Head Coach Jon shares his experience of racing Ironman Lanzarote.
In May 2016 I completed what was then only my second ‘Iron’ distance triathlon at Ironman Lanzarote. After crossing the finishing line and collecting my medal I thought, "That’s a race I never want to do again". Well, it appears the wonder of time makes people rather forgetful as 3 years later, I returned.
Now for me to race Lanzarote again, it would have to take something special. So what was it that made me return I hear you ask? The Pirate Champs.
Lanzarote had been chosen as the venue for the 2019 Pirate Champs and gave me the opportunity to share the course with a unique bunch of misfits. Whilst I delayed and pondered over whether to enter or not I saw the list names increase to around 20. Alongside that, the numbers were increased by all those going out to support. That, with the added number entering from my local tri club Havering Tri meant it was a no brainer and I entered.
I thought long and hard about how to describe Lanzarote and the race but was struggling. Until I heard the following from a podcast I listen to. It sums up Lanza better than I ever could:
‘Ironman Lanzarote allows athletes to put themselves through an iron distance race except with 20-30% more suffering than any other Ironman branded event. The narrow swim entrance leads to an inevitable kicking in the water, with the fight to the first buoy feeling like you are being chased by a pack of hungry piranhas. The bike course in comparison is a doddle. 180.3 km over 2508 meters of climbing, added to the fact that no matter which way you turn on this small island the wind is blowing directly at you and the air temperature rises with every passing second. Imagine doing a 6-7 hour FTP test in a wind tunnel which has recently been converted into a sauna with a very mean person at the controls. The run starts where the bike left off and is just as tough due already having emptied the tank. The run is straight and rolling, but as the run continues in the afternoon sun, the three loop course looks more and more like the casting call for some kind of zombie apocalypse film. Ironman Lanzarote is punishing but for that reason a race which has to be on everyone’s list’.
Now that’s set the scene, onto my race...
I arrived in Lanzarote around midday on the Wednesday (race was Saturday). The plan was to get to the hotel from the airport then across to the other side of the island to register and collect our race numbers and rather expensive substandard backpack. Backpack in hand, next stop was Bar Ruta 66 (Pirate HQ). Sure enough, upon arrival at said bar, numerous drunken revellers were located. After exchanging pleasantries we headed back to the hotel and ventured out for a short leg stretch run. Following this, it was back to Ruta for a few beers and a big group dinner with the gang.
Thursday came around and it was time to get out early to swim one lap of the course. The main aim was to experience the likely race day conditions and course familiarisation. About 10 of us all set out together and as soon as we started swimming I began to have some issues. This was my first open water swim of the year (given the chilly UK waters) but even so, I was confident I would be fine as I had done lots of pool swimming. I do not know if it was the wetsuit, choppy conditions, or just me being a bit soft, but I had a shocker. I couldn’t keep pace with anyone around me and what was supposed to be an easy ‘peace of mind’ swim become the complete opposite. I had a complete Western Super Mare and it took the best part of an hour to swim 1 lap. Having entered the water feeling pretty calm and confident I exited fearing swim cut off times. Those around me did their best to be supportive but I pretty much then and there wanted to sink into the sand.
After a few more hours of moping about feeling sorry for myself, I summoned the motivation to start rebuilding my bike with the intention of going out for a ride in the afternoon. I rebuilt the bike fine and was then looking forward to a short prep ride. Having got all dressed up in my Lycra, I met Flatfooted outside the front of the hotel and off we set. However, the second issue of the day, I couldn’t change gear. My Di2 was dead. I had recharged it before leaving so was sure it wasn’t that. Back to the room and I dismantled the bike to discover one of the cables connecting my Di2 had disconnected itself and dropped back into the frame of the bike. 35 Euros and a trip to a local bike shop later and the bike was fixed, however, this had taken up most of my day and was not ideal prep.
Friday came around and I was hoping my luck had changed. Flatfooted joined me once more and this time the bike was fine. We set off and had a short ride along the first loop of the run leg and out passed the airport. This is where we really encountered the wind. That was an eye-opener! And eye -closer for that matter after being blasted by sand from the beach. However, pleased to report the bike and more importantly, bike legs felt great.
