So it must have been about a year ago when I decided in a moment of madness that this was going to happen in 2019. Thinking ahead and trying to match up with the school holidays so the kids could come along, Tallinn was chosen and it all started from there. Flights were booked, accommodation sourced from a limited range on AirBnB and a 48 week training plan, divided into four quarters, was cobbled together. I never expected to be able to do more than half of that plan with a busy (that’s normal, non-semi-professional athlete, Andy Cowen…) lifestyle. I managed exactly that in the first 12 weeks (Q1), then managed to do about 65% of plan in Q2 and it was looking even better at about 80% in Q3. Then life got the better of me with a big career change amongst other things and training pretty much went out of the window for best part of a month. Then with 8 weeks to go I panicked and put together a new plan to try and ramp up the mileage so that I at least felt like I might be capable of the challenge ahead. I managed some of this, then with less than three weeks to go disaster struck – I got a cold that turned into a cough. Despite taking vitamins galore to try and keep this sort of thing at bay it got me just when I really didn’t need it and I generally have a habit of keeping these sorts of things going for several weeks… Inside I was gutted, convinced it would stay with me too long and rule out my race altogether. Everything I read told me that I needed to be completely clear of all symptoms at least a week beforehand so I bought every medication known to man, filled myself with daily multivitamins, Beroccas and fruit like I never have done before – no way was I going down before I’d started… On a positive note, at least I didn’t have to think about a tapering plan, I wasn’t capable of training at all so it was a case of tapering equals nothing!!!
Anyway wind forward to 25 July, 9 days before race day and Easyjet carry me, the boys and Izzy to Tallin but thoughtfully leave all of our luggage including my bike behind. The next day they tell me they still can’t find it so I’m onto insurance companies and local bike stores planning ahead for the worst case scenario where I have to get a replacement of everything! Step in Mr President who has connections everywhere and he manages to locate all the luggage before Easyjet! Thanks Andy, I’ll need another excuse now!
Back in Tallinn, reunited with my bike and D-day looms three days away. I’m still a little snotty but the cough has gone, so I’m going for it regardless, but now there are questions about the swim as the water temperature in the harbour has plummeted from 17 to 11 in less than 24 hours due to a change in wind direction – apparently a known phenomenon in these parts. It’s looking like a shortened swim at best, more likely cancelled. I’m disappointed of course, but this is met with another feeling of maybe it’ll help my chances of finishing given the lack of training and the lingering cold?
On Thursday, with just 2 days to go, an email comes through announcing a change of location of the swim to a local lake where they’ll do a single 3,800m loop with a small change to the bike route to incorporate the move – so it will be the full IronMan experience for us all. Despite previous thoughts I’m over the moon as I’d been checking the sea temp 10 times a day!!!
Roll on Race Day and having got everything ready the night before, after racking up and checking my bags in, despite a checklist with both written on it, I manage to leave my drinks and ice behind! After asking a handful of the support crew I eventually find the water stand and top up my aero bottle just before transition closes. Finally a bit of time to soak up the atmosphere of the start line and contemplate the adventure ahead. Holy crap – this is it, it’s actually happening!
Stood on the start line with about 1,299 athletes it was a surprisingly lonely place compared to all the race experiences I’ve had to date. Four by four we moved towards the start and then suddenly just as I moved over the timing sensor and ran down to the water, Tri Surrey-esque support erupted from my left from Fleur and the kids with oh so familiar shouts of “DADDY, DADDY, DADDY!” and “Go Jem, go!!!” – that’s more like it! Then out into the water for one big figure of eight shape lap of the lake. By the first buoy my goggles had steamed up and I had to stop and clear them and they were kicked off at least three times on a surprisingly busy course. The water was warm, but very murky and with so many people on the course I struggled to see the turn buoys ahead. I didn’t think too much about technique or anything more than just trying to not get too stuck in with other swimmers who would probably happily swim over the top of me. The second “half” seemed to go on forever (with the Garmin seemingly proving it with an accurate looking trace but over 4,200m registered) but the end eventually came and I’d managed to keep going the whole way at a fairly steady if not too fast pace, but at least I hadn’t given too much!
Out of the water, immediately hearing exactly the same cheers as when I went in but couldn’t see them anywhere. I must have looked like a rabbit in headlights at a standstill gazing around to see Fleur, Izzy and the boys without luck!!! So I ran off towards T1 and then saw them all right in front of me! Into transition for a quick loo stop then a very sedate change into full cycling gear rather than trisuit as mine just made me sore in places I’d rather not mention…
Out of transition, past the gang (more loud cheering!) and out onto the open roads. Wow, these roads are amazing. Best smoothest tarmac ever. Nice easy start and look at the pace, 30kph plus – this will be a breeze…. well it was exactly that – round a few bends and I soon realised why the pace had been so easy at the start. Not the smooth tarmac, but the wind! I had been pushed along nicely and now it was dead against. And wherever I came up against a slight incline it seemed to be straight into that wind, and it was pretty strong too. Enough to completely destroy me and by the halfway mark I was a spent force. 90k to go feeling like this and then run a marathon – how on Earth is that going to happen? So bad thoughts crept in and for the next 30k I just trudged along, didn’t pass anyone, but got overtaken by what seemed like hundreds of other racers. And I also realised that my cold had come back with a vengeance…
You have a lot of time to think whilst you’re on the bike and a couple of those stick out. First, it’s so lonely out there, and without any other teammates riding, it was just the other riders for company, who themselves weren’t very chatty, mainly because I don’t think most of them spoke a word of English (there is a heavy Baltic contingent in the field here). Or maybe they too were in a world of pain from the wind. But whilst I struggled to get into the aero position by now as my neck, back and arse were all so sore, whenever I did, I had a little unicorn there reminding me who was really with me all the way!
