June 9, 2020

The Day I Became An Ironman

published by Bren

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Journal entry: I have been training for this race since December, after I finished the marathon at Singapore. It has been a war. Along with keeping my TSW at bay, I had to include swimming into my regimen, which was not ideal. But like all things, we persevere. I didn’t want to just “get through” TSW. I wanted to obliterate it, to come out indestructible, and it brought me here. But this one really felt like it was the final chapter: If I could get through this one, I knew nothing would ever break me again. When TSW first started, it felt like I was crawling through the deepest valley, that there was no finish line, that this demon would keep me buried forever. But every day, I fought a little bit more, and took one step forward. Today, I finally stood on the highest of mountains.

When I woke up on race morning I could already feel it would be a good day. I slept well, which is unusual the night before the race.

As I arrived at the athletes village, I headed straight to the transition area to put some last touches on my bike: Load my bottles, fill my bike bag with food, check my tire pressure.

Everything was good.

Then I took a moment to soak it all in. It was still dark, hundreds of athletes in there, but silent. You could hear everyone’s focus. Like warriors preparing for battle before sunrise.

Then I headed to the start line, down at the lake. I was there an hour early, but it was already alive down there. Huge crowd, TV cameras, sponsors, commentators already all over the mic.

Ironman race week is a huge deal in Taupo.

The half Ironman event was just getting started so I watched them start their swim to ease the nerves a bit. I sipped electrolytes and stretched. An hour zoomed by.

Then as the lake cleared, the announcer called for Ironman athletes to the start line. Time for the main event.

I put on my wetsuit and hugged my parents, then headed through the athletes entrance into the water.

The Ironman is known for being the toughest one-day race in sports: A 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike, followed by a marathon. The time limit is 17 hours.

For those of you who followed the story of my first marathon, you know this journey was born out of anger. Back on that winter morning in August, mid flare, running in the rain with half my face falling off, rage burning in my stomach.

But starting this race, I wasn’t angry anymore. I finally understood, all that pain had a purpose; it was to bring me here. It was life’s way of telling me, “you’re capable of so much more – I’m going to beat you down, in the suffering, you’ll see who you really are.”

Even two days before the race, I’d looked in the mirror, and saw parts of my face had started flaring a little. But I just looked at it and said “No” and then went about my day. It didn’t matter anymore. I was here. About to attempt the impossible.

I waded into the water, found some space. Dunked my head in.

In that first marathon, still fresh with TSW demons, I’d felt like a poser at the start line. I’d looked at everyone’s special running gear and shoes and thought, this is going to be a long day, I’m not even a runner, I’m not even supposed to be here. But I felt different on this start line. I looked at all the people around me and thought, I’ve fought as hard as all of you. I belong here. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Then the fucking cannon went. BOOM.

Go time.

I was boxed in for the opening 15 minutes or so, but managed to find some space and hit a rhythm for the first 2km. But I broke the golden “nothing new on race day” rule and used a pair of goggles I’d never worn in open water before. The glare on them was terrible! Trying to sight the buoys was impossible until they were right in front of me. I had to guess where I was swimming most of the time, or stop and sight.

Around halfway in, I ended up swimming off course for around 5 minutes. During a race 5 minutes feels like 30 minutes, so although my race plan had been to swim easy, I panicked and turned the gas on to make up time.

Too much gas apparently because when I finally came out of the water, I was afraid to see ~2 hours on the clock but it was 1:24!

The goal had been to swim 1 hour 30 minutes so I was pumped. No time to celebrate though. It was straight into transition, which included a 400m run up to the bike tent. I ran it slowly, still a little dizzy from the swim.

Also as it was my first triathlon I’d never done a transition before, so felt a little lost. There was nobody in front of me, so I found myself looking behind to me every few steps, just to make sure I was going the right way.

Once I got to the transition tent things weren’t calm anymore. Everyone was hectic and shouting and talking to each other about the swim. But it was joyful, everyone just so amped up and feeling like superstars.

I got handed my bike bag, a volunteer helped me strip my wetsuit and I changed into my race kit.

When deciding what race kit to buy, I wanted everything red. Red, the colour of the blood stains that covered my sheets every morning. Red, the colour of the flares that covered every corner of my body. Red, the colour of my eyes after crying in pain on those sleepless nights. Red, the colour I never wanted to see in the mirror every morning, but it was always there. I bought a red race top, red hat, red glasses, red bike, red bike bottles, red arm band. Red, the colour that tried to conquer me, and failed. Now I had no need to run from it anymore. Red was the colour of TSW, and now I would wear it into battle, like spoils ripped from a conquered enemy.

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The Ironman bike leg is 180km. A long way, and the longest part of the race. The goal was to ride really easy, 1 gear down, for 1 hour. Then up to top gear but still ride easy for the following 2 hours. Then for the remainder, just ride by feeling, turn the gas on when feeling strong, and hopefully ride under 7 hours.

