Every year just before the clock strikes midnight, I write five bullet points in my diary. They can simple, stupid, attainable or something that has long been a vague dream. I am not sure what category to place an Ironman 70.3 race. But it was there in blue ink on the entry for December 31st 2013.
The picture postcard Austrian town of Zell Am See was chosen by my friend who was competing with me, largely due to the fact that it rained heavily every year and this would suit our delicate Irish porcelain skin. This race consists of 1.9km swim through a glacier lake, a 90km cycle up a mountain and then a half marathon in the town. It seemed vaguely achievable when I paid my entry fee while nursing a large Dominos meal deal in February.
I dislike training intensely. I get bored quickly if there is no variation. As a result I need a hard challenge to justify any serious training I do. I was doing this event in memory of a dear friend, so that provided the necessary push to complete lonely and long hours spent ploughing up and down the pool or long Sunday runs in Putney that meshed into my weeks.
A few months later, I arrived into Zell Am See to find a tiny mountain town in the midst of an international invasion. The invaders came from every corner of the globe and their army ran on a diet of pasta and protein shakes. Every shop awning and spare piece of wall in town was covered in Ironman logos. German workout techno pumped through a town more used to the soothing sounds of the glockenspiel. A sea of tented pop up shops were doing a roaring trade in Ironman memorabilia, giving the event the feeling of a superfit cult. For sale there were iron baby grows, iron partner and wife t shirts, and inexplicably, an Iron door mat. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Registration was filled with toned peacocks, strutting through with the ubiquitous ironman finisher t shirt from previous events around the world. This was a badge of honour worn by most. The age range was vast and most carried beautifully dynamic and serviced time trial bikes. My third hand road bike had never looked uglier. I felt like I was going to my formal with a date I was suddenly ashamed of despite years of stoic loyalty. I suddenly wanted to dance with a younger better looking model.
Competitors swapped nutrition tips. Was I going to get up in the middle of the night to take my protein shake? No? Your funeral Jonathan. I ignored the advice, instead I had spaghetti bolognese and a banana for dinner and on race morning woke up and had a piece of bread with jam. Substance over science. The Roman Army marched on less.
My greatest fear as a student was getting an exam time wrong, the habit has lingered and I tend to arrive for things I’m nervous about far too early. Two hours too early normally. After an eternity of fiddling with my bike and squeezing into my wetsuit, I was in the lake. The gun went off and I started swimming in a black mass of sleek wetsuits.
I told myself to be calm. I had played water polo at school and was confident in my swimming ability under some pressure. I hadn’t prepared for the chaos at the start of a race. I was kicked in the face and elbowed as people jockeyed for position. I was a small white bolt swirling in an Austrian washing machine that was making me feel sick. I eventually found some clear water one km into the race and settled into a rhythm. Two strokes for every breath, that settled into a steady sound. I got out of the water gingerly and gave a volunteer in lederhosen a cheery high five. “Let’s hear it for Jonathan Drennan from GREAT BRITAIN, he looks a bit tired, but he’s smiling at least, the louder you cheer the more chance we have of the rain stopping, it’s scientifically proven my friends..” The South African mc for the event couldn’t be faulted for enthusiasm.
The cycle was something I was nervous about. We are born with a body, that athletically at least, you can’t buy from a shop. My bicycle couldn’t compete with the high cadence tri bikes on the flats regardless of how hard I pedalled. Forgetting I was in in Austria I started cycling on the left, before hearing a piercing achtung being yelled by a convoy of German and Austrian riders speeding beside me. A stream of whirring high powered tri bikes whirred past in a pedalling train. I have run with bulls in Pamplona and this was more unnerving. I got into a rhythm, climbing the mountain and enjoyed the scenery when I could. I chatted to an amiable Irishman from Bray when we both had any breath and we swapped mutual friends we knew until we were at the top. The descent was terrifying and made worse by thick hail that was now coming off the mountain rebounding off my shoulders and helmet. I gritted my teeth and kept my legs moving. An Austrian spectator shouted at me in German and made a gesture for me to zip up on my tri suit. He made a gesture of shivering. It was starting to get very cold on the mountain. I asked a Spaniard beside me was he ok, “frio, muy frio” he chattered.
My bicycle was bought from a rasta in a Streatham lockup for 200 pounds. It is silver and ugly, but I love it. It is rarely temperamental but if it has a fatal flaw, it has a habit of its seat falling, regardless of the tightness of the screws. With 30k to go my seat was now at its verylowest point, and I had no alum key. I rode home looking like I’d stolen a child’s bicycle from the local Aldi. My knees almost uppercutting my chin each time I pedalled. A tragic sight amongst the whirring tri bicycles with their aerodynamic chocolate drop helmets.
I was a bit sore and cold but feeling remarkably fresh when I arrived at the finish for the cycle. Time to grab my red run bag. There was nothing inside. I felt inside to check. My tired brain was surely playing tricks, but unfortunately not. No trainers, just a pair of socks and enough gel supplements to make Lance Armstrong blush. My trainers had been put in the wrong bag in the rush for the swim start.
I panicked, I nearly cried, filled with adrenalin and emotion I decided to run barefoot. My brain wasn’t fully engaged. The crowd enjoyed the Zola Budd heroics. My race number had the British flag on it with my name. “Do it for England Jonathan buddy!” A fat American standing roadside shouted while munching on a novelty pretzel. I appreciated the sentiment, even if it was misplaced. 2 km later down a stone path, I couldn’t continue. Then I remembered as I nursed my bleeding feet, I still had my bike shoes. Anything was better than this. I hobbled back to where my bike was and strapped them on. Wooden clogs would’ve been preferable to bare feet on a sharp gravel path. I strapped on the Velcro of the shoes and I ran in a rhythm staying calm. Whatever happened, I was completing this race. I didn’t care how I did it. Olympic qualification could wait for another time.
Competitors were bemused. A Romanian asked me was I running In metal clips for a bet. Two Irish people offered me their shoes when they finished. I sounded like an anxious horse in the stable, but which each clip and clop of my metal clips, I counted down the kilometres gradually, without stopping.
Suddenly I started to feel shooting pain in my feet. I noticed part of my socks were fully red. There wasn’t really much I could do, so I just kept running. I had my friend in my mind and sometimes when you have a goal in your mind, you can push through anything. I am not a particularly naturally gifted athlete, although I often wish I was. Where I excel in sport is an ability to suffer through intense pain as long as I believe in the end goal. Once I set my mind on something normally I can complete it, regardless of what my body is saying.
I ignored the initially loud and latterly muffled shouts of anguish from my brain. I just told my legs to keep moving. I even managed to say danke to the kind volunteers handing out sweet nectar in the form of gel sachets.
I eventually entered the town in pain with a portly gent from Melbourne. I told him to go before me so he could enjoy the finish line experience. You run down a tight strip filled with great and good of the town and their children. A brief 10 seconds of fame. A red carpet moment for the amateur athlete. I was delighted to be home and I high fived as many Austrian children as I could manage. “Hop, hop HOP Jonathan!!”they shouted.
I raised my arms at the finish line and looked up to the sky and smiled. It had been a great day.