The Unexpected Journey to the Ironman World Championships
By Malakai De-Morgan
To give context to my World Champs journey I must go back to the summer of 2018.
That summer I fell off a box in a complete freak accident during a CrossFit class, completely rupturing my ATFL. Two emergency surgeries later, after the first one failed, I was stuck in my flat for 3 months straight (great lockdown practice it turned out) looking out at the record sunny weather with the words ringing in my ears from two separate surgeons: “It was really bad, so you won’t be able to do any significant impact sports or run any serious distances again”.
To be honest, the running part of that claim didn’t bother me. I was a really fat kid growing up (96kg at my max when I was 19) and although running had helped me lose most of the weight, I was a passionate cricketer and golfer which for me was both highly enjoyable, competitive, and sociable. To stop playing those sports, particularly being a fast bowler in cricket was hard. No longer being part of the team and just watching from the sidelines, I was just not as involved anymore, and I lost that connection.
I spent the days, months and years heading towards 2020 in gyms, trying to build up strength and in countless physios to get the movement & painless feeling back in my legs. With lockdowns upon us, I resorted to outside video-led fitness classes which quickly got boring but then as we headed into January 2021 it coincided with moving to a new house share in Fulham.
With the gyms still shut, I started to get jealous of two of my new housemates who would go off cycling for hours upon end during the weekends as I lay sat at home; I was desperate for the gyms to re-open. With me moaning about the situation and lack of fitness, it was my housemate Gywn, a keen crit racer herself, who suggested I should buy a bike.
So, I bought a bike. I never considered cycling to be anything more than a solution to commute to work or to pop around a friend’s house owing to poor public transport like in my village homes in Sussex can testify. But here I was, cycling for fitness for the first time in May 2021. I was a total newbie. In my gym shorts and t-shirt, with my trainers and flat pedals off I went with my “big ride” being as far as Kingston and back from Fulham. LOL.
At this same time, I tried running again just to get some variety into my fitness and to help keep the lockdown bottles of wine in line! I started easy with 2km, conscious of the surgeon’s remarks and if my ankle felt fine would add a little more distance each time managing to get up to 8km pretty pain-free. As the summer approached and with the stresses of fast bowling in cricket not possible, it was my housemate Gwyn, again, who suggested I should give a triathlon a go to help replace the competitive streak in me I had lost from not being able to play cricket.
But I don’t swim. I had never swum apart from during primary school when they chuck you in the pool and you must not drown for a bit, and then you get awarded a badge of some kind. I had once popped in a pool in Hillingdon but only ever swam 50m taking several minutes rest in between lengths and thought it was awful.
I liked the feeling of the challenge, so I signed up for an Olympic triathlon at Eton Dorney in July 2021 and managed to complete that in 2 hours 30 minutes; I had no idea if it was any good; I didn’t care – I just did my first triathlon and enjoyed it!
Having got curious and wanting to find some new connections near my new home in Fulham, I joined Ful-On Tri and joined swims, running and cycling regularly to build up my fitness specific to the sport.
I finished the summer with the London triathlon, placing 94th out of 2,200 participants at 2 hours 20 with the feeling that I didn’t think I could go much faster but maybe I could go longer. My motivation was never to beat other people, it was only to better myself and see how much I could improve to see what my new body was capable of.
And then that’s when the Ironman concept was first brought to my attention. I quickly scoffed at the idea of a full ironman: – “I will never do that, I can’t do that, those people are crazy”.
But a half-ironman seemed a mega-challenge and something that excited me. So, for 2022, I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Luxembourg. If it were to be my first and last, I wanted it to be memorable. And boy it was. With Kostas and John Smelt from Ful-On Tri, we attempted one of the hottest events on record with 36 degrees Celsius racing temperatures; it was brutal. Whilst delighted to finish it, given the temperatures, I knew I could do better for myself. So, I hastily signed up for the Ironman 70.3 Weymouth to keep costs down and to hope for the British weather to play its part. Whilst back in training for my next 70.3, I had first started to wonder whether a full ironman was possible. So, in August, I decided to cycle to Brighton and back solo, on one of the UK’s hottest days (31 degrees) with a 7km run off the bike. Finishing that, albeit with many emergency sugar stops, I started to think about the possibility.
With the British weather holding superb for the 70.3 Weymouth, which meant a relatively comfortable 5.15 finish and feeling fresh in the legs and wanting more, it was at that moment I knew 2023 would be the year I would have to attempt a full Ironman. My curiosity won. Searching for a European destination I hadn’t been to combine with an early season event so as not to impact my social life and a flat course, I found the European championships event in Hamburg at the beginning of June to be ideal.
There very much was a one-and-done mindset heading into Hamburg. In part because of the distance but more so because of the commitment. Whilst devoid of a partner & kids, I have many interests and passions (be it my career in coffee, my arts and theatre world, travelling, sports or my love of catching friends for a drink or three!). I was happy for them to be impacted in the short term to achieve this goal and to satisfy the deep fat kid and surgeon’s words in my subconscious but after that, back to normal life.
Heading to Hamburg I was ready, really ready. The Ful-On Tri training camp in Portugal in early February (of which I had spent an extra week) got me a significant head start thanks to the tireless work of Sophie Kirk for organising it and being there as a training partner and keeping me accountable to tasting the local wine options in the evening.
In the weeks and months after I followed a training plan to the letter with the Majorca training camp coming at the perfect time, 4 weeks out from Hamburg as my last big training week.
