The Comeback Kid – Ironman Italy 2019
The cold air in the small prefabricated room made me shiver, but my attention was fixed on the screen above the bed where a grainy black and white image of a heart beat slowly. Distracted by movement next to me, I turned and looked down at the strings of a mop sweeping the last streaks of blood off the floor.
“Is that something to be worried about?” I asked the nurse politely.
“Not at all, it’s perfectly normal, arteries tend to squirt.”
Reassured, I nodded and went back to watching the screen. I could feel the catheter move up inside my arm. It hurt as it worked its way through a tight turn in my shoulder and onward to my heart.
“You might feel a slight stinging sensation,” the consultant warned, as he flushed my coronary arteries with dye. A black, twisted tree-like network of branches flashed over the beating image on screen. A second release of dye shot through. Moving in closer to the monitor, the consultant discretely beckoned a colleague over for a second opinion. I’m sure their expressions hardened while they scrutinised my plumbing.
Ah feck, that’s it then. The game is up, I deduced from their silent exchanges. All those pan-fried steaks have come back to haunt me. The premonition I had in Mallorca was confirmed.
In 2015, I stood on a bridge overlooking the award ceremony at Ironman Mallorca. The names of the athletes who qualified for the World Championship in Hawaii were being announced. I had a decent race; Paul Kaye called out my name. Passing up the opportunity to compete at the Worlds, I stayed silent. Unfortunately, there was just no way I could afford the trip. As I watched the other qualifiers eagerly jump up to accept their Kona slot, a voice in my head told me I was finished with Ironman. The end of my Ironman career wasn’t something I’d considered at all before that race. Training and racing had integrated themselves happily into my daily routine and I continued to enjoy the sport. So why would anything change? I got as big a kick out of the race the previous day, as I did in my first Ironman a decade before. Over the years I was lucky to start and finish sixteen full distance triathlons. Sixteen is a daft number to finish on anyway. But something kept telling me that was it.
As with other years, I took some time off after Mallorca before easing myself back into training. To focus my efforts, I booked an entry for Ironman Maastricht in 2016. But Ironman Maastricht never happened. A hernia operation with knock on complications and a long list of sports injuries put paid to that plan and also to the next few years.
Since Mallorca, my fiftieth birthday came and went, along with a couple more. I gained substantial weight; was diagnosed with high blood pressure and prescribed tablets to control it. I no longer felt or looked like an athlete. At night I now have to plug myself into CPAP machine for sleep apnoea. Every attempt to start running again ended in injury. I lost heart and except for one swim a week, I had moved on completely from the sport. The heady days of Irish records and Kona podiums were memories quickly fading into the distance. New found spare time was filled with painting and I even wrote a novel. Mallorca it seemed had come to pass.
But then Ironman announced an event in Ireland. Having travelled the world to race, the opportunity of doing an Ironman branded race on my own doorstep, along with the encouragement from some old triathlon friends, sucked me back. I started moving again, slow, careful not to aggravate anything. The weight began to come off, but frustratingly everything remained slow. I had neither the confidence my body would hold up, nor the energy to push myself. For the cyclists out there, my FTP had dropped well over 100 watts from before. I struggled to run near six minute kilometre pace for short runs. My swimming went backwards. I tried to convince myself that every gadget I used in training was dodgy and feeding me misinformation. Even allowing for age and time away, things couldn’t be that bad – could they? But they were. Nothing improved and it played on my mind. Was it an underlying issue -perhaps the medication?
Cork was fast approaching. I entered a local adventure race and did ok over the hour and a bit it took to complete. It gave me a little confidence and I figured it might just be possible to shuffle around Cork. The goal was only to finish. Any thoughts of racing or doing a good time would be disrespectful to the challenge I faced. I was happy enough with that.
Then I gave my young son Luke a fright and collapsed in the kitchen. I’ve never fainted before. I came around immediately, but my heart didn’t feel right. It has always been slow, but now it just didn’t bother beating some of the time. My doctor sent me straight to A&E and they admitted me as soon as a stethoscope was put to my chest. Five days later, after a battery of tests, the hospital let me out on the proviso I took it easy until an angiogram could be arranged. An administrative error meant I had to wait a month for that, a month with no training at all. Whatever the result would be, I knew Ironman Cork was off the cards. I had run out of time. Mallorca still wasn’t letting go.
“Sit down Mr. Ryan.”
Wrapping the hospital gown tight around my waist to trap some heat and preserve my modesty, I shuffled quietly into the chair in front of the consultant’s desk.
“You’re the man who did twenty minutes on the stress test?”
“I’ve never met someone who did that before. And to be honest, it is highly unlikely anyone who could has coronary artery disease.”
“But you seemed a bit concerned out there.”
