HUNDREDS of super-fit athletes made a big splash as this year’s Ironman event got underway.

The triathlon, which yesterday returned for its ninth year, saw men and women competitors begin their gruelling test of endurance with a 2.4 mile swim at Pennington Flash.

The elite athletes entered the water at 6am, with the amateurs soon joining them in the lake’s bracing waters.

But the early start and wet weather didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of their loyal supporters. Friends and families lined the eastern shore in impressive numbers to cheer the competitors on as their race got underway.

It is the day every competitor has been training towards for months, even years, athletes descended on the course from all corners of the county and beyond.

Chris Johnston, 38, from Belfast was tackling his first Ironman event, and fiancée Ali Waugh, also made the hop over the Irish Sea to support him.

Mr Johnston said: “I’m excited, but a bit nervous, I’ve never done this distance before, I’ve done a half marathon, but never this distance.”

And Miss Waugh, 33, was also a bit apprehensive, she said: “I’m a bit nervous, a bit concerned and a bit concerned but he will be fine. It’s quite daunting, but as long as he makes it through the swim.”

Katie Ellis, from Northwich, was another competitor tackling her first Ironman event.

She said: “I feel very nervous and sick, it’s my first full one I’ve done a half before.”

But despite her nerves Miss Ellis, who was hoping to complete the race in under 13 hours, still kept her sense of humour.

“As long as I don’t drown, I’ll be happy,” she added.

Every event produces its own stories and this one was no exception.

Members of Bolton triathlon club Team Deane, were out in force to support clubmate Claire Markland.

Miss Markland was competing in memory of her mum, Alison Brady, who she lost to cancer last year.

The first-time triathlete was set to wear a heart-shaped locket containing her ashes during the cycling and running elements of the contest.

Clubmate Sarah Quick said: “She is going to smash it, it’s her first time but she has just been cracking on with her training. She’s training to be a nurse, so it has been hard for her so she really has been doing good. We have no doubts about her.”

Adam Forshaw from Horwich was also running in memory of a late family member. His brother-in-law Adam Morris died of a heart condition

Mr Forshaw’s wife, Rachel, Mr Morris’ sister, said: “I’m really proud of him, he’s not an athlete, he’s never done anything like this before, it’s a massive achievement for him.”

Once athletes had completed two laps of the Pennington Flash course they they jumped on to bikes for the second part of the race — a 112-mile bike course taking in villages including Belmont, Adlington and Rivington.

By now the sun was beating down and there was an almost carnival atmosphere at Rivington Green.

Cheering crowds supported cyclists tackling the gruelling incline of Horrobin Lane while a steel band provided the soundtrack.

Among the supporters was Jo Tomlinson, from Bromley Cross, who was there to cheer on her husband, David.

Mr Tomlinson, aged 42, was competing in his first Ironman event for charities Rainbow House and the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital — and had already raised £3,500.

Mrs Tomlinson, who was sporting a Team Tomo T-shirt with fellow supporters Amanda Gaunt and Denise Booth, said: “There’s a great atmosphere. I’m very proud of him but it will be his one and only Ironman, I’ve not seen him forever!”

Lisa Adams , of Chippenham Tri, was there to cheer on members of her club, including husband Mark, who was hoping to achieve a time good enough to qualify for the World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

She said: “It’s been brilliant, everywhere everybody has just been so friendly, it’s an absolutely brilliant day.”

The bike ride complete, competitors dismounted at the Macron Stadium before heading off on a marathon run to the town centre.

Supporters were again out in force to encourage the athletes as they embarked on the 26.2-mile course.

Alice Gordon, aged 30, from Manchester, was waiting to cheer on her friend, Anna Ridewood. She said: “I love her, she’s great. I did it two years ago and we have done quite a lot of cycling together. She lives in Bath, but came down before Christmas and did an Ironman ‘reccy’. I’m so excited she is doing it because now I have someone else to talk to about doing Ironman! She is is going to nail it, she’s faster than me and is going to do brilliantly, she probably won’t even look like she’s done Ironman afterwards.”

As part of her preparation Ms Ridewood swam at Pennington Flash, while Ms Gordon relaxed with a coffee and also ran a half-marathon around Bolton to give her a feel for the marathon stage of the race.

Rebecca Dunster, from Bury St Edmunds, was at the Macron to cheer on her husband, William. She said: “I’m still nervous, I’m really proud of his dedication, he’s not missed a single training session, but I really want him to finish and be happy with it. He wants to finish between 12 and 18 hours — so a nice big window.” Mrs Dunster was joined by ten friends from around the country who came to support her project engineer husband.

Ian and Lynn Knight, from Nuneaton, were there to support their son, Ian, with his wife, Emma.Mrs Knight, said: “This is the first Ironman he has ever done and we are just very proud of him, wherever he comes, it doesn’t matter, as long as he finishes.”