The water is warm and clear. We have just swum over the seemingly endless green carpet of sea grass and are now into the shallow surf zone. As I turn to breathe out I see my competitors’ feet touch the fine pale limestone sand of Alcudia Bay and then start to run. I try to do the same but can’t. I settle on walking in knee deep water towards the shore. For the first time ever in sixteen iron distance races I am reduced to walking. As countless people stream past, I walk across the sand to the timing mat that that marks the halfway point of our 3.8km swim. I feel nauseous and completely drained. At some point today I expected the disrupted and disjointed training of the last year and a half to catch up with me – but not now. This is either going to be a very long slow day or I may have to abandon.
Because of the temperature it was a last minute marginal call by the organisers to go ahead with a wetsuit swim this morning. Maybe I am just too warm. Time will tell. They also went with a rolling swim start. Having never done one before I was curious to see how it would work. Do I start early or wait a while until the good swimmers have gone and enjoy the calmer water? I went towards the front. There was no gun to set us off. A few minutes after the professional start, us plebs were shepherded through a narrow corridor across a timing mat and into the water. Everyone’s individual race clock starts as soon as they cross the timing mat. It’s a recent development to increase swim safety and ease congestion at the start and later on the bike. With two and a half thousand entrants, it’s understandable why they would try it. It seemed to work; the start was certainly a lot calmer, not completely devoid of argi bargi though. The way I am feeling I am glad of the extra space. Of course if you are racing for age group glory you won’t really know how you finish until the computer does the maths at the end.
Still walking I wade back in for the rest of the swim. I resume my version of the Australian crawl and slowly begin to feel a little better. The funny thing is I don’t think I am swimming too badly. A sore shoulder has kept me out of the pool until after Christmas. A clash of the school run and pool timetables in the New Year limited my swimming outside of school holidays to one very good club session a week. I have been harangued over winter by our club swim coach Heike into changing my stroke. I think it is paying dividends. Every movement in the stroke has its place in time and space. I continuously run through a checklist in my head as I try and execute it. Without a background in swimming it has never come easy. At this point in the swim there is plenty of room and I can take some time to enjoy the sunrise over the port.
I am out of the water in one hour and two minutes. One of my better swims it transpires. If only I had been able to run the mid section I might have broken the hour – something I have never managed to do. My stroke must be coming together which is encouraging. My slow shuffle to the changing tent isn’t.
Transition stretches for what must be nearly 500m down the centre of the main shopping street. Running through I gather my composure, my balance, my breath and find my jogging legs again. I spot my bike quickly and easily. At eight years old it’s a classic P3 now. Up to a few years ago transition would have been full of Cervelo P3s, making mine harder to find. They were the bike to be seen on. Then the short lived (and very ugly) P4 came along and replaced it. Now the P5 has taken over. Other brands have caught up too. There are not too many P3s evident today. Mine still looks well though. The new cranks and new red bike shoes catch my eye pleasingly. The red flashes suit the bike. Today really for the first time, I will be testing new shoes, a new bottom bracket, new pedals and new shorter cranks and chain rings. What is it they say about never trying out new stuff on race day? Apart from the shoes, up to last week I didn’t need to replace any of that other stuff. That was until I gave the P3 its annual pre-race clean and tune up. I am not a bike geek, I am no mechanic, but I do (against my better judgement) try.
Recently the bearings in my bottom bracket (the thing inside the bike that the crank slots into) were feeling a little rough. They began to grate – surely it was costing me a couple of watts. A new bottom bracket was purchased (60 euro not too bad) and I installed it. The pedals turned smoothly again on the bike stand. Simple job well done. Two weeks out from my race and a lot sooner than usual, the bike was sweet for a last long test ride.
I had planned an easy hour swim before the ride. Running up the steps to the pool in flip flops I somehow managed to smash my big toe into the side of a concrete step. Christ it was sore. I swam for the hour – it was still sore with a large hard lump now evident. I was getting worried. Heading out on the bike I couldn’t enjoy the experience of getting used to a pair of fancy new bike shoes (it’s the simple things) because my big toe was throbbing.
Ten minutes into my cycle I am getting more worried about my toe when suddenly on an upstroke my knee flies up and nearly takes my nose off. There is a bit of a clatter and I see a carbon fibre crank arm and pedal fly off across the road. They then receive further abuse from passing traffic. Ah feck. My sore toe is forgotten as I retrieve the bits of my bike from the N11 and all thoughts now turn to how much it is going to cost to sort this out. And it did cost. Discontinued lines, changes in bottom bracket diameters, compromises over crank length and a limited budget meant it took over a week to source parts that would work together and then get someone who knew what they were doing to put them on. All told, I needed to replace everything that spins around on a bike near my feet including a second new bottom bracket; my ten minute old one was an old spec that didn’t fit the new chainset and pedals. It all cost more than a Kona entry fee – but they do look good.
