Ironman Lanzarote 2019
I started thinking about taking part in IM Lanzarote after spectating at the event in 2017. I loved the atmosphere, the fantastic crowd support and the island but in all honesty, I thought the race was too hard for me to take part in. The mass sea swim start worried me and my overactive imagination of what might lie beneath the waves concerned me as well. Cycling in Lanzarote is as hard as it is fabulous, because while you have the smoothest of roads, superb variation of short and long climbs mixed with fast descents and glorious scenery it does get incredibly hot and very often incredibly windy, which makes cycling conditions a bit interesting at times. Running in the heat, is something that does not overly worry me, but running in the heat when there is no shade and off the back of a challenging bike ride is hard.
The “Toughest Ironman in the World” as it is billed, felt well out of reach for me and while Adrian and our friends registered for the 2019 race, I was left contemplating if I might find the courage to enter the race another year.
But somewhere along the line I began to have second thoughts. It started when I met my friend Heather for lunch, a multiple ironman finisher who explained she had decided to go for it as life really is a bit too short not to try. Messages with another friend Paula, a five-time Lanzarote finisher and also age group winner of this race, had so much enthusiasm for anyone considering entering meant I was gradually thinking maybe just maybe, I could do it.
Although I have completed two ironman events, each one is different and just because you have finished one does not mean you can ‘easily’ do another. So while my best finish time of 13 hours 5 mins might suggest I could do similar in Lanzarote, once you take into account that time was on a course with a flat calm lake swim, on a bike course with half the elevation and none of the wind and heat conditions and finished with a very flat and shady run, you start to appreciate that time would not transfer over to the Lanzarote course for me.
I read the race results from the previous year, looking at the slower times and working out if I could make those. I reviewed the bike cut off times and calculated where I thought I might be depending on if I had a good or bad swim. I watched the race highlights on youtube over and over again and finally decided I was going to do it.
I signed up without telling Adrian. I pressed the button and sent him the confirmation email that said, “Congratulations you have entered the 2019 Ironman Lanzarote” and my journey to the finish line had begun.
Training for the race went reasonably well. I missed some training in December due to illness but other than that I was well and consistently training.
My swim fitness was good. We had consistently built the endurance up over the winter and this year concentrated on swimming longer sets in the pool which I felt built my stamina well. Both of my previous 3.8k swims had been 1hr 20m and going on my pool times I should have been confident of a similar time for Lanza, but having been out there in March I was feeling increasingly nervous about the sea swim. Whenever, we got in the sea I would be fine until the bottom dropped off and then I would start to feel panic set in. Also, the last time we swam it was choppy and there was a pretty big swell. I got out from that swim worrying about race day and if I was going to manage to complete the swim at all. That feeling of fear did not leave me all the way to race morning.
I had concentrated hard on my bike fitness. Hours on the turbo seemed to be paying off on the road. The Lanzarote trip in March had boosted my confidence and I knew the course route well. I felt that as long as I could get out the swim I could easily make the bike cut offs. I was aiming for a 7hr 30 bike time and felt that was really achievable based on my training rides. As long as, I got off the bike by 4.30pm I would be winning and have plenty time to get through the run.
Then three weeks before the race I started to feel a soreness just behind my left ankle which I recognised as tendinitis. Having had this before when I increased my running load I knew the only way to repair it was to completely rest it. This meant I missed my last long training run and I did not run again for the best part of two weeks. Five days out from the race it started to feel healed so I managed a couple of short 15 minute runs before race day. I was not overly worried as I know I can get through the run, but I did think I probably lost some run fitness.
I slept well the night before the race and got up with the alarm at 4.30am. Managed to eat some breakfast, have a coffee and left the hotel around 5.15am. We were a short walk to race transition. Stashed our nutrition on the bikes, quick check of the bike and run bags, toilet stop and then got our wet suits on.
Adrian suggested we go in for a practice swim, check the googles and do a quick warm up. We did that and then it was time to get lined up for the swim. We bumped into Grace, who as a fast 1 hour swimmer was lined up at the front for the swim, we wished her luck and walked further back to our start points. Adrian walked me to the under 80 mins sign we had a hug, wished each other luck and he went off to his point further up the front. I spoke to a couple of other competitors and was pleased to see Lou, who I had met at the parade of nations a few days before. She was as worried as me about the swim, we had a hug and stuck together to start. All of a sudden, the crowd moved forward, the gun went and we were off.
I am not sure how to describe the swim. I approached the water and there is just a sea of arms and legs flying everywhere. I remember getting in and thinking oh god this is a bloody nightmare, I was being battered around the head and body with every stroke. It was carnage but you just had to dig in and swim. I stuck to my plan of swimming close to the buoy line. I knew I was going to get smacked on the outward leg but I did not want to go too far out. It worked well. I rounded the first buoy in touching distance, I was getting thumped and pushed in every direction, but I was on course. I found the buoy line again and just concentrated on swimming along it. There were bodies everywhere, the swell got up a bit but nothing I could not handle. A few times I looked for Lou and she was right next to me, shouting oh my god or bloody hell which was hilarious, I kept checking she was alright for that first lap, and in doing so realised I was actually fine.
We got to the next turn buoy quicker than I expected, again I hugged the line down to the next turn and then we were on our way back to start for lap two. I managed to get a bit of a draft and started to get space to get a decent stroke on. I was out of the water and on the beach before I knew it. As I ran around to get in again for lap 2 I had a quick look at my watch it was 7:40am so I was absolutely on track for a 1.20 swim, I could hardly believe it. The start was less crowded on lap 2 but still a few knocks and kicks, someone lifted my legs and pushed me at one point, which was actually quite helpful as I got shoved forward. I did the same as lap 1 and stuck to the buoy line, it was a good tactic. The swell on the outward leg seemed a bit larger but I found I was enjoying it. I looked down and noticed a huge manta ray below me, I was not scared I was marvelling in the beauty of it.
By the time I had turned back to the finish for the last time I was relaxed and really enjoying myself. The crowds were cheering as we ran to transition. I got my hat and googles off and my wet suit half way down. Grabbed my bag and bumped straight into Paula we shouted “Well done” to each other and shot off to get changed.
Got changed without much of an issue, sun creamed all over thanks to a helper, although I looked like a ghost I had so much on my face and arms. Grabbed my bike and headed up to the mount line which was bit of a hike from the transition area particularly tricky wearing my bike shoes. Got a high five from Kenneth Gasque (the man who started the race on the island) on my way out and off I went.
I was really happy to be on my bike. It was surprisingly overcast and a bit cold for the first half of the ride, but I was thankful for that as I know how hot it can get. I was on schedule and doing well. There were lots of people ahead of me and overtaking me but I stuck to my plan and my power numbers well. I was drinking in fluid and eating religiously as nutrition is key to getting around. It was windy but not that bad on the road down towards El Gofo, I had a brief chat with a guy from Yorkshire who was on a road bike and making it look altogether bloody easy. There were loads of people already on the road heading back from El Gofo as I was riding down, indicating I was near the back of the field but it didn’t worry me. I told myself to “Stick to your plan, your race, your pace, don’t worry about anyone else, keep positive” these were my mantras for the day and overall it worked.
Timafaya is one of my favourite places on the island, it’s a bit lumpy but you are cycling in the middle of a lava field which is an eerily quiet and oddly majestic landscape. There were quite a few motorcycle marshals around at this point blowing whistles at riders ahead of me who were bunched up and waving them to space out but I was doing well keeping out of the draft zone and working within my power numbers. Got to the top of the long climb had a major wobble as I got caught with a gust of wind but then just enjoyed the long sweep down into Macha Blanca. Passed the first bike cut off point, grinned at myself as I was well within the time and pushed on to San Bartholomew. I like this part of the ride, the road is undulating but quick and perfect for sitting in your aerobars and pushing on. I picked up some speed and passed a few riders on the way down to the Monument and then started the long climb up to Teguise.
I was just about at the garage before Teguise when the first male pro riders came flying past, they are incredible to watch and to think they had already done more than half the course by that stage. I climbed into Teguise and the crowd support was superb, everyone cheering Vamos and Bravo Linda which really spurred me on, I was waving and smiling and feeling pretty good. Just before I got out of Teguise I spotted our very own GB Pro Triathlete Nikki Bartlett coming down on her bike. She looked focused, strong and fast.
From that point, I was focused on eating, drinking and pedalling away towards Los Valos where the climb to Haria starts. It started to get pretty hot then. As I reached the bottom of the climb I overheard a rider asking a Marshall where he could quit. I was surprised as he looked really fit and had a properly fast bike. I shouted “come on” along with a few other riders but he shook his head. Maybe something had gone wrong with his bike that we could not see or he had overdone it but either way I was certain I was not for quitting.
Got to the top of Haria and a few riders in front of me stopped, I pushed on keen to get the downhill switchbacks out the way. It is a fast section and I glad to carefully make it to the bottom and up through Haria town. Heading towards Mirador a girl I met in transition the day before came passed me, we had a brief chat before she shot off. She looked flipping strong on the hill and a few others passed me on the way up too. At the top of Mirador, I grabbed a bottle and pulled over for a very quick breather before tackling the long descent. I checked my watch and I was just over 5 hours in, and the realisation that I was unlikely to make it back within 2.5 hours was a bit demoralising, but I snapped myself out of it and just continued on. The descent was a bit hairy in places. Looking at my Strava it seems I descended faster than ever before, probably due to the sodding great tailwind that was shoving me down and at times catching me on the side. I pushed hard from the bottom of Mirador all the way to the turn back up to Tesegite.
