How I completed an Ironman Distance Triathlon

Sunday 27th July 2014, that was the date engraved on my mind for many a month, as it was the date I was to compete in The Outlaw Triathlon in Nottingham. It all came about in one of those casual conversations with friends and before I knew it the seeds were sown.

The past 10 years has seen me constantly take on new challenges which has seen me go from only being able to run 1 mile to gradually push and challenge myself to increase my targets month after month, year after year. I went from 1 mile to 2 miles, to 5K, to 5 miles, to 10K, to Half Marathons and then to a Marathon. Then in July 2012 I did my first triathlon, the Jenson Button Trust Triathlon at Luton Hoo and loved it so much I knew I wanted more of this new fun.

However, if I was going to more triathlons I would need to get a bit more serious, no more breast stroke and no more mountain bike. It was so funny at the Jenson Button Tri, as I was on a hand-me-down mountain bike given to me by my wife’s ex-boyfriend. When I was in transition this boy walked past with his Dad and pointed at my bike and said “Look Dad, how can anyone compete with tyres like that!”

In the autumn of 2012 I set myself a triathlon goal of doing an Olympic distance triathlon at Windsor in June 2013. After lots of training, a new bike and a few practice triathlons I managed to train for the tri and somehow I completed it. I then entered another Olympic tri at Dorney which went well and so instead of waiting another year, whilst I was on a roll; I decided to slot in a half distance Ironman in August 2013, the Cotswold 113 triathlon.

It was after this half that I thought that’s about the limit no more, my body won’t step up anymore. Well that was my state of mind until a practice cycle around the Reading Triathlon course with Simon Brimacombe in August 2013, when we talked about entering the Outlaw Triathlon. At first I thought no, no way; listen to your body, but then that buzz, excitement, passion and desire to challenge myself kicked in and I knew I’d be logging on at 9am the next morning, to snap up an Outlaw place.

So that was it I had a new target and somehow I needed to get my fat bulk through a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile marathon to finish with. All that and also inside a 17 hour cut-off. Easy !!!

Training would need to start today August 2013.

So what was my starting point?

I did my half distance in the Cotswold 113 in 6hrs 55 mins. My swimming was a poor 57 mins and I was cramping badly through it and then onto the bike which took 3hrs 11mins and a big battle with cramp and then a half marathon in a good 2hrs 33 mins.

I was about 15 stone which was good considering at my heaviest I’d been 18 stone 10 and had gone on a low carb diet in June 2012 which saw me get down to 15 stone. I still felt there was room for improvement here though and to carry such weight for so long on the bike and run would be challenging and hard.

My opening position was to break down the ironman into the 3 disciplines and then break those down into smaller more manageable pieces.

Swimming was my biggest worry and is a frustrating technical sport that I struggle to get to grips with. In August 2012 I had realised that after swimming only breast stroke for 25 years on holiday, I could only swim 2 lengths front crawl, without being out of breath. My solution here was to reach out to friends for advice and was soon put in touch with a tri coach, Jo Lewis, who was also a Reading Roadrunner.

After a few months of fortnightly hour long lessons and some early morning practice swims I had gained enough fitness and technical ability to swim 750m. I then built up my distance month after month, till I was able to complete the half ironman in August 2013 which was 1.2 miles.

So my plan here was to continue to train with Jo and in my own time.

From a bike point of view we were just coming to the end of the season and soon I was no longer going to be competing in triathlons until 2014 or able to cycle to work on a Friday, as the nights and cold were drawing in and I wasn’t going to cycle in the dark or cold. So cycling was to be parked for the winter.

Running, I was happy with that, as I’d come from a running background. My only fear was that I had still not completed a marathon comfortably running all the way and without disaster, however I had already booked into Bournemouth Oct 2013 and Brighton April 2014 and felt confident this would give me a chance to conquer my marathon hang ups. Then my only concern would be if it was hot on the day as in 2013 the Outlaw was on the hottest day of the year with 30+C temperatures.

