Too quick off the mark
Don’t answer an email when you are drunk. The email I answered was an invite to take part in an event titled “A Day in the Lakes”. Baz, living in the Lakes, had this on his doorstep and told us “this is going to be my crazy challenge this year” and threw out the invite for the rest of us to join.
Being drunk, I replied to the email with a snapshot of my confirmation of entry from the organiser.
This was in December. As we ticked into January of 2015 the blood in my veins turned cold. I had signed up for this quaintly named event in the Lake District which was actually a half Ironman or 70.3:
If you have followed the adventures herein you will know that despite being an avid and almost professional drinker I can also turn the pedals of a bike. My love is for the dirt, tree and rock that threaten to smash my bones when I fail to respect them, like a slightly suicidal but healthy mid-life crisis. I have also dabbed more than a toe in the world of the Tarmac T-Rex.
It has always been my ability to endure “pain for the pint at the end” which has seen me through the road jaunts and also my love of being with the Wolf Pack, but here there was an issue. Baz had signed up, Dan had signed up, Paul was now living in Seattle and Mark wisely refused. The pack was reduced from the start. So was I to have two comrades? Not even, because these events are about you against you, trying to defy your own limits. The fact that you are in a crowd is neither here nor there. Not that I would see the crowd because Baz and Dan were already supremely better than me at tarmac cycling and the rules of no drafting made it impossible for us to ride together anyway. Baz also ran like a Gazelle, so I was on for the hardest challenge I would ever face and it was for all intents and purposes, solo.
Solo was not new of course; Prudential Ride London was solo, Mitie London Revolution was solo and the Gorrick cross country races were solo but these were all on bikes. What I needed to do was learn two very important things. I had to learn how to run and how to swim. I also only had 6 months left.
Forming the Man
Readers should know that I am not the source for training advice or kit recommendations and that trend continues. I looked at apps on the iPhone that coached a person from couch to 5k or 10k in a 12 week programme and decided that was a little too long into my journey, so on the 4th January I stuck on a pair of shorts, trainers and shirt at work and ran 5k in a lunch break.
I couldn’t walk up stairs for 3 days without wincing.
Once the legs worked again I ran another 5k at lunch. I kept this process going until it stopped hurting and support from my colleagues led to a running group on Wednesdays which kept the miles rising. After a short while I tried a 10k at lunch. This hurt a little, but nothing like the first 5k. Then I found a morning that was free on a wet weekend and I ran a half-marathon on the heath behind my house. I had gone from couch to half-marathon in 4 weeks, but more importantly, I had completed the distance that was required of me. A mental wall tumbled down.
As for swimming, the furthest I had ever swum was 1k and this was in a lunch break at college. I used to go once a week to the pool next to the grounds and I could knock out this distance in just over 20 minutes, but at the time I was 19, thought smoking was the devil’s weed and was too poor to drink to destruction. Much had changed over a decade, but I hoped swimming was like riding a bike and booked a day off work, calculated the distance in lengths of the 25 meter local pool and swam 1.2 miles in just under an hour. More of the wall came down.
All the advice to train for this distance in both run and swim is opposed to what I did, but getting my body ready for it was not what drove me. My body has been abused enough to recover from most things, but the key I needed to turn was whether or not it could get through it at all in order to then repair rather than fall apart during. I was fighting fear, not fitness and although my legs took a beating in that first month and my eyes looked as if they might bleed because I had no goggles when I swam, I knew the distance was possible. The bike was never an issue as I knew how to winch up a climb and I knew how to descend to make up time. When you stop cycling you roll for a while to get your head back in the game, but when you stop swimming you stop. When you stop running you stop. Now I knew I didn’t need to stop and I was brave enough to start!
Only after the wall was down did I start investing properly, buying running clothes, joining the Garrison 50m pool to cut out half of the turns and to utilise the dead time between 9pm and 10pm so I missed no time with the boys and gave my wife quiet time to watch “Home & Away”. The fear was dead and I had benchmarks of known ability. All that was left was to improve them and to string them together, scouring websites for form advice, but more importantly, believing I could do it and to do it well.
As a man of finance this became a spreadsheet, but the plan was rather simple. First I copied a Personal Best Iron-man training plan that spanned 12 weeks. I halved the distances of each workout and added a new set of columns I named “Reality Plan”. This was every week I had left, so in my first batch of weeks there was no Personal Best plan to compare it to, but that didn’t matter to me. I was interested in the distances rather than the intensity and once I had booked out all the days I knew I couldn’t train on, all the weekends where family time trumped all, stuck in the few lad’s adventures that had been talked about, I finally had windows of opportunity. In these I stuffed a little more distance in each discipline than the Personal Best plan had.
It was basic, but I lived to it with only a 20% slippage in Swimming and Running (whereas cycling fell to the wayside often)
· Monday lunch - 5k
· Tuesday lunch - Weights
· Tuesday evening - 2k swim
· Wednesday Lunch - 5k
· Thursday Lunch - 5k
· Thursday evening - 2k swim
· Friday Lunch - Core and stability (almost Pilates, but not)
· Weekend - Family time but with a monthly Half marathon thrown in
Weekends were my place holder for when to cycle in the plan, but it wasn’t happening. I took the bike to work a few times for hill repeats but probably made no real difference. I also had a trip to the Ridgeway with Mark for a 50 mile off-road blast and a Peak District two day epic on Mam Tor with Mat and Mark, but cycling was the middle child – forgotten.
The other disciplines received great focus and the Goddess also saw fit to look after her own again. As a family on an outing to the Guildford splash pools we passed posters advertising cold water swimming at Guildford Lido. This was February and my adventure there was the first swim in a wetsuit. It may also have shortened my life a little; such was the cold that penetrated my soul.
Through work I also found a friend who was a GB triathlete. He encouraged me to join him one Tuesday night at Reading Lakes, introduced me to methods such as drafting and also took me for a run which killed a little bit more of me; such was the pace he set. I simply trusted fate and took these chances when family life allowed and every little piece of experience was something new, bolted onto the man like pieces of armour.
Sadly we lost Dan during the training process leaving just me and Baz in the running. Strava told me I was on for a loss against him, but that would be decided on the day.
The drive up
The day was as quickly upon me as I had feared it would be, but in another way it felt a little later than I had wanted. I had felt for a few weeks that I was ready and then entered the tapering stage, but rather than being able to convince myself that this was helping, the loss of the constant training set a fear growing in me that I was losing my best. Whether true or not, I could do nothing about it and set about my usual routine for any event, with multiple lists of items required, allowed my son to decorate what would be my transition box, wrote down what I intended to do in transition to commit it to memory and set about packing, ticking off and preparing to drive.
I dropped the children at nursery, did a quick shop to stock my wife up with goodies and set off for Cumbria, with the plan to collect an eBay purchase of a pram from Stockport for Baz on the way. This should have been a 6 hour journey, but was 9 hours after the M6 and three trucks had a say in the matter. That confirmed my wisdom to travel on Friday and not the day before as it simply didn’t matter what time I arrived.
I actually arrived just in time for dinner and a quick meet and greet with the newest Simpson before he was taken to bed. Homemade burgers and real ale I had picked up from Tebay services closed the day beautifully.
Saturday was a lazy day, drifting over to the staging site to sign in and receive our tags, all in glorious sunshine we both knew was not going to hold. Baz and I could see the fells that would be the course for the run and stood on the banks of the lake wishing the buoys had already been placed, but overall we were quiet, thoughtful and if I am honest; bricking it.
I was quick to order a pint when we stopped for lunch at the Punchbowl in Askum and I started on what was left in the house when we returned. Mention of a quick ride out on the bikes filled me with dread and I knew there was no turning back.
That night we prepared first in silos, dealing with our own rituals and packing our own transition boxes. Mine had been decorated by my son for luck and I spent a while collecting stickers from Baz's kitchen floor.
Baz then cooked us a meal to put balls between our legs for the day and I wondered whether it actually had balls in it:
Regardless - it was scrumptious and while it sank down into our guts we stood together and talked each other through our race plans whilst ticking off the kit as packed when we mentioned it. I had thought about it so many times and had now been at the lake edge so could summon the image of the race clearly. Whereas a few hours ago I was terrified, suddenly I was ready.
Being ready does not mean I was able to sleep.
We were up at 6am and in the pre-packed car after a swift coffee and bowl of granola by 6:30am. We were quiet in the car as we drove the 45 mins to the start, both looking at the head of a storm that had already broken ahead of us. Views of mountains and green had already been replaced with grey sheets of falling rain.
The rain eased a little before we parked up and moved our kit to transition. The wind did not and nor did the sky have any intention to clear. The organisers had told us to be ready to go down to the water at 8am for the start, but during the briefing he told us that this was to be delayed. The wind was so strong at the far end of the route that the safety kayaks were having trouble in the waves. Instead the buoys would be moved and the course would be a two lap effort, still 1.2 miles, in the less deadly waters.
Standing in the water I looked at the amount of people waiting to start. The first wave set off at the siren and it was a frantic foray of splashes around the purple caps. Very soon it was time for us orange heads to move out to the start for the second wave where it was deep enough to have to tread water. Confident in my abilities I moved to the front. Wise to triathlon, Baz stayed at the back.
Our siren sounded. I swam hard towards the first buoy and was in the lead group, but not far enough ahead for it to matter. I came too close to the buoy and couldn’t turn quick enough. The swimmers behind me began to clamber over me, pushing me down and letting me taste Ullswater’s offerings. I tried to get out of the way and was pushed under again, coming up afterwards gagging and watching as the field of athletes, including Baz, crept away.
It was over for me at that point. I swam behind the group, catching up with Baz, but feared getting close to people or even putting my face down into the cold water. I felt defeated five minutes into a day’s long race. I tried calling out to Baz, trying to convince myself that this was a fun day and his reply would make me laugh, but he had his eyes focused forward and earplugs sealing his ears shut.
I slowed down further and they crept away. I passed the second buoy, still head up and wondering what I might do while Baz was out finishing the race. He had the keys so I couldn’t pack the car so I would have to linger which I convinced myself would be fine. I had money for coffee…
…but as I came to the last straight of the square I could see people exiting the lake. The water was choppy, malicious and brutal. The toll from one lap was hefty and suddenly I could not allow it to be me as well. I had not trained for six months to be beaten by doubts. So my face slipped into the water and within two clean breaths I was on the inside line of those reaching the buoy where it had started and where it had all gone wrong.
I cut around it with only a few bodies to navigate around and tried to sight the next buoy. It was grey cloud ahead and nothing else, so I moved further inwards and used my breathing as a means for checking my progress through the water. One head, two heads, three; I was faster than the back of the pack and didn’t belong there. Four, five, six and more; I was catching bigger groups and I was passing them. The third buoy was behind my shoulder and I had one more to reach before I could climb out of the water and begin the journey to completing this thing.
I swam that last stretch hard and scooped a handful of gravel in the shallows. This alone let me know I was there and I stood up intending to run to transition, but the world tipped and met me on the left. I laughed, gathered myself and stood up again. People were looking at me so I called “am I winning?” to lighten the mood. A step forward towards the laughter and I was down again on my left. My balance was gone so I crawled to the shore, stood again and was suddenly being held by the shoulders.
A guy in a wetsuit, but not a competitor, had me. He looked me in the eyes, checking if I was okay. “That was a good swim” he said with a smile and I thanked him. “You need to wait here for five minutes,” he added and I had to ask him to repeat what he’d said. Once I understood at first I was annoyed, but quickly realised that this was someone caring for me, wanting me to be okay and wanting me to finish.
Five minutes later he let me go, insisting I walk and not run, which I did. On route to the bike I removed the top of my wetsuit in the fashion I had learned from Gareth, my triathlete mate at work. I also chuckled as I remembered a conversation I’d had with another work mate, David, during one of our runs. He had said that people are affected differently by the swim and some come out of the water fine while others have no legs. At the time I had said how I would be fine, but now I knew the truth of it and the memory removed any doubt that I could continue. It was just how the water had affected me.
Back at the bike I saw people racing through their transition, going out in just a tri-suit into what had become a lashing cold rain. I had hoped to finish within seven hours, but now I just wanted to finish. I had been through my greatest battle in the water and it had been against my own mind. Now was the time to let my body do the rest, so I sat down, dried my feet, dressed for bad weather, said hello to Baz as he left transition and set off when I was ready.
I rode hard, but the weather was brutal. On the first stretch beside the lake where I had hoped to gain time I was faced with headwinds and rain that blinded me. This was also going to be the story for me until I was at least half way through the route, so I backed off a little, considering staying on the bike more important that blasting against it and popping my legs. After all, I had Kirkstone Pass, Shap Fell and a run over a mountain yet to complete.
I was not to be defeated by weather on a bike. I had conquered the Prudential Ride London in a hurricane and that one was twice the length. The miles just needed to be churned out and that is what I did, getting out of the saddle when I could and sitting down when I had to.
The Kikstone climb that I dreaded a little seemed to come very soon into the ride and the weather was not letting up. I was looking forward to seeing the pub at the top which marked the end of that part of effort, but I entered the clouds halfway up and spent my time worrying more about the coaches and cars coming down the pass against me rather than the effort for me to get up. Without even seeing the pub I was suddenly descending, with that headwind still prevailing and lashing my face with cold rain.
