Thursday, 17 October 2013

Ironman Wales 2013 - Race Report

These posts have become few and far between, but the occasion of completing my second Ironman race was reason enough to crack out my blog.

I raced the inaugural Ironman Wales event in 2011, the race report can be found here

After completing the race in 2011, I wasn't in a rush to do another Iron distance race, but also I hadn't written off doing another one. But my plan was to spectate at the 2012 race, which is exactly what I did.

However what I didn't bank on was how much watching the race would make me want to do the race again. My first action was to discuss the prospect with Angela, as she would have to be as committed to the training as I would. The way I remember the conversation is that she was happy (probably more like accepting) of the prospect of me training for another Ironman race.


I would be using Be Iron Fit training plans by Don Fink again. Mixing up the plans in the following manner

  • Swim  - Intermediate
  • Bike - Competitive
  • Run - Intermediate
With the knowledge of how tough the bike course was, I'd be putting extra effort into the bike training.

My training week pretty much followed the following pattern:

Monday - Off

Tuesday - Swim (am), Run (pm)
Wednesday - Gym (am), Bike (pm)
Thursday - Swim (am), Brick (pm)
Friday - Swim or Gym (am), Run (pm)
Saturday - Long Bike, followed by a brick run
Sunday - Long Run 

My training went pretty much to plan, making sure I hit all of the long runs and rides. My only hiccup was a bought of food poisoning or a stomach virus which wrote off one weekend; there were also some follow on complications writing off the following weekend (if you need further information I can share, but there will not be pictures).

I did my utmost to try to make the training interfere with family life, which is obviously quite difficult. But, I did the usual work arounds of running or riding back from family trips.

However, there was one sticking point that was very hard to work around. At the end of May I was made redundant. Thankfully I found work straight away but the downside was a start time of 7:30, which meant no more early morning sessions (coz they'd have to be REALLY early).

My revised training week looked something like this

Monday - Swim

Tuesday - Run
Wednesday - Bike
Thursday - Brick
Friday - Swim and Run
Saturday - Long Bike, followed by a brick run
Sunday - Long Run 

The major difference being that I no longer benefited from a rest day.

Tying to fit the training in around a hectic family life is tough, but thanks to the tremendous support from Ang, I managed to get most of the sessions ticked off.

Race weekend

My new job meant that I had to work on the Friday, I was hoping to be able to get out of the office as soon as possible, however this didn't happen and I had to do a full day. Meaning I wouldn't be able to make the race briefing or register until Saturday. As happenchance would have it we bumped (not literally) into my Ironbuddy Jason and his splendid family on the way to Tenby. So we continued the journey in a, somewhat truncated, convoy.

Saturday, was going to be a busy day. Up and out nice and early to register and pick up my race pack. Then back to the caravan to prep my bike and to populate my transition bags. It's at this point I start to get anxious about making sure I've got everything set up right. I ticked off what was needed and made my way to transition.

As is now becoming a bit of a tradition, the boys did Ironkids on Saturday afternoon, I’m pretty sure they would let me out of Tenby alive if they weren’t signed up. And as usual they thoroughly enjoyed it, once they’d got their breath back.

Ready to race

A quick (expensive) stroll around the expo and then off to the race briefing. I was surprised how many athletes were there as either they’d missed yesterday’s briefing or wanted to hear it all again. Having raced here in 2011 there wasn’t much new to learn, but Paul Kaye (the voice of Ironman) did confirm something I already knew, this is one of the toughest, if not THE TOUGHEST, Ironman race on the circuit.
Back to the caravan for my usual pre-race meal of chicken and asparagus pasta bake. With nothing else to do it was time to set my alarm for stupid o’clock and get off to bed. I was woken several times, during the night, by the rain which was coming down in biblical proportions.

Race day
Stupid o’clock comes around and I’m stirring before the alarm goes off. Time to get some porridge and coffee down me. Ang gets up with me too, but she’s not going to watch me start the race she’s getting up to put a ticket on the car which has been parked in the town overnight. Jason and his ever supportive Ironwife, Ange (yeah I know it’s confusing for us too) come and pick us up to take us to transition.
Despite the atrocious overnight rain, the weather gods appear to be on our side, it is a beautifully still, mild, dry morning. After setting my bike up with the requisite nutrition, we hang around for the procession to North Beach. However, the timings for this were woefully wrong and this meant there was very little time to get in the sea to acclimatise and to warm up my wetsuit (you know what I mean).
For an event that has so many entrants, at this point when you’re looking out to the sea, thinking about the challenges ahead, this is a very solitary sport. This is it now, nobody is going to help you, you’re on your own.
A rousing rendition of the Welsh national anthem is played across the PA, just to make sure that nobody in Tenby was still sleeping and then… BOOM! We’re off!