“No, no no, your coronary arteries are clear. Actually they’re huge! The most enormous ones I’ve come across. It’s genetic, probably something you’ve had since birth. Your heart is good.”
There was no issue he could see, preventing me from racing again.
My irregular heartbeat cleared up over the course of the summer. The blood pressure medication was adjusted to allow for my weight loss, which may have been the cause of my problems from the start. I tried to defer my Cork entry to next year, but Ironman wouldn’t allow it. However, they did let me transfer into Ironman Italy in September. It was a little soon for my likening, but a reasonable compromise. Immediately, I got back to trying to get fit and buoyed up by the clean bill of health, began to see some improvement.
To get a ‘feel’ for racing again and more especially to remind myself what trying to quickly remove a tight fitting wetsuit under pressure felt like, I did two sprint triathlons at the end of the Summer. These I got through without any flare ups and even began to get excited about the whole rigmarole around doing another Ironman. Almost three thousand athletes were to toe the line in Italy this year. It’s a bit of a circus, lots of big event razzmatazz and nonsense, but I do enjoy it.
Since my last outing, Ironman has moved to rolling swim starts. This is primarily for athlete safety, but also to alleviate congestion at the start of the bike course. We all self-seed, locating ourselves in starting pens based on our estimated swim time. Every couple of seconds the starter releases five swimmers through the starting gates and their race begins. It takes a long time for everybody to get going, but the individual timing chips on our ankles ensure a fair race for everyone. The first pen is for the good swimmers who hope to finish the 3.8km swim in less than an hour. On the plane over, I was adamant I would start in the fast pen. I’m not quite a sub one hour swimmer, but with the new relaxed starting method and maybe if I jump in behind some faster feet in the water, I will be dragged around under the hour. As I approach the start, I began to have second thoughts and quietly move backwards in the starting order. A rousing rendition of the Italian anthem fires me up and I move forward, back into the first pen and hide amongst the hundreds of fast swimmers. Before I have a chance to reconsider, the starter’s arms lift and I’m off.
Already there are hoards out front as I join the flailing limbs. The rough seas yesterday have churned up silt from the seabed and visibility in the water is zero. I can’t see my hands in front of my head. It doesn’t matter, plenty of space opens up immediately and I get into a good rhythm. I feel comfortable and fast in the warm, calm, but cloudy water. I’m thinking this could be a good swim by my moderate standards. Quickly, I realise I’m not the only chancer who went off with the fast group. From the off, I’m passing loads of weak swimmers off to my sides. Some, I only realise I’m passing, when I swim directly over them. Believe me, it’s not intentional. Instead of losing the rag, punching me or grabbing my ankles, it would be better if they reappraise their swim ability and perhaps next time, opt for a far less ambitious starting position.
About a kilometre into the race, my outstretched hand lands heavily on an unseen large baldy head and palms it straight down into the depths. While my fellow competitor is fighting for breath, it strikes me that this baldy head feels far more gelatinous than my own rather firmer dome. And why is it not wearing a swim cap? Letting out a watery yelp! I hastily withdraw my hand. The object slides away along my torso, stinging my toes as it departs. The sting isn’t bad, but I’m none too pleased. A couple of expletives may have travelled like sonar through the water column for the whales to decipher. I swim a few more strokes, then BAM! I have head-butted another fecker. My face and neck sting and this time it really stings. But all you can do is keep going, and going, and going, for three more kilometres, maintaining rhythm, while hoping there were no more surprises. Eventually my fingers touch sand and I get up and run. A good swim, despite the jellyers and the traffic, but I don’t break the hour.
It’s the little, seemingly inconsequential things that can feck up your race. There is so much to remember to pack and then remember to unpack when you arrive, and repack again into race bags, or tape to the bike, or just have handy in case of emergencies. Entering the water this morning I realised I had not applied suncream. It would be a warm day; jellyfish stings and sunburn are not a good mix. Luckily, I spot Eimear at transition and shout for her to throw me a tube of suncream. I knew she would have some, she always does. Disaster averted.
Onto the bike and my speedo tells me I’m shifting at 105 km per hour. Of course I remembered to put a new battery in, it’s working fine. I assure myself it will settle down to a more meaningful speed in a minute. While negotiating a few roundabouts, I lower my head for a drink from the water bottle between the handlebars. Somehow the straw that comes out the top of the bottle is now too short and difficult to reach. Forcing myself lower, my teeth grab at the straw and try and pull it out a couple of centimetres. It’s taped in well and doesn’t budge. More in frustration than any considered effort to sort the problem, I gnaw at the end, while repeatedly jerking my head back. Of course it means I am not watching where I go. A barrier comes into my peripheral vision and almost takes me out. My speedo still reads 105 km per hour. Furiously, I bash it a few times. It dies. I accept it’s going to be a tough day on the bike.
