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Life, Love, Wine, Weight, Triathlon and Turning 40 part four: Ironman Copenhagen

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Helen Barklam tells the story of her midlife crisis in a four part blog series on life, love, wine, being overweight and... entering Ironman.

Helen Barklam was a high-flying PR and marketing director who left the corporate world to pursue her dream of running her own nutrition business. She had a good, stable life, a long term relationship and what looked like a fantastic future. As the big 40 approached, things started to fall apart. Helen is telling the story of her midlife crisis in a four part blog series on life, love, wine, being overweight and... entering Ironman.

Wow! That was an experience. It was an experience that I pledged never to undertake ever again on the Sunday and Monday and Tuesday after the race. Now, I feel like I have unfinished business andafter spending a weekend with the tri club, plans are being hatched for Ironman number two in 2018.

I had gone eight months without injury and three days before the race (the day before we flew out) I had serious pain in my big toe. I thought it was because I had made a mess of cutting my nails the day before. I managed to grab an appointment with a podiatrist and she told me I had an ingrowing toe nail and it was touch and go whether I would make it through the marathon. WHAT?!

  • Click here to read part one
  • Click here to read part two
  • Click here to read part three

I put that to the back of my mind and I got on the plane to Copenhagen the next day feeling terrified and excited, but believing that I could do it. I wasn't over confident, but I believed I had trained enough to be able to do a good job. I had a time in mind and with my competitive streak, I was determined to smash it.

Those two days before race day were a whirlwind or craziness and emotion. Registration, race briefing, warm up training sessions; the expo sold out of branded Ironman Copenhagen specific women's kit, so I cried like a baby; I walked the streets of Copenhagen trying to find a new bike computer as mine had broken.

Finally, I got back to the room, but I still had to sort my food for race day. Hours of prep had gone into working out what to take at different stages of the race. I eventually got into bed at 11.30. Couldn't sleep! Finally dropped off after 12.30 and woke up at 3am. Alarm was set for 3.50am. I just got up at 3.30am as I was wide awake.

My boyfriend Tim and I left the hotel at 4.20am and out on to the streets of Copenhagen on a Saturday night/Sunday morning it was crazy. I couldn't believe what we walked into. It was busier then than it had been at 11am that day. The streets were packed with extremely stylish and very drunk locals outside bars drinking. It was buzzing! I felt very under dressed in my sports gear and no make-up as I negotiated my way through worried someone might throw a drink over me. The metro was packed with drunk people mingling with Ironman competitors. It was an experience!

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Colourful caps and goggles on and ready to go at the start of the swim

I was so focused on finding someone to help me set up my bike computer that I didn't really have time to think about the race. I think that is where I went wrong. I didn't really give myself any time in the run up to the event to think about the race and how I would handle certain scenarios.

The swim was ok - very misty and I couldn't see from one buoy to the next. There were jelly fish, which I wasn't expecting and that freaked me out, but I came out 2nd in my age group. Good start!

The bike racked and ready for the second leg of the Ironman

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I seem to have a habit of drinking lots of water when I swim. That's fine when you are gulping fresh water, but when you drink lots of salt water at the beginning of a 15 hour race then you know you are in for a difficult day. I felt physically sick for the first two hours of the bike ride. But, the route was beautiful and fast and I was flying on Red (my new, beautiful red, white and black Dolan Ares carbon fibre bike). I felt good. I was talking positively to myself. At one point I was on for a 6 hour 15 minute bike, which would have been amazing – 45 minutes ahead of schedule. I was visualising a 5 hour marathon and my sub 14 hour finish time. I was on fire.

Nutrition during an Ironman is one of the most important components of the race. It is more than a marginal gain. As a sports nutritionist I was very well prepared and I had taken this area very seriously. But, after taking on board so much sea water I was really struggling to get food down. I forced it as I knew I would need the energy on the marathon, but I had to force it down.

Because I was so particular about what I wanted to eat on the race I prepped my own bags of food to go on the feed stations. When I arrived at the bike feed station, it wasn't there. They had sent my running nutrition bag to the bike feed station. For those who do triathlon, they will know that you will take on board very different food on the run than you would on the bike. The idea is to fuel up on the bike so you don't need to take on heavier food on the run. I had a hissy fit at the marshall, the poor guy. I was so upset. That's when things started to change. I was ranting and raving to myself for the next few miles until "BANG". My tyre had exploded. I had a flat.

