Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

- T.S. Eliot -

Ironman Mallorca 2016 Review

Last week, we travelled to the beautiful Island of Mallorca for the 2016 version of Ironman Mallorca (sponsored by Thomas Cook!!!). Herein follows a review of the weekend, I’m going warts and all, so I apologise for the occasional swear words – mostly from the wife!!

The boring bits first; we travelled via EasyJet from Luton, booked a hire car via RecordGo and had our bikes transported by John (and his team) from Cycle Transfer. Speaking of bike transport, if your doing a European Ironman, don’t bother with taking your bike on a flight with you, it’s cheaper and significantly easier to use Cycle Transfer – they collect from your front door and deliver to your hotel. Save yourself the cost of airline baggage and lugging a bike box through the airport, easy as!

We stayed the the Ivory Playa in Alcudia, it was a perfect base with very friendly staff and excellent bike storage facilities. The hotel was fine without being spectacular or disappointing – it had a pool and bar for chillaxing on Sunday after the event and was quite at night.

The Event

Briefing and bike racking

The two main jobs in the days before the event are attending the mandatory briefing and racking our bikes. Having raced at Ironman Switzerland two years ago, we were expecting the same Swiss efficiency this time around. But, the whole event had more of a Spanish, laid back feel about it – the major exception being the security. Security was tight, super tight and very, very thorough – if you didn’t have the correct wristband, you had no chance of getting close to the athletes-only areas.

The briefing is a mini-event in it’s own right, Paul Kaye does his thing and eventually gets to the detail that everyone is waiting for….the water temperature. Now, before I continue, let me be 100% clear – I had been checking the water temperature for about a month before the event (granted that the water temperature was from a satellite) and it had been very high – 28°C most of the time. I’m a rubbish swimmer and ideally wanted a wetsuit swim (for extra buoyancy in the water) and a water temperature over 24.5°C, wetsuits are not allowed. When Mr Kaye therefore announced a sea temperature of 25.8ºC there was a groan around the arena and a few long faces. Strangely, having checked the temperature over the previous few weeks, I felt OK and was rather looking forward to the challenge of a non-wetsuit swim.

Briefing done, it was back to the hotel to collect the bikes, make any last minute adjustments and taken them to transition. It was at this point I noticed my rear wheel was rather buckled – oh well, nothing could be done at his late stage, fingers crossed it would last 112 miles without exploding!

Friday night ended with a dash around a few hotels in Alcudia with my father – earlier in the day his bag had been mistakenly removed from his transfer bus. A very nice, but very drunk lady had found his details, called his insurance company, who called him and eventually he was reunited with his bag.

Showtime – the time for talk is over!

After a decent nights sleep it was showtime.

As we left the hotel room, my number 1 supporter and best wife suggested that taking my wetsuit might be a good idea – it had rained a fair bit over night and the water temperature might have dropped. Using my best patronising voice, I said that once it had been called in the briefing that it was a non-wetsuit swim, then it was a non-wetsuit swim whatever happened. However, despite my confidence, I looked at the empty space in my bag and decided that rather than face a smug looking wife, if the water temperature was remeasured and had dropped,  my wetsuit was placed in my bag. Guess what? As we approached the entrance to transition (passing some lashed blokes coming out of a nightclub at 6am!), Paul Kaye wakes up Alcudia with an announcement that the water temperature has dropped below 24.5°C and it’s now a wetsuit swim – result! Cue, the wife looking at me in despair; “do you want me to go back and get it?”. “Nope” I responded. Mrs Abbott promptly lost the plot; “why? You fuckin’ idiot, it’s a wetsuit swim, and you’ll die if you don’t wear one, you’re a crap swimmer, be logical, let me go and get your wetsuit, I’m getting in a taxi, it will take 10 minutes”

“It’s in my bag already, I didn’t want you to call me a idiot if the water temperature had change overnight” came a very calm answered, I was supposed to be the stress head! At which point, I must remind you that an Ironman is tough for competitors, but is often harder for wives, children, parents and supporters. Not only the day of the event when they stand and watch our suffering, but also during the training and preparation. I’m lucky, I have an amazing wife who is ridiculously supportive, when I’m not about in the evenings or weekends, not once had she complained that I’m training rather than cutting the grass (actually, once or twice she has), she feeds me, fuels me and never complains when I drop another load of stinking sports gear on the floor of the garage. If I’m the engine, she is the petrol that keeps it ticking over and the oil that stops it from seizing up. I’m really lucky and know it!

