The Greatest Ironman Attempt

GI swim

When Alex informed me of his plans to complete an Iron Distance Race in 2015 pulling his son Harrison around to raise funds and awareness for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, I not only offered my services but those of whole team if necessary. Alex was keen that someone from the 2012 Hertfordshire University Research Triathlon Study who undertook the 2013 Challenge Barcelona race was involved and so a team of Alex, Adam, myself, Scott Wilkins and of course Harrison, was formed with Gary Smith (author of Triathlon – It HURTS) as support crew.

Next up was finding an event – Alex was initially keen on it being a WTC event like Austria (which was already sold out). I thought it more likely that we’d get better support from Challenge given their family-orientated approach and this turned out to be a better decision than I could have imagined. Challenge had just launched their new Denmark event in Billund that is home to an airport, Lalandia Resort (think Center Parcs) and Legoland – therefore it was the ideal place to base yourself when you have kids. Not only that but the course had a shallow lake swim and flat bike making it as near perfect an event for towing an 8 year old around as possible.

I reached out to Challenge through Triathlete Europe and not only would they give us 4 race entries they would make every effort to accommodate the needs of Alex and the team in executing this attempt. When you need to store and manoeuvre an 8 foot catamaran and a bike with a chariot attachment then there is more than the standard race logistics to think about.

Alex was also keen to have a crack at Rick and Dick Hoyt’s record of 13:47 for a father and son Iron Distance – given that Dick could knock out a sub 3 marathon pushing Rick, I told Alex he’d need to be in sub 11 hour shape for a standalone which was a tall ask given his current PB of just north of 12 hours. However, it was something to aim for on the day.

Alex has had lots of support from various companies to get him to the start line (have a look at Greatest Ironman for details) but I’d personally like to thank the team at Race Force for shipping the equipment and bikes, doing the full set-up and tuning, then clearing up T1 and T2 making this whole adventure simple. In fact, from a support perspective it was almost too simple, so much so I didn’t bring water bottles, nutrition or a whole host of other things – thanks goodness for expos!

Swim (1:38:43)

swim start GI
Making our way out of T1 to the swim start.

The plan was to start at the back – this meant we had only 16 hours to complete the course but we wouldn’t be getting in anyone’s way and it would be easier to stick together.

swim start
Looking anxious at the back.

Adam was to lead and sight whilst Scott and I swam side by side to give Alex a bit of a draft and the ability to keep his head down and get the job done.

The swim had a small Australian exit where we went up the ramp, out of the water, over the timing mat and back in. I thought this just made for an excellent spectator / photo moment and added to the occasion, especially as it was very short.

GI Aussie
Fegan He-man

Immediately we started to swim it became apparent that even the easiest swim was going to be too fast, I hoped that Alex was just easing into things but swimming 30 minutes slower than normal was actually a real effort. I eventually found a ‘2 stroke-pause’ rhythm that seemed to work, but it certainly wasn’t giving Alex the draft we’d hoped. I soon settled into a role of keeping Alex on track and being a part time line-backer, putting myself in the way of a couple of swimmers who seemed determined to bash into the catamaran or swim over Alex.

The swim venue turned out to be perfect – the water is shallow, only chest deep. This meant that although Harrison had a life jacket on, there were no safety issues. Also the route takes you round the perimeter, which is followed by a path, so you can get support all the way around. Lastly the second lap is separate from the first so there’s no congestion on the latter part of the swim. Perfect.

Alex finished the swim bang on predicted time, Harrison never got wet and we didn’t drop the catamaran – part one done and dusted, morale was good and the weather dry.

Bike (7:54:27)

GI bikes
This ride could be uncomfortable.

A leisurely T1 to get kit and Harrison sorted and we were off. The course is a 90k ride to Billund where T2 and the finish is, followed by two laps. Unfortunately what wind there was, was a head wind for the 90k making it slightly slower going than planned. I was adamant that Alex was going to do this event within the rules and with a 12m draft rule, so I gave him plenty of space. So for 50k or so Alex was draft legal apart from when we were handing nutrition to him or Harrison and I had my timer set to beep every 20 minutes to remind Alex to eat and drink.

bike GI
Early on the bike.

After a 50k or so and realising that we weren’t going to be breaking any records then the gapping reduced and things got a bit more chatty but then the film crew would come and we’d leave Alex and Harrison for their solo shots, which actually took up a fair amount of the initial first leg.

Greatest Ironman Bike
Adam’s view and keeping draft legal.

The weather forecast for the day hadn’t been great with thunderstorms forecast. For a lot of the ride we were obviously following the rain as the ground was wet but thankfully bar a few small showers we’d missed any real downpour.

I was then warned for blocking by a draft buster when handing Harrison a water bottle, which made me laugh a bit then we made our way to the start of the two laps.

This was a good morale boost for Alex and Harrison as they got to see the family and restock on nutrition. At 90k I actually took on-board my first nutrition whilst Adam had somehow eaten 9 snack-size Snickers, which would have been 10 if I hadn’t stolen one for Alex.

It was also a good place to mentally reset the event in Alex’s head – forget the last 5 hours, just concentrate on this first lap.

These laps, whilst lovely countryside, were mentally tough for Alex – there’s no support and virtually no one else left on the course. We were the last people out there and the strain of pulling a 50kg load was starting to tell. Without the motivation of the record attempt it was really just a struggle to the finish and with a multi-loop your mind can only think “God, I’ve got to do all this again”.

End of the lap – another morale stop although a little worrying seeing the aid stations being dismantled and the first time I actually started to think about what the cut-offs were.

The second lap and Alex was now drawing into himself, Harrison was getting pretty bored and we were pretty keen for a change of locomotion.

GI loco
Unfortunately Kylie wasn’t available.

I’d told Alex to get some wireless speakers so Harrison could DJ on the run and Adam decided we should start the music early. Well what a difference that made, a little “Move like Jagger” had the spirits lifted in no time, although Harrison’s insistence to play it 12 times back-to-back dampened it a little ;-).

Then with about 5 miles to go Alex stopped… I waited and then circled back, to see his pedal had sheared in the crank. We disconnected the chariot and reattached it to Scott’s bike. Scott swapped bikes to practice 5 miles of single-leg drill and I put my arm around him and we headed off leaving Adam, Alex and Harrison.

By this time we had the race director in a sweeper car, he was willing us on and was happy to offer any assistance to ensure we got to T2. His encouragement was fantastic as were all the staff and volunteers throughout the event – just as I knew Challenge would be.

So as Scott and I did the equivalent of a 5 mile bike-based 3-legged race, we were getting some very funny looks from on-lookers. Thankfully the draft busters were feeling more lenient now and after arriving at T2, we had only 5 minutes to wait for Alex et al.

Run (5:41:52)

In T2 Alex already had the 1000 yard stare – he was shagged!

GI run
Still dry and glad to be off the bike.

The key was to keep him moving; any walk breaks would increase and drag on and time would slip away and 16 hours would be missed. So Alex was allowed to walk aid stations but had to keep moving forward – forward motion was my mantra and I’m sure Alex got pretty pissed off hearing it, but anger is a great motivator, so it was water off a duck’s back.

Like most Iron distance run courses there’s good and bad bits and going through Lalandia was cool but the town section was a bit of a drag. It’s a first year event, we’re last in the race and the weather went from OK to downright torrential misery so there was no crowd support. There’s a section right at the end of the lap that takes you round a 1200m gravel-chipped racetrack. Sunnto were offering a GPS watch for the quickest lap (for what we thought was full distance athletes only). So, as a laugh, Adam suggested we try and take it out – it’s unlikely anyone would risk running 6 minute miles in a full Ironman, so it should be an easy task as both of us were pretty fresh – a lot fresher than anyone actually racing the event anyway!

So as we approached the race track Adam asked if I was going to race him. Now, Adam has a buggered back but he’s also been training the house down whilst I’ve done virtually nothing. My pride wasn’t ready to literally have the dust kicked in my face as Adam shot off into the distance. So I hung back with Alex and a gap had formed between Scott and Adam as we reached the track entrance. I popped the bum bag full of gels, chariot spares and CO2 etc under a chair and followed Adam onto the track, but about 300m behind. As I approached the timing mat I saw Adam making good progress but not really pushing it so decided to use him as a pacer and shot off at “comfortably uncomfortable” trying to just close the gap on Adam. The last 200m Adam put on the gas but by then I’d closed quite a bit and just had to push a final sprint to hopefully take the sneaky win.

Although I’ve yet to see the results, I apparently took him out by 4 seconds. All for nothing though as it transpired that the half and relay were also included and we were both well beaten, so no watch.

During the second lap was when the rain had really set in. Harrison had had enough – he was not prepared for 2 more laps. Alex was running on determination only but had no energy left to try and motivate his son. For us supporting it was difficult as we had really only just met Harrison and any attempts at lifting his mood were ignored or brushed off. I felt really bad for both Alex and Harrison – Alex determined to finish the job, to get as much publicity and much-needed fundraising as possible, whilst knowing his boy wasn’t happy and wanted this to end.

Who could blame an 8 year old, he’d been up since 4am and been in a race for over 12 hours!

Adam phoned ahead to get dry clothes and blankets sorted out, I ran in to the local Netto and pinched some plastic bags to put around his feet to try and warm them up. Luckily the weather lifted a bit and with dry clothes and a cheese toastie Harrison’s mood also lifted.

When we got to the race track for a second time I went to leave the bum bag under the chair when an over-officious marshal called me back declaring “Not allowed!!!” at the top of his voice. I nearly wet myself laughing – we are currently last in the race, chasing the cut-off and here to support a guy take his son around an Iron distance race to raise awareness for an incurable disease and he was worried I was getting an unfair advantage leaving some stuff under a chair!

I’d now like to publicly thank this marshal for completely turning the mood of Harrison and making the last 2 hours much, much easier.

For now everything was “NOT ALLOWED” in a made-up Germanic accent – “Red shorts and matching socks – not allowed!” I started shouting at everything, nothing was allowed and Harrison joined in and we gave abuse to anything and everything for the next hour. Anyone with small kids will understand that these simple games, whilst possibly tiresome to you in a few minutes, can keep a kid happy for an eternity and after an hour of a real dark patch where I thought we’d have to stop for Harrison’s sake, I was willing to perpetuate this game for as long as Harrison thought it was funny. Soon Adam, Harrison and I were shouting at horses, cars and election posters as well as passersby, which left Alex to just dig deep and concentrate on “forward motion”.

Now we had fewer stops to make Harrison comfortable, we managed to pass a couple of people and knew that the cut off wasn’t going to be an issue.

run last lap
A destroyed Alex and wet sandy grass means a lending hand is given.

Last lap and Harrison was on great form – he could smell the finish, what he and Alex had been working towards and you could sense his pride bubbling through. Alex was pretty destroyed but pure determination was propelling him forward and his spirits were obviously lifted by Harrison’s re-found enthusiasm. Adam, Scott and I were obviously tired, and running in a shorted and slower style meant that things were starting to ache where they usually didn’t.

One last trip around that bloody race track and it was home to the finish. The weather had turned again but it didn’t matter. The 30+ people who’d stuck around for the finish felt like 1000 and as I carried Cormac across the line knowing that any funds raised through this endeavour would directly benefit him, I felt a real surge of pride. At the same time I felt immensely proud of Alex, for having managed to put himself through this and of Harrison for what was probably a bigger endurance event for an 8 year old than for any of us.

GI Finish
Finished in 15:36:40 – check Alex’s 1000 yard stare!

I’d also like to personally thank Adam, Scott and Gary Smith for giving up their time and cash to help out on this.

Alex’s blog is here where you can also see the Bob Babbit (Adam’s mate) interviews and also the thank yous to those who supported us on this journey.

Alex’s fundraising can be found here

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  1. Great piece from a different perspective Gary, thank you…. the numbers I was punching for pre race were 1:35 swim, 7:30 bike, 4:15 marathon.

    We were on track till 90km into the bike #justsayin and yes that 1000yard stare was definitely there! 🙂

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