Why would anyone choose to do an Ironman? Sparing you some choice expletives, it’s what I’m asking myself 24 hours before embarking on my first.
It’s 7am and I’m lying on a hotel bed in Copenhagen staring despondently at a Specialized Tarmac SL7. My mind is all over the place and my body feels tired just looking at the piece of carbon fibre right in front of me. I’ve been resting religiously since tapering my training but still feel niggles, and I can’t quash the barrage of ‘what ifs’ that have been hammering my subconscious. They range from the plausible – ‘What if I don’t eat enough calories pre-race?’ – to the out-of-my-control – ‘What if I somehow get a puncture?’ – with some overthinking – ‘What if I take on too many fluids and get disqualified for pissing in the wrong place?’ I wasn’t this nervous when my first child was born. I close my eyes and repeat what Ironman’s global director of training and coaching (and my saviour), Earl Walton, said to me yesterday. ‘You’ve done all the training, you’ve got this. Nerves are good, so embrace any nervous energy and make it work for you.’
My flawed rationale for tackling a full Ironman is that I’ve done two (Half) Ironman 70.3s – but two halves don’t make a whole. There’s also the fact that I like training with a goal in mind. So, when the opportunity arose in the Danish capital – and after consulting my wife and promising that it wouldn’t impinge too heavily on her and the children – I put it in the diary: 21 to 22 August 2021 – a romantic weekend away in Copenhagen/Ironman.
That was 18 months ago, and since then the distances of 3.9km (swim), 180km (cycle) and 42.2km (run) have been etched on my brain. And for the wisecracks who joke about the correlation between Ironman hobbyists and a high divorce rate, I hear you. The biggest difficulty with doing an Ironman is its propensity to become the only thing you think about and, worse still, the only thing you’re capable of talking about.
In an attempt to manage this big commitment, I mentally placed myself in the ‘complete’ over ‘compete’ camp. I didn’t want this to take over my life; indeed, I didn’t have the time for it to. And as hard as it was, I resisted setting myself a target time and instead decided to follow a loose training plan, fitting in swims, cycles or runs as and when I could.
The Long Road to Victory
When it comes to my existing abilities, I would put swimming under ‘strengths’ and cycling under ‘weaknesses’. And running has always been an activity I enjoy despite not being built for long distances (I’m broad-shouldered and over 14st). I’ve always loved swimming and thanks to a stint living in Australia, I have various 2km ocean swims under my belt. But my relationship with road bikes is fractious on good days.
I’m fortunate to live just 10km from Denham Waterski Club, so open-water swimming after school drop-offs became a ritual. The dipping temps dictated that I wore a wetsuit and I’d suggest doing so; the extra buoyancy helps. When time allowed, I ran or cycled to and from my swim.
For the first six months, my focus was merely on getting in the kilometres. Aided by two apps (Strava and Zwift), an Elite Turbo Trainer and some Hoka runners, I clocked up 40km of running and 100km of cycling a week. I mixed things up by acquiring a running partner and trying to cycle or run to see friends.
Linking my bike to a Turbo Trainer for indoor rides was my best idea. I watched 80% of Line Of Duty and endured the majority of Liverpool’s failed title defence while cycling. I even signed up to do a 12-hour sponsored cycle on Boxing Day to prove that I’m capable of lasting the distance. Turns out I was, but I’d still like to publicly apologise to my family for the sheer timing of it.
Truth be told, I enjoyed the challenge of fitting in the training around daily life. It’s the admin I struggled with: the nutrition, the sleep, the stretching, the kit and all its technicalities. Occasionally, I fell down triathlon rabbit holes, reading things like ‘some triathletes feel cooler with shaved legs’, which deterred me from embracing the sport further.
Some things did help. I started taking zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 to aid energy metabolism and muscle function. I added whey protein to my breakfast and I invested in a foam roller. I visited a physio. And a non-negotiable should be a bike fit, which is essentially a consultation with a specialist to ensure that you and your bike are in tune. I had never truly considered the impact of saddle height, the angle of my shoe and cleat position, and how low my handlebars are, but if you think about the number of revolutions your pedals make per minute – and multiply that by six-plus hours – the impact a misalignment can have on your body suddenly feels very scary.
