“Conor Hillick, You. Are. An IronMan!” Those are the words you hope to hear at the end of an IronMan (with your own name inserted). I did IronMan Cork in August past. Thousands of people do it every year so it’s nothing unique and I’m nothing special but it’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had! It’s one of the most mentally challenging days, if not weeks when including the build up. I’ve described it as a metaphor for life. The anxiety, fear, elation, humility, pride and relief. A day of highs and lows. For those who might find the experience interesting keep reading, for those who don’t, don’t worry, no offence taken. When I’m asked how it was I’m obviously delighted to talk about it but I do feel a little bad every time my girlfriend has to listen to me, so now it’ll be available in long form written content!
Where to start? Probably with why I entered an IronMan. “I can’t have you doing one before me so, I’m in”. My first IronMan 70.3 (half distance) was because that same friend pulled me into it for our first triathlon. This all came from an impulsive idea. A year later he entered a full so, naturally I did as well. Fast forward 2 years of cancelled events (Covid) and we’re at IronMan Cork, August 2022.
Anxiety & A Kilo of Carbs
The week leading up wondering, what the heck am I getting myself into. Why am I doing this? Truth be told, it’s because I paid the entry fee and didn’t want to see it go to waste. The fun part is walking around the office in the few days leading up to it, constantly munching on carbs and having a huge lunch. However, in my head, I'm absolutely shitting myself. I've had a few weeks in Sicily for July and really only committed to this in June. Anyway, the show goes on and I try to not overthink it. It's a day of exercise and I'm lucky to have the chance.
Thursday (3 days out) is the start of carb loading. 700g of carbs Thursday, 800g on Friday and roughly 950g on Saturday. You know it gets quite sickening to eat 2 dinners and a shit load pasta every day.
Saturday seems a good place to kickstart the story. After watching my friends in the 70.3 and checking in my bike I head back to the hotel for lunch and to get off my feet. At 5pm I have dinner number 1 with my girlfriend, a big bowl of pasta, then at 8pm I have dinner 2 (risotto).Shortly after dinner, I go straight to the bathroom and get sick. At least it was just once, not pleasant but I'm fine now. Likely just nerves related. Off to sleep for the 3am wake up.
12 Hours of Me, Myself and I
For those who know me, I'm very sociable. So, imagine spending anywhere from 10-16 hours in your own head. No music. No conversations. Just you and your thoughts. As you go through all sorts of emotions. You have no choice but to process them, overcome them, accept them and deal with them. Let's dive into some of my experiences, I'll spare you ALL of my thoughts and share a few!
3am Overnight Oats
We’ll call it race day but it’s more like, get-to-the-finish-line day. My 3am alarm goes off and straight away I start dry-heaving, this isn’t normal for me. I can usually eat and then might get a little like this, but not as soon as I wake. It’s uncomfortable, but I get over it after a walk. I sit down on the floor and try to force feed myself some oats. It’s not happening today, so I have a Rice Krispie square which is a bit easier. My next struggle is in my ability to go to the bathroom, I said I’d tell you about my experience but I of course won’t go into detail. This freaks me out even more considering it’s around 4am and I won’t finish this until 6pm or so tonight!
Fast forward to arriving at the event. I check my bike stuff and realise I’ve forgot my nutrition (gels etc) but thankfully I did have my emergency nutrition, which is supposed to be incase of emergency later in the day not the start! One more quick bathroom attempt to no avail. I guess cutting out fibre works. Anyway 5:58am and I’m strolling to the start line (swim starts at 6am for Pros and 6:10am for us). Thunderstruck by AC/DC is playing and all of a sudden I’m feeling really good. F*ck it, it’s swim time! I should note that despite being a swimmer since the age of 10 and lifeguarding on the Jersey Shore beaches, I’m not excited for the swim. I hate being surrounded by so many people in the open water. There’s a huge line and I need to get to the front but there’s also a massive wall. So I tap the crowd on the shoulder, they turn in astonishment to see a guy in a wetsuit the wrong side of the wall. I jump up and get over it with only a slight wetsuit tear. This nonchalant style relaxes me as there’s no going back now.
I get to the start line and well, LFG. Into the water, get past the first buoy is always my goal because then things settle down. We get into a rhythm. I can barely see the buoys but I’ll follow the pack. Jesus this is a long way out away from the finish line I’m thinking but otherwise trying to sing to myself. We make the turn and I feel quite good. Some people swim wide but I spot a good line. I tell myself, if you find aspects of this frightening so do others and that keeps me calm as well. We get to the swim exit and I hear “Conor Hillick coming out in a time of 1hr 3mins”…feck that’s not bad for a guy who has swim 3km once in the past 3 years.
At transition there are quite a few bikes still there, which makes me feel even better! Off I go, through the crowds on the streets of Youghal and adrenaline is rushing. I settle into a nice pace and I’m buzzing. I’m absolutely flying and get to the first aid station at 22km in a good position. I fill up my hydration system but hit a pothole and the lid pops off. Thinking it’ll be fine I leave the lid, until a few km later the bumpy road ensures that sticky carb water starts splashing out. There goes some energy.
33km and I’m flying. I’m passing crowds, saying good morning to them, genuinely buzzing and on top of the world. “You’re an animal, Conor.” Damn right I am!
Turning up a hill, I switch gears, drop to a lower gear, hit another f*cking pothole and my chain slips! I switch again to get it back up, it jams and it’s not going to work. Shit I better stop. I get off my bike, get the chain on, test it but it’s not moving. The chain is bent. How the hell does a metal chain bend! I can’t cycle. I’m not an animal or invincible anymore, I’m a mere mortal. I get lucky and spot an official. He says “What’s your number? I’ll get a mechanic.” He’s not picking up. “Your race might be over kid.” Just like that. I got through the swim, the anxiety, the throwing up. Can I put myself and others through it again? Dinner will be super awkward tonight.
Finally he get’s the mechanic, long story short, I get a new chain and my focus is now that I’m lucky to get a chance at finishing.
The Wall Pt 1
I’m now back on the road and I’m passing lots of people as I push along. Thing is I’m probably a few watts too high on power, my water is still spilling out and the temperature is approaching 27-30 degrees. In Cork. At 90km I come into the village and am greeted by Windmill Hill for the first time. This hill resembles a wall, with a 22 degree incline at its steepest, and is lined with well over a thousand people. Tightly packed. Cow bells ringing. Shouting. Roaring. Clapping. It’s the closest thing to the Tour de France. Cycling up I’m enjoying it but it feels like there’s room for only 2 cyclists side by side. People are tightly bunched and you have fear of being knocked off. But this is epic! I get to the top and now it’s time to do the whole loop again!
The Wall Pt 2
The first wall was Windmill Hill, the second wall was how I was feeling between 120-160km. Sick. Nauseous. Overheating. I was going ok but it is now very warm, I had put out a few watts too many naturally enough after losing time with my chain. It’s harder to overtake than to maintain position. Between the viscous carb drinks, the heat and effort I was struggling but I recognised this. Let’s just pull it back a little. We want to live today and finish today. My mindset went from “I’m a fucking animal to I’m lucky to be doing this, to let’s just stay alive right now”. This is why I call it a metaphor for life. I battled through it but I was dreading Windmill Hill again. Would I have to walk up it?
Get Over the Hump
I battled over my nauseous period and at around 160km I started feeling a lot better. My goal reamined the same, to just keep ticking along, get to the run and finish the day. Approaching the town again, greeted by crowds and cheers, the adrenaline returns. Windmill Hill again. One last time. This time was even better. I see my girlfriend and friends and it gives me a boost! My friend Dermot runs along side me, roaring me up the hill. "Keep going! Let's Go! You're doing unreal. F#@king unreal! Right to the top!". Then my girlfriend Meabh joins along side. Pure elation. This is unbelievable I’m thinking. Back to LFG!! One kilometre down hill and to transition for the run. Let’s do it!
Run Time Fun Time
I take my time in transition and change into shorts & a singlet. It’s 30 degrees (yes, 30 in Cork) and my aim is to be as cool and comfortable as possible. A shoutout here to Lululemon who fitted me out for the run! 4 x 10km loops and a little extra to complete the marathon and the IronMan. I’d never ran a marathon. Never ran more than 24km. Lap 1 is going smoothly, my pace is good, my friends tell me I’m flying it and I’m happy out but under no illusions. People are everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it. They’re outside bars, drinking pints. They’re outside their homes playing music. They’re having BBQs and parties. Spraying down participants with hoses to cool us down. The atmosphere is electric. At the same time my mind wanders between, "One foot in front of the other. My joints hurt. I need fuel but I don't want it. How many grams of carbs have I had? What will I have for dinner?".
Lap 2 and around 17km in my glute and hip starts to tighten up. Time to manage it. As I finish lap 2 I now realise that’s a half marathon done. Guess what. Another half marathon to go. Shit this going to be long. It’s so bloody hot. I’ve a bag of ice under my hat freezing my bald head, it feels sooo good but at the same time I’m still roasting.
As I pass my crew (short way of saying friends & girlfriend now) I tell them it might be time for me to add in a bit of walking to manage the load. That’s ok. A mate joins along around 24km, running on a footpath and encouraging me. He’s checking in -as they were worried. I apparently looked a bit pale and maybe wasn't smiling as much as usual! I say I’m fine, sure I’m doing an IronMan! I’m completely fine, just doing an IronMan in 30 degree heat and at around 10 hours in -so obviously hurting just a little.
Around the 28km mark I realise I haven’t been having enough gels, water, salt, essentially not enough fuel. I’m trying to but I’m struggling. My body needs it, but my stomach doesn’t want it. My mindset is now at the point of whatever it takes. “If I have to walk to finish this, I will walk. One foot in front of the other”. Okay, we run to the next aid station then walk. Okay, run this bit and when you reach there you can walk. Actually keep going to the next lamppost. Games. Mind games. That’s all it is, playing games, figuring it out to get to where you need to be. In this case, the finish line.
Surround Yourself with Good People
You know that saying, surround yourself with people who will build you up, not bring you down. Lap 4, 8km to go. My people, a few friends and my girlfriend, ran alongside me for a few hundred meters where it was possible. “Nice and easy” I tell them. “Yea of course”, they reply. “No, seriously, a bit slower“ I say- I’m going very slow!; which of course results in a few laughs. It was only a few hundred meters but the feeling was amazing. You need a support crew in life. Good friends, relationships, family whatever it is. The next few kilometres is still about putting one foot in front of the other. Although, now it’s a little easier. The mind games are almost done for the race. Still taking on some nutrition. The focus is to get to the finish line but still take nothing for granted. You have to stay humble. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself as you can still screw yourself over between now and the end if you get too cocky.
You have to enjoy the walk
The words I was waiting to hear all day. “Conor Hillick. You. Are. An IronMan!!”. A flood of emotions, it’s not about those words but about the experience of that day.
“The man who loves walking, will walk further than the man who loves the destination.”
I heard this phrase earlier in the year and it has stuck with me. I’m not saying I loved every minute of that walk (IronMan day) or the training in the build up. But you do have to enjoy it for the most of it. There are also times you do a few things you won’t enjoy. You have to do hard things. Hard things that bring you from feeling invincible to feeling like it’s about putting one foot in front of the other. When you combine it all together it does something for your mentality. Something for your physicality. It makes you stronger, more resilient, builds your confidence and gives you a new outlook.
Will you go again? People ask me. In those first 24 hours post-race, I said “Nope never again! But also, ask me in about 2-3 days time because I’ll probably say yes then”. The reason being- I want to do it for myself. There’s something in me and my why, that makes me want to do it again but with better preparation. I learned something this time and I want to improve on it. It’s not necessarily learning for the destination but learning for my daily walk. Daily exercise and life. I work in sales. It’s an up and down experience. Similar to my IronMan, there are good days, easy days, hard days and challenges. It’s the metaphor for life and you have to learn to stay humble.
Enjoy the highs but don’t get too high on them, that way when the lows come around you won’t get too low. Stay somewhere in the middle.