Tak­ing on chal­lenge of Iron­man and pre­vail­ing

Tak­ing on the gru­elling chal­lenge that is Iron­man and pre­vail­ing, af­ter nine months of tough train­ing

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Scott Gra­ham

For nine months, Iron­man Barcelona had been my num­ber one goal. Most days were planned around train­ing – be­fore and af­ter work. I missed out on so­cial oc­ca­sions, es­caped from friends’ cel­e­bra­tions to com­plete all-im­por­tant long runs and bike rides, squeezed in a five-hour bike be­fore board­ing a flight to a close friend’s wed­ding. None of this seemed crazy at the time. Con­sis­tency is the name of the game when you are at­tempt­ing a 2.4-mile (3.8km) swim, 112-mile (180km) bi­cy­cle ride and a full 26.22-mile (42km) marathon run.

Race day

The alarm went off at 6.15am, but that didn’t mat­ter a damn – I was al­ready wide awake. I didn’t have the best night’s sleep, but that was to be ex­pected when you’re ner­vous for the big day ahead. I didn’t let it get to me – I knew it was more im­por­tant to have a few good nights’ sleep in the days be­fore­hand. Task num­ber one – break­fast. The nerves com­bined with the early rise doesn’t make for the most plea­sur­able break­fast. I spooned as much por­ridge as I pos­si­bly could into my mouth, washed down with a few swigs of car­bo­hy­drate sports drink. Yum. The last proper meal for 14 hours.


The Ir­ish had brought the weather with them. Pitch dark and lash­ing rain, I en­tered tran­si­tion along with about 3,000 other triath­letes to find my bike, which had been racked the night be­fore, and pro­ceeded to set up my tran­si­tion bags. I stuffed my bike bags with en­ergy bars and gels and com­pleted the fi­nal checks.


The at­mos­phere was build­ing and there was a real air of ex­cite­ment as the MC got the crowd go­ing and tunes pumped from the speak­ers on to the beach. The sun was start­ing to rise. I said my fi­nal good­byes to my girl­friend, Kate, and pushed to­wards the front of the sub 60-minute swim wave. Up near the front, I spot­ted some of the Ir­ish boys. We had a brief chat, shook hands and wished each other good luck.


A rolling start, the 3,000-plus com­pe­ti­tion charged into the wa­ter and we were off. The waves were big, prob­a­bly the big­gest I’ve ever raced in. There was a 1.8-me­tre swell and I hon­estly couldn’t see a thing for the first few min­utes. Af­ter a few 100 me­tres of swim­ming blindly, I fi­nally caught a glimpse of the first-turn buoy. As we turned the buoy it got chaotic as ev­ery­one had the same idea of tak­ing the short­est line – even if that was to swim over me.

I set­tled into a groove and was go­ing well when the guy in front of me seemed to get caught by the swell and kicked out wildly. He nearly took my Garmin watch off, but thank­fully it held. To lose it now would be dis­as­trous.

I felt com­fort­able but was glad to see the big red fin­ish arch and in­cred­i­ble scenes on the beach as crowds lined the swim exit. A party at­mos­phere awaited.


Run­ning up the beach to tran­si­tion the crowd was go­ing crazy and I man­aged to spot my fam­ily – my three-year-old nephew Oliver was scream­ing louder than any­one. I peeled my wet­suit down to my waist as I ran into tran­si­tion and glanced at my watch to check my swim split. The kick from my fel­low swim­mer had stopped my watch so I had no clue how I’d done and, given the con­di­tions, I feared I took over an hour.


About 5km into the bike we climbed out of Calella and I slipped the gears into the big ring to put the power down. Clunk. I’d dropped the chain! I slowly turned the ped­als to try to get it back on to the chain­ring, but no joy. I pulled into the side and within 15 sec­onds had the chain back on and was chas­ing. I could see a pace-line form­ing up ahead so I upped the pace to get back in touch and all was well again.


The first 90km loop was un­event­ful and I stuck to the plan of eat­ing a chunk of en­ergy bar ev­ery 15 min­utes and keep­ing well hy­drated. Then a mo­tor­bike mar­shal clipped a cone and sent it skit­tling across the road in front of me. I swerved and man­aged to avoid it too. Thank­fully, no dam­age done, but a scary mo­ment as we de­scended from one of the turn­around points at about 50km/h. I was feel­ing good – av­er­ag­ing 38km/h.

Shortly af­ter­wards, a Span­ish ath­lete swung out to the left and into the mid­dle of the road. I gave him a nod to say hello. He told me he needed to go for a pee on the bike so was go­ing to move to the back. A few min­utes later I saw him again as he moved up to pass me again. I asked him how he was feel­ing, he said he was feel­ing strong and was hop­ing to run a 3.40 marathon off the bike. My one and only chat of the day. You have to be con­tent with your own com­pany in this game.


At 140km, with 40km to go on the bike, I was feel­ing great and lov­ing it. Some looked mis­er­able in the rain but I didn’t care. I thought if any­thing it would suit the Ir­ish – wet, windy and a lit­tle cooler than the Span­ish lads were used to.

The long pace-line I was in ear­lier had blown apart as some peo­ple faded. Five­hour cy­cles around the hills of Wick­low were bound to stand to me. Now it was just two other guys and my­self.

I was third to go through a fairly straight round­about when my wheel just skid­ded from un­der­neath me. Be­fore I could blink, I was curled up in a ball on the side of the road clench­ing my left arm.

My first feel­ing was anger. I’d spent nine months train­ing for up to 18½ hours a week, putting it be­fore most things in my life. Not to men­tion my size­able sup­port crew who had come all the way from home and my broth­ers fam­ily who had trav­elled from Scot­land just to cheer me on, I was well aware of the num­ber of peo­ple fol­low­ing my progress on the live tracker back home.

Af­ter a few min­utes of ly­ing on the ground, as mul­ti­ple com­peti­tors passed me by (who I had worked so hard to get ahead of), I had an im­por­tant de­ci­sion to make – do I carry on or call it a day. I picked my­self up and grabbed my bike. There was only one way home any­way. As I started to pedal, two more ath­letes crashed on the round­about, one looked badly in­jured and the mar­shals came run­ning.

I thought my day was done, but fig­ured the quick­est way to get back to tran­si­tion was just to spin easy home. My left fore­arm was in agony so I gin­gerly rested my el­bow on the time trial bars and got mov­ing again.


Tran­si­tion two. I racked my bike, donned my run­ners, took a gel and washed it down with a gulp of en­ergy drink. At this stage, I wasn’t sure if my in­juries would al­low me to run at all.

Only one way to find out.


My coach, Ross McLynn, warned me not to go out too hard on the run and that it re­ally only starts at 30km into the marathon.

Ev­ery few hun­dred me­tres you would spot an Ir­ish flag and as your name is on your race bib you’d get valu­able words of en­cour­age­ment. The heat was build­ing, but I was mov­ing well and had for­got­ten about my ear­lier fall. Sligo’s Ea­monn McAn­drew passed me at around the 6km mark and he was se­ri­ously mov­ing. He ended up run­ning a 2:55 marathon, sneak­ing un­der nine hours and fin­ish­ing sec­ond in his age group.

Up un­til half­way on the marathon I took an en­ergy gel ev­ery 30 min­utes to keep my­self topped up. I had prac­tised loads with these on train­ing runs and was tol­er­at­ing them. Be­tween the 20 and 30km mark, the day was re­ally tak­ing its toll on me. My pace started to slip slightly from 4:40s to 4:55s. To res­cue the sit­u­a­tion, I started to guz­zle caf­feine gels, chomp down salt tablets and drink Coke at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. Des­per­ate times call for des­per­ate mea­sures.

It was like a war­zone at the far end of the three-lap run course as some com­pe­ti­tions slumped at the side of the road with their head in their hands and oth­ers gin­gerly walked as the cramps kicked in. I nipped into a por­taloo to empty the blad­der and on to the last lap I knew I could make it home still run­ning. For the fi­nal 6km I man­aged to lift my pace again and was cheered home by groups of sup­port­ers from ev­ery cor­ner of Ire­land.


A mo­tor­bike mar­shal clipped a cone and sent it skit­tling across the road in front of me

Turn­ing into the Iron­man fin­ish shoot was a dream. I have never been so glad to see a red car­pet. In a daze, I sprinted down the red car­pet high-fiv­ing the crowds lean­ing over the bar­ri­ers. I spot­ted my fam­ily and girl­friend to the left and raised my arms high above my head.

Thank god I de­cided to carry on af­ter the fall. They de­served the mo­ment as much as I did.

I’d made it through the most epic day imag­in­able, I was an Iron­man.

Scott Gra­ham: “Con­sis­tency is the name of the game when you are at­tempt­ing a 2.4-mile (3.8km) swim, 112-mile (180km) bi­cy­cle ride and a full 26.22-mile (42km) marathon run”

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