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The Virgin 140.6 Ironman Diaries: Leigh's journey to becoming an Ironman in Austria

While enjoying a Turkish meal in the Avtepe restaurant in Upminster, sitting enjoying my second beer and watching the sun go down on a beautiful warm summers evening. Discussing Triathlons with the very knowledgeable and experienced Havering Tri head coach Mark Billyard. During our conversations it was suggested that I could become an Ironman. Mark kind of explained what it entailed and I kind of didn’t listen. Before the evening finished and 500+quid later I had registered for Ironman Austria 2017. I believed that I could do it because I had just finished my first Tri - The Big East Sprint where the commentator that day said, “And it looks like the last one is out the swim” when I heard him I looked around and noticed that there was no body behind me. I rode the bike with a bent seat that busted my balls and came in very close to last.

I signed Mark Billyard up as my coach. He said, “You stick to my program and you will be an ironman in sub 14hrs” I said, “Ok show me” I ended up training anywhere between 14 & 18hrs per week every week right up until race day on July 02nd 2017.

Mark suggested Austria because quite a few from the club where also doing Austria - Mark, Lee Skidmore, Oliver, Brett, “The course is relatively flat, has a great atmosphere and is perfect for the first timer.”

The journey began, to me what that meant was simple. I had to get fit, I had never achieved anything in my life. So, I also need to mentally focus and mentally prepare my mind to win, achieve and never give up. The training had literally taken over my life. Training came before work, relationships and socialising. Marks program covered every discipline and I am glad we paired up because his knowledge and guidance was invaluable. I had a long way to go but was reassured by my coach that if I stuck to his training program and believed in myself then I would smash Austria. I did have a few hissy fits along the journey where I was going to give up. I just thought there is no way that I could maintain this training program. Mark reassured me and kept me focused.

I was swimming with KAS swimming twice a week because I could not swim. Kay Hamilton and her swimming instruction really pushed me hard, I was biking long distances at weekends and just kept running. Gary Carr, the club Physio, is my unsung hero - he strapped my body, repaired my injuries and helped me condition my weak body.

As the months go by you feel yourself getting fitter, little by little you are getting stronger and you slowly mentally believing that you can become an ironman. I was always going to become an ironman apart from one sticky little problem.

That problem became real within the last month running into Austria because I could not swim and to make it worse I just could not swim straight see below my Big East 5k swim that ended up being a 6.119K swim Grrrrrr, not funny!!

Now when you swim like this you start to worry about Austria and the problem with worrying is you get nervous. Running into Austria not knowing that I could swim 3.8K made me nervous, I could not sleep or concentrate. Everyone starts talking about swimming and your swimming and the more people talk about your swimming the more nervous you become about your swimming. I was even checking the water temperature in Lake Wörthersee and it was heading for a hot one. I was working myself up into a real fluster because that would mean a non-wetsuit swim. OMG I cannot do this in a wetsuit, never mind a non-wetsuit.

I remember on race day standing there in my wetsuit about 6am and I was walking around stamping my feet and physic myself out. Talking to myself, one arm after the other that’s all it is, one arm after the other, just stretch it out, long, slim, flat, get a rhythm and glide, it is your swim, you can do it. I would be staring at the lake and thinking it is me and you Lake Wörthersee. You look a beautiful lake, you really do but you will not be so beautiful if I don’t get out of you in time. I cut you off like I cut off bacon fat. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. I had to believe in myself. It did not help with this slow banging, drum, like a heartbeat. Like I was not nervous enough without this slow drum roll call.

I got myself in the last lane for I kind of knew that I would be up against the wire. Then you're off, it is a rolling start meaning that there are a few seconds between each small group of athletes. I quickly got into my stroke, I am not actually sure how I was doing. I just need to keep swimming, concentrate on my sighting, my stroke. To be honest I just did not think about getting cut off I just wanted to get into the canal which was an amazing feeling - the canal is the last 800m of the swim and it is well supported from both sides, the energy from the clapping and cheering crowds pull you along, then before you know it you are climbing out. I got out, I could not believe I got out the swim and this to me was a very emotional experience because I could not believe that I did the swim in time. I started to attempt the stripping out my suit and was the happiest man alive as I ran towards my bike even though I was still trying to get my suit off and lost my swim cap.

We all met up the day before, as we relaxed by the lake drinking and eating taking in the atmosphere. A real family feeling it was so nice because I had no family with me so I found that I could blend in with everyone’s families and this made the whole event something special.

