Helen's Ironman Italy experience

Well, I'm not really sure how to write about this!

About a year ago I (Helen) was debating which full distance triathlon to do in 2018, I had my eye on Barcelona, but a lot of my friends are members of Havering Tri Club and they had all signed up for Ironman Italy.

So, after some persuasion, mainly from Brett (Thanks Brett) I signed up to join them, and a few months later I persuaded my friend Jenni to also sign up, we were really looking forward to a holiday and the opportunity to participate in the race together.

So, on Wednesday 19th September we flew out to Bologna, hired a car (driven by my boyfriend Adam) and after about an hour’s drive we arrived in Cervia where we were staying right opposite the finish line of the event.

We arrived and checked in, then headed down to registration, as we had arrived a few days before the event this was a super quick and easy process. We had an amble around the expo, I bought a vest and a bike box sticker, then we headed down to the water’s edge to look at the swim. The sea was warm, and from just a quick paddle we could tell it was likely to be a non-wet suit swim.

Adam kindly built our bikes whilst we registered and after that we found a local cafe for some food, and a gelato shop, then pretty much headed to bed as it had been a long day (we had got picked up by the taxi at 4.30am).

Thursday morning, we headed down to the beach to swim in the sea, we went down without wetsuits in anticipation of the warm sea. We headed out to swim and quickly encountered a very large number of jellyfishes. Like a jellyfish ball pit, everywhere you looked there were jellyfish, to the left and right, and underneath us, some close to the sea bed so a safe distance and some close enough to touch accidentally as we swum along. We panicked. Quite dramatically... And swam back to shore very quickly. Oh dear... This wasn't in the plan. The next 48hrs involved a lot of jellyfish research. We came to the conclusion that they were 'Barrel Jellyfish' they were big, and had a purple line round the base? by base I mean the bottom of the mushroom shaped bit... They had 8 'legs' but apparently were not very dangerous and only ate plankton, this didn't make them any less scary, they were decidedly weird, and we didn't want to share our swim with them!

Thursday afternoon we tested our bikes, just locally, checking everything was in working order ready for the event, I’d packed my Primal Frequency Evo Bib shorts and Jersey for this ride. We found a nice local restaurant for dinner and had another reasonably early night.

Friday was for race prep. A good breakfast, bottles of hydration drinks constantly in hand, we headed to the race briefing where they confirmed the water temp was above 25 degrees at the current time and that there were many jellyfish in the water... Nothing we could do about it though, but as a precaution we headed to the pharmacy and ordered some jellyfish repellent... Had to be worth a try?

Then we racked our bikes, put our transition bags in their relevant racking and spent the afternoon dozing on the beach (in the shade) trying to get some rest and staying calm and hydrated.

Another early night on Friday, with a 4.15 alarm set for Saturday - Race Day.

Friday night did not go well for me, I was restless, and kept waking up with hot and cold sweats, I'm not sure anyone sleeps well the night before an event, but this was rough compared to my usual pre-race panic.

We went to breakfast at 5am (the hotel started breakfast early for athletes), but I struggled to eat, managing about half an omelette before having a breakdown, crying and running out of the breakfast room saying I didn't want to do it. Oh dear. There were still 3 hours till the race start and I was not in a good way. I didn't manage to eat any more, but I sipped some water whilst everyone else ate breakfast. Then headed back to the room to get ready. Then it was time for Jenni's nerves to kick in, between us this wasn't a good start, but after a few minutes of comforting each other we got our stuff ready, applied sunscreen, packed nutrition and headed to the transition area to prep our bikes.

Into transition, pumped up our tyres, added water bottles and food to our bikes, checked everything we needed was in our transition bags. The organisers were announcing that whilst the water temperature was a little warmer than a normal wet-suit legal swim in the interests of participant safety wet-suits would be permitted as they would provide some protection from the jellyfish...