Friday afternoon, after much faffing, it was time to rack our bikes and kit in transition. This was done without any issues and was a largely simple task thanks to their being no split transition. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and chilling out with an early night ready for race day.
I woke up early (4am) and did the normal force-feeding of carbs and coffee to get the system going. I then mixed up my bottles ready for the day and once ready met up with a few of the others and walked down to transition. After placing the bottles and nutrition on my bike and checking the tyres I joined the queue for porta-loo. Thankfully I had my first victory of the day and then set about trying to get myself in the zone.
I met up with the other Pirate massive and exchanged a few Lycra-clad buttslaps and handshakes as we waited for the off. I decided to position myself in the 1 hour 30 zone thinking I would be around this time. I was surprised to see so many others also in this zone but decided to go with it all the same.
Shortly after hearing the National Anthem and Thunderstruck being played via the sound system we were off. We entered the water to the sounds of cheering and clapping of the numerous supporters who had gathered. But this was soon all forgotten when I received the first clump to the back of my head. Then another and another. I was in the middle of a melee. I was being bashed left, right and centre and had nowhere to go. The only option was to ride it out and hope for some clear water soon. After we turned the first buoy and began to swim parallel to the shoreline the fighting finally stopped. This allowed me to set my rhythm and then concentrate on my swim.
The swim course is two laps with an Australian exit at the midway point. I found the conditions tough and choppy, however, I felt comfortable and kept a steady pace going. On completion of lap one, I looked across to the clock fearing the worst given the issues I had just two days earlier. I was pleasantly surprised to see 42 minutes despite the hectic start. I re-entered the water and had a much more uneventful second lap. On completion of lap two, I exited the water and saw 1 hour 30 mins. Exactly what I thought would be the likely time for me.
I entered T1 and was immediately hampered by the sheer volume of other athletes there. One of the main negatives to being an average swimmer is that I come out of a swim and find myself surrounded by other athletes and many of them do not share the same need for a quick transition as myself. I did the best I could to get in and get out as quickly as possible, but would guess I lost around 2 minutes due to this.
Having jumped onto my bike and pressed ‘go’ on my Garmin I set off in hot pursuit of those ahead of me and quickly got up to speed and found my rhythm. My legs felt great and as soon as we turned left out of the main Playa Del Carman strip I began to overtake others. The 2019 course is different from the course I rode in 2016 and starts with a gradual climb along the Donkey Track. I loved this! It meant you had to be on your game straight away and gave an indication of the day to come.
This was the first time I had ridden my new Ribble Ultimate Tri bike in a race scenario and it was feeling excellent. Very comfortable but still feeling fast. This was proving to be evident as I made my way up through the field. I stuck to my nutrition strategy and raced to feel and heart rate, making sure I was not burning all of my matches too soon. After about 13 miles I caught up to Flatfooted who was having a decent race and going well. We exchanged a few pleasantries before I continued up the road trying to reduce the inevitable deficit I had to those stronger swimmers ahead.
The heat was gradually increasing and although I could definitely feel it, I was comfortable given the presence of the wind. Having got out off of the coast and into the Island the wind was barmy! No matter which way you turned it seemed to be coming directly at you. I have been to and ridden in Lanzarote on three separate occasions, but I can safely say the wind on this day was the strongest I’ve ever felt. There were times where I was holding the TT bars and thought to myself that I’d really rather be on the hoods covering my brakes, however, I couldn’t risk taking my hands off the bars to reach for the hoods! Every break in buildings, every change in landscape and every turn all contributed to a new set of conditions to deal with. Despite this, I was still making good progress and things seemed to be going well.
As I got deeper into the bike course I caught and overtook a few of the other Pirates, namely Sunnysider Phil, Effing Madness and Jon G (forgot Pirate name). Having them on the course with me was a massive boost and seeing a friendly face definitely helped to take the pain away... if only for a few seconds. As I was cresting the top of one of the Island's biggest climbs Haria I caught up to the lead Pirate Funkin (David Rowe). I hadn’t met Funkin before this race but knew he was a very good athlete and was surprised to have caught him on the bike. From this point and for about the next 30 miles we inadvertently ended up leapfrogging each other in a game of chase the leader. Each time the road went uphill I would overtake him, each time it would go down he would overtake me. This was actually a great motivator and in a strange way, good fun. His gear choice clearly was more suitable for the descents and I just couldn’t go with him as I was spinning out and had no resistance to turn the pedals with, mine, on the other hand, would appear to have been better for the climbs.
