A couple of weeks ago I raced Ironman UK. I’ve always loved this race, ever since I completed my first Ironman back when it was held in Sherborne in 2006. I’d raced in Bolton twice previously and had won on both occasions. It’s a race that suits me. A technical, challenging, hilly bike; a tough hilly run; and perhaps most importantly a crowd that gets behind me and makes it easy to push when I’m hurting.
It was a bit of a last minute decision to enter. So many people, mostly people I didn’t know on social media, had been asking me whether I would be there racing. I didn’t need to do another Ironman and was meant to be in the Alps with some friends on a training holiday. But ultimately, I realized that I didn’t want to be watching the race unfold from a laptop in the mountains. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted a shot at retaining my title. And I wanted to embrace the crowds and immense support I’d received when racing in Bolton in 2015. Entering a race as a professional purely and simply ‘for fun’ is refreshing. We should do it more.
As it turned out, for personal reasons, the week running into the race was stressful and emotional. Until the Wednesday the thought of racing an Ironman was absolutely inconceivable. And given that I was only doing the race ‘for fun’ I questioned whether or not I should even try to make the start line. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to hold myself together for the duration of an Ironman, let alone enjoy the process. But as the week went on I remembered why I had entered. I love racing and I love racing on UK soil even more. Not many people get shivers running down their spine when they arrive at Bolton but I do. As soon as I arrived at my hotel I realized that I was excited to race and that starting was the right thing to do.
I’m always emotional at the start of an Ironman. I guess the enormity of the challenge ahead, combined with the nervous energy and anticipation of 2000 other people, brings these emotions on, and I often have tears in my eyes. This year I ended up on the pontoon far too early. Standing there, on my own, looking out over the water, with thousands of athletes and spectators behind me getting ready for their day, I started weeping. I wasn’t really sure why. I sometimes surprise myself with my emotions.
In terms of the race, it was pretty awesome. All in all I was racing strongly. My body was allowing me to do my fitness justice and I was managing to keep my head in the game. The support in Bolton has always been special. But this year it was completely overwhelming. I have never had so many people yelling my name and cheering me on for so long. It wasn’t just the spectators. People I was running past, probably who were suffering more than I used their energy to cheer me on. And the positivity and enthusiasm I got from the pinch points on the course where the crowds congregate was absolutely unbelievable. It seems a cliché to say it was humbling but truly it was. It felt like the whole of Bolton was willing me on. I was welling up at several points on the run. At the final turnaround, with the massive cheers from the volunteers at the aid station, I started crying. As I was running through town the final time I was crying. And at some point on the finish line I was crying. They weren’t sad tears. I’m not really sure why there were tears. I guess I was overwhelmed with a combination of pride, gratitude, joy and disbelief at where my life has taken me.
This race made me reflect on so much more than my own performance. I went back down to the finish in the evening to see the final finishers and give out the medals. I know Ironman is a commercial enterprise and there is lots about the brand that I disagree with. However, as a concept, Ironman is a metaphor for life in so many ways. And seeing the emotions on the faces of people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, ages, as they cross that finish line after 16 or 17 hours is something special. There is no easy way to do an Ironman. All of us must overcome obstacles and challenges on our way to both the start line and the finish. And it’s rare that the emotions on a finisher’s face don’t reflect their personal journey and challenge. Watching the final finishers is inspiring.
The cut off for an Ironman is 17 hours. This year, the final ‘official’ finisher crossed the line at around 11.20pm. The music was turned off and people started to leave the party. But a man standing next to mum was convinced his wife was just around the corner. It didn’t seem possible; the organisers had been given information that there was nobody within earshot. I gave him a medal to give her when she arrived. But this man was absolutely convinced. His teenage son was in tears at the thought that his mum may have been out there for 17+ hours, only to finish in the dark alone. So the commentators (Paul Kaye and Jo Murphy) took a punt. They got the crowd going again. They started the music playing again. And sure enough, a couple of minutes later, a lady came running down the finish chute. She may have been a few minutes outside of the 17-hour cut off but she got the atmospheric finish line celebration she deserved. And seeing the tears of pride on her son’s face as he saw his mother cross the line was enough to bring tears to my eyes for the final time that day.
This win was a special one for me. Racing this year has been challenging for various reasons, with injuries earlier in the year and I messed up my last 2 races with silly mistakes. But to some extent I’m grateful for these obstacles. I’ve always said triathlon teaches you so much more than swim, bike, run. This year I’m realizing this perhaps more than ever.