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Wednesday 27 October 2021

Ironman Barcelona: Bike Crashes, Jellyfish & People Soup

Ironman Barcelona

And there I was driving through Barcelona in a van which felt the size of a house, triple wide and on the wrong side of the road. Mopeds were flying past both sides of us on the three-lane carriageway and I was convinced that I would be scraping one out of the wheel arch before long. Simon made a startled cry as one passed close to the van. I turned on him furiously, still clutching the steering wheel. “STOP screaming. NOW you know how I feel when YOU drive!”
We’d arrived in Barcelona airport to pick up our hire car but the chap behind the Budget desk, seeing the vast amount of luggage plus bike box had offered a larger vehicle; a Renault Trafic to be precise. I, only having the haziest idea of what these where like but dimly envisioning a people carrier, agreed. And here I was piloting this enormous thing through Spain, with Simon whimpering in the passenger seat, L asleep in the back and luggage piled up to the roof.

We’d finally arrived in Spain for Ironman Barcelona after a 2-year delay thanks to work and COVID. It hadn’t been an entirely easy trip so far thanks to having to book tests (£260! We’ll have to survive on dust and seawater while over there!) and the rules changing several times while planning the trip. This, culminating in the testing company sending the wrong test for L, meant a rushed trip to Birmingham 2 days before the flight for a last-minute PCR test. Results had arrived about 6 hours before we had to leave for the airport. And then the stress of whether we’d filled in the correct forms and boxes on the new COVID flight app, the Spanish SPTH app and the COVID NHS passport ...
The bike box had been 5kg overweight, but looking at my harassed face, the airport check in clerk had decided it wasn’t worth the mental breakdown and resulting mess me collapsing in a sobbing heap would make in front of his nice clean desk and told me to just drag it over to the oversize luggage gate.

The hoody says 'I do all my own stunts'. Ironic really ..

The hotel which had been booked for a year had been cancelled by the management company about 3 weeks before we flew out. Apparently, the hotel had closed at the end of August but had forgotten to tell us until mid-September. We’d re-booked at another hotel which if you believed TripAdvisor wasn’t quite Skid Row but might be if the rats got their act together and smartened up. But quite frankly, at this point so long as there was parking for this bus, a clean bed and beer then bring it on.
I was done. I just wanted to get to Calella in one piece, race the race and then chill out in the sunshine. The race, despite being called Ironman Barcelona, was held about 45 miles from Barcelona in the pretty coastal town of Calella famous for its lighthouse.
And here I was. Standing in the rain, 45 minutes before the race, looking at the gigantic hole I had just accidentally put in the leg of my wetsuit.
Balls. Well, not much I could do about it now. And if this was the only thing to go wrong in the event, then that wouldn’t be too bad.

I headed towards the swim start just as the rain eased off. The sea yesterday had been warm and calm and clear as glass. Today, the wind was howling and the fronds on the palm trees lining the beach front, were flapping and rattling. The waves were white tipped and higher than my head. Today, it would be an adventure swim. Hopefully not the sort of adventure involving lifeboats and dramatic rescues.

The swim start was delayed due to the conditions and possibly all the safety crews being seasick due to the massive waves. The start of 0830hrs kept getting pushed backwards and I kept looking at the bending palm trees waiting for the wind to drop but it never seemed to.

Finally, at around 0900hrs, there was an announcement that the swim would be shortened to 950m due to safety. It was a huge cut from the original distance of 3800m but judging by how the safety boats were being thrown around, the conditions were even worse than they looked from the shore. It seemed like the extra leg hole in my wetsuit would be the least of my swim concerns.

Chatted to Peter from Mersey Tri and a couple of Irish lads while we were waiting for the swim to start. What I could see of the waves was ridiculous. I couldn’t see the enormous buoys as they kept disappearing behind waves but every now and then I’d see a safety boat being thrown around like a kids’ toy in an enormous bathtub.
Paul Kaye, the Ironman commentator was giving a shout out to all the nationalities at Ironman Barcelona. I was really surprised to hear that Brits were the largest group racing today – even more of us than the Spanish or French! Very relieved that the triathlete contingent was better behaved than the usual football tourists. Although maybe the triathletes were saving their beer for AFTER the race.

