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Welcome to Ironman UK, Sherborne - 7 September 2008

Ironman triathletes share many things in common. The most obvious is the distance that each has to cover - 3.8kms of swimming, 180kms of cycling and 42.2kms running - but another shared characteristic is goals. I don't know every person who has completed an Ironman, but I'm confident that every single one of them had some sort of goal for themselves either before, during, or perhaps even after, their Ironman. If you're a pro, your goal might be to win the race; as a regular age-grouper, it may be to achieve a PB; as a first-timer, perhaps it's just to finish. They are the bigger goals that are made up of a number of smaller goals you set throughout the course. Out of the swim 5mins faster than last time. Maintain a steady rhythm on the day's longest climb. Keep your splits consistent on every loop of the marathon. Lots on little goals like this to help you achieve your big goal by the end of the day.

For me at Ironman UK, held in the small town of Sherborne, England about 3 hours drive south-west of London, I was forced to set myself a number of small goals throughout the event just so I could ensure I would make it to the finishline for the third time in an Ironman. Physically challenging as always, this most recent outing was definitely more a mental mountain as race plans went out the window. Why? Even a few days now after the event, I still cannot figure out why, but as time passes, I've realised it's not as bad as I first thought. Although, to be honest, I began to realise this in the second half of the marathon last Sunday. However, some things just can't be explained and it's those that you are best to just let go. Here's a bit of a rundown on my third Ironman experience:

Gibbo at Sherbourne Castle
The day before at Sherborne Castle and keeping a close watch on the weather.

Lead up -I completed Ironman France in late June (see race report on lefthand navigation bar), had 2 - 3 weeks of easy training before getting stuck in for a hard 5 week training block in the lead up to UK. The goal was to work on two things during this block: increase my pacing during the swim and run longer efforts off the bike. I did both consistently and felt good but never pushed myself to the point of overtraining and injury. The only setback was the fact that the closest pool to my house had closed for the summer vacations, so I now had to ride 4kms to another, but better, pool in The Hague. A good preparation physically and I felt enthusiastic mentally, although was looking forward to being done with the training. The only mishap was hitting the tarmac on my bike as I began to taper 2 weeks out. Riding by myself on a regular route, I simply took a corner too fast that had more gravel on it than the previous week and down I went. No major damage to body or machine except for some missing bark on the hip, elbow and shoulder. Being only 1.5hrs into a 4hrs ride, I assessed the damage and then rode on. The missing skin kept me out of the pool for a week, but it was taper anyway, so shouldn't have caused a problem.

Race Venue - Nicki and I drove to Sherborne in a hire car from Heathrow. It's fairly straight forward but traffic can be a nightmare, particulaly on the single lane roads that run past Stonehenge (worse on the return when an accident reduces the M3 and M25 to a crawl). Slow going in the second half of the trip, but made it Friday evening in time to meet our homestay hosts (Hugh & Jo Watkins who have a very comfortable house right in town and were fantastic and interested hosts) and head to the pasta party at the race venue - historic Sherborne Castle. Now being in the UK in September (or any time of year for that matter) there is considerable risk of the weather being wet and cold. It was more 'country farm' than 'beachside resort' and after several days of heavy rain, the race venue resembled that of Glastonbury - mud, mud and mud. Gumboots/Wellingtons were more at home than Asics or Saucony. Luckily, that was really only the carpark and most of the remaining grounds were holding up. Well, at least until it received some serious foot traffic over the coming days. Everything is based within the castle grounds. Registration, start/finish, transition, expo, etc and it's only a few minutes drive from town, or you can easily walk in about 15mins. What we saw the next day was pretty impressive with a number of decent food stands, two Lavazza cafes, entainment for the kids, and a few marquess that hosted the pasta/awards party, athletes finish area and expo. We didn't stick around for the awards ceremony on the Monday (haven't been to one yet) but the pasta party on Friday night was pretty ordinary. Plated lasagne was all that was on offer with some salad, bread, water and cola. Eat before or after you go. But that's nothing against the volunteers (catering and elsewhere) because they all did a fantastic job, were patient with very demanding triathletes and kept a smile the whole way through. 

Pasta party carpark - knee deep in mud
  It's gonna get messy..the carpark in the castle grounds on Friday night at the pasta party.

Swim - this takes place in the man-made castle lake, which may seem off-putting at first, but it was actually pretty clean and relatively warm. A deep-water start required the 1,500 athletes to walk from transition, but only when enough daylight permitted, and make our way 200m from the shore to wait for the gun. A planned 6:00am start turned into 6:30am, but we eventually got away and the sky look fairly clear (it rained buckets the previous afternoon so no one was optimistic of it holding off).  Now, this is where I can begin to tell you about the little goals I had to set for myself to ensure I got through the event. After feeling incredibly relaxed at the begining of the swim, ensuring that I kept my head down and swam the whole way, I exited over the timing mat to find I had been in the water for a massive 1hr 21mins, some 10+mins longer than I had planned. During the swim, I did everything right including keeping my stroke long, swimming close to the bouys, and not stopping but I felt the course just went on and on. I dared not look at my watch as I knew it would send me straight to the bottom on the lake. Apart from one time about 400m in when I genuinely thought someone was punching me in the head with three successive blows, forcing my googles off, and the fact that the water was choppy perhaps because of the narrow  lake, to this day I have no idea why it took so long? Was I too relaxed? Did missing a week of swimming after my bike crash really hurt me? I've decided to just let that one go and put it down to one of those things.

