Ironman Bolton UK: Overcoming physical and mental barriers

There is one thing that can never be taken away from an endurance athlete and that's the joy and memory of completing an Ironman
Santosh Shanbhag proudly displays the Indian flag after finishing the Bolton Ironman.
Santosh Shanbhag proudly displays the Indian flag after finishing the Bolton Ironman.

Santosh Shanbhag

I've never feared racing and have always enjoyed challenging myself and testing my endurance. But at the same time, I’m painfully aware of how demanding such big races can be. The enormous volume of training, time, dedication and discipline required and balancing all of this with work can be extremely taxing.

June 29, 2022, Bolton

In this foreign land, I could only recall my father's message a night before Ironman Malaysia, Langkawi (2017). He quoted Mahatma Gandhi: "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It's the indomitable will within."

Taking inspiration from these words, I was too focused on what I was here for. I was disciplined and made it a point to maintain my fixed diet, sleep and training for the next five days. I did this because I could barely find time to train in my hometown amidst all my professional responsibilities. I knew what I wanted and what was lacking. What I feared the most was getting acclimatised. But that never got to me until the race day -- weather remained an issue.

I spent a day doing a recce of the bike race route that was provided. It certainly wasn't easy with winds and heavy rains and I had a flat tyre on my way back to the hotel room. The road surface in the countryside was extremely disappointing and this was a major part of the bike course.

Ready, set, go! Bib No 254.
Ready, set, go! Bib No 254.

June 30, 2022

I visited Queens Park on New Chorley Street in Bolton which happens to be a part of the run course. The weather was wonderful and I prayed it remained the same on race day. Later, during the day, I visited the expo and the event registration venue at the Town Hall (Albert Hall) in Bolton. After completing the formalities and getting clarity on some of my doubts related to the race, I got back to the room and carefully laid out the transition bags. Applied the stickers that were provided and put into the Red Run bag all the run-related gears required at the Transition 2 (T2) area. Checked and rechecked it multiple times to avoid any errors. We act so funnily at times when we pack these bags. I’m sure most athletes do this… I'm no exception. You don't trust yourself and keep ensuring that everything needed has been dropped into the bag and rechecking till you are absolutely certain that it's all there.

Getting a feel of the UK weather.
Getting a feel of the UK weather.

July 1, 2022

I did a 5-km run, mostly on a flat route. Then freshened up and went on to drop off my T2 bag at Queens Park. There I familiarised myself with the transition layout and the location of my bag and returned to my hotel room.

Ironman organisers have stopped conducting race briefings post-Covid. All you need to do is open up the link that has the briefing which is sent via mail. Thus it's smart to recall all of this when you visit the transition areas prior to your race.

July 2, 2022

The forecast for the following day, which was Race Day, was “mostly cloudy”. I was terribly upset with my trial swim in the lake at Pennington Flash. The temperature was around 17 degrees. I could barely start on the day of my trial swim. It was freezing cold when I took my first dip. I just couldn't breathe because of the extremely cold water despite wearing a wet suit. I gradually moved on and did a 750 metres lap around the buoy and was back to the ramp. This was my first swim with a ramp start and finish. Until now I have always been to the kind of swim where we run into the sea or ocean for a start.

The previous night I had organised my Blue Bike bag. Had rechecked it multiple times before dropping it off after the trial swim. I dropped the bag at the designated area. T1 was a long transition. I preferred to drop off my bike later during the day. Didn't want it to be a victim of sun, rain and getting abused during racking by other athletes. Well, but later when I had to drop it off, I was shocked to see my rear tyre flat again. I was upset now trying to figure out what could have gone wrong. I replaced the tube, looked for debris in the tyre and then applied some electric tape on its inner walls. Those were brand new set of tyres. I had barely done 400 kms on it.

On the road to stardom.
On the road to stardom.

July 3, 2022 (swim)

Zipped up in my neoprene swimsuit, I was the only 5'10" Indian amongst the larger number of 6'2" and above-sized European athletes (mostly British). Well built, huge shoulders and calves as fat as a healthy turkey. That's how most of these Europeans look. It was raining and that was spoiling the visibility at the lake and the water temp was dropping. The one good habit I have developed over the years is that I don’t get too involved in conversations with other athletes around in the mornings on Race Day. They may either give you a good tip or a bad tip. I prefer to stay with what I've known best until the Race Day. So I keep my ears and mouth shut. I was okay -- no panic, I was composed and focused.

These races make you nervous when you are surrounded by people who are very familiar with the environment and you are the odd man. But I've got used to this. In fact, I have made a good number of friends with time. They laughed at me when I told them that it was my second. One of them said, triathletes just don't want to get back into that nightmare of doing a full Ironman again.

The swim start was at 6 am. I just punched "start" on my watch and entered the freezing 17 degrees water as my turn arrived. I started fast, but the visibility was bad. I could barely see the buoys laid on the course. Swayed a lot on my first course and hit back into the second swim loop of 1.9 kms without turning my head on the way to re-entering the lake. I tried to be on the course on the second loop. But then again I made a mistake when I turned at the first buoy. The triangular layout was a bit confusing. I was just moving on and on. Got out of the ramp at the end of the second loop. I was done with the swim with a decent 01:21:25, despite landing up doing 4.2 kms instead of 3.8 kms.

