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Nigel Musto Ironman

Our CEO Nigel Musto recently completed an Ironman for the first time and shares his experience:

‘For me this has been a goal for 3 years. It started in 2010 when I did my first Olympic distance triathlon (1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10km run) at London.  I knew at the end of that event that I wouldn’t be happy until I had done a full distance, but it was going to take a little while to build up my fitness.

2011 saw 3 Olympic distance events and a middle distance (half Ironman distance, 1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21km run).

Every event is different and very dependent upon the terrain. A flat course is quicker and easier than a hilly one and long stretches of straight tarmac are faster on a bike that lots of corners and poor road surfaces, so it’s difficult to compare one with another. The 2011 middle distance I did in 2011 was north of Cambridge in Ely, so was flat and fast.

For me this journey has been about competing against myself, not against anyone else. It is always nice to see your position in the age group you’re racing in, and a top half result is always better than a bottom half, but for me it was about pushing myself to finish an endurance event. Part of it is about your level of fitness and your body’s ability to go the distance, but a very significant part is about your head and its ability to block out the pain (that you know everyone else is experiencing as well) and make it to the finish line.

This year I wanted to do a really tough half Ironman event and then go the full distance. The half I chose was on Exmoor in June, reputedly the toughest middle distance race in the world, with 1,600 meters of climbing on the bike course and another 450 meters of climbing on the run. I warmed up for this by doing another middle distance event at Belvoir Castle in May.

the swim start (1.9km)

The full Ironman I chose was in Kalmar, Sweden. I needed 10 weeks separation between the Exmoor event and a full distance to make sure I was fully recovered, could get in another 6 weeks flat out training, and then have 2 weeks of taper before the big day. Kalmar was at the right time, the course was relatively flat and the climate was likely to be reasonably kind (not too hot).

Training this year has been fairly tough. I have managed to pretty much stick to a program I set in January which peaked a few times at 14 hour weeks, fitting in training in the evenings and weekends mostly, with a bit of swimming lunchtimes a couple of times a week. The weekends made up the core of it, with most including 6 to 8 hours of bike and run work. My training log says I have done 3,870km of training since 1st January when I started – London to Moscow is only 2,500km – so I felt that I had probably put enough miles in.

The Ironman distance is a long way. 226km rolls off the tongue pretty easily but imagine starting in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, swimming across the Solent to Lymington, jumping on your bike and cycling to Dartford and then running to Southend Pier. It’s a tough day out.

Kalmar is a very pretty little seaside town in the South East of Sweden. On the Baltic Sea, the streets are cobbled, the houses are a few hundred years old and it’s overlooked by a magnificent castle. An island 5km offshore created a protected channel for the town so it has grown up as a trading town for ships going to Germany, Finland and Russia.

I got there on the evening of Thursday 16th, with the race due to start at 0700 on Saturday 18th. Friday morning I was up bright and early for a practice swim. Always worth testing the water temperature, which was a balmy 18 degrees. The water was brackish – fresh with a hint of saltiness – like the rest of the Baltic Sea, fed by the ice and rain water from Russia and Scandinavia but polluted by the salt of the Atlantic. No problems there.

Built the bike after having packed it into a suitcase to fly over, went for a test ride and little warm up for 30km to make sure nothing was going to fall off during the race and it all worked properly. No problems there either. Registered, picked up the race numbers and timing chips. All very smooth.

The afternoon’s job was to put the bike through scrutineering and rack it in the transition area. Transition is a very special place. 1500 bikes hanging on scaffold poles along about 30 rows. More carbon fibre than you can jump over, each one a work of art.

You exit the swim and run straight into the transition entrance. You find your red bag which you have racked on your peg number and which contains all of your bike kit. Strip off the wetsuit, put on the bike kit, wetsuit in the bag, bag in the bin, pick your bike up (finding it can be a challenge) and out the exit. When you come back in on the bike you rack the bike in the same spot, pick up your blue bag which contains your run kit, bike kit in the bag, bag in the bin and run out. It can get very busy and confusing, so one of my jobs was to walk through it several times so during the race I was doing it mechanically rather than having to work out where to go next.

