The day has barely dawned on a blissfully calm morning on Dublin Bay, and 2,500 strangely-clad people in gaily coloured caps are lined up on a beach in Sandycove. A horn sounds as the sea fills with a long procession of swimmers, their arms windmilling and their legs kicking with impressive frequency.
The Ironman triathlon is back in town for a second year and, with some trepidation, I am one of the wetsuit wearers taking the plunge in the snotgreen waters. This year, for added drama, there is the threat posed by the dreaded Lions Mane jellyfish, which at one point threatened the swimming section of the event.
The Dublin event is a 70.3 mile Ironman – that’s the total distance travelled in the sea and on land, amounting to half the length of the original challenge. For some, that means it isn’t the real McCoy, but try telling that to all of us who faced a swim of almost 2km, a 90km cycle and a half marathon.
The sea is calm and I see no sign of jellyfish large or small, but the incoming tide plays tricks. We slower swimmers are pushed off course now and again, and there is much bumping and accidental kicking as collisions occur.
Eventually, the buoy that serves as the halfway marker heaves into view, and it isn’t long before I’m turning for the shore. Burly men in high-viz jackets are on hand to haul us onto a pontoon, where for a few seconds our legs fail to work and we flop around like the first amphibians to hit dry land.
A quick change in a nearby marquee and soon we’re out on the road pedalling like Billy-o. The streets are closed and each road junction – almost 400 of them in total – is marshalled to prevent cars entering the route.
The pros look like human missiles with their aerodynamic helmets and solid-wheel bikes but they are long gone by the time we lesser mortals hit the Liffey quays. There are no spectators to speak of and the main challenge is to avoid jaywalkers returning from a night out.
Met Eireann forecast warm and sunny weather but by the Strawberry Beds it is raining. The going is good, though, as we speed past cut meadows replete with rolled-up bales of straw and families cheering us on from their front gates. A few hills north of Kilcock and we’re heading back to the city, with a light breeze wishing us on our way.
The thigh muscles are burning now, but the din of the spectators lining the avenues in the Phoenix Park provides great encouragement. The bikes are tossed aside, and the change from cycling shoes to runners is made in another tent. The crowds are great and I head off at a good clip.
Big mistake. The swimming and cycling have taken their toll. Four miles in, the pain level soars. Every step is leaden. I feel light-headed. My leg muscles scream “stop”.
A sip of cola helps, as does one of those sickly-sweet gels. I’m back on an even keel now, but from here on in it’s going to be a slog. It doesn’t help that you have to pass near the finishing line twice before actually getting to it. Or that ice-cream vans and barbecue stands are plying their trade cruelly close to the route.
Finally, it’s my turn to enter the finish chute. It’s payback time for all the long hours of training. It’s also the moment to recognise how far I’ve come; over a year ago, I couldn’t swim more than a length in the pool.
A little over six hours after I started, I cross the finish line. I’m an Ironman. Well, sort of.