Saturday 25 August 2012

Race Report: Ironman UK, Bolton, England

I wrote part of this report the day after the race and it then sat in draft form for almost a month. I’ve tried to find the time to finish it off and somehow just haven’t managed. A big push now as I need to get it out a) before I forget everything, and b) before it’s so late that I’ve raced again!

So, see if you can remember a whole month ago, and grab a cup of tea and a biscuit ‘cos it’s another long one…

Mrs wrote a race report too, you can find it here, together with some stats here.

In order to make sure the tension isn't too much to bear for you, dear reader - let me start with this: As loudly proclaimed by Emma Jenkinson, one of the two Ironman MCs, as I ran(ish) down the finishers’ chute “Norman Driskell – You. Are. An. Ironman.”

Pretty happy right now!

The journey is far from complete, but my first full distance race is over, and I have the t-shirt and comfortingly heavy finishers’ medal to prove it.

I’ve had a fairly good few weeks in between Wimbleball and Bolton. For the first week after the 70.3 I didn’t feel like doing much at all – if I remember correctly I had no exercise at all for 5 days. I then built back up and had two really good strong weeks. The fourth week I ended up going to China on business for an impossibly short trip (flew out Monday, and back on Thursday). This led to me “losing” an entire night of sleep, instead having two 36-hour long days. I was left utterly shattered, and of course got no training accomplished.

The final week was also dominated by work. It was a relief to finally turn off all my devices, set my out of office, and say “I’m really sorry, for any other reason I wouldn’t do this – but I’ve been training for seven months for this, and I’m not missing it for the world”.

We packed on Thursday and then had a nice evening of escapism at The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Show Live – in London for one day only and, as a big fan and avid collector of versions, an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

Friday morning and we set off. Mrs’ Dad had kindly leant us his Citroen Bellingo, an ugly (sorry!) vehicle, but immensely practical. It swallowed up all our stuff with room to spare. We could have got everything in three times over. I’m starting to think my Audi isn’t compatible with a triathlon lifestyle.

We arrived at the Reebok Stadium, home of the mighty (apparently) Bolton Wanderers, and registered.  A race briefing was due to kick off shortly and, although we’d planned to go to the Saturday briefing, we decided to hang around. That meant that apart from dropping off bags and bikes in transition we wouldn’t have anything else to do the day before the race. That should help in relaxation and de-stressing.

Race briefing in the Reebok Stadium, Paul Kaye on the stage

After the briefing was the Pasta Party – an Ironman tradition. All athletes are entitled to complimentary plates of pasta, bread rolls, and entertainment. Paul Kaye, the other Ironman MC and always the voice of Ironman (I-ron-man) in my mind, talked through some of the day, and the Ultimate Athletes got a mention. 7 of us were there, and we were called on stage for our moment of fame. There’s a spread in the race programme again, entitled “and then there were nine”. Next time it’ll be eight, or fewer, as sadly Charlie Stannet missed the bike cut-off in the race.

Our 2-page spread and the first appearance of an "Ultimate" logo?

...and then there were Nine!

Paul Kaye described the four races we’re doing as “Ironman 70.3 UK: the hardest 70.3 in the world”, “Ironman UK: one of the hardest full-distance races in the world”, “Ironman 70.3 Ireland: the biggest ironman party in the world” and “Ironman Wales: Definitely the hardest full-distance race in the world”. I’m sure they “big-up” wherever they are, but it certainly made us feel good (and a nervous). We got a nice ripple of applause. I really hope me and Mrs are still standing after Wales!

The second of our four times as Mr 103 & Mrs 104

Team True Spirit got a big mention too, they are a charity supporting injured servicemen and women and giving them the opportunity for great personal achievement (as well as fundraising) at Ironman UK. There were maybe 30 of them in total, a mix of servicemen, physiotherapists, and other supporters.

The Team True Spirit crew

I spent a while looking at the handbike one of them would be using tomorrow to cover the 180km bike course - it was a work of art.