Suddenly, Thunderstruck by AC/DC was playing. This song heralds the swim start! Athletes started queuing at the arch and were set off in groups of 6 every 4 seconds. I joined a queue and all of a sudden, I was at the front! I went under the arch and as I ran towards the towering sea, the previous group of 6 were washed back on the beach at my feet by the sheer force of the waves. I started picking people up and helping them back onto their feet.
I ran in and dived through the first wave. I couldn’t see the first buoy at all and had to wait until I was on the crest of the wave and the buoy was also on the crest of a wave to even see it. These things are 8ft high and bright yellow which shows just how high the waves were.
From the beach, you could see that the swimmers were being swept left by the tide meaning some were having to double back to reach the buoy to pass it on their left. I swam far right, almost in a chevron so I’d reach the first buoy at the correct place.
The swim was like people soup. Everyone was getting washed around, there was no drafting opportunities as you’d be next to someone one moment and the next they’d be 10ft away to the left, separated by a wave. People were knocking together, swirling around. It wasn’t cold though so you didn’t have the panic that you’d get if it was in a British sea.
I usually breathe on both sides but because the waves were coming from a diagonal-right direction, I had to breathe on the left only and even then because the waves were breaking far out and had white foamy tips, I’d still occasionally get a face full of water rather than a breath as a wave broke over my head. I took a breath every 2 strokes rather than every 3 and because of the conditions, it wasn’t easy to get into a rhythm however breathing every 2 meant there was less chance of missing a breath. I pushed out to the far right and was coming up to the first buoy before I knew it. In a typical-of-the-day-so-far moment, I got swept by a wave and the wind shifted and I got an 8ft yellow buoy in the face just as I came up to it. Brilliant. Well at least I know I’m taking the corner by the buoy as tight as possible. I was literally swimming UNDER a corner of the buoy and over the rope.
And yes. It probably DID look like I headbutted an 8ft yellow buoy. Take THAT, sea!!
Out onto the back stretch and it was possible to get into a bit more of a rhythm as the swimmers were more stretched out and it was less like a drowning anthill. It still wasn’t easy to sight despite the buoys being 8ft tall but it was easier to swim straight. The sea wasn’t the clear turquoise glass of the day before, but dark and blue-green but looking down between breaths I saw a small jellyfish, about the size of a football, floating just below me. It was bright blue, meaning it was in distress. I decided that if I was a jellyfish and there was a massive storm and thousands of swimmers thrashing around above me, I’d probably be a bit upset too. 
Before I knew it, the back stretch was done, and I was turning at the last buoy, heading in towards the black finish arch which was visible on the beach between waves. The only trick now was to try and swim slightly against the current, so I didn’t overshoot the arch and end up 100m further down the beach. I managed to get it about right and swam into the beach as far as possible, with a few wave-assisted surges and was grabbed by the hand by a female volunteer in a yellow t-shirt who helped me out of the crashing waves.

Due to the shortened swim, everyone was coming out of the water in a clump as there hadn’t been the time to spread out in the swim.  This meant the transition up to the bike was VERY leisurely. No real rush by anyone and there was no space for me to run up to the bike even if I hadn’t been recovering from being swirled around in a food blender of seawater, triathletes and jellyfish. I wasn’t sure if the slow pace was normal for an ironman and everything was a bit more relaxed or just because the sea had been so insane and everyone was still in shock!
I’d hoped to see Simon and L on the beach at the swim exit but because of the shortened swim, they weren’t there.
I peeled off my wetsuit and bundled this, my hat and goggles into my bike bag. I stuck the helmet, tri belt, socks and bike shoes on and grabbed the bag of pick n mix and flapjacks. I made my way to Pinky the Trusty Tri Bike with a bit more speed now the crowds had thinned out. Row 6-7 and in line with the banners … the sighting practise had worked.
I grabbed the bike and ran out of transition like usual … and then ground to a halt stuck behind groups of people walking and clogging up the narrow path. I resigned myself to walking as there was no way past.
I ran past the mount line and jumped onto Pinky but even after the mount line progress was very slow. The first section was on very narrow streets with speed bumps, cobbled sections and potholes and riders weren’t allowed on the tri bars because of the risk. The drafting rules also didn’t apply in this section which was lucky as the short swim meant the streets were very congested. There was no space to get any speed up and it wouldn’t have been safe anyway. I used the time to smash a gel in my face while we were going so slowly.
I turned out onto the main road without any problems and onto the main roundabout just outside Calella. There was a very strong headwind but I soon got into a rhythm. My fuelling strategy was a flapjack and a couple of salt tablets every hour on the hour and drink to requirement. The bottle was mounted on the front of the bike between the tribars so I wouldn’t be able to forget to drink.

