Rather than have a cavalry charge of 2000 lemmings into the sea, the organisers at Tenby sensibly opted for a rolling start. So, after the hooter sounded my pen of similarly useless swimmers had a good 10 minutes of shuffling before we entered the sea. Any stretch of water off the coast of Britain isn’t usually at its most inviting at 7:00am. and the Irish Sea/Bristol Channel/whatever was no exception. The steely greyness of its appearance however belied the fact that mercifully it wasn’t that cold. Indeed, the rolling start gave me space to swim and the inshore section that led out to the first turn seemed reasonably benign. So I got off to a decent start.
Towards the first turn, however things got decidedly choppier and my front crawl consequently fell apart fairly quickly. My beach swimming in Spain, though, paid dividends. I’d swum in much heavier surf than this and I wasn’t phased. All around me I could see people were struggling but as we reached the next turn towards the beach the shelter of the harbour wall reduced the waves somewhat. After exiting the water for the first time I shuffled, rather than ran, around the large rock that is the main feature of the beach. Looking back at the sea I saw lots of bobbing heads so even though my time was slow I was far from being at the back of the field. On to lap 2, and more of the same. Th swell seemed to be a little rougher this time, though that may have been fatigue. Breakfast made a brief appearance halfway through, but I managed to carry on without ?a pause. As is always the case with an Ironman swim, by the time I’ve done 3km I’ve had enough and I’m bored with it, yet the beach seems so distant and getting no nearer. Finally, after 1:47:39 I crawled out of the sea and walked up the beach to the infamous switchback path where you put on your trainers for the 1km run or so to transition.
The results showed that at this point I was 117th out of 131 starters in my age group, so even though it was my slowest IM swim to date (first IM sea swim) I was slightly ahead of the game – I would normally expect to be well entrenched in the bottom 10 per cent. 6 never got past the swim and didn’t record a bike time. So that left 125.
My running shoes were at the bottom of the switchbacks and after a rather pathetic attempt to pull them on at speed, I walked up the slopes before breaking into a gentle jog through the town. The supporters were already giving it large and encouraged me to pick up the pace a bit, so even though running after an hour and three quarters of floundering at sea isn’t the most natural thing to do I made it into transition in a reasonable state and quickly got my act together for the bike leg.
This section of the race, I knew, would be the most important. I had already decided on my strategy. I wasn’t going for a race time as this was my first Ironman for 4 years, but what I wanted to do was to actually arrive at the run in shape to actually run it. My 3 previous races, particularly Regensburg, had resulted in me using my bike fitness to set a decent time only for my run to fall apart completely. Here I would stick to heartbeat and try not to exceed a lowly 130bpm.
The bike course at Tenby has a fearsome reputation, yet it starts pretty easily. The first third out to the stunningly beautiful area around Castlemartin and Freshwater Bay ?only has a few gentle inclines to worry about. The only real problem on the day was the wind which was fairly brisk and slowed progress significantly, particularly on the section past Freshwater Bay back towards Pembroke Dock. I felt comfortable and was riding very easily, too slowly it felt like, but keeping to my heartrate target. Already I could see the benefits. One guy kept accelarating past me, only for me to reel him in again. I knew he would pay for “racing” like this later on and made a note of his number (he ended up 45 minutes slower than me on the bike).
After the first section of the course is complete the route turns northward towards Narbeth before swinging south once more through Wiseman’s Bridge and Saundersfoot, finally reaching Tenby itself. This whole section is then repeated as a loop. Now the character of the course began to reveal itself with a seemingly endless succession of hills. In isolation none of them were too tough, although the climb through Narberth town centre was pretty challenging. The two really difficult hills were right at the end of the loop: firstly at Wiseman’s Bridge which had people off and walking in the first lap (I’m guessing around 15%. Luckily it’s pretty short. The next hill though Saundersfoot, St Bride’s Hill, is much longer but not as steep. These, I knew, would be much more of a challenge at the end of the second loop by which time I would have over 100 miles in the legs.
Still progress was solid, if unspectacular. My discipline in sticking to a heartrate of 130 seemed to be paying off. I was eating regularly and felt no signs of stomach distress. My nutrition strategy of 2 SIS gels followed by a plain pumpkin 9bar was working.
