First off apologies… you’re probably sick of hearing about this sodding Ironman! My facebook feed was alight with congratulatory messages snapped pics and an amazing outpouring of love and support from friends, family, fellow triathletes, squad members and well-wishers, it was simply overwhelming and wonderful all at the same time. So please know that these messages all helped to make this experience very special for me. I am also not going to leave this thank you to the end of the report – You cannot do a race like this without support, I wouldn’t be at the start line without the encouragement and love from my wife who knows when training isn’t going well and pulls you through it, she doesn’t mind when the alarm goes off at 4:30am so you can get a 3 hour ride in before work, she is the one that worries when I am out on the Cayman roads and doesn’t really sleep till I get back in, anyone who has done this sort of thing will tell you it’s impossible without their support of your endeavor, so this is for her. In addition I have also had a great training partner in Danny we have both had dark times in training and helped each other through and we are part of a collection of athletes (Breakaway Squad) that train together and motivate each other, it’s an amazing group of positive people and Generali have also sponsored some of us with great kits which you will see me wearing during the event so big thanks to them. The one other person who made this possible was coach Kim Schwabaumber (Fuelyourpassion.com) a multi time Ironman podium finisher, nutritionist and all round fab coach. No matter what your ability I strongly believe that having a coach for this type of event that understands your strengths and weaknesses, holds you accountable for the plan and gives expert and experienced advice is invaluable it certainly helped me achieve the training I needed and the experience I wanted out of this event. Kim Thank you.
Our event was in Panama beach Florida normally more synonymous with spring breakers evidenced by the plethora of amusements and bars most of which were beginning to wind down for the off season, only to be engulfed by the Ironman machine. IM Florida has been in Panama beach for nearly 20 years and the residents and volunteers have had plenty of events for which to practice! They managed to operate a slick well planned event and the greatest thing of all the weather played ball! No storms, no great wind just some nice heat, which to be fair we are pretty used to!
Bag and bike survived the various planes train and automobiles to get to the event and although American Airlines managed to break bags and do some superficial damage to the bikes it was nothing that was going to stop us!
Coach had told me I needed to get some medication to have on me during the race which mainly prevents stomach upset etc… things like gas X, Tums and Imodium, So you can imagine the cashiers face at the local “Piggly Wiggly” general store when two guys dressed mainly in lycra deposit tubs of Vaseline, and various stomach meds on the counter….. I say no more….
Having achieved the All World athlete status from the various 70.3 races last year it was great to be able to use this perk to skip the hour long line at check in, it really made us feel that little bit special akin to getting invited to board in group 1 on American! Check in was a breeze so now it was time to chill. Having been fighting off man flu for the last few days I wanted to dive into the ocean and flush out the travel and test the water conditions etc…. so Danny and I donned the wetsuits and went down to the beach. Pretty much the only time its ok to get into an elevator with another man dressed in rubber…..
The sea was cold, I was very glad it was going to be a wetsuit legal race! Once you got going the coolness of the water was quite refreshing and you didn’t really notice the temp! Dip done, time to chill. Trying to chill the night before an ironman is akin to asking a 7 year old not to think about Christmas on Christmas Eve! It’s a mixture of emotions and OCD overdrive! The excited anticipation made my stomach want to remove anything it consumed within around 30 minutes great for pre-race weight loss bad for the mind thinking “ oh my god what if it’s like this tomorrow!”…. I packed, repacked and tinkered with my nutrition and race notes, thank god we had to check in our gear bags the day before as that didn’t allow for last minute messing around with stuff. I tried to be as calm and methodical as possible to eventually stop messing. The last thing I did was write out my fuel plan on the bike so I could tape it to my handlebars, this turned out to be the single most important thing I could have done.
The worst part of an Ironman is the night before, well actually it’s the 6 months worth of training, but the night before is an excruciating wait. You just want to get on and do it! Having had a pre race meal of chicken and pasta salad we all retired to our respective rooms. I elected to sleep in the spare room so that I would not keep Kym awake with my inability to sleep after all it was going to be a long day for our support crew as well! I needn’t have worried to be honest as I actually got to sleep pretty quickly and didn’t wake up until the alarm roused me. DC and I were pretty calm had some breakfast managed to “loose a bit more weight” which is every athletes dream start! And we headed out. The girls we going to meet us at the swim start an hour later.
Having deposited the nutrition bottles on the bike and dumped our special needs bags we proceeded to the beach start which took longer than expected and we were only just ready as they were playing the star spangled banner. Whilst it’s not my national anthem it always sets a great tone to a sporting event in the US and I enjoy the atmosphere of it. A kiss for the important people, Kym, and the cannon sounded…the race had begun. It was a self-seeded start meaning that you lined up around the time that you think you will do the swim in. To be fair I think athletes did do this realistically as I didn’t have to swim over any slow swimmers nor was I swam over. I seeded myself in the 1hr 10-1hr 20 section. Even though I thought I could go quicker you just never know what happens on the day. I was jumping up and down to the music as we headed down the start chute, hi fiving spectators all in an effort to calm the nerves reduce the heart rate and allow myself to enjoy the moment after all 6 months’ worth of training had led to this.
As I dove in to the cool waters, the nerves eased the breathing slowed and I fell into a rhythm remarkably quickly. This surprised me as in other swim events it has taken me a good 10 minutes to find that sweet spot in the breathing. I think the cold water helped and that I wasn’t caught up in a swimming melee as I was straight out into some good open water with a small draft pack ahead. The sun was just coming up so it was dark below, pretty eerie but also very serene, as I rounded the buoy at the top of the course around a half mile out to sea I stole a glance back at the chasing pack and realized I was swimming well and certainly up there with the top 10% of the swimmers. Knowing I was heading back to shore I allowed myself to ease into a slightly quicker stroke count as current pushed us back toward the shore. A quick mental body check, all good, apart from a small chaff around the neckline of the wetsuit, dam I must have missed that part with the vaseline. As I exited the water to go over the first timing matt to complete the first loop I was looking out for Kym but could not see her amongst the crowds of spectators, just as I reentered the water I was sure I heard her and took a final look back I didn’t see her but the video she took of me confirmed I had heard her! I glanced at my watch 31 minutes for the first 1.2 miles I was happy with that it put me on a good swim time if I could maintain so that was the plan for loop 2. About half way through loop 2 I caught up with some of the slower swimmers still on their first loop while this is actually a great motivator (You know you’re having a good swim) it’s actually quite difficult to navigate as you do swim into people at some pace. A lot of the time slower swimmers are slow because their sighting ability is all off meaning that they are not swimming in a straight line from point A to point B and on several occasions I had to move people by the leg to point them in the right direction! On other occasions I did literally swim over a couple of people but it was only by accident as the water didn’t allow for me to see them really until it was too late. I maintained pace and exited the water in 1 hour and 6 minutes a really great swim that I was delighted about as I had never considered going sub 1:10. This put me in a great mood going into transition and I had said to myself take your time get dry and do your thing. I lay down on a matt so the “wetsuit striper” (LOL) could take my suit off, this was a mistake as it allowed sand to get on my back and ultimately end up in places that will cause me grief later….. A tip that Danny gave me was to empty my transition bag completely on the floor before you event start to change kit so that you know you took everything you’re going to need on the bike. Again the volunteers here were amazing packing everything for you once you had finished with it. I changed into dry cycling gear ensure my nutrition was in the pockets and headed out. All told I had been in transition just 8 minutes. As I was leaving I saw Danny coming in so I knew he had also had a good start.
