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Accidental Ironman

By Chris Hughes

In May 2016 you would have struggled to find a less likely candidate for an Ironman event than me...

I had a really healthy upbringing as a child but once I left home at 18 and began to make my way in life I discovered beer, cigarettes and junk food.

Fast forward 39 years and at 57 years old I was ticking all the boxes, with all the usual first world illnesses and heading towards being just another statistic.

Then a combination of factors occurred and I woke up to the fact I needed to do something different.

So where does this 57 year old ex-smoker, heavy drinker and junk food addict who hasn't done a days exercise in 40 years and with a list of medical conditions as long as your arm start to change his life?

"Google is your friend"​

I put together a plan aimed at bringing me back to a healthy, medication-free individual and I began with 6 months of walking. Initially I would set myself challenges and distances to walk before I needed to stop. My first goal was to simply walk from my house, into Tottington, round the park and back up the hill without stopping to rest; it's about 1K.

 

That challenge took me probably 15 attempts to accomplish. After 6 months I had reduced my size, started to improve my health and I felt safe to begin using a gym. It was at this point that I set myself some goals for 2017; do a sprint distance triathlon, cycle from Manchester to Blackpool and back and finally run a half marathon.

All of my goals were based on achieving a level of fitness and health. I don't bother with weight and I only ever get weighed at the doctors. My sugars, blood pressure, liver and kidney functions and cholesterol levels are my guide to success, along with my activity goals.

I desperately struggled to run initially and in early 2017 a few hundred meters was the most I could manage. I discovered parkrun and began to build up the courage to go along. When I finally went to Bolton parkrun and I absolutely loved it.

From parkrun I came across Ramsbottom Running Club's Summer Mile event. For someone like me attending a race was a completely crazy notion but the positive experience I'd had from parkrun encouraged me to give it a go. I turned up for the 2017 Ramsbottom Summer Mile shaking like a dog; I didn't know a single person and I honestly didn't want to get out of my car, standing nervously out of the way wondering if I should just slip away and not bother.

Luckily someone walked up to me and started a conversation, that man was Stu Waldram. Just 10 minutes later and before I had chance to change my mind I was up at the start line running and I haven't looked back since, thanks so much Stu!

 

I went on and completed my three 2017 goals and my abiding memory of those three challenges isn't the finish lines, the medals, the pain of mile 12 of the half marathon and not even the Erdinger at the end... it's the tram journey sat with my RRC mates heading to the start line in Old Trafford proudly wearing my Ramsbottom Running Club vest.

I have to mention a chap who has helped me no end - Brett Norris, he has trained with me and guided me by passing on help and assistance. Despite my best endeavours he hasn't joined RRC... yet. Brett and I would bump into each other at the gym, he'd done Ironman previously and wanted to do it again. I told him that I was setting my sights on doing a marathon and a half Ironman in 2018. Somehow he convinced me to do the full thing, hell I had just done a half marathon how much harder could an Ironman be... ignorance was bliss!

Ironman UK

In mid-December of 2017 my 30 week Ironman training plan began. The date of the event was so far away it didn't feel real. It was tough and very demanding at first but I quickly got into a nice routine. Let me say now, unless you have an incredibly understanding partner you wont get past week 4! The finish photos were going to show just one person crossing the finish line but our Steph has swam, cycled and ran every single mile with me for those 30 weeks (and I should know as she reminds me constantly).

As race day crept up it slowly dawned on me what was happening. In early April I had the first of several big wobbles. As the miles increased the doubts grew, you have bad days, the good days help but you have to build confidence doing the long training days. These are essential not just for the things that go well but finding out what will go wrong too.

6 hours into a bike ride and "bonking" (a cycling term for running out of energy) is better discovered training than on race day! I was experimenting with foods and energy sources, working out what worked well, what made me feel sick and what made me need the loo and trying to figure out how I was going to swim, cycle and run for 15+ hours without running out of fuel. Ann Butler's flapjack recipe is a god send let me tell you and so are Drummer squishy sweets (thanks Eve Hart!)