Of the three disciplines today, the cycle worries me the most. Cycling has been a struggle all year. My power numbers on the turbo trainer never improved. I could barely manage more than an hour’s effort before blowing up. I am almost ashamed to admit I only did five outdoor spins all year. In fact, if you don’t count the occasional cycle to school with the kids, it’s more like five outdoor spins over the last four years. In the past, cycling was a strength. Desperate to make up for a weak swim, I would jump on the bike and start to charge through the field. I could push a big gear all day and quickly overtake many of the fast swimmers. Already, early in this race I find myself unconsciously settling for a smaller gear. If I adopt my normal aggressive approach, chances are I won’t finish. I don’t have the miles in the legs, or the confidence to try. I need to be patient. I need to be sensible. Today is principally about finishing and proving to myself, that despite the long absence from the sport, I still can.
The rolling swim start appears to have worked. The early bike is uncongested, the roads are wide and there is plenty of room for a fair race. But from the outset, groups form and the cheating starts. In no way are they forced together, it’s a conscious decision by them all. An Ironman cycle is meant to be an individual time trial. There are no domestiques allowed, no teams to tuck in behind to punch a big hole in the air for you. The most flouted rule in Ironman is the draft rule. To minimise the draft advantage, unless overtaking, your front wheel should remain at least twelve meters behind the front wheel of the leading bike. Who came up with that? I have always wondered why it is measured from the front wheel of the bike in front and not the rear wheel – the one wheel the trailing rider can actually see! I would greatly appreciate if someone could explain to me the convoluted logic there. Anyway, as the race progresses, I become more and more disheartened by the draft cheats. I’m being overtaken by large groups; all cycling as pelotons, sharing the work, saving energy for their run, while cycling faster than any of them probably could individually. In the old days I might have had the power to stay ahead of some, or at least tried. Today I can’t. There are far too many packs and they are far too big. Every time I’m swamped, I sit up and let them go. It annoys the hell out of me and there were some words exchanged. But I have never drafted and am always proud of my efforts at the finish line. The sad thing is, many of these cheaters are in complete denial and will celebrate their victories with a clear conscience. It’s human nature. In fairness the marshals are doing their best. It’s a hard one to police. Still there is a little too much whistle blowing and not enough penalty cards being handed out in my opinion. But as I go on, I see the penalty tents fill up. Of course, a five minute penalty is nothing to what a good draft on these long straight exposed roads can save.
It is a fast bike course. Except for a short climb and descent half way around each of the two ninety kilometre laps, the road is completely flat. At no point do I feel any sort of wind on my back or rolling undulations to break things up. The constant pedalling effort, while staying crouched and aero slowly wears me down. If I am to be totally honest with myself, sitting up and soft pedalling, letting the packs go ahead, is proving valuable recovery time and could be the difference between finishing with enough energy to run the marathon or a long walk.
Nevertheless, by the end of the bike, I’m knackered. I slide sideways off the saddle and hunched over, hobble through the long transition zone to my runners. The quiet seconds of respite while I sit on a bench and slip on a pair of brand new socks, is welcome. This is where the mental battles really start. Gingerly I force myself to stand upright. With a face still stinging from the swim, drenched by sugary energy drink and covered in thousands of tiny flies, I steel myself for the next forty two kilometres.
Never have my legs felt so heavy or sore at the start of the marathon. Towards the end of the bike, I noticed my quads begin to twitch. The twitches have now become spasms. Spasms normally lead to cramps. The science is inconclusive, but replacing salt lost through sweat may prevent cramping. I didn’t bring any salt tablets and have no idea what salt, if any is in the drinks and gels handed out on the course. A possible side effect of blood pressure medication is an increased sweat rate. It’s probably been well over six hours since the race began and I’ve been chugging large volumes of liquid all day without feeling the need to pee. I’ve sweated out more than a pinch of salt. Cramps are a worry, bad ones can floor you.
Passing Eimear on the side-line, all I can muster is a grunt to convey my displeasure with the situation. Eimear shouts her encouragement, but noticeably doesn’t pass on any splits or times. Having chosen not to use my watch and with the demise of the speedo, I have no idea how long I have been racing. But Eimear’s silence on the matter only confirms my worst suspicions. My unspoken ambition for today’s race was to break ten hours. It’s a long shot I know, but you got to have goals, even lofty ones. To extend my streak of sixteen starts and sixteen sub ten hour finishes would be fantastic, but I suspect I’m well off that pace. The pain in my quads now exceeds the pain from the jellyfish stings. My ambition changes to simply not walking any part of the marathon. I have never walked before.
