Reflections on my Ironman Journey: The Last Lap by Dave Cullen

Pro athletes, aspiring IM podium age groupers and Kona-chasers look away now. This is for the strugglers and strivers hoping to make it over the line one day at an Ironman event. It reflects my personal thoughts and feelings as I finally reach the final leg of my IM journey which has been a journey that involved committed training and many personal sacrifices for about 10 months. But here I am in Calella, anxiously awaiting the start of IM Barcelona; the culmination of all the hard work and hopefully the successful achievement of another ambition.

With a day to go I have time to kill before the race tomorrow and it’s probably a good time to reflect. Over the past year I have frequently asked myself why? Why am I doing this? Why is it important to me? With 12 hours to go until the gun, I continue to ponder this question; in fact, it is becoming louder in my mind and clear answers remain elusive.

I am always fascinated to hear about what has brought others to their first Ironman, and for those who have done it multiple times, what keeps them going. For me, the motivations are numerous and range from the rather blasé “because it’s there”, to the more reflective “to give me a sense of purpose”, to the belligerent “sure why wouldn’t I?”. I think too that like many Ironmen and Ironwomen I have a somewhat compulsive personality (disorder?) which makes me an “all or nothing” character, so the focus of an ironman suits that part of my mentality while simultaneously muting the over-indulgent and potentially self-destructive side of this characteristic.

These are all true of course to a degree but I think deeper down it is about a sense of achievement, both to instil personal pride, and, as uncomfortable as this is to write, to prove to others that I can do it; or rather that it can be done. It is also about being a positive influence on my kids by showing them that even an old fossil can be active. And the final rationale that rings in my head as a very fortunate person with Multiple Sclerosis that has been well behaved of late, is to do things while I can.

Anyway, enough of that. Here in Calella the town is abuzz and the Ironman machine has taken over. I am always fascinated by the slickness of the Ironman organisation and the professionalism with which every detail is managed, the sanctity of the brand and the reverence of its followers.

With 3,800 fellow entrants, there are countless svelte, toned and primed athletes everywhere you look. And me! I must say that since I stepped onto the plane to come here, surrounded by other aspiring Ironman I have found it rather intimidating and my imposter syndrome, while not new, is reaching dizzying new heights. I know I am not alone in feeling like a fraud at times in this sport, but at this moment I feel I am about to be found out! I can console myself in the knowledge that I have felt this way before and that once I get to the finish line this notion will dissipate and I will become a member of a tribe with a unique capacity to bore their mates to tears in the pub about how they conquered Ironman before showing them the tat to prove it (yes, I might get one; just because!).

For now, the work is done and the year of sleep deprivation, persistent niggling pain and social sacrifices will hopefully pay off tomorrow. After making it unscathed thus far it is amazing how every little niggle in my hamstrings, knees and shoulders seem potentially fatal right now….. It’s amazing too how the good wishes of friends and loved ones seem to make it even more important that you make it through….. Why did I tell anyone I was doing this?! Now they are all watching on that bloody tracker thing online!!

The road to here, despite training solo, was not a one-person project. This would remain a pipedream if it wasn’t for the encouragement, support and patience of my wonderful wife and the perverse motivation that comes from the persistent slagging from my three wonderful boys. “You’re only half an ironman”, “You look like a gimp”, “You’ve still got a belly”, “How come you have no muscles in your legs” etc…. Thank you all so much! Taking stock right now the generosity of this support in allowing me to pursue my inexplicable mid-life desire for self-flagellation is immense.
Once again, thank you!

So, for any newbies reading this, what words can I add to the unending publications, biographical blogs, diaries and words of advice that litter the world of Ironman; not much. But having almost made it to the start line I must have done something right, but I have absolutely no technical qualification or expertise to enable me to pass on any advice of value to your performance, so I won’t. Despite the fact that I managed to get here without a power meter, heart rate gizmos or knowing about my VO2 Max, CSS and other similar things to help get the most out of your training, you probably should engage with these approaches to optimise your performance. You can find lots of stuff on the technicalities, science and benefits of these elsewhere. Instead, here are a few pretty low-grade thoughts from the perspective of an ordinary punter who wanted to get over the finishing line of an Ironman:

1) Don’t make excuses! No-one has time to do all that training. I won’t bore you with the details of life outside IM training, but it was very busy; just like everyone else’s.

2) Get with the programme! I got a beginner’s plan designed by the fantastic TI Coach Steven Moody (aka Chairman Moo) of Smart Endurance Solutions from Training Peaks which I can whole-heartedly recommend. I didn’t follow it slavishly, but I tried to do as much of it as I could with a life to live beyond triathlon, but I found it excellent for keeping me on track. I’d say I covered 75% of the sessions overall. If you can get a coach with in-person support, go for it. I believe it is a great way to go, but for me if I’m honest, I didn’t do this as I wasn’t certain I would make it this far and I felt I needed to do things my own way.

