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  • Writer's pictureDarren Last

Brutally Amazing - Ironman Barcelona

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

In my blog post in the build-up to Ironman Barcelona I quoted Freddie Mercury and his lyrics from Barcelona 'I had this perfect dream'. On Sunday 3rd October 2021 that dream did come true as I completed the 900m swim (cut from 3.8km), 180km bike and 42.2km run in a very decent time of 11 hours 13 minutes and 5 seconds.


However, it was by no means perfect, it was incredibly hard going with brutal weather conditions. It required grit. It required being able to swim in rough conditions, with rolling waves that hit you, smashed you, rolled you, ploughed you and then threw you out onto the beach. It required cycling into head winds for most of the route and then to run a marathon though the heat, wind, and rain just to top it off.


But when was this was ever going to be anything other hard work. The clue is in the name, right?


Friday, two days to race day

I was travelling with a friend, Vinnie. Originally there were five of us doing this but with the uncertainty of covid and injuries we were down to two. Just me and Vinnie. After a few days of trying to pack everything including the kitchen sink we flew out of Stansted Friday lunchtime. Arrived in Barcelona later that afternoon, then another 1 hour 45 min taxi journey through the city rush hour to get to Calella.


First thing was to put the bikes together. This was my biggest stress as I am an awful bike mechanic. But by chance, or recommendation on Facebook, I found the amazing PedalPro workshop who would take the whole bike stress away from you. If you dropped the bike bag off to them, they would put the bike together for you as well as take it down and pack it away after the race. All for 50 Euros. Complete bargain. It was perfect. The taxi stopped there en-route to the hotel, I dropped it off and was told to pick it up first thing the next morning. This was one of life's special moments. 😄

The amazing PedalPro. Cant recommend these guys enough. They remove all of the stress for building the bike or bike maintenance.


Saturday, one day to race day

I woke up early about 6am. 'Wow, it's finally here’, I was excited, apprehensive, nervous, but this is natural. I needed to relax. I think most of the apprehension was caused by the excitement just to get going and start the race. This had been two years in my head and always a bit of a dream rather than reality (what with covid shenanigans). Now it was actually happening it was becoming overwhelming. Especially early morning with just my mind for buzzing around ten to the dozen. :)


It's the big occasion, that's what was causing the nerves. When I say big, I mean the whole event. It's MASSIVE. The race itself is long in terms of distance, but I have broken that down so many times over the training I'm at ease with that. I mean in terms of training, and visualising the race. But the event itself, the size, the number of people, the athleticism of triathletes.... the sheer scale was incredible


In football terms the saying was 'play the game and not the occasion' and that is so true for this. I was at peace once again. Panic over...for now :)


Our day was spent sorting stuff out, getting everything ready and prepped. The packing, stacking and racking seemed to go on all day long. Our hotel was 5 mins from transition which was approx. 1 km to the finish area/registration.


It went something like this....


1. Breakfast

2. Pick up bike from PedalPro (this fabulous team put the bike together)

3. Register at the Ironman village 10-11am, and pick up the race bags

4. Visit merchandise and probably buy some stuff (lots of stuff 💶💷)

4. Meet up with Chalky, our Medway Tri teammate, his wife Christine. Have a coffee, talk racing, organising, and weather predictions. Rest and relax. 😎

5. Test ride the bikes - just to make sure nothing breaks (nothing did)

6. Recce the choppy sea, swim to the buoy, meet some jellyfish, practice getting chucked around, keeping a straight line and sighting (this was actually fantastic prep for what was to come next day).

7. Get a bite to eat somewhere. Rest and relax. 😎

8. Back to the room to sort out all the transition bags and nutrition etc. This requires immense concentration and double, triple, quadruple checking as after these are checked in its all inaccessible.

9. Check all the bags again......and again. 😜

9. Rack the bike in transition and hang the bags in the bag area (5-6pm)

10. Realise you have forgotten the special needs bags (why were these not in the registration bag?) and then trek back down to Registration area to pick them up and back to transition to place in the special needs van. 🤯

11. Head back to room to have breathe a sigh of relief.

12. Get some dinner.

13. Back to room to try and sleep.


All of this meant walking over 22,000 steps. It was far from ideal day before a race as had ideally looked to keep off our feet but it all needed doing. I made a mental note to travel earlier next time (if next time ever happens).

Bikes racked; bag hung; checked out the red carpet; Vin, Chalky and I; Vin checking out the sea; my race number;


Sunday, race day

3:30am. 'Is that all?' I thought. That was it, I was awake. I had slept pretty good up to then having dropped off about 10:30/11pm. 5 hours max. Not great but it's not vital.


First thing I did was check the weather (this was now an hourly habit over the last week). I viewed a few different channels and each one was different. I got up and showered about 5:30am, it was dark outside, drizzling and pretty windy


I looked at the Facebook group and there was discussion of swim being cancelled or cut short. Wow, it couldn't be that bad could it? It was ok yesterday afternoon.


Chalky messaged, he had a hotel by the front. 'What’s the sea looking like?' I asked.


'Rough sea'


'Rougher than yesterday?'


'I think so, hard to see in the dark'


This is when the day started to unravel its challenging conditions. I was ok with a choppy rough sea as I was confident from the day before.


Vin and I got down to the beach around 7:45 ahead of the scheduled 8:30 start and it was evident that this was going to be brutal. I'd never seen anything like it. Waves were rolling high and crashing to the beach.

Swim was cut to 900m due to safety concerns and rightly so. Conditions were awful though I did find it fun.


After checking bikes were all ok in transition we warm up dip (or dunk) in the sea. It was so much rougher than the previous day. Brutal is a word I'd never used that much before today but it's a more than appropriate word to can describe it. The day before I didn't have the wetsuit but today I did, it was just chucking me around all over. It was fun, but if I had not been in the day before it would have freaked me out.


As I went to get out I got hit by a wave, pushed down and ploughed into the sand with the wave forcing me down. It seemed to go on for ages and left wondering when it would pass. I have never felt a wave force like that (at the end of the day when I took my watch off I found a number of small pebbles under the watch strap as a reminder).


There was a lot of commotion on the beach with athletes and spectators all watching in amazement of the conditions. It was here that it was announced the swim would be cut short to just 900m due to safety. It made sense, it was dangerous and there was no way it could be managed safely. It was impossible to keep an eye on swimmers with the waves as rough as they were.


I watched the 70.3 swimmers go first. They flew in, some flew back out again. It was a case of getting lucky and missing a big wave, those that were not, hit a wave and bounced back as if hitting a brick wall. And these are the elites.

A picture paints a thousand words.


The route was to swim out in-between two buoys then parallel with the beach and then a sharp left to head back to shore. The swimmers were being taken way past the swim line with the tide and would need to cut back. This enabled us to make sure we kept right come our turn so to judge the tide. Simple hey?


I'd like to say it worked like that but come the start of the full some 45 minutes later I did head towards the right, I was lucky there was no 'brick wall' wave to block me and dived in and started swimming. Technique was out the window, this was about strength and moving forwards.


Sighting was poor, you could not see anything too far ahead. No chance of the seeing the buoys, all I could do was use my sense of direction and follow other swimmers. It was crazy, I would be at the bottom of the wave and look to sight and see a huge wave with swimmers just climbing up it. It was like the film 'Perfect Storm' with Mark Wahlberg (ok, slight exaggeration but you get the idea).


As soon as I was hitting the parallel stretch with the beach I was then turning to swim directly back to the beach so must have just missed the buoys completely and routed some kind of triangular shape. I swam hard at the point and used the waves to speed me forwards. In no time I was at the beach and climbing out. Again, fortunate there was no huge wave to plough me down this time. Lucky.

I nearly tripped over the cameraman. Must pose better next time.


I moved to transition. Holy shit did I make a balls up of this. I had tied a knot so tight in my cycle bag (so it wouldn't get wet if it rained) I couldn't get it undone and spent way to long trying to undo this before eventually ripping it open and finally getting out and on to the bike after 12 minutes.


