My journey to Ironman 70.3

Surrounded by hundreds of men and women, old and young, all wearing full neoprene suits, matching blue hats and goggles watching the clock tick on. We could only be in one place, the start line of an official Ironman race.

For me, this was Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire on the 9th June 2019. The pros had almost completed their 1.9km swim, but we’d yet to reach the water. I’d slotted myself in at an ambitious (for me) 45-minute swim time and, after a long 40 minutes waiting, before I knew it myself and David (my brother-in-law) looked at each other, gave a grimaced smile, and we were off.

An Ironman 70.3 was the biggest personal challenge on my 30 before 30 list, which I wrote shortly after my 27th birthday. For those that don’t know, an Ironman 70.3 is exactly half of a full Ironman, consisting of a 1.9km swim, 90km cycle and a 21km run back-to-back in under 8.5 hours. 

I signed up for the race in September 2018, when June 2019 seemed ages away! I was already pretty active so decided to put off my training until 2019, that’s when it would all become real.

Training

As we entered 2019, I increased my running and cycling but I had a big 3 week holiday planned in February to New Zealand, so I knew that training would only properly kick in after this.

In New Zealand, I completed 2 runs, 0 cycles and 0 swims and the fear started to creep in. I realised I had no idea how to train for this kind of race other than to run, cycle and swim as much as I could! I looked to my brother for some tips and he recommended a book – Don Fink’s, Iron Fit, which looks specifically at training for a half Ironman. It contains tips for time optimisation, transitions, racing, nutrition, training plans and a whole lot more. I read the book like my bible and reviewed the 3 training plans in details; Competitive, Intermediate and Just in Time (which would train you to complete the race in just under the 8.5 hour cut off). After discussing with my brother (basically him just laughing when I’d said I was going to do just in time), I decided to attempt the Intermediate plan.

The training plan was fairly intense and required me to train 6 days a week. Despite the race being my primary focus during the period March to June, I was not going to miss out on socialising and tried hard to balance training and “doing it all”, often resulting in early mornings and a lot of tiredness.

Those who know me know how competitive I am, particularly with myself. My motivation was simple: I didn’t want to look back and think, ‘I could have made that cut off if I didn’t skip that session’. Therefore, I dragged myself out of bed morning after morning and got it done!

I managed to enjoy most of the training, but the only thing that felt like a chore was the long weekend morning cycles and brick runs. I didn’t long for a boozy night out, I longed for a lie-in and a brunch date! To minimise the dread, I’d try to arrange cycles with friends or arrange fun afternoon plans, so it didn’t seem like my day was wasted.

I didn’t exactly follow the training plan, but took it as a rough guide. My training consisted of:

  • Swimming: 1-2 swims per week (increased to 2 about 2 months before the race, 1 in open water where possible)
  • Cycling: Around 2 spin classes a week and 1-2 longer rides on my bike
  • Running: Around 3 runs per week (a mixture of long pacing runs, shorter faster runs and interval training)
  • Brick: After most sessions I would try to add another activity to imitate the series of activities in a triathlon. For example, if I finished a spin class I’d jump on the treadmill for a couple of km’s, if I went swimming, I’d run home. This training is invaluable for a triathlon!!!

I had 2 major low points in my training. Low point 1 was following a March swim in the local lido when the water temperate was 11 degrees.

I had planned to directly follow the swim with a cycle out to Richmond Park, however, when I exited the water, my hands were struggling to unzip my wetsuit and I was shaking as I pulled on a jacket over my soaking tri-suit. I got on my bike but quickly realised that I was likely to make myself very sick and gave up as I passed my house 2km’s later. I was stood on the doorstep for around 6 minutes trying to get my key in the door and turn it. I did not feel like Ironman material.

Low point number 2 was very close to race day and happened during a swim to run transition. My ankles often get stiff after swimming and moving straight into a run after pulling off my wetsuit caused an ungraceful fall and skid right outside the lido. The man passing helpfully looked over and said, “not a great start to a Friday morning is it?” This was obviously exactly what I needed to hear as I looked at the blood pouring from my hand, arm and leg and more annoyingly a smashed-up apple watch. Luckily, both incidents didn’t result in anything more dramatic than cutting my training session short, but I’ll definitely think twice at the lido next time.

I decided to stop drinking alcohol after Easter. This was about 6 weeks before race day, and with a couple of exceptions for special occasions (birthdays, hen dos, fancy meals) I made it. I realised then that even though I could get up and train after a few drinks, my training was definitely sub-optimal and ditching the booze is definitely a quick (although not always easy) win. My proudest moment was probably completing a 12km run (and tricking a friend to do it too – thanks Sinead) after a big night out at a hen do in Edinburgh.

I started tapering about 9 days before the race and gradually decreased my exercise. I dropped running first, followed by cycling and stuck with swimming until the end. The race weekend seemed to approach far too quickly and on the Saturday morning, my housemate and I made the drive up to Staffordshire in the torrential rain, not exactly filled with confidence by the weather.

Large triathlon events often require registration, bag drop and bike racking the day before, so we’d booked accommodation to be ready for race day. Staffordshire Ironman 70.3 is a split transition triathlon – this means transition 1 and 2 are in separate locations so it took us the entire day to get everything sorted.

We headed to registration where you get given your race numbers, tattoos and branded backpack (the real reason I was doing the race!) and we dropped into a race briefing to get information on the course and do’s and don’ts.

With around 2,600 people registering and completing the same activities, everything took time and it was around 5pm before we were all sorted with our bags dropped containing everything we’d need for switching from swim to bike and bike to run. We headed back for a pasta eating session and an early night.

Triathlons require you to be an early bird, or at least make peace with an early rise. We were up at around 4am trying to shovel in porridge and watching the teenagers of Staffordshire pour out of the nightclub next to our accommodation. We took an athlete bus out to Chasewater reservoir where we made the last checks on our bike, joined the inevitable port-a-loo queues and started to feel the excitement/fear.

The race

I coughed as I entered the water. It was cold, I was surrounded by people and I started to panic that I didn’t have the usual adjustment time. I tried to go straight into a front crawl and started to swallow water and panic. This happens quite often in triathlons as the swim start is quite chaotic (thankfully Ironman has decided to move away from mass swim starts!), but I knew that I just needed to calm myself and find my flow.

Luckily it came pretty quickly. The water was pleasant, the people thinned out and not only did I start to calm down, but I also started to enjoy it. I had a good swim and completed it in 43 minutes which was around 7 minutes faster than I’d hoped for based on my training. I felt a little dizzy going from horizontal to vertical as the fabulous volunteers helped me from the water, but looking up I spotted my brother and sister-in-law in the crowd and a huge smile spread across my face – I’d survived the swim, this was now totally possible!!

I had my wetsuit around my waist as I headed into transition 1 and managed to make a speedy transition time, even managing to take on a few bites of a bar as planned. I get very cold when cycling so even had time to pull on my arm sleeves (which were a recent purchase!).

Out on the bike, I felt good as the sun came up and the conditions were perfect. A couple of km into the bike the road surfaces changed and we were on farm roads with stones, potholes and tight bends and my heart sank – I was not prepared for this and despite having learned how to fix a puncture I really didn’t want to put my ability to the test.

I had to make one dismount around a very steep corner where other dismounting cyclists were blocking the way – I took to 2 legs rather than 2 wheels to finish the hill. Luckily, the poor road surface only lasted about 8km and the next 70km were a cyclist’s dream; closed, wide roads surrounded by fields. The last 10km of the course held all the climbing, but despite the lengthy climb and a very numb bum, I was feeling good.

My only worry was I wasn’t reaching my nutrition goals for what I’d hoped to eat on the bike – I tried to get more of my chosen snack down (Cliff Bars) but it was a struggle and I knew this could impact my run. Regardless, I knew my support team would be there for the run and I couldn’t wait to see all the family and friends that had made the trip to see me achieve this goal.

Rounding the final corner before transition I was greeted with a wall of noise “COME ON MARIA”. I couldn’t even see who was there as they passed by in a flash, but it didn’t matter. They were there, and I entered T2 with a HUGE smile on my face – 2 out of 3 done.

After another speedy transition, I started running and the legs felt heavy but ok and I knew they’d quickly adjust. I spotted my support crew again and could see all their beaming faces this time and even spotted my sign “Maria you’re unBAILEYevable” (kudos to Claire Donnelly for the creativity).

The run was 3 laps of the town and 2 out of the town up to Stafford Castle. I was feeling good and had a good pace as I passed through the town and headed up to the castle. The organisers had added the castle for the first time this year, which was a cruel decision.

Getting up to the castle is a steep incline on an uneven surface which everyone was walking up, and the trip back down made my legs spasm. The second lap felt long, but on my way back down after the castle, I knew the finish line was so close. I paced myself against another athlete and stayed with her until the end. The chit-chat was a welcome distraction and I passed through town with a smile firmly in place.

The arrow as you approach the finish line points left for “laps” and right for “finish line” – this is an awful willpower test early in the race but such an amazing feeling on your last lap. I took the right turn and realised no one was around me – I had the carpet to myself. I saw my friends and family screaming up ahead and as I hit the Ironman carpet the beat of “We Will Rock You” started to sound.

I felt so emotional as the commentator shouted “Look at this smile, everyone give her a cheer” and I crossed the finish line in 6 hours 19 minutes, smashing the 8.5 time limit and my own secret goal of 7.5 hours. That feeling alone made all the training worth it.

My top tips for training:

  • Follow a plan. Even if you adapt it to suit you, just have some sort of structure to your training
  • Ditch the ad-hoc beers and save drinking for special occasions. It makes the world of difference
  • Train with friends where possible
  • Make sure you have time off and appreciate it
  • Train with the nutrition you’ll use on race day
  • Don’t underestimate the feeling of putting all the exercises back-to-back so make sure you imitate this in your training
  • Don’t drop strength training. I did this as I didn’t think I could fit everything in and regretted it when an old knee pain returned

My tips for race prep and race day:

  • Write a list of things you’ll need
  • Pack your transition bags before you get to the transition point so you’re not rushing and take photos of the contents so you can avoid any late-night panics that you left anything out
  • SMILE, everyone has told me that I was the happiest person in the race and it makes the race photos so much nicer
  • Take on the majority of your nutrition on the bike, it’s far easier than trying to do it on the run
  • Ensure your water bottles are filled before you drop them in transition (I’d assumed there would be a water supply and there wasn’t)
  • Take a bottle of water with you to the swim start (I hadn’t done this and was so thirsty)
  • Learn to fix a puncture (I didn’t need to be the peace of mind was great)

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