Tight for time before departure and with the bike in full race setup I set off on one last attempt to try out the new shoes and now other new bits. Despite a still sore toe the shoes felt fine and the bike purred along. 30min in, I got a blow out. One rescue phone call, another 70 euro for a new tyre and tube of glue later, I decided, that was it, no more test rides. I was not going to sit on that thing again until the race.
Mallorca is an island of contrasts. None more so in its physically geography. Away from the penis shaped bottle openers and bawdy beach towels of the main tourist resorts, it’s stunning. The bike course is a single lap figure eight configuration. The first half takes us into the flatter lowlands of the north east of the island, the second loop into the rugged impressive Serra de Tramuntana that form the north west coastline.
From the start of the bike I am relaxed and clipping along. Everything feels good. All the new stuff fits and is working smoothly. I am riding within myself but still averaging over 40km an hour so I’m not hanging about. I pass the top Irish professional Eimear Mullan early on so the signs are encouraging. My fellow contestants are behaving. The single lap course and the rolling swim start seem to have had the desired effect and prevented large groups of drafting cheaters forming. My mood is agreeable. Normally I start attacking immediately on the bike to make up for time lost on the swim. Today is different. I am a little nervous about the second half; I need to keep something in reserve for the mountain coming up at 110 km. I haven’t seen it but I hear it’s a good one. And with the limited run training done over the last year and a half I definitely need to hold something back to get through the marathon as well.
In April last year I injured my achilles badly in a race. In July last year I limped around IM Switzerland. That October, at an A1 training camp in Doha, I again tried running and quickly discovered I shouldn’t. A fine bit of coaching example that was. Injuries, I have had a few, but this is the first time I have to admit to getting a bit down over one. It just wasn’t healing. Then out of the blue in October, Rob Cummins of Wheelworx rang.
“Have you ever thought of doing the Rás?”
No I hadn’t. I had never thought of doing any bike race.
“I am thinking of putting a team into it next year.”
Now anyone who may have read my last blog post will be aware of how limited my cycling skills are. How I pick races on straight roads, with no downhills and where other cyclists are not allowed within seven metres of me. I had never done nor ever considered doing a real bike race. I would be a danger to myself and those around me. I decided long ago I was too old to change and didn’t want to.
“A team of novices, probably some aul fellas too.”
I qualified on both accounts. I couldn’t run or swim for the foreseeable.
“Ah sure why not.”
You can’t train for the Rás sitting on the turbo. If I was going to do this it would actually involve cycling the bike a bit outside. I would have to get use to riding at speed in large groups with centimetres between us. An early spin with Team Wheelworx around a bike track brought home to me just how limited my cycling was. If I was ever going to reach the standard of rider that could qualify for the Rás I was going to have to change everything about my training. I knew I could get fit enough, but bike racing is a whole new sport, a completely different skill set to time trialling up and down a straight stretch of good hard shoulder (very little skill required). I had committed and for the very first time I was to be seen regularly cycling outside over winter.
There is something magical about cycling in the first flurries of a snow storm. I managed to get caught in one while doing a series of long hill repeats on the slopes of Mt. Leinster. The layer of powder snow that covered me actually seemed to insulate against the sudden drop in temperature. I continued on and enjoyed the session amidst the magical winter scenery. But once down off the mountain somewhat resembling a snowman on wheels and into slightly warmer air, the wind chill mixed with sweat and melting snow rapidly sucked all heat from my body. Some curious law of thermodynamics caused ice to form inside my gloves. I was an hour from home, wet, frozen, struggling to turn the pedals and steer. I stopped many times to try and warm up. I wrung the water from my clothes, I jogged on the spot. I even lowered myself to peeing on my hands, but couldn’t get them working again. There are many reasons why I have tended to stick with the indoor trainer over winter – not having to relieve myself on my hands is definitely one of them.
Watching cycling on the telly for years does not qualify you as a racing cyclist. To be allowed race in the Rás I needed to hold at least an A2 licence. Having never raced before had to start as an A4 rider. To progress up the ranks I needed to gain points by placing well at races. How hard could that be.
