Last Sunday Club Member and Triathlete Stephen Pepper completed an Ironman event held in the UK in Bolton. This was his first Ironman triathlon and comprised of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. This is his story ………
I arrived in Bolton 2 days before the race, injury free and feeling good. I had followed a very intensive training programme over the past 6 months and was physically in the best shape I had ever been in my life. The Friday and Saturday were spent getting registered, getting my bike built up, viewing the bike course and having a practice swim in the lake.
The swim start was at 6am on Sunday morning. A huge crowd of spectators had gathered to watch the swim start, that along with the 2500 nervous competitors made the atmosphere electric. Once the national anthem was played we were ready to go, I was that nervous I could feel my heart beat right through my wetsuit! Once the gun went we were away, I jumped into the murky waters of Pennington Flash and began to swim. The first 300 meters of the swim was mental. It was like being in a washing machine with arms and legs flying everywhere. I got a nasty kick on the nose early on and swallowed some water – but I was ok and soon got into my swimming stroke, found my rhythm and was slicing through the water nicely. I was conscious to keep a steady pace and not push too hard as there was a long way to go. The swim lap was 1.2 miles then we had to exit the water run across the pontoon and jump in again to swim another loop of 1.2 miles. The second lap was ok with no incidents, it seemed to fly by and in no time the swim was finished. As I got out of the water I checked my time on the watch – I had taken 1 hour32 minutes to complete the swim. I was happy with the time, and I felt fresh after it. It was then a run into transition, strip off the wetsuit, put on the cycling shoes, helmet, climb on the bike and away. I had been told beforehand that the bike course was tough and they weren’t wrong. It starts with a 14-mile steady drag from Pennington Flash up to the outskirts of Bolton. Then 2 laps of 49 miles throughout the Lancashire countryside with over 6680 ft. of climbing. I started at a good pace and started to make my way up through the field. I was careful not to go out too hard and to avoid drafting the cyclists in front of me. The last thing I wanted was a time penalty or disqualification for drafting. Once I reached the 2-lap circuit this is where it got tough. The crowd support here was immense as you cycled through the villages and in some parts 10 – 12 people deep. There are 2 signature climbs on the looped course, Sheephouse Lane and Hunters Hill and you do both of these twice. I would describe Sheephouse Lane as roughly the same elevation and difficulty as Spelga , only slightly longer. The crowd support here was awesome, they were lined both sides of the roads, roaring encouragement, I’ve never experienced anything like it. At the top there were 5 guys dressed as wrestlers dancing to a mobile disco, this made me laugh as I got over the top of the climb. I had made sure I had cycled plenty of hills in training and had ridden Slieve Croob, the Windy Gap , Spelga, The Boling Well on numerous occasions over the last 6 months – this definitely stood by me. The rest of the loop was a rolling course and I was able to overtake quite a few people and move up the field. I then reached Hunters Hill which would be very similar to Rathfriland Hill. It was into my lowest gear, out of the saddle and grind my way up it, once again the crowd support here was phenomenal, I felt like I was in the Tour De France! I then cruised round to complete the first loop of 49 miles. I had my Garmin programmed to bleep every 10 minutes to remind me to eat and drink on the bike, as I needed plenty of calories on board to fuel the bike ride and for the run that was to follow. I found the second loop of the bike tough, once again I got up Sheephouse Lane and Hunters Hill ok, I then had about 25 miles to go. I decided to “drill the bag” clean out of the last 25 miles and managed to overtake loads of competitors who were struggling. I think I was producing more watts than Peter Sagan at this point! Lol. The end of the bike ride and transition 2 was at the Macron stadium where Bolton Wanderers play football. To be honest I was so glad to get off the bike, I had no punctures or mechanicals on the way round which was a relief because anyone who knows me, would tell you that bike maintenance is not my strong suit! I checked the clock and I had completed the 112 mile bike section in 6hrs 43mins. I was happy enough with that.
At this stage it was absolutely roasting, I racked the bike and put on my running shoes. Now I had to run a marathon to reach the finish line. The run is by far my strongest discipline; however, you would not have thought it if you had seen me shuffle out of the Macron stadium. I was not a pretty sight! At this point I felt terrible and my body just did not want to run. Once out of the stadium the course turned right and to my despair I was faced with the “mother” of all hills. This would have been a tough hill on a normal run, but at the start of an ironman marathon it was sadistic. I had only one option but to walk it. I tried not to get too down on myself but It was a big concern, that I was having to walk so soon with such a long way to go. I managed to get myself running again all beit slowly and made the first aid station where I drank plenty of electrolytes on the way through. I have to say the first 6 miles of the run were the hardest of my whole race. I was in a dark place and just wanted to lie down in the middle of the road. I looked at my watch and I realised the pace I was running at was fine and my heart rate was spot on, it was then I knew that there was nothing wrong with me physically – I was just mentally drained. I told myself to man the f**k up and just get on with it – I could do this. After about 8 miles, I had reached Bolton town centre. I then had to run just over 3 laps of 6 miles to reach the finish. I have to say the crowd support on these laps was like nothing I have ever experienced before, and that includes the London marathon. They were 3 -4 deep the whole way around shouting encouragement all the way. Being a looped section, it meant that I had to pass the finishing chute 3 times before I finished. When I passed it the first time I was envious at the professionals who were running up the chute and were finishing already. It was at this point that I finally got my running legs back. It was a big relief to me to finally feel comfortable running and my breathing and heart rate were under control. With 17 miles to go It was time for me to go into auto pilot and just churn out the miles like I had been doing in training. I made sure to drink and take on plenty of nutrition as I ran through the aid stations at every mile. The run course was like a massacre, some athletes really struggling with the heat and distance. Grown men were crying their eyes out, they were in so much pain as they realised they would be unable to finish. It was a relief to reach the final lap. I still felt strong and kept a steady pace. I had overtaken loads of people by this point. Finally, I reached mile 25 and I knew I was going to make it. The last mile was all downhill and it was great to take in the atmosphere of an Ironman finish. I reached the finishing chute and this time I was allowed to run up the carpet. There were grandstands either sides of the carpet, filled with thousands of people shouting your name. It was an amazing experience and totally blew my mind. Just as you approach the finish line, they announce over the loud speaker Stephen Pepper “You Are An Ironman”. I had completed the marathon in 3 hours 38 minutes.
My final time for completing the whole course was 12 hours 17 minutes and I was absolutely delighted with that.
It was an amazing feeling to finally complete what I had set out to do over 6 months ago. I had worked bloody hard for it and it was a great sense of achievement. Would I do another one? Absolutely, already looking into it!!!