I had been passed by one and gained on three by the time I hit the bottom of Shap Fell, but I had expected this climb to be on a narrow winding road. Instead it was a wide, boring and monotonous beast. It was so different from expectation that I was completely shocked at the top when a man stepped out of the mist applauding me, saying “you’ve got 100 meters of Shap left and then it’s all downhill.”
It wasn’t all downhill, but it wasn’t climbing like I had experienced to that point. I also had reached a point where the wind was now with me rather than against me and I started to clip along nicely, taking another three places and losing one when I needed to stop for a pee in a bush. By the time I reached transition again the sun had broken through and I was smiling, knowing I was a run away from being a half ironman.
I treated transition the same as I had before, changing into dry jersey and socks and being comfortable before I set off. Meanwhile a city type was throwing a fit about his time, screaming at his wife or girlfriend to go home because he was going to be hours before he finished. She ignored him and although I had the urge to advise him to calm down I kept quiet. That was his race and mine was mine.
Due to the weather at the start we were told we had to carry safety kit with us, so I was carrying a bag into the run with full body cover, a map, a compass, a whistle and rescue blanket despite the dramatic change in weather. Rather than raincoats it seemed we were more likely to need sun cream!
I set off at a gentle pace and ran the small section of tarmac to the start of a steep climb into the fells. Here I caught up with a lady called Helen and as she walked beside me up the rocky slope I shared out the wine gums I had in my bag. At the top of the climb we ran together but it became apparent that my pace from ability to descend on loose rocks and shale was a touch faster than she was happy to hold. I left her behind and before long reached the cut-off point and drinks station I had feared not getting to in time.
After all that had happened I was there in ample time and started off on the true climb of the run. This took me up a broken trail, beautifully way-marked with small red flags at every hint of a junction. I passed through streams, cut around broken down stone shepherd huts that had long lost their roof and then was directed over a bridge away from the mountain I thought I was going to climb.
Perplexed, I kept going and soon realised that there was a tremendous ridge joining the two. I passed along this and then began the proper descent back to the drink station I had passed a while ago.
I skipped down the side of the mountain with a flow that belied what I had already been through. Six people fell behind me as I descended and these people had not even been in sight when I started the climb. I was flying and so much so that one woman stepped aside and cried out “go on Mountain Goat!” as I passed her.
Back at the drink’s station I was led along a road for a short time, back up onto the fells for a little longer along a false flat and then down onto the road beside the lake. A sign marked 5K to go and I plodded along, overtaking another two people before seeing the turning back into the field after what had seemed the longest 5k of my entire life.
My plan had always been to cross the line running and I stuck to this, but I did so wearing a stitch in my ribs that decided to strike in those last 10 meters. Baz was stood waiting, having finished an hour and a half before me.
We hugged, laughed, helped ourselves to the free offerings and then I grumbled that I had not been given a medal! You get a medal nowadays for crossing the line on a fun run and I had already promised it to my eldest son to put in his dressing up box.
It is surprising how small things can mean so much after trauma, but there it is. I was annoyed for the whole time it took me to change into civvies in transition and to walk my stuff back to Baz’s car. Once I sat down in the passenger seat the gripe had flown and our chins wagged as we shared each other’s stories.
That night I packed the car and we ploughed through a reward of spicy pizza and expensive specialist beers before having one of the best nights sleep ever, partly because I think I died a little after making a good go at my beers on top of all we had done.
The next morning was an early start and long drive home for me while Baz went to work. I feel I had the better deal as I was able to collect the boys early and take them to the pub to enjoy the splendid sunshine.
So it was a long time coming and then over in eight hours and twenty four minutes. I had been almost drowned in a lake, cycled through gale force wind, lashing rain, climbed two of the top 100 climbs on a bike and completed a half marathon on my first experience of fell running. All in, it was a rather bold event to jump into without having any experience…
…but I am glad I did. It wasn’t a race; it was a journey that started on the 4th January and it is a journey that will now continue. It was lonely at times, brutal at times, exciting and fabulous. It was an experience shared with Baz even if he did have more than an hour between us by the end. I knew the pain he had experienced because I had weathered it too.
So we were half ironmen and Baz is already talking about the full ironman status. I am tempted, but I also learned that commitment to such a task requires sacrifice somewhere else. A lot of training and a sprinkle of bloody-mindedness got me through this Day in the Lakes, but a full Ironman commanded a little more so maybe my journey will stray a little from Baz next year.