The final chapter

See you on the other side
September 17, 2018
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Well we are into the final chapter, a story that started many, many moons ago in a coffee shop in Rotorua when my friend Sheryl explained to me the vast quantities of food she had to consume to maintain (she’s fit and slim) the calories she needed while training for her Ironman event. I was utterly in awe, not at the food, to be fair who doesn’t want an excuse to eat loads of food, but at the exceedingly long day she put down to get a medal. She was utterly amazing to me back in 2004 and she still is.

Many conversations have been had between then and now, with various others about Ironman, and everything I learned from them was that it was a very tough day. It’s in some people to ask themselves how much can they handle, and others are never found outside their comfort zone. Up until the point of signing an agreement to say that I was going to do a half Ironman in 2017 and full Ironman in 2018 I had never lived within the comfort zone. I knew what loss was, I was friends with grief, I had overcome fear, I had suffered pain and I had come through depression and I had learned to control my anxiety.

I was in the process of changing my career from the incredibly active job of being a work rider in the horse racing industry to a journalist which is not so active so I was craving something to challenge me. After an incident with a trapped shoe lace on an escalator in Tara Street Station I jokingly pondered my life (seriously I could have been crushed to death on that escalator during rush hour, or worse, swallowed up) with my friend Aine, laying myself down the challenge to compete in two Ironman (branded) events. At the time I was seeing a triathlete who had completed a few Ironman events so I ask him if he thought I could do it. He said the one person that he thought would have what it takes to do it was me. At the time he was either being honest or charming his way to get into my pants, turns out mine weren’t the only pants he was getting into, and couldn’t lie straight in bed if he tried. Just another blow to strengthen my resolve!

So, I’m an Ironman, not exactly how I’d planned to become one but I’m an Ironman and it really was one of the most fun days I’ve had in a long time.

I was pretty chilled when I arrived to set my bike up with my nutrition on race day. One of my club mates Martins had called before I left the apartment to say he was low on Tailwind, the nutritional drink we were using on our bikes, so we met in transition to exchange the powder and set ourselves up. It was Martins first full Ironman event too, we get on great in the club so it was lovely to have this event together. It was his birthday the day before so he was so lucky to get to spent it with me…haha.

My mother and her friend Bill had come over to watch the event so I saw them at the start while I was getting myself ready and all lubed up before putting on my wetsuit. I was just really calm about the whole thing, taking my time and just looking forward to the day. I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing but it’s just how I am now…it’s like when you hand up an essay or an article, once it’s at the point of no return what will be, will be.

Suited up I jumped up the queue to find Martins so we could start the swim together. I also wanted to go before the time I thought I’d do (you go in order of the time you think you’ll swim in, I was expecting 1.30 hr swim min so went in the 1.15 group) so I didn’t get held up by panickers. There was gonna be plenty of them as, bar some of us from Ireland and UK, everyone complained about the water temperatures. It was just over 15 degrees, grand.

Into the swim and I was off! I knew I wouldn’t panic because I’ve had some pretty epic swims of late and I’d been practising my breathing a lot in the pool, letting out my breath for up to nine strokes before taking a breath, just so I could get myself out of a situation where someone was on top of me or might take the googles off my face if I went for a breath. It had happened to me in a tri earlier this year where an over enthusiastic arm came over and knocked my goggles as I twisted my head to the side for air. It’s a great thing to practice for a tricky situation and once you realise you can actually swim without breathing every 3 strokes you become much calmer and relax more in the water. I’m still a shit swimmer but this is something I have learnt.

