Saturday 20 May 2017 – Ironman Lanzarote

So, how do most people prepare themselves in the few days leading up to an Ironman? I presume most would take the weight off their feet and finish carb loading ready for the big day…

NOT ME!

Two days before the race I ended up with diarrhoea, followed that night by sickness and dizziness! The day before I felt very drained, unable to eat too much (and anything I did eat would not stay in), so my super wife concocted a meal of diarrhoea tablets, painkillers and electrolytes in the desperate attempt to get me to the start line. As a family we had put so much in to this race, she was not about to let the chance to race just disappear down the toilet.

2am race day morning, and the trick seemed to have worked. I managed to eat half a bowl of overnight oats and was not feeling too bad. A few extra hours of shut eye, another dose of Lauren’s excellent concoction of medication, and we were off to the start line… whether that was a good idea or not, we were soon to find out.

As you could imagine, the start area was buzzing with excitement, anticipation and a lot of nerves (as you could smell around the toilet area)… I made all my last minute preparations such as checking over the bike, putting the last few bits and pieces in my transition bags, and slipping on my wetsuit. I was all ready to go.

The sea looked fairly calm as the sun came up ready for the off. As the hooter sounded, all hell broke loose as 1608 bodies headed into the water, all trying to jostle for the best position for the first turn. I stayed out to the right to try to avoid as much of the hustle and bustle as I could, but still took a few kicks to several parts of the body. As I looked left, I could see what looked like a riot happening – it looked brutal!

I could feel immediately when I started to swim that I did not have a lot of energy to give. All I knew is that I had to do the best I can, and if it was not good enough on the day then I would have no regrets. I got round the first lap in a reasonable time, considering I stayed out wide all the way round to miss the crowds… The second lap was a lot easier… the faster swimmers were out the way, and I could stick to the ropes all the way around – or so I though. At the second turn, rip-tides had started to come in to play, and although I was swimming towards the buoy, I was still drifting out to the right. I kept on changing my angle to compensate, but I estimated I was pushed at least 75m out from where I was trying to swim. By the time I was level with the buoy, trying to swim back towards the transition area, I could see that the sea floor was moving very slowly under me. It was extremely hard work, and to top it of the slight waves in the sea were making me feel nauseous. After battling away, I managed to pass the buoy, and was on the last straight towards the transition area. It took what seemed and eternity to reach the beach, but I made it back in a time of 1:47:53…

Slowly I emerged from the sea, feeling very dizzy. I walked my way to my transition bag, and into the transition tent, where I sat and sipped on some coconut water while trying to pull myself together. After a couple of minutes I was starting to feel a little less nauseous, and carried on with the transition to the bike.

The bike leg was the part of the race I was most looking forward to. I was prepared for whatever Lanzarote was to throw at me (or so I thought). Knowing how severe the sun is, I opted for sun arms and sun legs to keep from burning – a ploy that paid dividends as I escaped with only one tiny piece of burn on my body from the whole day.

As I headed out on the bike, I carried on sipping my coconut water, which was helping hugely. I then reached for a banana that I had packed, only to find out I had left it in my transition bag! I changed plan and went for my Shake33 gel I had made up that morning – only to find that I could not stomach this due to the poorly stomach I have had over the last few days. It was 20km to the first aid stop, and all I had was my coconut water and some dehydrated kiwi fruit. So that was what was going to have to get me through to the first aid station, and then I would have to have a rethink on the nutrition!

The first 15km felt very sluggish. I had nothing to give in my legs, and it seemed as though everyone I could see were beginning to go away from me. The first aid station could not come fast enough. I slogged on, and picked up water, cola and bananas when I reached the first aid station. The cola again did not sit right on my stomach, so I got rid of that bottle straight away, but the bananas went down very well. That was a relief – at least there was something I was able to rely on that was part of my original nutrition plan. A turn or direction, and wind on my back for the first time, I felt as though I could actually get going in the race, so I put myself into time-trial mode and sped of a quickly as I could to try to ensure I managed to make the first cut-off time at La Santa. As I got towards the coast, and El Golfo, we again turned into the wind, which was fierce. A few small hills to negotiate on the way, I suddenly found myself without anybody else around. I had passed a lot of slower riders, and could not see anyone else ahead of me. It was starting to feel very lonely out on the course. About 3kms passed before I saw riders ahead of me – which I eventually caught just before the next aid station. Here I took some Power Bars and some isotonic drink, which luckily both went down very well. There was my new nutrition plan… bananas, power bars, isotonic drink and water. I also had my salt tablets which I took every hour to ensure I kept up the required electrolytes in my body.

Soon after the second aid station we headed into Timanfaya National Park. Through the stunning, undulation lava fields towards Timanfaya the wind was strong again in my face. Again I started to struggle, with very little in my legs to give. At this point I was starting to get worried that I would not be able to make the cut-off time at La Santa. Past the turning off to go up to the volcano, and the wind dropped slightly. From this point on I knew there was more downhill than uphill to La Santa, so put myself into time-trial mode again and set of in pursuit of the cut-off. This must have had some sort of effect on my body, as from this point all the way into La Santa it seemed as though I was flying. Passing a lot of athletes as I went, I made the cut-off easily – all-be-it after a course marshal let a truck pass onto the course without any means of exiting the course right in front of me… I hope the marshal could not understand English very well or I may well have been ejected from the race!

From La Santa onwards I knew the race would start to get hard. From past trips to the island I know that the winds in the north are very strong, and the hills are much longer and steeper. Still not feeling as though my legs had a lot to give, I decided to take things steady for the next part of the race, with the two big climbs still to come. The new nutritional plan was working okay, and I steadily rode without any mishap to the first big climb up Haria. Having driven the course earlier in the week, I knew there was a hairpin turn which ramped up the gradient to around 15%, and was prepared for this. I took the steady incline up to this turn fairly easily in anticipation for the harder work to come, but as I turned the corner, I again seemed to find my legs, and flew up that section of the road. Another hairpin turn took us back into a strong headwind up another steady gradient, for at least another 1.5km. The descent from this climb is down a series of sharp hairpin turns, made particularly difficult this day by extremely strong cross winds. I took this section very gingerly, as other people seemed to fly past me… but I wanted to finish this race, not end up at the bottom of a cliff! I think this is the scariest piece of riding I have ever had to endure…

Again, knowing there was another big, long climb to come at Mirador del Rio, I tried to keep as much back in the legs as I could – although I knew there was really not anything left in there to keep in reserve. The climb at Mirador was the part of the race I was most looking forward to. The views over La Graciosa (the island just of the north of Lanzarote) are absolutely stunning, and this is motivation enough to make the climb up. Again, I seemed to find something in my legs at just the right time, and kept a decent pace all the way to the top, passing plenty that had been defeated by the climb, and were pushing their bikes up. Although it was cloudy, I was not disappointed… the views I had been waiting to see were stunning, as was the support from the aid station volunteers.

A quick grab of some more supplies and I was of on what was one of the most fun parts of the course, although slightly terrifying at the same time. The descent from Mirador was fast and twisting with a treacherous cross wind that made keeping the bike upright difficult at times – but it was so much fun. The roads were smooth and wide with excellent visibility out front to see what was coming next. I flew down this section, and thought that was the worst of the bike course over with, and started to think about tackling the run – how wrong I was!

Fight to the EndStrong head winds, long hills and uneven roads came thick and fast. It was a battle that I was starting to lose. From what seemed like an achievable 7 hour 15 bike leg, soon turned into a torturous ride which made me start to think that I was going to miss the bike course cut off time completely. With 30km to go to the end, I had nothing left in my legs left to give, was riding up-hill, into the wind on a very uneven road, barely able to keep up 10kph. I wanted to give up – I am sure if an official was there at that point I might very well have given up… I had given everything I had, my legs and shoulders hurt to the point that they were numb. But then my inspiration caught my eye. On my bike stem I have a sticker, which has a bonsai tree and some Japanese writing on it. My inspiration is my Grandad, who always supported my ambitions as a child. The text relates to the last conversation I ever had with him, and this gave me a great deal of encouragement… I had to carry on, I had to fight to the end…

So I carried on, struggling to turn the pedals to take me back to Puerto del Carmen. If I missed the cut-off so be it, but I was not going to let myself just quite without a fight. Around 20 minutes later I reached the turn to get of the uneven road, and with it a stroke of fortune. The wind dropped slightly, and was more of a cross-wind than a head-wind, and my speed increased automatically. I steadily climbed the last climb of the course, and found the last 15km to be another fast, fun downhill descent into Puerto Del Carmen, which I whizzed down, reaching speeds of around 70kph… it was exhilarating knowing that I was going to easily make the cut-off time, so I coasted the last few kilometres to try to prepare my legs for the marathon to come.