I did my first race in Dundalk on a miserable morning. It lashed all the way up the motorway and for most of the race. I learned a few lessons that day. Don’t underestimate the A4s they are a wily gnarly bunch, but I wasn’t to be phased. 10k into the race and all was going well. I was still upright and hadn’t caused any accidents. I tried to push the pace a bit but settled near the front. Then the lead few cyclists took a wrong turn around a roundabout. I momentarily paused, sat up, gesticulated to convey to them their error and gave them a chance to get back on. Seizing on the opportunity about eight others tore off and got a break. I quickly realised my daftness, it is after all a race. I killed myself to get back on to the lead group. At times I could just about touch them, other times they were miles ahead. I could see those at the back of the group sitting up chatting and I still couldn’t get back on. I had never fully realised just how beneficial the draft and sharing the effort at the front was.
Once the racing season kicked off there was any number of races every weekend all over the country. To get the points and experience I needed to race a lot. I couldn’t do every weekend but I did most. But the points weren’t coming. I was still dodgy going down hill, but beginning to relax in the bunch. My big problem was I didn’t know bike racing strategy or how to properly use any perceived strengths I may have had. I decided I was not a sprinter – too old, although I had never tried it. It just looked too scary as well. One for the head bangers. Any advantage I gained going up the big hills I lost going down. I always took a while to get going and found I was only really settling down and then the race was over. I would try and string out the pack or get a break but would give up too soon because I was keen not to give people a free ride on my wheel. It was seldom anyone would work with me to establish a break in the short one day A4 races.
I got my first points at a race in Mayo by riding aggressively – but too aggressively to get the win. I nearly won a race in Dungarvan too by going off the front right from the start and soloing for 70 of the 72km on a very windy day when really it wasn’t on. I got a lead of over two minutes on the peleton and thought I had it. But I hadn’t.
Points were still proving very hard to come by. It wasn’t looking good for the team. Time was running out. With the Rás looking extremely unlikely and possibly my only chance of experiencing a multi stage race, three of team Wheelworx toed the line at the Kanturk 3 Day. There was a main race for which Rob and Cillian were qualified and me the sole representative in the A4 race. Both races had three separate road stages and one short 8km TT.
The first stage ended with a bunch finish. I went off hard, first up the first hill and then saw sense (and a few stars). I got the same time as the winner. The next morning was the TT. Not knowing how these things operate and expecting a communal sign on, I arrived first, long before any race officials. Eventually people started to rock up in race number order, do a bit of a warm up and then their 8k TT, before been whisked away to prepare for the afternoon stage. I had parked right at the start line and got to see all the A2s, A3s Ladies, juniors and most of the other A4s start before me. It took hours – I should have been in bed. The big clubs had small tented villages set up as their warm up areas. Riders were collected, pampered at the end of their TT and ferried back for their recovery protocol. Eventually I set my indoor trainer up at the back of my car to give the impression I knew what I was about. Time was getting close. A short warm up later, I hopped off and began to remove my bike from said trainer. It wouldn’t budge. Funny that’s never happened before. Panic ensued inside my head while outwardly trying to give the impression that taking a large spanner to the trainer was normal operating procedure. It eventually worked. I won the TT and was in the yellow jersey.
After a Big Mac lunch I watched the third stage of the main race start. The international junior Michael O’Loughlin was presented with his yellow at the head of the peloton. The ceremonial party all posed for press photos and then the riders were off. I have to admit to getting excited and looking forward to my turn.
“Here stick that on you” someone shouted as they threw my yellow jersey at me. No photos, I was brought down to earth but chuffed to wear yellow. Others riders treat you differently when you are in yellow. I retained the jersey after that stage, the burger and chips seemed to agree with me. The last stage the next morning was the big one.
Rob and Cillian had been going nicely in their race but separate crashes had put paid to any ambitions they had. Still the team was in good spirits that night over dinner. Then the horrible news came through about Aidan Lynham’s death while marshalling at a charity event he had organised. Rob and Cillian were friends of his. Aidan had been helping our team with training. I had only met him once but could tell he was a true gentleman. The lads decided to race the next day really just to honour Aidan, but I could see they wanted to be elsewhere.
I tried my damdest to win. I chased down every break. The teams were actively trying to work me over. Riders would block me in or slow the group while their teammates tried to get away. I was isolated having no team to counteract their efforts, but I was up for the challenge and was doing ok. It really brought home to me how much of a team sport cycling is. The weather was appalling but it didn’t matter. For the first time I felt like a real cyclist. I was tucking right in on the wheel in front and moving around the peleton comfortably as needed. I was having fun.
On the last lap two riders jumped off the front of a group ahead. I thought I had accounted for everybody when we brought the group back. Information was hard to come by. When I found out, it was too late to do anything about. On the last hill to the finish I dropped a chain that probably cost me a podium too. Amateur mistake. I was wrecked but it was a great experience on a sad day.