After a few goodbye’s and good lucks it was time to enter transition and get ready. At this point, my wife said something that will stay with me for the rest of my life…”be careful on the bike”. This might sound like an innocuous statement, but I know that this actually meant; “I’m really worried about you going hard on the bike leg, crashing and not making the finish”. You see, the bike leg is my strongest and the main chance to get a bit of time back on people around me, the risk being that I over cook it and either ruin my legs or crash. I nodded my head (with my fingers crossed behind my back), “I’ll be careful”. Which, as all men know, actually means, “I’m going to ride like an idiot, desperately try not to crash whilst riding on the edge of my ability or destroying my legs for the run”. As mentioned above, what Mrs A said will stay with me forever – I’m not 100% certain but but in over 20 years of riding bikes as her boyfriend, fiancé or husband, she has never, not even once, told me to be careful on my bike – experience tells her it’s a wasted statement that will almost certainly be ignored. But on this occasion, she chose to mention it, which I rationalised, meant that she was REALLY worried!

Once on the beach we did the normal stretching thing, the same routine that I’ve done for 30 years since starting to play football – I’m almost certain it’s a pointless routine and I’m often on the receiving end of some strange looks, but there we are. At this point, the announcer is whipping the crowd into a frenzy and it’s time to go. After 12 months of training, suffering, sacrifice and more suffering, the gun sounded and we wandering into the Med for the first leg of the event. I had been full of worries and nerves about the swim, largely because it was in the sea – but actually, it was very pleasant. The morning of the event was calm and the sea was flat, warm and didn’t taste too awful! I didn’t feel hugely buoyant as I’d been promised. But rounding the first turn it was going OK. As I reached the Australian exit for the quick hop over the beach I heard, “Alright boy” from behind. My training buddy, Giles, was right behind me. “It’s a really nice swim” was his second statement. Me fooled around for the crowd, pretending to kick and punch one another then a quick high five with my old man and we got on with it. Another out & back and the swim was over. I had no idea what my time was and I didn’t care, the swim was over and we were underway. When I entered transition (again with Giles) I realised we were well down the field as there were very few bikes left. Oh well, loads of people to chase!

Heading out on the bike, the smooth roads of Mallorca were brilliant. I cranked the bike up as fast as I dared and started passing people. The bike route is a figure of eight, 70km on the small loop to the south and 100km on the second larger loop to the north. The large loop has a big climb at about 100km, but apart from that, it was a flat route. I was aiming for 6hrs to give me the best chance of going under 12 hours. I always enjoy the bike leg and this route was one of the best I’d ridden on. The roads in Mallorca are like nothing else, they are so smooth it’s unbelievable – even rural routes which hardly see any traffic are amazing. So pushing on, remembering to eat and drink whilst passing people the bike leg passed pretty quickly. I went past my support crew after about 75km and they gave a bit shout, Mrs A looked concerned. It transpires she was worried that I’d overcooked it and was heading for a meltdown!! The second half of the ride didn’t disappoint, the climb from Pollensa to Lluc is tough but not too bad – the main problem was the torrential rain, thunder and lighting that appeared at the bottom of the climb – bad weather was forecast, but this was something else. The roads turned to rivers and the rain stung on any exposed skin – the only consolation was the temperature was pretty comfortable. As I went up the major climb of the day I cast my mind back two years, on that occasion on a family holiday, I had crashed, broke a bone in my wrist and ended up with stitches in my chin. This experience taught my that the roads in this part of the world get slippy when wet – I’d have to be careful, actually really careful on my way down the mountain! Then the ridiculous occurred, a police car was parked across the road with the Police Officer waving his arms above his head like a lunatic. PANIC..my first thought was “there are going to stop us because of the weather, no way”. But as I got closer I notice about 30 sheep had wandered onto the road and the friendly police officer was getting them out the way. Phew!

