My first Ironman (Part 1 of 2)

I completed my first Ironman last weekend.

Finally!

Why does writing those words fill me with such an intense amount of joy?

Well, I’ve waited nearly two years to race an Ironman, and there were moments this year where it seemed I might have to wait three.

In 2019, I signed up to race in Ironman Wales 2020, which was postponed to Sep 2021.

In July 2021, I got an email saying that IM Wales (IMW) had been postponed again to 2022, and my heart sank. I’d invested almost 400 hours into my Ironman training between Jan and July, so I wasn’t prepared to wait another year.

In the words of BeyoncΓ©: Baby, I swear it’s dΓ©jΓ  vu

I’d been half-expecting IMW to be cancelled this year, so I’d created a list of “backup Ironmans” that I could switch to if needed.

One of those backups was the DALESMAN race in the Yorkshire Dales. The race had a similar elevation profile to IMW and was only 2 weeks earlier than IMW, so it was a decent substitute.

The Dales were nice and hilly, just like Tenby

Within 10 minutes of IMW being cancelled, and after a lot of profanity, I had booked a space at the Dalesman.

I’m going to split this post in two parts:

  1. A summary of my Ironman training and prep races
  2. An in-depth report on the race itself, and a reflection on what’s next

First things first, let’s talk about training:

Reflecting on 400 hours of Ironman training spread across 8 months

After IMW was postponed the first time, I made a decision at the end of 2020 to take my training seriously and go “all-in” with my preparation.

I started working with a coach, Dan, and we began to plan out my training blocks and race season building up to IMW.

(You can read more about this in my Feb 2021 post: 2 months into my Ironman Training Regime.)

A typical week would involve a mixture of:

πŸŠβ€β™‚οΈ Swims (both in the pool and in the open water)

πŸš΄β€β™‚οΈ Bike rides (a long one, an intervals session, and a mid-tempo session)

πŸƒ Runs (some intervals or hill work, a long run, and a brick run every now and then)

πŸ‹οΈ Strength & Conditioning

And a typical month would involve:

  • 3 weeks of training, usually getting slightly harder each week
  • 1 recovery week to allow my body to adapt and prepare for the next month

I absolutely loved the rigour of this training plan.

Friends would often ask how I motivated myself or “found the time” to train for 10-14 hours every week.

Motivation

This level of training just became normal for me, so it required very little motivation.

I enjoyed almost every session. In fact, training sessions were often the highlight of my day, especially during the bleaker winter months when covid restrictions were still in place.

We all know that exercise feels great, and my body definitely developed a (healthy) addiction to the daily rush of endorphins. In fact, recovery days were often the hardest days of the week.

“How do you find the time?”

First things first, I’m 27 years old and don’t have a partner or children, so my schedule is extremely malleable compared to that of someone older.

For people in a similar position as me: I don’t think it’s a case of “finding the time”. It’s a case of “making time”.

How we spend our time is a reflection of our priorities, and if you care about something, you can always find ways to make time for it in your day.

Practically – I would train before work most days, or in the evening if I woke up late.

I did try training in my lunch break a few times, when I was short on time or had evening plans, but I didn’t enjoy lunch sessions. They always felt rushed, especially if I had early afternoon meetings.

Working from Home also gave me more time for training that previously would have been spent commuting.

Weekends would involve long rides or runs, and I did a lot of these with friends, so they doubled as a chance to catch up with people and socialise.

Consistency of Training

Not gonna lie, I’m pretty proud of how consistent my training was throughout 2021:

I averaged nearly 12hrs every week, and I enjoyed every single week of training.

There were, however, a couple of things I wish I’d done differently… (and will do differently next year)

πŸŠβ€β™‚οΈ I wish I’d swam twice a week.

Swimming pools were closed for a lot of 2020 and early 2021, so my swim technique suffered…a lot.

Once pools were open, I only averaged one swim per week in the run-up to Ironman, and I wish I’d doubled that. I was really good at following the training plan set for me, with the exception of the swim sessions, which I would often skip, or procrastinate heavily resulting in a shortened time in the pool.

The grey bar is planned swim duration, the blue is completed duration.

As you can see from the chart above, there wasn’t a single week where I actually completed the planned swim duration in my plan… (sorry, Dan)

Between April and August, I averaged just 45mins per week of swimming, compared to 2h40 of weekly running and a whopping 7h18 (!) of weekly cycling.

Deep down, I know why this happened. Swimming is my weakest discipline, and I didn’t enjoy sucking at something. It’s a lot more enjoyable to make marginal improvements at something you’re good at than to feel like you’re making slow progress at something you’re not good at, but I know now that I need to embrace the beginner’s mindset, quieten my ego, and commit to more consistent swimming.

πŸ‹οΈ I wish I’d done a LOT more Strength & Conditioning

I’d never done much S&C work before working with my coach Dan, and I knew that my strength (or lack of) had been limiting me when I first started triathlon. I got tired by swimming, and my body would never feel strong when running off the bike. I also noticed my body would tire (both upper body and legs) during long runs.

One of the reasons for working with Dan was to have some accountability on the S&C work, and this worked at the beginning of the year.

Getting S&C work done in the winter was easy. Britain was locked down and it was freezing outdoors, so I had a lot of time to do strength work at home.

My discipline started to wane around April, when London started opening up again and the weather started to improve, which made running, cycling and even open water swimming more appealing than doing strength sessions at home.

Again – grey is planned duration, purple is completed duration.

As you can see in the chart above, I got a decent amount of S&C done between January and March.