Once I hit my stride I was off. I’m not going to lie, at no time during the swim did I have a notion of where I was bar in the Baltic Sea (which some people were finding literally baltic!!). As I was swimming I thought about all the times I couldn’t swim, every bit of pool water I swallowed, every failed attempt I had made to do front crawl to the top of the pool and now here I was in the Baltic Sea hoping that the people I was following could see the buoys because I couldn’t. Then I started thinking maybe I need to get my eyes checked again, they are getting bad and I’m terrible for not wearing my glasses. That made me start laughing about the time I didn’t see a rock during a sea swim until I was beached on it, then I couldn’t get off it, I kept getting slapped back onto it by the water everytime I tried to get off it. There I was swimming away, having the most ridiculous thoughts and giggling away as I was swimming when it hit me, clear as day, I knew that I was going to be an Ironman by the end of the day and I was just going to have a great day out. I exited the water in 1 hour 24mins, not bad for someone that couldn’t swim a length of the pool 18 months ago, I was smiling like I’d just won the lottery. It wasn’t a massive run to T1 but it was a run, usually I’d open my wetsuit on the way in, I still have to wear the rash guard below it so it’s nice to get a bit of air in but I remembered I wasn’t wearing a bra and no one wants to see that early in the morning!!!

Full change of clothes and dried off I headed out to the bike. People were suffering from the water, some wrapped in foil, some just shaking contemplating continuing, luckily I had no ill effects and I couldn’t wait to get out on my bike. Look how happy I am waving out of T1…

I loved the bike, like really loved the bike. I’d recced a bit of the course with an Italian guy, Simone, I knew was doing the event. We had just gone out the first 25km of it but I knew it was flat and fast and I simply could not wait to get out and have some craic on my TT bike. We’ve had our problems up until now and at times serious injury but I’d decided to put it behind me and just go for it. Also…the day before Martins and myself had gotten a taxi driven by a former pro cyclist. I won’t lie, the guy was fairly arrogant, felt that IM was no challenge for him having ridden the Tour de France, but despite him being what I would refer to as ‘seriously no craic’ he did give me a tiny nugget of advice (I like to think I dispelled his attitude with my jokes). “Tell yourself that your bike loves you.” And that is exactly what I did as I went careering off into the Estonian countryside. I decided to stick to an average of 30kmph, believe me I could have gone faster but I could imagine those at home telling me not to blow it all on the first round, after all it’s 180km so I made 30 my aim and knew pretty early on that I was on for a 6 hour bike, I was loving it.

This next bit gets a bit unpleasant but if you’ve stuck with my blogs this far you can handle it. I planned to stop for a pee break at 90km, I was three bottles down and that liquid had to go somewhere. I also needed to add some powder to my bottles so I didn’t mind the break. When I went to pee my whole stomach just emptied, I kind of wasn’t expecting it as I felt great but I thought I better take something. On the advice of my club mate Karen I was carrying Imodium which I’d never taken before so I thought I better pop one just incase my tummy was sick. Back on the bike just as the thunderstorm (actual, that’s not a metaphor) started. Still loving the bike, nipping along but at this stage I was soaked to the skin, shoes filled with water and thinking to myself of a cycle I’d done a in torrential rain with Bill Wildes earlier in the year, it had me well prepared for this. At 100km I stopped at my special needs bag (it’s a bag drop where you can have extra supplies of nutrition, first aid, tubes, gas, whatever you like) it was raining so hard I could barely open my bag. I was determined to have my Nutella sandwich…standing in the rain, tucking into a foil wrapped Nutella sandwich, next to three other grown men, half way through the bike leg of an Ironman is a fairly surreal experience and one I will cherish forever.

Back on the bike I’m starting to puke into my mouth. nothing I’m eating or drinking at this stage wants to stay inside me and is determined to come out by any means. I really don’t want to puke on myself so I stop again at the next feed stop and off load more. This is the point where I discovered I’d made a complete balls.

