What a journey it has been. 3 years ago I set myself a 3 year plan, year 1 was to do as many different challenges as I could, year 2 was to do my first Half Ironman with the final year being to complete my first Ironman and now that journey is over.
Rewind 1 week and I seriously thought the final part of the puzzle was not going to happen. On the Wednesday before Ironman UK I was sat in a Orthopaedic Consultants office being told the injury I thought I had (fat pad irritation) was in fact possibly a ‘type’ of Osgood Schlatters which is pain and inflammation possibly micro tears just below the knee on the bony bit at the top of the shin. This went some way in explaining why that morning and the previous week I could only run 2 miles before the pain got too much and I had to walk home.
So, there I was sat in the chair being told rest is the best option and an MRI needed. I explained the reasons behind why I was doing it, the charity Sporting Footprints I had raised so much money for and the 9 months of training I had put into it. I then told him that no matter what he said I was going to attempt the Ironman anyway and deal with the consequences afterwards. We agreed a cortisone shot may help although as he thought the pain may be deeper in the knee joint and I was only having it around the ‘bony bit’ it may not work but it was at the point my last resort. One great thing to come out of the examination was the consultant told me he was waiving his fee for me and to donate it to my charity so instead of coming out of there fed up I was instead blown away by a random act of kindness.
For the next few days my knee was very painful and my head was full of doubt whether the steroid shot would work but I drove up to Bolton on the Friday with my wife and the kids flying up to Manchester on the Saturday morning to meet me.
With the knee now very sore I drove up with my fellow Ironman wannabee Steve and his family and we arrived at the Macron stadium to register, we also had a look around the merchandise shop. I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything just incase I jinxed it and didn’t complete it plus they didn’t accept returns and refunds!
That afternoon we planned to head to Pennington Flash for a recce of the swim, they allow you to do a short practice swim of about 400m just so you get an idea of what it’s like to swim in there. On this particular day the wind was howling and the Flash looked like the sea, very choppy and with its mud like colour didn’t look very appealing at all.
We sat there looking out at that lake taking in the huge distance we had to swim on the Sunday, I had never swam that far before in open water and by then I had talked myself out of swimming that day also, Steve however still wanted to go in. As I started to meander (sneak off) back to the van to head off I bumped into my coach, talk about imperfect timing, I then felt like a naughty schoolboy as I joked I was heading back to the van to get my wetsuit and do a practice swim only for Steve to drop me in it and tell him I was in fact bailing! Anyway, some encouragement from Chris (Coach) along the lines of ‘just get in and ***ing swim mate’ meant I was now reluctantly putting my wetsuit on much to the howls of laughter from everyone else.
The practice swim was as expected very choppy and you couldn’t see anything but it was done. As I got out Chris asked how it went. I said ‘I actually quite enjoyed it, I’m glad I went in’. ‘You’re welcome’ was his reply.
Today it’s all about logistics and dropping your bags and bike off at transition ready for the following day. Ironman UK has split transitions which can be a bit of a pain logistically. Lots of checking and rechecking you have the right stuff in the right bags, you get given the following:
WHITE BAG: This is where you put clothes and wetsuit in on the morning of the race
BLUE BAG: This is where you put everything you need for the bike leg of the race
RED BAG: This one is where you put all your running stuff in
PERSONAL NEEDS BAG: you request these bags and in these you have one for the bike and one for the run, in mine I had paracetamol, bagels, KT tape and spare inner tube for bike.
I then drove to the lake where I dropped off my bike and bike bag, then drove to the Macron Stadium to drop off my run bag, then met up with my friends for late lunch, yeah cheeky Nandos.
That afternoon I met up with my family for the first time that weekend before heading back to some friends, Cat and Andy (and multiple Ironman finishers) house where I was staying over the night before the event and some last-minute pasta demolishing. Cat was also taking part so it was good being able to ask them what to expect. Off to bed at 9pm where I lay there for a few hours trying to sleep, still wasn’t nervous at this stage, just wanted to lie down and rest.
SUNDAY – IRONMAN DAY
3 AM ALARM! This is it, this is the day all those months of hard work and sacrifice come to fruition, those missed outings with friends, those sober nights out/in, the 4 hour Wattbike sessions at 6 in the morning on a Sunday back in the winter watching the Rocky films whilst pedalling away sweating over the dog, the injuries, physio and osteo appointments, sports massages, stresses on family life, getting sponsorship and more. Today is the day.
After a breakfast of Porridge, Pitta bread with peanut butter we were ready to go. Andy drove both Cat and I to Pennington Flash where we arrived just before 5 am, here I met up with the Mrs, Steve and another mate Marc and bumped into another friend Darren briefly, some nervous chatter and we all set off to the start .
