Challenge Denmark – #TheGreatestIronman
This race, the hardest of my life was effectively two years in the making. Two years of training harder for anything than I ever have in my life. Two years to give Harrison the feeling of a truly epic sporting achievement.
None of it would have been possible without those that helped me, my coach the amazing Annie Emmerson, tough as nails, NewWave Crossfit for getting me strong Salterns Marina that built the catamaran for the swim, the awesome team at Team Carbon and Carbon Bike Repair who supplied and branded our race bikes, Freespeed London for dialing in my position on the bike at the last minute, HUUB design and Deano’s team at the best wetsuit and trisuit supplier on the planet for their sponsorship of the team, Craft clothing for sponsoring our training clothing and day wear, Pure Motion Cycles for dropping everything to get us ready for the off at no notice, Polar Manufacturing for designing and building the most critical piece of the puzzle, the chariot for Harrison to ride in on the day. Race Force for getting all our kit to and from Denmark and looking after us and the bikes whilst there, Challenge Denmark for taking us on in the first place and welcoming our mad escapade into their world and finally my team, Harrison himself, Gary Smith, Gary Fegan, Adam Bardslee and Scott Wilkins… warriors all of them and to whom I will be eternally grateful for their commitment and support.
We arrived in Billund Denmark late Wednesday night, the sunset times over there are late and its still pretty light well after 11pm… not particularly welcome after 4 hours sleep to see the sun rising at 3:45am!
Thursday was spent registering, having a major panic attack when it appeared that the wedge that holds the seat post up and in place on the bike had gone missing in transit. Everyone was searching for it, in bushes, under the veranda, anywhere and everywhere. Finally it was located stuck inside the frame which took another hour to prize it out, and taking the bikes out as a team on a test ride with Andy from Race Force. The roads seemed beautiful if a little undulating where we chose to ride, never good when dragging 50 kilos behind you but confidence was high and it was great to be out as a team for the first time! I also got to meet Chris McCormac, multiple Ironman World Champion and chat about the race a little, what a lovely guy!
Normally the day before race day I’d be very quiet, just relaxing, hydrating and fuelling ready for the off but with two film crews in tow and media engagements with ‘Ironman Hall of Famer’ Bob Babbitt to attend, it was not an ideal pre race scenario to be so busy all day but that being said it did allow no time to obsess about the day and what I was about to attempt.
4am on Saturday morning, in bright day light we were all up and busily getting everyone ready, fed and dressed to make the 90km drive to Herning where the swim leg of the race would take place. All the usual prep taking place just the small matter of getting an 11ft catamaran through the crowds to the start line
As soon as we got Harrison comfortable on the cat and in the water, the announcement that the race was going to start was almost immediate, no time for nerves, a sudden burst of adrenaline and the start horn! We’re off!
We’d decided to try and swim together with Adam leading the way taking control of sighting the buoys and I would follow him in his old gits yellow swim caps unlike our young’uns red versions.
I felt strong, but had no idea of time as Harrison had my watch, I sighted as best I could but went a bit astray from time to time but never too far before Gary or Scott straightened me up again. Although I felt like I was swimming strongly and smoothly I had no idea of my pace. I could hear support all the way round the lake but it was nothing compared to the cheers as we came to the Australian exit at half way. We’d smashed the first half in 50:42 Quick fist bump with Harrison and then boat and Harrison up and out of the water, over the timing mat and back into the water for the 2nd 1.9k!
After a pretty slow T1, making sure H was ready and comfortable we went to the bike in great shape.
Weight and wind was always going to be an issue and the headwind and 50kg of weight behind the bike was as expected, its just a lot of weight especially on any kind of incline at all! Even so, apart from a couple of wee stops for H which we all took advantage of and also getting the waterproof gear off him as he warmed up the first half (90km) went pretty much to plan. We were really luck with the rain which we appeared to be following along the course evident by the standing water we encountered.
After the first 90km from the swim start back to Billund the course consisted of two 45km loops… the first one went okay but I could feel I was beginning to tire not helped by the chain coming off and getting lodged under the aero housing on the bike, necessitating a stop to remove the housing to get the chain out.
From 125km onwards though I hit a bit of a hole and was in a dark place that I never really came out of, however much I focused on the positives of the race and the day.
Six miles from the end my right pedal completely stripped the thread inside the crank and came away attached to my shoe. We stopped, tried to fix it but in the end I swapped bikes with Scott who rode the last 5 miles on one pedal alone supported by Gary whilst Adam stayed with Harrison and I. 180km bike done in 7:54:27.
Seeing family was an absolute joy, I was sooooo relieved to get into T2 but tired as hell and really questioning whether we could actually get this done or not?
I felt like I had nothing left that wall marathon runners say they hit at mile 18-20, that one where they say they’ve got nothing left, i met that wall as i got off the bike!
Gary F in usual blunt way just said, we’ll get this done, you just have to run it all and keep making progress. So that’s what we did…. Gone was my idea of a nice lengthy walk through nutrition stops, replaced by Gary running ahead to nutrition, getting flat coke, water, gel and chews ready… And basically shoving them down my throat in 10 seconds flat and barking, ‘right Alex… RUN!’ The first lap was kinda okay until we hit the horse racetrack a 1200m circuit of gravelly horse track… Almost the worst surface possible for pushing a buggy! Absolute hell and continued to be our nemesis at the end of every single lap.
Weather by his point was horrible and had been raining pretty heavily for nearly 2 hours and Harrison had had enough and was desperate to just head down the finishing chute after two laps… This was probably the hardest part for me, personally, in a dark place, exhausted beyond measure and moving forward at a run purely through sheer bloody minded determination… Trying to be the engine and also be the dad trying to motivate Harrison and reassure him we’d get him dry and warm and fed was so hard.
The team were amazing and jumped into action, Gary making up a game on the spot called ‘Not Allowed’ said in a kind of Scot/Germanic shouted accent and applied to anything ‘walking – NOT Allowed Daddy!’ ‘Bum bags NOT allowed!’ This lasted for about an hour and H loved it all and time flew for him! Especially now that he’d been dried and wrapped in a foil blanket aero stylee! Half way point done in 2:43:49
For the 3rd lap the rain stopped, we all cheered up and although my pace didn’t increase it seemed to pass a little quicker in the dry.
We were moving into unchartered territory too as my longest ever endurance race had been 13.5 hours… Would I blow up? Could I carry on running and moving forward … Coming through the finishing area at the end of the third going out on to the 4th lap was amazing, high 5’s and time to just dig deep and Keep. Moving. Forward…
Hardest lap of my life, the rest of the team were beginning to struggle too, although they are all experienced long course athletes asking them to be out there for a good 4 hours longer than they would normally race for was beginning to take its toll!
However, the fourth lap went by the fastest, possibly a little extra adrenaline helping us along, especially as I was really struggling to keep any more energy products down and my gut had turned on me
for filling it with too much high energy sugary crap for too long.
We could hear the compere at the finishing line stoking up the crowd ready for us and Harrison told us we were all going through together, which is incredible to think about.
As I came round the final corner, the emotion hit me, as it does writing this… I was saying to Harrison… ‘H we did this, you and I did this, we made it… You’re an Iron man little man’
And then it was the finishing chute itself, William and Donna running with us, through the crowd that had been encouraged to surround the finish, and over the finish line together, just as we had started. Michelle Vesterbury the winner of the pro race had stayed to give us our medals. We were both Iron. the 2nd half completed in 2:57:02 and a full distance time of 15 hours 36 mins and 29 seconds.
Surrounded by cameras and film crews and lights flashing I got to hug and cry on the shoulder of everyone who had come to support us, people who started this journey with me 2 years ago and all those that helped make it happen on the day and in the run up to it.
Most inspiring day of my life….
justgiving.com/greatestironman for anything you would like to give in my aim to defeat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
harrisonsfund.com for our registered charity.
Bring on Barcelona Ironman in October 😉