Three months away from the event, I started doing duathlons and triathlons to get my body used to the disciplines back to back. As well as sharpening my transitions, it was an opportunity to sort out my nutrition and hydration. I swore by Maurten gels, and when it came to replenishing salt levels from sweating, I ate salt chews. As the event approached, I felt good. Using Saturday mornings as mock race days, I built up the distances and peaked with a metric Ironman (2.4km swim, 112km cycle, 26.2km run). The faith I had in my body was strong, though the mental impact of being alone for long stretches remained exhausting.
After roughly 4,182km of cycling, 2,220km of running and 72km of swimming (cheers, Strava), the time had come. What I said about being fine with D-day arriving? I take it back. I yo-yo between mindsets until the day before the race. But after checking in all my kit, carb-loading and hydrating, I hit the hay early, hopeful for a decent night’s sleep.
It’s Show Time
The sun has not long risen as I line up in my wetsuit, numb to the commotion around me. With less than a minute to go, I think about the sacrifices my family has made to enable me to be here on this start line. Rarely the emotional type, I well up for a moment. That quickly turns to a self-depreciating smile as I realise within 30 seconds, I won’t stop moving for 12 hours. With that, I rinse my goggles and brace myself to start. As I look down, the words ‘I will become one’ on the Ironman-branded bracelet around my wrist stare back at me. And go.
Crossing the finish line is, without doubt, one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever experienced: relief mixed with happiness, humility, exhaustion and adrenaline. I’m elated and ready for a massive burger and chips but, my god, what a ride. The swim is dreamy – 3.9km achieved in 1:52 at a pace of 1:38 per 100m, with an average heart rate of 108 bpm.
I burn 914 calories, and thoroughly love it.
Then comes the bike leg. Buoyed by my swim, I start strong. My aim is to maintain a 30km/h pace and all goes to plan – for the first 75km. My mental strength faltering, I resort to waving at every volunteer or spectator I pass, and cheer on every athlete who passes me. Such is the speed of my swim, I somehow find myself at the front of the field, only to then be overtaken by – no exaggeration – 700-odd fellow athletes. And midway through the cycle, I hit a low point. I feel a twinge in my knee and, faced with the prospect of repeating the distance I’ve just cycled (not to mention running a marathon afterwards), I panic. The next 90km are torture. Hate is a strong word, but I hate everything for 97% of the time that elapses between that point and getting off my bike. Urinating on myself (it’s strangely gratifying) and a game of cat and mouse with Piotr from Poland – the only person I overtake in 180km – account for the other 3%. By the time I reach the transition area, I never want to see my bike again. I complete the cycle in 6:25 at an average speed of 28.1km/h, burning 2,700 calories. My heart rate remains around 111 bpm.
Sitting in the transition area, my mind is blank; I’m moving on autopilot. After the trauma of the cycle, I will not let that define this experience. I set off with an unexpected spring in my step, but after the first few kilometres, the niggle in my knee resurfaces. I grimace, stretch out my leg and carry on.
My wife has positioned herself at a point where I get to see her every 5km or so, which helps a lot. Again, the halfway point is another low. Running past the finish line knowing I’m still 21km and more than two hours away from finishing is hard. As I shuffle on, 21km becomes 14km, then 10km becomes 5km.
I’ve preserved some energy for the final push through Copenhagen’s picturesque city centre. With the finish line approaching, I compose myself and give everything I’ve got left. Sprinting down the finishing straight, I hear on the tannoy, ‘Mike Christensen, you are an Ironman!’ I throw my hands up in the air. At 4:46 and an average pace of 6:41min/km, my run is more than an hour slower than my slowest marathon time and I couldn’t care less. In that time, my heart rate rarely went above 120 bpm and I burned 3,433 calories. A medal is draped over my head; I turn it over and on the back, it says, ‘This is not a tea party.’ Truth.
The whole thing was an emotional burden that I perversely loved and didn’t enjoy. I don’t know why anyone would choose to do an Ironman. But I believe that anyone who puts their mind to it is capable of crossing that finish line.