Or: The day I didn’t become an Ironman.

A month on from Ironman UK, I’ve finally got around to finishing writing up my thoughts on the day, and the two years leading up to it, It’s not pretty, it’s not QA’d and it was written over the course of a month but hopefully it’s interesting and no sentences stop half way through..

Firstly, some context and preamble: I signed up for Ironman UK on the 16th July 2020, more than two years ago, on a whim. I’d seen my fitness steadily decrease since getting married and started piling the pounds on. “Getting Chubby” as my parents generously told me. Also given the Covid situation of the time, I wanted a clear goal in sight to help maintain a Modicum of sanity.

A close friend got me in to cycling, but I couldn’t swim a length of the Cheltenham lido and my previous experience of running as an adult was a parkrun in 2012 that I predictably agreed to after a couple of beers. Suffice to say I try not to do things by halves, how hard could it be!

I did a lot of research about training but set off predominantly working on my running eventually finding out that my previous experiences with shin splints were down to a condition called ‘being an idiot’, in this case having totally incompatible shoes for my gait and substantially increasing intensity and volume. Once I learnt this lesson, I worked my way up over the course of six months or so to being comfortably able to run a half marathon.

I completed my first > 100 mile ride and so obviously went and bought a TT bike. I was feeling in a decent place for both running and cycling in early 2021, but the swim was a problem. The pools had been shut with the exception of a brief stint in which time in fairness I doubled the distance I could swim without stopping to about 50m, albeit with an ‘interesting’ technique.

April 2021 came around and I was well and truly burnt out. The self impact of Covid isolation had taken its toll and I was lonely and lacking in social interaction outside of immediate family and the dog. I was burnt out and bored with training, and the lack of human interaction immediately pointed to joining a local Triathlon Club. At the time, clubs were just starting to return to some level of normality, but Cheltenham Triathlon Club (My most local) didn’t seem to be taking new members. Looking at the Ironman UK Start list, the next closest club: Tri Team Glos had four members on the hook for the race, so I decided to take a punt and signed up there and then on a Friday afternoon. I joined my first group ride on the Saturday and my first Coached swim on the Sunday. I immediately felt at home between Rob introducing me to the unwritten rules of riding in a group, to Gordon introducing himself as “The Gobby one” (entirely accurate), and Eugenio the “Bird killer” (he’d run over a bird on the Sunday morning Ride).

Unfortunately, despite fitting in well, my first swim was a bit of a disaster with Mark (swim coach) suggesting that it was entirely mental to be attempting an Ironman six weeks or so later.. A couple more coached sessions and I decided I probably agreed and deferred both the 70.3 and 140.6 races that I had scheduled, instead opting for some smaller local races for the summer.

The summer went ok, with my first race being at Berkeley with a pool swim in an 18m pool, a bit sloshy and very slow, I made up a massive number of places on the bike and was hooked pretty much immediately.

Training progress over the next few months was good, I was feeling stronger by the week; swimming was progressing nicely to a sustainable 2mins/100m in the pool. I also put some work into my running, completing an 33mile ultramarathon in December 2021.

For a number of reasons, the start to 2022 didn’t go brilliantly. I struggled to maintain motivation in the early part of the year after the Christmas break, not helped by a number of grotty weekend rides in the cold and rain where power numbers just weren’t even close to where they should have been. In March 2022, my wife and I were finally struck down with Covid-19 after 18months or so avoiding it. We were both hit pretty badly with me barely being able to walk up stairs. It took well over a month to resume any level of training, bringing me firmly into May having lost the better part of two months fitness. For a number of reasons, training never really got back on track, despite a couple of attempts to “build”, I very much only managed to maintain my pre-covid fitness, and made the decision to not attend the 70.3 in Staffordshire, but agreed with my wife that the “A Race” of Ironman UK in early July was too much money to “waste” and that I’d go and see if I could get round.

