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Ironman Portugal Race Report by Gemma Scott

The weeks leading up to Ironman Portugal I faced a lot of self-doubting of my capabilities to overcome my fear of swimming in the sea.

I resorted to listening to audiobooks and reaching out for professional help because I could not allow an irrational fear to consume me and ruin my race.

Swimming is by far my weaker discipline and since Covid emerged and pools closed I have struggled to get any sort of routine with my swimming. I would make excuses to not go to the pool and just kept putting off my progress.

My first attempt at sea swimming was at tri camp in March. Nervously I lined up in the bay with everyone else, shaking with so much fear. I was so grateful when the lovely Ali (who despite being an incredible swimmer, was also petrified) said let’s swim together. You really do not know how much that meant to me and she kept her word. I completed my first half distance sea swim.

We arrived in Portugal on Tuesday evening prior to the Ironman. To say the evening was eventful was a slight understatement. 3 bike boxes and 3 suitcases amongst 3 able people on cobbles uphill for a mile. Yes, I kid you not. Arms and legs were on fire by the time we arrived. Not ideal when you are supposed to be resting before an ironman, but lessons learnt.

On the Wednesday Craig built my bike and I took myself out for a bike course recce with friend Sarah (also racing the full) and Kev who was doing the 70.3. The course was stunning, but the first 30ish miles really were climbing so I knew what to expect. I followed it up with a sea swim just to get familiar with the course.

Registering really hit home that there was no turning back. I could feel a slight trickle of excitement building but the feeling of nervousness was beginning to eat away at me. I knew I had to keep thinking positively and it would all be ok.

Thursday, I ran the beginning of the run route to get a feel of the course and followed this up with another sea swim. This time Craig swam with me, and we went passed the pier and followed more of the swim course further out. I have to admit at this point I was petrified but having someone with me made me feel a bit safer. Safety in numbers and all that.

Friday came and we attended the race briefing with the lovely Paul Kaye! So much nervous energy in a room, but it just added to the excitement. It was a late briefing 3pm in the afternoon so I was beginning to get a bit panicky as we still had to rack the bike and hang the kit bags. Once we’d racked, I familiarised the swim in, bike out, bike in and run out areasready for race day! Time to eat, rest and get an early night.

I think I saw every hour of the night. Waking up panicked that I hadn’t woke up in time and missed my race. Before I knew it the alarm sounded, and we were up and on it. I got ready, stuck to the nutrition plan and before I knew it, we were walking down to transition in our beach shoes.

I said my goodbyes to Craig who told me to stay strong and headed to transition. This was a momentous change. Normally I have Craig there in transition to keep me calm and focused, but luckily, I had Claire, Sarah and Rob to support each other. I was noticeably quiet sorry guys!

 

We headed towards the beach and watched the 70.3 swim start. The sun was rising in the distance, and I couldn’t help but smile at the beautiful view. I was absolutely petrified of taking on that distance in the sea, but it just looked so invitingand I knew in that moment I was going to do this. Failure was not an option. I had worked so hard at training for the Ironman with a completely different approach that pushed me so much further outside my comfort zone. Rob kindly lent me a pair of ear plugs as I realised I had forgotten to bring mine with me.

Craig’s chip pinged to say he was in the water, and I knew I had to get going to my pen. Rookie mistake: they shut the road for the 70.3 swimmers to exit and run to transition. We had to climb over the anchor and walls to get across the other side of the course. Luckily, I didn’t fall or rip my wetsuit, something a clumsy person like me normally does.

I walked to the 1hr 20-minute pen took a last sip of my drink and gel and Thunderstruck roared out of the speakers. I said my goodbyes, held my head high and slowly shuffled forwards towards the beach. I remember in my audio book it said when you are scared to face your fear by standing tall with your head held high. It does work, the fear was slowly becoming subdued. I was controlling my chimp.

The bell struck every 10 seconds releasing a row of competitors. Nearly showtime, ding…. ding…. Go!

I ran to the sea, submerged and was off. It was a bit chilly 16.1 degrees, but the adrenaline took that edge of chill away. I immediately was on someone’s feet and tried to stay with them. It was carnage up to the pier, washing machine effect, bubbles everywhere. Is it weird I love that sensation, it’s really calming. The swim to the first turn buoy took forever, the sun was so bright which made sighting yellow buoys a little bit tricky, but I managed to swim buoy to buoy without too much hassle.

I kept seeing shadows on the bottom of the sea which freaked me out, but I kept thinking about that smiley face on the back of my hand. Before I knew it, I was at the turn out to sea. I had people bouncing off me as we swam against the tide and a few blasts of salt water in my mouth. It was so salty, and I was hoping this didn’t dehydrate me later in the race. Final turn buoy arrived, and I was now on my way home. I couldn’t believe I had swum the furthest in the sea and I was keeping my nerves together, who am I?

The buoys were all red on the way back and I was no longer swimming into direct sunlight, so this section felt so fast. All of a sudden, I saw what I though was a person swimming underneath me. There was this big white thing which caught my eye and I then clocked what it was. It was a jellyfish. It looked like a big moon table lamp, but it was enormous. I could feel myself freaking out, but I looked at my hand smiley face was there, and I thought ok keep swimming, get away from it and you’ll be fine. I was so proud of myself quashingthat irrational fear that before I knew it, I saw another one. That surge of panic was pushing to the surface, and I quashed it again. Confused but relieved I was in control of that chimp. I told myself keep swimming you can do this; you are strong,and the buoys just kept ticking by.

I never saw another jellyfish, so I guess I got off lightly. I could see the harbour wall and the Ironman Flag getting closer and closer. I was going to achieve the most rewarding achievement of my life, an ironman distance sea swim with jellyfish (to add to the authenticity) and overcoming my fear of the sea. Out of the water onto the cobbled ramp and I was off. Lots of people were walking up the ramp whilst I was just running to T1. I saw Claire just ahead so sped up to run into T1 with her. Pride was radiantly spread across my face. No matter how the rest of the day was to pan out I genuinely feltmy ultimate goal was complete. Turns out my swim was faster than the sub 1.5 hours I had hoped too so an extra buzzing feeling.

T1 I was straight to the bike bag, helmet on, glasses on, shoes on, bag hooked and off. Unracked my bike and headed up the steep cobbled ramp to the road. I walked this as it was so hard to walk in cleats. I was just over the mount line where I spotted Craig and Linds shouting to me, and I just smiled and told them I was good!

The first few miles of the bike were manoeuvring through Cascais until we reached the coastal road. It was stunning and ultimately a bit distracting. Sadly, I saw one guy in front of me crash in the first 5 miles and I knew I had to be careful.The roads were not quite as smooth as I had hoped and there was manhole covers and potholes to dodge. I took mental notes of the road conditions as we would have to do this again. The first 30 miles were climbing. They didn’t lie about this. I took my time making sure I stuck to my numbers eating every 15mins and drinking every 10 mins.

After the first climb another guy was politely admiring my helmet and I thanked him having a bit of chat as he passed, but the next thing I knew he was on the ground. This made me nervous, 2 people in the first 10 miles had fallen off and hurt themselves. I checked he was ok as I passed him, and he did get up thankfully. As I made my way towards the second climb my bike computer flashed up a notification….

“Stay Strong, you are strong and be proud. I love you!” Craig had put an alert on to keep my morale high and it worked. I was a bit emotional seeing that, but he was right I can do this be proud of yourself and stay strong. This alert popped up every hour of my ride. My hero!!

After the first 30 miles it was heaven. The descents were incredible, and I really felt alive. Eating regularly was helping my energy levels and I was drinking plenty too. Again, who is this person. The icing on the cake was riding on Estoril Circuit. An undulating course with so much history, gave me such a sense of gratitude. The ride to Lisbon was familiar and I had a few chuckles to myself remembering running Lisbon Marathon 5 years prior with my friend Andrea scrambling on the floor for oranges & politely being told to be quiet on a couple of occasions.

Anyways back to the Ironman…. the first lap passed quite quickly. I saw Craig and Linds about 10 miles from Cascais at the bottom of a hill (top would have been better) as I flew past them shouting, I am ok! Cascais was soon in my sights, and I headed out onto the second lap hoping it didn’t feel too much harder than last time. I stopped for the loo at the next feed station topped my fluids up and was off again. The hills didn’t seem as hard second time round. Whether that was a mindset thing, or I just was getting warmed up, who knows, but I was forever grateful I was still feeling relatively great.

Second time round Estoril and I got tucked down and raced the racing line. There were less people around this time so I could really embrace the track and take the racing lines. Soon I was at Lisbon and as I turned around to head back to Cascais, there it was a stonking head wind. Not ideal, but I was so glad I had my TT helmet on. I tried to stick to my numbers and just accept whatever the time would be it would be. As I turned to head into T2 I took a moment to be proud. I had achieved the time I needed to achieve to ensure I could have a good run. 7 hours 24 mins, my target was 7 hours 21 minutes.

Jogging into transition I racked my bike, took off my shoes so I could run better and headed straight to the loo. Surprisingly they were in good shape unlike Bilbao 3 weeks prior. I took my time in transition to make sure my shoes were tight enough, I had all my nutrition and headed out to the best part of the race in my eyes. I saw Linds and Craig waiting for me and so sorry, but I didn’t stop, I had a mission to nail a runoffthe bike of my life.

First lap I ticked off by walking every feed station, my legs felt good, and I just ran to feel. I did not look at my pace in fact it was on total time all the way around so to work out a finishing time I had to calculate in my head what I needed to do to achieve my second goal. First time around the turnaround point near the finish I saw my friends and it gave me such a big boost. I knew I only had to turn around that point once more than I was on my way home. The crowds and noise were amazing.

At the top of the hill, I saw my friend Sarah and stopped for a hug. We’re now poster girls for Stomp the Pedal ha ha! Second lap passed nicely by ticking those miles off one by one. It was getting dark and the crowds on the run were not as lively as the first lap. The volunteers at the feed stations were great though and one girl said to me, I don’t run but can I run with you to the end of the feed station as you’re inspiring me to start running. She was so lovely


Running down the hill to the turn point I got quite emotional, I’d knocked off 2 laps, I was on my way home and I had felt relatively great all the way around. I high fived little Maeve and the rest of the gang and headed back up the hill to complete the last lap. My stomach started to feel a bit gripey so I stopped at the toilets to see if I could go to the loo. No toilet roll, ok maybe not. The next few toilets the same issue so I decided to wait and get myself back to the finish. I had 5 miles to go and at the minute I was sub 13.5 hours something I have never been able to achieve previously and way beyond what I thought I was capable of.

I continued the walk the feed station strategy and before I knew it, I had 5k to go and it was mainly downhill. Last time around the harbour and I could hear Paul Kaye shouting you are an Ironman to other competitors. I had done it eek! Running down that hill I was flying I can’t even remember touching the floor. I saw Zoe and Maeve as I touched the red carpet and tears filled my eyes. I’ve done it. I did a flying jump at the end and YMCA was playing as Paul Kaye called me an Ironman. So, I did what any drunk person would do on the dance floor and did the YMCA.

I set some goals for the race

Survive the sea swim, overcome my fears and hopefully go faster than 1.5 hours…. Tick!

Ride 7 hour and 21 minutes….7 hours 24 minutes…Tick!

Run a faster Marathon than Lisbon Marathon 4 hours 39 minutes…4 hours 13 minutes…Tick!

Go sub 14 hours…13 hours 25 minutes…Tick!

Massive thanks to Craig for being so supportive & forcing me to do the sessions that hurt; Steve for changing the structure of my training to help me achieve the goals I set; Emily for keeping my body in good condition; Chelsea for helping me get the nutrition in check and Hope for teaching me how to control my emotions & fears. Also, a big thank you to my friends for supporting me, training with me and guiding me.


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