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