Ryan’s Third Success at Ironman Wales.

I’m not sure anyone will be interested but here’s my report on Ironman Wales from Sunday, my 3rd attempt at it. It’s a long read but it’s a long day so.. 😊

As a brief background, Ironman in a brand that forms part of triathlon and probably what everyone thinks of when triathlon mentioned. Triathlons come in all distances but Ironman focusses on just 2, full and half distance, full is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run at the end, half distance being self explanatory. There are 2 transitions as well, T1 is from swim to bike and T2 from bike to run, these are timed and the clock continues to tick when you’re in T1 and T2.

Ironman run events all over the world all year around and the best finishers whether professionals or age groupers can qualify for the world championships in Kona, Haiwi which are run every October. Tenby, in its 12th year now is universally regarded as one of the toughest on the circuit along with Lanzarote, Lanza for the heat and wind and Tenby for the altitude gain on the bike and run and in recent years the swim (big swells). One thing it doesn’t share is the support, the Tenby crowds are second to none, literally tens of thousands lining streets and villages throughout the course, incredible.

Anyway, Tenby in September normally means inclement weather, bit of wind, bit of rain, bit of sunshine and 15 to 20 degree heat. This year was different, no wind, 30 degree mid afternoon temperatures and a pan flat North Beach Sea, everyone realised on the Saturday this was gonna be a different race to recent years.

Saturday is all about staying off your feet but you still need to keep moving, I met up with a few friends Saturday at 10am for a 30 minute bike to check everything was working and loosen the legs followed by an easy 30 minute jog, I felt great, training and taper had gone well and I thought the elusive sub 12 hour was on. Following this it’s a final check of all the other equipment and the slow walk to the transition area overlooking the South Beach. Bikes are racked in your allocated space, remembering not to attach any nutrition at this point because the seagulls have a field day overnight, many competitors race day nutrition has gone out the window because of this😊

Next into the transition tent to hang up your 2 transition bags, one holding all the gear you need for the bike and the other for the run. It’s always good to take your time here, making mental notes of where your bike and bags because there are 2137 other people doing the same, it’s easy to get confused in the heat of battle and forget where you’ve left things. When your finished it’s back to the digs to fuel up and rest.

4am alarm, cereal, water, energy bars, energy drink, I’m looking to get about 400g of carbs in, I feel sick, nerves, bloated but I force it down. I dress, a Tri suit, similar to a TT suit but thinner fabric and thinner chamois, wetsuit over the top left at the waste for now as it gets too warm. My son drops me into the transition area so I find my bike, top the tyre pressure up, get the fuel and fluid on there, portaloo and then meet the rest of the boys. From here on in the time seems to double in speed, we wander as a group the North Beach and start the walk down the Zigzag’s, a walkway then drops a 100 foot or so onto the beach which is packed, it’s still 6:30 and already the streets are lines 5 deep, I eat a gel. The swim start is self seeded which means you anticipate your time and you place yourself into the appropriate area within your rolling pen. Wetsuit up, pink swim cap on and goggles ready. The Red Devils do a parachute drop, 3 attached to together, vertically dropping and literally 10 metres from the sea they pull up and hit the water, fireworks go off. By this point everyone is ready, you hug random strangers, wish them luck, then Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau bellows out of the PA system, I’m filling up but no one can see because I’ve already got my goggles on, I eat a gel. Shane Williams compares this start to running out for Wales at the Principality Stadium. The first gun goes, the Pro’s sprint into the water and they are gone, swimming off to the first buoy, then Tenby’s race anthem, ACDC’s Thunderstruck, I don’t hear the gun over the music, crowd and fireworks, we’re off, sprinting into the water, waist deep, I dive and I’m off.

The Swim.
Few people who have never competed realise how physical the swim is, kicked, elbowed, swum over, everyone trying to find clear water to settle down and get your stroke going, it really is brutal. It’s not uncommon to lose goggles, this year Alix Popham, the ex Welsh and Lions back rower got kicked in the head so hard he had to rescued by the safety team, every year up to 150 people can get pulled out.

I’m lucky, I find clear water quickly and settle down into my stroke, no swell or chop this year to deal with so I just keep lifting my head every 20 strokes to sight the next buoy. Swimming is like cycling, you can draft, getting onto someone’s feet can save a significant amount of energy, you’re basically being towed in the water behind them. I wait for quicker swimmers to pass and jump on their feet, get a tow before moving onto someone else. The course is basically a 1.2 mile triangle, straight out to sea, a turn and then a long straight that runs parallel with the beach before cutting back to the same point on the beach. Temby has what’s called an Australian Exit so after lap 1 you run back onto the beach, over a timing mat and start a second lap, re-entering the water, this is normally a low point. At the first exit I look at my watch, 35:47, I’m quite happy, I’m a 1:10 swimmer on a decent day and I realise it’s going to be a slow swim as the tide was against me for the longest stretch, back in I go. The second lap is considerably slower, the tide had turned and the rip increased, I get out 1:16:38, I’m gutted but no time to dwell so it’s back up the zig zags and run through the town which all counts as your T1 time. It’s the longest T1 run in triathlon, normally you have a few hundred metres at most but Tenby is 1.3km but boy what a 1.3km. Crowds 5 deep line every part of the course, you hear your name being shouted over and over, it’s incredible, I eat a gel, 900 calories burned in 70 minutes, catchup.

