Ironman Wales has a reputation for being one of the most challenging of the global branded Ironman races. The 3.8k sea swim is often choppy, the undulating 179k bike course has 2500m elevation gain and some technical descents and the marathon run has a further 500m elevation gain and descent with long sections on the twisty, cobbled streets of Tenby. If that’s not enough of a challenge, the first swim-to-bike transition consists of staggering up a steep ramp from the beach and running an additional 1km through the centre of Tenby before collecting your bike. There’s nowhere to hide throughout this race.
The picturesque Pembrokeshire town of Tenby went Ironman crazy for the whole weekend. It was amazing to see a community get behind the closed-road event in this way and the area obviously benefits from having 2,000 triathletes (and many thousands further family members and supporters) eating, drinking, buying stuff and staying in the area over a long weekend. I didn’t hear a single local moan about interruption due to the event all weekend and the phenomenal support was way beyond anything I’ve experienced at an amateur sports event.
It had been an interesting summer… my result at Outlaw Half (7th overall, 2nd in age-group) was beyond my most optimistic expectations. After this, in June I had some planned thyroid treatment which meant that I reduced my training intensity for 3 weeks. Even though Ironman Wales was supposed to be my main focus for 2016, I found myself lacking motivation for 6 weeks or so after Outlaw Half.
I took part in Long Course Weekend at the beginning of July – having similar swim and bike courses to Ironman Wales, it was supposed to be a fruitful training and recce weekend. However, in choppy water, my first sea swim was a shocker (1:07:55 for 3800m); I struggled to walk afterwards, there was no way that I would have been able to cycle. The following day of activity at Long Course Weekend bought the cycle and significantly worse weather. 44km into the bike ride I crashed on a slippery corner, smashing up my bike and myself, and ending my weekend prematurely. The day after Long Course Weekend I was seriously considering pulling out of Ironman Wales.
Funnily enough, the unsuccessful Long Course Weekend bought my triathlon motivation back and once I had recovered from my injuries I was back into full structured training. During late July and August, my training volume was the greatest that I’ve ever done; for the 8 weeks prior to my Ironman Wales taper I averaged over 19 hours per week training with a good amount of intensity in both the swim and bike training. I just about stayed the right side of the over-training cliff and couldn’t have done much more volume.
In early September, two weeks before Ironman Wales, Lydia and I returned to Tenby so that I could recce the bike course (due to crashing, I had failed to see the majority of the course during Long Course Weekend) and to get some more sea swim practice in. There aren’t many partners who would accompany someone to the same town in Wales for three weekends in one summer for triathlon activity and for that I’m very grateful.
Even with the additional weekend in Tenby, I remained concerned about the potential effects of bad weather (wind and rain) during the swim and especially the bike. For the week before the race, I’d been checking the weather forecast almost hourly. Fortunately the weather gods shined on us and there was very little wind and dry roads on Ironman Wales race day, absolutely perfect conditions. On the tough Ironman Wales course it was a bit difficult to judge potential race times. I thought that I had a chance of 10:20 to 10:30 on a good day which would have given me a slim chance of Ironman World Championship qualification based on last year’s results. The number of World Championship slots has recently reduced to 40 at most races which meant that I would likely need to finish in the top 4 in my 30-34 age group. at Ironman Wales The race attracted a small professional field with 11 male and 7 female professionals starting the race.
We were greeted with a stunning sunrise as we lined up on the beach in preparation for the race start at 7:15am. The local lifeboat dramatically launched down its jetty before the Welsh national anthem was played and sung by many of the supporters who were packed on the beach and the surrounding cliffs, making for a moving atmosphere.
The rolling start to the swim didn’t seem to make my start any less congested. For the first 800m of the swim there was quite a bit of biff, especially turning around the first buoy, before the concentration of swimmers dispersed leading to a much more straightforward swim for the remainder. Sea conditions were superb which led to some fast swim times.
The swim was two laps with a short run on the beach between laps (“Australian exit”), around Goskar rock. I wasn’t to know until post race (I don’t wear a watch during the swim) but I completed the first swim lap in 26:53 and the second swim lap in 27:54 (the concentration of swimmers was greater at the start so I would have had a greater draft effect than for the second lap).
At the end of the second lap of the swim, I jogged up the steep ramp which leads up from the beach and collected the bag with my trainers in. I initially struggled a little with dizziness as I tried to slip the trainers on. At the top of the ramp, I took a few swigs of flat coke and a gel and jogged the 1km through Tenby to the swim-to-bike transition area. I wasn’t to know until after the race, but I’d exited the swim in equal 71st place overall and in 15th place in the M30-34 age group.
Bike (Time: 5:38:27 – 49th Fastest Overall Bike Time)
The bike course was all on closed roads which meant that you could descend at speeds which wouldn’t normally feel safe around unsighted corners. The first 60k of the bike course was exposed (I was very grateful for a still day!) and undulating and then the larger hills kicked in for the remaining 120k of the bike course. The steepest of the hills were at Templeton, Narberth, Wisemans Bridge and Saundersfoot. No individual hill was particularly difficult but the continual change in gradient tried to grind you down.
I had planned to ride at a normalised power of around 230 to 235W (just over 70% of my FTP) which was significantly more than the 207W normalised power that I managed at Outlaw Triathlon in 2015 with similar bike fitness (at Outlaw Triathlon last year I was perhaps a little too conservative on the bike). I also needed to minimise my variability index as far as possible on the hilly Ironman Wales course. When I had done the bike course recce a couple of weeks before Ironman Wales, I had finished the training ride with a variability index of 1.20 which, even accounting for some traffic on the roads that day, was far too high.
The crowds in the towns on the course were brilliant, particularly at the climb out of Saunderfoot where it felt like a Tour de France mountain stage with the spectators parting just enough to let the cyclists through and lots of random and comical fancy dress on show. One group of men was dressed fully in pink, another group dressed as grim reapers and one guy dressed as the devil stick in my memory.
I pushed the descents as fast as I dared without taking unnecessary risks. My descending skills definitely aren’t the best (I’ve only been road cycling for 4.5 years) but they had improved quite a bit during 2016, especially on my TT bike. I hit my highest recorded speed (78.5kph) on the descent towards Cresselly, which I appreciate isn’t impressive but is a far cry from the days when I was fearful of cycling speeds approaching 50kph.
At 112k into the ride, the course passes through Tenby which is again packed with spectators. There were a few difficult patches in the last 60k of the bike but I tried to keep my power on track with pedalling as smooth as possible (a few times it felt like I was pedalling in squares).
At around 150k in, I passed a male pro who was obviously having a bad day. I felt sorry for him but at the same took some positivity from having overtaken someone who does this triathlon stuff full-time.
After negotiating the technical descents and climbs around Wisemans Bridge and Saundersfoot for a second and final time, I found myself back in the packed, noisy streets of Tenby and preparing myself for the bike-to-run transition.
By the end of the bike, I had moved up to 45th place overall and was up to 11th in my age group. I finished the ride with a normalised power of 237W and average power of 212W. My varibility index was therefore 1.12 which is high even though I had intently tried to cap my power on the hills (and I was certainly capping the power more conservatively than many riders I saw!).
Run (Time: 3:23:41 – 42nd Fastest Overall Run Time)
The Ironman Wales run was four laps, each of which comprised of a long climb out of Tenby, a descent back into Tenby and a section through the narrow streets of Tenby with cobblestone sections, tight turns and more short sharp climbs.
Coming out of transition I fumbled putting food supplies into pockets and dropped a packet of Shot Bloks which annoyingly I had to stop to retrieve off the floor. My Garmin watch took a few minutes to find GPS fix but once it did I was able to get into a running rhythm. The first few kilometres of longer distance triathlons are about trying to reign in the pace as the legs feel rejuvenated from the change in activity from cycling to running.
I felt the urge to pee from quite early on in the run and after 20 minutes stopped to relieve myself for what seemed like an age but was probably only a minute or so. I immediately felt less bloated as I continued running. The run was going well until, 15k in, I started the descent down the hill from New Hedges having completed the climb on the second lap. Suddenly I felt very nauseous and dizzy. I slowed down a little and made myself eat another couple of Shot Bloks to get through the dark patch.
At most of the feed stations I had a few sips of water, a Shot Blok every few kilometres and a salt tablet every lap or so. I had planned to switch to caffeinated Shot Bloks and gels for the last 15km of the run but didn’t really feel that I could stomach the caffeine (I had one caffeine Shot Blok which didn’t go down very well). I was running on the edge throughout the marathon, desperately trying and generally succeeding to prevent my pace from dropping. There were some dark moments but the support from my family and locals (lining the course and packing the pubs) was again incredible and got me through to the finish.
To be honest, the marathon flew by, which shows that I was enjoying it as much as I was suffering. My marathon time of 3:24 was over 4 minutes faster than 2015 London Marathon time. The London Marathon course is much flatter than the Ironman Wales run and doesn’t follow 1 hour of swimming and 5.5 hours of cycling so I’m delighted with the improvement to my running over the last year.
Final Thoughts (Finishing Time: 10:07:36 – 32nd / 1,914 Entrants and 8th in M30-34 AG)
Immediately after finishing, Lydia told me that I was 11th in my age group off the bike and likely to be around 8th to 9th in my age group at the end. I couldn’t believe it; last year third place in the M30-34 age group had a finishing time of 10:21, I was 14 minutes faster! The weather conditions were good this year but apparently they were also fairly good in 2015. Perhaps the general improvement in times was due to weather conditions or perhaps there was just more competition this year.
I wasn’t too pleased with my finishing position of 32nd overall and 8th in the M30-34 age group. However, I was the 10th Brit, had beaten one of the male pros who finished (a couple of male pros didn’t finish) and had only just been beaten by the first two female pros. The level of competition at Ironman Wales was very high. I was really happy with my finishing time (the aspect of the results which I could control), slightly bettering my anticipated times for each of the swim, the bike and the run. I don’t think I could have gone much faster on the day so have no regrets.
The limited post-race food and recovery area facilities at Ironman Wales was a bit poor compared to Outlaw Triathlon, especially as Ironman Wales cost well over £400 to enter. The slice of pizza and soup went down well but the other food options (mainly supermarket cakes and crisps) didn’t appeal. The promised post-race finishers t-shirt and massages were no-where to be seen (perhaps these were available somewhere away from the finish area but this wasn’t apparent). Post-race note: the organisers kindly posted a finishers t-shirt to me a few weeks after the event after I contacted them.
On Monday, the day after the race, I went along to the awards ceremony with my credit card (just in case) but no expectations of the 4 World Championship slots in my age group rolling down to me in 8th place. The 2nd place athlete didn’t accept his slot but the 5th place athlete snapped up the roll-down slot as expected. I had missed out by 4 minutes. In total, only 3 of the 40 World Championship slots were declined and they were all snapped up by the next eligible athlete. This was the first time that I had done a branded Ironman event and it was interesting to see how the Ironman post-race awards ceremony works.
Overall, Ironman Wales is a superb event due to the way that the local area embraces the event. The supporters, the volunteers and the picturesque setting made this an unforgettable day. Thanks yet again to Lydia and my parents for their support both on a daily basis and throughout a very long race day!