Beautiful handbike - light as it can be, but still a hell of a lot of work

We found our hotel, and turned in for the night. The next morning’s quick trip to T1 for bike/blue bag drop off, and then up to T2 for red bag drop off didn’t go as planned – the traffic was very heavy (jams, and annoying temporary traffic lights) so we got back to the hotel at 2pm tired, hungry, and thirsty. Not the best preparation. Determined to relax, we spent the afternoon doing very little – feet up, watching Tour de France highlights, and dozing. We turned in at about 20:30, and miraculously were both asleep by 21:30 and got a solid 5+ hours of sleep ahead of our crazy 3am start – a far cry form Wimbleball where I got what felt like no sleep whatsoever. Top Tip: For a good night of sleep ahead of a big race, don’t stay in a pub.

Bike left in T1 all racked and ready to go

So, up at 3am feeling remarkably rested and ready. Well-rehearsed breakfast of Ready Brek with peanut butter and a banana stirred into it, and a bottle of Gatorade to sip on, and I was good to go. We drove down to Penningotn Flash, scene of the swim, getting there at about 04:30. Race start was at 6am. Normally Ironman races start at 7am, I’m guessing this was a 6am start in order to get the final cut-off to be 11pm. The finish was in the town centre of Bolton, and there are probably regulations about making loads of noise beyond midnight.

There’s something surreal about covering your arms and legs with water-resistant sun-cream in the dead of night, but if the weather forecast is to believed (the UK is on the cusp of transitioning from never-ending rain to never-ending heat wave) then sun-burn was a real and very unwelcome risk. Factor 20 to start the day giving it plenty of time to soak in, and then some spray sun-cream in my run bag for a top-up in T2.

Benefits of arriving so early: Plenty of time to get mentally adjusted to the day ahead; no panics as you stand in the queue for the gents cubicles (bonsai trees grow faster than this queue was moving); and time to survey transition. I’m always amazed how many people seem to be in a state of panic – can you really not remember if you left your bike helmet in your blue bag? Really?

Transition looks pretty in the morning, barely 5am here

Volunteers had covered every bike with a protective cover in case it rained. The exact opposite to Wales last year where, as I was volunteering, we had to remove all the covers as they were acting like sails and blowing the bikes off the racks.

We bumped into a freelance photographer who had been staying in the same place as us in Wimbleball – he recognized us and we had a chat. He takes photos for Ironman, and also Compressport – so with my bright yellow Compressport compression calf guards on I was a good target. He got some snaps of me and Mrs but I’m not sure where they’ll end up – if anywhere.

We ambled down to race start.  I was eager to get into the water and relax and warm up – it felt a bit rushed last time. No such rush this time - we bobbed about for quite a while, amiably jostling each other to defend our starting position. It turns out we started 10 minutes late, but eventually the klaxon sounded and we were off! I was starting my first full-distance Ironman race. I hadn’t felt nervous coming into the race, probably because of the amount of thinking and planning I’ve put into it. As such, I set off on the swim feeling guardedly confident. I know I can swim this far, I know I can bike, and I’ll worry about the run when I get there.

  • The Swim (3.8km / 2.5 miles) - 01:15:11
  • 74th out of 227 in my age category (32.6% down the field)
  • 408th out of 1,180 overall (34.6% down the field)

It was nice to bob around with Mrs before the start, but I lost her the second we set off. This is fine, we knew it would happen. We might be married, but our races were going to be two very individual affairs. I found out afterwards I’d given her a kick in the face just after the start – sorry honey! Wasn’t on purpose!

It was a bit of a bun-fight for the first couple of hundred metres (they don’t call it the washing machine for nothing) – I got a few elbows to various places (included one to a particularly sensitive area!) and I’m pretty sure I meted out some damage of my own. Unfortunately I drifted off course a bit again – a little off to the right. This gives me clear water and gets me out of the fighting, but it does mean the continual course corrections break my rhythm slightly and mean I take a slightly longer route. Need to fix this – it’s a free and easy way to get the swim times down.

I also need to get better at using a burst of speed to find water at the start. The general advice is a good few hundred metres (more if you can manage it) to get clear of those around you and find some feet to draft – ideally someone who is marginally faster than you and can drag you along. I didn’t do any of this – I have much still to learn about race swimming.

