On Saturday 2nd July, three ex lightweight rowers (some more ex than others) headed up north to race in the UK Ultimate Half Ironman. Fittingly to reflect our sporting careers, we decided to start the day by showing our faces at Henley Royal Regatta (the premier event of the rowing calendar) before turning our minds to the triathlon. We ate lots of food, watched minimal rowing and chatted to everyone who would listen about our hard core plans for the rest of the weekend while Matt Kerin drank questionable amounts of Pimm's. Two of the party were sporting freshly shaven legs in the quest for even the smallest amounts of free speed. However it quickly became apparent that Tino Sulzer’s razor skills were lacking, and ‘my legs are so fucking itchy’ became a familiar background to the adventure.
After a quick detour through Oxford for a last minute bike fix for MK and a last minute tent purchase for Tino, we finally hit the road to Whitchurch, powered by some banging tunes. Unfortunately this was followed by another not so quick detour through "the centre of fucking Birmingham" (Matt Ridley) after some poor route planning by Tino. It was decided to hand responsibility of navigation to the GPS and we arrived at Dearnford Lake just in time for the pasta party.
We were greeted by an epic selection of pastas, breads and ice cream and started chatting with a friendly old dude who had signed up for the full iron without ever having done more than an Olympic. He was hoping to finish by midnight (start time was 7am), and also told us about how he spent more hours a week in the saddle that at a desk the absolute dream. With our bellies full we quickly set up tents between the rain showers and set off for a course recon drive. On the way up North, captain of the cycling club and resident cycling expert Matt Kerin had rated the roads a solid 9/10. This, combined with the marginal gains of new aero helmets, slammed stems and shaved legs, made us excited to see what speeds we’d be able to hit.
As we set out for the recon enthusiasm was quickly dampened by the 10mile uphill drive, followed by a massive descent, followed by a 10mile uphill drive. It was decided Tino’s “36km/h average” chat was overly ambitious and expectations were downgraded. After a trip to Tesco’s to pick up breakfast (but no John West tuna) and watch some chavs doing donuts, Ridley and Tino went to bed while MK got back to fixing his bike.
Fittingly for ex rowers, the next morning was filled with excessive amounts of faff. MK discovered he had forgotten to bring a trisuit, but was luckily able to purchase one at registration. Predictably he also discovered yet another wobbly component on the world’s most adjusted bike that required another hurried dash to the mechanic. Sticking race numbers to every available surface took up a surprising amount of time and before we knew it we were 5 minutes late to the race briefing. Listening to the usual spiel of ‘put your helmet on first…’ finally allowed us all a chance to get in the zone. We all had considerably different race plans. Tino was planning to `smash the bike and see what happens’, Ridley was hoping to make up for a lack of bike wattage with a ‘huge’ run, and MK was feeling fresh as ever having started his taper in March.
The lake featured enough algae to rival Southport’s finest Marine Lake, and so the swim course had to be altered at the last minute undoing all of our careful visualization (i.e. having dinner lakeside the night before). This also meant lots of tight corners and getting dunked by aggressive old men, so Tuesday evening’s open water sessions in the pool came in handy! Tino took a predictably early lead coming out just behind the main pack, with the two Matt’s managing to work together throughout the entire swim and exiting within seconds of each other about 2 minutes behind. However a slow T1 by MK allowed Ridley to slip into second place.
The bike course was two laps of A roads, mostly rolling hills with two big climbs. Overtaking fat old men with TT bikes, disc wheels and more money than we can ever dream of was a highlight in an otherwise tough 90km grind. Tino managed to live up to his 36km/h chat by sticking behind a fast pack after being shouted at for “getting on the front and slowing down”. MK likewise managed to hang on with a group but Ridley found himself alone after being ‘dicked by an old man on an ordinary road bike’. By the end of the ride everyone was feeling the pain, thanks in part to overenthusiastic stem slamming.
Using some imaginative thinking the organisers had managed to turn a 3 mile run course into a half marathon, including 8 laps of the same 1 mile stretch of road. However it did offer some benefits including a high density of aid stations and lots of company. Coming into T2 first out of Oxford and seventh overall, Tino was confident he had done enough to secure victory over the two Matts and set his sights on a top 10 finish. In second place MK was wishing he had done more than 1 run in the past 3 weeks and more than 1 brick session in his life. Off the bike last and finally into his strongest discipline, Ridley set his sights on a sub5hr finish and hunting down the road captain ahead of him.
The first lap of the run went well and we all came in halfway through the halfmarathon around the four hour mark still feeling confident that we could hit our 5 hour target. Unfortunately, the Man with the Hammer was waiting for us all at the start of the second lap and things were about to turn ugly. It turns out some of the old men on expensive bikes were also quite good at running and, unable to go any faster than 5:30/km, Tino was starting to worry about his top 10 finish. In the end, he just about held it together and finished 9th overall in 4h53. Now in second place amongst the Oxford contingent, MR started to watch his <5hr finish slip away. Despite an attempt at a sprint finish it would not be the case, so 3rd in AG and 23rd overall in 5h03 would have to do. Meanwhile MK was bonking hard and slowed to a walk for much of the second lap. However he battled through and still managed a respectable 5th in AG and top 50 overall, with a time of 5h27.
Immediately post race it was agreed that half ironmans are ‘way too hard’ and we should ‘never do one again’. After picking up our satisfyingly heavy finishers medals and disappointingly non tech Tshirts we shuffled our way back to the campsite and began the slow and painful process of packing the tents up. Ideal post race nutrition (McDonalds) was consumed and the long drive home (with only one minor Tino related detour) completed without major incident. As the post race pain began to fade it was agreed that actually, it had been a very worthwhile endeavour.
Finally back home in Oxford, we had one last thought for our friend who was probably still running up and down Tilford Road before getting some very welcome sleep. Now all that remains is heavy legs, hilarious tan (burn) lines and a head full of memories. Bring on the next one!