Cycling is a new sport to me, I didn’t even get my bike until 7 weeks before the race. I haven’t really developed “bike legs” yet. People were passing me the whole time. Sometimes a chubby guy or girl would zoom past me pedalling like mad and I’d be like damn! These people are strong as sh*t! Smashing me!

It was tempting to amp up the speed as I wasn’t even breaking a sweat but the golden advice for Ironman is always stick to your gameplan. After around 3 hours I started eating, and then finally turned it on a little.

To be honest the whole bike leg is still a blur. I remember looking at my watch and seeing I’d done 5 hours, and thought, Wow really, where did all that time go? Slowly my knees started to ache, my feet went next, but they were baby aches I knew I could handle.

Compared to a bad skin flare, it was a 1/10.

I did laugh out loud when I thought about how I still had a marathon to run, it felt pretty ridiculous. But I wasn’t dreading it. I was up for it. 100%.

On the last 50km of the bike a lot of people were slowing down on the hills, but my legs were still fresh from easy riding. I powered those final hills pretty comfortably, managing to pass a few people. Then I tried to hit the gas hard on the last 30km to break 7 hours, but didn’t really come close and clocked 7 hours 22 minutes.

Not a bad time, but at the slower end of what I had wanted.

But as I was riding the final straight into transition, I saw tons of people already walking on the marathon. That was exactly what I needed to see. I rode calmly into transition and told myself I’d be catching all of them.

When I finally got off the bike, everything calmed down for me.

My race time was around 8:40 by then, so I knew I had more than 8 hours to run the marathon. All my doubts had been about the bike. Now that it was done, the doubt was over. I knew I’d be an Ironman today.

I took my time at the transition tent and taped up my feet, had some water, hat on, glasses on, shoes on, toilet. Then slowed everything down to bring down my heart rate. As I finally left the tent I said to my shoes, Got a tough few hours ahead, how about we go make this marathon our bitch?

Out we went onto the roads. Didn’t even look at my watch for pacing. My only rule was no walking, no stopping. 50,000 steps and I’d be home.

The marathon at Ironman NZ is 3 laps of a 14km course.

As I’d hoped, I saw a lot of people that had passed me on the bike. I caught a lot of them by the second lap. They were all walking by then. Every pass pumped me up a little more.

During marathons there are always people you keep seeing over and over again. They pass you, you pass them back, you push each other along like that. Funny thing is you never see their face, you just recognise them from the back of their shirt, their shoes, their bum, their calf muscles. I had 2 rivals, one old Japanese guy, one girl with nicely tanned perfectly shaped shoulders.

The Japanese guy I held with for about 10km, but he was a damn superhuman. He stopped to drink at aid stations, but then always came back and powered past me. At one point he stopped to talk to his wife, and I thought yes, I got him. Nah, he rocketed by me later and I never saw him again.

By the time I started the 3rd lap the sun had gone down. It was crazy to think I’d started swimming just as the sun came up that morning, now we were heading to midnight and I was still running. But I felt strong. Of course feet hurt, knees hurt, a few blisters, running downhill was a special kind of pain, but I just told myself, “Relax, this is what you trained for” and my mind was at peace.

In previous races, I’d used the darkness to push me through. I thought about all the worst nights, the suicidal thoughts, the times I thought I’d never survive TSW. I used that rage to unleash warrior mode and push me through any pain. But this time it never happened. Once again, the anger was gone. There was no need to unleash beast mode this time. I knew if I just relaxed and held this pace, I’d make the finish line.

Before the race I’d hoped to run under 5 hours, and I ended up running bang on 5. It was the easiest marathon I’ve run.

During the final 7km stretch into town, the nice shoulders girl passed me again. I put the gas on, tailed her for a while then passed her a few kms later.

Then after the final aid station she ran by me again and I could see she was really giving her last legs to the road. I thought, sorry but I need to win this one. I lifted my legs and boosted past her to leave no doubt I wouldn’t be seeing her again.

I held that pace all the way into town. The crowd in Taupo was spectacular, all I could hear was “Go Brendan! Running strong Brendan! You’re going to be an Ironman! All the way home Brendan! Don’t stop! Congratulations!”

Then as I finally reached the turnaround point for the last time, the crowd saw the three coloured bands on my wrist and waved me into the finishers chute.

All finish lines are special, but this one is different.

It’s only when you hit the lights of the red carpet, the finish line crowd, the CHEERS, the commentators calling your name, that you realise what you’ve been a part of. All the demons you’ve vanquished to get here, all the runs you whimpered through during flares in the winter, all the times your spirit broke and you had to get back up and keep on going. Now you’re here, at an Ironman finish line. I’d been rock solid all day but I broke almost immediately, tears suddenly streamed down my face. We prepare like warriors for the race, but nothing could prepare you for that.

“BRENDAN LEE, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!”

14 hours 13 minutes. 7th March 2020.

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