Widely regarded as one of the most punishing Ironman courses in the world, I’d chosen Tenby’s Ironman Wales as the location for my ‘A’ race of 2018.
Tenby is a beautiful, old, seaside town in Pembrokeshire. It has narrow, twisting, streets, ancient walls and buildings, and the main part of the town sits high on the cliffs above the harbour and beaches. Whilst this is all very ‘picture-postcard’ the difference in height between the sea and town, and the cobbled, winding roads through town made for a challenging stage.
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.
Under the arch and over the timing mat and I was into the water. Goscar Rock was looming on my right shoulder, from the clifftops, where Annie and my parents were, looking stunning in the dawn light, although at water level I could not really appreciate this, and it was a dark silhouette to me. The first major buoy was passed with it on the left shoulder, with all subsequent buoys passed to the right. I decided to take the left hand edge of the course, risking some fisticuffs on the inside line of the first buoy, in order to have as clean a run as possible around the rest of the course. I had a spare set of goggles on my thigh, as if I lost my main set it would be impossible to finish the swim in the seawater. The sea was much calmer than on my pre-race swim, and I was keeping well out of the way of the pack on the left hand edge, after only a little bit of jostling at the first buoy. I felt that I was swimming well, and I was not tiring, which was heartening as I have not done a huge amount of open sea swimming. I made the Australian turn round the rock, and saw that I was up on my self imposed schedule, and so plunged quite happily back into the water. As the field had spread out it was not difficult to avoid most other people, although I did take one massive clout across the face at the second buoy, but my goggles remained firm, and I just plugged away, and came out of the swim in 1:14.18, much faster than my 1:17 target, and set about the 1km journey to T1. In the water you are somewhat isolated from the rest of the race, and even at the turn the swimcap and goggles form a fairly effective set of blinkers, so the wall of noise that his you as you tear these off is both staggering and uplifting. I collected my pink bag, squirted some water over my feet to get rid of the sand, and took a few slurps and sprayed some on my face to clear the salt residue, and began the run up the slope and along the high street, past the packed crowds, to T1. I ate a cereal bar as I went, so that I would be well set up or the bike.
As my shoes were already clipped and rubber banded to my bike it was only the work of a moment to get out of the bottom half of the wetsuit, and to put on helmet and number belt, give my feet a quick rub with the towel I had in there to make sure there were no bits of sand that could cause irritation on the bike, and stuff my the wetsuit, pink bag and transition shoes into the bike transition bag and re rack it. I was out through to the bike racking reasonably quickly. I had not realised quite how rough the carpark was on bare feet, and just how narrow the transition exit was – the width of the blow up arch was continued down the road by the metal spectator barriers, and I could see a bottleneck of athletes, so I took the split second decision to rip my shoes off the bike and put them on there, rather than risk wobbling all over the narrow, crowded, road whilst trying to get my feet in, and also save a painful run over the rough tarmac with my bike. This proved to be a good decision as I was able to dodge the scrum at the mount line and get in clear space quickly. There was a first mad dash through town, pushed forward by the cheering crowds, but a few twists in the road later the course was heading out onto the first ‘short’ loop of the bike course.
A lot is talked about the Wales bike course, with its narrow, fast, sections; steep climbs, long dragging climbs; technical and steep descents and the ever present possibility/probability of rain or drizzle. What I had been worrying about most was the reduced braking I would suffer if the carbon braking surfaces on my wheels got wet. As I had not had a chance to check out a most of the course an unknown, technical descent with little stopping power would not be an ideal situation to find myself in. The bike course has one ‘short’ – about 35 miles – first lap, followed by two longer laps. The first lap was characterised by some narrow, two way, sections, which made it very difficult not to draft, as no overtaking was allowed in these and the field had not had a proper chance to spread out by this point.
