It’s 0300 and I’m up and preparing for a long day out on the hot and dusty 140 mile course of the inaugural Fortaleza Ironman. It’s still dark outside but nevertheless it is a sweltering and humid 24C.
The forecast today is for a windy 38C under a cloudless sky. I need to apply as much sun block as I can and so I set to work to ensure that every exposed inch is covered. It is going to be brutal out there and I can’t leave anything to chance if I want to get to the end of the day. Factor 50 it is then.
My wife is up and about too and frankly, I don’t think that she’s taking my situation very seriously. With such a long day ahead of me, I think she should perhaps be showing me a bit more sympathy. After all, supporting one’s wife in her first Ironman is a big responsibility, but she appears unreasonably self-obsessed in her own preparations for the race, so I guess that I will just have to sort myself out!
By 0550 we are on the start line – or rather my wonderful wife Siobhan is on the start line. The “good luck” kiss has been bestowed on an anxious forehead and I am trying my best to get a glimpse of the start. The area allocated to spectators is already overcrowded and I’m struggling to see more than the heads of those in front of me.
Nothing useful can be gleaned from the commentary which is delivered only in high pitched and screaming Brazilian Portuguese. Worst of all, my cunning plan to watch the swim start from the marina wall outside our hotel has been curtailed by the evil machinations of the Hotel Marina Park security staff who evidently viewed this scheme as a threat to their authority.
It’s 0600 and the pros are off! It takes a while to get the remaining age group athletes into the water. But just before 0615 the age group start is signalled and they are off. Several starters are already a good 250 metres in front of the line – after all the swim start is the one place race organisers cannot disqualify competitors easily, because they don’t actually know who is who. Siobhan is somewhere in the white water of a 1,200 swimmer open water start and I am now feeling quite fond of her – in fact I’m damned proud that she has made it this far at all.
When she first announced her intention to enter an Ironman I obviously tried to dissuade her. It seemed such an all-consuming undertaking – the sort of thing that might leave me a virtual widower, would mean long unhealthy Sunday bike rides or even – God forbid – require me to race an Ironman myself in order to “keep up”.
But as time went on and after Siobhan had parted company with a professional triathlon coach whose primary thrust seemed to involve making her feel completely unworthy of her entry fee, I volunteered to act as bike coach and mechanic and to get at least that part of her campaign on track.
So now, after thousands of hard miles in the saddle on broken English roads and many hours in the garage fettling gears, brakes, wheels and tires – not to mention significant investment in aero-related hardware (a subject upon which I now have a high level of expensively acquired expertise) – we have finally arrived at the point of no return.
I can watch the swim with professional detachment, but the bike sector is serious stuff. Equipment failure will result in immediate divorce or at the very least semi-permanent exclusion from the marital bed. To make matters worse, a poor bike split will not reflect well with my mates in the pub at home.
Due to a well-known phenomenon known as “beer slip”, I have built steadily upon my self-endowed status as an immensely talented cycling coach and must now deliver – or rather, Siobhan must deliver! Everything to play for then…
The triangular non wetsuit swim from Fortaleza harbour has competitors forging out to sea for a mile downwind, then making a short crosswind leg before returning to the harbour upwind and against the waves. All well and good in, say, Poole Harbour, but Fortaleza is situated on the north-east Atlantic coast of Brazil and that means that there is an Atlantic swell to contend with.
The trade winds have been blowing at 25mph for the last few days and although the wind has dropped to 12mph overnight, the sea has yet to calm itself and the wind is picking up again as the sun warms and stirs the humid morning air.
For the swimmers, sighting accurately in the mountainous swell is practically impossible – especially given the distinct lack of intermediate buoys – and sea sickness is affecting several competitors. Many swimmers lose their breakfast to the fishes, and many lose their sense of direction and bearings entirely.
One swimmer later finds that her Garmin records her 2hr swim split has covered an astounding 5.2km as opposed to the 3.8 km race distance! Despite the tough conditions, Siobhan copes well and exits the water just under 1:30hrs. I am feeling very proud of her – she has conquered conditions that would have had me running for the hotel bar. Many swimmers, it later transpires, will miss the 2:00 swim cut off and several have to be pulled from the water completely exhausted.
As official photographer for the mission, I am under strict instructions to record every moment of the day. Scrabbling for position outside T1, I find there is even less space than at the start, but I manage a few photographs of my amazing wife leaving T1 (pictured above).
Now that she is safely away on the bike leg, I feel like launch control at Cape Canaveral after a hand over of the Space Shuttle to Houston Centre. Breakfast is called for and I duly retire to the hotel buffet to enjoy a free choice of calories now that the nutrition police are temporarily absent! What the eye can’t see…
Two hours into the bike segment and tension is rising. The Ironman Live Tracker system does not record my spousal protégé passing the 56km mark. I visualise punctures, broken chains and horrendous “offs”. The fastest that my wife has ever successfully repaired a puncture, against the clock, is 28 minutes and even this involved the complete destruction of two inner tubes, a tire lever and an outer tube, plus the loss of both the springs of a QR skewer. Where the hell is she? The wheels are coming off my day big time. After three hours I’m really flapping.
I set out into town, convinced that the worst has happened and determined to hitch a lift “up course” to find the inevitable wreckage and inconsolable athlete. I set up an emergency “mission control” back in the UK in the form of Siobhan’s mother, Pat, who undertakes to relay Siobhan’s IM tracker live data to me via SMS as she receives it (no 3G in Fortaleza!).
