I am not there. Yet.

It’s the end of the academic year. The idea that things somehow wind-down is laughable. I end the school year in a blur of hot, sleepless nights, several late trips to Manchester for a colleague, an epic pizza, and what seems to be endless curriculum planning. I am exhausted. Somewhere in there, I teach too.

But I also run a little, swim a bit more, and cycle quite a lot. I write about why I want to compete at Ironman 2023 here. This is not enough though. Good intentions don’t really add up to very much. No endurance endeavour cares about your intentions.

You don’t get to mile 130 of an Ironman and wish that your intentions were better.

It is ALL about training, and about the consistency of training that matters.

Nothing beats consistency. Nothing.

Of course, this raises a significant psychological obstacle and a very real practical problem. You can’t train for forty-nine weeks for one event in a linear fashion and expect to progress effectively. A programme of such length is unheard of for good reason: it is simply too long and the risk of injury is probably only eclipsed by the risk of total burn out and exhaustion. And yet, my starting points are low. Very low. The Achilles problem that has blown a hole in the first seven months of this year started last July. If consistency is everything, then I’ve had none of it. I’ve gone backwards. So, in a very tangible sense, I need everyone of those forty-nine weeks ahead of me. I think that each day there is something to fight for, something to focus on, and something that I can do that will build incrementally towards the audacious goal I have set for myself.

Here are my current starting points:

SWIM: I can swim 1 mile in 42 minutes

BIKE: I can ride 50 miles at just over 14 MPH

RUN: My last parkrun was 22:21

As I move forward, my plan is really simple: enjoy doing slightly more each week at a very low intensity. All of this will be Z1, Z2 with the occasional blast at a higher intensity. Ultimately, Ironman is about aerobic endurance. For many people this is a 14+ hour event, and even if the target is 11.5 hours this is still a long day out. Before I start to train at the specific outputs that a 11.5 hour Ironman will require, I need to build a solid base again.

On Saturday, I find myself running round Stratford parkrun. I start easy, and looking at my watch it would appear that I end easy. Although my heart rate and my breathing tell a very different story: I am rinsed for a 22:21. I’m four minutes away from my best times here, and these were all tempo efforts not flat out races. There is so much to do.

Stretford parkrun with Nat. I felt sorry for myself for a second afterwards.

As I walk from the track, I allow myself a fraction of a second to feel sorry for myself before bringing my thoughts back to the present so that they meet me where I am: knackered, sore, breathless, and sweating far more than I should. As I lower myself into the car, I vow to use the next six weeks to get entirely focused and to build that daily consistancy.

I am not there. Yet.

Why?

I set off for my run with my wife’s question ringing in my ears, ‘Last time you knew why you were doing it, you had a reason. Why are you doing it again?’

It has been playing one my mind ever since.

Make no mistake about it, Ironman know how to put on a show. The town buzzes before the event as first the signs start to go up, then the trucks slowly roll in with their barriers and toilets. Fields become transition areas, and the town hall square starts to come alive as runners arrive for a Friday night 5K. Everyone in the town seems to know that it is happening, and by the time nearly 4000 children have taken part in Ironkids, the long day Sunday ahead seems filled with promise and drama in equal measure.

The ‘day before’ party that is Ironkids

I’ve only done Ironman once. I turned 40 in 2015, and my gift to myself was an entry into the event. I absolutely knew why I had to do it. Turning 40 marked the end of a difficult and challenging period of time for me and my family. I was driven to prove to myself that I could set my mind to something so incredibly challenging and then get it done. I entered the day after the 2014 event. At the time you could turn up in person at the expo and place your entry for the year after. Despite not being a strong swimmer, and without really thinking through the fact that I had not even been on a bike since I was a kid, I happily paid my hundreds of pounds and then went for a swim.

I managed a whole two laps before needing to stop and hold on to the side, gasping for air and questioning my sanity.

But I never regretted a single moment of that year. I devoted myself to becoming an Ironman. That finish would physically and mentally draw a line under the past and I would emerge from the experience knowing that I was strong enough to take on the rest of my life.

Honestly…it worked. I had some misfortune along the way, but on the day of the race, despite some biblical weather early in the morning, I never once doubted myself. I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be. The confidence and the clarity that it has brought to my life cannot be underestimated. Many times, when things have got tough, I’ve remembered that I once swam 2.4 miles, biked 112, and then ran a marathon. Not much bothers me after that.

And so my wife’s question burned away. Why do it all again?

My answer to this lies somewhere hidden within the word potential. Over the past few years, I have become fascinated by the fact that some people seem to be able to get the very best out of themselves. I got the best out of myself last time. I couldn’t have done any more at that point of my life. But what does that look like now? How fast can I go? How high up the results table can I be? How quickly can I complete each of the disciplines? How much do I want it?

