How a simple idea can lead to lifestyle change
Two and half years ago, two colleagues (now friends) and I challenged each other to complete a marathon. We went from running 10km at lunch, and feeling tired afterwards, to crossing the finish line in the Olympic stadium in Amsterdam 6 months later. Little did I know that this would be a catalyst for things to come.
I continued to challenge myself: completing my second marathon in April 2018, my first half distance triathlon in June 2018 and then, stupidly, attempting the Dodentocht (100km) with my best mate in August 2018. I say stupidly because we didn’t really train for it and it injured my knee, meaning 3 months of physio and very little running.
But on 27 August 2018 (before knowing the extent of my injury) I had already decided to go for the ultimate challenge – a full distance triathlon. That’s the date I subscribed to Ironman Copenhagen. I chose that one because it’s labelled as one of the “easier” ones. I mean it’s going to be tough enough just going the distance, so I thought I’d leave the choppy waters or mountainous terrain for another day.
The real training started from the beginning of December. The months before that were mainly focused on cycling and swimming as I was getting my knee sorted and couldn’t run. But from December I never really averaged less than 5hrs of training a week unless I was sick (happened twice) or had really busy weeks at work (also happened twice) where I was travelling a lot.
I built up my training hours towards the next few months and was hitting a minimum of 8hrs a week by March. Getting closer to June, where I would test myself at Challenge Geraardsbergen, 9 weeks before Copenhagen, I was averaging about 10-11hrs.
The main challenge I had was time. Time to fit it all in. All the hours of training I needed to do. All the hours I spent at work. All the social commitments. And most importantly – my family. My 2-year-old son and wife mean the world to me and I didn’t want to jeopardise my free time with them too much. Even though you have to a little bit. There need to be compromises when you attempt something like this
And the compromise was often getting up at silly-o’clock on a Sunday morning to get my 4-5hr bike ride in. Or go for a 20km run before work. And making sure the swims were done early in the morning before work too. I’m sure plenty of colleagues have wondered why I wear chlorine smelling perfume.
Funnily enough, the last weeks before the Ironman were the toughest mentally to deal with. My motivation to train had completely disappeared. I was tired. I was irritated. I had had enough. Every run was a struggle. In July I had two weeks where I just didn’t swim because I couldn’t be bothered getting to the pool. I think just a general tiredness was setting in due to the fact I had been so focused on training for over half a year. It was time to get this over and done with, so I could get on with my life.
Not the best attitude I know but I couldn’t help it.
We got to Copenhagen on the Wednesday. It gave us some time to do the touristy part and relax a bit before the main day. Once I registered on Friday and checked my bike in on Saturday, there was nothing left to do but race.
I set my alarm at 4.05 in the morning to give me enough time to eat & digest my breakfast, have a coffee or two and a stress poo or three.
We had discovered electric steps the days before in the city (both my wife and I live outside the main cities in Belgium so have never had to use one) so this was my mode of transport towards the swim start. Once there, I filled up my drinking system on the bike, got changed into my gear and put my wetsuit on. Laura came to the swim start too so I got to see her before I started which was great.
The obligatory wet suit pees
happened, pretty sure I counted 4. I was hydrated, that’s for sure. A quick
warm up just before 7 and we were ready to go.
3….2….1…. and the female pros were off!
I had positioned myself in the 1h06-1h08 category for the swim. I was pretty sure I would manage a swim under 1h10 so thought that was a good spot. Once I got in the water, I found a good rhythm and kept at it for the full swim. Occasionally drifted a bit off course but not too much. I kept on swimming past people with red swim caps (<1h06 swim) and kept thinking: “how badly are these people judging their swim??”
I got some water in my goggles because I smacked into a rope. Oops. But I didn’t panic and just stopped for a few seconds to readjust and get rid of the water. Then from about 2.500m, I could feel my wetsuit cutting into my neck on both sides. This was my longest ever swim in a wetsuit, nice little note to myself (and others) that you should try a 4km swim with wetsuit just to see if you have any issues anywhere. I’ve now got two burn marks on my neck like I tried to hang myself.
Both calves almost cramped up too during the swim. That was the most worrying part. Cramping? Already? And I had had nothing during any training swims. It may have been the pressure of the wetsuit but I’m not sure.
But apart from that, the swim went well. That well that I finished in 1h03. Oh, so it wasn’t the others who misjudged their swim times. It was me.
