Is there no hope for me now I’ve bought a pair of Crocs? Phil Hall’s Isoman

A flutter of hand entries pulled me into the nutrition jetty again, first job was some anti-cramp calf stretches in the waist deep water up against the rotting timbers. How could the officers in charge of the landing stage our very own Julie Anne Brown and Carly Foster who were even now strutting about above me in their sky blue uniforms allow it to get into this state? Second job, I had two elastic bands which had been knotted together one band was around my wrist the other looped over my index finger, I moved it off that digit and onto my thumb – I’d done five laps – pulling my goodie bag towards me I checked the hand written chart pinned to the side which predicted actual times for each of my completed laps, number 5 showed 1020hrs, it was now 10.18am I was depressingly on schedule. I’d thought with the excitement of race day with some drafting here and there and swept along with adrenalin I’d be quicker but there’s not much adrenalin left after 3 and a half hours. Up on the concrete slipway a shoal of quarter distance swimmers were warming up with windmilling arms while listening to a last minute megaphoned brief, they would start at 10.30, I needed to be on my way other wise there’d be a tsunami wave of orange capped bodies threshing over me. I slipped through the inflatable timing gate keeping legs high so the ankle timing chip would register my 5th lap.

Earlier, 100 meters off the slipway 40 of us full distance yellow cap swimmers had been treading water dreading Isoman ‘o’ clock and the 7am airhorn which would start our 8 lap 7 mile swim of Arrow Valley Lake after that a 62 mile cycle would follow and then there was a small case of a marathon to deal with. There was one imposter amongst us, Cheeky Russ Morey looking out of place sporting his orange hat would be doing 2 laps for free in exchange for marshalling duties later in the day, he needed to get out to the bike drink station at Flyford so started early with us.

Rather worryingly I was starting to cramp up on lap one and could feel that pre tightening of my calf, on my first visit to the nutrition jetty I asked Julie for ‘Anything salty?’ No was the reply with a shrug of the shoulders, I settled for flat coke and half a bar and swam on but needed to come up with a plan before I saw her again, I was lapped by two fellow yellow cappers at a fantastic pace just before my second lap was complete, where was the humanity in these guys didn’t they know I was one of their own?

It must have been approx 8.20 and I was back at the jetty I got a shout from two workmates who had come to spectate before the Parkrun, without hesitation I shouted back. ‘Get to the cafe’ buy two bags of plain crisps get some packets of salt from the café, empty them in and pass them to Julie, but don’t tell the British Triathlon Federation’ Their smiles vanished and Caz and John looked worried and a little taken back and I realised I’d barked the order out a little Sgt Majorish. ”Do you want them now?’ was the reply.

’35 minutes time’ I shouted back, too embarrassed to reveal my 40 min lap times in front of the crowd who were now all ears.

Twice on the third lap I had to tread water with one arm and leg to try and bend back my cramped up foot and went under a few times. I imagined my tearful mother next morning on Central News sobbing ‘He drowned doing what he loved’

A miracle was waiting for me at the jetty, two bags of opened ready salted, inside several small white paper packets of salt I wasted no time in ripping them open, shaking them up and chewing as fast as my saliva and flat coke would allow. Julie offered to tread on the crisps so I wouldn’t have to chew so much!

Little did I know my two mates had run around pennyless lycra clad Parkrunners begging for money to buy my crisps, next week at work I took them two egg custards in as payment.

With salt levels now at maximum more laps full of bubbles in green water and snatched sightings of giant yellow buoys ensued, 4 hours into the swim and I was now in uncharted territory as earlier in the year I’d liaised with super swimmer Christine of Sleekerswim up in the Lake District who’d agreed for an undisclosed sum of money that she’d kayak next to me around Windermere for four hours, her tasks were – safety, navigation, nutrition supply and security for car keys and phone but most important was to update my Facebook status – Still in Lake Windermere, smiley face, smiley face, love heart, love heart, love heart!- I paid Christine half her fee before and half after the four hour swim in case she’d got so frustrated with my poor technique and slow speed she thought of whacking me on the head with her paddle and leaving me face down in Windermere, during this training session we were joined by another kayaker, Sophie, who’d bought sunglasses out for her friend. ‘I hear you have a long swim to do Phil’ She shouted. ‘Yes, the bike and run aren’t bad either.’ I gargled back as you do trying to impress young ladies while treading water. I was later told Sophie was first GB Olympic reserve for the Ladies 10k open water event from London 2012 but Keri-Anne Payne had got the job. The two girls must have been horrified watching me bumble around in the water with lead like legs and butter fingered catch, but it was comforting to know I had a four hour swim in the tank and I got a free swim cap!

