This Man Completed His First Ironman in his 50s
Neil Goulsbra, 52, was driven by his mid-life crisis and Covid to go on an incredible quest to compete in the Ironman race. This is his story
This journey started for me September 2020, no it didn’t, it started before then, I have been, in the past a reasonable athlete with a marathon PB of 3:23 and a 5k PB of 19:22. When I met my coach Luke Mathews, it was a few months after I crawled from Pietermaritzburg to Durban to complete the Comrades Marathon. I was untrained for that and overweight. The damage to my body and the lack of desire to do anything more strenuous than go to the toilet meant that I needed a kick to get anything done.
IM Bahrain 2016 fell on my Birthday so with 3 months to go I signed up with Luke at Optimal Tri. The ensuing years have been one of frustration for Luke, sometimes I would train and hit the numbers but often I would think life in bed was more interesting and lie there thinking sod it.
This all changed In July 2020, Covid lockdown had not been kind to my waistline. I had a bit of midlife crisis. As I couldn’t trade my wife in for a younger model, and you cannot buy a Porsche (ask me offline why J) I went and did what any self-respecting man would do I went to The Cycle Hub. New bike in hand I went to Al Qudra for a ride with a few friends.
Michael took a video of the new bike and sent it to me saying how nice the bike looked. I didn’t see the bike. I saw the fat lump on it.
This made me realise that I had to do something, Dubai is full of people who “just have the kit”, I wanted to “Justify having the Kit” I spoke with Luke and set about there and then to make some changes,
2019 had been a good year for training but the diet wasn’t where it should have been Feb 2020, overweight I managed a 5:43 PB at Dubai 70.3 This proved that although I am getting older, as Luke keeps saying there is an athlete in there somewhere, we just need to find it.
The main change was portion size and cutting out bread to start with and the weight quickly started to come off. You end up in a spiral, they are easy to enter but it’s not always good, we can spiral out of training very quickly, or we can spiral into addictions, I ended up weighing myself daily and watching what I eat.
This story then takes a turn, training had been going well, heart rate dropping speeds going up and for the first time in 5 years I had a happy coach. An email landed from Ironman saying that entries where opening for Ironman Frankfurt and Hamburg for June 2021. A quick call to Luke and he says it’s possible to get to the start line if I am carrying on in the same direction. 2pm comes and goes and the website crashes. After a frantic 40 minutes of trying to get onto both Frankfurt and Hamburg pages Hamburg frees up and I am there, I am entered.
After 2-3 months the weight was down about 7kg’s to 88, but plateaued, I went to see a nutritionist to try and put some science behind what I was doing. I wanted some advice on what else I should be eating and what my target weight should be. The second one was the most interesting as I had no idea, I am a big guy in stature if not height and as such didn’t really know where I should be or how I was going to get there.
After a couple of sessions, I was on a more scientific path of protein from chicken and oily fish, with a target weight of 77kg’s.
Life was good, targets in place dates in place things are going well. Some good results at the JLL Race ME Triathlons 6th, 5th and 4th in age group where a lot better than I have ever seen in the past. I am also waiting for Dubai 70.3 to open. Wanting to see what my newfound fitness and bike would bring.
I had a painful hip injury that stopped me running in November cycling and swimming where ok but no running, The next bump in the road was January, Luke wanted me to do a fast 10k and there was a local race, The Punjab 10K at Maydan so I entered, I was feeling a bit rough with the start of a cold coming but felt better as the week went on so decided to do it, This was an odd cold though, I do not get headaches, but I had one this week, don’t know why but decided to get a COVID test done.
I set off at 41-minute 10K pace feeling comfortable but at 5k the legs seized up. I could not bend my knees and lost a minute a k for the second 5k.
I got home to the results of my COVID test, I was positive!
This is a disaster. Hamburg in 5 months, Dubai in 6 weeks. What is going to happen? Am I going to shrug this off? Or am I going to end up in hospital? I have no idea. I started keeping a diary on Training Peaks just to give me some feedback for the future, as it turns out I was very very lucky and I got away very lightly, we still lost 5 weeks of training but recovered with no side effects. One thing that I wrote in the notes was that I was going to miss Dubai 70.3 which I was pleased about on the day seeing how much the guys where suffering on the run and that I would miss the Diera Islands Tri, remember this as it comes up later.