I wasn’t going to beat anyone in this triathlon, only myself. I had said beforehand I would take my time during the transitions. I walked out of the water, towards the bike gear bags. No running. Just trying to calm down a bit before the next challenge. I dried myself off and walked towards the bike. Right at the end I started jogging a bit. T1 took 8:49.
I had never before cycled 180km. My longest ride had been 163km. This would be an achievement in itself. The first 40km of the bike we had a tailwind which was nice to start with. I kept a decent pace however all the way through to the second loop. I managed to stay aero too for most of the time. But my right-hand side, around the liver/gallbladder area, started to act up from then until the end of the ride. The rest of the bike I was switching between sitting up and going aero to give the side a bit of a rest. It seemed to help.
I was eating and drinking well throughout. It wasn’t bothering me yet. In fact, I was drinking a bit too much, so I had to pee. I’d already pissed myself about 4 times today so why not a 5th on the bike? But I challenge you to piss whilst cycling. It is NOT an easy skill. In the end I just stopped at the side of the road.
Talking about the side of the road, there were plenty of Danes out to support us. Some more crazy than others. On the first loop, I remember cycling past a handful of people on a short climb who cheered everyone passing and one guy with a little bell, ringing it for every cyclist. I was shocked to see them still there on the second loop, doing exactly the same thing! Fair play to them for not giving up, even after 3h+ of cheering.
I was sick and tired of the bike by about 160km. Then I saw some unlucky guy struggling to change a tyre with only 10km to go. That would have really pissed me off. (The next morning, I discovered I had a small puncture too – dodged a bullet there!)
I was really looking forward to seeing the family once I handed my bike in. For the first time, just thinking of them, caused me to well up a bit. I finished the bike in 5h37, 32kph average. I was happy with that.
Again, I took my time in T2. I was about to run a marathon after all. Once I got my shoes on, put my race bib around my waist and quickly went for a pee, I was ready to go. 5mins 51s in T2.
I started off quite well. I knew I didn’t have to try to run a 3h30 marathon, but if I managed 4h that would mean a sub 11hr finish! It was on the cards. Until about km 5.
After spotting my son again, I couldn’t help myself but get emotional. I have no idea why, but just seeing the smile on his face made me nearly start crying. Not yet Simon, you still have a long way to go yet. And it was that realisation which really hit me. Seeing others running past me with 3 wristbands already (4 loops of 10km – 1 wristband per loop) was a real mindfuck. From 5-25km were probably some of the toughest I have ever run.
My pace was dropping as I was walking at nearly every aid station to be able to drink easily. In the first few kilometres, I had high fived some kids, smiled at spectators shouting my name,… But I couldn’t keep that up. I needed to focus on myself and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Every time I stopped, it was tough to get going again. But my experience last year at the 100km Dodentocht really helped me through this. I knew that the pain I’d reached now wasn’t going to get any worse and I could keep this up until the end. It was just a matter of counting down and creating bite-size challenges. “The next aid station is only another 2km”, “Once I get past that point, it’s only another 10 mile run”, “15mins until I get to see my son again”,… Small victories during a very long day.
The run loop had an endless bit all the way past the little mermaid. It just went on and on and on. But after I had collected my third wristband and run past the finish line, I knew that every bit of the course I ran now would be the last time. Collecting that final wristband felt great. It was only another 4km from there.
I even picked up the pace a little bit at the end, running my quickest three kilometers since the first 10. Heading towards that finish line, the feeling of what I was about to achieve hit me. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, scream or shout. I probably did all four in those last 100m on the red carpet.
All those hours, all those sacrifices, just to hear those words: “Simon, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. I never knew I was capable of something like this.
I finished the run in 4h31 for a total time of 11h26. I was happy with that. To be fair, I was happy with finishing but sub 12 was definitely nice.
From chubby dad to Iron dad
I’m taking some time off before I decide what I want to do next. I probably just want to have some fun now. Go running when I want to, not when I have to. Same goes for swimming and cycling.
But as my dad just asked this evening: “Will you keep doing the three sports?” Of course I will. As I said right in the beginning, simple choices can lead to lifestyle changes. When Jack was born, I was overweight, unfit and just generally had relatively low self esteem. 2.5 years on, I’m 14kg lighter and fitter than I’ve ever been. And I’m not going to let the hard work just disappear.
The past months and even years have taught me a lot about myself.
What I’m capable of if I put my mind to it.
What it takes to achieve a (sometimes tough) goal.
And also, to quote a certain triathlon organiser: Anything is possible.
Finally, a massive thanks to my wife Laura who supported me throughout, dealt with my mood swings and made it possible for me to achieve this. Wouldn’t have been possible without you.