Ironman Wales has a reputation of being one of the tougher Ironman events out there and the 2017 version certainly lived up to its brutal reputation. The odd massive jellyfish, hours of constant drizzle, a howling gale, roads greasy with (deliberately spilled) oil, and more than 2000m of climbing on the bike made for a very tough day at the office. Of the 2000+ entrants, around 25% either didn’t start or didn’t finish this year - the highest attrition rate in the event’s history. But for those who got through – which luckily enough included me – it was a race never to be forgotten.
My build through the season had been going so well. Carlow sprint, Blessington Olympic, Edinburgh 70.3. I’d even managed to come second in the Athy try-a-tri after a computer malfunction entered me in the newcomer’s race. But 7 weeks out from Wales, in the final volume training phase, I stepped on a loose rock on a training run and badly sprained my ankle. The result: a broken metatarsal, crutches and the disabled seat on Bus Eireann to and from work. Training was a disaster. No running at all. Very limited riding. And only a bi-weekly splash around Wicklow harbour to prepare.
On the Wednesday before the race, the acid test: a 5km power walk pain free (kinda). And that was enough for me. I’d decided to the swim and bike. I knew I could do that. And I’d try one 10km loop of the run. And then see how it went.
We jammed the car full of gear and children and caught the Friday night ferry from Rosslare to Pembroke. Nearby Tenby, the race location, is a very pretty seaside town that had gone stark raving Ironman mad for the weekend. Athletes, flags, posters, banners, supporters, tourists, locals everywhere. Such a great buzz. I checked in and racked my bake and dropped off my gear bags on the Saturday morning, stopping briefly to hand some more money to Ironman Corp for a couple of t-shirts.
Race day: Tenby does the little things so well. A stirring Welsh national anthem while we were all crammed onto the beach. Then Thunderstruck to get the blood pumping. Shortly after we were off into calm, clean and quite warmish water. The swim is 2 triangular laps with an ‘Australian exit’ beach run at the midpoint. There was a bit of argy-bargy, but I found some feet and managed to get around comfortably in 1hr 06min. I didn’t push it at all as I was so undertrained. Next was the unique 1km run from the swim exit up a steep zig-zag beach pathway and through the town to transition. There was a wall of noise as fans screamed support. Just amazing.
As soon as the bike began, the rain came. And it never really let up. The first 40km or so was directly into a screaming gale. That seemed bad enough but when we turned side on to the wind, things got ridiculous. Bike handling was a nightmare and unfortunately more than a few people came off. The course featured unrelenting hills. I’d put an 11-28 cassette on beforehand and still felt undergeared. The killer was the 2 back-to-back hills at Wisemans (16%) and Saundersfoot (approx. 110km in) , which were packed with screaming fans like the upper reaches of the Tourmelet. Forget about control. It was impossible not to go full gas here. Of course I paid the price later. The second loop also passed through Wisemans and Saundersfoot in the last 10km of the bike, which shattered my legs. Not enough training.
Soaked and filthy, I rolled into transition after 7hr and 22minutes. My slowest ironman bike by 1hr 20min! No pain in my broken foot. But no feeling in either foot actually, through soaked socks and shoes. I still had no idea whether I’d even make 100m into the run.
After the world’s slowest transition, I powered out onto the run course at a slow shuffle. I’d decided to alternate running and walking 1km sections. The run course had zero, and I mean zero flat. Four loops of 10ish km, with each loop ending with a 1km meander through Tenby’s streets. As the afternoon and night wore on, the supporters grew in number, more vocal and better lubricated from the nearby pubs. The atmosphere was just superb. One lap in, I know I would be able to improvise a run/walk/deathmatch strategy to finish. Walk uphill, trot downhill. I became addicted to the tortilla crisps and flat coke at the aid stations. The thought of another gel though, made me physically sick. Best spectator sign: ‘Never trust a fart after mile 20.’ The third lap was a horror. Aching foot with every single step. Plenty of miles to go. And the smell from those bbqs!!! But you push on. Fourth lap: Ecstasy collecting my last of four lap bands. And it was great to see Karen Byrne and Dan Brennan looking so strong as they passed me. The final 5 km were mostly downhill and easy. With the PB long gone, it was such fun after sunset chatting to the other athletes (many of whom were walking) as a proud member of the glowstick brigade.
The gales meant that the red carpet and much of the Ironman paraphernalia at the finish had been removed for safety reasons, but that did not matter at all. The crowds were still packed in tight. I finished in approx 14hr 20min and felt fresher than I had any right to. A brilliant event, that I’d love to return to when fully fit to do justice to. Well done to all the other Wicklow finishers. And if you are thinking about an Ironman, Wales is definitely the race to do. Epic in every sense of the word.
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