Longford man Seamus Murtagh took part in the Ireman 226 Challenge on August 18 of this year. The following is his account of the event.
The Ireman 226 Challenge is a Full Iron Distance Triathlon Race consisting of a 3.8k (2.4 mile) swim, 180k (112 mile) bike and 42.2k (26.2 mile) run which takes place in Groomsport, near Bangor, Co Down. It is run by the Triangle Triathlon Club.
I had always dreamt of doing a Full Iron distance race at some stage but it was not on my list for 2013. I was doing all the local sprint triathlons and they were going well. Since joining Longford Tri Club, the help and support from everyone has helped me improve.
In July, Johanna and Ben Smith told me they were taking part in the Shadowman Middle Distance Triathlon. I was very impressed and said I would love to do it. They convinced me I would be okay, so I took it on and we all did well on the Athlone event. On finishing, everyone told me I seemed very fresh on completing the event, and this thought stayed with me over the days after. I looked up Full Iron Distance races. The Ireman 226 Challenge was still open, so I signed up right away.
I knew it was important to cover the distances in advance, so on Sunday, August 11, I set off for Enfield on my bike. There and back took 7 hrs 20 and I felt fine, but could I run a marathon after this?
On Monday, thankfully feeling none the worse of the cycle, I tackled a 4k swim on the Royal Canal at Clondra. I swam up 1k from Lock 45 and back. I got out on the Canal Bank and checked the time, 1 hour, so off again and did another 2k. For the rest of the week I took it easy, just dog walking with my wife, Anne.
On Saturday morning, after packing, I set the trip length on the car to 0. Somewhere near Dundalk it clocked 180km. That brought home to me the sheer magnitude of the challenge.
The lead-up to the Challenge:
We arrived in Groomsport around 5.30pm and found registration in the Boathouse. I was advised to be here before 5.30am the next morning. It was evident it would be wavy for the event due to the onshore breezes. To say I was apprehensive would be putting it mildly. That night, I was racked with self doubt about the swim. Seeing it so breezy was a real worry. What if I just could not do it? What if I could not make the 2 hours 20 minutes cut off for the swim?
I looked out on the marina at Bangor Bay round 3 AM to see if the breeze had died down. To my dismay, it hadn’t.
I must have slept eventually because the call from Reception was bang on time. I got up and felt okay.
Firstly, I killed the phone alarms. Then I read a text from my daughter Sionan, who is actually the fastest triathlete in our house having beaten me by 6 seconds in Dring Sprint. The text was completely inspirational and got my head right. I recalled it a hundred times throughout the event.
As I never eat before an event, that day would be no different but I did allow myself the luxury of a coffee. I put on my Longford Tri suit and leggings, plus my Shadowman jacket to give some credibility in Transition and at the pre race briefing. I said goodbye to Anne and made my way downstairs, pushing past the heavy doors.
Dawn was breaking over Bangor Marina and I had it all to myself. I brought a small bottle of water and faced the car down Seacliff Road back through the town and up to Groomsport. It was 5.10 AM. I felt good physically; rested, fresh, injury free and capable. However, the breeze was strong and the temperature was no more than 11 degrees. I was one of the first arrivals at Transition. Next was an athlete who had done the Middle Distance here last time and he told me about the cycle route. Slowly, the rest of the competitors were gathering.
I got the wetsuit on and organized my stuff. I met more of the other competitors. They were a very friendly group, one from Holland, one from the Shetland Islands but nearly all the rest from Northern Ireland. Unusually for me, I had an unsettling feeling at this stage. An athlete beside me, a big strong guy, about 30 years old did a spring jump from where he was standing, pulling his knees up to his chest. At full elevation he was over my head! I thought to myself; what am I doing with such a fit group of competitors?