I did get the points to upgrade at Kanturk, but overall I didn’t get close to the A2 licence required. Despite some movement in diplomatic channels over the next few days Team Wheelwork didn’t get to start the Rás. We were all disappointed but other events had put that in perspective.
Bike racing was a great adventure. I managed to stay upright throughout. I don’t think I caused any crashes either. I saw plenty. It’s a crazy sport full of grumpy people shouting abuse and whinging about each other afterwards. The worst I heard was a woman who had nothing complimentary to say about a rival. She moaned on and on for half and hour in the bluest language, finishing up with “I’ll see you next week at the Des Hanlon then – sure isn’t it great fun.” And it was. I am very grateful to Rob for asking me along for the ride and forcing me to challenge my limitations on the bike. Hopefully I am a better cyclist for it. Without the Rás, a late season Ironman was now the focus and had the injury healed after the long running break.
Eventually after 110km I start the 20km climb in the Serra de Tramuntanal. The scenery is spectacular but it’s hot in the hills. An eerie silence falls over the bike course. All I hear is the sound of my own breath. The field is well spread out now. There is something not right. Where are all the mad Germans shouting “hop hop”, in my ears. I have never climbed a mountain in an Ironman without their encouragement. I miss the mad Germans, but it means I approach this climb in a sensible controlled manner. Still the part of the race I fear the most has yet to come – the technical descent. It turns out to be nothing like anything I have gone down on a bike before. I have only seen stuff like this on TV. The road snakes along the sheer face of the mountain. On my right is a limestone cliff on the left is the abyss. I shouldn’t have looked but I did. Even with my new found bike handling talent, I tense up and revert to type. My steering locks completely on the bends. My brakes cling and jerk. The edge keeps calling to me. I marvel at those that whizz past carving through the bends. The new plan is to stay alive, slow down, relax and recover a little. Once back in the lowlands, push hard for the last 40km and make up some of the places lost on the descent. It works to a degree. I finished strongly. As I hobble off the bike
I’m feeling positive. It’s possibly my most controlled ironman bike effort yet; a one puke bike. The mountain put paid to a fast time but I am happy enough with a 4:59hr split. Running back down the long transition I find my legs are still working. I am confident I can get through the marathon. Today’s marathon is run over a four and a half lap course of the beachfront and adjacent streets of Port Alcudia. I won’t be particularly fast, but I know I will finish.
My big toe hurts badly as I slip a sock over it. The runner hurts it too. The few short test runs since banging it suggest it is fine to run on. I am not sure what that suggests about the injury but it won’t have any bearing on my ability to finish the run today. It’s been years since I have been able to enjoy totally pain free running. I have had chronic achilles and hip issues since probably my second Ironman. But the acute injury last year and the consequent long break has worked wonders on all the other old aches and pains. I was very cautious getting back to running this summer. My achilles needed a gentle and slow reintroduction to marathon training. It would complain if ever I over did it. But with time, it has continued to improve. Its good now, not quite 100% but close. That said it’s only in the last month that I have been able to run for anything longer than an hour with no pain afterwards. I have still not risked including any speed work in my run training yet though. I have done one other triathlon this summer. The Cobh Jailbreak Olympic distance race about a month ago. I did it just to test if my body could hold up to race paced running. Although it was only a 10k run, I felt absolutely fine afterwards. I am confident my achilles won’t be an issue today. When I say running pain free I am of course not including the pain of trying to run a marathon after racing 180km on a bike. That’s always there, it’s horrible, but I do love it. I just wish it would end a little sooner.
I start my GPS at kilometre one of the run but won’t look at it during the race – that will be for later. Every time I pass the finish line I mentally tick off a lap and picture turning right and celebrating another finish. I run totally on feel, and the number of laps completed tells me how far is left. I know my pace has been quicker in past races but I feel OK. My cadence is a little slower than usual but that’s to be expected.
The only low point is when finishing my fourth lap, I realise the half lap remaining is actually rather close to another full one. The marathon was sore, it was a grind, it included the usual two toilet stops, but again I found, like the bike and swim I was more relaxed than usual. For some reason today I don’t feel as if I am fully racing. I can’t explain it, I am just happy to be here getting into my rhythm and doing this.
Finally with about two kilometres to go that changes. I have been running with the second placed female pro for much of the last lap but have now pulled away from her. I am finishing strongly. I pass another four armband runner (signifying he is on his last lap too). After a while I sense he has tucked in right behind me. He must have noticed my armbands. If I was in full race mode I would probably have temporally hidden one while overtaking him. I up my pace. So does he. I gave a little surge, so does he. Ah jaysus, he is going to wait there now and jump me in the finishing straight – that’s just cheeky. We probably didn’t even start the swim at the same time. In situations like this nothing is usually said. There is an understanding the gauntlet has been thrown down. I turn around.
