Hardman 2017 Revisited

Hardman Full Distance TriathlonAfter three years helping out at the Hardman, the one thing I have learned about this full-distance triathlon is that there is no Hardman. When all you know about full-distance triathlons is that they involve an insane amount of voluntarily inflicted physical punishment, you assume that everyone who turns up at registration will be a testosterone-pumped Colossus with muscles bigger than your head. Nothing could be further from the truth. Registration turns up a motley crew of bodies, some of whom I used to assume were collecting numbers for other people. Now I know better.

In the beginning…

At 5:30 on a Saturday morning in late August, I’m yawning into my high-viz jacket while they are racking their bikes and dropping off the fuel that will keep some of them going until 11.30 that night. I’m staring down a big black lake with slithering dark waves while they are zipping up their wetsuits and contemplate swimming 3.8km around it. It’s good to have your preconceptions shattered every now and then.

By 6 am, the lake has discovered its happy face, and 82 people are lining up to feel it from the inside. Then Jules strikes up the theme tune to The Lion King, and they’re off. Well, some of them are. There is always that instant when you see paralysis set in, those few moments when you see the heads at the back bob for what seems like forever, and you will them to go on, to just put their faces into the black-dark water and do what they have been getting up to do in the black-dark mornings for months now. And, eventually, they do. They strike out for the bright yellow buoy, and you breathe again.

Water Marks

As the first lap approached, it was clear to see there were two clear leaders, the second slashing at the first swimmer’s shoulders, clear water between them and the third competitor. As the second and final lap ended, they remained without rivals, and when we pulled them out, we discovered that the first Hardman out of the water was a woman, from The Beards team. (And not to make a big deal out of it or anything, but the third person to conquer the lake was also female).

I love pulling people out of the water. That is not at all as grim as it sounds: You really never know what you are going to get. Sometimes you see a great white shark powering toward you, and when you hold out a hand to help them onto dry land, they collapse ontothe ramp like a newborn calf. Other times, a head bobs up from the water with a jaunty “how’re ya?,” and some little water nymph skips along the pier as if they had just popped out for the papers. Every time I grab a water-wizened hand and clap a neoprened shoulder, I feel relief and awe for another lake conqueror. My family does not have a good history with that lake, so it always feels good to welcome another competitor back to land.

Park Life

By the 2:20 cutoff, there was just one competitor left in the water, and, once he was persuaded onto the rib, the water section was safely over for another year. Transition is Hugh Carbery’s specialty, something he manages with military precision. T1 and T2 are his territory. My turf is Queen’s Bridge, in the national park. By the time I saw another competitor, it was 12:45 and the third member of the Beard team was passing the water stop that Tess and I would manage for the next eight or so hours. Peter Kern, the hot favourite was second, and then it was the turn of Brian Sexton, runner up and contender for nicest man in Sligo for the past two years. Then there was a very long gap before we see anybody else, besides a constant stream of jaunting cars asking are we serving Guinness/vodka/poitin in our plastic cups. I have never seen so many jaunting cars clogging up the paths, plamásing the tourists with stories of brown trout and leprechauns, while runners and walkers and cyclists try to get around them. Some of them were not that lucky. At one point, we looked up to see a Garda paddy wagon closely followed by an ambulance attempting to negotiate the path leading to the river. We later learned that a visitor had been knocked off his bike by one of the jarveys and had his knee split open. But hey, they are part of Killarney’s culture.

The Hard People

Back to the race: By lap two, Peter Kern was walking. It looked like the bridesmaid might be bumped up the rankings. In the meantime, the great and the good that make up the Hardman pack were rocking up to our station in all their wonderful guises. Darragh from Cork was there, of course; it would be almost rude for him not to turn up at this stage. The ever-smiling Graeme from South Africa had returned after his win in the water last year. And the women! Thirteen female competitors, when the most we had ever had before was three. The farmers at the food stop in Waterville must have been thrilled.