The race briefing was delivered by Race Director Conal Heatley. Due to the very strong on shore breezes, the swim was being brought in, but we were to do 6 laps instead of 4. Still, this was to my advantage. I would have to 5 run sections, up the beach, round the yellow inflatable and back out, rather than 3
So down to the beach we went to line up. I have had the privilege of setting out on some great sporting activities in my life, but this was of a scale and demand way in excess of anything previous.
I looked out to sea, and out to Scotland. This was it. I sealed up the goggles after a quick dip in the water. I set the watch. I always make a mental note of the actual time of day for start, this way if you accidentally stop your watch you still can get an idea of your time. The onshore breeze was still a factor. But the fear was gone.
The klaxon sounded and we were off into the water. The target was the orange bouy with the kite attached. We had to swim out to this anti clockwise, and then on to the yellow bouy before turning for the beach. I made good progress and for a while kept up with the other competitors. I got out to the orange bouy in under 10 minutes.
Then I turned to face the yellow bouy. The sea was rough on the way but I knew that when I got around it, I would be heading back to the beach.
However, the onshore breeze was very strong. So I kept my navigation to the forefront. Every 3 strokes I was sighting the yellow bouy back on the beach. I completed the first lap in less than 20 minutes. I knew now I could be an Iron Distance athlete. It was possibly the first time I really believed it. I considered it done! Knowing success was assured, the next logical thing to do was to enjoy every bit of it. I was here by choice, it was one of the greatest days of my life to have such an opportunity. Lap Two was uneventful but the time was even better.
I attacked the course as I did not want to be tired going into the final lap and be tiring with a threat of not making the 2 hours 20 minutes cut off. On the last lap it really brightened up. I felt strong. I ran out of the water and up to the beach for Transition 1.
Up to Transition, only 1 other bike there but I did not care. I had a smoothie and got rid of the goggles, hat and wet suit. I packed another smoothie into my back pocket and I was away up the hill out of Groomsport, down the road and on to the motorway. The event would take us on a 30km lap to be repeated 6 times. Firstly on the motorway towards Belfast, then off over the beautiful Ulster farming countryside to Carrowdore. From there we worked our way round to Millisle on the Mourne Coastal Route and all the way back to Donaghadee and eventully to Groomsport. The bike route was undulating, some long climbs and dips but nothing to be feared. My biggest problem was the breeze. It seemed to get stronger as the day progressed, and I had hoped to keep to near 30km per hour. I was well outside this. Second lap, I continued my nutrition strategy. Time for the smoothie going through Carrowdore. Road surface was a little bumpy.
At the end of the second lap I stopped at the Aid Station. I took my time and focused. All was going well and I was off on the third lap, enjoying every minute of it. I passed another of the Full Iron Distance Competitors on the bike (first lap) but was largely on my own until the Half Iron Distance athletes came into the race. The first of them just shot by, many on bikes with Disc Wheels, and aerodynamic helmets. It struck me that I have so much room for improvement, with equipment, and performance. Still, I was the one doing the Full Distance and I got great support from them. A group from Penninsula Tri Club engulfed me suddenly, and they were similarly supportive. By the end of the third lap, spectators had arrived and they said that there was a good crowd down in the village, not realising the route was in effect bypassing the village until going down into T2.
I set off on the 4th lap and the weather darkened. It was spitting rain. Coming through Carrowdore, there was a cyclist from Belpark Club just in front of me. There was a car between us. Next thing, the car had stopped and the unfortunate cyclist was buried in the tar. At this stage it was as dark as night. I dismounted immediately, and with the help of some attentive local residents we helped the competitor off the road and gathered up his bike and things. A bit later I saw an ambulance heading out that way, so hopefully he was well taken care of and has no lasting injuries.
At the end of Lap 4 the spectators had moved up to the road, including Anne. I stocked up my cycle jersey with some cola gels. On with the 5th Lap. By this stage I was getting a bit frustrated with the sheer length of this thing. I thought of families tucking into Sunday lunch or settling down to see the Premiership. But none of that for me. I pressed on. I spoke to Anne again at the end of Lap 5 and had the presence of mind to stop and stock up on the gels because I would not be going by here again.
On the last lap of the bike I said goodbye to the villages along the way. The weather brightened and I felt more upbeat. As I turned into T2, I spoke briefly to Anne and told her I was feeling good for the run. Into T2 and I had been out 10 hours. The cycle had taken massivly longer than planned. But I did not mind. There was no point in having a good bike and blowing up on the run and ending up wrecked and walking. My goal was Ireman: Finisher.
Starting the run I decided that I would try to stay near 5 – 6 km per hour. The first part of the run was back up the Mourne Coast Road for 4km. We turned at an aid station, where the gentleman on duty gave me something to drink and gels. I ran back steadily and took the turn up the hill and down into the caravan park. From there it was a rocky course along the shore line, up the beach and round by transition, over the mat. Then luckily, one of the relay guys was ahead of me and I followed him back out of Groomsport in the direction of Bangor. We had to navigate trails, pathways, rocks and back onto the beach. It was not possible to do anything fast here, it was important to keep safe. I ran down the beach and up along the prominade, all the time following the orange arrows. Eventually I came to the last Aid Station and a very lively group of supporters helped everyone top up with a choice of drinks or gels.
On down into Bangor. I was glad to see the turning point. I headed back to Groomsport, passing some Half Iron Distance competitors. Then it was on to the second lap and out to the Aid Station from where Scottish coast was retreating in the distance.
Then I had a bit of a panic as I could not be sure where my turn into the Windsor Caravan Park was. For a while I thought I had missed it. I met two competitors on the last lap of the run and moved on ahead. I ran back down into Bangor, around for home. Coming up on 14 hours, I would finish strong and well. Darkness had not yet taken ownership of Groomsport by the time I turned down into the Finish Area. Anne as always, was there to cheer me to the finish. At last I could stop running.
My finishing time was as follows: 14.11.26.
The lady in charge of the finish got me a tubular chair to sit on and presented me with my trophy, a beautiful Belfast Hand Cut Lead Crystal piece with ‘Ireman 226 Challenge Finisher 2013’ engraved on it. We also got a body warmer with the Ireman and Triangle Club details and the distances.
Hal Higdin in his book on the Marathon referred to the 27th mile. Upon finishing a major endurance event, athletes have a last lap that takes place after the race. Coupled with elation (or disappointment) the athlete has to gather himself up, particularly in Triathlon.
Finally we drove back up to the hotel in Bangor. I felt in reasonable shape even after climbing the stairs. I got loads of texts of support from my friends in Longford Athletic Club and Longford Tri Club, which were really appreciated. I called home to assure my parents and daughter Muireann that all had gone well. Sionan had been in touch with Anne throughout and was also delighted to hear I got through it so well.
Thanks to Conal Heatly and all at Triangle Triathlon Club for putting on a fantastic event. Keep up the good work. There are many people who have helped me get to the level required to complete an Iron Distance Race. The coaches at Longford Tri Club, Mark Sheridan and Barry Hall who helped me improve my indoor swimming, but even more importantly helped make the Open Water Swim training such a success; Padraig Farrell who has coached my running at Longford AC every Tuesday night; The cycle groups on Wednesday nights, the time trials and the Saturday morning cycles; Kevin Martin who had my bike right and encouraged me all the way; all my marathon training friends. Also, people such as Brendan Doyle and Gerry Duffy, provided fantastic inspiration.
So what can be learned from this? I think it shows we are all capable of reaching our goals, meeting targets and achieving even more than we may have thought possible.
It was a risk in making a massive jump up in distance from normally doing Sprint Distance Triathlons to straight into Half Iron and Full Iron Distance. I would not recommend this. If you are considering doing an event like this get a medical with your GP, join your local triathlon club and build up to it over time. It is an endurance race and if you take it carefully it is possible to get through it.