Lanzarote- the home of the permanent headwind, sun-baked hills and reputedly the hardest Ironman in the world. For those not in the know, an Ironman is a long-distance triathlon: 2.4 miles open water swimming, 112 miles biking, then a marathon- all to start at 7am and finish before midnight. Add in 20mph winds, steep hills and 36C heat and you’ve got the Lanzarote Ironman.
August 2016, I began to think about having a go at another Ironman. After Wales in 2013 I’d laid off the training to concentrate on being a vet and do my share looking after two very active toddlers. Life was becoming easier as the boys were growing up, so naturally I began to think of ways to make it more difficult again. Training takes up large chunks of time, but Ange agreed to another Ironman outing on the condition that we went somewhere hot and sunny. Lanzarote was chosen and booked.
Last time round I organised my own training around the Don Fink 30 week plan. It worked well but this time I wanted more support and someone to do the planning and feedback for me. I signed up with coach Brian Butler at Natural Ability and we got started on his plan.
Ange, the boys, my parents and I flew out to Lanzarote on the Wednesday before the race. Having had a lost bike box earlier in the year I was more relieved than a rugby coach tour at a service station when the bike box rolled out of baggage handling. We’d recce’d the island a couple of months earlier, so got settled into the apartment for a couple of days rest immediately.
Or so I thought. I’d forgotten the amount of pre-race prep that needs to happen. Build and check the bike, register for the race at Club La Santa on the other side of the island, put kit into transition bags, drop bike/bags into transition- checking and rechecking to make sure every detail has been covered; salt tablets, energy gels, defog goggles, chamois cream etc. etc. And all the while trying to stop inquisitive little hands from depacking the stuff I’d already checked and squirrelled away.
Race morning Sat 20th May I woke up to a barrage of alarms at 3.30am, had a bowl of porridge and carried my special needs and street clothes bags the mile to the transition area. Re-inflate the tyres I’d let down the day before (the heat of the sun might have caused problems otherwise- another detail!), chat to some lads from Manchester, and a quick chat and a kiss from Ange at 6am and I was ready. I moved down to the beach and got the wetsuit on.
I was still feeling calm but the pressure was building. 1600 athletes were moving towards the apex of months, if not years, of training. I had a quick dip in the sea to acclimatise and warm up, then the whistles went to drag us into the start pen.
Packed like sardines between railings, we lined up in a column 20 abreast and 80 rows deep. Lanzarote is infamous for its swim start- at 7am the horn went and 1600 swimmers pounded down the beach and into the surf. The swim is a two lap course running anticlockwise around 4 buoys. The first 150 yards to the first buoy was horrendous. My goggles were knocked off three times, I was kicked in the face a couple of times and not a single stroke went by without either thumping someone or being thumped. All the time spent in the pool honing a decent swim technique descended into a melee of windmilling arms and thrashing legs. Round the first buoy (a slight bend to the left), and on to the second.
The second buoy is a ninety-degree turn to the left; the swimmers are still packed tightly and the majority of the pack were heading for the inside line. Imagine 1600 people trying to get out of a theatre through a door 6 feet wide, now tell them it’s a race and imagine the crush at the door. Now imagine it 200 metres out to sea and you got some idea of just how brutal that turn is. One lad completely flipped and decided to head for the safety of the buoy by swimming 20 yards across the pack of swimmers. Within seconds he was mown down under water- it was like watching a rabbit cross a motorway.
To the third buoy is a long drag, and the pack began to stretch out. I started to find my pace and stroke, and began to get rid of the huge adrenaline dump from the start. There was another punch up at the third buoy, but less intense now the swim pack had dispersed. Round the 4th and there was a long drag back to the start beach. We had a quick Australian exit up the beach to the start, then back into the water to make the second lap. The sea in Lanzarote is beautifully clear, and on the first lap I’d spotted plenty of fish and even a ray, this lap I could see the detritus from so much effort- swim caps, nose clips and other paraphernalia were floating about waiting to be retrieved by divers. The kayaks and other boats were busy fishing swimmers out who just couldn’t manage it.
The cut-off time for the swim is 2h20, and I made it in 1h10. I later found out some swimmers were caught in a rip tide and were dragged along the coast away from the start. One chap who’d brought his family to Lanzarote and who’s endured months of training missed the cut off by 85 seconds after getting caught in the rip. To try mightily is to risk failing mightily.
I ran up the beach through the showers and into transition repeating the mantra “butt, cream, belt, salt, belt”- butt lubrication for the saddle, suncream, heart rate belt, salt capsules for the ride and number belt. I’d been looking forward to the ride and cleared transition pretty efficiently, only careful sun cream application slowing me down. I carried the shoes up to the bike the ran to the mount point managing to grab a kiss from Ange and the boys on the way.
