Ironman Talinn 2018 - Report by Alison Rooney

Would you believe I started writing this race report in my head before the race?  As I was packing to leave and during the travel stage I was questioning my sanity and how the hell I ended up here. It got me thinking back to 2006 when I completed my 1st sprint triathlon. Never in my wildest dreams imagination did I ever consider that one day I would complete an Ironman.

Back then I was coming from a 25 a day smoking habit but I had finally banished that demon and when I was asked to participate in the inaugural Triathlone as a fundraiser for the Down Syndrome Special Olympics charity I thought why not. Start my new healthy lifestyle here. Sure I can swim a little; I didn’t have a bike but didn’t the boys had mountain bikes so I was sorted there and I started to build my run by running to a lamppost and walking to the next. I haven’t used that technique in a long, long time but little did I know that it would come in useful (to a degree!) on Saturday.

Over the past few months of training I have had many, many moments of self doubt.  Am I capable? Have I enough work done? What happens if I get a puncture or a technical issue on the bike? How can I run a marathon after a gruelling 7 hours on the bike? Hmmm, maybe a technical issue on the bike might not be so bad after all....

I have also lost a few hours of sleep worrying and my expectation was that once we arrived in Tallinn and I seen the whole set up everything would become so much more real and sleep would definitely be a thing of the past. However I was surprised to find that I was relatively calm in those final few days. Having so many team mates and their supporters around was a great help as it meant that there was always a distraction to keep my mind away from the task ahead.

On the Monday before we left I woke to a tingling feeling in my throat. Oh no! Was I imagining it or was I coming down with something? Just as I buried my head in the sand on my ability to do an Ironman well I also ignored this in the hope that it went away. By the time we arrived in Tallinn the head cold and sore throat (Man flu to you boys) had firmly taken hold. Time to get dosed up.  I still had 3 or 4 days to clear it, didn’t I?

A few days of registration, picking up bikes, replacing broken saddle, course recce, briefings etc and then we were down to the last supper on the Friday night. Everyone was in great form but obviously apprehensive and anxious to get going. Time to set the alarm clocks for 4am (2am Irish time!)

A special mention goes out to Kevin who unfortunately had to make the hard but right decision not to travel due to his father’s ill health and subsequent passing. Even in the midst of his bereavement he still took the time to give us all some tips from his wealth of IM experience. I wish him the very best of luck in Copenhagen in 2 weeks.

Race Day

There really was no need to set the alarm as sleep was an impossibility that night. Our lovely quite apartment, up to then, was suddenly alive with road noise or was I just super sensitive to all noise. I got up before the alarm, pulled up the blind to discover we were now situated in the middle of the run course that had been set up overnight.

My head cold had not abated at this stage so I knew today was going to be even more difficult. I had already decided that I wouldn’t push at anything today if I was still coughing and sniffling. It would be all I could do just to get around the entire race.

After breakfast and a last minute scramble through the bag for my watch I went outside to Mick and James who had just hailed a passing shuttle bus to transitions. Great job. No need for the 20 min walk so. Was this a good omen for the day?

 Final preparations in transition and I discovered that my sambo that I was going to eat in T1 was still in the fridge in the apartment. What was that about a good omen? Ger Griffin came to my rescue with a sandwich. Phew, crisis averted.

The swim was the great unknown in Tallinn, as depending on the wind direction, the sea temperature can vary on a daily basis by a huge margin. We were going from the possibility of a non wetsuit swim to a shortened distance because of the cold and I think it played with everyone’s heads. As it turned out the temperature was a cool 15.4 degrees. A full distance, chilly swim!! I’d say the adrenalin did its bit because I didn’t really feel the cold once I got in. I kept telling myself to just take it handy and try to find feet. It took about 1500m before I found a nice set of feet that suited me. Usually when I follow feet in open water I tend to lose them when I breathe. However on this occasion I managed to stay on them for the remainder of the swim. I did have one or two other swimmers who also wanted to use my guide but I was having none of it. This set of feet was the equivalent of Wilson the ball to me (Castaway Film). I was not going to let someone take them away from me.  All too soon it was however time to part ways with my Wilson as we came to the swim exit. I was happy enough with my time of 1.19 for what turned out to be over a 4km swim

T1 was pretty uneventful. Cycle gear on. A bite of Ger’s sambo and no water in T1 meant that I struggled to swallow it. So into the back pocket it went. It was time to hit the road.  

