“Is there any time, since we last worked together, that you remember being happy?”
This was a question posed to me by Mr. Therapist towards the tail end of our last session (he’s currently on holiday for a month, because therapists are people too – don’t panic, I have support). It wasn’t a ‘good’ question, I guess: blunt, on the nose, not requiring much thought or analysis. I know what makes me happy. I’ve feel like I’ve seen little of it, but it’s been enough to quantify. It does, and can, exist. Sometimes.
Given the previous post (now actually previous-previous but who’s counting), and the subsequent radio silence (if you don’t follow me on Twitter, or Instagram, or Strava, or…) you could be forgiven for assuming that I’d given up on this Swedeman business; that I’d packed it in, piled the sandbags too high, considered myself an amputee in a race of thoroughbreds. Well, that last one is true. But while the actual training went completely to shit, there were bits, here and there, that gave me enough to see the thing through. Also, I’ve been slightly delayed by another sudden-but-not-sudden-if-I’d-have-paid-attention flat move.
We (Dad, his partner Julie and I) arrived last Wednesday night, with two clear days to prepare for race day, and three days afterwards to recover (all of us). Åre’s a stunning place, sandwiched between what is either a lake or a really wide part of a river – immediately flagged as a possibility for the Sunday afternoon recovery dip that never happened – and the wooded mountains that reach, when the weather closes in, to the clouds and beyond. We stayed in a charming Swedish apartment, which makes the reasonably large flat I’ll be living in for all of two weeks now I’ve returned to grey dreary London look like a hovel by comparison. It already seems like a long time ago. Damn, I wish I could live in Åre all the time. It’s so idyllic. Except for the rain.
Nah, sod that. Even with the rain.
Weather conditions are the big question mark tomorrow. The swim is currently slated for 15 degrees, which to be honest is at least 5 degrees warmer than I was preparing for. I mean, I have grown an absolutely bitchin’ beard in preparation. Kalmar was the first time in my life that I’d ever been outwardly passionate about aesthetics, picking up my first custom race kit that still sits hallowed, untouched since the date in a container under my bed; I picked up my beautiful steed, blue and white and flowery to combat the mess of bloody boring black and red.
Maybe the beard will keep me a touch warmer, who knows. What I do know is no-one who looks this good, rugged or manly (not ‘cute’, as certain parties have recently described it) is allowed to quit. This wasn’t the reason I started growing it in the first place: that was mainly because shaving is one of the first things that goes out of the window, before more basic needs like eating. Depression tears down Maslow’s hierarchy from the top. But now, now I will derive power from my Samsonite facial fuzz.
Given that global warming has recently engulfed Europe with the flames of Surtr, the further extent that I have been going to in order to prepare my pallid white flesh for cold, in the only way one can when all the lidos and lakes are bathwater-temperature at their recent lowest, now seems like it might be a little bit over the top. Cold showers, every one, wherever I go. Not just cold, but cranking the temperature on any given shower as low as shawty with the furry boots. This has ranged from mildly unpleasant cold water at work, to my (soon to be not my) flat; water ported directly from the very furthest reaches of a cold hell, expelled at high enough pressure that I have genuine concerns it might one day take my skin off, warranting several pep talks and a short prayer before stepping forward and having the air brutally ejected from my lungs in shock as they immediately shrivel to the size of the ball bearings in my bottom bracket. But slowly, slowly, inch by shivering emasculated inch, I have been adapting to it. I don’t know if my newfound faux-nordic fashion and masochistic temperatures will help me much, but combine them with enough neoprene to make two wetsuits, and maybe I will survive to swim another day. Somewhere warmer, hopefully.
(Yes, that was probably the dorkiest genitalia joke I’ve ever made. No, I’m not proud.)
Armoured up in my bevy of rubber thermals, I was one of the first onto the coaches to get us from Åre to the swim start on a remote beach near Nordhallen. There were a couple of comments from some Americans on the bus about my neoprene vest being overkill beneath a wetsuit, but I was content to shrug them off – I knew my bodyweight was a bit low, and if I got cold I wasn’t likely to get to warm again, so sod ‘em. The bus was a quiet affair, as was the 30 minutes to kill when we reached Norhallen. It was here I first noticed the howling wind – I gather it’s a bit of a ritual to have some kind of entertainment to set the scene at an Xtri race, but the Sami folk singer they’d hired was pretty impossible to hear when she’s trying to outsing gale-force gusts to reach all corners of a 230-odd strong group of athletes, half of who had neoprene swim hats covering their ears. Still, it was a valiant effort, and gave us something to concentrate on that wasn’t the impending clusterfuck of a Iron-distance triathlon swim.
