According to my Collins Little Gem dictionary, the word ‘Iso’ means ‘equal’, and is typically used as a prefix to words like ‘Isochron’ and ‘Isotope’, which sound faintly sinister and suggest people in laboratories meddling with atoms.
This definition was news to me because the only time I’d ever heard the word before was when England footballer John Barnes used to drone on about Isotonic drinks in Lucozade Sport adverts in the 1990s.
That was until I heard about a new and exciting triathlon event, the Isoman – exciting because some race organisers had been in a lab of their own, meddling with the format of Ironmans to come up with the concept of ‘triathlon equalised’. Chief lab-based race directors, Gary Jarvis and Phil Walker, worked out that most triathlon distances seem somewhat biased towards cycling and running, with only 10% of the total race time spent swimming, 50% cycling and 40% running.
As a swimmer(ish) I’ve long had a chip on my shoulder that you don’t get equally rewarded for being good at swimming as you do for being good at cycling and running. For starters, you don’t get much of a lead for being a faster swimmer, people who don’t swim so well aren’t nearly as knackered as they should be when they get out, and bike legs become a depressing procession of the thwack-thwack-thwack sound of carbon wheels passing you. The aim of Isoman was to address this cruel treatment of poor swimmers and create a tri for which all disciplines demand an equal level of excellence/incompetence (delete as applicable).
The Isoman distances were set based on an equal third of total race time, which equated to a mere 61 miles on the bike but a whopping seven-mile swim. Oh, and still a bloody marathon. The venue for this jaunt was Arrow Valley Country Park in the heart of Worcestershire’s rolling hills, a mere hour from my house but a world away from the dull Midlands flatlands I inhabit, where the only way to inject some excitement into your cycling is to take unnecessary risks at level crossings.
With 12 Iromans under my belt I’m more than familiar with the usual format of race briefings which are carried out with the grim ceremony of a prison hanging, and transition areas which may as well be patrolled by an armed lion. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by the informal, laid-back atmosphere of the Iso briefing, and even happier when I found out there were just 49 hardy souls taking on the full Isoman – there’s nothing like a guaranteed top-50 finish to put some steam in your stride.
One of the additional quirks of Isoman was equalised transitions – a minimum transition time of seven minutes for T1 and five mins for T2, which happily took out the daddy-long-legs post-swim run and flinging on of kit, which I’m crap at.
The seven mile swim
The factors that usually enter my mind at the start of a race are whether the lake is the temperature of glacial meltwater and will I thus exit the water looking like a day-old corpse. This time though, the words SEVEN MILES are all I could think about, not just because the course is SEVEN MILES but because I know from a 10k training swim that my biggest enemies in a three-hour swim are dehydration and earworms – those unbidden tunes you get stuck in your head while you’re out on long training sessions. I prepare to combat the prospect of getting Gangnam Style or Tubthumping echoing round my brain by listening to my favourite iPod tunes right up to the start, but am distracted when I bump into my friends Kate Hutchings and Andy Waters-Peach (Peachy), who are both remarkably chipper for people about to meet their watery doom.
In fact, the assembled crowd of swimmers are all very cheery considering what’s coming and when the race gets underway it’s far more polite than any open-water race I’ve ever done. The course is T-shaped, with plenty of turn buoys to break up the monotony and which are all negotiated with impeccable manners, probably because everyone knows that a bit of jostling is a fruitless waste of energy.
Things turn livelier when the half-Iso-Manners get in, but overall I progress at the ponderous pace of a dreadnought, stopping every two laps for a drink of something that tastes suspiciously like Benylin. Apart from a slight tightness across the shoulders and a creeping concern about faecal coliform the swim passes without incident, and I’m enormously surprised to emerge from the depths in a time of 3:04:07 and fourth place.
The 61-mile bike
After dossing about in transition for my allotted seven minutes, and eating an energy bar which looks like a forearm boiled in yoghurt, I speed away on my trusty old road bike with tyres so inflated that potholes aren’t so much absorbed as battered into submission. After an initial short section on a dual carriageway, we’re off in to the leafy lanes.
