People who do Ironman races are not iron men. They are normal people just like you and me, but with an ironclad determination that can move mountains. Find that determination within you and you will move mountains too.
It was the most difficult part of the race by far. I had already done the 3.8 kilometer swim
and the 180 kilometer bike ride. Now, “all” I had left was a 42 kilometer run. I was tired. I was sweating in the Spanish humidity like a pig. I really wanted to get out of my tri-suit, which I had been wearing now for more than ten hours, and jump into a shower. My quads were cramping in a way that made me think they might soon snap off of my knee bones. Even so, I found myself thinking, “This really isn’t all that hard!”
I realize how ridiculous that sounds. But what it really meant at the time was that I felt that the training I had done during the months before the race had prepared me well. I didn’t feel anything I didn’t expect to. Most importantly, I was able to keep going.
The real Ironman experience, I believe, is in the months before the actual race. So much is learned during that process about oneself and about the sport. I feel so privileged to have found a professional triathlon coach, Louise Hanley of The Triathlon Coach, who gave me a customized training program suited to my abilities and goals, while being able to adjust it as needed due to my shin splints that just never seem to go away completely. I now understand how fortunate professional athletes are to have support teams. It makes such a difference to be trained by people who know their stuff.
I don’t remember exactly when the idea of doing an Ironman entered my head. Probably soon after I started doing triathlons three years ago. My husband Colin had told me so many stories about the half Ironman he did in Florida many years ago. It sounded like a great challenge and lots of fun. I wanted to have that kind of experience.
But as I was in the process of trying to figure out how or when to do an Ironman, I fell from my bike and dislocated my shoulder while my husband and I were touring in Belgium. This eventually led to a very painful frozen shoulder and an operation. While still groggy from the anesthesia, a physiotherapist was already working on my shoulder to make sure it had full mobility. “Is my shoulder going to be all right?” I asked her. “I really want to do an Ironman.” As it turns out, this particular physiotherapist had done four Ironman races. She told me my shoulder would be fine and that I absolutely could do an Ironman. “Are you sure? I’ve only just started doing triathlons. Do you really think I can do an Ironman?” I asked her. I’ll never forget her words. They have been ringing in my ears ever since. “Do it. Do it!”
Nine months later, in October 2016, I registered to do Ironman Barcelona the following year.
My training with Louise began in January. The nine months of training were in some ways similar to a pregnancy. You get up in the morning feeling nauseated because you know you’ll have to go out and run in the dark and cold. All you want to do is go back to sleep, but if you don’t do the run now, you won’t have enough time for your job, which you need to pay your bills. Your whole day and months revolve around your training. It becomes the priority and everything else is there to support it. And you have one date in mind: the day you hope to deliver at that finish line.
The training is every bit mental as it is physical. It is not easy getting your self to do things it really doesn’t want to do. I eventually taught my self not to look too far ahead. Every morning, I’d look at the program and see what Louise had in store for me. Louise’s word became almost Godly. If a swim was scheduled for that day, a swim was going to get done. When I was feeling lazy, I would tell myself to go out and do the training session but that I didn’t have to push myself too hard. But then, during the session, I’d tell myself that as long as I was out, I might as well do the session properly the way Louise has asked me to do it. And so it was.
I was able to keep it all together until the taper. On September 1, Louise sent me my final monthly training program before the race. When I saw it, I realized the worst of the training was now behind me and I got tremendously excited. But by September 7, I was feeling fatigued and panicky. I began to have serious doubts that I would ever be able to beat the cut-off times on the bike course. To avoid being removed from the course because I was too slow, I would have to cycle at an average pace for a distance of 180km that I never managed to reach over smaller distances during training.
The panic stuck with me until the second I dived into the Mediterranean when the race
started on the morning of Saturday, September 30. As soon as my body hit that water and my arms started to move, something clicked in my head: “Hey! I know this! This is familiar. I know how to do this.” All those months of training suddenly kicked in. I was so accustomed to jumping into a cold, dark, murky, weedy northern England lake, that getting into the gently rocking, warm Mediterranean seemed like heaven. That 3.8km swim was so enjoyable (ENJOYABLE!!) that I could have just removed myself from the race and kept swimming forever and ever.
Getting out of the water, I just automatically did what I always did during transitions in other races. Then I got on my bike and pumped those legs. It was all so strangely and comfortably familiar, even though I was doing it all in a completely new location. I made sure I followed my nutrition plan. I ate solid foods, took in gels, drank lots of water, and drank some energy drink. I made sure I was hydrated, replaced the
salts I lost in my sweat, and had enough energy to get me through the bike ride and through part of my upcoming run. I put myself in the aero position on my tri bars for the majority of the ride. And by the middle point of the first of the bike course’s 2.5 laps, I realized that I was going to nail this. When I passed my husband Colin at the end of the first lap, I yelled out to him, “I’ve got this, Colin!! I’ve got this!!” During the whole ride I had two mantras: “Make Colin proud.” And “Anything is possible,” something Becki, one of my triathlon club’s swimming coaches, stopped to tell me the evening before I left for Spain. If Becki says it, then it must be true, I was convinced.
That part of the race that I was most worried about was the part I most surprised myself in. My bike time was better than anything I could have possibly imagined for myself.
During transition two, I thought I’d reward myself for such a great bike time by taking a tiny bit of extra time in transition to change out of my sweaty socks and into nice dry ones. Little did I know that minutes later I would be pouring water over my sweaty body, only to soak everything, including those socks. (Lesson learned).
The run was the most difficult part of the race. No matter what, you are bound to be
exhausted after the swim and the bike. But again, running after a long bike ride was familiar. Louise had me do it many times in training. I was in familiar territory. So I just ran. I walked through every single feed station, drinking water, pouring it over my head, sometimes taking a gel and most times drinking energy drink. I had to stop a few times to stretch out my quads. I really did think they were going to snap. The pain was almost unbearable at times. But the stretches worked. And I just kept going till the next aid station or until the next unbearable quad cramp. I broke the run down into bits. Just run the next 2.5km until the next aid station. Just do the first half of this 13km lap. If you need to walk the rest, you can walk the rest. When I managed to run the first 16 km, I told myself to try to run the next 7.5km. When I finished the second 13km loop, I told myself I might as well just run the last 13 km loop. My pace didn’t matter as long as my legs kept moving forward in a slow jog. I knew that if I kept that up, I wouldn’t be disappointed in myself.
I had kept my eye on the time throughout the whole of the long bike ride. I needed to make sure I was going to beat the cut-off times for the bike loops. But during the run, I knew I had enough time to finish the race before the final cut-off time even if I walked the whole course. So I decided not to look at my watch at all. I didn’t want to be demotivated by finding out that I was going very slowly. I also needed to listen to my body and my body alone. I needed to do a pace that wasn’t dependent on time but was dependent instead on my body’s ability.
So, when I saw that I had one final kilometer to run and decided it was all right to check my watch, I was completely taken aback by the number I saw.
I had had no real sense of time during the 42 km run. I figured that it was more than possible that I was nearing the 15-hour mark since the start of the race. But my watch was telling me I had been out for just over 13 hours. I saw that number and said (out loud), “No no no no. Something is definitely wrong with this watch.”
You see, in the weeks leading up to the race, I had serious doubts about my ability to even finish it within the allocated cut-off times. I wasn’t being silly. I had never reached the overall average speeds during training that I would need to maintain in order to beat the cut-off times for the bike course’s loops. Even so, I thought that if I was really lucky and did manage to get through the bike course without being removed by the marshals, the best possible time I could ever dream for would be in the 14 hour 20 minute range. Even that, I believed, was pushing it.
So, when I realized that it looked like I was going to have a sub 13 hour 30 minute time, I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t understand it. The tears, of course, welled up in my eyes. As I turned the corner and was about to step onto the red carpet, a British couple cheered me on. I told them, “I think I’m going to cry!” The guy said, “Cry! Let it all out! You deserve it!”
I was so ecstatic though that I couldn’t even cry. And that’s saying a lot because I’m a huge crybaby. I stepped onto the red carpet and started yelling, “Woooooooohooooooooooooooooo!” saying it over and over again. I found Colin in the crowd. He grabbed my arm, gave me a huge kiss, looked me in the eye and told me how proud he was of me. I nodded my head and said, “I know!” Then I continued down that red carpet and my name was called out, “Nadia. You. Are. An. Ironman!” And I screamed down the rest of that red carpet, holding my arms out wide, taking it all in. It really was a wonderful moment to experience. The race I was hoping to finish within 15 hours 40 minutes, the cut-off for Ironman Barcelona, was completed in 13 hours, 16 minutes, and 57 seconds. Never would I have imagined that time in my wildest of wild dreams.
I need to emphasize that despite this being a great personal achievement for me, in the grand scheme of things this was just another race. You don’t need to be superman to finish an Ironman race. You don’t need to have superhuman abilities to achieve your academic, professional, or adventure dreams. You just need to have the courage to dream, a structured plan to get you there, and headstrong determination to follow that plan no matter what it takes.
People who do Ironman races aren’t iron men. They are normal human beings just like you and me. All they did was they believed in themselves. And that is all you need to do to achieve whatever you want in life.
Dream. Believe. Get a plan. Be determined. Achieve.
I have so many people I need to thank.
My husband, Colin, for his constant support of my crazy ideas. Thank you for always
telling me how amazing I am. Not that I don’t already know it, of course. But I like hearing it from you. :-p You are my rock.
My kids, who are only aware of these things I do because I keep reminding them, for keeping me grounded and realizing what’s really important in life.
Louise Hanley, my triathlon coach, for giving me structure, advice and support. Your training program became akin to the word of God to me for months. And whatever it is that you put into it, it made magic happen.
Tom Waite, my personal trainer, for making me strong and never doubting that I’d do this.
All the Leeds Bradford Triathlon Club coaches and members who have given training, guidance and support.
Carl Akeroyd, you crazy man, for being so damned inspiring.
Philippe Evans, a twelve-time Ironman who is about to take part in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, for humbling himself and taking me out on those last three long rides when I needed the company the most. Smash it at Kona!
Becki Maud, for those last three words, “Anything is possible”, that became one of my two mantras on the bike ride.
Amany Khalil, an Egyptian woman who did Ironman Barcelona last year, for showing the rest of us Egyptian women that culture, age, and motherhood are no deterrent to achieving your wildest dreams. Thank you so much for standing in that horribly dark corner at the end of the running loop to cheer us on this year. It kept me going, knowing you would be there.
My best friend Arwa, for putting up with my crying, complaining, and having nothing to talk about except for my training for months on end. I love you to the end of the earth and back.
Stu Hart, for telling me all those months ago that I CAN.
The Ironman coach who, on a Facebook group for people registered to do an Ironman for the first time, told me that maybe doing an Ironman was not for me. This was because of a blog post I wrote, and posted in that group, about how difficult I was finding the training. I was saying that I never understood people who constantly talked about the “joy” that training brought them. The stuff is fucking exhausting! I find my “joy” in the sense of achievement afterwards. But I have always struggled mentally to get myself out of bed and out into the cold. Why do I thank her? Because she got me so mad that I was determined to prove her wrong. These sorts of events are MADE for people like me, lady.
The physio, who may or may not exist in real life, whose words have been echoing in my ears ever since my shoulder operation, “Do it. Do it!”