Mad Dogs, Englishmen… And Iron Men

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In 1977, athletes convened in Hawaii for the awards ceremony of a running race.

After the event, a debate began during which runners, swimmers and cyclists debated which discipline had the fittest athletes. It was decided that the debate could only be settled through a race combining three long distance events which already took place on the island: the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (3.9km), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (185 km) and the 42.195 km Honolulu Marathon. The course set, the 15 participants were briefed: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life! Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Ironman!” And with that inaugural race, the Ironman Triathlon was born.

In 2012, members of Team UltRAFast were looking for a challenge. Formed in 2010, the team had already proved themselves to be both fit and competitive by coming a close second in the multi-event Drambuie Pursuit adventure race, and clocking a speedy result in the Men’s Health “Survival of the Fittest” assault course. With team members being able to boast success in endeavours including ski-mountaineering, the Marathon des Sables and the All Arms Commando Course, any event that they chose was unlikely to be for the feint-hearted. With all members also belonging to the RAF Triathlon Association, it was only a matter of time before their sights were set on the ultimate triathlon challenge – the Ironman.

With race entries submitted almost as soon as the event had opened, Sqn Ldr Al Rutledge, Flt Lt Simon (Rambo) Ramsden, Flt Lt Andy (Corny) Cornthwatie and Flt Lt Chris (CS) Carrington-Smith were committed to what would be an exhilarating and gruelling race in Ironman Zurich 2013.

Preparations for race day throughout 2012 and 2013 would include endless hours in the gym, pounding the frozen streets through an extended British winter, and coping with the 40 Degree heat during a Sqn detachment. So when the time finally arrived to depart the UK, there was little else that could be done but to await the sound of the start-gun.

Arriving in Zurich as part of the support team, the first thing that struck me was the intensity of the July heat wave that was engulfing Europe. In the few days preceding the race, humidity and temperatures rising to 37 Degrees made it a challenge to do much more than stroll around the baking city and go through the motions of the race brief, registration and equipment preparation. Poignantly the race referee advised all competitors to “forget about achieving your planned time… in this heat you can expect to take at least an hour longer”. He proceeded to inform the listening crowd of athletes that due to water temperatures soaring above 25 Degrees, wetsuits would be forbidden during the 3.8km swim. For the uninitiated, it is important to understand that wetsuits are considered by many triathletes to be a key component of efficiency and speed, providing added buoyancy in the water and conserving key energy reserves for the later stages of a very long race. The toughest of races had just got tougher.

Finally, after copious quantities of pasta and a hot, humid and sleepless night, race day finally arrived. A 0400 start was followed by a short journey to the race village where final preparations would be made. At 0630 it was time for team UltRAFast to make their way to the swim start, alongside 2500 other competitors. As a supporter, it is hard to tell who is more nervous and pumped with adrenaline at this stage. The athletes seemed calm, focused and ready to tackle this monster challenge head-on; all that the rest of us could do was wish them good luck and wait nervously, almost helplessly, for events to unfold.

At 0700 on 28th July 2013, the start gun sounded, and after 12 months of waiting, Ironman Zurich was finally underway. 2500 swimmers scrambled into Lake Zurich, jostling for position and eventually stretching out in a huge, bubbling stream which extend over the entire 3.8km course. CS was first of the RAF team to exit the water with a fantastic swim time of 1:09:39, but the others were close on his heels, already showing that they had potential to excel in their first long-distance triathlon. By 0830, all of the team were on their bikes and heading into the Swiss countryside to take on the 112 mile ride. Standing on Lake Zurich bridge, I was able to keep tabs on how each of our UltRAFast team was progressing as they came in from the first and out for the second lap of the bike. What I missed, was the 2 major ascents of the course, but with one being known as “The Beast” and the other acquiring the reputation of “Heartbreak Hill”, you are probably as well-placed as I to picture what the 4 were up against. Following early success in the water, CS was also the first to complete the bike course, but the whole team would be off of their bikes and out on the run within 30 minutes of each other. By the time that the 112 mile bike had been completed, it was reaching the hottest part of the day, and the team would have to pound through 26.2 miles in searing heat in order to reach that most coveted of finish-lines.

In his strongest discipline, Al was the first to pass me on the Lake Zurich bridge, now leading the UltRAFast team. Four long laps of the run course would follow. As a spectator, this was one of the busiest parts of the day – looking out for the RAF athletes as they passed, watching the clock and guestimating when you would see them next – not wanting to miss the chance to cheer and encourage at every opportunity. A strange camaraderie also builds between spectators who have never before met; we all have something on common in wanting our friends and loved ones to achieve their Iron Man dreams. Gradually the pool of athletes you are supporting and urging on expands and extends to people who you will never really meet, but to whom, for that one day, you are bonded to through sport.

All of the RAF team maintained good form throughout the run, and even managed to save enough energy to wave and smile as photographs were taken (although I was later assured that the smiles were actually grimaces). Ten hours and forty-seven minutes after the start gun had sounded, Al rounded the final bend of the run course; with the Iron Man Zurich finish in sight there was just the victory dance to perfect as he celebrated crossing the line to claim his medal as the 257th finisher of the race. Only 6 minutes behind, Corny realised his Iron Man dream, finishing in 10:53:34, with a huge smile and 301st overall.

Shortly afterwards, the wind picked up and the skies started to threaten thunder in place of the blazing sunshine which had endured throughout most of the day. With 2 of the UltRAFast team home dry, it looked like CS and Rambo might yet be thrown another challenge before the day was out. As I walked towards the finish line, many of the athletes were only in the first few laps of their marathon run in what would become a total downpour. Everywhere you could hear supporters cheering and trainers squelching as the rain beat an unsympathetic rhythm on the sodden road and in the swelling puddles. But having come so far in such testing conditions, the tough triathletes could not be deterred by the weather’s latest trick. Likewise, the supporters swarmed to see their loved ones charge, dance, skip and celebrate as they passed down the finishing chute. At 19:47, Rambo crossed the finish line, bringing all of the team home in under 13 hours… a huge achievement for such a long and gruelling race.

And what then? Certainly a great sense of pride and achievement as we took finishers photographs by Lake Zurich. Undoubtedly a lot of after-sun to ease the effects of such a scorching-hot ride. And definitely a lot of sleep in the days to follow. But I can’t help feeling that Team UltRAFast is ever-so-slightly hooked on finding new challenges at which they can excel. During the race, one of the team was heard to exclaim “Never Again!” but never is a long time, and after the sunburn has faded, it will be exciting to see what happens next…

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