3) Together is Better! I regret not training with a fellow IM traveller, but fortunately my friends are generally better adjusted and more craic than me, so I didn’t have too many options in this regard as a Dublin Southside exile and member of a Northside club. Next time (did I just say that?) I will find someone with whom to share the journey, train with and motivate/console each other.

4) Be Part of It! For me, I am a member of Piranha triathlon club, but rarely got to train with them. However, at events and in the run up to them the camaraderie and craic is fantastic, so I would recommend joining a club. Piranha is certainly a great option with a great social scene and top-class training if you are living in Dublin. Chatting with people who share your passion is great and you pick up tips with every encounter with more experienced athletes.

5) Enjoy It! When you are training five or six days a week, often alone and in the dark, there is no denying that it can get tedious. Try to think how lucky you are as you are out there running as the sun sets, pedalling in the rain or swimming as the sun rises. We are lucky in every way; to have the physical health, the mental fortitude, the support and the space for leisure that you need to keep going. I also found that taking part in events to test yourself, tick things off your bucket list and to bond with fellow athletes was a huge source of enjoyment. The Wicklow 200, Tour de Burren, Glendalough swim etc are all good options for instance.

6) Be Gentle on Yourself! You won’t always feel spritely and fresh, you will miss some sessions and you will need to cut others short. Don’t beat yourself up about this. Unless you are looking
for a podium finish a place in Kona or to beat a club record, missing a few things along the way is unlikely to make any material difference.

7) Make time for Fun! Hard as it may be to believe, most things in life are more important than triathlon. However, for Ironman you do need to commit and consequently you will become an inevitable bore in the months before it. You may even notice that invitations to social gatherings begin to dry up unless you remove yourself from your bubble and make time for socialising (on rest weeks only of course!). Even if its just to prove to yourself that you are still as funny, popular and cool as you’ve always been. If you have a family supporting you, don’t forget to try to make time for payback; you owe them some reciprocity and fun.

8) Embrace the Pace! I could once run a decent 5k and a respectable 10k, but nobody told me that the endurance training for IM would make me slower. Don’t be alarmed and accept that this is a different discipline. While Garmin and Strava make it impossible to ignore, try not to focus on it too much.

9) Invest Wisely! Let’s face it triathlon in general, and Ironman in particular is pretty elitist, and it can be eye-wateringly expensive. The gains to be had by investing in a ten grand TT bike for more mature age groupers are likely to be minimal, so don’t feel like you can’t do it because you can’t or won’t fork out the dosh. But don’t skimp on the things that really matter; good runners, seriously good cycling shorts, a good tri-specific wetsuit, cleats, goggles etc.

10) For the Record! You will be burning lots of calories throughout your training block, so one small upside is that you can eat lots of nice food. However, try to eat half-decent food when you can; not to the point of obsession, but I did notice that my body was more compliant with my minds excessive demands when it was fuelled appropriately with a normal, but balanced diet. This tip is not really about the food though, it is a reminder to take some photos. If you are someone of advancing years like me, you will probably never look more trimmed and toned as you will be just before your IM event. A few months later, who knows, so take some snaps for the record!

So hopefully these decidedly and intentionally non-technical reflections are useful and will help to reassure the “strugglers and strivers” that you can do this. The “sciencey bits” of training and the mechanical wonders of bikes and other such fascinating topics largely went over my head, so for these you will need to look elsewhere.
I could easily fill another tome with things that I should’ve done but didn’t or that I should have done more of, but I will spare you. Most of these for me related to lifestyle changes but as per point 6 above; nobody’s perfect.
So, there you have it. I’m off now to eat lots of carbs and drink lots of horrible isotonic drinks before getting my bike ready to head off to T1 to drop off my bike and bags. It’s all getting very real now.

T1 bike check-in was slick and smooth; my run and bike bags were hung on the appropriate pegs ready for tomorrow and my timing chip collected. Nothing could go wrong now, could it?

After a “last supper” with some fellow Piranhas it was time to part ways before our big day. I went for a stroll alone after dinner to have a look at the sea and to clear my mind. For me, the “pre-exam-esque” nerves were giving way to the child-like excitement of a cold Christmas eve night. I couldn’t wait to get going.

One more sleep!
Reader. Go Get a Cup of Tea and a Biscuit! This is longer than I had planned!

Part Two Race Day
Well, one more sleep was a misnomer. I’m sure I got a few of hours but the German revellers returning from the Calella Oktoberfest didn’t care that I had a race tomorrow as they sang poolside at the hotel. Never mind, the day has come and I’m mad to get going and “get this thing done” as Boris would say. Breakfast at 6am; I had an overdose on carbs, fruit and juice at the hotel who had laid on a lovely early Ironman breakfast. This was yet another reflection of the extent to which the town embraces Ironman.

