Published in the Sunday Business Post 13 September 2015
Ironman 70.3 Dublin 1.9k swim : 90k cycle : 21k run
“The zip is from the top down.” Ok, yeah, no problem. He was the third guy to get me to lock him into his wetsuit.
I was smearing myself in Vaseline to prevent my wetsuit chaffing at the neck. Triathlons have that tendency for the intimate. The gear changes in the open mean inevitable nakedness. You get over that pretty quickly. The real intimacy is exposing the fight against yourself in public. Admitting to strangers your personal struggles.
We are standing on the slopping granite into Scotsman’s bay in Dun Laoghaire. I hug Joanne, my training partner. I thump her. “What’s that for?” Psych you up, we can do this. She gives me a thump back. We are in the middle of five hundred women in pink and white hats, distracting ourselves from nerves.
The sea is cold. The sea is always cold. Get over it. Box the water. Keep kicking. Breath. I find a girl to draft behind. She breaks the water for me. We are both looking for the orange buoy, vaguely swimming toward a colour in the sea. I focus on my arms. That’s all I can see in the water. One, two, three, four and breath. There is a rhythm to it that becomes hypnotic.
Jellyfish. Kicks in the face. How do people still find space to swim over, under and beside me in the sea? Breath. Around the buoy. I think I just got sick in the water. Keep kicking. I’m hurting. The bone in my arm is joined with metal pins after a hit and run accident snapped it in two. Two fingers have stubbornly never healed after breaking from GAA. These are excuses. In the water almost an hour now. Tired. Disorientated. The 1.9k swim was actually 2.2k, they measured it wrong. Have I made the cut-off time or will I be disqualified?
A hand is reaching for me in the water. They pull me out. Another hand is on the flat of my back. “Wait till you get your balance.” I almost fall over. People are crammed on either side cheering. It feels alien after the loneliness of the sea. Someone rips the zip on my wetsuit. Someone else is pulling my body out of this skin. I forget to say thank you. Words are returning to my mouth as I’m stumbling to transition. “What time is it?” I shout randomly. About 8.45. About! I’ve made the cut off by five minutes. How can anyone be so casual giving the time!
The ironman is defined by waves of emotion. Moments of small achievements. My longest ever swim. There is a new focus. Another thing my body must do quickly.
In transition. Sunglasses on, helmet on, race number strapped. I struggle with my gloves because I can’t feel my hands. Why does it take so long to put on socks? Bike shoes feel good. Unrack my bike. I love my bike. More arms pointing the way. Clicked in, locked in, go.
No cars on the roads. Sweet. Along the coast past Seapoint, Blackrock and Sandymount. Past the Point, up the Quays. Those guys on the bottom of O’Connell Street look like they’re coming home from the night before. Steep hill up past the Central Criminal Courts. Love hills. My cycling club is predominately male. They taught me how to eat hills by standing up on high gear. Keep peddling.
Never let the hill win. The bike is the break. 90k to refuel on chopped up protein bars and litres of isotopes.
Clonee, Dunboyne, Kilcock, Maynooth, Lucan. So many people out in their pyjamas. We must look strange to them. Bodies curving into the bends. Backs parallel to the bar on the downhills. Roars of “on your outside” as you pass.
Not one woman has passed me. I haven’t seen any other hybrids. I could easily knock 20 minutes on a proper bike. The cycle becomes monotonous towards the end. Calves are heavy. Feet soles are sore from being locked into the bike for so long. 3.27 minutes it takes to cycle into the Phoenix Park. I’m telling myself I can do this in less than seven hours. Adrenaline has changed my mantra since the swim. “I can do this, I can finish this,” doesn’t seem as ambitious now.
Bike racked by the Papal cross. Thank god for elastic shoelaces on my runners. Fumbling lost minutes at transitions is so demoralising. The third and final leg. 21k run in the Phoenix Park. I don’t know if I’m shuffling, jogging or running. The first 2k off the bike feels very slow.
I’m so cocky over the first 10k. Ha! Look at those people walking! BANG. My body wants to stop. Right now. STOP. I take a gel. Another one. Water. That got me to 13k. I hear myself talking out loud to myself. I make a promise. Keep running, don’t walk, just keep running. I’m looking at the ground. If I look up, I might see how far I have to go. The noise of the crowd fights the voices in your head telling you to stop. I can still do it under seven hours.
The vicegrip on my knee is pinching harder. The operations for the torn ACL and meniscus ligaments are hurting. The pain is not physical, it is my head trying to justify stopping. Mind over body. Keep going. My watch makes a sound for every kilometre I run. It makes my heart sing.
A voice from the crowd tells me to look up. “Enjoy the finish line,” he says. There are tears, I think. But someone is trying to pass me. I sprint. Where did that come from? The black and red carpeted ironman finish line is so bouncy.
I cross the line. A thick green ribboned medal is put around my neck. A man puts his hand around my waist. “Look at your time, Elaine.” It’s 7 hours, 1 minute and 15 seconds. Definitely tears. I don’t know what I’m meant to be feeling. “Next year you will get that under 7 hours.”
I look at him and promise. Then I collapse. I did it. I finished.