The swim course featured an “Australian exit” which means after one lap you get out, run for a few dozen metres and then get back in for another lap giving just enough time for your supporters to identify you among all the other people in black wetsuits and hats, and for you to not see anyone at all and concentrate on not slipping over or losing your goggles. Mentally this worked in my favour – I know I can swim 1,900m easily, so I just viewed it as two manageable swims rather than a continuous 3.8km (2.25 miles).

I drifted off line again on the second lap – not terribly, but enough for it to be annoying. I will really need to fix this. The second lap was uneventful, everyone had strung out so I had my own space, we only came into bashing-range at the turn-buoys. I settled into a good rhythm and chewed through the course. The splits afterwards gave my first lap at average 1:58/100m, and second lap at 1:55/100m – so I negative split the swim! Very pleased about that.

I got out of the swim without any problems, and felt good, ready to bike. Let’s go!

  • Transition 1 - Swim to Bike - 06:31

I learned form T1 at Wimbleball where I’d spent far too much time faffing about with gloves and arm warmers. This time my blue bag was streamlined.

The tent was already quite humid, so I found a seat near the exit where it was cooler. Apart from the transition volunteer trying to pack my cycling top in with my wetsuit (“No! I need that!”) it went to plan. I could be quicker, I know, but with such a long ride ahead I felt it was more important to mentally tick off the main things: Socks on without wrinkles under the feet, shoes done up to the right tension, still got nutrition in my cycling top pockets, etc.

Blue bag - bike stuff

I had three mule bars with the tops already opened in one pocket, some emergency arm warmers in another pocket, and the middle pocket was going to be for rubbish (wrappers from the bars and gels that were taped onto my bike). I already had 2x 750ml Gatorade on my bike, and at a minimum 500ml/hour that’s up to 3 hours before I need to stop at an aid station. I wasted a lot of time at Wimbleball farting about with wrappers and moving bottles around, people I’d worked hard to overtake streaming past me. This time I was going to be much more efficient, and had practiced it all in training.

I saw Ultimate challenger Kate Stannet in transition. She beat me in the swim by about a minute, but I think I got out on the bike before her.

I think one of the things I’ll take to Galway is an attempt to do fast transitions – the challenge there is it’s tricky when you’re not out with the front pack in the swim as the transition area is already very busy. Maybe I should just learn to swim faster!

The biggest annoyance of the whole day happened as I left transition. My Garmin Forerunner 910XT has a “multisport” mode designed specifically for race timing in triathlon. In multisport mode you hit “Start/Stop” when you start the swim, and then hit the “Lap” button each time you change discipline, and than “Start/Stop” at the end of the run. This includes transition, so you have 5 clear times (Swim, T1, Bike, T2, Run), and can manage each sport individually whilst keeping track of overall race progress.

I hit “Lap” as I exited T2, and instead of a little “Now start biking!” graphic, I just got the normal “Lap” behaviour. Either it wasn’t properly on multisport mode or something had gone wrong. I wrestled with it a bit and eventually just decided the quickest thing would be to stop the current exercise, reset, and start again as if it were a normal bike ride, with “Bike” as the active sport.

I thought I’d done all this correctly (remember I’m on my bike trundling out of T1 at this point, and negotiating Pennington Flash’s precipitous speed bumps) but heading down the road I realized I wasn’t getting any km splits at all, just elapsed time. This was a problem all the way round as I didn’t know how fast I was going, or how far I’d gone. Luckily I knew the course so could gauge my position, but not knowing my average speed was annoying.

Anyway, if something’s going to cock up I’d rather it was my watch and not my bike again! Speaking of which, the bike…

  • The Bike (180km / 112 miles) - 06:29:55
  • 70th out of 227 in my age category (30.8% down the field)
  • 350th out of 1,180 overall (29.7% down the field)

I set off. I felt good and confident. My bike felt (no pun intended) absolutely amazing with the HED Jet rims on. I love my H3 wheelset, but unless you’re all about speed on a flat sprint/Olympic course (e.g. Thames Turbo or at Dorney Lake) then they’re just not appropriate – and as I learned at Wimbleball, they absolutely suck when you try and make them stop quickly on a fast descent, and as soon as you lose confidence in your ability to stop, you may as well give up.