Onto the descent and another stroke of luck – it was dry and I could open the throttle a bit. During most of the ride I was passing people, on the descent I passed more than my fair share and was feeling pretty good. At one point an American chap shouted “lunatic” when I passed him, I thought for a moment and was about to reply when a lady from Estonia came passed me like I was standing still, she was flying, really flying. I’d ridden this route a few times before and was aware that a number of the turns are hairpins and quite sharp – I hope she made the bottom of the descent, she was blasting it and there was no escape route!!

And so the bike ride was nearly over, the rain had soaked every part of me and my feet started to hurt. I’m not normally someone to ride with soaking wet feet and it was therefore a new experience. I started to get a couple of hotspots on the balls of my feet, which was a warning for what was going to happen later. Just before the end of the ride, I turned left and my rear wheel made a very strange noise. To this point, I hadn’t even given the buckled rear wheel a thought. I glanced back and could see the wheel was significantly worse and now rubbing against the brake pad – I loosened off the brake caliper – given I only had six miles left, put my head down and pedalled. I freewheeled into transition in just under 6hrs. After a quick shout at myself for encouragement, I knew that if I could pump out a 4hr marathon, I would be home and dry in under 12 hours.

I started on the run and my legs didn’t feel too bad – I could feel the ride in them, but my feet were hurting. Not just a little pain, a really big sore bit on the ball of my foot. The run was going to hurt. I rationalised that I had four 10km runs to get done and I would be at the finish, treat each 10km as a separate race, I’d be home and dry. The first lap of the run wasn’t too bad, I saw my wife and Dad, they offered some words of encouragement. Mrs A mentioned that I was looking good and only had the marathon to go! After waiting to catch a glimpse of me for 5 hours, Dad didn’t realise and missed me!

Lap one done, legs felt OK but my feet were killing me. Literally killing me! When I passed my support team on lap two, Mrs A asked if I was feeling OK. I couldn’t lie; “my feet are fuckin’ killing me”. “OK, keep going, Jon is two minutes ahead”. Jon is another guy from our group and bragging rights were at risk, I put my head down and tried to run as much as possible but now I was running between feed stations, walking the feed stations and running again. I can’t really communicate how much it hurt, but it was pretty deep!! I rationalised that every step forward was a step closer to the finish. At times I considered having a sit down, but knew that if I stopped moving forward I probably won’t get going again. Everything started going a bit weird – it seemed that my body and mind were two different things, two different systems, reliant on one another but totally separate. My body screaming to stop but my mind refusing to listen. My legs told my brain to stop, but my brain said “fuck you legs, keep moving”. At this point, I started to feel sick and couldn’t swallow anything other than fluid…thankfully, the brilliant crew at the feed stations were handing out sliced oranges, they tasted amazing but I couldn’t swallow them. Each time I took a deep breath my lungs hurt, with every step my feet hurt, my ankles hurt, my calves hurt, my knees really hurt, my quads hurt, my arse hurt, my stomach hurt, my shoulders hurt…I had tunnel vision and had some very dark thoughts about what I was doing to myself. At the time it literally felt like I was damaging myself, causing irreconcilable damage to my feet, ankles and knees. You start passing people who have fainted on the side of the road or cramp has caused them to collapse – it’s perfectly normal to ignore these people, pleased it’s not you.

Lap three was nearly over, I was desperate to see Mrs A and ask how are kids were. I have no idea why, at that exact point, I started thinking so much about our kids and what they were doing. I almost started crying and had a gut wrenching desire to speak to them. I resolved to stop when I reached the point where my wife was watching, get her phone and ring them. As I got to the point on the course where the the glorious vision of Mrs A stood, she shouted at me that I was on for 11hrs 22mins – strangely, I knew she was lying, because she had lied earlier in the day about Jon being 2 minutes ahead (I’d seen him at a switch back and he was more like a lap ahead than 2 minutes). I literally muttered, “my feet hurt”. She looked concerned, “OK, keep running, not far now”. She actually looked really concerned. Turns out she had exchanged text messages with a friend at home, describing my appearance as “fucking awful”, which given her normal positive outlook was bit of a shock when I read the messages later!