One of the least controllable aspects of triathlon is the condition of the open water swim. Thankfully, the sea appeared to behaving itself and was reasonably flat. I only noticed any significant swell at the first turn buoy, which is the most exposed point of the course.

And they're off

It took me a while to settle into my swim as my goggles were steaming up and the low morning sun meant it was very difficult to sight. So for the first 20 minutes or so I just followed feet, and hoped that they were going in the right direction. It seemed to take and age to get to the first turn buoy, I can only assume that we were battling with some currents.
The first loop of the swim is pretty uneventful and I’m out of the water in a time of… I check my watch and it gives me a time of 0:00. Bugger! I’m sure that I started my watch and checked that I had started it. Never mind I can do a bit of addition to work out my race time for the rest of the day.
Back in the water for a second uneventful loop. I felt comfortable in the water and the training I had done meant that I didn’t suffer with any fatigue. I kept my effort levels in check and made sure I was physically in a good place for the rest of the day
I’m out of the water in a time of 1:26:22, (giving me a pace of 2:16/100m) initially I was disappointed with this time. But I have it on good authority that the swim was long (over 4km), which would give me a more acceptable pace of 2:08.

Swim done

Transition 1
Ironman Wales is renown for having the longest transition in the Ironman circuit. After running up the beach, you have to navigate yourself up a very steep ramp, find your shoes, and run through the town to transition. I decided that I would take my wetsuit off before the run into transition.

Come On!

With over 1,400 people racing the fact that I sit down next to Wayne, the guy I swim with in the mornings is a hell of a coincidence. And knowing he’s a bit faster swimmer than me and he’s only just ahead of me gives me confidence that my swim wasn’t that bad after all. There’s never going to be any records broken here, so I make sure that I’m well set up for the ride ahead.
It’s very warm in the tent, which leads me to decide that compression top with a trisuit on top will be adequate clothing for the ride. T1 time was 15:47

The bike segment of Ironman Wales quite magnificent; it is a testing ride, through some quite breath-taking scenery.
I have warned all that care to listen that this ride is going to sap you. If you’re not going uphill, you’re going downhill – and if you’re doing neither of these you’re going round a bend. There is very little opportunity to get yourself settled. Having said that the first segment out to Angle is fairly straightforward. I was ticking along at a reasonable pace (for me), happy that the infamous Pembrokeshire winds were behaving themselves.
The first testing climb of the day is Freshwater West – after a descent to the bay and riding through the sand dunes, this climb certainly gets the heart rate up. I’m pleased to say that I smashed it up this climb leaving several riders in my wake.

In your face Freshwater West

One thing I noticed during this part of the ride was the lack of bike handling skills by lots of riders. The roads were still quite wet, with quite a bit of detritus, from the overnight rain. I lost count of the number of riders I saw on the side of the road.
Riding back into Pembroke I was pleased to see that the roads were finally drying out, and thought to myself that it was going to be a good day. However I looked to the west and saw a horrible black cloud in the middle distance. Now this cloud looked like something you see in the movies, it’s the sort of cloud that is full of evil. I just hoped that this weather front was travelling in a north westerly direction and that we would avoid it.
As I approached The Ridgeway I received my answer, big, cold, heavy drops of rain started to fall. Thankfully it was just a smattering of drops <today is going to be a good day>. Next thing the skies opened it was hammering down, the rain was bouncing off the road. I was soaked through in an instant and started to feel cold.
At this point I was on the technical decent off The Ridgeway and my back brake took a hell of a beating. Despite my holier than thou attitude to the guys with their shit bike handling, I managed to overshoot one corner, I was glad that I kept my bike upright. Even more of a bonus, I didn’t hit the car coming straight towards me.
After about 30 minutes the rain did stop and I managed to start getting my body temperature up. Helped by  the fact that I was now in the section with the hateful climbs, first off the list was Narbeth with the usual fantastic support that is waiting for you when you get to the town.
Next up was Wiseman’s Bridge, since Ironman Wales has been running it has become infamous, the climb can’t be more than ½ mile long but at 16% it is a proper tester. I’m pretty sure I invented some new swear words during the climb.
No sooner are you up and over and you’re into Saundersfoot with another of the marquee climbs, St Bride’s. This is a great climb as the supporters are on the road in your face, very reminiscent of the climbs in the Tour de France.