With 1 minute to go, I started to try and slow my breathing down. Deep breaths, keep it calm, boy. I’d been pretty chill – too chill, I think, verging on unpreparedness – all week; but on Friday night, less than 12 hours before the race start, the nerves and occasion, and everything outside that over the last few months, hit me hard. I’ll be honest, as I stood there toeing the sand in between the two Swedeman flags marking the start line, I was having doubts over how up for this I really was.
All of that goes out the window as soon as the start actually happens. There’s something about a few hundred people who you know are just as stupid as you charging towards the early morning surf that just gets the blood up, y’know? Yes, I said surf. See, the headwind we’d be swimming into was so powerful that a very inland lake had waves, and it looked absolutely fucking nothing like the picture above. Growing up in North Cornwall, waves are nothing new to me; that should’ve been fine. The water was not as cold as advertised, or my neoprene/cold shower/manly manfuzz combination was doing it’s thing, because I didn’t feel the chill at all once I was in the water. And with 4 Iron-distance races under my belt inside the past 2 years, all with busier starts than this, there should’ve been little about the swim to shake me.
So it was a bit of a surprise, really, to find that 30 seconds in, I couldn’t breath, and it felt like some Scandi-lake serpent had coiled neatly around my chest, and all I could think was a few variations on: Oh God, I’m going to drown. I’m going to drown and my support crew came all this way to watch and help me race, and me drowning inside the first minute of this thing will be so disappointing for them. So. Disappointing.
I haven’t had to stop and have a good old fashioned swim-panic since my first ever open-water triathlon (and second triathlon I’d competed in), the Jetstream Sprint Tri in 2015, months pre-blog. Even at Kalmar, the first time round when I thought I’d marooned myself in the middle of the Baltic, I kept moving on autopilot. This time I did not. I treaded water, and I turned away from the race, away from the waves; and for the second time within a handful of minutes, I forced myself to breath. Fast and shallow at first, but deeper, smoother. Eventually, I got my shit together enough to give it a second go.
By this point, the bulk of the swimmers had left me for dead. There were a few others hanging off the back, but I resigned myself to a long, lonely swim. It probably helped, really; I had to stop a couple more times to get my racing heart under control, and it was nice to not have the added pressure of other swimmers nearby that usually is my main swimming bugbear. It was slow going into the wind, but ponderously, one by one, I started reeling the outcasts back in.
After a few more stop-start minutes, I abruptly found the whole thing so funny that I started to laugh. Well, cough violently – it’s kinda hard to laugh underwater. But my aversion to drowning in the face of having spent weeks thinking about throwing myself off Beachy Head just seemed so patently, joyously absurd. A few hundred metres had pushed me to the edge of quitting, and there was a long old day ahead. There’s a barbaric violence in sink or swim situations (literally, in some cases) that gives the greatest rush. I never managed to reach that at Roth or Wales. I felt it for the 100 or so minutes running along the bike course in Lanzarote, when I didn’t know whether I’d be pulled out of the race or not.
The most incredible part of the swim happened roughly 1k in. Passing a sandbank, the water was shallow enough that it was more or less impossible to swim properly, and I quickly discovered (as the people before me had) that it made more sense to walk. So I got up, and I did. For three steps, before stopping: a unique opportunity had made itself present to me. Because there I was, stood up in the middle of a kilometres-wide lake, bordered by endless pine forests and mountain ranges silhouetted in the early morning sun, able to take my goggles off and have a 360-degree, wide-eyed gaze at it all. How many times, in a triathlon or any other swim, do you get to just stop, and enjoy the view? It was something else. I think that was the turning point where I realised that despite the rocky start, it was probably still gonna be a cool day.