After a refreshingly long “taper”/sitting on the sofa eating crisps among other things, the day before the race, my Dad (who had kindly “volunteered” to help with the logistics and driving) and I headed up to Bolton. Registration and Racking was fairly uneventful, and I must confess that my overriding feeling was that I just wanted to go and catch up on some sleep.

We dropped the run bag off at T2, and decided to walk a bit of the run course around the park, my feelings quickly switched from tired to a bit concerned, the run course was pretty undulating and quite slippy underfoot. Made a mental note of a couple of places to be careful and headed over to Pennington Flash and T1 to dump the bike and bike bag.

Pennington Flash, to put it lightly is a bit of a grim lake, clearly frequented by the entire Goose population of the North West. It was also pretty windy out and the lake was looking pretty choppy. Whilst my swimming had improved massively over the preceding 12 months, it was for certain the most worrying bit of the race for me. I was pretty sure that I could finish the swim within the cut off times as long as I took it easy, didn’t get caught up in the moment and didn’t drown. Race my own race, and not worry about anyone else was the aim of the game.

After dumping bike etc, we headed over to the hotel, had a very short, very gentle swim, a bit of grub and headed to bed. Before bed, for some reason I decided to do a final kit check of the Swim bits for the morning. Wetsuit: Check, Goggles: Check, Nose Clip: Bugger. Somehow, between the hotel pool and the room I’d managed to misplace them. One of the many weaknesses that I possess swimming is needing a nose clip regardless of the conditions so not having one for the race was going to be a bit of a pickle.

After much messing about, we managed to get the Hotel staff to let us back into the leisure complex which had long since closed. Bingo, they sell nose clips, problem solved. Relax.

A few hours sleep later, it was time to get up. One of the key things that I’d learnt from the collective wisdom of the club was to make sure I had breakfast so some tepid overnight porridge oats a cookie and a coffee later I was good to go.

Over at the lake, it was looking pretty overcast and dull, but not wet and not cold. The water temperature was a positively toasty 19 degrees (warmer than the ambient 16) which was a bonus. I did a final check of the bike, wetsuited up and jumped in the self seeded queue next to a chap who, to quote: “Was too stingy to buy a wetsuit” so was going in without. I self seeded at around the two hour mark for the swim, which was about my expectation assuming I didn’t drown. The “queue” took some time to get moving but before I knew it I was falling elegantly into the water and getting started. About 1000m into the 3800m swim, the swimmers who had self seeded at the one hour mark started to overtake and surprisingly I found myself getting pretty sea-sick. Wondering what the etiquette was for vomiting in a lake I decided to go slightly off course and give myself a little bit more room, although ultimately adding to the distance I had to swim it seemed like a sensible approach.

The aim for the swim was always to swim at a sustainable “all day” pace, I planned to get to the end of the swim feeling like I could carry on rather than totally ruined. I reached the halfway point of the first of the two laps feeling pretty good, no idea what the time was but felt ok, then got punched in the face by another swimmer, knocking my goggles off and what I assumed at the time to be breaking my nose. After a mild panic and a bit of goggle adjustment I was able to carry on. Casually minding my own business a kayak pulled up alongside me and shouted you’ve got to get out and get back in. Oh, I’d reached the end of lap one without realising and due to the goggle issues had totally missed the jetty. Oh well, minor diversion aside I stumbled my way out of the water (yes this is possible) and looked at my watch, 45minutes. Oh, ok. That’s unexpected, guess I’d better get back in.

The second lap was much less eventful, the faster swimmers were well clear and there was plenty of space, I was able to hit the proverbial apexes on the buoys and I suspect cut off a decent chunk of distance vs the first lap, exiting the swim in a very respectable (for me at least) 1 hour, 29 minutes and 17 seconds. Somewhat surprised, I managed to have a little grin on the run into T1 where, I got my wetsuit off, had a gel and somewhat sub optimally I had a natter with an ex TTG member who’d spotted the superbly stylish bright orange Tri suit. After trying to convince him to join up again and checking my watch I decided I’d better crack on with the Bike. A nice, speedy 14 minute transition…

Jumping on the bike, I felt great. The power was coming easily, I had a massive grin and I was loving it. The road surfaces into Bolton were pretty good for the most part and I was holding a decent speed well within my abilities. Coming into Bolton itself down the Chorley New Road, I messed up. I was taking a gel in and a speed bump jumped out of no where. I lost control of the bike totally and before I knew it, I was on by back on the floor in the middle of the road with the wind knocked out of me and a really sore shoulder.

