The Ironman Experience – The Final Countdown

The last few days before leaving for Tenby were nervy.  Training had been severely reduced as the event approached and was done with very early in the day, yet I was so preoccupied I found it hard to do or think of much else!

On Thursday I prepared all of my equipment and kit for the event, as well as the weekend’s stay, and there was a lot!  Obviously the bike and wetsuit needed to be packed, along with trainers, shoes, cycle shoes, shorts, tops, socks and so on, plus also supplements, wetsuit lubricant, spare goggles, even the massage table…..the list was endless!  At least it occupied my mind for a few hours!

WP_20150911_001As I loaded the car early on Friday (well it felt like late morning to me having awoken at 4.15am!), I was feeling pretty good and ready to face the challenge ahead.  The excitement was building, and so were the nerves for both me, and my family!  B and I headed West and stopped at Carmarthen to stock up in a supermarket, loading up on ingredients to add to the rice based meals I would be eating – risotto, turkey steaks and rice, and rice salad!  At 10.30 I had my lunch before we headed onward, arriving in Tenby just before midday and unloading the jam packed car into our rented apartment over four return trips!

Next we checked the sea conditions, which seemed reasonable before walking to the Five Arches car park to register.  This is when the emotion and buzz really began to bite.  Seeing the banners, the marquee, the sponsors and expensive bikes, plus of course hundreds of athletes signing in, I really started to understand what I had been training towards for many months and my stomach churned a little.  I bought my day licence and received my rucksack, complete with swim cap, tattoos and race number.  The all-important wristband was attached to me and at that moment I knew I was part of a collective of Ironman hopefuls, distinguishable from others who were present just to watch.  I was getting ever closer to affronting the mammoth swim-bike-run challenge whilst those outsiders could enjoy a leisurely pint in the lead-up to Sunday morning…..

Having spent our wages on pre-race merchandise, we returned back to the flat to meet up with Mam and Dad who had arrived with another car load of provisions!  More unloading and a cup of tea later it was time for my first dinner, eaten briskly before B joined me for a drive to Carew Airfield for the briefing by “Voice of Ironman” Paul Kaye, accompanied by a rapping medic and the race referee.  Things were getting mighty real and just watching Gary, who we had managed to join at a table, fidgeting about, was making me a little nervous too!  There was a huge amount to take in for a newbie like me – how clean transition would work, a change to a rolling swim start, the change in the advertised time for the warm up Saturday swim….., all in a hall of maybe 1000 people on a damp grey evening.  Emotions of excitement, fear, nervousness all washed over me as we walked away, wishing Gary luck for Sunday and returning to the flat in Tenby for a second dinner and a massage.

"Clean" Transition Tent

“Clean” Transition Tent

On Saturday I awoke as usual at 4.15am, ate breakfast and was shortly joined by my Dad who had slept badly due to the church bells, seagulls, and maybe some nerves as well.  After we replaced the lightbulb I had blown (him balancing on a chair to change the bulb, me throwing the switch in the fuse box downstairs), I headed out for my 5am stroll.  The sea seemed reasonably calm and I familiarised myself with the walk to transition and even permitted myself a glance at the finishing gantry.  The sh*t, as they say, was getting real!  REALLY REAL!!  As I walked the almost deserted streets, all I could think about was the next 40 hours…..9 months of training were coming to a head…..  I couldn’t see beyond the red carpet on Sunday to even begin to contemplate what I do next!

At 7am I got on my turbo trainer in the lounge-diner of the rented flat for an easy 40minute spin to work the legs.  Keeping close eye on my heart rate, I felt almost bored but at least B had got up and joined me for a chat and so did Al who was the last to arrive (with partner Mylène of course) the evening before.  Next I headed back outside for a 15 minute run where I spotted plenty of other athletes out and about – walking to or from the beach, jogging around town, or pedalling off on their bikes.  Tenby was coming alive and pretty much everyone was involved in the Ironman in some way or another!


Racked and ready…

Once back, I donned the wetsuit and joined the official practice swim on the beach with a few hundred others.  The sea was beautifully calm, but full of jellyfish!  I am no great fan but I have come to accept them as a necessary evil, although one guy I spoke to was less enthused and had taken to breast stroking to avoid ducking below the surface!  In my own mind I told myself that the jellyfish were a worthwhile inconvenience if the sea could just be as calm on Sunday at 7am!


A LOT of bike envy….

