Since completing Ironman Copenhagen it has taken me quite a few days to try to process everything. Even now, as I sit down to write this race report, I am uncertain of my ability to convey in words how the whole epic day felt.
Why did I need to embark on this whole crazy adventure in the first place?
Even before my cancer diagnosis I have always been intrigued with endurance sport, long distance triathlon in particular.
When I competed in Ironman Lanzarote in 2017, I crossed the finish line thinking “I want to do that again but next time I want to be faster.”
When I heard that a group of athletes from our local triathlon club (Lisburn) would be signing up for Copenhagen 2018 I was all in.
As the new year 2018 rung in I had it all planned. This time my plan would involve eating healthily and losing a little weight, being consistent with the training and aiming for a faster time rather than just a finish.
When I first discovered a lump it was merely an inconvenience. In my medical head it was nothing more than something benign that just needed confirmed by a doctor and possibly the breast clinic. I continued to train at full speed whilst I was awaiting my first appointment. I remember by last turbo ride before that clinic thinking to myself, “right just need to get this over with so I can get on with training for Copenhagen.”
As many of you know – that was not to be. I was diagnosed on March 22nd 2018 with stage 2 Breast cancer. I deferred my Copenhagen entry and concentrated on getting through the treatment I needed over the next six months instead.
Radiotherapy treatment finished just before the guys from the club were going out to race and we decided we would still go out for a holiday and a potential recce of the Ironman course. I was blown away by their performances and also with the atmosphere at Copenhagen 2018. As soon as I could (24 hours after IM Copenhagen 2018) – I used my deferral to enter Copenhagen 2019 and that’s where it all started once again.
All of a sudden though, my reasons for doing this Ironman had evolved. Don’t get me wrong I still wanted to be faster (if I could handle the training post treatment) but there was something more than that.
I had exercised all the way through radiotherapy and it was amazing how this made me feel. Those times on my turbo trainer during treatment made me feel strong and helped me gain control during a time when life felt out of control. In a similar vein competing in Ironman Copenhagen was about regaining some of the control I felt I had lost through my diagnosis.
Thankfully I had an ally in Arran from Fusion Triathlon coaching who offered to help me come up with a training plan. No stranger to long distance triathlon, and a guy who helped loads of fellas through Copenhagen 2018, I was very glad to accept his offer.
What followed was an evolving 32-week plan that took us to the start line. Throughout we didn’t have too many obstacles. I was definitely getting stronger and some successful early season races built confidence that the plan was working. Training for an Ironman though is tough – you border on being obsessive about it and the closer you get to the end the crazier you become. I just want to say thanks to those close to me for accepting that I was a little anti-social during this time. (Plenty more thanks to follow later!)
The 4 weeks prior to race-day were slightly hairy. I actually managed to get shingles and needed to take five days off during a time I just wanted to do some final big miles on the bike. I quickly got over that though and got my last big sessions in and felt good doing them. Two weeks before the race my Mum had to have emergency surgery and that was also a bit stressful but she is so strong and got through it like a pro. If anything, her strength of character made me more determined to go to Copenhagen and do my best.
At this point I am sure you are wondering “when in under of goodness is she going to start writing her race report?” What can I say – I love to talk!
We arrived – a team of three, my partner, my brother and I – in Copenhagen a few days prior to race day. I was nervous and quiet (unusual for me) and I felt quite tired and lethargic but I was assured by Arran that these were all normal feelings prior to race day. Ruth and Tom were great though and accepted my nervous energy as normal which is good because it couldn’t have felt like much of a holiday going to bed each night at 9pm and drinking water at dinner!!
Thanks guys. 😉
I went through all the usual steps the days leading up to an Ironman, registration, bike check-in, bag check-in etc and then all of a sudden it was the morning of Ironman.
Our alarm was set for 4:30am but I didn’t need it – I was awake. I did sleep a little during the night so felt ok getting up and force-feeding myself some cereal, a banana and some instant coffee. Our hotel was only a ten to fifteen minute walk from the swim start so we started out at 5:30am. Despite the warnings of some nasty weather the sky was clear and we could see the sun rising. it was an absolutely beautiful morning.
I had purchased VIP tickets for Ruth and Tom so they could have some breakfast and get a good spot to watch the swim. When we arrived we found the VIP tent and I gave them both a hug and went to business in the transition area checking my bike and adding my water bottles and nutrition to the frame. Once I was satisfied all was in order I got ready for my warm-up swim, wetsuit on, goggles on. Now I just wanted to get started!! Before jumping in the water I went over to Ruth one last time to give her my spare goggles and water bottle and more importantly to say a final goodbye before embarking on an all-day race.