As a coach, I read lots of books and listen to lots of podcasts about the psychology of high performers. What unites a lot of high performance is an almost unbounded belief in the potential of us all to achieve so much more than we think. The starting point is often an illogical belief in what can be achieved. When this confidence is tapped into, and when it united with intelligent approaches to training and sheer hard work, we can move beyond where we think our limits are.

Time and again we see that the barriers to excellence are just stories that we have told ourselves, or narratives that others have passed on to us. They become part of our identity in both subtle and in very obvious ways. The beauty of Ironman is that it represents a challenge to these. We can emerge from the training with new ways of viewing ourselves and new beliefs about where our limits really could be.

This is my why. As I write this now, before work on 5 July 2022, I know that I can be capable of different things on 2 July 2023. The time is the same for all of us: 362 days. The gift is what I choose to do with that time.

So, my answer to my wife’s question is simple: in Ironman UK on 2 July 2023, I want to break 11:30 hours.

TARGETS FOR 2023

SWIM1:10:00
T10:10:00
BIKE6:10:00
T20:10:00
RUN3:30:00
FINISH11:20:00
Target times for Ironman UK 2023

Can I break 30 minutes at Bolton parkrun?

It is my first week back training after a very painful and debilitating bout of Achilles tendonitis. I’ve been walking, doing foot exercises, stretching, massaging, and looking after my injury for months. Now it is time to run. I know that I am unfit. As I walk around to parkrun, I ask myself: can I break 30 minutes?

Why am I talking to myself?

As runners, self-talk is part of what we do. There’s hardly a single run, session, or race when we don’t listen in to ourselves. Sometimes that self talk is helpful, sometimes it hinders.

It feels very odd to be running, talking, blogging, and generally feeling self-conscious as I chat into my camera. If any aspect of running is making you self-conscious, give me a shout. I coach lots of people for lots of reasons. We can make progress!

I give up

A few months ago, I gave up.

The Achilles tendonitis that I had suffered from since the second of the Sale Sizzler 5K races last July had finally beaten me. I got out of the pool with a pain so intense in my Achilles and foot that I, perhaps rather dramatically, thought that I had done it a serious mischief. A few days later some rather spectacular bruising came out. I gave up.

The most painful injury I’ve ever had

Until that point, I’d tried to manage my training through a mixture of cycling, swimming, and some running. Nothing odd there: I was, after all, training for my second Ironman. But I also had an element of denial. Each time my Achilles stabbed in the early morning, or ached throughout the day, I lied as I told myself that it would somehow just get better.

It didn’t.

The drive home from the pool filled me with despair. There was no chance I could do an Ironman if I couldn’t use the clutch pedal. I deferred my entry until 2023. I sulked for a couple of days. I gave up.

That’s when things started to improve.

I knew what I couldn’t do, so I concentrated on what I could. My first goal was being able to get down stairs properly in the morning. I made the deliberate choice to recover the health of my tendon. Pain-free life had to be the priority. With very gentle stretching each time I got in and out of bed, I could negotiate the stairs within a week. From there, walking. Then, walking on a range of surfaces. Next, walking using the full range of foot movement. I added in strength work, stretching, and more walking. I used my Garmin to turn the number of steps I took each day into a game. Over the course of a couple of months, I started doing what I couldn’t. Last week, I swam for the first time in several months. 

Giving up means that, sometimes, we have to accept things as they are. In our endlessly Instagrammed world, we are constantly bombarded with content that tells us that we should ‘smash it’ and ‘beat yesterday’. As a teacher and coach I, I get it. We have unbelievable levels of potential and we should, in our laughably short lives, work on bringing this into the light. We are more powerful than we think. But we are also human. We have our failings and our weaknesses. The act of giving up means that we acknowledge these. Once we stop fighting against what is not meant to be, we can focus attention on what we can do instead.

Giving up is sometimes the first step towards getting better.

Will I ever run again?

It’s Saturday morning. I haven’t set my alarm. My daughter is away with school; my son doesn’t have a football match. I can’t run. Sleep wins. Or rather, my body clock does: I’m awake by 6:30, anyway.

I walk round to Bolton parkrun. The plan is to walk, and, if I have no pain at all from my Achilles, I’ll jog for about a mile. This has been the case for the last week while I’m still recovering from a serious bout of Achilles tendonitis. I’ve been struggling with this for the last nine months and this morning I’m not about to wreck the huge progress I’ve made over the last ten weeks. My rehab routine involves lots of foot strength work, calf strengthening and stretching, lots of walking, but no running.

It also gives me thinking time: will I ever run again?

I focus on embracing the uncertainty of being so badly injured. There is little point wallowing about and feeling sorry for myself. I acknowledged the deep disappointment of having to defer my Ironman entry until 2023 a long time ago. Today, I’m just grateful to be able to walk without pain. I’ve been pain free for a while and so I decide to jog a little.

It feels great.