The Ironman Experience – Becoming An Ironman

I’d hardly slept.  Or at least it didn’t feel like it.  Rain, nerves and fear (mainly of missing the alarm…) had kept me turning fitfully all night.  By 4.10am I was simply pleased I had to get up!  Dressing in my beach changing robe and comfy slippers I headed into the living room of the rented apartment to eat my cereal bars, drink my lemon water and sup my beetroot juice.  All the time I remained preoccupied about what was to come, and I tried to focus on my race plan and go over the course in my mind, which I already knew backwards and inside out!  I was a little apprehensive of course, but I didn’t have the stomach cramping, muscle fatiguing fear I have experienced before.  This time I didn’t want to pull back, I was ready and eager to go forward and get the job done!

45 minutes after awakening, I gathered my pre-packed rucksack containing my “street clothes” bag, track pump and nutrition and made the short walk to transition.  Checking my tyre pressures (I always ride at 120psi for those who are interested!  And have not had a puncture since about March!), I loaded on the bottles and bars and tried to hand over my post race clothing (white bag) but I, along with many others, found our path blocked on both sides!  Eventually we gained entry but no staff were present and bags were simply left on an unmanned table.  We had to hope they would make their way to the correct peg by the evening, however we all had far more important and immediate concerns to focus on!

WP_20150913_003Back at the flat and more or less the whole family was awake, looking possibly more nervous than me!  I had my warm up massage, completed my ablutions and put on the lower half of the wetsuit.  At this point B kindly checked if I had everything, and mentioned the whereabouts of my timing chip….which I was not wearing (cue skipped heartbeat and brief panic!).  I had chosen not to take the organiser’s advice and wear it constantly from Saturday midday (lest it stop me sleeping!!), but instead had attached it to my rucksack to take to transition so I could put in on before walking over in the morning.  WP_20150913_002 1However I had completely forgotten this plan and was incredibly relieved to note that it was still attached to the bag and had not fallen off in the street!  I thankfully secured it to my leg and continued my preparations….

At 6.35am, I joined the thronged masses walking along the street to the swim start, making final adjustments as I went, accompanied by Mam, Dad and B, who had tucked me into my wetsuit and ensured I still had the necessary mobility to move my arms.  Following the advice of the fantastic people in the Ironman Wales Facebook group, I had brought along a spare pair of goggles for the ride, but as I went to roll these up my thigh (as suggested), the elastic duly snapped!

B repaired the elastic....with a tight knot!

B repaired the elastic….with a tight knot!

Fortunately B, an accomplished and experienced swimmer, knew just what to do and tied a knot that saved the day.

At this point, things began to get real, yet felt entirely surreal.  After 9 months of graft, planning, training and living this journey, the end was now very much in sight…..yet so was the beginning of the battle!  And despite all of this training, I had never once swum 3.8Km in a cold sea at 7am in the morning, and absolutely not  with another 2,000 or so people!  The biggest mental challenge and reality check for me though was the sign that simply read “Athletes Only”….. Past that point I was on my own.  At any time in training you can stop, phone for a lift, pop to a café or return home.  Not now.  Not when you cross “the line”.  I almost cried.  I don’t know why.

WP_20150913_002I turned, checked with B she had the thank you card I had written for the family (with specific instructions not to open it until I was in the water) and began to say my thank yous and goodbyes.  As a family, we knew this could not be a solitary journey and as much as the physical work an athlete will put into an Ironman is draining, the emotional and mental rollercoaster the support crew experience is as tough, if not tougher.  Anyone entering an Ironman needs love and understanding from those around them, and I certainly had that in spades.  I hugged them all, we all felt emotional and I promised them that come hell or high water, whether things went to plan or not, I would be doing absolutely everything I could to stand before them later that day as an Ironman.

I stepped back, waved, turned, and walked away……. and then I crossed “the line”.

I had done nothing, achieved nothing, the race had not even started but I was cheered down to the water’s edge by the locals who were up early and boisterously supporting everyone taking on the challenge.  This was the famous Pembrokeshire passion and it was to last all day.  Hanging up my shoes on the peg, I made my way down the slipway and into the throngs of black suited, red hatted athletes, and what a sight it was!  The tension and excitement in the air was as palpable as the smell of urine in wetsuits was strong!  I lined up in the 1hr15-1hr20 swim zone and enjoyed some last minute banter before standing respectfully (and a little emotionally) as the anthem bellowed over the Tannoy.  I was a little too choked to join in, but very content to listen in complete awe as the clifftops full of people sang passionately, the sound reverberating around the natural amphitheatre of North Beach.

I don’t exactly remember how the next sequence of events exactly unfolded, my brain was more than a little scrambled, but I do know the pro’s began their race and we, the grouped masses, walked slowly onto the beach.  I made sure my hat was secure, turned and waved to my family in their vantage point on the cliff steps, and got onto the beach, sand beneath my feet and water just a few metres away…..and getting closer.


As I start the swim, my family read my card.

As I start the swim, my family read my card.

The way I approached the race, I had a job to do.  I had to remain calm and push forward, swimming with good technique and not overly-concerning myself with the time.  I jumped straight in and found a rhythm quickly.  Yes, it was cold but that wasn’t going to bother me, I was racing.  I would say that the rolling start probably helped me.  Most around me went at the same pace and I was hardly being pushed or pulled at all, the most disturbing element was poor sighting from others who were cutting me up, but that was par for the course.

My support crew watching the swim

My support crew watching the swim

Sighting the big red buoys from distance was tough, so I used a combination of landmarks on shore, mental calculation, and assumption from where the masses in front of me were headed (my Garmin data suggests this was a pretty good and accurate strategy).  Midway through the first leg however I felt the first buoy was approaching very slowly – much more slowly than I thought it should have anyway – and once I did finally reach it I understood why!  Around the turn, the swell was suddenly much more choppy and swimming became much harder!  On the second leg, there were times when suddenly my arm was turning in mid-air where the water had disappeared beneath me and others where the water prevented me lifting my arm at all!  I vowed not to panic and keep pushing forward, and, despite a couple of gulps of salty water, that is exactly what I did.

After the first lap (having found just the one jellyfish!), I checked the watch and saw 38 minutes.  Decent enough, and given conditions, much faster than I had expected!  I walked/jogged slowly back around and went again – my mental preparation had been good and where I thought I may find it hard, it really didn’t faze me at all.  Second time around though, sea conditions were even a little worse (or was I just feeling it more?!).  I started to get a little seasick as my stomach turned over (although not as badly as during my first ever sea swim in June), and I found that breathing every four strokes (keeping my head in the water for longer – something I never thought I would say about the sea….) was easier.  Without too much trouble, I completed the swim and stumbled out of the water feeling a mixture of pride, joy and elation.  One step down, two to go….


I’m the one still fully in the wetsuit!

I headed up the slipway (motioning to my family that the sea had been a little “up and down”!), found my trainers and began to jog to T1, wrestling with my wetsuit and again getting cheered vociferously for my efforts by the incredible support!  In T1 I gathered my belongings, and my thoughts.  Around me there were conversations about the condition of the sea around the first buoy, and plenty of encouragement and camaraderie.  From now on I become acutely aware of the elements of the day that concerned me the most – the elements I really could not train for – littering (leaving a bag on the floor by accident for example), drafting on the bike, and outside assistance (which would lead me to refuse jelly babies from children who offered them to me, completely against my compassionate nature!).  Therefore I spent longer than needed in T1 re-packing my bag and checking and double checking I had everything before heading out to my bike!

Once out of transition I settled onto the bike as quickly as possible, concentrating on my HR monitor and trying to stick to my race plan.  This meant allowing what felt like everyone in the race to pass me at one time or another (and giving them the requisite 10 metres of space)!  Feeling slightly humiliated, I had to resolve to try to catch them later on the run, as to try to chase them down immediately could destroy my whole race right away!  I followed the advice to keep a high cadence (average of 85rpm over my ride) and try to gain time on flat and downhill sections (although I must have missed those as I don’t remember seeing any!).

The first part of the ride to Angle was fast (n.b. fast is a relative concept!  I went fast for me when compared to the rest of my ride, yet my speed was probably slower than most of the other participants who read this!!).  Faster than I expected it to be anyway.  Reaching the feed station at Angle, I couldn’t face eating and ploughed straight on, passing my second support crew from Cardiff Blues with their #StayStrongForOws banner proudly on view!  Fortunately I managed to spot them and give them a wave!

The crew watching the bike leg!

The crew watching the bike leg!

As I climbed out of Angle, I soon realised why the first part had been quick.  Whereas I had been anticipating a favourable wind blowing me back from Angle and through Lamphey (as had been the case when I had previously ridden or driven the course), the opposite was in fact now true and I was pedalling headlong into it!  With no aero bike or aero/tri bars, this was killing me and making my life really hard!  The tour of Pembroke high street provided a welcome respite and the crowd support again was fantastic.  I was too focussed on my HR zones to really take it all in, remaining conscious that the work was a very long way from being completed!

Through Lamphey and again I couldn’t face food so I headed on towards Narberth through the “grey” area of lanes around Cresselly beyond the picturesque Carew Castle and river bridge.  I knew the climbs were out there but I really enjoyed the rise to Narberth and Wiseman’s Bridge.  They were landmarks in my head, and the support was great.  Despite my HR control, I was also still climbing reasonably and able to enjoy the experience and talk to spectators – something the throngs on Heartbreak Hill seemed less enthused about, as I think they felt I could have worked much harder!!

WP_20150913_016At the end of lap 1, I felt good.  Whizzing down into Tenby I spotted my family at the roadside and they cheered me and I gave a wave!  Just the smaller lap to go!!  Just 40-odd miles with those hills…again!  The traffic passing me was by now thinning, as were the crowds at roadside.  First time around through places like Penally and Lystep there had been huge support for me to wave at and thank.  Second time around there were less.  This concerned me and made me question the time.  How long had I been out?  Was I pushing the cut off?  I was sure my watch was right.  Or was I?!  I couldn’t do much about it so put my head down and tried to relax and carry on.

At Lamphey I knew I had to eat, even though I wasn’t feeling up to it.  My stomach had started turning, probably caused by the rough sea swim and drink in the morning.  I took on a couple of pieces of banana and kept pedalling.  I was fighting the boredom and monotony, and trying not to get ahead of myself and think about the run until I was at least up Wiseman’s Bridge.  Out of Narberth the second time and I ate some more banana.  Around Prince’s Gate and Ludchurch though I started to feel a little tired.  I knew I hadn’t eaten enough and had to force two sticky powerbars into me.  I knew I needed to get the bike completed and deal with the run as it came.  The bars may not have helped my poorly guts but certainly boosted my energy and I picked up well, completing Wiseman’s and Heartbreak and powering back into Tenby, well inside the cut-off time (albeit 15min slower than I had wanted).  The day was going OK, apart from the stomach problems, and a dubious little “chicane” that had appeared in Tenby just before T2 and threatened to unseat me as I raced to drop my bike off!

T2 was a relief.  I’d made it round the bike course and now had 8hours to run/walk the marathon.  I still wanted to do it as fast as possible and whilst I knew under 13hours would be impossible, inside 14 was definitely realistic.  I headed out onto the streets and spotted my family and gave them a cheery wave, setting off for the hill back out to New Hedges.  Halfway up the first hill though, I knew something was wrong.  I was running at my planned pace, my heart rate was fine, my legs were feeling exactly as I expected but my stomach felt like it was imploding.  One step I felt I would throw up, the next like I was going to experience a diarrhea explosion.  I couldn’t run without stopping and tensing my stomach muscles intermittently.  My rhythm was destroyed and my pace slowed greatly.  Descending the hill at a slow jog I saw Gary who had begun the run and was very much looking controlled at his own pace.  I was relieved as I felt he would get his medal, which I knew he deserved.

There may be trouble ahead.....

There may be trouble ahead…..

I completed my first lap, gathering my band and walk/jogging back into town and through the streets.  When I walked I felt like I was cheating, but when I ran I felt like I’d been shot in the stomach.  I tried drinking coke to force gas out of me and for a time I thought this was working, but long term it helped not a jot!  I saw my family and told them of my strife, they were concerned of course although I only realised to what extent afterwards and wished I hadn’t mentioned it!

My second lap was even harder, and I was walking more than I was running, but I still kept trying to push forward.  Again, I avoided food and decided water could be the only way forward.  Emotionally this was hell.  It was not in my race plan and not something I had experienced when out running before.  I had run a marathon already this year and completed several multi-sport events and here I was debilitated by something I could not resolve.  All I could do was keep moving forward.  I collected my second lap band and walked through the town again, high fiving the man on the mic and trying to smile at his encouragement and the applause of the spectators who lined every street, urging me and everyone else to push on.

One of the easier hills on the run!

One of the easier hills on the run!

At the bottom end of Tenby, the run passes a pub with increasingly vocal supporters outside on the pavements.  Here, the stench of alcohol and greasy burgers made me wretch and worry about how I would complete the race.  My mental thoughts of a plan and the time I wanted to achieve had gone out of the window.  This had become about survival to the end, a mental battle I hadn’t wanted.  I wished I could argue with my legs, but they felt fine, yet I couldn’t use them to propel me forward, even though they were perfectly capable.  I was getting really frustrated with myself.

Third time around, I walked up the big hill in the company of other athletes, and talking to them helped me take my mind off events.  I ducked into a portaloo for a few moments which helped the pain ease somewhat so I began running again, but only for a short while until the cramps returned.  And so did my frustration.  Back in town, I saw Lee and Sarah who had come to support me.  Naturally I thanked them but felt inclined to apologise for being so much later than I should have been.  I told them that with just 10Km to go I knew I would finish but I had no idea how long it would take.  I apologised again and began my final loop.  I didn’t spot my family though, which was strange.  How had I missed them?  It transpired that they couldn’t work it out either and were worried I had broken down until Lee sent a text to say he had seen me, which alleviated their concerns!

Onto the final lap and I resolved to try to at least achieve something.  My original time was out of the window but maybe I could dip inside 15 hours.  That at least would give me a target to aim for and a challenge I could complete.  I resolved to spend a little longer in the loo trying to “sort myself out” and on the way up the hill I sat in the dark for almost 15 minutes, wishing things could have been otherwise.  When I emerged I felt much better and far more like myself.  I was able to use my legs as they could be, running my own pace and with a good style, drawing compliments from spectators and wishing I could start the marathon again!  Unperturbed by a torrential downpour, my final 7Km were the fastest of my entire run, at around 5m30s/Km, just as I had originally planned.

WP_20150913_025I kept a close eye on my watch and knew I wouldn’t be far away from the 15hr mark.  Rounding the final turn at Five Arches for the last time and heading left to finish, instead of right for another lap, I spotted my family as I sprinted onto the red carpet and over the line.  I went so quickly, my finisher photos are awful and I have no concept of the finishing experience or whether I “enjoyed” it.

There somewhere but running too fast....

There somewhere but running too fast….

I received my medal and checked my watch (14h57m).  Lee and Sarah arrived and gave me a hug and congratulated me and I again thanked them for their support.  Deep down though all I could feel was disappointment.  I had set myself a challenge and felt like I failed.

View into the recovery tent

View into the recovery tent

I was still pretty “fresh” as I entered the recovery tent and quickly changed, drank my tea and left within 10 minutes.  In fact I was so fast that I had gathered my bags and bike before my family arrived at transition and I was stranded outside alone until a kindly lady lent me a phone to call my Dad (who had been waiting by the recovery tent!) and arrange a meeting place.  They were all so happy for me, and relieved I had finished after all the troubles with my dodgy guts!  They made me feel better, although the nagging “what might have been” doubts still remained.

Kindly my family returned my kit to the flat whilst providing me for money for chips (more “solid” food than gels and bars that would hopefully help me!) and allowing me to head back to the finish area to hopefully catch sight of Gary.  When they came back to meet me, the seafront was a cold and damp place and the chips were gone, but the support was still just as forceful, cheering every runner coming home in hero’s hour across the line.

Gary makes it home!

Gary makes it home!

We waited a while before we finally saw Gary, arms aloft, coming along the red carpet and milking it for all he could!  I was more proud to see him home than I was that I had won my own medal!  I knew how hard he had worked and how we had supported each other and competed in the same events all year.  It was great to get to congratulate him in the finish zone, he was elated and with good reason.  At that point, I understood that perhaps my family were feeling the same about me, despite my disappointment with myself, and I shouldn’t spoil their moment either.  I just hope I didn’t…..

Back in the flat, I finally got to shower and relax a little, recounting stories from the day.  Emotionally it sounded like I had the easy job, spectating sounds like something which has to be trained for itself!  The not-knowing about my progress and my distress on the run had drained Mam, Dad, B, Alex and Mylène, who had braved the elements for longer and later than I had hoped, just to watch me for very brief periods and support me whenever and wherever they could, as I became an Ironman.

And that was that.  A rollercoaster of a day which didn’t pan out as expected.  But then again, if you are going to race over 226Km, especially for the first time, it is difficult to know exactly how your body will react!  What I was proud of however, was making good my promise from the very start of the day….
“whether things went to plan or not, I would be doing absolutely everything I could to stand before them later as an Ironman”

And I was just that.  An IRONMAN.