Bike - luckily after the swim, I had Nicki there to tell me it was ok and that I was now onto my strongest discipline, otherwise I think would have wandered off to one of those Lavazza cafes and warmed up.  Annoyed at myself and down, I would get out on the bike and hope to drag that time back on a course that couldn't have been any harder than the mountains in IM France. Wrong! A combination of near hypothermia and almost embarrassment from such a slow swim forced me to drive the bike hard on the first of three loops. Again, I had set a time for myself but by the end of the first loop (about 55kms), when I was much warmer but feeling shattered, I was well down on that time. Despite pushing as hard as I could, my average speed was a mere 33kms/hr on a course that had some very decent rolling hills, wind from every direction and the world's slowest surface. All I could say to Nicki as I passed was "it's going to be a long day" and began to get really emotional - both for myself as I thought my race was coming apart and for her as I knew that she would stand by the side of the road all day, in the cold, waiting for me and I was blowing it.

Out onto the windy bike course
Heading out onto the bike and determined to make up for a slow swim.

Not wanting to be a quitter, particularly after I've trained hard all year long, I had to again reassess my bigger goal and set new little goals for myself. At the beginning of the second loop, it had occured to me that I hadn't been overtaken during the first 55kms, but I had certainly overtaken a lot of people. So, let's see if I can maintain that record on the second loop, which kept me pushing in worsen conditions (although only light rain). Again, by the end of the second loop, I had only overtaken. On the third and final loop, I kept swapping positions with three guys over the distance, so despite a slower time than Nice, I knew that I wasn't the only one finding the going tough and that there now should be a lot of people behind me. I eventually made it back into the castle grounds in a total time of 5hrs 46mins, which was 74th fastest of the day, and I had made up some 811 spots on the bike.

On the run through the tiny streets of Sherbourne
Feeling happier whilst heading through historic Sherborne town centre.

Run -
a quick interview with the event's film crew whilst in transition (the interviewer asked me how I found the bike and she was lucky I didn't say "fucked" directly down the camera!) and I was out onto the marathon. Thoughts running through my head at this stage were slowest swim, slowest bike, so surely slowest run. Again, Nicki was there to get those thoughts out of my head quick smart and she told me to push on. From training, I had already set myself the goal of not stopping - not even at drink stations - until after the half marathon point. Feeling utterly disappointed in my performance so far (it's not until afterwards that you know it's not as bad as you think, but that's part of the mental challenge) I wasn't going to - and didn't - fail with this little goal. Now, despite having run two IM marathons and three separate marathons before, I'm no expert on what a typical course looks like, but I think I can say that it probably doesn't resemble the one presented to athletes at IM UK. The first 8kms is out the back of the castle grounds, mostly uphill for the first two-thirds, and all of it off road. It's a combination of long grass and what the organisers state as 'hard packed trails' but after days of rain, there's not really much packing left of it, so plenty of time is spent avoiding mud and puddles as 4hrs is a long time to run with soggy shoes. My first lap saw me on these off-road sections by myself, but as the loops went on, more and more runners had entered the marathon. As a rough estimate, by the time I started my third loop, more than 1,000 people would have run over and through that mud making the going very tough. The second part of each loop was much better though as you returned to the transition area and headed into Sherborne town where thousands of locals, visitors and volunteers were lining the streets to cheer you on through this picturesque town. Even our homestay hosts, Hugh & Jo, came down to provide some encouragement. Some hilly sections and narrow streets added to the challenge, but after three laps, I was on my way back to the castle and the finishline. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the final 200m run down that finish chute makes you forget everything you been through and just accept the genuine praise of the big crowd. Over the line for a 4hr marathon exactly (so not my slowest after all !)

Final finishing time 11 hours 18 minutes (swim 1hr 21mins, 5hrs 46mins, run 4hrs 0mins, transitions 11mins). No where near a PB, but not a complete blow-out either, so very happy to get over the line with what I did. Some other stats: 36th in my age-group out of 268 men; 131st overall out of 1150 age-group men (top 11%). 

Three Ironman's down
That'll be Ironman finish number 3 for Gibbo.

Post-race - Nicki, who had a very long day herself, greeted me with a big hug. I held on for as long as I could, before staggering into the athletes village and putting on some warm clothes. More than 10hrs of shoving sweet bars and gels into your body makes you crave something salty or spicey. To my surprise, the organisers put on Indian food for the finishers with rice, naan, chicken tikka and samosa! I grabbed a plate and tried to eat, but was feeling quite ill with the thought of food. However, cheese and pickle sandwiches, along with a few potato chips, went down much better. Whilst I was sitting and eating, happy to be stationary for the first time all day, Nicki was looking at me through the fence with a mixed look of pride, amazement and stupidity. Why do I do it? I guess it allows you / teaches you / forces you to work though physical and mental barriers as they happen, and once you cross the finish line, whether in first place or last place, you can say to yourself that you weren't beaten and that you overcame those obstacles. If you do Ironman, you can pretty much do anything.

Until next year where I've already signed up for Ironman Austria and Ironman Number 4. Better start plotting my goals now...

Check out for more information and for more photos. I'm was bib #1495.

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