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ironman challenge

I put my restless energy into AN “Ironman" & it’s the best thing I’ve done

By Mike Keetley


Why becoming "that guy" doing 5k runs on group holidays is totally worth it.


The fitness industry has exploded in recent years - that much is clear from the growth of athleisure (we’ve all seen activewear), and from the phenomena taking over the conversations and calendars of our friendship groups, from Barry’s Bootcamp to 1Rebel, Class Pass to daily spinning and hot yoga. And quarterlifers are at the forefront of this growing trend, with the gym becoming the new nightclub for a generation. 


But what about those of us who take fitness and physical challenge that one step further?


Growing up, my idea of a good Summer holiday was playing in the pool with my brother and sister, eating and drinking too much, and those care-free afternoons working on the sun-tan in my speedos. Fast-forward to 2019 and I’m sweating in the Lanzarote heat as I look over to my brother and ask, “Shall we do an extra hill-climb to the top of the Volcano?” 


How the hell did we end up here? Why am I now “that guy”? The one on the group holiday suggesting painful physical endurance exercises, from hilly bike rides to 5k runs, all in the name of good fun. No one likes that guy.


Seems like I’m not alone, though, in my piquing interest in physical challenge. Marathon participation by Brits has grown to 40,000 this year, an all-time high, and apparently entrepreneurs and those with extreme career ambitions over-index in their participation in gruelling events like Ironman. It would seem our growing cultural obsession with personal success and career achievement has filtered from the professional domain into the physical.


I’ve always had an interest in sports and keeping healthy, but before recent years I always looked at people who did marathons and long-distance, “test-yourself-to-your-limits” endurance events and wondered why you would ever put yourself through something like that. 


I (semi-involuntarily) signed up for my first Half Ironman at the end of 2015 - the Mallorca 70.3. I’d never done a triathlon before. I vividly remember trying to come up with various excuses for weeks until my friend (thanks Adam) had had enough. 


One day, totally without warning, I received an email receipt for my Ironman entry. I was now facing a 1,900m swim, 89km bike, 21.2km run. To say I was nervous is an understatement. 


We were going to do the Half Ironman as part of a larger group of about ten people, spanning a range of abilities, some like myself who had never done a triathlon before, and others who were veterans of the sport and had their pearls of wisdom the rest of us would hang off for the duration of the training season and the event weekend. 


The training programme was one of the most uncomfortable and difficult things I have ever done. But for some inexplicable reason, I found it so new and different that it was exciting, fun, almost. We know there is a scientifically-proven link between happiness and new experiences, so I guess there is probably a valid psychological reason why something so physically gruelling actually became a source of pleasure for me and the rest of my friends also taking part for the first time.


To me during this training period, it felt like the more you put in the faster you got. First it was a PB at Parkrun. Then it was feeling more confident in the pool swimming 1,000m. Then, challenging myself up slightly steeper hills on the bike. Rather than just hitting the gym, every session had a focus and a goal. Not a moment exercising was wasted. Before I knew it I was squeezing in an extra run before work or a swim on a Sunday evening. 


As the event drew closer, the faffing and fussing increased.


I should take a moment here to talk about ‘all the gear’. Anyone who has done a marathon or an Ironman, or any kind of high-profile endurance sporting event will know all about ‘the gear’. The idea is to make sure you have all the gear and, ideally, all the idea too. Everyone likes nice kit, and a triathlon is a sport perfectly built for ‘gear coveting’. 


As a race organiser once boldly stated, “Go to the Expo shop - you can literally buy speed,” and it turns out that this is true - anyone really can buy speed (to a degree). The knock-on effect of this is the mind-games that then foster within a group of competitive friends. Have you got the new aero socks? Do you have elastic laces? It’s a never-ending arms race.

And it doesn’t matter how well armed you are, there is always, always someone with slightly shinier, slightly more expensive, slightly better gear than you. 


Then came the race itself. Lots of people think the best bit of a race is the finish, but there is also a beautiful moment of clarity in the start of a race. On the beach at 7am, freshly rested, lubed up in a wetsuit (what an image), this moment of stillness is what you have been waiting for. You feel like a rock-star with the crowds cheering (and in your mind every single one of them is cheering for you), your body and mind so finely-tuned into this precise moment. There are thousands around you, but in that moment it is all about you and your race. The claxon goes and you’re off.

I turned up at my first Mallorca 70.3 with a target - six hours. After a beautiful swim, stunning bike-ride and a tortuous run I made it home in five hours 54 minutes. 


There is nothing quite like finishing a race. It floods over you in what can only be described with cliché - a giant wave of emotion. For those who have not (yet) experienced this feeling, it’s like the ecstasy you feel in da club a few pints down when your favourite song by your favourite artist comes on, and the dance floor becomes yours and only yours. Or when your team scores a last-minute winner in the play-off final after a rollercoaster season. It’s a beautiful feeling and - although I am not a religious man - a ‘religious’ sensation seems a fitting way to describe such a powerful moment of experience.


Yet, even as you are replenishing your energy stores, the brain is already whirring - I could have shaved off a few minutes on transition. And actually, now, come to think of it, I could have pushed that bike leg a little harder. I could definitely have paced the run a bit better. And if I drink a bit less next time I will definitely save at least another two minutes. Five hours seems possible, with a bit of extra effort....


So, to return to my opening question - why do some of us take millennial fitness culture that one step further, challenging our minds and bodies to what feel like unnecessary extremes? 

My experience has been that it’s a great way to channel energy, to feel in control, and to harness and calm what is otherwise a restless tendency to look for challenge and competition in life.


But not every young person lives like this, or feels like this, of course. But to me, what is so special about physical endurance races like Ironman is that despite the element of competition that comes with the territory, you can push yourself to achieve in an environment where coming 822nd is celebrated by everyone around you as a success as big and important as coming in first, simply because it means something to the individual.


And in this dog-eat-dog world - where we’re a generation constantly pitted against each other in competition for what feels like a scarce amount of success and opportunity - being in such an open and supportive competitive environment, where every achievement is celebrated no matter how big or small, is a pretty special thing.


Perhaps you’re still not convinced, but I’ve loved every moment - the training, my new-found obsession with bikes, the constant ribbing of friends, the friendly competition and the feeling of achievement. I’m part of the cult and proud. So, why not jump in, challenge yourself, and I’ll see you on Strava? (Because if it’s not on Strava, did it actually happen?)

Image author's own.

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