Leaving T1, 112 miles to go!

The bike course consisted of a 16-ish mile point-to-point, then three laps of a 32-ish mile circuit to give 112 miles (180km) in total.

Within the first mile I’d seen a crash – one guy was wobbling around and lurched to the right as someone was overtaking - he took him out completely and both went down. Poor blokes, I hope they were OK to get back on and carry on racing. As with Wimbleball, I was surprised at the number of people stopped with mechanical problems within the first 10km, underlining again the importance of ensuring your bike’s fitness as well as your own.

I’ve heard a hell of a lot said about Ironman cycling, particularly about pacing. For example, “there’s no such thing as a bad run, only too fast a bike”, “it’s almost impossible to take the bike too easy”. I probably should have remembered some of these pearls of wisdom as I rocket past fellow competitors like they were standing still. I felt amazing, I felt strong, my bike was mechanically as close to perfection as it has ever been. My new rims hummed and whistled, I just knew I sounded like an unstoppable missile to the ears of my fellow racers. I took some time to enjoy it, really enjoy it. I even said out loud how great I felt, and how amazing this experience was. I knew there would be some dark times in the race (there always are in races this long, even for the professionals) so I wanted a happy-zoomy place to remember when my time came.

My watch wasn’t giving me splits, but I was using my estimate of perceived effort to keep the energy expenditure under control. I thought I was taking it easy, I really did. I got to the start of the circuits, still overtaking people (I genuinely have no idea how they got there so quickly, the speed they were going on the bikes they must have completely aced the swim and got a 20-30 minute head start on me). Why would such strong swimmers be cycling so slowly? If I’d thought about that question I might have been able to work out the answer – they weren’t going slowly, I was going way (Way WAY) too fast.

My plan was to use the first lap fairly cautiously for reconnaissance, making sure I knew where the tricky corners and technical descents were, and then open it up a bit on the second lap. Mrs and I had been out here a fortnight ago to ride the course, so I already had some familiarity with it – but it all looks different at speed and on closed roads.

At the top of Sheephouse Lane, the only major climb on the route

I finished the first lap – it seemed to take a long time to get there, these laps are long! – and set off up Sheephouse Lane, the only real big hill on the course, for the second time. It was during the second lap I started to pay for my exuberance early on. I was getting overtaken. I’m not used to being overtaken on the bike. I found it very demoralising. Whereas I’ve been overtaken by the odd whippet on an awesome bike with humming disc wheel and easy cadence, and that’s fairly easy to come to terms with, this time I was being overtaken by chubby blokes on old steel-framed bikes. A lot harder for me to deal with.

It’s not that I was tired, my legs felt OK, I wasn’t fatigued, and my nutrition plan was working perfectly – my legs just wouldn’t work as well as they had been. I got really quite depressed about it, and slowed dramatically. This was definitely a dark moment. As I finally finished the lap and started up the hill for the third time I looked forward to the super-fast descent on the other side, and tried to take comfort in knowing there was only one more to go. Lap three went on for ever. The roads were longer than they had been, the gentle rises became hills in their own right, and more and more people were overtaking me. My initial “holy crap I’m going to break 5:30 at this rate!” turned into “well I think I might still make 6:00” and eventually became “I reckon I can just creep in under 6:30”.

As it was I got in a hair’s breadth under 6:30 having learned a whole big lesson about pacing. It would be easy to blame my watch, but my watch wasn’t pedalling, I was.

I understand now those people I overtook 15 miles in (who all overtook me 70 miles later) weren’t “amazing swimmers who were going slow on the bike”, they were “good swimmers who were pacing themselves appropriately on the bike”. I wondered a little bit about what my cycling enthusiasm was going to do to my run, but realized that wasn’t a productive line of thought, and quickly shut it down.

On the up side, my nutrition had gone perfectly. I took 15 minutes to get settled in to the bike, and then had a gel. I had half a mule bar 30 minutes later, a gel 30 minutes after that, etc. Combined with a target minimum fluid intake of 500ml of Gatorade per hour that’s exactly the carb intake I need. I stuck to the plan rigidly, almost to the minute. At least I could still get elapsed time from my watch. After 3 hours when I ran out of drink I got a Gatorade top up from an aid station. I was carrying all the solids I needed, so there was very little time lost refuelling. This was one of the high points, and I don’t think I need to make any fuelling changes for my next races.

As I entered T2 (I’m sure that school never used to be quite so far down the road) I had a new experience – a bike catcher took my bike off me and whisked it away. I haven’t had this happen before and was momentarily confused as my routine in T2 starts with “run with bike to racking point and hook bike up securely” – I was pointed to the T2 area (school sports hall) by a friendly volunteer (I must say, all the volunteers were excellent) and off I trotted.

  • Transition 2 - Bike to Run - 13:08

My second transition was laconic to say the least. I almost forgot I was in a race. I took some time eating a bagel I’d stashed in my bag (brilliant idea - put a treat into your run bag, and reward yourself for getting through the bike). Again I took time, making sure I applied some more liquid chamois to areas at risk of chafing (you know the ones), rubbed some body-glide under my arm-pits as that is one of the most painful areas to get rubbed raw, and covered myself in sun cream. It was getting damn hot out there, and I was going to cook unless I had some protection.

Red bag - run stuff and special bagel treat! (If I get this far I deserve a treat)

I knew I’d gone too hard on the bike, and as I sipped some water kindly supplied by a volunteer, I reflected. I had to avoid doing the same on the run, and I couldn’t let it ruin the race. There was a long time to go to the finish and I had to leave the bike behind, it was done, and focus forward.

  • The Run (42.2km / 26.2 miles) - 05:12:58
  • 158th out of 227 in my age category (69.6% down the field)
  • 747th out of 1,180 overall (63.3% down the field)

Like the bike course, the run consisted of a point-to-point component of about 8 miles, followed by a purported three (which turned out to be more like three and three-quarters) laps of a circuit to make up the remaining 18. A marathon. I’ve never run this far before!

I set off out of T2 determined to keep my pacing even and careful. I’d reset my watch, set it to “Run” and headed out. It failed in the same way, no kn splits, not sure on my pacing. I went at what felt like the right pace and made good progress all the way to the circuits.

I felt like my pacing was good. Cadence high, tried to keep speed low, I overtook one or two people who looked like they’d suffered on the bike, but I certainly wasn’t rushing. I got to the circuits feeling strong. There was a very short sharp steep hill connecting the river-side section to the loops, and I chose to preserve some energy and walk up it. I’d learned at Wimbleball that run/walk is acceptable, and can make a big difference to energy conservation. At the top is a pub and a sharp left turn on onto the looped section of the course. Rounding the corner, I set off on a run again, to much whooping and cheering from the large (and tipsy) group of patrons.

This part of the course was a gradual incline all the way out, and decline back, with a squashed U-shaped loop in the town centre. There were two aid stations, one at each end.

The “out and back” style of looped course doesn’t suit me mentally. It really feels like running with no purpose in a way that a circuit doesn’t.

Part of the course that was in the middle of the town centre

Quite quickly I started to suffer the after effects of my bike effort. If I’m honest with myself (I wasn’t at the time, but in retrospect I can see more clearly) I went off too fast on the run as well. I felt good, it was nice to get off the bike, and my bagel-reward gave me a nice boost. The lack of pacing data from my watch was more impacting on the run, I felt a bit helpless without the regular beeping each kilometre. I ran for a while chatting to someone else, but realised he was going marginally faster than I wanted to, so I let him run on.

I had heard a lot about how if you pace the run correctly you’ll start to reel people in who went off too fast. This didn’t happen, instead I got slower and slower – a pointer that I was one of the ones who had gone off fast.

The crowd support on the run was excellent. Most of the sections were well represented, and the town centre loop was electric. I started to walk up the long rise, more so on the second loop. It became quite demoralising seeing other athletes with more armbands than me (one per lap). I tried to find my happy place – this was at two places on the loop, firstly Mrs was now on the run course so I was really pleased to see her and spent some time working out what I’d say as we ran past each other (it’s also the first clue I’d had that she had made it through the swim and bike and onto the run), and secondly down in the town where my good friends Paul, Chris, Rachel, and Simon had come out to support us. This made such a huge difference to my mental condition – I can’t thank them enough for coming out to support us.

