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Guest blog: City to Summit iron-distance finisher

Written by Fiona June 10 2013

Nick Green, aka the mobile bike mechanic, took part in the recent epic ironman-distance event, the Rat Race City to Summit. It was the inaugural event, including a Forth of Firth 1200m swim (cut from the 2.4 mile swim due to cold and conditions), a 112-mile cycle from Edinburgh to Glencoe and then a full marathon run including a summit of Ben Nevis. This is Nick’s account:

photoIt’s 7pm on Friday and I’ve been in bed with a cold for two days, I haven’t trained for two weeks due to a knee injury and, to be honest, my preparation as a whole has been pretty haphazard. Having no Ironman experience I have no great confidence that I am ready at all. But registration closes in three hours so if I’m going to go I better get up and pack now.

At 11pm I arrive at a friend’s house in Edinburgh. They show me a room then go to bed. There’s no bed for me so I lie on the floor.

After three hours’ sleep the alarm goes off at 4am. At 5 I am listening to the race briefing, of which not one word registers in my brain. At 6 I am standing on the slipway looking down at the cold green water, legs shaking with adrenaline.

“15 seconds to go”

There are so many vivid memories from the next 17 hours that it seems to have happened over a week or more. The familiar cycle of racing, getting tired, reaching the point of exhaustion happens over and over. Each time I’m revived by a few minutes’ rest, some handfuls of food and words of support from mates, spectators and marshals.

In an instant we are transformed from quiet, expectant crowd to the wild melee of the swim. There is nothing to see but flailing arms and legs. The huge yellow course buoys offer no guidance, only the larger milestones of the road and rail bridges give me a clue to the general direction I am travelling. I am reassured, however, that I am still in the bunch, still up with the body of the field. 

Feet on the slipway again, I mentally tick off the first stage with some satisfaction. Ten minutes in the heated, steamy changing marquee and we are out on the road, bumping over cobbles and up onto the bridge. 

In my mind the key things in getting through this long long day are pacing and eating so I keep the speed down to 25 km/hr and steadily chew through my bag of sweets, gels, cake, bananas and flapjack. Like a travelling buffet table, I wend my way up through Perthshire in a long line of cyclists, in more danger of indigestion than any sports-related injury.

Beyond Killin it begins to get harder as the headwind picks up and the rain starts. Everyone around me starts to look tired. Heads are dropping and the drafting rules are stretched as groups form to hide from the wind.

Relief comes at Tyndrum when the sun comes out again and I meet Cliff (my support man) with the car. He tops up my picnic bag and waves me off up the hill toward Glencoe and after the long downhill run to Bridge of Orchy, I start to savour the prospect of the final climb to Rannoch Summit and the last 30k descent to the end of the bike.

There is a sting in the tail however. As the splendid bulk of the Buachaille appears, I am hit in the face by wind-driven stinging rain. The expected downhill spin becomes 30k of grinding, heartbreaking pedalling as the traffic roars past inches from my shoulder and the average speed drops through the floor.

My spirits have hit an all day low and the hardest work probably hasn’t started.

I am saved by a timely combination of sunshine and, once again, the friendly welcome into T2 by Cliff. He shouts abuse through the fence as I hop about trying to change shoes. I am never going to be able to run in this state.

Cliff manages to hide his concern as we leave transition and start jogging toward the distant Ballachulish Bridge. To my surprise, my legs lose their stiffness and get into the rhythm of running as we reach and pass the bridge and turn back along the shore toward Kinlochleven. So far, so good and only 8 hours gone.

A plastic arrow pinned to the fence marks the change from road run to something of a different character. Above me I see figures bent double in the effort of climbing the straight track ascending the hillside to the skyline. I join the line and Cliff turns back, laughing in what I assume to be a supportive way.

There is no question of running now. We all move at much the same pace, up and up until the track drops over the crest and begins to descend into the next valley. Below, the West Highland Way is visible but the going is very rough and I can only run for short stretches. By now the other racers are far apart, well ahead and behind me, and I am enjoying the solitude.

Crossing the river, I join the Way but if anything the going is even worse. Large boulders send me slipping and stumbling on tired legs. I adopt a rule of walking up any hill and starting to jog when it flattens out. I use the hills to keep up my eating routine, but by now there is no pleasure in the food I am trying to digest.

I think I was 15 when I last walked along here, but I remembered the sudden awesome view of Ben Nevis that you get from a rise in the path. It looks very, very big.

Still the path goes on and on. Although I am descending toward Glen Nevis, I seem still to be climbing most of the time and my legs throb with pain. At last there is a final stretch of forest road dropping down, and to my surprise the feed station appears much earlier than I expected. There are buckets of jelly beans to eat and drums of juice, but the offer of a chair is almost too much for me. I feel euphoric as the weight comes off my feet.

Cliff has rejoined me and we assess progress. It is 6pm and I have 17k left to go, up and down the Ben. That’s all. On an ordinary day I would be on my knees by now, but there is no way I am stopping after all this. The thought of starting again from the beginning on another day is inconceivable. Here we go then.

There is a short run down into the glen before we start the Tourist Path from the Youth Hostel. There are indeed lots of tourists but they know what we are there for and move aside, giving encouragement. I don’t see any racers coming down. Does that mean everyone has finished? Or are they all still to come down?

We put our heads down and climb from rock to rock without pausing or speaking. Near the Lochan we start to meet the odd runner coming down but also to catch a few going up. My spirits rise.

Above the Lochan the zigzags start. We trudge on higher and higher into the clouds. It’s cold and every time I raise my head there are lines of people visible way, way above us. Keep going. I can’t eat or drink now without retching but I feel ok.

We meet Ian and Bruce – two friends from the Glasgow Triathlon Club –  on their way down. We shake hands and it feels like it’s all but over. Further up there is snow and the cloud closes right in. I don’t have enough clothes. I can see the cairns leading up to the summit. Higher and higher, slipping on the snow. Then there is a marshal pointing to the top and we are there. I dib my electronic tag and turn back to retrace my steps.

But the wheels have finally come off . I spend the next two hours stumbling slowly downhill, staring at my feet and unable to keep down any food or drink. Eventually, as it gets warmer, I recover and start to run again with headtorch on, for the last leg down to the finish in the dark.

The marquee has been glowing brightly below us for some time, building the anticipation and there is no anti-climax as I step out of the darkness into the bright floodlights at the finish. The marshals are hugely welcoming, taking my picture and handing me a free beer and burger. Cliff and I sit round a table, slightly dazed but grinning.

Looking for some sort of considered conclusion from this daft event, I would say that I genuinely enjoyed it, even at the time. It took me into a new area where I had to recalibrate what I considered to be exhaustion and I am pleased how I coped and how quickly I have recovered. Rather than taking a rest I feel hugely energised to get out and do more. Perhaps next year I will attempt a “conventional” Ironman. There is always the niggling doubt that preparation could have been better and I could perhaps have pushed harder to get a better time. After all I was still standing at the end.

But I don’t really care. Completing each training session over the last six months made me happy, and finally crossing the finish line even more so. That is enough to justify all the effort.

PS NicK was running with the Berghaus Vapour 20 rucksack. He thinks it’s a fantastic pack.

Check out this link if you fancy entering in 2014.

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