SWIM 2.4 MILES
This swim was a rolling start so you seed yourself in the line at roughly the time you are expecting to finish. I put myself in 1hr 30 mins as I would be happy to achieve this, just before 6am the national anthem is played and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you look around at the thousands of other triathletes gathered. I was strangely totally calm, the swim doesn’t bother me like it used to and I now quite look forward to it but I was surprised at how relaxed I felt.
The swim is 2 laps, you get out of the water after 1 lap run over a timing mat then jump back in again for lap 2. Lap 1 was pretty uneventful, I stuck out wide so had lots of clear water in front of me and I finished it in 41 minutes, lap 2 was different, me and another guy were swimming quite close to each other and he was zig zagging all over the place, just as I turned my head to get a mouth full of air I was on the receiving end of an elbow to the face, luckily my goggles stayed on. I shook it off and carried on but my second lap was about 4 minutes slower. I headed to transition where I proceeded to take about 15 minutes to get changed, I do like to take my time, if they had a kettle in there I would have probably made myself a cup of tea.
I decided on a full change into bike gear as I was after comfort over speed for the 112 mile bike route, as I jumped on the bike all I kept thinking was would the knee hold, how painful would it get and if it would get that bad that I wouldn’t even get to the run. I set off out of transition with a quick shout out to Sian that I would see her later.
Total Swim time 1:27 – 3 mins quicker than I planned.
BIKE 112 MILES
The bike route of Ironman UK has 2 infamous hills, one is called Sheephouse Lane, the other is called Hunters Hill and you have to do them both twice as the course is 2 loops. As I joined the start of the first loop after riding from transition you head uphill through Babylon Lane (otherwise known as COLT Alley) this later in the day is unreal, it is lined with spectators to a point where you can only cycle one at a time and they really cheer you through here, you feel like you are in the Tour De France.
Before the race I knew I wanted to finish the bike in 7 hours 30 mins roughly as this would mean a steady average on the bike of about 15mph. I settled into a rhythm and I made sure I said thank you to the supporters as I rode past, smiling and waving as much as possible as I knew it was going to be a long day so keeping spirits up was important.
I reached Sheephouse Lane for the first loop and this was pretty easy as I was still fresh, the support up here is great and when you reach the top there are guys dressed as wrestlers with music blaring cheering you on, at the top randomly was some guy with a lucky pink dildo, apparently this makes an appearance on the bike course every year, he shouted out ‘touch my dildo!’ whilst waving it in my face, I don’t know why but I touched it, only afterwards I started to wonder where it had been.
At 40 miles I reached Leyland and I knew my family were all there waiting and I saw them in the distance. I slowed, saw the kids jumping up and down shouted all was ok then carried on, after seeing them I must have got some dust in my eye as my vision become watery for about a mile, then I turned the corner to see a man and woman triathletes crashed on the road, she could hardly move, he had blood all over his face a couple of us stopped to help but nobody knew the number to call so I rode on to get the attention of a marshall to come back and help, I hope they were ok, she looked in a bad way.
I was told at some point in the race you will reach your ‘dark place’ until 40 miles my knee had been ok, this was due to the fact that I was putting most of the power through my other leg to preserve the dodgy knee, however when I eventually got over Hunters Hill with some spine tingling support I started to notice that all this uneven power displacement was in fact causing some issues with my good knee, it felt like ITB related as it was outside of the knee where the pain was, very sharp and localised, at around 60 miles I then went into my ‘dark place’, my pace slowed right down I went in on myself not making eye contact with supporters, started doubting myself, thinking what’s the point, if my knees hurt I ‘ll never be able to run a marathon it wasn’t fun and every pedal stroke seemed an effort.
This went on for about 20 miles until Cat caught up with me, she asked me how I was and I moaned about my knee (again) and asked her if I would have enough time to walk the run if I hit T2 at about 4pm, she point blank replied ‘probably not, no!’
That was it. She flicked a switch in me. I then said to myself ‘right that’s it, I’m not coming back next year to do this again, I need to get it done now’. My intention then was to get to my Personal Needs bag as quick as I could take 2 paracetamols and get to T2 and have as much time as possible to walk/shuffle/crawl the run.
I got on the drops of my bike, gritted my teeth and repeated to myself ‘You’re not coming back next year!’
** Funnily enough after speaking with Cat at the end she had actually misheard me she thought I had asked if I could walk the rest of the bike course and still finish in time, if she had heard me right she would have probably said yes you have enough time and I would have carried on moping, so thanks Cat. **
I reached the Personal Needs bag and took my paracetamol, from there I had to hit Hunters Hill for the last time at about 96 miles, second time round this was hard work, stood up the whole way slowly grinding my way up, support up here was thinning out now but still fantastic.
