Another go at the World Record Ironman Barcelona

It was a throw away comment I made to Mike Myers, a BTF coach, after the 2017 National Paratriathlon championships (which incidentally I won), “I’d have another pop at the World Record if I could find a guide willing to help me.” To which he replied, “I think I know someone who could help you.” That evening in August 2017 Mike introduced me to Marc Laithwaite through Messenger. Marc, a multiple Ironman and triathlon age group competitor and coach rang me the following evening and we talked each other in to giving the world record another go. I had already unofficially broken it earlier in 2017 in Nottingham completing the Ironman distance in 10 hours 49 minutes. However, Marc raised the stakes further telling me that he thought I could go under 10 hours. I was dubious initially, but he is a very persuasive kind of guy. I thought, well, he knows his stuff and if he believes in me then why shouldn’t I believe in myself.

Training started in earnest in November. I had just started a new and very demanding job and I quickly realised that this was going to be a tough ride. What had I gotten myself in to? That combined with injuries I had sustained in September and other deeper seated personal issues I was dealing with at the time made this a very challenging journey. But, |I don’t do things by halves and I had made a commitment. No one was forcing me to do this after all. I had a choice. I could back out at any time if I wanted. But, I knew I wouldn’t do that unless it was absolutely necessary.

So, the road to Barcelona had started. The relentless trudge of 3 bikes, 3 runs and 3 swims a week needed to be hammered out. Over the coming months I stuck to the coaches plans, saw physios where needed and toughed it out in the gym. The main challenge I had was to improve my swimming and increase my wattage on the bike. My swimming has always been my weakest link, so I employed a swim coach, Ashleigh. Ashleigh worked on my technique and we were making excellent progress. Unfortunately she had an awful accident breaking her leg and this meant a break in my swim coaching for a few months. However, Marc visited me in May 2018 and brought down Nick who is one of Marc’s coaches. Nick looked at my stroke and completely changed the way that I swam. It was a real breakthrough for me revolutionising my stroke. Both had come down from Wigan where they are based which also gave us the opportunity to look at my position on the back of the tandem. Nick also happened to be a bike fitter and raised my saddle by around 2 cm. This has increased my power output marginally.

The other big help was having a friend work with me on the watt bike. The problem with the gym equipment where I go is that none of it is accessible in respect of the screens on the Watt bikes or treadmills. This makes it difficult for me to know how fast I am going or knowing my leg turn over or power output. Things others take for granted. Another chance discussion with a fellow athlete in the swimming pool resulted in someone, Lee Gharaty, volunteering to help me with my Watt bike sessions. We agreed to meet on a weekly basis where he was able to follow my sessions and inform me of what I was pushing. And, boy did he make me work hard!

Barcelona seemed so far away 6 months ago. We often lose sight of the goal when a major competition seems a distant reality. However, for me it couldn’t come too soon. I was getting very tired of the training, week in week out combined with all the other day to day challenges I had to juggle. But, the best things don’t come to those who are not prepared to work hard and rise to the challenge. And, even though I constantly told those around me that this was going to be my last Ironman and I was sick and tired of the relentless training, I knew deep down, that the training was a means to an end. I was also fully aware that once I got to Barcelona and completed the race, how I feel afterwards was a wholly different matter. Those of you who have finished an Ironman know exactly what I am talking about. There is a strange kind of addiction to doing an Ironman and the training associated with it.

So, I had talked to a number of friends who had agreed to support me in Barcelona with the logistics and practical help prior to and during the competition. Everything was coming together really well in the run up to the race. All my anxieties were slowly dissipating. And, finally race day arrived.

The night before the race I had a reasonably substantial meal from a restaurant that we had been frequenting for the past few nights. I hadn’t experienced any GI issues up until the evening before the race. I had to go to the loo about 4 times in the night with a slight tummy upset. This wasn’t good. I’m used to sleepless nights before a major race but this was a little more worrying. In the morning I had my breakfast at 5.30 am. A couple of hard boiled eggs and toast with tea. I took some anti cramp tablets as a precaution and Marc took the tandem down to transition. I walked down with Martin Westall and Mike Reynolds my friends and support crew.

