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Jack Whitelegg

Towards the end of May 2017 I attended a running club event at the local track where the objective was to collectively run a marathon by sprinting one lap each (105.5 laps). The event was accompanied by a BBQ and several continental lagers. It was perhaps these lagers that led me to accept the proposition of competing in an Ironman in one year’s time. There were some numbers discussed (2.4 miles in the water, 112 miles on the bike followed by a marathon), but as I couldn’t swim at the time and had never ridden a road bike, these were just numbers. I was a runner with several marathons under my belt. How hard could it be?! I signed up that evening. Lanzarote 2018! Over the following months, reality hit home hard and mild panic set in. I went to the local outdoor pool in Cambridge with an ex-swim coach colleague and found myself unable to go 25 metres without stopping. I got an entry-level road bike through the cycle-to-work scheme and began to comprehend how many hours I’d need to spend on it to get in shape for 112 miles. Coupled with starting to understand the epic training demands was the realisation that Lanzarote Ironman was not ‘just’ an Ironman, but was the Ironman by which others are measured and ranks consistently as the toughest in the world due to the hills (2,500m on the bike), the heat (25 degrees and up) and the relentless winds. Also not helped by the fact that it’s an early-season event, meaning Winter training for the majority of entrants. 7 of us from the running club signed up for the event. All had different backgrounds, different levels of fitness and ages ranged from 30 to 55. All but one of us had no idea what we were signing up to. One of the group had done 3 x Ironman events, including Lanzarote twice. Keith was to become our mentor and oracle. We set up a Facebook Messenger group to help with motivation and to arrange training meet-ups and beer-fuelled strategy meetings. This collaboration was a genuine saving grace. Sharing experiences with others going through the same ordeal was a great way to vent and to make light of the mountain(s) we were trying to climb. They say Winter training makes champions. For the 7 of us it was a daily battle with discipline. Getting out of bed at 5am in December in the UK is not fun. Running in rain, snow and hail in sub-zero temperatures whilst the families sleep on takes a certain determination. Pedalling to nowhere on a turbo-trainer in the garage, in the dark and cold chips away at the motivation. And pool swimming for 90 minutes at 6am before work gets tedious. Trying to fit in up to 16 hours per week of training whilst minimising the impact on families and work is no easy task. An understanding spouse is essential. A low point for many of us was a 60 mile group ride to Colchester in the driving and freezing rain. As spring approached though and the days got lighter and warmer, the training became more enjoyable. Group rides were fun again and running in daylight was refreshing. Open-water swimming was possible and we could leave the pool. At this point it was clear the training was paying dividends. The improvement in fitness was noticeable and the extra weight had fallen off. Time flew by and nervousness intensified as May 26th 2018 loomed large. 100 days to go quickly became 30 days. Talk of tapering ahead of race day made it all the more real. Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head to Lanzarote on the Wednesday before Saturday’s race, to register, try to acclimatise and pray that I hadn’t forgotten any kit. Club La Santa on the North of the island was race HQ and is a fantastic resort with every sporting requirement catered for. 3 Olympic pools, a lagoon for open water swimming, a bike shop for last minute tweaks and servicing, plus courts, pitches, courses and tracks enough to keep all tastes occupied. It was great to have the entire group together on the island. We’d all prepared in our own way, meeting up when possible, but logistically this wasn’t possible as often as we’d have liked. Thursday morning a few of us took a trip down to Puerto del Carmen for a first look at the swim course, a two lap ocean swim which looked much longer than the 1.2 miles it was. We swam a lap in warm, calm, crystal clear sea, surrounded by huge shoals of fish. An easy, gentle swim which took a little over 45 minutes. This was a good omen for the race to come. I should be well within the 2:20 cut-off for the full swim distance. Back at base, I attached all peripherals to the bikes and set out for a short test ride. Several cable-ties later the bike felt good. Early dinner at the official pre-race pasta party, then early bed. Friday was bike-racking day. The bike and transition bags need to be taken to the start / transition zones and racked ready for the race. I read and re-read my transition bag check lists and packed and re-packed the bags several more times before heading off. This was where the nerves kicked up a gear. All the YouTube videos of previous races I’d watched to help prepare were shot right here. I was living it and had no idea whether the preparation was going to be good enough. Guru Keith had told us all we’d be fine – but he had to say that! Still, it was too late for worrying. Get your head in the game and