I hope you didn’t miss me too much. I’m now back from Estonia with the Ironman behind me and no excuse not to start up this blog again. I’m sure you’re all eager to hear my thoughts on Tallinn, since I’ve got such a good reputation as a travel writer, but before I go into detail about both the city and the race, I want to provide some context for my journey to the start line. To do that, I need to start a little way back…
I’ve always wanted to be a sportsman. As a kid, I never saw myself ending up with a ‘desk job’ when I grew up – whatever that meant. I never had a whole lot of direction, but I was pretty good at running and swimming when I was younger so, naturally, I thought to myself ‘I want to be a professional triathlete’. I had no idea what that meant or entailed but it’s what I set my heart on. The only caveat in my mind at the time was the fact that I didn’t cycle.
In reality, whilst I was alright at running and swimming, I really just had a decent set of lungs and an obnoxious stubbornness that drove me to beat most other kids around me. Having spent years at Loughborough University, I’ve now competed and trained with athletes who were actually talented (really talented) as youngsters. Although I had that happy dream of professional sport, I’ve since realised that I wasn’t doing anything about it. I didn’t train properly and, although I was good against the people I was exposed to, I rarely branched out further than my own school. I was blissfully unaware how far behind the future stars I actually was.
On the flipside, I had a real childhood. For every person I’ve met that’s been elite since the age of four, I’ve met just as many that feel they wasted or missed out on normal school years. After finishing the first draft of this post, I came back to it and realised the whole thing sounded a bit mopey and miserable. I have no regrets about the path I’ve taken to get to where I am, and I want to be clear that my intention is not to come across like that.
When I rode from London to the Alps in 2011 and fell in love with cycling, riding a bike very quickly became my sole priority. Cycling became my passion and it replaced the triathlon dream that I’d had for years. In part, I saw myself as being better at cycling than I did running or swimming. However, I still never exposed myself to the really good people of my age.
This dream of professional sport grew ever stronger through my final school years and then my trip around the world. When I started university, and had just turned 20, I finally entered my first proper race.
Racing was eye-opening. I discovered a completely new side to a sport I thought I knew so well, and one that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. The path to the top that I’d imagined for myself instantly became less clear. I was decent enough when it came to it, but I didn’t breeze through the middle ranks as I expected I would. It took me two years of tactical errors and pretty intense frustration to get to where I thought I would get to easily.
I’d keep telling myself that it was what I wanted to be doing, but I began to realise that racing led to more stress than it did enjoyment. It took over a big part of my life for the first two seasons and I got little back from it. Although some were enjoyable, the races weren’t the reason I fell in love with riding bikes. Not only that, but, although I never lived up to the potential I believed I had, I quickly realised that I didn’t possess the innate ability of some others around me. Coming off the back of cycling around the world, I could ride for hours on end with no trouble at all, but I could do nothing to respond to the big accelerations and displays of strength required to win higher-level races.
After two race seasons of perceptible but slow progress, my third coincided with the second year of my degree course and the time I committed to writing a book. Of those three aspects of my life, I consciously put my cycling training on the back burner. My book was more important to me than anything I’d done before, and I realised I would regret not putting work into my university degree. It was the right decision, but not one I took lightly and not one that I dealt with all that well.
After a winter of not much riding, I turned up to races expecting to ride like nothing had changed. When my legs failed to follow my head, I quickly lost my desire – something I’d never experienced before. I began to fall out of love with the sport. I’d find myself all the more frustrated after each disappointing performance and began to question why I was doing it.
At one of my lower points, I contacted the head of my race team for his thoughts on my future potential. One key thing he did was ask me what I actually wanted. After properly thinking about it for the first time, I realised that I loved riding my bike, and my goal was to be able to do it for a living. I’d always seen racing as an avenue to achieve that – which it is, if you’re good enough. Racing wasn’t my passion though, and, halfway through that season, I stopped. I rode my bike for pleasure, focused on my book, and tried not to do too badly in my degree.