So, we put our wet-suits on, and lined up in the last start pen, for participants expecting their swim to take 1hr 30 mins or longer. There were hardly any people in this pen. Everyone had seeded themselves in a faster group. But it did mean it wasn't crowded. Athletes entered the water 6 at a time every 5 seconds, so soon we were lining up at the water’s edge, a quick good luck to each other and off we went into the water.

The water was shallow at the edge, so you had to wade out a little way before starting swimming. I found myself looking intently for jellyfish, expecting any moment to come across a whole group of them. I freaked myself out, did a dodgy breaststroke for a few meters, not wanting to put my head in the water and see any. But this was inefficient. So I gave myself a bit of a talking to, resumed a normal freestyle stroke and headed off into the swim. I did see some jellyfish during the first loop (the course was 2 sections with an aussie exit) but they were few and quite reasonably spread out, nothing to panic over. Soon I was back at the aussie exit, a short run along the beach and back into the water for the last section of the swim. I have to say there were more jellyfish on this loop and at the first turn buoy I did manage to hit one which freaked me out a bit, but I soon calmed down, there wasn't much of the swim left to do.

1hr 29 mins later I was out of the water and heading up the beach towards transition. I changed completely in transition and put on bib shorts and a cycle jersey, it doesn't take long to change, and this ensured I was comfortable on the ride.

The bike course was pretty flat, with only 1 hill that you had to ride over twice. This meant most of the time was spent tucked down on aerobars. The course was quite straight and for the most part was out and back, so you could see the other participants on the course. This meant we managed to spot each other a couple of times on the bike, and say hi to many of the Havering Tri participants too which was great.

The bike leg took me a while longer than anticipated, but 6hrs 50mins later I was off the bike and back into transition. Once again, a complete change of clothes - this time into a running vest and shorts, then out onto the run course.

The run was 4 x 10km laps then the last 2km ran around a turning and alongside the transtition area before coming into the finishers chute. It was still warm as I started the run, the temperature in the day had been about 30 degrees, so starting the run at about 5pm it wasn't much cooler. I carried a bottle of water from the bike and topped it up at the aid stations on the run. The first lap passed quite quickly, I managed to see several people I knew during the switchback sections, me and Jenni also spotted each other, it was great to know we were both on the final discipline and doing ok. On the second lap I managed to see my friend Olivia and spent a while with her until we picked up our second lap bands. Olivia had an ankle injury and was doing a great job of power walking the marathon, much faster than some people would be running it. Shortly after we got our second lap bands I tried at jogging on into lap 3. Then I caught up with another friend Nikki and did part of this lap with her until I had collected my third lap band. Onto the fourth and final lap, I spent a while with a guy who was doing his first ever Ironman event but had already decided he was absolutely up for doing another one next year!

I had calculated this event would take me approximately 14hrs 30 mins, so I was rather surprised when with 7km to go I realised I had only been on the course for 13hrs 10mins. This wasn't taking as long as I had thought it would.

A bit more shuffling along and I had got my 4th lap band and was heading towards the final turn. Alongside the extremely long transition set up, then onto the finishing chute. Through the bright lights, along the red carpet, under the gantry and I was an Ironman again! 14hrs and 4 minutes later my Ironman Italy journey was complete.

I picked up my medal and finishers t-shirt and headed out to the stands to cheer on the other finishers. Adam had been tracking everyone on the app, so when we knew Jenni was close to the finish I went back into the athlete area to greet her at the finish line. The experience of being at the finish together was amazing. It was a great achievement and I'm so pleased we managed to do this race together. We stayed together at the finish line to cheer everyone on until the last athlete crossed the line 16hrs after the event start. There were fireworks, sparklers, confetti cannons and music to celebrate.

It really was a very emotional moment, especially as we were surrounded by so many people we knew, it was great to see everyone on the course and at the finish.

Back in the UK now and I've managed a 5km recovery run today after 2 rest days. Back to training for my next events...