First off, the usual except it’s not usual: thank you Dad, who’d actually already donated in a pre-millennial analogue format but felt the need to conquer the Internet to do so again; Anonymous of the week no1, who donated in dollars so has earned the right to call themselves a mysterious foreign benefactor; Anonymous of the week no2, the less said about that one the better; Julia James, who I believe is a Hastings Runner and I’ve been told that Hastings was where I first learnt to ride a bike when I was a wee nipper so have points for that; the Banbury grandparents (not mine to clarify), purveyors of the finest wedding day breakfasts (again, not mine); and Phil ‘the Power’ Logoreci (no idea if that nickname is a thing), an enthusiastic legend among Chasers.
When I started this process, I had an initial target to raise £1,000 for the Maytree. As of writing (Friday night, because I’m travelling over the weekend so won’t see those until this post goes live, sorry), I (you) have raised a grand total of £3,616.47. £4,418.11 if you include the gift aid supplement. I’m an emotionally stunted creature. Having scribed six digits’ worth of words on life, the sporting universe and everything since the start of this blog, I no longer have the capability to express how much that means. My innate cynicism has never been at a lower ebb.
As mentioned last time out, what follows now is the final post in Project Half Rust: a blow by bloody blow account of how I, a former drug using, alcohol abusing, self harming suicidally depressed nobody took life by the horns and rode it all the way to a very unexpected conclusion. Hope you enjoy as much as you enjoyed the previous fifty-three weeks of word vomit.
Let’s do this.
Fuck you, Baltic Sea.
In the race briefing thirty-six hours ago, we’d been told the following: water temperature, nineteen degrees; air temperature, twenty-two degrees; visibility, perfect. Although the official race video doesn’t show it so much, visibility at ground level was not perfect. The air temperature was not twenty-two degrees (although it was six in the morning so I’ll give them a pass on that). And the water had just been announced at sixteen degrees.
Fresh from my customary race breakfast and some mild transition drama that was dealt with calmly and promptly – my makeshift energy gel mechanics of a couple of weeks past had disintegrated in the overnight rain, but it was nothing electrical tape couldn’t solve – I suited up and headed to the self-seeded queue for the rolling start, fixing myself somewhere just ahead of the 1:20:00 swim marker. I was aiming for a 1:16:00; very achievable, if you took my training paces from the weeks previous. A young Swedish guy, whose name I think was Oscar (between swim caps and background noise, it was hard to tell) and I made some small chat. It was his first time as well. We were both clearly as nervous as each other. I noticed the guy behind him had a neoprene swim cap under his light blue event cap. A lot of people in the queue did. That was the first pang of fear.
I couldn’t join in with the Swedish national anthem, but I did my best to hum along. Just like that, it was time. The crowd lurched, stopped, staggered – and started rolling inexorably forward. I tried to keep my eyes straight ahead, not look at the ground, not look into the crowd in case any of them saw the fear in my eyes. Suddenly, this seemed like a really long way to go for some self validation. We reached the ramp.
Five steps to go. I am descending downwards, like a new age Dante. This whole thing has been rather allegorical, hasn’t it?
Four steps to go. Check goggles. Still there. Check hat. Still there. Check self. Eh.
Three steps to go. Everything ahead looks terribly violent. It is too late to back out. It was a long while ago.
Two steps to go. My feet are wet. The guy in front of me leaps forward with a pronounced lack of grace, a dolphin after an all-night Glasgow bender.
One step to go. I start my watch, and in an instant remember everything that could possibly ever go wrong in an Ironman. Oh, fuck you, brain, just f-
Splish. Splash. Keep calm on the swim. I threw myself forward unto the mercy of the sea.