After the last climb some 10 miles from the finish, I began to feel the onset of fatigue. I have been here before- when you ‘bonk’, there is no return. Due to this, I made a decision to ease back and ensure I took on sufficient calories and fluids ready to fuel my run. I dispatched with the ‘no more than one gel in 20 minute’ rule and consumed all of my remaining gels. Maybe about four. Not advisable but it was exactly what I needed as I felt much better soon after. Sure enough, Funkin came flying back passed me at this stage.
As I turned back onto the Puerto Del Carmen strip, I headed towards T2 and passed Pirate HQ. I was greeted by the unmistakable roar of 1000 drunken Pirates (actually more like 15 but 1000 makes the story more interesting). Having practised my flying dismount in training (at least once) I was confident now was the time to unleash it. As it happens, it went rather well and I did not make a complete fool of myself. My bike time was 6:27:00 which I was very happy with given the terrain and conditions on the day.
Having climbed off the bike you are never quite sure how your run legs are going to feel. Running with my bike back into T2 I was amazed to feel that they were actually in decent nick. I ran down the slope back into the bike racking area where a volunteer took my bike off of me leaving me to collect my run bag and change into my run kit. This was quick and largely pain-free... that was until a helper decided to slap sunscreen onto me which felt like molten laver had been poured all over my neck!
I grabbed my visor and sunglasses and set off along the long slow plod to the airport on lap one again passing Ruta to more cheers. It was here that my Sherpa Laura (AKA Skittles) was standing. She let me know that Funkin was 4 minutes ahead of me up the road. It was good to know but I wasn’t going to try and actively chase him down but just tried to settle into my own run. I hadn’t really noticed the heat too much on the bike due to the wind but now I was running it was all I could think about. Any plans for pace soon went out the window and I just tried to keep my heart rate at a level I knew I could sustain. The ice-cold wet sponges at the feed stations were an absolute blessing.
After about 2 miles into the run, I caught and passed Funkin although with all of the place swapping on the bike I wasn’t sure if it would continue on the run! The run course is slightly undulating but there is nothing on there to really cause you any real concern….with the exception of the out and back section by the airport on lap 1. You start by running 1 longer 13 mile out and back followed by 2 shorter out and backs. At least I knew I only had to do this section once as the whole section passed the airport and beyond is very open and was being battered by the wind. It reduced me to walking on a few occasions but I made sure I just kept keeping one foot in front of the other. Having reached the turnaround point it was now much better and I was able to get back into my running.
Shortly after I had cleared the airport section and was heading back in to finish lap 1. As you begin to re-enter the Puerto Del Carmen strip the crowds increase and with it so does your mood. I was now also seeing some of the other Pirates and my Havering Tri club members running in the opposite direction which also helped to raise the spirits. However, let’s not disguise the fact that Ironman’s are stupid, and they hurt, and this was now getting very hurty.
Laps two and three pretty much followed the same routine. I tried to just keep the legs ticking over, walking all the feed stations to make sure I was getting fuel on board. I was taking advantage of the ice sponges and keeping myself cool and stuck to flat coke for fluids. This seemed to work well as I was able to keep going and did not experience any stomach or muscle cramping which so often happens at this late stage of racing.
As I ran back into the PDC for the last time I passed Ruta to see all of the Pirates cheering and whooping. In typical Posh style I gave them all a little bow, blew them a kiss then ran into the finish and across the line in 11 hours 46 mutes and 53 seconds, fishing out with a 3:39:08 marathon.
After collecting my medal, getting some food, drink and a massage I collected my bike and bags and headed for the only place to be seen… Ruta.
So was I happy? Yeah, I’d say so. It was a 30 minute personal best for this course in arguably more difficult conditions. I had hoped to go closer to 11 hours but given the current level of fitness I went into the race with, I did all I could and produced a decent performance.
Do I want to go back to Lanzarote and race the Ironman again?...... No, never!