However, it wasn’t going to be cool if I stood there forever, so it was time to continue onwards, as the few dozen swimmers behind me crept closer. From there, it was a seemingly endless repetition of gimp-gloved hand slapping water, over and over. Tännforsen, Sweden’s largest waterfall, loomed in the distance; great for sighting, but I was too eager to get out of the water at that point to really take it in (we went back in the post-race days so that I could have a proper gander at it). It seemed to happen by the inch, but eventually my hand struck rock, and one of the swim exit volunteers grabbed me, and I was up and stumbling across the rocks onto the bank. Thank fuck for that, I thought. Dad and Julie were there to cheer, but I didn’t hang around to chat; there was a long winding trail up the shore to T1, where Paul, the final member of my support crew, was waiting with my bike.
As I ran, I sneaked a look at my watch; there are no verifiable splits for the race as there were no timing mats as such, but it was somewhere around the 1:38 mark. 15 minutes slower than Kalmar, 20 minutes off what I expected, 30 minutes off what I’m convinced I am capable of if I ever get my act together. I shrugged. Behind schedule, sure, but fuck it. Only one time mattered in this race, and that was getting to Huså, T2A and the mountain finish checkpoint before 6pm. There was a whole lot of race to do before that point.
The bike is probably where I’ve been feeling the lack of strength most recently. I’ve always been a bit unsure of the bike, partly because it’s such a large segment of any long distance triathlon. Partly because, well… first there was Lanzarote – debatable as to how much that was my fault, but it happened. Then Leeds Castle. Everyone has bad days. Not every race is going to be your finest. But of the races I’ve really focused on in the last couple of years – Roth, Wales, Lanzarote and Leeds Castle – they’ve all gone wrong on the bike, in one way or another.
Couple that with still being a bit understrength from the lack of eating, and the extra long, somewhat bumpy course, and I haven’t felt this incapable in a long time. Even at Kalmar, when I had very little idea what I was really getting into, I felt more prepared than this. Maybe ignorance is bliss, after all. Maybe I’m just more prone to overthinking everything now. Maybe I won’t hoon it off at the start like I’m being chased by a bear. Maybe’s such a shit word. It doesn’t give you any confidence.
What does give me a bit of a boost is this. I try not to put too much stock in Strava. It’s primary use seems to be as a tool to compare yourself in an unfavourable manner to all of your athletic peers (I was actually a participant in a recent study on exercise addiction by Dr Josie Perry, a topic I’ve discussed with her before to attain some minor fame). That said, I’ve never had a bike KOM before, and never dreamed of grabbing one on a busy London segment. A couple of running ones, sure, and I’ve got on some bike leaderboards outside of London where the competition pool is reduced. But in London’s cycling scene, I am a medium-sized fish, on a good day, in a very large pond full of some fucking big gribbly things with lots of sharp pointy teeth. I’ve no business topping leaderboards. Even if it was achieved through combining a disc wheel, a very helpful row of green lights and a lack of traffic early on a Saturday morning.
Given that I have spent the last parts of the lead up to the Swedeman with a terminal case of hole-in-foot, cycling is about the only thing I’ve been able to manage. I spent my last weekend riding some easy laps of Richmond Park, something I’m not usually prone to these days, in the company of a couple of recent Kona qualifiers – Joe Spraggins, who I once considered an equal but has since eclipsed me in about every way athletically; and Brochan Watts, a Chaser who I’ve long looked up to as one of the ‘super fast lot’ since I joined the club. Both of them assured me I shouldn’t worry too much about my bike, and clearly they both know better than me; so I guess there’s not a lot to do but shrug my shoulders and get on with it.
The drag up to T1 was long and steep – about 500m of trails climbing 40m vertically, or so. It seemed to go on forever, but eventually I made it to transition and met Paul, my co-beard wearer and support runner for the day, who was managing my transitions for me. I’ll go more into his role later but T1 was a smooth, albeit more time consuming than usual, affair. The order of the day was to be comfortable and composed throughout the bike, and that was part of the whole journey through T1 all the way to T2, 206k down (and back up) the road.
Satisfied that putting my gilet on underneath my aero jersey would make me far faster than all my fellow competitors wearing baggy rain capes – I noticed at the awards ceremony the next day that I seemed to be about the only competitor who shaved his arms, which reflects something about my bizarre adherence to aerodynamics that I still bothered despite wearing multiple layers over them at all times – Agro and I set off. I’d arranged to meet my support vehicle at 3 points, roughly every 60k; the first 60k (actually ended up being 53.5k, I said roughly) stretch to Mörsil was mostly rolling main road, with the wind now working in our favour whenever the landscape was exposed enough to let it.
It quickly became apparent that I was not in a good shape, athletically. My power target was lower than what I should have been aiming for at Lanzarote earlier in the year; like Lanzarote, I was incapable of meeting it. For the most part, I was struggling to get my HR into the required zone as well. This was kind of okay at first, because I intended to save a bit of energy over the first 120k of the bike, knowing that the last 80k would be straight back into the headwind and that would suck.
Despite the low numbers, I was flying. I’m not sure if it was aerodynamics, the fast surface, the wind, or what – I was taking the climbs super easy, rolling along the few flast and pushing a little downhill, but never enough to feel like I was close to burning any matches, and somehow maintaining an average speed close to 40km/h to the first checkpoint. Which almost caused a bit of an issue.
The bike was longer than the usual 180k fare: it had a decent amount of climbing, decent stretches into the wind, and I was feeling much weaker going into the race than I would usually; taking all of these into account, I’d told my bike support crew to expect me in around 2 hours from when I started cycling, at 30km/h rather than the nearly 40km/h I found myself moving at. I made it in just over 1 hour 23 minutes. With my support crew being led by my Dad, who is so regularly late for things I suspected as a child that he existed in a different time zone to the rest of us. That is not a recipe for a good time. That is a recipe for missing valuable carbohydrate collections. I get angry when I lack carbohydrates.
Fortunately, Julie was with him (I’m assuming it was her influence as the following is very out of character for Dad) and they’d just about made it to the meeting point in time for me to roll up behind them, in a bit of a tizz because my usual Garmin was suffering from a case of battery-is-dead-itis despite being fully charged the night before, and I’d need to switch to my backup device. Thankfully I had a backup device, but still. It’s a right pain, because the thing was fully charged the night before, and I don’t really need the extra financial outlay on buying a new bike computer at the moment. Gah. Screw you Garmin and your unreliable devices.
In fact, Dad and Julie were spot on all throughout the day – they were waiting at the swim exit to yell at me as I was still trying to work out which way up the sky was, and had been there again to see me off on the bike. They were at each of the designated meeting points ahead of time, carrying the many many items on the hastily hand-scrawled shopping list I’d given them, and more; and all of my running kit made it safely to T2 (just about, eventually, in the nick of time, something about trainers being left in the car let’s not talk about that). It’s one thing to be responsible for your own performance in a race, but a whole ‘nother bucket of anxiety to be responsible for someone else’s. They absolutely nailed it.
Getting back on track, fluid topped up again, it was time for the second stretch of the day – more winding, no longer main roads but still fast (if you could avoid the cavernous potholes and cracks that littered certain areas on the course). I tried putting a bit more effort into maintaining the correct heart rate, at least, even if I wasn’t producing the desired power; but no dice. It wasn’t that I felt like I was taking it easy, I just didn’t have the legs. Fair enough – you can only use what you’ve got, and I was still steadily working my way up the field after that swim.
Off the main road, another new challenge presented itself: everyone else’s support teams. Being used to cycling in England and London in particular, I didn’t really notice the traffic on the E14. On the smaller roads, it was a lot tighter; 200+ competitors means 200+ cars also trying to get around the course, which can be a bit of a logistical cluster. There were a few occasions where I ended up over/undertaking on very short notice as cars would pass me, then immediately pull in behind a slower cyclist in front. That was fine. What was not fine was those who seemed content to sit a few metres behind whichever athlete they were supporting, which partly pissed me off because it’s against the rules but mainly pissed me off because it meant I had to break tuck to check over my shoulder for traffic before passing them, the bastards. They got an earful.
That said, on the whole, this part of the day was reasonably uneventful (thankfully more or less what I was aiming for). The roads were slightly slower, but I was still making good time. There was one instance of a dropped chain, and one instance of nearly plunging over a barrier after I ‘forgot’ to brake on a downhill hairpin and ended up on the far side of the wrong lane of traffic (whoops). Somehow I managed to survive to steal a KOM for the virtual trophy cabinet en route, pushing a mighty 157w at 137bpm, averaging 41.8kph. I’m using this to illustrate that something weird was happening; I shouldn’t have been moving that fast with those numbers. The next fastest person over the 2k section was a solid 5 seconds slower. He went on to win the race by about 90 minutes, so is hardly a scrub. The numbers just don’t add up.
