Sean’s First Ironman

Ironman Lanzarote by Sean O’Brien

“For Tough Course Lovers” was the title of the Ironman Lanzarote registration email. Surely, it is a marketing tagline to entice some poor soul into entering Ironman Lanzarote. This poor cretinous soul fell victim to that marketing tag and before I knew it, I had registered for what undoubtably is one of the hardest Ironman races in the world.

Ironman Lanzarote is an iconic race in the Ironman calendar due the heat, humidity, and a constant battle with wind. In addition to these elements cycling 180km over 2,500m elevation makes Lanzarote the bucket list race for a lot of seasoned triathletes. A lesson in naivety was experienced and it certainly shouldn’t on the bucket list of someone who had never done a triathlon before. However, in my case, it was certainly a case of falling for a clever marketing email and a case of Magpie Syndrome in the pursuit of the iconic finisher t-shirt and medal.

The Ironman event in Lanzarote is a special race because the entire island focuses on the race. There was a strange ‘VIP’ atmosphere around Lanzarote. Everyone on the island knows how hard an athlete has worked to get to the starting line and they have witnessed the effort it takes to finish the race. It is quite the sight to see!

As a person who embraces factor 50 sun cream, I departed Dublin airport one week before the big race to acclimatise myself to the Lanzarote sunshine. As I arrived at Puerto Del Carmen, I witnessed the race buoys being carefully positioned in the sea by different boats as they outlined the 3.8km swim course.  It was difficult for me to visualise what 3.8km looked like in the sea, but it made me appreciate how grateful I was to be swimming countless lengths in UCD since January.

In the build up to race day I met up with a couple of swimmers to swim different parts of the swim course and to understand the technical aspects of the course. When I arrived at the meeting point to meet my new swimming friends, I was greeted by a comical Scottish gentleman who asked me – “did I surf?” Confused and bewildered by the introduction, I soon realised that it was my wet suit he was referencing, and he informed me that I had the incorrect wet suit for the race. After swimming part of the swim course in the surfer’s wet suit, I quickly realised that my new Scottish friend was correct, and I had to procure a new wet suit two days before the race. Trying to procure a new wet suit in Lanzarote two days before an Ironman race is quite the challenge. After countless phone calls and trips to different stores I managed to source a Sailfish wet suit.

The day before the race was fantastic.  Puerto Del Carmen was flooded with athletes who were getting their final preparations in. I was clueless, I didn’t know what to store on my bike, and I had everything including the kitchen sink in the red and blue transition bags. A very kind person from Austria offered a helping hand and we managed to get my bike set up and the transition bags a little lighter. The next time I would see my bike and the transition bike would be the morning of the race. Up until this point, I was living on cloud 9 and then reality hit me. The thought of doing the Ironman in Lanzarote was purely a mirage but after spending six months training for the biggest and toughest challenge of my life, the race was less than 24 hours away.

There was a nervous energy in the air the morning of the race. I woke up at 5:15am and headed down to the transition area to check out my bike and to load on the fuel. The transition area was about 1km in length and housed over 1,300 bikes overnight. As I witnessed a lot of athletes pull their wet suits over their tri suits and lather themselves up with sun cream, I knew something extraordinary was about to happen. I was then ushered down to the beach and was told to take my position at the starting line with the other athletes based on our predicted swim time. The day before the race I received countless messages wishing me the “best of luck”. As I now reflect on the race, one message from a T3 club member really resonated with me and kept me relaxed as I took my starting position. “Try and stay in the present”, it is amazing the impact that six simple words can have on someone. As the announcers for the day started to fire up the supporting crowd and athletes with ACDC’s Thunderstruck bellowing from the speakers, the starting cannon went off and we ran into the sea.

The swim course was quite technical, and the rising sun made sighting the buoys quite difficult. The course required a variety of swim strokes and a constant reminder to fight the urge to kick. There were over 1,300 athletes in the water, and it was a battle for the first 500m for the different swimming groups to form. Once I found my swimming group, I was able to work the other swimmers through the technical parts of the course until I took the second right hand turn that would lead onto a 2km continuous straight. This part of the course was quite monotonous, starring at the sea floor for 2km is quite hard and mentally draining but my Scottish friend told me to think of my top 5 songs and sing them throughout this section of the course. I never realised I liked so many Bee Gee songs. After the 2km straight I took another two right hand turns in shallower water until I heard Queens Another One Bites the Dust and the announcer calling my name out of the water. The swim was over, and it was time to get through transition.

