Ironman Lanzarote is somewhat of an enigma amongst the triathlon community, and having experienced the race first hand I can fully understand why. Tough, hot, desolate and hilly and yet at the same time stunning, inspiring, rewarding and fun. It rightfully deserves the respect that is given to it as the toughest Ironman on the circuit, it’s not a race you can turn up to and just ‘wing’ it, you need a plan and you need to stick to it. Below is an account of my adventure on the volcanic rock just off Africa, go make a brew and get comfy as it might take you as long to read it as it took me in transition.
The Build Up.
I’ll be honest with you, this race really scared me, unlike any other I’d ever attempted before. Most people enter races that play to their strengths, I’d chosen to enter one that played to my weaknesses. For those that read my book you’ll know that I died on my arse in the heat of Frankfurt, destroyed my legs climbing the hills of Le Terrier and pretty much moaned about how much I hated cycling in the wind. SO entering Lanzarote probably wasn’t my most sensible move. Last year when I got excited at the prospect of doing it and get a pass out from Em, I took advice from three people that I have a hell of a lot of respect for, Richard Mason, John Knapp and Chris Wild. All Kona finishers and veterans of this race. They all ‘green lit ‘ my idea and it then became reality. The enthusiasm from Chris was contagious; he’s practically a tax exile who is part of the furniture at this race. And throughout the year he’d reassure me that I could do it. On the Tuesday before the race, I was cursing him.
Team COLT met in Peurto del Carmen for a training session on the swim course. Everyone was excited. This was to be my first ever sea swim and the water was amazingly clear and warm. But it was unbelievably salty. Half way round the loop I’d been dropped by the others ( which I’d expected ) and suddenly I found myself throwing up. Making a chum line I suppose for any sharks in the area. Let’s just say I was less than confidence when I got out of the sea. The day only went from bad to worse.
Coffee and cake was very nice, and took away the taste of the salt and made for some great team bonding but we all had an eye on the thermometer on the table, it was 110 degrees and it was only 10.30am. We all laughed and joked but you could sense the undercurrent of doubt amongst those that were about to race. Later that afternoon we did a 90 minute bike and a 20 minute run really just to test the bikes were working after the flights out. We did a little climb but nothing serious, within 10 minutes I couldn’t feel my throat, the heat was drying everything up. It only got worse on the run. How the hell would we be able to bike/run the huge distances in those conditions? I got back and over an hour drank 4 litres of water and Gatorade, and I was still dehydrated. I was worried to say the least.
The day after worry turned to all out fear. Chris Wild took myself, Andy Ley, Kel Hirst and Chris ‘IronHobbit’ Clarke for a drive around the bike course, and then onto La Santa to register. His expert commentary was brilliant, and come race day I’d pretty much remember all that he said, as I’d concentrated on his every word, looking for ways to make the ride easier. Hints on gearing, where to push, where to hold back all were used on race day and for that I can’t thank him enough. However seeing my nemesis the bike course up close and personal scared the shit out of me. It was all that I’d feared and worse. The hills were monsters, the hills that no one considered hills were long and relentless and the hairpin descent off Haria was like nothing I’d ever seen before. “This is where Marc Herremans crashed and became paralysed” didn’t help matters either, and although I would have a nightmare about that pre-race I see now that it was a veiled warning to be careful on that stretch. The further into the course we drove the quieter the car got.
That night I passed on going out with my clubmates for dinner and just sat in the apartment on my own. I was scared, and I was torn. My texts home were very negative, I’ve never doubted my ability or resolve as I did that night. If someone had offered me a flight home that night, I may have taken them up on it. Luckily the support from my parents, Em and my mate Diane raised my spirits and I decided to stay and man up. The next day, another club mate who is a comparable cyclist to me, Christine Gardner, blew my fears away by saying that she’d completed most of the climbs on training camps and that if she could do it then so could I. It was the confidence boost I needed.
