AFTER 32 years, Limerick’s Triathlon Club has grown like no other, as members make it to world stage.
Thank God! Those were John Deegan’s first words when he passed the finish line in the Ironman challenge in Austria last week, after 11 hours and 15 minutes on the course.
His next were: “Show me the medical tent, or a pint.”
This was his third Ironman challenge, but that didn’t diminish the difficulty of the course.
In fact, it was tougher than anyone could have predicted.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, it was the hottest day of the year in Austria, and the blistering heat, well into 40 degrees, would throw a few other curveballs their way.
After a year of solid training, and rising at ungodly hours to get in 25 hours of swimming, running and cycling sessions every week, in the final hour everyone had to re-assess their goals, and how they were going to tackle Ironman 2012.
It says something that two Limerick people - a 31 year-old man and a 56 year-old grandmother - not only survived the course, but triumphed in their categories and have made it through to the world Ironman championships in November.
As others downed their beers, incredulous and ecstatic that they have made it over the line, Mike O’Brien and Joan Griffin were already thinking about Hawaii, with less than four months to go to another heroic feat.
Speak to anyone from Limerick and they’ll tell you their journey did not begin overnight, and nor was it a solo effort.
The foundations of their success lay in the years they have spent with the Limerick Triathlon Club.
It’s a “personal challenge”, as John said, but it rests on the shoulders and support of the club. “Ironman isn’t something you do every year. It’s something you build up towards, and think maybe once in my life I’ll try to do this,” said John, 45, after his third Ironman. “The training is massive, and doing it in a group is certainly easier. You couldn’t do it without the support of the club, or your family and friends.”
Simona Coppola, 38, who completed her first Ironman, agrees. “Even though it’s an individual event, you rely on everyone you’ve been running with all along. There’s a great spirit in the club, and a lot of help and support”
But the climax of completing the course is something she won’t ever forget.
“It’s just a unique experience, and on the day you’re a mixed bag of emotions. When you finish there’s just a fantastic sense of achievement.”
Thirty-eight Limerick people, including six women, competed in one of the toughest races on earth. It began with a 4km swim, followed by a 180km cycle and then a 26 mile run. Now, the club is already inundated with entries for next year’s Ironman challenge in Frankfurt.
Mike O’Brien, the first Irishman to pass the line, rose every Thursday morning at 5am to do a two hour run before work, only to come home in the evening and do another hour and a half on the turbo bike. Then there were the six-hour bike rides on Saturday, another four hours on the Sunday, and swim sessions three times a week. He celebrated after the race by eating pizza - the first time he had eaten it in two years.
After four years of hard training he had many people to thank for getting him to this point. “My mam washed my gear on a daily basis and provided dinners to feed a giant every day,” he wrote on the club’s site after the Ironman challenge.
His said of his fiancee Ciara, whom he’ll marry seven days before he competes in the world Ironman championships in November: “You had my dinner ready when I came home grumpy and wet on a Saturday after the long bikes.”
Dr Mick Griffin, the oldest member of the club, a 61 year-old grand-dad, did runs of over 80 miles in the last few weeks before Austria. He also did some 2,200 bike miles and swam 290km in the run up to the event.
As he made his way to Vienna, the words of a relative came into his head “The die is cast.” There was no way out.
“You have to decide 12 months before and entry closes in a matter of minutes,” said John. “This wasn’t a race you could have blagged if you hadn’t the training done. My legs were never as sore as they were after that race. The energy is just gone from every muscle.”
By anyone’s standards it was a gruelling event. As the temperature of the water had climbed to 25 degrees competitors were only told the day before they couldn’t wear wetsuits, which could pose a serious challenge to their time and endurance.
“I felt like cracking up when we heard the news [about the wetsuit] at the race briefing. My head went down. The race was on in less than 24 hours and the biggest spanner they could throw had slapped me across the head,” said Mike.
He eventually calmed down, and went to bed, his head still spinning about preparation for the next day. “Every five minutes I’d turn on lights and write something else down, not to forget.”
Energy drinks, garmins, heart rate monitor - tick, tick, tick. It wasn’t long before his alarm went off at 3.30am.
He had two bowls of porridge, with bread and jam, and he was ready. By 7am, the race was on.
Mick, 30 years his senior, said he blocked out the temperature and the fact that he was sweating so profusely, and tried to concentrate on other things - “the atmosphere, location, scenery, and that you are here actually able to toe the line, [that] became my mantra.”
John recalled cycling down one hill and feeling like “there was a massive hair dryer” blowing in his face.
The saying that the “race is long, and in the end it’s only with yourself” couldn’t be truer for the Ironman.