Secondly, I realised how important it was to take on plenty of fluid. Not because I was sweating as it wasn’t especially warm out there. But because I was still getting over my recent cold and had to do way too many “cyclist’s snot guns” as I was going. I was careful to check behind me each time, but I worked out that on average I had to clear my nose once per km. With two nostrils that’s 360 snot-guns and one hell of a lot of snot!!!
Whilst the course was fairly bleak, the crews on the feeding stations were amazing and so keen that really helped, and every once in a while you came across a group of locals and some of them seemed to get especially excited when I came past. Possibly our pink and blue club kit is similar to a local one. Or maybe it was just the toilet paper flying out of the back of my bib-shorts, who knows…
Finally after what seemed an age I was on the home stretch with only 10k to go and the last bit of the ride came off the slick tarmac and onto pedestrian footpaths along the beachfront towards T2. I had a fresh lease of life which was multiplied when I saw my family waiting for me – I hadn’t expected to see them until 5k into the run!
Hugs and kisses given and received it was into T2 and another full change into my running gear, then out onto the run and I felt much better than expected, but what’s with the surface? After the beautiful roads for the bike I was running on uneven gravel with the odd rock thrown in – hope this doesn’t last!!! After about 1/2km it moved onto pavements (phew) and through the first aid feed station – so much cheering and support from all the guys there. Then on and up into old town and straight into cobble stones! Arghhhh! This is not pleasant – and I have 9 legs like this to run (4.5 laps from T2 to the top of old town and back!). At least 50% of the run was on gravel or cobbles!
Anyway, my run plan had always been a run/walk of 9 minutes for each 1 minute of walking recovery right from the start and it went pretty well for a while although the distance and surfaces soon started to take their toll and much like the bike by the halfway mark I was all but done. So 9:1 soon became 4:1 and then 1:4 not long after!!! 4 of the last 5 legs were pretty bad and it was just a case of plodding along as best as I could. The family were all up at the top near the finish which I had to go past 4 times before I had the chance to experience it myself. I now knew I was going to get there but it was when that got into my head. Hopes of a sub 13 hour time had all but gone by 140k on the bike and whilst I was trudging from one feed station to the next I was doing the maths and it was looking unlikely that I’d get under 14 hours as I watched my pace drop with every km. I was also thinking how much better a marathon time starting with a 4 would look but chances of this too were fast slipping away.
As I reached the last turn at the bottom of the course and took my last wrist band I passed a guy called Will from Tenby who’s pace had fallen similar to mine and commented that we only had a ParkRun left to go now. And that somehow got my feet moving again but oh so slowly. Up past the gravel section and past the first feed station for the last time and then I thought about all those track sessions and tried to actually lift my feet and run again and amazingly it actually worked. I was still capable of running, but for how long (still 3k to go)? Then I reached a short hill and walked up this but was determined I’d get running again at the top and not stop until the finish. Thoughts of “have I gone too early” conflicting with “come on Jem, this is it – just another 7/8 minutes of hard running and you’re there” but bloody hell it hurt!!! Onto the cobbles and I seem to be on my own now so all the cheers must be for me and I feel like I’m actually going to win this thing!!! Round a bend and onto the home straight and I now know I’ve got this, it’s actually going to happen. Incredibly by now I actually feel like I’m moving like a real athlete again – then I take the left lane to the finish and I’m completely oblivious to everything around me. I didn’t even hear James shouting at me to do a roly-poly over the line!
Finally I’ve done it. I am an IronMan! Cue all sorts of emotions and of course a lot more pain!!! 4 hours 54 minutes for the marathon and 13 hours 43 minutes overall. That last burst worked too!
I have so many people to thank for getting me here. My boys and Izzy for supporting so amazingly over here in Estonia and chasing me all around the place. To my parents also for coming all this way, never thinking twice about coming out here. To all my team mates at Tri Surrey for their incredible encouragement and help in getting me here. Both as coaches and fellow athletes whether at IronMan or any other level, this club never ceases to amaze me how it has no tiers or cliques, it’s everyone for everyone. Long may that remain as that to me is what separates it from any other.
Finally to Fleur who has given so much of her time to help out with the boys when I have needed to train, offered support and encouragement every step of the way, come all the way over here too and just been simply amazing to all of us Bloks – I simply couldn’t ask any more of you (not that I have – you’ve just done it all voluntarily!). Fleur you’re amazing and we all love you 😘.
Finally a few tips to offer from my experience.
1. If you’re going to make a plan, do you’re absolute best to stick with it, but be prepared for circumstances to mean it has to change. But if that is the case then make that change sooner rather than later – don’t just leave it, take action.
2. If you are going to race with a cold (and you probably shouldn’t), then take tissues. It is inevitable with that many “snot-guns” they won’t all be well executed and some will go all over your face. The back of your hand simply spreads it around a bit.
3. Buy a unicorn – we all need a good reminder of our mates whilst out on that long lonely ride.
4. Be prepared for mixed emotions towards the end of the bike – “at last that’s over” versus “shit have to run a marathon now”. If you’ve done the training, or even a fair few BRICs of any length then you will be stronger at the start of the run than you would believe no matter how knackered you feel after 180k – try to keep that thought with you.
5. If you want to do an IronMan then just sign up for one and make it happen. If you want it enough then anyone can do this. It just either takes a lot of training or a huge amount of will power, or a combination of the two that we can all find within ourselves.