Nicky Blackburn
January 20, 2014, Updated January 23, 2014
The Israman Eilat begins. Photo by Nicky Blackburn

I’m not an Ironman sort of person. Not even a marathon one. A gentle tootle around the Kinneret on a bike is about the most physically competitive I’m likely to get. But my 16-year-old son and my husband have other ideas about what constitutes fun.

So at 6am on Friday morning, I was standing on a beach in Israel’s southernmost city watching as hundreds of barefoot swimmers in wetsuits prepared to dive into the sea as part of the first leg of Israman Eilat, a grueling race considered to be one of the 10 toughest Ironman triathlons in the world.

If you go the whole hog, it’s 226 kilometers of swimming, cycling and running. The half Israman is 113 kilometers. You swim in a chilly sea in the bitter cold of morning, the first 20 kilometers of the cycling is a steep climb through the desert, and most of the run is straight downhill.

My family had decided to go for the half Ironman as a relay, and was splitting the sections between three people. My son, Daniel, was taking the first leg – a 1.9-kilometer swim. A friend of the family was taking the next leg – 91km of cycling. And my husband was doing the last – 21.1km of running.

It was freezing. They always sell Eilat as the place for winter sun, but believe me, at 6am in January the desert is cold, and none of us had brought coats.

The swimmers left in two groups, at 6:15 and 6:30. It was a beautiful sight. On one side of the bay, the sun was rising pink over the mountains of Jordan; on the other, a large full white moon was gradually creeping across the sky. The swimmers, in their black suits, hands and feet splashing, looked like a giant shoal of fish swimming through the waters of the bay.

Nearing the finish line. Photo by Nicky Blackburn

When I described it later in glowing terms to Daniel, he looked at me in disbelief. “It was hell, mum,” he said. “Everyone is hitting you with their arms and legs. You just hope that you’re not going to drown.”

This was the 10th Ironman competition in Eilat, and by far its most popular, with some 1,200 athletes from 26 countries taking part – 200 of them taking on the full distance, another 700 doing the half, and the rest banding together in relays.

The race began in 1999 as a small competition, and has grown to become one of the biggest international competitions in a country that has an ever-increasing number of extreme competitions.

This year’s winner was Petr Vabrousek from the Czech Republic, who also won last year’s competition. In an article on Slowtwitch, the 40-year-old said: “Everyone knows the climbs are tough… but today the desert side winds were brutal. Today there were times when I was riding hard but felt I was standing still.”

The first woman across the finishing line was the British runner Alice Hector. I watched as she ran the last part of the race looking for all the world like she’d just taken part in a short jog in the park, not a lethal race through the desert.

The MC on the microphone couldn’t contain himself. “You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful,” he said. “You came first and you’re still beautiful!” I wondered if he was going to propose to her on the spot. He wouldn’t have been the first. There were three marriage proposals on Friday’s finish line.

And my family group – they placed fifth in their category. After the shock of the race wore off – which took a good few hours – Daniel announced that next year he plans to do the half Ironman all by himself.

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