Thursday, August 22, 2013
The Chairman of the East Devon-based NT Triathlon Club, Dennis Elliott writes about his experiences at an event in Sweden – this is his story.
Over the recent years I have taken enormous pleasure from being Chairman of East Devon’s N1 Tri Club. Watching people gain, or regain, a passion for a sport is a wonderful thing and the human spirit thrives on the process. Triathlon races are staged over all sorts of distances, but over time I have built the greatest admiration for those who have taken on the ultimate test -The Full IronMan Distance - a jaw dropping 2.4 miles of swimming, followed by 112 miles of cycling and finally a 26.2 mile marathon run.
So it was that last week I found myself in Kalmar on the start line of the 2013 ‘Ironman Sweden race’. To give my effort some context my race number on the day was 2015, the year when I will begin to draw my state pension!
I had chosen the race in Sweden for two good reasons. First of all the bike section is relatively flat (no apologies there) and secondly the race has gained a reputation for superb organisation and also an atmosphere, second to none, which is generated by the involvement of the whole local community. I was certainly not disappointed.
At 7am in the morning I found myself standing in the middle of 2,000 plus highly trained athletes, including professional tri-athletes and a former stage winner of the Tour De France, waist deep in the Baltic Sea!
The banks of the harbour of Kalmar were mobbed and a local churchman read a moving prayer seeking safe passage for we racers. As he finished a cannon boomed and the race was on.
I quickly learned I had made a terrible mistake as I was caught in the middle of a headlong charge for the first marker buoy.
It was like being in the biggest washing machine in the world as the water churned with the efforts of swimmers fired with a potent charge of adrenaline. I gulped for air and drank large amounts of sea water as I tried to find a way out. Panic took over and I literally fought my way to the side of the field lengthening my swim, but finally finding clear water. I emerged from the water battered, but hugely relieved despite my slow time, the result of my bad planning.
So to the bike and it was here that I began to see just why it is that the Swedish race is so popular. The racers swept out of the magnificent town of Kalmar with its ancient castles and ramparts as a backdrop - a signal of former power and glory.
The first few miles involved crossing a magnificent achievement of modern engineering, a five mile long bridge, normally closed to cyclists, but on this day two of its four lanes were closed to cars, police motorbikes buzzed too and fro, and we raced high above the waters beneath. As I crossed the bridge I first became aware of the strong wind we were to face on our ride as my carbon fibre deep section bike wheels twitched violently in the wind. Off the bridge we turned on to the neighbouring large island of Oland and turned into the strong 25 mph headwind. For the next 35 miles I was bent as low as possible in a long line of racers all clad in various bright colour of lycra, aero helmets and many riding top of the range time trial bikes with disc wheels and aero handle bars. Amazingly, the whole 112 miles was staged on closed roads and every junction was manned by an orange shirted marshall with a red flag. Ironman rules insist no ‘drafting’ of other racers and motor cyclist patrolled the course carrying the ever present threat of the dreaded black card and disqualification. Each and every farm we passed we were cheered on by the families who owned them and as we passed through small towns and villages street parties were in full flight and we were urged on with the soon to become familiar Swedish cry of ‘Heya’- a mix of greeting and exhortation. I offered some ‘Good Mornings’ in my best English accent and was repaid with cheers and further messages of good will.
The hills of East Devon, Dartmoor and Exmoor have built some power in my ageing legs but the relief I felt as we turned at the end of the island was considerable. With the wind now driving us my speedo signalled a constant 22 miles an hour and I began to overhaul other racers. Back into Kalmar then a second loop on the mainland where we raced through housing estates and shopping centres with huge crowds urging us on. With 10 miles to go on the ride an awful feeling came upon me that soon I would have to leave my bike and face the daunting prospect of a marathon run. In truth my knees are a little worn and my longest training run was just 15 miles. My stomach churned with fear as I anticipated the effort. I need not have worried.
The run course was a three lap affair out around a peninsula on which beautiful houses are built overlooking the sea. Seemingly every house had its own garden party, many had flags and bunting, and some provided music to spur the racers on. Every three miles an aid station was in place where a team of orange shirted helpers served a menu of energy drinks and various foods, each runner making their individual choice of sustenance. The most amazing element for me of the race was the people I met on my journey. Some conversations lasted many miles, others lesser distances, but with my friends from Canada, Australia, America and of course Scandinavia, I developed a most reassuring bond. After one lap we entered the old walled town of Kalmar and I was just blown away by the experience. We ran down a channel of crash barriers for some two miles as the course zigzagged through the cobbled streets. The crowds were huge and the packed street- side bars and cafes had become watching places for thousands of spectators. In Ironman races the race number also carries the first given name of the competitor so now the familiar ‘Heya’ was coupled with my name. Tantalisingly the final section through the town passes through the main square where the large finishing grandstand was erected and the huge crowd roared home those who were already finishing. We were made to pass down a separate corridor alongside the finishing channel. I looked down and tried to blank out the feelings it provoked. As I left the town a yellow bracelet was placed on my arm and my second circuit began.
This time many of the faces were familiar, the greetings even warmer and amazingly my legs began to work well. The second passage through the town was as uplifting as the first as I was encouraged to keep going and finish the course and as I passed the grandstand this time I looked across at the finishing line and for the first time I dared to dream I would finish. On my final circuit dusk was drawing in but amazingly all the spectators were still in place. My second band, a blue one, signalled my final loop. At each aid station the volunteers lined up to ‘high five’ me and offer congratulations and I was able to thank each and every one of them for their support. I received a huge hug from a man who had built a pyramid of beer cans during the afternoon and a kiss from an old lady in a wheel chair. I later learned that every the person in the race received the same treatment, even those who were cruelly denied a finishing medal as they failed to cross the line within the 16 hour cut off time.
As I entered the towns walls for a final time an amazing thing happened, two young Swedish boys dressed in the organisers orange tee shirts, appeared and took up station on either side of me to escort me on my final mile. They urged me on as I passed the bars and restaurants packed with my new ‘friends’. The emotions coursed through my body, hands reached out from young and old alike. As I approached the market square the two boys disappeared, I never got to thank them. The sight in front of me was awe inspiring, the square was packed and the master of ceremonies announced my arrival, his booming mike drowning the music of some rock classic on the PA system. As luck would have it I spotted my wife, who had endured a day of endless stress and worry, standing by the finishing shute. She handed me a Union Jack flag and I proceeded down the final steps of my journey. The confirmation of my joining an exclusive club was left to the crowd as the MC had, by this time of night, trained them well, as I crossed the line he announced ‘Dennis Elliott of the N1 Tri Club Great Britain, you are an’, and the crowd roared ‘Ironman’.
My race was run and I had achieved a life long ambition and experienced one of the greatest days of my life. I have learned even at my age that setting goals and working hard to achieve them brings great joy and satisfaction especially when shared with friends and loved ones.
I am involved in a wonderful sport and as I returned to my home in England I reflected on the many people who during the day had encouraged me to return to Kalmar next year and race again. I just might do that. After all personal bests are there to be broken.
For the record it took me 14 hours 53 minutes to complete the course in 1544th place.
I was beaten in my age category (60-64) by 11 impossibly fit looking Scandinavian men (it must be genetic!) but there was at least one American and mercifully one Australian in my wake!