Okay, you're sick of hearing about this by now, but this is the final piece of the story (and I had to get it out before 2011 ends and the clock resets so I have to find something new to train for)...

Written in capitals on the front of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is “DON’T PANIC”. I always think this might be a good starting reference point for endurance events.

When I entered Ironman, the plan started like this, and morphed over time, depending on the level of terror, the disastrousness of the last six hour cycle and the various intricate mathematical swim-bike-run-hurl-fall-over combinations I worked out on my fingers and toes:

Finish Ironman in or under twelve hours. No, scratch that.

Finish Ironman in twelve and a half hours. No, wait....

Finish Ironman in thirteen hours. Or maybe:

Finish Ironman. DON’T PANIC.

I swung my flights at the last minute to fly out a day earlier than planned. Originally I had thought arriving on a Wednesday for a Sunday race might be a bit early, allowing too much time to work myself into a frenzy. While it was great to travel out with Aidans H and C, and meet Team GTC out there on Wednesday night so that we all got to register and get our bearings together on Thursday, my premonition was correct. By Friday, a combination of carb depletion and chattering nerves was making me snappy to the point that I marched the gang out to the race briefing via underground train to the Eissporthalle in a dictatorial fashion, later refusing to part with my stash of walnuts to save a starving and also carb-depleted Fergus. Barry Murray has a lot to answer for.

I’ve been here before. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, reciting mantras and trying to slow my racing heart. This much I now know – at least for long endurance events – while luck helps, it’s all about impeccable preparation for what you can control and the hell with the rest. It’s still hard to control the nerves and the fear of the unknown. The Ballad of Reading Gaol kept creeping ominously into my head. When my alarm went off at 4am on race morning, it sounded like some kind of death knell.

Pre-race breakfast in the Ibis hotel: 4:10am. A couple of hundred anxious skinny athletes nervously chewing croissants and fighting in the coffee queue. We were ferried out via a slow tense bus ride 10km away to the Langerwaldsee for the swim start and T1. Packing food and aid for my first Ironman had been no small matter. I’m not a pill popper but with some advice from Pam, a 2010 Kona qualifier (I like to get my advice from the top); I’d converted my bike into a travelling pharmacy/ snack dock, with a variety of meds (ibuprofen, Imodium, salt) velcroed onto my top bar. The nutrition goal was a gram of carbs per kg of bodyweight per hour. I stuck to this carefully (read OCD memorising of the carb content of each crackly nauseating packet) but would later regret some of these many, many grams.

Waiting in transition, I was stricken with terror at the thought of the massive punch up that is the Ironman swim start (2000 adrenaline fuelled athletes, mostly men, penned into a small body of water). I ran around frantically asking people in French and broken Spanish where the best position to start the swim was, as if using a foreign language would somehow unlock the code that would make it all clear.

Swimming: the long way around. I chose the outermost position, quite far back, for race start, so that I could avoid the melee. I ended up swimming around the outer buoy on the start line to avoid a bottleneck and then....nothing. No arms. No legs. No bodies. My ears were full of the white noise of water, eyes of clear greenness. For a minute I wondered if I had somehow strayed into a parallel universe of No Ironman. I was on the outer edge of the pack, sure – but swimming in free space. I was mixed with regret at the lack of a draft pack and elation at the peace of open clear water. I got down to the long tedious business of swimming 3.8km slowly and with bad technique, in a very nice clean temperate lake. A couple of glances at my watch at the buoys suggested that I was indeed as slow as I had suspected. Still, I staggered out of the water, like the Thing from the Deep at 1:24, roughly the time I had predicted for myself. There was a bumblejumble of people screaming and cheering, in the midst of which I spotted Crew GTC, Doris and John.

The big question on the bike: What Am I Going to Think About for Six Hours Plus? I have to admit I was anxious about the bike leg. With a good taper the memory of the long century rides was already fading; not to mention the cheating pee breaks/ tea breaks on many of them. How the hell was I going to cycle for that time? I had measured and counted and timed and heart-rate-watched for months and the grand conclusion was that there would be no change out of seven hours for 180km. 35,000 or so turns of the pedal. I settled easily into the bike, setting the pace roughly using heart rate, and apart from underestimating the weather – it was cold and wet – the time and miles drifted by quickly. I had memorised the course so that I knew where the hills and milestones were (Heartbreak Hill at Bad Vilbel, the notorious cobblestones at ‘the Hell’, how far I was between drink stations etc.) One hour became two and then I had done a full lap and was cruising back through Frankfurt centre onto the second lap, and looking forward to meeting John and Doris to pick up my drinks at km 110. There are days when you race – good days, not that often, when it comes together. The body obeys, it feels easy and there is minimal suffering. This was one of those days. A strong head wind in the last 40km damped the pace slightly but I cruised into T2 feeling fresh and excited and scarcely believing the clock and that I only had to get through the run.

