My Journey from Unfit to Ironman
It all started when I decided to get married back in 2014 and we booked a date for August 2015. I needed to lose weight for my wedding so I joined a Slimming World class and weighed in at over 18st. It was the shock I needed, I was a size 42 waist and an XXL top. I lost 1 and a half stone in 2 weeks and I felt so much better and had more energy. Within 3 months I had lost around 3 stone and was doing great.
I started to think I needed to exercise to help with the weight loss and loose skin that may start to appear. I booked a session with a Personal Trainer and myself and Mairi (my now wife) went along. Oh my goodness that first session hurt and I could hardly drive back! However, both Mairi and myself continued to train with him twice per week and each session was different and included fat burning exercises.
By August 2015 I had lost 5 stone and was down to 13 and a half stone. I could now fit into a Medium top and 34in waist trousers, I was starting to feel good and enjoy exercise, something I thought I would never say!
We got married on the 29th August and what a fantastic and special day it was. We had two weeks off training and I had lots to eat and drink and put on 14lbs in two weeks! It was time to get back to training.
In November 2015 Mairi started getting a sore shoulder and went to the Doctors. He sent her for a bones scan and the results where not good. Mairi’s cancer had come back and she now had secondary breast cancer in her bones. After more hospital visits and appointments, we found out it had also spread to the liver, lungs, bones, and brain. This was a total shock and I still find this hard to come to terms with.
We stopped training with Steven and the Slimming World class, but I felt I still needed something to keep weight off and reduce my stress. My friend Ryan took me out for a run and I managed to do a 5k in something like 37 minutes. It was hard work as I’ve never been a runner and I never will be. However, I attempted to keep the running ticking over and also started swimming. I was never a swimmer either, but this felt a bit easier. I felt I needed to increase these sessions to more than once a week so did this.
I also signed up to a Charity Boxing Challenge to raise money for Cancer Research. The challenge included 8 weeks free training so I got started with that. I felt out of my comfort zone but managed to attend most of the training sessions. I completed the challenge and raised £2800 for Cancer Research.
I had now been talked into doing my first Novice Triathlon which was to take place 1 week after the Boxing Challenge! I had a little running and swimming experience at this point but still hadn’t been on a bike. Here I was standing in a pool, about to do a Triathlon. I looked around and seen different sizes of people and abilities and thought let’s just do this. The swim started, I got out of the pool and got to transition, put my top on and jumped on the bike thinking what are you doing? The bike ride was so hard I remember I was so glad to get back into transition. Then I dawned on me I have to run……well I dragged my arse round with great support from family and friends and remember crossing that line with a buzz I can’t describe. I think I finished it in about 116 minutes.
I remember getting much needed support from a super friendly group of people from Glenrothes Triathlon Club. I decided to join the Club for more structured training and weight management. The first swim session was brutal but was great and I learned so much from these sessions.
That year I decided to do lot more Novice Triathlons and a few Sprints ones. I started doing more bike training with club Members and going out with members. I noticed my times where getting better and reducing more and more. I then heard some Club Members were going down to Yorkshire to do a half distance (70.3) Ironman and I decided to join them and do the Sprint distance at the same event.
There were also some Members doing Ironman UK in Bolton that year and what a buzz there was around the Club on that day. We were all tracking their progress and the Facebook page was going crazy. I remember thinking where are they, are they going to finish etc. Of course they all finished and talking to them afterwards I realised how incredible it must feel to cross the finish line of such a mammoth event and to be able to call yourself an Ironman. I couldn’t help but think to myself maybe one day then laughed!!
I then heard some Club Members were going down to Yorkshire to do a half distance (70.3) Ironman and I decided to join them and do the Sprint distance at the same event
It was a great experience and got to know more Members who have now become friends. The day itself was very wet but seeing some friends completing a half iron man distance was unbelievable. I kept thinking how can they do that and how hard that must be. When they all completed it and massive well done to them. The buzz started again and I then started thinking I could maybe manage a 70.3. I had this thought in my head, however, that I could maybe just go for the full Ironman distance!
Still on a high from my Yorkshire experience, I returned home and booked up to do Ironman UK in Bolton in 2017. My thinking was just go for the full and then if I hate it at least I tried. I went to Club training that night and remember Wendi saying to me she had booked Bolton and I said to her I had too. It was decided would become training partners.
Training started in September and we were eager to get on with it. Our partnership was completed with Andy (himself an Ironman Finisher) taking on the role of our Personal Coach. We felt good and started doing 40,50 and 60 mile hilly cycles from October to December and some running but not high miles as I still hate running!
Unfortunately, things went wrong after that. I participated in a hill relay race which resulted in a twisted ankle and a hip injury. I was unable to run and was forced to take a 2 week break from training but this didn’t help things much. To make matters worse I then pulled my back at work when lifting something and I could hardly walk! I booked an appointment with a Physio and started to work on exercises to strengthen my back. About 2-3 weeks later I was able to swim again but still couldn’t run or cycle.
I finally got the go ahead to try running but after such a long time off I found it extremely hard. It was now February and I had an Ironman to do in 5 months. I started to cycle again and build up the running. I remember doing a Sportive with Andy and I was burnt out after 8 miles! We got lost and finally finished by cutting it short. It was such a hard day and I lost a bit confidence and felt a bit down after that.
I kept cycling on Monday nights, Saturdays and Sundays when the weather was good. I did a couple more Sportives which were hilly and very hard and I gained more confidence after that.
Wendi and I went out on long cycles and I remember once hitting the wall at 70 miles, thinking what the hell we are doing? But we kept at it and managed to scrape mile after mile.
The running is always my hardship, I ran once per week, mostly around 9 miles and did three 15 mile runs. I kept thinking if I can run the flat and walk the hills I should be ok. I hate bloody running!
I did Open Water swim twice per week and felt this was my easiest of the 3 disciplines for me. Don’t get me wrong it was hard work and at times felt like it was never ending. After all the injuries and niggles and trying to spend lots of time on the bike, I managed to get my weight down to about 12 stone 13lbs, probably the lightest I have been since I was 14.
In June we decided to do a 70.3 in training (stupid eh). We met at Kinghorn Loch. Andy, Wendi, Aaron and myself. We did the swim and then got changed and onto the bike and cycled around Fife all the while I was thinking what am I doing? It was then run time and I was feeling tired and thinking to myself that there was no chance of me completing it. I did however manage to get myself round the 13 miles with a mix of running and walking. At the end I felt I was unlikely to complete a full Ironman if I felt like this after a half!
The week of the Ironman
No training this week as the big day was on the Sunday. On Tuesday I was at home cleaning the house, when I bent over to clean the toilet and bang…. the back had gone again. I was thinking to myself no way!! I phoned the physio who booked me in the next day. I got manipulated and my discs put back into position. I was on strong painkillers and doing exercises and was thinking I have no chance of doing this event. I had a hotel booked and paid for, the event paid for and so many people believing in me.
I decided to go down anyway and see how I felt, the journey was really difficult and we had to stop a few times. I could hardly walk getting out of van and was really struggling. We finally got there and registered for the event. I was still thinking I was going to have to pull out.
We put our bikes and bags into transition and decided to try the swim out. I thought this would be a great opportunity to see how my back felt. Wendi and I looked at the swim and thought that doesn’t look that bad so went in and tried it out. My back felt ok with no pain while swimming. We got dressed and changed and that was it. Everything was in place. We put our numbers on and had an early night but didn’t sleep much anyway!
Sunday Race Day
I was up at 4 am and tried to eat porridge but didn’t manage it. I met Gordon, Elaine and Andy at reception, they were down to support us and took Wendi and I to the start. I had a sick feeling in my stomach and thought if get on bike and my back is sore I will just pull out.
I went into the bike area, checked the bike and Wendi and I met Doug and Aaron who were also competing. We spoke a little then headed to the start line in our wet suits. I went for the 1hr 25 min time and Doug, Aaron and Wendi went further back. I was by myself and thinking right let’s do this! We walked down the massive queue of people, who were jumping into the water. Then as it was getting closer and closer for me, I popped a gel and the time had come!!
I walked into the water and could not even see the furthest point. All I could see was lots of arms swimming so I decided to follow them. I kept swimming and swimming and finally take a left turn, then left again and started to head back. The swim was two laps. One lap done and a little walkway back to the beginning to get in for the second lap. I got out and walked past Andy, Gordon and Elaine and give them a high 5!
Looking at my watch thinking I done that in about 42 minutes. Let’s hope the second lap is about the same. So back in the water again and kept swimming thinking you’re on the last lap, let’s do this! After left and left again, I finally headed back in, I could hear the crowd and music which was unbelievable. Then I see then end. I got there and was helped out of the water and thought to myself, I have done it. Now it’s the bike
I walked to transition, where I found my bag and sat down to get changed. Wet suit off, trisuit left on and cycle gear put on top. I was just finishing getting dressed when Aaron came in. I congratulated him on the swim and headed out on bike. All I could think was I hope my back will be ok. I found my bike and start pushing to the line to get on. The crowds were still amazing and the buzz was unbelievable. I got to the mount line and got on my bike and started to cycle. My back felt ok, not too bad. So thought to myself lets just get this done!
It was light rain which I didn’t mind as I was really hot after the swim. At about 10 miles I took an energy bar, thinking I need to try and keep food intake up and keep hydrated. I decided I would try to eat and drink every 20 miles, as much as possible. About 20 miles in I came to the first hill (Sheep House Lane). It was a steady climb, which seemed to go on and on but when I got to the top there was a party! People dressed up in character costumes etc. The buzz and encouragement was unbelievable and this gave me a massive boost. Doug passed me here and we had a little chat and I said I would see him at the finish.
