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  • Writer's pictureEmily Red

I am an Ironm... Wait...

I did the 'Ir', I completed the 'onm', but the 'an' was elusive to me.

The mind was willing but the body said no. Unfortunately, my Ironman dream was not completed this time.

Usually, when I go into some sort of big challenge like this, I get nervous, which is natural, everyone does. But this time felt different. I knew there was a chance I couldn't complete it. I knew that I wasn't quite ready yet. I'm usually a very confident person, and I'm very aware of my capabilities. So when I say "I don't think I'm fast enough", it's not based out of fear, or a need to hear positive reinforcement, it's based out of continuously analysing my data and knowing how I feel after my training.

You know how, when things go wrong, it's usually a build up a lots of small things that add up, and I'm sure that's what ended my race for me.

On the Wed before the race, I woke up with a sore throat and I felt miserable all day. On Thursday I felt worse and started coughing, and on Friday I felt a tad better, but I did not sleep at all well on Friday night. I was SO anxious that it was physically affecting me. My head was racing, and my adrenaline felt sky high. I kept dreaming/worrying I had COVID (I'd heard on the radio it was presenting itself as the common cold in younger people who been vaccinated). So, on Saturday, I did a COVID lateral flow test just in case, and it came back negative. Good, I don't have a life threatening disease before my big race, it's most likely 'just a cold'. I slept better on Saturday night, but still the anxiety was nothing like I'd ever experienced before. Gosh, this must be what normal people experience before things like this. Usually I don't get nervous until the day of said event, not living on edge for 2 days before. I'm sure the cold wasn't helping, but the anxiety was clouding my mind. I was trying to pack my race kit, and plan for the event and learn the timings etc, but it was a real struggle to focus. Stress usually sharpens the mind, but this had the opposite effect. Still, I soldiered on (who pulls out of a race right at the last min, AFTER they've registered? Not this guy).

Race morning went as expected, I made it on time, sorted out my race nutrition, got on my wetsuit and prepared to swim. I had a little cry before I lined up - I was so overwhelmed by it all. I've never cried before a race before... It just shows how much it meant to me I guess. The swim is 3.8 km in Pennington Flash, which consists of two laps, and an Aussie style exit (which means you come out the water temporarily before going back in for the second lap). The start was a rolling start based on your expected finish time. I lined up between the 1:40 and 1:50 signs, as my wishful thinking finish time was 1:45. We got in the water and thankfully the temperature was lovely, perfect for swimming in. I definitely got swept up in the moment, and it wasn't long before I realised I was swimming a little too fast. This threw my breathing right off and had to stop multiple times to calm myself down and be able to breathe properly without panicking. The rolling start meant that there was quite a bit of space, but every now and then someone would get in the way. I didn't mind if I got hit from behind (I just ignored it and carried on), but if I came across someone in front of me, it threw off my rhythm and messed me up, so I just waited a bit till they moved out of the way. (I need to learn how to swim past people). I also hadn't put my goggles on properly and had a leak, so I had to stop to deal with that too.

About a third of the way round the first lap I finally sorted my shit out and I was swimming and breathing normally. My sighting was going well, and could clearly see which way I was going the whole time. About two thirds of the way round the first lap I started to get 'lapped' by all the pro racers. This was horrible, stuck between swimmers bombing past me, it threw me right off and I swallowed a ton of water, not pleasant. Eventually I stopped choking, and I said to myself - the second lap would be bliss compared to this, and it was. I got out the water, checked my watch, 50 mins, nice, I spotted my supporters and walked back towards the water. As I stepped onto the pontoon a volunteer so sincerely said to me "you can do it, you know you can" that I burst out crying (again). Crying whilst swimming is weird. I can't remember what I did to focus, but that second lap was mine. This is probably my favourite part of the whole day. Loads of space, warm water, no one overtaking, lush. I don't think I stopped once on my second lap. It felt good, it felt easy, I didn't feel like I was pushing it, I felt like I was cruising. When I finished the swim (my furthest open water distance to date) my watch said 1:39. Wow, I'd beaten my goal, awesome! I've since looked at the data though, and my average heart rate is high, 149 bpm, I must have been pushing it (who knew I could swim tempo for 1:39, go me!). (Note: It's hard to raise your heart rate whilst swimming, so whilst 149 isn't that high, it is for swimming).

I headed to Transition 1 and collected my blue bag. I'd been worrying about what layers to wear considering the weather forecast was warm but rainy, and I decided to go with just my cycling top over my tri suit. (I had my windstopper in my special needs bag, which I could collect on route if I got cold). I think I made the right decision, because I didn't get cold when cycling, even when it rained. The rain pleasantly cooled me off. (And that's possibly another indication of why I failed, I was pushing hard enough to be that hot). I hopped on the bike and made my way out of Pennington Flash. I wasn't cycling particularly hard but I was definitely swept up in the moment. After enjoying myself for a while I looked at my bike computer and noticed my heart rate was really high. Like, in the 160s range. Huh? That's not normal. For a ride this long it needs to be in low 140s. I was excited yes, but I wasn't pushing it, I felt like I was cycling how I normally would. I eased off and it dropped to 150s, but no lower, urgh. I checked my power meter and that was reading as it should, I backed off on the flats and descents, and increased on the uphills. I assume that my effort on the swim had a knock on effect on the bike. In my training I did do a long ride after an open water swim, but there was over an hour between activities, and that was the ride where my bike broke after 15 miles. Boo. Another lesson learned.

The Ironman bike course consists of 112 miles, a three looped course. Quite early on I didn't feel right. I remember looking at my bike computer thinking how it felt like I'd done 80 miles, but I was on something stupid like 40 miles, not even half way! Despite this I kept going and one by one I counted off the miles. I did pretty consistent cycling for the first two laps, and it was so nice not having traffic to worry about (only other cyclists and my ability to stay upright!). When the rain started it actually didn't bother me. It wasn't cold, and the thing I was most worried about in the rain (wiping out on the road), just didn't phase me on the day. I knew the course and roads so well (I'd done the loops a total of 8.5 times before the race), so I knew which corners were dodgy, and where I should brake earlier than usual.

I was drinking water with electrolytes, and eating a mixture of rice pudding cakes, bananas and gels. My plan was to start on the real food and end on the gels, but I started alternating between them instead. I think my bike nutrition has a part to play my downfall. I was eating every 30 minutes, like clockwork, but at some point during the ride I started to feel sick. I honestly can't remember what time or distance that was. I imagine it crept up on me gradually, but before I knew it, it was the only thing I could think about. At about 90 miles in (I think), I couldn't hold it in anymore and I puked up on the bike (I didn't stop cycling tho, ha ha... I really need to wash my bike...). After this it didn't get any better, all I could think about was how nauseous I felt. My pace slowed right down and I wanted it to end. I couldn't eat anything else, even water made me throw up. I knew at that time that my race was over. If I can't keep any fuel in, then I'm gonna run out of energy at some point. I toyed with the idea of stopping, but the fighter in me wouldn't let me. I'm not going to stop myself, they have to stop me. I'd lost all sense of time and I had no idea how far away from the cut off I was. I kept seeing event motorbikes come past me and stop and I'd think, 'maybe they will stop me and it will all be over', but they never did, so I kept on cycling. At this point I saw one of my supporters, and they gave me great courage to keep going and finish the course, so I bucked up my ideas and peddled on. A short time after, another racer came past me and shouted "we can do it", and that became my mantra for the last stretch of road from Horwich into Bolton. "Easy. Straight. Road. We can do it. Easy. Straight. Road. We can do it". I said this out loud under my breath on every single pedal stroke, and it took my mind away from wanting to throw up.

I rolled into T2 in a daze. My supporters were screaming at me "You've made the cut off, keep moving", but they had no idea of the hell I was in. I wobbled into the tent to collect my red bag, but it wasn't there. "Is everything alright?", "My bag's not there", "You've probably missed the cut off".


I've never been so happy to finish a race. I wanted it to end, and it was over, and I didn't stop. I kept moving forward. I assumed at the time I'd missed it by about 5 mins, but since looking at the data, my time was 10:30:01. The cut off was 10:30:00. That's right. 1 measly second. I honestly don't know what I would have done if I'd made it. For some reason, stopping myself feels like failure, but being stopped doesn't.

I was seen straight away by the paramedics, who took my stats (blood pressure, heart rate, pulse ox, glucose levels), and apart from having a slightly low glucose level (which was to be expected), everything was normal. But they packed me off in an ambulance to the medical centre anyway just in case (I was still puking). There, they forced me to drink Lucozade and didn't do much else, so after about an hour sat in the medical centre, they checked my stats again and let me leave. I still felt like death tho - If anyone has ever suffered from intense travel sickness, where the world is spinning, it controls every aspect of your mind, and the only thing that will make you feel better is to go to bed, this is how I felt, for hours.

I'm not upset I didn't finish. I'm disappointed, but I know I did everything I could on the day to get as far as I did.

So I messed up on the race food, so what, I'll learn for next time. So I swam a little too hard and sky rocketed my heart rate, so what. I'll get better at swimming!

For me, having this goal to focus on for the past year has kept me going through COVID. It's been my purpose, and I've loved it. Yes it would be nice to complete Ironman, but I still got to race, I still got to experience the crowds and the support, and the buzz that comes with racing. I've made new friends through training, and I got to represent my service.

Where did I come from? A few months ago I was panicking in open water. A few months ago I couldn't complete 1 bike loop. A few months ago I didn't think I could do it, but now I know I can! I'm definitely going to try again, but next time my confidence will be my asset, not my hindrance.

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