Overcoming fuelling struggles at Ironman UK for an epic finish – blog

Age-grouper David Waring makes his M-dot debut in Bolton

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Since I started training for this event in December last year, I’ve run 758km, cycled over 5,000km and and swum 170km.

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There have also been endless injury prevention measures, from stretching and core stability exercises to painful deep tissue massage and physio sessions. By some stroke of luck I have managed to get my ageing body to the start line in one piece and with no significant injuries on the way despite my very creaky knees and dodgy back. Time now to put all the hard work to the test.

After an early night and several hours spent getting more and more anxious that I was too excited to sleep, the alarm goes off at 03:30 on the morning of 19th July to give me time to take on some fuel (a recurring theme) well in advance of the 06:00 start gun. Porridge, banana, flapjacks and strong coffee are not easy to stomach at that time of the day. 

We leave the hotel at 04:30 and arrive at Pennington Flash for the swim start just before 05:00. It’s fairly hard but thankfully there’s not much wind yet so the water is reasonably flat. I check my bike and store energy drink, bars and gels on it for refuelling later. There’s plenty of nervous faffing and chatting with fellow competitors, most of whom are equally nervous IM virgins. The wetsuit goes on at about 05:30, all the time sipping energy drink and nibbling flapjacks and bananas to keep reserves topped up.

Athletes enter the swim at Ironman UK 2015

I start queuing for the start at about 05:45. Thankfully they’ve changed the swim from a mass start (2,400 people all fighting for space at once) to a rolling start where you seed yourself according to expected swim time (1:15hrs for me) – in theory a much more orderly process. The elite race starts at 05:55 and then, bang on 06:00 the queue starts to move and before I know it I’m in the water (thankfully a toasty 18 degrees C) and the 3.8km mile swim gets underway.

Once I’ve found some space all goes according to plan – except for the weather. I keep an eye on the sky all the time, wondering what the bike conditions are going to be like. Towards the end of lap one the sky starts to brighten, and so do I. Then, early on in lap two, the sky darkens, the heavens open and a deluge of biblical proportions starts bouncing off the water. Not really a problem whilst swimming, bit I’m thinking more about cycling in it, and also about my loyal fan club of 1, Mrs W. I suspect the spectators are getting wetter than the swimmers. 

I exit the swim bang on my planned time of 1:16hrs – all good so far. There’s a long run through transition, which already resembles a quagmire, and people are slipping and sliding all over the place on the sodden grass. The transition tent resembles a huge steam bath as dripping wetsuits are peeled off hot bodies.

More faffing 

Now transitions are supposed to be the fourth discipline in triathlon and can make or break a close race. However they’ve never been my strong point, and as I was going to spend the next seven hours or so on a bike in horizontal rain I decided I might as well be as dry and comfortable as possible to start with. A complete change of kit follows, with waterproof top and shoe covers, more flapjack and water, but I’m still not sure how I managed to spend 17 minutes in there. 

Maybe it’s lucky I did though, because as I run out to my bike the rain magically eased off and looks like it might stop sometime soon. This was exactly as forecast but meant that the brisk south-westerly wind isn’t far behind. Finished the swim right on schedule.

I leave transition, miraculously without slipping over in the mud, and off I go on the bike. Concentrate hard early on; the trick with the cycle leg is not to get over-excited – it’s easy to go too fast but then you’ll pay for it later on in the run. Keep heart rate down, don’t push too hard on the hills, steady as she goes. It’s a hilly course bike course, with about 2,000m of vertical ascent, and it gets tougher as the wind picks up. There’s a funny thing about cycling in that the wind always seems to be trying to slow you down or blow you sideways, but it never helps you.

The sky starts brightening in the distance.

The bike leg is where I plan to replenish most of my lost energy and fluid. I’ll burn probably 6-8,000 calories during the race. 2-3,000 of those will come from the readily available glycogen that I have carefully stored away in my muscles beforehand, a limited amount will come from burning fat but, in order to avoid the dreaded “bonk” or “hitting the wall”, I need to keep filling the fuel tank. 

Bike leg at Ironman UK 2015

It’s tricky to eat while swimming, and eating late in the race when running is not a good plan, so I need to take on about 70gm of carbohydrate per hour whilst cycling. My race plan has this carefully worked out at 500ml of energy drink, half an energy bar and an energy gel sachet.

My bike computer beeps every 20 minutes to remind me to eat and drink; I’ve trained to do it but it’s still really hard to keep it up and the stuff I’m shoving down my neck is so disgustingly sweet and sticky, I crave something savoury and salty. The occasional banana breaks the monotony but there is nothing else on offer at the feed stations.

David Waring continues his account of racing this year’s Ironman UK…

The rain dries up and my waterproof top comes off halfway round the first lap of the bike leg, which makes me feel good, and spirits lift further as I high-five my fan club (now doubled in size as my good mate Ric has joined Mrs W) at the foot of the Sheep House Lane climb that marks the start of lap two.

The high fiving almost causes an embarrassing collision but I manage to avoid the chap who was slowly grinding to a halt in front of me. Top of the Sheep House Lane climb and I even had time to wave at the photographer.

The wind continues to challenge but the sun comes out and the crowds are so good, parts of the course feel like alpine climbs in the Tour de France as spectators crowd in and urge us on. I chuckle to myself several times as I, on my regular road bike, pass numerous people on very expensive high-tech specialist TT/triathlon bikes. All the gear and no idea!