Around this time I also did a great thing which would prove to be a master stroke, which was to join Tri2O Triathlon Club. Having been a Reading Roadrunner for a few years, I’d learnt the importance of being part of a team or club. Clubs offer, coaching, feedback, friendship, support, advice, organised events, competition, sense of belonging, teammates to be a friendly face on the morning of a race and support during the race.

Having joined Tri2O, I initially took advantage of their Friday morning coached swimming sessions; which proved to be vital in progressing my swimming. What I learnt was that getting feedback, ideas and an exchange of knowledge was integral to my progress. At Tri2O I was able to work with a number of different coaches and I learnt something different of each one. It was also good to have another commitment to encourage myself to train, as I’m not the greatest trainer in the world. However getting up at 5am on a Friday morning to get to Bradfield college for 6am, wasn’t easy but you felt great and like the cat that got the cream; as you finished a session at 7am.

I was soon to learn that the life of a triathlete was an unsociable one and to succeed would mean early starts and fitting training around work and family.

I also knew that to succeed would also require preventative maintenance and so I commenced regular visits to the wonderful Liz Briggs, a local sports remedial therapist; for lots of stretching and massage. I also found I needed to stretch whenever possible in the evenings, to maintain healthy muscles and prevent injury.

October 2013 – the Bournemouth Marathon. A good marathon and a new PB 5hrs 12mins, but still not quite as good as I’d hoped for; as I’d struggled in the 25C heat on the day and slowed up at 23 miles because I felt feint.

Following Bournemouth, I then calmed down a little; rested the body and got on with my first love of match fishing for 3 months with just a few gentle runs and Friday morning swims.

Wednesday Jan 1st 2014 – I got up early and ran parkrun. 31 mins was my time and I started the year, weight 15st 7lbs.

Friday 3rd Jan 2014 – a life changing moment, having frequently suffered from cramp and twitching calf muscles I did some more googling and suddenly hit upon a website that advised me that I had many symptoms of motor neurone disease (MND). A disease that can be hereditary and had ruthlessly taken my mums life 10 years previously. This sent my wife and I into a spin and suddenly I thought I’d not live to see the end of the year, let along run marathons and compete in an ironman!

For the next few weeks my life was in turmoil until I managed to use my private healthcare to get my condition diagnosed and was so relieved to learn I didn’t have MND, instead I had a non life threatening disease called Cramp Fasciculation Syndrome.

However, this would still present significant challenges as I was prone to cramp when competing. Mentally it was also challenging and after having had such a successful 2013, I was finding it hard to emulate the successes of the previous year when I broke many PB’s. I’d also put on some weight which wasn’t helping.

At the end of January I gained promotion at work and so I knew it was going to be a really busy year, but I knew the only way I’d get through it, was to work hard at work and use sport as my therapeutic release and stress reliever. Work and Ironman training would need to fit together and go hand in hand.

One of the benefits of a mild winter was that I was able to get out on the bike once a week from January and managed to keep some fitness ticking over. I’d discovered a 17 mile loop from home through Shinfield, Arbofield and Winnersh which gave me some good bike time.

However, in March 2014 I decided that if I was serious about this challenge I was going to need to find additional ways to buy some time during my Ironman to get in under 17 hours. I decided I needed a new bike, one that had a larger frame and was lighter, ideally with a full carbon frame. Still not knowing enough about bikes I reached out to friends and teammates for their input, I researched the web, went to a few shops to get my leg over a few bikes and then trawled the internet for a good deal. I settled on a Felt Z4 and spent my annual bonus on this. I was also able to sell my Felt F95 bike through eBay which helped to mitigate the expense a bit.

However, after this outlay, cycling was not plain sailing as I was suffering from back and knee pain on my new bike. Time for a bike fit ! At over £100 I couldn’t understand how someone could justify tweaking ones saddle and handlebars to make a difference to how you cycle. Again though, after listening to my friends advice, I booked myself into Adam White for a bike fit.