I didn’t see it, but the sign warned of a rough surface ahead. My foot clips a bump in the road and after catching some air, I go down, sliding to a stop. Winded, rattled and a tad embarrassed, I struggle to my feet, give some concerned spectators the thumbs up and move on with my right hamstring about to tie itself in a knot. Barely able to lift my feet from the ground, I catch more bumps, stumble, but somehow stay off the floor. My running must look ragged, even comical at this point. I’m obliged to revise my ambitions again and now just want to finish, and collect the medal.
If I’m going to get through this, I need to pull myself together. I have to concentrate on form and process, and forget about pace. I must ignore what everyone else is doing and not look at the distance markers until the last few kilometres. I need to pare back all unnecessary and sudden movements, avoid kerbs, sharp turns, focus on relaxed breathing and every shuffling step. I must not afford my hamstring or quads any excuse to give up. Buried under my now ice filled hat, I retreat almost into my subconscious, only coming out to grab all the cola and energy gels I can snatch running through the aid stations. I begin to make progress. Near the end of lap one, they hand out the first of four lap counting wristbands. Somehow it’s a significant milestone, one quarter of the way through the marathon, that’s a sizeable chunk. I can do three more of those, can’t I?
Already with my renewed optimism, my legs feel better, helped in no small part to by a considerable sugar rush and my controlled, minimalist running. I’m no longer afraid they will buckle under me. Time moves differently when you are in a race as compared to spectator time (Relativity). Before I know it, I pick up a second and then third wristband. Starting the final lap, Eimear sees me approach. Apparently my elbows give me away long before anything else.
“Oi! If you keep this pace up, you’re on for a nine fifty!”
“Feck you anyway…,” I growl (Sorry about that Eimear). It’s what I needed to hear, but the last thing I wanted. Surely she is mistaken. Nah, not likely. But I have reset my goals and am happy with the new ones. This was a spanner in my works. You can’t give up the seventeen sub tens, come on, your fifty two, you don’t get another go at it! Feck! Feck! You just have to hold it together for ten more kilometres. You can do that…! But I’m whacked and I haven’t walked, swear, isn’t that enough?
I dug in and upped the pace. At one point, I felt I was running on my toes, almost like before. There is a wall hidden somewhere in the last kilometres of a marathon. Wary of it, I reigned myself in and stayed off the toes.
The best moment in Ironman is not crossing the finish line, it’s that point on the marathon where you are directed away from the run course and into the finishing chute. It’s particularly sweet when you are the only one peeling off. Finally, at last, you allow yourself to get excited about finishing. I resist the urge to shout out something along the lines of, ‘sayonara suckers!’ as I head away. Luckily such sentiments have never made it out of my mouth and I am of course sympathetic to anyone starting another lap.
Today the finish line is on the beach. I bounce along over the sand on a temporary boardwalk towards the cacophony of sound at the finish. And I do bounce, there is a spring in the boards, not my legs, I’m shattered and in a world of my own, barely mustering the energy to hi five the announcer as I pass – the same Peter Kaye from Mallorca. Four years later, I’ve proved my premonition wrong and finished another Ironman. The sense of achievement and euphoria is as good as I remember. I cross the line, dipping under ten hours, not by much, but I did it.
Walking back to the refreshment tent behind the finish, with my shiny new medal around my neck, I become quite emotional. Normally I’m beaming, but today I am not ashamed to admit there are a few tears. It has been a long four years of setbacks and false starts. In recent weeks I’ve been worrying about my Dad, who only came out of hospital yesterday after major surgery. He is doing great and it was comforting to know he was probably at home, cursing the bloody computer while trying to follow my race online with mom – just like always.
In summary, it’s great to be back. And I know Eimear is only delighted to be back supporting. She’s particularly excited about the new Ironman tracker app; being able to predict where I will be at a particular time, it simplifies things tremendously for her. I should really introduce Dad to apps too.
Ironman Italy is a great race. The organisation is amongst the slickest I’ve seen at one of these. It’s a pity so many of the competitors did not respect the event. It is possible to do these races without drafting on the bike, even with the larger fields, once you put aside your ego. I may include a photograph to illustrate my point. The volunteers were brilliant and their incredible efforts were much appreciated. I took the opportunity to thank as many as I could on the way around. Apologies to those who encountered me in my darkest moments, I’m not as grumpy as I may have looked.
I had worried about doing races on blood pressure medication and thankfully it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Even after, there were no issues. All I needed for recovery was Ice-cream and coffee. Thanks to everyone for their encouragement and support in the lead up to, during and post-race. It meant a lot to me. Thanks to Sophie @wholehealthdesign and Lorna Swan Essential Oils, for helping with the sore bits over the last week and getting me to the start line ready to go. A special thanks to the Clokes, Jewisons and Swans, who at short notice stepped in to babysit the children while we were away. To my fellow Wexford Triathlon Club members who raced and to their families who travelled, thanks for the great company. And thanks to Jennie for showing us the best way to cross a finish line. You were brilliant!