I have to confess that I took some liberties at the breakfast bar. I “borrowed” some Bananas for the bike, made up a couple of sandwiches for T1 and T2 and serviettes to use as Bog roll!! The latter of these items proved to be important as the facilities shared with 3,799 other athletes were under pressure! The sandwiches too were a boon at T1 and T2, so it’s something worth considering if you prefer real food than gels and energy bars like me.

The weather for the race was absolutely perfect. Bingo! With temperatures in the high teens forecast for the day I was delighted as for my pasty Celtic complexion and consequent poor thermo-regulation, high temperatures would have been a challenge for me. The Mediterranean Sea too was flat as a pancake and the water temperature a balmy 21 degrees. This was all going to perfectly to plan, I hadn’t forgotten anything and was feeling pretty relaxed about what lay ahead…. Until I turned on my Garmin watch to get it ready to roll. Shit! After 7 years of loyal and reliable service it has decided at this moment to die! Despite the attempts of several fellow competitors and Garmin aficionados it was pronounced dead at 7:50am on October 6th, 2019. Race start for me was scheduled for 8:20, so it was time to go. I would have to rely on “feel” to pace for the day; unfortunate but nothing I could do.

Race start is always something I enjoy, so the Garmin drama was wrecking my buzz. It’s chance to soak up the atmosphere, embrace the nerves, visualise the finish, share a moment with fellow club members and just get on with it. This was no different as despite the fact that I was sh*tt*ng myself about the gruelling task ahead I relished it and felt privileged to be part of this. In the next meridian I hoped I would be an Ironman.

On arriving at my swim corral, I spotted clubmates John Clarke, Pat Linehan and Ronan McDermott. I was delighted to see some familiar faces and to get some tips from seasoned Ironmen right up to the starting gun. Pat’s recommendation to have a pee now in my wetsuit before we set off was taken on board; nice! Sharing the arse-ache of my Garmin’s demise too helped to lessen the grief.

The swim start, with so many aspirants chomping at the bit to get going, was a sight and an atmosphere to behold. AC/DC’s Thunderstruck rang out as the sun rose and 3,800 ashen-faced athletes wrestled with their nerves. But as with all things Ironman, despite the number of people it was impeccably organised so it didn’t feel chaotic.

As we progressed to the swim start, John Clarke spotted another Piranha in the crowd, John Lyons (Wolf) cheering us on. A piece of signature quick thinking from John Clarke and my dead Garmin was passed to Wolf and he gave me his that he happened to be wearing! As I said above, join a club! Not much power in the battery but I would at least get some of the way around with it. With some final hugs and good wishes for teammates, Pat Linehan hurriedly pushed some buttons on Wolf’s Garmin for me and I hit start just as I crossed the start line. We were off! Woohoo!
Take it easy; it’s a long day ahead.

Bonus Tip: the water is salty, apply some Vaseline to your nose to stop it desiccating your nasal
passages. Also, unless you want a rash masquerading as a love-bite remember your body glide, suit
juice or whatever you use….

After an early melee, a few elbows in the head, kicks in the ribs etc I settled into a rhythm quickly
and was feeling strong. A few breathers from drafting off someone stronger were welcomed, but by
and large the 4.8km was completed without incident and I exited to T1 with jelly legs but feeling
really good. Did I make my predicted time of 1 hour 20mins? Yes! 1hr 14mins on my adopted

T1 was an experience. A mass of bodies in various states of undress, frenzy and panic. I made my
way to my bag, 2497 and dried off and changed into my cycling gear, swim stuff in the bag, Nurofen
in the gob, lots of chamois cream on the arse and surrounding areas and a good mouth rinse to rid
myself of the salination. I also took a moment to enjoy a sandwich and bun from the hotel breakfast
bar. Yum Yum.

Bonus Tip: I brought a Sharpie with my and scrawled on my bag that made it easier to find. Also, I
packed a towel to allow for a full change before the bike. More comfortable on a very long spin than
a tri suit unless you are chasing minutes. Sunblock, chamois, gels, electrolytes etc…. All the obvious

Off we go on the bike; renowned as a fast course, and it lived up to its billing. Not a breath of wind,
dry and 17 degrees; perfect! There are much, much tougher courses, but 180k is 180k and for a
beginner this was ideal. I would even go so far as to say I enjoyed it. Dig in, get around it; it’s a long
day ahead.

Fuelling on the bike is a frequent topic of conversation among triathletes with many favouring
copious energy gels, blocks and bars. Rightly or wrongly, I had a different approach and stuck with
bananas, wine gums, a couple of naked bar and electrolyte drinks provided on the course. I had one
gel at 90km and I felt ok. Whatever you take, just keep eating and drinking; it’s a long day ahead.….
The support on the route was incredible and every Irish flag and familiar face from the crowd
released a burst of energy. I hadn’t appreciated the impact of the amazing support; this would be
even more impressive, important and impactful on the run.

