The Ironman Experience – Post-race Musings

The day after the biggest race of my life I enjoyed a lie-in.  Well, 6.30am is a lie-in when you are used to getting up at 4.15am isn’t it?!

I sat in the lounge of the flat we had rented for the weekend and reflected on what had happened.  I picked up my iPad and began to look through the support I had received by social media, email, text and phone over the previous 24 hours.  I was completely dumbstruck.  Totally and utterly touched emotionally at the number of people who had taken the time to send a message, to support me, and to watch me cross the line on the live Ironman web feed, even at such a late hour.

I had messages from friends and relatives in Wales, England, France, Malta, Australia and New Zealand.  Almost everyone I know had been behind me and proud of my achievement.  Yet I had felt deflated as I crossed the line.  Now though, I began to feel pride and emotion as I tried to reply personally to every comment and every message, thanking every single person for their thoughts.  I couldn’t believe how much people thought of my achievement and I really needed to thank everyone as best I could.

Monday evening around Tenby with Uncle Derek & Auntie Lorraine!

A few weeks further on, and I began to take stock of what I had accomplished.  In 9 months I had gone from a complete amateur, completely lacking in knowledge and understanding of endurance sport to having completed a long distance triathlon.  Regardless of the time it took, I had achieved a rather large goal and it was slowly beginning to sink in….  I had gone from a non-cyclist at the start of the year, falling off because of the cleats and sweating profusely as I pedalled hard uphill in a tough gear, to someone who could now cycle 112 miles and then run a marathon….  I had gone from struggling to swim 100m without pause for breath to completing over 2 miles in a rough sea, having only started swimming in open water just 3 months ahead of the Ironman.  I had upgraded from a decent runner who could do 10K easily enough but soon tired, into a multi-marathoner…. And most importantly I had learned how to put several sports together in a row, understanding transition and heart rate, and the importance of discipline at every juncture.

Just listing these accomplishments here again gives me goose bumps when I truly understand what I have done and remember the efforts and courage that underpinned every stage.  I have never really understood why people looked at me and admired my dedication, but maybe I am starting to…

Amazingly, my achievements this year seem to also have inspired others which I has also shocked me but also made me puff my chest out just a little more!  Several people have suddenly talked about entering their first triathlon, and even seasoned participants have asked me for advice about how to approach an Ironman, picking my brains about a “clean transition” or how to build up training over the months preceding the main event.

Bought the kit...

Bought the kit…

My Ironman-store induced bankruptcy has also brought attention from passers by who notice my jacket (or hat….or top…..or bag…..!!), which has become a conversation starter with unknown people in all kinds of scenarios – in café’s, in the street, or giving blood!  Some of these people have already become new friends and all wanted to congratulate me, with many also asking for advice, or even a training plan to complete the event themselves.

To inspire people in any way makes me feel quite amazing.  I certainly hadn’t expected this kind of attention but to be a role model for any fellow human being is a remarkable sensation and I feel obligated to help wherever I can!  My only concern is that I keep my feet on the ground and don’t push my own ego onto others – the journey towards an endurance sport goal is a very personal one, with numerous ups and downs along the way, and whilst support from outsiders is vital, the individual must be allowed to feel every success and strain themselves.  I certainly know how I look back fondly on my journey and remember the emotions – raw at times – and now can feel a warm sense of achievement!

Thanks….
So many people helped me along my way and deserve my thanks.  I could not have made it without you!
Bérengère – cook, masseuse, psychologist to name but a few roles you have fulfilled this year!  You have been there every step of the way and I could never ever have done this without you by my side.  Thanks for all your support and understanding and for allowing me to pursue this dream.
Mam & Dad – your love and support knows no bounds and having you by my side from Paris to Tenby was fantastic.  The fact that you wanted to be part of this journey and help me on my way means so much to me and to share all the emotion with you was wonderful.
Alex & Mylène – Thank you for supporting me along the journey with so many messages of encouragement, and of course for being part of the experience in Tenby.  The banner you brought along showed me how important this was to you too and I’m so glad you were there with me.
Paul – finding time to train for such a large event is always tough but made far easier when you have a supportive boss who allows flexible working.  Thanks for this, your support in general, and also for all your work in helping me raise money for Owen.
The Demay’s/Panier’s – Merci d’abord pour tous les messages de soutien sur Facebook, c’était magique (comme Paris….) de vous avoir dans <<mon coin>>.  De vous voir entrain de me regarder à la ligne d’arrivée m’avait vraiment touché.  De plus, mon marathon de Paris est vraiment inoubliable…..
Pierre-Yves & tous les Chouteau’s(!) – Merci pour tout le soutien pendant cette année, et surtout pour la semaine de <<vacances>> et le programme d’entrainement!  La prochaine fois on va le faire ensemble PYC 😉
Training Partners – Mave, Corny, Andy Tom, Jan, Pete, Nick and others, thanks for keeping me company and taking my mind off the pain!
Cardiff Blues – Thanks for the support on social media throughout and also to Helen in particular for everything this year to assist me.  You’re a fantastic organisation with a great community spirit and I hope I’ve done you proud.
Cardiff – Paris Cyclists – What a great bunch!  I’ve found plenty of new friends to ride and laugh with.  Enjoyed meeting you guys and spending some of my year with you, and again thank you for all your support in the Ironman.  I look forward to riding with you again soon.
Colleagues – The Ironman took over my life, and you all knew it!  Thank you to all my work colleagues past and present, you have been so supportive and always interested and asking after my training.  Thanks for helping keep me motivated.
Coach Andy (Thornton) – Firstly, thanks for taking us to Paris via the scenic route and secondly thanks for helping turn me from a v1.0 athlete into a v1.2 athlete!  Still a way to go to make the v2.0 you spoke of!  Best wishes down under!
Jersey Sponsors – Paul Turner Sport, Dischro Creative, Bartholomew Hawkins, Parry’s Property, Sytner BMW Newport, Blake Morgan LLP, Mark Spiller Building and Roofing, Ottimo and Community Music Wales, thanks for all the support – not only did you help provide me with a great looking shirt to help promote the cause, but you also raised a very good amount to add to the total!
Donors – Thank you to every single person who donated to my fundraising this year, whether it was 2p in the bucket at Cardiff Blues or several hundred pounds online, you will have helped make a difference to Owen and his family.  I have met his father Huw since I completed the Ironman and the thanks I received was quite incredible.  Owen is an inspirational person himself, but his family are simply wonderful too.  They would all want me to thank you for your efforts in donating, and I would like to thank you personally too.

Tips and Tricks….

Temptation the very next day....

Temptation the very next day….

These will probably form the basis of another blog, another time, so if you do have any questions you would like answered then please send them to me and I will try to answer them

Perhaps the main thing I have learnt this year however is the importance of preparation.  Check your diet, get a gait analysis and a bike fit, see a physio and get a knowledgeable person to have a look at your swim stroke.  Before you head off down the path of an endurance sport, it is vital to ensure you have the right equipment for you, and that you are developing good habits so you minimise the risk of injury along the way.  The whole process takes time, and it is vitally important not to get ahead of yourself and push too hard too soon.

That said, I truly believe that this goal can be accomplished by pretty much anyone who wants it on their CV.  Ironman, and endurance sport in general is a battle against oneself rather than the other athletes. If you have the mental strength and desire to commit to the training programme, then you will achieve.  Good luck to anyone who takes on a challenge whether inspired by me or otherwise, I would certainly love to hear from you.

What next…?
Pretty much since I crossed the line in Tenby I have been asked when I will do my next Ironman!  The answer so far is “probably in 2017”, although we shall see….!  My focus is now on completing my Masters, although I will be competing a little next year!  Mave and I are signed up for the Stratford “Shakespeare” marathon in April and I am looking for some triathlons – probably standard distance and at least one half-iron (Ben Nevis Braveheart???), but nothing else is yet confirmed so watch this space!

One final thank you to you all for reading my blogs.  I hope you’ve found them interesting, enjoyable and informative.  You’ve certainly been part of my Ironman journey so I hope you enjoyed the ride!

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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.

This……was……it.

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….

WP_20150913_014

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.
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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!

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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!

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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……

The Lost Month….or two!

So what happened after we returned from France at the end of June?  Why have my updates been so few and far between?!  The answer is quite simply “time”, or rather lack of it!

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Monmouth Aquathlon preparation…

This period marked the peak intensity of my training for the Ironman in September, with regular training weeks totalling 20 hours or so.  The minimal amount of rest I got was spent genuinely recovering and recuperating (stretching, being massaged, eating and sleeping!) or trying to catch up on the work I have been struggling to keep up with.  Any “free time” left over was then spent with my wife, family or friends in an attempt to maintain a degree of normality!  All in all, there haven’t been enough hours in the day and I struggle to remember exactly what I did when!  Mentally, it’s been a bit of a “lost couple of months”!

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Walking to the river…

One of the bigger developments over the last 8 weeks has been my employment of Andy Thornton (our “Garmin” guide from the Paris ride!) as my coach for the remaining time to the Ironman itself.  From the start, his plan for me involved some assessments to see how I was progressing and to set some heart rate zones for me to work in.  Heart rate zones were something I had in fact begun to explore myself properly in the period before I began working with Andy.  I had researched how important it was to work in the correct aerobic zone to ensure I did not deplete glycogen stores too quickly and could continue to exercise for the long periods the event requires.  I had started running whilst keeping my heart rate as stable as possible, although once we had gone through the assessments, it was clear I was still going too fast, especially whilst cycling!

The start!

The start!

So in among the hours of training, I fitted a “bike test”, which involved 30 minutes of warm up with 30 minutes of hard effort, whilst sweating buckets onto the kitchen floor, a run test of 2 hours at a steady pace and a swim test involving faster timed sets of 200m and 400m (thank goodness the Garmin records all the nitty gritty details!).  These not only set my heart rate zones, but also resulted in a new “hypothetical” marathon time of 3 hour and 21 minutes…..maybe one day I can see if that’s genuinely now achievable!!!  Off the back of these tests, Andy has been using coach Chouteau’s training plan as a guide and detailing some more in depth sessions with heart rate, cadence and pace targets, all documented in “Training Peaks” – an online professional coaching software tool.

He has also provided a different kind of swimming training session.  Now, instead of swimming continuously for over an hour to complete Ironman distance (or more – my longest swim is 5,500m), I am required to complete “sets” at certain speeds, depending on the distance and goal of the session.  This has reaped clear benefits for me as, where once I regarded swimming 200m in under 2 minutes as a huge achievement, I can now consistently and continuously swim full kilometres in under 20 minutes.  This has enabled me to reduce my Ironman swim time expectations quite significantly.  All of this planning and analysis is done from distance, with Andy situated in the North of England, and me in sunny (!) South Wales, and this is where the Garmin statistics and Training Peaks tool have really been of most use.

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On the bike, the story has been the polar opposite however.  Whereas I can now hope to swim and run faster, I am suddenly faced with the need to cycle much slower to keep my heart rate in the correct zone.  This has been tough for me to achieve.  Firstly, training on the bike has become more boring, partly because of the endless hours in the saddle in all weathers, and also in part because the reduction in speed makes you feel as if you’re not really getting anywhere!  A lot of this boils down to the fact that the sensation is that I am not making any real effort to try and go anywhere quickly, and in all honesty, that’s pretty much the whole idea!  Instead of killing myself to get up a hill at speed, we are now working on taking more time and trying to “cap” the heart rate to remain fresh for the rest of the ride and the marathon which follows.  As frustrating as this is in training, I must mentally keep “my eyes on the prize” and focus on the long-term goal.  Even at slow speeds however, I struggle to keep my heart rate down when climbing a long hill with a 15% gradient!  Perhaps it’s just my physiology, perhaps my status as an amateur cyclist of just 8 months who still lacks the required muscle endurance.  Maybe one day I’ll crack it!

WP_20150801_001In the midst of all of this lengthy training and analysis, I have managed to squeeze in three events (keep en eye out for the next blog with details of the third of these!), which became more training sessions themselves rather than competitions (so no “taper” period beforehand!).  Not only have these added hours to my training schedule, but they have also helped me learn a bit more about how I will feel on Ironman day itself, and to practice multi-sport events.  For example, at the Monmouth Aquathlon (July 26th) and the Ocean Lava Middle Distance Triathlon (1st August), I got to experience a mass swim start and to swim in the open water in race conditions.

Looking tense before Ocean Lava!

Looking tense before Ocean Lava!

In Monmouth and Fishguard (Ocean Lava), Bérengère was also competing and my parents came along to support and kindly perform kit-carrying duties!  They were also our official photographers for both events!  The Aquathlon started with a 500m upstream swim, before heading 1,500m back to the school boathouse for transition.  It was a rainy day, but in a wetsuit the river Wye did not feel cold, however for the most part it was extremely shallow and the weeds annoyingly got caught everywhere, in goggles and under the Garmin!  B had a few difficulties sighting (seeing which direction to swim in, which is quite awkward when you are used to following a line along the bottom of a swimming pool!) in her first open water event, but we arrived at transition at the same time.