The big enemy in the late stages of an Ironman will always be the dreaded cramp. There are three keys to avoiding this – plenty of fluid to avoid dehydration, replacing lost minerals and salts, and staying out of the anaerobic heart-rate zone.

Athletes on the bike at Ironman UK

A couple of pee stops reassures me that I’m taking on enough fluid, and I know that my average heart rate is fine at around 130 beats per minute. So I add two electrolyte tablets into a bottle of water (impressive without stopping, I thought) and manage to down the lot in the last half-hour of the bike. That should at least help to keep the enemy at bay.

I could definitely have gone faster on the bike, but stick to my race plan and reach transition about 9mins over my planned 7hrs because of the wind. Very encouraged to see that the fan club has increased by a further 150% as sons Jake and Toby and dog, Stig, join the team to watch the run. Seeing your loved ones really gives you a lift. 

Further world-class faffing in T2 took about 14mins including another complete change of kit, crawling around on hands and knees looking for one of my cycling gloves that had disappeared, another pee stop and a record-breaking faff with my new race number belt – the only thing that had not been fully road-tested in training. Also more of Mrs W’s outstanding flapjack of course, which to my relief tastes comparatively savoury, and some plain old water which was a welcome change.

On to the run, then. Just a little marathon left to do. It feels so good to be off the bike and upright, stretching out the stiff back, neck and shoulders. The early part of the run is great, maybe even up to about the halfway point. Again, I stick to my carefully thought-out race plan, which includes allowing myself to walk through the feed stations – it’s impossible to drink from a paper cup whilst running, you just end up wearing the contents.

David Waring on the run at Ironman UK

David Waring on the run

The Ironman shuffle

As I’m running at a relatively slow “Ironman shuffle” pace, I’m able to chat to fellow competitors as I run; very useful distraction from the long four and a half hours still to come. The run course makes its way from T2 at the Bolton Wanderers’ stadium to the finish in the centre of Bolton – but that’s just the first 12km. It then takes you three times round a cruel 10km loop, passing the finish chute in the town centre each time. 

This is a double-edged sword in that I can see some people already finishing when I still have 30km to run, but that mile stretch to and from the finish was several deep with cheering spectators who urge you on, no matter that they didn’t know you. I also spot Fiona, my coach, and other members of the Leeds & Bradford Triathlon club in the throng and on balance, the added support outweighs the torture of having to run past the finish three times. 

The 10km run loop consists of a long uphill drag out of Bolton, turning at the top, then back down into the town centre. Annoyingly, like the wind earlier, the slope is steep enough to hurt going up, but not enough to help much coming back down.

The first lap is completed without too much trouble but starting the long haul out of town for the second time things start to get tough, much as expected. 18km to go on the one hand was just a regular training run… On the other hand it felt like the end would never come.

I force myself to keep running, even though my pace has dropped on the uphill slog. Lots of walkers at this stage but I’m determined not to give in. Spotting the fan club twice on each lap remains a big motivator as I see them pretty much every half hour at this crucial phase of the race when the bad guy in your head is sowing the seeds of doubt. 

Now running out of enthusiasm for forcing fuel into my body, I decide to try something different. Red Bull and water very nearly came straight back up; flat cola tasted disgusting but bizarrely seemed to settle the stomach. Both of these are popular in the late stages because of their high sugar and caffeine content. I then try the salted pretzels – what a joy! I graze on handfuls of these and revert to the odd gel and regular cups of energy drink and water. 

Here comes the finish

At last the final lap. Now I can smell the beer and start thinking about my finish time. The penultimate lap has taken just over an hour; if I can do the last lap in less than 58mins I’ll be inside 41⁄2 hours for the marathon. Not bad given that my best stand-alone marathon time is 3:53hrs. I struggle to pick up the pace much on the uphill drag but once I turn for home I’m on fire. I manage 4:28 for the marathon.

Ironman UK medals

The finish is epic; Sian and the kids and Ric are close to the line screaming, I start celebrating probably a good 100m out and am totally elated when I cross the timing mat. What a feeling! What a day! What a journey!

I chat to the fan club through the fence. There’s a momentary urge to burst into tears, but it’s not a reality TV show so I manage to pull myself together.

Ric is disappointed that I look so fresh – thought I hadn’t tried hard enough. Just because he ended up in a wheelchair with a drip in his arm when he won his age-group in the same race two years earlier. Yes, I could have gone faster, but I think I got it right and actually really managed to enjoy the experience. 13 hours, 26 minutes and 52 seconds, 11th in my age category and 757th overall out of supposedly 2,400 although many of those never started and many that did start failed to finish. I’m happy with my day’s work. 

Anyway, definitely top half, possibly top third. Maybe it would have been nice to squeeze into the top 10 of my age category (55-59), but that would have meant shaving off nearly half an hour which I think would have been a stretch in those conditions.

Will I do it again? Highly unlikely but never say never. Maybe a flatter one next time… My son Jake seems to have been inspired and has vowed to give it a go in the next few years. He probably just wants to beat his dad’s time but there will be an age handicap applied.

This is what all the hard work has been about – I am an Ironman!

(Images: Sian Waring / Getty)

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