Initially everyone was in a tight group after leaving the transition area and the no tribars section but there was soon opportunity to spread out so no excuse to draft. There WERE a lot of people drafting and even working in packs, but I was careful not to. I wanted to have the time I worked for and I definitely didn’t want a penalty or DQ for cheating. There were penalty tents on the course and these were full when I passed. There were marshals on mopeds going backwards and forwards handing out warnings and penalties. There was still a lot of drafting happening despite this, but I just got on with my own race.
The wind was still strong. I’d hoped it would drop for the bike leg but there was a steady headwind going out away from Calella. It was demoralising. I’d cycled this route the day before with Chris and Natalie who were staying in the same hotel and we’d cycled a leisurely and easy 19.5mph along this road and now I was barely hitting 16mph with twice the effort. I just had to hope that the wind would stay the same direction for my way back into Calella, so I’d get a tailwind and an easier ride back. It was hard work though and the route was an out and back with a just couple of shoot-offs away from the coast at two points so no real respite.
I was sorting nutrition with had one hand on the bars and one holding a snack when a gust of wind knocked me sideways into a cone. With my hand full of flapjack, I didn’t have the control I usually have, and I hit it dead on. I caught the bike once but oversteered and the bike bucked. I hit the ground hard and smacked my head on the road. I sat there for a while a bit dazed with blood coming from my hand, left leg and shoulder. I picked up Pinky. She seemed fine, but the knock had jammed the left brake pad onto the wheel. I hadn’t brought tools as I don’t know enough about mechanicals to sort any issues although irritatingly I could have sorted this. A motorcycle marshal pulled up and asked if I was ok. Confirmed I was fine but asked for mechanical to assist me as I didn’t have any tools but realised I could wing it. Released the brakes and headed back into the headwind.
I normally have no issues with refilling the torpedo bottle on the front of the bike on the move and do this at races on the fly regularly with no issues but with the wind it was a struggle. The first time I tried it in Calella, I nearly hit another cone so the next time, I stopped, grabbed the bottle and poured it in while stopped. It wasn’t great for my time but kept the cones and Pinky safe AND meant the fluid actually went into the bottle rather than me wearing it.
I kept seeing the same people over and over. It helped that people had names on their trisuits or on their race numbers which made them memorable. I played leapfrog with ‘Frederic With The Squeaky Bottom Bracket’ for a while – I could hear him coming! And ‘Herron In The Red & White Suit’. Also ‘Bianca’ and ‘Red Specialised Bike’ lady a few times. No-one was particularly chatty though except Frederic, everyone just had their heads down. I was finding that I was leaning the bike to the left side that I’d had the crash on. I wasn’t sure whether it was the wind or whether the crash had knocked something out of alignment – on the bike or me! – but I was definite at a left-leaning angle!
My toes were getting really sore. My ribs were a bit painful and the cuts and grazes were stinging but the bit that hurt the most were my toes! In the end, I couldn’t stand it any longer and stopped the bike and pulled the toes of my socks away from my feet. I think putting socks on wet feet made them shrink and they were compressing my toes. The relief! My shoulders were getting a little stiff, but I was down on the bars the whole time except for roundabouts so this was to be expected after a few hours. But my toes were finally OK!
I needed a wee for the whole bike leg but couldn’t go on the bike. I was quite prepared to channel my inner Chrissie Wellington, particularly if someone decided to draft me but bladder said no. Probably just as well. After the sea, I was pretty sure everyone had had enough of flying water.
It was a long old slog getting to the turnaround point on the coast road. The headwind made it feel much tougher than it should have felt and the 2 spikes off the main route which were both uphill going out had made it all feel a bit of a drag. It was such a shame as it had been so divine yesterday on the recce of the course. Although I HAD managed to stay upright then which had probably helped with my disposition.

I heard a group playing the drums and then it was a slight incline and a sharp u-turn around some cones and I was on the stretch back! Coming back along the coast road towards Calella was a completely different situation with the wind behind me. Rather than having to work for every pedal stroke, it was a joy to cycle and a completely different experience to going the other direction. As I rode, I could see the faces of the cyclists coming the other way, all were bent over the bars of the bikes, fixed grimaces on their faces as they pushed against the wind.
The time coming back flew and I was at the roundabout at Calella before I knew it. I’d arranged with Simon and L to be on the bike route, but they weren’t at the turnaround point. I was so disappointed. The supporters here were fantastic and there was lots of cheering, but I’d fallen off the bike, was covered in sweat, blood and gravel, had been fighting a horrible wind and insane sea conditions and I just wanted to see my family. And I couldn’t.
I cried. Then I turned around the roundabout and headed back into the headwind.
As is usual when you know where you’re going, the second lap felt shorter. The headwind was still bad, but I expected it this time and I knew when to turn for the out and back sections. I also didn’t fall off my bike. Things were looking up for lap two.
While stopped to refill my bottle, I was waiting for a space in the cyclists to pull out when an over-enthusiastic marshal grabbed the back of the saddle and offered to shove me out into the traffic as a ‘help’. No. Really no thanks. He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Spanish and he didn’t want to take no (or ‘Nop’) for an answer and certainly didn’t want to wait for me to clip in or actually have both hands on the bike. I didn’t need this sort of assistance thanks and shouted “No thank you” in my kindest but firmest manner and Foxtrot Oscar-ed before he tried to throw me out into traffic again.

