Journey to an Ironman

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What does it take to become an Ironman? James Brown talks to Poppy Lenton.

Poppy Lenton is one of many Serpies who has made the journey from triathlon novice to long distance veteran. As she tells us, it’s not an easy journey, or a short one, but it is incredibly rewarding.

How many years have you been involved in triathlon? When was your first multisport race?

I’ve been involved in triathlon on and off since 2005. My first dabble was being challenged by my flatmate to do a sprint-tri together. I accepted the challenge and a few weeks later, having located a bike and roped a few more friends in, we were on the beach ready to start our first triathlon on Bintan an island off Singapore where I lived at the time! We didn’t really have a clue what we were doing, wearing just trainers and a top I also wore clubbing, but we had a good laugh. The slippery slope began and not long afterwards I was booking flights with the same group to do the Phuket standard distance tri, which seemed pretty daunting at the time.

I nearly came a cropper when I moved back to the UK and having signed up for a triathlon, it wasn’t until a few days before that I read the race briefing and found wetsuits were mandatory. In Asia the water was too warm, so it had never even crossed my mind to wear one, let alone being obliged to. Thank goodness for the internet and fast delivery!

What first made you want to do an Ironman?

I’d always loved cycling and swimming, so once I joined Serpentine and got into running it was a natural progression. The sprint distances became Olympic, and Olympics to half Ironman. After completing a half Ironman with good friends we all egged each other on and suddenly we were signed up for the full version and so began the journey! It somehow seemed normal at the time.

You trained with the Serpie Ironman squad, what was that like?

The Serpie Ironman squad was great and I’d totally recommend any of the various squads. The weekly guidance gave the progression my structure lacked. More importantly, as a squad we could share all our learnings over our weekly coffee catch ups: the good, the bad and sometimes ugly. The chats we had included toilet tactics, must have gadgets and books, while there were various postings on our squad Facebook page of the latest nutritional shakes concocted. They generally tasted better than they looked!

A year on and the squad still gets together (with some missing due to the European championships)

It sounds like the squad was a very supportive environment?

I’m not sure people are always aware of the amount of time the coaching takes up. It’s not just the sessions itself; there needs to be a session plan, facilities booked, risks assessed, coaches rota sorted, planning meetings, emails responded to – and they do all this for free. Serpentine is lucky to have such dedicated coaches across all the disciplines, many of whom have represented Great Britain. A great thank you to all the coaches, notably Alex, Beate and Margaret, who have been driving the squads for years. There are so many involved in our success across the Serpie world, including the committee and all the volunteers.

Training takes up so much time, how did you fit it around other priorities in your life?

To do an Ironman properly you do have to make choices and ensure you are effective with your sessions, which is again where the squad guidance helped. I’d see my friends more pool side rather than bar side, although I also made new friends along the way who I still train and socialise with.

What kind of distances were you having to cover in training? How many hours per week in the peak training period?

It all becomes normal and it is not until you step back you realise that some days having cycled to work, cycled to training, done a pool swim followed by a track session that you’d done the equivalent of the triathlon on a normal day. The Serpie sessions help with this: Monday swim, Tuesday Squad swim, Wednesday spin, Thursday rest day, Friday swim and beers with friends, Saturday squad session, maybe a short spin and then a long cycle ride on Sunday, which leading up to the race were usually 100 milers. Due to injury I wasn’t really running, though I did become a serious aqua-jogger. It was a great conversation starter in the pool, although not the most exciting element of training.

I remember one time having cycled to Richmond Park I just wasn’t in the mood and had cunningly justified going for coffee and cake instead when I bumped into Ros Young – a long-standing Serpie committee member, many years wiser than I and having overcome many injuries. She gave me some good tips on the best stretches of road to race on and clearly articulated her session plan, I realised at this point that if she could do it, so could I and I was soon happily whizzing down the road rather than mooching over cake – though no doubt I had some later!

What bit of normal life did you miss, or find you didn’t really have enough time for?

I’m a great believer that training should be fun so I still went out and also did races I thought were fun even if they didn’t quite fit with the schedule.