I knew stood at the swim start I was ready for my biggest challenge. I knew I could have done no more heading in and that much became evident as 2 hours into the bike, with my new aero bars attached to my climbing road bike, I was relatively flying. Unbelievably, I already knew at that point I would finish, and it was a case of how fast I could go. I couldn’t believe it; here I was looking at my Ironman time where a year before I was telling Piers he was crazy for wanting to sign up for an Ironman and that I had zero interest.
Don’t get me wrong, the Ironman wasn’t easy, it was long and came under 11 hours but at no point did I hit any doubt or mental challenge during the event. I knew deep down this would be a problem afterwards.
Heading back to Hamburg one week later where I hosted a work conference, I proclaimed to my work colleagues how despite achieving something I never thought was possible, I didn’t get the mental challenge I thought I would get. Honestly, I felt a bit empty and lost all motivation. I stopped all training for 7 weeks turning to my friends for support to carry me through the spare hours and attending copious amounts of bottomless brunches and late nights; it was party mode as I seeked something to fill the physical and mental void.
As I meandered through the summer, I was understandably being asked by club members “What’s next”. I had no idea. I kept saying that I was hoping something would inspire me. But nothing had. As I headed out to the Virgin Active Gym on Monday 24th July, I came across Piers (brightly coloured as always!) and proclaimed back to him “I’m sure something will motivate me, I believe in fate!”.but didn’t know when that would arrive.
As I headed out the gym door, I looked at my phone to see an email unopened. It was from Ironman. Urgh, another marketing email – let’s unsubscribe from this I thought. ‘Congratulations on your finish at Ironman Hamburg’ it read. I don’t care about my time I thought… but as I went to delete, I saw the words ‘You have received a slot for the 2023 VinFast Ironman world championships in Nice, France’. That’s a well-constructed joke I thought.
So, I messaged someone I knew who would know, Sophie Kirk. “Is this a joke?” I asked. “Nope, it’s real.” She said. “What do I do?”. “Do it, then you’ve completed triathlon”.
My motivation switched in an instant.
I knew I only had 7 weeks to prepare which was way too short for an average athlete who had spent the past 7 weeks partying, but I couldn’t say no. I asked coach Kirk to help me devise a programme to get me to that start line with the sole and only goal to be able to finish one of the harder IM events on the calendar.
Fast forward 7 weeks, hitting all my training sessions I was knocked off my bike 5 days before flying by a tourist who ran out in front of me one morning sending me flying and bending my rear cassette. Bruised and ego damaged I limped home for treatment and bike repairs with a sore hip and knee joining me for my adventure.
Arriving in Nice with the magnificent Sophie and Leah Walland in support (fellow world championship qualifiers) was Jonny Williams who was also competing which made for quite the Ful-On tri-party group!
Thanks to Sophie, I felt in the best place I could possibly be given the time available but this time I was apprehensive. Surrounded by many pro and semi-pro athletes whose job this is for a living, amongst the sea of expensively assembled TT bikes and gear, there was me rocking my sandals and socks combo walking around one of the only road bikes with clip-on aero bars there; knowing also in reality I was incredibly fortunate to be at this event.
Sunday 10th September arrived in a flash. The dreaded non-wet suit swim was confirmed with sea temperatures of 24.8c meant rocking the swimskin for the first time (thanks to Rich Harper) and off for the first time in a mass start swim of 280 age group athletes at once, bang on 7 am local time. It was chaotic but knowing it was a long day and I’d be one of the weaker swimmers I kept towards the back of the age group and largely out of trouble, avoiding for the most part being kicked or stung by the jellyfish. I did, not to my surprise because of a circulation condition, get cold in the swim (I know crazy) and by halfway both my feet and hands were freezing cold and hard to move. Painfully, I got through and off to the bike we went.
This was the bit I was dreading. I had only 3 times before cycled 180km in one go and only in the previous flat Ironman Hamburg cycled this non-stop, so I had never got close to cycling 180km with 2,500m of elevation non-stop so I knew this ride would be my biggest & hardest ride ever, let alone doing this in temperatures hitting close to 30 degrees.
It was hard. Featuring an 18km climb over 1,100 m 40km meant keeping those all-important matches in the back pocket for the rest of the ride. Reaching the top, the map made out it was flat across the plateau of the mountain, but it was anything but. It genuinely felt like you were climbing for the first 110km of the course and it wasn’t until 117km in did you finally start to descend at any decent rate. Just to add insult to injury, an additional 8km climb hits you at 130km in to keep it interesting before a largely down and fast route back to the finish. But I had made it, my biggest-ever cycle was completed!
At this point, I was just super excited to do something different by running. With the wonderful Sophie and Leah halfway down the out & back run course (dressed as dogs and blaring music I may add) I had a focus to aim for. The first lap of four was to plan and pace but as the afternoon sun, with no sea breeze or shade in sight hit, the pace dropped, and it became the mental slog I had been hoping for. The smiles albeit disappeared and the grind began. The course, despite being in a beautiful location, was super boring out & back along the seafront (even the Weymouth run course is significantly better than the Nice one IMO). It just felt like running on a treadmill with the exact same view with half of the course devoid of spectators, it was lonely.
Laps 2 and 3 were full of self-doubt and pain, but by lap 4 I had kept one spare match in the back pocket, and it was with about 10km to go I started to think for the first time that I would finish without having stopped.
With Leah and Sophie screaming at me as I stumbled down the finish line, I crossed the line in 12 hours and 45 minutes, a little over halfway placed in the field of 2,000. But I didn’t care where, I was just delighted to finish the hardest fitness thing I had ever done.
From never having cycled or swam for fitness just over 2 years prior, I am now a proud finisher at the World Championships 😊
“What’s next?”, I will get asked. My response right now is tongue-in cheek…
“Triathlon? Completed it, mate”