It was money well spent, as for a couple of hours my body was assessed, videoed and cycling posture analysed. Adam then adjusted my bike shoe fit, my saddle and my handle bar position and gave me specific exercises to do, to correct posture issues; such as my knees coming out when I cycle. If I was going to spend 7 hours on a bike I was going to need to be comfortable, stable and efficient in my cycling. In hindsight it was definitely well worth it.

April 2014 – I ran the Brighton Marathon – time 5hrs 15mins. A big disappointment. I’d been keen to break the sub 5hr, but had been dogged with cramp from 14 miles. Even so I got to 22 miles in 4 hours and thought the sub 5 was in the bag. It was then that the cramp really struck and my left leg locked up. From then on in, it was a fight all the way with cramp and I limped the rest of the way home.

More importantly I wondered how I would get through an ironman with cramp fasciculation syndrome, when I couldn’t even get through a marathon on it’s own. Confidence was low at this point and it didn’t help when my one of my brothers, my father and most of my family were questioning my ability to do the ironman and wondered if I’d come though it alive!

I took a break and had a week in Lanzarote and pigged out with all inclusive and had a good old drink, the first in ages 🙂

It’s funny as this seemed to be the turning point, as I returned home on the Thursday before Easter feeling rested, recharged and ready to go.

I awoke early the next day and cycled to Maidenhead for the Easter 10 mile run on Good Friday. I wasn’t expecting much after a week of indulgence in Lanzarote, but bizarrely after starting slowly I went on to record a 10 mile PB of 1 hr 35 mins. This seemed to give me new hope.

The following weekend saw me travel to Bolton and Nottingham to cycle the Ironman UK course on the Saturday, followed by the Outlaw course on the Sunday. It was really useful as I was part of a great group of 7 other lads all more experienced at cycling than me and some also training for ironmans.

I was able to benchmark my training against theirs and received some useful feedback on my cycling. I realised I was behind them in my training and learnt that I needed to focus on cycling more, as in the ironman that is the discipline you spend the most time doing.

I decided that concentrating on my cycling between now and race day could save me half an hour in time and make me stronger coming off the bike into the run, whereas my swimming was going nowhere and time spent here training, may only save me 2 minutes. I also learnt that my knees came out too much when I cycle and that my cadence was too slow. These two technique issues were probably causing the pain in my right knee, that I continued to get.

So I made up my mind I’d concentrate more on my cycling between now and race day, with swimming taking secondary importance. I decided in my head I could probably get through the swim and beat the cut-off with my current stoke and then try and make some time up on the bike; in order to make the bike cut-off. As for running I decided I wouldn’t train much here, as my running experience would hopefully get me through the day and besides even if my running was in a position of strength before race day, who knows what I’d have left on the day; after the swim and bike.

So we moved into May and the lakes opened up for swimming and the triathlon season commenced.

However, a nagging doubt in my head and a passion to get under 5hrs in a marathon saw me defer my entry to the Hart triathlon and instead on May Day bank holiday, I ran the Milton Keynes marathon. A good start saw me complete the half in 2hrs 18mins but then at 14 miles I felt sick in the heat and my race was run, eventually finishing in 5 hrs 37 mins. However I learnt from it and it reminded how to get through a race when things don’t go to plan and the body hurts.

So into the lakes for the first few open water swims of the year and it was tough. It was cold and I couldn’t get any rhythm. I then did a sprint triathlon at Dorney and my swim was poor, cycle good and struggled in the run, as I think I’d overdone it on the bike. Blimey doing a sprint again was tough enough let alone doing an Ironman.

After struggling at Dorney I felt the need to return a few days later for an evening sprint, as the following weekend saw me at Hyde Park with an Olympic distance tri to do. Wednesday was much better and I put right everything that went wrong on the previous weekend.

On the Saturday it was off to Hyde Park where I had a confidence boosting 1500m swim and a good bike and run. I’d turned the corner. It was a good job as the tris were now coming thick and fast. The next weekend was Blenheim. This was a bit of a struggle as the race was in torrential rain to begin with and this dampened my spirit and my head wasn’t really in the right place.