Into the tent, quickly empty your T1 bag in the floor and stuff your swim gear into it before hanging it back up, shoes on, helmet on, pockets filled with whatever is needed and off to get your bike, it was here I made my first mistake, I left my 12 salt tablets in my T1 bag!!!

Transition Area

The bike.
A triathlon bike leg is so different to a TT, after the swim and T1 my heart rate is 10 beats over my max bike heart rate so I go easy for 20 minutes until it drops to a manageable level, during this time I eat homemade bars, about 50g of carbs worth, I try to get as much solids in early because you’re trying to compensate for the swim and it gets more difficult later and you don’t want solids left in your stomach when you start the run. I have a 750ml bottle with 18 gels pre-squeezed in, I’m looking at eating 100g of carbs an hour so I sip on the gel filled bottle every 20 minutes. Fluid was going to be tough in the heat, I had to take on 500ml of carb drink every hour plus water depending on the heat and it was hot, there are plenty of food stations so I pick up what I need as I pass.
The course, it’s brutal, basically 3 loops, 2 and 3 are the same loop. Loop one leaves Tenby out to Pembroke Dock, Freshwater West, Angle and back to Pembroke Dock, mostly flat but normally windy due to exposed roads, not today tho, no wind and the sun is belting down. Lap 2 and 3 head from Pembroke Dock, up the Ridgway, St Florence, climbs over to Carew Castle where it literally goes up and down until your back in Tenby, Narbeth climb, 23% climb out of Wiseman’s Bridge, the long climb out of Saundersfoot, these are done twice. The course has over 2700 metres of elevation gain and when you think this is all done in the last 70 miles, it’s brutal. However, the support from local people is difficult to explain, villages out having street parties, blaring music, fancy dresses.. You’ll pass an entrance to a remote farm and there are 20 people having a full on BBQ, all drunk, shouting support, waving banners most with some comedy factor, you have to experience it!

Unlike a TT’s where you spend most of the time near on or threshold, longer triathlons are spent well within yourself, it’s basically a damage limitation exercise, not burning to many matches before the marathon but in Tenby you have to pretty much burn the box on the bike because the long, punchy climbs are so steep, you’re in the red just to get over them. Today was worse given the heat, I had to soft pedal the descent to cool before being forced to go hard over each climb, my overall pace felt way to easy and disappointing given that I could not go anywhere near the effort I’d normally be at because of the heat. A lot of the field overcooked the bike, I passed 6 people receiving attention by the side of the road by medics, I heard horror stories of good triathletes missing the cut off times for bike and not being able to finish the event. For me it was long, it was hot but I kept a lid on it, fuelled, hydrated and I got to the finish line feeling sort of ok, tired, hot but ok. Now for the marathon!!

The Run
I took my time in T2, it was cool in the tent, I let my core temperature and heartrate drop while I declad the bike gear and got my daps and cap on and filled my pockets with salt tablets, gels, caffein gels!

Out I went, back was a bit sore, again the noise as you leave the transition area is immense, Ferndale and The Rhondda in general has a strange affinity with Ironman, don’t know why but we are everywhere, every street corner, grassy banking, people set up for the day, cider, beer, music but above all support, not just supporting people they know but everyone, anyone who seems to be struggling gets that little extra shout. Utter generosity, humour, compassion!

Anyway, the heat hit me like a brick, I’m not going 17mph on the bike now, I’m jogging 10 minute miles, there’s no wind to cool my soaking wet trisuit, I am quickly overheating and going downhill into the red. The run course, like the bike course is brutal, the toughest on the IM circuit, basically 4 laps, out and up to New Hedges, back down to do an intricate lap of the packed, drunk, cobbled Tenby Streets before heading out again, 550 metres of elevation gain. The support gives you goosebumps but it doesn’t cool you down and I quickly realise that I’m not going to be able to finish this, I cry!! What am I going to say to my family, loads have come up and spent considerable amounts of money to see it, see me! Too hot? Too tired? I can’t say that. I’m in a really dark place, still running but struggling, people, friends give you a shout, I can’t make eye contact, don’t acknowledge them, I’m a failure! For 2 laps I battle demons, my mouth has blistered I assume from salt loss, my back hurts, my achilles are sore, I can feel 2 toenails lifting off their bed, I’m empty

There are 4 feed stations each lap, every one the same, I pop a gel, 2 cups of water over my head, drink 2 cups of isotonic, more water over the head and I crack on. Residents along the course were sitting on garden walls with hosepipes soaking competitors as they passed, lovely, before I knew it 2 laps have gone. Then the sun drops, the temperature drops, I feel ok, like really ok, thank f***!
Despite this surge, my right quad was twinging especially running downhill, I realised this was cramp due to lack of salt on the bike, I manage it well and could run up the hill as quickly as I run down it.
Last lap was incredible, I passed tens if not a hundred people, all suffering, I had paced this epically, somehow I go on to negatively split the marathon 2:17 followed by a 2:15, my fitness and conditioning must have been bang on!

300 metres to go, there’s a right hand turn where you go to start a new lap but I’m done, straight onto the finishing red carpet, I can’t hear my own thoughts, the crowd, I barely hear the commentator say the iconic words “Ryan, you are an Ironman!”

My slowest Ironman. My hardest Ironman. My favourite Ironman!.. by a mile!

Next year…