Friends are now emailing me to ask why they cannot see her on the IM Live Tracker – has she given up? One friend sends her an SMS asking if she is having a nice day and, it later transpires, is quite put out not to receive a reply until the following day! My status as a genius bike coach is vaporising fast and in my head I can hear the armchair experts of the public bar of the Sun Inn muttering into their pint about poor bike preparation and the wrong choice of tires.
I make my way to the centre of Fortaleza and locate the bike course return leg just as the first of the pros start to return from the outback. The wind has increased to 25mph and the heat – oh God, the heat – is 35C and still rising. The road surface is radiating a truly withering plasma of UV waves. I’m sweating like a drug smuggler in the “nothing to declare” channel, so I choose to lurk under a convenient tree alongside the road and take advantage of the shade.
Suddenly, mission control uploads a report to the effect that Siobhan has in fact passed 56 km in a time of just 1:52. My spirits soar. My mother in law, who has now become an instant triathlon expert, determines that the “split” is good and I agree considering that this leg is into 25mph of wind and 35C of heat.
When Siobhan eventually appears after some 175 km on her trusty Boardman 9.4 Air TT, she seems in high spirits and is still full of energy. My spirits lift yet further and I confess that, despite the onset of chronic heat stroke and the onset of severe dehydration, a quiet tear of pride may just have made itself known behind my Oakley Razors. Of course, it could have been some dust in my eye…
With careless disregard for my own well-being, I race across town to take up position close to the second aid station on the run course. In due course mission control uploads Siobhan’s bike split – an impressive 5:51 – which we learn later is the 31st fastest female bike split of the race. Pub bragging rights remain firmly intact then – I really am a legend and I begin reinforcing this status with a series of text messages that I later realise cost me nearly £45!
A further hour passes and Siobhan appears. She is running well! I am able to issue some very annoying encouragement to “keep going and not give up”. I am frankly not convinced that this pearl of wisdom is received with the gratitude it deserves. When Siobhan returns on the second of three laps, despite my own desperate condition, I run next to her for a kilometre or so and I learn that the bike course has been a world class shambles. The fast lane of the freeway has been coned off for cyclists, but pedestrians, horses, mopeds and even lorries have encroached.
A lorry, unable to stop as fast as the cars ahead, apparently crashed through the cones and invaded the bike lane right ahead of a cluster of competitors (including Siobhan) missing them by the smallest margin and causing them all to brake hard. Several athletes collided with each other, effectively ending their day.
To make matters worse the aid stations have all run out of water from approximately 80km before the end of the bike stint, which has caused my wife to drink (for the very first and very last time) a toxic mix of chemical contaminants known colloquially as ‘Gator Aid’.
Long distance athletes are prone to gastric problems and they will usually train to ingest the products known to be offered at aid stations along any course they are proposing to race. Anything new or untried will often result in serious nausea, stomach cramps or worse.
Siobhan had learned to cope with Powerbar products (I still cannot abide them) but despite their sponsorship of Ironman there are, astonishingly, no Powerbar products available at IM Fortaleza. In fact, there is very little available and certainly no gels – a problem that is now manifesting itself along the course as athlete after athlete collapses exhausted and unable to continue. More shattered dreams and inconsolable athletes.
From here, I wave Siobhan away on the last of three 14 kilometre run laps and tell her that I will see her at the finish, hoping that despite her sickness, she will make it. Actually I won’t see her because, yet again, I cannot get anywhere near the finish line let alone get photograph. I do my best and wait as the clock ticks towards 13 hours elapsed time, all the time edging forward through the crowd to get closer to the action.
At 12 hours and 55 minutes, just as I reach the front row, Siobhan appears. She is still running well and of course, she is about to join an exclusive club of athletes who have become Ironmen and women.
Eventually Siobhan emerges from the finishers’ enclosure returning to the world of mere mortals and wannabes such as me. She is the happiest I have ever seen her and I can’t help noticing that she seems to be happier than on our wedding which is quite inexplicable! And I am the proudest husband in the world right now – so proud that I may just burst!
Siobhan announces that she has a thirst for beer and although I am not surprised, I am not convinced that lager actually qualifies as an isotonic recovery and rehydration drink although I am quite sure it is preferable to Gator Aid. But I have just spent 13 hours outside under an equatorial sun, so I’m not arguing the point – a beer seems very much in order. I sit Siobhan down at a table near the popular pool bar and leave her with her Ironman finisher’s medal to go and acquire some cold beer.
Naturally, I would normally send Siobhan to the bar, but she has done well today so I must make an exception. Five minutes later, I return to the table with a bucket of ice cold beers to find my wife fast asleep with her head on her arms. I should take her straight up to our room and get her put to bed – but I really mustn’t let this beer go to waste…
What did we learn from Ironman Fortaleza?
• The Ironman brand seems to be selling itself thin and the excellence and high standards for which it is rightly renowned cannot, perhaps, be taken for granted any longer?
• All iron distance races are not created equal – make sure you know what the course looks like (sea swim or lake/urban or country/closed or open road/ likely to be windy etc.) and really understand how the local climate will affect your race
• If it is your first iron distance race, choose an established event. Do not choose a new event as this will almost certainly result in unforeseen problems that may throw you off your race plan.
• Take all the nutrition you will need for the race with you – do not rely upon supplies on the course and you can always take it home if you don’t use it and spare supplies can be placed in special needs bags
• It may be best to choose a race close to home for your first iron distance course – long distance travel and cultural differences often exert a strain which is probably best avoided in the run up to a major event
• The volunteers at all races, but especially Ironman races, are really superb and considerate people. Do make sure you thank them for being there every chance you get!