Then it was off to Windsor and an Olympic distance tri. The swim was tough but I managed to beat the currents and I ended up smashing last years triathlon time by 33 minutes. Things were looking up 🙂

More tri’s followed including an Olympic on the coast at Seaford in tough conditions. All the time I was starting to get more comfortable with my swimming and the bike was going quite well with less pain in the knee.

I then had a bit of space in the calendar and so I decided to look for bike rides to do as this was the area I wanted to improve. Linking up with my Tri2O teammates I embarked on the “fish and chip ride” from Shinfield to Hayling Island. Despite a few stops on route and a puncture, I’d got 110 miles in my legs and new cycling belief.

I quickly found a 102 mile wiggle sportive for the next weekend, around the hilly chilterns. This was brilliant as I battled up 5 tough hills and through treacherous wind and rain. Now I knew I could do the bike.

Meanwhile, it was time to step up the swimming. I’d decided that as I was no longer playing football on a Thursday evening and that Thursday night would be Open Water Swimming night. Although as it turned out, I wasn’t able to escape from work early enough on many Thursdays so I had to react to this and started going to Bray before work on a Tuesday morning. Nevertheless I managed one Thursday evening at Tri2O, when I stepped up to 3 laps – 2250 metres. It was tough and I had a bit of cramp but I had done it 🙂

I then decided that the following Tuesday which was my birthday and as I’d got the day booked off from work, I’d go to Bray lake for 6:30 am; to try and swim 5 laps = 2.3 miles. I went and I did it. A great birthday present and another confidence boosting lift, although I was cramping a bit during the swim. I realised though in hindsight I’d had no fuel before the swim. Nevertheless I felt great.

I suddenly believed I could do the swim and I knew I could do the bike. I felt pretty good about the run too, but with just a nagging doubt about the weather being too hot on the day.

I then went on to have another swim at Bray the following week before work and again knocked out 2.3 miles in 1 hr 33 mins. Brilliant!!! This time I didn’t cramp as I’d had a gel and salty drink beforehand.

By now it was July and the Outlaw was getting close. It was time to pick my final events and practices before tapering for the Outlaw. I’d decided that I’d taper for two weeks before the event with just a few gentle jogs and small swims before the big day. So two weeks out I decided my last weekend would see me compete in the Wokingham Triathlon and the following day an 88 mile Evans Ride it, sportive.

The weekend went well and training was complete. It was time to rest. I felt good as I knew I could do the swim, I knew I could do the bike and I hoped I’d leave myself enough time to jog/walk the marathon. I generally felt confident and strong and in a rich vein of form. I’d seemed to have got the better of my Cramp Fasciculation Syndrome too, with a few dietary changes, reintroduction of added salt and overdosing on electrolytes before and during races. Deep tissue massage of the calves before big races also seemed to help too.

During the weeks through July I decided to also try and lose some weight which was fluctuating around the 15 st 10/11 mark. By doing a couple of protein shakes a day for a couple of days a week I was able to get down to 15 st 2 lbs by race day. This made me feel leaner and meaner !

In the final week before the Outlaw I finished my training on the Thursday with a 2 mile gentle run at lunchtime with my friend Sian, followed by an evening 1600m swim at the Tri2O swim centre with Jamie. It was then off to see Liz for a sports massage.

On the Friday evening after work I packed. As well as my Triathlon kit, I also needed my tent and camping kit as I was camping for 2 nights. This could prove to be challenging having not camped for a couple of years.

Saturday morning came and I loaded the car and said goodbye to the family. It was nice as just before leaving at 8:30, I received a txt from Katherine advising that my friends Adam and Vicky, had saved us some space at the camp site, so that all of us, (Kenny and David also) were able to pitch our tents together.

At about 11am I arrived at Holme Pierpoint and was met by Katherine at the camp site. Katherine was instrumental in helping me pitch my tent, before I went off to register and attend the race briefing. The temperature was close to 30C and boiling down by the lake. We were praying for a cooler day and chance of rain, the following day.

