A glance at the demands of an Ironman Triathlon is, quite understandably, enough to put people firmly off the idea of ever competing in one. After all, completing a 2.4-mile swim through an open expanse of often choppy, sometimes glacial water is just the first of three consecutive, excruciating challenges.
After that, you are expected to haul yourself onto the seat of a bike. Once on two wheels, it is best to make yourself comfortable, if only because the harsh reality is that you cannot dismount until you have travelled 112 miles.
As if that wasn’t quite enough to separate the sturdy wheat from the flaky chaff of endurance athletics, there is one final criterion to conquer in this most intimidating of triple threats. A marathon.
More out of sheer curiosity than any masochistic desire to test my body over these truly awesome distances, I found myself at Liverpool Street station last week awaiting a train to rural Essex. There, at the sparkly-named Revolution Bootcamp along with a few other media monkeys, I was to take part in a training day in the company of Gordon Crawford, coach to the elite of Ironman Triathlon, including best-of-British Fraser Cartmell.
Just 24 hours previously, two days after agreeing to the proposition, a sizeable package had arrived at the Sportsvibe offices. It was filled to bursting with shiny new merchandise courtesy of K-Swiss, who provide practical, groundbreaking gear to triathletes worldwide.
From garish red trainers emblazoned with the optimistic moniker ‘Ironman’ down one side, to some simply stunning turquoise shorts that were sure to transform me into streamline sprinter, each item of clothing was drenched in PR cunning.
Of course, the generous propaganda parcel did the trick and, stepping on board the delayed 08:41 to Braintree, I was clad in K-Swiss from head to toe, very keen. Rather pathetically, I had made the decision to sample an obnoxiously healthy pot of berry-porridge in the vain hope that it might increase my chances of an adequate performance. My reasoning was that, if it resembled wallpaper paste that closely in taste and consistency, then it had to be working somehow.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by Emma and Craig, guardians of the bootcamp who would be unashamedly assuming the role of ‘bad cops’ throughout the day, vociferously urging the media motley crew across monkey bars, under cargo nets and over rope swings. They immediately seemed to be an efficient, uncompromising team. Emma, the owner of the venue, was lithe and relentlessly enthusiastic whilst Craig, a former Royal Marine, represented a smiling slab of muscle.
As we signed the worryingly lengthy forms that, presumably, barred us from suing in the event of catastrophic injury, Gordon also made himself known, beaming to all comers from his weathered, charming face having made the flight down from Sterling the night before. Cutting a wiry, angular figure, it was clear that he was immensely fit himself. I introduced myself quietly as the group embarked on a one-mile warm-up jog and listened enthralled as Gordon modestly offered a brief run-down of his career.
A former national standard swimmer, he began running competitively as a means of keeping fit, eventually building up enough prowess to clock a superb time of 28 minutes over 10 kilometres. From there, triathlon beckoned and Gordon is still an active member of Sterling Triathlon Club, despite being in demand across all sports as a coach. Adaptable enough to have worked with the Scotland rugby side as a Strength and Conditioning guru amongst many other posts, his is a very impressive list of sporting achievements.
Barked through the limber-up by Craig, we arrived at a grassy clearing in which a series of obstacles were set out. Then came the obligatory run-down of how to best negotiate each one, before we were split into teams and made to test how much heat our lungs could take.
Bootcamp games like the gruesome ‘Tire Run’ were interspersed with more technical sessions with Gordon, whose knowledge of the physiological intricacies of balance and core stability was most enlightening. At one point, after Emma had screeched at one of my teammates, I heard Gordon offer some soft support.
“I’ve only ever had to shout twice,” he explained. “I never really find that it helps that much.”
Although he was doing his best to be reassuring, Gordon’s words made me terrified of messing up in front of him. It struck me that, as the strong silent type, he would be the kind of bloke partial to that immortal phrase: “I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.” That is always far scarier than even the most venomous vitriol.
To round off the physical activity for day, we took on the entire assault course, all the way through, as quickly as possible. We went in a long line, one after another with the rules being that, if the person behind you caught you up, twenty punishing press-ups were on the cards. To save time, I’ll just touch on my least favourite of the obstacles.
The ‘Tunnel of Love,’ makes the top spot very easily, entirely because of my endeavours to first of all leave first one of my nice red shoes, and then the majority of the skin on my knees, behind me whilst crawling through it. Emerging for the first of the course’s obstacles with scarlet running down my legs was hardly an auspicious start to a couple of painful minutes. Soon enough, though, it was over and though I could add sweat to the blood I had acquired, tears were kept at bay for next time.
All that remained was a large, nutritious lunch, punctuated by slow-release carbohydrates and lean proteins in the shape of wholemeal pasta and scrumptious salmon, both of which were far more appetising than wallpaper paste porridge. There was also another, invaluable chance to speak to Gordon about Ironman. I was fascinated to know how an athlete even starts to prepare, both mentally and physically, for such an incredible feat of human endurance. A man of few, extremely resounding words, the answer was compelling.
“Mentally, it is just a case of training so that the athlete is accustomed to the distances they have to go through,” Gordon said thoughtfully, before putting a shudder down my neck upon continuing. “Physically, some of the guys are at an advantage genetically but, most of the time, it is just a case of opening up the bonnet and taking a look at how big the engine is inside.”
Such a metaphor, made all the more stark by the Highland growl of its speaker, stunned me for a second, before Gordon’s charm won out and he burst out laughing.
“But that all makes it sound really serious doesn’t it?” he giggled. “It’s only supposed to be a bit of fun!”
Though I really had thoroughly enjoyed myself, as far as endurance triathlon was concerned, I decided then and there that I would take Gordon’s word for it. After all, the blood seeping down into my sock provided unavoidable proof that I was definitely not made of iron.
K-Swiss is the Official Footwear and Run Course sponsor of Ironman UK. For more information visit www.k-swiss.com
Check out the video of the day here: