What’s it like to take on your first half-Ironman? Camilla Allwood gives us the scoop.
I grinned at the camera and then turned away to face the sea. Steep hillsides ran down to meet the water on all sides and above, grey clouds crowded the sky. A slick of shiny black bodies moved towards the water as a single mass, only a few breaking ahead to splash and dive through the shallows, hastily seeking the reassurance and speed that depth allows. Moments later I, too, was in. I had dipped into the bay the day before wearing only my swimming costume so I knew what to expect. In any case, I had swum many times – and for longer – in water only a couple of degrees warmer so I was not really worried about the temperature. Yet, because 12 degrees was considered cold here, where the average May water temperature is over 19 degrees, the swim distance had been shortened by a third that morning, from 1.5k to 1k. The months of preparation were over. The excitement, the terror, the long training hours were all behind me now. My first ever half Ironman, the Ocean Lava Kotor 70.3 triathlon, had begun.
The ancient, walled city of Kotor sits in the southernmost fjord in Europe. It is the capital of Montenegro which lies on the Adriatic Sea across from the spur of Italy’s boot. Kotor is surrounded by sharply pointed hills that plunge to meet the clear waters of Lustica Bay, which lies beyond a second bay on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The spring run-off from the many peaks dilutes the seawater and keeps the water in the bay cooler for longer while air temperatures rise after winter. Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside is stunning. This was the location of my race and it did not fail to enchant me.
Usually, I train two or three times a week with my local swim club. I had started when I was 45 and couldn’t swim even a length of front crawl. After a few years of training, improving and swimming competitively, I’d discovered the joys of open water and progressed from the London docks to River Dart 10k and then jumped at the chance of an English Channel relay swim. I raced in the local reservoir and today’s race was, in no sense, a big swim. I ploughed through the foaming waters in the big crowd of swimmers. Then I was kicked in the head and, unnerved, came to an abrupt halt. I treaded water, gasping and trying to still the feeling of panic. Suddenly I wasn’t sure I could do it. Nearby Serpie Sarah asked if I was ok. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. We’ll do this together” she reassured me. I took a few strokes of breaststroke and stopped again, still unnerved. Then a bit more breaststroke and stopped again. Breaststroke is my worst stroke – literally, I barely progress at all – but I couldn’t find the courage to start to swim the front crawl that I needed to do. I tried to face down my fear, tried to let it go, tried to keep on moving forwards but could manage only a few feeble strokes at a time. This was no way to swim even a measly 1000m and I forced my arms over my head and down to catch the water. But the water felt bitterly cold and I was unable to keep my head down for more than a few strokes at a time. Remembering a swimming coach’s encouragement to “dig deep” I hauled myself, pitifully slowly, through the water. Eventually, the final buoys were in sight and drew close. It was such a relief to leave the water. Somehow, there were other people behind me, but the first part of the race, which should have been my best, could not have been worse. It had been horrible. Still, I had finished the swim and made the first cut-off.
I ran into first transition where my bike kit had been carefully hung on a peg. Off with the too-tight wetsuit, into shoes and onto the bike. Transition is usually one of my best parts of the sport but, after my liberation from the water, I must have forgotten to rush because I lingered there for over 10 minutes.
Early on in my race planning, I had decided not to take my own bike to Montenegro. Even though key parts of my new bike had been carefully sized to provide the best fit, I was not a serious cyclist. I had not progressed to cleats and still rode in trainers. The thought of transporting my bike abroad, even for this race, seemed over the top: It was too unnecessary, too complicated, altogether far too much effort. Leave that to the professionals and those who take the race more seriously. I simply wanted to complete the course and doubted that one bike or another would make a significant difference. Instead, I had hired a bike locally. It was the right size and good enough; I was content. The previous day I had cycled several kilometeres with a few other Serpies as a test ride and all went well. Now I headed off for my 90k ride and had not gone very far when my knees started to hurt. I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what to do to make things better. I guessed that the saddle height needed altering but would that be up or down? In my saddlebag was a pack of tools but I had brought them, primarily, for a puncture. I was not practised in making bike adjustments and this did not seem an appropriate moment to start learning. What I did know was that I was going to keep pedalling and having painful knees was not going to stop me. My mind flitted briefly to the possibility of knee damage but I ignored it. I had a job to do and mere discomfort wasn’t about to stop me. I would get through it as best I could. After all, cycling on a long, flat road is not really difficult, it merely involves pushing down on the pedals, one side and then the other. Then repeat!
I put my head down and set off round the bay to roars of support. My Serpie shorts and tri-top, initially cool, quickly dried out. The track followed the road between the sea and the mountains, and was fully cleared of traffic for the event. The road was flat, the water lapped gently on the shore and groups of spectators lingered in every town. It was a fantastic course. The route headed out for 28k round the coast before turning and heading back for 17k to reach the race’s half-way mark. It then turned again out to the furthest point before returning for the final 28k back to Kotor.
