Phil’s Ironman Copenhagen Experience

I hate open water swimming me. Well, that’s not true. I often say it, but the truth is I fear open water swimming. It causes me anxiety. I don’t like being out of my depth. Therefore the ironman swim was always going to be the biggest challenge mentally for me out of the 3 disciplines, even if it was the easiest physically. I first tried open water swimming a few years ago, after I’d done several pool sprint triathlons. The natural progression seemed to be to go onto standard distance and longer triathlons. However, after a couple of OW sprints at Eton Dorney, a standard distance at Bosworth, and a swim across Bala lake in Wales, with no support boat and waves that seemed to be 10ft high to me (and still ranks as one of the scariest experiences of my life) , I decided to pack away the wetsuit.

Probably before I’d put my wetsuit away, I’d also decided endurance events were no longer for me. I’d run 3 marathons in the previous few years, but found the training would generally lead to injuries or illness. I’d actually trained for about 7 marathons and had to withdraw from or reduce the distance of several. Ironically, one of the 3 marathons that I did complete I didn’t train for. At the long course weekend in Tenby a few years back I thought I’d entered the half-marathon, only to find that when I got to registration they had me down for the full. They said they could change me to the half, but not wanting to cause them any bother, I said “Nah, it’s OK, I’ll do the marathon”. It turned out to be the most enjoyable one I did!

So, why am I telling you my OW swimming and long-distance running history in quite a negative light, when I’m supposed to be doing a write-up about Copenhagen Ironman? Well, I guess everyone who attempts Ironman has their own challenges to overcome. These were some of mine. You’ll hear more in detail shortly, you’ll be pleased to know. And a good story always needs the hero (that’s me!) to overcome many obstacles on the way to eventual victory and redemption. Well, bear with me, things turn out OK in the end…

In early 2016, my work friend, Mark, suggested that he may want to do an Ironman in 2017. We have done many triathlon and other events together and he wondered if I was interested. Bearing in mind what I’ve already told you, my answer should have been ‘No!’ straight away. However, after my first sprint tri in 2011, there was always something in the back of my mind, telling me I wanted to do an Ironman to prove to myself I could. Just like when I took up running in my mid 30s; a marathon became the ultimate goal. So, I thought if I AM going to do this it needs to be soon, as I’m not getting any younger. Could I pull on a wetsuit again? There was only one way to find out. I bought an Orca S6 (reduced price of course – so they tell you) and decided to take the scary plunge again. I had to be sure before sign up date. We had settled on the Copenhagen Ironman, after considering Sweden and a few others, as from what we could tell it was one of the ‘easiest’, with a rolling swim start, and a fairly flat bike and run course. We knew Copenhagen sold out within a few days when it opened for entry in August.

So I did a couple of open water swims in August 2016 and they weren’t too bad. As long as I didn’t stray too far from the shore and I could see safety boats I could cope. So the decision was made and we entered Copenhagen Ironman on the day the entries opened for 2017. Another friend, Gary, also signed up. He was a veteran of Ironman & long distance, having done the mighty Wales Ironman twice before as well as other long distance events.

Fast forward 12 months and it’s a sunny morning with scattered cloud as I bob about in the warm-up area in the Lagoon at Amager Strandpark a few kilometres from Copenhagen centre. We’ve had a bit of rain earlier as we did our final set-up of our bikes, and queued for the porta-loos, but now the weather’s looking pretty good. We’re told the water is 18.8 degrees, but it feels warmer. Probably because everyone is having their pre-race wee in the warm-up area. I know I am. Yesterday, when we checked our bikes in to T1 here, it was very windy. As we’d crossed one of the 3 pedestrian bridges that straddle the lagoon, myself and Mark looked down to see swathes of weed in the water. We’d been warned about the weeds (or grass as they’d called it in the race briefing). I don’t like weeds. However, we’d been told that at least it meant the jellyfish had gone away now! I hate open water swimming.

