With a good trial run of the long course triathlon distances over the tough terrain of Pembrokeshire, it wasn’t long until I put it all together to do in one go at Ironman Mallorca.
I’d set my sights on completing an Ironman before I completed my first marathon, looking at setting a goal so I’d be able to maintain motivation once I’d got the marathon goal out of the way. My first marathon was London back in 2009 and it took me until 2015 to get there! I was signed up for Ironman UK in 2012 , at the end of the summer after medical school so I’d have time to train after finals. But that was the year that a compulsory week of shadowing was introduced for junior doctors in the UK, so my work start date was moved forward a week…to the day after the race, making it physically impossible to get from Bolton to Croydon in time for work. It also didn’t seem a fantastic idea for me to be limping and broken on my first day on the wards as a qualified doctor, so I had to pull out.
In November 2014, a couple of months after my first ultramarathon, I was in Mallorca for a holiday with my parents and best friend. I’d started reading Chrissie Wellington’s autobiography on the plane on the journey there. For those who don’t know, Chrissie is the four time World Ironman Champion, undefeated at the ironman distance, and my hero. The next day I got an unexpected tax rebate paid into my bank account, and won a 10km race in Palma, the capital. It also just so happened to be the day that Ironman Mallorca entries opened. It all seemed to be a sign, and I couldn’t not enter could I? I later regaled Chrissie with this story when I met her at a cross country meet, and she seemed to agree I clearly had no choice in the matter!
For the uninitiated, Ironman is the most well known company to host long-distance triathlon races consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile cycle, and 26.2 mile marathon. I’ve got a few years of running experience now and run plenty of marathons, and my swimming isn’t bad, but I’ve always struggled with cycling. And the cycling leg is disproportionately long in triathlon. I’d say for the majority of triathletes, their strength is cycling and their swimming their weakness, so for me to be the opposite, I’m somewhat disadvantaged. I find with cycling that there are a number of barriers. I lack confidence and traffic around make me nervous, I feather the brakes on descents and I’m weak climbing the ascents. Cycling is time consuming, taking preparation to ensure your bike is roadworthy and your kit’s all together, and in London where I lived for a few years, it would take a long time to get out of the hubbub before there was clear road to pick up any speed and be able to do anything which could resemble training. But on returning from the Marathon Des Sables, I felt my running was covered and it was time to spend some time in the saddle.
My 2015 swimming was approximately 10 miles in total. This includes the 2.4 miles at the long course weekend, the 2.4 miles at Ironman Mallorca, and two half mile lake swims at a sprint triathlon and an aquathlon, plus a couple of days enjoying the sun at the lido. The swim at Ironman Mallorca is two out and back loops with an Australian exit (this involves exiting the water, running round a cone (or gigantic rock in the case of tenby) and running back in for the second loop. This gives the spectators a chance to spot their athletes, gives the athletes a breather and time to adjust their goggles, and also a sneaky glance ahead and back to see your position in the field. The water was warm. The pros weren’t allowed wetsuits, but apparently the temperature was right at the cut off so the age-groupers were given the option. I had hoped to go without, thinking it would save me some time in transition, and being a strong swimmer, a wetsuit banned swim would slow some of the weaker swimmers to hold them off slightly longer before they overtook me on the bike leg! I went with the general consensus though, and don’t think I saw anyone swimming without. In the start pen, I was close to the front based on my predicted time, and I was so nervous, questioning what on earth I was doing, listening to the people chatting around me about their goal bike times which seemed so fast and out of the realms of my imagination. My stomach was churning, and I was tearing up inside my goggles thinking about the long long day I had ahead of me, but emotional that I was finally here, realising a goal I’d held for so long. The swim went ok, but by no means my best. I struggled to find a rhythm, and the shallow waters had a strong smell of sulphur, while further out by the boats it smelt of petrol. On the plus side, the water was still and (perhaps with rose tinted memory) I don’t remember it being too rough and fighty with the other triathletes. I entered T1 in 1:14:05, 9th in my age group out of 24.
Transition in a race this size is long to accomodate the racks of bikes and kit for all the athletes. It was a reasonable distance to get from the swim exit to my bike kit bag and changing tent, and from there to my bike and out of transition. I decided to change completely swimming in a costume under my wetsuit into cycling gear with a proper chamois padding rather than racing in a trisuit. It was going to be a long time in the saddle and I wanted to be as comfortable as possible. I did it in 9:05 before heading out on the bike.
The bike course in Mallorca is a large sort of squished figure of 8, first heading south east and second north. There is approximately 1800 metres of climbing, and this is mostly concentrated into one climb of around 10km gradual plugging away starting at around kilometre 110. This suited me well. I always feel I’m not a strong climber, and worry with steep ascents that I will falter and fail and be so fatigued I’ll be unable to unclip my feet from the pedals, and fall off into the road. This sort of climb played to my strengths of determined graft and I managed to pick off several athletes on the way up. My friend Ludy also caught up with me on the climb and we rode together chatting for a bit. Later, I caught him again as he must have been making the most of the intervening aid station. After the climb, came a steep technical descent with twists and turns and switchbacks. I lost a lot of places here, with men whizzing past me while I nervously rode down on my brakes, taking the corners wide and slow. Following this I felt strong and again picked off some men on their fancy bikes, me on my hire bike on the flat straight ride back to Alcudia. I entered T2 after 7:21:35, 19th in my age group. I was absolutely delighted with my time, being over an hour faster than my time at this year’s Long Course Weekend, and two hours faster than the year before. Finding out my ranking afterwards and not being last was pretty cool too!
Again, a complete change of outfit, putting on my Skins compression shorts which had served me well around the Sahara desert, and my welsh dragon running vest. I was out and onto the run leg in 6:33.
The run is a 4 lap course around the town of Alcudia and along the promenade of the beach. There were still holiday makers sunbathing on the beach at the start and the course was lined with spectators shouting encouragement. I felt like an absolute rock star with people calling my name. I started out feeling great at around an 8 minute mile pace, and ran the first lap in a reasonable time devoid of aches or pains. Soon though, a great overwhelming fatigue hit. I didn’t feel any more sore in my muscles than if I was running a straight marathon, and I wasn’t feeling any more cardiovascularly or respiratorily deplete, but my energy was just zapped. And my stomach was sloshing with all the fluid I’d consumed. I started running about an hour earlier than I’d expected following my unexpectedly good bike leg, and so I was out in the heat of the day, where I’d expected to be starting the marathon with it slightly more dusky. I felt thirsty, yet so full of fluid I couldn’t take on any more. I was desperate for the loo but by the 2nd lap of the run, the portaloos were beyond disgusting and each time I saw a set in the distance, I’d feel relief only to be followed by increasing nausea after opening the doors and finding what lay behind. My run got slower and slower with lengthening walking intervals and shorter and shorter run sections. Each time I ran, I felt fine and would overtake tens of runners, but something would stop me dead and I’d trudge on zombie like. I found this so demoralising as running is my thing, and I’d always thought that if I could get through the bike before the cut off, I’d be able to bang out a marathon any day. But my body was failing me. It was world cup day with the England-Wales match on TV that evening, so my vest certainly attracted some comments and (friendly) abuse.
I finished the marathon in 5:16:30 with an almighty sprint finish and leap over the finish line ranking 17th in my age group. My heart felt like it was going to burst through my chest and I felt completely suffocated and unable to take in breath along that red carpet. But hearing those words “Laura Gush, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” was just everything. I felt incredible, and had accomplished something amazing. During the run I’d been thinking “never again, and this time I mean it”, but the second I was finished I knew I’d be back.
My overall time was 14 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds, ranking 17/24 in my age group, 178/ 222 women and 1622/1821 overall. Not the sort of rankings I’m used to in running, but I was please. I’m thinking with enough training and on the right course, I should be able to take 10 minutes off my swim, an hour of my bike, and over an hour off my run to get my total time down to somewhere between 11.5 and 12 hours which in this race would have had me placing 5th in my age group, in the top 1/3 of women and inside the top half overall. But that’s not going to get me a Kona slot, so may need to get back to the drawing board… So there, now I’ve publicly declared my intentions, its time to make it happen!
And congratulations to my friend Ludy on his PB. He got me through a dark patch in the middle of the night on the long stage of the Marathon Des Sables, and it was good to see a friendly face at this race. 🙂