A Lanzarote Ironman

By Bo Engelbrechtsen

Bo Engelbrechtsen at Club Lasanta, Lanzarote If you are going to do an Ironman (2.4 mi Swim, 120mi bike then a marathon) you might as well pick one which is renouned as being one of the toughest. Bo is a certainly a strong enough cyclist and runner to battle the hills and strong Atlantic winds but what about that swim? Read on to find out...

A long, hot day

Lanzarote. An island in the Canaries known for the wind, the hills and the hot sun. This was the place I had chosen to make my Triathlon debut – by doing the 2003 Ironman Lanzarote.

Why do an Ironman?

A question a lot of people have asked me..... Why??? I usually answer ...Why not? When I lived in Denmark I used to cycle a lot and do long distance races. After moving to London, I started to run Marathons. The Ironman distance seemed like the logical next step. I’m by no means a fast person (I hate running with lactate in my legs), and I prefer distance over speed – so Sprint or Olympic distance races didn’t really appeal to me. Having used the last couple of years getting good at running marathons, I didn’t want to have to learn to run fast 10K’s...

So there I was, having decided on doing an Ironman... and preferring hills over long straights on the bike, I also knew it had to be Lanzarote... So now there was only one thing keeping me from the Ironman... the Swim.


I approached Stephanie Ellis to help me with the swimming. At the time of making the decision to do Lanzarote, I couldn’t swim... In fact, I wasn’t even sure that I could float…This was in October 2002... So Stephanie was presented with the challenge of making me a confident 2.4 Mile open water swimmer in 8 months.

Ever confident, Stephanie took on the challenge, and we began the hard work of getting me used to the water...

Race week

A friend and I flew to Lanzarote about a week prior to the race (he wasn’t racing). We had booked a 2-week holiday, and the plan was to use the last week to experience whatever night-life Lanzarote had to offer (after all, I had been in training for the past 8 months). The first week was spend doing very little. We’d usually start the day with a 1-hour open water swim, followed by a couple of hours sleeping by the pool... I had a couple of 50-60k bike rides to get used to the wind, but apart from that there was little training.

Race day

Over the last couple of months I had spend a lot of time worrying about the swim...Would I survive...would I be kicked/punched...would I loose my goggles... But as race day approached I calmed down. I was confident in my ability to swim, and my wetsuits ability to keep me afloat ? I even managed to get a good nights sleep before the race (or as good as it gets when you have to get up at 3am)...

Lining up on the beach a few minutes to 7am, I coudn’t help chuggling a bit... I was about ready to do my first triathlon, and my first real open water swim, and my biggest worry was.....: I was afraid that I would be last out of the water !!! (how is that for an ego)

Race conditions

They call it the ”toughest Ironman in the world”. Although I knew this, I had ignored it. Working in Marketing, teaches you that every product or service needs to differentiate itself in order to create an identity in the mind of the consumer and hence make people want it. I figured that this ”toughest Ironman in the world” was a tagline – a way to differentiate themselves from the other Ironman races out there. Some races market themselves on being the fastest, some for being the friendliest and this, apparently, for being the toughest. It was in other words a marketing ploy, I thought...

Although I have no other Ironman races to compare it to, I quickly realised that this was not the case, and that the race conditions were far worse than I had anticipated.

Prior to this race, I had been to Lanzarote 4 times. Twice in March and twice in November. I knew the wind could be brutal, and the hills could get tricky. The race was in May – and the wind in May makes the wind I knew as Lanzarote wind seem like a nice breeze. Although this was a bit unnerving to discover, I didn’t complain...after all, the bike is where I’m strongest, so this would work in my favour...

The race

The swim was a beach start, with two laps of 1.2Miles swim, with 20 meters running on the beach in between.

I had chosen a position towards the very back and as far to the right as I could come. I didn’t want to take any chances. I was not the only one...It turns out that I quickly got surrounded by a lot of very nervous swimmers, some of them not sure whether entering the Ironman was a good idea.

As the gun went off, we started moving towards the water to begin the swim. Some of those I had been standing next to, opted to walk into the water, and then immediately swim right (the wrong way) I guess they were really afraid of getting kicked...I ran into the water and started swimming towards the first buoy, some 170 meters out. It took maybe 50-100 meters before I felt comfortably, but after that I had no problems. The buoys were tall and bright yellow, so there was no problem navigating. Passing the first buoy, I settled into my “Duracell” pace and started looking for someone to follow. In the end, I ended up swimming most of the swim on my own. It turns out, to my surprise and joy, that I’m actually overtaking people in the water...and at one point I’m even leading a 7 man group. Who would have thought??

Starting the second lap, I had was on my own again, having left the others behind. But not for long. I quickly find this Asian guy, who is doing a mix of front-crawl and breast stroke…He would do about a minute of front-crawl, followed by a minute of breast stroke...His crawl was much faster than mine, but he was practically standing still during the breaststroke. This meant that he would overtake me on the crawl, and I him on the breast stroke...really annoying, as I was very close to get kicked a number of times...Eventually, he got so tired that I could get ahead...and I never saw him again. I don’t think he made it onto the bike.

The last 400 meters or so, I finally found a person who had a pace, where I could draft. He was slightly faster than me, so he made me work for it. We started working together, and eventually exited the water together – shaking hands and thanking each other for the draft.

My race strategy aimed for me exiting the water in 1:40-1:45 minutes... I exited in 1:41 ! Upon exiting the water I give the thumbs up to Allan who was standing cheering and taking pictures... This was caught by the official race film crew, and in the video of the race, they have edited it so it looks as if I’m one of the first persons exiting the water...How very kind of them...

Starting the bike, I quickly started catching people. By the time I had left Puerto del Carmen (starting area), I must have caught the first 30 people...Things were looking good…Then it happened. I had the first of 4 punctures of the day. Just outside Puerto del Carmen. I must have been on the bike for 20 minutes or so... Obviously, this was also caught on film, but is not in the final video (guess I didn’t look very happy). On the bike again, I could start catching people once more – and despite my little setback, I felt good. My plan was to move through the field in the Fire Mountains, where I knew a lot of people would be suffering, then feed at Famara, before climbing the two big climbs, Mirador del Haria and Mirador del Rio. I quite like the Fire Mountains – in a strange sort of masochistic way...it is basically a very long undulating road (maybe 15 Miles) with noting but lava around you. There is no hiding from the wind, which is a direct head wind. In the video they are talking about winds up to 60 km/h.

I stuck to the plan, and picked up positions. It still looked good. After the Fire Mountains, you pass LaSanta, continue through Famara, towards Teguise and Haria. As planned I fed in Famara, where I was also passed on the bike for the first time (after 74 km). Shortly thereafter, my overtraining injury starting giving me problems. My back starting acking so bad that I could hardly sit on the bike...and definitely not in the aero position. Luckily, I had packed a whole pack of Ibuprofen, and that helped a little...but still, I was in pain and had to slow down.

Climbing the Mirador del Haria I had my second flat of the day, which didn’t make for a fun ascent. After the two climbs, you reach the very north of the island, and from there you have tailwind for a large part of the return journey. I had two more punctures before I could finally roll into Puerto del Carmen to begin the run. The time on the bike was recorded as 8:08.. More than two hours slower than planned.

The run was fairly uneventful, apart from that I had heard that the run was flat. It is a 5k out and back route, which you have to complete 4 times. On this route, which is the Puerto del Carmen beach promenade, there are 4 small climbs. But obviously, as you have to run the route out and back 4 times, this equals 32 climbs in 26 miles. I’m not sure where I heard or read that the route should be flat, but whoever it was, ought to be shot! At this point, I was completely out of energy, and ended up ‘running’ the Marathon in 5:10. Over an hour more than planned, and almost two hours slower than Rotterdam Marathon just one month earlier.

The finish line

It wasn’t really the finish I had envisioned. Because I was so far away from the goal I had set myself, I wasn’t crying with joy. Still, I was happy (probably due to the fact that I could now lie down and have a massage)...but as the days went, I realised that I should be happy. I had managed to complete an Ironman – and even the alleged hardest one...only a year after deciding on doing it...and even shorter since I actually learned to swim... So yes, I’m happy, I did it...but I will certainly be back in 2004 and beat that time with hours and hours...

Learning points..

Having now finished, I have made a few observations that will help me (and hopefully some of you) in the years to come:


I think this was the number one reason for not being able to finish in the time I had set myself……Hint: If you decide to run a marathon 4 weeks before the Ironman…don’t run half of it in the red zone ;-).


A little difficult to guarantee...Personally, I went out and bought a new, lightweight bike only a few weeks after the Ironman. Lanzarote has notoriously bad asphalt...An old, heavy bike like mine with heavy rims is probably more likely to have a flat (or four) than a lightweight bike with lightweight rims.


Do the bricks and test your food tolerance during these... As I didn’t do a lot of long bike rides in preparation for this, I didn’t know how late on the bike I could eat and still run without problems. Result, I probably stopped eating solid food too soon, and as a result relied solely on liquid food. By mile 100, these started tasting really bad...


As an old cyclist, (and a new triathlete) I relied too much on what I used to be able to do... I didn’t do the long rides in training, and as a result, I wasn’t used to being in the aero position for 112 miles... Married with my overtraining, this gave me some serious problems halfway through the bike section.