Babs, a Park Ranger for 37 years tried to calm my nerves “hey honey, those gators are only the small ones from 3-9 feet and they only eat small deer and ducks … You’ll be just fine”… and so it was … although I did swim a little faster to ensure I was not the one they chose to have for breakfast. Thus began, at 6.15, my 2.5mile swim (1hr 17 mins) in Lake Weir, Ocala … In the boondocks of central Florida on Sunday 25 March. Post-swim there was only a small cycle ride of 112 miles (6 hr 3 mins) and the full marathon of 26+ miles (4 hr 13 mins) to complete … No sweat!!
I had started this madness 6 months previously when Jason Davis said that I needed to build a lot more mileage in the winter. I was thinking 6-7 hrs a week, he meant 14-16 hrs a week. I needed a goal. Hence the half Ironman in January and the full Ironman in March, ready for the Olympic distance (a mere 51.5 km!) triathlon in May and June. In the end I managed 2.5 hrs per day, culminating in 2 big weeks that were 5-6 hrs a day at La Santa. It was like boot camp for my ‘not so tender’ 51 year-old body. Life was a series of aches, pains and strains. A major rethink was required for diet and also switching training focus when any particular area got too inflamed … so if hamstrings played up, I would swim more, if lower neck or shoulder, I would run more.
So, ‘the race’, in short, epic. Indelibly marked on my brain! Surrounded by highly focused and positive people, the feel-good factor was massive. Everyone was hugely supportive and couldn’t do enough for each other: if a piece of vital kit was left behind, it would be quickly replaced by someone with a spare; any apprehensions were shared; everyone wanted to wish you well and all had mutual respect for the hard miles that had gone before the race. The gun went at 6.15. Having eaten breakfast at 2.30am, it was already a long day! The halfway swim point was back at the beach and the half Ironmen competitors exited for their bikes whilst the full distance looped the beach and dived back into the lake. It felt lonely and more like gator-bait for the 2nd lap with fewer of us out there. The water was warm and the full wetsuit probably made it too hot, but added buoyancy. As the wind picked up, so did the waves and the final return leg to shore was choppy. The crowd were brilliant, cheering you on and the team using the speaker system always knew your name and details to share with the crowd at every stage, in fact, all the staff at the 20+ aid stations (drink refills, ice, chocolate marathon bars, carbo gels, sodium pills, crisps, oranges, pretzels, suncream, Vaseline etc etc) knew your name and the positive support was incredible … It really lifted your spirits and a number of families had adopted ‘Paul the Brit’ to support around the course. In fact, one family had a small cow bell and must have stopped 15-20 times on the bike route to cheer us along. I even had Officer Stan Malone, a State Trooper on his Harley Davidson 1100, escort me at my side with blue flashing lights for a number of miles. The police also had traffic cars with lights flashing at all the junctions (which was reassuring given the amount of road kill on the roadside). Despite the brilliant organisation and safety support, one of the runners in our race was thrown 40′ in the air when he was hit from behind and a female US Navy doctor I cycled with for 5-6 miles was hit by a wing mirror, but got back on her bike, having self-assessed that she was only bruised with nothing broken, and finished the race!
The enduring memory for the bike route was the amazing beauty of the country. It was in the boondocks, with most traffic signs having bullet holes (think of Deliverance – no punctures wanted here!), but interspersed with lakes and farms. The hanging moss, palm trees and amazing array of animals all helped take the mind away from the building pain. It was also hot, damned hot! Forecast of 88-90 were thankfully exaggerated … Only 86 degrees! Humidity was also in the 80s, so training in the British winter had not helped, although using an indoor bike trainer and a pre-race camp in Lanzarote had got my body partly prepared. With 114.5 miles done, I was finally off the saddle and strangely relieved to only have a marathon to run! The fact that it took an hour longer than usual is an indication of how hard it was. The heat really kicked-in. Every 1.5 miles I would put more ice in my cap, down my shorts (!) and drink what little my body would not reject (!). By this stage I had drunk 10 litres of carbo/protein mix, swallowed 14 carbo gels, eaten 3 carbo bars and 2 bananas … anything more than a sip of water would be followed by retching. The support continued to be amazing. Half the course was running through Floridian woods along a lake and half on the roadside. The first 20 miles were steady but comparatively ok. The last 6 were a bit of a blur. My saving grace was opening an envelope from my wife at mile 19 with pictures of the children with messages to cheer me on. It did the trick. I can honestly say, that I enjoyed the last 3 miles, even though I was slower than a tortoise. So, finally, 11hrs 39 mins after the starting gun, I crossed the finish line. I had achieved one of my personal goals – something akin to a mountain that I wanted to climb. The Westgate Tri Club, my wife, family and friends have been truly amazing in their support. Thanks for tolerating the endless absences and strange triathlon Ironman-speak. I was chuffed to come 9th overall and 1st in my age group, but a very modest performance in comparison to a young fireman, Rob Verhelst, who swam and biked the full courses and then did the marathon in full gear … with helmet and oxygen tank. He came in at 1148pm accompanied by what seemed like the entire counties fire fighting vehicles blaring horns, flashing lights and firing hoses …. Respect!