The unexpected Ironman
My entry to Ironman Wales was probably at short notice compared to most competitors. As a poor runner I had planned my 2017 season around working on that weakness and the progression was supposed to go ½ marathon > ½ IM > marathon, with a full Ironman to come in 2018. With Steve coaching since January we’d successfully crossed off the Retford half marathon and then Woodhall sprint tri as a warm up.
With a respectable time at Woodhall I knew I was in good form for the Castle Howard half iron in July, but as I set off for race weekend I could feel an illness coming on. Sure enough come Saturday evening I had the full set of cold symptoms and even as I sat sticking race numbers on my kit I knew there was no way I could race. I was so disappointed but Steve’s response to my DNS message was typically to the point: ‘rest, recover and find another’. Exactly what I needed to be told.
Now I don’t remember the thought process exactly but somewhere over the following couple of days the idea of replacing my failed ½ with a full IM set in. After some more discussion with Steve and some bargaining with the family I finally signed up for IM Wales with around 6 weeks to race day. Having lost nearly two weeks to illness, with no sea swimming experience and having never run more than a half marathon, this was going to be a challenge. Steve was there again with the concise encouragement… ‘Showtime’.
Standing in transition at 5:30am on a cold and damp Welsh morning I suddenly realised something surprising: I was calm. Training had gone well in the build up to the race and I felt ready to go. My race plan was simple if not ambitious: a 2:10/100m swim pace (well within my ability), conserve on the bike with a 65% intensity factor and then grind out the run with 11:00 – 12:00 minute miles. Basically, finish the race.
As we lined up for the march to the beach I seeded myself into the back of the 1hr20 swim group, reasoning that I could take it easy and settle in without getting swum over by too many faster starters. This worked out nicely and I was quickly able to find some space and get into a rhythm before starting to move up a few places.
Sea conditions on lap 1 felt OK if a little choppy further out in the bay. Somehow by lap 2 a much bigger swell had developed and I could feel myself being moved around and even thrown together with fellow competitors at times. Although this was probably nothing, with my limited sea swimming experience it felt like I was in an episode of Trawlermen. Even so it was great fun and I exited the water in 1:21, right on schedule.
Reaching the top of the cliff on the run to T1 I was amazed to see so many supporters; the atmosphere was incredible. After a very steady transition (lots of “did you lose your bike” type jokes came later) I was out onto the bike course.
The bike is my strongest discipline and I knew that this leg would be all about self-control. The target was 65% IF which meant sticking to around 200W on the power meter. However, the legs felt so good in those early miles that I quickly hit 75% IF and had to force a steady period to get back on track. Evidently a lot of competitors had the same idea because the first 20 miles or so felt like a race in slow motion.
The forecast high winds and rain came true and on a TT bike with deep section rims this was starting to feel a bit lively. The loop out to Angle was the most exposed and it became a game of spotting the gaps in the hedge and bracing against the inevitable wind blast. Once onto the second loop it was less about the wind and more about the road surface; wet and muddy with oil in places it took some serious concentration to stay upright. The regular climbs became a welcome respite from this and again the support from the crowds here was incredible.
I finished the bike leg in just under 7:22, slower than expected but not bad given the conditions. More importantly I’d hit my target 65% intensity and the legs were still feeling fresh as a result. As I headed into T2 I passed my parents and got a great lift from seeing some familiar faces. Now for the really tough bit…
Straight out of T2 I was feeling great. Passing my parents again and the roar from the rest of the crowd was pushing me on and as I started on the winding course around Tenby I checked my pace: 8:30/mile! Ok I’d better ease back slightly. Having got myself together I set about maintaining the planned 11:30 or so pace. On reaching New Hedges I picked up my first lap band which felt like a win in itself, but this euphoria quickly faded as I started counting multiple bands on others around me. Damn.
As the light faded and temperature dropped it was becoming a war of attrition. As the laps went on there seemed to be as many people walking as running, many with foil blankets and too many by the roadside receiving medical attention. This was the most brutal sporting event I’d ever witnessed, let alone raced, and anyone who even took the start that day has my total admiration.
I was going well enough except for the odd low spell where I would have to dig in to keep running. During these spells I had a fragment of the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling in my head to keep me going:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them: ‘Hold On!’
By the time I came into Tenby for the last time I’d learnt not to count the lap as nearly over, with almost two miles still to wind around the town. Even in that terrible weather the crowds were still huge and so supportive. I think I counted my lap bands at least 5 times on the run up to the finishing chute, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. All I remember about crossing the line was releasing some kind of primal scream and seeing the announcer literally taking a step backwards before giving me that awesome phrase…
YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!