Initially there were a number of cyclists near me and I soon started to encounter those returning from the first turn. Cycling with others is motivational for me and watching fast and experienced competitors as they overtook and streaked ahead spurred me on. A few kilometres before the first turn was a short, sharp hill and this proved the hardest section. I built up speed as best I could but the climb was a slog. I was very glad for my training, a couple of months previously, on the Lanzarote volcanic slopes. Of course, every hill ascent has a descent down and this made for a welcome relief. While I am happy to build up speed on a straight downhill course, I am not well practised in speeding on even gentle bends and I watched in awe as faster cyclists coolly managed the turns as they hurtled downward. Meeting the hill again on the return I remembered the words of my Lanzarote bike coach, cycling in front and urging me to stay close: “Stick on my wheel”. Even though there was now no other cyclist directly in front, these words helped me to keep pushing down on the pedals: “Stick on Karrie’s wheel“. My knees screamed with every turn and to keep moving and reach the top I badly needed to maintain the exhausting effort. “Stick on Karrie’s wheel. Stick on Karrie’s wheel”.
I had practised eating and drinking while riding, and a bag of supplies sat neatly on the crossbar. Following advice, I made sure to eat regularly and enjoyed choosing from the selection of energy-giving and tasty snacks I had brought. I certainly needed to avoid running out of energy and eating was a pleasant distraction from the gruelling effort. The second turn meant that I had reached the half-way mark. I knew that I could keep going and that the pain was bearable but it was unpleasant and I looked at the impending second half with a sense of dread. The route felt long and there were fewer and fewer competitors on the road. Still, every single kilometre was bringing me closer to the longed-for moment when I could leave the bike behind.
The sun shone through the clouds and a light breeze ruffled the plants along the way. The verges and hillsides teemed with an abundance of exquisite wildflowers. The natural wildlife was far more profuse than you ever find in the UK and other more developed countries. The light sparkled on the sea and it truly was one of the most beautiful places I have been to. In the trees by the roadside, a multitude of birds twittered and sang. On my final leg, there were no other cyclists in sight. There were also fewer and fewer spectators and those still on the roadside seemed to have given up offering encouragement and watched me pass in silence or seemed too busy talking to notice. There were, however, lots of birds and birdsong so I decided to let the birds be my supporters. Their chirrups and calls became messages of encouragement and inspiration. This proved a very pleasant distraction which not only took my mind off the painful act of pedalling but also provided a source of joy as well as succour.
On the final ascent of the hill, my resolve and strength failed. I slowly ground to a halt, my legs refusing the strain. I dismounted and pushed the bike the last hundred metres to the summit, happy to give my knees a break and probably moving faster than I would have been able to cycle. Then I was on the bike again for the last long stretch back to Kotor. I was tired but still needed to make the next cut-off. I was also aware that there was a cyclist behind me and was determined to stay ahead for as long as I could. I pushed onwards, one leg and then the other and Kotor drew nearer and nearer. A crowd cheered me into transition and, finally, I could leave the bike behind. With huge relief, I began the third and last section of my race.
The run course was a 5k stretch beside the narrow shoreline. Out and back and then repeat. I had run a half-marathon earlier in the spring so felt confident that I could manage the distance. Yet still, I needed to tell myself, it was simply a 5k race repeated four times. As I started, there were many runners coming and going, all at different stages of their run. This made the course enjoyable as it provided an opportunity to see the many competitors as they ran, both overtaking me on their second ‘out’ stage or running past in the opposite direction, on their return. There was, of course, lots of Serpie support here too, particularly from relay team swimmers and cyclists who had finished their respective ‘legs’. I was very happy to be reprieved from the bike but, after 7 hours, was starting to tire. Deciding that it was imperative for me to feel fresh rather than weary, I began a mantra in my head: ‘I feel good, I feel fresh’. It was simply a long run and I didn’t want it to become a gruelling struggle. I reached the 5k turn: ‘I feel good, I feel fresh’. A light drizzle was genuinely refreshing and I made the 10k point. Then I had only the distance of my regular two-and-a-half-parks, Wednesday night run left: 5k there and 5k back. ‘I feel good, I feel fresh’. Kind Serpie Alex was supporting all the slower team members by running alongside them for a while and he ran with me too, providing a welcome morale boost and saying exactly the right things to keep me motivated. A group of friends stood cheering and yelling when I had about 2k to go but, as I neared, I dared not look at them. I longed to acknowledge their support and ‘high-five’ them all as they whooped and crowed but I was too afraid. I feared that I would fall into their arms, weeping. I would stop, break down and refuse to continue. The risk attached to their presented offer of comfort and relief was far too great: I needed to hold my nerve and keep going. Instead, I blocked them out, maintaining my focus on the distance and kept my eyes straight ahead. I had to keep running. ‘I feel good, I feel fresh’. (Incidentally, this mantra seems to have worked because everyone remarked afterwards that I did look, even at that point, remarkably fresh!) Further along a local man kindly guided me across a road junction and then, all of a sudden, the Finish was in sight. A final spur for the last few hundred metres and I was under the finish arch. At last I could stop. I had completed my 70.3 half-Ironman triathlon race. I had made the cut-off – and, with a time under 7h30m, finished with a half-hour to spare. I had beaten the man behind me. Mission accomplished and what a relief that it was all over. Never, never again! Well, hmmm… maybe…
Camilla Allwood started at SRC with swimming and marshalling and then decided to give running a second go after a break of 30 years. Cam loves the support of fellow Serpies and the wide range of sporting and non-sporting activities that the club offers. She decided to take some down time and is now injured!