Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Ironman Barcelona – A Guides Perspective

My mum, bless her, was doing her best to calm Haseeb’s obvious anxiety...

Has’ and I had just spent 15 minutes being tossed around in the breakers, that had been smashing aggressively onto Calella’s coarse, golden sand which was now safely back beneath our feet.

“The waves sound so much worse than they actually are buddy and it’s forecast to be calmer tomorrow” added Claire, doing her best to sound sincere.

“It’s actually very calm once you are out past the breakers Has” urged Martin cheerfully. 

“Tomorrow Hasseb I think you should just relax in the swim and don’t worry about the World Record” Mum said calmly..

Then I chucked in my 2 pennnies..... “Yeah... but don’t hang about tomorrow mate... We’ve not come here for a free rucksack...” 

I’m such a bastard..

Post Swim practice de-brief

It was kinda tongue in cheek, but at the same time I didn’t want to sugar the pill.

I’d be guiding Has’ on race day and I’d need to keep him motivated throughout many hours of racing.

I’d need to keep him running when he wanted to stop (and EVERYONE wants to stop running in an Ironman). I’d prepared myself to be pretty unpopular on race day. The physical incarnation of the psychological “will” needed to complete an Ironman.

I didn’t see any point in going all soft on Haseeb now. We were here to break the record for the Fastest Ironman completed by a blind athlete.

I knew that...

Has’ knew that..

And we both knew that, after that short dip, it was going to be monumentally tough.

Even I’m not completely heartless though and I’ll confess to feeling a tinge of guilt since this entire venture was largely my idea.

After Has’ discovered that his visually impaired category (PT5) would not be contested at the Rio Paralympics, it was my bright idea for Haseeb to have a crack at the Ironman. And if we are going to do an Ironman tied together, then we are gonna try and beat the World Record... Right?

Right Haseeb?

Yeah! *High five*.

The current World Record stood at 11hrs 10 minutes and 28 seconds. Well within Haseeb’s physical ability. But as every Ironman knows it’s a dangerous game working out an Ironman finishing time on paper. Particularly with little more than Olympic distance and straight marathon times on which to base it.

We selected Ironman Barcelona as it offered a fast, tandem friendly course and a full season to prepare. Throughout the year Haseeb really put the work in. Another fast marathon and some strong 70.3 races indicated that the record was doable, but like all long course athletes Has’ had to walk the fine line between training enough and nursing niggles which would crop up along the way. Many of Haseeb’s brilliant guides (Chris, Rupert, Kieron and others) helped during his preparations – but a big chunk of the work was completed on his own with many tedious hours spent training INDOORS.

Here, both the treadmill and the Wattbike had proven invaluable. They allowed Has’ to train, in relative safety, at the intensity required, for hours on end. I’m sure the resulting, mind numbing, tedium must have played it’s part in giving Has’ the mental toughness he would undoubtedly need to draw upon during the race.

Nothing builds character like 2 hours on a treadmill or 4 on a Wattbike! 

Back in Callela we had assembled a fabulous team to help with Haseeb’s Challenge. Has’ family Mary and Ayesha (with boyfriend Sam) had flown out with Martin Westall and Joanna.  

Martin would be in charge of gathering all the evidence required to ratify the attempt with Guinness. When Roy Castle warbled on about “dedication” (ooooh dedication), what he failed to mention were the hours and hours of admin and yards of red tape you need to untangle if you... “wanna be a record breaker.... ooooh yeah”. But what an incredible job Martin did. Has’ would not have had a chance at the official record without Martin’s efforts it’s as simple as that. 

We’d gathered on the beach on Saturday, at 8:00am, for a practice swim. We were joined by “Team Ahmad” along with Craig Twig, Paul Lunn, Tom and Laura Roche and Julian Hacket. Everyone chose not to mention the “Elephant in the room” (or Elephant on the beach), that being the 5 ft swell now pounding Calella’s coast line. 

Haseeb’s nerves were palpable as, tethered by the knee, I guided him towards the water’s edge for the first time. I waited for a set of waves to break before pegging it into the froth dragging Has’ with me. We had no choice but to swim hard through the breaking waves before Has’ pulled me up, struggling for breath.

in to the chop

We were through the worst, but now bobbing in the swell like a couple of corks. Has’ needed to
compose himself. With his breathing now under control we ventured on. I waved the others on suggesting that Has’ and I would do our own thing – our “own thing” being to try not to drown.

We swam for a few minutes but were making precious little forward progress Our swim mates were now out of sight. Tomorrow’s swim was looking increasingly like a case of survival. For both of us!
But the longer we were in the water.... the more comfortable Has’ became. We tried swimming in the direction of the course (parallel to the coast) and this was much easier. After a bit more practice, getting in and out, we called it time with Has’ feeling a little more confident than he had 15 minutes ago. 

We’d both just do what it took to get through the swim tomorrow but I think, deep down, neither of us imagined it was going to be easy... or all that much fun. 

The rest of the day passed without event. We attended the race briefing, racked the tandem (two entire racks had been cleared for it) and dropped off all our kit bags. 

With the pre-race rituals now complete, we retired to our respective accommodations to rest up for the big day that was now about 12 hours away.

Thankfully, as we arrived in transition on race morning, I could tell through the dawn that the sea was looking a good bit calmer than it had the day before. During our 70.3 race, and also our training swims, Has’ had managed around 40-45 minutes for the half swim distance. I’d always sensed Has’ tiring at the end of our swims so suggested we place ourself at the front of the 1hr 40 minute swim pen for the “rolling start”. I honestly couldn’t see how we could swim any quicker. This cautious approach would allow me to build Has’ into his swimming, without fear of being swum over by faster competitors.

After a short delay to the 8:10 start time, the horn sounded for the start of the Age-Groupers – but it would be a further 40 minutes before the 3000 strong field were all into the water.

Thankfully – our entry was a doddle and we were quickly into our swimming. Amazingly we were instantly passing people. 400m later we made the first right turn onto the long outward leg.

I started threading my way though swimmers who had started in front of us, but they were spaced well enough apart to allow us relatively clear progress. Swimming tethered is no picnic. Most of us struggle to swim in a straight line in open water – which is why we sight regularly. But for Haseeb, his only feedback is feeling tension on the tether... meaning he is drifting to the right, or clashing arms with me.... meaning he’s drifting to the left. And that’s pretty much how we make forward progress. A little like aquatic dodgem-cars.

What little technique I do have is destroyed by the extra drag and I have to spend a large percentage of my time swimming “head up” water polo style to sight a clear line through other swimmers. And I can pretty much forget about maintaining a streamlined position as I swim. Think less dolphin and more Starfish!

However, there were times when I felt it all come together and we were making smooth forward progress together and it felt great. 

Haseeb quickly looses proprioception in the water and can get very disoriented. So I suggested that we should pause at the far turn point so I could tell him we were at half way and relay a split time...

“42 minutes mate – Amazing swimming” I yelled... 

“Well lets get going then!” came the reply...

Neither of us tired much in the second half and I sensed a tide assisting us home. The final turn back to the shore became very congested. I had to fight my way through many fading swimmers and fend off the advances of several fast finishers – keen to exit the water in front of us, even if that meant getting “clothes-lined” by our tether. 

At just over 1hr and 22 minutes we were running up the beach.... I couldn’t believe it. We were both buzzing.

1:22 swim
Into the change tent and I grabbed our bags. Shoes, shorts, helmet done... 

Our T1 was just shy of 6 minutes and we were onto the bike in under 1hr 30 minutes better than either of us could have imagined.

We knew the bike section was where we could make up a big chunk of time. And since we’d started near the back of the field we’d have plenty of riders to pass to keep our motivation high. 

Once through the opening 3k technical section we settled into a comfortable rhythm. “This feels like training pace” Has’ shouted. I glanced at the speedo which was reading well over 25 mph. “That’s how it’s supposed to feel” I shouted back. “If it feels hard.... were going too hard” I urged. 

The bike is a 2 lap affair with a short inland “out and back” up a drag, designed to break up any draft packs.... Seeing the size of the Age-group peletons heading back to Calella, this course change had clearly NOT had the desired effect. 

The bike course at Barcelona does get congested. With two laps to accommodate 3000 athletes, riders need to be vigilant to avoid getting caught up in packs. But maintaining a 12m gap is possible, you just need some integrity. It was easy to see those riders who were doing their best to stay legal. It was equally easy to see those who were doing their best to gain every possible advantage they could. 

Thankfully our speed differential meant we were able to fly past every group of cheats we met, offering them no chance to grab a free ride. All they got from me was the SS “stare of death” and a disapproving “thumbs down”. 

I have completed Ironman Barcelona before... So was familiar with the course. The climb was new to me though and it’s the one part of the course where the tandem was a little disadvantaged. It was less of a climb and more a long drag really. We kept a lid on things climbing it for the first time. The descent back down was fantastic and we shot back past anyone who had overtaken us on the way up.

on the inland drag for the first time

Speeds in excess of 30mph combined with narrow sections of contraflow and congestion meant I had to keep my wits about me, calling out roundabouts and speed bumps as necessary. When racing, I carefully select what to share with Has’ on the tandem. I try not to worry him with the numerous trials / tribulations / near death experiences we face during the race. He can’t do anything about them, so there seems little point in freaking him out with a stream of expletives! The odd one might have crept out though! 

Before long we found ourselves at the far turn and began the headwind slog back to Calella. Moments later we stopped at our first aid station. We’d both started with 2 full bottles which were now drained. I picked up a fresh bottle each, slotted them into the frame and bought the tandem back up to speed, wasting as little time as possible.