All the isotonic drinks, gels, bars and bananas wouldn’t get them across the finishing line if they weren’t physically, emotionally and mentally prepared.
“With everyone divided into age groups, there’s a series of battles and races going on within one race,” said John.
He remembered running past a group of people stretched out on the lawn drinking beer, thinking “This is torture”. He looked around to see if anyone was dropping out, thinking he might do the same, but it soon passed.
While competing in any of the Ironman challenges is a monumental feat, that is not the be-all and end-all of the club, for whom many have an inseparable attachment. Generations of families across Limerick have been members of the club, which was founded in 1980 with just four dedicated members.
Now it has grown to 250 members, and is recognised as being one of the most popular and strongest clubs in Limerick, if not the country.
“The club is like being in a family. You’d never be on your own if you were in the triathlon club. There’s young, old, male and female. It’s a network of people that would do absolutely anything for you. It’s all about the strength of the club. Whole families have grown up with it. I know I’ll never get away from it,” said one club member.
Each June the club makes it’s annual pilgrimage to Kilkee for what has become affectionately known as the “Hell of the West”. It is the stomping ground of Limerick triathletes, and now is regularly over-subscribed for its 800 race places. Grandparents, parents and children are often running together over the same finishing line, irrespective of age and speed. This is what attracts people to the club - the inclusiveness of the sport.
Members and spectators can’t help but be smitten when they see four year-olds taking part in the “Kids of the West” event held in Carrigaholt on the same weekend.
On the beach, kids as young as two often take part in the ‘Splash and Dash’, running the length of the beach, or as far as their little legs can carry them. Their prize is a t-shirt, Mars bar and a medal, and it means the world to them.
Then those aged five and up make it on to their bikes - complete with stabilisers - for the next stage of the competition.
‘Women in Triathlon’ nights are also regularly held in Limerick to entice newcomers to join the club, and try their first triathlon. Stalwart female club members meet in a packed Kilmurray Lodge hotel, and pretty soon they’re pounding the pavements in morning running groups with other mums, while their kids are in the creche or school.
The club, members say, has a galvanising effect on people of all sporting backgrounds.
Some may have been good swimmers or runners in their former lives, and have now rekindled a joy of their youth, even taking it on to a competitive level.
John Deegan played with Shannon rugby club, before getting his kicks with triathlons. “I’d say I’m probably fitter now than when I was playing rugby - just don’t tackle me! Swimming wouldn’t be my forte, but everyone comes to the club with their own advantage or drawbacks in a certain sport.”
What one person could lose in their swimming time, they could gain on the bike or on their feet, giving all a more level playing pitch. “I was just looking for something different to do when I joined the club 10 years ago,” John said. “I started mountain biking with friends in Cratloe, but we found the bikes very slow, with big fat wheels. Being boys we wanted to go faster. Now with triathlons, you could do something different every weekend, and be in a different down in Ireland every weekend too.”
The fact that people volunteer their time for free to run these events, and put in “trojan effort” isn’t forgotten by its members.
During the race, Mike O’Brien recalled John Dempsey’s tips for the swim - “Long stroke Mike, grab the water”, and laughed at one of his earlier sessions when he was told by Paul Kearney: “Mike, GAA shorts create drag, get speedos!”
He said he emailed coach and three-time Ironman Eamonn Horgan about nutrition, looking for a couple of pointers, and what he received back was enough to be staple together.
Eamonn, 35, from Monaleen, sees it as just passing on a few tips “because there’s a huge depth of knowledge in the club. It’s more a helping hand, like pass the parcel.”
A canoeist and adventure racer, he joined the club in 2003 “when I met a girl, as the man says”.
His future wife, Lisa Higgins, introduced him to the club, and now their two young boys, aged two and four, are already becoming “obsessed” by it. “It’s such a lovely day out for all the kids. Triathlons can be competitive, and very focused. Then you see the kids splashing about, the parents are proud and everyone is clapping. It is lovely.”
Like others, Eamonn said when he started he “didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing”, except that he was in deep water.
“It’s by no means impossible. People think it’s beyond their endurance, but they’ve probably endured a lot more in their working week. It’s all about balance, whether that’s your attitude in life or in racing.”
“There’s a great community in the club, that transcends all social classes. With over 200 people, there’s doctors, nurses, mechanics..you could take them all and create a fully functional town. It’s not about what you do, it’s about ‘How did you get on in training yesterday?’” With Ironmans now put on hold for nappy changes, the race is off, but by no means over. It’s just that he’ll have to compete with his wife about who gets their wetsuit on first.