Within minutes of starting the cycle James came past me. We had a quick chat and off he went. I repeated this exercise a few times as some of the lads caught up to me on the bike. Cycling being my weakest I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that this was just about getting around. Don’t look at the speed or the clock, just cycle. The bike course was 2 loops of 2 loops so I got the opportunity to meet some of the lads again. At around the 95km mark for me, Mick passed me as I was heading into a loop and he was coming out. I noted the distance as I wanted to see how far ahead he was from me. Bad mistake! Some 80 to 90 mins later I realised that he had been 30kms ahead of me at that point. Demoralisation set in and then the thunderstorm came. Bloody great. Now my feet were sopping wet into the bargain. There was no one coming to save me so it was just a case of head down and plug away at the kms.  55kms to go so break it down to make it more mentally doable.  One block of 20 kms broke into 5km sections before I hit the 10km out and 10km back section and the final 15km stretch to bring me back to the city. Someone told me to eat as much as I could before getting off the bike so on the final stretch I started to check my pockets and found Ger’s sort of squished up sandwich. After a diet of baby potatoes (Thanks Brian Dolan for the Tip) and Cliff Bloks I thought I’d chance it and it was like a steak dinner.  Simply divine. Eventually I reached the city and passed the run course on my way to T2. I seen a couple of the boys and roared my support to them. Funnily, Barry is the only one I can recall passing now.

Quick change in T2 and it was time to see what was left in the tank. The run course starts with a hill out of T2 so I had decided that I would walk this hill and use the opportunity to stretch everything and to get the legs moving. I also knew the run was going to be the most difficult for me being sick. So, up over the crest of the hill and I started to run down the other side. Not too bad so far!  I had also decided to walk the feed stations and there was plenty of them. I met Brian Mc Carthy on his 2nd lap with his broken toe and we ran together for a short while. The course was a 5km out and back and was very higgledy piggledy with lots of twists and turns, drags, hills and uneven surfaces. It certainly wasn’t conducive to getting a rhythm going IF you were capable of getting a rhythm going. But it did allow us to cross paths with each other numerous times and those hugs, slaps and high fives were desperately needed.  By the early part of my 2nd loop I was struggling to run more than 200 to 300 metres at a time. Those aforementioned lampposts were just too far apart. The pounding was taking its toll on my head and breathing. I did the maths and decided that if I walked I would only be marginally slower and I had a better chance of conserving some energy.  Often times when I am struggling in a race I question why I do this to myself and I always think of my mother, sister and aunt whose lives were cut short well before their time and my answer is always the same. ‘Because you can and they never got the chance so quit your whinging and get on with it’. I knew that come hell or high water I was going to finish.  I then spent an inordinate amount of time pondering if they would call me an Ironman or an Ironwoman. 

The organisers, in all their wisdom, decided that it would be mighty craic to have us run past the finish line no less than 8 times. As cruel as this was, it was also were most of the supporters were. So we also got to pass our support crew 8 times too.  Rachel and Bren had taken the time to look for the point where we would all be feeling very vulnerable and had set up camp at the crest of the hill coming out of the T2. Nothing lifted me as much to, firstly reach Rachel and Bren at the top of the hill and then to come towards the finish area to hear the screams and shouts of all the other Ennis supporters. I cannot express how grateful I am to each and every one of them for being there for me. It was a long day for them and long after all the boys had finished their races they continued to stay there and support me.  I couldn’t have done it without you all. So to Rachel, Bren, Sam, Josie, Liz, Rachel, Eoin, Kevin, Deirdre, Eimear, Aoife and Trish, - You are all my heroes.

I was told to avoid checking out other people’s wrist bands as it wrecks your head when you see someone on a lap or 2 ahead of you but that is very hard to do. You also meet the same faces on such out and back courses. So by the time I had reached my final lap I had crossed paths with a woman who looked a similar age to me. We always seemed to meet close to the turnaround points, me slightly behind her and we acknowledged and nodded sympathically to each other.  As I was heading in towards the finish area for the final time I met her as she headed out on her final lap. Funnily I had never looked at her wrist bands and had just assumed she was ahead of me. I took my moment of elation that I was actually a lap ahead of her before the guilt took over and I felt sorry for her.  I hope she finished.

I was coming to the end of what was more than a one day event. This journey began a long time ago and in hindsight the race is probably the easiest bit. Months of training finally coming to an end.

I got 3 more bits of advice that I used on the day. James had told me to savour the red carpet and Lisa O’Neill had told me that Malachi Murray had taken a video of her finish which she treasured. So, after taking the Irish flag from Rachel I walked slowly up that carpet and tried to take it all in. Mick was waiting in the finish area with the phone at the ready to capture the moment. Just as well he was as it was all a bit hazy afterwards. However, I do vividly remember the announcer saying – Alison Rooney, you are an Ironman. I savour that video now. I have even awoken at 4am to watch it and to hear him say it again!

 All I had left to do now was the 3rd piece of advice - Visit the nice medical people to see if Gearoid had left me any ‘go go juice’ in the IV drips to rehydrate me. I can officially recommend it.

Ship my Tri bike were on a deadline to leave Tallinn as quick as possible after the race so my thanks go to Eoin and Kevin Hartigan for collecting my bike from T2 and delivering it to the truck.  I doubt I will look at the bike for a while though.

One of the words used to describe me after the race was ‘inspirational.’ This doesn’t sit very well with me. I certainly don’t feel inspirational. Stubborn, stupid, pig-headed would be better choices of words. However, on reflection, if my efforts can inspire anyone else and in particular any woman to take up ANY challenge, not just Ironman, and go for it then it will have been worth it. If I can do it then anyone can.