Race morning there was no wind, a beautiful sunrise, and the conditions could not have been better. The temperature was due to peak at 21 degrees and there were a couple of light showers forecast later in the day. Up at 0400, a big bowl of granola for breakfast, race kit on. The race kit isn’t pretty. Middle aged men shouldn’t be allowed to wear Lycra but it is the most practical thing. Your race suit is worn under your wetsuit. When you strip off the wetsuit you can jump straight onto the bike and you can run in it as well. It dries very quickly and doesn’t flap about in the breeze. You just look a bit daft!

Down to transition, check the tyre pressures on the bike again, check the Garmin still knows where it is and the heart rate monitor is working and put the two water bottles filled with your nutrients of choice into the holders. Back to the hotel, wetsuit on and walk down to the start line. It’s now 0630.

on the bike (90km)

There must have been 10,000 people at the start, 1,500 of them competitors, but the rest there to cheer us on. Amazing turn out. A few keen ones are already in for a practice swim but I hang back like most of the competitors – the longer you spend in water at 18 degrees the colder you get and the more energy is sapped from you – today I need to conserve all that I can.

By 0650 we are all piling in. The start line is only 150 yards long and there are 1,500 on it, so we are about 10 deep in places. The music dies down and the vicar takes the mike for the “Iron Prayer”. Everyone has a little moment to themselves and then it all goes off again. Only a minute left.

It’s hard to describe a mass swim start with that many people. Carnage would be a good starting place. When the gun goes 6,000 arms and legs start flaying about in the water, turning a beautiful calm sea into what can probably be related to the inside of a washing machine. Everyone gets a few good kicks to the head, my goggles get kicked off but I manage to hang onto them and get them back on. After a couple of hundred yards you find a bit of space and can begin to get into your rhythm. Then after 500 yards there is a 90 degree right turn around a buoy, everyone converges and it’s carnage all over again.

I found that I was having trouble breathing and had to revert to breast stroke for a while. I thought it was just the panic of the start and the kicking I got, but when I went back to crawl I was still having trouble. After half a mile of this I loosened the Velcro strap around my neck to take the pressure off my throat and bingo, off again. Got into a good rhythm but had lost a lot of time. Stupid mistake. 3.8 km passed pretty quickly and we were soon exiting the swim. I had targeted a 1 hr 15 swim time but exited at 1 hr 23 due to the problems at the beginning. School boy error and a clothing manufacturer should know better.

Into transition, absolutely full of bodies, found a corner, got into the bike kit and onto the bike.  Up to speed and off on the 180km bike leg.

The first loop took us onto the island across a 6km bridge that’s normally a motorway. They had closed it for us that morning and it was an incredible view. Then off on a course round the island, back over the bridge and back into town, 105km down, and out again heading north on a 75km loop on the mainland.

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning the crowds. Most of the houses we rode past had the family outside, chairs and tables, barbie on the go, cheering us on. Cow bells going, cheers, horns, it was quite incredible. The whole region had embraced the event and wanted to get involved.

I knew I was pushing it pretty hard on the bike, I had a bit of time to make up from the swim. An average speed of 32.5 km/hr would give me a 5 hr 30 min bike leg, enabling me to start the marathon after 7 hours of racing which was my target. I ride to heart rate, wanting to keep it around the 140 mark, certainly not going above 150 at any time. If you push the heart rate too high in an endurance event you eat all your glycogen, build up lactic acid and burn carbohydrate. By sticking to a heart rate of 140 you burn more fat than carbs, conserve your glycogen reserves and prevent the lactic acid build up.

The plan worked. I did the bike leg in 5 hours and 29 minutes, averaging 32.9km/hr for the 180km. Happy again, into transition, into the running shoes and off for the start of my first ever marathon! This bit was going to be interesting.

Nutrition plays a huge part of this game. Your body is consuming about 600 calories an hour and it’s a 12 hour race. 7,000 calories is a lot of fuel to take in when you’re exercising hard so we tend to stick to gels. A gel contains about 32 grams of carbohydrate and you need to be eating about 70 grams an hour to keep up with the energy burn. As a result I was dropping a gel pack every 30 minutes, religiously. You can train with these things as much as you like, but you just can’t train your stomach for nothing but 22 gel packs over a 12 hour period. Some people react badly to it, unable to keep it down, and the result more often than not is an early end to their day. I am lucky, I can handle it during a race, but the reaction afterwards isn’t very nice. Hydration is another important factor. You are losing about half a litre of liquid an hour, on a hot day it would be a lot more. If you don’t keep putting it back in you end up dehydrated and your body closes down. Another early bath. My rule is that if I’m not having to stop for a pee every time I go through transition I’m not drinking enough. Thankfully I was.

The marathon is a tough event in itself. Doing it after a 3.8km swim and a 180km ride is very tough. It’s what Ironman is all about. Getting yourself to the end of the bike leg in a fit state to run 42.2km.

My legs felt good. I wanted to run at a 6 min/km pace which would give me a 4 hr 14 min marathon time. I knew I was likely to suffer and lose pace towards the end but I didn’t want to blast out at the beginning as this would only make it worse. It was a 3 lap course with the final 4 km of each lap weaving around the cobbled streets of Kalmar, by now packed with 50,000 people cheering us on. It is amazing what a difference a crowd makes. We all wore our race numbers with our names on them for the run, so as you ran around the town the crowds were shouting your name and pushing you on. Bloody fantastic.

finishing with the run (21km)

I set myself different goals on the run. The first goal was to complete the first lap and earn myself the green arm band to show I had done it. Only 14km round, it was a fairly easy one to focus on. Lap 2 earned you a pink band and this became the focus, but it was getting harder and the goals had to get shorter. There was a particularly good crowd of people at the far end of that lap who were having a street party, loud music, lots of beer being drunk, and cheering on everyone who passed. That became a mid lap goal.

There are lots of other little motivations as well. At one point in lap 2 I was overtaken by a young lady who wasn’t going much quicker than me but had the most amazing view from behind. That pushed me on for a few km but the heart rate was a bit high at that pace so I had to back off. Lots of other visions enter your head as you try to trick your mind into not thinking about what your legs are telling it. Grant Dalton had a bet with me, as he did his Ironman at the age of 47 as well, so his time was a big driving factor.

Pink band on the wrist and only 14km to go. By now I was starting to suffer. The goals had to get shorter. They had aid stations handing out water and energy drinks every 2 km so the goal became the next aid station. I allowed myself to walk through the aid stations so I drank properly without slopping it all down my front, but as soon as I passed the last bin I had to run again. Still on 6 min/km pace it hurt but I was getting through it. At 28km I was into unknown territory, that being the longest single run I had ever done before. I was dreading the “wall” that everyone said would come at 30km, but it didn’t happen. 31km, 32km, where was this “wall”.

It hit me a 36km. My legs just said “no more” and my mind wasn’t prepared to argue with them anymore. I thought of Grant’s time which was slipping away but still they wouldn’t go. I resorted to a fast walk for 1 minute and a run for 2 minutes. That sequence lasted for 4km, pace dropping to 8 min/km.

Then, at 40km, we entered the town again for the final run in. The crowds were shouting my name and pushing me on and I got myself back up to pace and ran all the way in. What a difference they made. It’s your head not your body that drives you forward.

The last 400 yards is incredible. A straight line down the main street, the finish line with the clock on it at the end, music turned up to max, an American guy on the PA system calling people in, crowd shouting your name and pushing you on.

As I came onto the carpet in the last 50 yards the music went down and the American shouted my name over the PA – “Nigel Musto – you are an Ironman”. Crowd go mad, I cross the line in 11 hours 29 minutes, knackered after a 4 hr 23 min marathon time. A very emotional moment. I even shed a tear.

After an ice bath and a massage I went back to the hotel, showered and went back down to the finishing area to cheer on the rest of the competitors. They streamed in until 11pm, the time limit, when they closed it all down and told the remaining few on the course that it was time to stop. That must have been tough.

It is an amazing event. It is a real challenge both physically and mentally. The pain goes away after a while, but the memory will be with me forever. I thoroughly recommend it.’

Share this:
  • Ben Reddy says:

    I don’t know why I’m reading about cycling, the pedal just came off my bike. Grr. Congratulations on your time.

  • Mark says:

    Like the blog.
    Would point out that Exmoor is not the toughest 1/2 in the world not even in the UK sadly.
    That prestigous title belongs to Wasdale Head in the Lakes by a long long way!
    Good report, heard Sweden was fast; we had a friend who did 9hrs 12 and he wasnt even in the top 20 for his age group!
    Well done on your achievements its great to know we share that same emotion.

  • L Knowles says:

    Why the guys on the tour can do this is because cycling does not beat your body up like running does. Your knees, feet and back could not take the pounding of running those distances day after day. But people do do 100 mile long running races.

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