By 11.30, it was getting lonely. Dan, three-time Hardman starter, part-time thespian, and full-time good guy shouted “Runner!” for the last time, and we could go home. 2017 Hardman Brian Sexton had been home for something like seven hours (though, being the nice guy he is, he had come back and stayed late to cheer on the other finishers). The original Hardman, Alan, had another few hours to go, collecting rubbish and signs and packing things away until next time, but for Hugh, Brenda, Sive, Adrian, Trish, Terry, Florence, and the rest of us, it was time to crash, slightly embarrassed at feeling exhausted when we hadn’t even swum 3.8km, cycled 180km or run 42.2km.

Shock and Awe (Mainly Awe)

That’s why I say there is no Hardman. They are all Hardmen—from “the young bucks” from Barcelona who cycled here to compete (and then stayed in a tent) to Billie McSweeney from Killarney, who knocked almost an hour off his best time without a single member of his tri club to witness it, and Bernie from Loughrea with the luminous nails who borrowed my head torch but left it with her run gear and almost lost her life when a red deer leapt in front of her in the dusk. Short tall, ripped, or well-upholstered, they prove yet again that the human spirit is what gets you over the line.

Can’t wait until next year.

 

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Tri Tried

“Try” is not a great word. You don’t hear kids declaring they are going to “try” to be an astronaut or a truck driver when they grow up. Nobody was inspired to support a leader on a promise to “try” to make a country great. And then there’s the whole other meaning: We’ve all met our share of “trying” people. That’s just one reason why entering a Try a Tri sounds so lame. The other reason is the numbers: A 250m swim, an 8km cycle, and a 2.5km run? You’d have that done while planning what to have for breakfast.

So when we arrived in Fenit yesterday morning for the Tralee Triathlon Club‘s annual triathlon (Alan was TO), I was quite happy to let people think that I had just come for the drive. And when Alan told people I was competing, I was quick to mumble that I was “just doing the baby one.” The truth is, entering a Try a Try was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. Oh, I had blithely announced last year that I was going to go the whole hog and enter the Hardman full-distance, but, despite being able to swim a mile in the pool, one experience of open-water swimming was enough to shut me up and put me off the whole idea of triathlons for life.

Well, for a year anyway. Something just would not let go in my head. I had to make an attempt, give it a go, try a tri. Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like I would die or anything.

“A man drowned during my first triathlon,” Susan, a swim coach and experienced triathlete, informed me as we both stewarded the Waterville triathlon in July. Surely that’s because there were hundreds of people in the water, and nobody saw him go under, I protested.

Susan shook her head. “His friends raised the alarm immediately.”

I waited for her to reassure me, to tell me that this had been a freak occurrence, that I would be perfectly safe, that I would not be kicked in the head or have a panic attack or sink.

“They didn’t find his body for a week and a half,” she said at last.

I dismissed Susan’s cheery reminiscences as I waited for the start of the swim on the beach in Fenit yesterday. After all, the tide was coming in, so if the worst happened, at least the search and recovery mission wouldn’t take long. There I was, standing at the edge of the water on a beautiful day of baby waves and breezy sunshine, and, had I not been hemmed in by 50 other nervy newbies, I would have turned tail and ran as fast as my neoprene legs could carry me. The buoys looked very far away, and the last-minute instructions merely added to the frantic buzz in my head that was telling me to do the sensible thing and just have a heart attack or at least faint— anything to avoid having to get into the water. But my heart insisted on thumping, so I had no choice but to wade in and set off.

It was then I made my biggest mistake: Spooked by slithering kicks from the shoal of swimmers around me and intent on not losing sight of the buoy, I failed to put my head into the water immediately, and after a few minutes, I found it difficult to put my face into the waves at all, so I floundered for almost the entire 250 metres, head up, half the Atlantic in my belly, and breathing like 40-a-day Sweet Afton smoker. The man doing an intermittent back stroke beside me did not help matters. The girl on the other side of him eventually spluttered at him to stop hitting her, and a kayak had to intervene.  I could not get out of the water fast enough. Alan was on the shore cheering me on. “Never again,” I announced cheerfully as I tugged at my wetsuit zip in disgust.

It was a pleasure to hop onto the bike, a warm wind drying the back of my new tri suit, the sun sparkling on the sea that I had cursed just minutes before, stewards cheering me on. “I’m only doing the baby one,” I felt like whispering, but, as each kilometre creaked by, I was growing seriously and more disproportionately proud of myself and my successful efforts to not die in the sea.

The run was a surprise. I hadn’t even factored it into all the reasons why I should not do a triathlon, even a “baby” one. After all, 2.5km is hardly a challenge; I had run almost 17 times that distance in Copenhagen in May, and I do two or three times that distance most days of the week. It’s a different story when a gallon of brine is sloshing around in your belly, however, and your legs feel like they have been packed with sand. I was just starting to find my rhythm, and I had even start overtaking people when the finish line appeared. I crossed the line, accepted my medal and that was it.

Never mind the “Try” bit—I was a triathlete.

 

Hardman Heroes 2016

 

Hardman16-prizegivingCedric
Hardman 2016 winner Cedric Largojolli & Race Director Alan Ryan

The Hardman has a way of making you feel unworthy but in the nicest possible way. The people who put themselves through the lake swim, Ring of Kerry cycle, and Killarney National Park marathon all in one day are made of some alloy of titanium and sheer balls that puts them in a separate, premium class of human being. You would despise them intensely if they weren’t so pleasant and good-natured about it all.

 

If previous Hardman finishers belong to an elite category of human, the athletes who got through last Saturday’s event are in a league reserved for the kind of people who eat ordinary full-distance triathletes for breakfast.

The pre-race briefing referred to the possibility of high humidity making the going tough If only. Before the event even started, Met Eireann had spread out their Colour Me Beautiful charts and picked yellow for the day’s weather warning. As it happened, their colourful predictions were not enough to prevent the Triathlon Ireland official from giving the all-clear, and the day started with a 3.8km swim across a lake that was compared with various kitchen appliances, ranging from a blender to a washing machine.

The previous five Hardman triathlons had seen just one swimmer pulled from the water. This year, seven competitors made their way back to the shore by boat. Those who did finish the swim described being swept off course by the waves and swallowing gut loads of water, with one man gleefully divulging that he had “puked the whole way around!” And we wondered why the ducks were out in such numbers…

It could have been worse: At one point D.J. Jules announced that we had “lost” six swimmers before Alan intervened swiftly to point out that all competitors were safe and, if not very well, at least very much alive. Those that made it to the bike (and there was a 28% DNF rate) had a blast (literally) on the Ring of Kerry, where the wind made the downhills even tougher than the climbs. Cycle complete, there was just the simple matter of completing three laps of Killarney National Park while dodging slanting showers and droves of jaunting cars (that in an ideal world will some day be shipped over to Disneyworld en masse for a new Oirish theme park).

The run route is where my fellow water dispenser, Darragh, and I got to meet many of the heroes, some of whom were kind and insane enough to remark on how tired we must have been from standing for so long. This was quite embarrassing, coming from people who had been battling the elements for ten or 12 hours.

What is even more embarrassing is that we were dead on our feet after six hours.

Here are just some of the heroes from Hardman 2016:

  • Team Go-Go, the husband-and-wife team who completed the Hardman as a relay team, one thrusting the couple’s five children at the other before getting on with the next leg. And lest you think their offspring are of an age to mind themselves, their oldest child is seven and two get around by buggy.  So, sorry, you can’t use your kids as an excuse for not doing things ever again.
  • Hugh, Siobhan, Douglas, and Dan – former competitors who decided that entering the Hardman wasn’t hard enough, so this year, they put themselves forward as volunteers instead. Dan Fitzgibbon started directing traffic shortly after 5am and was still going, collecting barriers, into the early hours of the following morning.
  • Frenchman Cedric Largajolli, the overall winner, who completed the course in 10:02 (six minutes off the course record), despite falling on the run. Cedric gets extra points for getting away with kissing Alan at the prizegiving.
  • Alison Cardwell, the only female individual to finish the event. Not because she’s a woman but because of her attitude: On being told that competitors were dropping out because of the conditions, her response was “Oh for goodness sake, you don’t give up! You just keeping going!” And with that, she disappeared down the path in her Dr. Seuss tri-suit.

 

Restricted Movement: Bethlehem on Crutches

PalestineMarathonballoonsLike an endless game of ping-pong, the cars chug the couple of kilometres from Manger Square to the checkpoint and back again. As our hotel owner’s wife informed us with a weary shrug, “They have nothing else to do. They want to bring their families out on a Saturday evening, so they drive up and down from the square to the checkpoint. They can’t go any further.”

“They” are Palestinian Arabs living in Bethlehem. After the start of the first Iraq war, in 1991, Israel imposed a system of military issued permits on Palestinians seeking to enter Israel or move between the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.  Those who succeed in securing a permit have their information stored in the biometric access control system (BASEL), which is installed in major Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and is used to grant or deny Palestinian movement across checkpoints inside the West Bank.

Palestine MarathonSo Saturday night fun for Bethlehem residents without permits revolves around driving to the separation wall and back to Manger Square, that near-mythical spot recreated with dolls and dish cloths in nativity plays across the world each Christmas. We sat in the window of a restaurant, feasting on hummus and falafel and watching the procession of cars, everything from ancient bangers rumbling along in a clatter of dust and prayers to new model Mustangs and a cherry-red open-top BMW driven by a teenager who waved like a passing monarch. “He stole the keys while his father slept,” sneered our luxuriantly mustachioed restaurant manager.

We hobbled back to our hotel—well, I hobbled, crutch-bound by my stress fracture. Things kicked off later, after a Real Madrid-Barcelona match, which pumped up the energy in that tiny space until it cracked open with the smell of burned rubber and the shots of fired-up engines as the cars did doughnuts on the main street until the police appeared. Our hosts told us that this is a regular occurrence: Families are divided along team lines, so matches between the Spanish soccer giants can set off manic scenes, as tension escapes in a fury of revved engines.

Otherwise, we found Bethlehem an unexpectedly cheerful and friendly place, although, given that we were there for the Palestine Marathon, there was something of a carnival atmosphere anyway. The event offers the only course I know that is itself a political statement: The fact that that land in Palestine is so limited and fragmented, the only way to construct a course is to make runners run the same route four times.

Palestine MarathonWe gathered in Manger Square on the morning of the race, dance versions of Adele and Justin Bieber pounding as announcements rang out in English and Arabic, and balloons of green, white, red, and black drifted high above the mosque and disappeared in a flawless blue sky. Atmospheres at the start of races are often tense, expectant, charged with the energy of a thousand GPS watches being synchronized, but this was different. Joy and excitement radiated through the crowd of 4,371 participants, most of them signed up for the 10km event, many of them swathed in winter coats and burkas, their race numbers barely visible amid the layers. Once the race started, they swarmed down the street like kids let out from school, many of them gasping and panting before they got to the bottom of the hill. But it didn’t matter; they were not there to win.

I followed behind on the crutch, glad of the surrounding crowds so that I could plod along without fear of getting lost. I had no clear intention at that stage; I certainly was not going to complete the marathon, but I wanted to complete as much of the course as I could before the heat and hobbling became too much. At about the 4km mark, I came to a section of the course lined with abandoned houses on one side and the illegal separation wall on the other. It is a grim barrier of concrete slabs rising 25 feet into the air, its length emblazoned with graffiti and punctuated with descriptions of isolation, like Stations of the Cross. I turned at the 5km point and negotiated my way back to the hotel. Bethlehem would certainly win no prizes for accessibility: Wheelchairs are unsurprisingly absent, given that even the shortest journey seems to involve flights of steps, paths inexplicably ending beside busy roads, and pavements blocked by parked cars or riddled with holes.

Palestine MarathonWhen I got back to the hotel, I downed the Turkish coffee that our host offers at every opportunity and clapped and cheered runners on their third round of the route. Their faces and bodies were slick and haggard from the baking heat of the furthest point of the course, high in the open plains of the outskirts of the city, where the residents of two refugee camps eke out an existence. I heard afterward that, whereas the kids held out their palms for high fives and ran alongside the runners on the first leg of the marathon, by the time the runners were leaving the camps behind for the final time, the bored children were firing rotten fruit and pebbles.

Alan finished the half marathon and we wandered around Manger Square, milling with delighted finishers wearing olive-wood medals and munching dates. It was chaos, but a joyful chaos for the residents who, unlike us, do not have the choice to be anywhere else.

We will return.

Give Me a Break

stress fractureI know I should be grateful. I know it could be a lot worse. I know this is a relatively minor setback in the grand scheme of things.

But a stress fracture three weeks before my first overseas marathon?! It’s enough to make you weep. (Actually, I have wept. A lot).

After the doctor showed me the tell-tale mark on the X-ray and gave my foot a confirmatory squeeze, I made the kind of frantic suggestions you try with God when you suddenly realise your exams are far too close for you to pass without intense cramming and divine intervention.

I tried “What if I…?” in several different combinations, but to no avail. The doctor shook his head and looked at me as if I should perhaps be attending an entirely different kind of hospital as I suggested resting my foot for the full three weeks and then running really, really slowly. Or partially resting it and working up to a gentle jog. Or walking the entire thing…

But I’m going to Palestine, I pleaded. We then had a very interesting chat about the situation in the Middle East (I did not know that the queen of Jordan is Palestinian), and I felt we had built up some rapport, but he still would not come around to my way of thinking. The most he would allow was a symbolic half-mile walk. With a crutch.

“So how long is it, anyway?”

“26 miles,” I muttered.

I felt our newfound connection fizzle out in the stuffy atmosphere of a hospital consulting room. All hope gone, I dutifully repeated my recovery schedule after him: One week with the support boot and one crutch, two weeks with just the boot (walking on the heel), one week with the crutch and good runners, and a follow-up appointment on April 6th. Five days after the marathon.

“Of course, if you were ten years  old, you’d be up and about in two weeks, but at your age…” He shrugged and shook his head at the X-ray of my poor, elderly metatarsals. I clambered to my feet, wondering was he about to offer me a walking frame instead of the crutches.

So that’s it. I know it could be a lot worse, but please don’t tell me that: These crutches pack quite a punch.

 

 

The Softer Side of Running Injuries

Running Injuries
Thumper

Injuries: It’s a word that sends shivers up even the most well-aligned runner’s spine. The moment a muscle or a tendon announces its presence with even the tiniest squeak, you start to worry. You keep going, gingerly testing the protesting body part or striding along in denial, hoping it just shuts up and leaves you alone. Because an injury is a right pain in the ass/calf/heel.

Sometimes you are lucky. You rest up for a day or two and the pain disappears. Sometimes you have to work harder at it; you get out the foam roller, the ice pack, the support bandages, and you’re remedial work pays off eventually. Then there are the knots and tears that just move in and decide to stay. Massage, once something you look forward to as a relaxing treat, becomes a particularly vicious form of torture.

I thought it was just an age thing. I rarely picked up running injuries until about six months ago, when my body started falling apart like an old car held together with baling twine. Niggling lower back pain twinged now and then, a gentle intro to savage glute problems that have only just started to ease. Then knives seemed to take root in my right arch, stabbing me with each step. I even got shin splints, something I had not experienced since my first half-hearted attempts at running as an overweight college student in plimsolls.

Now it turns out my advancing years might not be the problem (or not all of the problem, at least). According to a study by Harvard Medical School and the National Running Center at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, it’s all in the footfall. The researchers examined the strides of 249 female recreational athletes by recording the impact of their steps using a force plate. They found that the key difference between athletes who were rarely or never injured and those who were injured regularly was the suddenness of impact. Unsurprisingly, softer landers fare better – just as you might hurt less if you jumped from a height and landed with flexed joints than if you landed stiff-legged.

So now I must try to quit stomping and start gliding. Apparently, one way to run softer is to listen to your steps: Gliders creep up on you without a sound, whereas Thumpers like me rarely give anybody a start with the stealthiness of their approach.

Well, spring is on the way. Maybe I’ll be tiptoeing through the tulips to a pain-free summer…

17 Miles in Lanzarote? No Sweat…

 

lanzarote cactus
Enter a caption

Last Monday, I was dying for somebody to ask me about my weekend, but the hermit joys of working freelance meant that nobody did. For once, I wouldn’t have had to change the subject to a more exciting theme (like the weather) because I had just returned from two whole days in Lanzarote. Why would anybody in their right minds get up at midnight on Thursday night, drive to Dublin, take a four-hour flight to Lanzarote and leave their hotel at 9:30am on Sunday for a ten-hour journey back to Killarney? I’m still wondering, but it was great fun.

 

I had heard so many warnings about the baking January heat of this Mediterranean chunk of lava that it was almost a relief to land to overcast skies and a cool breeze (imagine high summer in Ireland, and you have the idea). We were met by Ocean Lava founder Kenneth Gasque, an imposing, ponytailed 65-year-old Dane in yellow trousers who seems to be universally beloved by the general populace of Puerta del Carmen, where he has lived for the past 30 years without any apparent need or desire to learn Spanish.

He and his wife, AnnaLis, welcomed us into their stunning home, the sun made its grand entrance over the Mediterranean, and I wanted to move in: To call their terrace a “balcony” is like calling Buckingham Palace a house; suffice to say, it has entire plantations of aloe vera and a swimming pool. Sipping coffee from dainty porcelain cups, surrounded by AnnaLis’s colourful canvases and the warm, sparrow-accented air of a Canarian January, I almost forgot the task I had set myself for the next day.

By 7:30am the following morning, however, I had my runners laced up, Ocean Lava visor pulled on, and water bottle filled, ready to trot down to the seafront for a 17-mile buzz killer. After about an hour, when the sun decided to make up for the previous day’s feeble start with a ferocious blasting that continued throughout the day, “run” became something of a misnomer. In fact, by the return leg, I was reduced to several stretches of walking, which grew in length and sluggishness as I neared the hotel.

I could have absolutely no complaints about the route: an almost perfect 8.5 miles from the hotel to the only skyscraper in Arrecife, all on paved paths specifically designed for bikes and pedestrians, complete with neat little sand-scraping machines and enough cafes and shops to keep you more than adequately refreshed (had you the foresight or common sense to bring any money…).

No, I could not complain about the route, but that did not stop my body from whining loudly and frequently through the tightly knotted sinews of my right glute, and later through the screeches of my hamstring, not to be left out of the pain party. Ah yes, there’s nothing like long miles in accustomed 80-degree sunshine to remind you just how pasty, weak, and imperfect your own particular version of the human body is. Once I got past the initial pain, sweat, thirst, and lightheadedness, however, there was something amost meditative about the process of putting one swollen paw in front of the other, when every ambition had shrunk to the desperate desire to rest, to shower, to drink.

That, I think, is the best thing about putting your body under pressure –  the realisation that relief is the most powerful feeling of all. That, and the fact that a bag of salt and vinegar crisps is a meal whose deliciousness is beyond measure.

Next time, I’m doing what any sensible person does in Lanzarote and heading to the beach.