As I swim a few strokes in the warm up area, then bob around for a bit, I look out and see the masses of swimmers heading for the first big turn buoy. It’s a right-turn about 250 metres into this one lap loop of the man-made shallow lagoon that is fed by the Baltic Sea. I see someone being dragged out before they’ve even reached the first turn, and taken back to shore on the back of one of the life-guard jet skis. My stomach turns! Is that going to be me too? About 10 weeks ago I suffered a panic attack whilst swimming at Cliff lakes. I managed to make it back to shore, but hadn’t really managed to do much training in the open water since. I’d done most of my distance training in the pool since then, and outdoors done very short stints and practiced ‘recovering’ e.g. flipping on my back, changing to breastroke etc. in case I panicked again. However, on the plus-side I had managed to do my first ever open water 3.8k swim 3 weeks before the ironman at Box End.

I’ve got a purple ironman swim hat, so I’m one of the last to start. You choose your hat colour at registration depending on what you think your swim time will be. The faster swimmers go first. 6 swimmers start every 6 seconds. You’re further separated into 3 pens just before the start based on a further breakdown of your predicted finish time. I’ve finished my warm up and I’m stood in my pen edging my way towards the start line. I see my wife Simone, as I’m about 60 seconds from my start. I try and make a comedy nervous face, so she doesn’t see how really nervous I am. Then I try and force a smile for a photo. Beep, beep, beep… right we’re off!

I walk into the water. None of this running malarkey, I need to save my legs for later! I struggle for the first 2 or 3 minutes and just doggy-paddle along. I just keep telling myself to keep calm and I can do this. I try to stay wide on the left and let all the more confident swimmers go by. There are canoes and a jet ski nearby, so it makes me feel a little better. Once I get my head in the water and start to swim, I eventually start to get my rhythm. The water is fairly clear and the lagoon is not that deep, in fact you can touch the bottom in a lot of places. The weeds aren’t too bad; stringy, but don’t feel like they’re dragging you down like the ones at Top Barn! The sun is out, I feel OK. You know what, I might be able to do this!

As I swim under the bridges I see distance signs to show how far I’ve gone, and crowds of people cheering. After the first few hundred metres, my anxiety has gone, and I’m actually quite enjoying this. The anxiety will come back once or twice briefly later in the swim, but there are always safety boats nearby to allay my fears. There’s no real crowds of swimmers thanks to the rolling start. I pass one or 2 people and even catch up with some green hats from the wave before. When I learnt to swim front crawl a few years back, Gary who is a very good swimmer, advised me to learn with bilateral breathing incorporated from the start. I did this and it is now natural for me to breathe every 3 strokes. It was a good bit of advice for OW swimming. On longer swims I often start to chant 1-2-breathe, 1-2-breathe in my head as I swim, just to pass the time. This day was no exception, although I did vary it. Half way round I thought “what was my race number again? I need to remember it to pick up the right bag. 2462, that’s right”. So my chant became 2-4-6, 2-4-6. Clever eh?

The last-but-one turn is a tight 180 degrees just down under the south bridge and into the canal that leads back to the sea. I get round this quite well, but then notice a rope ahead of me herding swimmers back towards a narrow, central part of the bridge, so I have to change direction sharply. Apparently I did better than some who swam into or over/under that rope! However, once back into the lagoon there’s probably only 300 or 400 metres to go. The sun makes spotting the finish arch a bit tricky, but before long I’m there and out of the water. Phew what a relief! 1:34:35 for the swim. Faster than my only previous 3.8k timed swim at Box End 3 weeks before.

T1 is big. 3200 bikes cover a lot of ground. I’ve no intention of going quickly anyway. I grab my bike bag from the rack and walk towards the changing benches. I feel dizzy, so sit down and eat the energy bar I stashed in my bike bag. I take off my wetsuit, dry myself off, and put on my bike gear. I have a long sleeve bike top to put on over my tri top, and cycling shorts to put on over my tri shorts. This is how I’ve done all my long training rides. Bike shorts over tri shorts for extra comfort! My “Udderly Smooth” Chamois cream had been applied this morning before I left the hotel room.

I pack all my swim stuff in the bike bag and drop it into the correctly numbered industrial bin. After what seems like a long trek in my bike shoes I eventually pick up my bike and wheel it to the mount line. I get on and away we go. Hold on! Crap! I’ve left my painkillers in the bike bag. Oh, did I not tell you about my bike injury?

During the training for Ironman, I completed my first ever century ride, followed by another couple in quick succession. On attempting what was to be the last-but-one century ride of the training plan I started getting sharp pain on the inside of my right knee. It was so bad after 50 miles that I had to abandon that ride. I’d had this pain before several years ago and it had gone of its own accord back then. So I rested. I was due to do the 100 mile Myton bike ride 2 weeks before Ironman, but I thought it would be wiser to do the 100k now with this injury in mind. It sort of fitted in nicely anyway as the rest of the tri club were doing the 100k too! After having rested on the bike mostly for a couple of weeks, the Myton ride was not too bad, although my knee was quite painful again by the end. So I decided on no more bike rides before Ironman, just lots of stretching and a sports massage.

So the first 10 miles of the bike ride fly by. The road surface is good, it’s fairly flat, the weather is nice, and I must be averaging 17-18 miles an hour. The first bit of the bike ride, once your through Copenhagen, is out along the coast with some nice views. I’d already worked out beforehand that I need to average 15 mph at least to safely beat the cut-off time of 9.5 hours for the swim and bike, and that was allowing 2 hours for swim and T1. The bike ride is an out and back with 2 loops, finishing in the city centre. After 10 miles I start to feel a slight twinge in my knee. “It’ll be fine” I tell myself, there aren’t any hills. 40 miles in and my knee is hurting. The course has come away from the coast and through some slightly hillier country lanes. Nothing like Wales or even some of the hills around Redditch, but still hills and my knee doesn’t like them. Faster riders are zooming past me on their tri-bikes as I trundle along on my road bike. The leaders come past me on their second lap sounding like TIE fighters with their rear disc wheels. After the country section, we’re back on a bigger road heading back towards Copenhagen. It’s quite undulating and before the final nutrition station of the loop, there is a hill (maybe the longest and steepest of the course) with lots of people crowded around cheering and a guy with a microphone and TANNOY system encouraging riders up the hill. “Smile”, he says. “This is a good day!” I’m not feeling like smiling right now.

I have pork pies and minstrels on my bike for nutrition as this is what I trained with. However, the stomach is not liking these today for some reason. I think it’s the high 5 energy drink I picked up on the first nutrition point causing the problem. It’s not something I’ve not had in training and like they say, you should steer clear of things you’ve not trained with. I’ll stick to water from now on. I reach the split point for the 2nd lap and watch jealously those who are already finishing their 2nd lap and heading back into Copenhagen centre. My mood, and the weather seem to darken. Lap 2 is much lonelier. There are times when I can’t see any bikes ahead of me and wonder for a moment if I’m still on the right road. 70 miles in and I need a wee. The next nutrition stop / toilets are 10 miles away. It is a long 10 miles. We’ve had a few light showers, but now the skies open and there is a torrential downpour as I head up a hill in the country lane section. A flash of lighting and a crack of thunder. Gusts of wind threaten to take me off my bike completely. Some people have stopped and are sheltering under trees. I hate cycling, me.

Luckily, the mini-tropical-storm doesn’t last too long, but from hereon in the roads are wet. In my mind each start to the next 10 miles is a big milestone. “Come on, you’re in the 80s now…, you’re in the 90s now”. 92 miles and my knee is struggling. Can I make it? Can I make it in time? I start to regularly recalculate what time I have against what mileage. “You only have to average 11 miles an hour from here, you’re going to do it!”. I count down the last 20 miles one by one. Luckily, they are a fairly easy 20 miles. Apart from the big hill, which is now deserted on the 2nd time through. All the noisy crowds have gone away after being rained on, and the excitement of seeing the race leaders now a distant memory. I reach the end of the 2nd lap and head for T2. The longest 5 miles ever on a bike. 7:23:30 for the bike ride. My first ever 112 mile bike, so a new PB!

My knee is in bits, how am I going to run? At least I have some painkillers waiting in my run bag. They were meant to be for my running injury, but I think I’m going to need them straight away for my knee. Oh, did I not tell you about my running injury?

T2 is an underground car park. I grab my run bag. I wander around a bit confused until someone points me in the direction of the changing benches. Bike gear off, run gear on. Luckily I put a sports towel and some extra socks in my run bag, so I can at least start the run with dry feet again. I take some ibuprofen. I’d been suffering with IT band issues during running training, so had cut down on the planned distances. I go for a wee and am ready to run, I think. The last thing I feel like doing is running now, but I have to so let’s go. I walk up the ramp out of the car park and see some friendly faces in the crowd cheering me on. There’s a sharp right at the top and I start jogging. The plan is to run to each nutrition stop and have a walk at each one and consume a gulp of drink and a cracker. I start running. I have no knee pain! Brilliant. Just four and a half laps of this course to do! The first lap is almost pleasurable. Lots of new sights to see, people cheering me on, seeing people I know in the crowd.

Lap 2 and I’ve already seen Mark and Gary twice. Gary is now finished and Mark is a lap and a half ahead of me. Doesn’t matter. I’m not racing them. I just need to finish. I have some groin pain. It feels better when I press on it. Am I getting another hernia? Am I a hypochondriac!? At the top end of the course you collect your lap band. Once you have 4 of these you finish about 7k later. On my second visit to this part of the course the torrential rain comes again. The pavement are flooded within seconds and my trainers are squelching. By the time I’m heading back south the rain has died down again.

Lap 3 and I’m heading to the top part of the course again. My trainers have stopped squelching, but the heavens open again! Is there just really bad weather in the north part of the city? My trainers are squelching again and this time the rain goes on for longer. I hate running me. Lap 4 and I’m relatively dry now. I’ve been able to stick to my run/walk strategy for most of the race so far. However, now I’m feeling very tired, but I must keep going. I stop for an extra walk for the first time, but I know I’m almost there. My knee has been fine during the run, and IT band hasn’t played up at all. It’s hard hearing the commotion at the finish line and people being told they are an Ironman, every time you go past when you know you’ve still got laps to do. However, it’s nearly my turn.

The last half-lap I feel like I’m running faster again. Only 3k to do and I’ve done it! It’s dark by now and as I turn down the finishing chute, I’m blinded by all the lights and my ears are assaulted by the music and cheering. I run down the side and collect as many high-fives as I can from the crowd. Being slow has the advantage that you’re more likely to be on the finishing chute on your own. That was my plan all along! As I hear my name and those words I’ve been waiting for I raise my arms and pump my fists, and a beaming smile comes across my face; “Phil Walker, you are an ironman”. I love triathlon me. 5:02:21 for the marathon. Not bad after that little swim and bike ride.

They say the 4th discipline of triathlon is transition. Mine were both over 12 minutes, so could improve! However, it was never my intention to race, but to finish. After that, I would love to have beaten 14 hours, but in the end, I don’t really care now. I guess if you take my transition times off I did do 14 hours!

So, 14:25:23 for my first Ironman. Will there be another? Probably not. I always said this would be my one and only attempt at an Ironman. Several people told me I’d be hooked after doing my first one, but at the moment I’m still thinking one is enough for me. The thought of having to do all that training again is enough to put me off. I’ve proved to myself that I can do it, even though I had my severe doubts at the start line. I’m 100% glad I did do it and over the moon that I finished. If you can take anything from my story, I guess it’s that you can still finish an event, even if your training hasn’t gone totally to plan. Minor injuries and setbacks can be overcome.

As for Copenhagen ironman itself as an event, I would say it is brilliant. Great organisation, great atmosphere and an interesting city. The bike and run courses are relatively flat, and the swim has got to be easier than a full-on sea swim (I’ve never braved one myself). The lagoon is man-made, and only a few metres deep at the most, so has little current or waves. Being coastal it can be quite windy. As they told us at registration; “you chose to do the windy one”. The registration and briefing etc. could have been a bit better organised IMO, and it would have been more convenient if registration etc. had been closer to the start and T1.

The 5th discipline of doing an Ironman is getting to the start line. Particularly if you do one abroad. There’s lots of queuing and going to different places and making sure you have the right things in the right bags. A bit of a logistical nightmare. I made a schedule / crib sheet beforehand of everything I needed to do, where I needed to be when, and what I needed with me at the time. As well as notes of what equipment went into what bags etc. It proved to be very useful and I would recommend anyone else to do the same. We sent our bikes using Nirvana Europe rather than take them on the plane. I would recommend the service. I had to drop my bike off the Saturday before the event at Tri 1st in Birmingham and picked it up the Friday after. You can send a 7.5kg kit bag with your bike too.