15th July 2018

The weekend of Ironman is just magical from start to finish. It's completely different level to anything I've experienced before.... you are part of an event where people are competing for World Championship places, you are lining up with professional athletes and age-graders who are racing for slots at Kona, Hawaii. This is serious stuff, the months and miles were behind me now and my final preparations began. Starting on Friday afternoon - registering and collecting bags, attending the race briefing, laying out all my kit at home, filling my bags, taking it out, checking my kit, filling them again, it drives you a bit mad!

The Saturday drop-off drive round is an all day job; racking the bike, more checking of bags, signing in and out, then heading home for the long wait; trying to get some sleep but not getting a wink. Just as I began to doze off it was 3am and I was up and heading out of the door.

The couple of hours before the race disappeared very quickly and we were given a countdown from 5am to get our transition bags into the trucks, start getting our wetsuits on and begin moving to our designated start pens.

The hairs on the back of my neck still stand up now as I recall the last 15 mins before the race start. I had seeded myself in the 1 hour 10 minutes pen for the swim. It was 5:45am the MC, Paul Kane was introducing the professional athletes and I was standing nervously, fidgeting, too packed to move around.

I was just thinking about the next 100 meters, all the practice, the hours and kilometres of swimming and my plan, I had to stick to the plan! At 5:57am God Save The Queen is played, Paul Kane announces "UK Ironman Bolton we are ready to go" everybody was shaking hands, hugging each other and passing on best wishes.

The countdown began... 5,4,3,2,1 the gun goes off, on comes AC/DC - Thunderstruck a massive roar goes up from the 2,500 competitors and as one you charge towards the water... OMG HERE GOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I had a plan that'd been well worked out, practised, honed and drilled; do a strong swim of around 1 hour 10 minutes, get out of the water and into Transition 1, making sure I am organised and giving my self plenty of time to get away on the bike in under 1 hour 30 minutes. Hammer the cycle course whilst it's still cool, beat the cut-off time and worry about the run once I am safely into Transition 2 lacing up my trainers. Then slug it out knowing that I should have the thick end of 6 hours 30 minutes to get round to the finish... job done.

It was Mike Tyson who said "Everybody has a plan until they get smacked in the mouth" and he is smarter than he looks!

Just 20 seconds and 10 metres into a 15+hour race I get an almighty kick in the face, then another. I am in the 1 hour 10 minutes start pen and I should have people swimming over me not me swimming over them. The next 500 meters was just a big scrap, trying to find clear water and a route around the slower swimmers. I could see people struggling and the kayak was helping someone who was having a panic attack, it was absolutely bonkers and even worse on the return leg when the sun stopped everyone from 'sighting' the buoys.

I ended up swimming an extra 500m during the first lap of the swim course to get around the slower swimmers. I got out of the water and ran to lap 2 of the swim, it was busy I was in the thick of the race at this point and about to start lapping the tail end breaststrokers. This is where the 177KM of swim training kicked in. I took a moment to relax and do what I have done week after week - dropping into my long steady swim-stroke, breathing easily and concentrating on maintaining my rhythm. As bedlam was erupting around me I managed to maintain my focus and before I knew it I was running into transition 1 with Gary Bradley shouting encouragement to me.

1 down 2 to go!

I gathered my thoughts in T1, my biggest fear was falling at the first hurdle and facing the utter shame... family, friends, work, RRC and let's not forget a certain Ironman world champion (Chrissie Wellington) all literally or virtually high-fiving me to the start line. I would rather have drowned than got a DNF on the swim, at least I could grasp a shred of dignity if I didn't make the bike cut off time. I felt good and I was only 10 minutes off my target, now I needed to get my head down and cycle.

Luck plays a massive part in endurance events like Ironman, you get some good and some bad. On the up side it was a dry day and the early morning was pleasantly warm (perfect for cycling) with just a gentle breeze. The fires on Winter Hill had forced a change to the bike course reducing each loop by 8 miles, meaning we didn't have to tackle the infamous Sheephouse Lane.