At one point someone yelled “Come on, Norm” (the race numbers have our names on) but then followed it with “Oh! Norm Driskell! parkrun!” That took me by surprise, but it turned out afterwards that it had been the race director from Bolton parkrun which I’d trotted round the day before, and he’d recognised my name. That was amusing – I thought for a moment my parkrun addiction had become public knowledge!

Got a long way to go - no wristbands yet (photo copyright Simon Rowe)

The run went on and on and on… It seemed to be never ending. Before the race I had dreams of trying to get close to 4 hours, that was rapidly out of the window (I now see that it was a crazy objective) but it felt like the time was just sliding further and further away. I gave myself a promise of a pick-me-up treat on the final lap, I’d switch to the flat pepsi (surprisingly nice) – and that kept me motivated a bit longer. Until then my nutrition was a half banana and a couple of Ritz crackers at each aid station – I really didn’t fancy any more gels after the first lap, plus they are damn-near impossible to open after 10 hours of racing, the last couple I had to bite the tops off which was a mission in itself. I suspect a lot of people had commented as for a while the volunteers were handing them out with the tops already torn off – much better, thank you volunteers!

I was hoping I may still creep in under 5 hours, but as that slipped past I focused my efforts on breaking five and a half. I found some energy for a push at the end, running (if you can call it running) up most of the last hill, and all the way back down to the finish. My spirits lifted over the final 15 minutes – my legs were crying out but I pushed on regardless. I was so close, I was going to be an Ironman.

It was with a great sense of relief and achievement that I rounded the final bend and went straight on to the finishing chute. One athlete with another lap to go shot me a jealous look, probably similar to the ones I must have unknowingly exchanged with athletes a lap or more ahead of me when the situation was reversed.

This is my happy face (photo copyright Simon Rowe)

As I ran down the carpet, spiralling my arms and trying to whoop the crowd up, Emma Jenkins declared that yes, at last, after the longest 13 hours of my life, I. Are. An. Ironman.

I. Are. An. Ironman! (Official time was a second quicker than this)

  • Final time (140.6 miles) - 13:17:45
  • 103rd out of 227 in my age category (45.4% down the field)
  • 501st out of 1,180 overall (42.5% down the field)

Very amused to be number 103 and come 103rd in my age group!

Kate Stannett got a mention on Ironman Live when she finished...

...and earlier on, so had we! (US timezone, -7 hours on BST)

I made my way quickly through the finishers’ area, grabbing some pizza (Domino’s, yum!) on the way. I wanted to see my friends and let them know how much they’d helped me.

After catching up, and scoffing recovery drink, cake, an ice cream, some coffee, and probably the other half dozen foodstuffs that were nearest at the time, I went back to the barriers to cheer on Mrs. I saw her go past twice – “You’re gonna be an Ironman!” I shouted – she didn’t register that she’d heard, but I think she did. After Mrs had successfully come in, we went for more cake and coffee before returning to welcome the last people of the day.

Mrs, enjoying her first taste of the Ironman finishing carpet (photo copyright Simon Rowe)

I was so pleased to have got through the day. The time wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping, but I can clearly look to my limited pacing skills for improvement next time – there’s a lot I could gain without being any fitter, just by playing the game better.

Mr Race Number had a crumply and ink-bleedy kind of day

The icing on the cake is that when Bolton was featured on the new Ironman magazine TV show, my legs were in one of the atmospheric shots! One of the unexpected bonus effect of wearing bright calf guards and patriotically coloured trainers (the other was that my supporters could easily see me coming).

My legs! On TV! Fame at last!

Two races down in the Ironman Ultimate Challenge, with two more to go. Galway is next for Ironman 70.3 Ireland; bring it on!…


  1. An excellent read, well done! We at Team Irondriskell are really looking forward to Tenby :) x

  2. fantastic report and thanks for taking the time for writing. I will be doing my first Ironman at Bolton this year and this has really settled some of my nerves.

  3. Very interesting insight...thanks you. I have my first full distance next month and Im getting quite nervous.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it - and good luck! Note that the bike course has changed a fair bit since this report.