The sun was now fully out and I was feeling a bit scorched and for the first time a bit tired. I took out my snickers bar which I had kept for this very part of the ride to spur me on. God it tasted like heaven and I really felt the benefit for it while wishing I had brought another one!
Getting to the aid station at Tesegite, I stopped to grab more bottles and use the toilet. A Scottish voice greeted me and I could not believe it when he said he was from Portobello, he also knew where Duns was, where I grew up. He exchanged a few words of encouragement and I left feeling better for using the loo and in a good frame of mind.
The next part of the ride, I just kept my head down and pushed.
My power numbers were looking terribly low but I had my eyes on the prize of getting to the finish line. There were still a lot of supporters on the route even although the riders were thinning out now. It seems to me that the whole island embraces this race. You will be in the middle of nowhere, cycle round a corner and meet two or three people with a getto blaster dancing and cheering away at you. It was bizarre and bloody brilliant!
On the final 10 miles I started to overtake a few people and realised I was not feeling too bad except a bit hot. I forced myself to keep eating and drinking, although my stomach was sloshing with fluid. Heading back to San Bartholomew was a high point for me, I was nearly, nearly there. Got up the last hill to reach the top of the donkey track to see the rider in front of me get blown right across the road. He almost fell off but somehow managed to hang on. I braced myself but thankfully the wind seemed to miss me, either that or my weight helped to ground me to my bike.
Getting back into Puerto Del Carmen, the crowds were huge and cheering madly. I got off the bike and walked down the hill into transition. God it was hot and I still had to do the run. Transition was a long walk from the dismount line. I had no desire to run at this stage, just drop the bike and grab my run gear. Once again Scottish voices greeted me in the run change tent. Three lovely women who took one look at me and said “you will be wanting some more cream on hen” I almost cried laughing with them. Nowhere obvious to change my shorts as it was communal, but I decided I needed to do it so one of the volunteers stood in front of me while I whipped them off and changed into a clean pair. I really did not care who saw my backside at that point and to be frank I really don’t think anyone was looking.
Changed my socks, got my trainers, cap and sunglasses on and headed out. The time was 5.25pm about an hour later than I had hoped but I told myself never mind you made it to the run, come on.
Out to the run. The start was absolutely packed with cheering supporters, you begin with an uphill run (deep joy) and the first thing I thought as I shuffled up it was it is incredibly hot. I ran holding a small bottle of water and some gels which I started to take on quickly. I was looking out for Adrian and at about 5k in I spotted him running towards me. We stopped and had a massive sweaty hug, both us pleased to see the other safely off the bike, there had been a few ambulances on the course and a couple of accidents, so I was more than relieved to see him. Also, this race was about Adrian validating his Kona slot and I knew he was anxious just to safely get around and tick the race off. We both acknowledged the bike had been hard, we swapped bike times and I was only an hour behind him so we were both slower than we had hoped for. I did feel tired and hot but cheered up immensely by seeing him.
The first lap of the run is 20k. It is a long run out and back past the airport. The planes are taking off and landing all the time, so you are treated to the occasional whiff of diesel. I found my feet and slowly started to catch a few people on the run, as well as a few people catching me too. It is a game of cat and mouse at times and I saw a few people on the run that had been on the bike with me. There is an awfully nice feeling of camaraderie among competitors, lots of well done, keep going shared between us all. It is a lovely community of people.
Made it to the turnaround point, which was early than I had expected and headed back. At some point I remember Paula shouting my name but most of the run is a bit of a blur. I just focused on moving forward, taking on cola, water and gels until I could not stomach them anymore. The heat was getting to me, I walked the aid stations and then ran on. Getting the first band on after 20k was motivating, getting the next one on 10k later even better. By the time I got to the last checkpoint it was dark and had gotten much cooler but with 5k to go I was still jogging not walking. On the last lap I thanked every volunteer, I lost count of the people sitting in the bars at the side of the run route who clapped, cheered and shouted well done. That last couple of miles was so amazing, I felt Iike I had won the Olympics. Running down towards the finish was fantastic. The crowds were awesome, cheering my name and making a huge noise. As I ran down the finisher chute I spotted Adrian shouting at me to stop to take my picture (he had finished 2 hours before me). I ran over the line and held up the banner to have my picture taken, I was then joined by another finisher who in his haste to finish crashed into my finish line picture. I could not have been happier to share that moment, we just both grinned and laughed at each other. It was done.
Ironman Lanzarote is the toughest challenge I have ever taken on. I am massively proud of myself and thankful to everyone who encouraged me and trained with me but especially to Adrian for putting up with my months of worry and doubt as well as for managing my training programme.
I did say I will never do this race again, it is so immensely hard but now one week later I am already contemplating a return and thinking about how to get stronger on the bike and run. Will I ever learn… probably not!