The Ocean Lava swim start...

The Ocean Lava swim start…

We removed wetsuits and put on running clothing to complete a 12km trail run along the river bank, across a bridge and back along the other side.  For me, the run went well and I managed to overtake quite a number of people who were clearly better swimmers than I!  B is a less keen runner and so was a little slower, coming home in about two hours.  I managed 1 hour and 41 minutes, which I was pretty pleased with, although I knew where I could save time if I entered again.

B out on the run....

B out on the run….

Just under a week later, and we were heading to Fishguard to meet up with Gary to take part in what would be my longest event to date, a middle distance triathlon, or half-Ironman distance.  In the same event, a sprint triathlon (750m swim, 20km cycle, 5km run) was taking place and B had entered this as her first ever triathlon!  Once again Mam and Dad had travelled the distance to support us and we spent Friday evening eating our pre-race meal with them.  The Saturday start time was reasonable (11am), although we were ready to go well before then!  We checked into transition and tried to kill time before suiting up and heading to the bay where the race would begin.

....and entering the finish zone!

….and entering the finish zone!

There was a mass start for both races at the same time, and this gave me my best understanding of what it feels like with swimmers everywhere, arms and legs flailing in all directions!  As it was, my swim went well, and on the second lap there were less people to contend with as the field spread out and the sprint triathletes headed off on the bike.  Feeling good I entered transition after the longer second lap and prepared for the bike leg, which wasn’t so hot!  My cadence sensor failed to connect and I was basically flying blind for over 3 hours, my heart rate monitor seemed to work only in fits and starts and was difficult to rely on, and there was a consistent strong wind right in our faces all the way to St Davids on both laps (about 45km in total!).

First triathlon complete!

First triathlon complete!

This was slowing me down, as well as being incredibly annoying on a very undulating course, and I was regularly passed over the whole 90km cycle leg!  Who knows why, it could have been a bad day, it could have been the week’s training catching up with me (I’d cycled 280km in the days before the event). The only bright spot came when I passed B returning to Fishguard who seemed fine and having a good time.  I was disappointed I couldn’t be there to cheer her home, but I had too much wind to contend with (and not the kind Rennie’s can help with either….).

Finally back in Fishguard, I changed for the run leg and I knew my target of 6 hours would be tough to achieve having taken so long (3hr31m) on the bike.  I headed out for the half-marathon and saw B smiling proudly, very content with her first triathlon, and my parents cheering me on.  The 4-lap course included a sharp hill at about 2km, perfect preparation for Tenby!  Despite the setback on the bike, I was feeling good and stuck rigidly to the “negative or even split” race plan as defined by Andy, completing the second half of the race faster than the first.  With the gradients and after the swim and bike, I was pleased with a run of 1 hour 47 minutes which so very nearly helped me beat my target!  As it was I crossed the line in 6hr00m17s, and I still felt pretty good and in perfect shape to pose for some photos with my wife and our medals!

Birthday boy Gary arrives home

Birthday boy Gary arrives home

The four of us stayed at the finish line to support Gary who finished soon after, and, having collected bike and boxes from transition, we headed back to our hotel just a few hundred metres away to shower and change.  That evening we ate with Mam and Dad along with Gary, his Mam, Auntie and cousins (one of whom had also competed) and celebrated Gary’s birthday!  As he is at pains to point out, triathlons are not the result of a mid-life crisis….although I can’t decide whether I agree!  Either way, as I said to B, far better to keep fit than buy a Ferrari……although I am looking at a new bike just now (expensive yes, but still cheaper than a car!).

 

The #StayStrongForOws Cycle to Paris – Epilogue

WP_20150607_001The morning of Sunday 7th June felt strange.  Certainly it was clear that 4.5 hours sleep after 4 days of exertion was not enough (!), but apart from that it felt quite bizarre to see our group dressed in “civvies” for breakfast and not having to rush to clip themselves back onto their bikes, which had become new appendages for us all over the past 96 hours!

I shared a table with James and Matt in contemplative mood, and then joined them for a walk under the Eiffel Tower (too busy to ascend) and back to the Trocadero/Chocolate Factory, now teeming with people, for a few photos.  We’d hardly been out for two hours yet it was time to head back to the hotel, gather up belongings and pile into the bus to the airport to return home.

WP_20150607_007At Charles de Gaulle I spoke with an extremely tired Lloyd Williams about the forthcoming Welsh camps, his week off and golf and once on the plane I finally managed to properly “meet” Rhys Blumberg and talk all things rugby, including learning about his own eventful career.

The trip to Cardiff was short and soon we were passing through passport control and baggage reclaim, hugging and waving goodbye and spilling out into the car park, where I saw B for the first time in five days, and headed home, battling traffic and roadworks, and talking almost exclusively of the adventure that had just ended.

WP_20150608_001On Monday though, it was time to return to Cardiff Arms Park, the scene of our jubilant departure less than a week before, to collect my bike which had been repatriated by PIE.  Entering the bar and seeing all the bicycles neatly stationed around the perimeter was almost akin to entering a graveyard.  The silence was quite perturbing.  Bereft of their owners, the bikes looked, and felt out of place!  All in all it felt like a sad, but fitting end to the trip.  I was glad to see David picking up his bike as I left though, to pick up my spirits and talk over the journey and the experience as a whole.

WP_20150608_002So that was that, after a manic, eventful and thoroughly enjoyable 5 days, the long-distance cycle ride to Paris was over.  But what is certain is that nobody on the trip (myself included of course!) ever forgot just why we had embarked on such a physical challenge in the first place.  Owen Williams is an inspirational man and we all hope that our fundraising efforts this year will, in some way, help to change his life for the better.

If you’ve enjoyed living our adventure to the continent though these blogs, don’t forget it isn’t too late to donate.  Please support the on-going fundraising effort by giving a little here: www.JustGiving.com/StayStrongForOws-GJS

Ironman Wales PR Opportunity

The “Hardest Triathlon in the World” is coming to Tenby on the 13th September and I will be taking part, in the hope of raising as much money as possible for injured Cardiff Blues and Wales International Owen Williams, through the #StayStrongForOws campaign.

WP_20150606_044To help in this effort, I will be wearing sponsored cycle shirts for both the cycle (112 miles) and run (26.2 miles) leg of the event.  These will be similar to the jersey in the header you can see me wearing at the Eiffel Tower following completion of the Cardiff-Paris bike ride in June.

I am offering companies the chance to have their logos included on my Ironman Wales shirts for a very reasonable cost (see below), which will in turn have the following benefits for your company:
1) Exposure and publicity both before the event (in my own social media posts, press releases, and in training sessions), during the event and afterwards (as the shirt will be seen in event photos and worn afterwards.
2) The opportunity to have a replica of the shirt displayed on your premises and use both the shirt and myself for your own press releases and social media output.
3) Donating to the #StayStrongForOws fund, thus helping Owen Williams in his recovery from injury.

The jersey has space for up to 15 logos maximum, some of which have already been taken.  Depending on the size of the logo and its position the cost vary, and these are as follows:
1)  Large logo on Front of shirt: £200
2)  Large logo on Rear of shirt: £150
3)  Small logo on Front of shirt or sleeve: £125
4)  Small logo on Rear of shirt: £100
5)  Replica shirt to keep: £40 each

If you are interested or have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me on 07413 997499.  Please also feel free to share this with other contacts to help raise money for #StayStrongForOws.

Separately, please could I ask for you to vote (for FREE) here, and again to share among family and friends.  If I receive the most votes by September 30th, Mountain Warehouse will donate another £10,000 to Owen, so this is definitely worth it!!  All you need is an email address: http://www.mountainwarehouse.com/charity/entries/ironman-wales-e2208.aspx

Finally, you can of course give a straight donation to support my efforts on my JustGiving page here: http://www.JustGiving.com/StayStrongForOws-GJS.

Thanks for all your support, I am grateful for each and every share, donation, or message and I will always do my utmost to thank you personally.

Gareth.
(07413 997499)

The #StayStrongForOws Cycle to Paris – Part 5

WP_20150606_027The route towards the Arc de Triomphe would take us along the Route de Suresnes and Avenue Foch, following the blue line of the marathon I had run barely two months previously.  This excited me enormously!  Along the blue line, I became a little emotional, remembering my exhaustion and effort on that day in April, as well as my pride at achieving my target time!

