Monday, 17 June 2013

How my girlfriend became a Half Ironman

When we met a year ago, Rowena had already entered Ironman Lanzarote. Not long after she changed to Mallorca 70.3, but with less than a year to get up to scratch we were in no doubt that it would be a hell of a challenge. A 1.2-mile sea swim, a 56-mile bike ride up into the mountains, followed by a half marathon in the heat of Mallorca was never going to be a walk in the park.


I want to tell the story of how my girlfriend became a Half-Iron-chica; my experiences of the journey over the last year, and the race itself – Ironman Mallorca 70.3, which Rowena completed last month. Something that has since inspired me to my first open water swim last week.

I like to run, but there was nothing about watching Rowena train for Ironman over the last 12 months that made me want to take up triathlon. The training looked hard, but seeing what she achieved, from her starting point a year ago, and experiencing Ironman first hand, well….it was truly inspiring.

The Swim.

This time last year Rowena could swim, but only like we can all swim. You know, we learnt when we were kids and swim occasionally; usually on holiday. But how do you go from that to swimming over a mile in the sea whilst lots of other triathletes all try and swim in the same direction at the same time? She started with some lessons at the pool to improve technique and then she worked up to swimming a mile at Swimathon. This took a lot of swimming practice, week in week out at the pool. When she moved to Manchester she joined a local leisure centre just out of the city. Imagine the most down-at-heel inner city place you can and then insert a leisure centre – not paradise, but she loved it!

Then came the wet suit. She travelled around different places trying them on, researched extensively, but it was no good, she simply didn’t know how to buy a wet suit. And I certainly couldn’t offer any words of wisdom. In the end, with a swim camp booked in Lanzarote she ended up hiring one. She later bought it because the fine for how late it was would have been more than the cost of buying it! She then found out it was too big and had to buy another!

As the winter set in and Rowena got a job in Salford, a change of pool was required. Throughout the long cold winter she was getting the first train at 6.50am and doing 2-2.5k every Tuesday and Thursday morning – mind-boggling swim sets provided by her new online triathlon coach.

The swimming became the strongest of her 3 disciplines – I think a result of her ability to continue all the way through winter when running and cycling had become more difficult. But she was still nervous about open water swimming; the only dip in the open water all winter having being a swim in the freezing cold of Salford Quays on New Years Day with the brilliant Uswim. And lets face it, this winter didn’t want to leave us and so she didn’t manage a single decent open water sessions before we flew out to Mallorca in April.

Our first trip out to Mallorca was a recce during which Rowena swam what she thought was going to be the course. Luckily though she also went out there a week early in May, a week before the start of Ironman, because the course wasn’t where we thought it was going to be. Without doubt it helped to swim the actual swim course twice in the week leading up to the race.

Come race day I was nervous as hell, stood by the railings as Rowena waited in the pen for the start of Ironman Mallorca 70.3. I’d been down to the shore and watched the professionals set off 5mins earlier and it was carnage! When the gun fired I could see the look on her face. Calmer than I expected! Focussed. She was ready, you could tell. She was supposed to be starting near the back to avoid being trampled, but ended up near the front and ran down and into the water along with another 500 other women in their black wet suits and orange race swim hats.

Then that was it. Rowena’s mum and I moved around to the other side to get a better view and we could see a huge swell of bodies splashing around in the water. Many often say it looks like a shoal of piranha – it does. It’s an amazing sight. By this point though we had no way of knowing which one was Rowena. All we could do was make the short walk down the beach to the finish and wait.

Rowena and I had sat in our apartment the night before going over cut off times. We expected her to do the swim in around 45 mins, which was well before the cut off. We knew that unless something bad happened out there she would be OK. We’d also spent the night before practicing getting the wet suit down to her waist, something we knew she should try to do as she came out of the water. The back-up plan was to ask a fellow competitor to help in transition – the race officials can’t help!

But that wasn’t necessary. She came running up from the surf at around 41 mins with the wet suit stripped to her waist, looking awesome! Still focussed, but we got a smile when she saw me and her mum. I was so proud, but really excited too. The adrenalin was pumping.

The Bike.

Wow. This one was a struggle. Really. 12 months earlier when she was getting into triathlon, she was using a hybrid that she’d bought off a friend. She didn’t understand the gears. She had no road sense. No handling skills. She won’t mind me saying this, but she was a complete amateur!