After training all summer in the freakishly warm waters of London, it seemed that I’d completely forgotten what sixteen degrees felt like (cold, miserable, shit). I tried to put it out of my mind and just swam, aiming for the harbour exit before we headed over across the port. It quickly became evident that it wasn’t just that visibility was poor, but that the mist over the water was so thick that you couldn’t sight from one buoy to the next. All you could do was stick tight to the crowd and hope that everyone else was following someone who was following someone who was following someone, ad infinitum, until some lonely soul in a kayak knew where they were going. People were a lot closer together than I’d imagined they’d be. Out of the shadows, a larger buoy loomed to signify the point at which we’d all turn sharp to our left to head out across the deeper waters. I was caught up on the inside of the turn. Oh. No.
I knew I was in dire straits as I swam hard for the buoy, trying to find breathing room where there was none. Someone grabbed my leg – I’m not sure if by intention or not – and I kicked, hard. Another body was trying to swim over me. I drew my arm back to take a stroke, and accidentally – I swear, I didn’t mean to kill a guy – elbowed them so hard in the face my bones shook. He dead. I tried to escape the scene of the crime as quickly as possible as hands groped at my lower body like amorous teenage zombies. There was sick in my mouth. I don’t remember having thrown up. I think someone else’s sick was in my mouth.
Getting out to the deeper straits, visibility was yet worse. To add to this, I’m pretty sure that the water temperature had been measured in the port; as we started getting out away from land, it plummeted. Fast. My hands were too cold to make effective paddles, curling up into claws. My stroke was short and ineffective; tall, long and strong had gone out of the window. I looked around for a safety boat to reassure myself that I definitely would not drown in the middle of the Baltic ocean, and could not see one through the mist. My breathing start to quicken, grow more shallow. I was hemorrhaging places at this point. I had not felt so uncomfortable in a swim since the very first open water race I did, where I had to stop after thirty seconds to compose myself, and was last in my wave to exit the water by over a minute. In a sprint.
Remember the plan, kiddo. Just survive the swim. I dug in and ploughed on, for what felt like eternity. Slowly, I crawled to the turnaround, and back towards land. Back towards Kalmar, where the city’s edge was lined with spectators. Swimming up along the waterfront was a lot faster – even tighter, as the channel was quite narrow, but this made it impossible not to draft. It also made it impossible to avoid the kicks of people suddenly switching to breaststroke, and I took a shot right to the, er, balls. This would happen again before the end of the swim, and I reasoned that it was karma for the kicking incident at that first turnaround buoy (and a few other incidents that I deeply regret). We were all in the same boat. No more kicking the grabby hands.
I exited the water in 1:26:39, a full ten minutes behind the time I’d secretly hoped for. Fuck you, Baltic Sea.
(Note that, in the interest of an honest account, none of the problems I listed during the swim are excuses – well, maybe being kicked in the balls, because nothing can quite prepare you for that – they are just an account of conditions I had not adequately prepared for. That’s on me.)
In transition, my hands were so cold I struggled to get my wetsuit off over my feet. It seemed like I wasn’t the only one. My first experience of an Ironman changing tent looked like a makeshift hospital in the middle of a war zone, with shivering bodies lying everywhere and lots of pained moaning. I did my best to get my bike shoes on, tugging extra tight to account for my feeble hands. This was a mistake. I had an additional bike jacket to throw on if I felt I needed it – I was still shivering at this point – but I decided not to. This was not a mistake.
My feet were as feeble as my hands, it seems, and despite (wisely) electing the night before to not bother with a flying mount in case of unsteadiness, I still managed to fall over into a barrier while trying to clip my second foot in to my pedal. Thankfully, the barrier and a few spectators steadied me, and I set off. My race brain was well engaged at this point: I thought my watch had broken, as I couldn’t switch it from the screen that displays my speed/distance to the one that shows me my heart rate/cadence. I couldn’t do this because I was pressing the wrong button, but this took me a good twenty minutes to figure out. In the meantime, I decided to just spin my legs in the hope that they’d get some blood pumping through my body to warm me up. I sped past a few who were slower off the mark than me, and in turn was passed by some very fast cyclists whom I’m surprised were behind me anyways. They must be mint at duathlons.
While the mist played a part in making the swim the most awful I’ve ever had, it paid dividends on the bike. Not in turns of any conceivable race benefit, but going over the Ölandsbron… I headed up the sharp rise to clear the shipping lane, and then down the very fast dip back towards the sea (one of the few idiots who was brave/stupid enough to do this in tuck, fuck brakes live fast die young), before settling in for whatever was left of the six kilometre bridge, skimming over the the waters of the Kalmarsund. Ahead of me, I couldn’t see Öland. Behind me, I couldn’t see the mainland. Just a few hundred metres either way of bridge, and the sea beneath. I might as well have been cycling through a cloud. There are not many experiences in my life that I’d describe as ‘magical’. This would definitely be one of them.
Fortunately (very fortunately as I’d gone for the mirrored twat visor), the mist cleared more or less as soon as I reached the shores of Öland and turned south through the small town of Färjestaden. Spectators crowded to the corners and rolling hills, cheering you through each corner and rise. In hundreds of spots around the island, whole families had turned out with breakfast picnics on their front lawn to offer support in the form of words I didn’t understand, and cowbells that I did. God bless cowbells and their universal message of hope. I hope that, when we finally discover alien life, we try to communicate with them through the medium of cowbells. It’s a hell of a lot better an idea than Trump at any rate.
I settled in at my target effort level, or actually a little above: my legs tended to be moving at about 90-95 rpm, and my heart rate generally stuck between 140-150 bpm. It was maybe a little naughty of me, but like that first open water race where I’d panicked and suffered, coming out of the swim well down the rankings, I knew I had time to make up. I did my best not to draft, although it was pretty difficult at times with the amount of traffic. After the first hour or so the Marshall came out in force, and suddenly people decided to split up a bit more, and things became much more civilised on that front.
Heading down and around Öland, two things really struck me. One, it was very desolate: the kind of desolate that makes me favour the north of Cornwall over its prettier, more carefully manicured regions further down the coast. It had a rugged, windswept charm to it; in fact, it looked a lot like Bodmin Moor, all wild grassland and loose stone walls. If you flattened out the hills, of course. For the most part it was pan flat, with a few rolling hills or extended but quite gentle climbs.
Two: cycling on closed roads is an absolute joy (especially as I was having to remember to check over the opposite shoulder to usual before maneuvering). Cycling on over a hundred miles of closed roads? Oh, MY. How fun that was. Good job, Kalmar, good job. The bike course could have been faster – rolling hills as mentioned, and parts of it (not all of it as I said to some earlier in the week, I was off my head on adrenaline) were a bit windy – but if you want a course where you can just grit your teeth, put your head down and crank out the watts without wanting the stress of cycling in the UK, I could not recommend it more.
Despite an early malfunction with my aerobar-mounted hydration unit, that I fixed on the move without even breaking aero tuck like a crazed millennial Mad Max – always carry electrical tape, kids – I had stuck rigidly to my nutrition strategy. Mum and James, who had been in Kalmar pre-race to take all of the gear I’d brought to transition but didn’t need for the race, had driven out and surprised me just after I’d slowed down to retrieve more water. As I reached the Ölandsbron for the second time, this time to head back across to the mainland, my high tempo, low effort approach to pedalling was paying dividends; I’d entrenched myself firmly in the tail end of the uber-bikers, and was picking off a good handful of disc-wheel toting, grim-faced fools who were struggling to grind away at their gears while I danced past with (relatively) fresh legs. Evidence of competency is always big boost.
Unfortunately the photographers missed the point where I was blowing kisses to the appreciative crowd at the turnaround point, but hey ho. Take my word for it when I say they loved it and let’s move on. The Goodgym cheering crew that had turned up in Kalmar were also waiting just before the turnaround point, so I sped past them twice in quick succession. It’s a shame that I haven’t yet figured out how to embed iOS live photos (we’ve gone full Harry Potter on this one) because I was tanking along at this point.
