I believe with enough hard work and focus, you can pretty much achieve anything you put your mind to. I’m not bad at duathlon, but I’ve never seen myself as a someone who’d be able to do much in the sport of triathlon. Mainly from other people telling me that and myself believing it too. I think humans are very quick to put limits on everything and close people’s minds. I’m not about all that, I decided to open my mind up and disregard limits, or other people’s opinions and, with the support of my coach Oliver Saxon, see how much of the world I can take on by seeing how far I can go as an athlete purely by working my ass off and following the training that he sets for me, day in, day out.
I’ve made a lot of progress this year at Age Group level: silver at the National Duathlon Championships and various 2nd, 3rd and 4th place finishes. Oliver tells me not to be so modest all the time and talk about it more. I sometimes like to keep away from all the hype and the ego in the sport and as a result I don’t think I get myself out there enough. I’ve grown in confidence a lot this year, I feel strong and I can feel the potential I have in me and my new mindset is – I don’t really care what other people think about me anymore and I will only focus on the positive energy from genuinely nice people. Life is short, so I don’t want to wonder where it went when I get old.
On reflection, I was a bit too stressed out before the race in Dun Laoghaire. There’s a lot of hype at an Ironman event. It can be hard to keep your zen when you can sense all the stress and anxiety around you, so I do my best to keep a bit of distance from it by being as prepared and as efficient as I can be. I was lucky to be contacted before the event by a guy called Nediljko, or Ned, as I can’t pronounce his full name without being laughed at! Anyway, Ned lives in Dublin and offered me a place to stay with him and his flatmate Josip after I was struggling to find and to afford somewhere. In fact, he gave me his own room and insisted that he sleep on the sofa. I leave Dublin with new and like-minded friends and Ned, an already keen runner, has now had the Ironman seed planted in his head – I look forward to the Ali and Ned race-off and I have much love for them both.
4am alarm, force your bum out of bed and get yourself together. 7am, delayed swim start, sudden covering of fog, no buoys visible, ready to race and waiting, staring out to sea. An hour later, still stood in the same place, a shortened swim was announced, 1900m to 950m, let’s get it on.
First thing I remember, a punch to the face, seconds later, the same guy punches me again, in the face.
“Are my goggles still on? Yes. Am I okay? Yes. Get on with it”
Then a few strokes later, a third punch to the face, this time from my left.
“Great, thanks, but it wasn’t as hard as the first one, so you better try harder next time!”
This is a prime example of why I always double cap to keep my goggles secure for the times when someone forgets the swim etiquette. I kept my head, I didn’t punch either of them back (you know when you’re about to punch someone in the swim by the way, especially in the eye), and I carried on and focused on the race. I'd never raced in the sea before so I was happy to find some rhythm and finish the swim in one piece.
This was my second middle-distance triathlon, but it was my first Ironman branded event, so I had to get used to a new transition format of having kit in bags in a big tent before you then go and get your bike. I took my time to prepare and set out my kit and not let anxiety get to me; nobody wants to finish the swim and realise that they forgot to put their bike shoes in the red bag, or the blue bag, I forgot already!
Onto the bike, clipped in, ready for 56 miles of hills, steep technical descents, narrow and bumpy roads, but first, some flat fast roads out of Dun Laoghaire, head down, stomp the pedals.
Nutrition is the most important aspect of longer races like this, and it’s an ongoing process to get used to eating more when training and racing, even when I don’t really want to. I have to train my body to be able to digest food whilst my heart rate is high, in the same way that you train your legs to go faster. So, my rear pockets were filled with a big malt-loaf bar sectioned up and wrapped.
“Make sure you eat ALL off that malt-loaf on the bike, and as many of those gels and bars taped to your bike frame”
I found the bike course damn hard. I could feel internal resistance telling me to just stop and chill out, that I didn’t need to work this hard, questioning why I was even doing this. I felt outside of my comfort zone on hills this steep, in bottom gear, legs on the limit of going into the red zone. I didn’t want to go that deep, I still had a long way to cycle and a long way to run and I tried to find the limit of working as hard as I could but not going so hard that your legs just decide to self-destruct – then I’d be no good for anything.
The Wicklow mountains are amazing and beautiful on a clear day, but today it was covered in thick mist, so I could have been anywhere. I focused on what little I could see ahead of me and continually flirting with the limit of my endurance. Slow steep inclines, then fast and bumpy downhill sections, hands slipping and jolting off the bars with the poor road surface, handlebar tape coming unstuck due to being soaked through, confidence in the bike sketchy, brakes feeling pretty useless and overworked. Time-trial bikes are certainly not designed to brake well, only to go really, really fast. It’s safe to say that my bike needs some attention after that bike course.
I tried to make the most of what I could, so I took some measured risks on the fast corners, can’t see round them, but the course is on closed roads and there shouldn’t be anything there, just stay strong and stay fast, brake, lean and power through the bends. The chain did come off once, but it was fine, I stopped and put it back on and went about my business. The gears were jumpy and wouldn’t shift very well. Before the race I was told by a local bike shop that my bike had an issue with the gears and they may not work well, and worst case could snap off somewhere and leave me on the side of a road waiting for a lift back to Dun Laoghaire. I decided it best to forget about that and just go for it and if they failed on me, so be it, but they held off. The day I get a better quality and safer bike, will be a very good day indeed, but for now, Oliver’s words go through my head.
“Just do what you can with what you have at the time - be the best you”
Chuck the bike back into transition, get my running shoes on and get on it. I’m always relieved when I get onto the run because it’s only then that no external factor can ruin my race. There’s no bike to brake, just me and my legs. There’s no hiding on the run section; if you are fit, you’ll hold it together, but if you’ve tried to get by on minimal training, this is where you’ll end up walking.
I set off at steady effort and tried to be consistent, in fact I started out a little fast, but didn’t slow too much, so it was okay. Work to do, I will get faster, but I was happy with my effort. The run was 3 very well supported laps of the coastline and pier, the crowds were great and helped pull me through. The mind wants to wander and think nice cosy thoughts, but you ‘gotsta’ stay strong and focus on the task in hand, it’ll be over before you know it.
The finish line slowly crept forward. I was on the nutrition, using every aid station, being sensible, passing many, but also seeing others absolutely fly round the course. I was telling myself to just do what I can, and I’ll be faster next time, we’ll spiral up the training and I’ll continue getting better, step by step. Before I knew it, I was on the red carpet and stepping under the timing gantry, first 70.3 down, many more to come. I was 11th out of 111 in my Age Group in a time of 5 hours 13 minutes and some seconds. I was content, and I can sense the potential inside of me to really push it in this sport and climb up the leader board. In time.
I still find it incredible just how much training must be done to be able to properly race these events and stay at a good effort all the way to the finish line. I train every day, sometimes twice, and have close and daily contact with my coach, but it will take more years of training to get the most out of myself and reach my potential. Endurance comes over time and there are no quick wins in this sport, it’s all down to you.
Now, it’s a week post-race, I’ve trained every day since, feeling good physically and mentally, I’ll continue to develop in sport and as a person, I’m staying focused on the goal, I’m using my time well and focusing on making a life for myself and pushing the limits of what my mind used to think possible for me. Next up is Ironman 70.3 Weymouth on Sunday 22 September 2019 – bring it.
About the author: Alister Brown is a triathlete and Sundried ambassador.