Overcoming a severe bonk to post a new Ironman PB

Age-grouper John Walsh has a day to remember at Ironman Mallorca

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Admittedly it’s much easier to knock lots of time off your Ironman if you have set quite a poor benchmark in the first place. Simply choose your Ironman event well in advance, then train as hard as you can for 30 weeks – easy…

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I completed Ironman Lanzarote in 2012 to get my first taste of long distance racing. When I agreed to it I thought it sounded like a great holiday destination so well worth a trip. I didn’t realise then that it was – and remains – one of the toughest IM courses on the planet. So in hindsight; a time of just over 14hrs wasn’t too shabby.

You would have thought I’d learned my lesson when two years later my neighbour (and fitness guru/mentor) Dave Ashcroft suggests entering Ironman Mallorca. Again swayed by the exotic location and white beaches, I agreed without really considering the course, the effect the heat, wind and mountains may have on the difficulties of the event. I suppose I thought if I can get round Lanza, Mallorca should be a breeze.

Training

So 30 weeks ago I started my training plan. I decided to try and follow Don Fink’s ‘Be Iron Fit’ plan. This time I would try the competitive program rather than the intermediate level I used last time. This would mean an average of around 12hrs per week, with a peak week of 20hrs. This involved full sign-off from the rest of my family, and also booking a few Fridays off work towards the end of peak training to fit in the long bike sessions.

The aim was that I would arrive in Mallorca in the best shape of my life and ready to try and knock a full hour off my previous Ironman time. I tried to follow the program as best as I could but if I’m honest I fell down on the swim training (my weakest area) and often struggled to reach all the threshold training on the bike. I found it difficult to get my heart rate up that high on the bike: probably because I didn’t push myself enough…

On reflection I enjoyed the training program and certainly felt fitter and stronger by the end of 30 weeks than I had ever done before. It’s difficult to accurately assess my fitness levels but a couple of key indicators were that I was now at my lowest weight since high school (a slender 11.5 stone at 6’1”) and I ran a PB in a 10K race just weeks before the event (41:44mins), knocking a full minute off my previous PB.

I’d also picked up some cycling tips on a recent London to Paris (L2P) cycle trip and hoped to increase my speed on the straight-ish parts of road in Mallorca. This meant making use of my aerobars for much longer periods than I did in Lanzarote, and also using a secondhand aero helmet I’ve bought.

I was assured by the seller that it was free time I was buying, though the other side of the coin is that in Mallorca the sun may make your head explode if you wear one when it’s too hot. I was also concerned I would look like a idiot wearing one while being really near the back.

Everyone enjoys the feeling of passing someone on a Cervelo P5 or new Pinarello – I certainly didn’t want to be labelled under the ‘all the gear no idea’ heading. However after inspection I was happy that new aero helmet wouldn’t put me in that bracket. I’d been trying to stay down on my aerobars for longer and longer periods on my training rides, with the hope that this would improve my time on race day.

I think this was time really well spent and set me in good stead for the bike element. After advice I took two helmets out with me in case the weather was too hot for the aero one.  But on a test run the day before, the helmet felt fine so decision was made and Ironman stickers were placed on the aero helmet ready for race day, one less thing to worry about…

Mallorca

Dave and I (along with our wives) arrive in Mallorca on Thursday with the race scheduled for a 7:35am start on the Saturday morning. The plan is to register on Thursday afternoon, go for a swim on Friday morning then check in the bikes and attend the race briefing that afternoon all ready for an early start the next day. All goes to plan with the test swim, Dave and I familiarise ourselves with the start area, location of the first buoys, layout of the route etc…

As we come out of the water and start taking off our wetsuits, a chap from Northern Ireland asks if we’ve heard the rumoured ‘no wetsuit ruling’ for the event. I quickly (if not even a little patronisingly) assure him that would not happen. At worst they would give participants the option not to wear one if the temps hit the required rates.

