The Couch Potato Beginning
My name is Anna Bastek and I'd like to share my reflections on my 'Couch Potato to Ironman in One Year' journey. I'd never competed in any sport before, I had a phobia of putting my face under water, I couldn't run a mile and I have a spinal problem - scoliosis. I was petrified of the bike, and the thought of having to clip onto the pedals on a busy road filled me with dread.
Ironman triathlon is one of the toughest endurance events consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a marathon to finish off, all within 16 hours. I signed up for Ironman Kalmar not really understanding what was involved. I did it because friends convinced me. I didn't know from the start what would happen. Will I get injured? Will I hate the training? One thing I knew was that I would give 100% and, whatever happens, I would have no regrets.
I could have stayed on the sofa with a warm drink, but that's not me. I wanted more from life. I wanted to push the boundaries. This also gave me an opportunity to test myself for a good cause. As it was my translation services business Wolfestone's 10th birthday this year, we set ourselves a challenge of raising £10,000 for Tenovus Cancer Care, a charity close to my heart because I lost my dad to cancer.
Most people said to me that it would be near impossible to complete the Ironman triathlon with only one year to prepare and it also wouldn’t be a sensible thing to do. They said I needed 2-3 years of training to develop the cycling technique and muscles needed to be able to complete the Ironman within the cut-off time. I didn't believe them and convinced myself I could do it in a year. I started calling myself a triathlete. I also bought myself a road bike.
The Journey Begins
I got myself a coach and started training. During all my cycling training sessions my training buddies had to wait for me on top of each hill and I felt really embarrassed about it. I was always the worst! But this is something my dad told me: “Daughter, don't be average, be the best or the worst!”
My front crawl skills were non-existent, and I even failed my PADI diving course as I couldn't take off the mask underwater and clear it. It was the only exam I failed in my life and I actually believed I couldn't do it. Even the swimming instructor said I would never be able to overcome this fear – I'm just one of 'those people'. As an A student, this was a hard thing for me to accept, and now looking back on it, I can’t believe that I began to believe it.
My first sprint triathlon I did breaststroke, head up with full makeup on. I was waving to my friends and poking my tongue out at them. They still laugh about how relaxed I was about that race.
Only after signing up for an Ironman did I realise that I had no choice but to learn front crawl. You don't want to tire your legs before the bike and marathon and it's too hard to swim breaststroke in a wetsuit. I had no choice but to overcome the fear. I started with a nose clip and it was horrible. I hated the water, the pool and my swimming instructor. There were tears and discomfort. But I persisted. Within a couple of months, I was able to swim a length, but I kept running out of breath half way through a length. My swimming coach made me take off the nose clip. It was awful. I was inhaling underwater and choking. Within a couple of lessons, I managed to swim a few lengths in one go. Although I still had a long, long way to go – 152 lengths in the sea! I joined a swimming club and was the slowest out of 30 people.
Although I still had a fear of the water, I was incredibly proud and happy of the progress I had made. I don’t know if I would have been able to do this without my coach and the 6 am club swims 3 times a week and my determination.
I completed my first front crawl open water triathlon in Swansea 2 months before the Ironman, and it was a complete disaster. I started at the front, went too fast and hyperventilated. I had to finish the race swimming breaststroke with my head up as I couldn't breathe. I was so annoyed but I learnt from this, start slowly and at the back!
Learning is Critical; Discipline Moreso
I found that running was the least painful of the three sports. I used to run on the beach with my little Yorkshire Terrier, Mia. She was amazing company. I later found out that Mia had an arrhythmia, so I decided not to take her for runs longer than 30 minutes.
I had to start running on my own. I didn’t enjoy running much, and I never ran in the rain. I would stand under a tree and wait for the rain to stop. However, after a few months I began to enjoy it more and more. I always had an audiobook or a podcast to listen to on long runs to stop me from getting bored.
Within a few months, I did my first 10k run. Then, my first half marathon. Despite awful conditions – heavy rain and hail stones – I was happy to have completed the race in under 2 hours. I was now completely hooked on running.
The training was getting more intensive, and my coach wouldn't reveal more than 2 weeks of my programme ahead. He probably didn't want to scare me!
There were times I really didn't want to wake up at 5am to go to club swims, or spend all of Saturday on a bike and followed by a 2-3 hour run on tired legs the day after. It really tested me and my discipline, but I had one goal in mind, to prove to myself that I can do it in one year.
I was also preparing my own nutrition: supercharged energy balls with dates, chia, baobab, almonds and coco. They did a great job on the long training sessions. The year of training made me research nutrition and I got really deep into it. My recovery times were really good as I'm on a whole food, plant-based diet. No, meat, dairy or eggs. Lots of fruit, veg, nuts and whole grains. Some days I was eating 3,000-4,000 calories, but I didn't feel guilty. I usually had 2 lunches. I was drinking 3 litres of water a day, and I cut right down on sugar. I felt great and energised, and I'm sticking to this diet and advocating it.
Relaxing Time in the Cotswolds and Tenby
I managed to complete a half Ironman distance triathlon in the Cotswolds two months before the big day. It took me 6h 22mins. I was chuffed. I also managed to swim front crawl about 80% of the way. It massively boosted my confidence. I did it the day after my 36th birthday. Happy birthday to me!
A month before the Ironman, I managed to complete a 4.3km swim during Long Course Weekend in Tenby. After the first lap, which was a struggle against the current, I was told by a marshal on a kayak that I would get cut off if I carry on with the second lap. I got really angry and carried on. This was just the motivation I needed. I was cramped up, frozen and tired. I managed to complete the swim just before the cut-off time. I almost collapsed. The swim had taken so much energy from me. Not only was it a longer than Ironman distance, but it was against a current that kept getting stronger and stronger especially the second lap.
The next day I had a 66-mile bike ride over hilly terrain. It was cold, wet and miserable. I was utterly exhausted, but I managed to complete it in just over 5 hours. I slept all afternoon. The next day I did a half marathon, which I actually enjoyed and felt quite strong. Maybe because it was sunny! I knew running was my thing, but I didn't know then what would happen during the Ironman marathon.
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Is it Over Before it's Done?
Five days before the Ironman I had my last challenge to overcome. Something clicked in my neck and I couldn't move my head. I had a few hours before the flight and I was in tears. I thought my dream was over. The entire year of early mornings, strict dieting, gruelling training sessions all looked to be going down the drain.
The entire year of early mornings, strict dieting, gruelling training sessions all looked to be going down the drain.
My partner managed to book me to an emergency appointment with the physiotherapist just a couple of hours before we left. I was in agony but trying to snap out of my misery. It was hard. I've sacrificed so much in the last year and now I won't even be on the start line. My mind was playing tricks.
We flew to Copenhagen, had a day there and then drove to Kalmar. I was still in pain and I had a good excuse not to carry my luggage and bike! Luckily two days before the race the pain eased and I was able to compete. What a relief!
Here We Go...
I went to the start line with the 1:45 swim pen and started very slowly. I began by swimming in breaststroke and tried to enjoy the swim. It was foggy and the buoys seemed miles away – the swim seemed never-ending. I managed to get out of the water in 1:40, which I was shocked by. I was expecting the time to be much longer.
The bike race was endless. We navigated 180 kilometres of quiet roads. A bit of wind, I was cold. I knew I had to keep my average speed above 25km/h. It was tough initially but on the way back the wind was in my back so I picked up some speed.
I went through a whole range of emotions on the bike. I was suffering a lot of pain in my foot and my bottom was sore from the firm seat, but seeing and hearing the support of the crowds was amazing.
Local residents were sat outside their homes and shouting Heja in Swedish. It was really helpful and motivating. My water bottle was covered in motivational quotes such as:
“You are an Ironman!”
“Smile and relax.”
“Don't be sh*t!”
By the time I was on my last 20km, I was seeing that a lot of the competitors had already started running. I was on my own on the road and I was struggling. It felt like everyone else has already finished. At one point I actually wondered whether I had gotten lost, as there was nobody else around me on the road!
I managed to get into transition. I was happy. It took me almost 9 minutes to put my trainers on, rack my bike and get running. The first few kilometres felt like the time had stopped and I wasn't making any progress, my foot was aching from the bike. I walked through feed stations every 2km. My legs were heavy. The crowds were amazing. I managed to do the first out of 3 laps and I had to run next to the finish line. It was extremely demotivating hearing 'you are an Ironman' when I still had almost 30km to go.
The second lap was mentally challenging, it was starting to get dark and most of the supporters were beginning to disappear. The pain was terrible. I couldn't run anymore and had to start walking. My mind started playing tricks on me, telling me I couldn't run anymore. I listened to it for at least half an hour. I was in tears. Then the battery on my Garmin said it was running low. I thought it would die soon and not record my run. I felt really down and in pain but I knew I couldn’t give up. I just kept going. I kept repeating my mantras and eating the energy balls.
Suddenly, I had another burst of energy and started running again. It was completely dark and started raining. I was cold. I couldn't see the path in places, only candles along the way. Even the ever-supporting crowds shouting “Heja!” had flittered away. I was on my own again, left to run with my demons. I was in terrible pain, I was tired and miserable, but I didn't want the watch to die!
'You're an Ironman!'
I could have walked the last lap as I had an hour spare, but I decided not to. I was getting closer and closer to the finish line. I found the energy to go faster, and the crowds were shouting my name. I knew I’d done it, I achieved my goal. Then I heard “Anna, you are an Ironman!” I was utterly exhausted, my mind and my body were totally numb. But I was relieved it was over. I crossed the finish line at 10:04pm which gave me a total time of 14:53, 1 hour and 7 minutes before the cutoff.
I was escorted to the ice tub but I couldn't walk into it on my own. I was too weak and in too much pain. The staff helped me and said there are paramedics available. I said I would be fine. My partner Steve waited for me in the athlete tent and I could see how proud he was of me. He finished 3 hours before me. I was half dead and not able to walk on my own, but somehow I made it to the car. The other guys had a beer, I just about managed to make a green recovery smoothie and collapsed in bed.
All About the Journey, not the Destination
It was only when I woke up the following morning did I realise just how much I had achieved. I felt an enormous sense of pride. All the sacrifices I had made, all the parties I’d missed, all the early wake ups, healthy dieting, and long, exhausting training sessions had paid off. I was an Ironman and nobody would ever take it away from me.
The whole experience wasn't just about athletic performance for me, it was about pursuing the destination and digging deep. I wanted to test myself, to push myself to the limit – and even if I failed, I wanted to see how I'd cope with the failure… but I didn't fail.
I didn't want to be the timid person who sits on the sideline, who doesn't know what it's like to dare and go through hardship.
What it taught me was discipline, not cutting corners and believing that nothing is impossible.
Written by Anna Bastek, Wolfestone's Ironman and co-owner
P.S. A huge thank you to my coach Rob, Rose and Terry from Triathlon Coaching Wales, Steve, Martin, Celtic Tri training buddies, Cycle Specific and all of those who donated money to Tenovus.