But on the down side what we got instead was Anglezarke! OMG a country road track with alpine turns and Rake-type climbs with no run off to get a rest on the other side - just stone walls and pot holes. Plenty of my fellow competitors' events ended on Anglezarke in an ambulance via a stone wall or hedge. For me it was worth 30 minutes net gain, I was making good time and settling into the bike and the early miles.

You try not to think about the full distance of an Ironman, it's better to break it down into small sections. For me it's the only way I could think about it or I would have just got off my bike and rang for a taxi!

The benefit of doing all the practice cycle miles really helps you know where the smooth road is to push on, where to back off, where the sharp turns and little rises in the road are, but what you don't know is where your RRC club mates will turn up! They were everywhere, just everywhere it was like magic! James Thomas and Brighda Cameron appeared early on then Karen Grindrod and Neil Rothwell, Tom White, Sam Booth, Emma Garratt, Gary Bradley... so many of my awesome club mates would be shouting out for me along the route. Other competitors were commenting and someone said "wow that's better than any energy gel, who are they?" I just replied "we are Ramsbottom Running Club!"

I saw quite a few accidents on the bike course and people having mechanical issues, so I was keeping everything crossed that my repair skills or those of the emergency services were not called into use. I was thinking 'please, please, please not today!

The second time round Anglezarke and the famous supporters dressed as wrestlers spotted me and gave me a big Ramsbottom shout! There wasn't too much further to go at this point, I was counting down the kilometres, 60K then 40K (just an Olympic distance Triathlon to go!) and I started to believe that I could make the cutoff time. 40K became 20K and one last trip up Babylon Lane. This is just a brilliant part of the course, along with Hunters Hill where the crowds gather to give everyone one last push towards the final straight into Bolton.

5K from the end of the Bike course James and Brighda flashed past again still shouting and cheering as I pushed on to transition 2.

Fortunately the mechanical cycle gods were with me and I offered a little thank you prayer!

2 down 1 to go!

When I reached T2 I put my trainers on, sorted myself out and I was off. My times at this point were a 1 hour 20 minute swim and 6 hour 30 minute bike, plus transition times taking me to just over 8 hours 15 minutes... now for the marathon!

No amount of training will prepare you for the sensation of running out of T2, on the one hand it was just brilliant not to be cycling anymore and on the other my legs felt like putty!

From the transition area in Queens Park I was quickly into the centre of Bolton and going through the crowds. The female race leader, Lucy Gossage was still out on the course and the finish area was beginning to get busy.

I was soaking up the atmosphere and it was just brilliant when I caught sight of the finish line and the red carpet for the first time. As the run course leaves the town centre and heads back into Queens Park the hills begin to loom large. I found this really hard as I was really hurting. I was thinking "this isn't like the marathon at Manchester or the half in Chester... this really, really hurts!"

My feet felt swollen and my stomach was cramping but it was time to take another gel, the very thought of it making me feel physically sick. By now the heat was oppressive, the breeze on the bike had helped but now it felt like I was running in a sauna. I glanced at my Garmin... 3 bloody kilometres, is that it?! It felt like I had run 30!

As I made my way to the top of Queens Park and through the gates I saw Emma Stacey waving and then David Dockerty and Paula Jones... it was such a boost! The tiredness drained from my legs and as I climbed the gradient up Chorley New Road I could hear the sound of cow bells in the distance and my Ramsbottom Running Club club mates shouting and cheering. I felt like I was carried past on a wave of enthusiasm, I didn't quite know what I was doing shouting and waving back like a man possessed it was brilliant just brilliant.

The run course is 4 laps, so 8 RRC check-ins and with this kind of support I felt like I could do a 3 hour marathon and a qualify for place at Kona!

The turn point on Chorley New Road is at about 5km let me tell you it feels like 50. As I made the turn I began to look forward to seeing RRC again. They didn't disappoint and were now on both sides of the road, someone asks me "who was that?" it wasn't the first time and on every lap people would ask the same question "who was that?"