 

Rain had been forecast for the morning, however, it was only spitting slightly. By the time we got to transition it was getting slightly heavier. We had the normal fun and games getting the tandem in to a suitable spot in transition. As we had a low race number (114) we had been given a racking position for the tandem near the elite competitors. However as in 2016 the race official dealing with us insisted we rack the tandem on the rack as any other bike. However, due to its length this would have meant blocking the already narrow thoroughfare towards bike exit for all the professional athletes. After a bit of negotiation and explanation the Race Director intervened and put the tandem length wise against one of the fences near the changing tent. Perfect as it was literally a few meters from where we changed in to our cycling kit and not too far from bike exit.

It was getting near 7.20 and time to get in to our wet suits. I put mine on and Martin, Mike and I walked over to meet Jorge the Race Director to check the blacked out goggles and glasses. Martin videoed all of this for the benefit of evidence for the Guinness Book of Records. I then put on my swim tether which had a quick release mechanism to hold it in place around my waste. As I tried to push the plastic clasp in to the buckle it came loose from the waist band and dropped to the ground. I had a moment of panic. However, Mike took the plastic attachment from my hand and looped the material through a few times so that it wouldn’t work loose. It was a good job that this had happened prior to swim start as it would have caused Marc and I huge problems during the swim which was looking increasingly like it might be more than a little challenging. The good news was that my tummy seemed to have settled considerably.

With 3800 other competitors it was brilliant that we had managed to negotiate a swim start just behind the female elites. The announcer Paul Kaye introduced all the professional male competitors. For some reason after the announcements there was a bit of hesitation before they went in. I don’t know whether this was due to the huge waves in front of them. I like to think that these guys are fearless! The females went off a few minutes later at 8.12 and we went in immediately behind them. As we went in Marc said to me, “huge wave…now!” A massive wave hit us and knocked us back. I got up and said, “Come on, let’s go.” Now, considering that I was incredibly anxious about the swim and the prospect of choppy water, I couldn’t quite believe how relaxed I was. Days of preparation and going in to choppy but less challenging sea conditions days prior to the race had paid off. Combined with the hypnosis another friend, Dan Leak, had been working with me on, a month before I got to Barcelona was working. Others may have dismissed such approaches but I have a very open mind to anything which is going to improve my performance.

I had really no idea how bad the waves were going to be. When we were waiting to start I got chatting to another Race Hub Club member, Andrew who told me that the sea was looking very choppy. He seemed really nervous. I turned to Martin who assured me that it wasn’t any worse than previous days. I believed him. However, later I was to learn that a number of competitors didn’t even start the swim because of the huge swell and others were actually sick during the swim. I on the other hand felt that the sea was pretty turbulent when we first got in but thought this would settle once we got further out. However, it wasn’t much better 10 minutes in to the swim as both Marc and I were thrown about. Marc later described the swim as “Push and Jerk” as he was being pushed back in to me (swimming behind him) and then he would feel a jerk of the tether as we were thrown forward by the waves. I got kicked in the face by Marc on numerous occasions which left me with a black eye on my right hand side of my face!

Other than that I felt relaxed throughout the swim. Yes my hand got caught in the tether as we were being tossed around by the sea. My goggles got caught also and the sea water got in and stung my eyes. Once water got in to my mouth and there were instances when I had to do several strokes before I could breathe. I took it all in my stride and actually enjoyed the challenge. I no longer have a fear of swimming in very choppy conditions thanks to Martin, Marc and Dan.

