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Ironman U.K. – August 2nd 2009 – Race Report From Sumie Kawakami

August 17, 2009

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“I’ve done many Ironman races before,” I kept telling myself, but that didn’t make me feel any better. Experience does tell you how much you need to train beforehand, and how hard it is to finish another one. But, an Ironman race will never get any easier, no matter how many times you do it. I knew this from my experience.

The Ironman U.K. 2009 took place in Bolton, Manchester — a beautiful northwestern English town, surrounded by the hilly landscape of woods, meadows, and moors. We were in the heart of Emily Jane Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. (Well, some people may argue about this, but the landscape did remind me of the novel).

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But, this was the first time that the city of Bolton hosted the event, and there were a lot of uncertainties. At the official race briefing, the event organizer told us that some people in the city weren’t very happy about the city’s plan to host the event, so some may attempt to move road signs or lead athletes to wrong ways (I’d never dreamt of such a thing as sabotage at such an honest event as an Ironman). There had been some confusions about courses and the way the race was organized. The courses were changed several times and there weren’t proper maps of the courses or of the transition area. Also, the weather was unfavorable. The city had been hit by heavy rain prior to the race, so the entire transition area was covered with mud making it difficult for us to walk around. The rain also lowered the water temperature — the Ironman U.K. website says the average water temperature is about 60 degrees Fahrenheit or 15.6 degrees Celsius, but we don’t know for sure because there was no official announcement.

I don’t want to sound too critical of the event organizer. All staff and volunteers were very kind and attentive. I appreciated their sincere efforts very much. I am just stating that my pre-race anxiety was reaching to an unprecedented level, due to these uncertainties and confusions.

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August 2nd:
We woke up at 2:30 AM, finished our pre-race meal by 3:00 AM, and left the inn by 3:45 AM, so we get to the shuttle bus stop by 4:00 AM.

(Swim: Rivington Reservoir)
The transition was pitch dark when we got there. And, it is always the coldest before dawn. We covered our feet with socks and plastic bags to keep them warm until the start and to keep them free of mud. Fortunately, it was going to be sunny/cloudy.

2009_0730_Bolton 010The swim start area was narrow, so it took a while until everybody reached the water. The start was delayed by 6 or 7 minutes. I was one of the last persons to get into the water (just to keep myself dry and warm until the last minute). Luckily, the water felt a lot warmer than the previous days. I wore my long-sleeve wet suit for the first time, which really helped.

It was a straight line course of two laps. Really, this was the coldest water I ever swam in and being weak on swimming, I was not sure I could survive the swim. I told myself that I would make a brave decision of quiting any time if I felt uncomfortable. I started with breast-stokes and moved very slowly, and after a while, to my surprise, I found myself getting used to the temperature! I was almost laughing when I finished the first lap. Yes, anything is possible, after all!

But, the blissful feeling was gradually wearing out as I went on. I no longer felt cold, but my arms and hands went numb. I was moving my arms like a robot repeating the same task over and over, in my desperate attempt to keep myself going. I was so happy to have made it back! I did my PB in the swim section in Niijima Triathlon this season, so I was hoping to do better in the swim, but my swim time was 1:40, which was 10 minutes slower than last year (I didn’t see any clock so I didn’t know about my time until later).

(Bike: 3 laps)

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We had to climb up a 200 meter concrete hill to reach the transition area. I was shivering so hard that I had a hard time changing my cloth. I grabbed a chair and sat for a while until I felt better. The transition was muddy and by the time I reached the bike course, my bike shoes were soaked in mud. I had to stop several time so shake the mud off my shoes, so I could click the cleats into the pedals.

The bike course was three laps. We rode through woods, moors and meadows. The landscape was totally wonderful!

The course map told us that there is only one major hill. The highest point was about 335 meters, but the reservoir was already 120 meters, so the 3-km climb was supposed to be only 115 meters. The climb starts immediately after the start. It goes through woods and meadows, and the first time around , I felt totally OK. Of course, what I thought was an easy piece of cake initially became a hell as I climbed for the second and the third time.

I occasionally spotted some sheep, cows, and horses, and enjoyed the scenery very much. The first half of the course was windy and cold, and the rest of the course was hot. It was interesting to feel how the weather changes in accordance with geography.

The bike course was filled with rolling hills. Hills are not very steep, but the constance ups and downs wore me out. But, what really bothered me was not the course but a lack of bathrooms. My stomach began to run after the first lap, perhaps because of being in the cold water so long during the swim section (People say slower swimmers suffer the more from cold waters). I had to stop at the aid stations, but every aid station I stopped, there was a lineup of people. As I resumed riding, I passed a few riders, but then again, I had to line up for a cue. I had always been boasting how strong my stomach was and how I was able to consume foods during my bike, but I guess I cannot be lucky all the time.