This excitement, and the fact that the entry into Paris had turned me into a “tour guide”, probably seemed a strange development to those around me.  As  I have said previously, I love the city and have spent a good deal of time visiting, with the consequence that I know a reasonable amount about the place and it’s landmarks!  I could hardly contain myself, pointing out this and that to those in our party, I wouldn’t have been out of place on an open-topped bus!  Indeed, by the end of the brief visit to the capital, I had probably bored most of my colleagues to death!

WP_20150606_030We tried our best to stare at the Arc de Triomphe, yet remain as a tight peloton (strongly ‘encouraged’ by our Guides to “stay together”!!), whilst simultaneously blocking the traffic and occasionally flouting the laws surrounding traffic lights so as not to get separated!  As we headed down the Champs Élysées, I realised that I had travelled in a bus, walked, run and now cycled down the famous avenue, yet never once driven there!

WP_20150606_032At George V, we turned right and headed for the infamous Pont de l’Alma, crossing the bridge in the midst of the early evening traffic.  Negotiating the back streets on the opposite side of the Seine, we approached our final destination at approximately 6 o’clock on the warm, summery evening in June. The end was almost an anticlimax as we saw we would be welcomed in a corner of the Champs de Mars, in view of the Eiffel Tower, though not directly beneath it.

WP_20150606_033Colin had rejoined us, on a bike with no pedals (!), and as a group, poignantly led by Huw and Gavin Williams, we met our welcome party of friends, family, Jamie Roberts and of course Owen himself.  There were hugs and kisses for many and the alcohol-free beers provided by PIE were more satisfactorily supplemented by the crate of champagne kindly supplied by Mr Roberts, who praised our achievements and willingly posed for photos with one and all!

WP_20150606_036Having congratulated my team: Adam, Andy, Dave, James, Jeff, Kerry, Lee and Matt and of course Richard who had set off with us, as well as many other new friends from the other groups, I tidied my bike to one side and waited.  We had a few photos together before congregating and readying ourselves for the departure to the hotel, far later than scheduled.

Generally spirits were high, though deep down I felt we were all disappointed the ride was now over.  Another 10 minute ride and our day was done, enough time however for Lee to pronounce his pleasure at having remained upright throughout, before promptly failing to correctly unclip on arrival at the hotel and hitting the deck!  We handed our bikes to the PIE men, recovered our luggage and headed for the showers.  The next time we would see our bikes would be in Cardiff on Monday, a strange feeling after spending four days attached to them!

Matt nabs a Champagne bottle!

Matt nabs a Champagne bottle!

The rooms were by far the plushest of the whole expedition, although there was no double bed for Adam to benefit from, having accorded me that honour in the Premier Inn in Frome!  Showering and changing, leaving cleats and clothes trailing on the floor (in my case!), we met downstairs for the first beer of the celebration evening.  Speaking with Chris and Duane, they expressed how pleased they were at having completed the ride and how they hoped some of the participants would join them at the Beddau Bike Club and continue the team spirit in the future.  This was a sentiment echoed by most, and certainly Group 1 talked of meeting up again for future rides.

People and bikes everywhere!

People and bikes everywhere!

Far later than planned, we finally all left the (rather expensive) hotel bar and headed for the site of the evening meal, “Le Bistrot d’en Face”, an upmarket brasserie in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.  Friends and family joined the meal, though our Group was supplemented only by the addition of Lee’s wife, Sarah, whose sense of humour fitted in perfectly well alongside the pre-established tone of our collective. Beer, Pastis and Wine flowed continuously as we celebrated over a similar meal to the previous evening – salad starter, chicken main, but this time with a crème brûlée pudding!

WP_20150606_047After the meal, Richard Holland gave an inspiring, and at times, comedic speech of congratulations and thanks to the participants and the families, before handing out medals and certificates to each and every cyclist who had left Cardiff three days previously.  In the presence of Owen and the rest of his family, his father Huw then followed with a passionate and poignant speech of his own, touching emotions and demonstrating to us all just why we had signed up to this challenge at the outset.  He, and the family are clearly thankful for the efforts, both on the bike and in the fundraising, and in turn the participants are equally glad to have made some kind of difference to the lives of this closely-knit family.

With the speeches over, a hardy group of ‘party people’ were rounded up by Jamie Roberts and whisked away in taxis for a night on the town!  Group 1, of a slightly more ‘mature’ (older….) outlook, remained in the bar, with about half of the total group, who consumed liberally whilst enjoying traditional Welsh singing from Cardiff Blues very own Rhys Blumberg.

As the evening drew on, there were pangs of hunger among our cohort and I made an executive decision to twist the arm of Hervé, the bar owner to supply us with some plates of cheese, bread and more wine!  Despite his insistence that the kitchen was closed, my inside knowledge that any French brasserie will always have a good stock of cheese on its premises allowed me to persist with my request, which eventually bore fruit…..or at least cheese….to the relief of our table of ravenous cyclists, who had plenty of lost calories still to replenish!

James, Matt and I finished our “soirée” at the bar, trying to coax the owner into a little English speaking, and freshening up our palates with the unmistakable minty-freshness of the alcoholic liquor which is Get 31!  With the time past 3am, it was time to leave the premises and head out into the humid French night.

WP_20150611_002Before hitting the sack, I wanted to see the Paris skyline at dusk from one of my favourite vantage point in the city, the Trocadero, just opposite the Eiffel Tower.  To my surprise a band of four (Matt, James, Kerry and Jeff) wanted to join me on my mini-adventure, although they soon regretted the decision after more than 5 minutes walk on tired legs in the dark, accompanied only by rats and youths smoking drugs…..  Jeff also seemed unsure where we going exactly, having misheard my explanation and expecting to arrive at a chocolate factory!

Nevertheless, we made our way over the Seine and up the steps of the Trocadero to survey the scene.  Paris by night is always an awesome sight, although perhaps slightly less impressive at 4 in the morning when the Eiffel Tower, along with most other monuments in the city, are no longer illuminated.  Still, for me, it capped the days activities perfectly, although we were all ready for a sleep by then, some more than others!

10 minutes later, we had re-traversed the river and arrived back in the hotel lobby, eyes closing and sleep just moments away….  Cardiff to Paris on a bike. Done.

The #StayStrongForOws Cycle to Paris – Part 4

WP_20150605_024Once we arrived in Evreux, and met with Group 2, there already seemed to be an excited buzz in the air, almost a “party atmosphere”.  Having worked hard for three days, and in the knowledge that the shortest ride of the whole trip would take us to Paris tomorrow, everyone was feeling jubilant and ready for some relaxation that very evening.  I was certainly in the same boat and felt that, with just one day left in the saddle, I could relax my ban on gluten and enjoy some wheat-based beverages with the others….

WP_20150605_025We showered and changed before meeting in reception of the hotel and heading just around the corner to a local bar, the “London Pub”, which served pints of Bière blonde at 5,60 Euros each.  Arriving in dribs and drabs, the waiter performed several return journeys before everyone was served and despite the weather threatening overhead, with a few spots of rain falling, Groups 1 and 2 were enjoying each others company.

The friendly rivalry was of course top of the agenda, with stories recounted about the events of the day, and much good-natured banter.  Naturally we spoke of Welsh rugby and learned more about each other’s backgrounds than is possible when cycling!  Time passed quickly as we welcomed home another one of the groups (giving them correct directions to the hotel!), and joked with one another.  Instead of dragging us back to the hotel for a debrief an executive decision was made that this would be held after the meal in the restaurant just nearby.  By the time Andy joined us for a beer, it was time to go to eat….but we did manage to squeeze in one more, just for him!

Buoyed by the day’s events and fuelled by a couple of beers, the evening meal was a jovial affair, accompanied by good French wine!  Our group had taken over more than half of the restaurant space and entertained the locals with our loud talking and laughing!  The food was good and just a little different to what we had been fed when in the UK!  Goats cheese salad starter, chicken and mash for main followed by chocolate mousse, all quickly polished off by our hungry riders!

Following the meal, we congregated toward the rear of the restaurant for the debrief and awarding of the pink ‘helmets’, with ours going to ‘Rich the Ditch’ for quitting our team that day!  Then, despite the offer of a quiz that Matt Lissack had diligently prepared, the group consensus was that we should all head out for a drink together!  We finished off our wine and headed for the street, and the bar we had spied earlier with the live music and the BBQ!

