MapIt was with a measure of disbelief that I descended the steps of flight UA51 with my wife Sue and boys Nathan (12), Frankie (9) and Lawrence (4), into the warm and sweet-smelling night air of Keahole-Kona Airport, Hawaii. Until the last couple of years I had not really considered myself as a true 'triathlete', had not achieved much athletically apart from the odd 'last one in for the team' prize at local road races, and our family holidays rarely ventured beyond the Isle of Wight, yet here we were, about to take part in what must be the ultimate ambition of all distance triathletes, the Hawaii Ironman.

Despite having taken part in the first Farnham Triathlon in 1985 and a founder member at the subsequent conception of Farnham Triathlon Club, I have to admit to being a 'part-time' triathlete for twelve years. The climate in this country does not lend itself to fair-weather cyclists such as myself, so triathlon became a summer alternative to marathon running and racing consisted of one or two 'long course' events per year until these gradually phased out or became the property of BTA members only. (Whoops, I could start getting political here but it's not the time or place....).

Since the early days, I have had a fascination for the Hawaii Ironman. Having read the reports and seen the videos, it was not, for me, the infamous Julie Moss 1982 'crawling' incident but, as a distance runner, the ability of Mark Allen to come off the bike 10 to 15 minutes down on the leaders and run through the field in 2:40 that was the inspiration. Though the intention to 'do' Ironman had always been there, it was not until last year that family commitments and injuries eased, coinciding with reaching 'veteran' status (perhaps fate lending a hand there) and the opportunity seemed to be 'now or never'.

Having swapped the Raleigh Banana for a Cannondale, joined the BTA(!) and done a 'bit more' cycling than usual, "The Longest Day", Wolverhampton August 1998 represented my first foray into Ironman. A steady swim and surprisingly quick (for me) cycle set me up for my favourite section, the marathon, and a 3:09 took me through the field to 3rd vet in the National Championships, a bronze medal! On the StageNext stop was a trip to New Zealand in March 1999 which just happened to coincide with the Ironman and the thought that a repeat of sub-10hrs might put me in with a chance of a Hawaii slot. Cycle training around Napier in the weeks before was a joy and the extra miles put me in good stead for a similar time and I found myself on the stage as 2nd in the 40-44 age group. It's easy enough to dream of getting one of those qualifying slots but when it becomes available, the reality of the distance and cost of travel [thanks Mum] sets in. The decision to accept the place must be made immediately and fuelled by the enthusiasm of my Kiwi mates and a few celebratory Steinlagers, one hasty call home later [thanks Sue], I was presenting my dollars and the slot was sealed.

So here we were sitting under the thatched roof of the airport, waiting in a jet-lagged haze for the bike box to appear, amongst groups of excited young people, all of whom seemed well organised and greeting each other as though this was an annual pilgrimage. Much to my relief the bike appeared and the surreal sensation continued as we were serenaded by Joe's Singing Taxis on the journey to the hotel in the centre of Kailua-Kona. There were four days until the race, my time would need to be spent trying not to train, trying not to get too much sun and trying to remain relaxed, each of which I failed miserably.

Dawn broke at 6.30 on the first morning and despite a sleepless night I was desperate for a run having spent the previous day strapped to an aeroplane seat. I kitted up and crept down to the seafront, finding at least thirty people already taking to the water on 'Dig Me' beach for what, I later discovered, is the swim training ritual during the two weeks before Ironman. There was a fully manned baggage tent, Gatorade stall, spectators and even NBC camera crew, and all before 7 o'clock for a training session! The adrenalin immediately started to flow as I followed the coast road out of town and became aware that I was running along Alii Drive, the scene of so many of the unforgettable moments in the history of the race. I caught up and ran with a German who was here for a third time to support his girlfriend and we chatted for a while, oblivious to the fact that we had run about 7 miles and had the same distance to return. Still, plenty of time to recover from this one. A mountain of the hotel's famous hot cakes and maple syrup for breakfast replaced some of the lost carbo's and we spent the remainder of the morning resting by the pool.

I decided on a lunchtime swim and was surprised to find the course had emptied of people. Recalling rumours of shark attacks in the vicinity some weeks back, I made enquiries and found it was just that everyone swims earlier, so I went out alone, gingerly taking care not to venture too far beyond the swim buoys. This swim was memorable for the first view of the myriad of brightly coloured reef fish and occasional turtle for which Hawaii is famous, front crawl soon became breast stroke which became a sort of wallowing as I marvelled at the warmth, clarity and inhabitants of the Pacific ocean. Tuesday ended with the "Parade of Nations". Sue and the boys had succumbed to jet-lag so I went along to watch the likes of Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser and John Collins precede the competing nations, of which the Brazilians and Japanese seemed to be having the most fun, before joining a rather motley crew of Brits for the last section.

 Wednesday had been set aside for unpacking the bike and going for a steady test ride. First I just had to join the early morning swim train ("when in Rome"!) for a very pleasant hour taking in 3/4 of the course. Unfortunately, what began as a light drizzle of rain gradually developed into a steady downpour which lasted all day and threatened to stay until the week-end. "Here we go again", I thought, having endured similar conditions throughout IMNZ. This was a good excuse to rest up whilst the kids surfed through several channels of Disney on the hotel TV, before performing the administrative duties of 'bag pick-up' and pre-race briefing, plus a look at the expo. and "Ironman Experience" museum.

Thursday was to be my first day of non-training, but due to the the conditions of the day before, it had to be bike set-up and test day. Luckily the day dawned clear and hot. The bike had travelled undamaged, and after a tense hour or so of nuts and bolts, was ready to go. "Cycle on the right" I had been reminded, sounds simple enough until you get to busy junctions etc. when it gets a bit of a nightmare, but I made it safely through town to the 'Queen K' highway. I took a spin down to transition 2 to check out the set-up, followed by a trip out beyond the airport, as recommended by the German fellow, "just to experience the lava fields". Before I knew it my 'test-run' had turned into a two and a half hour affair, combined with a puncture on the return journey and I arrived back late, over-heated and a little over-tired. Not clever. The cause of the puncture was a sliver of glass which left a tiny slit in one of my brand new (gold-plated) racing tyres. I now had a dilemma whether to risk it in the race or get a replacement. Deciding on the latter, it took two trips to the bike shop to sort it out, once to purchase and a second to sheepishly ask them put it on for me after an hour of wheel wrestling! Today was also final registration and transition gear check-in and I was left with half an hour to pack my bike and run clothing before a sprint down to the King Kamehameha hotel, just making it before the cut-off. I was just hoping the race was not going to go like this! It had not been a good day and the carbo-loading party was abandoned in favour of an early night.

Friday was finally a real rest day. The last administrative task was bike check-in. The remainder of the day was spent on the beach with my family who had not seen too much of me over the previous three days, the only exercise being trips back and forward to the shops for essential pre-race fuelling of noodles, fig rolls and water.

Race Day
Race Number The 4am alarm was not necessary. We had finally settled into a normal sleep pattern so the others slept soundly but I was already wide awake. I found myself in a surprisingly relaxed frame of mind as I stood on the balcony looking over the bay. It was dark but a glow rose up from the pier which was being utilised for transition and I could make out shadowy figures already headed that way, anxious to make sure their bikes had not become mysteriously damaged or disappeared overnight. The beauty of our hotel was that it was 2 minutes walk from the start so there was none of the usual 'what have I forgotten?' syndrome that goes hand in hand with triathlon. It enabled me to amble down to the now buzzing bike compound, seek out one of the many helpers available with track pumps, fill my tyres, fill my drink bottles then wander back to the hotel to wait in comfort for dawn to break.

By six thirty we had woken the sleepy boys and were down at the packed start area, a few last minute stretches, a few hugs and I made my way down the slipway into the water, which for the first time seemed strangely chilly. Perhaps I was nervous after all. I made my way to a position roughly halfway in the field and began treading water, trying to maintain my adopted territory whilst making sure I kept my feet off the rocks which were peppered with spiny sea urchins. It has been known for some to end their race before the start by treading on one of those. The tension mounted as 7.00 approached, the sun was now up heralding a perfect day. I took a last look back to the shore, the sea wall was lined 3-4 deep with spectators as far as I could see. The hype associated with this race is not an over-exaggeration.

The gun sounded and 1471 starters began to churn the waters as the jostle for position began. The start was actually fairly smooth, at least until the first buoy! The problem was that the whole field were headed for the same marker, causing a funnelling effect which meant a fairly rough ride from there to the turnaround. Anyway, I managed to avoid any serious bumping and afforded a glance at the watch as we circled the boat, 32 minutes was fine and I felt pretty comfortable. Exiting the Pacific OceanThe sea was actually as warm as it had been all week and swimming without a wet-suit really was a pleasure, the field had spread out now and I enjoyed a trouble-free swim back at a comfortable pace that I felt I could keep up all day. I eventually arrived back at the pier, wobbled up the ramp with the help of the marshals, and went under the clock in 1:07:41 (770th place) which was pretty much as expected.

I appeared to have my own 'personal assistant' for the swim-bike transition. It was going on all around me so I assumed it was legal. Transition for Ironman is normally assumed to be fairly leisurely, but as I had lost and won places by less than two minutes in my previous races I was determined to make this one as swift as possible and with the help of my 'batman' was picking up the bike within three minutes. I glanced around for my family but they had been unable to find a suitable position for spectating and had gone to watch from the hotel balcony, added to which the whole race was also being shown live on local TV.

The biggest hill on the bike section occurs within 200 metres of the start. 'Pay 'n Save Hill' on Palani Road is pretty short but very sharp. I was on a high at this early stage and 'flew' up the hill. "Good cadence!" I heard someone cry (I think it was aimed at me!). The only problem at this point was avoiding at least two people vomiting 'out the side door'. Apparently the sea swim can have this effect. Once on the 'Queen K' I settled into a good rhythm and prepared myself for the journey ahead. The first hour went better than I had hoped for, the traffic-free roads were good quality, the temperature had risen to the 80's and there appeared to be no wind, I was maintaining 22mph average and the only difficulty was that the volume of cyclists meant that concentration was at a premium to keep to the '3 bike lengths' rule.

At this point we made the right handed turn towards the village of Hawi, 30 miles further out and I had my first dose of the legendary 'mumuku' headwinds as my speed dropped to less than 15mph on the level. The temperature had also increased by this time and realising that I would be enduring at least another 90 minutes of these conditions I was experiencing my first low of the day. Feed stations were coming at regular 10k intervals but, as in all my races, I did not feel the need to resort to solid food but relied on electrolyte drink and water, supplemented by the occasional squeezy energy gel. A full bottle of water would be dispensed over my head at each aid station, but I was possibly not taking on enough fluid internally. I was finding myself being passed now by cyclists more regularly than I felt comfortable with, my average speed had dropped alarmingly and I felt my race possibly slipping away. The Lava FieldsThe adrenalin flowed back briefly when a helicopter approached from the other direction and below it was one lone rider (Tim DeBoom) followed a couple of minutes later by a pack of half a dozen including defending champion Peter Reid. I had expected to see Brit Matt Belfield in this group but apparently his race was already over. There was a gap followed by an endless stream of triathletes until I felt the whole field must have been in front of me, I had to look round to reassure myself I was not last!

Eventually the turnaround arrived and it felt great to have the wind behind again. As all cyclists will confirm, the tailwind did not seem to last as long as it had as a headwind, it wasn't long before it seemed to come from random directions and the remainder of the journey was back to head down and grinding those pedals. The pre-race camaraderie between athletes seemed to have disappeared and was now confined to the occasional one-line remark in passing. This was more to do with the almost ever-present hum of the draft-buster's Harley-Davidsons than any competitive rivalry. I certainly did not want a repeat of the (unlucky) 3 minute 'ping' I received in New Zealand. Between miles 60 and 90 of the bike was undoubtedly the hardest part of this race for me. I was beginning to get pretty uncomfortable around the neck and lower back and although my legs were fine, there were times when I felt that I might fail.

However, regardless of the amount of training you put in, Ironman is a test of the mind as much as the body, the highs and the lows come and go in equal measures and towards the end I found myself picking up and passing a few others. At last the slightly familiar terrain of the airport region and the sight of the town came into view, the helicopter re-appeared as I passed (coming from the other direction) Luc Van Lierde on foot with Reid in hot pursuit and it wasn't long before I saw the beaming faces of my family as I descended the hill back into Kona. That was a tonic and the final 10 miles along Alii Drive passed fairly quickly as I checked the 'faces' who were well into their run on the other side of the road. I completed my ride in 5:52:51 (824th fastest) and although I had predicted 6hrs I was slightly disappointed to be 20 minutes slower than my previous efforts.

10hrs was now out of the question but a fast marathon in my age group was my secondary target and I was in a good frame of mind as I picked up my run bag. The start of the run at Hawaii is particularly cruel as you immediately exit transition up a steep rise, but instead of following the road back to town you have to go back down the hill the other side for the detour which takes you into 'The Pit' which is basically a dead-end turnaround. At this early stage I was feeling very heavy-legged but was already passing people performing the notorious 'Ironman shuffle' and managed to keep the momentum going back to the top. By this time the afternoon cloud cover had come to our mercy and the 90+ degree temperatures did not materialise. At the top of the hill I risked a DQ for indecent exposure by taking my one and only 'pee' stop which was a relief in more ways than one as I thought I might be suffering from dehydration. From there it was back along Alii, the street was lined with supporters all the way into town and with feed stations every mile there was no chance of dehydrating now.

My legs had eased up and I was maintaining regular 7:30 minute miling which appeared to be taking me through the field at a steady rate. This did wonders for my confidence which at this stage of the race is worth more than hours of training. Sue and the boys appeared in a new location and we exchanged a quick word as I ran up Pay 'n Save hill for the last time. The Finish

And so it continued, a diet of Gatorade, coke and water in random configurations at regular intervals, the highs and lows followed, Van Lierde pulled away from Reid, Lori Bowden (she looks about 15!) glided comfortably past as she strode to victory, the 'Energy Lab' came and went without incident, apart from passing (in the same direction this time!) a bonked and walking Chuckie V, winner of IM Canada a month previously, and (trying to disguise my delight) a not-bonking and steady running tri-legend in Scott Tinley. Although the sun was now beginning to set, I was pretty sure I would get back without the aid of the dreaded 'light stick'.

After greeting my family for the final time, the last mile was worth waiting for, the first part being down that hill again, then you round the corner of Alii Drive for a memorable 400 yards through an estimated 10,000 cheering crowd. I was actually pretty focussed for the final push, I had just passed another Brit on the hill and had my sights set on a fellow 'F' age-grouper coming back to me rapidly. I caught him before the line (little did I know it was for 39th place but when you're coming from behind, who knows?!) but in doing so forgot the obligatory finishing salute. My marathon time was 3:19:27 (164th fastest) which gave me an overall time of 10:25:53 for 484th place overall.

No emotion this time, Leithere's nothing that can quite match the unexpected feeling on completing your first Ironman. I received my lei, declined the offer of a shoulder to lean on from countless helpers and queued to collect my medal and t-shirt. Family GroupIt wasn't long before Sue and the boys appeared and there were more hugs before being asked to pose together for a group photo. I gratefully accepted the offer of a post-race massage and warm soup after which we returned to the hotel for bath, food and drink and to exchange our experiences of the day.

We stood on the balcony and watched and listened as each competitor was called home, it was dark now and we could see them coming from the top of the hill, just the light sticks visible as they bounced down the hill then appearing into view along the now floodlit finishing chute. Some were accompanied by the NBC crew, some by their partners and children, some were sprinting, some were walking, none appeared to be crawling. The crowd didn't wilt, the announcer attempted to whip them into a frenzy as the later it got, the more the 'human interest' competitors arrived. The 65 year old nun arrived, the mother of 5 arrived, the 'celebrity' actor arrived, the father and son (with cerebral palsy) 'team' arrived, the 'fat-turned-fit' lady arrived.

This had become pure theatre, people far removed from the professional and elite, trained to perfection, athletes who had finished over eight hours before (and some of whom were still around to cheer), but no less admirable. This had become Hollywood. So the Americans are known to go over the top at times, and Ironman provides them with the perfect opportunity.

Put in perspective though, there are no heroes, no wars are won, no lives are saved. It is basically a coming together of people from around the world who are blessed with a combination of ability, determination and luck and the financial ability to join together in a great sporting occasion. For most of us triathlon is just a hobby, and a pretty time-consuming and selfish one at that, but when it gives you the opportunity to be part of an event like this, to just once live out a dream, it sure as hell beats DIY.


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