“Ah Jaysus, come on you are not seriously wanting to turn this into a sprint finish?- I’m really not in the humour for one.”
While all the time upping my pace. I think he nodded. I am not sure because by now I was lamping it. My head is back, my chest out, my spine arched backwards, arms and snot flying in all directions. My heart is close to pumping its last. My legs were driving like pistons off the ground in a fashion that belied a middle aged man just about finish an Ironman. I lamped it straight past the turnoff for the finish and began another lap. Thankfully some considerate spectators had the decency to catch me and turn me around. I jogged up to the finish line smiling, slightly embarrassed but enjoying the moment as much as I did my first Ironman finish sixteen races and ten years ago. My time, 9:28 although nowhere near a PB was still considerably quicker than my first race. I extended my streak of sub 10 hour finishes to sixteen. Your man in his ridiculous khaki camouflage triathlon suit had the good grace to wait at the finish and pat me on the back – I decked him (well actually I didn’t).
The following morning I turned down a Kona slot. Over the last while I had squirreled away a few bob to cover the cost of a Kona entry should I be fortunate enough to qualify. Unfortunately I blew that fund on the bike the week before. During the race I had accepted it wasn’t an option. Perhaps it may have had something to do with how relaxed I raced. My name was called out with the offer and my hand stayed down – I was good with that. Three weeks later I am not. The opportunity to race the World Championships is not one to turn down if at all possible. It’s an extraordinary experience that many try for but never achieve. I have declined slots in the past and got over it. But next year is different. Next year I will be 50. It’s not nice, I am not particularly looking forward to it. It happens within a couple of days of the Ironman and it means I will be racing in the over 50 category, I would be one of the younger gentlemen in that age group. Should I get there I may be up against some of the legends of our sport in Jurgen Zack and Ken Glah, but it’s probably the best chance I will have for a long time to become a world champion. I think I would have a shot at it. It would of course help ease me into my second half century. I have been to Kona three times. I have improved my finishing position on every visit. I have been on the podium twice; coming third in my age group in the world in 2012.
The kids have other ideas for next summer and we will make that happen, but if there is any way I can swing qualification and a world title I am going for it. I have started a new Kona fund underneath the socks. Perhaps I can sell a few more paintings. I am still very much a learner when it comesto painting. I have enjoyed getting back to it this year, hopefully I can get enough pictures together for a small exhibition. Maybe in this post recession Ireland someone might like to sponsor this up and coming quinquagenarian Ironman and help him get to the World Championships. Watch out for me on winning streak I will be furiously scratching for those three stars!
Despite the injury, lack of running and only doing two triathlons, it’s been a good year. Thanks to Rob for dreaming big and saving my season. And the rest of team Wheelworx, Cillian Moffat, Ben Keane, Aisling Coppinger and Bryan McCrystal for their support, advice and good company. Even though we never got to race the Rás it was a great experience. I am a better cyclist for it. Bryan went above and beyond to try and get our team into the race. He would go on and illuminate the Rás with his stunning performances for his own team Aesa. I had the great privilege of meeting the late Aidan Lynham and got to motor pace behind him. It was quite something to cycle at over 50kmph behind his bike, so close that the heat from his engine was keeping my nose warm and I still felt completely safe and relaxed.
Thanks to everyone for the advice, support and help over the last year and beyond. To Heike for the swimming lessons. To the management and staff of the Waterfront in Enniscorthy for access to the pool. To my extended family for all the bits and pieces especially my parents and Siobhán for the babysitting.
A special mention to my very long suffering wife Eimear, children Luke and Emily – I know I am a grumpy old git to live with at times. Thanks for putting up with me. And also thanks to Luke and Emily for the coaching – top notch. It’s been a great 10 years of Ironman racing and 49 years of “keeping on” hopefully I can keep on keeping on.
On a final note recently I had the pleasure of watching fellow Wexford Tri Club member Seán Collier cycle the last four of twenty five ascents up to the summit of Mt Leinster. The equivalent in metres of climbing Mt Everest on a bike. He started on his own at half four in the morning and I watched him finish on the summit at midnight. There was no fanfare, no razzmatazz, no base camp with a camp bed or a team of cooks and a masseuse to tend to his every need between summiting. A few friends and family popped along during the day to see if he was still alive. On finishing he picked up a small plastic bag of tricks secreted behind a pillar and went home. Legend.