Firstly, I want to express my condolences to the families and friends of both Brendan Wall and Ivan Chittenden, who tragically passed away on the day of the event. May they rest in peace. I am writing this to detail my own experience of Ironman 70.3, which took place on August 20th, 2023. I am not here to comment on the tragic circumstances or engage in finger-pointing. Hopefully, this account will provide some insight into what can transpire at an Ironman event, or possibly any triathlon or endurance-type event.
Let’s rewind to Sunday morning at 4:30 am, when I was awoken by my alarm. Within 10 minutes, my partner (Carol) and I were in the car, heading to the picturesque coastal town of Youghal. Ironman 70.3, featuring a 1.9km swim, 90km cycle, and 21.1km run, was initially scheduled for the previous day (August 19th). However, strong winds on Friday night rendered the cycle route impassable due to debris from fallen trees. Consequently, the event was rescheduled to Sunday, along with the full Ironman.
I’ll include the schedule I received via email from Ironman on the Saturday afternoon :
The Morning of the Race
My plan was to reach the transition area by ~5:45 am to leave some of my prepped nutrition products and equipment. Departing at 4:40 am and with Youghal under an hour’s drive away, we anticipated ample time. Regrettably, that wasn’t the case. As we approached Youghal within ~5km, we encountered lots of traffic.
Eventually, we parked the car at 6:05 am (still 3.5km from the starting point). With Carol’s bike accompanying us (mine was already in transition since Friday evening), I opted to cycle to the event due to time constraints. I arrived at 6:20 am, not able to enter the transition area and thus unable to use my nutrition pack, towel, spare socks, and rain jacket that I had brought along. I had a few gels stashed in the Transition area since Friday, providing some degree of assistance.
As a performance nutritionist, I felt disheartened, knowing the potential impact that this might have on my race. I hadn’t tested the products Ironman had at their aid stations—like Gatorade or Maurten energy gels—making me a bit anxious. Concerns about stomach discomfort or unexpected mid-race bathroom visits lingered. Nonetheless, I secured Carol’s bike and my bag to a signpost and headed to the swim start at the front strand.
As per the schedule, we were to enter the water at 6:34 am. Unfortunately though, there were some delays. From what I am aware the first delay was due to moving the buoys. I’m not sure if the buoys were being moved back to their original place as the wind had moved them or if they were being moved due to the full Ironman swim being shortened to that of the half-Ironman and thus the course had to be changed.
With somewhere between 2,000-3,000 participants gathered along the pier, I positioned myself among the first 500 to start. Waiting, my thoughts focused on what lay ahead. The sea appeared choppy, but I remained unfazed, possibly due to my trust in the organizers and my prior experience swimming in rough waters.
I was however, somewhat nervous about the race itself. A lot of time spent training, saying no to social engagements and lots of money invested in the race itself along with equipment and coaching – it was fair to say that a significant chunk of my life was Triathlon over the past few months. So, with that in mind, I was hoping that everything would go to plan regardless of me not getting to transition in the morning.
Around 7:20 am, the Ironman 70.3 group began entering the water, and by 7:27 am, I followed suit. It became evident how rough the waves were as they crashed on the shore, pushing swimmers back. I navigated my way out, diving through the breaking waves.
Entering the water
The first few hundred metres were quite chaotic. There is usually some level of chaos at the start of triathlon swims, especially if you place yourself in a position where people are going to swim past you or over you. The chances are you will end up kicking other swimmers or get kicked by them. This swim, however, proved more chaotic than previous experiences. The waves made sighting the orange buoy challenging. After reaching it, the rest of the swim went fast as the tide carried us in.
Without a towel to dry off, I spent about 5 minutes finding ways to dry my feet, not wanting wet socks for the upcoming 111km of cycling and running. After patting my feet on the concrete, I donned my socks and runners, stashed a few gels in my trisuit, and set off.
This encompassed a 90km loop. Km’s 1-18 were enjoyable. However, shortly after, I got a puncture on my back wheel. I had a spare tube, but I knew I was in trouble as Ironman had advised in the weeks previous to the event to make sure to know how to change a tube in a bike. The Youtube video I watched the night before the race did not suffice and I was stuck. I managed to flag down a Garda who kindly helped me with putting in a new tube and off I went.
2km later, déjà vu—a second puncture on the same wheel. Luckily, I wasn’t too far from the nearest aid station just outside Garryvoe. Local volunteers provided assistance, using my puncture repair kit for a temporary fix. Again, I was very grateful for their help.
At this point I felt that I was really riding any luck that I had. I was paying extra attention to the road ahead of me – watching out for any potential potholes or debris. However, somewhere between km’s 26 and 27 I felt the back wheel going soft again. With no more tubes, the nearest aid station was 50.7km away in Midleton. Even if I reached it, odds were slim that volunteers would have spares. My race seemed doomed; the bike race cutoff was 5 hours and 30 minutes.
Despite the odds, I persisted. My plan: pump the back wheel, cycle as far as possible before another flat. So, at km’s 29, 31, 33, and so forth, I pumped the tire, resting my legs while exhausting my arm. These 2km cycles were tiresome; sprinting for 2 minutes to cover limited ground before deflation.
Approaching Midleton’s aid station, my fingers crossed. Mechanical assistance had arrived for a cyclist with a crashed bike. I joined the queue. Within 10 minutes, a new tube was in, and I received a spare. I was delighted!
With ~40km ahead, pressure mounted to beat the cut off time. A challenging uphill stretch spanned km’s 50 to 70. Then, nature called. Unable to stop, I improvised—allowing things to flow while cycling. Don’t worry; I was alone at the time this happened. Inspiration struck from watching the Tour de France—desperate times, desperate measures. The next 17km breezed by with downhills. Entering Youghal, I eased pace, knowing Windmill Hill awaited.
A ~400-meter hill, averaging 11.7% slope and peaking at 21.2%. Yet, it offered a magical experience—the vibrant crowd’s energy. I cycled the first 200 meters, then both of my quads cramped up stiff like two oak oars. It was my first time experiencing this and I was really taken back by what was happening to my body.
I got off the bike and stood there for about 30 seconds looking down at my legs. At this point I could hear Carol, my mother and aunt cheering me on. I remember one of the triathlon officials saying to me “Do you have any electrolytes?” of which I interpreted the first time as “Do you have an electric bike?”. (That would have been helpful alright!). I then proceeded to hobble up the remaining 200 meters and managed to hop on the bike for the remaining km or so. This was something that I would have avoided if I had gotten to Transition that morning.
Nothing to note here as I was without my nutrition supplies.
At this point of the race, I was starting to feel it physically. I had mentioned at the beginning that I had to leave some of my nutrition products behind due to arriving too late. Gatorade and water were my two main liquids and I was fortunate that I didn’t experience any digestive issues with the Gatorade up until this point as it was not something that I had trialed previously.
During the run however, at ~km 4 I did start to experience some stomach discomfort so I was very conscious of not taking on too much but at the same time I didn’t want to hit a wall either. This was possibly down to the combination of Gatorade and salty crisps that they were handing out (again, not part of my nutrition plan but my body needed a source of carbs and electrolytes).
Maintaining that balance was difficult as going too far one way could have ended my race prematurely. Fortunately, I got through the remainder of the run with no major issues. There was a great buzz running up the black and red carpet and crossing the finish line. 10 minutes later though, it was announced that two participants had died during the race leaving a dark cloud over Youghal and a mixed car journey home to Waterford.
When you are faced with an obstacle, adapt and overcome. 3 further lessons learned from the event :
– Arrive well in advance, accounting for potential delays.
– Master bike tube changes and carry extra spares.
– Choose cycling shoes over runners for the cycle leg.