My Journey to becoming an Ironman

My daughter asked me this morning over breakfast when I did my first triathlon.

I remember watching Spencer Smith (Hello Spencer if you’re reading!) racing at the Bath triathlon on the TV back in something like 1994. I was then a footballer and a pretty good one, so life pretty much revolved around training and playing matches for one of the various clubs I was involved in. I loved football, but I mainly loved being part of a team, and going out after matches in particular, so my early forays into triathlon actually revolved around learning to ride my bike and trying to make my hangover disappear.

So it was that I entered my first race in 1998 at the Langport Triathlon at the Huish Episcopi leisure Centre. I had actually entered the Cheddar Triathlon in 1996 but it was rained off due to a huge flood in the Gorge! I was woefully underprepared and had no idea what to expect, but there were some proper local legends of the sport there and I enjoyed the whole experience, coming in something like 12th place (I genuinely don’t remember and I can’t find the results online either) and vowing to get better at riding hills, at running on the technical stuff and swimming in general.

I then went off to University in September of 1998 and attempted to drink myself into oblivion, before finding the swimming club at the end of my first year. That first session was a rude awakening! I remember getting cramp in my foot before the end of the session and writhing around on the side of the pool gasping for breath while the senior members of the club looked on with something close to astonishment, or maybe pity, at how this self-professed ‘fit lad’ had got himself into such a state after swimming a mile. Fast forward another year and I’ve moved my bike up to my student house, I even ride it every now and again and I’ve become the Chairman of the Swimming Club and would go on to be voted the Sports Personality of the Year for the University in 2000. I’m also running a bit and I’ve entered some local races so have a bit more experience under my belt. Then the Student Union advertises that we can get free entry and travel into national championships if we take part in an individual sport. So I duly sign up to the national Sprint and Olympic championships for students and over estimate the quality of my swimming to the point where I’m in the last wave with the fast boys swimming up and down the then brand-new 50m pool at Bath. What an experience and I genuinely have no idea what my times were or my overall placings, but I was rocking an awesome 2 piece tri suit made by Speedo, just like my hero Mr Smith wore when he raced in Bath all those years ago in my memory, so I’ve officially made it. Suffice to say, I was still pretty poor compared to the standard I thought I was!

Fast forward another year and I’ve cleaned up my act after dicing with alcoholism for a while (I don’t mean to gloss over or make light of this part of my life, I genuinely got drunk every night and couldn’t go anywhere without having a drink, but I managed to stop all of that and didn’t touch a drink for 10 years and now I can enjoy a drink every once in a while with friends and feel all the better for it) and actually started to ride some serious miles and have taught myself to swim properly, although I’m still working way too hard in the pool compared to my stroke nowadays, but a few years of proper training ensue despite moving to a new place and establishing myself in a job and all those fun things that happen when you join the real world. I’m now starting to be relatively decent at Sprint Triathlons and have a couple of podiums and a few top 10s to my name so I’m top of the world in terms of my ambitions. In truth I had never really wanted to get good at triathlon and had no idea what that actually meant, but I hit the year 2000 watching Simon Whitfield win the first Olympic Triathlon and that sparked the thought that it was possible to get much faster and then training stepped up again. It was around this time that I met a couple of local guys who were amazing triathletes and were training together and had started to do Ironman, although at the time it didn’t make me want to do it, it just made me think they were crazy. Those guys went on to do some incredible things in Ironman, including one of them going on to do a sub 9 hour Ironman and race as a professional at the World Championships in Hawaii. I wish I had joined them at the time and learned everything I could from them, but I was young and thought I would be fit forever and had no idea of the amount of work it would need to get to that standard (They all made it look easy so I just assumed it was easy!).

My own Ironman journey actually started in 2005 at Ironman France in Nice. I was living with my friend and avid cyclist at the time and we were starting to get fast over the shorter stuff. We were both huge fans of Lance Armstrong (Damn you Lance, you crushed our dreams!) and starting to go longer, including an infamous trip to Devon where we got lost, rode an extra 20 miles and ended up riding along the A-road in desperation to get back to the car, where we discovered someone had broken in and stolen all our clothes! One evening shortly after my friends Dad had died of Cancer we were watching TV and decided to do a big challenge to raise some money for one of the Cancer Charities and the idea of Ironman was born. I looked at it and thought ‘it can’t be that hard, it’s just like 10 sprint distances in a row’ (genuinely, what an idiot) and so we signed up for the princely sum of £150 and received confirmation that I was number 147 (an exciting omen as I was a bit of a snooker player at the time too and assumed the gods were smiling on me telling me to go for it). I then proceeded to do very little specific training, certainly nothing long in any discipline, I just wanted to go hard in every session, before lining up on the beach on June 19th 2005 for the longest day of my life. In all honesty I had no idea what to expect in any regard, I packed no food, had one bottle of squash and wasn’t prepared to stop at any aid stations as I didn’t want it to slow me down. The inevitable soon happened and after a decent swim (my supporters all commented that there are no pictures of me racing as they weren’t expecting me out so quickly!) and a flying first 20 miles on the bike in less than an hour I proceeded to die a slow and painful sporting death in the 35 degree heat of the French midday sun. I don’t remember much about the day, but a few flashes remain, like at one point I was climbing a mountain on my bike and got full body cramp, got off my bike to chuck it off the cliff and a kind man from Derby, of who I have no other recollection so if it was you and you’re reading this then please do get in touch, I’d love to chat over a coffee, shouted for me to follow him and we rode up the rest of the climb together. I set a frankly ridiculous personal speed record of 61mph on the way down a hill and finished in a bit of a state on the Promenade Des Anglais. For anyone who has done Ironman France, you will know the torturous route of 4 x 10km laps of the promenade, looping round to the airport and back with zero shade and with a quick pass of McDonalds at the end of each lap and you’ll know how hot it can get. Well, despite suffering badly to this point I still didn’t take on any food or water (I know, what an idiot, again!) and with 8 miles to go I collapsed and was taken to the medical tent to be told my race was done and I should carefully re-evaluate my life choices (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what I heard). At this point I should tell you dear readers that my Mum had also been diagnosed with Cancer and had only 6 months to live and had travelled across to France on the train to come and see me, so to have to return to the spectators enclosure with my head held low and tell her I hadn’t been able to finish remains one of the low points of my life and one that still haunts me to this day. I struggled for a number of years after this and didn’t actually enter a race of any kind for a few years as the anxiety that it brought on left me paralyzed with fear. I wasn’t sure what depression was back then and I’m not ashamed to say that after my Mum died I suffered with it pretty badly, although at the time I didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t take the time to ask, or speak to anybody about how I was feeling, I was too ashamed of how I felt. I was fit, I had a good job, I had some good friends and lived with the future Mrs Molloy but felt unhappy all the time. If any of you reading can associate with that, then please get some help, you deserve to be happy and there are more people who understand what you are going through out there than you think. Anyway, the story has a happy ending, several years later, mentally stronger, physically less so, and with my own young family in tow we went back to Nice in 2018 and I ran the last 8 miles of that damned race by myself. I had lost my Mum in December of 2005 and then my best friend who I did the race with also died while out walking several years later, so those 8 miles seemed to last forever and in a way I wish they had. I ran along in tears, talking to them the whole way, making my peace with them and thanking them for all the wonderful memories we had shared. It was a great moment and this time when I finished on the Promenade in front of that McDonalds, I went in and enjoyed a burger with my wonderful kids and created a whole new set of memories around the race. I don’t look bad sadly on that time although I still wish I had done things differently, but instead I smile for the opportunity to have done it in the first place and hope that one day I will get the chance to go back and finish it in less than 13 hours rather than 13 years!

My own Ironman journey doesn’t end there. I got the chance to take part in a UK based Iron distance race a couple of years ago, and quietly, and slowly, I bimbled and smiled my way round it, never once looking at the watch, but watching the kids supporting, the faces of people running the other way and remembering why I have loved being involved in triathlon since that first race all those years ago.

So thank you to Spencer Smith for getting me started (and who signed my book at the Triathlon show a few years ago and was as lovely as I hoped he would be) to my Mum for getting me started (who was as lovely as I hoped she would be) and to all the other people in my story who helped me, who didn’t help me, who inspired me, who mocked me, who said kind words, who said less than kind words, who came first in my races and who came last (I have been both and without each extreme you would have no-one to race so remember to say thank you to each other!).

Most of all please remember that whatever level you are at, if you are starting your Ironman journey, enjoy yourself, finish if you can and when you do, don’t be sad that it’s over, smile because you had the chance to take part in the first place.

Marc Molloy for Sole Cycling Jan 2020

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