The World's Toughest Ironman: Reflecting on a life-changing event

Just over nine months ago in the middle of Patagonia, I was introduced to an experienced Scottish endurance athlete who had recently completed a number of long-distance events, including an ‘Ironman’. I tentatively asked him, having got this far cycling through South America, if I had any chance of completing an Ironman and which was the easiest one to complete if so. He laughed and said, ‘sign up to Amsterdam and waste your time cycling along flat road if you want, but if you want to do something big and life changing, make it tougher’. One hour and three beers later, I’d decided to sign up to the World’s toughest Ironman. Some of me wishes I’d never met David Hay, but most of me is extremely grateful.

The next week I was starting to go on runs after a full day of cycling. Most people couldn’t believe I was doing this but I needed to do it to avoid total disaster in North Wales nine months down the line. What is more, I actually started to enjoy them. Cycling is great to show you the finer details of a country - we really saw the beauty of the Andes cycling the length of them but running took it to the next level. I found world-class trail runs at the end of each day and met locals that I never would have if it wasn’t for my running. They have become some of the best memories of my life. The more I was putting in each day, the more I was getting out.

 Running past snow-peaked mountains, Peru. As good as running can get.

Running past snow-peaked mountains, Peru. As good as running can get.

Arriving back in the UK three months before the event, I was able to ramp up my swimming in the Devonshire sea and a consistent diet was much easier now I had an HQ. That’s not to say all went smoothly - an incorrect bike fitting gave me a bad knee and five weeks off the saddle; overtraining for the run injured the sole of my foot so I didn’t run for eight weeks; and, finally, a side strain from cricket put me out of the water for six weeks. Making the most of the situation, I ramped up gym exercises and ensured I was on top of my nutrition. I think these two aspects of training are the most ignored aspects I hear in people’s training programmes and I can seriously vouch for their benefits. 

 Training in the sea rather than the pool seriously improved my performance and bank account.

Training in the sea rather than the pool seriously improved my performance and bank account.

Fast forward to the start line in Wales and all anyone kept asking me was how nervous I was. I can honestly say I wasn’t thanks to some important advice I received: the only ultimate failure in life is dying - everything else is as serious as you want to make it. If I failed in my aim to complete this event, what was actually so bad about that? In the bigger picture, nothing really. Everyone would go about their day just the same and so would I. All I could do is finish knowing that I did my best. A fear of failing stops a lot of people signing up for things. I firmly believe that failing is a good thing - else how can you know where your limits are? 

One minute into the freezing cold 3.8km swim through Lake Padarn I had been kicked and punched in the face a good few times. For someone who avidly avoided any contact in a school rugby game, I weirdly enjoyed this battle. I’d worked so hard for so long and a few scratches weren’t going to get in my way. I was truly in the zone and loving it. I kept my focus and came out of the swim in 1 hour 20 minutes in 38th place. 

The only important advice I had to remember for the 186km bike leg was not to go off too fast else I’d be paying for it later. I suppose some things you can only ever learn by doing as I indeed went round the first lap of four far too quickly. My friend Matt had screamed from the support car to overtake another and another and I couldn’t resist. The people I’d overtaken glided back past me a couple of hours later. At least I realised my mistake before it was too late - I managed to recover things and come through the bike leg in just over 8 hours and in 34th place overall. This sounds like a long time but I honestly felt like I’d only been racing for two or three hours. I’d been so focused on hitting the next small target and my nutrition that time flew by. I had my mind on nothing else and I think that’s why my biggest passion in life is sport - it’s the only thing I do that makes me forget everything and be fully in the moment - this is the biggest pleasure you can get.

 Eight hours on the bike flew by.

Eight hours on the bike flew by.

Reviewing the bike leg and not mentioning my support team would be impossible - without my mum, sister, her family inc. dogs with ‘Go Whittle’ tops, Matt, Leo and Chris, I would have performed nowhere near to the level I reached on the day. Each lap they would have an F1 pit-stop-like routine prepared for bottle and energy gel replacements and a support car came round with me for two of the four bike laps. Like everything you do in life, get good friends behind you and things will become much easier.

All the running in South America paid off and I started the marathon run with great energy in my legs. All I needed to do was not sprint off too fast. Great in ensuring this was Leo, who ran with me for 10 miles, handing me drinks and nutrition as we went. North Wales was offering some extreme weather and my feet had become soaked by mile 14. Stuck in the middle of the course, Leo, without hesitation, took off his top and started to dry my feet. This was utterly disgusting but at the same time made me realise what a friend I had. 

16 miles in, Leo’s company had to be swapped for a 5kg supply bag and it was just me now to summit Snowdon from the bottom, come back down and complete the race. My patience in the earlier part of the marathon had paid off and as I climbed over 30% gradients towards the top of Snowdon I started to move up the field. One thing I found myself doing was congratulating those who were on the way down in front of me and encouraging those on the way up - everyone was doing it. What other sport sees competitors doing this? No one else truly knew what state your body was in apart from the person next to you and that seemed to bring out a special bond between those pushing to beat each other.

Mentally, this camaraderie kept me going and physically, a solid nutrition plan of an energy gel or bar every 20 minutes for the past 14 hours was paying dividends. Half way up and I felt good. All of this could only get you so far though and around two kilometres from the top I started to not be able to move. At one point I literally had to pick up my leg to move it forward but I knew this was never going to be easy and difficult moments would come. The Wolf by Mumford and Sons came on in my earphones and I thought to myself that nine months of hard work just needed one more hour of effort for a big achievement. I never looked back after that.

 Passing the medical check at the summit of Snowdon. Just one final sprint to go. 

Passing the medical check at the summit of Snowdon. Just one final sprint to go. 

I marched to the summit and somehow had the energy to sprint down the hill with the help of a head torch to finish in 15 hours, 5 minutes and 9 seconds, earning 13th place in the world’s toughest Ironman. When I signed up to the race at the start of the year, I had never thought this would be possible. 

Of course I don’t think I got really lucky with my finishing time - I trained for literally hundreds of hours in the months before to achieve it. The most common response I get from people hearing about the Ironman is that I’m crazy. On reflection, I can now smile and think to myself, ‘I’d have been crazy not to’. 

The glory of crossing the finish line was just the icing on the cake of feeling better everyday due to the training regime I undertook. Due to the pressure to get myself in shape to compete, I ate right and kept up a consistent training plan and this vastly improved all other aspects of my life. I worked with so much more discipline and efficiency around my training and my mood and energy levels reached new levels.

 Mission complete.

Mission complete.

I understand not everyone wants to take on an Ironman as a challenge but taking on something you think is just beyond your limits is something I’d highly recommend. This could be a 10k run, trying a new sport, learning a new language - whatever - just remember that that failure is only as serious as you want to make it…