The warm-up swim was lovely. I had no problem getting in and doing a few warm-up strokes and getting my face wet. They announced around 6am that the temperature was actually 18.3 degrees – positively balmy compared to Camlough lake or the Lagan!!
After the warm up we were placed in our starting pens ready for a rolling start which would start at 7:10am, ten minutes after the pro-females had started. At this stage I was feeling incredibly calm and ready to go. Five minutes before start time they played this beautiful music across the speakers that gave me those goosebumps you can get at the back of your neck. Then we did a thing called an “Icelandic clap” which was pretty amazing too. The pro females went off on time at 7am and then ten minutes later the age-group race started. I got going about four minutes after that and it was such a lovely way to start an Ironman. I felt like I had clear water the whole swim with nobody really getting in my way or grabbing/punching me. Lovely.
My plan was clear, this swim was the warm-up to a full day of racing, I wasn’t going to push it and I was going to go at 6/10 effort. It felt good and I felt like I was actually passing people the whole way through the swim. Despite it being a 3800m swim it felt like no time at all before I was turning around the final IM buoy and heading towards the swim exit. Quick check of the watch and it was clocking 59 minutes as I was leaving the water, not bad, happy enough.
Into transition and I grabbed my cycling gear from the racks. Wetsuit off, cycling jersey and helmet on, feet dried, socks on, shoes on and wetsuit and swim stuff placed into bag and dropped at the bag drop on my way to my bike. Sorted.
The transition was set up for 3200 bikes and my bike was at the very top of transition close to the bike exit so it was quite a run to get to it but I used this time to open a banana and scoff at least half of it before getting to my bike. Bike found and out I go to bike exit with a quick jump on after the mount line and – I’m on my way to conquer the bike course.
The first bit of the bike is through the city centre of Copenhagen and it was quite technical. I never really felt like I could get the speed up too high during this part but this was no bad thing because it was important for my heart rate to settle after the swim. It wasn’t long before I was on a beautifully smooth coastal road with the wind on my back. I got into an aero position and settled down. The plan for the bike was steady all day. We had a heart rate aim that I stuck to and I wasn’t to venture into the red at all. At times this was difficult because I felt like the entire field was passing me despite my average speed looking to be over 19mph. However, I rigidly stuck to the plan and kept her steady.
Subsequently on the second lap I started to meet a few of the people who flew past me at the beginning and I gained a little confidence that my approach wasn’t too left-field.
The bike course is beautiful and the roads are in good condition. You wouldn’t describe it has hilly, more like ‘undulating’ however in comparison to Lanzarote it was flat. I never felt sorry for myself at all during the bike leg, there were times in fact where I was ecstatic at how wonderful it was all going. Your brain can be a little crazy at times during long events like this.
The best support on the course was at a place called Geels Bakke which essentially was a motorway incline closed completely to traffic. They had bussed supporters out to line either side of this section of the motorway and you could hear the spectators before you could fully see them. The organisers had even provided drums and ‘clackers’ for them to play as the cyclists were climbing the incline. I felt like a superstar climbing that bit and looked forward to the second lap where I could absorb all that energy all over again.
The second lap went pretty much similar to the first lap, although at times the heart rate climbed a little and I had to back it off a bit. I still felt fairly strong though and didn’t hit the inevitable wall I thought I would at around 85 miles when normally I start to think ‘right I’m ready to get off this thing now’. Once I hit Geels Bakke the second time I knew I only had over 30-40 minutes left of cycling and that I would be turning into second transition in no time with 112 miles of bike completed and just the small matter of a marathon to run! As I cycled into the city centre I could see some people had already started their run and that made me excited to finish this leg and start the next one. Into transition, bike handed over to great volunteers and off I trot to the change tent. Quick look at the watch and my bike was done in 5hrs and 54 minutes! Very happy with that.
Helmet and cycling gear off and changed into tri-suit, sun-cream on face, baseball cap and sun-glasses, new socks and runners. I racked my bag with my cycling gear in it and as I was running out noted the port-a-loos. I thought “better now than having to stop to use one during the run” so did that and then I was off. (If you think that’s too much information I’m sorry but when you need to pee you need to pee and the logistics of doing that during an Ironman can be tricky so there you go!)
Now the run – where do I even start? Let’s start with my plan, our plan. We had decided way back at the start of the training plan that I was going to adopt a run/walk strategy for the marathon. When I tell this to people they sort of look at me funny and say/think “are you not able to run continuously or something?” Despite my initial worry about this strategy I quickly realised in my long training runs that it was golden. My pace was quicker than that when I was training for Ironman Lanzarote so I had full faith that this tactic would work on the day.
