My Ironman Journey
So, days later and it is still settling in that I have done an Ironman. It first appeared on my ‘to do’ list for my first maternity leave – yes, seriously, how deluded I was! I had about 9 other things on the list too for those leisurely 6 months I would have off work – learning Spanish and some travel adventures were two others…
So, obviously reality hit hard and being able to do an easy jog by week 6 post-labour was an achievement! Ironman moved to the bottom of the list and I intended for it to stay there at least 10 years until my kids were older. It was only because my local tri club was doing it this year that I thought why not; my husband had the same thought so we both registered last October.
I pottered through winter training and tried to work on my swim and core strength (only successful with the later!). The plan was to start training proper on March 1st with my coaching group. My primary degree is in Exercise Physiology so technically I could totally do my own program. I decided to work with a coach tough, as my life was very busy so it was one less thing to think about and it would also keep me accountable.
So the first week in March we went to Club La Santa in Lanzarote – no better place to kick-start a training program. However, my calf tore so I couldn’t run and I didn’t enjoy the windy hills on the bike so it was back to the swimming plus lots of other interesting fitness classes. Focus still wasn’t as sharp as it should be. I was planning on doing a weekend training camp on my return to Ireland so had been looking forward to that. However, the night before I was woken from my sleep by a call telling me my brother had a heart attack so I drove to Galway in the middle of the night.
We spent the following week in the ICU department surfing through a rollercoaster of emotions all week. Unfortunately the week ended with the news we so desperately didn’t want to hear and my brother passed away on March 17th and was buried on the 22nd. After this I wasn’t sure I could go on with the ironman. I thought about Donnacha though and knew he would want me to. He had done a half ironman and no doubt would have done a full one so this was my way of doing it in his memory. Once I made that decision, that was it – full steam ahead. I lost interest in a lot of things at the time but the training was the one thing that kept me going and helped me through the grief.
I started my ‘proper’ training program a month late but enjoyed the sessions and seeing my fitness improve over the next few months. My knee was giving me problems so had an MRI in May but nothing was obvious but I was unable to run from then onwards aside from some short runs – the longest run in advance of the Ironman was 8 miles and that was just the once. My swim was fine – my times didn’t improve much but my endurance did. Similarly on the bike, I tend to have once pace but my ability to go longer with less difficulty was improving.
My best 2 weeks of training were in Spain in July as we visited my parents so they helped mind the kids while we got up early to fit sessions in on holidays. We felt fitter at that point than any other and I was able to run for up to an hour there.
In August, my knee flared up again so decided against running aside from once a week until Ironman to prevent it getting any worse. The long rides on the bike got long (!) – did three or four 150km rides and they were tougher mentally than physically some days. Swimming sessions in the open water in Fenit lessened, as it was hard to deal with the cold after the warmth of Spain.
By the time September came around we were all ready, 2 weeks of taper and we were dropping the bikes off for transportation. The build up was fun and it was nice being part of a group traveling out – we had a busy few days in the build-up to the race, collecting our bikes, registering, race briefings, prepping nutrition, packing transition and special needs bags, setting up transition… not much time for sunbathing!
Race morning arrived and I was looking forward to the day – the big unknown for me was the run due to my injury but I was confident I could complete the swim and bike for sure. We pottered down to transition half hour before the start (luckily all went smoothly as we were a bit relaxed about getting there!). The buzz at the start was great and I really enjoyed the atmosphere and excitement in the air.
The swim was a rolling start which meant that you self-selected your expected swim time and started with that group – 6 people started every 6 seconds. I started with my husband, Bernard, which was really nice. We actually held hands going into the water and he reckons it was because I was afraid he wouldn’t get in! (He is a bit fearful of open water swimming!). It was a bit rough with people jostling for space and I never really found a steady rhythm I could keep as people kept swimming into me or over me or kicking me! A few times I had to stop to catch my breath after a blow!
It was an out and back swim parallel to the shore and we were swimming into a current on the way out which made the swim feel like it was going on forever, once we turned though we were back before we knew it. I didn’t start my watch for the swim as wanted to relax and enjoy it so had no idea of my time – I did feel it was slower than I had hoped for and I was right. It was a relief to get out of the water and again the atmosphere was electric running up the beach to transition. I got a bit teary – one down, two to go. Transition was fine, had about half of my superfood smoothie and quickly got ready for the bike.