I had gone through my nutrition on the bike a million times. I’d relayed the same thing over and over again with loads of different people and on the day I STILL managed to balls it up! I realised I’d left two pouches of tailwind in my special needs bag. With all the stops my cycle time was going to be pushed out to 6hours 30mins so I was going to be at least a bottle and a half short. Coupled with the fact my body was rejecting everything it was given it straight away I was starting to think I’d have to be carful and not over exert myself on the bike. I’d began taking more care as I passed a few accidents where riders had come a cropper on slippery roads and I was getting more careful on roundabouts…mainly because I had Danny Brennan’s voice in my head warning me. Once after a TT race he exasperated that I was the only person that would take their bottle out of its cage, take a drink and put it back in while going right around a roundabout in a race. If I snotted myself during the IM I would never live it down!!

One more stop before I headed back to town, I was still feeling amazing despite being so horribly sick so I flew home passing all the tired competors and got off the bike feeling very good and mad for run action. Bike time 6hrs 28mins.

If you saw my T2 was super fast it wasn’t, I went straight through the tent to the loos before I changed into my clean dry clothes for the run. There was a few of us in the tent and sure we were all full of chat. One lady was pulling out, worried that she couldn’t get her breathing to settle after the cold swim, I suggested she just walk until she knew for sure she couldn’t do it, I’m not sure if she continued. Before leaving myself I popped more tablets and grabbed a Dioralyte to take at the first feed station.

Off out on to the run I went, feeling great but worried I might fade any minute due to missing out on the forgotten Tailwind and being so sick. People tell you of the wall you’ll hit on the run or on the bike so I was a little expectant.

The plan was always to walk off the bike. Just to give my body a chance to straighten up and relax before the run. This idea came after I had went badly lame on the run part of a 70.3 training day. It’s an issue with a tendon and whatever the hell is wrong with it, it completely stops the action to run. I’d spoken to our club run coach Eamonn Tilley about it at the time and he suggested to walk off the bike, it had worked in all my other races up until this. Besides, the first part of the run was a bloody big hill so I was happy to stroll up it. Bit of a run then stop for a Dioralyte and a few pee stops to check I was going to be ok on the run. Body was back to normal and feeling good, after a loop of the run (4 to do in total) I knew where I was going to take my breaks, two hills to walk and feed stations for water and ice and a nibble of bread [really couldn’t chance food or gels) and run the rest at the pace I had practised in my training and other races. Chatting pace so I wasn’t killing myself. I worked out I was on for a 13 hour Ironman and I knew i could punish myself on the last lap to get it done. Thing is, once you know pain stops the minute you get over the line in a race you can push yourself to the limit to get there.

I was just settling in, feeling great and having fun with the other athletes and volunteers when it all fell apart. I felt a little twinge in the same place as before (just below the outside of the knee) I thought I’d get a bit out of it so decided not to panic. Martins was about 1km in front of me and as we met coming against each other I said I thought I was about to go lame, by the time I got back to where I’d met him it happened, I was hopping. Close to my run special needs bag I thought I should just relax and stick some Biofeeze gel on it, it might calm down. I still had 25km to complete and a 13 hour target I wanted to hit, painkillers don’t make a bit of difference to it. I was full of energy, I don’t know where it was coming from but I had no way of expanding it as the minute I ran I was lame, jamming up into a hobble. I had George’s (my running partner) voice in my head saying ‘will you stop being so stubborn and just walk’. He was there the last time this happened and watched me do whatever the hell I could to get that leg to work for 6 more kms of a run. I hobbled like an old lady, I walked like someone late for a bus , I had mentally trained for this exact moment but I was gutted it had arrived. I didn’t train for the Ironman with the intention of walking the marathon, it didn’t sit well with me and it still doesn’t. I hobbled around the course for the next 25km, encouraging my club mates Martins (who finished his first IM in 12hrs 43mins) and Lisa (who did a cracking Ironman in little over 12 hours, finishing 5th in her age group and smiling throughout) and just generally having the craic with the other athletes.

I kept trying to reason with myself, I’d had an epic (for me) swim, great fun out on my bike (despite being sick) and now I was getting to walk around my favourite city. Even as I say it now it still is not ok with me,

Till, the announcer and his Estonian counterpart were great fun and the crowds were just so good, full of fun and energy, the volunteers too. Turning back into the finish area for the last time (you have to do it 4 times, I didn’t find that hard but I guess for some it can play on their mind) thought I’d try a run and only ended up hobbling again, the guys were great encouraging me to the end and the crowd were just brilliant, I was trying to hold it together, by now the way I’d had to walk was driving my sciatica crazy and mostly I was mad I couldn’t run up the red carpet, although I tried and failed badly. The result being me crossing under the arch looking like someone who’s late for a bus and wearing inappropriate footwear. Not what I’d imagined. But as Till said…Fiona, you are an Ironman! Actually he went to say it earlier and had to wait as I was taking so long to reach the line!!!

At the other side I got my medal then bent over to stretch my glutes before I walked off, I got a spasm as I straightened up and a woman had to help me walk out of the area. I completed the Ironman in 14hrs and 40mins. I won’t lie, I was gutted. Here’s me looking far too fresh to be just over the finish line of an Ironman.

I trained really hard for this day. I used a tough training programme as an outline of hours to train and stuck to it, I asked all the questions, went through the race a million times with other Ironmen, I was mentally prepared. I was told it would be tough, that I would be mentally and physically challenged, pushed to my limits. I wanted and expected this Ironman to be the hardest thing I’ve ever mentally or physically done in my life. I wanted the chance to question myself and feel pain like never before and I didn’t get the chance to. I never once felt out of my depths, I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t drained, I never once had to tell myself ‘you can do this’. Actually, I was talking to myself up the red carpet persuading myself that I didn’t need to limp…to act normal, didn’t work, I still looked like a weirdo rushing for a bus!!

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t for one second underestimate the strides in which I’ve made from the day I sat down with Joe King in December 2016 and signed my name under a statement that said my goal was to do Dublin 70.3 in 2017 and a full Ironman in 2018. At that stage I couldn’t swim a stroke of anything bar a version of breaststroke with my head out of the water…and only in a pool, any open water bigger than a puddle terrified me.

But during the course of this journey, or rather adventure, the goal posts changed, I changed. I was seeking pain like I’d never felt it before, physical and emotional pain so great that it eliminated any that had gone before it and I didn’t get the chance to have it. I was fully ready to take on that fight when my knee gave way. Yes, some would have stopped there, some did, there was plenty of people that didn’t finish the Ironman but walking 25kms wasn’t a challenge to me, it wasn’t what I trained for,  my body’s been shook one way or another all it’s working life, what’s another 25km limp to it? I had to watch my 13 hour finish ebb away, incredibly frustrating.

Everyone has a completely different experience in an Ironman, some ace it, some get mechanicals, some get taken out by other competitors (fellow Scotsman Marc Moran, who trained for the race for charity, got taken out when someone swerved into him on the bike while they were closing their shoe strap after transition. Marc hit a lamppost and woke up on arrival at the hospital with three broken ribs, a fractured vertebrae and dislocated fingers. Race over), some just simply give up. This was just an honest account of how my race went for me.

Obviously I’ve never done this before so I’m not knowledgeable on Ironman courses, I didn’t care what the course was like, it was in my favourite city, of course I’d do it. As a beginner I would definitely recommend it, the bike really is so much fun and if you are like me and love speed then you’ve plenty of opportunity to give it socks. The crowds were brilliant and Tallinn is seriously one of the most wonderful cities I’ve ever been to, I simply love it here, the part past the finish line is a cobbled street so they mix old with new on the run as the other end of the run is on Tallinn’s first ‘smart street’.

The journey doesn’t end here for me as I’ve a tough 70.3 in The Lost Sheep at the end of the month…knee dependent, hopefully everything recovers in time.

This whole time I have been chasing this goal I thought it was something that I had to turn into, that I needed to work towards being, an Ironman. Wondering had I trained myself enough to have what it takes to be an Ironman? Everytime the training got longer I kept pulling it out of the bag, I never was overcome by the experience. I did, although, give myself a very hard time over old injuries, when my body was hurting I got mad at myself, I never stopped though, never ever dreamt of giving up, just blamed myself. Everyone tells me I’m too hard on myself and I’d be the first to kick someone’s ass if I heard them berating themselves the way I do to myself.

I’ve learned from this whole experience to love myself more, to cut myself some slack for the mistakes I’ve made in life, to stop punishing myself, I am enough and I’ve always been enough.

I never needed to ask that guy if he thought I could do an Ironman, I already had all the tools I needed to complete the task, I just needed to train for it. I should have asked how well could I do an Ironman?…really sound of him to turn up in Tallinn to see, wasn’t it?!

The next bit contains all those I need to thank.

Maria O’Donovan, my best mate who unfortunately had to cancel her plans, with her son Noah, to come with me, poor Noah was admitted to hospital (and is now totally on the mend!). I actually didn’t want to do it without them, didn’t seem right. Maria’s been there every step of the way, put up with the moods, and no craic for so long, she actually deserves the medal!

Ciara O’Neill and Fiona McBride, amazing women, they have text me every single day for months upon months, always about me (well once Fiona tried to make it about her when she hurt her foot in Cobh so she got a few days attention then it was back to me!) and loaded with advice. Back up on the phone for all my long solo spins, training buddies, bag packers and councilors…Fiona is also my chiropractor and put me back together many times.

Adele Hall who has had my back from the first day she knew I was doing triathlon, we were old buddies from long ago and now she’s my rock of sense and Ironman in the making.

Anne Maher who, since the minute we met poolside at our first tri a try, has supported me all the way.

Karen Byrne, Fiona Kelly and Gill Carthy for keeping me on track with phone calls, messages, advice and I’m basically wearing all Gill’s wardrobe.

Sandra Purcell who fed me, gave me lifts to training and kept me level headed.

Fiona O’Byrne who trained with me and listened to me moan and Nicola Crean who whipped my ass into gear on fast spins.

Gaby Dillion who gave me her wetsuit, kept telling me to ‘stick to the plan’ and kicked my ass when I needed it.

Justin Dutton who gave me his training plan to follow, advice and the encouragement to trust my own judgement. He was right, no one knows my body and my capabilities better than me!

Paddy Holohan, training buddy, friend and simply the best guy you could ask for when your training for such an event, so much fun!

George Coffey, my running partner. An amazing bloke with a heart of absolute gold and wealth of experience. I’m blessed to have found him.

Sophie, Erica and everyone up the yard who have helped check on the boy (horse), rug him or water him if I had to go off training early or late and for generally understanding how busy life was.

Mark Loughran, always there for advice, and taught me that I should always be traveling in one gear easier than I think I should!

Marc O’Dwyer, who filled me with advice and confidence before I left for Tallinn. And told me to put ice in my hat during the marathon, brilliant tip!

Sheryl Firth, my absolute inspiration

My club mates at Wicklow Tri club who have given advice, lent me equipment, trained with me and supported me since I joined them,

The crew in Base2Race who have obligingly answered every single of the billion questions I’ve asked, especially Dom who helped me in my bike crisis.

My friends down in Cahir Meet and Train group, the support has been awesome.

Brian Corcoran, the one person that always gets exactly where I’m coming from.

Iain Coates, one of my life long friends who has my back from afar and has been an awesome friend to confide in.

Karl Clancy, who I literally owe loads to, for helping me out with a car when mine was stolen and just generally being a sound bloke

My friends and family who I’ve begged and borrowed off and everyone else who supported my journey and sent me messages of encouragement.

And last but not least, the person who had the most important job while I was in Tallinn, Louise Halford for letting the boy (my horse) stay with her for his holidays.

Well that’s it, end of the final chapter, it’s been quite the ride! Thanks to everyone who jumped on board and came along with me. Finally, I AM AN IRONMAN, now I get to lie on the couch with my medal around my neck, eating chocolate and Doritos, don’t I?


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