focus! Tyres needed letting down so they didn’t explode in the heat. Back at camp, it was time for another early dinner and early night. Race day tomorrow! I woke before the alarm at 3:45am having slept surprisingly well. The early dinner the previous night meant it wasn’t too difficult to stomach a 1000 calorie breakfast. This needed to be eaten 3 hours before race start to avoid indigestion. Double-checking the swim bag one more time, I left for the bus. We left Club La Santa at 4:30 aiming to arrive at Puerta del Carmen by 5am. This gave plenty of time to re-inflate tyres, pack food onto the bike and into transition bags, get changed into wetsuits (over the tri-suit) and get to the start line ready for the 7am start. The mood here was much lighter than the previous day. Or perhaps it was just my mood. Still nervous, but genuinely looking forward to getting started. Timing chip on left ankle (to avoid interference by the bike chain) we passed over the test mat to make sure they were working, then went over to the starting line-up. This was a self-seeded mass-start organised by estimated swim time, meaning you find the guy holding a stick with your closest swim time on it and stand there until the horn goes. At just after 7am, the horn went, and 1600 neoprene-clad athletes in orange hats sprinted into the sea. The swim is notorious for being a melee of arms, legs, climbing over people, hitting and kicking, and getting hit and kicked. Everyone is headed for the same buoy 160 metres out to sea. In reality it was not that bad. There was a lot of contact, but no-one wanted to be hit and swimmers found their own space quickly. I managed to tail a few swimmers and get dragged along in their wake, saving some energy and got through the first lap comfortably in 42 minutes. The 2nd lap was a little easier as the field had thinned out (I was quite slow) and I managed a repeat 42 minutes, giving a personal best of 1:24 total. More than half an hour behind the elites, but I was happy. T1 (first transition) was straightforward. Out of the wetsuit, rinse and dry feet, get socks and bike shoes on, helmet and sunglasses, get sun-creamed by helpful volunteers, rinse saltwater out of mouth, eat a gel, dump swim kit into the now empty bike bag and go find the bike. The bike cannot be mounted until out of the transition zone so there was a bit of running with it before getting started. The bike course showed its colours immediately after turning out of town by giving us a 9 mile climb into a headwind on a narrow track. Aiming for an average pace of 17mph overall, I managed 7mph for those first miles and there was still 103 miles to go. Things levelled out though intermittently and the course turned West, even managing a short section of tailwind. The scenery was breath-taking. Volcanic rock, mountains and sea. The road surface was a huge improvement on South-East England and I was having a great time. Then came the climb to Haria. A gruelling long, steep climb including switch-backs. On from Haria, there was more climbing until we reached the Northern tip of the island, where very suddenly the most incredible views of La Graciosa island opened up. There was still around 50 miles to go from here though and lots more climbing to do. I’d ‘cleverly’ portioned out my nutrition for the long bike course by cutting each energy bar into 3 before packing into a top-tube bag. I would eat one piece every 20 minutes to keep the energy topped up. These bars were not built to tolerate the heat though and I ended up with a sticky mess, barely recognisable as portions. Still, trying to extract these whilst moving was a distraction from the heat and effort. Water stations every 12 miles or so also broke up the day and I was glad I’d practiced drinking and replacing bottles on the move. The ride finished back on the same narrow track but heading downhill and with the wind. Back into town, through roaring crowds and back to the racks ready for T2. Having spent just over 7 hours on the bike it was a relief to be off it and on my feet again. The marathon was hot! 3 out and back sections turning at the start / finish. The first being 11K each way, then 2 x 5K each way. The entire run is along the seafront. The crowds are sensational. The atmosphere is electric. Family can simply stay in the same spot and watch you pass twice on each loop. The support from everyone was uplifting and genuinely helped with the last push. I actually walked a lot of the marathon. I’d been on my ‘feet’ for 12 hours straight and didn’t know how much more my body could take. I’d never pushed that hard before. I was worried that I might pass out and be pulled off the course by medics. Ice and sponges at the water stations helped but the heat was relentless. Coming in on the return leg of the last loop was an emotional time. I forced myself to run it all. The enormity of the day started to hit home. I was going to be an Ironman. A year of training was nearly done. It was after 8pm and the bars and restaurants were filling up. The crowds were thicker than ever and the noise was immense. I could hear the finish line announcements, then see the line itself. I crossed it in a time of 13:35:06 absolutely elated. What a challenge! What an event! What a rollercoaster of emotions! If you get the opportunity to do an Ironman, my advice is jump in!