Back at Arrow Valley with a prolonged lack of sighting I head butted a giant minion buoy looking up startled and a little embarrassed into the face of a safety canoeist who was keeping station at the turn, I asked him if he wanted to buy a wetsuit? and swam on. All the bouys had the Isoman logo and mantra on ‘Triathlon Equalised’ I now decided I didn’t want to do an equal triathlon but a normal one with short swim even an iron 2.4 miles would be nice.

Presently the first two orange caps came past with incredible strokes the second swimmer I recognised as Stuart Mckay who saw me and even stopped to shout something which I never heard, shortly the peloton of quarter distancers came through similar to dolphins breaching the water chasing the bow of a ship. Lisa Rushton must have been in there somewhere who would later return the fastest ladies time for the two laps. Also Julie Rea was doing the quarter swim apparently zig zagging around the course like a pinball, following shouted direction from sister Steph Cox.

Now I was aware of another swimmer moving up on my left in between me and the bank I could already feel the occasional weed on my fingertips underneath me so I altered course slightly left forcing ‘Lefty’ into even shallower water eventually gravel could be felt on my catch, a breath to the left revealed the swimmer had had enough of his untenable position and had stood up in about 3 ft of water he dived in again and past me on the right a few minutes later but I felt pleased with my tactical manoeuvre but then guilty! what if it had been Jeff (Man from Atlantis) Mosforth he was out here somewhere doing seven miles for the third year running, I hadn’t seen him since the start, all Julie had told me was that he wasn’t stopping at the jetty but using his patented drinking bladder stuffed into his wetsuit.

On the seventh and eighth lap I almost had the lake to myself and I longed for my bike, even Richard Harper a mate from RMS and Tri Redditch had left the jetty where he’d been squatting taking photographs pleased he’d got a close up of me eating a paper packet of salt I’d mistaken for a crisp.

The last lap finished I stayed at the jetty and drank all my flat coke and snacks because as soon as I went through the finish gate my ‘free’ transition seven minutes would start to tick by, the swim was recorded at 5 hrs 22mins 48 secs about 7 mins before the cutoff.

Helen Tuite was on hand to take photos of me struggling out of wetsuit with goggled eyes and searching for my foot ware on the bank. Is there no hope for me now I’ve bought a pair of Crocs? She then followed the 200m to T1 paparazzi style shouting and clicking, she must have swallowed a fly or something as she nearly stopped talking for a while, it was great to have some support from her, after stamping out of the rest of the suit I was soon on the bike and out on the road being able to boast about having the third fastest transition time at 7 mins 11secs. Exiting the first roundabout I looked over my shoulder to check for traffic and nearly lost balance after being in the water so long plus my shoulders didn’t want to move that much, even reaching into rear pockets felt like I needed to dislocate elbow or wrist and I was desperate for food. The night before I’d pulled the protective cardboard from a pack of three frangipanes, they’d been replaced in the cellophane sleeve which then slipped snuggly into a long pocket of my cycle top rather like clipping a fully loaded magazine to an automatic weapon I was hoping they would now rapid fire into my mouth, but they hadn’t fared well and now were a mixture of bakewell crumbs, jam and Arrow Valley Lake as I hadn’t bothered drying myself the only solution was to eat them immediately – which was no problem.

I’d practiced the route beforehand several times and knew seconds could be saved by staying on finer graded tarmac on the many sliproads along the uphill struggle of the Bromsgrove Highway.

A belch came from behind me which announced another yellow numbered full distance biker just about overtaking me. ‘You’re a crap swimmer aswell then?’ I enquired. We made a solemn vow never to do that swim again as we rode two abreast for a while it sounded like he’d come from Newcastle I let him go but kept Geordie in sight as I wanted to concentrate on my frangipanes. I’d caught him by Cur Lane and warned of the drain cover in the middle of the road.

From last year’s 226 I knew all energy for the marathon comes from nutrition eaten on the bike my plan was to always be down on my tribars and If not that, then I should be drinking, and if not that then I should be eating, and if not doing that I should be down on my tribars. Simples!

Suddenly a motorcyclist leveled with me for a few seconds gave me a nod then sped off as he passed on the back of his Hi Viz top ‘Motorcycle Official’ was printed. Wow, the first time I’d seen one in twentyish Triathlons, I thought the draft busting motorbikers were just myths thought up to scare young triathletes at bedtime. He waited at the next junction until I’d past then caught up and stayed at my shoulder for a moment. ‘Are you the last two?’ He shouted.

‘I think so, I just made the cut-off’ I screamed back spraying frangipane crumbs into his lap. He then preceded to leapfrog me and Geordie the entire course. It seemed I could overtake Geordie on the flat and down hill but he could climb a lot better than me, it was while I was closing on him along the Saltway I noticed his ankle chip timer which made me look down at mine, and it wasn’t there!

Was it at the bottom of Arrow Valley? Or wrapped in my wetsuit back at T1? Had it come off somewhere on the bike route? Had my seven mile swim even been recorded? Plus I owed someone £55 if it was lost.

I stopped at the next junction where the motorbike was waiting to tell him the sorry tale just in case no one believed I’d done the 62 mile bike ride as well or even thought I was at the bottom of the lake with my chip, he was on the phone back to base before I’d pushed off and clipped back in, continuing in a dark uneasy mood which worsened as I refilled my aero drink bottle from another caged on the frame, I hit a pothole while concentrating on squeezing the full bottle into the aero spilling the sticky fruit flavoured liquid (with Fructose of course) over handlebars etc.

Even the grinning faces of Mr & Mrs Morey at the Flyford drinks station couldn’t cheer me, and they had ‘salty pretzels’ I told them of the missing Velcro chip and asked if they’d consider increasing club membership 50p per person in order to pay for the missing timer, they agreed immediately but said not to mention it to the rest of Tri Redditch.

The remainder of the ride was uneventful save for me having to make appointments with my hands to unstick them from the bars in order to work brakes and gears in time. The bike was that sticky it was starting to catch insects and small birds flying by even the odd dog walker who’d strayed too far into the road.

Throckmorton Airfield slid by and then the Squires roundabout slipped behind, at Dunnington I looked behind to offer Geordie an energy gel to help him up the forthcoming Wheethly Bank but the long flat return to Redditch had resulted in him being almost out of sight behind. I hated the rollercoaster drop down Alcester Heath knowing I’d have to regain the height later. It was another long distance ride with nothing but the ticking of the 105 group set and a permanent dew drop on my nose for company. Luckily I prefer my own company and oddly enough my friends and family prefer me to prefer my own company.

All major junctions were well marshalled by Hi Viz deckchaired volunteers. When back at AV I told the marshals on duty at the dismount line that yellow 44 was back in at 4.28pm then hurried on to T2 anxious to find the Velcro chip. The wet suit was pulled inside out twice but no luck, the technician from ‘What’s my race time’ shouted through the fence asking where his timer was, he must have been tipped off by the marshals. He came in and searched my suit a third time and said he’d recorded all my swim laps but the chip hadn’t gone past the bike mount mat so was somewhere between the lake and transition. My kit box soon looked as if a grenade had gone off in it with Compeed plasters and talcum everywhere. Timer guy grabbed triumphantly at a Velcro strap but it was just my head torch which I’d bought along as I knew later I would be running in the dark, time was ticking by and I wasn’t sure whether to call it a day or not, but Timer Guy said to just give him a shout every time I passed the timing mat while running the marathon laps as his van was only fifteen foot off the line. My running kit and trainers were ready and waiting and I was sure folks would be waiting for me along the course so it was time to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’ You heard it here first.

Slipping my trainer on I felt some gravel in the shoe, who had sabotaged my kit? Reaching inside I pulled out two Ibuprofen tablets they innocently shrugged their 400mg shoulders as if to say ‘You put us in here Brainiac!” They were downed with a squirt of flat coke and I joined the run course in time to hear a loudspeaker announce the full distance leader had just completed his third run lap and was now starting his final 6.5 miles, my concrete legs stumbled after the lithe figure floating along the track ahead while waving to the crowd on his last lap, meanwhile a band up on a makeshift stage sang ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ in the Expo area.

A short cross country loop sent us on a detour from the usual Parkrun route and bumped up the mileage, water or electrolyte and various snacks were offered from a feed station just before the Visitor Centre, presently I checked pace from my Garmin which had now dropped from well over 5mph to 4.6mph and I found myself walking more than jogging as I counted on my fingers how many hours were left till the marathon cut-off time, it would be a close run thing to finish in time as last year’s Ironman run took me over six hours.

At the Southern tip of the lake serial marshalers the Moreys were waiting, they’d left Flyford to set up camp here to point South to the lower half of the park, later another feed station was sighted at the Basketball courts the hi viz red hair of Richard Gallios could be seen behind the table he didn’t seem to mind when I asked for Gingernuts as he was still on a high from winning the Men’s 6.5 mile Isoman run earlier, he was ably accompanied by no nonsense Rachel Gould who handed me peanut butter somethings.

Back on the run the path tracked the course of the river Arrow and there was plenty of time to think that in a normal Tri my strongest phase was the bike and weakest was the swim, Isoman had sacrificed my best discipline and magnified the worst, suddenly I was flying through the air and just about managed to land heavily on my palms. After standing and dusting off with not getting too much blood on my tri Redditch top I looked around for what had tripped me, nothing was there apart from the tarmac path, I knew the culprit was my own lower leg as since January a trapped nerve had left the foot numb and I’m unable to lift the toe up to clear the ground, even now I had a makeshift Velcro strap threaded through the lower laces then around my ankle in order to try and hold it at 90 degrees which hadn’t worked.

Suddenly there was a moment of clarity whether it was the thought of having no timing chip, or paying the price of an exhausting 5 and a half hour swim, or thinking of running in the dark with head torch over a cross country loop with a home-made orthotic, but I decided then and there that I’d done enough for the day and would finish one lap and call it quits. Why was I trying to complete a marathon with a dodgy foot? I resigned myself to seeing a humbling DNF next to my name the next morning when I Goggled the results. The course slowly turned back to the North and passed the Golden Goose, skateboard park then struggled up Ipsely Church Hill.

Now back at R & R’s drink station by the basketball court I thanked them and said it would be the last time I’d see them, John Legge was waiting with the Moreys further along and he offered to run with me to the finish which I was grateful for although it was more of a walk/ jog and not much running, he fed me jelly babies and topped up water from a bottle he had, explaining we would soon pass his house which backed on to the park. A plan started to form in my brain thinking I could hold up in Chateau Legge drinking tea and eating salty crisps recovering until 11pm then burst out to run in at the finish just before the cut-off at 11.30pm? ‘Yes Timer Guy I did shout you every time I lapped but you must have been at the hotdog stand’. I already knew Gentleman John’s integrity would never wilfully allow him to aid and abet a triathlete to cheat contrary to common law.

This run loop took us out to the bus lane and returned us to the Moreys who were bid farewell, then on to the finish via the lake path a few more stumbles on the way confirmed I’d made the right decision to call it a day. Rapturous applause erupted as yellow 44 turned into the finish funnel, and over the line an excited marshal explained I’d come third in the full distance event, and in a few minutes would have to go on stage to collect my medal!

Another cunning plan was coming together in my brain, race onto the stage grab my bling and a photo for the local paper in which the headline would read ‘Headless Cross Hero in Podium Finish’, Then emigrate to New Zealand before Timer Guy blew the whistle on me. But instead of taking the steps two at a time and elbowing St Elmo out of the way I admitted I was three laps short, but only because my moral compass ‘John Legge’ was looking thoughtfully at me with folded arms and eyebrow raised.

Another marshal tasked with retrieving the Velcro timer chips looked up enquiringly from my naked ankle, I said I’d explain later and showed her my bloody palms saying I was off to the first aid tent as advised by Coach Lou Morey who was also there for some reason.

Instead John and I headed back to transition, and were soon joined by Helen Tuite, they would re-trace my route back to the lake while I would search T2 again for the chip, however as soon as they were out of sight I locked my self in a portaloo to overcome a lightheaded moment and a little nausea not the cleverest thing to do I suppose, the same thing had happened down in the Cotswolds last year and a few other long distance events so it wasn’t just the prospect of having to stump up with £55. After a little more composure a coffee (thanks to an Isoman voucher) and another fruitless search of transition it was time to go, I was so thankful John pushed my bike and Helen carried my kit box 300 odd meters to the car as I couldn’t have faced two trips. On leaving transition for the last time I lifted up my neighbour’s holdall the competitor must be on his marathon run now, underneath the bag was the elusive 44 timer, which must have come off with my wetsuit unnoticed then when Mr 45 came back from his bike before me and changed he accidently covered it with his bag. Sighs of relief accompanied the handover to Timer Guy.

Back at the car I had a quick wipe over then threw my towel in, and immediately regretted my decision to throw my towel in by giving up, as runners were passing by still competing a few feet away, but I was homeward bound with fish and chips on my mind.

As your best tutor is your last mistake it never takes me long to get a new teacher, I’ve invested in magnesium supplements to help with cramp issues and now always put a couple of safety pins through a Velcro time chip strap. Also my good friend Bruce Lee once said ‘Don’t fear failure, it’s not a crime, the only offence is to have a low aim, in great attempts it is glorious even to fail.

A big thank you to John, Helen, The Moreys, Caroline and John, and thanks for reading.