Five minutes into the run leg of my third Ironman my lungs tightened up and I recognized the onset of an asthma attack. Initially, I was confused at what was happening. Everything had been going well for over seven hours – I’d recorded a personal best swim time and pushed on for a satisfactory bike split. I’d managed my nutrition, I felt fatigued but capable, and my mind was clear – I was focused on my target marathon time of under 3hrs 50 minutes. I’m a runner – this is the part where I get to show my strength.
But breathing became more difficult and I thought I might need to abandon the race. My head was spinning, wondering why my airways had so quickly become constricted. There was the miserable sound of it: the wheezing, and the crackling mucus on every heavy-laden breath. For those unfamiliar, if you run hard on the spot a few seconds and then try and breath through a straw, you can get a sense of the panic it can induce. I’ve had asthma since I was young, but it has been manageable as an adult and only shown up occasionally on some winter runs, when the cold air and hard starts can trigger a reaction. Even then, it usually calms down after 15 minutes. This time it took longer. The weather was fine in Maastricht: it was a warm day, with the sun shining, so this was baffling. I’ve not needed to use an inhaler during sports for years, and with the conditions like this, it just didn’t occur to me to carry one.
I was preoccupied with it; and didn’t notice I was running too fast. I was over-breathing, almost hyperventilating. My previous two Ironman experiences revealed the same tendency, to bolt out of transition, free from the restrictions of the bike and let loose. I’d done the first 5km in 25 minutes, and at that pace I was on track for a fantasy 3hr30 finish. As soon as the thought came up, I slowed. I would see if it improved before doing anything drastic. Thankfully, I recalled a rescue technique, where you slow the breath and simultaneously draw it through the nose and mouth. Yet, it wasn’t until the halfway point nearly two hours later that I felt a full sense of relief, that it was past and I would be able to give my all, and go for it to the end.
I felt grateful in that moment, a kind of happiness. These are the dark moments that Ironman triathletes speak of. I hadn’t experienced one so nasty during the IM Lanzarote or IM Mallorca in 2016, so perhaps I was due. I did the second half of the marathon 10 minutes faster – a ‘negative split ‘as they say – to finish in 3hrs 48. Plenty of salt tablets were needed, and I walked through nearly every aid station sipping water and cola. The story ends well, but it was a scare. Not finishing would have been hugely disappointing and totally unexpected. I’d put in a lot of hours of training over the last few months, and then there is all the mechanical preparations and travel organization. It all has to go smoothly, and requires some good fortune.
It was a kind of winding road that brought me to the Maastricht race itself. At the end of May, I’d signed up for the IM Wales, which is on September 10 in Tenby. I’d selected it as my father and other relatives, who live in south Wales, would be able to come and support. The Ironman events have become as much a festival for family, to show support. Unfortunately, due to a work contract opportunity that came up for September, I had to cancel Wales and transfer my entry. Maastricht was the only option in the training time frame. It all fell into place though. I needed some luck when my AirBnB host cancelled my booking the day before the trip. I scrambled to find a last minute equivalent option near the start line, in the centre of town. It turned out to be a whole flat to myself, which was ideal for resting, assembling the bike and the whole pre-race ritual.
I took the Eurostar to Brussels, and used the EuroDespatch service, which carries the bike box for that part of the journey. From there it’s an easy switch to Liege, and onto Maastricht. I was in the flat around midday Friday, and at the riverside Ironman Expo for the race briefing at 2.30pm. South African MC Paul Kaye always delivers the guidelines well, though his description of the bike course sounded ominous.
It rained the rest of the day, and there was tangible concern among gathered athletes about race day conditions. In the evening, a DJ party and a 5km riverside night run for family and friends kept spirits up. Saturday started with an open water swim and wetsuit test in the river. After devouring a lunch carb-feast of potato, ham and mayo salad, the bike check-in was imminent. Racked the bike moments before another torrential downpour, and was soon back resting at the flat. My evening of R&R was slightly disrupted when the host texted to say his neighbors, a family from Kyrgyzstan, wanted to drop by and watch TV in his front room, and could I let them in? Mother and two adult daughters soon arrived, and promptly settled on the sofa. I made polite conversation, and then retreated to my room. I shrugged it off as just another puzzling occurrence to negotiate before the race, and hit the hay.
