“I could never do that!”
Have you ever experienced someone achieving a big, often physical, accomplishment and you find yourself saying “I could never do that!”? I bet you have. I used to say it all the time. Heck, I still do say it from time to time. It’s a frustratingly common form of self-degrading flattery. Some of us tend to base our ability on what we have done, not what we aspire to do. That’s comfortable, that’s safe. We like it there, pint in hand, cheering our friends on from the side-lines or, more often than not, via social media in the form of tiny blue thumbs. We give them some well-earned kudos whilst simultaneously feeling a tiny bit worse about the fact we did not achieve a “surprise personal best this weekend! #inspo”. More often than not, we are the cheerleader, not the one being cheered.
Even when you do get inspired and sign up to an event that will challenge you, don’t you find that those cheerleaders quickly take on a risk advisory role telling you that you’re “nuts!”, “very brave!”, or, worse still, genuinely asking whether “you really think that’s a good idea?”? Frankly, it’s a miracle that any of us make it to the startline of anything longer than a 10km race with all the well-intentioned scare-mongering that goes on. It takes some time and practice to hear all of this “advice” but not listen to it.
You should now be starting to understand why, when I had signed up to an Ironman 70.3 (or a “Half Ironman” in layman’s terms), I told no one for a few weeks. Not a soul. At the same time, I also signed up to a full Ironman. It took me a few more weeks to tell anyone I’d signed up to that monster; I already doubted myself, so I did not need the anxiety-inducing questions and worried facial expressions from everyone else.
But what even is an Ironman?
In case you’re unfamiliar with what an Ironman entails, it’s a triathlon involving the following disciplines and distances – 3.8km swim in open water, 180km cycle, and 42.2km (AKA a marathon) of death I MEAN running. The half Ironman is, as it sounds, half of that (it’s called the 70.3 because it’s 70.3 miles cumulatively). Even in isolation, each leg of either a half- or full Ironman is really quite far, so I’m not hugely keen on being reminded of that.
Also, I forgot to mention that I only like 1 out of the 3 legs of a triathlon – the cycling. I’m terrified of open water after a drowning incident when I was very small and I am one of the slowest runners in existence (I have data to prove it). So, why, I hear you ask, am I doing this?? I’ll get to that later…kind of… (Spoiler alert: there is no simple or obvious reason).
Before Sept 2017, I’d never run further than 10kms. I did a sprint triathlon in 2012, but panicked in the water and ended up having to do breast stroke. It wasn’t a great moment and I avoided open water swimming from that moment until just a few weeks ago.
On the weekend, I completed Taupō Ironman 70.3 and I am honestly so proud of myself because it is one of those things I used to see others complete and would think to myself “I could never do that!”.
I’m not writing about it to brag or feel smug (promise!), but to hopefully alter your perspective about your own fears and limitations in order to make you wonder what you could do if you just signed up and got to that metaphorical start line. I bet money on the fact you’ll pleasantly surprise yourself.
Below is a little write up about the Taupō Ironman 70.3 itself (in case you’re interested) and then a list of reasons for why I am constantly signed up to some masochistic challenge. I hope you find any/all of it reassuring at the least and inspiring at the most.
The run up (no pun intended)
My intentions were SO GOOD when I first signed up. I was terrified, but I was pumped and fantasising about the badass athlete I was about to chisel myself into. But, listen, life happened and I was not an optimal athlete. Far from it. I definitely did not train enough, work often got on top of my training plans, I kept finding myself on surprise nights out, and I got ill a couple of times.
By stark contrast, my flatmate bought all the gear, got a coach, joined a triathlon club, bought a whizzy bike, a fancy turbo trainer, grew obsessed with his Garmin data and lost 10kgs. He would come home and would attempt to cheer me on by asking “what exercise have you done today, Alice?”, which would make me more nervous because oftentimes I had only done a fraction of his efforts. I promptly requested he stop asking me that (he thought it was encouraging to ask, but it had the opposite effect on me). It became abundantly clear that we were attending two very different schools of Ironman.
So, I decided to pull my finger out and bought a whizzy bike, which I still feel like a total fraud for owning and am terrified of crashing it. I decided to lose weight (N.B. I did not adapt my diet or lifestyle accordingly, so did not lose sed weight). I did a marathon in October, which was harrowing and I really hurt my ankles (probably should have lost a kg or two, right?). I ran or cycled to work (9kms). They were baby steps, but they were steps in the right direction regardless.
All of a sudden, it was November and I needed to buy a wetsuit and a trisuit. These are designed to be tight-fitting and make the person wearing them all zoomy etc. Honestly, the suits felt perhaps a tad too tight and I resembled vacuum wrapped meat when I put them on, but I at least looked the part, which is the main thing, right?
I rented a car and drove to Taupō and arrived 5 hours prematurely for my hotel check in. I grew up with military parents, who drummed it into us that we should “rush to wait” for important occasions. This was no exception and I found myself filling the time by registering for the IM 70.3, eating, building my bike, and checking, double-checking and triple-checking everything at transition.
My buddy, Rebecca, arrived at a much more appropriate time from Wellington. Like me, she did not have aero bars on her bike and we both felt like complete newbs surrounded by pros. Trying not to worry about our blatant novice status, we walked into town with another friend (Abbie) to find a suitable restaurant in which to carb load for dinner. We settled on pizza – a fantastic choice – before heading back to our hotel for a hot tub session and an early night.
In the hot tub, we met Brazilian Cassiano. He was hoping to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships racing alongside us the next day. The race happened to fall on his wife’s birthday, which we were horrified by. Cassiano reassured us, however, that he and his wife had come up with a deal (read: ultimatum). The deal was as follows: If he managed to qualify for the World Championships whilst racing on her birthday, that’s fine, but he will have to give up getting drunk for life. The man loved Ironman so much that he accepted this alarmingly unjust deal without question.
Cassiano was 41 but looked about 28 and told us how Ironman had helped him change his previously smokey, boozy ways to become the lithe and speedy athlete he is today. We wished him well and took off to apply our race number tattoos (which Rebecca managed to hilariously mess up) and got to bed before the clock hit double digits.
The Day itself
All of a sudden it was 5am. Nerves hit me as I slid into my sexy sausage casing and tried to eat a cereal bar. Rebecca and I parked as close as we could to transition before doing our final checks, checking in our gear bag, and making our way down to the start line. All of a sudden, it was 6.30 and we found ourselves having to rush down to the start line because I was due to start at 6.41am. No time for a final wee as I had already squeezed myself into my final sausage casing for the swim.
Rebecca was due to start at 7.10, so I said my goodbyes and good luck and entered the herding pen where we were asked to self-seed according to how fast/slow we thought we would be. I went right to the back with the 45min+ group and bonded briefly with other nervous first timers over our various nightmares in the run up to the event and our favourite/least favourite legs of the tri.
All of a sudden I was up next and I could now clearly see the swim course. The long, looong swim course. My wetsuit seemed to contract around my neck. “GO GO GO!” shouted one of the volunteer organisers and off I awkwardly ran into the freshwater before belly flopping forward towards the first of many buoys.
Holy heck. It’s started. I’ve started. What am I doing? *KICK TO THE FACE*. Um, ow. The start was controlled, but still intimidating for little old me. I kicked and flailed around colliding with everyone and wasted precious energy doing my best impression of an apologetic Hugh Grant “Whoopsie daisy! Sorry!”. My words fell on deaf ears, as everyone around me cracked on and apologised for nothing. This is clearly something I’ll need to practise.
As reality hit me, I found myself panicking and struggling to catch clean breaths. Coughing and spluttering en route to the first buoy, I decided to roll over onto my back once I had cleared the corner to catch my breath and calm down. I looked up at the golden morning sky and reminded myself how lucky and privileged I was to be in this exact situation and lied to myself outloud “You love open water. You love open water. You love open water”. Conscious of the time I was wasting by star-fishing on my back, I decided to do backstroke and look up at the soothing clouds until I was able to breathe calmly. A few volunteers in kayaks asked me if I was OK and/or drowning, “I’m just a bit scared of water”, I gargled at them. Occasionally turning over to attempt front crawl, I realised I was veering spectacularly off course, which wasn’t ideal, but at least I was removed from the craziness and limbs. After what felt like an eternity (because it basically was), I finished the swim.
And so began a deceptively long, uphill run to transition (650metres). As I was on my back suctioning my wetsuit off my already surprisingly tired legs, I saw Rebecca in the next row picking up her bike. Jeezus. How is she already here? N.B. Rebecca started 30 mins after me. 30 whole minutes. Not to worry, I was still doing OK for time – I had taken some stickers and written ideal, less than ideal, and emergency timeframes to complete certain sections of the race by. If I was too slow, I’d be taken off the course by event organisers and would DNF (which stands for “Did Not Finish”).
The cycle was fun for the most part, but I struggled to eat enough. I had stuck gels and cereal bars to the top tube and only managed one cereal bar and a smidge of a gel. I also forgot to fill my water bottle, so had no water for the first 30kms. I didn’t go very hard initially, as I wanted to save my legs for the run. I had no power meter or garmin, so I was going by feel and I ended up going slower than I wanted to (lesson learnt for next time). The wheels started to metaphorically fall off in the last 20kms to 30kms when we hit a stonking great headwind in addition to seemingly never ending hills. As a result, the last 17kms took almost 1 hour! As I was struggling along, someone called “Wai Me” overtook me, which I read in a geordie accent as “Why Me?” and I said, under my breath, “I know, mate. I know”. It felt like the Ironman Gods were mocking me.
I was overtaken by people of all different shapes, ages, abilities, and nationalities. It was awesome to see the variety of people taking part. Some of my favourites were Angela, Charlotte, and Kaz (I think that was her name). Angela was constantly smiling and encouraging everyone. Charlotte’s trisuit was covered in fluro pineapples, which I was very envious of. Kaz had one arm and was a total badass with great chat. She told me that her arm was “a bit tired” from holding her up for 90kms on the bike.
We finally made it back into town and had a brief opportunity to relish some delicious downhill. As I approached transition for the last time, I saw just how many people had overtaken me; the run course was chocker and doing a really good impression of the M25.
The run course at Taupō is 3 laps of a 7km course. In order to make sure you run the right distance, you get given a wristband of a different colour each time you complete a lap. By the final lap, you would have a yellow, pink, and green wristband.
I popped on my old trainers and started to pound the pavement very slowly. I was feeling very hungry but also nauseous due to nerves and not eating enough on the cycle leg, but I just had to hold on for another 21kms and I’d be done. I picked up my first wristband and caught up with Charlotte, the lady with the awesome pineapple trisuit. She was in tears and limping somewhat. Worried she wouldn’t be able to run, as she had injured her foot, I did my best to cheer her up by explaining that we had more than enough time for her to walk the entire half marathon, if she needed to.
Entering the run course was where the real atmosphere began. Supporters lined up and down the esplanade calling out everyone’s names as they passed by. Volunteers appeared like angels every few kilometres handing out flat coke, water, electrolytes, and the occasional high five. I kept telling myself lies like “you love running…This is what you do…You’re flying…” even though I did not and was definitely was not going very fast at all.
I kept seeing Angela running around 4kms ahead of me – as she would start her second lap, I’d be half way through my first and so on. We kept calling out to each other to big each other up and cheer each other on. The last time I saw her, I was half way through my final lap and she was flying along towards the finish chute. “GO ON, ANGELA! ENJOY THAT FINISH LINE!“ I cheered.
There was another lady of an uncertain age that I was cheering on because she was absolutely blitzing it. I couldn’t believe her energy levels. I learnt later that she was just a Taupō resident making the most of the closed roads due to the race and she had not done the swim or the cycle beforehand. She was still running really fast though, so I regret nothing. Words of encouragement: sustained.
I’ve already mentioned that I’m not a fast runner; I was a few kms behind the rest of the pack. However, despite the wristbands, those cheering us on didn’t necessarily know how many laps we’d done or, more importantly, how many we had left. I had many people assuming I was near the finish saying “last lap! Nearly there!”, but then I showed them I only had 2 out of the 3 wristbands and they would grimace out of pity. It was quite amusing initially but the reality was, I still had quite a distance to go and I felt sub-optimal to put it mildly.
I had my eyes shut for the majority of the last few kilometres (there’s quite a bit of photographic evidence of this). I was just so tired. I literally heard someone from the sidelines saying “Aw, bless her heart; she can’t even keep her eyes open anymore”. I just wanted it all to end.