The second inland loop turned out to be a lot more ‘technical’ (I still love this term) than the Öland loop, pretty much entirely rolling hills and not nearly as many fast straights. I got into a few running battles with other racers where we’d leapfrog each other depending on the current terrain, but I held my own. Unfortunately, it was at this point that I realised I was also running slightly over my target times (I was aiming for a 5:30:00 total bike split), and when I reached the furthest point out I, knew the route back to the city and transition wasn’t fast enough for me to make up the seven minute deficit I worked out I’d collected.
Also, doing my shoes up too tight after coming out of the water was really beginning to hurt. My feet were feeling very sore and numb at this point, and I should have loosed the straps, but I wasn’t thinking straight. Fortunately the sun was now glaring down, and not panicking with the bike jacket was a definite good move; I was beginning to sweat under my arm warmers, and would have definitely had to lose the jacket somewhere in a non-retrievable manner if I’d have taken it.
After managing a very slow and inelegant, but mercifully not catastrophic flying dismount, I posted a bike split of 5:38:46; only a little way off my goal time – the equivalent of less than five seconds a mile on average. But with my swim woes, I knew that I was down about twenty minutes – barring T1, which I had no idea about but knew was fairly slow – from where I’d hoped at this point. I’d need to run Fast, with a capital F for extra Flippin’ speed. Racking Agro (who got a quick pat on the flank of appreciation), I sprinted towards the transition bags for my run kit.
Haha. Good joke. The combination of the tight shoes turning my feet to mush, and pushing just above what should have been comfortable on the bike, left me hobbling and very nearly in a heap on the matted carpet. Pulling out of transition for the second time, I felt even weaker than the first.
A lot of pictures ensued in which I tried to smile at the camera, but through the pain ended up just looking like I’m mid-stroke. I started trying to run eight minute miles, but my legs just wouldn’t move like I needed them to. A quick glance at the watch told me that I was barely managing nine. My lizard brain, or the chimp, or whatever it’s called these days, was overwhelming.
You’ve fucked this.
You can’t do ten and a half hours. You can’t even manage eleven. Everyone tracking you will be so disappointed. You are in a fight purely for survival. Don’t think that this is anything more.
This was the start of a twenty-six mile long argument between my inner monologue and Kalmar.
I cannot pretend, for a second, that I would not have managed the run split I did without the people of Kalmar. Every step of the way, they shouted louder than the cynic in me; baying for sweat, blood, tears, and at the end of it all, glory. Having done one single Ironman and with no experience to compare it to, I am convinced that there can be no faster Ironman run course anywhere in the world. Every time I wanted to slow or take a breather, they would not allow it. Leanda Cave said, after her victory here two years ago, that the four kilometres through the city in particular should not count, because the crowds are too intense. I cannot disagree.
Even outside of the city centre, every metre of the fourteen kilometre loop was lined by spectators. If the bike loop had been watched from tea parties and picnics, the run course spectators were a raucous night out at Hootenanny’s (if there are a lot of alcoholic references in this report it’s because I’ve been steadily drunk for about a week now). There were street parties, complete with full on speaker rigs of the type that I’d not seen since my teenage days at woodland raves. The power ballad party was my favourite, even if joining in to belt out Journey is impossible when you’re needing to suck in seventeen litres of oxygen per second. But ever effort to interact and laugh with the crowd was repaid in kind. I tried to high-five every little kid who stuck their hand out in request, and the parents thanked me in return with words of encouragement. The heat was not overbearing, but the afternoon sun was bright enough that every makeshift shower point or targeted hose from the roadside was greatly appreciated.
The first lap was horrendously hard, but I just tried to focus on getting from water point to water point and soaking up the support. I lost as many places as I gained in the first few miles, but eventually my legs were willed back to life. People stopped overtaking me, and I was where I loved being on the run: chasing. Chasing down, not people in this case, but the minutes I’d let slip in the race; chasing away every inadequate thought I’d suffered about my ability to overcome adversity. My life could have been over years ago. I could have never got to start this running business, this triathlon stuff. I could have been a footnote, a sad story that families don’t tell in public. But I was here, not just challenging myself, but loving (although my weird running facial expressions might have made it hard to tell) every second of the struggle.
By the second lap, I was well and truly fired up. Another live image that I’d have to show you in person would demonstrate the speed at which I was dropping my competitors. I felt alive, more so than at any point in my life I can remember. The watch was displaying paces that I didn’t think existed in the world of Ironman – they all began with six. I felt, unbelievably, good. Coming out of the city on the third lap, I was all grins. There were tears in my eyes, not wholly from the pain. So then the cramp set in.
While my nutrition on the bike had been precise, Id lost it a bit on the run. You can see in my splits the two points, one in the first and one in the third lap, where I had to stop for the loo. Far worse still I’d managed to crush my salt tabs in my pocket; I’d swallowed one down in the first lap, but had forgotten to retrieve the spares I’d left in a special needs bag for this very occasion.
The pings of cramp started about halfway around the third, final lap. Every few seconds, my right calf would seize up for a split second; it was enough to send me stumbling on more than one occasion. I’d started the final third of my marathon leg strong, but now I was really in a dogfight, not just against my own brain, but against my failing limbs, and to not disappoint the thousands of people who had turned out – Swedes, friends, and family. It was a race to reach the finish before my body would no longer carry me.
Just before the entry to the athletics stadium where we’d be directed through funnels on the track to pick up our lap bands, the only person to overtake me mid-run (I’m not counting the moments I was walking through water points) in the past two and a half hours sped by. To put this into perspective for anyone who thinks my Ironman was tough, my speed impressive: Aron Andersson did the whole thing without the use of his legs: swimming with no kick, travelling a hundred and twelve miles by hand cycle, and finishing with a wheelchair-bound marathon. His total time was less than a minute within mine. Now that, that is inspirational. He’s going to conquer Antartica next, the first wheelchair-bound explorer to do so. Casual.
I was so relieved on getting that third lap band, the one that would allow me entry to the finishing shoot, that I did a mock dip for the line, almost sailing straight past the volunteers in my exuberance. I was within minutes of the finish. My legs were in agony. My lungs were burning, and I couldn’t feel much of my feet (probably a good thing). It didn’t matter. I looked down at my watch, as I had been over the third lap, doing some fast sums in my head; anything to not think about the cramp. I had suspected. Now I knew. I’d had the run of my life.
I slowed down through the finisher funnel, looking for Mum, James, or the Goodgym contingent that had spent all afternoon running from viewing point to viewing point in the city to catch me multiple times on each lap. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they’d be watching somewhere (as it turns out, my hunch was correct). There were no cheerleaders to serenade in broken Swenglish; so I played up to the crowd one last time, demanding more from them like they’d demanded more from me, before returning their applause. They’d earned it.
I crossed the line, having run a 3:14:51 marathon off the back of two and a half miles’ swimming and a hundred and twelve on the bike. 10:28:44. I had my sub 10:30:00 time that I so wanted.
I can’t pretend that any one event, or any series events, will ever provide a permanent emotional catharsis to my depression. Things do not work like that, and I don’t think they ever will. This will be a lifelong thing for me; it’s simply too entrenched. But to hell with it: in that one moment, crossing an arbitrary line in a cobbled stone square of a city I’d never heard of until a year ago, everything was right in the world. I will continue to seek out those moments.
They didn’t catch it on camera, but a few moments after finishing, I clenched my firsts and let out a short roar of victory. I was in the land of the Vikings. It seemed appropriate.
I mean, I’m five foot ten inches and weigh about the same as a marginally overweight snowflake. It was probably more like a victory squeal.
Also, part of the reason I’m doing this is to raise funds and awareness for The Maytree Respite Centre, a small charity in North London that provides support for people going through a suicidal crisis – so if you’d like to support my fundraising efforts, please click here. Thanks so much!