Training picked up but as the winter in Dubai turned to spring an email landed and IM Hamburg, due to COVID is moved to August 29th. Not what I wanted to see or hear. Hamburg only just fits in with the Dubai winter. Training through the summer was not on the cards. After a quick chat with Luke, we decide to continue, this pushes the training back and gives us the chance to get back what we lost due to COVID.
This also now allows me to enter the Diera Islands Olympic Tri. It was a hot morning, but I was looking forward to seeing where my fitness was. weight by now is down to 80KG’s I am now in jeans that I have not fitted in for 10 years and my wardrobe is full of clothes that are hanging off me. I don’t like shopping, so I am not interested in getting any new clothes.
This race was a total success it was very hot, but I finished 1st in age group, with the fastest bike and the fastest run on the day.
This has given me huge confidence as we move forward.
The training is getting longer and harder, the weather is getting hotter and more humid. The weekend rides are starting earlier and earlier in the morning but there is a trade-off between getting enough sleep and getting the runs in before the weather gets unbearable.
The problem is that although I am getting the cycle sets done, I am really struggling with the run part of the brick sets. This is really affecting my confidence. Can I do this. I cannot run 10K after a 4-hour ride, how the hell am I going to run 42 after 6 hours?
Luke can tell that I am struggling, I usually swear at him on Training Peaks, but there is humour in it. The humour has gone. We have a chat and Luke has a knack of saying the right things and listening when he has to, this helps, there are 7 weeks of long sessions before we start the taper, its only 7 weeks let’s just tick them off and get them done. That is better than the other options, 1 being defer for a year, the other is bin it off and never complete an Ironman.
7 weeks of 5 hours + on Zwift followed by up to 2 hours on a tread mill are ticked off one at a time. Before I know it we are suddenly backing off the length of the sessions. We are 3 weeks out, then 2 weeks out then 1 week out, 3 hours of training and I am finished for the day. The toughest 9 months of training is finally over,
I am down to 77.1kg’s I am fitter and stronger than I have ever been, I am swimming faster than I have ever done, I am not a fast swimmer, but I am down to hitting 2:05 – 2:10 per 100m This is better than the 2:30 per 100 that I was swimming at 2 years ago.
Race week is here, I am in Hamburg I still have no idea of what to expect, I know I have a happy coach, I also know that I have never been this trained for an event in my life, even my 3:23 marathon PB was derived through training that consisted of just running faster today than I did yesterday with very little science.
Race plans are written, as is the nutrition plan, I am repeatedly reading them to make sure I know what is needed, The basic plan is just swim, I don’t have a slow, medium or fast swim pace I just swim, sometimes I am swimming through treacle, sometimes I am swimming downhill. Anything below 1:30 on the swim and I will be happy.
The bike training has been going well, I have set myself a target of 170-180 watts, Luke says NP of 190 will be fine.
The target for the run is sub 4, so 5:40 per K or sub 145 HR are the targets.
20 minutes to go, and we are walking to the start, I put myself in the 1:15 to 1:25 pen This will be a great time if I can hit it.
The gun goes off and………………… Nothing!!!!!! They let 3 people start at a time and we stand there waiting, and waiting, all I could think of is hurry up and wait,
Eventually they release my pen and I push my way to the front, I want to try and get on the feet of a faster swimmer to see what happens. The swim is in the Alster Lake, fresh water it looks cold, and murky, the line is moving and at 7:15 I am the next to go. 5 4 3 2 1 go. Ironman Hamburg for me has started.
The guy in front of me is fannying around so I run around him and launch myself into the lake, in my mind I look like Jonathon Brownlee launching himself into the swim in a relay event, the reality is probably more like a pooch launching itself into a dirty stream. But I am off, there are no feet in front of me but I am reaching forward, pressing down to catch the water and pulling all the way back, the water is calm and sighting is easy.
I have never been a swimmer, but I tolerate pool swimming as there is a reference of speed from the lengths and the tiles on the bottom. Open water swimming is a different mater, there are no visual cues regarding speed, so I get bored and stop reaching for each stroke. This didn’t happen on this swim as every time I sighted the buoy’s looked closer, I was also aware that I was over taking people.
The swim course is an out and back route, we swim under a bridge that in a few hours I will also be running under, before running over, I have a visual reference that I am moving again as I breath not only am I moving but I am moving quickly, for me but quickly.
I look up and there is the finish not sure how that happened, but I am there, I am on the ramp, volunteers helping me up, I am not hyper ventilating, and I am in control, the worst bit is over, I hit the lap button on the Garmin, 1:22, including 2 wee stops. That is faster than double my fastest 70.3 swim times, if I didn’t have to stop, no I cannot wee while swimming, I tried, I would have broken 1:20!!!!.
It is a long run to transition then an even longer run to T1 exit, the bike starts with a downhill into an underpass. I am at 250 watts 43kph, This feels easy, but then it should. The bike course is 3 laps heading southeast from Hamburg. The route takes us along the River Elber. It is wet and windy with a tail wind on the way out. Unfortunately, that means a head wind on the way back. The strategy is to take the free speed on the way out and hit the power numbers on the way back into the wind. There are 3 uneventful laps. Averaging 34kph eating every 20 minutes. Head down keeping aero keep pedalling. Even manage a flying dismount into T2.
Bloody hell the legs hurt how am I going to run 42K? as with T1 T2 is uneventful, clean dry socks and my Asics Tri Noosa shoes are on, that feels nice the first time since 7am my feet are dry.
I am off, the support on the course is loud, targets are 5:40 per K or sub 145 BPM heart rate. The legs are heavy, but they are working, I am looking at the HR and it is steady the legs are ok so I keep going.
The 4K timing mat is crossed in 19 minutes, this is way to fast It feels easy, but it is to fast. So, I make a conscious effort to slow down. This had a huge psychological effect, the first 4K felt easy, backing the pace off made it even easier. The race plan was to pick up nutrition on the run as required, the problem was that I stuffed a load of gels in my tri suit and that was bouncing up and down. This got to the point that I just ditched it, I left a couple of gels in my suit just in case.
I hit halfway 16 minutes faster than my previous 70.3 IM PB (Bahrain 2016). The third of 4 laps started to hurt, there where twinges from both IT Bands, but the faded as quickly as they arrived, the right ankle hurt as well. None of it was painful but niggles that where there, and if not controlled could cause issues. Heart rate was still under control, so I used the opportunity to analyse my running gait I realised that I had started to shuffle, I was slouching, and my head had dropped. Started to tell myself that I needed to lift my head and shoulders and lift the legs. This helped more than I thought it would, the pace picked up slightly and the heart rate stayed the same. I am working out what time I will do if I maintain this pace, this will be my 3rd fastest Marathon of all time!!! Don’t worry, there are bigger goals than fast marathon times, we have all seen the videos of runners collapsing and needing help to finish. That is not an option. That is not a fast way to finish a marathon, I also haven’t at this point worked out how I am getting my bike and all the stuff that I triathlete needs for a day at work back the hotel. Without sorting the logistics of doing it without the use of my legs. To distract myself I start telling spectators that this is a f$&king stupid way of spending a Sunday, most people laugh, this cheers me up and makes me laugh, laughing is infectious, use it whenever you can, there are enough miserable people on the planet without me adding to them, and if I can make someone laugh on the way then it makes it an even better place.
The course is roughly and out and back along the west bank of the Alster, The crowds and support was huge around the start finish loop that was about 4 K The rest of the route was a 3k run out with a U turn and a 3K run back, uphill out downhill back. It is not a fast run course with lots of fiddly dog legs and u turns to add distance. On the drag up and out to the 26K point the legs are sore, I decide to walk for the first time, there is an aid station coming up. So I allow myself to walk ONLY the aid station. This is something that I find I need to control in myself, Lamp post to lamp post does not work for me, because there is another lamp post and another. Aid stations are a regularly spaced area and are pre-defined in length. I find it easier to follow this strategy. I am running through a tunnel of noise as I see the finish line Shute for the 3rd time. The chute looks like a desolate lonely place, I cannot hear the announcer, there are no supporters allowed in the finish chute, out here feels more friendly. I turn left and head past where I exited the Alster over 9 hours ago for the last time. The noise is huge, I start to well up, a few tears of emotion trickle down my face, I am on the last lap, 10.5k to go, about an hour to go, it is 10k, 2 park runs, but we all know that the hardest part of a marathon is the last 10k.
There is a change in strategy, I need to keep the legs moving, but not destroy them, I am going to finish sub 4. I know this but I am still interested in finishing strong. I decide that I will walk all 6 aid stations, I turn left to run along by the start line and there is the first aid station, I power through and pick up whatever there is to drink, it doesn’t matter what it is I am struggling and just want to take my mind off my legs, I keep telling myself that I do not need to step one foot on this part of the course again. The downside with looped courses is there are people on the other side of the course, but you have no idea if they are in front of you or behind you. They all look like they are floating they all look like they are faster than you, they all look like they are in front of you as well. You start to believe that you are last, I look down to try and focus on my body. Head up lift your knees, breathe deeply. I notice the wrist bands issued at the end of each lap, I have green, yellow and blue bands, I overtake another runner and they don’t have any, It dawns on me that, not only is this guy only 5K into his first lap I have overtaken him. I am still telling people that this is a dumb way to spend a Sunday, they still laugh and that cheers me up for a short time.
We are struggling now, I am having to really focus on my legs, stopping myself from shuffling, keep my head up, lift my legs, I finally get to the worst part of the course, we pass under the railway bridge running along hard packed mud, we can see the finish but they make us run over the top of the bridge for 300m do a U turn and run back, I can see the finish and we have to run away from it. At the end of the turn around on the bridge there is the 40k marker. The legs hurt, really hurt, nothing specific, they are screaming at me to stop. My tri suit has the mantra shut up legs on the left leg. They are not listening, they are getting louder and louder, dig in, push on, ignore the legs, there is 1 more aid station pick up the red wrist band and then 1 more lap. No, I am finished now, no, I have to get the red band then do another lap, that cannot be right, the legs are screaming, and the mind has gone, the Garmin says I have done 39K so I must be about to finish, I am not convinced. I am not going to allow myself to think that I am finished. I could not cope if there is another lap if I convince myself that I am finished, I do the final dog leg where I walk the aid station, I thank the volunteers for their help. Always thank the volunteers, they have given up their day so that we can race. Without them we could not do this. Next is the wrist band collection point, a ask the marshal as I approach him, “I have 3 bands. I now get my 4th do I then go to the finish, or do I have another lap” Bless him, he confirms that I am finished. The red wrist band is now on my wrist, I have 4 bands. I have 1000 meters of Ironman Hamburg to go. The crowds are still cheering. I look on the other side of the road and there are people still running, they are starting another lap. I am finishing. There are a lot of people still behind me. 400m to go, there are 3 girls cheering us on as we turn right, I smile at them. It has been lovely seeing them, but I don’t have to see them again. The road turns left in front of me and for 100M the bridge is packed 5 deep on both sides, the noise is deafening, I start to cry, then there it is, the fork in the road. Straight on now looks inviting, warm, alluring drawing me in, I can hear the announcer, I glance right as I enter the red carpet. I am on the red carpet for the first time ever, I don’t know what is happening, Arms are aloft I glance up and there is my name at the bottom of the list, N Goulsbra M50-54 10:38:50. I then here the immortal words “NEIL GOULSBRA, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” I am done, the end of a 9 month long journey.
I have imagined this moment, but I feel deflated, empty, dejected, it has not sunk in, I am passed a foil blanket which I cannot work out how to put it on, there is a 20m passage where the athletes can meet their family, I walk into the passage and the enormity of what has happened hits me, the emotion hits me, and I sob my heart out. I cannot stop the tears, I keep walking and try to compose myself.
It is over finally.
I sent Luke a WhatsApp message on the 26th of November
My actual times are
I smashed it. It was a seriously fast time, never mind for a first time, never mind for a 52 year old, It was just fast.