Every New Year’s Eve, just before the clock strikes midnight, I write a list of things I want to accomplish. They’re never particularly complex, but within each bullet point there is something I want to achieve that I haven’t been able to do previously.
Sitting here in Mexico, looking at my diary, there in blue biro underlined twice is to complete an Ironman triathlon. An ironman is an endurance triathlon, consisting of a 3.8k swim, a 200k bike ride and a marathon to finish.
With less than a month to go before the event, I have started to question why have I put myself mentally and physically through this regime for over a year. I am currently unable to run properly due to Achilles issues and after hundreds spent alone in the ocean and on concrete, I am searching for the reason I need to compete.
Primarily, I use sport to define myself physically, when I find it difficult to do so mentally. The comfort of a routine, no matter how onerous or physically taxing brings a sense of calmness. There is undoubtedly a loneliness involved in these events. I can only answer to myself if I don’t give everything in a training session. With few exceptions, I choose to train alone, covering the hundreds of miles needed with only the rambling and sporadic thoughts in my mind as company. Ultimately I know in this race, I can only rely on myself to get to the finish line.
After ten years away, I have stepped between the ropes and sparred countless rounds in a boxing ring. I seek out stronger more skilled opponents who will periodically snap my head back with their jab. It hurts of course, but I take a deep breath and keep fighting until the end of the round. I use these boxing sessions to condition myself mentally, to keep going in the face of physical pain and exhaustion.
Each leg of an Ironman will affect you mentally as well as physically. The swim starts with a loud gun shot. You find yourself in the middle of a chaotic vortex of arms and legs. You will inevitably take an elbow or foot in the face. You can’t panic, even though it would be completely reasonable to do so. I always keep my Dad’s voice in my mind, the words he used to say to me when I was terrified before a school exam. “Keep calm Jonathan, you will be absolutely fine, keep calm.” I move into a rhythm, and move onto the bicycle.
The cycle leg in France, is almost solely on mountainous and hilly terrain. I have ridden all over Sydney, trying to build strength in calves that seem permanently taut. I am lucky that relatively speaking, I am built to climb, I have strong legs and a light upper body. This will win me no points on a beach, but in the mountains I am grateful. I have no idea how my body will stand up to 30 degree heat on an 11 percent gradient, but I will be able to keep going somehow.
The race will end with a marathon. I know that my legs will scream their reluctance to start running 40km, but I won’t listen. My Achilles tendinitis has involved a complete halting of my running training and a weekly meeting with a physio for injunctions to loosen my legs. I will divide the race into quarters, and take each one as an achievement. The pace won’t matter, all that matters will be to finish what I set out to do.
When I train alone, no matter how sore I am, I think of my friends who are no longer here, and it reminds me to keep going. For me, an Ironman represents a physical triumph of sorts, but far more than that, it represents the strength of the human mind in the face of adversity, urging you to keep going.
It’s only a race of course, but more than that, it defines how I want to try and live my life.