I kept on cycling, keeping an eye on my bike computer. Miles after mile changing both bottles on all feed stations, I kept hydrated and fed and the sausage rolls where great! Cycling on closed roads going through towns with people lining the streets was amazing. The buzz and encouragement was so unreal, it pushed you on. I knew the cycle had two big hills, so I kept waiting for the second one to come and about 50 miles in I came to it. This one was steep but again the crowds where amazing with music playing and I thought to myself just keep spinning and get up it.
I continued cycling mile after mile. I stopped for the toilet, had a drink and a banana from the feed station. Then got back on my back was stiff but ok. I started cycling and came to Sheep House Lane for the second time. I managed to get up with spinning and taking it slowly and thought to myself only 1 big hill left!
The weather had changed and was really nice, although a bit windy up in the moors area. I kept cycling and cycling, not seeing anyone except the people I had passed and the people who passed me.
I kept cycling feeling tired, but ok waiting and waiting for the second hill to come. I knew it would be around the 90 miles. So here it comes, I turned the corner and see the bottom of the hill and the crowds of people who were there on the first lap had now left. I noticed Andy, Gordon and Elaine. This gave me a massive boost and so much encouragement. Andy ran up the hill with me, talking to me. I asked how Wendi and Aaron were doing as I hadn’t seen them and wondered how they were. He said good and that give me a boost too. I managed to get to the top of the hill and knew the remaining 12 miles were not hilly and at that point thought to myself I had made the cycle. I managed to get to the transition point and got off the bike in about 7hrs 30 mins.
I was tired but mentally I felt good. I racked my bike and made my way into the tent. Thinking ok let’s get changed and start thinking about the run. I sat down and had a sausage roll, a bag of ready salted crisps and a bottle of Lucozade. I think it took me about 20 minutes to get myself changed and set up ready to go. I head out of the tent.
I knew there was a hill in front of me as I had just cycled down it. I walked up the hill to the first food station and had some flat coke and water and a toilet break. The weather had turned into a really hot day. I started running thinking just a nice easy pace. I ran until I came to a little hill and I walked that and started to run again. I kept running all along the Quayside and came to another food station, where I bumped into a volunteer, who I was working beside at Edinburgh half as a volunteer. That give me a boost, so I carried on running until I heard music and crowds of people and start walking up a hill and I looked up and seen people running past the top.
I knew this was the start of the loops. I walked to the top and managed to get on the loops and managed to start running a little and then took a gel. So I got to the top of the loop and started to run back the way, down towards the Town Centre. This must have been about 8-9 miles in. I was getting tired, but my back was feeling ok, sore but manageable. When running down, I noticed Doug running up the other side of the road, so I gave him a massive high five and this give me a boost too. I kept thinking about Wendi and Aaron too.
Running down the bottom of town and then back up the hill, it felt like forever getting my first band. You get so much band envy when people have more than you!
On the way up the hill, I spotted Aaron running down and gave him a man hug, a high five and asked if he had seen Wendi. He said she had just come onto the laps and is not far in front of me. I looked ahead and saw her. Somehow I managed to up the pace at catch her up. I ran beside her and said what you doing here? I think it was a massive boost for us both and we started to run together. She looked tired so I encouraged her to have a gel and some food at the feed station. We ran together for about half the lap and I think we boosted each other. I went to the toilet and Wendi carried on, so I started running/walking again and seen Andy, Elaine and Gordon on the run loop. The crowds of people where amazing and I knew that all 4 of us were on the run which made me feel even better.
After completing 2 loops and seeing my other 3 club Members on route and giving hugs, high 5’s and encouragement, I came to the bottom of the loop passing the finishing line, where I could hear people finishing. I was thinking I only have one more to do. I ran round the corner at the bottom and seen Andy, Elaine and Gordon and at this point I knew I had time to finish. I remember saying to them the next time you see me I am going to be an Ironman! I ran/walked up the hill, picked up my last band and turned the corner, knowing I was on the way to the finish line.
When coming down the hill, I bumped into a guy I chatted to earlier on in the race. He said if you keep going you can do this under 15 hours. I was thinking to myself no way! I started running, seen Aaron again, gave him a hug and said I’d see him at the finish line and the same with Wendi soon afterwards. Doug had now finished.
I started to run faster and faster. I came to the bottom of the Town where you turn in to the finish part thinking I have done this!! I must have been close to sprinting at this point. Not sure where the energy came from. I come down the finish straight and I heard those words JOE FOWKES YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. I crossed the line and got my medal from the Male winner (Viennot Cyril) and was then handed a foil blanket.
I walked into transition. I did not eat, quickly got changed and went to meet Andy, Gordon, Elaine and Doug at the finish area and we all waited Aaron and Wendi to finish. I watched them finish and we grouped together at the end.
I phoned Mairi who was unable to travel with me due to the side effects of her chemotherapy. She had been tracking me all day on her phone. She was and still is immensely proud of my achievement. It’s a day I will never forget.
The reason I thought I would record my journey is simple. I think you can do anything you want if you believe in yourself enough and work hard enough to achieve it. If this inspires even 1 other person to get fit and challenge themselves then I have achieved my goal.