Despite drafting rules, it was hard with almost 4,000 riders on the move to stay out of trouble, and
the penalty boxes were well occupied, but I managed to avoid reprimand and the resulting 5 min
penalty. While enjoyable, it’s a long time out on the bike, so I was struggling to find new ways to
convert portions of 180km into percentages and kph into total times etc. At 100km, the watch
packed up, so pacing from there on was tricky.

Some aches and pains, in particular my neck were beginning to flare-up from around 140km, but at
least at that point most of the work was done Time to start thinking about the run or rather the
marathon; it’s a long day ahead.….

Bonus Tip: I had a second pouch on my bike velcroed to the crossbar under my saddle; I needed it to
allow me to keep eating.

My plans A, B and C for the bike were A 30kph, B 28kph and C 26kph. Depending on this I would
calibrate my run pace (ha!) to deliver a respectable finish time.

Plan A surpassed. Average Speed 34kph, Total Bike Time: 5hrs 21mins, Total Time 6hr 46mins. Well
ahead of my plan which was devised to get me over the line in around 12 hours.
On to the next challenge.

Amazingly with the high of the first two disciplines, the prospect of running 42k, while daunting now
seemed feasible. Changing from my bike gear into running gear shouldn’t be a noteworthy
component of this story, but I had forgotten to pack underwear! The marathon would have to be
run commando!

I saw some familiar faces who started with me, who looked more athletic than me, who now looked
just as f**ked as me. That was encouraging. I left T2 with fellow Piranha Scott McInnes which was
again a welcome friendly face.

Bonus Tip: Wear a hat to keep the sun and sweat from your eyes and remember chamois those
cheeks again and tape those nipples in T2 (I didn’t!). Also, if you are using a full gear change at
transitions, don’t forget your underwear!

I had a pacing plan in my mind, so I knew not having the Garmin would be an issue for the run. I
pushed the power button in hope rather than expectation and low and behold it came to life. It
stayed with me until kilometre 16 and I was pacing to plan and feeling ok. The aid stations were
exceptionally well stocked and staffed so I took a stroll through each of them taking on board some
water, oranges and nuts and pouring water over my head to stay cool.

With no means of monitoring pace when the watch died again and no idea how I was doing, the
latter part of the run was tough. In hindsight looking at my lap times my pacing went all over the
place and I had a few too many walking breaks, so that was a bit of a bummer, but I was nearly
there; I knew I would make it so I didn’t fret too much. I hate laps on long runs! This time there
were three of them and each one felt longer than the one before and they were as my times got
gradually slower with each.

As the sun set over Calella, the Irish crowds cheered words of encouragement. They injected a real
sense of fun and celebration with some dressed as leprechauns and others singing and cheering.
They really helped us all through and just like in every sport the Irish fans were the best of all which
is saying something with 90 countries represented in the event. As the end came closer, I began to
think about seeing my wife Kerry at the finish line having flown from Ireland.

While I wasn’t sure of my time, I knew after the first legs that I could hit my personal “stretch” target
of 12:00 hours. As I rounded the bend and onto the famous red finishing carpet for the grandstand
finish, I punched the air when I saw my name on the ticker board and a time of 11hrs 14mins. Happy
Days! That meant a 4:18 marathon. I had made it and the MC’s announcement, “David Cullen, you
are and Ironman” had a lovely ring to it as I crossed the line. I punched the air in delight at my time.
I didn’t know what I expected to feel. Euphoria, Joy, Elation? The first thing I felt was relief followed
quickly by a desire to reconnect with the “real” world and then the pain of blisters on my feet.
After a few quick finishing chute snaps, I was handed my medal and finishers t-shirt, it was time for
some grub and some mutual admiration from fellow Piranhas; Gordon, Dave and Steven who had
finished well before me. I quickly got my gear together and headed off to collect my bike from T2. It
was all over. I wanted to get things wrapped up before I seized up! Shower, change, make sure all
the Piranhas are home safe and out for a few well-earned celebratory pints! The following day
would be a day of rest before an early morning transfer to the airport.

Now, I’m on the way home on the plane and the aches and pains have abated, I am looking forward
to getting back to family, friends and home.

So, thanks again to everyone who supported on this wonderful road. Despite some ups and downs
along the way, I enjoyed the training routine, feeling fit and focussing on a stretching goal, so I will
certainly be booking another Ironman race in 2020.

If you are thinking of giving it a go, I would thoroughly recommend it and I hope this review
reassures you that if I can do it anyone can! It doesn’t have to mean giving up everything else in life
and I managed to maintain a balanced approach; training hard while also remaining well acquainted
with my local barman and close friends throughout.

Best of luck on your road to Ironman. You can do it!


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