The build-up I suppose slowly starts to become real once registered, seeing your name displayed, getting your kit bags and wrist bands then you’re heading over to the briefing tent. Paul Kane our host for the briefing plays it well he scares you and reassures you. I came out the briefing tent and my eyes are welling up the emotion of it all was just too much to take because this was it and this is where the hard work begins.

This is also where the experience of Mark Billyard came into action relaxing me discussing the event with me. Talking about what to expect, nutrition how to relax and enjoy it.

Marks Dad also giving me guidance and telling where he will be stood with Ibuprofen, Imodium, gels ECT.

The next day it all happens, we had to rack the morning of the race due to high winds in Klagenfurt. This was one additional extra hassle we did not need because at least if you racked the day before you had time to ensure that your bike was right where as in the morning you have a risk that you’re not vigilant and could miss something. Anyway, I set my alarm for 4:30am but did not need my alarm because I woke up at 3:30.

When I did get onto my bike I was thinking what people had said “Do not rush off, burn up, pace yourself and relax into it.” I was doing all this and people saying, “Keep your energy up, your nutrition right, drink this, eat that” Well for the first 30/40 miles I felt like I was going to be sick, I had mixed my nutrition up that much, eating my own snacks every 15mins, then feed station eating everything that was free .... “must be a Northern thing”

I did come around on the second lap, I looked at my Garmin and I was scheduled for a 7 ½ hr bike ride. This was not planned I was aiming for 6 ½ hrs. I thought to myself I better step this up and push on. Which I did and then I was just flying past everyone. Second lap, second wind and I was flying completing the 112 miles in 7 hrs. I was glad that my bike seat stayed level, I was also very happy that I was in transition 2. What?

Straight onto the run with jelly legs, support was fantastic, seeing that many supporters were totally amazing. Then there was Team Amazing, Nikki gave me a big hug and Spenno cheering on 'Leigh smash it'. I was on the run, can you believe it, at this point I knew I still had a long way to go but I also knew that I would do it. For the first 6 miles I could not get out of jelly legs then when I did get out of jelly legs I got into my stride and felt good for a while. I remember seeing Lee Skidmore which was amazing we stopped had a quick few seconds chat wished each other luck and carried on.

The run went out for miles following a train line then out to some estate and back again to the centre, there was loads of people along the route supporting, having a beer making the whole occasion a big party. Fantastic atmosphere as soon as you feel to walk the locals would pick you up spur you on, by this time at mid-day it was very hot and some local kids would be there with garden hoses spraying water at you as you ran past, others were handing out drinks and sweets. Back near the main centre around the park and off down the canal bank to the old town where there were many bars and parties. This is where we ran past each other, this is where I saw Liv for the first time she was as normal shaking her head as if to say what are we doing!!! The next time I came across Liv she was eating a bloody ice cream with Brett in the old town. I was like ah what’s going on…. Karen Wyndham Webb our friend from the Lanzarote training camp was plodding on and got a big cuddle of me as we passed each other. That was the good thing about the run in the fact that we all had to pass each other.

Running through the old town where the many restaurants in the square surrounded the run path. All clapping us through. We then head back to the main centre and it was a repeat for the second lap. All I can remember at this point is “OMG again” I had hit the brick wall and did not know whether I was running, walking or crawling. Now was the time to start digging in deep. This is tough and I just broke the stages down. Run the railway, out to the estate and back, the railway again, the centre again, down the old town which is only 5k away and 5k back. That’s it that’s all it is.

However, I was really struggling by the time I had got to the centre, I was struggling but I was never going to walk, only from the outside my walk would look like I was acting a run.

The crowds kept me going, seeing Edwina Skidmore and Nikki Warnes again pushed me harder, I got my second wind and before you knew it I was on the red carpet. The emotion wells up within you as you're running across the finish line to Paul Kane announcing... Leigh Graham “you are an ironman”

I slowed down, stopped, a medal was thrown over me, a guy was saying “Leigh, Leigh you ok” I did not know where the voice was coming from and I just said, “yes I am fine” Spenno was screaming at me and Mark was there to give me a man hug - I had done it. I was an Ironman!

The proudest moment of my life and I could not thank my coach enough for getting me to a level of fitness that as planned back in June 2016 a sub 14hr Ironman.

It was hard work, no one can take my achievement away from me. I had come a long way the whole experience had changed my life and I cannot thank you the club enough for the amazing support and positivity. I feel proud to be part of the most amazing club in the world. The Havering Triathlon Club I thank you all xx

Did I say, “That I am an Ironman?” ............................ I don’t really talk about it

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