By Gracee Gilbert
Ironman Lanzarote has been hailed as one of the hardest (if not the hardest) race on the ironman circuit… no offence to Kona. Having “only” done 3 full ironman’s before and not having been to the Big Island, I can’t really make this claim myself or judge. I entered the race thinking “well, it can’t be that hard” and reassured myself people were just saying this to be dramatic or big themselves up if they had finished this race before, or just to make me feel a bit anxious. Turns out in hindsight, it was me who was wrong. It was brutal. Lanzarote well and truly chewed me up and spat me out… approach this race with caution!
Pre-covid, I expected to turn up in Lanza with at least 5 if not more fellow Oxford Tri athletes and their respective support crews in tow, but with the pandemic, postponements, amber list travel restrictions and costly additional return testing, it was whittled down to just 2 of us, Myself and Alex Gandon and one supporter, my husband Liam (who is often in tow supporting with Monkey at the XC or various other local races or the Club Relays). I am so unbelievably grateful to have not raced this monster alone, having a fellow competitor to suss-out the route with, enjoy pre-race coffees (and the odd beer), work out the transition layout and convince ourselves that the race was going to be totally fine was a relief, and made the entire experience so much better – so first and foremost, thank you Alex!
Covid scuppered any chance of a pre-race build up being glamorous or exciting and there wasn’t much pre-race hype, just a few course recce’s (including practicing some of the sketchy and infamous Mirador descents). Blue bike bag and red run bag packed, bike racked and taped down to stop them blowing away overnight, 4.00amalarm set and we were ready to go. Alex and I met in T1 on race morning to do final bike checks, load them up with water bottles and pump up tyres. The wind was pretty strong even at 4.30am, and we tried to convince ourselves it was the “night time” weather and it would ease and clear by the morning in time for the swim start, ever the optimists…. Turns out we were wrong; it didn’t let up all day!
Onto the swim – we lined up in our chosen time pens, on our socially distanced marker blocks, and waited patiently for our rolling start. The air horn fired and the pro men went off, followed five minute later by the next horn sound and the pro women and bang on 7.00am the third horn went and we were off! Expecting a chilled swim start, of 5 athletes being released every 5 seconds I was in for a shock. When that third horn went off, the athletes at the front made a run for it, and like a false start at the Grand National, all the other athletes behind them started running and it became a very traditional, very full on mass start from the beach. Running towards the sea and making a dive into the waves, it was clear the swim was going to be a boxing match in a washing machine, an every man for himself kind of vibe. With the mass of arms everywhere, white water from so many feet in front and to the side of you, it was impossible to sight anything and instantly I had to adapt my swim plan to a plan for survival and hoping the pack I was in the middle of, was swimming in the right direction at the right speed. One lap of a very large loop; the first turn buoy came relatively quickly but then the long stretch to the next turn point was into the current, slow, choppy, hectic and seemingly never ending. Searching desperately for someone to follow, who could actually sight in a straight line, I spotted a very familiar black and blue wetsuit and realized it was Alex – happy days! I managed to cling onto his toes (not literally, don’t worry) for about 10 minutes before he put in another gear and steamed off ahead of me and I couldn’t hold on. Finally hitting the final turn buoy and aiming for the finish gantry, it was a welcomed relief to get onto the sand and into T1 after such a slow and brutal swim.
T1 starts with a little uphill into the change tent, then a very long (approx. 0.6km) to the bike racks and out the other side. Having thrown on my jersey and carried my shoes through to the bike racks I was ready to jump on the Shiv and make up for some lost time on the swim. Heading out of Puerta del Carmen it was relatively sheltered and I got a bit excited that the bike was going to be fast and fun. But as soon as I hit the first road heading west from Tias to Playa Blanca, it was clear the ride was going to be a battle.
The out and back to the first turn point and aid station gave a flavor for what was to come: savage cross winds, brutal headwinds and overall temperatures that continued to rise. Just before the turn, I spotted a familiar jersey up ahead, the Oxford Tri colours and realized Alex wasn’t too far ahead… using this as a bit of a target I upped the pace and managed to get ahead. Feeling strong, heading back towards the centre of the Island and towards the Fire Mountains I tucked in and put the hammer down… a mere 1 mile or so after this, the cross wind hit me hard, and blew me like a little pin ball and shunted me across the road. My front wheel caught the edge of the tarmac (which falls away quite severely), and my bike swiped out from under me. All I could think in that nano-second was save the bike (priorities!) with the rationale that if the bike was damaged my race would be over. It happened really quickly, and before I even realized what was going on, I was back on my feet and picking up the shiv to check it over. The fuel cell has unclipped and fallen off, a bar end shifter had severed off and my chain was off. I quickly picked up the debris, put on the fuel cell, and manically tried to put my chain back on – which was a little tricky with shakey hands. I didn’t want to check myself over in case it was serious, and decided to get back on asap, take on a gel, get settled back into riding and assess the injuries later. With my white arm sleeve turning a nice bright red, and not being able to lean on the elbow pads, I realized there might be a bit of a problem. But the climbs up over the Fire Mountains meant I didn’t need the TT bars for a while – something I was pretty grateful for.
