Mallorca: ‘Racing in Paradise’ they said at the race briefing. They clearly did not get the memo about the painful mountaintop hail, or the torrential rain leaving swathes of standing water. Despite all of this Ironman Mallorca is a fantastic course. A warm water sea swim, a bike that seemed to have everything – inland lanes, long, flat coastal roads, a mountain to climb and the hairpins to descend, and some phenomenal support through the towns, villages, laybys, gateways and junctions, and a flat yet testing (both physically and, perhaps more importantly, mentally) marathon course.
The day before the race, which was drenched with classic Balearic Island sunshine, was the day of the race briefing, with the water temperature coming in at a fairly whopping 25.8 degrees, so it was duly announced that the swim would be non-wetsuit. This did not bother me particularly, despite the fact that I had spent the previous month whining to my clubmates/friends/colleagues/wife/coach/anyone who would listen/anyone who would stand still near me, that I was terrified of an unrubberised swim. I had been for two swims on the course without a wetsuit, and had been perfectly at ease, the salt water taking the role of the wetsuit in combating my usual sinky legs. In fact I was actually looking forward to the swim (an unheard of occurrence) and even when the race morning (4.30 am) announcement came that the water temperature had dropped to 24.5 degrees (I suspect someone might have accidentally spilt their iced sangria on the thermometer to ensure that some of the more nervous swimmers actually made it to the start line) and wetsuits would be allowed I ignored the headlong rush of people galloping back to their hotels to get their neoprene and ambled down to the beach for a non wetsuit warm up. The water felt just as warm to me as it had the previous day, so I remained unfased.
There was a good Team Cherwell representation out there, including John Sexton, who had raced IM Copenhagen with me the previous year, Rich Hughes and Debi Coles, with the wifely cheering contingent of Annie and Nicola on support duties. I had taken a short turn round the warmup area, having really done all my transition faffing the night before, and there is only so much time that you can stand staring at a bike on a rack and a bag on a hook at 6.00 am (a positively leisurely wake up time, as our hotel was only a hundred metres from the start). I entered the start pen, choosing to go right at the back, by the furthest left railing. This would not affect my time as it was a rolling start, with the chip only setting off the timing when I went into the water. This would allow me to keep to my favorite minimal contact policy by keeping to the outside of the course as much as possible. The beach shelves very gently, so there was actually about 20m of wading to waist depth before the swim proper began. I found this pleasant as it helped me to pick a line and not rush, get clear of other people and set myself up for a nice relaxed swim.
Wading into the water, under the arch and through a corridor of cheering fans was invigorating, and there was not really much to report on the swim. I enjoyed my first ‘Australian exit’ turn, which came about two thirds of the way round the 3.8 km course: a chance to reset and readjust the goggles on the way back out to swimming depth, and I was pleased to finally exit the water in 1:13.40. I had certainly overtaken many more people than had overtaken me, and the majority of these had been wetsuit wearing so it was with a spring in my step that I ran through the shower zone, trying to rub some of the salt out of my hair, towards one of the longest transitions on the Ironman circuit – one street wide and about 400m long. Despite this I was out on my bike pretty quickly, I had no trouble finding my bag on the rack, and I was glad I had put a small towel in there to dry my hair and to get the sand off my feet, as I didn’t particularly fancy 112 miles in sandy shoes. My shoes were on the bike already, so as soon as I was over the mount line I slipped my feet in and got going.
Coach Brian and I had had a good look at past races in preparation for this, and had established that I invariably go out too hard on both the bike and run. Not so this time. I had my power zones stuck on my tribars, so I was religious in keeping the numbers on my powermeter low, as I knew that if I didn’t I would pay a heavy price later on the bike and suffer on the run. The sky was overcast, which was a good thing in my book, as it kept me cool but not cold. The first 70 miles were relatively flat with a few rolling hills that were actually very good for breaking up the monotony, not even having to come off the tri bars for most of them, and they did not take much out of the legs, and I was still well within my power limits. After this point, and having passed through the support of town again, the course headed northwards, along the coast road, and towards the mountains. A cheerful sign greeted us at the bottom of the climb, warning drivers and cyclists alike that kilometres of climbing lay ahead. In the instant that I passed this marker the clouds parted, the sun came out, and all athletes began to sweat. I checked and rechecked the power on the way up, and was still doing well. I was right at the top of my average limit, but did not exceed it, and made a number of passes on other athletes struggling with both the gradient and the sudden warmth. I was very glad that I was not wearing a full, head-cooking, aero helmet (mine is vented and visored – best of both worlds) and made reasonable time up the spectacular switchbacks, climbing through the rocks and trees towards the water station that a glance at the profile pre-race had told me was at the top of the climb. The water station hove into view and as the sign at the bottom of the ascent had signalled the heat, the water station marked a sharp change in the weather. Rain and hail poured out of a sky that had turned black. It was like agonising, sharp, cold, needles that hit so hard it was almost a burning sensation.
