Diary of an Ironman debutant: ‘Desperate times call for desperate measures’
After nine months of training, Scott Graham took on the gruelling challenge and prevailed
Scott Graham on the beach before starting Ironman Barcelona: “The pros set off at 8am sharp. Up near the front, I spotted some of the Irish boys. We had a brief chat, shook hands and wished each other good luck.”
For nine months, Ironman Barcelona had been my number one goal.
Most days were planned around training – before and after work (I'm a senior consultant on the sport and sponsorship team at Teneo PSG). I missed out on social occasions, escaped from friends’ celebrations to complete all-important long runs and bike rides, squeezed in a five-hour bike before boarding a flight to a close friend’s wedding.
None of this seemed crazy at the time. Consistency is the name of the game when you are attempting a 2.4-mile (3.8km) swim, 112-mile (180km) bicycle ride and a full 26.22-mile (42km) marathon run.
To deviate from the training plan would be criminal.
The alarm went off at 6.15am, but that didn’t matter a damn – I was already wide awake. I didn’t have the best night’s sleep, but that was to be expected when you’re nervous for the big day ahead. I didn’t let it get to me – I knew it was more important to have a few good nights’ sleep in the days beforehand.
Task number one – breakfast. Always a struggle. The nerves combined with the early rise doesn’t make for the most pleasurable breakfast. I spooned as much porridge as I possibly could into my mouth, washed down with a few swigs of carbohydrate sports drink. Yum. The last proper meal for 14 hours. My brother had volunteered to ferry me down to transition. There were very few words exchanged over breakfast, I was scared for what lay ahead.
The Irish had brought the weather with them. Pitch dark and lashing rain, I entered transition along with about 3,000 other triathletes to find my bike, which had been racked the night before, and proceeded to set up my transition bags. Having never done an Ironman before, hours had gone into working out what to eat on the bike and run; how many calories I needed, what it was possible to digest, salts, electrolytes, drinks bottles. These may seem like small details, but this could make or break you. I stuffed my bike bags with energy bars and gels and completed the final checks.
The atmosphere was building and there was a real air of excitement as the MC got the crowd going and tunes pumped from the speakers on to the beach. The sun was starting to rise. I said my final goodbyes to my girlfriend, Kate, and pushed towards the front of the sub 60-minute swim wave. The nerves started to subside. I was dying to get going. The pros set off at 8am sharp. Up near the front, I spotted some of the Irish boys. We had a brief chat, shook hands and wished each other good luck.
A rolling start, the 3,000-plus competition charged into the water and we were off. The waves were big, probably the biggest I’ve ever raced in. There was a 1.8-metre swell and I honestly couldn’t see a thing for the first few minutes. After a few 100 metres of swimming blindly, I finally caught a glimpse of the first-turn buoy. As we turned the buoy it got chaotic as everyone had the same idea of taking the shortest line – even if that was to swim over me. And who could blame them – a 3.8km swim is long enough.
I settled into a groove, cognisant of the fact I had a long way to go and I didn’t want to be a hero in the swim and use up too much energy. I was going well when the guy in front of me seemed to get caught by the swell and kicked out wildly. He nearly took my Garmin watch off, but thankfully it held. To lose it now would be disastrous. As we turned for home the waves lapped into my face and I drank some lovely salty water. Ah well, maybe that would replace the tonnes of salt that would be lost later.
I felt comfortable but was glad to see the big red finish arch and incredible scenes on the beach as crowds lined the swim exit. A party atmosphere awaited. I caught a nice wave in and managed to find my feet on the beach as the waves crashed in. Others weren’t so lucky and were literally dumped on to the sand.
Running up the beach to transition the crowd was going crazy and I managed to spot my family – my three-year-old nephew Oliver was screaming louder than anyone, ringing his pink Ironman bell and waving an Irish flag. I peeled my wetsuit down to my waist as I ran into transition and glanced at my watch to check my swim split. The kick from my fellow swimmer had stopped my watch so I had no clue how I’d done and, given the conditions, I feared I took over an hour.
I ran out of transition and again got some cheers from family, they seemed to be everywhere. On the bike the roads were smooth and quick and I was pushing on to keep tabs with the guys up ahead. About 5km into the bike we climbed out of Calella and I slipped the gears into the big ring to put the power down. Clunk. I’d dropped the chain! I slowly turned the pedals to try to get it back on to the chainring, but no joy. I pulled into the side and within 15 seconds had the chain back on and was chasing. I could see a pace-line forming up ahead so I upped the pace to get back in touch and all was well again.
The first 90km loop was uneventful and I just stuck to the plan of eating a chunk of energy bar every 15 minutes and keeping well hydrated. At half way I felt fresh, but, again, got another loud cheer from my family. 100km into the bike I was in a long pace-line with the motorbike marshals patrolling to ensure everyone was keeping a sufficient gap.
They dished out a few time penalties as they deemed some people were too close to the wheel in front of them and were getting an unfair advantage. As the motorbike sped off it clipped a cone and sent it skittling across the road in front of me. I swerved and managed to avoid it too. Thankfully, no damage done, but a scary moment as we descended from one of the turnaround points at about 50km/h. I was feeling good – averaging 38km/h.
Shortly afterwards, a Spanish athlete swung out to the left and into the middle of the road. I gave him a nod to say hello. He told me he needed to go for a pee on the bike so was going to move to the back. A few minutes later I saw him again as he moved up to pass me again. I asked him how he was feeling, he said he was feeling strong and was hoping to run a 3.40 marathon off the bike. My one and only chat of the day. You have to be content with your own company in this game.
