There are a few TV shows I remember being into as a teenager. The A-Team, Grange Hill and Krypton Factor were definitely in my top 5. And I admit I wanted to be a contestant on Gladiators. However, a clear head and shoulders above the rest in my weekly viewing schedule was ‘Transworld Sport’ on Channel 4 early on Saturday or Sunday mornings.
Prior to the internet age, Transworld Sport one of the only ways to get a decent fix of footage, news and results from the more niche endurance events around the world. They even covered some of the more wacky events like the Wife Carrying World Champs. Watching their report on Steve Gurney winning The New Zealand Coast to Coast year after year in the late 90’s was one of the main reasons I signed up for a crack at the race myself in 2012. Though, I have to admit, I’ve not yet broached the idea of the wife carrying worlds with Lucy…
I was a budding triathlete at that time and so my weekly Transworld fix was only really an appetiser for the annual feast of viewing that was the ABC/NBC coverage of the Hawaii Ironman World Triathlon Championships. To this day I’m not exactly sure where he got them from but my Dad always managed to conjure up a video cassette of the programme about a month after it aired in the US and I would watch it over and over again.
What made the Emmy award winning Hawaii Ironman programmes so great was the way the producers did so much more that just cover the racing itself. These were shows for sports fans in general, not just triathletes. The way the main contenders for the race were profiled in amazing detail before the story of the race unfolded really brought the characters involved to life. The event was presented as a dramatic human interest story with proper characters to get to know and to root for. There were ‘baddies’ and ‘goodies’, heroes and heroins. It made it feel like far, far more than just a race, it was genuinely inspirational stuff, or it was to me anyway.
I started watching Ironman around 1992-93, a few years after the epic scenes of Julie Moss crawling to the finish in 1982 and the ‘Iron War’ between Dave Scott and Mark Allen in 1989 that are widely credited as being some the most defining episodes in the event’s early history. Although I’ve since gone back and seen most of that classic footage, the characters that are burned most vividly onto my memory are those who stared in the programmes I first saw in the 90s. Jurgen Zack (The original German uber biker), Pauli Kiruru (a Finnish pioneer of heart rate training), Paula Newby-Fraser (The Zimbabwean ‘Queen of Kona’ and 8 time winner) and Peter Reid (The Canadian who won the event 3 times in the late 90s and early 2000s) all feature high up in the list of the athletes that I was most inspired by as a teenager.
At first, I definitely watched footage from Kona mostly for entertainment and also as motivation to fuel my own training for the short course racing I was doing at the time. In the 1990s you still had to travel internationally to compete for a spot in Kona (as there were no UK based qualifying races) and because the most exotic race I’d done at that point was probably the Telford TinMan Tri, it was a bit of a stretch for me to imagine that I’d ever really get a chance to run down Ali’i Drive as an Ironman Finisher myself. So it wasn’t something I thought too much about.
A few years later I had improved a lot as an athlete but had then burnt myself out a bit with short course racing. I read a race report from the inaugural Half Ironman UK that took place in Llanberis, Wales in 2001. I was training off and on without any real goals in place but the report mentioned that there would be a follow up edition in 2002 complete with Kona qualification slots across both the pro and age group fields. Because I was struggling for motivation I’m pretty sure that the idea of chasing a Kona slot hit a subconscious nerve or perhaps awakened a seed that was planted by all of that old Ironman coverage I’d watched growing up. I decided that this was just what I needed to help me get some racing mojo back and entered the 2002 Llanberis event. That certainly got me putting in the miles!
Back then Hawaii qualification worked similarly to how it does now for age group athletes, ‘x’ number of slots were allocated to a qualifying race and then these were spread across the genders and age categories based on the number of participants in each.
As there were only a small number of slots for the whole event and entries were light in the 20-24 male category there was only 1 slot assigned to my group when the final list got published. Whilst technically slots could ‘roll down’ if the winner had already qualified, I knew I’d probably have to win my age group. I believed this was possible as I had started getting into decent form before the race.
When race day came, the conditions were pretty cold which suited me and I had a decent swim and bike, coming into T2 somewhere around 25th place overall I think (back then age groupers and pros started together so it was easier to understand your position in the overall race).
My dad was watching race numbers and thought he’d not seen any other numbers from my category out before me onto the run. It therefore looked like all I would have to do was hold onto my form on the run up and down the Llanberis pass, not get overtaken and I’d be stamping my Kona ticket that evening at the awards ceremony.
I clipped out a reasonable run, finished in 19th overall and went along to the presentation ready to sign up to my trip to the Big Island. Back then you had to pay for your slot on the day, in US dollars (in cash no less), if you wanted to confirm your entry. The rules were simple, no cash, no entry and so I’d had to get the $200 ready the day before on the assumption I’d need it when the time came. As the Kona slot presentation ceremony started and I remember feeling really pretty buzzed up about it all.