I regretted only quick glance at the profile of the course, I thought that the climb was over but three short peaks came, characterised by terrifying descents, blinded by rain, hoping no potholes lurked in the deep puddles that had almost instantaneously sprung up. My carbon rims were hissing through the brake blocks, and I relied on the straight roads to keep me on the bike, as turning on slick tyres would have had me off, and the rises to scrub off the speed, as the brake levers were next to useless. After a few minutes of bowel knotting terror, and as I crested the last of the rises before the main descent began, I got out of the rain and onto roads that were wonderfully dry. The sweeping hairpins down the mountain were a supreme test of bike handling, and much care was needed as only low blocks protected the plummeting drops at the side of the road. As the descent petered out into the final miles of the bike course my power was still good, and my legs felt strong, the limiting factor was chafe from the saddle, I suspected that during the swim exit some sand had got inside my trisuit, and this caused me to break aero position with increasing regularity over the last ten miles of the ride. Drizzle descended again as I got back into transition, and it was clear that it had rained heavily in town whilst I had been away on the bike course. I made sure to eat an energy bar in transition, and mindful of the last Ironman I had run in my trisuit, with painful chafing, I pulled the top down, and replaced it with a long sleeved tech tshirt, as it was raining and not particularly warm. Comfort forefront in my mind I also donned socks, stowed my bike helmet in the bag, and headed off for the marathon.
My legs felt strong, and I knew that I had paced the bike to perfection, coming in in 5:55.10. I took care not to head off like a stabbed rat (as is my wont) and checked my watch regularly as I splashed through the puddles that covered the course, which at some points stretched across the whole street, several metres in length, and a few centimetres deep. The course was four and a half laps, with a few sections of out and back. Coming in off the bike I had passed the first of these sections, and thought it a long way. Running it was mentally draining, as it was seemingly endless, and did not get easier with repetition. I preferred the second half of the lap, along the beach front, past the bar where the support crew were making heroic efforts to stay sober, and looping out and back through the centre of town.
I was going well, not overstretching myself, and my legs still felt in reasonable shape. However the constant soaking that my feet were being subjected to was taking its toll. For the first lap and a half this was ok, a mild irritation, but the abuse that they were taking got worse, and by the end of the second lap this had turned into actual pain. I was still getting a bit of chafing from the bottom half of the trisuit which added to the torment. I survived another half lap before I had to walk for a few paces. This was phenomenally irritating, as it was purely due to the pain of my saturated feet hitting the ground that caused this, rather than a misjudgement of pace or from going too hard on the bike. After a minute or so of walking I mentally steeled myself, and started running again. For the last full lap I had to walk for sections with increasing regularity but I disciplined myself as much as possible – if I had been forced through foot pain to walk I would pick a lamppost, tree or other landmark and start running again at that point, no excuses. As I collected the last lap band as the course swung back past transition I was determined to finish properly. The rain had stopped and at this point my feet were going to hurt whatever I did, so I ran, and as I turned onto the beach front I could see the lit up M Dot on top of the finish arch, over on the other side of the curve of the bay. I kept on running, the red glow getting closer with every step, and actually built up speed. I ran through the pain, out the other side. (I actually expect that everything below my waist had gone numb by this point, and my body had given up telling me I was damaging it, rather than this energy coming from some hitherto untapped well of athleticism.) The finish chute finally loomed up and I turned onto the carpet, savouring the wall of noise that pummels you (in a good way) under the arch, and all you can hear cutting through all of this are the speakers booming out the catchphrase – ‘You are an IRONMAN’. (Again.)
I had crossed the line in 11:43.56, over a brutal course, with a marathon of 4:25.10. I was pleased with this, and especially with my bike pacing, as if I had gone harder the run would have been a total write-off, rather than just slow due to conditions. I seem to be the most boringly average person out there – finishing 853/2012 overall, 775/1766 in Men, and 58/109 in Male 25-29. With the medal round my neck and the finisher’s t-shirt in my race belt I collared a plate of chocolate muffins and a beer (you have to love the spread that they put on at the end) and spent some happy minutes having a cheerful mutual moan with the Spaniard next to me about how much pain we were in and how it was too much effort to get out of the plastic chairs (except drawing upon superhuman powers to get refreshing beer) before exiting the finishers’ area and finding Annie. She had the wonderful task of having to remove my shoes, as the pain was just too much if I tried to do it myself. I put on flip flops, to allow as much air circulation as possible, and headed up the road to the hotel to shower and get into less chafe-inducing clothes, before getting back to the finish chute in time to help Nicola cheer John across the line. By then I felt that I could handle a pizza, and as this also involved sitting down I happily ate and had another beer for good measure. It was quite a way to walk on painful feet to get my bike out of transition, but fuelled by the cheese, tomato and ham I got my gear, surrendered my bike to the friendly Irishmen of shipmytribike, and headed for blissful sleep. We then had to transfer at 7.00 am the next morning but hey ho. My immune system having been hammered flat I then caught a particularly foul bug that kept me off work on the Monday but all in all in enjoyed my Ironman in Mallorca. The island grew on me during the time I was there – I wouldn’t go there purely for a holiday and the Spanish love of prestressed concrete as a building material sometimes gets in the way of a pleasant view, but the island more than makes up for it by having some of the most spectacular roads to ride a bike through that I have ever seen, and the sea is beautiful to swim in. So Ironman done… Una cerveza, por favour!
As ever huge thanks are due to Coach Brian Butler who got me to Mallorca in great condition, and gave me the best advice to give me very good pacing on the bike.
(Seven days later I almost crippled myself trying to run Bournemouth Marathon, with Ironman still hanging heavy in my legs. I did 4:14.29, so only ten minutes slower than Mallorca, and my Marathon PB still sits at my 3:58.30, from the run at Ironman Copenhagen in 2015.)