But what she lacked in ability, she made up for in guts. In September, as I was running Kielder Marathon, Ro signed up to do the Duathlon! The same 26.2-mile course, but both running and cycling. I know from running it the next day that the course is gravelly and very very undulating. She still didn’t know how to operate her gears at this point! I’m still amazed to this day that she got around the course without freaking out. And she did it in a decent time. She could hardly walk afterwards and I remember we had to stop the car so she could get out and try and stretch her legs not long after we had set off to our friend Johnny’s house afterwards.

Soon after she bought ‘Red’ – a half decent road bike from Decathlon, but infinitely better to ride on the road than ‘Grover’, the hybrid. For Rowena though it was like getting out of a Ford Escort and into a Ferrari. She couldn’t handle Red’s speed and ‘twitchiness’! Winter had also set in and at times her confidence on the bike seemed to be decreasing rather than increasing. A roller in our basement gym helped, but everybody knows that you need to get out cycling on the roads and where we live in the hilly Pennines that’s hard enough during good weather. This year, from December through to March we had nothing but snow, ice and sub-freezing temperatures!

Like I said – guts! She kept at it. She joined an all-ladies cycling club; a bunch of tough nuts from around these parts,  and went on some long Sunday rides with them, returning exhausted and blue from the cold. She tackled the big hill up onto the moors from where we live, on her own, and came back unable to move she was so cold. She suffered a puncture up in the snowy hills and had to get a taxi home. She cried on her return from these bike rides on more than one occasion and had her fair share of accidents and near misses, one with a lorry!

By the time we went out to Mallorca in April, she could ride, but she still lacked confidence. Rowena was scared the first time she set off to do the actual bike course, but she tackled it, finished up doing it twice over that 5-day period in April. I drove it and that was scary enough! The switchbacks on the way down where unbelievable. She had some falls over there too, but definitely came back from that trip feeling more confident.

The bike was always the weaker of the 3 disciplines though and we thought she would be close to the cut off times, but on race day when we saw her emerge from transition and grab her hired race bike, she was looking good. All we could do now was wait. It was time for me to bond with Mrs Harding!!

Mama Rowena and I having done a bit of bonding, and a bit of shopping, positioned ourselves near the end of the bike course and entry to Transition 2. I kept telling her mum that I wasn’t expecting her for a while. We were there before midday and we’d calculated that it might be more like 1.30pm, but we were both glued to the road, watching every cyclist come in, and her mum was convinced she would be much earlier than expected. Which of course she was! An hour and 10 mins earlier than expected! Why had we been worrying about cut off times?! Again, I was amazed, proud and absolutely thrilled. All I could think was ‘awesome’!

We now knew that she could walk the run course and still do it. I was so happy by this point I could have burst.

The Run.

This should have been Rowena’s best discipline having come from a running background and in a way it was, but the training had been difficult. A mysterious foot injury, which we later found out was a nerve problem at the bottom of her foot, held her back in training. She was more or less doing the runs that were in the training plan, but they were often ending in disappointment and pain. And I was her run coach! I couldn’t let her running let her down.

With a couple of months to go we ignored the training plan a bit and put our own plan in place for getting her run-ready. Rowena entered us both in the Blackpool Half Marathon in early April and we built up the miles over a several week period leading up to it. She nailed it in the end with a PB of 1:53 and carried that through to Mallorca when she lost a bit of time, as you would expect, but still did incredibly well at around 2:10. It was 3 laps of a course that ran parallel to the beach and I loved watching her during this part of the race. She was smiling so much every time I saw her even though, whilst looking great, she looked like it was hurting. That’s my Rowena, guts and positivity rolled into one.


She finished the race strong and recovered well the next day when we climbed hundreds of steps to visit a church and then tackled a huge hill up to a monastery. The training had paid off. Swimming twice a week. Cycling 3 times a week, sometimes for 3-5 hours at a time. Running twice a week. Strength and Condition sessions at the gym twice a week. And the incredible amount of research and preparation that went into making that start line with the tools required to do the job. It had all paid off.

I’m immensely proud off my Iron-chica because not only did she do this, but she did it for a reason. She did it to raise money for Freedom From Torture. That’s the bit that I admire the most. When I set out to do a running challenge I do it because it excites me; because I know I’ll enjoy the training and the event itself. Rowena did this partly to prove something to herself, to rise to a challenge, but she deliberately chose something completely outside of her comfort zone that she knew she would not enjoy training for because she wanted to raise money for a charity that has become very special to her over the last few years. 

Because my Rowena likes to put everything she has into a worthwhile cause. And she certainly did that.
To all those who sponsored Rowena, and I heard of some amazing acts of generosity, thank you. If you didn’t get around to it, you can still sponsor Rowena by visiting: