My Journey to Becoming an Ironman

This is a guest post courtesy of Alice.

Two years ago, I decided I needed to overcome my fear of water. I’m not entirely sure where it came from; I have memories of an accident when I was younger and I think the resulting fear has been compounded over time. I’ve tried various ways to ‘get over it’ including taking up rowing at university, except I had no issues rowing…because I was in a boat and it’s hard to capsize a four or eight person boat. So, instead, in June 2017, I gave myself two years to complete an Ironman, a long distance triathlon involving a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run.

To start this adventure off, I threw myself into my first triathlon event in June 2017 and it can only really be described as a disaster! The 750m swim took me nearly 30minutes and involved me being passed from one canoe safety assistant to another. Beforehand, I had panicked about how I was ever going to find my bike on the rack after the swim…turns out, that is not an issue when you’re the last one out of the water by at least 10mins and the only bike left is yours!  I’ve cycled for a few years, so managed to gain some time back on the bike. The swim came back to haunt me in the 5km run with at least two unplanned stops to throw up the contents of my stomach…most likely lake water! Based on the timings of this triathlon there would be no way I could meet the cut-offs of an Ironman. For an Ironman you have to complete the swim in 2hrs 20mins with a further 10mins allowed in transition. To complete the swim and bike you have a total of 10hrs 30mins and a further 10mins allowed for transition. The final cut-off is the total 17hrs allowed to complete the entire course. Each cut-off must be met and many participants are DNF’d after crossing the finish line.

Alice after her first triathlon.

Breaking down this first experience, it became very apparent I was going to need help with my swimming, mostly, but also my running. For swimming I promptly signed up for a course with Swim-for-Tri. This is a great London based company with some of the best coaches in the country, but also the most welcoming environment and sessions for every ability. Over the next two years I would find myself completing the ‘Front crawl development’ course, 1-2-1 lessons, Serpentine open water sessions and a weekly fitness session. I owe a lot to the patience of their coaches to get me from not wanting to put my face in water to where I am now.

For running I went to City Runners, immediately drawn in by the welcoming front of the club, I soon found myself a regular at Thursday interval sessions and Sunday long runs. It was important to me that the training didn’t become a chore, so it was great to find a running community to join in with that could add variety to my training but also had company and beer!

Over the course of the next year, I gradually improved my swimming and my running was getting more efficient. I turned up to the same triathlon in 2018 and saw some significant improvements – swim time dropped to sub 17mins and my run only involved one involuntary stop! 

During the summer of 2018 I also embarked on my first Ironman 70.3 event, otherwise referred to as a Half Ironman. It seemed appropriate to attempt a half distance, half way through my two year plan. Turns out this was a wise move as I had a lot to learn about long sporting events and refuelling requirements! Anyone that knows me will know that I have an awful habit of signing up to events, not fully preparing myself and then hoping for the best on the day. Usually, I get away with it. However, it turns out that you can’t complete a Half Ironman on one tub of instant porridge for breakfast, 500ml energy drink, two SiS energy gels and a couple of mini-battenburgs. See below for a rather pasty Alice that needed scraping off the floor…

Undeterred, I knew I had just one year to sort out my nutrition, continue improving my swimming, hammer down my running times and at some point, get a few bike rides in. I signed up to the Bolton 2019 Ironman as it is the only Ironman event that fits my three requirements: 1) freshwater swim 2) UK based 3) Ironman branded event. 

In the space of the next 12 months, I completed 6 marathons, 5 half marathons, 4 triathlons of various lengths, 2 duathlons and the Great North swim. One of the best knock on effects of signing up to an Ironman was the number of other events/experiences I took part in as part of my training. My training was often unconventional, I had no overarching coach to direct me and I was willing to surrender performance in one event to take part in another (see previously blog on Jurassic Coastal Challenge induced knee injury 3 weeks before Brighton marathon – oops).

Coming out of the winter I knew my swimming and running were coming along, but I had been neglecting the cycling. I’ve previously done a lot of road cycling, so perhaps it was some inner confidence/arrogance that had resulted in my not going on any training rides. However, any confidence was shattered when the new Bolton cycle route was announced for 2019 and it was a beast! With over 2600m climbing over the 112miles, I needed to get out on my bike! I track most my training on my Garmin and there’s a rather amusing shift between March and April from running to cycling….Top graph is running, bottom graph cycling. 

Before I knew it, July 2019 was here and my Ironman event was looming. I felt surprisingly calm about the swim (where this all began) and my main concern was the bike course. I’d worked out every possible scenario based on swim times and what speed I’d need to go to on the bike to meet the cut off…but ultimately I knew that with so many variables on the day I’d just have to turn up and hope for the best!

The morning of the event was near perfect, the sky was blue and there was a warm glow from the sun; no wind meant the lake was calm. The swim went surprisingly well, and I kept out the pack for the first loop and then positioned myself to take advantage of drafting in the second loop. Coming out fairly calm, I knew I’d hit the time I wanted and so could take my time in transition. After the refuelling disaster of the Half Ironman I had grand plans to have a full blown picnic in this transition, but ultimately I ate one sausage roll, a mini jam roly poly and had a quick drink. Amazing what adrenaline can do in regards to throwing plans out the window! 

Alice exiting the water after the swim portion of the Bolton Ironman.

The first 70miles of the bike route was fairly enjoyable and although on initial reading Bolton may not sound like the most glamorous location, the countryside surrounding the town is beautiful. Crowds gathered on hills and formed long corridors for you to cycle through, which was an amazing feeling. The bike involved a 20mile undulating course up to Bolton from the lake, followed by two loops of the local Bolton hills heading out north and then west. The problem once you’ve already cycled 65miles and climbed over 1300m the thought of doing the same elevation again in the next 47miles and knowing exactly what climbs you are in for is soul destroying. I was desperately trying to take on enough energy through gels, bananas and energy drinks, but after 90miles my mind got the better of me. After a particularly gruelling climb I succumbed and got off my bike. After a severe talking to (by myself) and a couple of Kipling’s Bakewell slices I decided I couldn’t possibly pack it in now, especially when I was well within the cut offs. A bit more pain and suffering now would be worth it in the end! After the final climb I could let loose on the final sweeping descent to Rivington reservoir and then a fast flat finish into Bolton. I have never been so excited to get off my bike. I honestly think someone could have stolen it from me there and then, and I would have thanked them! 

Then there was just the small feat of a marathon to ‘run’. I genuinely set off with the intention to run the marathon and before I knew it I had done the first 10km in under an hour!  The problem is, the marathon is 4 uninspiring loops with a fair amount of uphill and very quickly the run became a jog, which became a walk if the pavement had even the slightest incline. Again the crowds were amazing, I had friends and family dotted along the course, but also as a result of my rather outlandish trisuit, gained a lot of extra supporters who cheered me past on every lap! By now I knew it was a case of WHEN I was going to become an Ironman and not IF. Rather than pushing my body to the limit I decided that I’d just take in the atmosphere and, therefore, it was perfectly acceptable to stop each lap to talk to the guys at the top of the park to get an update on the cricket world cup final, Federer in the Wimbledon final and the British Grand Prix, what a day for sport!! 

Nearly 15 hours after I dived into the water that morning I was on my final lap. Suddenly, the cobbles in the town centre didn’t bother me and my legs woke up. I’d waited for this moment for 2 years and I could see the red carpet in front of me! Throwing my hands in the air, and lapping up the cheers from the crowd, I finally crossed the finish line to the announcement ALICE FOSTER, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.

Alice at the finish line of the Bolton Ironman

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