In telling my ironman story I guess it’s only right to start at the very beginning; my 18th birthday. With a bank account larger than I’d ever seen; I did what all 18 year olds do, I followed my dreams-just kidding! I hit the town and have little memory of what happened. Then once recovered realised there’s more to this responsibility and age than just going out, I could actually enter an ironman, a lifelong dream since the moment I heard of this widely regarded, hardest, 1 day endurance race in the world. I quickly got on the website and found the events that would give me long enough to train yet still be 18 on race day. I was left with 2 options, Ironman UK in Bolton or Ironman Switzerland. What a great coincidence my home country ironman was on such a perfect date in the year but I quickly signed my name down to race in Zurich! As I found out 10 months later – one of the world’s most expensive cities.
I started first year Uni and fresher’s week a few days after so I’ll skip forward to February, 5 months since I’d emptied the majority of my bank account just to enter the race; I’d been swimming once a week, hadn’t been on a bike in well over a year and running after a bus before quickly losing breath was the most of my athletic ability. What had Newcastle done to me? A couple of months later I was home for Easter and decided I really had to start doing some training to stand any chance of completing the Ironman in July. My 2 runs, 2 swims and 1 gym a week for the 3 weeks whilst I was back felt like a good start, I heard people do 6-month training plans for these events and I had 4 so wasn’t too worried. Once back at Newcastle I joined the local running club and started getting 2 good runs in a week and a park run, this with 1 turbo bike session in my room (to my flat mates annoyance) a few watt bike sessions and a swim felt like the most I could do around final projects month- I knew I had a hard 3 months of training in summer. Thankfully it was around this time I got a phone call from coach Kev, where I was delighted to hear the words “rather than sit back and watch you fail, how about I try to help you with some coaching to give you at least a chance of finishing”. This is exactly what I needed.
Over the next 4 months I trained harder than ever before. The runs got longer and easier on the legs, the swimming felt more natural, and the bikes got faster. For these 4 months, training and Ironman was my life, I didn’t go out once, stretched every night, watched every training tips video available on the internet, the bedtimes got earlier and the diet healthier. The focus and passion was there and with that you can achieve anything. At the peak of my training I was swimming over 12km a week, on the bike for close to 20 hours managing to rack up over 200 miles and comfortably running a marathon and a half in distance, along with close to an hour stretching each night. It wasn’t easy but the motivation was there and it’s all I could ever think about. I was entirely committed with everything I had and left no stone unturned. The clean diet and extreme overdose of exercise made my body transformation apparent. Every single day of these 4 months was focused on one thing; finishing.
Before I knew it I found myself at Edinburgh airport…
The trip didn’t get off to the best start with the flight being overbooked; they decided I was no longer to fly through Stockholm and instead through Frankfurt, 4 hours later. The day got a little better when I arrived at the hotel and they too decided the plans had changed and I was no longer in room 11 but room 15, fine by me 15 is my lucky number, what are the chances?
I spent the couple of days building up to the event resting, hydrating and eating to fuel my body. One impactful moment was when I read through the race programme and found on the facts and figures page that I was officially the youngest person competing. Although I would be 18, not 19 as it said, this fact added more pressure than that I was already feeling in the build up to race day. After a swim in the lake to get a feel for the temperature and visibility in the water, a ride around the block to check the bike was fully functioning after its travels, and a run to loosen off the legs, I felt as happy as ever and more prepared than I could have ever imagined. This was the good news. The bad news was that the city had been immersed in a huge thunder storm in the days leading up to the race with lightning crackling down across the lake, there was worries there would be no race.
Race day- after a 4:30 start we made our way to the event area, I could tell everyone was nervous just by the length of the toilet queue; myself included. There is a rolling start of 5 sectors, depended on swim pace. With swimming my strongest discipline, I went in the first wave, but quickly found myself surrounded by the gold swim caps of the elite ironman athletes. These are the crazy people who race this event and have raced it well, deserving a gold cap. This didn’t scare me, it meant they would know where to go and could swim in a straight line- unlike many triathletes. Being at the front I could look out over the lake with the sun rising through the Alps on the far coast, this was a very special moment where you can really reflect. I was here. I was about to do an Ironman.
I reminded myself I was here to complete not compete and had it written on my arm as a reminder.
The calm nervous silence was broken with the sound of the start gun and we were moving towards the lake. I got myself to the edge so I could swim out alongside people rather than in the middle and swim my own race, this helped a lot, I wasn’t getting the draft triathletes always talked about but I was happy, calm and relaxed doing my own thing to the side of the pack. I wasn’t using energy panicking or fighting for my space on someone else’s legs. Then THUMP. I swam head first straight into a kayaker who was there to stop us swimming too far out of line. I’d rather crash on the swim than the cycle so this didn’t bother me too much. I looked up towards the next sighting buoy and the best way to describe what I saw was as if you’re in a bathroom with a mirror in front and behind you, there’s an endless line of shampoo bottles. This is exactly what I saw- well not shampoo bottles- but orange buoys. As I came to the end of the swim the booming of the music and shouting from the crowd got louder and I got more excited, up the ramp and ran into transition. I got changed into my cycle gear and set down to eat some food for 2 minutes, I was in no rush but the same couldn’t be said for everyone else in the transition tent. With a swim time of 1:00:43 only 5 minutes behind the fastest pro and faster than a handful of them meant I was surrounded by the best of the best, these guys where racing for a slot at Kona (the world championships), and sure didn’t look like they had time to sit down and join me for a bread roll and pack of raisins.
I found my bike from the thousands racked in transition, knowing their owners were still in the water suffering; and started cycling hard. I didn’t plan on doing this but the crowds were going mental along the sides of the roads and the roads where smoother than anything I’d ever ridden before. 10 miles in of the 112 and I had only been overtaken by a small handful of people, I was holding pace with these guys, a look at my Garmin confirmed this, average speed: 24mph on flat. This is not what I’d trained for! This was far too fast, but I felt good and heart rate was low enough to continue at this rate.
20 miles in and my pace still hadn’t dropped, as we left the flat shoreline of Lake Zurich and entered the Alps I started passing people with ease, being a light athlete on a climbing bike I had the advantage of the hills. This motivated me, I was passing people twice my age on bikes worth up to ten times mine.
I reached mile 40 where I had planned on stopping and eating my sandwich in my back pocket, but nobody else was stopping so why should I? I decided to power on and eat my sandwich on the next climb where the pace would be slower- it worked like a treat- I didn’t lose any time in this elite company.
Just before the half-way point is “heartbreak hill” – a sharp climb where hundreds of people line the road with cow bells and the riders are pushed to single file up the hill. This is another very special moment in my life I’ll never forget, the true feeling of a Tour de France rider battling a hill inches from the passionate crowd either side. The entire way around the cycle course there was concert bands playing, choirs singing and bells being rung (I can’t thank the crowd enough for their support). But heartbreak hill was truly special.
I finished the first of the 2 laps with an average speed of 20mph, I expected to be closer to 16 at this point but wasn’t complaining.
The second lap was much like the first with strong climbing but the pace on the flats dropped, meaning the roar of a disc wheel flying past me became more frequent. Again, I didn’t stop.
The problem was I was surrounded by people who were there to compete not just complete and so none of them where stopping – I felt I shouldn’t too. The second lap consisted of using the downhills to rest, flats to drink eat and fuel for the run and uphill’s to work.
I finished the bike in 6:17:32, far faster than I’d planned or expected; I knew I was in for a tough marathon.
Again in transition I sat down got changed and enjoyed my pack of cranberries. As I stood up from the bench my legs where screaming at me to sit back down, but I knew this wasn’t even an option.
The marathon consisted of 4, 10km loops along lake Zurich, as I started running I felt great, I was holding the pace I’d trained for; 5:30 per km. As planned, I walked each nutrition station every 2km for 15 seconds or so and took on some water and a little food. Through 10km in around 55 minutes was great pace.
I mentally and physically didn’t have the energy to put the spring in my step required to run and ended up in a fast walking pace for 2km between the aid stations. At aid station 18km is when I lost all attempts to walk and couldn’t even see in a straight line, I was on the brink of passing out, unconscious. I sat down on the curb lay back and think I fell asleep. My brain was so gone at this point in the race I don’t know if I lay there for 30 minutes sleeping or 5 minutes but nevertheless somehow found a way to get back up and keep on walking at least. Moving forward was key, stay positive.
Until this point in the race, about 11hrs in, all I had taken on in terms of fuel was a couple sandwiches, some fruit, water and lots of isotonic drinks and gels. This was my problem, I don’t drink fizzy drinks like coke at home, so during each aid station would stick to the water, nothing seemed worse than a fizzy drink I don’t like in my stomach as I run around in sweltering heat. But I realised this is exactly what I needed to sharpen my mind and find that instant energy. At the next station I grabbed about 4 glasses of cola downed them, as I made my way to the next 2km station the cola reached my blood stream and I felt amazing, I got back into 50/50 running and walking rhythm but more important mentally I was back. For the first time in over an hour I could think straight and knew where I was. The final 2 laps of half marathon went by like it never happened and soon I found myself approaching the final 1km.
I had done it.
Turning the U-turn down the finishers carpet is something I’ll never forget; especially with the commentator announcing “Here comes the youngster Andrew Hepburn of Great Britain, today’s youngest competitor” with the crowd going wild and really getting behind me.
Crossing the line to the magical words of “Andrew Hepburn, you are an IRONMAN”.
During the post-race celebrations I went to visit the medical tent to remove a splinter I’d got whilst walking around bare foot after the race. This is where I witnessed the true effect ironman can have on people as I walked into the tent to see rows and rows of men and women laying on beds hooked up to drips and blood bags. These are the people who left it on the line and had finished with nothing to spare, every ounce of their body left out there on the course. But sporting the 4 bands for each lap of the run, they too where Ironmen.
My Ironman adventure has been my greatest accomplishment to date, but I couldn’t have done it without the great support from my friends, family, coaches and amazing triathlon club. If you’ve read this far you’ve probably been a part of this story and I’d like to thank you for the support.
I’d urge everyone to get out there and try something they believe is way out of their comfort zones and follow their dreams. As the ironman motto goes “Anything is Possible”.