It was an Ironman 70.3 in Vichy, France, I can remember my first triathlon it in every detail.
Like I remember the birth of my children.
That might sound cliche, but something different was born in me that day.
The most memorable thing?
It was my first triathlon journey, the training for an Ironman 70.3.
10 weeks prior my head was in a bad place.
A full time coach, I was a psychological and physical mess.
Injured from a nasty fall off my bike, I had become very depressed.
If I was to be brutally honest, I’d just rolled into my 40’s and I was feeling kind of washed up and useless.
Injury was preventing me from taking part in kettlebell sport, which was my thing.
When I tried to get back into it, I just hurt myself again. I’d had suffered some depression years ago which leaves you kind of susceptible to it. I could feel it slowly but surely creeping back.
Anyone who’s ever suffered from the blues knows that you try subdue and sedate it.
Drinking more heavily, poor diet. It becomes a self perpetuating cycle of destruction.
I felt like I was a liability, a fat Dad paying the bills and a fraud to my clients.
Things needed to change.
One day things got so bad it came to a head.
I had to do something differently otherwise everything would stay the same.
I’d talked about doing an Ironman for a few years, so I opened my laptop and went to the Ironman website, found Vichy, France.
I’d done a bit of research before and knew Vichy was a flat run.
I entered my first triathlon, shared it on Facebook.
There was no going back.
I’d called myself out in public.
Being a full time Coach I’d worked with athletes before.
Having a sport science background at University I had a lot of experience and knowledge but I soon found Triathlon was a whole new ball game.
I’d already jumped in the pool and exhausted myself just trying to swim a 400m.
I thought I was doing ok!
A friend who had just completed her first full Ironman and helped me out.
She gave me a program to start.
You see it’s no good no good working theoretically with Ironman training.
You need help from people who have had first hand experience and have been there and done it. Walked the walk, not just talked about it.
The first thing on my program was a 6 mile run.
I could just about manage 2 miles as my fitness was at an all time low, I had to try something else as this was too much.
I confided in a client of mine who I knew had completed a full Ironman a few years earlier.
He put me in touch with his Coach.
Being a Coach and hiring a Coach was a great feeling, like a weight had just been lifted from my shoulders. Someone was going to look after me and watch my back.
Dave was in his 60’s and had bags more experience than me. But more importantly he understood about training and having a family and a job.
We got on Skype and I confessed straight away about the few problems I’d had. He almost breezed over it knowing that this would sort me out.
“What and where is the event Russell?”
I told him. There was a silence.
“Vichy, 10 weeks!”
“Most people spend 5 months training for an event like this!”
“OK lets get on with it, what can you give me training time wise?”
We spoke. The positives we drew upon where…
“Is this doable?” I asked.
Had I bitten off more than I could chew?
“Yes” he replied, “It’s doable.”
“But you’re going to have to do everything I tell you.”
I cracked on and got some heart rate and power output data my coach wanted and I started working on my first training block the next day.
It was great.
My focus changed from work, injury and feeling sorry for myself to getting through the monumental task ahead.
It was a constant feeling of fear and excitement, just like going on a first date!
I was training 6 days per week.
3 short but intense 1 hour sessions followed by 3 longer and more progressive sessions plus as many commute rides as I could do.
I soon discovered I couldn’t swim as well as I thought I could so I went to a specialist coach who filmed me above and below the water.
It was funny watching myself swim on screen. It looked more like controlled drowning. After a few drills to include in my regular training and technique tips my swimming ability progressed fast.
I worked through my monthly training blocks obsessively.
It wasn’t easy, especially the running, but I became happier, fitter than I’d ever been before. The weight I’d gained fell off me and the injuries disappeared.
I was slowly morphing into a Triathlete.
I set off a few days before the race date.
I can remember the fear and the excitement of travelling from the UK to a place I’d never been to before. Taking part in my first triathlon and it was going to be an Ironman!
As I travelled further south into France I watched the heat rising on the dashboard of my truck.
At the time I didn’t think anything of it but later I would learn how it would nearly stop me in my tracks.
I was on my own.
No family or friends.
To top it all, I couldn’t speak much French either.
After driving all the way from Calais I arrived in beautiful Vichy and parked up in the Centre Omnisports Pierre Coulon along an amazing tree lined boulevard.
I walked into the park towards registration there was a huge Ironman monument.
The euphoria hit me of “I’m finally here, I made it.”
The sun sparkled off the water from the Allier River where I would be swimming.
It seemed huge and the nerves set in.
It was a great few days and it felt like a real family event to.
I only spoke to a couple of English as the event was mainly full of other Europeans and even some Americans. So I lapped up the atmosphere and focussed on getting organised.
It feels like there a lot to do for your first Ironman because you’re scared of making a stupid mistake or forgetting something essential like you goggles!
Race day is an early start with the swim started at 6:30am.
Because I could only get a hotel 20 miles away I had to get up at 3:30am a coffee and a few stale croissants.
When I arrived at the race venue it was cold and strange to see 1000’s of people so early in the morning.
Last minute checks and my bike and bags where in transition, there was nothing left to do.
I slipped on my wetsuit and went down the river to join the 1000’s of other athletes dressed in rubber.
The water was really warm and I got a spot located at the back of the pack so as not to get caught up with the other swimmers at the start. This was it. After all the hard work, the cost, the anxiety.