Readying for the cold water swim.
Readying for the cold water swim.

Transition 1 (T1)

T1 was a long transition. I could quickly trace my bag which I had studied while racking it the previous day. Went on to the benches that were laid outside and zipped down the wet suit, took it off, put on my compression and jersey, wore my sox-and-cleat cleat shoes, helmets, gloves (as I knew I'll have stiffness) and put back into the bag my wet suit, swim goggles, ear plugs and caps. Rechecked for my nutrition in pockets and off to the volunteer who collected my blue bag. Got straight down to my bike and ran up to the bike mounting zone.

Cycling: Another tough test

I got into the rhythm within a kilometre. I was on full gas for the next 15 kms. I had downed an energy bar by now and was fairly averaging 35-37 kmph. I knew this would drop post-20 kms, because the brutal loops with insane elevations, winds and rains would change the entire game. It was still drizzling.

The three loops were sadly a course which was on an absolutely poor surface. Most portions were marked orange to warn us either of potholes or speed-breakers.

I had additional nutrition planned for this course because I knew that it would take the best of me. This was something more than what I'd normally consumed. It was so windy that my bib got ripped off the race belt. It was dangling and a fellow rider brought it to my notice. I just pulled it off n held it in my mouth trying to comprehend what best could be done with it. I finally stopped at the hydration station and asked a volunteer to help. He said, it happened with many riders and told me to just put it in my pocket. I just put it next to my chest and zipped up the jersey to ensure I don't lose it.

The second loop was bad with winds and rain and the third lap was something I really didn't care about. Now my average had dropped to 23-24 kmph -- it was that bad. But I must appreciate the amazing support here by the locals in Bolton. Full marks!

On the course, I noticed a few fellow riders had flat tyres. That's one site which can be a great disappointment to a triathlete. Out on the third lap, after completing 180 kms with a total elevation of 2672 meters I dismounted from my bike at the designated area and went on to rack it up.

A warm-up ride before Race Day.
A warm-up ride before Race Day.

Transition 2 (T2)

I had a stiff lower back due to the excess exertion on elevations and cold weather. My hands were numb. I could hardly manage to flex my fingers. When I picked up my Red bag, I had good energy to keep going. Changed my shoes. At this point in time, I thought of maintaining my body temperature and stuffed the nutrition into the jersey pocket. Sipped on my bottle that was in the bag and off I went.


I had given myself enough time at T2 to get back into the run. I never try to calculate my transition area timing much. I think it's smart to be composed before you start the next discipline and avoid any mistakes, especially leaving things behind or carrying something unnecessary. I was maintaining a decent pace -- it was around 05:40. Then started the elevation, a long one. It went on for about about 4 kms on New Chorley Street. I could gradually feel my quads getting stiff. The Queen's Park too has a couple of extreme elevations. There were ample hydration stations on the run course. I had identified these on the course map as well beforehand. The only food I preferred to pick from these stations was bananas, and in beverage, it was either coke or water. I kept moving and only walked at the hydration stations for a minute or so. The run was a 4 loop covering 42.2 kms with 286 meters elevation.

A test of endurance till the end.
A test of endurance till the end.

One major problem was the markers laid were all in miles. Indians are used to calculating everything in kilometres. The imperial to metric conversion is taxing when you are focusing on your game. You just can't keep doing it often. (I had smartly made a small slip with miles to kms on my bike top bar to keep a track of hydration stations). By the end of the third lap, my watch was on low battery mode when it just keeps working with minimal features. It works more like a stopwatch. Thus I couldn't time myself well for the last two laps but I made sure to keep moving. Now I could hear the loud cheering of the crowd at the finish line. My heart was racing faster. It was a strong finish at 14:04.39. To hear the words "You are an Ironman" was euphoric. I had done it. At the finish line, my family was waiting to watch my proud moment. The feeling doubled there at the right moment.

TIMINGS: Swim: 01:21:25 -- Bike: 07:50:26 -- Run: 04:36:58

TOTAL TIME: 14:04:39



Fact files:

Swim Distance: 3.8 kms (Lake water temperature 17 deg C)

Bike: 180 kms (2,672 metres elevation gain with strong winds and rains) Run: 42.2 kms (286 metres elevation gain), which makes it one of the toughest Ironman courses (in fact, believed to be the second toughest only after Lanzarote, Spain).

(The writer is a hotelier from Belgaum, who always keeps his date with Goa for his sea swim practice. He completed the first Goa Ironman 70.3 in Nov 2019 and is all set to make it again on Nov 13, 2022 for the second edition. He has also completed Ironman 70.3 Thailand in Nov 2018 and Colombo in Feb 2019)

Nothing tastes sweeter than success.
Nothing tastes sweeter than success.

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