw a group sat on the grass and thought how much one of the men looked like my friend, Kev. As I got ready to give them a cheery wave (checking for potholes and so on), I realised it was Kev! I think I probably squealed with surprise, and tried not to stop to give him a massive hug. The last 5K of the lap were great – support everywhere and it was a nice boost to hear, “and here’s Cathy Drew, second lady!” as I whizzed past my team cheering my name and ringing cowbells in the village.
The second and third lap merge into a mish-mash of tired legs, long hills, undulating moods and terrible weather. I kept eating when my watch told me to, made sure to keep drinking and tried to ignore the fact I was getting blown about and was soaked to the skin. The marshals were a welcome sight every few miles, as it was quite lonely on the route at times. I was pretty glad that I’d practiced cycling on my own and in horrid weather since the beginning of the year. I tried to keep positive and just keep pedalling, but by half way I was finding it pretty tough.
Luckily, Kev, Molly and his rover found me at various points around the route, to give me a much needed lift and allow me to safely dispose of my now completely useless, and somewhat treacherous, sunglasses. Passing through my team at 120K was another boost, and seeing my Dad give me the biggest thumbs up I’ve ever seen spurred me on to just.keep.moving. I knew I could, and would, do it. And comfortably too, if I just maintained a sensible attitude and sensible pace.
Finally, I was at 30K on the last lap, and glanced down at my watch. I’d not gone nearly as fast as I wanted to, but was still pleased. I was going to come in under 8 hours, which was fine. I was proud of myself: if you’d told me 2 years ago I’d happily cycle over 100 miles in the pouring rain and wind, on my own, in a tri suit, I’d have laughed. I’m made of tougher stuff now.
Pulling into transition, I’ve never felt more relief. Just a marathon to run now, and the sun’s come out – what could be better?! All my team were back, with the addition of my amazing “banana girls” and I couldn’t wait to get my trainers on and get going on the trail. I, of course, got lost leaving the transition tent, but then I was off! Off on the last bit and the bit I liked – the bit I knew I could do.
“Not long to go!” called an over enthusiastic tourist, as I ran through the grounds of Hever Castle. Not quite, lady, I laughed to myself as I glanced down and saw I’d run 600m.
The route was beautiful. Hilly, but beautiful. On the first lap, I didn’t even really notice the hills, I was just pleased to be running, and the down hills and flats more than made up for the ‘up’ bits. The sun was out and the miles were ticking away nicely. I passed a couple of other athletes, but was mostly on my own, soaking in doing what I love the most. I’d made it through the swim, through the bike – now for the best bit. As I past through 9K, a group of walkers told me my “banana girls” were waiting just round the corner, so I of course sped up a bit. The unmistakable outline of a banana on the floor in the distance and the unmistakable cheering of rainbows and I was nearly done with lap 1.
Lap 2 got a bit hairy, as I suddenly slumped and began to struggle about half way round. I walked up the hills, dragging my feet and panicking that I’d really messed this up. At the main feed station, I chomped down a bit handful of jelly babies and a couple of cups of energy drink and walked a bit more, collecting my thoughts and working out worst case scenario times. I needed to get back before my Dad flew to Malawi. I needed to hang on to 3rd place. I needed to bloody finish!
BUT… the magic of jelly babies kicked in! 5 minutes of feeling sorry for myself and I was back. Running down the hills like a loon, power-walking up the hills (a man who has done over 100 ironmans told me to. I wasn’t going to ignore him) like a woman possessed and loving the scenery. The KM markers seemed to zoom by and I wanted to tell all the marshals what a great time I was having. Each time I passed the rainbows, one of the girls ran with me and gave me a pep talk about how close I was to the second lady (I wasn’t very close. Melissa had smashed the bike!) and told me how strong I looked. Mark kept popping up around the route, with his unrelenting cheerfulness that was completely infectious. He walked the last horrible hill with me but also managed to appear on a bridge to ring in my last lap. Still not sure how he did that!
Coming into transition for my last lap was THE. BEST. I gave my mum a big hug and put my foot down for the final 10K of my ironman. I’d wanted to do the run in under 4 hours, but I’d completely under estimated the terrain, so went for under 4 hours 30 instead. I told every marshal I saw I was on my last lap and how much fun I’d had and how great they were. I soaked up the sun and the beautiful course. As I ran down the final stretch, past the lake I’d been swimming in earlier that morning, I had to really gather myself. I’d come so far – 6 months of bloody hard work and now I’d done it. I’d done an ironman.
The finish is a total blur. I’ve no idea what happened. All I remember I grabbing a banana and running down the finish chute smiling more than I’ve ever smiled in my whole life.
6 months, 13 hours and 35 minutes after I’d started trying to be an ironman, I’d done it.
It’s still all sinking in, really. I came 3rd (THIRD!) female, and 28th overall. My swim was good, as was my run but my cycling needs an awful lot of work if I’m ever going to improve my times. I’m just not a willing cyclist – I don’t care enough about watts, chain-rings or being aero. BUT I love triathlon, and unfortunately cycling is a necessary evil that I really have to get better at.
The support I had throughout all of this, and especially on the day was amazing. My team on the day were the best, the best best best. It’s a long old slog supporting an ironman, and they were all incredible. I’m very, very lucky and owe them all big time.
The team from Castle triathlon were awesome too – I couldn’t have picked a better race for my first ironman. They didn’t even mind when I took a blow up banana to the podium, although I think it’s probably a good thing that the lady from British Triathlon had gone home by then.
My phone exploded – mostly thanks to Mark’s ‘take-over’ on Twitter. Thank you everyone who messaged me. It meant everything.
I’m still getting used to the fact I’m an ironman, that I really did it. I’m not sure what’s next. I’d like to get faster at Olympic and half distance and run 10 marathons (2 to go). Another ironman might be on the horizon. Never say never.
Thank you for following my journey, and well done for making it through this long distance race report.
Swim: 1:11:51 (15th overall;2nd female)
Bike: 7:50:47 (43rd overall; 4th female)
Run: 4:24:22 (17th overall; 2nd female)
Total: 13 hours 35 minutes 42 seconds