Better still I was overtaking a substantial number of riders. By the time I finished the bike I would overtake 255 people, including 18 in my own age group, and move up to 99th in my age category. The trouble was my legs were starting to feel extremely tired. The repeated hills were taking their toll and as I approached Saundersfoot for the second time I had already been riding for over 7 hours. Negative thoughts flooded my being and I began to seriously contemplate dropping out. 112 miles is a long way on a bike by any standards, but throw in over 2,000 metres of ascent including a few 15% hills and it becomes a very tough prospect. In truth, although I’d done plenty of hill climbing on my bike throughout the year, I hadn’t done enough really long days in the saddle to harden me to riding for this length of time. I also knew that by the time the run started I’d have been racing for nearly 10 hours – not that far from the cut off at the end of the bike (10? hours). This was a far cry from Ironman Regensburg where I was off the bike and running in 8. I told myself that this race was all about returning to Ironman. Time was not important and I should just make it to T2 and head out on the run before throwing my efforts away.
The crowds in Saundersfoot had already headed back for town by the time I rode up St Bride’s Hill for the second time adding to the feeling of loneliness out on the course, and I was mightily relieved by the long easy downhill back to Tenby and transition. Less heartening was the sight of all the runners slogging their way up the hill I was now cruising down.
After rolling in to T2 a wave of relief swept over me. My bike time of 7:45:26 was comfortably my slowest Ironman bike split, over 90 minutes slower than IM Regensburg, but setting out on the run I felt different. Comfortable is not a word I would normally use to describe how I felt on starting a marathon after ten hours of swimming and riding a bike, yet for the first of the four laps that is how I felt. I ran the whole of the lap, only walking through the aid stations for flat coke and banana, and even slogged up the long hill. For that first 10km I was averaging substantially below 6:30 per km. Even on the second lap my times remained around the 7 minute mark until the 18th kilometre when I slowed dramatically to 8:15. My stomach felt really bad here and I backed off for a couple of kilometres. At this point I joined another athlete, a local girl called Bethan, who was having a hard time. I knew I was in good enough shape to finish, and although I didn’t feel great, this was nothing compared to how I felt on the runs in Bolton and Regensburg – the latter was a horrendously tough experience. I also knew that I was on for a slow time so I decided to walk for a while with Bethan to try and get her through her dark patch. We walked and talked for most of the third lap and by the start of the fourth I felt sufficiently recovered to start running again. In fact, the 37th kilometre I ran in 6:17 which was my 6th fastest kilometre split of the race! Walking with Bethan had put my Ironman marathon PB out of reach and my final time was 5:33:27, some 8 minutes slower than my previous 3 races. The difference here though was huge: despite the much hillier nature of this marathon compared to Bolton, and especially the nearly flat Regensburg, I crossed the line with tread to spare. I even think that had I started running again sooner on the third lap I could well have comfortably beaten my previous best marathon time. I didn’t mind though. It felt great to be able to give back some of my Ironman experience to help get Bethan over the line.
I finished in 15:31:42 and 96th in my age group having made up a further 3 places on the run. This was almost 2 hours slower than my last Ironman, Regensburg in 2011. Yet I felt a great sense of achievement crossing the line in Tenby – I thought that Regensburg might have been my last Ironman. Tenby is one of the very toughest Ironman courses in the world and I finished it unbowed and unbeaten. In every previous race I crossed the finish line in pieces at the ragged edge of my personal endurance limits. Here, despite my feelings towards the end of the bike section, I raced within myself and kept my plan together until the finish. In fact, so encouraged was I by the race that I signed up for Ironman UK next summer almost as soon as I got home!
No report on Ironman Wales would be complete without a mention of the supporters. Ironman completely takes over the town of Tenby for the weekend. 2000 athletes and their assorted families and supporters fill the hotels, bars and caf?s. A significant percentage of the athletes are local and the town takes the opportunity to have a party. First time up St Bride’s Hill in Saundersfoot felt like a mountain stage of the Tour de France. I cycled through a tunnel of spectators shouting, ringing cowbells and tooting horns. There were sound systems and street parties in Pembroke Dock and Narbeth, and every time you ran through the streets of Tenby itself you received constant support and urging. The atmosphere is fantastic and makes it an incredible raceday experience. Despite the notoriety of the course it’s definitely a race to do.