I was so worn out when I reached the transition. I looked at my watch for the first time, and it was already 3:45 PM. I tried to do a mental calculation to make sense of the time. Was it 9 hours or 10 hours since the start? Does this mean that I rode more than 8 hours? When was the cut off time anyway? But, I was just too tired (or too dumb?) to do the simple calculation. I decided not to care. The important thing was that I survived the bike section and all I had to do now was to run the 42.129 km.

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(Run: one and half laps into the town center)
At the transition, I met Numata-san, the only one Japanese female other than me participating the event, who also said the bike section was hard. I also met Mary, from the United States, who was staying at the same inn. We congratulated each other for surviving the tough course, and hurried to the run course.

It was a little before 4:00 PM, but the sun was still high. The course was again kind of hilly (not very steep, but constant ups and downs). The most scary thing of all was the absence of the kilometer marks. Throughout the 42 km, there was not even a single kilometer mark. We knew it was one and a half laps( going into downtown, coming back once, and finishing at downtown); we knew that the course was almost straight except for two detours, but other than that, we were not sure of where we were and how much longer we had to go.

I trained very hard in running, and I wanted to go faster than last year. But I figured that I should save my energy instead of push myself for a PB in the run section. Firstly, I was already too slow by the end of the Bike section to do my Ironman PB, and doing the PB in the running section would not make up for it.

That turned out to be a good strategy. After first one hour, my stomach began hurting and I was even sure if I could finish the race. I was worried about going out of energy, so I took a power gel to compensate for my bowel movements, but to my surprise, I suddenly felt so sick that I threw up (Luckily, I managed to make it to the bathroom, to avoid a public embarrassment). This was the first time it had ever happened to me during a race and it scared me a bit).

At this point, I did think about quitting. In fact, I was thinking of every reason I should quit. Well, the water was too cold, the bike course was too hard, my stomach is running, and I even threw up. Give me more reasons why I should not quit??? Then, I thought about the faces of friends, teammates, and colleagues who supported me during my training. This year, I’m doing a fund raising for an charity organization. So, I did think about all those who pledged donations in support for me. I told myself, well, they will forgive me… Now, I could quit now…

Well, to be totally honest with you, this phase of finding reasons to quit does not happen to me all the time, but happens occasionally during Ironman or marathon races. I admit I am a weakling! But, luckily, I brought anti-acid pills and pain-killer with me when I left the transition. And, that helped me immensely. The medicine began to kick off after 30 minutes.

After I passed the last turning point, people told me I have 9 more miles to go (without a kilometer sign, we could not be 100 percent sure, but I figured it was about right). By then, I felt totally OK and I knew for the first time that I WILL survive for the rest of the race (Amazing how the body can recover so quickly). Part of me was ashamed of being so slow (by this point, I knew that I would not even make even 14 hours, or even 14 hours and a half. This would be the slowest Ironman I ever this). But, part of me said I should be proud of myself no matter how miserable I looked. I told myself to accept myself as who I am. Let’s face it I am an ordinary athlete, who could barely make an Ironman, but at least I am doing it. I decided to smile, instead. I smiled and cheered every fellow runner as he or she passed by, just as people on the streets cheered for me. Some of them smiled back, some were in too much pain that they didn’t even seem to notice. It didn’t matter.

The hardest part of the run course was Queens Park, where the course goes up and down inside the course. We had to do this twice. The park was beautiful, but the idea of going around and around itself was tiring. I walked the last few uphills in the park. We were told at the end of the park that we only had three more kilometers to go.

The rest of the three (which felt more like two kilometers) was the most wonderful moment of all. I almost cried when I saw the finish gate and a crowd of people cheering from both sides. It was the toughest, muddiest, and coldest Ironman I ever did, but I thought of all the people who supported and cheered for me as I crossed the finish-line. I clocked 14 hours, 40 minutes and 42 seconds. Happily.

Thank you everybody, for your support and encouragement. Special thanks to Peter, who had to wait for me at the finish-line for four or five hours!!! I guess waiting for somebody at the finish is harder than doing an Ironman yourself, since you never know whether the person is really coming or not.

petesumie

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One comment

  1. Respect Sumie!! You are always a true inspiration!! Congrats on finishing this one! It really seemed like a tough event with difficult conditions. Well done!



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