Progress stuttered in April, and then I went 7 weeks without doing ANY at all, even though Dan was putting it in my training plan. I always had some excuse or another (“has been a busy week”) but I know I always had time.

I remember feeling so strong during my brick runs at the start of 2021, and remarking to Dan that they felt so much easier than they had in the past.

If I’d continued with S&C work through the Spring and Summer, I reckon I could have run a much faster (or, less slow) marathon at the end of my Ironman. I also reckon I wouldn’t be booking physio appointments now and feeling mild discomfort and tightness in my right ITB when I walk.

Prep Races

In the build-up to Ironman, I raced two triathlons and a bunch of shorter 5k races just for fun.

It rained. A lot.

Eton Sprints

1h18m39s

Swim: 750m in 0:17:13 (2:18/100m)

Bike: 21.2km in 0:33:55 (37.5kmh)

Run: 5km in 0:20:58 (4:12/km)

This was one of my favourite races of the year, and there were two reasons for this.

  1. I hadn’t raced a triathlon since September 2019, so it felt INCREDIBLE to be back racing
  2. I saw huge gains since my first Sprint Tri in May 2019!

My swim pace was 2:18/100m vs. 2:40/100m in 2019.

My bike speed was 37.5kmh vs. 33.3kmh in 2019.

My 5k run was 20:58 vs 24:16 in 2019.

All of this meant my 2021 Sprint race was 14 minutes faster than my 2019 race (15% faster). Chuffed

Experiencing visceral progress like this was so satisfying, and gave me a lot of confidence going into race season. The course at Eton is also incredibly simple and enjoyable to race (even in a torrential downpour).

Hever Half Ironman

More rain

6h06m00s

Swim: 1900m in 0:45:32 (2:24/100m)

Bike: 90km in 3:11:30 (28.2kmh)

Run: 21.1km in 1:59:46 (5:41/km)

Hever was a brutal race, but I loved it. I treated this as a B race, meaning I wasn’t looking for a peak performance. Instead, my main goals were to practice race day nutrition, and to run the entire half marathon (I had death marched a lot of the run during my first Half Ironman).

Nutrition more or less went to plan, and I ran the entire half marathon, finishing it 9 mins faster than my 2019 Half IM run. The swim was a complete shambles, but I wasn’t surprised by that. My technique had gone backwards and I’d had very little feedback or coaching, so I think I’d been training with bad habits for a few months.

This Half Ironman was actually 18 minutes slower than my first one in 2019, but:

  • Hever has been described as one of the hardest courses in the UK
  • We had absolutely miserable weather that made cycling pretty treacherous
  • The rain turned the trail run course into a muddy slip’n’slide. We were told to bring trail shoes, but I didn’t have any, so my run was more like cross-country skiing.
  • I enjoyed this race so much more than my first Half IM, and finished stronger

so I wasn’t phased.

What mattered was that I finished the race feeling ready to take on an Ironman.

5k races for sh*ts and giggles

I love 5k races. Sometimes they’re gruelling, sometimes they’re euphoric, and sometimes they’re both, but they’re just short enough that recovery only takes a couple of days.

Improving my 5k time wasn’t part of the Ironman training plan, but there’s nothing more satisfying than getting a new PB, so I chased a few in 2021.

5k gains in graph form

In 2019, I brought my 5k time down from 20:54 to 18:37 by October. This was a huge jump (11% !) that I honestly didn’t think I was capable of, and breaking the 20-minute mark for the first time was one of the best achievements of my life, having wanted it for nearly 7 years.

In 2020, I did very little 5k training or racing. My fastest 5km that year was 19:44 as part of Cambridge Half Marathon (83:45).

In 2021, I took on a few 5k races and enjoyed them immensely. I brought my 5k PB down to 18:02 in June at a Sri Chimnoy race in Battersea Park.

I tried the same race again exactly a month later and ran a 19:00, which I was disappointed with. That race was on a Monday, and on the Friday, Ironman Wales got cancelled, so I channeled all my frustration into a 5000m track race that evening. Just 96 hours after a disappointing 19:00 5km, I ran 17:52 and placed 2nd of 17 in my race. Euphoric.

PBs aint pretty (17:52 at Finsbury Park 5000m meet)

Provided my right ITB doesn’t give me too much grief in the autumn, I reckon I might be able to get closer to 17:30 by the end of 2021, before chasing sub-17 in 2022. Watch this space…

How did I feel going into the Ironman?

The million dollar question is: did my training work?

Swimming

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I wish I’d done twice as much swimming as I did this year. That being said, I made huge progress in the weeks running up to my Ironman thanks to some astute feedback from coaches at my tri club and my coach Dan. I was absolutely delighted with my swim time during the race (more on this in part 2), so I shouldn’t berate myself too much.

Cycling

I felt extremely strong on the bike towards the end of Summer, and cycling 180km didn’t daunt me in the slightest. My training in 2021 involved a lot of Zwift and intervals at the start of the year, then plenty of long rides during the Summer, and I’m happy with how my cycling legs felt on race day.

Running

I was really happy with my run progression in 2021. I set new 10km and 5km PBs, and I had some really fantastic long runs in the Summer that felt almost effortless. My running fitness felt solid. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate into a marathon time I was happy with, but I attribute this mostly to a lack of strength & conditioning work, and an unfortunate flare-up of an old injury (again, more on this in Part 2). I’m doing London Marathon in 5 weeks, so we’ll find out then how much my running has come on this year.

So, how did the race actually go…!?

You’ll have to come back for the full debrief in Part 2 to find out.