I rode the final race of the year when my team had a late dropout, but I spent the whole time at the back, scared of crashing and not enjoying myself. I’ve not done a bike race since.
Shortly after throwing in the towel on my stint as a bike racer, I committed to an idea that had been brewing in the back of my mind for a little while. In my first off-season (winter 2016), I ran a sub-3hr marathon with only two weeks training. I mentioned this in my book as a way of providing perspective for my cycle around the world. It made me realise that if I ever wanted to turn to triathlon, I could probably do alright.
I’d often thought that the longer duration of Ironman racing would better suit my endurance capabilities, but, because I wanted to see my bike racing dreams through, I hadn’t acted on it. That turning point came far earlier than I expected, or wanted, but making the decision to change felt like a weight had been lifted. It was a little while before I told anyone, or even started training for running and swimming – but in my head I had made the switch.
That was in 2018, around July. In September I started full-time work for my placement year and started swimming again for the first time in ten years. I also entered Ironman UK for the following summer. As with my impromptu marathon two years prior, I was not looking to ‘just finish’. I already had the baseline endurance and the mental capacity, so I wanted to go to that race and do well.
Amateur triathlon racing is typically split up into age groups. For me, this first year would be my only year in the youngest 18-24 age category. The best finishers in each age group at any given Ironman branded event qualify for the age group World Championships in Kona, Hawaii at the end of the year. It’s a fairly big achievement to aim for and one that some spend their whole life striving for. I set my sights on that goal for Ironman UK.
I threw myself towards it with everything I had. Coming off the back of giving up on my dream of cycling, I think I almost needed it.
Alongside a full-time job, publishing a book, and training for two new disciplines, I was also dealing with some other shit that’s not relevant for this blog but weighed on me heavily. A lot of stress and a lot of emotion went into that year building towards that race.
I saw my attempt at bike racing as a failure, and one that I was pretty insecure about. Although still the amateur ranks, I saw the Ironman as a chance at redemption. A good result there would be a huge success in itself, let alone for someone with less than a year as a triathlete.
My legs exploded halfway round the bike course. I finished 3rd in my age group and 35th overall (out of around 2000 competitors) – a long way off what I went there to do.
The Ironman was the closing of so many chapters of my life. Not just everything that I put into it that year, but I felt as though I’d come full-circle, through cycling, back to being a little kid dreaming of triathlon. It was such a big thing that, despite the result, I still cried with relief at the end.
Ultimately, it marked the finish of the most challenging 10 months of my life. It was different to cycling around the world, and I don’t think I could say it was more difficult, but I would sooner repeat what I faced in January to August 2015 than September 2018 to July 2019.
Unfortunately, once the immediate physical pain of the race subsided, I had to face the fact that I hadn’t achieved what I wanted to. I was disappointed with that performance and, for a long time, even embarrassed.
Two months later I entered another race – this one even more ridiculous. It was an iron-distance triathlon, but through the Alps. It wasn’t part of the Ironman brand, so there would be no world championship qualification, but it was a chance for me to address some of my demons. The race consisted of the usual 3.8km swim, 181km ride, and 42.2km run. However, the bike course included 5000m of ascent (and was actually 190km), and the marathon was all off-road and included 2500m of ascent.
For a standard Ironman, the cut-off time for the slowest athletes is 17 hours. For this race (the Evergreen Endurance Ultra Triathlon), the time cut was 27 hours. I went into the race with no expectations, no stress, and off the back of a huge ten days of training.
I loved it. It was one of the hardest and most demanding single days I’ve ever had, but my body responded to the insane requirements of the challenge. As the youngest in the race, I finished 4th overall. It was a much smaller field than Ironman UK, there was no real reward, no world championship spot, no widespread recognition. It’s not even a race that many people have heard of. But it was one of the best physical performances of my life and enough to set my mind at ease.
That was exactly a year ago. Due to Covid, I wouldn’t race another triathlon until Ironman Estonia the following September – which I’ll get to next week…