I don’t mind admitting I’m absolutely flying! I breeze the first 35 miles to the amusingly-named Upton Snodsbury before flying down to Throckmorton. Then a quick right hand turn towards Fladbury, another at Charlton, then another onto the extremely busy B4084 and…. hang on this doesn’t feel right. I’ve been dutifully following yellow arrow signs… right into the middle of Pershore High Street.
There’s no experience more soul-stabbing than going the wrong way in a race. After a mighty swear, I ask Pershore’s shoppers to point me in the vague direction of Redditch and set off like Chris Froome if he really had an electric bike. I’m furious at having made a 10-tonne tit of myself but baffled at how I’ve gone wrong.
I don’t have a satnav on my bike – as a middle-aged man I consider it my duty to regard technical developments with alarm and bewilderment – so after a couple of wrong turns around Pinvin I’m extremely lucky to stumble back on to the course courtesy of André Blincowe from Oxford Tri, who’s also lost having missed the turn for the Iso Quarter and ended up on the long course. Exchanging horror stories, André and I arrive back in bloody Throckmorton.
This time I notice there’s no right hand turn to Fladbury – ah ha! It transpires that some stupid bum-funnel has put almost identical yellow signs for an entirely unrelated sportive out on the course, which sadly results in several Iso riders going wrong, many of whom decide not to continue with the race. In my case I’m too peeved to stop, and stamp furiously on despite running out of drink and ending up with a mouth that tastes like I’ve been chewing depleted uranium. When I finally roll into T2 the crows overhead start flying upside down because I’m not worth crapping on, and I manage a grand total of 79.4 miles instead of 61.3. I later find out that my time of 4:35:39 is the slowest bike split of anyone in the whole race. (But let me state for the record that I don’t hold the Iso organisers remotely responsible for this, the fault was entirely mine because it’s my responsibility to know the course.)
Brunty on the marathon, complete with cap to hide his ‘helmet hair’
The 26.2-mile run
Despite having five minutes to play with I take my helmet off and don my cap because after cycling my hair invariably looks like I’ve brushed it with a balloon, and even with my 18-mile detour I’m feeling sprightly when I heave off onto the run course. Once upon a time I had powers in triathlon running, but they’ve waned in recent years to the extent that I have to operate a reward system to keep myself going – for every mile run I give myself a Jelly Baby. (Note of caution – Bertie Bassett isn’t as generous as he used to be because there used to be enough in a bag to get you round a marathon, but here I ran out with three miles to go.)
A few miles in I fall into step with Sam Walsh, a young triathlete from Bolton who’s a lap ahead of me. We end up running together for nine miles despite me harping endlessly on about doing an extra 18 miles and coming out with quips that suggest I have the wit of a cardboard dog. Sam does a great job suppressing his smugness that he didn’t go wrong because he’d recce’d the bike course, and I miss his cheeriness when we part. It’s now a long, lonely run through Redditch’s grassy outskirts. But despite my steadily slowing pace and the solitude, I manage to keep running and chatting to any other competitors I see, such as Oxford Tri’s Nic Defillion who’s battling with blisters the size of my head.
My fourth and final lap is my slowest but when the finish line finally hoves into view I summon enough reserves not to look too decrepit for the photos and cross the line in 4:25:51 for a grand total of 12:07:51.
So there I am, an Isoman, albeit a not especially equal one. Having the fourth fastest swim and marathon leads me to conclude I may have sneaked fourth spot, but that would do a disservice to my fellow unfortunates who came a cropper at the road sign of doom and who may well have caned me further up the road. As it was, 10th place overall isn’t too bad after my wanderings and being one of only 30 finishers has given me a sense that I belong to a very exclusive club which, after pondering the number of bike miles I added on and the number of finishers, I shall call Club 18-30.
So a massive well done to all 30 finishers of the first-ever Isoman. It was tough, but a brilliant concept and I really hope it catches on. I’ll definitely be back next year – for one thing, I’m guaranteed a massive PB.