It felt like I was just about to jump off a cliff edge.
100’s of men started swimming, it was like a washing machine.
After about 400m I got into a steady pace and my breathing to settle down.
Sure I got a few kicks and punches but what you have to remember is its not intentional.
I got my confidence and work my way up through the slower swimmers.
As the sun came up you could feel the heat.
The brightness blinded me a little every time I turned my head to breath and I found myself heating up.
40 minutes later I was out the water. 1900m done, 1 event down, 2 to go.
I jogged into the transition surrounded by cheering crowds into a huge tent.
Because of the rising temperatures and the heat of all the bodies it was like a steam bath.
I took my time and got changed into my bike gear making sure I was comfortable and headed out of transition.
The first part of the bike ride was was uneven and bumpy.
I remember seeing some poor sole with a puncture in the first mile.
The cheers diminished as I headed out into the countryside.
It was a fantastic feeling as the roads in France are such good quality so you get a little less rolling resistance and push a little harder.
In an Ironman there are Marshalls everywhere on the bike route on motorbikes making sure you’re adhering to the rules and not drafting.
The French are strict!
I soon found myself having one of the Marshalls shouting at me in French and then showed a black card.
I couldn’t understand him and had no idea what it was for as I didn’t think I’d broken any rules, although I had a suspicion it might had been for drafting as you have to be 10m clear of the bike in front.
I later stopped at a penalty tent to check if my number had been reported, it had.
I served a 5 minute penalty then went on my way.
It was a welcome rest!
Passing through beautiful small towns and villages, the miles got eaten up.
I soon realised I had forgotten drink enough and it was getting hotter and hotter.
With 20-30km to go, my legs started to feel heavy so I reached out for a bottle of flat coke at one of the feed stations hoping it would somehow give me the kick I needed.
From that point in my legs felt tired and heavy. I’d over cooked the effort early on and not drunk regularly enough.
I finally finished the ride and walked into to rack my bike.
A Marshall stopped me and said, “Quickly do up helmet strap before you get a penalty, you must rack your bike first” I’d inadvertently broken another rule, thankfully this Marshall was a little kinder, because he knew I was one of the last riders in.
I got into my running gear and took a big breath and headed out for the 20km run through Vichy.
2 Laps along the river and through the town centre.
As I went out the heat hit me like a sledgehammer.
I looked at all the other runners, it was like day of the dead. The temperature was something I had not accounted for.
Within 3km I knew I was in trouble so I did as my Coach had instructed and walked through the feed stations.
Taking fluid and being dowsed by a spray system Ironman had set up. Without this the run would have been impossible. I later learnt it was in the mid 30’s.
The run was agonising. Not being a natural runner, shape or ability wise, I set myself goals of times or landmarks for running then walk for a minute.
It was the only way I could get through it.
At the end of lap 1 I ran through the Ironman arena, the crowds still cheering only to hear my name being called, “Russell…1 more lap!”.
I put on a brave face and off I went for lap 2.
The heat was crippling with bodies laying under trees of people who had given up.
I was on my own and knew I was going to be one of the last in, but I needed to finish.
I’d come this far.
I didn’t want to push too hard as I already had a tingling sensation in my head and I was conscious of getting heat stroke.
I was worried about becoming one of those statistics of an over 40 male doing his first triathlon!
I got to the to the last 2km and i could see the finish line on the other side of the river.
I was so close. I looked at my Garmin and I was also close to the cut off time of 7 hours 30 minutes.
I needed to push, no more walking now.
I ran across the bridge, lungs burning.
There were no more feed stations, no more water.
My running bottle was dry.
Suddenly I got hit by cramp in my hamstring and I fell.
I got up and managed some type of limp run only for this beautiful French girl who came out the crowd and gave me her water.
I drank the lot, it was just what I needed.
I ran the remaining distance as fast as I could, my legs wouldn’t go any quicker, lungs burning and heart pounding.
People shouting at me to keep going, they knew I was close to the cut off time.
I ran into the Ironman arena and crossed the finish line, arms in the air with a huge feeling of elation and relief.
At the end of every Ironman they have an ‘athlete recovery’ area with food in, it was amazing.
I limped in with my Ironman medal, my first triathlon done.
I picked up a couple of pieces of melon which took about 10 minutes to eat.
I scoped out they had a bar serving beer and sat there sipping it wondering what to do next.
It was a strange feeling, because up until that point Ironman Vichy 70.3 had been my focus.
I gathered up my gear and walked slowly back to my truck almost feeling sad my first triathlon was over.
It was now in the high 30’s.
I sat in my truck with the air-conditioning on then made my way back to my hotel.
After getting to room I had a shower and if I’m honest a little man cry for a minute.
I did it, I bloody did it!
I proved the doubters wrong (no hard feelings).
Made my family and friends proud and inspired others to take up their first triathlon challenge and now coach prospective triathletes myself.
Becoming a triathlete has given me an amazing level of fitness and sense of confidence I can’t put into words, but I know this…it feels great.
Enter your first triathlon, you wont regret it.
ps. Need some help, click the link below.
Russell Pearcy has been working as a health and fitness coach for over 25 years helping men and women who feel tired and washed up get back in shape. Russell has also draws upon his experience as an Ironman triathlete to help coach others through this life changing transformation.