The bike course has a reputation for being flat and fast. One of the reasons we chose Barcelona along with the calm seas and nice weather (hahaha). Today was windy as hell. It was going to be a slog.


As soon as I set off on the first loop heading towards Barcelona it was evident we were in for a long day of headwind. Literally for the whole of the first part of the loop it was head wind all the way. It was the same for everyone, so dug in and worked through it. Upon the turn at the far end after 45km it was a straight run back to Calella with the wind behind us. This was sheer joy, it was enjoyable finally and enabled me to really hammer it. It was amazing and a relief. I caught up some time here and completed the first loop around 3 hours. I was aiming for 6 hours on the bike in total so I was very happy at the halfway point.


Then I turned into the second loop, turned back in to the wind, and it was relentless. It seemed to zap everything I had. The thought of this wind for another 40/45km (90km overall) just drained me. It wasn't so much can I do this, it was more, do I want to do this? The balls of my feet were hurting and each time pressing down was painful. There was an aid station halfway on this loop out so planned to stop there and get some relief. When I finally made it, I got off the bike, filled up my bottles, took a moment and got going again. As with the first loop it was a relief to get to the turning point and then hammered it back to Calella giving it everything.


I finished the bike leg in 6:10. Very happy with this, especially with the wind. Now was the run, and the answer to my question of how I would run a marathon after a 180km ride was about to be realised.......but not before another 10 minutes or so in transition (what do I do here?).

Tough headwind on the bike.


The run began very well. It was a joy just to be off the bike. I picked up a rhythm straight away, turned the lighthouse point and heading out along the promenade. The crowd were amazing but it was pretty desolate towards the Santa Susanna turn point (8.3km) which ran alongside the railway line. I was enjoying myself, running well, feeling strong and happy.


As I approached the Santa Susanna turn at 21.5km I was feeling it in my legs. I did the first half in about 1 hour 50/55 mins which was great, fantastic in fact. It was here that I had my special needs bag which had a few gels, energy bars etc. I decided a gel may be the right option to give me a needed boost.


As soon as I had the gel my stomach started to churn, it was cramping up. I have never had this before but it began to impact my running, I couldn't help but slow down to a walk and headed to a port-a-loo to try and sort the problem. A good 5 minutes later I was out and back running again but still wasn't right. It wasn't long before I was back in a port-a-loo for another 7 or so minutes. I have to say I was mightily impressed with the cleanliness of the port-a-loo - it was like a home from home :)


At this point I knew my plan was going out the window and needed to adapt. I was heading back towards Calella, but had only completed 24km and had another 18km to go. I ran a bit more but as I reached the crowds approaching the lighthouse turn point I couldn't keep going, I had to walk, it’s all I had. The legs were jelly. I was running on empty, literally. I was feeling dizzy. If I had tried to run I would have been one of those bandy-legged runners you see on the outtake clips. Joking aside, this would not have ended well.


Walking was fine, not as I had planned, but I was ok with this. Getting to the finish line was the important thing and I had plenty of time to finish. The last thing I wanted was to do anything that stopped me finishing. My head was clear and focused, just my body that was packing up.


As I walked round the turn point for the last lap and back though the crowds there was tremendous support from the people to get going, get running again. It was appreciated but it wasn't for the want of trying, I could not run. It was 28.5km through at this point so I began to calculate how long it will take me to walk 14/15km. 2 hours, on top of the 3 hours its already taken me.


'Ok, this is going to be a 5-hour marathon. Fine, this is fine.'


I was at peace with this. I knew I was being tracked back home and I knew they would be seeing the times drop, wondering, worrying. I wanted to get a message to say I was completely ok (mentally) and nothing to worry about. It was just going to take me a longer. Ironman was always going to throw up some challenges and I never doubted getting to the end, I just knew it wasn't going to happen quickly.

A run of two halves.