The sun was starting to come up the wind had a chill but my breathing was good and a quick check of the heart rate showed 130 beats per minute. So my coach wanted me to do between 125 and 135 BPM which is kind of where the heart had been in training and I had manage to maintain a good average of 20+ mph which would result in around a 5 hour 30 minute bike time for the 112 miles. I was not to overcook the bike as this would throw off my run and the fuel plan so stick to the plan was all I repeated for the entirety of the bike portion! I had to do this because I felt good and thought I should go quicker but this is fatal in this kind of race because feeling good in hour five does not equate to feeling good in hour 10. The bike is about measured control, eating/fueling and hydrating for the beast that follows. Sure I could ride a 5 hour bike if the bike was all I was doing but a sub 6 hour bike is always considered a good result on an ironman course. The other thing coach Kim had insisted on was this “You must pee at least twice on the bike”. The reason for this I that it tells you that you are hydrated, if you don’t pee in 6 hours you’re going to suffer on the run as most likely your dehydrated. I had the fuel plan taped to my handlebars having to drink 50 ounces of fluid in the first hour (basically to cover the swim deficit) and then all the various times I had to eat. I can’t tell you how happy I was when at around the 40 mile mark I felt that tug on the bladder that says if you want to go you can. Now that’s easier said than done when you’re cycling along at 20 mph and you don’t want to stop because your mate is behind you and you’re still competitive with each other! Plus you don’t want him to go by and you not know whether he is behind or in front! Also I have never, ever pee’d whist cycling along before! I’m sure the veterans amongst you have got this down to a fine art but for me it was going to be a first and hopefully last occurrence. As you all know cycling gear is quite tight and tends to hold your gentleman’s package up out of the way of the saddle, however this is not the most beneficial position to start a steady flow so I needed to rearrange a little, cue much hilarious hip swinging and short pulling to try and get my misters to dress to the right… I had made sure no one was around me during this but I dread the thought that someone was videoing this half mile stretch of road out in the Florida outback! Needless to say I managed it and the only person in the world who would be happy about this was the coach but to be fair I was also quit impressed with myself to! I did have to verbally apologise to my bike though. The road wound its course for another few hours and when I came upon 100 miles I thought Danny must be nearly with me now as I knew he was aiming for a slightly quicker bike time than I and sure enough I could spy him about half a mile down the road. As he came alongside he said his feet were hurting but as mine were a little numb as well I thought this was just par for the course. It turned out this would really hurt Danny’s run in a little while. At this point I was happy the swim had gone well, we were on the last few miles of the bike and I was cycling along with my training buddy about to complete the bike in 5 hours 32 minutes which was bang on plan. I had fueled as ordered and felt pretty good coming off the bike.
Into the run transition and once again I stripped off and put on fresh clothes to begin what is my nemesis. As you will have seen from previous blogs running is not my strongest sport so this was going to be where I would fight my demons and have what we call the dark moments! My feet ached and my back was stiff so I just walked out of transition talking to Dany trying to pep ourselves up. He was quieter than normal and I felt that maybe he was in more pain than he was letting on at that point. We walked and then gently jogged together. I think we were both excited at that point to be reunited with our other halves who were waiting about a half mile up the road. We had picked this point as it was close to the apartment and we would run passed them 3 times before seeing them at the finish. It is so so uplifting to see loved ones along the course and they were even more excited to see us! Some great video of us going passed them for the first time and Danny had found his feet (or so I thought) a he continued off on a quicker pace than I was going to maintain so we left each other to our own run race. This was probably the hardest moment for me as I looked at my watch around 3 miles into the run and the enormity of what still lay ahead hit me. I remember thinking this is going to take me hours (About 5 more at this stage) and you have that tiny bit of self-doubt, the sun was beating down and it was around 2:30 in the afternoon. Self-actualization comes into play here, positive mental thought. I think this is what the Ironman really tests. It test’s one ability to be mentally tough, you can be as fit as you want to be but if you haven’t trained the mind to push through pain and self-doubt then it always going to be a struggle. I actually said to myself it doesn’t matter how long this takes you can do it even if you have to walk you are going to be an ironman. I thought of a picture I had taken at the Athlete’s briefing it was a simple picture of a wristband they give to first time athletes attempting the accolade it simply says “Ironman – I will become one”.
