2 minutes and 44 seconds. There’s not an awful lot you can achieve in that time. Make a slice of toast. Listen to a short music track. Decide what you’re going to buy for lunch at Sainsburys. Unfortunately, this margin was the gap between me and the person that secured the last spot for the Ironman world championships in Hawaii. However, that doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story, so grab a drink, settle in, as this one is going to be a bit of an epic…
Ironman Wales was always going to be one of my two ‘A’ races of 2017. The unfortunate series of events that occurred at the Outlaw have already been well documented, so I was desperate for some form of redemption and a chance to prove what I could do over the iron-distance. After a couple of weeks of recovery I’d dived straight back into training with an increased hunger and drive to improve. I had some pre-race goals which I mentioned in a post in the week leading up to the race.
One of the best things about doing Wales this year was that I wouldn’t be racing solo – there were 10 of us (#tenbyten) from the Clapham Chasers all signed up, and I made the long journey west with George Bright in the now customary little white van. We arrived in Tenby on Thursday lunchtime, giving us plenty of time to get settled in and deal with all the faff that comes with doing an Ironman, making the entire process slightly less stressful.
After booking into our excellent B&B (the Glenthorne Guesthouse), we had a quick wander to check out the sea (so far, so flat) before heading to get registered, pick up all our race bits and try not to spend our life savings at the expo. In the end I managed to purchase a brand new wet suit – so much for ‘don’t try anything new on race day’. I also looted the Skechers stall, coming away with a few free cowbells, which I knew would go down well with the support crew come race day.
On Friday, we donned the neoprene and had a dip in the ocean, getting a feel for the water and trying to work out some landmarks to sight off on race day. The water was fresh, but I soon warmed up once I got going, swimming a couple of easy circuits around the bay. We jumped in the van and drove the big loop of the bike course, as George hadn’t be able to join us for the recce weekend back in August. This proved invaluable for me, providing a great reminder of some of the sharp, twisty descents that form part of the route.
We hopped on our bikes and rode the 2 biggest climbs at the end of the loop – up out of Wiseman’s bridge and Saundersfoot. These must be tackled twice on race day, and I knew pacing would be key, as going too hard too early would most likely lead to a minor explosion before a long walk during the marathon. George decided to lose half of his bike attachments en route, so I went back for the van while he attempted to recover the lost tools.
Katie arrived on Friday evening and the 3 of us went for a nice meal in town; having been to Tenby three times this year the place has really grown on me, and the way all the locals embrace the event coming to the town is brilliant. There are signs and flags everywhere, with all the restaurants putting on ‘Ironman specials’ in the few days before. I was pretty envious of her not having to race, looking longingly at the massive burgers being served up, knowing full well these were now only days away.
Saturday morning dawned, with Katie (obviously) heading out for a hilly 21 mile run, leaving me to go for a quick spin on my bike to make sure everything was working properly. In the 7 and a half minutes I was outside, I got absolutely soaked, and I should’ve probably taken that as a sign of things to come. Giving up on the planned 30 minutes, I went for a quick run before packing up my final bits of gear and heading to bike racking.
Ironman events require you to drop off all your kit the day before; I’m a fan of this as it takes a lot of stress away from race morning. I dropped off the bike up and dropped off my two transition bags (swim to bike and bike to run), meaning I was done for the day. Nothing to worry about apart from the race itself.
Chrissie Wellington was in town promoting her new book, so Katie and I queued to buy a copy and get it signed. Quite amazingly, she actually remembered me from the London marathon, and the 3 of us had a nice chat (despite us both being massively starstruck – that’s Katie and I, not Chrissie). She really is one of the most down to earth people I’ve ever met, which I think is a quality that makes her so popular amongst the fans of our sport.
The support crew also arrived on Saturday, with my Mum, Sister, Dave the Lion as well as my grandparents along to share the journey. With Katie’s mum and dad also arriving the following day, the pressure was on not to mess it up! We went for a nice lunch, discussing battle plans for the following days spectating; my family have always been so supportive and it means so much to me to know they take such an interest in what I’m up to in my spare time.