At the end of lap three I had a total cognitive failure, trying to work out how much time I had to break the 12 hrs barrier. I was gone, finished, broken…I couldn’t work it out, literally couldn’t work out how long it was from 18:10 to 19:30. I resolved that I couldn’t finish before 12 hours and was likely to miss the 12hr 19mins, ‘worse case scenario’ target I had set (therefore going slower than my time in Zurich, two years earlier). The only positive thing I could think about was seeing my wife and dad again, asking them to walk with me for a bit before heading off alone to get round the rest of the lap. When I reached their viewing point they weren’t there. “For fucks sake”, I shouted out loud. I noticed a policeman on the side of the road give me a rather stern look – obviously sweaty, stinking English blokes shouting out obscene language at 18:30 was not a good thing. I really thought Ironman had beaten me at this point, I was walking, still had a lap and a half to complete and was cooked – my feet were killing me, I was suffering like I had never suffered before. I literally felt like I might die and then it happened…like a vision sent from another world, a Brazilian women with a backside to die for. If I let that lady and her wonderful bottom out of my sight then I was finished, I would lie down next to the road and die.

The nameless Brazilian lady had given me the carrot to chase. Each time she got ahead of me, I caught her up. It was at about this time that thoughts of failure started to disappear and my mood improved. I thought about my kids and my wife, how much they had given up for me to complete Ironman and how I was going to be a better husband or dad in the future. I realised I wasn’t going to die, largely because I still had lots of things to do with my family, not only was I being stupid about dying, I was being selfish, my negative thoughts about how hard this event was were ridiculous…knuckle down, get on with it. From the darkest of places I had somehow found some strength. I realise this was largely caused by fatigue but I’ll keep those feelings looked away for next the next time I need to emerge from a dark place!

Before I knew it, I could hear the announcer at the finish and I had the required number of arm bands (4) – I was going to finish. At times I didn’t think I would, but I was nearly there. Mrs Brazilian bum was still ahead and being filmed by her equally attractive husband, he was trying to give her a GoPro camera for the finish chute but she was refusing, saying something about disqualification – I took it from him and promised to film her at the finish, basically another excuse to look at her bum for a few more minutes. As I rounded the last corner and entered the finish straight, I noticed that I was just over twelve hours – my mental maths had gone totally out of the window and my twelve hour target was only just out of reach. I crossed the finish line with my head hung and one arm raised, I was broken, shattered, exhausted, but had reached the finish. I stumbled about four steps across the line and realised I was going to collapse. Fuck, don’t collapse where Angela can see me, she’s lay an egg with worry! I got around the corner and out of sight and fell on the floor.

Senor, senor, you OK? A big Spanish man was stood shouting at me, he grabbed me round the arms, hoisted me onto my feet and tried to plonk me on a stretcher. “I’m fine dude, just needed to sit down for a moment” I muttered, got off the stretcher and headed back to the finish line. I had a medal round my neck but no recollection of where it came from! I found a quiet spot and leaned against a barrier to try to make sense of the madness! About ten minutes later, Giles appeared in the finish chute, looking how I felt!! After a high five and a cuddle it was over, two times Ironman!!

That evening I posted a message on Facebook that included being ‘heartbroken about missing twelve hours’. Looking back now, heartbroken isn’t the right word. Once again I can’t verbalise what I feel about missing twelve hours, by six minutes, six bloody minutes!! If only I had realised earlier how close I was then perhaps I could have summoned some more strength and made it. But, from huge disappointment, it dawned on me that I had gone deeper into my reserves than ever before; never before had I stood on the edge of a cliff and somehow found a way back. The mind plays some strange tricks during an Ironman, this event has taught me, that to finish, not only do you have to overcome the course but you also have to overcome yourself!