I picked myself up, gave the Marshalls a bit of a talking to for not telling me there was a speed bump there, checked over the bike and myself for any major damage. Shoulder was sore and I was bleeding a bit but I could move my arm so after a couple of minutes to let the adrenaline die down a bit, I got on my way. Pulling into the first feed station I spotted the first aid man and figured it was sensible to see if I could procure some pain killers. Putting weight on the shoulder was somewhere between very sore and pretty painful. As it turns out, they can’t give out painkillers but he did kindly offer to clean me up. We noticed a number of other ailments, most notably (at this stage at least) a bit of road rash all down my back and all up my side, as well as some heavy bleeding from my hip. 45 or so minutes later, I was sent on my way and was definitely not given some double strength ibuprofen by a volunteer.

The bike course in Bolton was tough and the road surfaces were diabolical but I think it would have been infinitely more manageable in any other circumstances. As it was, I had a number of pretty major challenges. Firstly, my shoulder meant that holding an aero position on the extensions was pretty tough, combined with a distinct lack of confidence following a pretty major crash, I spent about 90 miles largely on the base bar in a position about as aerodynamic as a brick wall. The second, less obvious issue was that all of my nutrition was in a pocket that was next to impossible to get into as I couldn’t hold the bars safely with just my right arm, and couldn’t use that arm to extract any gels. I completed the first loop, in a reasonably respectable time given the circumstances. The second loop I hit a wall, my arm was getting more and more sore, I’d messed up my nutrition, I’d messed up my hydration, and by the time I hit the second feed station I was done and ready to throw the towel in. I took five mins, grabbed some food, grabbed some liquid and considered my options.

In the end I decided to carry on, I still had plenty of time before the bike cut-off and had a sudden burst of enthusiasm. I wasn’t going to let this beat me. Pulling into Bolton at the end of the second loop, passing a pub I got a glimpse of some friends that had come out to cheer me on (or get a pint), it’s impossible to put into words just how much this meant, and how much I needed to see a friendly face. Emotionally I was absolutely ruined, and this gave me an extra burst of commitment to see it through. I’m pretty sure that I shed a tear on the approach to the city centre. I saw my Dad at the first feed point, stopped to tell him what had happened and get fuelled and hydrated again (as per challenge two above, I was really struggling to fuel for logistical reasons). We had a chat, and decided that I’d carry on, complete the bike and see how I was at the run. I grimaced a bit and carried on but another issue was looming…

At Bolton, (and possibly other events) for safety reasons you have to be clear of the second feed station on the last lap by 1600 or you will be pulled off the course. By this point, I was running tight, having had a 45 minute or so patching up and having stopped for about another 5mins. At this stage I really was racing down the clock, the weather had taken a turn for the worse with strong winds, rain, and I’m reasonably sure there was a bit of hail.

Sure enough 156km into the 180km bike leg, I missed the safety cut off by about five minutes. Those five minutes were, I suspect, among the longest five minutes of my life, knowing that I’d missed it, but not sure how far was left to the feed station. I pulled in and was told my race was over. At this stage, I didn’t know how to feel. I think there was an element of relief, having realised that my shoulder was in a real state, barely being able to move it and in a significant amount of pain, there was no way I was going to have been able to run.

