As you may know, I have decided to attempt my first Ironman in 2017. As part of that journey, I plan a series of guest posts and training tips from new and experienced Ironman triathletes. I first met Andrew a few years ago when I drove in a charity banger rally he was involved in organising. Like me, he had piled on the pounds, and was pretty unfit. By coincidence, at around the same time, we both got into endurance sports, and each changed our lives. This is Andrew’s Ironman story.
The Road to Ironman Austria
My journey to Ironman Austria started just over two and a half years ago. I was a 19 stone, 40 something guy who had forgotten what healthy food and exercise was, and got caught up in the trap of poor eating habits and no time to go to the gym. I had lost some weight a few times over the years but always slipped back into the bad habits after a few months.
I had played loads of sport a kid but never really liked swimming and running. I played Sunday football until work and family got in the way and had basically done nothing for the last 15 years.
However, something happened this time that stopped me slipping back into those bad old ways; I had been doing well in the gym and was sticking to eating well and the weight was dropping off me, when I saw an advert for a local charity Triathlon raising money for Iain Rennie hospice, a fantastic local charity. I signed up and started raising money before I had even gotten a bike; it was around Christmas so I asked for money, vouchers, etc. towards a bike. I bought £300 bike from Halfords on Boxing Day and couldn’t wait to get out on it. I got out on it and loved it, and soon started racking up some good miles. However looking back I remember thinking 40k was a really long ride!
The race was in early May, and by this time I had lost 5 stone and I continued to train well in the gym, was regularly running 5k runs, but swimming was an issue, as I could only swim front crawl for about 25 metres. I continued to work on it, and was up to around 300 metres by the time of the race. Doing the 400 meters would be my longest front crawl swim.
Come the race day I was so nervous, I can’t remember how many times I went for a wee, but I needn’t have worried. I swam the 400 metres with no issues and got the bike and run done, and at the end I was really chuffed to have got round, and I was was hooked on Triathlon.
A couple of my friends, Simon and Brian, had been badgering me about joining our local Tri club, Leighton Buzzard Tri, but to be honest I was scared. Brian had recently completed Ironman Nice and I imagined the club was full of these super athletes who would put me to shame.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth – from the moment I joined I felt at home, every single person made me feel welcome and the club was geared for people of all abilities from novices to multiple Ironman, and truly embodies the club ethos and I have never looked back from that first training session.
That year I went onto complete another couple of sprints, and my first Olympic distance, and also completing my first half Marathon, and I was already looking forward to 2015 to challenge myself. I signed up for Slateman a legendary race based in Snowdonia which I had seen on TV and heard great reports from guys at the club who had done it
The slateman was a truly amazing race, and I knew after finishing it that I wanted to do an Ironman. I signed up for great local race the Cowman which is a Middle distance race, but before I had done the Cowman there was chat among a few of the guys and girls at the club about doing Ironman Austria in 2016. This was one of the Ironman races I had looked at so this was perfect, and in June 2015 I signed up – before I had done the Cowman!
The remainder of 2015 saw me finish the Cowman in 6hrs 20. I also competed in the Huntsman another race organised by Always Aim High who run the Slateman, and was another great race. I also found I loved open water swimming, probably down to the fact that my rubbish swim technique is helped by swimming in a wetsuit, and in September I completed the Chillswim, an end to end 9k swim the length of Lake Conistion with Brian and Simon
The training for Austria started in earnest in January, and I was so fortunate to have an amazing group of people to train with – this group, which became known as the Saturday morning running club, became the core of my training buddies – it made the training fun, we had some great banter which made getting up 6 am on wet and cold Saturday morning to run 14 miles fun, you just need to make sure Zak hasn’t been on the spicy fajitas!
We had a mixture of races to train for including a few doing Austria with me, Some doing the Outlaw, Matt training for his first half Ironman, and Sean who was training for the legendary Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. The support we all gave each other was unbelievable and will be one of my abiding memories of the whole experience.
The training pretty much went to plan and I was lucky not to pick up any injuries or get ill, so the 6 months of training flew by. I did one warm up race, which was the Grafman middle distance, which went well. I learned a valuable lesson about racing in warm weather, and decided to use salt/ electrolyte tablets after feeling really rough after the race which I put down to dehydration and lack of salt/electrolytes.
From January I racked up 2700 km on the bike, ran 650 km, and swam 120k, not to forget my Tuesday evening core conditioning sessions run by Kathryn and Ian who were also doing Austria.