I had the rest of the day to just chill out with Katie. I think it’s important to note here that I’d really been struggling mentally over the preceding 48 hours, with motivation levels low and the ever-worsening weather forecast causing me a large amount of stress. I’d been so cold on the bike during the Outlaw and wasn’t looking forward to another potentially miserable 6+ hours in the wind and rain.
Katie probably saved my race on Saturday afternoon, giving me a stern talking to which made me think hard about why I was doing these stupid events and what I actually wanted to take away from it all. This, combined with a mate from the Chasers (Martin Rutter), reminding me that conditions were the same for everyone else, you just need to be stronger, led to me coming out of the shower a changed man (mentally, not just because I’d now got super-smooth legs). I was going to enjoy the day no matter what, trust in all the training I’d done and most importantly, embrace the suffering. If I could do that whilst everyone else was wet and miserable, I knew I had a chance of doing well on the day.
The alarm was set for 4.30, so I settled down for an early night and sleep came quite quickly. I spent the last hour before it was due to go off staring at the ceiling, ready to go, before jumping up as it beeped. The B&B had arranged to put on breakfast at 5 (another lovely touch), so the 5 or 6 of us who were all taking part sat around nervously chatting, whilst listening to wind howling away outside. I stuck to the tried and tested porridge (I probably now average around 3 bowls a day), sharing a joke with George and trying to stay relaxed.
Our accommodation was less than a 10-minute walk from transition, so we were able to wander down and load up our bikes with nutrition. I don’t take on too much fuel during the ride; I had 2 chopped up cliff bars, a couple of GU gels and a bottle of UCan (containing about 600 calories). Having had stomach issues in the past, I like to keep it relatively simple, and this seems to work for me; I know others would take on much more over the course of the day.
It was an absolute luxury to be able to go back to our rooms and relax for a while, use the toilets instead of queue for the portaloos before getting suited up and ready to go. Time always passes so quickly on ironman morning, and before I knew it I was standing in the masses outside transition, before being paraded down through the town en masse, with people packed 4 or 5 deep on either side of the road down to the beach. It was like the entire town was awake at 6.30 in the morning, a surreal experience which had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.
As we waited expectantly on the beach, the Welsh anthem played, with the supporters all crammed in on the railings above singing along, making for an electric atmosphere. The pro’s were set off 5 minutes before everyone else, and I was surprisingly relaxed as I waited my turn to get in the water. As it’s a ‘rolling start’ they let 8 or so athletes go every 5 seconds, so I patiently waited my turn, before crossing the timing mat and legging it towards the sea.
Thankfully, the sea wasn’t particularly choppy (just as well, as I’d only ever swam properly once in the sea – I’m not counting going paddling whilst on family holidays here), and after ungracefully diving in head first, I tried to settle in and relax. This is usually pretty difficult when everyone else is fighting for the same patch of water.
Within 400 meters I was momentarily halted as I’d swam head first into a big yellow buoy (I seem to remember doing something similar during the outlaw), and a few minutes later I had my googles partly ripped off by a flailing arm. Oddly for me though, I didn’t let any of this phase me. I seemed to have adopted this new, calmer demeanour; accepting that it’s an awfully long day and these things are all just part of it – nothing to worry about.
The swim is a 2 lap affair, which involves you emerging from the water, running along the beach for a minute or so, before diving back in and doing it all again. I completed the first in just over 32 minutes (I didn’t know this at the time), and if I could keep that pace up I was looking at a surprisingly fast swim time.
The chop seemed to pick up noticeably during the second loop, and I think it was this combined with a lack of swim endurance fitness that saw me slow slightly in the final 20 minutes. In the final stretch towards the shore, some chap took offence to me accidentally bumping into him and tried to pull my shoulder under the water. I laughed and carried on my merry way, dragging myself out onto the beach, having successfully negotiated the swim without getting stung by a jellyfish.
Swim time: 1:07:59. Position in age group – 44th. Position overall – 400th.
Not a bad swim all things considered – a minor personal best actually (45 seconds or so faster than the Outlaw), so I can’t complain about that. Plenty more to come there, with some hard graft needed over the winter.
As if the organisers hadn’t already made the course difficult enough, an added quirk to this event is the 1+ kilometre run back up through the town back to transition. We were given an additional transition bag beforehand (a very fetching pink number), to put in some running shoes and anything else you might need.
I’d decided to strip off the wet suit and carry it on the run. I negotiated the suit off part successfully, but my ‘putting on a pair of trainers’ tekkers clearly needs some work, as I was fairly unstable on my feet and kept swaying backwards whenever I tried to slip them on. On what I believe was the 5th attempt, the trainers were on and I was grinding my way up the ramps that climb all the way up to street level.
I’d said to myself before that I wanted to use any further running to my advantage, and I passed a load of people on the dash through town, spotting Katie waving the huge Clapham Chasers flag and flashing her a cheeky grin. Those already on the bike were already heading the other way at speed, but this just made me think there’d just be more people to chase throughout the day – I wasn’t going to let negative thoughts set in.
The next mishap was just around the corner, as I picked up my bag in the transition tent, before sitting down and tipping it on the floor. When a pair of running shoes and a pink headband came tumbling out, I realised I wasn’t going to get far on the bike with my running kit. I had a quick chuckle at my stupidity whilst shoving all this back in, before picking up the correct bag and starting again.
With the forecast being bleak, I’d decided it was definitely worth taking slightly more time to layer up for the ride. The legendary Alan Scott had lent me half his wardrobe (as I’m a complete rookie), and I shoved on a long-sleeved top, some socks and full-fingered gloves. I already had some fetching arm warmers on (I’d swam in them), and had also covered my bike shoes in some neoprene toe covers to attempt to keep the digits warm.
Including the run through town I spent just over 9 minutes in transition, which was about par when comparing to others in my age-group, so no real complaints to be had there. (Well, I could learn to put on shoes and tell the difference between a red and a blue bag, but we’ll glide over that for now).
Have I mentioned the weather yet? Oh yes, I might’ve said something. I was ready for a war. The roads were already wet, and I made sure to be sensible on the descent out of town; no point ruining your race before it’s even begun.
As I hit the main road, I spotted Paul Burton – it was impossible not to as he gave me a massive cheer. Paul’s an awesome athlete, having qualified for Kona twice, as well as finishing top Brit at this year’s Norseman triathlon – regarded as one of the hardest in the world. We’d ridden together in the build up to Wales, but unfortunately he’d come down sick 24 hours before the race and told me he may not be starting. This was the first time I knew for sure he wasn’t racing, and I was gutted for him.
The next surprise came almost immediately as 2 miles further on my family were out braving the elements and going bonkers as I rode past – I loved seeing them out there. I rode close to Anthony (another Chaser) for a while and we shared a joke or two – it was a real boost to know you were sharing the experience with all your mates, making the whole ride a lot less lonely, even if you weren’t actually anywhere near them at the time.
After this it was time to settle in and get to work. The first smaller loop of the ride out to Angle has a few hills, including a long drag out of Pembroke, but nothing to get too worried about. The wind was a bigger issue, and it was absolutely howling down by the beach in Freshwater West, so much so that I got physically shunted from one side to the other. The waves were massive down there, and on the climb back inland I joked with another rider that it was a good thing we weren’t swimming in that!
At this point I also passed Helena, another mate and honorary Clapham Chaser for the day. She’d had a storming swim (59 minutes), and went on to put in an incredible performance, finishing 8th female overall (including the pros!), winning her age group and punching her ticket to Kona in the process. What an absolute legend. I think I gave her a ‘fancy seeing you here’ or some similar crap joke when I went past before we wished each other luck for the day.
Coming back into Pembroke, someone had overcooked the descent and smashed straight into the wall at the bottom and was being attended to by an ambulance crew. This was a pretty harrowing sight, and not the last time I’d see someone strewn out at the side of the road; a constant reminder to keep things in check and get to the end of the ride in one piece. They even had to slightly alter the course on the day as some morons had deliberately spilt oil on the road to cause an accident; how anyone can justify behaviour like this absolutely baffles me.
I came on to the first of the two ‘big’ loops we had to ride, and by now the rain was absolutely hammering it down. Strange as it may sound, I was having a wonderful time, just in my little zone, not too cold and just focussing on eating and drinking regularly. The field was already quite spread out, so at times I was riding on my own for a while before I’d slowly start to reel someone in ahead.
The two big climbs on the course are right at the end of the lap, but there are plenty of others along the way to keep you honest and slowly sap energy from the legs. Descending into Wisemans bridge for the first time I got a real shock as I spotted the massive banner with my name on it – my uncle had arranged for someone to put it up on the day. This provided a real morale boost at just the right time, and this was one of the only times during the day that I got slightly teary inside my aero lid.
I pressed on up the Wiseman’s climb (15% gradient) before plunging back down into Saundersfoot, where I’d heard lots about the support but imagined the rain would keep people away. I was completely wrong, as the climb was absolutely packed, with people 2/3 deep on either side, and everyone going bonkers. I again spotted Paul Burton (it was impossible not to – he may even have a louder voice than my mum), before seeing Katie, my sister and grandparents slightly further up, all braving the elements. I tried to keep it in check but it was impossible not to speed up slightly, buoyed by the positive energy.
I rolled back into Tenby, turning away from the town and heading out for my second big loop, which was demoralising, but I took heart from the fact that I hadn’t been lapped by any of the professionals! I didn’t know it at the time, but at this point I’d crept up from 44th to 21st in my age group, and I was feeling great. From this point onwards, I don’t think I was passed by a single person, and I overtook other riders regularly, especially when going uphill.
During the Outlaw I’d started to really flag in the last 20 miles or so, but incredibly at this point I was still loving life and happy to keep soldiering on. I even remember singing little songs to myself at one stage, before quickly realising what I was doing and making sure no one else had been around to witness. Coming up into the village of Narbeth for the second time, the rain had stopped, the crowds were out, and I sorely wanted to take a detour into the Narbeth Kebab Shop, but resisted the urge.
Hitting the two big climbs for the final time, I knew I was nearly home and hosed, and let my mind wander to the upcoming marathon. The legs were tired, but I was absolutely relishing the hilly run course. Coming back into Tenby, I rode past the professionals and some of the leading age groupers already coming towards me at 5km into the run, not letting this get me down, but just accepting there would be more people to try and hunt down.
The feeling of relief rolling into Tenby was massive, as I’d made it with no major bike issues and managed to finally put the ghosts of the Outlaw to rest. I passed the B&B we were staying in, and spotted the owners standing outside, so I shouted over at them to ‘put the kettle on’ which seemed to get a positive response. The battle on the bike was over and I felt like I’d beaten the conditions on the day – and gained a lot of valuable experience from it. If I can ride that bike course, in those conditions, I can ride anything.
Bike time: 5:54:24. Position in age group – 10th. 11th fastest split in AG.
I was happy with my performance on the bike, and it proved to me with a bit more work I can be competitive and see cycling as a strength. Only one person on the day rode under 5 hours – that was the male winner Cameron Wurf, who has ridden the Giro d’Italia twice and the Vuelta a Espana once. It’s not a fast course and it certainly wasn’t a fast day.
For those that are interested in the numbers, I averaged 245 watts NP for the during the ride, which works out at 3.5 watts per kg. I managed to ride a consistent power throughout, with the average barely changing in the last 3 hours or so.
Hopping off the bike, I was excited to be back on two feet. I remember lamely thinking ‘they’re all in my backyard now’, referring to the fact that I considered running to be my strength and I always know I’ll be playing catch up. Ironman had neglected to put any carpet down, so leaving my shoes on my bike, it was like running over small spikes from my bike to the transition tent – no expense spared as usual.
This time, I successfully grabbed the correct bag and I wasn’t messing around. Cycling top and gloves off on the fly, shoes on and the striking new pink headband donned, provided by Katie after the debacle of the Outlaw. I flew out of transition like a man possessed, momentarily forgetting I still had 26 miles to cover. I got a shout from John Levison over the PA system, letting the gathered crowds know about my stroll around London in a pair of trunks, which made me chuckle. John is one of the most knowledgeable members of the UK tri-scene and does a lot of splendid work on his website tri247.com.
My plan not to find out how I was doing in my age group until halfway through the run was thrown out of the window within minutes, with Paul Burton giving me a detailed breakdown as I passed him within the first mile. The short story was, I had some work to do if I wanted a top 5 spot and potential Kona slot, but I wanted to let the race come to me, instead of me going to find the race.
I settled into a rhythm that I felt would be sustainable for at least the first 20 miles, and started to concentrate on picking off as many people ahead of me as possible. In hindsight, the pace I set out at was slightly too rich, going through the first, hilly 10 kilometres in a touch over 41 minutes.
However, I was feeling great on the first couple of laps, sharing a joke with other runners and cheering on those I recognised on the out-and-back sections of the course. Lucy Gossage, the eventual female winner, was tearing it up as usual and I made sure to give her a shout on numerous occasions. I also spotted Helen Murray, from the Oxygen Addict podcast I listen to; we’d said hello during the pre-race briefing and I was glad to see she had a massive grin on her face whenever I saw her.
The rain had stopped falling by this point, but the wind was still howling, and with all the hills on the course, running any kind of consistent pace was nigh on impossible, so I was just running to feel. At some point during the second lap I pulled alongside another chap from my age-group, learning from him that we were now currently running 6th and 7th respectively.
From this point onwards, we ran side by side for a good 8 miles, neither of us wanting to let the other one escape. We exchanged words briefly, but it was all a bit tense, knowing that both of us wanted the same position – 5th. I hit a real mental low at this point, convincing myself he was much stronger than me and I was just hanging in by the skin of my teeth.
To my surprise, just after the half-marathon mark, he suddenly dropped away, wishing me luck, and that was the last I saw of him. I went through halfway in 1:31 – pretty punchy but at this point I still felt like I was in control. Paul kept me updated with gaps to those ahead, and I knew I was slowly closing in if I could just hold it together.
My family were brilliant throughout the entire run, and they’d worked out how to see me at various points as we ran through the town. Katie’s parents had also made the journey down to Wales and it was lovely to see them out on the course offering support. Meanwhile, Katie had made best friends with Chrissie Wellington and family, so was just casually chilling with them during the run. This was awesome as I got some personal shouts form Chrissie whenever I ran past her – what a legend.
Coming into lap 3 of 4, and things weren’t as fun anymore. I kept telling myself that I just needed to slow down less than those in front of me, you never know, they could be walking. If I could just keep moving for another 90 minutes, I’d give myself the best chance possible of that dream trip to Hawaii. With 10 kilometres to go, I was just 2 minutes behind 5th, and if you’d have told me beforehand that would be the case, I’d have backed myself to be able to deliver whatever the circumstances.
I’d never gone this deep before though, and the simple act of running was not proving as straightforward as normal. I got onto the last lap and had my first little wobble, walking up one of the steeper hills for 20 seconds or so, whilst internally screaming at myself for stopping. ‘Just keep running you idiot, what are you doing?!’ I was passing each point for the last time, collecting my final wristband at the top of the run course which would allow me entry to the finish.
Running down the hill back into town was straightforward enough, just let gravity do the work and try not to fall over. But as soon as the gradient kicked up in any way, that little voice popped up telling me I needed to stop, just for 10 seconds, and I let it infiltrate my brain like poison. More walking, more screaming at myself. Paul saw me during the last lap and said I looked out of it, with my gaze fixed 400m ahead, doing everything I could to keep moving.
Someone flew by me with half a mile to go. I couldn’t go with him, it was already taking everything I had to not walk. I was so close to the finish, but then suddenly, I’m walking again. I was furious with myself, but couldn’t do anything about it. Running again just ten seconds later, I knew I was there now, hearing the finish line announcements in the distance. I could barely stand by this point, and all I could think about was crossing the line and never moving again.
I managed to completely miss everyone in the finish chute (I don’t really remember crossing the line), and before I knew it I was being heaved up and whisked away in a little wheelchair, with Katie at the barriers slightly concerned for my wellbeing. Fortunately, after a couple of minutes, I hauled myself up and over to her, still dazed but delighted to see her. I think I knew deep down that I hadn’t quite done enough and that slot had eluded me, but I didn’t know for sure.