I thought it was some kind of joke when the name ‘Olivier Lyoen’ was announced for the 20-24 year old male slot. I then learned that he’d been a late entry into the race, so had been assigned a low number that should have gone to a pro athlete. So my dad had not been able to identify him as a direct competitor and I’d been unaware that he was up the road and he’d beaten me to the punch. I raced very hard that day and certainly don’t think I’d have been in a position to go much faster even if I had known he was ahead. But he beat me by just 3 minutes in a 4 hour 20 min race. Instead of collecting a Kona slot, all I got for my efforts was a track pump for being 2nd in my category. I took the dollars back to Travelex the following Monday. Gutted does not begin to describe the feeling and I was pretty despondent on the way back home.
Olivier Lyoen. My nemesis in the early 21st century.
After Llanberis, I carried on and raced a few more events that year before hearing the announcement that the organisers had decided to move Half Ironman UK 2003 to a new venue, Sherborne Castle on the Dorset/Somerset border. This was music to my ears as I was living about 10 miles from Sherborne at the time and so it seemed I would get a good second chance next year.
My failure at Llanberis inspired me to take things to a whole new level and my personal Kona qualification obsession began in earnest that winter!
I started riding the Sherborne bike route as often as possible to get to know it inside out. It was a hilly route and it seemed likely that this would be a deciding factor in the race. Looking back at my training diaries from January of 2003 onwards, it looks like I rode the course at least once a week, every single week in the build up to the race in August. I rode it with the wind coming from every direction to know how that could influence it. I rode it with different gear ratios on the bike to find the optimum set up for the hills and I even entered the local time trials to get a feel for racing on the roads. I used a power meter to work out what output I could hold for different times on different sections. I pretty much knew every pothole on that route.
When I wasn’t riding the course, I dug out the old NBC Hawaii VHS tapes and watched them over and over whilst turbo training and visualised running down the Queen K highway. I must have watched this one at least 50 times. On all of my tempo and acceleration runs, I imagined running my French rival down and beating him to the finish line.
When I wasn’t training for Sherborne, I was thinking about it, eating for it, resting for it, dreaming about it when I was asleep or boring anyone I knew by taking about it.
By the time race day came I felt incredibly well prepared for what lay ahead. I’d been in great form in the weeks leading up to the race. I’d won some local races in the build up, set a big PB for the half marathon (68min 30sec) and posted some decent 25 mile time trial times (around 55min on quite a lumpy local course). I remember standing on the start line absolutely chomping at the bit to get going.
The race itself panned out incredibly well. I had a so-so swim, coming out of the water inside the top 25 which was decent for me back then. A loose pack of around 15 -20 athletes (mainly pros, with a handful of age groupers in the mix as the race was a mass start) formed on the bike course. We were all chasing Swedish athlete Bjorn Andersson, who was renowned for his biking and intent on smashing the course. I found the bike relatively steady, partly because the dynamic of the race meant that it wasn’t completely flat out, and partly because I was so well prepared to ride that course efficiently.
I got off the bike in around 12th place and feeling fresh, but with very little time covering 2nd-20th place. I started the run pretty hard, not sure if my French nemesis was in the group somewhere in front or close behind me.
The run I had that day was the stuff that racing dreams are made of. I started moving through the field from 12th to about 6th on the first of 2 laps. I was pretty sure by the time I hit 6th that the Kona slot was mine to lose, as it was likely to only be pros in front of me by then. On the second lap I pushed the pace even harder as my energy felt boundless and I got myself into 3rd place with about 1km to go. By this point I was running on pure elation, I knew from spectators that it was just Bjorn Andersson and UK pro Richard Allen in front, so I was first age group athlete overall. When I turned into the finishing straight I could see Richard in front of me, he was not close enough to catch, despite the fact he was cramping up, but I didn’t care as I had got my Kona slot and even a spot on the overall podium.
There were lots of pats on the back from people when I came over the finish line, including good old Mum and Dad and Bill, the owner of Primera bike shop, my sponsor at the time. It genuinely ranks as one of the happiest moments in my life so far. I felt like I’d worked so hard and had got exactly what I wanted. The disappointment of the previous year definitely added to the joy of coming back and getting the job done.
I had my US dollars with me again that evening at presentation, only this time I was finally able to spend them. I was definitely the proudest bloke there when the Hawaiian Lei was placed around my neck to signify that I had got my place. I was even happier when I saw the results and found out that I’d beaten Monsieur Lyoen by over 15 minutes this time around. That really put into perspective just want 12 months of really focussed training had done for my performance.
Back then, when you qualified for Kona at a late season race the slot was allocated to the following year. This meant that I then had 14 months to go away and prepare for my shot at the World Championships. This was great news as I felt I needed the time to figure out how to step up to the longer distance. I’d only done one Ironman before, and that was only with semi-serious training in the build up and I also had to get the money together to fund the rather expensive trip!
Tune in next week to find out how I got on over on the Big Island…