Forum v Ironman Zurich: The Day Of Truth

The calm before the storm: (from left to right) FB, Lindi, Ratbag, Oxy, Zilla and Andy
It's all Andy Collier's fault. His inspiring report from Ironman Florida in November 2004 threw down a challenge for the forumites to try their hand at this grueling triathlon distance. Seen as one of the ultimate one-day endurance races, it's a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and a 26.2-mile run.

Yet more than 20 forumites quickly signed up. What's more, only three had taken on an Ironman before. Among two dozen newbies, abilities ranged from three-hour marathon runners to forumites who couldn't even swim and who didn't own bikes. "Most jumped for it without any persuasion at all, even if a few needed some inspirational beers first," explained Andy.

Despite a lack of experience, their enthusiasm and the encouragement they received from their forum buddies was enough to set them on the right path.

Eight months later, the final 27 had come a long way. Firstly, they chose Ironman Zurich on July 17, 2005 as their race of truth. Then came the team name, Pirate Ship Of Fools, and team kit soon followed. There was also the small matter of training to endure over the winter and spring – a minimum of 10 hours a week, combined with compulsory tea and cake with other forumites after sessions...

From complete swimming beginners like Suffolk Punch and Ratbag, to PB-chasers such as Monique and Andy, we've followed the bunch as they jumped aboard and transformed themselves into IM Zurich athletes. Some kept online training diaries and almost all compared training notes on the forums – swapping tips and handing out encouragment.

We heard from the Pirates as they warmed up at a half-distance race at Bala, Wales, then we joined them in Switzerland for the big weekend.

There, they began with a mini-reconnaissance of the bike course. "By the time I got to Zurich I was like a little boy waiting for Christmas, but with a catch," explained TC. "I could see my presents under the tree. I'd asked Father Christmas for a shiny medal and a big sub 12. The catch was that I had to pass a massive test of endurance." With the majority of the Pirates based within walking distance of the athletes' village, there was plenty of time for them to calm their nerves with a swim in Zurich's lake. The setting couldn't have been better, with the warm, clear water and the surrounding mountains acting as a fitting backdrop.

The night before the race, time was spent making last-minute bike checks, laying out kit, preparing race-day food and generally keeping the mood positive. "I found it really hard to sleep, I was so nervous," explained Jelybabe. Meanwhile, in a shared room, Lindi had to contend with Zilla's mobile phone ringing during the night, before joining the rest of the team and their entourage for breakfast at 4am.

Swimmers complete their first lap
As the sun rose and the Pirates and their supporters headed towards the race start, they were easily the most visible team in the race field. (Later, the yellow and black kit was cheered on by the locals.) But it wasn't long before the Pirates were pulling on their wetsuits, kissing their loved ones goodbye and heading for the start. "I've never had an experience like it," said Cartman. "I really felt we were all going to do something very special."

The commentator counted down from 10, before the 1500 starters plunged into the tranquil lake in a single wave. Ahead of them was a swim that would take some nearly two hours. "I started right at the front, but I soon regretted it. People were swimming right over me and I thought I was in real trouble," said Big Dave, the first Pirate out of the water.

Others held back and were unrecognisable from the shore as they headed out across the lake to complete the two-lap circuit.

Meanwhile, supporters swamped the ramp at the water exit, waving flags as they counted down to expected arrival times. One by one they emerged: Big Dave, Gus, TC and so on, until only Suffolk Punch and Dangerous Dave remained in the water.

Suffolk had only been swimming since November and knew this leg was going be hard. "I almost drowned when I was a child, so learning to swim has been mentally tough. I had to stop during the race just to get my bearings, otherwise I was going to panic big time." But with Suffolk within meters of the water finish, the supporters began cheering their man home. "I've had so many experiences over the last few months, but I'll never forget the feeling when I reached out of the water and a marshal took my hand and helped me out," said Suffolk. "It was an unbelievable relief."

That left just Dangerous Dave to come, and as he battled through the water with a shoulder injury, the rest of the field began their assault on the bike route. The three-lap circuit included hairpins at Heartbreak Hill and a long drag up The Beast, but apart from these climbs and the corresponding fast descents (some dare-devil Pirates clocked over 55mph), the remaining sections were pancake-flat.

Cougie in full flight
Supporters shuttled up to Heartbreak Hill and camped out near the summit. By now the temperature was creeping up towards 32°C. TC was the first Pirate over the climb, clearly feeling strong as he sailed past his cheering comrades. His 14-hour training weeks were paying off for all to see. Again, one by one they came past. Although the time gaps between them were growing, so were their grins as they saw the amount of support waiting for them at the crest of the hill. Lindi was the first female to reach the top. "I had a nightmare coming out of the first transition and crashed into the barriers," she said. But she was patently having a great ride. "Some people said I didn't have a chance of completing this, so it was great to be out there proving them wrong."

The Pirates' second lady on the bike course was enjoying this section too. "The crowds were great; they really helped to drag you up the climbs," said Monique.

However one Pirate was already on the ropes and had to call it a day. Dangerous Dave had struggled with the swim, but he found the heat too hard to deal with on the bike and couldn't recover after climbing The Beast. "My heart rate was over 180bpm and I just could get it down. I knew it was time to stop," he explained. But instead of heading back to the hotel for a post-race shower, he joined the supporters to cheer on his fellow Pirates.

By the second time up Heartbreak Hill, a few cracks were beginning to show, with each Pirate finding the race tough for different reasons. Flattening your riding position over aero bars means it's hard to take on food properly, and it can put strain on your back. Godzilla briefly stopped because of a sore knee, while others were simply slowing down due to the intense heat. "But every few minutes, you'd see another Pirate out on the course. You'd high-five, have a chat and that really kept you going," said Zilla.

"My first two laps were okay on the bike," Andy Collier said, "But on the third I could feel my Achilles go and I had to stop by the side of the road for half an hour. I was throwing up, but I never thought about quitting – I've been through much worse and there was no way I was going to set a precedent by pulling out." So like all true Ironmen, each one dug deep into their reserves to carry on. "I had to stop for two rests during the cycle," added Carl Barthorpe. "They really helped me carry on."

When Pirate Dermot met Andy Collier in his local gym and accepted the IM challenge he had no idea he was letting himself in for such an event. "I ran my first and only marathon in 1987, and it was the bike section here I found the hardest. My nutrition was all wrong, but I still loved every minute of it."

As the majority of the spectators began to thin out and head towards the run course, the Pirates' supporters faithfully remained on Heartbreak Hill and cheered on the final cyclists as they completed their second laps, before finally moving themselves and their banners down to the run.

Competitors now had to run 26.2 miles over four flat laps. But after six or seven hours on the bike, each mile was a battle in itself. "My body didn't know what it wanted when I started the run," said Monique. "I went through the aid stations trying to eat and drink as much as possible."

The lap-based marathon course meant there were plenty of opportunities for Pirates to encourage each other and to hear encouraging words from their supporters and loved ones. "My Tish was there at the run start. It was a great sight after being on the bike for so long," explained Cartman.

However by now Zilla was now on his last legs, and with just 10 miles to go he had to call it quits. "I couldn't even walk any more and my stomach was causing me serious problems. But I'll be back to give it another go."

For another Pirate, the marathon was a completely new experience. "I'd only ever run a half-marathon before, and that was at Bala," said Avalaf. "But I've come such a long way since giving up smoking and changing my lifestyle in the last year, that there was no way I wasn't going to finish."

"The run was really tough, but I didn't think of quitting. Not even once," added Oxy.

With The Count the first to begin his final lap, it was time for the supporters to move onto the finishing straight. For five hours they nervously waited and counted home each Pirate. "I took about 15 hours to finish," said Andy Collier, whose PB is 11 hours, "but that's not a problem at all. I'm proud I finished. That was the best race I've ever done. I had a quick shower and some food in the recovery area. Then I was out there in the stands waiting for the others to finish."

Big Dave crosses the finishline
With under half an hour to go until the 16-hour cut-off point, there was just one Pirate still out on the course. Despite coming from a cycling background, Suffolk Punch had found the bike leg a huge test of will power. "It was just too hot out there and I really struggled on the last two laps." On the run, I stuck with an American girl who was in a similar situation to me. We drove each other on and after the first half-marathon we knew we had a chance of making it to the finish within the time limit."

With his wife, Tired Legs, nervously waiting in the stands and a handful of finishers running back onto the course to encourage him, Suffolk made it across the line with just 12 minutes to spare.

The next morning, as the 25 Ironmen finishers raised their weary bodies for an early relaxing swim, the talk had already moved from post-race analysis onto the next challenge - Ironman 2006.

"These forums have a lot to answer for," joked a relieved Tired Legs, "First they introduced me to the man I married. Next thing they're whisking him off to do this bloody race and put me through 16 hours of hell."

Was it worth it? "Of course it was."

Position Name Swim Bike Run Finish Time
1st Mauch Christoph (non-forumite) 51:37 4:36 2:51 8:21:50
339th The Count 1:09 5:40 3:52 10:48:51
492nd Gus220 1:05 5:47 4:21 11:19:53
595th Handy Runner 1:22 6:14 3:57 11:40:32
638th Cartman 1:10 6:17 4:12 11:48:25
759th Monique 1:12 6:26 4:26 12:12:06
840th Donut Heffernan 1:26 6:41 12:29:14
844th Lindihopper 1:19 6:13 4:51 12:29:49
922nd Big Dave 1:02 6:42 4:43 12:47:14
1008th MMmmm universal twinkler 1:21 6:16 5:26 13:12:57
1010th Fat Buddha 1:23 6:30 5:09 13:13:19
1059th Andrew Smith 1:11 6:38 5:27 13:29:29
1069th Chris Morris 1:24 6:30 13:33:19
1083rd Avalaf 1:07 6:30 5:47 13:37:29
1118th Ratbag 1:37 7:03 5:00 13:48:44
1120th Plebble 1:16 6:09 6:16 13:50:34
1159th Richard sillytoes 1:19 6:42 5:54 14:11:00
1192nd Garr 1:22 7:02 6:02 14:32:36
1197th Cougie 1:30 6:33 6:15 14:36:34
1200th Candyman 1:27 7:27 5:36 14:39:49
1227th Oxymoron 1:16 7:12 6:17 14:59:25
1240th Carl 1:27 7:41 5:47 15:17:18
1251st Jelly Babe 1:38 7:51 5:42 15:25:51
1280th Suffolk Punch 1:51 7:44 5:50 15:48:29
16 hour cut-off