The route back to Calella felt like flying. I’d been on the bike nearly 6 hours but with the tailwind, I was cruising along quite happily. Swapped places a few times with a few groups but just did my own thing and raced my own race. The sea was on my right the whole way, shining blue and in a few places, I could see the huge waves crashing down on the shore. The swim already felt a long time ago and it felt unreal that I was almost 2 parts done of an Ironman!
The last 10k of the bike was the hilliest section with a few undulations but not anything I needed to get out of the saddle for. The cliffs rose high on the left as I followed the coast road and I kept an eye out for the famous lighthouse at Calella which would signal that I was nearly at the end of the bike course. Coming up to the roundabout which had been the turnaround point on lap one, I spotted two familiar people on the opposite side of the road. I shouted out “Simon! L!” as I passed and heard a responding shout.
Everything slowed right down again coming through town. Off the tribars again as per the rules so just chilled out for this section and enjoyed the fact that it was just the run to go! And even I probably couldn’t crash into a traffic cone on the run!
I hopped off the bike before the dismount line but again there was no space to run the bike back in due to the people walking and blocking the lane, so I took my time. Racked Pinky and trotted to where my run bag was hanging and took my bike shoes and visor out. Took the empty gels packets out of my pockets and put new gels into pockets. Shoved some pick n mix in my mouth and put trainers and visor on. My ASICS trainers felt SO comfy after my bike shoes! I turned my tri belt around and set off. But first a loo stop!
I closed the door of the portaloo and wished I could close my nostrils too. Pulled my trisuit down and one of my new gels went straight into the portaloo loo where it sat nestling on top of the splatty poo someone had thoughtfully left for the next person to appreciate. Bleurgh. Not fishing that gel out. That’s staying in there.
I headed out towards the run route, joining the runners already on the course and headed out towards the lighthouse on the cliffs above the finish line. The route is a 3-lap course of around 8 miles per lap. It’s a long time to run so in my head I split it down rather than think about the full distance. There was a turn by the lighthouse which I had to go past 4 times and a turn at the far end which I had to pass 3 times. I was just going to count the turns down. Every lap I was just going to focus on getting to the next turnaround.
Getting into my run stride, I took a deep breath and I heard a pop followed by a very sharp pain in my top left side under my arm. It was very uncomfortable and I found I was bent over a little to the left trying to reduce the pain. I wasn’t sure what the pain was but I started taking shallower breaths to try and ease it while running. I still had about 25.5 miles left of the marathon … not the time to start breaking down.

About a mile from the lighthouse, I heard a shout and Simon and L were standing cheering behind the barrier with a great big homemade sign and a vuvuzela being blown VERY enthusiastically. It was lovely to see them and great to have a support section! A mile on and I was around the first turn by the finish arch and into lap one properly. There were groups of supporters which were amazing. I had my name on my bib number so people were shouting my name like I was a celebrity! There was a lot of loud cheering and some really excellent support. If you responded, then the support got even better. It really flew me through these sections – it was impossible not to respond.
I’d been heading out for short runs while staying in Calella and my hotel was around 1/3 of a mile from the seafront. The Ironman run route went along my usual run route but at my turnaround point, the Ironman run continued out past the white-walled cemetery and onto sandy paths alongside the sea. This part of the run route had less support than the section towards the lighthouse and it seemed to go on for a long time. There were pockets of supporters and a couple of tents with groups playing music and cheering the runners but it felt quite empty. A couple of runners referred to this section as ‘the desert’ and it did feel quite desolate.
Eventually I could see a hotel in the distance on the right-hand side, but it took a long time to get there. A police car was parked on the left side and an ambulance on the right and the drivers were out watching the runners coming past. Eventually, I passed the hotel and the hotel after that and then I came up to some fir trees and a sign – ‘turnaround point ahead’. The road was broken into two sections for out and back runners and I could see the aid station and the snacks and cups of cola on the table for the runners on the other side – so close! - and then I was around the turnaround point and heading back towards the lighthouse.

My strategy was to grab a cola at every aid station and walk the length of the station while drinking the cola. I was also having a gel and salt tablet every 3 miles, but the goal was to run the rest of the time.  Relentless forward progress. I didn’t care how slow I was running; the goal was just to run. Every time someone overtook me I reminded myself that I was running my own race. The person overtaking me had their goals and I had mine. EVERY time someone overtook me, I had the urge to chase them, but I didn’t know how I was going to feel in a few miles. I didn’t want to come this far to crash and burn near the end. I knew I could keep this pace up almost forever, I just had to keep THIS pace up. But I found I was overtaking more people than were overtaking me.
The supporters really helped with the spirit and atmosphere of the event. There was a lady in a motorised wheelchair who was furiously ringing a cowbell and holding a sign cheering the runners on. There were a British couple sitting by the bar by the park who every time I passed, shouted “Come on Rugby!” after spotting my navy and orange trisuit. An Irish group on the stretch by the finish arch who were hugely enthusiastic and had nailed the Mexican wave! As we had our names on our bibs, the supporters were shouting the names of the runners, so running through the roads, I had lots of “Come on Sarah!” “Good running Sarah!” and even a few random “Come on Susan!”s which confused me slightly. There were some entertaining signs, one of which promised “Nekked cheerleaders and free secks at the finish”. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I’d be in a position to take advantage of any of these offers. But I could certainly go for a ”free shoe removal” or “free food”.
The miles ticked by. My left side was still sore and I couldn’t take deep breaths but it was manageable. Besides I didn’t expect to be feeling 100% by the end of an ironman. Wasn’t I SUPPOSED to feel like hell? It helped that the aid stations were fairly frequent for cola walking breaks and Simon and L were cheering me on every lap so that was something lovely to look forward to. The sun was lowering towards the horizon and the heat was calmer now. Just get it done, Booker.

 My tummy felt a bit dicey and I wasn’t the only one. There were a few squeaky bums among the runners but I wasn’t at the stage of trusting a fart so around mile 16, I nipped into portaloo. Nope … butt still trustworthy. *parp*
There were a lot of people walking on the run now and some runners were so out of it, they were running the wrong ways along the taped sections with a hobble and a thousand yard stare. I just kept on keeping on. Come on legs. It was just getting dark now and the sky was a deep blue.
Out onto the third lap and this was it. One more turnaround and I’d be on the home stretch. Passing Simon and L I told them they needed to make their way to the finish line and I’d see them at the end. I didn’t want them to miss my finish! The last few times I’d made it onto the podium in a triathlon, they’d missed it due to various reasons and while I wasn’t expecting a podium, I definitely wanted them to see my first Ironman finish!
Due to dropping a gel into the portaloo, I’d had to use an on-course gel. The gels I normally use are syrupy and tasty but I squirted this gel into my mouth but instead of the sugary liquid I was expecting, it was solid like blancmange. I had a mouth full of what had the flavour and consistency of one of the jellyfish I’d been swimming over earlier in the day. In what was a heroic effort, I managed to persuade my mouth to swallow it and then my stomach not to vomit it.
I decided I needed to manage my expectations of free gels. I’d passed a few runners bringing up stomach contents in the run but had assumed it was the pressure of the event. I hadn’t considered it might have been a jellyfish flavoured gel.
In preparation for the finish, I moved my number and tri belt around to my front, so the photographer would capture it for my finish photo and the number hole broke … not what I wanted with 1.5 miles to go! I tucked it into my tri belt and hoped for the best.
The last mile was long. I kept saying to myself “it’s only 8 or 9 minutes. Come on legs!” I blew through the aid stations trusting my legs to manage without the cola. Through the inflatable arches over the run route and towards the lighthouse on the cliffs. The palm trees bordered each side, their leaves still rattling in the breeze. The sky was dark now and the finish line was lit up at the end of the run route like a beacon.

As I was coming up to the finish line I got my bounce back. My legs knew the end was almost here! I turned the final corner and rather than turning back onto the run route, I turned right onto the red carpet and towards the finish line. The red carpet and finish straight was so much longer than I expected. The stadium seats were packed, and the noise was unbelievable! It was amazing! It was my turn to cross the line. I ran through, pointing at the finish gantry! And heard “Bravo Sarah! You are an Ironman!“

I was given my medal and told to wait for the engraving ... I was given my medal back and for the first time I saw my Ironman time.
11 hours 10 minutes 6 seconds.

I was done.

One of my biggest adventures ... and it was over.
And then I started my Garmin again. I needed to have run 26.2 miles to claim my London Marathon virtual medal ... and Ironman Barcelona marathon was 26.1.


Update: I visited the hospital when I got back to the UK and it apparently Ironman really shouldn't feel that terrible. Turns out I broke some ribs in the bike crash. 

Seems I really AM too stupid to know when to stop. 

Photo Credits: & FinisherPix & Simon Booker.