It was then back to the car to prepare my kit and bike. There was a bag for pre and post race kit, bike kit and run kit. I then had to choose between race wheels with tubular tyres or normal wheels. My preference was to be my race wheels, which are 82mm rimmed carbon wheels. It was a bit of a risk as I seemed to have a bit of a slow puncture in my back wheel and if I got a puncture, the tubular tyres would be harder to change and fix during the race.

With everything racked and bags deposited, it was back to the tent for pasta with the team.

At 9pm we went to bed to try and get some sleep before planning to get up at 4am. As we settled into out sleeping bags the weather turned, with wind and rain pushing through. At the same time we were blessed with loud music coming from a nearby club. As a result of wind, rain, music and nerves, I think I managed only an hours sleep at best.

Before I knew it, my phoned rang out to the tune of One Step Beyond, a Madness Classic and the name of the Outlaw marketing company. It must have been 4am, time for some quick breakfast of porridge, coffee, banana and cereal bar, followed by the all important pre-race poo !!!

I then grabbed my track pump and pottered down to transition to fully inflate my tyres to 120 psi, after keeping them at 60 psi the day before, to prevent them exploding in the heat.

It was then back to the tent drop the track pump off, and grab my wetsuit and pre and post race kit bag. Off I trundled to the transition changing tent, to get my wetsuit on and deposit my bag. Before I knew it, it was 5:50am and time to get into the lake. As we waited for the off, the sun came up from behind the buildings at the end of the rowing lake.

6am and the hooter sounded, there was a huge cheer then if was time to start. I started in bay 2 at the back, hoping to avoid the faster swimmers and the washing machine effect. However, throughout the swim I was to constantly collide with other swimmers as over 1000 of us made our way splashing up the weedy lake. My plan had been to follow the buoys along the lake, but in all the chaos in the lake; it was impossible to find and get across to them, so instead I tried to swim approx 10 metres from the bank, all the way along the lake. The swim felt like it went on forever, but I just kept plugging away and an 1hr 34 mins later I was being man handled by an army bloke, out of the lake. He said mind the ledge and then promptly pulled me into it, which was very painful and cut me badly.

No time to lick my wounds, it was time to bag up the wetsuit and don my cycling kit. 10 minutes later and I was on my bike. All I could think of was, would my slow puncture last the race.

I started well and at the second feed station after 32 miles I was averaging 17.9 mph. As I slowed to switch bottles I noticed a track pump. I decided to stop and check the air pressure in my rear tyre. Panic then set in, as I couldn’t work the track pump and all the time my tyre was deflating more. A couple of helpers then came to my rescue and between the three of us we managed to inflate it. I then took the opportunity have a wee before setting back off on the bike.

The bike then went well to about 60 miles before I started to cramp. I kept the fluids up and tried to massage the calf a bit and by 80 miles the cramping had subsided.

The next 20 miles went well before a struggle in the last 12 miles as my right foot became really hot and swollen I couldn’t put any pressure on the foot. I tried to loosen my shoe a bit but this didn’t help much. I just rode through the pain till I reached Holme Pierpoint once more. It cost me a few minutes but thankfully I was still on track. The ride had taken me 7hrs 8 mins.

As I jumped off my bike I immediately took my shoes off and ran back to transition in my socks hoping that the Tarmac would cool my feet down a bit and reduce the swelling.

I changed to my running kit and then got sun creamed up by this lovely lady who was about 4 ft tall. She was so funny she said “don’t bend down, I’ll climb you” and she did. As I exited transition by now I knew I could complete the triathlon and was beaming from ear to ear. The time was 15:03 and my prediction for starting the run was 15:00, so I was perfectly on track and had been going just over 9 hrs. This meant that even if I walked the marathon which I didn’t plan to do, I’d make the 17 hr cut-off.

