Help for Heroes Supported Challenge Team, created by Mark Airey at Headley Court four years ago, is made up of serving guys and support staff, including H4H employees. At 6 o’clock on Sunday 20 July (a date tattooed in my memory for eternity), 36 members of the team formed up to take part in IronMan UK. Some members take part in all three elements – swim, bike, run – others form relay teams and often compete with adapted equipment. Recumbent bikes and hand bikes enable those with certain physical injuries to take part in the bike element; racing wheelchairs give those who are unable to run the opportunity to complete the marathon.
To sign on the dotted line, commit to the months of training and confirm your intention to compete is one thing, but quite another to jump into Pennington Flash (the Lancashire lake around which we swam 2.4 miles) with the national anthem blaring, supporters cheering and commentators lifting the already impossibly high levels of adrenaline and heart rate.
Following the swim, a 112 mile bike ride around a newly-created route that still included the infamous Sheep House climb (1km 22% average gradient), but now also offered up ‘Hunters Hill’… a lung-bursting, punchy climb which, on the second time around the course, comes at the 96 mile point. This is a phenomenal challenge for an able-bodied individual on a regular road bike. To complete the cycle on a hand bike, recumbent or adapted road bike is extraordinary.
Digging deep never had such meaning! The final 16 miles were a race to meet the cut off i.e the cumulative time of swim and cycle that must not be more than 10 hours 30 minutes. The emotional strain of knowing that we could not progress to the run if we failed to meet this goal was telling: having crossed the line with just one minute to spare, the pressure and effort got the better of a couple of us, and we ran to the next stage with tears streaming down our faces.
We were then left with 6 hours 19 minutes in which to complete a marathon. Over six hours to run 26 miles? Piece of cake you say…not with blisters the size of walnuts on the balls and heels of your feet and 26 degree heat! It was agony – just, I imagine, like running on broken glass.
We pounded the Bolton streets with pain in our bodies, fear in our hearts and desperation in our eyes. The thought of not finishing was unbearable. As the hours passed, the number of athletes dwindled and the light began to fade. On collection of the last coloured arm band to show we had entered the final lap of the course, the realisation struck (again) that this was the closest I had cut anything in my life – Mark Airey told me we had 40 minutes to complete just over 3 miles. The strategy was simple: run five traffic cones, walk three. By this time, most of the wounded guys and girls had finished, and were waiting at the finish line!
For the final three miles I watched the feet of Mark and BattleBack’s Roger Coates, marching and running, and visualised the blokes on the finish line who had achieved what most would say was unachievable. They epitomised the meaning of the word 'hero', and the thought of them enabled me to shuffle my way to the finish line.
I’ve never experienced anything like the noise, cheering, flashing lights and encouragement on the faces of the supporters. With two minutes and one second to spare, I heard the words ‘YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!’ and, as I crossed the line, I could see the faces of the many TeamTrueSpirit members who earlier that evening had themselves heard those same words. The pride and feeling of achievement was overwhelming; pride for being lucky enough to be associated with such an incredibly special group of people and to have shared in their adventure, and achievement for everyone involved.
Inspire, enable, support.