I was up and wide-awake at 4.30am. After a coffee and some porridge, the anticipation began creeping up in earnest. I put a music playlist on, and started preparing my mind, methodically visualizing myself handling the epic series of tasks ahead. I find that Ironman race morning sends my head into a kind of ‘hero’ space, where I tackle the challenge with clarity of purpose, and see it all go like a movie script. Unusual for sure, but is kind of enjoyable to experience.
By 6.45am I’m at the swim start by the River Maas, mixing with 1,000 other athletes along a channel that leads down to the waterside. Around half the entrants are competing in their first Ironman and 63% of the field is Dutch. The Brits are a minority here, with the rest mostly made of Belgians, French, Swiss, Germans and Austrians. Only 15% of the start list is female.
I seek out the 1hr15 minute signpost for my estimated finish time, and place myself half way between that and 1hr10. The pros start on time at 7am – Dutch star Bas Diederen is one of the favourites. I’m bouncing on my toes to get my heart rate up, but the age groupers have a rolling start and it’s 7.30am by the time I’m in. Annoyingly, the left of my goggles immediately fills with water. I decide to leave adjusting them until the Australian exit, at the turnaround, and crack on with slightly defective vision. It’s against the current but I find some rhythm, and do well to remain on course despite the cycloptic handicap.
I’m an ‘All World Athlete’ for this race and wearing the gold swim cap given to the top performers of 2016. I hear the announcer say my name as I run through the turnaround, it gives me a boost and I dive back in for the return effort. Now I hit some speed, but I’m hassled by a persistent zig-zagger alongside me and can’t shake them off. I focus, and before long I’m approaching the last turn, and a 200m struggle to the exit. It’s against the current once again, and a bottleneck forms.
I finish the swim in a personal best 1hr11, and feel confident as I start on the bike. I lean onto the tri bars, but for the first 50km I can’t find my cadence. It’s a hilly two-loop course with many twists and turns. My shoulders and arms ache and my position feels wrong, I can’t find my power. There are a number of steep climbs as we cross the border into Belgium, including the infamous Cote de Hallembaye, where we find vociferous support from locals, Tour de France style. It’s a slow struggle to the top and I see a rider come to a halt and fall down, stuck to his pedals.
Around the 60km mark we finally hit some long stretches of flat road, and I push to get my average speed up before the second lap. I stay on target and finish with a 6hr ride. I wanted to manage my nutrition better than in previous efforts, and this time I eased off the gels and ate small pieces of energy bars every 20 minutes. I took sips from two extra strong energy drink bottles, which I made last almost four hours, and took water and half bananas from the aid stations. I found some appetite for a bread-roll in the run transition, and felt primed and properly charged for the marathon. I only wish in that moment, I hadn’t taken the 150mg caffeine shot bottle, an unfamiliar stimulant, which may or may not have contributed to the bronchial reaction. I needed a faster run for a personal best finish. But the breathing problems were about to hit me, so to overcome that and finish in 11hrs14 overall was still satisfying.
Maastricht’s Dutch residents moved their sofas and garden tables out on the street and had an epic day-long party, cheering us along the marathon route. We fueled on energy drink, and they on beer and wine. For the athletes, this kind of atmosphere makes the event extra special. It was still going strong at midnight when the last athlete crossed the line, though I was in the land of nod by then.
There was one final hitch on the weary train journey home. UK Border and Customs officers at London St Pancras obviously decided that my dog-tired demeanor and triathlete fashion combination, of Ironman cap, finishers t-shirt, HTC shorts and bright orange Asics, looked suspicious. And who can blame them? An interrogation and search was the last thing I needed. After 10 minutes of stern questioning, I shared a brief version of this lengthy tale and the officer’s response? ‘Bloody hell, you must be shattered. Go on, you’re free to go’.
Swim 01:11:47 T1 00:07:28 Bike 06:00:13 T2 00:06:00 Run 03:48:39 Finish 11:14:05 Place 335/1000 Age Group Place 58/169
Swim – Blueseventy Sprint entry level wetsuit, Aqua Sphere Kayenne goggles
Bike – Orbea Orca, HTC club bib shorts and cycling top, Specialized cycle shoes.
Run – HTC club bib shorts and cycling top, Asics Gel Phoenix 8 shoes
Fuel – SiS gels and energy bars, Clif Blok Shots, bananas, bread roll, orange quarters, coke, water, Rapid Rehydr8 salt capsules