It wasn’t until Teguise, around 90km into the ride, that I caught Alex back up again, and we spent the rest of the ride leap frogging each other pretty much the entire way until the last 15km. I could go into a lot of detail about how hard the climbs were. How long 17km of climbing feels when its 30 degrees C and you have a head wind, or how terrified for my life I felt descending from the Miradors through hair-pin bends with a cross wind but I think this race report would turn into a book! It wasn’t all bad though, there are some stunning views and spectacular scenery along the bike route which makes the climbs seem a little more worth it. With about 40km to go, Alex and I were next to each other and with a few words exchanged about how long we’d been out on the bike, and how hot it was getting, Alex gave some words of wisdom and said “we’ve got this” put in a stint and zoomed off to the final descents into town. I took this pretty steady, given I could barely lean on my elbow and with my left tt bar being about 2 inches shorter than usual, I didn’t want to risk another spill.
Coming into T2, I could have cried with joy to get off the bike. Something I never thought I’d feel in a race, because I love the bike and the run phase is always the worst part for me. But I genuinely couldn’t wait to hand my bike to the volunteer (bonus at IM Lanza, they rack your bike for you!) and sit down in the change tent.
As I faffed about, did a quick outfit change and started smothering myself with suncream, Alex was ready to head out onto the run and his parting shot was “I’ll see you out there, this is going to be an absolutely horror show” – I willed this not to be the case as the bike was brutal enough, but knew there was probably going to be some truth in it, as the weather was unrelenting. Deep down I knew this run was going to hurt, my hips were sore from the fall and covered in road rash along with my knee, my elbow was still bleeding with bits hanging off it, and my hands were raw and bloody but thankfully dried. Not only that but I knew my chances of catching Alex were slim to none with running being my weakest discipline, so as a left T2, my mindset was all around management. The aim of the game: run aid station to aid station, walk the aid station but no walking otherwise.
I passed Liam at the first aid station, spotting my wounds, all he asked was “hows the bike?!” – even he knows the priorities! This actually made me feel quite proud for him and it gave me a boost and something to think about for the long out and back past the airport. This stretch was long, hard and hot, with no aid station for 8km until you come back into the finish area before the shorter end of the first loop. Coming into the second aid station after 10km I was close to the danger zone, and knew I was borderline hyperthermic – the next 5km was about cooling down; ice down my top, water over my head and running to next aid station holding ice in each hand – repeat. Thankfully I managed to rein it in and bounce back. As I approached the far turn point coming towards me was that familiar Oxford Tri kit and Alex was looking strong as he approached, which meant the turn point was probably still quite a long way away, but as I turned the bend, the torn point cones were just there! Usually, the inner athlete in me would have used Alex as a carrot and a target to chase down, but today was different, I knew burning any more matches with 25km still to run would be dangerous so I focus on not getting sucked into a “race”. Just before we approached the finish area, which you pass 7 times before actually getting to take the shoot down to the red carpet…. Pretty cruel, but anyway, as we made the turn to start the second lap (the next two laps are shorter loops) of three, I managed to catch Alex, we exchanged some words of encouragement and I edged ahead.
The rest of the run was long, hard, hot, a bit painful and it pretty grueling having to pass the finish shoot so many times, and seeing the giant clock with the running time. Passing this on my last lap with 8km to go, and seeing it hit 13:00:00I knew I could probably manage to go sub 14 even if I had to walk (not something I was too impressed with, but it gave me focus). The last lap, as always, drags, but the emotions are always pretty intense; there is that insane relief knowing it is almost over and the pain will stop, the sadness that the race is nearly done and all that work is finished and the absolutely joy of knowing no matter what, at this stage, you will finish and get those finish lined feels…. And a well deserved beer! Keeping a steady pace (well, calling it a pace is a bit generous, holding a steady plod is more appropriate) I approached the finish line area, saw Liam stood at the turn to the finish shoot, shared a quick fist pump, hit the turn and headed down towards the red carpet! With no one else around, I got to enjoy every second of that last 100m knowing that this was the hardest triathlon I had ever done, and I’d completed it. Hearing the announcer say “Grace, You Are An Ironman” and crossing the timing map was just magic. It doesn’t matter how well or badly a race goes, hearing those words, and crossing that finish line always feels amazing.
I genuinely can’t believed I finished this race, considering how many things got thrown at me, and how pretty much every expectation went out the window. It wasn’t the time I’d hoped for, or the position, but given how much everything hurt, and with my elbow still weeping, I collected my medal and felt pretty bloody proud nonetheless.
As I went to collect my bike and meet Liam, I spotted Alex coming into the last stretch before the finish line turn point and have him a massive cheer! We’d both made it! All that was left to do was find a McDonalds (meal for champs!) and a beer, get cleaned up and patch myself up before flying home the next day!