I got into the recovery area and just sat, feeling completely hollow but satisfied. I loaded up the results which confirmed I had indeed been passed in the closing stages, leaving me in 7th with the top 5 going to Hawaii. Just under 3 minutes was the gap from me to 5th, probably about the amount of time I spent walking in the last hour. My marathon run split was 3:16:56, 3rd fastest in my age-group and 25th overall. Good, but just not quite good enough.
My total finish time was 10 hours and 31 minutes, good enough for 7th in the male 25-29 age-group and 54th overall, which includes 15 professional men (I actually beat one of them). As mentioned before, Wales isn’t a fast course, and with conditions we had on the day, I was thrilled with the time and position I ended up with.
It took me a long while to move from that seat. Usually, I’m hungry post-race but I just felt horrendous, declining all the free food being offered to me. Those that know how tight/gluttonous I am won’t believe this to be true, but I just couldn’t face anything. I immediately found my family and it was sweaty hugs all around, before limping back to my room for a quick shower and so the others could warm up.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening hanging out with them and the fellow Chasers as they crossed the line one-by-one, all with their own stories of grit, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness. I’d love to mention them all here but I’ve already been going on too long and we’d be here all night. A special mention goes to Jim, who signed up around 3 weeks before the event whilst drunk on a night-out, having done absolutely no swimming or running in the last 9 months. He still dragged himself around for another ironman finish – what a hero/idiot; I’ll let you delete as applicable.
I’d never made it to watch the final hour of an Ironman, where those fighting to make the 17-hour cut-off are still on their feet, but I was determined to this time, so George and I headed down (in many, many layers) to get involved in the finish line party and cheer those heroes home. In the time leading up to this I’d hit a new post-race PB of calories consumed. 2 portions of fish and chips and a large pizza, as well as 5 or 6 pints. Every bit of it fully deserved in my mind.
The next morning, we hobbled down to breakfast, where a little bottle of champagne waited at my table – our hosts had very thoughtfully awarded me this along with a little certificate for being the first finisher in our B&B; a lovely gesture which really cheered me up.
I knew that only the top 5 would qualify for Kona, but I wanted to go to the awards ceremony on the off-chance that one or more of them decided not to take their spot and it would therefore ‘roll-down’ to me. There would also be the chance to see Helena on the podium for winning her AG and cheer her on and she claimed that coveted spot.
I sat there through what was probably the most uncomfortable hour of my life, with Katie holding my hand throughout knowing I really wasn’t enjoying having to cling on to a small chance of getting a spot, albeit an unlikely one. Sure enough, the top-5 took their slots straight away; something I completely expected – who wouldn’t want to go to Hawaii!
I thought I’d be gutted if I ever got so close, only to miss out by such a small margin at the end. Now it’s happened, oddly, I quickly made peace with it. I wasn’t good enough on the day, and I’ll just have to make sure I earn my spot next time. In all honesty, if you’d have said to me at the start of the season I’d be less than 3 minutes off a slot in Wales, I’d have bitten your arm off. I know I’m ready to make the next step in this sport, so it’s time to go away during the winter and put the work in to make sure that’s possible next year.
I can’t end without saying thanks to my family for coming down and supporting in Wales; you were all awesome. There were also others out on the course (Paul Burton, Tom Vickery, Jack Hambleton to name just a few), who no doubt kept me going through the darker periods. Massive props go to coach Dan Holmes; I’ve made huge gains from working with him this season and I’ve no doubt this is down to his guidance and help.
It was an absolute honour to share the weekend with all the other Clapham Chasers – the whole weekend wouldn’t have been the same without them. Training with these guys as well as everyone else from the club, week in, week out, has contributed to me gradually improving in this sport, and I’ll happily say it’s hands down the best club in the world – no debate. If you’re not a member, get involved.
Lastly, I couldn’t/wouldn’t do any of this without Katie. The amount she puts up with while I’m training/racing is incredible, and I don’t think I’d do triathlon without her, as I just wouldn’t enjoy it. I’m so lucky to have someone as supportive as she is, and I can only hope she continues to put up with me! Who knows, she may even do a triathlon or two next year herself. Watch this space…