Two years ago I felt like I wasn’t getting enough exercise over the summer so picked up Couch-to-5K (though part way through as cycle commuting meant I wasn’t completely unfit but hadn’t run for years). I set myself the target of a 10K that November. Two things happened a few weeks later

  1. Whilst chatting to a random fellow runner I’d meet on the towpath I accidentally ran 10k.
  2. They started advertising a City of Cambridge Triathlon.

Suddenly a 10k race didn’t feel like such a challenge and the triathlon I’d chuntered about for years but always had an excuse not to do was on my doorstep. So I entered.

Now there were a few hiccups, turned out I couldn’t swim front crawl, the Cambridge triathlon was cancelled due to water quality so I did a different one, I tore my calf two weeks before that so hobbled round the run. But somehow, two years later, on a warm summer’s morning I’m standing at the end of the rowing lake at Holmepierre Point about to do the Outlaw, an ironman race (small i due to not being part of the corporate behomoth that is the World Triathlon Corporation).

Two bits of advice from veterans to rookie friends near me drifted past as we went down to the water “the only thing worth worrying about is a mechanical, and you can’t control those, so don’t worry about anything” and “just keep moving forward”. Both good advice and the latter became a mantra later.

I was surprised how calm I was. Last year when I did my first half-Ironman I was quite emotional at the start possibly due to the uncertainty. This year there was still uncertainty but having been getting lots of coaching and advice from Steve at Absolute Tri Coaching I didn’t feel like there was any more I could have done in the build up.

Still the water’s warm (20 degrees C), the weather’s nice, countdown’s going and the hooter blasts, we’re off.

Most of my tris have been waved starts and I preferred that to the Ironman rolling start we had at Staffordshire 70.3 six weeks ago; I thought the Outlaw would be similar. I didn’t quite count on how much difference there would be between 1100 swimmers and 150. Things were a bit crowded initially and got one solid foot in the face. But the time segregated pods and self seeding meant it wasn’t too bad and whilst there was bouncing off people for far longer than most races (pretty much until the turn around buoy) there was no swimming over people, grabbing or other shenagigans I’d heard of. The swim is easy to navigate - 2k up one side of the rowing lake, across, almost 2k down the other side. You can sight by trying to stay a constant distance from the bank. It was quite relaxing mostly finding a rhythm and churning on, the rowing distance markers every 250m giving you a good sense of progress.

One hour and sixteen minutes later I’m being helped out by the swim exit team, who make your life super easy by underdoing your wetsuit for you as you stagger up the ramp. Off to find the “strippers”, first race I’ve done with these, wetsuit down to thighs, sit and its yanked off. Next stop find my transition bag and get into bike kit, then to sunscreen “slappers”, the bike and off. So far so good, 75 minutes had been the swim target and with a quick transition ahead of schedule.

I’m not sure I was most nervous about the bike but I was very aware that in my two half-iron distances thus far I’d overcooked the ride and suffered on the run. And I had discovered on race morning that my bike computer had got turned on in my transition bag and was down to 30% battery - only enough for 3 hours, so at somepoint I was going to be pacing on feel.

The Outlaw bike course does an outbound leg, a southern loop, a northern loop and then repeats the southern loop then home. For most of the outbound leg and first southern loop everything was going very smoothly. I’m not sure I ever quite believed Coach Steve’s “if you stay at your power target you’ll do 6 hours [30kph]” but for the first hour and a half Iwas slightly ahead of that on the clock whilst at somewhat lower average power (though a constant inner monologue “should I be pushing a bit harder to make the most of this?” vs “much better to keep energy now and have it for the run”). Plenty of people around as well, a crazy Mexican Wrestler cheering us all at the Pirate’s feed station.

Into the northern loop I began to realise I was losing a little bit of speed (I was trying not to look at speed but had the feed stations and distances taped to my bars to tick off as indicators of progress and at 2 minutes per km its easy to work out when you “should” be going past them). No biggie. Up and over the decent hill at Oxton Bank (ahead of a very grumpy motorist who was hooting at everyone) and the long whizz down the other side. Roads are getting a bit lonelier now. There’s another Ian who I seem to be playing tag with as we pass each other back or forth every few miles. See a few stragglers on the stretch back to the southern loop.

Southern loop is lonelier the second time round and beginning to ache a bit after 5 plus hours in the saddle. No Mexican wrestler this time but a brief pause at the feed station to stretch out my back and exchange a few words with someone. Each trip through Car Colston has been a nice boost with lots of supporters, no exception this time and am onto the final stretch of the bike, realising that somewhere around mile 90 the miles have got a bit longer and we’re now into a headwind as we head in to the finish. Onto the last bit and bumpy road along the lake (feeling grateful not to be the lady running her bike in for the last three kilometres). Finally off the bike, pass it to a volunteer to rack and head off to change into running kit.

Am getting quite tired by this point as witnessed by an exchange in the transition tent where I can’t understand the question she’s asking me (“Can I help you repack your bag?”) and then with another round of slapped on suncream it’s off round the lake for the first lap. Not feeling too bad, I chug along walking through the feed stations to make the drinking easier, after the lap it’s off down the Trent to the Victoria Embankment (course is lake lap, Embankment and back, lake lap, Embankment and back and finally two lake laps). One nice thing about the run is you can talk to people which after the best part of eight hours inside your own head is a bit of a relief.

The first 10k pass fine and then doing the little loop of the Embankment things wobble: start feeling nauseous and my permanently bust but usually ignorable shoulder starts to become really sore. Try to walk a bit extra beyond the feed station to settle things but it doesn’t really work and I slip into a somewhat struggling walk/run alternation as keep feeling like I’m thirsty and need to drink more but that there’s too much liquid sloshing around inside making me want to retch (unsuccessfully). This continues back to the lake and going round the top and down the straight towards where the finish is (though only the halfway point this time) I’m really wanting to just stop. There’s a bit stern talking to self that I’ve got 6 hours to do a half marathon to finish and really not doing so would be ludicrous at this point.

So on we go …

Back out to the Embankment doesn’t improve much but there’s a number of people to chat with who are in the same or worse situation which at least gives the encouragement of camaraderie. At the first point of the course I find Julie and R which is another boost, and get walked with and a bit more chat. And then it’s the homeward stretch and the psychological boost of getting close to the finish, simultaneously finally managing to get a bit more digestive equilibrium. Still walking a bit but now feeling cheerful and gearing up for “a good final 5k round the lake”. Also realising that despite everything my time is going to be better than my original target unless I really fall apart.

Last time passing the finish to start the last lap and the world feels brighter knowing it’s the last half hour, 5 km, I’ve 40 minutes to beat my original best target, I hope (arbitrarily at this point) to go sub 5:15 for the marathon (not record setting I know but hey …). I can’t remember much of the last lap but at the top of the finishing straight I find R and Julie and get to run down the orange carpet with him. 13 hours 25 minutes. Medal. Cuddle. Finisher’s t-shirt.

Oh god … there’s a ramp up to the pavilion.

In the mass of finishers and family eventually find Julie, dive into the finishers tent but as with the half iron races my body is totally uninterested in food. So it’s the trek (really not that far but right then …) to reclaim bike and bags.

The best thing anyone said to me all day? Wasn’t “You … are … an … Outlaw” (that was second), but the chap who tapped me on the shoulder in the pavilion afterwards to say “You win the prize for the most cheerful runner, whenever we cheered you had the biggest smile and looked the happiest guy out there”, there are certainly places where he can’t have seen me but no matter, if we can’t smile and enjoy it then why are we doing this?

Could I have gone faster? A bit. Could I have gone faster enough to increase my satisfaction? Probably not. Would it have hurt to go much faster? Yes, certainly. Would I have enjoyed it as much if I’d pushed harder? No, I don’t think so. Will I do another one? Not soon, my son deserves his Dad back, but after that who knows, never is a long time. What will I change next time? More social training, the longest solo rides were the biggest mental challenge, but the difference between 2.5k and 3k swim sets, 20k runs and 30+k also suggests I’ll enjoy the half distance more.

I’ll be back next year … but doing the half distance. It’s a brilliantly organised race and I would highly recommend it.

(See also six things I wished I’d known pre-race.)