The bike course is a one lap clockwise circuit of the island and I was feeling great. As we headed through the desolate landscape to El Golfo I was passing packs of competitors. Then we turned north and someone turned the wind and sun on. It’s hard to describe but wherever we went it felt like cycling into a hairdryer. No drafting allowed so we all suffered the same buffeting from the cross winds which gusted up to 30 mph. I looked at my time plan taped to the top tube and saw I was up on the plan by 12 minutes.
Then came the climbs to Haria and El Mirador. Not massively steep or long but the headwind and sun were a killer. The thermometer climbed and climbed to 34C. And here I found I’d made a big mistake- I was massively undergeared. I’m not a powerful cyclist, just a diesely one. Ask me to crank out 210W at 85 RPM for 6 hours and I’m your man. I’d been very generously lent a TT bike by Geoff Ingram which had performed well climbing in Spain the month earlier, but here the headwind meant I was cranking out nearly 300 watts at 40 RPM just to get up the hills. Rather than spinning, I was pushing heavy weights repeatedly with both legs for long periods of time. By the time the descent came my quads and feet were aching from the pressure. No rest on the 10 km descent from El Mirador either. The wind was gusting badly knocking us all from one side of the road to the other. Trying to navigate downhills at 40-50mph with sharp corners and a giant boot trying to kick you off the road was disastrous for some. The sirens and helicopters were unfortunately kept busy. It was at this point I decided to drop my average target power by 20W from 210W to try to keep some energy for the run.
The long drag back to Tahiche up the main road was long and dragging, and I looked forward to the infamous Nazaret track. So bumpy you need to check all your bits are still attached at the other end, the track was littered with water bottles, gels and bits of bike that had been shaken loose.
The drop in effort level was doing me good, and my plan of 1 gel every 20 minutes, and a salt capsule twice an hour was going well- no cramps or intestinal issues. At 700 ml of water an hour I felt bloated and had to pee twice – next time I could cut down on that a little.
The yelling coming back into Puerto del Carmen told me Ange had spotted me- she’d been tracking me and was worried to see that I was falling behind on my timetable; she didn’t know whether it was a mechanical issue or I’d had an accident until she saw me. At 6h16 I was about 15 minutes behind where I wanted to be.
I handed the back over to the really brilliant volunteers, got more suncream on, changed socks and into trainers and I was off on the marathon. I grabbed another kiss off Ange 500m into the run and tried to settle into a rhythm.
Then the wheels fell off. Big time. At a mile into the run I had to stop. My leg muscles were screaming and it was all I could do to keep walking. The forbidden thought took hold- there was no way I could run this marathon. But then a piece of advice I’ll treasure forever came back to me- whatever you do just keep going forward. I promised to walk for a hundred paces then reassess. At 100 I told myself to walk another 100. Any hope of beating my Wales time was now evaporating, and just finishing the race was taking priority. It’s hard to stay in the game when your dreams are taking a battering but whatever I was going to do, I was going to keep moving forward.
The heat was incredible- shop thermometers were reading a shade temperature of 36C, and the pavement temperature was more like 40C. But little by little I started to build a bit of energy back up in my legs. I started to run 100, walk 100; then I tried to run 200, walk 100. 7 miles in I was managing to run 300 paces before having to break to walk for a hundred. I walked the aid stations, promising myself I wouldn’t touch the Coke or Red Bull until I was half was through. The run was a 9 mile slog out to Arrecife along the coast, then back to the start in Puerto del Carmen, cruelly close to the finish line before turning back up the coast again for another 3 miles then a final turn back down the course to the finish chute. At 13 miles in it all felt like a very long way, and even sponges of cold water, cups of water thrown over me and ice in my running cap couldn’t help me not feel like I was melting. Back in PdC I saw my parents who cheered me along. I managed to crank up the pace again slightly, made the cruel turn away from the finish and headed back up the hill where I’d just come. 3 miles later I turned 180 at the airport and made the final leg back towards the finish. My leg muscles felt like they were full of Deep Heat, and had all the flexibility of a dried out leather strap.
I kept counting 1 to 100 and joy of joys the finish line came into sight. It was an incredible feeling of elation crossing the finish. At 4h30 it was my worst marathon time by far, but my best marathon effort. I’d missed my target time of sub 12h, but who cared? Not me. I left everything out on a course that is feared and respected the world over. I couldn’t have done anymore, and I couldn’t have been happier. I was home. I was an Ironman. I was a Lanzarote Ironman.