12 things I learnt from my first Ironman-distance triathlon

After a decade spent stinking out shorter-distance triathlons, 220’s features ed Matt Baird finally made his Iron debut at the UK Ultimate Triathlon in 2018. Following punctures, a spot of vomit and blisters the size of golf balls, he survived to tell the tale in 15 and a half hours. Here’s what he learnt…

Matt debates the merits of a pre-race gammon steak at the UK Ultimate. Credit: UK Ultimate Triathlon



While I don’t miss being kicked in the air by hungover opponents, I often long for the camaraderie of my old football teams when I’m competing in tri. And yet the atmosphere between the back-of-the-pack athletes at the UK Ultimate Triathlon eclipsed any of my Sunday league experiences. It felt like we were part of our own motivational team; an Iron band of brothers and sisters sharing an unforgettable day together and invaluable shouts of support. Our paths will probably never cross again but I thank you Scott, Charles and the rest of the 15hr club for getting me to that finish line.


I don’t mean vomiting, although I did a smattering of that. No, I once made the mistake of working out that an Ironman was the equivalent of swimming from London Bridge to Big Ben in the Thames, cycling to Bristol and then running down to Glastonbury. The fear of it delayed my entry into Iron-distance racing for years. So there’s no getting away from the fact that Ironman is a darn long way. But chunking up the distances involved will do wonders for training and racing psychology. Thankfully, the UK Ultimate already chunks up the distances for athletes, with four 900m laps on the swim, four 45km laps on the bike, and six 7km laps on the run. Very rarely during the race did 3.8km swim, 180km bike or 42.2km run numbers pop into my head.


As I left T1, what was playing on the Tannoy? None other than Phil Collins’ ‘Two Hearts’. And so began over seven long hours of Phil chirping away in my ear, a fate so bad I should’ve waited even longer in T1 to hear what the next eighties tune was. On the positive, I got Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ on the run.


An Active.com survey has suggested that the total cost for an Ironman ranges from £5k-24k. But as a perennially skint triathlete with nursery bills to pay and a pork addiction to feed, I wanted to keep the costs down. My total gear cost was £999, with the race prices starting from £199 for the UK Ultimate and the pre-race Travelodge on a Shrewsbury roundabout was £40 each split with my dad. Yes, some deep-rim wheels would’ve shaved some seconds off our bike time and the Selco clip-on tri-bars lacked comfort, but there are some genuine kit bargains out there, from £10 Lomo glasses to a £13 Carnac Aero Road Helmet and sub-£200 Orca wetsuits.

 Read the whole kit breakdown here in Ironman: can you race it on a £1,000 gear budget?

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I signed-up too late for the UK Ultimate’s pasta party and was left with scouting the local pubs for my pre-race dinner. The nearby Dog and Bull was the best option and had a pub garden to boot. Sadly all that was lacking was pasta on the menu so I ended up with an industrial-sized gammon steak and chips, which might help explain some of my digestive issues the next day. I should’ve made sure I had some food to hand for post-race, too. Despite being all I dreamed of during the race, the burger van had long since shut at the UK Ultimate by the time I crawled across the line, and I was left with a half-eaten bag of cheesy Doritos as my long-awaited post-race reward.


I felt on top of the world with 25km of the bike leg to go, an hour ahead of my expected time and with thoughts already turning to the run leg. And then, the sound every triathlete dreads to hear. Not the whump of disc-wheels flying past or the supermarket saying they’ve sold out of Soreen, but an exploding inner tube. What made it worse was that the tyre had split as well, so even if I could replace my inner tube (not a sure thing given my cack-handed nature) the split tyre would probably have punctured the fresh one anyway. So carry a fresh tyre or duct tape as well as a spare inner tube; you’ve trained years for this so don’t let a shard of glass or a rusty nail ruin your big day. And practise changing your tubes!


What really stood out for us was how important the reserves of mental fortitude are in Iron racing. I/my family/work colleagues/anyone who’s ever seen my attempt to put up a tent know I’m a stubborn mule who hates quitting, but the depths of it surprised me at the Ultimate. The urge to quit did briefly arise, but was quickly beaten down and I ploughed, pushed and rolled on in the Shropshire sun, fuelled by the thought of returning to Bristol and saying I’d posted a DNF. So thank you parents for passing down the stubborn gene.


Are you a beginner to Ironman, on a budget or looking for a 226km PB? Then look no further than the UK Ultimate next June. Yes, you don’t get closed roads and a five-deep finishing straight, but as a beginner-friendly or PB-busting iron course, you won’t find many – if any – better (see also The Outlaw). From the supportive race briefing to the lapped swim with Aussie Exit breathers, amazing volunteers and the sight of race organiser Keith cycling with the final athletes on the run to offer support, everything about this race shouted ‘WE WANT YOU TO FINISH!’ You’re also allowed family members to run with you on the course, ensuring our 70-year-old dad did an impromptu 10km when I was struggling late on the run. And after a lunchtime pint as well. I’m proud of you, pops.


I spent days deciding what tri-suit and trainers to wear for the race and packing my Ikea bag full of kit for every eventuality, but the key things I really regretted not bringing could’ve been bought from the service station outside the hotel. Enter Rennies and (flat) Coke, two energy-giving, sick-thwarting, mind-saving treats that I’ll never forget on any future iron adventures.

I’m not prone to a huge amount of navel-gazing, preferring to spend my spare time horizontal on a settee watching re-runs of Seinfeld. But the days after the race were pretty low and introspective. After years of thinking about Ironman, to suddenly have nothing athletic to aim for was a downer. I’d gone from the fittest I’d ever been to feeling the weakest. Yes, the Ironman blues are very real. So book something, anything, to get you training again, from a 10km road race to a swimrun or another long-distance challenge.

Ironman blues: How to beat them…


I trained around seven hours a week in the six months building up to Ironman. I’m not bragging or recommending any of you do this (I spent the much of the last hour of the race being sick in a hedge, after all), but my point is that training to complete an Ironman doesn’t have to dominate every aspect of your life. I still saw my kids (they were probably hoping I’d be training more), and really utilised every lunch break, commute and evening for training sets instead of skipping those valuable weekend Lego-building sessions.



Anyone who’s been lucky enough to meet me longer than five minutes will know that; a) I mumble a lot; b) My music/fashion/humour/Lynx deodorant choices haven’t change since 1994; and c) My dad is my hero. But – after sharing a pre-race Travelodge twin room with Melvyn – I can tell you that he fidgets like no other in his sleep. So, if you can, sleep alone on the night before the race. And given our post-race drive home involved myself being sick in a carrier bag on a bypass near Birmingham, maybe book a hotel room on the night of the race as well.

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How to race your first Ironman

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Ironman race day plan: 35 tips for success