Having just swum in a somewhat cold Med by the start area we assure him that was not going to happen; we also explain as experienced Ironman athletes that IM Lanza was a wetsuit swim this year and that was even hotter! It feels good to share our knowledge as experienced Ironman racers…

You can imagine our faces at the race briefing later that day when the news is confirmed: ‘NO WETSUITS’ for the event. The reason given is that the water temp is 25.5°C and that anything over 25°C means a mandatory ‘no wetsuits’ ruling. However even without a thermometer to hand it’s blindingly obvious the water temps don’t reach those levels. Possibly the real reason is likely to be the big ‘hoo-ha’ the race briefing made about Ironman Mallorca being the Kona of Europe.

On and on they rambled about how the swim was going to be ‘Kona-style’ – it will be interesting to see how they market it next year. I personally don’t think they need to rely on this as the event is a sell out anyway, maybe they plan to increase the numbers. But we’ll see – maybe no wetsuits is the way forward? In fact Dave and I now think that you are not a real Ironman until you have completed one without a wetsuit – FACT!

Race day

So on to race day and the start – and I’m glad to say I’m much better prepared mentally for the start of Ironman Mallorca than I was in Lanzarote. I think this is a combination of having done an Ironman race before and knowing that I’ve prepared better for this event than any I’ve ever done.

I’m experienced enough now to know to stand back for 1min before I start the swim, and also benefit from my wife being at the start with me – that good luck hug and last-minute assurance about the training I’ve done is crucial for me – but maybe that’s me just being a little needy!!

Fink talks of hitting barriers and problems during the Ironman race, and outlines ways to deal with them – however I didn’t expect this one about the wetsuits to land the day before the start! However it wasn’t one I could control, so I quickly accept the ruling and just lower my expectations for swim times and revert back to my approach in Lanza for the swim which is that anything below the cut-off is just great (cut off for the swim is 2:20hrs)…

The water’s beautiful and crystal clear: this is the type of location open-water swimming was invented for, rather than Pickmere Lake on a cold spring morning! So the mantra I repeat during my swim is: avoid the human traffic as much as possible, and try to enjoy it as this is a once (or twice) in a lifetime experience.

The taste of salt is particularly pungent in Alcudia Bay so I’m glad I had done a test swim the morning before. “No wetsuits isn’t such a big deal after all,” I think as things seem to be going really well – then a huge guy swims right across me. Cheers mate!

Don’t panic

The trick is not to panic when swimming and concentrate on breathing in and out; regulate the breathing, slow that heart rate and keep moving forwards. I manage to cope without drowning then think to myself “I’ll pass you on the bike my friend”.

But overall considering the congested scenes at the start I’m glad to get through the swim relatively unscathed. There’s significant congestion at each of the main turning points but a sensible wide approach to the corner helps to avoid major problems.

I understand from the race pack and race briefing that the two-lap (including an Australian exit) swim course consists of a 2.05km loop then a 1.75km loop. And having settled into the swim quite well I check my watch after the first loop: 1:04hrs! Not good; this means things are going slowly and I’m on for a swim split of around 2hrs.

This is disappointing because I feel my new longer slower stroke is going well and I haven’t drifted off course too much on the first loop – although I do remember once looking up to see a canoe with someone in it pointing me back to the rest of the group…

As I approach the turnaround point of the second loop I notice only a further 16mins had gone by. Strange? It transpires that the loops were actually 2.5km and 1.3km so I was making good time after all. My laid back approach has helped me not to panic after the first loop.

I start running out of the water at just past 1:34hrs – WOW I’m chuffed and don’t even feel shattered.. I cross the mat to T1 at 1:36hrs and feel like a god – maybe those lessons with Masters swimmers have helped my swim technique and possibly the sub-13hrs total time is on after all?

I want to learn the lessons from my previous Ironman transitions which resulted in what felt like third degree burns (sunburn) on my legs and various areas of my body..  So I’m careful in my preparations for the bike, and given my new cycling position I am especially generous with the chamois cream!

Mr Vaseline was also put to good use as the tri-suit / salt water combination over the 3.8km swim has generated a lot of sore skin under my arms and around the shoulders. I also visit the toilet as the words of the race briefing came back to me; “DQ’d if caught urinating anywhere other than an Ironman mobile toilet!” Bit harsh I thought as I had definitely watered some trees during the 180km Lanza bike route…

So I (eventually) grab my bike and head off still feeling like a king – until my wife starts shouting “Where have you been?” and “Dave left ages ago… about 15 mins ago. Hurry up.” It transpired that my pal had followed me out of the water a minute or so behind but he managed to start the bike section a full 10mins ahead of me – oops maybe I was a bit too pedestrian in T1!

So off on the bike we go and the first 10km, 20km and even 30km are awesome. I’m cruising along flat, perfectly tarmacked roads, great flat(ish) body position, aero helmet on, hitting an average of 23mph, well within my Fink recommended heart rate zone (of approx. 140bpm); feeling great. I’m passing people left, right and centre and am even getting so far ahead of myself as to work out what average speed I require to break 6hrs..  Naïve or just stupid, I’m not sure..

Hubris

At 30 miles in I bump into Dave. “How do? Alright mate?” etc .. Then after a minute or so a polite “Okay catch you later” from me as I power on up the long Mallorcan road thinking I’m Bradley Wiggins in full TT mode.  You can imagine Dave’s delight two minutes later when he passes me on the very next hill as I’m frantically trying to put my chain back on after making a mess of the gear changes on the approach! Maybe Team Sky won’t be signing me up just yet…

So not far along the road I meet Dave again on the bike and we part again, more successfully this time from my perspective and don’t actually see each other again until we have both finished the full event some eleven hours or so later. It’s worth recognising at this point that Dave followed a condensed version of my training plan which in effect meant him joining in at about week 23 and just completing the last few weeks.

You can imagine my annoyance when we’re virtually nip and tuck for the majority of the race. We both complete the swim within about 90seconds of each other and apparently start the run within 10mins of each other, so an excellent performance from the super reliable Mr Ashcroft.

I really feel good on the bike: after 100km or so my average speed is around 30kph, even after including a few hills, and my confidence is sky high as I approach the mountain section. Again (probably naively) I think that the next 500m mountain stage may take a little extra time but I may be able to keep my average speed up by doing a super-fast descent. Needless to say that doesn’t happen; however the 1hour climb doesn’t break me and compared to those I’m passing up the hill I seem to be performing well.

Redemption

Obviously my heart rate is a little higher but it is all manageable, and soon I’m over the top and heading down. My (too brief) research tells me it is now downhill all the way home for the last 50km – again the reality isn’t quite the same.

The route holds several further challenging hills, but with tiredness now creeping in they may feel harder than they actually are. The biggest factor for me in the second half of the bike is the wind; this seems to pick up and blow in my face all the way back.

There are huge sections on long straight roads where I’ve been hoping for 30kph+ speeds; but even with the effort I’m putting in it is really disappointing to see a speed of around 22-24kph on my speedo. This stage is definitely a mental challenge; I feel like I’ve got over the mountainous part and am really expecting an easy downhill section before starting the run.

It’s very tempting to sit up and cruise back to transition, but I really try to keep my low position on the tri bars, remembering my training and trying to be as aerodynamic as possible. The reality is I have to keep the hammer down and keep pushing for the full 6:38hrs.

The results of this extra push mean that I start to feel quite ill towards the back end of my bike journey. At the later food stations (every 50km or so) all the snack options make me feel nauseous, so I’m now just picking up water as I can’t even face the isotonic drinks. I’m aware of this but not too concerned, almost ignoring it as I again work out what my bike finishing time will be (I find maths on the bike helps to pass the time!).

The second transition is a little quicker than T1 but I still insist on a sock change and another loo stop – peeing in a tri suit should be a sport by itself. I’ve actually figured out how to pee without taking my tri suit down from the top, but that’s a story for another occasion…

The run

As I start the run my head is buzzing with new sums – I’m frantically trying to work out what marathon time I need to get a sub-13hr total race time. I figure I need to run somewhere between 4hrs and 4:30hrs. That’s possible, just about, nearly, maybe?

I cruise around the first 10km, stopping at every drink station to take on water and a snack every 45mins – just like my training – and complete the first 10km in around 50mins. All this while keeping my heart rate well within the target zone (an average of around 150bpm).

So I’m well on target, in fact I’m keeping myself in check speed-wise as my legs feel strong on that first lap. I want to ensure I don’t go out too fast and then pay for it later. Little was I to know that this confident feeling would very quickly disappear…

The run course was made up of four and a half circuits of a 9km loop. At my 45min food stop I notice again that I really don’t want to take any food on and that getting the gel down is quite a challenge. However it isn’t until about 11km that I start getting overwhelming feelings to stop running and walk. WTF? This can’t be happening at 10km or 11km in to the run, I still have over 30km to run!  As the panic started rising within me it happened, I stopped running and started walking – BONK!

Disaster strikes

I walk for a minute or so then make myself start running again, only to almost immediately want to stop again – something’s going badly wrong… I push on as best I can until the 15km mark where my wife and Dave’s wife are sitting in a bar/restaurant on the front.

They greet me with positivity until they notice my greyish look and hear me say “the wheels are coming off”. At this point all I can think of is Dave telling me not to go too hard on the bike – argghh he was right, I’ve really cocked this up…

Luckily for me Mrs Walsh is on the case – she was there in Lanza and witnessed what happened to Dave during the run, so she knew where I’m heading if I don’t sort myself out. She gives me rehydration salts, followed by instructions for me to take on more fluids and as much energy food or drink stuffs as possible with what was available.

She then nips through a side street to the next feed station and waits for me there. Again I follow simple instructions: take this, drink that, eat this etc.. I take a cocktail of rehydration salts, half an energy bar, part of an apple, an isotonic drink, a Coca-Cola and even a Red Bull shot across the next two feed stations.

Having completed the first 10km in around 8:30mins pace, my next 10km is reduced to an average of 7min/km pace. I’ve definitely ‘bonked’ and it’s having a dreadful effect on my marathon time, walking for any period can very quickly destroy a marathon time.

I quickly realise that a sub-13hr result is now almost out of the question. My total average time per km is way below where it needs to be, and I’ve still got more than half a marathon to go. At that stage this news was almost a relief; it takes some pressure off. Now I can just focus on running the best I can, rather than obsess about the clock.

To continue reading John’s report click here

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Having just overcome a serious bonk on the run at Ironman Mallorca 2014, age-grouper John Walsh has the finish line in his sights…

Before I know it I’m feeling a lot better, strong enough to run now for 1km even 2kms before a quick walk through a feed station. My pace increases from my ‘walking phase’ but I’m still realistic of what my overall time will now be.

“Not to worry,” I think to myself, “this has been a hard course, no wetsuits, the wind was really strong on the bike..”  I suppose I’m getting my excuses ready to explain my blow-up to everyone. Funny how your mind works in these situations.

My running improves to the point where it now feels just like a long run from a weekend, painful yes, uncomfortable yes definitely, but not impossible. The other side of the ‘bonk’ feels good actually. It’s almost as though I’m getting stronger as I go on; I can now take on drinks and the odd bit of food. My technique is to run between food stations.

As I enter a food station I take a water at the start, then a couple of Coca-Colas in the middle part – then another water as I walk through the other end, with maybe an apple or whatever food snack I can stomach. I then run until I need to burp up the Coke – stopping to walk at this point just in case of emergency, as several times I’m not sure exactly what will happen as my whole stomach is feeling very sensitive.

