I made the journey from my work in Oxford to Wales on the Friday afternoon before Sunday’s race. We were staying a few miles out of town, all the hotels in Tenby itself having been booked up a year in advance of race week. We were a party of 4 – me racing and Annie and my parents on support. We drove straight to Tenby on the Friday afternoon as I wanted to get registered, both for convenience – to collect the various bags, race numbers, swim hats and so on and to pick up the £12.50 meal voucher (only valid on the Friday) which had replaced the traditional pasta party. I squeaked into the registration tent, Annie flinging me out of the car whist she found a parking space in the race-crowded town, with four minutes to spare before they closed, and got signed in, collected my nice new race bag (a new holdall/backpack design which I rather like) and spent some time loitering around the ‘Ironman Village’ before taking a leisurely stroll down to the beach to take a look at the swim start, and the climb from the swim to transition, and to generally soak up the atmosphere.
There were three of us from Team Cherwell taking on the course; myself, John Taylor and Debi Coles. John’s wife Angela and their two boys (who were entered in the Ironkids run) were coming down to support, and Debi’s support was of course Rich Hughes (who as well as Debi’s husband is Annie’s coach) who was taking a rare break from racing to be a spectator. So with the addition of my parents there was going to be a lot of much needed support for us out on the course.
On the beach we ran into John, who was taking a quick pre-race swim, and had a look at the conditions, before climbing the steep switchbacks to the top of the cliffs. We walked into the main part of town with John, as we were all meeting up with Debi and Rich and a few of their friends for dinner (in a restraint the took our discount vouchers!) and we had a very convivial time before it was time to head to the cottage, get everything out of the car and prepare for racking, bag drop and athlete briefing the next day.
I was one of the first people to rack on Saturday morning, and my bike looked very lonely all by itself in the middle of a practically deserted carpark. I was caused some alarm by the fact that the disc on the back was causing the bike to swing about alarmingly in the ever increasing wind, and I was concerned that it would get damaged, or damage someone else’s bike. Once more bikes got racked hover it was a bit more sheltered, and by the time that everyone was in transition they were so tightly wedged in that they could not move anywhere – indeed I was slightly worried about being able to get the bike out at all in T1. I hung up my Bike and Run Bags in the transition tent (the last time I would be able to access them until the race), double checking that I had everything I needed in them, and then headed over to the Athlete Briefing. Here there were many warnings over the ‘pink bags’. The pink bags are an addition to Ironman Wales: as well as the usual Bike and Run Transition bags, and the streetwear bag, there was a pink bag for an ‘extra’ transition. It is a kilometre run from the swim exit to T1, so the pink bags were for shoes, and some fresh water after the sea swim. They were racked up on the switchback climb up to the main street from the beach, and leaving the pink bag there after the swim would an instant disqualification for littering. The forecast for race day was overcast, but there was a persistent drizzle on Saturday, so after watching John’s boys at Ironkids, Debi, Rich, Annie and I found some food in a handy pub whilst it cleared. Annie and I took a short walk around Tenby and the other beaches nearby, had a look at the dramatic St Catherine’s Fort, and looped by to the swim start at North Beach, with the imposing Goscar Rock dominating it, for a pre-race swim. So as not to have a wet or damp wetsuit on race morning Annie kindly loaned me hers. Although a little tight ‘in places’ it worked well enough and I was pleased I had gone in the water as, although conditions were not perfect (in fact they were much worse than the race would be), I had no problems and found my rhythm quite easily. Annie came with me on this little recce out to the second sighting buoy as she is one of these lunatics who enjoys swimming without a wetsuit in cold water.
I went back to re-check that my bike had not smashed itself to bits (it was fine) and headed home for food and an early night – the alarm set for 4:30 race morning. I usually sleep badly the night before a race, and this was no exception. I was fretting over the disc wheel in some potentially adverse conditions (not so much the wind, but the carbon breaking surface is not the best in the wet, and there were some technical descents ahead of me) and general worry about the fearsome reputation of the course. Luckily I didn’t miss my alarm (as I did for the Cotswold 226 in 2017) mainly because I had been wide awake and staring at it for three quarters of an hour. Porridge for breakfast and then Annie drove me into Tenby, and I faffed with putting nutrition and shoes on my bike whilst she found a parking space.
