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Ironman Wales - taking on the Dragon!

I apologise in advance, but this may be a slightly monster post, given the length of the race.

Now, let's go waaaaay back.

My initial interest in getting into triathlon dates from a period from late 2014 to June 2015, when my (then) boss was training for Ironman UK, held in Bolton. I saw him going training multiple times a week, swimming on his lunch hour, doing long runs on the way home and biking during any remaining available hours. I thought it sounded good, and was already interested in the sport through the ever-present Brownlee brothers on the top steps of the podiums at ITU races. It took a bereavement, a realisation that I should do more to grasp life by the scruff of the neck, some examination of my state of health, and a new engagement to give me the push though. My fiancee and I were planning our wedding for early April 2016, and I thought that the best thing to do was to set myself some goals to keep motivation high. I joined Scarab Tri (a great decision), and after a few weeks of training duly booked myself on for Boundary Park Triathlon, which looked like a friendly and low-stress way to get into the sport. It also happened to be the weekend after our wedding and so hopefully the dual aims of looking half-decent in a suit and being half-decent on a swim, bike and run would mesh perfectly.

Boundary Tri, and the races that followed (Slateman 2016, Day in the Lakes 2016, Bala 2016, Boundary 2017, Slateman 2017, Fjallmaraton 2017, Boundary 2018, Day in the Lakes 2018) were a valuable learning experience, and an opportunity to test myself in a way I'd not previously contemplated, but I had my eye on an Ironman race. If I'm honest, this was in part due to the way in which I viewed people who had completed Iron-distance races (admiration tempered with being mystified as to how they kept going for so long), healthy competition with my old boss, and the compulsion to test myself against something that I wasn't sure I could complete.

In the end, I was (gently) press-ganged / peer-pressured into it. At our weekly Coach by Colour (indoor cycling session) a number of people had already signed up, and I put up minimal resistance before booking myself on for the race a year hence (this was October 2017). At least I knew I would be going to Wales with a little contingent of Scarabs.

Once the commitment was made, I threw myself into training. What was a 45 min commute either way on the bike, turned into a 1hr 30, rapid 40km ride in most mornings (which went very wrong one day in Altrincham when I crashed heavily - fortunately not doing myself any lasting damage). Run training took the form of fell runs in the Peak District to get the miles in, plus long trudges up and down the Bridgewater Canal. Swim training kicked off in earnest from late April onwards, and I could be found at Sale Water Park on Tuesdays (or Thursdays) plus either Saturday or Sunday, building the mileage until I was relatively comfortable with continuous 4km swims at around 1:50/100m pace.

For my test races I had Boundary Tri and a Day in the Lakes, both favourite races of mine, with the latter falling in late June so well-timed for seeing how my stamina was. Boundary Tri was an absolute stinker. On the swim, I (unaccountably) had a tightening in the chest on the outward leg to the first turn buoy, took on water and had to turn onto my back and calm down before I carried on to complete the swim. Once on dry land, I was working well on the first lap with a group of cyclists until Marthall, where I sustained simultaneous punctures in both front and rear (tubular) tyres, couldn't fix them, and decided to run back to transition in my bike shoes. 10km later, I arrived back (having completely ruined the nylon cleats), changed shoes and set off on the run to get the run in as training. Technically the race was a DNF, but I felt like it couldn't have been better contrived to give me training in resilience (and to make me stick strictly to clinchers and inner tubes in future).

A Day in the Lakes, on the other hand, was great. A strong swim, a well-paced cycle and a fair-to-middling run meant that I came in under the 6 hr mark, and I felt like I was on the right track.

Complicating matters at this point was the news that I was going to be a dad, with estimated landing around December. This news helped to focus my mind (with the near-certainty that, if I didn't do the Ironman in 2018, it could be a good couple of years until my child was old enough for me to contemplate (or for my wife to be alright with me) taking on the volume of training required.

In amongst the training, I attended a stag weekend in the Cotswolds towards the end of August, and tied this together with an overnight recce to Tenby. I used the first evening to pace out a lap of the run course, dodging tourists in the town, and then got up early to take on the bike course. The main multi-storey car park is 2 mins from the cycle start, and surprisingly cheap for a day's parking, so I was able to get out on the course fairly easily. The recce was definitely worth it - my chosen bike (of two) was my TT rig, which has a very squirrelly rear wheel under hard braking - I learnt this the tricky way, taking a fast downhill on damp roads and feeling the rear wheel lose grip for a second. In addition, the headlands of Angle have a lot of sand-covered roads, and aren't very forgiving to hard braking on corners.

Finally, race weekend arrived. The race is run on Sunday, but lots of people go down for a couple of days either side, with good reason. The race Expo is on Saturday, and bikes need to be checked in, race briefings attended, etc. Unless you are local, you should plan to be in Tenby by Friday night, and take the whole of Saturday for race admin.