The night before the race Em rang me. It was great to hear her voice, and when Charlotte came to the phone and said “Hiya Daddy” I almost burst into tears. It was time to make them both proud, it was time for Daddy to do it for his little girl.
I was up before 5am to eat my porridge, washed down with a coffee and some immodium. I met the others and we walked the 15 minutes to the transition area. I put the gels on the bike and pumped the tires, queued for the toilet and then it was time for the fun to start.
I lined up with my mate Chris Lawson, it was amazing he was there. He was suffering with celulitus in his leg, his foot was twice the size of his other one. We shook hands and wished each other luck, he planned to stay in touching distance as open water isn’t his favourite thing and we usually swim together in training.
The swim is a beach start, so basically the gun goes and you run into the sea. 1600 people all legging it into the water at once, then jockeying for position is worse than the boxing day sales on Oxford street . Pent up aggression, nerves and adrenaline just comes flooding out. You hit the water and you have to be strong or you get destroyed. The first stretch out to the turn buoy was carnage, I was kicked full on in the face twice and got a few licks of my own in. The congestion at the turn was tough, there was just no space at all but once around the turn I kicked hard and pulled away from those around me, finding my own little bubble to swim in.
Before I knew it I was coming into the shallows, ready to run up the beach and back into the water for lap two. 41.30 for the first lap meant that I was bang on target.
There was a lot more room on the second lap, with a bit of argy bargy at the first two turn bouys. I started to enjoy the swim, the salt was awful but I was used to it. The wind started to create a bit of a swell which probably slowed me down. The highlight of the lap was seeing two dinner plate sized jellyfish ascending from the depths, I just kept thinking “Don’t you bloody dare”, the last thing I needed was to start the bike covered in stings.
Out of the water in 42.34 giving a total swim time of 1.24.04. My legs pushed me through the cheering crowd, on through the showers for the long run to T1.
I ran stratight into the back of Andy Ley, who had his wetsuit stripped off and was about to head out. We were both buzzin. I didn’t sit down, I washed the sand from my feet, dried them ( I would be on them a long time, sand in the wrong place could wreck my day ), applied savlon to my undercarriage and allowed one of the ladies to smother me in factor 50 suncream. Went for a pee, it would be almost 9 hours until I went again. Put my helmet, glasses, gloves and shoes on and began the very long run to my bike, picked the bike up and I still had about 300m to run to the mount line. T1 took me 12.47, and I really didn’t mess about, and contrary to popular belief I didn’t do a crossword.
I soon cleared the immense crowds on the prom, and began a very lonely section of the day. Hundreds of people flew past me, as it was a fairly flat start, I knew this would happen and I’d left my ego at home. I wasn’t bothered how many people beat me, this day was about me not beating myself by being silly. My race plan was to just sit and pedal, keep the heart rate down as much as I could and just pace myself so that I beat the bike cut off 11.30 after the race started. I wore my Garmin and my watch, the watch was integral to my nutrition plan. It beeped every 30 minutes to let me know it was Gel O’clock. I stuck to this religiously, also drinking the powerbar drink that was on offer at the feed stations and it seemed to work. I didn’t feel dehydrated, didn’t bonk and my stomach didn’t go bang.
Luckily the temperatures had dropped and although it was still much hotter than I felt comfortable with it wasn’t the searing inferno that we’d experienced in the days before. If it had been then it would have been deadly.
Almost as soon as you leave PdC you are climbing, it doesn’t feel like a big climb, and it kind of messes with your head that you are only doing 7mph, but when you reach the top and look over your left shoulder, the sea is a long way down. The course is littered with those sorts of climbs, mostly uphill, long drags into strong headwinds. They sap your energy and your mental resolve. Everyone knows about the big climbs of Haria and Mirador del Rio, but I found that the unnamed climbs were the worst. I was mentally ready for the biggies, not so for the pesky little ones.
On the fast descent to El Golfo, you pass the fast racers coming back the other way, I got a boost as I saw John Knapp and we exchanged waves. It’s amazing how seeing a familiar face really lifts your spirits. The loop round El Golfo was probably my favourite part of the course, the contrast of the harsh, jagged, black volcanic wasteland with the crystal azure waters of the ocean was something no HD camera could ever capture. I’ve been lucky to see some of natures wonders: barrier reef, table mountain, rainforests, Niagra falls etc… but El Golfo rivalled them all. Another boost came when I saw my name and those of my clubmates chalked on the road, that was worth some free speed.
The climb back was long and hard, and then to top it all there was a left turn off the highway and the climb of Timanfaya ( Fire Mountain ) was underway. By the time I reached there, the sun was high in the sky and the headwinds had arrived. I actually found this bit to be the toughest climb of the whole course and yet of the biggies on paper it looks the easiest. It just sapped my energy, this was the first point where I had a word with myself, reminding my mind and spirit that I had a little girl at home who’d missed out on one too many breakfasts, or bedtime stories with her Daddy because of this. I didn’t need telling twice.
I think it was at the 75km mark when I heard “Aren’t you that bloke that wrote that book?” It was Chris Lawson, he’d had a torrid swim but he’d made it. I’ve never been so happy to be overtaken by a clubmate, he was flying, I had a new hero. I wouldn’t see him again until the run, but again it was a boost, if he could do it with a leg that looked like spam, then I had no choice but to soldier on.
The climb up to Haria past the windmills seemed to go on forever, although I had the energy to join in with a Mexican wave performed by the mobile mechanics that had stopped the van at the top and were blaring out Queens “ We will Rock you”, just what I needed. I stopped at the special needs station, took ibruprofen and an energy bar, I didn’t fancy the hairpin descent with a musset bag. Composed myself and then set off on the stretch that had scared me. I braked in plenty of time, and rode sensibly and it didn’t seem as bad as I’d imagined. What was fun was hitting the cobbles at the bottom and having to change gear again to begin the huge climb up Mirador, yep the two biggest climbs are immediately after one another.
I’d expected to have to get up and walk up both Haria and Mirador but I never did. I just sat and pedalled, never once rising out of my saddle. In fact I sat for the whole of the course, only standing to stretch my back and hamstrings. I conserved energy that would help me on the run. The views at the top of Mirador were out of this world, it made everything seem worthwhile.
Now most people say once you get over Mirador it’s all downhill, ok there is a fair bit of long descents but you still have over 800m of climbing to do. Heading back towards Teguise I was beginning to suffer, the COLT support I presumed would have headed for the run as our fast boys would be well into the marathon. I knew I was the last COLT out on the bike. All I could see was desert and the dual carriage way winding for miles through it. As I crested a small rise I had to blink, was that a mirage? I raised my hand above my eyes and squinted, Nope it was the COLT support. The noise was deafening “There’s only one Andy Holgate, one Andy Holgate”. I grinned like a kid at Christmas, high fived them all and shouted, “I love you lot” and boy did I mean it. That was the final boost I needed to get home. They were brilliant for waiting for me, I can’t thank them enough.
My head wasn’t done messing with me though, as I headed down the infamous “goat track”, a single winding road, I looked at my watch, I was well within the bike cut off, with 5 miles to go, yet for some reason I didn’t believe it. I was convinced I wouldn’t make it. Maybe I’d had too much sun. But I did make it, I was off the bike in 8.40.12. And all along the prom at PdC I didn’t stop grinning.
Into T2, dumped the bike, it had served me well and had come through relatively unscathed, it had lost the handlebar ends on the rough road, it would rival Paris-Roubaix, but given my recent run of bike luck I was happy with such small damage. I grabbed my run bag and went into the change tent. Almost 10 minutes later, covered in more sunscreen and after another pee I headed out onto the marathon.
I was just so happy that I’d made it to the run, I really wasn’t arsed that I was about to run a marathon in temperatures of 30+. I’d beaten the bike course and I knew that I was going to get a Lanzarote Ironman medal. Nothing could go wrong now and if it did I had enough time left to walk/limp and still finish in time. I was one happy bunny.
About 300m from the finish I shouted Chris Wild, he was about to finish, he’d spent all year telling me we’d see each other on the run, I’d never believed him, I should have done. We high fived and I congratulated him as he headed for a pb of 10.33.18 on his “home” course.
The support along the prom was something else, and again the COLT support topped it all. I ran to Sarah Patterson, who’d been in touch with Em all day, and said “Tell Em I’m going to do it”. I was so happy. Further high fives with COLT buddies IronHobbit and John Knapp, raised me up again. John shouted “You are going to do it” with a huge grin on his face. Then the endless procession of COLTs continued with Andy Ley and Kel Hirst, “Wahoo we’ve all made it” shouted Andy. What a feeling.
The long first lap got pretty lonely out past the airport, and I was almost blown off my feet as a Thomson jet landed a hundred metres away. I met Chris Lawson, “If you catch me you need to rethink the name of the next book” he said. “There’s no chance of me catching you”, he was a good 6k in front of me. He knew the provisional title was “Last COLT standing”.
Although my Garmin was beeping at me after every mile, I don’t think I looked at it. I wasn’t interested to be honest. I was just having so much fun, shouting encouragement at vests I recognised: Mersey Tri, Cumbrian Tri Arragons, Rochadale Tri etc..
By the second and third lap the COLT support was bolstered by the finishers and the atmosphere went up another notch. By now it had gone dark as I headed out for the last few miles away from the crowds, no one appeared to be on their own so I accepted Jack Billinghams offer of some company. He ran alongside me for a few miles, just chatting, he was a great help, took my mind off the last 5 miles of the race.
I met Sarah P for the last time and she handed me the COLT top to put over my pirate one. The Pirate one didn’t ride up so I wore that but I wanted to finish as a COLT. So it went one, she texted Em to say I’d be finished in 10 minutes. I knew that if I pushed hard I’d dip under 16 hours, so that’s what I did.
Paul Gardner, another club mate, raced ahead and got the COLTS at the finish to create a guard of honour with the flags. They were a sight for sore eyes, I could have cried. I was 50 metres from finishing the one race I’d promised Em I’d never do because it would kill me. I thanked them all, and grabbed a flag. I was so proud to be a COLT, I was lucky to know these wonderful people and I was so relieved to finally be in touching distance of my impossible dream.
I punched the air and roared like a Spartan going into battle and sprinted for the line. The flag waiving above me I spotted an outstretched arm, It was Chris Wild. The friend responsible for me being there was at the finish, we high fived, and I screamed as I became a Lanzarote Ironman in 15.50.30.
I never stopped grinning. I shook the race directors hand, had the medal placed round my neck and waited to be medically assessed. That bit didn’t happen as I was moved to one side to be interviewed for Ironman.com.
Suddenly Chris Wild was by my side, we embraced and I thanked him. What a journey, a truly magical experience.
Chris and my other team mates helped me get my bike and bags. I put my phone on and phoned Em, reassuring her I was alive and well and not on a drip. She said she could tell by the video of me finishing that I’d be fine, maybe the smile had given it away.
I’d tested myself to the limit, faced some pretty serious demons and doubts and finished with a smile on my face, all in all a pretty perfect day out, and one that if I’m honest I never expected. I’d raced with my head and not my heart ( thanks Gobi ) and become a Lanzarote Ironman.
Thank you to Em, Charlotte and my family for all your support. Ironman is a selfish game, and I know I wouldn’t be able to play it without your understanding and patience. I’m one hell of a lucky bloke.
Secondly thanks to all of the COLTs that went to Lanza ( and those that stayed at home ), you support and friendship was amazing. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half as much if it wasn’t for you guys. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, COLT is without a doubt the best triathlon club in the world.
And thanks to everyone else, too many to mention in person, who fixed my bikes, trained with me, listened to me moaning, texted support, tweeted, read this blog, emailed and left comments on face book. I’m blown away by your warmth and generosity of support.
Thanks everyone 🙂