Ironman UK is a major event on the global Ironman calendar and is located somewhat surprisingly in the otherwise seemingly unremarkable town of Bolton, just a short drive from Manchester airport, for the arriving international athletes.
Once you understand the bike route however, with its majestic hills and fast, technical descents, it’s clear to see why it’s there.
I had to varying degrees, been coaching several athletes who were taking part, so elected to spend the weekend there, sharing accommodation with them. As it turned out, last minute changes meant that we didn’t have the accommodation to ourselves and would be sharing with other people. More on that later but suffice to say, it’s hard to go wrong when your company are fellow Ironman athletes!
The plan was to travel up to Bolton on Thursday evening and leave on Monday morning, in order to ensure that all aspects of race weekend went smoothly for the athletes. The closer that the event got and the more discussion that took place, the more certain I became, that the right role wasn’t merely to coach but to expand that to driver, roadie, mechanic, logistics coordinator, psychologist, personal shopper, cook and cheerleader. The newly created role of ‘Iron soigneur’ was born.
The first task on arrival was to stock the fridge with everything we’d need for at least the first 24-hours. In order to be time-efficient, I called ahead and discussed with Jenny, the athlete who was first to arrive, the shopping list of requirements, which she diligently noted on her A4 pad. We had everything covered.
As I arrived at the accommodation, she jumped in the van and off we went to the local supermarket. As we arrived “OK, I’ll get the trolley, where’s the list?” “Oh……” she replied. The list it transpired, was still attached to the pad on her bedside table. True to the 80:20 rule, we forgot about 20% of what we needed but thankfully, nothing that we couldn’t do without until Saturday lunchtime.
Friday Morning, we were due to depart the accommodation at 10:00 sharp, for race registration at the Macron Stadium, home of Bolton Wanderers football team, and race HQ for Ironman UK. By 11:00 we were finally on the road to Macron. I had supplied GI Tri Coached Triathlon running tees for the athletes and entourage but our late departure meant we missed another athlete, Carl, as he’d already been and gone. As I write, his tee shirt is still in the van, as one missed opportunity to meet followed the last.
The range of ironman branded merchandise on offer at the expo was tempting to say the least. A hoodie, a coffee mug, two tee shirts and a few other bits and pieces later, my wallet felt considerably lighter! Thank goodness registration had taken no longer.
As an Ironman certified coach, I am in theory, allowed transition access to help my athletes ensure that they have everything in place. Despite several attempts to link up with Ironman in Tampa FL, I’d had no response. Thankfully, IMUK registration help desk contacted the race director, checked my credentials and issued a ‘access all areas’ pass in just a couple of minutes.
Rarely have I felt so excited than to have an Ironman Staff wristband!
On Friday afternoon, we had time for swim practice at the beautiful Pennington Flash swim venue. One of the athletes, Helen, had a brand new HUUB wetsuit, with tags still on. We collectively eased her into it, without introducing any rips (her previous one just weeks old and already in tatters). Once the residual tittering had subsided, after several poorly constructed ‘lube’ double entendre (I swear, the girls are worse than the boys for it!) they headed for the lake. Looking out across the expanse of water, it was the kind of weather I like. A strong wind had whipped up the water into a significant chop, which for many swimmers can be a problem.
Standing at the swim entry, I had a strange look from the Ironman team leader, Chris, who after a few seconds clearly put a place to the face. I’d worked for him as a volunteer the previous year, humping bags onto trucks and into crates, having slept in the van at the venue all weekend. He asked if I wanted a volunteer tee shirt and to get cracking but then nodded his approval of the staff wristband and Ironman coaching shirt. It felt great to be remembered and reminded me of the immense effort that goes into hosting this and indeed all Ironman races.
Helen emerged after the first practice lap, showing two thumbs down. She wasn’t happy. A few words of encouragement and a technical pointer to time her stroke rate with the chop of the water and she was back in for a second lap. After a short time, both swimmers emerged. It had been tough going but they both felt assured that they could do it.
On the way back to the accommodation, the traffic had been so congested, that time had almost escaped us. Only the friendly prompt from Daniël, our Dutch cohabiter, allowed us to make it back down to Macron for the compulsory race briefing. While I waited in the van, the familiar figure of Carl ‘riptide’ Jennings approached, clearly not in the compulsory briefing. As he explained it, they were running late and wouldn’t allow his Mrs into the briefing room, as its athletes only, so he decided to miss it. Jenny had taken his running tee into the briefing to hand over, so despite seeing him, I still couldn’t hand him his shirt.
Saturday was mainly taken up by packing, unpacking, repacking, rethinking, unpacking, substituting, repacking, unpacking, reverting and repacking. Does anyone else do that? I’m very much a ‘Plan A’ pack and go, kind of guy when it comes to transition bags.
After a minor mechanical repair and last-minute bike checks, it was off to transition 1 at Pennington Flash, to rack and collect timing chips.
Once done, it was more shopping and back to the accommodation to relax (for the athletes) and food prep for me. Just as I’d started though, I was surrounded by the others. Change of dinner request perhaps? Thrust toward me, a familiar black plastic carrier bag, with the red M-dot logo. Need it taking to the van then? “It’s for you….” It was one of those moments when I was genuinely perplexed. It took what may have looked like an eternity to realize that they had bought me something. I was caught off guard. “Open it then…” I delved inside to find a Kona print beach towel (with a very 70s look – my favourite) and then an Ironman kitchen apron. They’d grown tired of seeing me around the house with a variety of cooking related stains on the front of my white GI Tri tees. I could feel it right then. The welling up. I quickly spun on my heel to carefully remove the tags and place them in the kitchen bin. All the time pulling myself back together. “Thank you all… I’m delighted” I’m not sure but it may have sounded disingenuous, as I struggled to clear my throat and find my normal tone of voice.
I put on the apron and got to work. Moments later, Daniël stuck his head into the kitchen, noticed my new attire and beamed a knowing smile.
As race day approached, I got the feeling that the whole house and really begun to gel and work as a unit, with Daniël and Alex mixing in and joining in the GI Tri vibe.
Before dinner, I worked with Helen and Jenny on some preparatory visualization to make sure they were relaxed and confident ahead of their race-day swim (See No Evil).
Over dinner, we wanted to share a toast but couldn’t find a bottle opener for our alcohol-free beer. Thankfully Daniël came to the rescue and in his now familiar euro-cool way, popped off the bottle tops by gripping the bottle and levering it with the handle of his knife, just as quickly as if he’d used a purpose made opener. It was a simple enough maneuvre but we were all slack jawed in amazement.
When the others all retired to bed, I got busy in the kitchen, prepping breakfast, making finger food that could easily be taken as a grab and go on race morning.
I awoke a minute before the 03:30 alarm, raring to go. Heading in for breakfast, I was confronted by Jenny, curled up on the armchair in the corner of the dining room, teary, red eyed and cradling a mug of tea. “Ah you’re up. How did you sleep?” “I didn’t….I don’t want to do it. I haven’t slept, I’m tired I feel terrible. I don’t want to do it. I’ll just come with you and watch.”
Jenny had been training for this event for about nine months. As a coach, its normally first priority to deliver on your athlete’s expectations, needs and wants. The question here is, what’s best for the athlete.? Telling her that despite her suggestions to the contrary she would indeed be racing, didn’t seem quite the right approach given the state she was in.
“I’m sure that being face down in lake water will have you feeling refreshed in no time. Where’s your wetsuit?” “its upstairs” “go and get it, bring it down, let’s check everything over. Jenny got up and started to go through the motions. By the time all the athletes were in the van, along with their swim gear, the moment of denial had passed.
Transition was the usual mass of distraught faces and toilet queues. I helped check and inflate the tyres of mine and other athletes. One woman was so overcome with nerves that she’d de-racked her bike, which she held in one hand and was trying to attach the end of a track pump to her wheel valve with the other. It wasn’t happening. She was grateful for the assistance and soon had 90psi in her tubes that sat upon a great looking pair of Mavic carbon rims.
I left the athletes in their designate swim start position and they slowly funneled their way toward the water’s edge.
At the Aussie exit, both Helen and Jenny came through smiling and seemingly free of the anxiety that had previously plagued both of them. I watched them both re-enter the water and swim away with good technique, each among other swimmers. I knew they were going to be OK.
Both Helen and Jenny swam strong personal bests and once they were out of the swim, smiling and heading for T2, just moments apart, I felt my chest swell with pride. Just a matter of the bike and run now, they’re both more than capable of dealing with what lay ahead.
One concern was whether Carl (‘Riptide’) Jennings, would emerge. After the difficulty of missing the swim cut off in Ironman Lanzarote, just a few weeks before, it was blessed relief to see him heading out onto the bike course, albeit more than two hours into the race time.
This was Ironman weekend but I’ll spare you the strokes, pedals and strides taken, as anyone who’s read this far will know what it’s like. It’s a brutal undertaking. Those of us that were spectating, navigated our way to various vantage points ahead of the riders, to pop up and cheer them on when perhaps they were least expecting it.
At the finish area, the staff wristband came into its own. Allowed in behind the scenes, I was able to see the athletes cross the line and witness the emotions, generally a mixture of relief and joy. The team leader had kindly offered me the chance to present a couple of my finishers with their medals. I’m not sure that receiving it from an Ironman coach you see every week, compares to the alternative of 2017 Male Champion Cyril Viennot (who’d selflessly come back to the race finish for the more than the last two hours of the race, having prevailed against perhaps the strongest pro field I’ve seen outside of Kona).
Viennot, Clarke and Kotsegarov, take the podium places.
Daniël, finishes strong but misses a roll-down Kona spot by just one place.
Alex receives his finisher medal from Ironman UK 2017 Champion, Cyril Viennot.
All smiles, Helen and Jenny with their finisher medals.
All in all, it was an excellent weekend and a joyous reminder of why we do it.
Those I coached or followed on the day:
Daniël Nagel 10:03:23
Dan Dickinson 10:54:21
Helen Spiers 14:48:46
Alex Brawn 15:11:20
Carl Jennings 15:19:49
Jenny Burr 15:29:13
Fiona Geldard 16:29:43
Finishers all, YOU, are an Ironman!
Anything is possible.
GI Tri Coach