When I registered for IMUK 2016 I was full of optimism. I would have 12 months to train 'properly' this time for my 3rd Ironman race. I could rectify all the mistakes I had made on the previous 2 and finally achieve a finishing time I thought I was truly capable of.
In reality, the total opposite took place. I have been dogged by various injuries over the last couple of years, but was still feeling positive that, given 12 months, I could rest and recover properly and still follow a reasonable training plan to get to the start in great shape.
Unfortunately, 12 months disappear very quickly. The swimming and biking were going well, but as for the running, I was battling further calf problems and also a cartilage injury in my left knee in march had hindered me even more. It was looking like I may not make it to the start line afterall but I continued putting the effort in on the bike and swim just in case.
Come race week, I decided, despite very little running in my legs, I could start the race, just enjoy the swim and the bike sections and then endure the run (probable walk if the injuries kicked in) and at least finish the race. Gone were any ideas of a pb time now.
At T minus 3 days, after eating some dodgy fish, I was taken ill with food poisoning. Just as I should have been consuming carbs by the tonne, I found myself throwing up and superglued to the toilet. I tried to nurse my body through the next couple of days, but having no appetite at all and finding it difficult to take in any nutrition, I just felt very weak. At this point, I didn't think it was wise to start but, having put so much effort into the training, the thought of not starting was also too much to take. After much debating, I decided to start the race, afterall, 'I could pull out at any time, couldn't I?'.
Race day morning came quickly and after forcing down 3 weetabix, which was about the only thing that appealed to my delicate stomach, the ever supportive Joan Cooke and I, walked down the flash start area.
I was full of apprehension, but the T1 area was bustling with activity and the atmosphere was electric and very exciting. It was great to see many of my fellow A+T racemates, preparing themselves and raring to go, despite the mudbath which was T1. After much handshaking and hugging with family, friends and athletes, we all began the long procession into the duckpond. I started my watch, went over the pinging timing mat and then, splash!, I was in and off.
Lap 1 was just about acclimatising, fighting for space and getting into my usual swim routine. all ok.
Lap 2 and things began to change. After being in the water for an hour, I began to feel very cold, sluggish and sickly ( more than I normally do). My stomach began to churn and I threw up, feeling like I was about to drown in the process. My only thought was to get to the nearest canoe. The canoeist shouted over to see if I was ok but, by this time, I had regained a little composure and thought to myself ' I am not ending my race by being dragged out of this flash'. I would finish the swim and call it a day in T1.
Exiting the water, after my very average swim, was a major relief but I felt a strange satisfaction. Stage 1 was done and my favourite part was about to begin, so I began getting ready for the bike leg. I was feeling very cold from the water and it took me an age to get out of the tent and get to my bike. Everyone was still cheering and with a quick kiss from Joan I was off on the bike.
It was time to try and pull back some of the others. I passed a lot athletes along the way to Babylon lane and the start of the2 big bike loops. Then it was up to Rivington. Towards the top, on the steepest part of Sheephouse lane, my chain snapped and I ground to an abrupt halt. Was something trying to tell me to just give it up, I wondered?
After an impatient 45 minute delay, along side a marshal, a mechanic who couldn't fix it and tools borrowed from another athlete, I finally managed to repair my bike, but the howling wind had frozen me to the core, with only a thin tri top and shorts on, and it took me a while to warm up again.
From then on, I couldn't seem to ride at my normal speed. My body felt weak and the effort seemed to be taking its toll on me. I was stopping at almost every feed station just to use the loos (and not for a wee) and knew my body wasn't right. With all the sugary carb drink topping up my body, it rebelled, and I threw up again whilst going, painfully slowly, up one of the smaller hills. I decide, at this point, that I would have ride more slowly just to get myself round to T2 in one piece.
I was approaching Hunter's hill, about 60 miles into the ride, and pulled off the road to have a toilet stop, At that moment a WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH came whizzing past me in the form of the leading lady Lucy Gossage. Moving slowly up Hunter's and feeling a little better, I soaked up the carnival atmosphere with people cheering everyone up this very steep mile of tarmac. Halfway up, one guy shouted 'Come on, your only 1 minute behind Lucy Gossage mate'. My amused reply was, 'Yes, 1 minute plus a 46 mile lap'. (Haha)
The Tour de France style Babylon lane was now on top form with every rider being cheered and willed on by a wall of people and sound. It's an amazing spectacle to experience.
About 80 miles in and yet another wait in line for a portaloo, I began to hear talk of the 10hr 30min cut off time for the bike section and 'Do we have enough time to make it', by many of the athletes around me. I had never been in this position before and was quickly trying to calculate if I was going to miss the cut off and get eliminated from the race. I realised I would be fine but it hit home about how much pressure a lot of the slower riders are under, even if they are fantastic runners.
In the closing miles of the bike leg, I had started to feel rough again. I decided I would call it a day at T2. It would be tough to run the 26.2 miles the way I was feeling.
T2 came into view, along with a smiling Emma Higgins, cheering me on. I racked my bike and proceeded straight to the portaloo again. 'Enough is enough', I thought, but I was also thinking, 'If I quit now, how will I feel in the morning........Start the run and try, because, you can stop any time you want'. I got ready in the tent and psyched myself up for the toughest run of my life.
The run was as hot as hell to start with but I carried a water bottle with me to try and stay cool. It was a case of run for a mile, walk and have a quick drink, start running again and repeat lots of times.
After a few miles, I was approaching a little girl and her family. She was holding a 'Touch here for power' sign, but was quickly becoming despondent with the lack of interest in it from weary athletes. when I got close enough, I tapped the sign and started to run straight away and shouted to her 'Look, it works, it works'. Her little face lit up with a big smile and it spurred me on for the next section.
Along the canal and up the very steep section on Overdale drive led me onto Chorley New rd and the start of the looped section in and out of town. It was a major relief to reach this point, a bit of a milestone on the run. The masses of cheering people really encourage you all the way round this 6 mile loop but I knew my special supporters, Joan, my family, A+T and friends would be out in force to cheer me on.
A+T did not disappoint. Approaching the town, more and more familiar faces came into view. After various hugs and words of encouragement, I was inspired to keep going. Love of my life, Joan, ran a little way into town with me. Then I saw some of my family and friends close to the finish line cheering me on. It was soul destroying to run past the red carpet finish but I still had to cover 3 more laps and about 17 miles before I could enjoy that final finish line.
Each lap became a blur and with the run/walk continuing. The miles being ticked off one by one. I remember seeing many of my A+T racemates running on the opposite side of the road, inching their way round, ever closer to that elusive red carpet and glory. I tried to shout encouragement to them when I could, despite being ridiculously envious of their extra armbands.
Eventually, the best looking red band arrived around my arm, indicating I was on my final lap. The band marshals erupted with a cheer and sent me off for the last 4 miles to that elusive red carpet. It was all but done and I knew I would make it now. I was feeling a little better and managed to pick up the pace a little.
The final mile to the finish was fantastic. It was great to see all the usual faces and to thank them all one last time and then with goosebumps made my way round to the finish. This time, I was allowed onto the red carpet, with high fives from my family and cheering ringing in my ears, along the narrow channel, to cross that magical finish line to 'Anthony Hart, you are an Ironman...'. I certainly hadn't felt like one through the day, but at that moment, I felt invincible. Ironman number 3 completed, JUST!
On reflection, things didn't go way I expected. This was, by far, my slowest time for IMUK, but, maybe, it was my biggest achievement. It should have been a tough but enjoyable day but became a real test of physical and mental endurance. Despite all the odds, I had made it through to the finish line. Very often, the things we work hardest for become the things we most appreciate. I am proud of myself for sticking at it, when it would have been all too easy to quit.
Sometimes things don't go the way we plan. Often, things go wrong but we can always turn something negative into something positive. To all would-be Ironmen, don't let my experience put you off. I was ill. Ironman is an amazing event and a fantastic experience. Make sure you are physically fit, but even more so, make sure you are mentally strong. Never give up. Anything is possible. Good luck for next year.
One final thing to say is a massive thankyou to all the A+T team. Our athletes did the club proud, but the A+T support was outstanding and it's a pleasure to be part of such a great club.