Two thirds in to the 3.8 k swim and I could feel the faster age group triathletes catch us. I felt them around me, overtaking. I felt one particular competitor pass me and felt their arms turning much quicker than mine. A note for the future. At this point I wanted the swim to be over, not because it was difficult but because I kind of get bored. There is no communication with my guide other than through the tether and no other stimulus like spectators urging you on. Soon, I heard the booming sound of the PA and felt the grainy sand as it touched my hands. I felt Marc pull me up and then one of the race marshals help me out. In fact the Spanish race official was brilliant. He was on my right side supporting me while Marc was on my left. The official handed me some water and helped me all the way in to the changing tent. where, I was met by Mike who sat me down. He pulled off my wet suit, poured water on my feet and started to dry them. I noticed that the official who helped me out of the water was helping me with my left foot! I was passed my sock which |I put on. The official put on my left cycle shoe. None of this was planned and I was really surprised at the amount of help he was giving me. I went to put on my right sock and noticed it was already on. How did that happen? Anyway, I was ready pretty quickly. I heard Marc asking everyone what swim time they had done as his GPS watch had stopped working during the swim. He was convinced we did 1.25 but it turns out that the swim was 1.16.52. Not bad all things considered. I was ready with cycle kit on before Marc. Once Marc was sorted we ran out to the bike and ran with it to the “mount line” where you are allowed to get on your bike.

We got there in one piece and mounted the bike for the first 3 tentative kilometres out of Callela. The bike course was longer than the one I did in 2016. 182 kilometres to be precise according to a fellow Ironman finisher who informed me after the race. The course is meant to be a fast one and, probably is, if you are not riding a tandem. With the combined weight of two and the long drags it was very challenging. Marc set an ambitious target for us to achieve of 5 hours. There was a no stop strategy with all my nutrition in two bottles and the need to ensure that Marc grabbed water bottles at the aid stations. The plan was that Marc grabbed a bottle as we entered the aid station and passed it back to me with his right hand, and then grabbed another bottle at the end of the aid station. At one aid station around halfway point I put my hand forward for a water bottle. A water bottle was placed very firmly in to the palm of my hand. I instantly held on to it. Marc started shouting at me to take the water bottle from his hand. I was really confused. Had he not just passed me a water bottle? I shouted back at Marc saying,

“I’ve got a bottle buddy, wasn’t that you who passed it to me?”

What had actually happened was that it was a race marshal who had placed the bottle in to my hand. I assume that he knew I couldn’t see. I am sure that this is the first time I have ever managed to grab a water bottle at speed on the back of the tandem. Marc and I both laughed out loud once we realised what had just happened.

The 112 miles is always a real test of mental as well as physical endurance. I felt fine for the first 1.5 hours after which my undercarriage started to hurt. I had made a decision not to wear cycling shorts over my trisuit. However, at the end of the bike leg it looked as though we were going to hit the 5 hour mark. The strategy had been to work at 80% up the drags and climbs and then to soft peddle the flats. However, I knew this was a risk for me. I know that if I work extra hard on the bike there is always a chance that this will compromise my run. But, I trusted in Marc and all the training I had done. I didn’t want to let him down so went with the plan.

Once we got in to transition Marc told me that we did around 5 hours 3 minutes. Not bad all things considered and we were still on for a sub 10, just. However, I badly needed the toilet as I felt my guts were beginning to cause me problems. My actual transition time was quick again compared to 2016 but the loo break added a couple of minutes at least. Better out than in I guess. Well, certainly out in the confines of the porterloo!

Once on the run I actually didn’t feel too bad. As we reached the end of the first lap around 8.8 miles I began to feel excited. Our average pace was 8.03 minutes per mile. That would bag me a 3.30 marathon. More than what I am capable of. I turned to Marc and said the fatal words,

“I feel great compared to 2 years ago. With any luck I can keep this going.”

Could this really happen? Was I really going to crack 10 hours? Only time would tell.

As we got to around 13.1 miles I wasn’t feeling too good. Our pace had dropped to 8.20 and I felt my energy levels dropping. I also felt thirsty. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Marc did his best to try and keep the pace going but I progressively felt worse. I was overheating and I felt dizzy. I could hear Marc talking to me but everything was getting fuzzy. The sounds around me were muffled as I started to do the Ironman shuffle. As we were ending the 2nd lap I told Marc I needed to throw up in the porterloo. He helped me in and as I stood over the bowl I couldn’t make myself sick. I simply didn’t have the energy. Marc banged on the door asking if I was OK. I opened the door and almost fell out. He caught me and took me to a bench where I sat completely drained. Marc called over a marshal and asked him to fetch a medic. In the meantime Marc wrapped a foil blanket around, me as I began to shiver. He then said,

“Haseeb you have two options. To see the medic who will almost certainly pull you out of the race or, you can finish this and we can walk the rest.”

I kind of mumbled that I wanted to finish. We got up and carried on walking. The marshal wasn’t too pleased. However, I didn’t want to quit. I was slowly beginning to recover. Marc shouted over to our friends and family to ask for a top for me to wear. Mike kindly lent me his fleece top and Marc and I began to power walk our way to the end. Mary noticed that when she first saw me walking immediately after my melt down I looked very blue and she was very concerned.  Although I recovered after about 10 minutes of walking, I knew that if I started running again there was a chance I might not finish, so we took no risks.

The finish was amazing. Although I didn’t break my world record, it certainly felt like I did. Everyone wanted to shake my hand as I came down the finishing shoot. I got a massive cheer from the spectators. It was immense and so beautiful.

I had almost forgotten that it had been persistently raining for the last hour or so, but that hadn’t dampened our spirits. Marc and I were so happy to get to the end. I have no idea why I lost it on the run. It could have been the dicky tummy the night before or simply that I overcooked it on the bike. What I do know is that I will certainly be stronger and wiser for this experience.

The journey to get to Barcelona during 2017/18 has been more than challenging at times. Has it been worth it considering I didn’t break the world record or go under 10 hours? On reflection I would not hesitate to say that it was absolutely worthwhile. I have made many friends along the way including Marc who, as I have got to know him, is a remarkable human being. His faith in me has never wavered and even when the tough got going he was extremely empathetic. Post race we had a few chats and he really put things in to perspective for me. Doing an Ironman is not just about chasing world records or times. It is about the journey in getting there. Once you are there it is about enjoying the experience. In the end my time was 11 hours 40 minutes. When I finished the run there were still people starting the first lap of the run. My hat goes off to everyone who took part and finished. The conditions were not easy. And, we live to fight another day.

Will I do another Ironman? Hell yea!! But, I will take a break from it in 2019. Marc and I have already talked about plans for 2020. A long way off I know and a lot could happen between now and then. And, the big question of going to Kona. After reading all the posts and blogs about the world championships, I reckon I should give it a go even if I have to swallow my pride and enter through the ballot. But we are talking 2021 if that happens.

Do I believe I can go under 10 hours? Yes, I have no doubts now that I can do it if everything falls in to place. However, I still consider myself to be an Ironman novice. I still have a great deal to learn. As long as I can get guides who are willing to work with me and put the time in I am still willing to keep going.

I am pleased to say that Marc was raising funds for Jacob Willet a little boy of 2 years old with cancer of the brain. His initial target was £700 but has managed to raise over £2200. Quite an achievement. I would love to do a couple of Ironman races in the UK in 2020 and raise money for breast cancer. I have very close family and friends who have been affected by this terrible disease and I would like to do my bit.

I would really like to thank the following people for all their support in and around my world record attempt. Thank you all, you have been absolute super stars:

Marc Laithwaite

Martin Westall

Mike Reynolds

Mary O’Brian

Joanna Westall

Abby Reynolds

Rupert Simms

Sarah Simms

Ashleigh Alquith

Mike Myers

Dan Leak

Chris Sherwood (for the training runs)

I also want to thank Everyone Active for their support over the past couple of years.

And lastly but not least of all thanks to the Barcelona Ironman Team for all their support and help. Especially Silvia and Jorge for making this the most enjoyable and special Ironman experience for me and my support crew.

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