Hardman Triathlon 2020 – Keith Clarges

Strap yourselves in folks, if you’re willing to read to the end, you’ve about 70.3 paragraphs ahead of you!

“GO GO Pulse person”! I look at my wife, Michelle, and ask, “Did I just shout, ‘GO GO Pulse person'”? She confirms that I did and bursts out laughing. I laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I didn’t know the guy’s name, but he was wearing the black and red of Pulse, and I panicked and uttered the first thing I could think of! I need to work on my motivation game. 

It’s August 2019 and we’re standing by the pier in DunLaoghaire as the runners pass by. I’m totally absorbed by it all. It’s mesmerising and inspiring in equal measure. I see an old childhood friend and cheer him on. He’s chuffed for the support. I’m delighted for him. The atmosphere is brilliant. Even though people are suffering, the smiles on their faces are incredible as they cross the finish line. They’ve achieved something special. I want that feeling. 

As we file away to get the DART, I tell Michelle that next year we’ll be back here in Dun Laoghaire, and that I will be taking part. It will be perfect. It’s where we met all those years ago. It’s where I spent a lot of my youth, taking the 111 down there with my friends or going for a coffee slice with my mam at Anne’s Hot Bread Shop. For God’s sake I even went down there with my Confirmation money and spent most of it on books! The disappointment on my brother’s face when I returned with my haul will never leave me. He just shook his head, disbelief etched all over his face at having such a nerdy bookworm for a sibling. 

So it’s a place that holds a lot of memories. Ideal. I’ll be guaranteed to know loads of people lining the streets as well. My first season of triathlon is going well. I’ve done some sprints. I’m happy with my progress. I’ll step up to Olympics in 2020 and finish off in style by doing the Ironman 70.3 Dun Laoghaire. It will be my A race, the icing on the cake of my second season as a middle of the pack triathlete. I can’t wait. Someone out there can shout “GO GO Pulse person” at me. It will be brilliant….

….6 months later….Night has started to descend on this chilly late-February Sunday. It’s a world away from the buzz of Dun Laoghaire on that August afternoon. About 7 and a half hours ago, I was standing by the edge of my local pool, ready to start my Homemade Half-Ironman. I wave over to Michelle and Maisie who are in the viewing gallery for support, click my trusty, bog-standard Casio stopwatch and enter the water. 

Today is solo race day and the end of the 16 week Just Finish Don Fink plan. I figured that if I could do this plan and train and race on my own in the arse of winter, then come summertime I’d be in a great position to do a 70.3 full of fellow competitors, clubmates and spectators. It has since come to pass that Dunlaoghaire has lost its Ironman slot, but I’ll find another race – the location would have been fantastic for all the memories it holds, but really it’s the distance I’m after at the end of the day. 

Michelle joins me for the 7th and last lap of the 3.1k run course I’ve set out. Other family members have done a lap each of the previous 6. It’s been brilliant having them. Michelle and I have a lovely chat as we womble around the route, eventually arriving back to our home to the cheers and woops of family. I cross the toilet-roll finish line with 6 minutes to spare before the 8 hour cutoff time. I’m thankful that the bog roll is 2-ply. I’m not sure I’d have had the energy to break through any fancy stuff like quilted velvet! 

It’s been a tremendously hard day – 7 hours and 54 minutes of toil. Many mistakes have been made. Many lessons have been learned, the most important of which is: I can do it. It might have been slow, but I did it. I set out to ‘Just Finish’ and I achieved that goal. After we eat all the celebratory cake and the dust settles on the Homemade Half, I pick my race. We decide to stay home, and I choose the Hardman Bantry. We’ll make a holiday of it. We love the west of Ireland. Time to train harder, fix the mistakes, learn how to fuel properly. 6 months to go. I choose 1 sprint and 3 standards in the National Series as prep races for the big one. I’m armed with a bulletproof plan. Let’s do this. What could possibly go wrong?…..

Bantry Bay

….a further 6 months later I’m here at the edge of the water in Bantry Bay, with the sun hopping off it, ready to rock and filled with excitement that this race is actually happening. The world has been hit with the COVID19 pandemic, so the plan of stepping up to Olympics and a summer of racing and training with clubmates has long since gone out the window. The road from February to here has been filled with lots of solo miles. I was determined to keep training. Races were getting cancelled left, right and centre, but there was still no word from Hardman all summer. 

As things begin to return to normality of sorts and the country starts to reopen, Hardman email to say they are sure that the race will go ahead. We head to Cork 9 days before the race for our family holiday, and after a relaxing week in the tranquility of Glengariff and touring around west Cork, before we know it, it’s the morning of the race. I get a little acclimatised. Usual stuff from Monday night swims. Water in sleeves, ears in water etc. Conditions are perfect. I get back out and just stand there for a minute with my eyes closed, the sun on my face and feeling my toes in the sand. We return to our bikes for the short briefing and then we all have to go in twos, each pair 4 seconds apart as part of the new COVID style racing. 

Race start

Immediately I feel good and get a solid rhythm. The benefit of this socially distanced start is that there is very little of the usual contact, but with it being such a gloriously sunny day I can’t sight. My plan simply becomes ‘just follow the elbows’. The water is warm, but there are little pockets now and then when it gets really cold. Very strange. I see what looks like a jellyfish and nearly pull my hamstring as I violently jerk out of it’s way. 

I have to stop for a second to put my hand over my goggles as I can’t see any more elbows and I’m getting paranoid. 2nd buoy straight ahead. Lovely. I round it and with the sun now behind me, it’s a lot easier. I don’t feel in any way tired. It’s a world away from how I felt in my first open water swim at the Bull Wall last year. I exit the water in 38.35. Absolutely delighted with that time. 10 minute improvement on my Great Fjord Swim from October 2019. I’ve not swam all that much since March, so maybe the plank challenge worked after all! I’m buzzing for the bike now. 

T1 is not the best. The strap for my glasses falls off and needs fixing. My ingenious solution to stop my glasses slipping down my nose has been scuppered already. I fiddle about with my soggy hands and eventually I get it tied back on. Nightmare, but I’m off and after exiting the runway, the road starts to rise immediately. An ambulance roars past. Someone in bother already. 

The temperature is starting to rise too. It’s gonna be a scorcher! I make it to the top of the first climb and the descent into Ballydehob is cracking, and I’m ticking along nicely. I don’t know my speed or distance ‘cos when I hit activity on my Garmin (a recent upgrade from my Casio), I click swim by mistake and I can’t get it off! Next lap. Rest. Next lap! Rest. Next lap!!!! Grrrrr, bollocks! I leave it and just pedal. Pass through Schull and then it’s back up the Mizen peninsula to Durrus where I get a fresh bottle of water at the hydration station. 

Onto the Sheep’s Head peninsula, and for large portions of the second half of the bike I’m not in contact with anyone, and there are precious few spectators. The views are spectacular and I can see the water on my left, sparkling in the sunshine. It’s beautiful. It’s a privilege to be here, to be racing again. It’s probably gonna be my only race of 2020, so I’m determined to enjoy every minute. 

Pass through the village of Akahista and then it’s on to Kilcrohane and the big climb of the day. It’s a seriously nasty bugger. My legs are screaming and I wish I had lower gears. With the twisty nature of the climb I can see bodies up the road. I’m weaving so much my body veers right and I catch the view. Breathtaking. There’s a small cohort of folk at the top and they yell some encouragement and it helps me over the crest. Now for this descent. 

They’ve warned us about it in the pre-race videos and briefing. Someone came off last year. I hitch up to the big and begin what I can only describe as a pantshittingly terrifying drop. It’s a narrow road with grass in the middle, and I’m praying as I rocket down the hill. Any mistake, and lapse in concentration, any rogue pothole and it’s game over. There’s an ambulance at the bottom waiting for any that come unstuck. I give the lads a relieved nod, happy that I’m past the worst of it. Plain sailing from here. 

Or so I foolishly think! As I pedal on I get a throbbing, waving pain in my inner quad area. It’s nothing I’ve ever experienced before. All I can do is freewheel and let out some groans of pain. I sound like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV when he’s working on all the high tech machines during the montage. The pain switches over to my right thigh, spasming like crazy. Ngggggggggggtttthhhhhhhh. Switch to the lower ring and just slow pedal for a minute. Pain eases. I carry on. The rest of the bike is rolling undulations, energy sappers that require lots of gear changes, but I’m getting close to T2. 

The last part of the bike overlaps the run route and I see a Pulse tri-suit approaching. He doesn’t know me, nor I him, so we trade smiles and he just utters, “Pulse”, pleasantly surprised to see a clubmate. It’s as close to ‘Go Go Pulse person’ as I’m gonna get today. I’ll learn later that it’s Phillip McCann. Lovely chap. I know Paul Doheny is here as well, but he’s miles up the road taking it to the big fish, so I won’t be seeing him. I’m just under 4 hours overall as I exit T2, so my A goal of going sub-6 is still a possibility. I’ve run a 1:52 in training. Even if I run a 2 hour half, I’ll hit that goal. Let’s do this. 

I managed to sort the watch near the end of the bike, so I can tell I’m 5.30 for the first k of the run. Stick to this Keith and you’re laughing. Talk before was that there was some serious climbs on the run. No bother, lads, I’ve been running up Stocking Lane as training for months. I’ve got this. As we turn up the trail that is usually only navigated by farmers and hillwalkers, reality kicks in with a bang and I’m about to get my ass handed to me by the boreens of Bantry. Stocking Lane is child’s play compared to this. 

Sweet Mother of Christ! Why??!! I can see people up the road walking. I trot on a bit and then the quad pain returns with a wallop. I have to stop for a minute. Bollocks. Surely it can’t end like this. I’m in agony. Forget times and A goals. Please just let me be able to finish this, I think. I’ll be crestfallen if this ends with a DNF high in these hills. I always look at the DNFs and wonder what happened, what their story was, how devastated they must be. I’m fascinated by them. 163 people started this morning and at the end 10 will have DNF’d. From looking at the results, most of them made it to the run, so I suspect the hills and the heat were too much.

I walk for a few minutes and thankfully the pain subsides, so I try some more running and it feels ok, but I’ll need to be mindful. The first 5k is just up, up and more up. The heat is searing now. There’s a hydration station at the top of the hill and I thank the messiah of a Marshall manning it. He offers me a gel, but it’s nothing I’ve tried before and I have visions of myself 3k down the road shitting in a ditch and getting judged by a curious sheep, so I politely decline. 

I fill up my bottle and add in some High5 I’ve practiced with and start to descend, but it’s not that easy. The quads are screaming. I can’t cash in. And then very soon it’s more of the same as we head further and further up again for the second big climb. The route is incredibly hard. I see an interview with the winner later and he says it’s the toughest run he’s ever experienced in a race. It becomes a walk run situation for me. There’s nothing else for it. 

Everyone that I meet is hungry for some chat, anything to take their minds off the hills and the heat and the pain. Strangely everyone I chat to is also doing their first 70.3.  We chat about training and then like many relationships, one person outgrows the other and they decide to move on. It’s not you, it’s me kinda shit. 4 companions break up with me in this fashion. There’s a 5th one where we try a few times to make it work, as our run walk schedules overlap, but eventually she leaves me too. It was for the best. The spark of the early minutes of the relationship had disappeared. Better to cut ties. It was just getting awkward. 

Alone in the hills

Now it’s just me and the road and the sound of crickets.There’s supposed to be the last hydration station at kilometre 11, but I’m at 11.76 and no sign. My bottle has been empty since 9. I’m parched. In this heat, I could do with one at every kilometre. I see a high-vis in the distance. Thank you, thank you! I fill up and I think that’s surely the worst of it over as we are out of the official hills and off the hiking trail, but it still seems to be constant ups and downs. There just never seems to be a flat part. 

The goodwill and the camaraderie on the course from fellow participants is unreal. As my feet come off the road I can hear the sticky sound of melting tar. I’m not built for this weather. Ireland has turned into Dubai for the day. The sub 6 goal is long gone. It’s all about finishing now. This quad pain could return any minute. I trudge on spending about 5k on my own, but then every once in a while someone passes me and we curse the hills together! The person who planned this run course couldn’t have been hugged enough as a child. Probably one of those weird kids who loved melting stuff or stomping on hapless snails just to hear the crunch. Evil bastard! 

Nearly there

The next marshall I see, an angel from above, my high-vis hero, says the magic words I need to hear, “Just 1k to go”. Thank Christ! One more hill to negotiate and then it’s down towards the sea and onto the runway of the airfield. I can hear the tannoy and then I hear the whoops and screams of my family who’ve camped up on the grass. They’ve spotted me from a good 50 metres away, so they’re giving it the large. The pain is evaporating now and I stretch out my arms and do an aeroplane. Ridiculous carry on, but I’m on a runway, about to finish my first 70.3 and I’m caught up in the emotions of it all. I can’t help myself. I cross the finish line in a time of 6 hours 16 minutes. The feeling is magic. 

Because of COVID, they can’t present medals at the finish line, so we got them in our pre-race pack which felt a bit odd. My daughter has had it in her hand all day and lovingly puts it overy my head. What a special moment. What a special day. What a special race. It’s one that will live long in the memory bank. I’m hotter than an overcooked jacket potato, very badly sunburned, my quads are on fire and my hips are in rag order, so after all the hugs and well dones I amble back into the waters of Bantry Bay and just stand there soaking it all in. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced. It’s time to celebrate with family and start plotting the next adventure. 

Pulse Triathlon Club: swimming, cycling, running and socialising since 2003

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