Ironman Barcelona 2017 – Ché McGann
For me it wasn’t the distances of an IRONMAN that were the most daunting or worrying but all of the little things that I had no control over. I knew that regardless of all the training and planning that had gone into the past days, weeks, months, there were still so many things that could go wrong both on the day and leading up to it. An injury; getting sick; hot weather; my nutrition; a puncture, or worse a fall.
It was like no other race I’d done before, mainly because of the sheer number of participants and the foreign destination but also the sense of occasion that IRONMAN brings to its races and that I had been waiting for this race for 12 months.
I arrived in late on the Thursday evening to Calella, a seaside town an hour north of Barcelona. This gave me only the Friday to do all the prerace organising; register, race briefing, check into a new hotel, pick up bike, pack bags, drop off bike and bags at transition and little time to do any last-minute training. It was stressing me out that every time I looked out a window there were hundreds of triathletes busy cycling or running up and down the roads. I tried to put this to the back of my mind and concentrated on what I could control – what I’d wear and what I’d do with my hair. Priorities. I was pleased with my clothing choices, I wore my tri shorts throughout with just a bra and HR monitor for the swim, then put on a cycling top for the bike and then changed into a tri top for the run. My hair went well too – thanks Áine for kindly putting French plaits in my hair the night before.
By the time I got to bed on the night before the race I was exhausted and knew I’d be asleep in no time. I was happy to have gotten a good night’s sleep and bounded out of bed at 5.45am – I was ready to do this shit! I had two bowls of Special K for breakfast with some nuts and seeds I’d brought over with me as there was no porridge to be found at the weird European continental breakfast. I also made two ham rolls which were to be part of my varied nutrition plan for the day.
We got down to transition, checked the bike and transition bags, had a few obligatory photos and met my parents who’d only flown in late the previous night. They were all set with their array of Pulse, Dublin and Irish flags.
In no time at all we were on the beach seeding ourselves into the timing pens. I seeded myself at the back of the 1hr 10min pack which worked well. It was a beautiful calm morning and after getting lots of well wishes from all the Pulse supporters myself and Dave O’Brien just waited together. No talking, just quietly waiting and enjoying the atmosphere and the loud “get in the zone” music. I was delighted to have gotten this far and so happy that it was about to start as I knew once I’d started that any last-minute nerves would disappear. In what seemed like no time at all we were under the arch and as we ran into the water I spotted Vinny waist deep in the water cheering madly.
And then we were swimming and just wow. It was calm, the temperature was perfect and the water was crystal clear – you could even see the odd lost swim cap sitting on the sea bed. It was a million miles away from the challenging practice swim that was Glendalough a few weeks beforehand. I barely noticed the 3.8 km pass and I definitely didn’t want to get out! All too quick though it was over, and I was running up through the arch and being cheered on by all the Pulse crew.
Onto the bike and the leg I had worried about the most. Not too much time to think about it though as I waved to my parents and friends and navigated the narrow streets of Calella. Once out on the main route there seemed to be lots of big groups going at impressive speeds on some very impressive bikes but I tried my best to ignore them and focus on my own race. For me the bike was all about focusing on keeping the heart rate down and eating and drinking what felt like constantly. I tried to drink a bottle every 20km, alternating between ISO and water. Then eating solid food on the hour and a gel and salt tablet on the half hour. I mixed up my nutrition and this really worked for me – I had two Clif bars, a Nutri-grain, a nut bar and two ham sandwiches. I also had 4 gels and 2 x (6 jelly babies).
The bike course consists of 2.5 laps. The first lap (75km) was great as I got into the swing of things but as I started the second lap I was met by a delightful head wind, down to 23km/hr. I started to worry that I was going too slow but knew that my heart rate was still where it should be. I had included speed on my watch, against good advice for this exact reason. Oh well, I tried to ignore it and hoped it really was just the wind that was slowing me and that I hadn’t slowed from tiredness. That roundabout couldn’t come quick enough and once round it was delighted to see my speed was back up. Relief.
The last half lap on the bike was nice – a lot of the crowds had gone so I just enjoyed it, knowing that I too was nearly there. At this point I had to be very careful to continue to eat, my body was definitely saying “ah sure you’re nearly there, you can stop now”. So I kept at it and I did my best to shove down the last of the ham sandwich before the last 3km through the town.
As I turned off the roundabout and entered the town it started to hit me that the bike was over and that I’d survived. On the first corner, I could see a sea of Irish flags… it was all my college buddies cheering loudly. It hit me then and all of a sudden, I was shedding a few tears. I was touched that they’d travelled over for the weekend to support me but it was also overcome with a wave of relief knowing that the bike course was over. I passed more Irish supporters who shouted great words of encouragement and then I spotted my parents with my aunt and uncle who’d flown over from London to support and my brother Rian who’d just got off the plane from New Zealand and I hadn’t seen in two years. Oh the emotion was too much! I spent the last kilometre of the bike regaining composure.
The sheer joy I experienced in being on the run meant I completely forgot that I still had a marathon ahead of me. You run straight out of the transition tent and into the main crowds of supporters so I had to have my game face on for the first couple of kilometres. I also ran by the finishing chute for the first time and heard “You are an IRONMAN” as some lucky person finished in 8th place. Wow someone was finished I thought – they were nearly a marathon ahead of me! But by that stage I had started into my first 13km loop of 3 so I got on with the task at hand. I was about to pass the Pulse support crew again so had to look good!
The supporters start to dwindle after the first few kms of the loop. It gave me an opportunity to make sure my HR was where it should be and to get into a rhythm. The run was along the beach and the views and the peacefulness kept me occupied. We looped back over our tracks a few times so it gave me an opportunity to see who was behind and in front of me. Alex was just a bit behind me and as we high fived I told her to hurry up and catch me so we could have the chats. In spite of her speediness – and fastest Pulse marathon of the day I think! – she never did. It really demonstrated for me that your race is determined by where you come off the bike.
At the far end of the run loop the Special Needs bags were waiting. These were bags that you filled the day before with a little treat to help you if things got tough. I had decided to put a purple Snack bar in mine. It was calling to me but I knew I didn’t need it yet and I’d keep it in case things got harder.
During the second loop, two helping hands appeared to get me through the horrible bit from 20-30km. The first came in the form of rain – I couldn’t believe my luck as I knew the run would have been much tougher if the weather had been warm and sunny. The second was Adrian and he was from Carrickmines and although he didn’t start off well “Are you on your last lap?” we had the chats and he kept my mind off the task at hand. So much so I didn’t stop for my purple Snack bar on the second loop either. It didn’t matter though, I’d have it on the last loop and it would give me the energy I needed to get over the line.
I thought by now I’d be walking through the aid stations but I was still just grabbing a bottle of water and slowly running through. I think it was during this bit I discovered Coke. I hadn’t trained on it but my body wanted it and boy was it nice. So while I took my 4 gels at 7km, 14km, 21km and 30km, the aid stations consisted of 1 bottle of water and a mouthful of Coke.
And then I was on the final lap – whoopeee!! – and I was wasn’t feeling too bad. It was the time of day that kept me occupied for the last loop. I hadn’t brought a watch on the swim so didn’t know what my overall time was so far. I started to calculate.. we started at around 8.30 am, it is 7.30 pm now and I’ve 10 km to go. I started to hope for the goal that I was too afraid to say out loud before now, that if I kept things going the way I was I could come in under 12 hours. So I plodded on, in fact I think I started to speed up. It was dark by now which really emphasised to me what a long, long day it had been. As I got out to the far end of the loop I knew I could finally stop for my Snack bar! But this time it unfortunately came with another dilemma… was it worth stopping if it meant missing my 12 hour goal?! So, no Snack bar and a new surge of energy to get me through the last 3 km.
And then all too quickly I was nearing at the start of the finishing chute and Tragedy by the Bee Gees was blaring. Not exactly the song I had envisioned finishing to, it was supposed to be something cooler. Maybe I should just loop around the roundabout a couple of times until a better song comes on? Nope keep going. I was handed the Irish flag along with a sneaky kiss at the entrance to the chute and then I was in the middle of the chute. I spotted my friends, big hugs to all but was still conscious of the 12-hour goal so didn’t spend long. I crossed the finish line and turned to see C McGann 11:52:26 flash up on the board. It had gone to plan, I had not only enjoyed it but also done a time I was happy with.
For me the race was made up of so many little goals that all came together perfectly so that the main emotion I felt crossing that finishing line was utter relief. The challenge that had been the past year was finally over, nearly a year to the day of signing up.
While in many ways I raced my own individual race it never felt that way. I feel it would never have come together so well if it hadn’t been for so many people and I have to thank a few. To Vinny, who did everything possible to make sure I had an awesome race, including hiring a bike and coming out to the middle of nowhere on the bike course to cheer us all on. To my parents, whose support was not only constant but their enthusiasm and interest in a sport they knew nothing about 18 months ago was second to none. To Dave, whose job was probably only 20% training plans, 80% reassurance that I had done enough training. To everyone I trained with, particularly Alex, Fergus, Anthony, Joanne and Vinny. Sure the craic was mighty and what it was all about. And thanks to everyone in Pulse, both those who travelled to Barca and those that sent messages and kind words both before and after the race. Yis are only great!
So if any of you are thinking of biting the bullet next year I’d really recommend considering it. For me the logistics were key – it was just an hour’s bus journey from the airport to Calella and then once there everything was in walking distance regardless of where you stayed – registration, SMTB, transition, the finish line and lots of bars and restaurants. The support was also great, especially as it is so popular with Irish athletes you couldn’t go far without coming across an Irish flag. The swim is beautiful and you are pretty much straight into swimming from the beach. I can’t think of too many negatives – perhaps the bike course isn’t the most interesting and it can get pretty crowded. Also the time of year is worth considering, waiting for Barcelona made it a very long season for me and I kinda felt like I missed summer. But then I got to do all my training through the summer so I suppose there are pros and cons to everything!
My Journey in Numbers
1 = The number of times I cried into my bowl of porridge at the thought of yet another long training ride that would take up most of the weekend. As much as I enjoyed the training I found the sheer volume and length of it started to bring out my emotional side towards the end.
2 = the numbers of weddings missed. Yep I put training ahead of my social life nearly every time for the past few months.
3 = the number of new cycling shoes I bought before finding the right pair. Don’t buy stuff online people!
4 = the number of new runners I bought before finding the right pair that would get me through the marathon – a thanks to The Run Hub in Ashtown.
11 = the average number of hours training I put in a week in the two months before the race. I felt like I didn’t do nearly as much training as some people. I didn’t do lunchtime sessions (hair and make-up twice a day… not for me!) and only once a week did I do two sessions a day. It was definitely a fine balance between enough training and exhaustion but it worked well for me.
12 = my secret goal that I could only achieve if every little thing went to plan, from the weather to my nutrition to having a smooth bike leg without any mechanicals.
13 = the number of family and friends who came over to support me.
33 = the number of kms that made up my longest run.
188 = the number of kms that made up my longest bike ride which was done the morning after a wedding. So unsurprisingly there were better things I could have thought of to be doing on that particular morning! This cycle was not only memorable because it was my longest but also because I had one of those profound moments (that only happened a couple of times over the months of training) that makes you thankful that you are able to undertake such a challenge. As we reached the last couple of kilometres of the epic cycle it started to rain and we got lost, so of course I was over it and feeling a bit sorry for myself. As we tried to navigate our way out of the depths of the Tipperary countryside a para-athlete in a hand propelled racing bike came up the hill towards us. He just told us where to go and then continued on up the hill. Sometimes I still wonder if he was real and if it wasn’t just an illusion to make me appreciate how privileged I am to be able to do what I do.