After swimming 700m I returned for a shower, before racking my bike and bags in the transition zone and joining a worthwhile tour of the site which really helped me visualise what would happen where and when!  This was just my third triathlon, and my first experience of a “clean” transition area where individual bags in a central location (as opposed to the box by your bike) were in use.  More to remember and to stress over, but there were plenty of volunteers on hand who were there to smile and assist and who did a thoroughly fantastic job all weekend.  The  event attracts a good amount of first-timers (51% in 2015) and the organisers are certainly congnisant of that fact and provide plenty of friendly support and advice around the different venues used.

WP_20150912_003After lunch (prepared by my own personal chef and loving wife!), Dad drove me around the bike course to re-familiarise myself with the turns and climbs.  B was in the car with us and commented that there were seemingly more “ups than downs”!  I’d warned them about the three main hills (for me psychologically anyway!) – Narberth, Wiseman’s and Heartbreak – and repeatedly they said “well, this must be one”…..mostly it wasn’t though!  The course certainly felt hilly, but manageable and if the wind did what I expected – blowing me back from Angle to Carew – then it would be easier as well.

WP_20150913_001That afternoon we spent a little while watching the fantastic IronKids event in town and mooched around the exhibition, but mainly just relaxed at the flat, eating, having a massage and generally just trying to kill time watching the cycling on TV, reading and updating social media (which I was handing over to B to provide updates about my race).  Bedtime drew near and I prepared my nutrition and track pump for the morning, along with my wetsuit, swim hat, goggles (x 2) and timing chip.  B helped me apply the temporary tattoos and I set my alarm.  Then I lay down and closed my eyes and tried and tried and tried to sleep……wp_ss_20150914_0001





What happened next would be epic….

Tenby Targets…

Time for a last “full” blog post before the big day….

One of the truisms about Ironman is that it is often harder getting to the start line than the finish!  That may seem rather bizarre given the length and difficulty of the event, but when you stop and think about exactly how many hours of training you put into the preparation to race, you soon realise the huge potential for injury in the months of effort leading up to the big day!

Personally I’ve been incredibly lucky to arrive in race week relatively unscathed.  I feel I have a small case of Peroneal Tendinitis in both feet, which is an overuse injury (so highly likely!), but which will not hold me back provided I can overcome the pain on Sunday, which I am certain I can!  Some of this is indeed luck, but this has been more than complimented by good preparation, good recovery, sports massage and proper nutrition.

trainingAfter several weeks of training over for over 20 hours each, the “peak” of training occurred when I hit Coach Andy’s “Big Day” on Friday 14th August, which involved over 8 hours of training spread over the whole day with 90 minute rest periods between the 3.5Km swim, the 5 hour cycle and the 2 hour run.  This was quite tough but not too bad and gave me a good idea of what is to come, and especially the wind and rain, which has been a pretty constant feature of almost every bike ride I’ve been on!  The weather looks like it will probably be just as bad in Tenby this weekend, so at least I shall be properly prepared!

wp_ss_20150909_0001Now in the last phase of training, I have already done two and a half weeks of taper training which is of course comparatively easy, totalling no more than about 2 hours per day.  The toughest part however has been to try to get my body properly adjusted to the timings of the event.  This has meant for the past few weeks I have been getting up at 4.15am and eating breakfast, and then training as close to 7am as possible.  The result is that I need to be in bed by 8pm and I’m living a life more or less alone without my wife who of course keeps “normal” hours!  Coupled with my abstinence from alcohol for a month to ensure my body is correctly hydrated and recovered, I have really destroyed our social life recently!  We did manage to celebrate Alex’s 30th with the family although my situation required us to leave earlier than we might have.  That said, the bonus for B, Mam and Dad was that they could have a little tipple since I was driving!!!

There have been some unintended side consequences of my participation in the Ironman which I am quite pleased about.  These include family members trying gluten free recipes and deriving some benefits and encouraging others to have a go at multi-sport events like triathlons, train using a heart-rate monitor or improve their swimming.  I think I am most happy about all of this because it feels a little more like I am less selfish in the whole process and have actually helped others out rather than simply hindering them all year!!

WP_20150909_001So with just 5 days remaining, lists prepared of all the kit I need to take, what and when I need to eat and a race plan, I can now share with you my ambitions for the weekend.  Naturally, nothing can be set in stone, things can change as conditions dictate, as my body reacts to the new strain I place upon it, and equipment malfunctions (hopefully not!).  BUT (and it is a HUGE but!), all being well, this is how I would like Sunday to go….
Swim….1hr 20 mins (starting just behind the pros and best swimmers about 2 or 3 minutes after 7am)
Bike…. 7hrs 30 mins, but most importantly keeping my HR in zones 1 and 2, only occasionally entering zone 3 on the larger hills and toward the back end of the ride.

