I am a Blind Outlaw

Haseeb Ahmad Crossing the finishing line

Yes, I am most probably the first Blind Outlaw full Ironman distance triathlete to have completed the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and the 26.9 mile (having to do extra due to an altered, safer, run route) course on 23 July 2017.

After my wonderful experience of breaking the Ironman World Record on 2 October 2016 on my daughter’s 20th birthday I swore I wouldn’t do another Ironman. Anyone who knows me really well will appreciate my habit of saying things on the heat of the moment and then later down the line reversing my decision. Before I could even contemplate entering any more Ironman races I needed to take off 4 weeks recovering from the one I had just done and enjoy time out with family and friends. I started getting back into training during November in order to prepare for the 2017 London marathon. At the same time my mind was occupied by the thought of possibly going to Kona guided by Dunc Shea-Simonds who guided me in Barcelona the previous month. I quickly realised that the cost and process of entering a ballot didn’t feel comfortable to me so ditched the idea altogether. Entering Barcelona was too late at this stage as entries had filled up faster than the previous year and were no longer open. I wasn’t really all that bothered but did wonder “what next?”

What happened on 10th December then dictated pretty much my regime for 3 months. I was doing a steady session on the treadmill on Saturday morning. I had just completed a 70 minute run but noticed that my left foot, on the top between the 5th and 4th toe was feeling very uncomfortable with the odd sharp pain. As I slowed down the pain got sharper. I knew then that I had a stress fracture. I couldn’t walk on it properly and hobbled to the changing room for a shower. My dreams of targeting another sub-three hour marathon in 2017 were well and truly over.

While I was convalescing from my injury (which was diagnosed later as a stress fracture of the third metatarsal), I had an email from the organisers of the Outlaw full distance triathlon. It was much cheaper than the branded Ironman races and was local, so no flights to book or tandems to box up. Great I thought. So I immediately registered for the race. When I told my coach, Claire Shea-Simonds, I’m sure she thought I was crackers. Being the wonderful human being she is her reply to me went something like, “Has, we don’t have much time, less than 16 weeks for you to get your running up to speed but we may just be able to get you fit enough”. That was all I needed to hear. I had the green light from the boss and it was all systems go!

As part of my rehab I spent many hours aqua jogging (which I had done previously in 2015 when I had a similar injury in my right foot) so knew I could tolerate the hours of boredom for a few weeks until I got back on my feet. It was a slow and tedious process. However, with the help of gym staff at my Everyone Active gym and the support of friends and family I slowly increased the volume of training and built up the strength in my foot. My personal trainer Kieron Ford was instrumental in helping me to do specific non-weight bearing exercises to help the foot heal naturally whilst concentrating on my core and upper body. I think this undoubtedly helped with the conditioning I needed to improve my swim.

My target for Outlaw was to try and better my world record time and dip under 11 hours which I knew I was capable of doing. In Barcelona the sub-11 hour Ironman slipped away from me because my run fell apart. I knew that I had to go steadier on the back of the tandem than I did in Spain. I decided to use 3 guides for each part of the triathlon mainly because I knew that it would be almost impossible to get a single guide at such short notice who was available and strong enough to get me around the Outlaw course. So I approached 3 people who I knew would be interested and rise to the challenge. Unfortunately 3 weeks away from the event and one of my guides had to pull out due to unforeseen circumstances. I turned to my good friend Pete Shuttleworth who had guided me in a previous race who stepped up and saved my bacon. He agreed to do the swim section with me, Andrew Whiteley was going to be my tandem pilot and Kieron Ford my run guide. I had my dream team.

I was picked up from Nottingham train Station on Saturday 22 July 2017 by my lovely friends Andrew Whitely and Victoria Hughs. I registered and we tried to make sense of all the various bags needed to put kit and special nutritional needs in to. Unlike a half Ironman or shorter races there is a changing tent provided where you put two bags containing the athlete’s cycling kit and run kit. I also had a special needs bag where I popped in two bottles of specially mixed carbohydrate drinks. Andrew hadn’t previously raced an Ironman distance so all of this was new to him and his girlfriend Victoria (Tori). Once we were satisfied that we had everything we needed and where it should be, we made our way to the media tent to meet the guys from the television crew who wanted to interview me. While we wondered round the rain started to get heavy and soaked into Andrew’s shoes! The interview went well and we then turned our minds to getting to the hotel and then for some Italian food!

My pre-race meals these days consist of a hearty protein and carb rich cuisine plus a big glass of red wine. Geno’s restaurant in Ruddington didn’t disappoint. It was a highly enjoyable meal with great company. We headed back to the hotel and stopped off at the local Co-Op. Tori had a field day walking around the isles and shouting with delight as she saw one deal after another.

“Hey, Andrew” She would squeal. “Tuna sandwich for 30 pence…oh look 3 corner yogurts at half price!” She was like a little girl in a sweet shop. Once we got to the hotel I got to my room and familiarised myself with the layout. It’s always interesting feeling myself around the room trying to work out where everything is. Tori and Andrew helped me to pack my kit bags which was incredibly helpful. They then left the room to make their way to their own room. I realised that the light was still on in my room and felt around the walls for the light switch which I finally found. I set my alarm clock for 3.30 am and unusually for me got to sleep fairly quickly.

However, before I got to sleep I was conscious of the relentless rain which didn’t seem to be easing up. I was anxious that the following day would be a wash out as it was in 2015 when I went to support my coach Claire Shea-Simonds. I don’t cope very well in the cold nor wet so the thought of both on the bike for 5 and-a-half hours filled me with dread. Fortunately when I woke up at 3.30 am to have my breakfast, the rain had stopped and the forecast was very favourable. Just a little bit of rain was predicted for around 11 am. Good, I can live with that.

My swim guide was arriving from Derby and he had messaged me at 4.06 am to let me know he had left. I tried to get any negative thoughts out of my head about whether he would get to Nottingham on time for our 6 am swim start. Andrew, tori and I made our way to the race venue and started to get organised. Tori picked up some additional security wrist bands for my other guides including Kieron who was arriving at 12 pm ready for the run. I had to put my faith in the wonderful people around me to trust that everyone was going to be at the right place at the right time.

Tori and I made our way to the changing tent to find the peg for my kit bags. We wove our way through athletes and various obstacles and found my position. I squeezed into my wetsuit and up popped a friend, Steve Salter. “Hi Has. By the way you have put your wetsuit on inside out mate.” Oops! Tori was fabulous. She reminded me to put my race belt on and my timing chip. For some reason my head wasn’t in the right place at this time so good job Tori was there to ensure everything was in order.

It was time to find Pete. We made our way to where the tandem was racked and there was Pete being chaperoned by a race official as he didn’t have his security wrist band at this stage. With only 10 minutes to go it was time to make our way to the swim start. This was it…the excitement was beginning to mount. However, I felt remarkably calm.

We got in the water and it felt a little cool but not too bad. A few practice strokes and I felt in my element. It was just a question of not getting tied up in the tether.  I had chosen to go with a waist to waist tether so that I could swim behind Pete. The main reason was to avoid colliding with other competitors and for a smoother swim. This is especially the case when turning around buoys which can be a bit clunky when swimming side to side. As we counted down I hung back and 3, 2, 1 and we were off! I built into my swim taking it relatively easy for the first half. I asked Pete to stop halfway and let me know how we were doing. Just before we got halfway through the tether got stuck around a buoy. Pete asked me if everything was OK as I untangled myself from the ropes. It was only a couple of seconds and we were free. A moment later and Pete stopped. “We are halfway mate and we have done 37 minutes, is that OK?” I was extremely pleased but didn’t want to waste any time so told Pete to carry on. This was around 5 minutes up on the halfway point in Barcelona but I didn’t want to get carried away. The second half seemed to take longer, however, when we finally emerged from the lake Pete told me that we had knocked out a 1 hour 12 minute 3.8 km swim. I was over the moon.  I had hoped for 1 hour and 15 minutes but didn’t think I would dip under that by much. Wow!

I stripped off my wetsuit and ran into the changing tent and found my bag with the bike gear in it. I slipped on my cycling shorts, put on my hat and carried my shoes and socks to the tandem. The tandem had been racked very near the bike mount line so we didn’t have far to run. Once I was on the bike I was really struggling to get my right foot clipped in. Eventually I got it clipped in but after a few revolutions of the pedals my right shoe unclipped again. It was really frustrating but I had no choice but to carry on with my right foot unclipped for some considerable time. The other issue which was affecting me was the cold. I decided not to wear my cycling jacket and gloves as I thought I would be warm enough. However, it was abundantly clear that I was not warm. My teeth started to chatter and I was a little concerned that my core temperature might drop to the point I would not be able to cope. I didn’t say anything to Andrew my tandem pilot, as I didn’t want to worry him unduly. 2 hours into the ride and my right groin started to give me trouble. This was something I have experienced before in a race earlier in the year but that was only a half Ironman race.  Oh well, I just had to suck up the pain. At around 3 hours we stopped to get some drinks at an aid station. I had managed somehow to clip my right shoe into the pedal and was reluctant to unclip when we had stopped, so I put my left foot down and hoped that Andrew would be able to keep the tandem upright. Unfortunately we lost our balance and I ended up falling to my left on to the pavement. Luckily for me one of my friends from the club Michele Lattimore scrapped me off the floor and plonked me back on my saddle. My left hand was throbbing from the cold and the impact so it took me a few moments to compose myself. We completed the rest of the bike leg without any more mishaps in 5 hours 25 minutes. It was a relief to get off the bike and into my running kit. I admit I needed a little hand getting my socks on as my hands were so numb.

Kieron led me out on to the run course and my legs felt great. The support from all the spectators was phenomenal. We did confuse a lot of people though as I was doing 9 laps of the lake as opposed to the 3 laps everyone else was doing which included a stretch along the canal that got very narrow in some parts. This was the reason why the organisers changed the route for me. One of the volunteers ran up to us and told us that we were meant to turn right and follow the canal path and we told her we were doing a different route.

I felt incredibly sorry for Kieron as 9 laps would certainly be soul destroying for him. However, for me it made little difference as I wouldn’t have got any more stimulus from a more scenic  run route. The first 13.1 miles went really well which we completed in 1 hour 45 minutes. It helped that at this point both Kieron and I were happily chattering away and were lifted by all the fantastic support we were receiving. We had to continually check back our pace as we ended up going too fast, getting carried away with the shouts of encouragement we were getting from friends and family. Yet, I knew I felt a million times better on this run than I did out in Barcelona. The run is definitely my strongest discipline and I wanted to make the most of it today. We stopped at every aid station and drank coke. After 15 miles both of us started to feel the pain as the fatigue settled in. The pace was slower for the last 4 laps and we took it in turns to be pathetic. However, Kieron was brilliant ensuring I got the nutrition I needed to the point that he sacrificed his own nutritional needs. I normally don’t eat throughout an endurance event of this kind only taking in fluids, particularly on the run but on this occasion I was getting the munchies so I started to down Jaffa cakes. Boy they tasted good!

The last lap of the course for me wasn’t too bad. Kieron started to cramp so we ensured that we wound down the pace and ensured that I finished under 11 hours. The added pressure was that because we were doing 9 laps, each lap being 4.8 kilometres this totalled 43.2 km, an extra 1.2 km. Kieron pointed out to me that this would technically be my first ultramarathon.

We pounded the carpet of the finishing shoot and Andrew joined us in our whooping and cheering as I crossed the finishing line in a glorious 10 hours 50 minutes and 26 seconds. A personal best and unofficial world record.

I’m so grateful to all my guides for their tremendous hard work and dedication in allowing me to complete my second Ironman race in such a brilliant time in front of friends and family. Having completed the Ironman in the manner I did and not ending up in the medical tent has given me the motivation to start thinking about doing another one, quite possibly another world record attempt.

Watch this space.

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