We continued passing rider after rider and sadly more peletons before reaching the “special needs” pick-up a few kilometres from the end of lap 1. Here we had stashed two fresh bottles each for lap 2. This was the fuel we had trained with and so wanted to use for as much of the race as possible. Holding the tandem and wrestling with drinks was tricky and our attempt to move off was thwarted by the chain falling off. A helpful volunteer quickly popped it back on and we were soon on our way. Not quite F1 slick – but fast enough all things considered. We were back at the roundabout at the outskirts of town in a shade under 2½ hrs. The support from the crowd here was fantastic. Absolutely electric! I couldn’t break concentration for a moment as we whizzed past fellow competitors and negotiated the 180 degree turn to start our second lap.

end of lap 1
Haseeb still seemed pretty chipper and our power was good. We knew the drill now and headed back out along the coast to the inland out and back. 

Starting the climb for the second time, Has’ was now feeling the heat. The timing was good as we were just passing an aid station – I grabbed a bottle of water and passed it to Haseeb so he could cool himself off. Then we got stuck into the climb. It definitely felt harder this time round and I think Haseeb was pretty relieved to reach the turn and start enjoying the descent.

Back on to the coast and we were soon back at the far turn. “30 miles to go Has” I yelled. “Looking good for 5 hours!” 

The wind had stiffened on the return leg and Has’ was starting to fidget. I knew he was getting fatigued. We stopped for one more bottle pick-up before getting our heads down for the last hour.

I knew if I could keep our speed in the low 20’s (mph) we’d be good, but it was proving a struggle. Both Has’ and I were feeling the effects of riding the tandem for several hours. It’s very hard to come out of the saddle and stretch out like you can on a solo bike, so body aches become a real problem. We used the hills in the closing mile to try and prepare our legs for the run which awaited us. 

Just the technical 3k through Calella remained. Tight, twisty roads and speed bump after speed bump meant we had to come off the gas. We rolled into T2 in 5:08:01 almost 20 minutes up on the time I’d targeted!! It had been a fast day for sure and Has’ had executed brilliantly on the bike. 

end of bike 5:08

Tandem racked, we ran to the change tent. I grabbed our run bags and started getting myself ready for the run. “I can’t find my shoes” Has’ shouted? I searched through his bag? Shit! No shoes?  

Panic started to set in until I realised I’d grabbed the wrong bag! Panic over. 

Once ready I guided Has’ over the various trip hazards and onto the run course. The opening mile was very congested and featured a number twists, turns and surface changes – all opportunities for Has to loose his footing, trip or take a tumble.

Starting the marathon we were both feeling pretty confident. We’d set ourselves a 3:30 – 3:45 target. With Has’ having run a straight marathon in under 3 hours this was not at all unrealistic. We passed though the first mile in 8 minutes to the second. Bang on schedule but I could tell Hasseb had not found it comfortable. I hoped that his run legs would come to him, so kept the pace where it needed to be for a 3:30.

Mile 2, 8:06. 

Mile 3, 8:09. 

Mile 4, 8:01 

I was keeping the pace high, but I sensed Has was burning too many matches.

Decision time... 

Keep going and risk a total meltdown, or moderate the pace now and keep running to the end. Has’ was telling me that he was hurting but, in fairness, this was new territory for him. He hadn’t experienced an Ironman marathon and I assured him, that how he was feeling was perfectly normal! And, moreover, he was running a good deal faster than those around him.

It was a no brainer though, we had to knock the pace back.

8:50, 8:25, 8:52, 8:44. The sub 3:30 run was slipping away, but we were still WELL up on the World Record.

keeping pace high

I do have to guide Hasseb’s direction when running, but not as much as you might think. He receives subtle feedback from the tether which, combined with my verbal commentary, provides Haseeb with all the information he needs to keep running. When fresh, Haseeb is a very dynamic runner, with a high knee lift and forefoot gait. Trip hazards are therefore a rarity. However, Has’ was now migrating towards the Ironman shuffle and this bought with it a whole new set of guiding challenges. I was having to call out obstacles that, at any other time, would pose no problems at all. Minor changes in road surface, discarded bottles, shallow speed bumps, cracks in the tarmac... all insignificant details that could have tripped Haseeb up. One such obstacle did catch me unaware (and therefore Haseeb) and before I knew it... Has’ had hit the deck – actually, a low concrete wall.
Has’ winced in pain as his quad locked up. Could I give Has’ a time out?

Our clock was still ticking and I had to get him running again..

“C’mon buddy – it’s just cramp (I hoped), get running and shake it out!!” 

Through the first lap in about 1hr 15 minutes. I knew right then we wouldn’t run the next 2 at that pace. Has’ was slowing with each mile and I was getting worried. Very worried. 

