Challenge Barcelona

Caspar has "one of the most physically and emotionally challenging experiences ever" at his first-ever Ironman-distance race

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With the sinking sun glinting off the ocean and with the buzz of spectators in the balmy evening air, I turned into the finishing chute, padded down the red carpeting and drew to a close one of the most physically and emotionally challenging experiences life had ever thrown at me.
 
Strictly speaking though, life hadn’t just thrown it at me. And like 1,300 others, I’d willingly signed up to it. To what end I hadn’t been entirely sure. But as I sat alone in the finish area I only had to make eye contact with a fellow finisher to know what they had been through. Words were not necessary and sharing this unspoken common ground with total strangers is what, I guess, makes the challenge of Ironman-distance triathlon so special.
 
It’s usually at this point in an Ironman-themed blog that the athlete makes it abundantly clear as to what it took to get to the start line, how many weekly road and water hours went into the feat and how many close friends and family members were deserted in pursuit of their goal. My account of how I got there is a little different.
 
Signing up in January 2010, it had been my full intention to base my season around the venture. But following selection onto the 220 Academy and with its signature race being the London Triathlon, Olympic-distance training dominated my schedule until August, eight weeks out from race day.
 
Now, anyone who has raced abroad will appreciate that the administrative requirements can be pretty punishing. I borrowed a bike box, booked a hotel and logged onto Youtube for some tips on tub changes and bike dismantling. Next then, the insurance. Most of the companies I contacted abruptly hung up upon mention of Ironman cover and those which did entertain my call would not offer any terms for my bike, thus leaving it, somewhat upsettingly, at the mercy of the Easy Jet baggage handlers. Perhaps sensing this, my Planet X then did everything it could to stay at home as first the headset disintegrated and then the ratchet ring on my back wheel bit the dust mid ride in a remote fenland village.
 
In terms of physical preparation, I managed to complete a 4km swim and two five hour bricks during those eight weeks before catching a cold. However, with an average of seven training hours a week, I’d pretty much been tapering since January anyway so I saw no reason to stop now and spent an enjoyable fortnight resting.
 
After a surprisingly painless flight and a slightly more painful €100 taxi, Matt (a good friend from University and fellow competitor) and I arrived in Calella, home to Challenge Barcelona. It was also home to an endless procession of retired Brits, mainly from Bolton, and for one weekend only, this one, Oktoberfest. It was by all accounts a relatively odd mix of Lycra, comb-overs and trombones. This meant though that there was a genuine buzz of anticipation, confusion and jollity around the town the day before the race, which we spent nervously building our bikes and spinning out on the coastal roads.
 
We sat down to dinner that night under a strange blanket of calm. We were very much of the opinion that it mattered little now what we had or hadn’t done to prepare for the race. Tomorrow, we were stepping into the unknown and we were actually looking forward to it.
 
I say unknown as neither of us had ever done a sea swim, nor cycled 180km but we believed that we could do it, which counted for a lot. So as we stood silently on the shore that morning waiting for the sun to emerge above the calm Mediterranean waters, it was reassuring to have accepted that our goal was to finish and that there were none of the performance pressures of Olympic and 70.3 racing. These moments of reflection were soon shattered as the hooter sounded and sent our wave crashing into the surf.
 
The swim was actually quite pleasant and I soon relaxed into a rhythm. In the crystal clear waters, it was something of a novelty to watch fish dart beneath me yet also something of a worry to see large brown jelly fish at the end of my down stroke but I reached the shore safely and enjoyed the amble into transition rather then the usual frenetic charge.
 
The prospect of the bike leg had daunted me the most prior to the race and three hours into it, it indeed got emotional. I’ve never been that confident with race nutrition having completed my first two 70.3s without eating and then ending up in bed with dehydration after my third. So my strategy was to drink as much water as I could and to eat something every 30 minutes. Gels make me sick so I’d stuffed my bike bag with snickers and cereal bars, which were incredibly hard to chew. Indeed, I was amazed to see my heart rate rise at least 15bpm for the 10-minute periods it took to get them down.
 
The air was dry and the coastal roads were long, flat, hot and fast. Well, fast for those who were fast. I just wanted to get to the run start still feeling like a human being. Four hours in then and the wheels came off (not literally) and I began to fall asleep. I was on a bike in the middle of an Ironman-distance race and my eyes were beginning to shut. I couldn’t quite believe it. The only thing keeping me awake was the dull burning pain in my toes. So, at every feed station from thereon in, I hopped off, stamped my feet and emptied a bottle of water (and in one incidence High 5) over my head. This did the trick, just, and I rolled into T2 two hours later completely out of love with cycling.
 
Transition was a delight. I got a complete change of clothes, had sun cream massaged into my shoulders and jogged out into the baking sun. I’d never been so happy to go on a run in my life. Now running is my better discipline and I maintained a fairly consistent pace throughout the 4-lap course, walking through each feed station with a flat coke in one hand and a wet sponge in the other. This is not to say it wasn’t an emotional three and a half hours, though. Beaten competitors sat dejected by the side of the road, one girl was in floods of tears as she was led away by a race official, another guy staggered, eyes rolling, across the tarmac and countless were reduced to walking pace, vacantly trying to focus on the route ahead. This was as much a battle of will as it was a physical challenge.
 
So, 11 hours and fifteen minutes after it had all began, I reached the red matting. I had finished and raised a considerable sum for Right To Play along the way. If I’m being honest, this is not really why I did it. I did it to prove to myself that I could. But I won’t be doing another one!

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