Coca-Cola is not something I’ve ever bothered with before, as an adult it’s not something I have ever really drunk. But I must say it tastes fantastic; especially when I ‘bonk’.  It feels like my body is sucking up the sugar and it immediately gives me energy, like a liquid smelling salt. Strange but effective. Same with the Red Bull, I probably wouldn’t have tried it if I wasn’t in such a bad state but it really feels like taking smelling salts; it does the job.

“Let’s go for it”

So there I am, lap four almost completed, now only around 6-7ks to go. Mrs Walsh again decides to step in and sort me out; she has checked the race clock and worked out that I need to finish the race within 32mins. “Go for it, you’ve got nothing to lose, just run faster!” It always makes me laugh that instruction to run faster, I feel like saying “What do you think I am trying to do?” but instead I nod politely, say yes then plod on…

My marathon strategy has now gone completely out the window. I had planned on starting with a 6min/km pace and then slowing down for a steady efficient finish in a reasonable state, whereas now I will have to finish with probably under 5min/km to hit the sub-13hr time.

“Sod it, let’s go for it, I say to myself,” (or something like that), so the plan is to fuel up best I can at the next feed station and not stop until the end. I take two Red Bull shots this time which generate some crazy flashbacks – hardly surprising as usually the Red Bulls I drink down are laced with vodka!!

One last push, I’m feeling good, even concentrating on my body position as I run along, head up, leg stretch long and heels up: I think the fact that the majority of people around me are walking gives me the feeling I’m running super-fast. It’s really difficult at this point to keep track of how far I’ve to run, what pace I’m doing and what pace I need to do to hit the time. I think the exhaustion even stretches to your mind and its pretty hard to concentrate.

Emergency #2 

Here comes the final turn, a specific turn-off for last lappers only which leads on to a special Ironman runway with the crowds for the ‘You are an Ironman!’ finish. I’m already congratulating myself on a fantastic save, then – emergency!!!

My legs stop working – I can’t really work out what’s happening, I’m tipping forwards somehow and feel like I’m going to fall. I look down and my legs have stopped bending properly, meaning they aren’t keeping up with my body. It’s hard to explain but is quite scary and confusing.

As I sway and stumble I can hear an ‘ooohhh’ from the crowd, they’re shouting at me to stop and rest a second. I’m in no state to argue and I stop a full 200m from the finishing line – it’s like something from a movie – so nearly at the end and now my legs have decided to stop working!

As far as I know I have about one minute to get over the line and I’m wasting time fast. So very quickly I start off again as best I can, even though now my legs really aren’t working at all. I’m swinging them around like Forrest Gump with his braces on – it really is ridiculous. I hope there is video of it somewhere because I would love to see it. The compere has already called out “John Walsh you are an Ironman”, and all I can think is “Not yet my friend this could be a close thing”.

Life after Ironman

I manage to waddle across the line and dramatically fall into one of the waiting medical people who take me to rest in the medical tent. It’s a full 30mins before I recover enough to finally collect my medal and then find out exactly what my time is.

In my dazed state I thought I’d read 13:35hrs for my finishing time, but my confirmed finishing time is actually 12:57:39, so nothing like the time my exhausted mind had processed at the time. However as I receive my medal and realise I hit my target I quickly recover!

So overall a fantastic experience, but more than that a real personal challenge that I’ve managed to conquer.  Body-wise I’m not sure it was something I would repeat any time soon.

I’m sure no permanent damage has been done but I do now feel my Ironman days are over – my wife wants it in writing so here it is. I did however achieve my twin targets of beating my Lanza time by an 1hr and crossing the line in under 13hrs, even though I only just achieved that and nearly killed myself doing it.

But then again life would be dull without challenges wouldn’t it! My mind has already switched to a marathon for spring 2015 (London or Manchester maybe) and even another cycling challenge next year – a stage of the Giro d‘Italia to complete my set of Grand Tours – who said there’s not life after Ironman.  As they say, anything is possible…

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Did you race Ironman Mallorca? Let us know in the comments below!