I need to divert to wax lyrical about our crew. I decided a few weeks before the race that I would use my own drinks and mostly my own nutrition on the bike, which was a logistical problem as there were no ‘special needs’ stations, which meant you needed crew if you wanted to be handed nutrition on the course. Happily, John and Doris stepped in – although they had come over to see John’s brother, Gary, race, they offered to do the necessary on the nutrition front. They took their job very seriously - routes, aid location, timing, Irish flags so we could spot them – and best of all, they looked like they were having a whale of a time, sneaking in a few beers while staying sober enough to stay on the job, and told us how great we were doing (no matter how bad we looked) on every cold, wet, rainy lap.

Onwards to T2, and to a kind lady helper who decided the most helpful thing to speed me up would be to tip out my T2 red transition bag. Out showered a plethora of Things I Thought I Might Need (having packed for 35degC heat, not the 14degC we got). Vaseline, blister pads and different kinds of sunscreen. More drugs. I threw on shorts, abandoned it all apart from some gels and salt tabs, and trotted onto the run course.

Running a marathon in 10km laps around a city was a blessing. I was elated to be running but my mind balked whenever I thought about the four hours or so ahead, so I concentrated on completing each single lap. Doris and John were stationed at the start of the run loop, and I was clocking around an hour per 10km, so, like a metronome, I ran ten minute miles and ticked off each loop back to the red carpet, a quick cheer from our supporters and back onto the course. I chatted. I sang. I waved at anyone Irish.

As time went on, my stomach (like the peasants) started to revolt. As planned, I walked through each aid station to drink water and take in gels. I drank Coke for a while. I had been looking forward to the allegedly near miraculous properties of Coke, but let me tell you, if you are starting to have gut problems, fizzy Coke is not ideal. Pain in your stomach? Cramps? Hmmm. Is something trying to get out or is that just a giant Coke burp? I took in just enough goo to get me around and wasted a few precious minutes on precautionary loo stops; pretty much stopping all food and liquids on the last lap as my stomach swilled ominously, and I figured that I could run the last 10km NO MATTER WHAT. Run I did, and though it felt like death march pace on the last lap, I ran exactly even splits for both halves of the marathon (helped no end by the cold weather conditions).

I crossed the finish line in 12 hours, 17 minutes. Then, with impeccable Jennifer Aniston comedic timing, I vomited over the feet of the volunteer trying to put a medal around my neck. All week coming up to the race, as we tramped around the old town, we had looked longingly at the finish line and the Athlete’s Garden. I had imagined some kind of nirvana, where we would wander around in flip-flops clutching sweaty drinks and hamburgers. The reality: pouring rain, a visit to the medical tent where I was quickly dismissed; a nauseated visit to the food tent for the advised chicken broth (stomach not ready for smoked frankfurters), more rain. No phone; no transport. Wet clothes. Threw up again, another visit to the medical tent (where they threw me out again and at this stage I was pretty dehydrated and miserable but couldn’t quite bring myself to blag a drip). The hardest bit of the entire race? Mustering the energy to pull myself together, pick up my infernal bike and wet, sodden, filthy transition bags and trudge back the mile and a half to the hotel in the dark by myself. I joined the Galway crew in the nearby Italian restaurant, and watched them enviously as they wolfed down pizza and I pined over dry toast and black tea (Italians don’t do dairy at closing time).

While I woke up the next day with pee the colour of tea (after a total nutritional recovery campaign of one glass of water with Dioralyte and the dry toast), a couple of hours of serious hydration and a massive breakfast and lunch put me to rights.

Advice for Ironman? I’ve always said there’s no wall at twenty miles; and neither apparently is there at a hundred and thirty five. Life is short, and the day is long, so don’t fret the small minutes lost fumbling in transition and on the course. Savour the many moments during the day as well as the glorious finishing line. Just remember to have someone waiting to carry your bike home.