On 23rd October 2021 I completed Ironman Portugal. It was fantastic to be part of the first ever full distance Ironman at Portugal, and to once again take part in an Ironman after a pause in 2020. Ironman Portugal was my 5th Ironman, but these things don’t get any easier. I always describe myself as a completer not a competer. I am nowhere near ready to push my overall goals, but for now I am enjoying taking part and really challenging myself and testing my endurance.
With a huge challenge like Ironman, anything can happen. I started improving over the first few years. First of all at Ironman Weymouth I finished in 14:17. Then I improved at Ironman Kalmar with a 13:33, this was particularly windy making it challenging. I then technically improved in Ironman Hamburg with 12:33, but they cancelled the swim and changed it to a 5k run, so not sure I can claim it. Then in Ironman Vichy I really struggled, in the swim, the bike and a 34 degree run made timing go out the window and I was so happy to finish in a personal worst of 14:36. So at Ironman Portugal I had 3 goals. The first and most important was to finish, and have fun. The second, to PB. And the third to get a time starting with an 11.
Ironman Portugal was never part of my plan, but some things happen for a reason. I booked a trip of the lifetime for my family to take part in Ironman Santa Rosa 2020 in California. This was postponed and then cancelled. I then moved it to the new Ironman California for 2021, and despite it no longer being in the summer, we were determined to make it a trip of a lifetime. This was not meant to be with the USA travel ban still in place. So I made a last minute decision to get a place at Ironman Portugal, and I’m so pleased I did. Cascais is beautiful, the weather is perfect, 24 degrees at time if writing, and we have had an amazing time so far. But some times things happen for a reason, and last night Ironman California reduced the bike to 56 miles because of the weather. Then this morning they made the decision to cancel Ironman California 2021 because of the weather. Such a shame, and I’m so glad I didn’t go now as would be so gutted to spend all that money and not do an Ironman.
We arrived in Portugal on Thursday morning. The flight was quick, but slightly delayed and the queue at passport control was ridiculous, taking over an hour. It was lovely to settle into our hotel, and as it was last minute we booked with the official Ironman Hotel. The room was lovely and it has an outdoor and indoor pool, with a lake for exclusive use by athletes. I agreed that we would settle in on the Thursday and I would begin the Ironman preparation on the Friday. So Friday morning we went into Cascais where I register. Registration was nice and easy. I didn’t get much merchandise though, as they had almost sold out on everything Ironman Portugal related, with lots of spare 70.3, clearly they had not ordered the right amount. There were hoodies and two different cotton tops I saw people wearing, but they were completely sold out. There were 100’s of 70.3 tops and hoodies left over. There were about 3 2xl technical tshirts left, but then I saw a top behind something else, and was so lucky to get the last large top, so very thankful for that. I purchased a visor too, but its a shame they did not sell Ironman Portugal ones.
After a lovely day on the beach and looking around the old town, I racked my bike. I decided to hire my bike from FBH who were the official bike team at Ironman. It was nice and simple, and it meant I did not have to worry about transporting and building my bike. I racked and was ready to go.
We had booked the Pasta Party, and I ate so much food, and drunk a little too much (remember completer not competer). It was a nice touch having a pasta party in the hotel and my family enjoyed the evening. We also got to see Jonny Brownlee. We’ll I explained to Benjamin who he was and he took the mick out of me, singing “Jonny Jonny, yes papa”… I don’t care though, I still got a photograph.
Then it was time for Race morning. I got up early, very early, and had breakfast in the hotel at 04:30. I didn’t need to get up this early to be fair, but didn’t want to risk being late. So I made my way to the transition to check my bike and bags, and then wait for the start. The sunrise over Cascais Bay was wonderful, at this time I had put my phone in my bag so couldn’t take a picture, but an incredible sight.
Swim – 1:35:00
My swim, 1:35:00, I’m very happy with that. To put into context, I am not overly confident on the swim of course technique etc could help me go quicker and I need to work on this, but based on ability I should be closer to 1:20. In Ironman Vichy 2019 I had a bit of a panic attack after a couple of 100 metres, and so I was nervous about the swim, and trying to stay calm.
The atmosphere at the start of the first ever Ironman Portugal was amazing, and I want you to take a minute and press play on Thunderstruck whilst you are reading this. Whilst you are waiting to start, trying to calm your nerves, and thank about the sheer stupidity of what you are about to embark on, this starts to play. Once Thunderstruck starts you know it is time, the Adrenaline, the nerves, the excitement… whilst surrounded by 2,000 other athletes you are ready… and then, the ding of the bell and the first athletes enter the water.
It was a rolling start, which is owing to covid measures, but frankly makes a better experience for everyone. Rather than 2,000 athletes charging into the water together, we get into 6 lines once at the front. I seeded myself with the 1:30 group, so was towards the back of the field. Every couple of seconds the bell rang, which signalled the next 6 athletes to run across the beach into the water.
It didn’t take long and it was my turn. I took the inside row, knowing that after the first turn I would be on the outside. I planned to swim slightly wide, meaning I would swim further, but be less disturbed and punched a little less. As I got into the water the cold hits you, but that soon fades. My breathing was far too quick, and I knew what this would lead too, so I slowed down, took my time and concentrated on a smooth slow pace, and trying not to swallow too much sea water. It worked and after the first turn I was OK, and got into a good rhythm. I had a few people who were poor at sighting and swam across me and into me, but because I was wide it was fairly comfortable. The water was calm and pretty perfect swimming conditions. Towards the end of the out we swam into rocks, I had though maybe I swam too wide, but the rescue kayak was further way. There were a lot of people coming into the rocks, and I hit my hand, having to turn around and swim away from the rocks to get back on track. On the bike course later I saw the tide had dropped lower and the large rocks were out of the water. The tide was too low and the course could do with being taken a little further out to see to enhance the experience and improve safety. The kayak should have been further forward to stop us going into the rocks, but they would have not noticed how close we were and the course line swam right over the rocks.
Once we hit the turn further out to sea it was fine. The return 1.7k was a little more difficult, with the force of the sea a little rougher, but it was great conditions to be fair. I did not look at my watch, and I thought it was an OK swim. As I got out I assumed I would have been around 1:40. I knew I hadn’t gone sub 1:30, and hadn’t done the best swim. I also went about 3-400 metres further so I would have been happy with 1:40. So when I saw 1:34 on my watch I was really happy, and the official 1:35:00 is fantastic.
T1 – 8:47
T1 was long. I knew it would not be a great time, and to be completely honest, when you consider the “run” to the bike is about 800 metres, my time of 8:47 is pretty good. About 4 minutes or more of my time was actually getting to transition. I felt good coming out of the water, and when I got to my bike I had a bottle of Fanta in my bag, so had a swig to get some sugar. Then a very quick change to my bike, and I was off.
Bike – 7:28:27
The bike could have gone better. And I would be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed. I had trained in 2020 for a flat Santa Rosa, and again in 2021 for a flat California, but Portugal isn’t flat. And the last 4 months have been difficult personally, and training has not been my priority, so what could I expect.
I got on the bike feeling good. I had a plan, and that was 6 hours. I felt good, but after about 5k we started a climb that lasted 20km. I kid you not, this was a continuous climb up a mountain, it is box hills Zig Zag’s much bigger brother. Whilst climbing the hill it was tough, and climbing is a big weakness of mine. It wasn’t great to see a few ambulances go past whilst I was climbing. I soon realised why.
Once I finally got to the top, it was time for the descent, which I usually enjoy. But on the first part I had to hit my breaks hard. The road was narrow, and two people in front blocked me, I slowed but wasn’t slowing quick enough, so had to break fairly hard and had a scary moment when I almost lost control of my bike. As we turned the corner I decided to be much more cautious and not built up speed. The time I would usually make up was just not worth the risk. The whole descent was full of sharp turns, some of which would have taken you straight off the mountain. On my way down I had a couple of close moments despite being really careful. I saw 3 people at different points who had crashed off the road and getting treatment. Another couple of ambulance passed me as I made my way down. It was not a pleasant climb, and the most dangerous I have done.
The rest of the bike route didn’t really impress me either. The roads were not great, with a few points that were cobble roads, and some others with poor service. I was nervous about getting a puncture so took these very steady. We went around Portugal race track on both of the two laps which was nice. Once we got to Cascais the directions were confusing, and I’ve heard of many going the wrong way either having to go further or being disqualified. I went the right way, but there were two points I could easily have gone the wrong way.
There was then a 40km out and back, which is rolling, basically flat and good for getting some speed. But a lot of damage had been done on the first 20km climb. I worked it out I had lost 30 minutes on the first 30km, and knew that we had to do half of the climb on the second lap. At this point my 6 hour target would have been 6:45 if I had managed a good ride for the rest of the ride. The first lap I managed a strong second half, but then the climb on the second Lao was bad, and I was slower, losing another 15 minutes. At this point I was tired and had been out for a long time, in the heat. At the race track I found myself losing attention and at one point cycled off the tarmac into the dirt, this was a wake up for me to concentrate. So when it got to the last 40km I kept re-evaluating my finish, but I just didn’t have the desire nor ability to go harder. I knew I would finish and had thought that maybe a strong run would make up some time
It was great to see my family as I finished the bike, I was full of smiles at this point. Then they took a picture of me as I made my way to transition. This is the reality of how I felt as I got of the bike. It was hard, I was tired, I was using the bike to hold me up, and you will see that I was hunched over. If it was not for the bike holding me up I would have been bent over further. At this point all was going through my mind was that I now have to run a marathon, and I can’t even stand up.
T2 – 6:31
There is not a lot to say about T2. I thought I was fairly quick. I had a bit more of my fanta and changed to trainers and a visor. I think that the timing mat from the bike off to start of the run were a fair distance, so a lot of the time was getting in and out. Also I went for a quick wee and was struggling to stand up straight. By struggling I mean I couldn’t stand up straight.
Run – 4:18:58
I’m happy with my overall run time. Not the sub 4 I would have wanted, or the 3:30 that is my real ambition if I have a solid swim and bike. But I finished and I’m happier enough with that time, which I think is an Ironman run PB.
To put things in perspective, I started off at 13 minute miles, and it took me half a mile to be able to stand up straight. At the beginning it wasn’t my legs that were the problem, it was being able to get in the position to run, and hey, a marathon is hard enough without the added issue of not being able to stand up. But after half a mile that pain had subsided and I eased into a 9 min mile.
The aid stations at Ironman are always amazing, you know what you are getting. Water, electrolytes, gel, fruit, cola, redbull, and more water. The aid stations are every 2km, so I ran between them then walked or slowed to take on fuel every 2km.
It was amazing to see my family at the end of the first lap. At this stage I was averaging 8:15 min miles on the run, and then walking the aid stations to dip under 9 min miles. I was enduring, but it was hard.
The run was 3 out and back laps. It wasn’t the most exciting, and it was rolling. Good on the bike, but not the easiest for running. It wasn’t too bad, but at 20:00 it got dark quickly. It was nice to see the sunrise and sunset, but then it was pitch black. The atmosphere around the finish and some of the route was fantastic, but then there was a long stretch which was dark and difficult to get going. Later I slowed. I was tired, and frankly I couldn’t be bothered to hold for a sub 4. I was very happy to have finished, to be on the run and know that no matter what I would complete my 5th Ironman, but there was no need to push harder and completely ruining my body. After about 18 miles I could certainly feel those last 4 marathons in 4 weeks. I was tired and I wanted it to be over.
The last lap on the run was tough, and I couldn’t take on any more fuel, it was a long day of gels and coke and redbull. I saw a few people on the run vomiting and I just took it steady, one foot in front of the other.
So in the end, an official time of 13:37:31. Not my fastest, not my slowest, but a tough day in the office. The Ironman is not my comfort zone, it is a real challenge, and I’m very proud to have finished it once again. I hope my pictures turn out well as I’ve purchased them and just waiting for them to come through.
When I finished my family were life savers. I could not and would not want to do it without my family. The arm to support you when you feel a bit rough, the patience, love, and support, you cannot articulate how important this is.
After a few beers, long rest, and a huge breakfast in the morning, we made our way in to see the 70.3 finish. It is a shame that Jonny didn’t win, but he did amazingly. 6th place, but only 90 seconds behind first place. Put into perspective how close the front runners were, I see fantastic things in the future for this chap.
We have had a lovely time in Cascais and have a few days left to enjoy. Sun and fun with the family.
I would absolutely recommend Ironman Portugal, and I’m already thinking about the next challenge. But after 11 events in 2 months, including 5 marathons, an Ironman, half Ironman, and an ultra Duathlon, it is time for a little rest.