As I set off on the run it was quite warm and sunny, about 25C. I managed a reasonable pace and managed to run the first 10 miles before I struggled a bit in the heat. It then became a routine of making it a mile and quarter to the next feed station by running a bit and walking a bit. There I would have a cup of zero, pour two cups of water over myself before having, gels if necessary and half bananas and crisps.

As I got to about 17 miles it got a bit cooler and I decided to try and go for a sub 15 hour triathlon and I also wanted to stay in front of my friend David who I was about 30 mins in front of, but he’s a faster runner. I then picked up my feet and run most of the last 9 miles home, albeit a slow plod which was not much faster than walking pace. One of the benefits of the course though, was much if it had a grass verge next to it and many of us competitors benefitted from running on the grass, to lessen the impact on our knees and bodies.

Upon 15 hrs 24 mins I turned into the finishing straight, high-fived my support team and raised my arms in triumph, bang on 15 hrs 25 mins I crossed the finish line. My work was done !!! What a great feeling !!!

Having basked in glory for a few moments I received my medal a t-shirt and a pint if beer. It was then off to the finishers tent for a chilli and rice and a chat with Katherine. After my grub I had a post race massage and a shower. These were a nice touch, after a long race.

It was then time to collect the bike and head back to the tent for champagne with the team and reflect on a fantastic day. It was interesting when I picked my bike up that my back tyre was flat and so I felt really lucky I’d managed to complete the 112 miles without it going down !!!

I then tried to sleep but alas my legs and body were buzzing and so I had another night with little or no sleep, which made the drive home on the Monday scary, from being so tired, but I made it !!!

It was really strange but the triathlon was kind of easy. Over the years I’ve had some great races and some horrific ones, but this went like clockwork. Yes I’d like to have run the whole marathon, but this time it was about getting round, which I did.

I think the preparation paid off on the day. I was full of confidence and I knew I could do it. Leading up to the race I’d conquered the swim and bike and thankfully on race day the temperature dropped a bit during the run, which was very welcome and meant I could get through the run.

There were tricky moments and times when I needed to dig deep, don’t get me wrong; but I knew what I needed to do, as I’ve been through those moments before and so I just got my head down and got on with it. There was no way I was going to fail.

What did I learn:-

Always believe you can do it, decide you’re going to do it and don’t question if you can do it. Just get on and do it.

Taking part in events is a much easier way to train. You tend to prepare mentally better for an event, fuel better and approach it properly.

Train with friends, learn from friends, ask questions and pick and train with specialists in each discipline. Everyone has different tips to offer and you must use these wisely.

Do what suits you not others. Know how your body behaves and what works for you.

Listen to feedback and train with different coaches, you’ll learn something new off each one.

Monitor performance. I bought a Garmin 910xt so I could analyse feedback on all disciplines. By looking at results you’ll know what works and what doesn’t and when things improve the confidence boost is fantastic.

Be as light as possible. There’s no point in buying the lightest bike if you’re a porker.

Break down your goal, training and race into small manageable, achievable pieces.

Maintenance is important, stretching and massage.

A bike fit.

Concentrate on the bike.

Plan ahead, book events, make training plans, think about fuelling leading up to the race, during and after the race.

Don’t change anything on the day, stick to tried and tested methods.

Have a support crew and friends to share the experience with and help you through it.

Watch the previous years footage to learn more about the race and gain knowledge.

Train around work and when others are in bed.

Analyse your technique throughout the race, make corrections and understand what is going well or badly.

When you are struggling try to speed up rather than trying to maintain a constant speed, sometimes this can get you back on track and give you a lift.

Anyone can do something like this, I used to be the big fat 18 stone kid, who couldn’t run more than mile; but with a little desire and ability to rise to a challenge I have achieved a lot. If you think you can, you probably can. If you think you can’t, you probably can’t.

Above all you need others to get you through the challenge, you can’t do it on your own. Learn from others, feed off them, share good times; help each other through the bad times and have fun!!!


About Justin Watkins -

I am a sports coach who specialises in helping people start their fitness /sporting journey and making it happen. I coach, personal training, running, triathlon, open water swimming, angling and cycling.
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