Blossom Fernandez: The making of an Ironwoman
Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles. Brag for the rest of your life.
—John Collins, co-founder, Ironman.
I have always enjoyed athletic endurance events and over the last few years, I’ve taken part in running events and a swimathon. Most people usually stick to one endurance event, so the fact that I swim and run as well is unusual. A friend casually mentioned the idea of a triathlon two years ago, and the idea stayed with me.
As a cabin manager with Jet Airways, I have a full-time job with odd hours and regular activities are difficult to plan. So my coach had to customize a training plan. This meant that sometimes I would be running outdoors in the afternoon in peak traffic. I ended up doing many solo bike rides. I had to dig deep for motivation to even train some days. And I trained wherever I found myself—Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Kolkata, even Amsterdam. Along with swimming, cycling and running, I did yoga, weight training, strength and conditioning.
I found a group of women triathletes in Bengaluru, all of us juggling work, life and training schedules. And that was all the motivation I needed. There is also a Facebook group that connects women triathletes and we share race information.
For the three months before race day on 2 February, I have woken up every morning by 5. I trained an average of six days a week, a total of 15-17 hours. I had suffered two injuries while training—a strained IT band (iliotibial band) on the right leg and swelling at the base of the right quad. A week before race, I had a swollen ankle, presumably due to water retention.
Most big cities in India host a triathlon once a year. I participated in the last one held in Mysuru on 10 September, called Tri Thonnur, and I did the “Olympic Distance”: 1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run. But the Ironman 70.3 World Championship is a different beast. It was created in 2006 with 17 events worldwide. Today it consists of over 85 events, with more than 3,000 athletes between the ages of 18-75 representing over 70 countries. Qualifying races see 130,000 athletes taking part.
At the Ironman 70.3 Dubai on 2 February, I was one of three Indian women taking part.
On the eve of race day, I drank a lot of water, coconut water and lime juice with salt to avoid dehydration. I had dinner at 6pm. I had been bingeing on carbs for three days so that I would have enough glycogen reserves. I slept at 7pm after a bit of meditation and a pep talk and woke up at 3.30am, fresh and ready. I ate my regular breakfast of rolled oats with apple, peanut butter, coconut milk and a banana. I kept sipping water till 7.
At the venue, I first checked my bike—tyres well inflated, nutrition stored on it and gear in place. Once you leave this area and proceed to the race start, you do not have access to your bike, so it’s important to check ahead.
I then headed to the swim start and did a quick warm-up. The water temperature was 21.6 degrees Celsius but it was windy and almost all of us had wetsuits on. I downed a gel (a food paste which contains essential carbs and salts for endurance athletes) 20 minutes before the race.
The Ironman follows a rolling start policy for the swim: Six triathletes enter the water every 6 seconds. There are different time slots for you to line up so you can pace yourself and not be pushed by faster swimmers. I chose the 50- to 55-minute slot.
A strong breeze and high waves made sighting the buoys and turnaround difficult. I felt like a rag doll being tossed around. A couple of triathletes turned back. It was hard to maintain an efficient stroke and conserve energy.
I finally caught a glimpse of the Red Bull “finish” banner but the sun was in my eyes and I had no idea how far off I was. I knew I had to swim straight, so I did. Suddenly, my hands hit sand, and, looking up, I saw the volunteers. I have never been more relieved to get out of the water.
I found my bike bag, and, after a bit of struggle to get out of the wetsuit, headed for the bike.
After a quick prayer to save me from flat tyres, I was off. There were 23 kmph headwinds coming at us. I climbed the flyover and had got into an aero position on the downhill when all of a sudden I saw one of the traffic cones rolling right into my path. A crash was followed by a fall.
The gloves and arm sleeves saved me but I had scraped my knee, and injured my elbow. I checked my bike, dusted myself off and started again. I fought wind and pain and managed to cross the second cut-off point with over 2 hours to spare.
I racked my bike, picked up my cap and gels and began my run. My legs felt heavy and the shins were hurting. I completed 3km in 30 minutes, a disaster (I wanted under 21 minutes for the first 3km). I knew I could pick up pace but I couldn’t risk running too fast and bonking (a term endurance athletes use when they feel they’ve run out of energy and can’t go on) at the end. I also wanted to be careful not to trigger my IT band injury. I got into a comfortable pace of 7.3 kmph and cruised, walking now and then. I knew I would make it to the finish line well under the race cut-off of 8 hours and 30 minutes, so I decided to enjoy the run, soak in the energy from the spectators and fellow Half Ironmen and end on a high. My cheerleading team—husband, sister, cousins, friends, uncle and aunt—was with me from start to finish, a huge motivation.
I had targeted a finish time of 7:30.00 and crossed the line at 7:26.41.
When my name was called as representing India at the finish line, I could not control my emotions. I was covered in sand, sweat, salt, tears, but I couldn’t care less. I had just become a Half Ironman.
The next step is to prepare for a Full Ironman, and I hope to do it sometime in 2019. In the meantime, I plan to participate in a few more Half Ironman events.
Would I do anything differently? Yes. Since this was my first Half Ironman, I did not want to push too hard on the bike. In hindsight, I could have pushed myself to run a little faster.
I cut out white rice, white flour, red meat, processed food, refined oil, packaged products, carbonated beverages and alcohol. One month before race day, I cut out refined sugar. Meals included wholewheat flour, brown rice, oats, quinoa, millets, fish, chicken, coconut milk, almond milk, one leafy vegetable, one raw vegetable, one cooked vegetable, fruits (predominantly bananas/apples/watermelon), dates and peanut butter. I drank at least 2-3 litres of water every day.
Post-training, I immediately drank a green smoothie (spinach, bananas, peanut butter, chia seeds, flaxseed, supergreen powder), followed by orange juice with turmeric.
—As told to Priti David
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