So the plan was to run for 14 minutes and then walk for 1 minute and repeat that for the first two hours of the marathon. For the second half I would run for 9 min and walk for 1 min and continue that until the finish.
I felt totally fine starting off running, but when the first mile on my watch showed I completed it in 8 minutes I thought whooaaaa back off, back off I need to be consistent and steady. I backed off a little but the next two miles were 8:30 even including my walk break in the middle. I finally settled into a rhythm that felt consistent and just ticked off the miles. I carried a water bottle with me with the nutrition I had been using through training and would sip at that through my walk breaks and then follow up with a gulp of water through aid stations.
The support on the course is unreal. It’s a four loop course through the city centre and then out past the famous Gefion fountain and the Little Mermaid towards the cruise-ships and back. Aptly enough you ran along a pier towards one of the turn-around points and there is a little cafe with a sign in pink neon lighting saying THE END. I smiled every time I could see this in the distance because it marked roughly 5km from the city centre and another 5 km back to the start line where we could begin another lap.
There are spectators at every point throughout the course and the best support was under the fly-over bridges where the drums were playing and people were just shouting support the whole time. There were a few people at random points with their boom boxes and speakers playing motivating music and one in particular sticks out in mind. As we were running along the pier towards the turn-around point there was a gentleman with a massive speaker playing Rocky music and he had his two kids with him (bearing in mind that it rained the whole way through the marathon). This man and his two kids were standing and dancing with whistles blowing as we ran past shouting encouragement. They were all soaked but they were there, every single lap and they were as enthusiastic on my fourth lap as they were on my first. Thank-you!!!
Coming into the city centre was fantastic as well. Ruth had picked a great place to see me at the city centre turnaround so essentially I would come in one side and both her and Tom would be shouting at me and encouraging from that side of the road and as soon as I passed they would sneak across to the other side of the road and be there for me coming back out on the next lap. The boost I got from seeing Ruth (and of course Tom) during that turnaround was fantastic. She kept saying you look so good, you look happy, you are doing this!! It buoyed me for another 5km each time and I’m so thankful for them standing around in the rain lap after lap to give me that boost.
After two hours of running I felt good. The legs were tired but they were still going and my run-walk strategy was working. At this point I knew that the infamous ‘wall’ was a possibility. We had planned for it to start to appear on the third lap and I was mentally prepared. When it didn’t happen at mile 16, 17 or 18 I started to say to myself – “The Wall is not going to get me today.” I repeated this inwardly quite a lot and I kept smiling and kept thinking to myself that I am in control here, I get to choose how I do this, “I get to do this.” I got to 21 miles and thought 5 miles left, any one can run 5 miles. Still no wall.
When I got to my final turn-around and my fourth wrist band I thought, right this is it, you are going to enjoy every last minute of this run and you will finish strong. “Be brave, believe in yourself, always a little further.”
I also did some mental calculations of my possible marathon time and realised that I was going to be close to four hours! I thought of Arran and how he had told me I could do this, that I was a runner and I also had images of him tracking me at this point and hoped he was loving it!!
I allowed myself another two walk breaks but for the final ten-fourteen minutes of the marathon I ran. As I turned into the city centre and started running towards the finish line a bit of emotion started to bubble up out of nowhere but I was soooooo happy. I could hear the announcers welcoming the other athletes ahead of me home and I was determined to continue to smile and really enjoy the red carpet finish line. As I turned into the finish line in front of the beautiful parliament building I high-fived all the people who would oblige me a high-five and I milked that red carpet! It’s hard to explain in writing the feeling but I was so happy to finish in one piece, to actually enjoy and soak up the atmosphere and most of all to have Ruth place the finishers medal over my head.
11 hours, 13 minutes and 45 seconds.
Ironman Copenhagen done.
The last eighteen months have definitely been a journey and I hope that with finishing this I can wipe the slate clean for a while and move forward. Throughout it all I have been overwhelmed by the messages of support from friends old and new and the encouragement I have received from my triathlon club, my mentor and coach, Arran and from all my absolutely lovely work colleagues (my work family.)
We have raised such a lovely amount of money for Macmillan Cancer support and I know that this will be put to such good use for those affected by a cancer diagnosis. My diagnosis of cancer is never far from my mind, that’s just the way it is, but I’m lucky. I have support, I have my Ruth and I have my family and friends and I will always be thankful that “I get to do this.”
Thanks so much for listening.