As I came up to the transition zone, some of my personal supporters club (Lauren and my mum) were there to give me a big cheer. That was a big boost. And then I nearly threw it all away by making a rookie mistake…

As I approached the dismount line, I stupidly decided to try to dismount on the move while still wearing my cycling shoes. As I put my foot down, while still moving, it just carried on from under me, and I ended up in a heap on top of my bike on the floor. Luckily no damage was done apart from a bruise bum and ego!

Into transition, and I took my time in the changing tent, composing myself and making sure I was ready for the task ahead. I had a quick chat with a volunteer who was applying my sun cream… she was astounded that I was the first person that day she had seem without any sunburn… I explained why, and she wanted to know why more people do not cover up. Maybe I need to design a new tri-suit specifically for hot races to make my fortune…

I headed out onto the run with a steady walk to the aid station just outside the transition zone. I took in some nutrition and had a gentle run for 500 meters of so to see how the legs felt. There was nothing there… the previous days illness, and the exertions of the day so far had left me completely drained. I had to come up with a plan and quickly. Some quick calculations in my head, and I knew what I had to do to finish the race. I decided to walk the first 8km, stocking up with various nutrition along the way. I was hoping that this might give my legs some chance of recovery so I could manage to run what I needed to run. If my calculations were correct, I would finish around 11.30pm, leaving a little buffer time for emergencies.

It was a plan that seemed to work. From the 8th kilometre I ran a kilometre and then walked a kilometre for the next 20 kilometres. This would then give me enough time to be able to (power) walk the next 12km to finish the race.

This year the organisers of the event had changed the run course. Before it was 3 shorter laps, now it is one long lap that takes you all the way to Arrecife and back, and then a shorter lap that takes you to the end of the airport runway and back. I, for one, am glad they made this change as it made the first part of the run very enjoyable. Had I had to do three laps rather than two, I think the enjoyment may not have been there for the last lap as it would have been very repetitive.

Another factor in keeping me going along the way were the crowds, which were in great voice all the way along the route, but especially through Puerto del Carmen and the 2-3km as you approached the finish line. Without these crowds, the event would have been very different, and would have been much hard to keep going. Again, Lauren and mum were at different places as I came into Puerto del Carmen to cheers me on, with the rest of the support (Carys, Charlie, Rob, Simon, Geoff, Eilah and Kris) at the turn point to give me a big cheer.

I got to the turn point (12km still to go) with around 2 hours 30 minutes of the race still to go, and knowing that I was able to walk around 8.45 minute kilometres, I knew that as long as I kept going, I was going to finish this race. The big thing here was being able to keep going. My legs and feet felt like they were falling off, and my left shoulder was in so much pain I could not lift my arm properly. These last 12 kilometres were going to be a very strong test of determination and character. I set of, walking as fast as I could, offering encouragement to athletes who were passing in the opposite direction. I knew if I could keep going that would soon be me. My pace stayed consistent at 9 minute kilometres, and I slowly ticked of each kilometre until I made the turn. On my way back I made a point of thanking everyone I passed who had offered support throughout the run, and special big thank-you’s to the aid station volunteers… they really helped make the race special.

As 6 kilometres became 5, and 5 became 4 I was really struggling to keep going. Pain became my new friend, it let me know I was still moving. 4 became 3, and before 3 became 2 a friendly face appeared to offer support for the last couple of kilometres – thanks mum, that really helped. We chatted and I walked towards the finish line, which helped take my mind of how very uncomfortable it had become to move. She left me with 400 meters to go. A quick check behind me, and I let a couple of athletes through so I could have the red carpet all to myself. As I approached the finishing chute Rob, Simon and Kris were there, so I stopped and had an embrace, before carrying on, high-fiveing the crowd as I went – soaking up the brilliant atmosphere. I then saw Lauren, Carys and Charlie, and a few tears were shed during an embrace – we had done it! I took the union jack flags that the kids had designed, and held them aloft as I continued the last 50 meters to the finish line. Again lapping up the atmosphere, all the aches and pains suddenly drained away, and then those important words were said…

“MICHAEL BANKS, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”

Michael Banks - Ironman Lanzarote FinisherI had done it… lucky to start the race, it had been 16 hours, 23 minutes and 28 seconds of pure hurt, but every second had been so worth it.

Would I recommend this race to anyone else? Yes, most definitely. It is the hardest Ironman race in the world, the volunteers and supporters make it so special, and Lanzarote is a stunning place to race…

Would I race it again? Not a chance!

But I have the memories of an awesome day, and as I was told by the race director – Kenneth Gasque – at the finish line, “Remember, you have completed the hardest Ironman in the world, you are an Ironman and don’t you bloody forget it!”