We had to maneouver though the town to get out to the loop course and then it was two and a half laps of the course. The first 15kn or so of the course was rolling hills so I took it easy on the climbs in order to mind my knee; we were also facing into a headwind, which didn’t help. I focused on keeping my heart rate within my range and also on my nutrition. I could easily do the bike without eating but had to remind myself every 20 minutes or so to eat. I rotated between my energy balls, bars, bananas and the isotonic drink. Once I got to the turn point, the wind was behind us so I pushed all the way back again keeping heart rate in range. The Irish support was fab on the course and one of my highlights of the race was where we turned around to start the loop again as there was Irish flags everywhere and I lapped up the support! The second lap went similar to the 1st aside from a need to stop and pee. Luckily there was a steward near a café in one of the towns so he minded my bike while I ran into a café! The 3rd lap then was fine, as you knew it was your last and it was a shorter one. Again I got teary coming back toward the transition. At this point you could see lots of runners out on the run course and there was great excitement.
My nutrition on the bike went well so I felt good starting out on the run. My shins and calves were tight though so that concerned me but luckily they eased off after a few kilometers. I was thinking, gosh, it was my knee I was concerned about – don’t want to not finish because of torn calves! I had to hold my running back a bit as was feeling good but my pace was a bit too fast so slowed things down on second half of first lap. With each step I was so grateful that my knee was holding out (the previous weekend I had to stop after 10 minutes!). The run was a 3 lap course so mentally I divided it into 6 parts – out and back for each lap. I was delighted to have completed one lap with no problems aside from needing to pee again!
On the second lap I focused on getting to the turnaround point and then was so grateful to have another lap done. The end of each lap is near the finish line so I could see people ahead of me turning in to finish and was looking forward to being able to do that after the next lap. I had been afraid to stop and walk through the aid stations on the first 2 laps, as I didn’t want to do anything to disrupt the flow with my knee. On the 3rd lap though I decided to walk a few times as my legs were getting tired so it would give them a short break. I probably walked about 4 times on the way out to the turnaround on the last lap. I often looked at my brother’s name on my arm and it kept me going. I thanked him for helping hold my knee together and really feel that’s what he did.
Once I hit the turnaround I was on my way home and wasn’t worried about my knee flaring up at that point as I knew even if I had to walk I could finish. So I upped the pace and held the fastest kilometer times on my way back to the finish (last km was 5:11). It felt great to be finishing and great to be finishing strong – my nutrition had worked really well. The only downside was I kept the pace up running down the red carpet so didn’t slow down to enjoy it as much as I could have!
My finisher photo really shows the mix of emotions I was feeling – joy, exhaustion, grief, relief, happiness, pride etc. As I had been teary earlier in the day I had expected a flood of tears at the finish but they never came – maybe I was too tired to cry! The ironman had been a way to deal with my brothers death and had kept me going through tough times, I did it in his memory so all those emotions were mixed up with everything else.
I met my husband in the recovery area and slowly absorbed what I had just done. It was lovely to meet up with other members of the club afterwards and everyone did really well. My friend was still out on the course so I made my way back along to cheer her on. It was really close as to whether she would make the cut off time or not and I was thrilled for her that she did.
I wandered back to collect my bike and bags and slowly headed back to the hotel. It was too late to get anything to eat at that point (I was craving salty roast potatoes!) so fell asleep at 1:30am. I woke again at 5:30am and think it must have been from hunger!
My legs were sore for the next couple of days but it was all worth it. I was delighted that I had the mental strength to do the marathon on little run training and prove to myself I could do it. It also felt good doing it as a vegan athlete and proving that a plant based diet provides you would all the endurance and strength you need. As much as I enjoyed the experience I won’t do a full ironman again next year, as it was just too much of a time commitment. I would like to do a half-ironman though and keep up my current level of fitness. First I need to let me knee fully heal and then have fun choosing the next challenge…will keep you posted…
If you want to learn more about how a vegan diet can help you as an athlete or for health and fitness check out my New To Vegan online program. Next program starts on Oct 23rd.