To tell you the whole truth, I really really needed to go to the bathroom for the duration of the final lap, but I was so worried I would run out of time (as there were cut off times for all three disciplines, which I was nearing because the swim took me so long) that I decided to…er…suck it up, clench my cheeks and get to the finish (sorry, Mother). It was super uncool, but I’m proud to say that disaster was averted because, before I knew it, I was plodding over a big blue sticker on the floor that said “20KM!”.
Holy heck! I was in the last kilometre and I was about to realise something I’ve been looking forward to conquering for ages. I started thinking about how under-prepared, nutty, brave, and happy I simultaneously felt in that moment. I had wanted to quit at the start when I saw the swim course, at one point in the cycle (during the gross headwind), and a handful of times during the run. But I didn’t. I’m not going to DNF. I’m going to finish.
My friend from Wellington, Rebecca, and some new Welly friends Abbie and Chloe were cheering me on as I approached the finish chute and I felt my throat tighten as I tried my hardest not to choke up and cry. I finished with about 20 minutes to go until the cut off time and I couldn’t help but break down as I crossed the line. I was tired but I was mainly just so relieved I had faced a fear, completed each stage in time, and finished this thing.
There are things in my past that I’ve not managed to finish and, I know it sounds silly, but it has taken a long time to get over those failures. The Transcontinental Race (I got an aggressive achilles injury around 5 days in), getting into the Army (I am rubbish at press ups), hiking the Te Araroa trail (I broke my foot), and even an infamous 10km rowing test (I vomited with around 10 strokes to go and was forced to DNF).
I could have decided to let those moments define me and not get back on the horse, but I healed and/or learnt lessons from the failures and moved on to a new challenge. I’ll be doing the same with this Ironman 70.3. I finished it, but I was nowhere near prepared enough and I know that I have a LOT of work to do if I’m to finish the full Ironman in March 2020.
Afterwards, Rebecca very kindly bought me a beer. As I sat in my now salt-encrusted sausage casing of a trisuit, I forgot, for a brief moment, that what had just taken place was not another Ironman-related dream/nightmare. I’d done it. I’d finished a bleedin’ half Ironman! I sipped the beer in the scorching sun but struggled to finish it, as I still felt very sick. Don’t worry though – I was back to normal within a few hours. Abbie, Chloe, and “Boring Tim” (it’s an in-joke) invited me and Rebecca to their campsite which had a Pool with a swim-up bar and a massive outdoor cinema that was screening Beauty and the Beast. We arrived at sundown, proudly showing off our ridiculous triathlon tan lines, and enjoyed a delicious picnic before crashing into bed shortly after. Such a perfect end to the day.
But what’s it all for?
My father often asks me “but what’s it all for?”. It’s a hard question to answer concisely and everyone has different reasons for taking on challenges like this.
However, I reckon these are the core themes that motivate me.
- Because I’ve failed other things before
- Because I signed up and put (rather a lot of) money down and I’m tight, so I know I need to turn up
- Because I have a saboteur that makes me feel I haven’t achieved anything unless I’ve achieved something massive
- Because I want to inspire others who might be intimidated by all the insta-ready, hyper-toned people. They do not represent everyone at the start or, more importantly, the finish line. I’m not fast. I’m nothing special. I’m not at “race weight”. I’m not sponsored. I don’t have a coach. I didn’t use tri-/aero bars. I don’t really like 2 out of 3 of the legs of a triathlon. I’m heavy and I am in no way a triathlon poster girl, but I managed it!
- Because why suck at one sport when I can suck at 3?! I think people care too much about “sucking” or being a novice at something. Here’s the thing – no one, apart from you, cares how fast or slow you are. Most people are just impressed that you did it full stop. I’m happy for my goal to be to finish healthy and happy; I’ll leave the record breaking to others.
- Finally – I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again – I do challenges like this because I can, so I believe I should. You never know what tomorrow may bring. I know people who have never been able to do sports due to physical limitations or who no longer have the ability to do what they used to do.
Ironman has been on my bucket list ever since I first heard about it, so Taupō 2020 Ironman is up next. Now to train hard and get to that start line again in March. Why? Because I reckon I can, so I will.
What about you?