Hopefully therefore, with transitions included, I’d like to think I could be heading out on the run at about 4pm (9hours after the starting gun).  Running is my best discipline out of the 3 and I’ve been feeling pretty good and calm in training at the slower pace, even over the longer distances.  I am therefore pretty positive that I could well manage to bang out a sub-4hr marathon to finish and complete the whole event in just under 13 hours, when it will hopefully still be light!

Realistically, this is the first time I will (hopefully!) have covered such a distance and I’m not sure how my body will cope.  Also, it is far better to head out at a slower pace and heart rate and guarantee the finish, rather than going off too strong and blowing up before the end and maybe failing to cross the line.  The ultimate goal is to get the medal and finish within the cut-off time of course, anything faster and I will be happier and happier!  And even if I know I have trained and am capable of achieving sub-13 hours, it is probably more realistic to expect between 13 and 14 hours so I am not under so much pressure and can try to enjoy the occasion!

tenby_weatherIf the predicted wind and rain does however materialise, this plan could all change!  The wind could mean more waves in the sea (beware of sea-sickness from yourself and those around you!!) as well as requiring greater force to push against on the bike.  Equally, wet wheel rims decrease the effectiveness of the brakes, increasing stopping distances and slowing the bike leg considerably (not to mention increasing the risk of potential injury from skidding!).  Overall, whilst these thoughts are clearly and understandably preoccupying my waking moments, I can do little to change anything right now and what will be, will be!  I just have to deal with whatever is thrown my way and get that medal!!

So, with just four days left to go, that summarises the current state of play!  I may try to post mini-updates from Friday when we arrive in Tenby so you can join me in my heightened state of nervousness, but for now, it’s time to get ready for the latest training session of the taper…..

A Cycle Festival, Some Cycling Jerseys and a Saddle Sore

Just like the Ironman itself, this post is all about the bike, or at least the majority of it is anyway!  During the Ironman, I expect to spend about 1hr 20 in the water and approximately 4 hours running, yet a much greater time (over 7 hours!) sat on my bike….  This post is in many ways a fair reflection of that segment in that it covers pretty much everything I’ve been doing on and around the bike recently!

My last post detailed the first two of three events I had participated in over consecutive weeks, and the final one took place on Saturday 8th August, one week after the Ocean Lava Triathlon.  This was a local event, part of the Abergavenny Festival of Cycling, and an opportunity for me to ride 100 miles in a more organised fashion than normal and with other people.  Although I knew I could ride these roads on any given day I fancied, I chose to enter the event as it provided me with the chance to ride in my first Sportive event, as well as providing me with some good training for the Ironman itself in terms of distance, time, and climbing!

The day itself was glorious, perhaps the best day of the whole Summer.  The Sun was blazing down and this made for a great ride with beautiful views at different points across the Usk valley and over to the Brecon Beacons.  With B in France for her Mam’s birthday, my support crew for the day consisted solely of my parents who made the short walk down to Bailey Park to see me off and wish me luck.  They planned to drive up the Tumble to see me again as I passed the halfway mark.

Before then however, (potential) disaster struck!  Having enjoyed the flatter, faster section of the ride out to Usk and back to Monmouth via Raglan, my chain duly snapped on the first real “climb” of the day out of Rockfield and toward Newcastle!  Although I had a spare chain link in my saddle bag and reasonable knowledge of how to repair it, I was however pleased (not to mention extremely grateful!) to see a fellow rider drop back and help me fix the problem and although I will have to deal with issues such as this alone during the Ironman, it was a good lesson in keeping calm and working through the problem!  10 minutes later and I was back on my way, albeit covered in black grease!  This was to be my only issue of the day and the rest of the journey progressed pretty smoothly!

WP_20150808_005I had made a decision not to stop at the feed stations and to be self sufficient if at all possible, which also would help me practice eating and drinking “in motion”.  This also provided a welcome opportunity to pass quite a number of riders at each location and make up some of my lost time!  After completing the first half – the loop headed to Grosmont from Newcastle before returning to Abergavenny via Cross Ash – I readied myself for the Tumble climb, noted as 6Km at 10%, although in reality my Garmin records no more than 5.5Km!

I have climbed this mountain many times in training and quite enjoy the challenge it poses.  I am in no way a fast climber but take the ascent slowly and consistently, enjoying the changing scenery and the stunning views nearer the top.  The added bonus of training locally meant that I knew the gradients well and was able to pass a number of other riders on the way up!  Near the summit I saw my parents parked up also enjoying the Sun and the views themselves and stopped for a photo, a chat, and to watch some of the riders I had overtaken pass me again!  As always I felt very fortunate to have them supporting me and they promised to meet me once more at the finish in town after the remaining 40-odd miles were complete!

WP_20150808_006The second “loop” headed over to Brynmawr after the Tumble and then onto Beaufort and over the Llangynidr Moors, a route I knew very well from training and of course the Y-Fenni/Blaenafon Triathlon back in May!  Then, once the other side, the final leg took us through Bwlch and across to Talgarth via Llangorse before the climb that really  feels like a drag up into Pengenffordd.  Finally we dropped down into Crickhowell and home to Abergavenny via Gilwern and Govilon.  I completed the 100mile route in 6hours, 40minutes, 22seconds, which I was quite pleased with not least since it included 2 x 10 minute stops for my chain and with my parents.  Overall a pretty good average speed though and an enjoyable coke and chat with Mam and Dad in the park for an hour after the event, basking in the evening Sun, and the glory that this year’s races were complete…..all apart from one very big one that is of course!!

WP_20150808_008The main reason to spend so long in the saddle is of course to do with fitness gains, however there are very often some not so positive additions!  As well as getting soaking wet many times over, I also developed a rather horrid and painful “saddle sore”!  Having gone months with no problems whatsoever and never needing chamois cream to alleviate chafing, I suddenly developed a huge boil on my “undercarriage”.  Treatment with TCP, hot compresses and latterly Hibiclens and Rubbing Alcohol eventually cleared the skin problem, which took quite a while as training (which of course still had to go ahead!) naturally exacerbated the issue!  I have however been left with a small hard lump under the surface of the skin, which the doctor describes as scar tissue, and which still makes cycling a touch painful, but should improve over time.  Just one more thing to put up with, along with an aching hamstring and feet!  They do say getting to the start line is often harder than getting to the end…..let’s hope that’s true and nothing else goes wrong before Sunday 13th!

The final update on all things cycling concern my recently delivered cycle shirts for the Ironman Event, which I will be wearing on both the bike and run legs of the event.  These shirts have been specially made to publicise my fundraising and raise awareness of the #StayStrongForOws cause in Tenby.  They have been funded by kind contributions from sponsors, which also resulted in a leftover amount that has been added to my JustGiving page, taking me over £3000!

Getting sponsors to sign up was pretty hard work, especially in my home town of Abergavenny where I handed out letters to businesses I have regularly frequented and spent money with, yet disappointingly none wanted to get involved.  On the flip side however I was offered help by two people I had not approached directly.

“Mayoral Marvel” Sam Dodd very kindly helped by copying my letter and handing it around all of the businesses in town with publicity material for the Festival of Cycling, although yet again this failed to motivate the townsfolk to participate.  WP_20150831_013Heather Cook of Parrys Estate Agents then made an unsolicited approach to me through Twitter and kindly invited me into her office to speak about the cause, duly donating and taking a spot on the front of the jersey.  As disappointed as I was with the rest of the town, Heather restored my faith and I am grateful for her support.

Richard Lord from Bartholomew Hawkins and Lee Fisher from Blake Morgan LLP who were both in the same group as me on the #StayStrongForOws ride to Paris have also both kindly offered sponsorship, yet again going to great lengths to support the charity.  And my father, Stewart, has once again done sterling work to support me by talking with Sytner BMW in Newport, who have not only sponsored but also purchased a replica shirt to keep themselves.

The companies I work with – Paul Turner Sport, Community Music Wales and Dischro Creative, have all helped out, as has Mark Spiller, a great former rugby player himself at Pontypridd RFC and owner of his own building and roofing company.  Completing the set are Ottimo Digital, with whom I used to work closely, ordering large format print when we produced their toner-based products.

The training has been physically demanding of course this year, but the fundraising has too, in its own way, been quite difficult work also.  I am very grateful to those mentioned above for being prepared to put their hands in their pockets to support my efforts and of course the charitable cause itself, for everyone who has donated at all will be helping Owen directly.

With the events done and dusted, peak training almost complete, my eyes began to focus on the Ironman itself, and with just 11 days to go as I write this, those thoughts are very much at the forefront of my mind……