The pre-race waiting is always one of the parts of the day that I struggle with the most – I over-think, dwell on and over-worry about factors that I can’t control and I always feel much better once I have got into the water and underway. This was no exception and getting 2400 athletes down the ramp, via pink bag racking, in a relatively short space of time was no mean feat. We had ‘self-seeded’ standing near markers according to approximately how long you thought you would take to complete the swim, so I hovered just in front of the 1:20 mark, and just before 6:50 traipsed down the ramp in a procession of wetsuited-individuals and stood in a queue on the sand. The Welsh national anthem was sung by a professional singer (not speaking Welsh I didn’t understand a word and could not therefore join in) who was also a competitor, doing his first Ironman, and shortly after that the pro men, and then pro women, were off. At 7:00 the gun for the age groupers went off and the queue shuffled forward. The timing chip activates as you go into the water, so I was not losing any time being about a quarter of the way back, and was happy avoiding the flailing and thrashing of a mass start.
For lap 2 I was more confident, as now I knew what to expect. I had encountered one short shower of rain, which had thankfully not affected my brakes, but had smeared my visor, so I was forced to ride with this up for the remainder of the bike leg. I got to the 80 mile marker seemingly in no time at all, and was still going well, admittedly breaking aero a little more than I ought to in order to stretch out my slightly tight shoulder. My legs were still feeling strong though, so I pressed on, past my parents for the second time at the castle and on out along the short, but sharp and steep, climbs out to Narbeth. It was on one of the few gentle downhill sections here that I saw an athlete have a catastrophic crash, reminding those of us who witnessed it that a moments inattention can be very costly. He drifted to the verge at 40kph, and his front wheel stopped dead, bike and rider somersaulting onto the side of the road. As the unfortunate man landed on his back I was already past, and all I could do was shout to the next marshal I saw that there had been a bad crash. Although no more rain came down it was a little damp under the tyres, and out of the saddle on a wooded climb with wet leaves strewn on the road about 90 miles in I lost back wheel traction and had a nervous few moments before I got my weight back on the saddle and crested the climb. Saundersfoot came round again, this time with Annie to cheer me on. I actually still didn’t feel too bad, although the video she got of me would suggest otherwise, the support giving that all important mental push for the last few miles, and I came into transition feeling reasonably good – I had hydrated well and eaten some cereal bars and energy blocks on the bike. The front bottle on the bike is invaluable for long distance racing. I had topped it up with bottles snatched at the feed stations, and the top tube box, which all integrates into the bike, had given me easy access to my nutrition. I was very pleased with 6:05.37 on a famously tough course.
In T2 I re-racked my bike without difficulty and in the transition tent paused long enough to put 'twinskin' socks, which prevent blisters, on, and tie my shoelaces securely. I was using lace up shoes, as I was not too fussed about transition speed, and in the past I have struggled with elastic laces at long events becoming too tight as the run goes on. I decided not to wear my cap, but I did put on sunglasses, to keep dust, dirt and wind off my face, and incase I needed to hide having a little weep at any point. Having got round the bike course without having my usual self-pitying cry I was taking no chances.
The road rises slightly straight from the transition arch, but my slightly sluggish legs were motivated as this point was where the crowds of spectators were thickest. I was keenly aware that I must not go out too hard, as the final downhill section of the bike course was the primary out and back section of the run course – so I knew just how much climbing was going to take place on this final section. As soon as I got underway I began to feel pretty awful. I was suddenly very thirsty and I got a stitch with seconds. Luckily I realised that whilst I had hydrated and taken on food during the bike I was sweating out, and not replacing, a lot of the salt. Luckily it was not too far to the first feed station, where salty crackers and crisps, washed down with flat coke, sorted me out very quickly, and I was able to establish some sort of rhythm, as the road climbed steadily, and fairly steeply, out of town.
Another Ironman down, then, and a real sense of achievement, having 'conquered the dragon'. Many thanks, as ever, to Coach BB, who got me to the start line in good form, despite circumstances of life and work ripping up my training schedule every couple of weeks. Great support from Annie, parents and friends helped a lot out on the course as well.
Some of the stats for those of you into the data: