My first (and last) Ironman

After 15 months of training I can finally swan around saying ‘I am an Ironman‘ to anyone who’s silly enough to ask. ‘But what was the actual race like?’ I hear absolutely none of you asking, well let me take you through it.

The lead-up

Regular readers of the blog will know that I’ve wanted to do an Ironman since I was a 15yo watching the Kona highlights on Nine’s Wide World of Sports, and I’ve been training for Ironman Melbourne for about 15 months. So it felt quite surreal after all that buildup to suddenly be only one sleep away from competing in the Ironman. On the night before the Melbourne Marathon I had found it really hard to get to sleep, and so this time I decided I would get into bed nice and early and just relax into a good night’s sleep. So at 8.30pm I climbed into bed and read a book for half an hour, then at 9pm I set my alarm for 4am and closed my eyes. At 10.30pm I still wasn’t asleep, but reasoned that as my body was used to going to sleep at about this time, there was no need to worry. At 11.30pm I told myself that it was ok, after all I had been resting for a good couple of hours, and that was nearly as good as being asleep…right? At 12.30am I started to panic a little. 3.5 hours of sleep was really not ideal before an entire day of exercise! At 1.30pm I started to really panic, which greatly assisted my ability to get to sleep. Some time after that I fell asleep. At 3.30am I woke up and told myself that I really should go back to sleep, an extra half an hour of sleep could be a really good thing…at 3.50am I realised that this wasn’t going to happen, so I got up and began what would be the most physically gruelling day of my life. I was not brimming with confidence.

The swim (3.8kms)

I think it’s fair to say that my favourite part of any of these events is the interminable time you get to spend standing around after you’ve got everything into transition and the event actually starts. It’s a really good chance to realise just how freaked out you are, and how much you really need to go to the toilet…again. So it was awesome to finally just get the swim started. For those of you who don’t know much about Ironman, the swim has traditionally been a mass start. Which means that all of the athletes (other than the Pros) start at the same time. So if you can imagine over 2,000 people all fighting for the same small amount of water, you can imagine just how much fun that is. Fortunately, this year they introduced a rolling start, whereby they basically lined everyone up and started them 6 at a time at about 5 second intervals, which meant that you spent significantly less time being kicked in the face as you swam. The combination of this start and the beautiful (ie no waves) conditions meant that I got into my swim rhythm really quickly, and felt really good for pretty much the entire time.
Going into the Ironman, my swim leg was probably the one I was confident in. I had been swimming regularly with a squad and had done some long swims by myself in the pool. The only fear I had was that I hadn’t done much open water swimming (and by ‘not much’ I really mean ‘bugger all’), but I was quietly confident that my excellent tumble-turns would provide me with an X-factor.
I had hoped to do the swim in about 1.15 and ended up doing it in 1.07, and even though I didn’t know what time I had swum (thanks to a Garmin that had a crack in the screen and could no longer go in water), I came out of the water feeling happy that I hadn’t gone too deep into my energy reserves, and that technically I was one third of the way through the Ironman.

Out of the water.
Out of the water. Photo: FinisherPix

 The bike (180kms)

Going into the race, this was the leg I was most worried about. The only way you can do 180km on the bike comfortably is to do a lot of long sessions on the bike, and the only way you can do long sessions on the bike is by abandoning the family for 5-6hr stretches pretty much every weekend (and then of course being exhausted for the remainder of the day). With three young kids, and a full-time job, and a pretty strong desire not to get divorced, that is pretty much impossible. So while I had managed a few long rides (including one epic ride with Matt Nelson out to Healesville and back via the hills), I knew that I didn’t have the kms in my legs to dominate the ride. So my aim was to ride conservatively and go into the run with some energy still in my legs.
The bike leg is basically doing two laps of 45kms from Frankston to Springvale Rd out along Eastlink and then back. My aim was to sit on an average of 30km/h. If I did this then I would do the ride in 6hrs. I spent the vast majority of my time on the first lap out being passed by everyone. But I kept telling myself not to worry as all I had to do was ride conservatively, and I would catch a lot of people on the run…besides, these were probably the elite people who were passing me.
I averaged about 28km/h for the first lap, but wasn’t too worried as I was riding into a headwind, and on the way back to Frankston I averaged just over 30km/h so I was still confident that could get close to the 6 hour mark.
On the second lap out, I think it’s safe to say that everything went to hell in a handbasket. The headwind had really picked up and it was getting hot. There weren’t as many people passing me…but all my ‘they’re going too hard and are going to blow up on the second lap’ thoughts were starting too look remarkably inaccurate, and my ‘they’re probably the elite athletes’ beliefs were harder to sustain when men in their late 60’s cruised past. The Mars Bar that I had in my ‘special needs’ bag (this is a bag you can collect halfway through the race) had transformed from ‘frozen’ to ‘disgusting near liquid’, and there was no way I wanted to eat the vegemite sandwich that was also there. I had gone through 3 water bottles and a water bottle with my gels in it, and hadn’t needed to go to the toilet…so clearly I was dehydrating at a rapid rate of knots. On top of this I was getting a searing pain in my left foot known as a hot spot (which is basically where your foot swells in the heat and then gets constricted by your cycling shoe which leads to nerves getting squashed, which leads to a feeling as though someone is putting a blow-torch onto the ball of your foot). I’ve never had this before…and to be perfectly honest, I hope to never have it again. The only way I could get rid of the pain was to loosen the straps on my shoes…but eventually it got to the stage where my shoes were so loose that it was affecting my pedalling. So I began stopping every half hour to take off my shoe and stretch my foot.
I finally made the turnaround point and headed for home. But my average for the third lap was 21km/h, so all bets were off in terms of doing 6hrs. Already my thoughts were turning to my Mum and Dad who were going to be waiting for me in Frankston and were going to be waiting around for about an extra hour, and to Jo Donnelly and her family who had been there when I came out of the water and was probably wondering where the hell I was…and of course to Katie and the kids who were going to be waiting for a long time at Black Rock before they saw me.
But as bad as I felt, I was least heading back to Frankston with a nice tailwind…and if nothing else, at least I wasn’t one of the poor bastards coming past me in the opposite direction into that head wind and looking shattered.
In the end I did the ride in just over 7hrs, and averaged just over 25km/h. In all honesty I should have just set myself the goal of averaging 27km/h and I probably wouldn’t have felt like I was failing so badly for so long. But the mathematical ease of 30km/h proved just too tempting.
On the bright side, I had managed to get through pretty much all of my nutrition and still felt that I had some energy in my legs…so bring on the run!

Pretty sure I'm smiling because as I head off on my second lap, Luke Bell is about to finish his second.
Pretty sure I’m smiling because as I head off on my second lap, Luke Bell is about to finish his second. Photo: FinisherPix

The run (42kms)

I’m on record as saying I’ve never really been a runner. But if you’d asked me coming into the Ironman to rank the disciplines by preference, it would have been swim-run-bike. Even though I’ve only been running for about a year, I actually came in with a bit of confidence that I could maintain about a 6 minute/km pace for the run leg. After the first 1.5kms I was feeling great. I had found a good rhythm and pace, my parents had told me my swim split which had been a pleasant surprise and I was already passing people. This was going to be a triumph!
Then about 1km later I started feeling sick and had to pull over to the side of the path to vomit. As horrific as this may sound to a non-Ironman, I actually didn’t think this was too bad. I had got it out of my system, and now I just needed to get some more nutrition in and I would be fine…then I had one last little vomit and saw blood. ‘Hmmm’ I thought…’that’s probably not so good’. But I didn’t feel any pain…and I no longer felt sick, so I pushed on. At the next aid station (about 4kms in) I had some electrolytes, some watermelon and some water and then saw my coach (Craig Percival). We ran together and I told him that I had vomited, but was actually feeling much better, and he was saying that if I could hold this pace I would be passing heaps of people as there were a lot of people who had gone too hard on the bike and were now walking. Ahah! I thought. Vindication. Sure that bike leg had sucked…but now was my time to shine! I was running comfortably at about 6 minute pace and nothing could stop me.
Then it did. I got to the next aid station and my stomach was feeling queasy again. I headed into the porta-loo and vomited up everything I had eaten at the previous aid station, and a little blood for good measure. It suddenly dawned on me that this could be the end of the race. I couldn’t do another 35kms without any food or water…and this vomiting up blood thing really wasn’t that awesome either…in fact, I’m sure I saw this on an episode of ‘House’ once. So I stood in a porta-loo halfway between Frankston and Seaford and faced the fact that for the next few years, every time someone asked about the Ironman, instead of having a story of challenge and triumph…I would ultimately have to tell them that I didn’t finish. That all the training, all the effort, all the sacrifice from myself and my family had been for nothing. Then someone knocked on the door and asked if I’d ‘finished in there?’. So I climbed out of the Porta-loo, went back to the table with the water on it, drank a cup of water…and started walking.
I walked to the next aid station and had some water, some ice and some electrolyte and waited to see if I could keep it down. I did, and so I started a slow jog. At the next aid station I had a little more water and electrolyte and picked up the pace, but then my stomach felt queasy again so I slowed down. I basically did this for the remaining 30kms. I would jog when I could, then I would start to feel better, so I would get back into a run, then I would feel sick, so I would walk. But on the bright side I was keeping everything down, and while I wasn’t willing to risk having a gel (they make me want to vomit at the best of times!) I was at least able to eat some banana, or some pretzels.
The daylight faded, the heat dissipated and soon I was past Mordialloc and the half way point. People were still out supporting the runners, and I made sure I acknowledged all of them. The views were stunning and I regularly wished I had my camera. I found myself running with a group of people who were all at about the same pace and the aid stations (which are at 2km intervals) began to tick by.
I tried picking up the pace a couple of times, but again each time my stomach would start to react, and I knew I had to choose between running faster and running the risk of vomiting again (and realistically finishing the race if there was still blood coming up), or running at a slower pace, but knowing that I was going to finish. The reality was, that I was never in this to do a certain time, I was in it to finish it…and so I cruised on.

With about 3kms to go I could see the lights of the finish, and I knew that no matter what happened I was going to finish, and so I decided to just run and see how I went. It felt great. I was back to running at the pace I wanted to and made it all the way to the final aid station without any issues. I took one last hit of water and electrolytes and ran the last 2kms without any issues (I even tapped out a 4’53 for the last km!).
Running down that final chute was something I’ll never forget. The lights, people cheering, Mike Reilly saying ‘Chris Riordan, you are an Ironman!’ and my family waiting just over the finish line. Did it make up for the preceding 13hours and 45 minutes? No…but it did come surprisingly close.

Done! Photo: FinisherPix


Great shot by Luke Vesty of me crossing the finish line
Great shot by Luke Vesty of me crossing the finish line


I can’t thank enough the people who came out to support me on the day. From the Tri Nation team who were there at the start of the swim, to Jo Donnelly, Simon and Indi who cheered me as I came out of the water and then were still there to cheer (and run alongside me) about 8 hours later somewhere near Bon Beach. To my Mum and Dad who waited for me to finish the ride in Frankston and then continued to appear at random intervals like inept stalkers for the duration of the run, to Oc and Tara who for once in their lives didn’t sprint past me through Black Rock, to Luke and Matt who waited patiently at the finish line and took some sensational photos, to my coach Craig Percival who was the steady voice of reason and reassurance for the whole run and of course to Katie, Josh, Holly and Xavier who supported me the whole way from Black Rock back to St Kilda (not to mention every day for the last 15 months). And of course to everyone who has given me that look of ‘well it sounds insane to me…but if that’s what you want to do, then go for it’ over the last 15 months- Thank you.


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The family at the finish
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Matt and Luke politely avoid mentioning how sweaty I am.
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‘While I was out there I was practising my Blue Steel…check it out’


What’s next?

Will I do another Ironman? If you mean ‘Ironman’ as a metaphor for ‘pushing your boundaries and trying new things’, then yes I will. If you mean ‘Ironman’ as a metaphor for ‘setting a goal and working your arse off to achieve it’ then yes I will. But if you mean ‘Ironman’ as in an actual Ironman with a 3.8km swim/180km bike ride/42km run…then no, only a lunatic would attempt that.