What were your goals for the race?

My overall goal is always to enjoy myself and do the best I can in the given circumstances. It was a mass start, so first part to survive and enjoy the swim; push hard on the bike until the forecasted rain descended and do the best I could on the run – as due to injury I’d not been able to do run training.

What was race day like?

There’s lots to do pre-race – check the bike set up, get transition bags in order, put nutrition where you need it, wish fellow racing friends well and suddenly everyone was in the water, sun rising and Bang! Time to go! 11 hours and 58 minutes sounds a long time, but actually when you break it down to the different parts it soon flew by.

The swim was the expected kick fight though I just went with the flow and enjoyed it, the scenery was beautiful on the bike until the rain descended. The run was the unknown as I’m not supposed to run, but as it was a looped course you are high-fiving your other friends competing and the finish line was becoming a reality.

For me the day before the race is actually when I’m the most nervous, the period of checking-in.

Is there any particular part of the final build-up that you found nerve wracking?

No, not really. A great tip someone gave me was to spend a few minutes to mentally visualise everything about race day down to exactly what you would do if you had a puncture. It takes the stress out as you know in your mind you just follow what you visualised and also lead, to minor last minute tweaks.

How did your first Ironman compare to what you expected?

It was a bit surreal as you spend months focused on a single day doing all you can about training, nutrition and equipment, yet looking back it was all of the pieces that got you there, the rides, the new friends, the challenges, the mishaps, the laughs that made it what it was. The day is just one small part of it.

What was the hardest part?

Towards the end of the bike leg it was lashing with rain, the terrain was briefly poor and my contact lens fell out so I felt like a one-eyed pirate, it wasn’t that it was really hard, more that it was not so much fun, though the bike was soon safely racked and onto the final frontier of the run section.

In terms of the pre-race the hardest part, given injury, was not getting the green light to run and knowing at some point I might have to withdraw from the race. I decided regardless I would enjoy the journey and if the race was not to be, well, at least I’d had fun along the way.

I’ve always found that when I do half-Ironmans, the run is where I really suffer and hit the wall.

Was this something you experienced during the run? How did you push on through to the end?

I’m always relieved when I get to the run, as it means I’ve not drowned in the midst of all the flying arms and legs and survived any bike mechanicals. The run is the high-five and spot-your-mates time, especially so on the Outlaw, as many of my squad were doing it. A special mention must go to fellow Serpie triathlete, Di Suter, the world’s smiliest triathlete!

What was the most unexpected thing that happened to you?

I got followed by the film crew and interviewed in transition, which was exciting, though after a while as the questions kept coming I did feel it was time to get on with the race in hand. Even more exciting was when it was aired on Channel Four… A few seconds of fame!

Would you do another one? Have you set yourself any new goals for this year? More Ironmans?

I enjoyed the Ironman journey, but I am always looking for new adventures. This year’s cycle adventure was the 150-mile coast-to-coast sportive from Seascale in the Lake District, over various passes and beautiful valleys across to Whitby in a day, back in June. If you fancy a challenging day out, I would thoroughly recommend it to any cyclist. The views, camaraderie and food stops were amazing! After declaring the bike was to have a little rest I somehow ended up doing the 120 mile Dunwich Dynamo through the night a few weeks ago, another one I’d recommend for any cyclist fancying a moonlit navigation adventure followed by pre-dawn dip in the sea.

You also won the John Stonham Cup. How did that come about?

Well that was a beautiful surprise and I was really honoured to be recognised in such a way by the committee. It is awarded annually in recognition of persevering and overcoming injury and inspiring others, so I hope you are all inspired to achieve what you can, despite the curve balls life serves us. Whether that be a full Ironman distance or your first 5k and most importantly making new Serpie friends along the way.

James Brown has been a triathlete since 2009 when he borrowed a friend’s old race bike and struggled to even complete the standard distance London Triathlon. After joining serpies in 2011 and the serpie tri squad a year later, he’s managed to improve. A bit.

Poppy Lenton ran her first triathlon in 2005, promptly joined Serpentine and since then has made the hard journey to Ironman.