I can remember the feeling of complete elation of those words; ‘Paul, congratulations we’d like to offer you the consultant job.’ My whole life’s journey to this point; I’ve done it; I can be a paediatric surgeon. I felt overwhelmed with emotion, a drink would do nicely. I extract a bottle of whisky from my office cabinet – from a grateful patient you understand. It’s only midday but I need to celebrate, so a quick slug… At the exact moment, the “reserved mid 50’s librarian-type ‘notes lady” walked in. Could this be the shortest career in history? Luckily no, she is very short-sighted after all and I convince her it is Lucozade. But then I found myself thinking, what next?
As paediatric surgeons we are amongst the most determined, tenacious and focused people. We play the long game, we study for hours in the evening and complete years of dedication. We can do anything. I found myself a bit lost and mad in the next few months not knowing where to put my energy. Tigger was a three-toed sloth compared to me. This must be what an early midlife crisis feels like?
I’ve always been into fitness and am very competitive. I’ve represented team GB at sailing (did I tell you about Ben Ainsley and I?). I’d made the switch to cycling to work about 3 years ago and then when someone stole my folding bike from outside a pub in East London I had decided to cycle the 13 miles from home on a daily basis. What a revelation! With 4 children, a full day as a paediatric surgeon and now an hours exercise in the freezing cold, biting rain and the usual near-death experience near the Rotherhithe Tunnel, I just couldn’t get up in the morning.
The Ironman seed was planted many years ago by an old boss and now swimming partner (Adam 54 years and who’s counting) who had done one 15-years ago. I had said many times, usually staring at the bottom of a pint glass, I will do one before I am 40. And, with my mother’s dying breath I promised her I’d do the Ironman for her. So that was it. 650 euros later I had entered the Ironman Barcelona then a year away.
So what is an Ironman? The real thing is a 2.5 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a marathon (26 miles 385 yards) to finish. The furthest I cycled until that date was 25 miles. This was going to be a challenge!
Training began seriously in January 2016. I’d written a plan from the website and the journey began. A Marathon in April and a half-Ironman in Norway in July en-passant. I followed a plan for the Marathon which involved some pretty mountain running whilst on a skiing holiday which reminded me somehow of Rocky IV.
The Manchester Marathon was first. A wet and windy day in April, not unusual for spring in the North-West. I had a plan, go for under 4 hours and preferably less than 3 hours 54 minutes which is what my wife did 10-years previously. The time had been seared on my brain for all that time! So Plan A was to stick to 5 minutes and 40 seconds per kilometer. The race was amazing up until 17 miles, but like most men I peaked too soon and throughout the last 11 miles I could feel the pain slowly getting worse in my quads. I limped across the line in 3 hours 53 minutes. Well at least I beat the wife. The pain was horrible, why do people do this? I walked to get my bag and a curb presented itself which I couldn’t even step over. Crippled for life, I can’t walk. And oh s***, I’ve got to do this at the end of a 100 mile bike ride. I must now apologize to the commuters at Victoria Station that week for the speed at which I hobbled down the steps on the way to the Tube, and to the ladies with the suitcases I just walked passed and the pregnant woman that had to stand while I sat. Honestly my legs were destroyed!
Training continued at 15 – 20 hours per week; cycling to and from work except the once a week where I’d run 13 miles to work and on Saturday mornings where I glided through the Kent countryside rain or shine. Whilst on-call I’d be running around East London (always within 30 minutes of the hospital, of course). I practiced open-water swimming and visited the lido pools of London a couple of times a week and yes I still found time to be Dad. The bike rides would start at 5 a.m. at times. I did discover new words; runners call it ‘a wall’, cyclist ‘bonking’ and to combat it you need to swallow energy gels (I personally recommend the PowerGel strawberry banana) which essentially taste like cold semen (so they say) and give you the worst reflux ever!