So it was time to get on with it. I traveled down with four of the others from the club; Jez, Andy, Ian and Kathryn, who were taking part. The other guys flew over but we choose to drive down over one and a half days and, apart from some horrible traffic around Frankfurt on the way down, it was really easy although there was some funny sights trying to get out of the car on the journey back!
We arrived on Thursday lunchtime and dropped our bags off at our accommodation. We had rented some apartments about 2 miles from the Ironman HQ, and this proved ideal. We headed straight to register – well when I say straight, we actually got lost and ended up walking about 5 miles in 90 degree heat – poor Jez took some dogs abuse for his directional skills!
As an IM newbie I was blown away by the scale of it, the whole site was huge, registration was easy, quick look in the expo and luckily we bought most our stuff before the pound crashed(!), then our first experience of what you pay the extra few quid for – we asked at the info desk were we can get a taxi from – no problem sir I will call you one now and it will be here in 5-10 minutes -great customer service.
Friday we headed to the lake for the swim – again a nice little touch was the coffee boat in the lake which you swim out to and get a free coffee. It was very warm, but the lake felt OK and we went back in non wetsuit for another swim just in case. It got even hotter in the afternoon, and we went out for an hours ride along the lake and we were all a little concerned at the rising temperature, as even that ride felt harder than it should have done.
Saturday we headed to the race briefing. This really stoked the nerves, but thankfully it was declared a wetsuit swim although it was close, and was non wetsuit for the pros. We went for another swim and now the temperature was becoming a real concern with the thermometer in the town showing 38 degrees. We headed out for a carb loading lunch and then back to rack the bikes and drop the bags off, and again the size of transition is huge with 3000 bikes but so well organised. A light evening dinner and then time to try and sleep which was easier than I thought, and I managed about 5 hours.
I was up before the 4am alarm, and had my rice pudding breakfast – another great tip I picked up along the way, much easier to eat than porridge and no prep needed, so ideal if you are travelling to a race. We headed off, again parking was easy, just 5 minutes from transition. The welcome into transition was incredible, with lines of volunteers clapping you in, and you really felt like a gladiator. Checked the bags, put the nutrition on the bike, and then short walk to the swim start, and the atmosphere was electric. We got changed into our wetsuits, had a big group hug and said out goodbyes as Jez, Andy and Ian headed for one of the faster swim pens. Kathryn, Simon, James and I decided on the 1:20-1:30 pen. It was Simons birthday so we decided to sing Happy Birthday, and everyone joined in -priceless moment. We all needed a wee at this point so we had a group wetsuit wee! By now the front groups had gone off and we started moving forward, however for whatever reason, we seemed to be right at the back with the 2 hour swimmers, we edged forward a bit but by the we got to go there was less than a 100 people behind us.
This was it, the start of an Ironman – I had no nerves just excitement, little run down the beach and dived in, and it was fairly clear. I was worried that I would get held up by the slower swimmers but I seem to progress through them well. I got held up a couple of times but nothing too bad. Just before the first turning buoy it got a bit busy and then someone grabbed my left ankle just as I kicked and I had a sharp twinge in my hamstring. I carried on swimming around the buoy and it went away, got to the 2nd turn and couldn’t see a thing as the sun was rising straight in front of us. I cleared my googles and carried on. Trying to locate the canal was a bit of a challenge, but once in there I remembered to stick left and I got a perfect line and a clear swim, around the final little corner, and there was the arch -hauled out, quick look at the Garmin 1 HR 20 mins which I was delighted with and bang on target. The run through to transition was amazing with big crowds clapping and shouting, Now it was time to calm down and relax a little.
Got into transition and got changed, slapped on some suncream and felt a bit hungry so I ate a Powerbar walking to my bike.
Loved the bike – slightly hillier than I thought, but beautiful, and the roads were great. The support was great on the first loop, particularly on the Ruprtiberg but that was helped by the fact I went up there as the same time as Marino Vanhoenacker, the 8 times winner of IM Austria and world record holder! They were going mad, and we had helicopters and film motorbikes following him. I stuck to my nutrition plan and felt decent until about 130k when I felt a little tired so I fueled up a bit and had some coke which picked me up, ready for the final push up and over the Ruprtiberg for the 2nd time. The crowds had thinned out a little by now, as it had rained for about an hour, but still plenty of encouragement, and now it was time to head for home. There were some quick bits in the last 15k and I hit the outskirts of Klagenfurt and past the random old couple with the mega phone singing away. I headed into T2 and bike split of 6:58 which was bang on my 7 hours pace I planned, which was great, although my hamstring had twinged a couple of times I felt good and had decent energy levels.
Into T2 and I was helped by a lovely lady, put on my run gear and more sun cream, and off for the run. Legs felt ok, but I soon realised the sun had come out and it was very warm. My plan was to try and do around 6:15-6:30 KMs but went off a bit too quick for the first few Ks, but then I got into a decent rhythm. It was heating up, and the sun was beating down. It was nearly 30 degrees with not a huge amount of shade on the first half of the run loop, so I concentrated on drinking at every aid station and salt tablets every half hour and taking cooling sponges. I was going along quite well and was through the first 15k in around 1.5 hours, and feeling ok, but the hamstring started tightening a little, and my right foot felt a little sore so I stopped at the 17k feed stop to adjust my trainer but when I tried to start running again it was like someone shot me in the hamstring. I tried to run it off but it wasn’t having it so i walked for a bit then tried running again but it wasn’t liking it so I decided on a run walk strategy which felt ok, and got the first loop done in about 2hrs 20 odd but by now the hamstring was killing me and the quad then started cramping so it become more walking than running for the next 8-10k when I stopped and used the portaloo as I needed a wee – one thing I have learnt is never use the portaloo on an Ironman run unless it’s desperate as it was horrific in there!
As I started running again I heard the familiar voice of Kathryn, one of my club mates I had travelled over with; she had a a really tough few months with injuries and had done no running for the last 8 weeks so had done brilliantly to even get to the startline but by now she was having a tough time as well. We decided to stick together and this was a Godsend for both of us as we had some great banter ,we did some run walking for a few more ks until neither of us had another run step left in us and conceded we had to walk the last 8k. This was no Sunday afternoon stroll – we cracked on with a good power walk, and were passing lots of people and were still doing 8 1/2 min KMs. We also decided to jump in the double bed which was set up in the old town as part of a publicity stunt which made people laugh and then it was just a case of cracking on a ticking off the KM signs, and soon we reached the 40k mark and this was after we tried to choke ourselves on some mini cheddars which Kathryn had in her back pocket – they basically cemented or mouths shut!
Then the excitement kicked started kicking in, as I knew I was going to finish an Ironman. We got to 41k and we were met by Lynne and Julie, the wives of some of our other club guys – a quick high 5 and then on to the finish. Nothing can prepare you for the finish chute. We stopped at the bottom and ran down together to the the first gantry, where we stopped and had a huge hug. Kathryn let me go down first – this was her 3rd IM and definitely her toughest, but she is one bloody tough lady, and it was a pleasure to share the last 10k with her. Then it’s on to the red carpet and you hear those magic words “Andrew Keen you are an Ironman” and I was delighted to look up and see my overall time of 14:08.
Kathryn followed down with her signature finish – 5 cartwheels!!
I called my wife and daughter who were in tears as the stress of following at home all came out. We headed to the Irondome and got some food and water, finishers t shirts, and then headed out to meet the rest of the guys, which was a magic moment with plenty of bear hugs. We headed for a beer but I could only manage a water! We then went to watch the hero hour which was amazing experience.
After collecting our bikes from transition we headed back home, after some big hugs and goodbyes to the guys I headed in. I had a shower and felt tired, however I couldn’t sleep as my body was still pumped, and brain was in overdrive trying to take it all in. I was also really warm so I had another cooling shower but this didn’t help – I just couldn’t sleep. Finally, at about 4 am I got up and decided to wash all my stinky gear in the shower using Lynx shower gel!
My welcome home was lovely, with Kirsten and Ellora making me an Ironman banner and they bought some Ironman balloons which was lovely. The best piece off advice I was given about doing an Ironman was make sure your family are on board and understand what you are doing, and they have both supported me 110% through the whole journey. It was also great catching up on the hundreds of texts and Facebook messages wishing me well, and it was also special to go to tri club on the Thursday night to see everyone who had helped make the journey possible, as, without everyone at Leighton Buzzard Triathlon club, none of this would have been possible and I can never thank them all enough.
As I look back 10 days later it was a truly incredible journey which I have been lucky enough to share with some amazing people – and it won’t finish here, I am already planning another Ironman next year!
If you are having thoughts about doing an Ironman, do it. It is a truly life changing experience, it’s not a race but it’s you challenging yourself to complete something incredible and as they say anything is possible.