At 140km, with 40km to go on the bike, I was feeling great and loving it. Everything was going to plan. Some of my training spins had felt like a real drag, but today the time had flown. Rain had fallen for 20 minutes earlier during the cycle but now the sun shone again. Some people looked miserable in the rain but I didn’t care, I thought if anything it would suit the Irish – wet, windy and a little cooler than the Spanish lads were used to.
The long pace-line I was in earlier had blown apart as some people faded towards the end of the bike. Five-hour cycles around the hills of Wicklow were bound to stand to me. Now it was just two other guys and myself. I was third to go through a fairly straight roundabout when my wheel just skidded from underneath me. It wasn’t only the Spaniards that weren’t able to cope with the rain – those slick Spanish roads turned into an ice rink. Before I could blink, I was curled up in a ball on the side of the road clenching my left arm.
My first feeling was anger. I’d spent nine months training for up to 18½ hours a week, putting it before most things in my life. Not to mention my sizeable support crew who had come all the way from home and my brothers family who had travelled from Scotland just to cheer me on, I was well aware of the number of people following my progress on the live tracker back home.
After a few minutes of lying on the ground, as multiple competitors passed me by (who I had worked so hard to get ahead of), I had an important decision to make – do I carry on or call it a day. I picked myself up and grabbed my bike. There was only one way home anyway. As I started to pedal, two more athletes crashed on the roundabout, one looked badly injured and the marshals came running.
I thought my day was done, but figured the quickest way to get back to transition was just to spin easy home. My left forearm was in agony so I gingerly rested my elbow on the time trial bars and got moving again. After a few minute some athletes I saw earlier in the day caught me so I picked up the pace and tried to keep them in sight. I was coming around and told myself I was still in the race and how important it was to finish.
Transition two was uneventful, I racked my bike, donned my runners, took a gel and washed it down with a gulp of energy drink. At this stage, I wasn’t sure if my injuries would allow me to run at all.
Only one way to find out.
My coach, Ross McLynn, warned me not to go out too hard on the run and that it really only starts at 30km into the marathon. I was disciplined and resisted the temptation to fly out on the run quicker than my target pace. The sun had just come out and it was looking like the run was going to be warm.
I have no idea how many supporters lined the run course, but it felt my tens of thousands. Every few hundred metres you would spot an Irish flag and as your name is on your race bib you’d get valuable words of encouragement. The heat was building, but I was moving well and had forgotten about my earlier fall. Sligo’s Eamonn McAndrew passed me at around the 6km mark and he was seriously moving. He ended up running a 2:55 marathon, sneaking under nine hours and finishing second in his age group.
Up until halfway on the marathon I took an energy gel every 30 minutes to keep myself topped up. I had practised loads with these on training runs and was tolerating them. Between the 20 and 30km mark, the day was really taking its toll on me. My pace started to slip slightly from 4:40s to 4:55s. To rescue the situation, I started to guzzle caffeine gels, chomp down salt tablets and drink Coke at every opportunity. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
It was like a warzone at the far end of the three-lap run course as some competitions slumped at the side of the road with their head in their hands and others gingerly walked as the cramps kicked in. I nipped into a portaloo to empty the bladder and on to the last lap I knew I could make it home still running. For the final 6km I managed to lift my pace again and was cheered home by groups of supporters from every corner of Ireland.
Turning into the Ironman finish shoot was a dream. I have never been so glad to see a red carpet. I have never been so glad to turn right instead of left. This was not like your local race back in Ireland. Music blared and the noise from the crowd was deafening. It seemed like hundreds of people wanted to high-five me! In a daze, I sprinted down the red carpet high-fiving the crowds leaning over the barriers. I spotted my family and girlfriend to the left and raised my arms high above my head. Thank god I decided to carry on after the fall. They deserved the moment as much as I did. I’d made it through the most epic day imaginable, I was an Ironman.
Shortly after crossing the finish line, my only desire was to hit the ground. There was nothing left. The tank was empty. Again, unlike your local race in Ireland, this wasn’t allowed in Ironman land. I was swiftly moved on by an official into the “recovery tent”.
How could you recover after that? I’m pretty sure if they allowed little sit-downs at the finish line, there would be a pile of bodies within minutes and that would result in an even more difficult task for the officials.
My only memory from the recovery tent is standing in the shower with an Ironman medal around my neck, fully clothed. Delerium had set in. I also have a vague memory of a massage table and people asking me was I all right. My tri suit was ripped along one side.
Once I could walk, I stepped outside to meet my family who were wondering where I was at this stage. I stumbled out, shivering uncontrollably and as pale as a ghost, wrapped in tin foil. But with an Ironman medal.
There was a serious look of concern on their faces. A few hugs and congratulations and I was ushered to the medical tent for some attention.
The four flights of stairs in our accommodation didn’t seem like the best idea as I hobbled up to crash on the couch and slowly build up the motivation for a shower. Menial tasks like taking a shower or putting on your socks become extreme challenges at times like these. The next few hours were spent telling the battle stories and analysing the race from every possible angle before heading back to the finish line to cheer on the competitions that were still out there.
The difference from a few hours earlier was stark – I had left glorious sunshine, enthusiastic crowds and a buzzing atmosphere; now all that remained was darkness, cold, wind, torrential rain and die-hard supporters. I was blown away by the dedication of these competitors, it almost seemed like their race was a million times tougher. I spent nine hours out there . . . these people were on their 14th hour!
No competitor deserves a mention as much as Caroline Heffernan from Galway who suffers from cystic fibrosis and finished in a time of 15:15:31, an incredible achievement.
Will I do it again? Yes.