An unlikely IM…ironman by Ger Vowles

January 16, 2017 2 Comments Posted under


I was never the most athletic growing up, playing a small bit of football and hurling with the local parish team, and in school. College in the late ’80’s into the ’90’s was more of a fashion statement than a career defining road through academia or even future wealth and fortune. Sport and exercise was always a poor relation in my to-do list, to drink, pizza and nights out. It was an era when RTE covered the Dublin Marathon and running was far too difficult. The impression was that you had to be an “athlete” to complete one of these events and very strict with yourself and have self-belief and an ability to push yourself above and beyond. Aspirational stuff even by my lowly standards.

Moving forward to the 00’s having reached the unwieldly heights of 18.5 stone in weight by 2010 with two small kids, it didn’t take long to realise that things had to change. So began my journey to health and fitness at a level I didn’t even envisage at the time. Running, well that’s a bit of a strong adjective, my first 5k in a local park run I was nearly hospitalised for stupidity. What was I thinking at my age? I needed to wise up. But that was something that was slow to register even in this dimly lit bulb…

With a big change in circumstance in 2011, the company consolidated and work became based in Dublin, working away from home for 4 days a week was tough but it allowed me the time to train, (shuffle as opposed to run) more which brought me to participating in a number of marathons. After a while training on my own became boring and often got put off. Then one august evening in 2013 I tried a duathlon in the phoenix park.. What a buzz…  let me at it .. It was sweet downhill slippery slope from here. In the following month I joined Piranha, pre new to tri group and started on my new tri journey.

Id looked at the whole ironman thingy in awe and at times I couldn’t get my head around how they did that, run a marathon after that length of a bike, I’d covered the same distances independently on the bike and on a run a month apart and was knackered after the events.. so how could you do that in one day with a swim at the start…..

The days leading up to the race

We travelled out on the Thursday before the race, a bit of madness maybe but the gang had booked up and there we were outside the airport in Barcelona waiting on this really fancy private shuttle service that had been promised by Moody Tours….. well enough said, we got there, eventually,

We checked into the hotel dropped the bags into the rooms, down to the lobby and set the plan in place, lunch, registration, bike collection.

Registration opened at 4pm so down we strolled, on the walk there the expo was in the final stages of set up and the place was alive with all these really athletic looking people. Like strutting peacocks, with their fancy bikes and eyeballing everyone around the area we made our way to the registration tent. . Registration done into the merchandise area to drop the veritable fortune on IM clothing..

Friday morning early morning swim and back to the hotel for breakfast, discovering a slight buckle on the front wheel, I got direction to the bike shop, bike sorted, it’s out for a quick course reccie and back to meet up with the crew for to  investigate the “hill” and shop in decathlon. What a laugh if we had a map reader it would have been helpful, in an overloaded car and on the wrong side of the road, we eventually found Decathlon..  what a laugh.  Back to the hotel, bite of grub and start getting things ready for the bike and bag drop tomorrow. Jez we laughed more at ourselves and our own silliness in those few days than I’ve done in a long time..

Saturday morning, down for an early morning swim, and back for breakfast, off to the Expo for the race brief.. it was packed there.

After the race briefing it was as though everyone went their own way, people started getting their own heads into race mode.

A few messages exchanged and arrangements for going to the transition zone in place, a few of us went down around 5:30 not too hot at the time so all good when we got there. Bikes checked in, bags hung up and then you get your timing chip…

The day of the race

Getting up at 4:30 am wasn’t a problem on this morning. It was actually a god send, I went down for breakfast at 5am meeting Antje and Silvia who had just arrived before me. The room was full of would be Ironman competitors hovering over the slim pickings of breakfast. I ate enough and was actually very calm in my own mind as well as in general. Mostly before races there is something always playing in the back of the mind, I think it was the company I was with, the laughing the poking fun at each other and ourselves was brilliant it relaxed me and I would say added greatly to the whole event.  Meeting Jacqui in the lobby, we made the arrangement to walk down together to the transition to load up bike with nutrition/ drinks and check bags for the last time.  Walking down the road was like a silent march of the lemmings. Everyone heading in the one direction, everyone with one thing on their mind – what did the day ahead hold for them?

The swim

The water was a calm 22.5deg, just like a warm bath. Standing in the sand, ready to go, I never felt as calm and relaxed. After a small power glitch to the music and amplification, it all kicked off, Pro men into the water, minutes later, pro ladies, and then the age category athletes. Everyone was to rank themselves into the time ranked corrals that they believed would best reflect the time they could complete the distance in. Having spoken with and set out targets for the swim with my coach, I set myself into the 1:20 corral. As the athletes started to move out through the rolling start, a gap opened in the corral barriers and a number of athletes made their way into the time corral beside our one. Making my way across I hear over the amplification, and here is “The Irish High Priest” here to support the Irish Athletes, looking around there he was, Bernard. Well that can I say.  So into the water and off I went. Making my way passed a number of athletes, I guess they had over ranked themselves for timing. Into a rhythm and keep it moving, staying away from the main herd where it was busy, and I didn’t want to get to into the bigger groups as they were all trying to get position and crossing over each other.  So Swim target time 1:15 time achieved 1:10, Happy with that.

The bike

Through the transition bike gear on and out into transition, “SS” is what I was looking for – that the rack lettering where the bike is racked, there it is, right turn, pick up the bike and out onto the road.  Through the first bit of the technical part and out onto the main road. Head down and onto the TT bars from here, plan was simple, cycle the road. Get the momentum, don’t burn it up on the climbs, get momentum on the downhill and save the legs. Nibble every 20 mins, and drink, drink, drink your way around. 4:1 x 3 and Iso at every aid station. Special rewards were planned for 60, 90 and 120km, a croissant that I had taken from the restaurant the morning before. The heat while out on the bike was noticeable at times but at the turn around in Montgat you were into a head wind, so gains made on the out had to be conserved. Without burning it up, making the way back for the first 90km, on the final climb there they were the Piranha Tri Spectathletes..Hearing them chanting and supporting as I passed, heading into the roundabout and on the way back out for the second leg was a real boost. It really helped the focus and mind set for the next leg of the cycle.  Keeping the momentum on the out the bike leg was only broke by the need to pee, at Montgat. All the way back into Calella I wasn’t taking much notice of time, but rather trying to maintaining the HR and where possible the time, sub 2 mins per km.  My toes and knee started giving a little niggle, my feet were swelling up more than anticipated and I could feel my toes rubbing against the top of my shoes. Right knee was giving a gib, letting me know that injury I was carrying was still there and I hadn’t shook it. So it was back into the transition as fast as possible. Making my way through the “technical section” you could hear the music at the finish line and the support out on the run leg for all the athletes.  Into transition and rack the bike. Target was a sub 6 hour, I would have accepted a 6:05.. not realising until later it was 5:33.. Very happy with that.

The run

With the bike on the rack it was into the transition tent and get ready to take on the run. Cleats off, runners on and hat onto the head, just as I left the tent was a very helpful assistant spraying us with sun tan lotion. All good, here we go the run. What an atmosphere, the supporting and cheering for athletes as they passed was just uplifting as you embarked on the first of 3 loops of 13.5km.  First km all going to plan, then passed the first aid station and as I trotted passed I got cut off by another chap and that force my footing onto one of the grills that surrounded the base of the trees on the run. The height difference of what was expected and realised created a sudden shock up through the right leg triggered the leg injury that I had hoped would not plague me for the event. An injury that had come to light at the lost sheep some 4 weeks earlier. Despite an MRI and number of sessions, a week earlier the physio had written to me and my coach Steve Moody saying ok for swim and bike but the third part of the event should be walked… not what you wanted to hear. I was never good a being told you cannot!  I usually see it as a challenge that I need to prove wrong. But we had a plan, if it was going to play up, we walk, not the ordinary stroll type but try and power walk a bit and see if this frees out the leg. So for the next number of hours it was a combo of walk, shuffle and jog.  Meeting Piranha’s on route was great, the supporters from the club were amazing as has been seen by their photos going viral on the IM website.  As the pace slowed the target times came under consideration. Would I hit my A target time, or be nearer to the B time, only time would tell. Trying to maintain some consistency of movement was the only way to get to the finish line. Eventually as the sun set on Calella I was in the last leg of the run, the last time back passed the support crew and into the finishing chute. As I entered the finishers chute it was as though someone had turned the sound up.. it was noisy from the outside but you can imagine what it was like inside! The run time was 5.12 slower than anticipated but overall cannot complain!

The lessons learned.

You need a coach.. Preferably one that knows what they are doing. All too often the athlete’s performance is based on the coach’s prep of the athlete. Someone who is not in tune with you and how you train and perform will not have the insight into your pre-race headset, etc. Get to know your coach, and if they don’t want to know and listen to you, then change them, you owe them nothing you’re paying them to do a job. They are not expensive in the bigger picture, given athletes spend thousands on bikes they expect to shave seconds off their time and deliver the race of their life on..

Be realistic about your expectations. It’s not a race it and endurance event! Look at your own training data, understand where you think it should be. If the coach is wrong, don’t be afraid to have that conversation with them. Understand your own limits, setting the bar too high or too low for you will lead to disappointment.

Enjoy it: during the event things go wrong. We all don’t have the perfect race, deal with it… from the outside it look perfect to others looking in at a tracker. To them you’ve possibly had a great race. Even though you didn’t get the splits you wanted. The tracker doesn’t tell those watching in, about your head set/ how your body is holding up, your actual level of fitness going into the race. Etc.  So enjoy it, getting to the start line uninjured and healthy is an achievement in itself.

When it’s finished, don’t post-mortem the race immediately. Your emotions are all over the place. The small thing that didn’t go to plan are to the forefront of the mind. Listen to others, look into the first aid tent and see how many didn’t get to the finish line. And put perspective on what you have achieved.

Will I do it all again, yes definitely,

When/ where? Don’t know to both, but I have my eye on a few of them….




  • Bernard says:

    Well done Ger. A great read – especially as I was present to see from the outside what an amazing achievement it was for you and the other Piranhas.

  • Myles
    Myles says:

    Nice one Ger, you might even have inspired me to write one myself

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