I pulled over and started crying. I couldn't believe this was now happening. Eight months of training and it was going wrong. I was sobbing to this poor marshall at the side of the road. I think it was karma for the rant I had had at the marshall a little earlier about my food bags.

I had a chat to myself and got to work changing the inner tube. A really kind guy who was a local cyclist stopped to help me use the CO2 canister. My inner tube exploded again. As you can imagine I was beside myself by now. I had 55 miles to go and no more spares and no CO2 canisters left.

I must have lost over half an hour at that point. I cracked on and desperately tried to keep myself positive. It was hard though. I had gone out a bit too fast and I started to flag. Not eating enough food or the right foods hadn't helped either. Psychologically I had lost my positive edge and my demons were starting to show themselves.

Medal and number - with Helen's name so supporters knew what to cheer

By the time I got to the transition from bike to run I was fed up. I finished the bike on 7 hours. Thinking back now, that was actually the time my coach and I had conservatively predicted for the bike. But I had had a glimpse of what was capable on this course and I had let the disappointment of the other things going wrong get to me. I took my time in transition and tried to get myself feeling better about the race. I still felt physically sick (still feeling the effects of the salt water consumption) and the thought of running for five hours just filled me with dread. It just seemed like an enormous task and I left transition sobbing my heart out and glad I was wearing sun glasses so no one could see.

The support on the run route in Copenhagen was amazing. More than 100,000 people out on the course right through the city centre. My name was on my number and so many people were cheering me on. I tried to smile at them as they were saying "come one Helen, you have got this." "Got this?" I was shouting in my head. "Are you kidding me I still have nearly 26 miles to go you morons" For the first six miles I hated them all.

I really struggled to run the run. Every time I tried to run I felt physically sick. You know that sick feeling you get when you are quite badly hungover? Of course I have only ever experienced that a couple of times in my life. Haha. Well, that is how I felt for most of the 26 miles. Can you imagine running a marathon feeling like that? I was so frustrated because I knew I had the fitness to run it. That's what I had spent eight months training for. I sauntered on at a very slow pace.

With a well-earned drink and an official finisher t-shirt

I cried into the arms of poor Tim, my boyfriend, and my parents with about 10 miles to go saying that I didn't know how I was going to finish it. You know the thing that kept me going? Knowing that so many people had sponsored me for such an amazing charity and I didn't want to let them all down. That is what kept me going. So thank you to all of those who have donated to the Dot Com Children's Foundation. If you would still like to sponsor me as I have actually finished it now, then you can go to www.justgiving.com/helenbarklam.

I had given up all hope of hitting my target time and just finishing was going to be the big challenge. The psychological turmoil that I was going through was immense. The crowds got less and less and they even started packing away some areas of the course. That was soul destroying. Now, looking back, I am so proud of my strength of mind. I remember reading a post on my Facebook page from a friend Shirley Hunt who had completed many Ironman events telling me to dig deep in the dark moments. When I was on the first half of the bike I remember saying to myself "what was she one about, this is going to be fine." Goodness, I know exactly what you were talking about Shirls and thanks for taking the time to post that message as I kept reading it and re-reading it in my head during the 'run'.

I finally finished at 15 hours and 11 minutes. I was gutted. Not only did I hate almost every minute of it, but I didn't hit the time I had in my head. I know I shouldn't have been upset, but I was. I really, honestly believed that I would do sub 14 hours and my competitive self was not happy. The next day

at breakfast several people who had completed their first Ironman were saying how much they had enjoyed it. I was so upset, because apart from the first 60 miles on the bike, I didn't enjoy it at all. I had hated it.

I admitted these negative feelings to Tim and a few friends at home and they told me off. The majority of the population would not be able to achieve what I had. I should be proud. I now see that. One message from Stafford Triathlon Chair Neil Sheppard stuck out to me: "You are an Ironman finisher and no one can take that away from you." He was right. I can see that now.

I have had some amazing support from Tim, friends, family, my triathlon club, my coach Ian Murphy and I am so grateful. Thank you to all of you for your positivity, encouragement, belief and patience.

So now I need a new goal. Any ideas?

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