When I said I would do this it was because I wanted to challenge myself, I like the endurance aspect of it and what I have learnt about how far you can push your body if the mind is willing is incredible. I am not the best or fastest athlete out there but I do have sheer bloody mindedness that doesn’t allow me to stop! This is the culmination of a road to wellness that started 3 years ago. If you take up triathlon this is also the race everyone asks you have you done? Everyone has their own journey but they are all incredibly individual. So these thoughts pulled me from the dark place and I started to look round thank the volunteers soak up the atmosphere from the crazy, lovely supports and enjoy it! Really enjoy it! Before long I was coming up on mile 6 (just 20 more to go!) and I realized that Danny hadn’t run past me yet so I couldn’t be far behind him, a minute or so later I saw him coming towards me he was walking with the first signs of a limp, as we passed he said he was done he looked very forlorn so I said keep walking and I’ll catch up. I sped up to the turn and caught him up shortly after. His feet had still not recovered from the bike and he was suffering cramps because of it. I suggested we walk run for a few miles and tried to lift his spirit with some banter about carrying him over the finish line etc… but inwardly I knew he was in for a long day as we were only at around mile 9 on the run here. Eventually Danny said to me he couldn’t run anymore and that I should run my race. I told him I would only carry on if he promised to finish to which he agreed. I knew he had to go passed Kym and his wife Dawn so I could pre warn them of his plight so they could encourage him on also. As I carried on I was gutted for my friend who is a stronger runner than I and trained as I did. It’s a long time to be in pain. I truly hopped he would finish.
As I came towards Kym and Dawn around mile 13 I could feel myself getting choked up I am not sure why but I think it was the realization that I only had 13 more miles to go and that I was feeling good, I loved that they had been tracking us for hours and the ironman dream could become reality in just a few more hours! I managed to tell them Danny wasn’t in a good way but I also didn’t want to lose my rhythm so I continued on and around to go and do the loop over again. Luckily the sun was going down and the heat was abating so this was all positive stuff for me! I passed Danny again we high fived and told him to get through it. I knew Kym and Dawn would also talk him into persevering which the video evidence also gave great light to! I caught up with another runner a little further down the road his name was Alex and this was his 5th Ironman. He was from New Jersey amd worked IT, he was a big guy like me and we chose to run and walk together for a few miles chatting about ironman the charity he was running for and various other bits about life. We attracted a few other walk run peeps and had a little community of us for a few miles it really helped. Most of them were on their first loop and were impressed that I was on the last leg it was great motivation and wonderful that everyone was encouraging for everyone else. It’s the only sport where if you’re not going to win it everyone just wants you to finish! Its dark now and mile 20 came up which was a real wow moment for me just 6 miles to go, I left our little community as I was moving quicker now as the realization crept in that my stomach was fine, my fuel plan had worked and now I could let go and just go for the finish. Around mile 23 you could heard the crowds and announcer at the finish but those 3 miles go slower than the first 23!! I started empting my pockets of unneeded gels and medical stuff, took my sunglasses from my head and put them in my pocket. I was excited to see Kym just as much as the finish line to share the realisaion that it was going to happen. I turned the final corner and the finishers chute was before me it’s about 800 meters long with people all along the side railing cheering, the big finishing gantry illuminated by massive lights and a huge TV screen. They are willing you along all the way and about half way down I heard Kym scream CCCCHHHHRRRRIIISSSS it was the best feeling I turned to her and just screamed back as the video showed, then the immortal words anyone who has started this race dreams of hearing. “Chris Bailey – You are an Ironman!!!”
I thought I would be an emotional wreck but instead I just smiled, I had nothing left I was walked through the finish area by yet another amazing volunteer I had my picture taken, and then fell into the embrace of a massive hug from kym who I think was just as amazed and astonished as I was, she screamed at me “you broke 13 hours! Amazing Amazing everyone’s been tracking its been amazing OH my god!!!!……” As I said at the start of this, only those close to you know what you sacrificed to do this, they know what it means and they also know when you exceeded your own expectations. Wow.
A beer in hand and a dry top we waited to see if Danny had beat his pain, we didn’t have to wait long till his name was also hallowed as an Ironman. Now the celebration began in earnest.
Thank you to all who followed on the what’s app group and on Facebook. The support for Danny and I was incredible and it only reinforces that we have some amazing family and friends. Big Love.