The feed station was an emporium of emotions, there were people laughing, people crying, people not really sure how to feel, and the volunteers, trying desperately to console, empathise and cheer up the athletes that had been pulled off. The level of support that everyone was providing to one and other, and that provided by the volunteers was exceptional in what was a pretty awful situation. I borrowed a phone and rang Dad to let him know that I wasn’t going to be making it back in for the run and that I’d meet him at the transition area. I felt like a disappointment and a let down, after all the support he’d provided over the past 48 hours, I couldn’t even ride a bike the 180km.

The level of support from the locals at Bolton was incredible, every single part of the course was full of cheering crowds, random sumo wrestlers half way up a hill and people sitting outside with bottles of Prosecco. There is no way I’d have got back on the bike after the second lap if it hadn’t been for this support. It was a bitter pill to swallow, not completing the race having spent so much money, and over the course of two years (with the exception of the past couple of months), so much time training.

We drove home, and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. The next morning my arm and shoulder were in agony. I could barely move and so arranged a trip to minor injuries, an x-ray and a fairly thorough examination later, the doctor confirmed that I had a ACJ disruption as well as some pretty major burns and road rash. The ACJ is the acromioclavicular joint, which basically holds the shoulder together, so pretty important in the grand scheme of things. ACJ injuries are typically caused in contact sports such as rugby. Once the swelling went down it really did feel as if my arm was falling out of my shoulder. My only thought at this stage was, I guess I’m not racing next weekend then..

The road to “normal” hasn’t been a short one, as I’m writing this a month on I’m just starting to be able to move the arm relatively normally, and largely don’t require a sling anymore. One of the challenges with ACJ injuries is that there’s not a lot that can be done apart from wait for the body to heal itself, and then start some physio.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the day, and there’s a few observations I’ve made.

The first being to remind myself that a full distance triathlon isn’t easy. It’s a seriously tough outing, that I did after a pretty difficult couple of months, where my training was less than 25% of what it was the same time in 2021. It was an achievement in the circumstances to even make it to the start line.

Second, I had a swim that I was hugely proud of, this was overshadowed by what I felt at the time was a rubbish day on the bike but in the space of a year, I’d gone from barely being able to swim a length, to swimming 3.8km/2.4miles without stopping. I absolutely smashed my goal of two hours. 
Third, the bike felt rubbish, but when reviewing the data, it transpired that had it not been for the intermediate cut off, I would have completed the bike segment within the allotted time, had it not been for the accident; even had I cycled at the same speed I did post accident, I would have been well within the allotted time. One stupid error of judgement and 45minutes in the medical tent cost me my race, but that shouldn’t undermine the achievements of the day.

Fourth, I cycled 120km or so with a shoulder that basically was in two more pieces than it should have been. I could have given up at any point, but I chose to carry on. I chose not to let it beat me and to do everything I could to complete the bike, I took 1km at a time. The only thing of any importance was that next 1km. I adapted quickly from having a great swim, and being quietly confident of a semi reasonable overall time, to just getting round.

On the 4th July 2022, I’d have loved to have heard the words coming over the tannoy “Chris Basnett, you are an Ironman”, I’d have loved to make my family and the club proud of what I’d achieved, but it doesn’t detract from the less quantifiable achievements of the day, it doesn’t detract from the fact that signing up for the event pushed me out of my comfort zone, drastically increased my fitness, gave me a level of integration back into society that 18months ago didn’t seem possible.

I’ve met some amazing people during the journey, and it’s only just beginning. Once the healing process is finished, I’ll be back. It might not be next year, it might not even be the year after, but Bolton, I’m coming back to finish what I started. Next time I’ll be ready, and I’ll fit stabilisers.

A big thank you to everyone at Tri Team Glos for putting up with me for the last couple of years, with special mentions to Gordon S, Matt S, and Rob W, for being generally awesome and Tim, Mark and Sarah for teaching me how to do a passable impression of swimming.

Also a big thank you to my Dad for running me around on race day, to my wife Becky for putting up with me talking about triathlon and disappearing for hours at a time during the week and at weekends, and to Nicky B and Chris S for coming out to support/have a pint on the day.