On the nutrition front, I had carefully planned this with a combination of gels, Cliff Blocks, energy bars, electrolytes in my water, salt tablets, bagels and a last-minute addition of a ham and cream cheese sandwich. My plan was to eat throughout the bike leg to keep the fuelled. I had tried a few different things in training and went back to this plan after it has previously worked on before on half distances etc. It was planned to the point of excel spreadsheets with carbs needed per hour at 90g including what at what time. I kept to the plan accordingly but had ended up where I had. Had I got it wrong? Could I have done more? Or less? Or differently?


I needed something inside me, to eat something, energise me. Gels and stuff like that was out the window. No way. I was in the amongst all the people and bars and wondered if I could get something solid, a Snickers, a bit of pizza, something, anything. I knew I had some money in transition, could I get that, go and buy something? All these things going through my head. I passed a couple of aid stations close by and filled up on bananas and flat coke. This seemed to go down quite well so ate and drank more, it was lovely and was helping. The dizziness was disappearing and I was feeling fuller.


This was better. I was feeling better. half way to the Santa Susanna turn point (35km) I started to run a bit. I would pick out a lamp post or something in the distance and run to that, then I would walk. Legs seemed to be picking up and coping ok. Then I'd walk again. Each time I would pick something further and run to that, followed by a walk. Once I reached the turn point I had 6/7km back to the lighthouse and the finish.


I decided running it may result in going back to square 1 so would walk 200m and then run 800m to hit the km. I repeated this and started to knock off the kilometres. My running actually felt quite strong my form was back but I was conscious not to blow again so kept going like this.


The tactics worked and I was soon running hitting the final turn point and running down the red carpet and through the cheering crowds. The noise was incredible and the support breathtaking. It all happened pretty quickly as I tried to soak up the moment as I crossed the finish line. I thought I would be quite emotional crossing the line but I wasn't really. I think I'd gone through all of that over the course of the day.

Just heavenly to cross the line. What an experience.


It was fantastic to be finished and I was delighted with the 11 hours 13 minutes, and elated with the 4 hours 26 for the marathon. At one point I was settling in for a very lengthy 15km walk so was over the moon I had managed to pick it up. My moving time was 4 hours 12 which made me chuckle. Perhaps if those port-a-loos were not so nice I may have been a bit quicker lol.


After the finish I was handed the beautiful medal, kind of rushed through, given a mask (not really what you need). Picked up a lovely cold can of Heineken and a goody bag with food.


I changed outside into the warmer clothes and 10 minutes later Vinnie crossed the line. A storming marathon from Vin and a great race. We met up with Chalky (finishing in an excellent 9:10) then chewed the fat on the race and the brutal conditions. We were done. Chalky and Vin were already Ironmen and now so was I. A member of the prestigious 'Ironman' club.


Thinking back now it’s all very surreal, I love the training and the day itself was amazing, such an experience. I knew it would throw up a few challenges that could not be planned for. I expected the body would also give me some decisions to make and was happy with how I adapted to deal with things.





To summarise


Swim - brutal but great fun, I can't stop looking at all the videos and although I was disappointed it was not the full 3.8km I am glad that I experienced that swim.


Bike - head wind was hard going, very very hard going. I am more a runner than a cyclist so had to dig in but the straights back to Calella were worth it. Over the moon with the 6 hours 10 minutes.


Run - A game of two halves as they say. First half was amazing, exactly how I had planned, better in fact. Steady pace, felt strong and great form. Second half, had to dig deep, the body didn't want to know but the mind was sharp enough to deal with it and adapt. Fortunately managed to get going in the last 7km and finish in a very decent marathon time, 4 hours 26.


Overall - a totally awesome experience. Amazing. I think of the distances and completing in 11 hours 13 minutes. Just an incredible, unbelievable achievement. It was around the time I was looking for so happy, happy days.


I'll finish this with reference to Freddie Mercury and his final 'Barcelona' lyrics...


Barcelona!

Abre tus puertas al mundo

If God is willing

If God is willing

If God is willing

Friends to the end

Viva!

Barcelona!


I was certainly willing god with everything that day. God also threw in a few curve balls with the rough sea and wind. But it was a triumphant and glorious experience all round. I wouldn't change it for anything.


Viva Barcelona Ironman.

















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