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Ironman Cork – Mark Willoughby


A Long Ironman Brick in Cork

After doing IM 70.3 Dun Laoghaire in 2018 I had the bug for the Ironman events. I felt after that race that I could go further. So, I started hatching a plan to do a Full Distance Ironman in 2019. My initial plan was to do Ironman Barcelona in 2019 but when they announced that Ireland was getting its first Full Ironman in Youghal in Cork, I talked it over with my wife and it was agreed that IM Cork 2019 would be the race to do. I knew that I could not do this alone. You can get away with training on your own for the Sprint, Olympic and Middle distances but for a Full Distance you need a coach to plan your sessions and provide guidance and take that pressure off you. So, in November 2018, I attended Oliver Harkin’s day workshop in Dundalk with the view of getting him to be my coach for Ironman Cork. I found the workshop brilliant and a real eye opener. In the workshop you get a video analysis done and I could see everything I was doing wrong when swimming and the drills and tools to fix them. After that workshop I got in touch with Oliver and started the Ironman Cork journey. One of the reasons why I choose to use Oliver Harkin was that for the training plans he takes into account your work commitment and family commitments. I work approx. 50 hours a week and my hours are not very flexible and family commitments is a wife and 3 daughters. Without training my weeks are busy as is. So when I discussed with my wife the hours that would be required for training, she said as long as she had Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and time at the weekend to go to the gym and circuit training she would help me with regards to other days when I should be doing housework or bring kids off to park etc. I could use this extra time for training.

So, after months of pain and suffering the training, it was finally race week. I was surprisingly calm race week and was sleeping great. Collected bike back from Base2Race where I got a new chain and cassette and service done so the bike was ready to go. I had 2 sets of everything from tri suits, runners, socks, gloves, waterproof jackets (or so I thought!) all laid out and packed up by the Thursday. Did my tapering sessions and on Friday morning I heading down to Youghal. Arrived in Youghal around lunch time and town was buzzing. After about an hour driving around trying to get a parking spot, I made my way to the Athletes village for registration and shopping in the expo shop. Met up with a few Pulsers and we went to do a recce swim, water was lovely, wasn’t as cold as what I’d heard people talking about all week and after swimming about 700m my mind was put to rest for the swim and it wasn’t as bad as feared (didn’t matter in the end, ha-ha). After that, some dinner with the guys and headed back to the hotel and had a nice easy evening run to get the legs going, and then feet up for rest of night. Saturday, I got up early and headed out for an early morning cycle and brick run and a swim before heading to transition to rack the bike and drop of bike and run bags. Went to race brief where we were told that the swim distance was going to be reduced due to the air temperature and water temperature and that a final decision on distance would be made at 5.30am on race morning. At this stage the weather was glorious, t shirt and shorts and even got sun burnt on my head. Little did we know what was about to come on race day. I was expecting rain on race day but not what came down from the heavens.

Race morning. Got up at 3.30am had breakfast, which was porridge with strawberries, coffee and a banana. Got my stuff together and drove to the car park which was about 15min from transition, traffic was bad getting there and I was starting to panic as it was 5.15am and race was due to start at 6.30am. Went into transition and looked out at the sea and noticed there was no buoys out and 5 foot swells. The sea looked very rough. At 5.30am an announcement was made over the speaker that they were going to delay the decision on swim until 6am to give the weather a change to calm down but it was never going to happen. 6am came and was it announced that the swim was cancelled!! I was disappointed. Felt like all the hard work done in the pool over the last 6 months was for nothing. It took me about 30mins to stop feeling sorry for myself and to just get on with it. Everyone was in the same boat and safety of everyone has to take priority in the water. They announced they were doing a Time Trial bike start and after a lot of waiting around in the rain, I was ushered into the transition tent to get my cycle gear on.

At 8.10am, after queuing for ages, I was finally off on the bike. I was cycling well and keeping to my plan which was based on heart rate and nutrition plan which was discussed with my coach. I had a bit of an issue at the first aid station. I put my arm out to get a bottle of water to dilute my energy drink syrup I had made but they had set up the aid station wrong and water was on the other side of the road, which everyone I could see had missed. So, I had to use what I had sparingly until the next aid station. The weather was unreal. It was bucketing down with rain and wind and my so-called waterproof jacket and gilet were soaked through after about 30min. Turns out they were only shower proof (lesson learnt the hard way). First loop of the course was going well despite the weather, I was climbing well and at nearly every corner on the bike course there was Pulsers supporting. You guys were amazing out there in them conditions and kept us going. Got back into Youghal town and knew what was coming, Windmill Hill. I had been down to Youghal in April and did a recce but nothing could prepare you for the crowds of people who had lined the hill including the Pulse supporters. The noise was deafening. It was the most amazing thing I have come across in racing. Windmill Hill is only about 400m but has a 21% incline! Pure adrenaline from the crowds got me up that hill. Lots of people were walking up and I just wasn’t going to do that walk of shame. Made it to the summit and was feckin’ delighted and fairly bollocked!!! It’s a beast of a hill!!! Weather got worse on second loop and noticed my pace starting to drop, at this stage I gave up trying to chase a time, was wet and cold and just couldn’t get warmed up. Last 30km my lower back started to give me pain so came up from TT position and started standing on bike to stretch out my back and stayed in the road bike position for the remainder of the race. I knew we had to go up Windmill hill again and was not confident I could get up a second time but as soon as I turned the corner the noise from the crowds gave me a bit of adrenaline rush and I managed to get up a second time, quads were screaming in pain at this stage!!! Could not wait to get off the bike and into transition.

I spent about 14min in transition trying to warm up before having to head out in the monsoon like weather conditions to run a marathon!!! The run started off well. I was going at a good pace and was conscious not to go too fast, got the first of 4 loops done and saw pulsers everywhere on the run course supporting which was amazing. I even said this was easy to Jo Lynch!!! Little did I know the pain and suffering that was about to happen. On the second loop my quads started to give me a lot of trouble and had to adopt a run/ walk strategy. I decide to run to each aid station and walk the length of the station. I did this for the next few stations. My pace on the run was getting worse as was the pain in the quads. Any sort of incline on the run I had to walk. On one of the loops I heard a shout from behind me to get moving and stop walking and turned around and it was Mike Gonda. He was flying long but he got me moving again to the next aid station. I started to have a bit of banter with some of the other athletes who would overtake me on the inclines, and I would overtake them on the flats and downhill sections. Every loop we had to run by the finishing shoot and could see the crowds cheer all the athletes in and Mike Reilly calling them an Ironman. I had left deep heat in my special needs bag on run so every loop I was applying it to my quads which helped. The weather was still bad and there had been no let up all day. On the run course we had to run along the sea, and we would just get a battering from the weather. Finally, it was my turn to turn right, run down the finishing shoot and red carpet and hear Mike Reilly call my name out and those four famous words!! I didn’t get very emotional as I thought I would and was more relieved to be finished and wanted to just get inside and put on dry clothes and eat pizza. I just sat down with a cup of coffee, pizza & cake!! Lovely cake!!

Even now I can’t believe what went down in Cork that day with the conditions. It was a real test in mental strength, and I’m in awe of every single Pulser who got to the start line that day. A huge thank you to all the traveling Pulse support on the day, you guys were amazing and kept us going especially on the run course, you guys were everywhere.

I’m already planning my next Ironman for 2020 but will be in warmer climates!!!!

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