Why I wanted to become an Ironman
‘Anything is possible’ is the endurance race’s mantra. For Jonathan Drennan, it’s also a good guide to life
I heard my mum’s voice at 4.30am: “It’s time Jonathan.” At this time in the morning your brain is rarely working at full capacity. I wondered if I had been transported back in time to Belfast and an inconceivably early start for school. Instead it was jetlag playing tricks with me after I had arrived in France from Sydney a day before. I was in Nice on race morning of Ironman France, trying to focus my mind and body for what was in store. I woke up and shadow-boxed for a round to bring some life to my legs and arms.
The Ironman story began in 1978 when John Collins, a naval officer based in Hawaii, was at his local swimming club and had the idea of combining the three toughest endurance events on the island into a single-day event. The Ironman triathlon began later that year with 15 competitors, including Collins, taking part. Today, thousands of competitors take on Ironman triathlons around the world. For many it will be their first and last time; for others it becomes a costly obsession for their wallets and bodies.
I have wanted to do an Ironman triathlon since my teens. A 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile cycle and a 26.2-mile run; it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it rationally. Why devote untold time and money in pursuit of being called an Ironman – a title that means little outside the world of amateur endurance sports?
I remember hearing someone in a documentary saying: “If you can complete an Ironman, you can do anything.” It’s obviously a dose of sporting hyperbole, but the event was more than a race for me.
I wanted to use it as a personal barometer to test how far I had come in my life. From someone who once was so imprisoned by their mind that getting out of bed was frequently an impossibility, to competing in an Ironman.
This year has taught me that life is fragile and short, it is imperative to try to live every moment and then it can become free and beautiful.
Training began last year. I started entering ocean swimming races to build endurance in the water. I forced myself to go on long, lonely and often boring cycles into the hills far from the city and spent hours running up and down the same pavements.
I also stepped into a boxing ring for the first time in a decade, forcing myself to fight countless rounds to build physical fitness and condition my mind to remain calm under pressure. I didn’t stick to a rigid training timetable, relying instead on my intuition. This is normally not recommended, but it worked for me.
Like your final exams at school, you can never be fully sure that you have done enough revision. Similarly, I wasn’t sure if my body was ready. Nine months before, during running training, my heart sky-rocketed, sending me into hospital. Then a month before the Ironman starting gun sounded, I developed Achilles tendonitis due to an increasingly weak right hip.
That morning in Nice, I hugged my parents and joined the competitors on the stony beach. I wound black tape around my forearm twice, as is my habit competing in any serious sport. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be alive. The starting gun sounded loudly just as the sun was stubbornly rising in the sky.
I took two accidental punches in the face as people jockeyed for position. I forced myself to breathe slowly to keep my heart calm and I had my dad’s voice in my brain – the same calm tone he used when I was freaking out about exams at school: “Stay calm, you will be fine Jonathan.”
After over an hour in the blue sea of the Côte d’Azur, the noise from the crowd grew as I swam closer to the destination. A strong French forearm grabbed me, pulled me ashore and gave me a push up the beach. I climbed on to my bicycle and got my legs spinning to urge some life into them after an hour at sea. Within two hours, we were in the mountain villages of Provence. I allowed myself to smell the sweet lavender in the air and look out at the sea far below, if only as a distraction from the burning lactic acid seeping into my calves.
After the machismo of the swim, the steep climb into the mountain provoked a more convivial atmosphere among the competitors. Your racing number has your country’s flag and name on it, which makes conversation fairly easy. I spoke to a Hawaiian who told me about his marital troubles in New York, before spending a flat section with a Belfast native who bemoaned the lack of a good fish and chip shop in Oxford. I felt like a psychologist in Lycra.
I have a lack of mechanical know-how and so had a constant fear of my bicycle breaking down mid-cycle, leaving me unable to finish the race.
I passed a steady stream of competitors sitting despondently in the rain by the side of the road. Some had crashed and others had snapped their chains.
A year of their lives and untold expense for a race had ended due to something completely out of their control. I could only keep a close eye on the road for pot holes and swerve to avoid them when possible.
Regrettably, my body will never feature on a cover of Men’s Health magazine but it is perfectly designed for climbing on a bicycle. I have a light upper body and fairly powerful calves. After getting constantly passed on the left for much of the earlier flat sections – “A gauche Jonathan, attention, a gauche mec!” – I was making good progress on the hills.
Spectators from the local villages rang their cow bells to encourage us to pedal harder. In front of me on the horizon, I saw a back carriage attached to a bicycle.
A man was doing an Ironman, carrying his disabled friend through the whole race. This sight sustained me for the rest of the day better than any energy gel I consumed.
The cycle was over after eight hours of eating a combination of bananas, energy gels and sweets every half-hour – a child’s party bag on a bicycle for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I tried to stand on the pedals for the last few kilometres to stretch out a severely knotted back from hours of being hunched on a saddle up and down the hills surrounding Nice. There obviously needs to be a level of physical commitment in training for an Ironman, but the mental side is even more important in the race.
Late in the day, a marathon awaited me. I often wish I was a more naturally talented athlete, but if I have a skill in sport, it is having a certain degree of mental toughness when I need it.
Normal life is often filled with anxiety and fear, but in a sporting context I can analyse the situation calmly and find a way through it, regardless of the difficulty.
I started the run tentatively, unsure of how my hip would react after stopping running for more than a month due to my Achilles issues.
My first steps were tentative. On my triathlon suit, I had a red hand of Ulster, and I heard an unmistakable Northern Irish accent among the “Allez Jonathan” or “Courage Jonathan” shouts surrounding the road. The man simply offered “Keep her fucking lit big lad,” which is Northern Irish for the aforementioned French shouts of encouragement.
About 30km into the marathon, my Achilles began to shoot with pain. I found new ways to distract myself. I rewarded myself with each lap by going to the foul portaloos that contained the remnants of thousands of athletes’ wretched and churning stomachs.
The volunteers had to use a fire hose to sporadically spray them down after each visit. I opted to go by the side of the road, desperation superseding my normal modesty.
When doing any endurance event, I find it’s important to remember why you are putting yourself through this sporting torture. I did the event in memory of two good friends who are no longer with me and found it helpful to think of them.
Both men would have been bemused that I volunteered to put myself through this torture and I liked to think they were having a chuckle at my expense in the sky.
Near the finish line, my family were waving the Northern Irish flag frantically. I grabbed the flag, and gave them all a hug. The finish chute was packed with spectators on either side, banging the advertising hoarding as I ran in.
In bright blinking red electronic letters above the finish line it read: “Jonathan Drennan IRL 13.47.” The commentator shouted “Jonathan Drennan, tu est un Ironman.”
The mantra of the Ironman is “anything is possible” and this is how I want to live my life.
*This article originally appeared on Jonathon’s blog Behind the Lines.