Rebecca Romero’s achievements in sport are unique. She became a World Champion rower and double World Champion cyclist. She won an Olympic rowing silver medal in Athens and just four years later picked up Olympic cycling Gold in Beijing. On retiring from professional sport Rebecca promptly set herself the arduous challenge of tackling an Ironman event in 2012. This remarkable sportswoman documented her experiences through training and competition with self-effacing honesty, humour and candid analysis. Here is the first part of that diary…
Yes the rumours are true; I have signed myself up to do an Ironman triathlon event! Stupid, insane or naive I may well be, but I’ve always liked a challenge and prefer to dwell on the whys rather than the why nots.
Let me state right at the outset – despite what some of the national press have predictably written – I am not trying to become a World or Olympic Champion in a third sport! It makes a good story but it’s just not going to happen!RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
There is no elite programme or professional coaching in place here. It is just me and the slightly unhinged idea of tackling something I am unfamiliar with and, as the earliest stages of my training showed, wholly unsuited to. A triathlon of any distance, let alone an Ironman is something I’d always dismissed as being totally off my radar.
But the lure of taking on a challenge that will force me confront my uselessness is something I have a habit of doing. I love getting stuck in, figuring out how to get better and training to make those improvements. If it’s something I’m no good at or averse to doing (like running and swimming….arghhh!) then I’m strangely drawn to it.
Ironman is an iconic endurance event and I don’t just want to do a triathlon, I want to be part of a great epic event. Also, aside from the Professionals and the Age Group Qualifiers, the Ironman is not so much a race, but a personal challenge, and that’s exactly how I see it.
Many people of all ages are clearly able to complete an Ironman, but I seriously question if I’d be able to do it. I’ve barely done any swimming since I was about eight years old, I couldn’t possibly complete a 3.8km swim within the 2hr limit. If I did I’d be so exhausted that the two following disciplines, a 180km cycle and a marathon run, would be inconceivable.
Even breaking down the disciplines and doing them in isolation would be close to impossible challenges in their own right for me. Stringing them together barely makes any sense at all. But that’s why I’ve signed up to do it!
I’ve always believed that if you don’t give something a go you’ll never know if you could have achieved it. Of course in these early stages I can’t tackle an Ironman, but that’s what training is all about!
Just before Christmas I put my entry in for Ironman UK in Bolton which takes place on July 22nd. Having no experience of open water swimming, mass swim starts, triathlon transitions and other factors such as pacing and fuelling for an ultra-distance triathlon event, I have also entered Ironman 70.3 (a half Ironman event) in Mallorca on May 12th for some practice.
My official training plan started on December 26th giving me exactly 30 weeks until the big day. I should be competent and strong in the cycling discipline, although a distance of 180km on a time trial bike will certainly be pushing my limits, but swimming and running are a very different proposition!
My initial target is completion within the 17hr cut off point. As I settle into training and make progress I’ll be more able to gauge my capabilities and maybe set myself a finishing target time.
This might surprise many of you but my task is not helped by the fact I am fundamentally pretty lazy! After I stopped cycling in September I didn’t do much exercise for a while. At the end of October I decided that I really shouldn’t let things slip too much so set myself up in the garage doing a fitness DVD workout called ‘Insanity’. The clue is in the title. I’ve never struggled so much with all the jumping, plyometrics and full body work-out torture it puts you through.
Around that time I also decided I wanted to start trying to run. It’s a great way to keep fit, doesn’t cost anything and can be done anywhere – perfect for a busy lifestyle. So a mix of regular Insanity workouts and runs would give me licence to consume the occasional giant bar of chocolate without any guilt!
In my lifetime I’ve done hardly any running. When I was at senior school I was the one who was made to run the 1500m at sports day. But to me it was ghastly and like running the Marathon. Because it was such a ridiculously long way and took all afternoon, I placed a water bottle at the start line so I could drink after each lap! Ridiculous I know but thus far that has been the high point of my running career!
When on the rowing team we would be made to go running. I was the worst in the team, it would be agony and my heart rate would be at maximum just shuffling along very slowly. A few years ago I attempted a bout of running training but that was futile as 30 minutes was as much as I could do and that included a final 10 minutes of hobbling with failing knees and hips.
So at the beginning of November I decided I was going to have one last attempt to beat my running phobia. This time though I was going to do it properly. None of this thinking I was a fit athlete and should be able to churn out a 30 min threshold run just like that. I was going to take it slowly and build up steadily so I began with just 10mins. At 10mins my knees were feeling it and when I stepped it up to 15min I had to stop and walk the last few minutes home.
A few days later I tried again, I managed 15mins and only got pain just at the end. A few sessions keeping it at 15mins and it started to get easier so I pushed it out to 20mins. When that was OK I’d look to extend it in small increments, always finding that I would go through the same scenario of stopping with pain, walking the rest, recovering for a few days and trying again. It was slow but controlled and sensible.
A diligent stretching routine helped and I gradually made progress. Just before Christmas I hit the 40min marker. This was a massive breakthrough – my longest ever run! I know many of you Ultra-FIT readers knock this out before breakfast but it’s a new world to me!
Now having run 40mins and enjoyed it (something I’d never have believed possible) my motivation and positivity grew and my determination to tackle Ironman solidified. My Ironman training officially started on December 26th and with my new Garmin running watch I started my run training with the aim of turning that 40 min triumph into a 26mile marathon achievement.
So it took eight weeks to progress from a hellish 10 and 15 minute runs to covering a 40 min duration. On July 22nd I’m going to have to be ready to run a marathon which, starting on December 26th , will have meant 30 weeks training. If progress were to continue at the rate of my pre Christmas programme it will be a tall order, although not impossible. But to be ready to run 26 miles after a 2.4mile swim and 112 mile bike…. well I’d prefer not to think about that right now!
Having just finished Training Week 7, I’m pleased to report that progress has been quicker than anticipated. I’m sure the slow but steady build up pre-Christmas has served me well. My Christmas present Garmin watch has been invaluable for monitoring what I’ve been doing and also for pacing during my sessions. In Week 1 I was doing 30 min runs – 3.5miles/8:40pace.
That wasn’t too bad as a starting point, but the real aim was to increase the distance so I dropped the pace and tried not to let my HR go too high. I gradually pushed it out to 5miles, then 6miles. By the end of Week 3 I’d managed the big 8miles. I made sure I didn’t do anything silly because creating that good running base over the next few months is the most important thing. Forcing too much distance or pace at this point is not clever or necessary.
Whilst building up to 8miles the pace would keep coming in at 9:10 every time – I’m pretty consistent at least! Going into Week 4 I had a recovery week and did two shorter runs but this time sticking a bit of pace on it.
I went and did a circuit that I’d started in November which had taken me about 25mins to trudge around in pain. Bang!…5mins knocked off! 2.6miles in 20min/7:45pace. The next one was a 6mile loop in 51min/8:35pace which was a big improvement from a couple of weeks previously.
Weeks 5, 6 and 7 have been interspersed with keeping pace anywhere between 8:30-8:45min miles for 5-6mile runs and keeping the longer runs at a slower steady pace between 9-9:15min. The next breakthrough has been 10miles quite comfortably at 9:15pace for just over 1hr30. It’s such a great feeling to be able to do something that really felt impossible not long ago.
One of the things I have to be strict about is keeping my training steady and forcing myself to run slower with a lower HR than I’m used to doing. I’ll never get to that 26miles if I don’t run controlled and within myself.
As for targets, well it’s still quite unknown. I’ve no idea how much and how quickly I can progress. 9-9:15 pace feels quite good at the moment and I will try to keep that up and extend the distance.
Realistically the pace to finish the marathon at the end of the Ironman can’t be much more than I’m currently doing. It would be good to know the experiences of other people in their running training and what kind of progress they’ve had.
Another area I’d like to look at is body weight and how much difference that can make to running speed. I know how much 1kg less on a bike can make to speed and power output, but not sure how to quantify it within running. If I were to get serious I think I could get lighter by 6-7kg and that will surely have a big impact on my running speed!
For now though, despite the cold, I’m having a great time and loving the running. Who’d have thought! Next up – swimming……!