70 miles done

And that is the first loop done. It takes a special kind of sadist to make you do that second loop and just as a unique masochist to bloody do it. But, that’s what makes this race so damn special.
I was very pleased that, as opposed to last time, I didn’t get lapped on the bike. It seems that my hard work on the bike has paid off somewhat
I managed to catch a glimpse of my mum as I went through Tenby, but didn’t see anyone else from my support crew (which was a bit disappointing). The Celtic Tri crew had set up just outside Kiln Park and I assume I hurled some friendly abuse as I went past.
The toll of the ride really starts to pinch on the second loop, certainly not helped by the fact that the wind was picking up a bit.
One of the (many) great things about this race is the support of the locals. Most of which don’t have any links to triathlon, apart from the fact that this great big stupid race comes through their town or village once a year. I am deeply indebted to these guys popping up in the most unusual places, to help us through our day. I’m not so sure the smell of their barbeques helps though.
40 miles later including Narbeth, Wiseman’s and St Brides – and it’s all done in a time of 7:12:19.

Transition 2
I was very buoyant in transition, talking to Lucy from the gym (who was helping out in transition), how I was going to smash out a 4 hour marathon to get under 13 hours.
In, bike racked, helmet off, shoes off, shoes on, compression top off – get out all done in 5:20

As difficult as the bike ride is, the hidden kicker for this race is the run, the climb up to New Hedges, 4 times, can and will break you.
The first emotion you get on the run is band envy, I’m pretty sure you expel far too much energy just checking out how many bands people have. The second emotion that hits you almost straight away is dread, as you look at the pain the guys that have way more bands are you are in. These guys are far better athletes than you, they are your future, you will feel this pain.
I start the run full of optimism and I am running at a reasonable pace, but keeping myself in check not to overcook it.  If I can run at a average km pace of 5:45 for the marathon then I’ll break my target of 13 hours. I intend to run at 5:30/kms on the flat and downhill and 6:00/kms on the climbs. This is a sensible plan and is more than achievable.

Digging in on lap one

I made good progress on the first lap and was ticking off places very nicely. I can’t express the excitement I was feeling as I approached the Five Arches. We supported here last year and created a cacophony of noise. I turn the corner and shout “Come on Five Arches, make some noise!” and to be fair they didn’t disappoint. After 10 hours of racing it was great to see friendly faces and to interact with my friends and family.

High 5s for Tommy Harris

I also ran well on the second lap, running alongside my Twitter buddy John for a while, until he let me go on my way as he couldn’t keep up the pace. Everything was good, hurting, but ticking along nicely.

But, once again, the third lap just took everything out of me. My knees were in a lot of pain and my quads were seizing. As was the situation in 2011, from hereon in, I was in survival mode. My mantra was to put one foot in front of the other and get this damn race finished.

Turning the corner into the fourth lap, knowing I only had 10km to go, gave me enough of a boost to kick on as the end was almost in sight.  However, my legs weren’t completely listening to my train of thought and had got to the point where I couldn’t stop at the feed stations as my I couldn’t get going again afterwards. Up to New Hedges for the fourth and final time, I take that final red band with an immense amount of joy and exhilaration.
All I need to do now, is get down the hill one more time. As I run down the hill I look at the guys coming the other way with one or two bands and feel their pain as a long night was ahead of them.
As I get to Tenby I'm barely moving more than a shuffle, and I'm losing ground to the other four-banders. Running through the walled town for the last time, John passes me with less than 1km to go. But at last, it's no right turn for me, it’s time for me to hang a left and run along the Espenalde.
High fives along the finishing chute so much noise from the fantastic support. I’m there I’ve done it, with a run time of 4:51:18.

This gives me a race time of 13:51:06, unfortunately not within my (arbitrary) target time of 13 hours, but still 40 minutes quicker than my 2011 time. My position was 777th out of 1,430 starters and 106th out of 179 in my age group. To have finished in the top half of the age group I would have need to have been 15 minutes quicker (so, close enough).

Keeping to my promise, after the race I went to the Five Arches for a pink pint. I also felt the need for a sweaty burger, but our attempts to get one of these failed.

As difficult as racing an Ironman race is, the training to get you to the start line takes an immense amount of dedication and sacrifice. Not just from the athlete but those around you too. I could not have done this race without the fantastic support of my Ironwidow, Angela. She has been a rock, coping with my bad moods, training commitments and generally disappearing for most of the weekend. To which I am eternally grateful to her.

So, what next? 
I tell you what it won’t be, it won’t be Ironman Wales. This race is brutal and the run has broken me both times. As it stands, I’m not making any plans to race long distance. But never say never, if (and that’s a very big if) I race long again, it’ll be somewhere warm and flat.
Reflecting on the race, it struck me that I’ve never run a stand-alone marathon. So that box needs to be ticked in 2014, and then we’ll see where we go from there….