In July I travelled to Norway for the Half-Ironman. Was I ready? Could I do this? I thought Norway would be beautiful and sunny, but as luck would have it was cold and never stopped raining. The lake was 14oC the air 1o lower. Target time was less than 6 hours. I lined up at the Start; this being staggered with 5 people starting every 5 seconds. However, everyone bunched up quickly and I essentially swam over people for 20 minutes. After that it’s the first transition so out of the wetsuit into helmet and gloves and off on the bike. I blasted off but at the first gear change I realised I’d forgotten my left glove and from then onwards my left hand froze and didn’t belong to me. I managed the 96 mile ride in a little under 3 hours and than I ran my second fastest half-marathon as the sun came out in 1 hour 45 minutes. A 5 hour 21 minute Half Ironman – not too bad. The most important thing I learned was how to pee while cycling, which saves precious minutes. But this was cold, with rain and little in the way of spectators. Could I do it in the sun, with people cycling behind me?
But still, how the hell can I do double this distance? I went on a Club 200 km ride one Saturday in August and discovered two guys who were also doing Ironman events that year. We got back and everything hurt but for the first time I thought I could actually hobble. Surely, than the Marathon was just in my mind? The family holiday was is Brittany, which I took my bike and my swimming wetsuit and trained a lot before people were up. Sea swimming, this seemed to attract a lot of attention and random French men in Speedos would talk to me about what I was doing? I rode 190 km to the D-Day beaches and back in 28oC and ran out of water with an hour to go. I got back to the Villa 3 hrs later than planned, I was supposed to do a 10km run. I stumbled to the fridge and drank 1 litre of full fat coke……. Resuscitated I stumbled to the beach to enjoy what was left of the day with my family, wife actually not too annoyed!
I joined a virtual reality web-site for people with bikes on turbo trainers at home (ZWIFT) and must have produced more sweat that is humanly possible. At least we have wooden floors which wipe dry easily enough. I became obsessed with nutrition, the correct amount of time to ease off (taper) before a race and I bought myself a new bike (Cube Time trial bike). To be the real deal in triathlon you have to have a time trial bike, there is so much bike envy in transition, I also figured that the more money I spend the less the pain of the race.
October 2016: Race Weekend
I leave the house at 5.30 a.m. on Friday dragging a monstrosity of a bike box to the train station for the flight out of Heathrow.
I met my father and brother-in-law at the airport in Barcelona and we made our way to Callela. We test everything on Saturday and reward ourselves with a light swim in the Mediterranean. We build the bike, test ride and do a short run. Then its down to the Expo Centre (think conference reception for athletes) for briefing and then a brief look at all the merchandizing and max out the credit card on everything that says Ironman. We check the bike in, pack our transition bags, and then proceed to eat a lot of carbs. I personally went for steak and chips for lunch and an enormous bowel of paella for dinner!
I wake at 3:30 a.m. for the world’s biggest bowel of porridge and 4 slices of honey toast. Kit decision, it will be hot, so vest over cycle-top I think. We walk to the venue, have an energy gel, get the wetsuit on. Oh no, I have left my heart rate belt at home. Oh well, let me just do this on feel alone! A quick swim to get used to the water and get at the front of the start as swimming is my strongest discipline. We watched the pro’s go and than 10 minutes later its us: 6 athletes every 4 seconds. I was in about the 5th wave, run to the sea and dive in. Of course the goggles came off pretty quickly, but a quick adjustment and a phrase I learned along the way…JFDI (Just F***ing Do It) At the first mark I saw a white blob; well blow me down there are bloody jelly fish everywhere and with a 30 metre visibility courtesy of crystal clear Mediterranean water I can see every single one of them. I have never swam so fast in my life! Drafting is allowed in the swim, various people try and tack on to my feet for an easy ride, so it’s time to wee in his face! I managed that twice more in the hope I won’t need to go on the bike. Then a slow rubbing pain in my armpits and neck. Idiot! I knew there was a reason I was going to wear a different top as my wetsuit is eroding into my neck and armpits. Oh well, Dory would say just keep swimming and mind the jelly fish! I exit the water at 58 minutes having overtaken a few of the pros on the way in, and that is an awesome feeling. I averaged 1 minute 20 seconds per 100m for a 3.8 km swim, a good deal faster than I’d gone before. Into the first transition, wetsuit now off, and a second pair of shorts on (it’s a long ride), helmet, gloves, power bar. Right now I am 120th out of 3000 people. I can see a mass of white water where people are swimming and 2800 neatly racked bikes.
On to the bike. ‘GO PAUL” I hear from my Dad and brother in-law who by now into their first beer with breakfast. The only problem with being such a good swimmer is I now get overtaken for the next few hours. But I stick to the plan, drink a little and often and try and force a few “power bars” inside. Think happy thoughts, find the groove, wow there’s a nudist beach! Must look out for this on the 2nd lap and definitely something to keep the mind occupied. There are lots of crowds now cheering everyone on, and lots of nice bikes to gaze at. At the turn-around point I see my Dad again. With almost a tear in my eye, I am nearly there! The last 30 km of the bike ride felt like forever because of a head wind and I am now not able to eat due to the nausea of being hunched on my bike. My legs actually feel pretty good, stick to the plan, don’t go crazy. At the brow of every hill (when you’re looking your worst) there seems to be photographers, it’s almost as important to waste a few precious moments ensuring I am going to look good for the photos than concentrating on racing!
I rack my bike and give it a goodbye kiss, then change into running shoes, smothering sun cream over me as it’s now 29oC and hotter than the embers of hell. I try to start slow. The first 5 km feels okay. Yet another nudist beach, lots of people cheering and bands playing, I stop at every aid station and force full fat Coke© or energy drink. A tip here, of you ever contemplate doing a supported endurance event, find out which drinks will be supplied and get used to training on them! I’d had more than a few dashes into the woods getting used to various energy drinks as they seem to share pharmacological effects with Klean Prep. Some of the power mad cyclists are walking and I am taking some places back, but it’s hot. Mile 17 and my energy finally gives up and I slow down. I can see I am now failing to get near a sub 4 hour marathon target and would just be happy to finish. I force my legs every step of the way, take on energy drinks and keep pushing. Must remember to zip-up my top for the photo at the end as I look like a 70’s disco dude. At the last aid-station I can’t start running again. Hobbling becomes my preferred mode of propulsion and I shout to myself: “I’m an Ironman, I’m an Ironman”.
I turn the last corner, and saunter down the final red carpet – no Jonny Brownlee moment here thank-you. I see my Dad and brother-in-law at the finish line. I know my swim was good, I know the run was on target but the bike???? I hear the commentator: ‘Paul Charlesworth from England you’re an Ironman!’ I’ve done it. I thought I’d cry with the emotional release, but there was nothing left. I rest against a railing, and 3 medics arrive; ‘Are you ok sir?’. ‘Yes’ I said ‘I am an Ironman I was just getting my breath!’ I go to the rest tent for food, drink, and let the spirit that drove me leave for good.
I check my phone, seems I am a Facebook sensation! My final time was 10 hours 46 minutes. Oh my life I didn’t just do this, I smashed it! The three amigos then refreshed and re-fuelled in the bars of Barcelona.
This has been the most incredible journey. I think I’ve found my inner peace, I’ve found the Zen of a work, family and healthy life-balance and I am 12 kg lighter than when I started. I also raised £3,000 for the Children’s hospital at The Royal London in Mum’s name and I am now part of an elite with an All World Athlete rating and one of the top 10% of athletes having done Ironman. Will I do another one, absolutely! I am Paul Charlesworth, BAPS member, paediatric surgical consultant, father of 4 children (under 9) and an Ironman!
For those moved to compete, there are triathlons, there are Ironman events and there are the extreme ironman events, Norseman, Celtman, Swedman to name but a few. Good Luck!