We booked into an AirBnB, which was (on reflection) a bit far out from Tenby. A much better solution was that of Simon, our head coach, who books into a hotel next to the finish funnel, and so is on the doorstep. This does require pre-planning, as accommodation gets booked up extremely quickly around Ironman.

I went down on Friday, with my wife joining me on Saturday afternoon, by which time I had sorted my race admin, got registered, attended a briefing and got my head around the arrangements for Sunday. It was then back to the accommodation for as much sleep as I could manage, with a 4am alarm. Mercifully for my marriage, my (by now 7 months pregnant) wife was able to have a lie-in, as I had family who agreed to act as course support, driving her around to the various locations where they could watch me on the race.

Driving into Tenby, there is limited parking on race day. Take change - £5 notes and pound coins. I parked at Tenby Taxis near the Fiveways Garage, which cost £5 for the day and was full by about 5am.

I made my way up to transition, got changed into my wetsuit, put my bike computer on my aero bars, familiarised myself with the routes in and out of transition, and then walked down to the swim start. With the swim setting off from North Beach, they marshall all athletes on the road leading down to the beach based on estimated swim time. This means that, as you exit the water, you have a 1km run back to transition. You are supplied with a pink bag to put your shoes in, and leaving your bag behind results in an instant disqualification. The bags are kept on hooks down the walls either side of the ramp to the beach.

Once down on the sand, and amongst the other participants, the excitement built rapidly. I was reasonably secure in my swim ability (although I'd not done a sea swim of this distance before), and was able to relax and enjoy the sight of (literally) hundreds of spectators lining the run route back to transition.

A lovely touch was provided in the form of a competitor (professional opera singer) performing the Welsh National Anthem. It was quite something to see and hear him, wetsuit-clad, addressing the crowd before finishing to cheers and taking his place amongst the age-group athletes.

The pros set off first, with the men starting a couple of minutes ahead of the women. Then, it was our turn. The klaxon went, and we started jogging down to the water, wading and then diving in once it got deep enough. I settled into a comfortable pace fairly quickly, keeping to the left of the main throng of swimmers and trying to stay in slightly clearer water. It was quite something to reach the first (main) turn buoy, where we made a 270 degree turn to our right, and be overshadowed by the Tenby RNLI offshore lifeboat. Heading back on the return leg, you pass to the rear of Castle Rock (stranded from the shore as the tide is fully in), make a further 90 degree turn in front of the Lifeboat Station and return to the shore. It's then an Aussie exit (exiting on shore), a short looping run to the right through the crowd of supporters and back into the water.

I felt strong throughout the swim, and didn't make any silly mistakes like aspirating water (which I sometimes do in times of stress during race swims). After the fact, I would find out that I had swum a 1:15, which could have been quicker, but my efforts to stay out of the melee had taken me some 400m further than I needed to.

Out of the water, jogging up the ramps, and I found my shoe bag. Shoes on, bag in hand, I ran up to the main road and turned left to run through the crowd-lined streets. I grabbed a gel from my rear pocket, opened it and took it on too quickly - this resulted in a coughing fit, and half-wheezing, half-running for the next couple of hundred metres before I could regain my composure.

Arriving in transition, you run directly into the transition tent, and find your numbered place on the racks, where your swim-to-bike and bike-to-run bags are kept. This was not going to be a quick transition. Wetsuit off, in the bag with the swim hat, goggles and shoes. Bike helmet on, mitts on, socks on, shoes on (no quick mounting of bike with shoes already attached). Exit the tent to the rear, run past the portaloos and along the racking to locate the bike. Make sure the bike computer is started, wheel the bike past the mount / dismount line and get on.

I was still recovering from the swim, and getting back to feeling normal, as I made my way down South Parade, down to the roundabout and left onto Marsh Road. I quickly realised (working through the gears) that something wasn't quite right - I was struggling to find my big ring, and so was pedalling in a lower gear than I would have liked. Settling into the ride, I made it out to Lamphey and Angle peninsula in around about the time I was planning for. You go through Lamphey a total of three times - once on the long outward lap, once on the return of the long lap (before turning north to Carew) and then once again on the short lap, where they miss out the Angle Peninsula and head to Carew for a second time.

I started to feel it on the Carew - Templeton - Narbeth stretch. The road rises and falls, with some long uphill drags, which take their toll on the legs. The support through Narbeth is superb - vocal, noisy and colourful, which gives you a lift. There are drinks stations just after, and then as you head south the rolling hills take it out of you before Wiseman's Bridge, and Saundersfoot (AKA Heartbreak Hill). At Saundersfoot, the road descends rapidly, and then rises at 1:5, at which point the crowds get properly bonkers. Think people dressed as dragons, crowds 3 or 4 people deep, knights having mock battles with rubber swords, screamed encouragement - it's amazing.