Ramsbottom Running Club certainly put itself on the Ironman map.

Hair bobble envy let me tell you its real....

Arriving back into Queens Park it was time to think about the loo... I am not going to dwell on this but if hell is an actual place I can only imagine it's something like the inside of a portaloo on a hot day during an Ironman! This was at about 3pm so what they are like by 9pm must be the stuff of nightmares.

Anyway, back to hair bobbles Ironman UK is a four loop marathon so you get a different colour bobble each time you complete a lap. You collect a green bobble first; one down three to go you, and then you do the second loop around Bolton Town Hall where the crowds are just great. You then come back round and start to pass others and its then that you notice people with green and blue bobbles and not just that, some even with green, blue and red bobbles!!

I am certain that people on the Chorley New Road section were waving their red hair bobbles at me, people with that red hair bobble look so happy and they are on the home straight with just a few more kilometres to go. You begin to feel like a character from Lord of the Rings in possession of that precious final hair bobble.

During lap 2 I saw Rosie Cummings heading towards the RRC street party, the reception again was unbelievable making the pain and exhaustion simply drain away. I just don't have the words to describe how it made me feel it's something you can only really experience; a mixture of exhaustion and euphoria that builds with each lap.

At the half marathon point I began laps 3 and 4 of the run course and they are tough. The last 15k was torture and I honestly don't remember parts of the last 90 minutes of the race. It just became a battle. I remember seeing people being put into ambulances and medics putting blankets round them, I just wanted to drag them out and encourage them to keep going.

At this stage of the event you are simply digging deep, people around you are stumbling, dragging their feet and throwing up. But this is it, this is where the hours, weeks and months of running, cycling and swimming are no longer going to get you over the line and on to that magic carpet.

The training reserves were gone at this point and I had nothing left. The physical pain was horrible and you know that you can stop and make it go away, just sit down and stop. It became a mental battle about how badly I wanted it and how badly I wanted to finish.

I doubt seriously a single person taking part had the same level of support that I did. My family were in Bolton town centre cheering me and between them and RRC all over the swim, cycle and run course I was always going to finish the race.

Steve Wilson and his son met me near Queens Park, Phil came to cheer me on and run with me on the third lap of my run and Alex Quayle (god love him) appeared everywhere, running with me and encouraging me along. Cecilia Woods and Ann Butler accompanied me on the last section of the run down Chorley New Road and into Queens Park as I made my way towards collecting that final hair bobble.

Just over 1K from the last check point in Queens Park to the finish, I thought back to 2 years earlier, to the person who stepped from my front door trying to walk without having to stop for breath to do the same distance I had left. It had taken me just 2 years to change the previous 40.

The last 50 metres was a case of hugging and holding everyone and anyone in the crowd. For 15 hours I had wanted to make it to the finish and when I arrived I just didn't want it to end. The magic carpet at Ironman is exactly that... magic.

I wish I had been a bit more coherent to take it all in but I do remember seeing Paul Kane standing on the carpet. He saluted me and said those famous words "Chris, you are an Ironman"

I was well and truly broken and so many family members and RRC club mates were waiting for me.

I was struggling to stay upright as 15 hours of continuous swimming, cycling and running mixed with a big box of gels endless amounts of Red Bull, flat coke, sweltering heat and a slice of meat feast pizza is a combination that doesn't mix well.

So would I do one again?

Definitely, I am aiming for 2020 hopefully but I will be out cheering on my RRC club mates next year. If you are thinking about doing it then let me say this... you couldn't find a more supportive group than RRC and they will definitely help you get round the course.

 

Thank you so much to everyone, it was Ramsbottom Running Club that got me to the start line and it was Ramsbottom Running Club that carried me round the course.

Thank you so much to everyone, it was Ramsbottom Running Club that got me to the start line and it was Ramsbottom Running Club that carried me round the course.​

I don't know anybody at RRC who couldn't do an Ironman, if you want it badly enough you can do it, like they say "ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!"

Chris Hughes (RRC126)

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