Meeting point 2 at Krokom arrived more or less on time, about 3 hrs 30 minutes in. I quite liked the 3 meeting points – far enough that I wasn’t constantly having to stop, but enough breaks that it broke the ride down and made it seem a lot shorter than it was. As much as my various support crew members were nervous about getting things right, I was very aware that having never coordinated my own support crew before, I had no idea if I was giving them the right directions/instructions. It’s an intimidating thing; not what you’re used to in the most-often self-sufficient world of triathlon, and adds a whole new tactical dimension to an Xtri race like the Swedeman. Fortunately I seem to have muddled my way through this, and everything went smoothly (barring the running trainers that I said I wouldn’t mention).
A short *ahem* comfort break later and I was back on the road again – and, turning a corner, was now riding into the wind. The same wind that had caused waves on a lake that morning, and had almost made the mountain too unsafe to climb and, unknown to us ignorant competitors, put the finish of the race in jeopardy. I still have nightmares, sometimes, about Lanzarote. At least I hadn’t been the twat toting a disc wheel for that. Gulp.
Any speed that I’d mysteriously maintained over the previous 120k was slowly eroded away. I probably spent a higher proportion of time on my aerobars for this race than any Ironman previously, despite the rolling course; a couple of Box hill reps in tuck had given me a bit of faith that I could go up moderate inclines without needing to sit up, something I’ve not had the confidence to do before. Hunkering down, I made myself as small as possible, and hoped the wind would not notice me. It was a futile hope.
I got battered left to right, right to left; and, crucially, straight in the chiselled, bearded face. There was a point on the stretch back west along the E14 that I was pedalling hard down a pretty steep descent to maintain 20km/h. Not pandering to the dodgy numbers I was producing and refusing to burn any matches on the first half of the course turned out to be about the only thing that got me through the bike, because Odin’s beard, the second half of the ride was HARD. The wind was ferocious, and it was majority uphill. One by one those matches were set, burned, and sputtered out by the roadside.
From the last support stop at Järpen, 180k and a regular Ironman bike leg in, I knew I had about 60 minutes of suffering left. It was possibly the longest hour of my life; I was really having to dig into the last of my reserves, and had stopped making up places. Eventually the turning to T2 came, and there was just the small matter of the 500m, 10% gradient climb up to Åre Björnen. The legs were running on empty – I was pushing my granny gear, barely moving fast enough to stay upright. That said, I refused to suffer the ignominy of finishing the bike leg on foot for two long distance races in a row, so had to make something out of nothing.
The stem-gazing was intense. I just followed the sound of the small crowd that had gathered, unwilling to look up incase I’d see the road continuing to climb. Slowly removing myself from the bike so Paul could haul it away and guide me to somewhere to sit down, I was satisfied that despite having lost a bit of strength over the last few months, I’d paced the bike near-perfectly on feel, and emptied myself. Somehow, and I’m not quite sure how, I’d made up an hour – despite being nearly 30 minutes later than my predicted bike start time, I’d reached T2 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
It’s a feature of Xtri races that the finish line is at the top of a mountain – it’s all part of the fun. In fact, for the Swedeman, they decided a single mountain wasn’t enough, so there are two. One in the first 10k, and the big one above to cap the last 10k of the run. Now, this presents a little bit of an issue in training for a race such as this, being London-based; because as should be evident, there are no mountains in London.
What we do have, however, are escalators. Lots and lots of escalators, and stairs. For the last few months, I’ve made the St. John’s Wood tube station escalators part of my daily training routine. I’ve got the doors down pat always in the correct carriage, front and centre on the start line. Sometimes I take a leadout to mix it up. The Jubilee line shuddering to a halt, I fall out when they open like rolling down the ramp for a TT. The corner is taken wide to maintain speed, apexing before I hit the escalator, and burst into a controlled sprint. Furiously fast feet, calves and quads beginning to burn up by halfway. Make a game of it, try to get to the top only nose-breathing. The station staff probably think there’s a bull in anaphylactic shock coming up from the tube. But by the time I get to the top I can breathe freely again, victorious, because by that point I’ve dropped all of my competition and can safely, privately, show weakness.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I’ve always been able to lean on my run a bit, but on Saturday the rules change. You only get to go up that second mountain if you’re at T2A, 31km into the run, before the cutoff time of 6pm. 13 hours. Can I conquer 90% of the hardest Ironman I’ve done – extra long bike leg, shortened bit that I am good at, a fucking mountain – in 13 hours? I don’t know. This is far outside the norm. This is back in unfamiliar territory, and I have the fear that comes from the unknown. Hopefully, maybe, like the bright eyed youth of 2016, that fear will keep me honest.
I just needed to get to Huså before 6pm. That was the whole race plan, in my head.
After a brief sit-down in T2, with Paul again acting as my chaperone and definitely absolutely having my running shoes ready in time, I was off like an English politician fleeing the press after a sex scandal. God, it’s been so long since our politicians were fun. At least a good old-fashioned sex scandal would be far less harmful than Brexit, if equally as short-sighted. /soapbox
The enthusiasm did not last long – in fact, it lasted about long enough for me to to make it out of camera-range. When the trails weren’t going up – and they were with alarming frequency, which somehow took me by surprise despite it being a FRIGGIN’ MOUNTAIN – the path was boggy, and the choice was an 8-inch plank of slippy wet wood, or battling the peaty shoe-swallowing earth. It was hard going, and the kilometres ticked by painfully slowly. Almost as painful as the moment I’d realised for some idiotic reason I’d disabled the time field during a run activity on my watch. So I knew I was going punishingly slowly, but I had no idea of what that meant in the context of the wider goal.
It was beautiful though. Lordy Lord, were those trails stunning. I didn’t mind the slow pace too much, as it gave me time to look around. The first aid station was not far from where we broke the treeline, me and a handful of other competitors who’d bunched up and were trudging onwards together. I took a minute here to just admire the views, but took no photos. This little bit of the race was my experience, and I wanted to keep it as that. I just wanted to enjoy it without any on-the-spot pressure, be that performance-wise or being a good little millenial and posting Instagram stories along the whole route (which did cross my mind – you have to carry a phone as safety kit anyway).
If that wasn’t enough, coming across the top of Lillskutan and down the other side… I have never been in love with running as much before. I need to sign up to more fell races. The mad rush of trying to think 3 steps ahead of where your feet currently are, the feeling of being on the cusp of falling for minutes on end, yet still finding a way to stay upright, over rocks, brooks, and roots. Do you even think about where you place your feet when road running? I just think about moving them. This was so much more intense.
The small sub-group had exploded and I was back running by myself as I re-entered the treeline, one by one reeling in other competitors as I picked up speed. Not too much speed, because the trails were still very ‘technical’ – ‘technical’ seems to be running’s catch all term for ‘shit will trip you up yo’, in the same way that ‘undulating’ is the cycling term for ‘several cols between here and the finish’. But I was catching up with daylight, and only managed to nearly fall in a river once, so I consider this whole stretch a big success.
Things were beginning to drag a bit as I closed on the second aid station at 19k. This was where Paul had agreed to meet me – you’re only obligated to have a support runner from T2A onwards, but he’s very enthusiastic and would’ve joined me for 30k if we could figure out a sensible way to get him to the top of Lillskutan. Sweden’s hiking trails are honestly better signposted than England’s roads, so it was a case of counting off the kilometres until I would have some company. Surely enough, 500m away from the second aid station, Paul was running up the track towards me.
I couldn’t have asked for a better support runner than Paul, really. Whilst Dad and Julie were in charge of bike support and general logistics – after all, Dad was the only one with the car keys – Paul organised both my transitions for me, making sure everything was in place and ready to go (even my running shoes), and keeping me focused on the task at hand. On top of that, Paul is a running coach himself, through Let’s Get Running and leading two Goodgym areas, and is also the purveyor of a fine beard. He knows his shit. He made sure I was eating. He made sure I was drinking. He made me run at times I didn’t want to, and he let me walk a bit when I absolutely needed to.