I had to step up my motivation... 

There were two approaches open to me here.. associative or dissociative. The former I tend to reserve for shorter events, or the end of longer ones. I’ll call out mile splits and make Has’ think about how he’s feeling. Getting him to “embrace the pain” as I call it. 

Right now, I didn’t think Has’ was ready to embrace anything, and actually more likely to punch my lights out... so I opted for the safer, dissociative approach.... 

We passed a gazebo pumping out Dire Staits...

“Oooh – Brothers in Arms I loved that Album as a kid” (guilty pleasure). 

“I preferred Making Movies” came the reply. 

This is good – he’s still corpus mentis. 

“There’s Sadie up ahead”... 

“We’ve just run past Joanna – she’s going crazy!!”... 

That kinda thing. Anything to take his mind off the daunting task that still lay ahead.

still a long way to go
Halfway through the second lap and our mile pace had started dipping into 10 minutes (including short walking breaks through the aid stations). 

Every mile that passed, Has’ was asking for a reduction in pace. We were now skating dangerously close to the edge of World Record pace. I had to keep him running at all costs...

Coming to the end of lap two and Has’ slowed to a walk. ..

A second or two passed.

Right... time for me to go “full bastard”. 

“Come on Has’ – if we walk now it’s gonna be a f***ing long day...” (pardon my French but needs must). “We just gotta keep running”. 

Has’ began to run and, once more, we soldiered on. 

My mind frazzled as I tried to work out how much time we had to complete the last lap. Some errors with my watch, meant I had to rely on “time of day” to work out our total race time, but with the rolling start I was not 100% confident of our start time! With about 5 miles left to run, I’d calculated that we could still break the record.... but we’d have to do the unthinkable. 

We’d have to start running faster...

I knew I was already treading a fine with Haseeb. But I also knew he had the propensity to soak up huge amounts of physical discomfort. Has’ was clearly close to the edge and pushing him any harder might mean “nighty night” - but we had to try.

The sun was now lower in sky and the air noticeably cooler. I urged Has’ to focus on his gait – keeping it as efficient as possible. The last 5 miles I don’t think I shut-up. I kept telling Has’ we could still do it. 

We could do it.. I knew we could.. I believed it.. I just had to make Has’ believe it!

 3 miles to go... 

“3 miles Has’..3 LOUSY MILES!! C’MON!!” 

Has’ was now completely incoherent. Answers to my questions, if they came at all, came in the form of grunts... 

Into the last 2 miles the crowds thickened and we began to be carried along on a wall of sound. 

Inside the last mile we passed Claire... 

“YOU CAN STILL DO THIS GUYS!!” she screamed!

We turned the final corner at full chat – Incredibly, we’d managed to knock 1 minute per mile off our pace for the last 5 miles.

No pain any more... 

I could see the red carpet.... and in between it and us was the mother of all kerbs!  


Has’ leapt and we flew down into the finish chute. The unmistakably energetic tones of Paul Kaye rang out across the PA announcing our arrival. The assembled crowd went ballistic! 

“EVERYTHING HAS’... GIVE IT EVERYTHING!!” I bellowed in his ear.... 

We crossed the line, I grabbed Has’ and looked at the timing clock above our heads.
And then it flashed up.. 

H Ahmad: GBR: 11:03:31 

“WAHOOO!! WE’VE ******* DONE IT HAS’!!” (Use your imagination here) 

I could not believe it. 

I was completely elated. 

Has’ collapsed into the arms of two awaiting medics and it was lights out...

I followed Has’ into the med tent where, overcome with nausea, he was tended to for 30 minutes or so. I went off to gather our dry clothes and returned to the tent were Has’ was now spark out on the recovery couch. Looking at him lying there totally wasted did make me question what we’d done.

What I’d MADE him do... 

Guiding a blind athlete, who you class as a dear friend, around an Ironman, in an attempt to break a World Record, is pretty strange gig and it’s one I’m not sure I’ve got my head around yet.. 

Although the best of friends, when I’m guiding Has’, I’m doing a job. I’m not his friend. In fact I’m probably his worst nightmare.. Ironman just magnifies the whole process 10 fold. 

I suppose a “friend” might have seen Haseeb suffering and if it was in their power to make it stop... they would have.

When Has’ wanted to walk, a friend might have let him.

When he wanted to take longer in the aid stations and drink a litre of Coke, a friend would have opened the bottle. 

What kind of friend yanks someone to their feet and makes them start running, when their legs are cramping having just fallen arse over tit onto a concrete wall? 

Who needs a friend like that?

People who wanna break Ironnman World Records I suppose! 

As I guided Has’ out of the med tent back to his proud family and friends I was glad I could revert to just being his buddy...

 ...But I drew the line at carrying the carrier bag of vomit... Our friendship does have it's limits.