How hard can a transition possibly be? I change out of my wet suit, grab my bike, and start cycling once I leave the transition area. I wished it was that easy. Once I grabbed my blue bag drop that contained my cycling gear, I failed to appreciate that every other athlete who is leaving the water is doing the same thing. As we all entered the changing room it was very busy. People were wrestling to get a place at a changing bench to get themselves ready for a 180km cycle in 27-degree heat. Watching the other experienced athletes flying through transition I panicked and failed to apply the appropriate amount of sun cream. It wasn’t long until the island witnessed a very red Irish guy cycling around the island.  

The bike course is a one lap clockwise circuit of the island. The plan for the bike course was to break the cycle into three different stages with each stage lasting 60km. This in theory seemed like a bullet proof plan but it was the opposite. The cycling course is brutal!  Each of the 60km segments is unique and contains different challenges both mentally and physically. There are two common traits between each of the segments; 1) It is hot and there’s a constant head wind and 2) the support throughout the bike course is amazing. Despite the brilliant atmosphere it felt as if I was sat in a sauna on a stationary bike with constant hot air blowing at me. The night before the race, I filled two water bottles with eight scoops of Tail Wind nutrition. This was a stupid lesson to learn as the solution wasn’t diluted enough and I wasn’t able to drink it. I had to throw away the two water bottles and rely on the nutrition that were provided at each aid section. The fuel that was provided at each aid station contained little to no carbs and I was heavily reliant on SIS gels to get me through Timanfaya and to the emergency bag zone. Fortunately, I was carrying additional Tailwind at the emergency bag zone and I was able to create a fresh bottle with the correct concentration it made the final 86km of the bike course a little bit more pleasant and enjoyable.

The infamous Haria and El Mirador climbs were the last two big obstacles to overcome. The climbs were not massively steep or long, but the headwind and sun made the hills relentlessly challenging. When I reached the summit of El Mirador I was greeted by roaring locals encouraging me to the descent. It is very easy to describe the descent down El Mirador – fast! The descent is 10km in length, but it doesn’t allow you to relax. The decent requires competent bike handling skills as you deal have switch backs, cross wind and a mixed road surface whilst clocking speed of up to 85km.

The final part of the cycle encompassed a long drag over a rough terrain through the Nazaret track. It is this part of the course where the technical officers are playing the technical watch dog. In Ironman races, you are not allowed to draft on the bike. It is at this part of the race where you see athletes starting to question their ability to finish the bike course. The heat is getting hotter, and the wind isn’t easing up. The temptation to break the drafting rules is there and it is another conundrum to overcome. After we cycled through a dog leg route around Timanfaya the stewards finally let you take the right turn home towards Puerto Del Carmen.

As I entered the transition area, it felt like the atmosphere was the equivalent of Ireland beating the All Blacks. I saw a sea of Irish jerseys and flags supporting the 89 Irish athletes taking on this iconic race; I heard a massive roar from strangers rallying me into the transition area and a come on “T3”. It was honestly one of the most surreal moments of my life and made the incredibly difficult bike course worth it! I felt quite fresh for the run and was looking forward to gaining some favourable minutes back in the marathon, however as I left transition, I noticed that I was very badly sun burned. The clock read 8hours and 30 minutes left in the race and I decided to just enjoy the next 8 and a half hours. After all I came to Lanzarote to gain the Ironman title regardless of the time that I finished the race in.

The 42.2km marathon consisted of a 11.5km loop out past the airport, and back to transition a further two 10.1km loops before crossing the finishing line and being christened with the “You are an Ironman” title. As you completed a loop you collected a blue and red arm band to indicate what part of the marathon you were at. The run route was flat but consisted of an open to the public route and you were dodging the different tourists who were out on the course encouraging all the athletes as they came closer to the end of the race with every step. There were aid stations at every 3km mark on the running course. I decided to run to each aid station, walk through the aid station and then run to the next one. I am very happy that I decided to deploy this tactic. The atmosphere at each aid station was brilliant. The volunteers handing you fuel to get you to the next aid station whilst singing and dancing to pick up the athletes’ spirits made it impossible for someone not to smile. As I came into the final loop and collected my red arm band, I knew I had about 10km left to run and the epic adventure would shortly be over. The last 3km of the course was packed with supporters and the temptation is to stop and thank every single supporter for their support throughout the day. When you finally hear the music getting louder you know you are close to the finishing line and the emotions are uncontrollable. As you see the finishing line, you are greeted by flashing lights, a countdown timer and before you know it, you hear your name being called out in front of thousand of spectators saying, “You are an Ironman”.  

Since crossing the finishing line, I have been asked a lot questions by different people. I personally find the questions very hard to answer because the race is very hard to describe. Ironman Lanzarote is a very special race and the emotional connection I have to the race is unbeknown to me. The race rightly deserves the title “For Tough Course Lovers” as it is brutal. However, the race is also a journey of discovery and it is incredible what you do learn on that journey.

Ironman Lanzarote – I look forward to our next adventure!