Saying a quick ‘ta-ra, see you in 12k’ to Dad and Julie, Paul and I set off towards T2A. Lillskutan had taken a little bit longer to climb than I’d accounted for in my predictions, but we were on target. I’d aimed roughly to be in T2 at 2pm, and had reached there at 1:30pm, so had 30 minutes-ish to play with. At 19k, it was about 4pm, and I’d aimed to be at T2A, 31k in, by 5pm.
My legs were a bit rubbished at this point – running downhill is hard – and it wasn’t quite the fastest 12k I’ve ever run. There were no major incidents, other than Paul nearly losing a shoe/his foot to one of the many, many bogs we had to traverse. But despite this, it felt a bit like a victory parade already. I was pretty sure I was capable of running 12k in 2 hours. Despite that last kilometre seeming to stretch on forever, and despite me wanting to vomit at various points, Paul kept my shit together for me and we made it to T2A at 5:15pm. Mission. Accomplished.
I’d come to Sweden, and to the Swedeman, to do two things: complete the high finish to the race, and see a moose. I’d already completed one of those on my check-you-put-this-thing-together-properly bike spin a couple days before the race – they’re so majestic, the moose. Such creatures. Really fucking large as well, like horse-sized rather than the cow-sized I’d expected. We locked eyes, me and the moose, on a dusty gravel-road in middle-Sweden. We came to an understanding, this elegant beast and I. Then it ran off into the undergrowth, and I continued on my lonesome ride, but magical moments do not need to last forever. Moooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooose.
There was a minor disagreement between me and one of the kit-checking marshalls in T2A, which made me briefly fear they weren’t going to let me climb the mountain (if you need both base layers to be carried in the bag and not worn on the person at T2A then IT NEEDS TO SAY THAT IN THE MANUAL and IT DID NOT SAY THAT IN THE MANUAL I HAVE CHECKED DON’T SAY I HAVE NOT CHECKED), but I didn’t let it get to me and they decided it was “[my] funeral” – music to the ears of the perennially suicidally-depressed. We stopped for a few minutes here so Paul and I could change socks, layers could be reshuffled, and bags stocked with nutrition supplies duly delivered by Dad and Julie.
Finally, it was time. We set off, full of confidence and (metaphorical) beans. As it happened, a group of about 20 competitors and support runners had set off just before us; Paul and I, being the young energetic athletes we are, quickly hunted them down at our blistering uphill-shuffle pace. When we reached them, we found out the reason they were going so slowly was because they were lost.
Much talking ensued whilst various people stared at various trackers on various phones. Deciding that in any race, but certainly a race like this, that if you’re not moving then you should suck it up and get moving and if you’re definitely not moving then you should be resting, I decided the best course of action was to sit the fuck down and let everyone else figure it out. Which they did. Eventually.
This probably cost us about 20 minutes, I think, although I wasn’t paying attention at this time. Like how the bike dismount line had become my effective finish line at Lanzarote, here at the Swedeman, T2A was as far as I needed to go on a timer. I had all the time in the world to climb Åreskutan – not that I wanted to take all of it, because it would get very cold if I was too late reaching the top – but, theoretically, there was no need to rush.
When we/they did eventually find the correct route (it is the one point of the running route that wasn’t obviously signposted, to be fair), it became quickly obvious that I wouldn’t be able to rush up the mountain even if I wanted to. Being that I’d impaled my foot on an iron spike a fortnight before the race, you think that would have been a small issue, but no. The foot was fine. The knees, on the other hand, were beginning to suffer a bit. Going uphill they were kind of okay, even if I was still feeling a little bit weak. Whenever we reached any rocky sections of the climb – with lots of level changes – it was downright uncomfortable. Of course, by which I mean searing pain/wanting to cry/scream/vomit/lament etc, but we’re men and we can’t admit that shit.
We carried on climbing, stopping occasionally to take in the views and bask in the Swedish sun. There was what we thought were three glittering lakes to our North, which as we climbed higher we realised was actually just one giant lake, 40-50k from end to end. That was pretty spectacular. Further north, there were vague shapes that prompted discussion as to what was more mountains and what was clouds.
Up above the treeline, the temperature noticeably dropped. In part, this was because there were no longer any natural windbreaks. There was a longer stop here, while we each added about every layer of thermal clothing we had left. Maybe overkill at this stage, but it was only going to get colder, and I didn’t really want to have to stop much further up the mountain to go through the process again. We also stopped to fill a water bottle from one of the streams, which seemed very significant in a way I can’t clarify; there’s just something glorious about drinking crystal clear water direct from a mountain stream.
Pressing on, and closing on the top of the mountain, walking itself became obsolete. It was hands and knees, clambering up and rocks and boulders. At this point we were clear of 1000m above sea level, and judging by the way the world had suddenly gone very grey, were inside a cloud. For posterity, the inside of a cloud is cold, and very very windy. It occured to me as we climbed up a rock face that wasn’t quite sheer (but certainly had pretensions of such) that back in real life, in some beige office somewhere a health and safety executive was probably having a heart attack. Several heart attacks, maybe, as the wind threatened to dislodge my underweight form from the rocks I clung to.
Upwards, and onwards, and upwards we pressed. The sky went from grey to dusky red, as the sun tried to break through the cloud. I’m not sure if it was actually red – I remember a discussion between Paul and I about it all looking very Mad Max, and I remember it being red. I also remember having stated at several points over the course of the ‘run’ that I may have been verging on the delirious, and the following picture will clearly show that it wasn’t red. Oh dear.
Eventually, through the murky haze, we spied the weak flashing light marking the small wotsit-tower-thingy at the top of Åreskutan. This was finish line number 2, effectively. Yes, we still had a bit further (much further than I anticipated) to go to the actual finish, at the cable car station; but this was the highest altitude we’d reach. The original plan had been finish the race and then hike back up to the top for photos, but at this point I was cold and tired and had started visibly salivating at the idea of real food. Also, given that I was struggling to walk at this point, I kinda knew that once I reached the finish line that’d be that. So, kindly, Paul obliged and stopped for some photos before we continued.
The last kilometre down to the finish line was hard going. We’d been steadily losing places all the way up the mountain to those you’d spent the whole race behind me, but decided to race the whole thing with serious faces on – honestly, I can’t judge them too hard, as that’d be me 9 times out of 10. That said, I think we shipped more places on that final downhill stretch than we had on the entire ascent of the mountain. My knees at this point were barely capable of supporting any load climbing down over rocks, and I spent half of this section slithering about on my arse; reminiscent of Christmas mornings sliding down the stairs in a sleeping bag at my grandparent’s, but with far less dignity (and sensible outerwear) involved this time around. Meanwhile, rugged blonde Swedes practically sprang past us, emboldened by sight of the finish. I really couldn’t have cared less.
If I look composed there, strolling along like a brisk Sunday walk, it’s probably because at that point I was so far into delirium that I thought it actually was a brisk Sunday walk. Maybe on a verdant London common somewhere. Maybe on a toasty Caribbean island. Maybe I was back in Lanzarote. I don’t know. Dad and Julie had been waiting at the top of the mountain for a few hours for Paul and I to catch up, and duly led us on the last 100m stretch to the finish (barring Dad’s distraction in taking pictures of the other pairs of competitors, which may have been a sign that he wanted me to hurry up).
There wasn’t the usual razmataz of an Ironman finish line – no cheering crowds, no nutjob with a microphone repeating the same lines over and over as each weary idiot successfully idiotted their way past to the finish line. We found out in the award ceremony the following day that they nearly didn’t have a finish line, or a mountain finish, at all – the wind had been so severe that the mountain had been shut all morning, and they barely had time to make it up and set up the finish that was there ahead of the first competitor. At the time, I have entirely zero fucks to give about the subdued denouement. Crossing the line, I knelt down to kiss the stony earth, a sentimental gesture that I was too exhausted to conjure a sentiment for. A few photos later, and I headed inside for some recovery goulash and a beer. Goulash, not remembering having ever had it before, tastes much like the rocks of Åreskutan. Like victory.
Listening: Coheed & Cambria – Unheavenly Creatures; DID ANYBODY TREAT YOU BEEEEEEH-HE-TUR TO OH!-BEY AND FOLLOW TO THE LEEEEEH-HE-TUR I FEAR! MY DEAR! THE END! IS NEAR! SO RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN LIKE THE SUNOFAGUN was going around my head for all 6 1/2 hours of the bike ride and I still like it
Reading: Shamus Young – Mass Effect Retrospective; meta-narrative dissections of popular media are my jam