At 108 miles I felt spent, one more climb up Babylon Lane where I saw a mate who told me my family were waiting at the top, this gave me extra motivation to get to the summit, once there I stopped rode over to the family for hugs and encouragement, that dam dust again, by this point I was quite emotional so told Sian ‘Whatever happens do not let me quit!’ I kept thinking about all the money I had raised and didn’t want to let people down.
Finally, I reached T2 after 7 hours 29 mins, 1 minute quicker than I had aimed for.
RUN 26.2 MILES
This is where I hadn’t a clue what was going to happen. I had only ever ran 15 miles once in my life before and only ran about 4 half marathon distances, the previous week I managed 2 miles then had to walk home.
I took 10 minutes in transition getting my make up on, I mean, getting changed then headed out after applying a bit of voltarol to the knee, what an uplifting moment to see my mates, Neil, Joelle, Ray & Imo and kids straight away, then the small matter of a hill to run up. I had already made up my mind to walk up any hills and decided to try and shuffle-run on the flats so as not to flex and extend my knee too much to see if it helped.
The run starts with a 7 mile route into Bolton, followed by 3 x 10k loops in Bolton Town Centre. On the 7 mile run I got chatting to a few other runners which passed the time, before I knew it I was in the first loop and I had no knee pain, the pain on the right knee from the bike had stopped and the left knee had held up most of the day so the cortisone shot must have done something. I started to feel confident that even if the pain came I had enough time to finish. It was only at this point did I start to think I might become an Ironman.
After loop 1 I saw the family, more hugs and high 5’s, this time no dust, I became more focused on what I needed to do and decided to enjoy every moment. The miles ticked by, eating at the feed stations, high fiving the crowd, chatting to other runners.
As the course is looped you get to see your mates who are takin part, I managed a call out to Marc who was looking strong and ahead of me and saw Steve at the start of end of Loop 1 again ahead of me.
By mile 15 I started to get a bit lightheaded and knee twingy , 2 more paracetamol, half a banana and a flat coke at the feed station saw me right. What can I say when you are coming towards the end of an Ironman flat coke is the drink of the gods, as someone who never drinks coke I proceeded to have it at every feed station thereafter.
By about mile 16, I caught up with Steve, we have been on this journey together for a couple of years now, both signed up together, train together, so it was great to see him. He was walking as whenever he ran he cramped so we walked together for a mile or 2 just chatting about the day, how amazing the support had been and the fact that we were so close to finally becoming Ironmen.
I carried on shuffling and picked up my last band from the marshall which signified that next time I reached the town centre I would be running down the finishers chute instead of running past it to start another loop.
I started to get excited, I couldn’t believe I had ran this far with the injuries I have had, all those months of training some of it enjoyable some not so much had led to this moment and I wanted to savour it. I saw my coach as I ran past with a big grin on his face then saw the red carpet. I stopped made contact with the lady with the microphone who looked at my run belt with my name on it put her hand on my shoulder looked me in the eye and said those immortal words that I had longed to hear for so long….” MATT, YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN!”
I then ran down the chute almost missing my family and friends who had been so pivotal in getting me not just through the day but through the training I am truly so lucky to have such a supportive network of friends and family.
As the medal was placed round my neck, with a beaming smile the pressure I had put on myself these 9 months seemed to disappear and relief took over, I couldn’t wait to see my family and of course get some sleep!
TOTAL TIME: 14 hours 32 minutes
Although this may seem like an Oscars thank you speech these people deserve a mention as without them I wouldn’t have believed I could do it.
Sian and the kids for putting up with my moods when injured, the early training sessions, the late family events I got to when training overran and the encouragement when I doubted myself (which happened a lot!). 2 hours after the event Sian was so inspired by the day, she could well be on her own path to becoming an Ironman.
Steve for inspiring me to do this when we first discussed this all those years ago, its been an amazing journey brother, well done you are an Ironman! Lyds and the kids thanks for letting us get away with it.
My Mum, Gemma and kids for being there on the day and supporting me through this.
Nene, Juju, Ray, Imo & Toon for travelling up and being there and for the bike rides in the winter months.
Andy & Cat for letting me stay over the night before, Andy for all his sounds words of wisdom over the months and Cat for mishearing me on the bike!
My Coach Chris, for the advice and training even though I didn’t get all of it done, we got there in the end mate.
Marc for the training rides and the crocodile attacks in the lake.
These guys I fully recommend for being so positive, wise words and helping to keep my body moving:
Mark Randall (Physio and all round top bloke)
Ian Harrison (Physical Balance) – KIA KAHA mate
Jenine Nugent (Sports Massage @ Square One)
And finally thank you to all those that sponsored me, I have raised £1500 for Sporting Footprints, I am humbled by the generosity of people and all that money will do such good to the kids and families that need it.
When I crossed the finish line, I said to myself never again, 4 days later here I am thinking…..maybe just one more!