The route takes you back into (and out of) Tenby onto the shorter loop, which turns at Lamplugh to continue up via Carew. My average speed was starting to suffer at this point (I was trying to continue fuelling reasonably regularly, but was probably having 20% less food than I should have been), and my expectations for a good bike time had to be revised from sub-6 hours (which wasn't really a reality after lap 1) to 6:30, to sub-7. The second time around, before reaching Wisemans Bridge, I realised I had a slow puncture on my front tyre, and had to stop a couple of times to re-inflate (I didn't want to have to stop for a full inner change). As a consequence, I couldn't hit the hill as hard on the way down, and found the inclines of Wisemans and Heartbreak Hill that much harder as a result. The crowd spurred me on again though, and I made it into Tenby (spotting my wife, aunt and uncle on the road up to North Beach), coming into transition after a little over 7 hours of riding. It was then a change into compression socks, run shoes, on with the hat and sunglasses, and I had also opted to run with a hydration pack with a couple of chest-mounted bottles. My reasons for doing so were to be able to run without bottles in hand, and be able to drink when I wanted (rather than as I passed a drinks station) - I'm still not sure that I would do it differently.

The only way to describe the run was as a grind. I was not moving fast. I was determined to keep my feet turning, and to remain running (even if it was quicker at a brisk walk), and watched my pace drop from 6 minutes per km initially, past 7 minutes towards 8 mins per km and hold fairly steady there. The run route takes you out of town on the Narbeth Road, up to a dead turn short of the main roundabout at Twycross, back down the road for around 2km, sharply left to Lodge Farm at which point you collect your lap band (you run through the gate for the lap you are on, and the stretchy band is held out for you to pass your arm through on the move). You then return the same way, down Narbeth Road into town, and do it all again 3 more times. On my first lap, I had collected my band, and was aware that a bike with "First Female" was passing me by, followed by the race leader (and eventual winner) Lucy Gossage in her blue Erdinger gear, looking strong and moving well. Unlike me.

The section of the run through town is tough. You head out on The Croft past North beach to a turnaround, and then back through town, zigzagging through to pass by the finish chute on the first three laps. It's hard mentally, as it looks very similar, and it's hard to judge where you are in the run. I was doing the race with a pre-existing injury, the cause of which had not been 100% determined but was thought to be tight hip flexors (from lots of sitting at a desk at work), which in turn pull on the muscles across my lower back, causing them to spasm. To counteract this, I had to keep my posture upright, push my hips forward to strain my hip flexors, engage my glutes to power all of this, all whilst fatiguing lap-by-lap. I was having intermittent spasms of pain (which manifest as a sensation not unlike having a needle jabbed in the base of the spine, followed by a sudden weakness in the legs as my body goes into protective mode, resulting (sometimes) in me stumbling, which makes it worse). My family were stationed by one of the roadside sections, and their encouragement was invaluable (although I admit to stopping a couple of times and questioning the wisdom of what I was doing.

By the middle of lap three, and the ascent to Twycross Roundabout, night was beginning to fall. The number of roadside spectators didn't seem to diminish much, with people sat in deckchairs, music blaring, kids holding "Tap for Power" signs, local club supporters turned out in lurid dayglo curly wigs. There were four aid stations on the run, serving water and (diluted) Redbull (which made the road surface very sticky, like a student nightclub floor). I didn't initially use these, but by lap 3 I was taking advantage of the Redbull to give me a lift.

Come lap 4, the number of pissed people in town had significantly increased. Drunk men were weaving across the run course, and cheering any runner who crossed their path. I got a definite lift from picking up my final lap band and beginning my descent into town. It's not a steep downhill, however, so you don't gain a lot of assistance from the gradient if you have tired legs. I still had my sunglasses on at this point, preferring the murky twilight to keep me going (and hide the growing pain in my eyes). Once in town, I made my way through the interminable bends and changes in direction and road surface, finally approaching the last left-and-right hand turn, the HokaOneOne banner, and the sight of the finishing carpet. I crossed the line in 14:31:08, with distinctly heavy legs, gratefully accepted the congratulatory handshake from the MC who was shouting names out followed by "You are an Ironman", collected my medal, and then staggered into the finisher's tent for a sit-down and a slice of pizza.

It was an amazing day out, and a phenomenal experience. For those two or three days of the weekend, Tenby becomes Ironman, and everything is geared up to turning out to support the athletes. It takes huge amounts of training (and shouldn't be taken on lightly anyway - the more secure you are in your preparation, the better you can absorb the rigours of the actual day, the adrenaline, etc).

I can't wait for my next one, this time with my daughter as part of the support crew. I would wholeheartedly recommend Wales - it's a beautiful, tough, rewarding course and the crowd support is second-to-none!

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