As I passed 20 miles we got to, for me, the most dramatic part of the course – a steep descent beside the coast, with the highest winds I encountered in the race, plunged into ‘sand canyons’, the road twisting between dunes covered with scrubby grass, with sand from the almost vertical sides, which rose well above head height, blowing across the road was a breathtaking experience. Unfortunately there are no photographs of me available from this piece of the course, but the following image from Wales Online gives a very good impression of the dramatic nature of this piece of coastline.
After navigating the other side of the two way section the course joins the second lap and the next feature of note is Carew Castle. My parents and Annie had taken the spectator’s shuttle bus out here, and the course takes a descent, with a 90 degree bend in it, before shooting across the castle bridge, with the ruined fortifications in the background. A short while later a steep climb came, followed by the even steeper run down into Narbeth, the northernmost point of the course. I was still holding an aero position, and was not tiring, and my power was remaining constant. Before the road turned back through Tenby was the famous Saundersfoot climb. A wooded, twisting descent, one of the sections where aerobars were prohibited, brought us to sea level, the road running along the beachfront, and then turned upwards, the roads lined with hundreds of people, all cheering, and a tunnel opened through the crowds.
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.
The climb was seemingly unrelenting, and went on and on up to the first turnaround point at 4km. This was visible from quite a distance away, providing a goal to aim for but, if anything, the descent was even harder. The climb took so much out of the muscles on the upwards section that the legs had very little shock absorption on the way back down. Before descending all the way back to town, however, the course cruelly turned upwards again, on a ‘spur’ to collect a lap band. Whoever designed the run course was not finished with us yet, however. Back on the outskirts of town we were sent on yet another upwards out and back spur before winding through the uneven and never flat streets of Tenby for about a kilometre, before merging with the athletes still coming out of transition for the next time around. In the image the grey colour shows the elevation – the four brutal climbs – the red line is my heartrate, the green my speed and the yellow my cadence.
With the second lap came the inevitable low point of the race for me. I was determined that I was going to run the marathon – only walking in feed stations. On the steep first climb out of town I almost broke, but as my stride (shuffle) faltered I willed myself not to stop and continued running. I can’t claim to have been running very fast, at one point I’m pretty sure I was overtaken by a guy powerwalking, but principals are principals and I kept on. Annie had walked back from Saundersfoot, and by lap two had made it as far as the ‘lap band spur’ turn. The section through town seemed longer every time but getting past halfway was a positive step, and although the graph shows that my speed actually dropped, so did my heartrate, and although my joints and calves were hurting, I was actually feeling slightly better than on the previous lap. As I turned into the lap band spur I found a rowing/sailing friend who lived locally had turned out to watch the race, so my spirits were raised by the unexpected cheering. I knew by then that John was about three quarters of a lap behind me. He was slowly gaining on me but barring accidents I was fairly certain he wouldn’t catch me. By the time I got back into Tenby Annie had met up with my parents, and the course twisted through the centre so much that they were able to pop out of side streets at unexpected moments to take photos of me looking surprised and tired. My final lap was the slowest, but I as the end was in sight I was feeling cheerful. I had seen John and Debi out on the course and knew that they were both going well and was feeling pleased that I would be the first Banburyite home. I even manged what I wanted to call a sprint finish, but in reality was probably more of a slightly faster plod, and crossed the line in a total time of 12:16.25, having done a 4:45:15 marathon, on what is certainly the toughest marathon course I have been on.
Although just under 2 hours slower than my Iron PB I was very pleased with my performance in Wales. The bike remains (and I suspect always will be) my strongest discipline, and I was pleased with a solid, if not rapid, swim. I’ve struggled on the run this year, both in training and racing, and I’m looking forward to getting it together for next season’s ‘A’ race – Ironman Cork. Three days after Wales I paid a visit to those clever types at Drag2Zero, and have made some radical adjustments to the front end setup of my bike – so I’m hoping that some solid training with Coach Brian’s guidance in the new, more comfortable, more aerodynamic, position will pay off in Ireland, both in pure speed, and setting me up for a much faster run.
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: