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When Ironman Became A Virtual Reality

Last week we got the dreaded but somewhat expected email - our 70.3 Half Holkham race, set for June 27th, was officially cancelled. I get the situation we are in, it's severity, and the all round accommodations that need to be made on everyone's part...but FFS...we were gutted!!

"What about the training?", "What do we do now?", "What can we look forward to?"

Listen, there's a lot to be grateful for, and there are some incredible initiatives and ideas happening online or via social media that may never have come to fruition on such a global scale. Enter IRONMAN stage left.

Whether or not this was in their pipeline, after cancelling ALL of their calendar events for 2020, IRONMAN created IRONMAN VC (Virtual Club) - a free to join virtual space with coaching, events, and rewards.

The inaugural IRONMAN VR1 event was a FREE to enter event for the entire Ironman community: Complete a 5km Run, 90km Cycle, and 21km Run spread over 3 days, between Friday (7pm) to Sunday (Midnight). It can be completed at any time within those parameters, and completed in any order. We got notified of this on the Wednesday prior, and by Thursday we were registered and raring to go.

Were we ready for it? Hell No!!

Could we do it? I had no doubt. It's all in the mind.

The race parameters were quite loose. The events could be performed indoors on treadmills and turbo trainers, or outside in the great outdoors where you contend with the differing terrain and weather conditions. You could even mix and match. Clearly not an even playing field if you are the competitive type, although there was a PRO entry race which was staged differently. But that's not the point, this was our own bespoke event, shared alongside over 11,000 participants, of which there were 6664 finishers.

I can't speak for anyone else, but certainly in our home with three kids - one still nursing - we have to be very creative with our time. We had to set out a strategy in which both of us could accomplish our weekend goal while still being present as parents. We decided that we would sensibly spread the three legs over three days.

Starting on the Friday night, we incorporated the kids outdoor 'exercise' time by utilizing the nearby vacated University Campus. Calea ran from our home to and around the campus completing her total of 5km in great time as the kids practiced their bike skills. Both have fairly new bikes and Maverick (4) has just transitioned from the balance bike to the real deal! As Calea finished, we did the hand-off and I ran my 5km route back home, meeting them all at home just in time for bedtime stories. One down, two to go, everyone is happy!

We decided that depending on the overnight recovery (we were both nursing niggles), that Calea would get up and onto the turbo trainer first thing after a quick bite and prep. There are a number of routes on Zwift that would have been flat and relatively unrealistic, so Calea opted for something a little more challenging with some rolling hills and the occasional tough climb. Our indoor gym became a pure sweatfest, as she pushed harder and harder! Although having never ridden the course before, or even the distance in so long, it was a hard ride to gauge for full out effort. Every cloud though, has a silver lining, and all this time pedalling monotonously was put to good use with Podcasts, Work Calls, and even a Cycling documentary. Better still - every so often, I or one of the kids, would get a call for assistance be it a water refill, a snack 'pit-stop', or to plug in a charger. The benefits of modern cycling!

After lunch it was my turn. I think I would have chosen the Zwift option had I my own account, or even the bike attachments to connect...however for me it was old school.

I mapped out what looked like a fairly straightforward and somewhat challenging route. Things started well, cruising at altitude, until the inevitable Nairn turnaround where seemingly no wind turned into an out-of-nowhere Easterly headwind. I huffed and puffed for a large chunk before heading North into and back through Inverness. The calf and knee pains from the night run previously were not an issue...although sitting down afterwards was!!

Phew! And just like that (several hours of grafting later), 90km on the bike and that was us for day two. Two down, one to go, everyone is still happy!

Day three, and we awake knowing that we have to accomplish 21km by the end of day. At least on any given race day they are all one and the same. You start once and finish once. The benefits of spreading the three legs outweigh the costs, however you still get that 'can't be fu*kd' feeling' - only it was three times (wait, or is that just me!) After doing my weekly Sunday morning household shop (perks of being a Key Worker), I had offered to go and smash my run first. I fashioned an arm warmer as a knee-brace for support which turned out to be a giant waste of time after running approximately 100yds. My route was a sort of out-and-back which I adjusted slightly as I went. Having only been running 5-10km distances in recent months, I felt that I was going good guns. However, predictably by around 17km I was beginning to feel every joint pounding step, and the rest became as much a mental race than anything else. I couldn't have been more happy, relieved and accomplished to step in my front door that day.

And then there was Calea. Having been dealing with a recent but nagging hip injury, this run was making her slightly apprehensive. But it would take more than that to stop her! She set off on a similar route towards Inverness Leisure Centre which is a pretty straight shoot at 10km. At the turning point she had to weigh the options: 1. Run back home and encounter 3-4 pretty decent hill climbs with a tricky hip, or 2. Connect onto the Canal path and finish on a smooth and flat 10km loop. Opting for the latter, the kids and I loaded into the car and went to meet her at her Virtual Finish Line. Three days and three legs later, we had completed our first Half Ironman of 2020*.

*Except, technology at it's finest quickly became technology at it's worst. For some strange reason, unknown to us, a technical error or glitch failed to sync and upload Calea's final 21km run from Strava to Ironman. Was all that effort in vain? I did my best to console, and build on the fact that she had completed this mammoth accomplishment over three days and nothing can take that away. But tell that to someone with so much competitive fire! It's not about having her name in lights per se, but it is about having it in black and white, on record, and official. And coming from the guy who had no technical issues, was etched onto the standings, and the recipient of a virtual completion certificate!

Listen, some of you competitors will most definitely relate and it was tough to digest for Calea. I know how incredibly hard she worked over the course of the event. I know how hard we had to juggle plans and timings to accommodate parenting and feedings. It was all part of the challenge, and also part of a memorable weekend.

IRONMAN VC are on to something, and as I write IRONMAN VR2 is underway consisting of a shorter 3km Run, 40km Cycle, and 10km Run. In hindsight, I think the ambitious VR1 Half Ironman flouted some of the exercise guidance recommendations during isolation and have acted accordingly shortening the distances and potential times.

If you are a runner, cyclist, duathlete or triathlete, you should give this a whirl. It certainly makes the weekends fun, and keeps that competitiveness edge razor sharp.

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