WP_20150605_028Owen himself had travelled over to France with a friend to join us for the last few days, and came out to the bar with us in Evreux.  His appearance generated a surge in the excitement levels, which were already pretty high, with the majority of the group partying well into the night!  As the music stopped, we made our way back to the hotel rooms, trying not to think too much about how hard tomorrow’s ride could now be!  I was the last to return, having been speaking with some locals in the bar and missed the others leaving!  As I had the only key to our room, I hurried back expecting a grilling from Adam, but when I arrived, he was already in the room!  He didn’t seem to know how he’d got in however and until the next day I was panicking thinking I had forgotten to lock the door.  That was until someone explained to me that the receptionist had helped him out!

WP_20150606_001

Dave raring to go….

The morning in Evreux was not all that easy for most of the party.  I was even told I looked “rough” by Matt (my eyes were taking some time to open though I felt pretty much OK!) and so I piled in the coffee to bring me round!  Again, we were to be last away, but no-one felt in a major rush, perhaps tired from the night before or, more likely, wishing to spend time posing for photos with Owen outside the hotel!

Picture courtesy of Kerry Wilde - Group 1 ready for the final day

Picture courtesy of Kerry Wilde – Group 1 ready for the final day

Andy and Benn had, whilst I showered and breakfasted, completely disassembled my rear wheel, removing the bearings one by one and cleaning them before putting them back!  Although Andy’s feelings were that I would still need new wheels, I could at least ride with my own for the final day into Paris.  They had gone to great trouble to perform this mechanical work, and even though I tried to repay them with beer that evening, I still don’t think it was really ample reward for their efforts!

Finally, far later than we had planned, we set off for the day’s riding, compartmentalised into small 30Km “chunks”, it should have been a doddle for us and despite the climb out of the town, and some aches in our limbs, spirits were high as we headed for France’s capital.  Incident though was just ahead of us as we entered the countryside….  Following one of Andy’s now infamous U-turns, I turned into a road at the rear of our Group, only to see Kerry lying on the side, seemingly in some pain.  I guessed this tumble was more serious than the last as Jeff hadn’t yet begun to laugh.  Matt also hadn’t managed to capture this one on his helmet cam!

WP_20150606_008A noise on Kerry’s bike had caught the attention of Andy, and Kerry had looked down to find the source of it, only to veer into Andy’s rear wheel, causing him to fall awkwardly, landing on his knee.  We spent some time on the roadside while Kerry stretched out, and a local man, wiry in stature and dressed only in a dressing gown, handed us some chilled water to try to ease the swelling.  After a short period, Kerry decided he was ready to ride again, but less than a kilometre up the road the pain got the better of him and we stopped again, this time phoning for the medic to come to meet us.

WP_20150606_004Waiting for the medic to arrive, we spent approximately an hour frolicking in the field, posing for photos on the hay bales and trying in vain to balance the incredible T-shirt tans we had developed over the previous 3 days!  There was plenty of banter and laughs to keep spirits up despite having only travelled about 15Km from the 112 planned in the day.

When the medic did arrive (finally…), a plan was formulated that meant Kerry would be transported ahead to the morning break stop, receiving treatment in the van, whilst we rode on to collect him there later, although we would not stop for long so as to regain some lost time.  As Kerry departed, we formed up into our lines and pushed forward at a good rate, eager to claw back some of the distance lost on the others, and keen to meet up again with our bruised colleague.

Pedalling hard we soon arrived at the meeting point and saw Kerry, all alone but ready to go!  We paused briefly to ensure he was OK before heading on toward lunch.  Comparatively, this section of the journey passed uneventfully, which was a relief to us all!  By the time we arrived in Thoiry, we had caught up with the other groups who were still on site, albeit with some preparing to leave!  We stopped to eat (filled baguettes and a whole Camembert – purchased especially for me and my decision to avoid gluten….up until the night previously of course!) and Benn and Andy made plans about the management of the rest of the ride, and in particular the trip into Paris itself, which was clearly concerning them!

Kerry films his war wounds!

Kerry films his war wounds!

After lunch, another short section of cycling brought us to the final stop before the end of our voyage, a small bar in another French town.  Again, we were last to arrive, and therefore last to leave, although this time our break was brief since we wanted to catch the others and not have them waiting around for us!  Finally, we were on the homeward stretch.  What was the shortest and theoretically easiest day had been rather elongated and full of incident!

Jeff keeping his cool

Jeff keeping his cool

The meeting point with Group 2 in Versailles was very close by, however even before we arrived there we had caught up with them on a large trunk road.  They had suffered not one but two punctures to the same wheel, one immediately after the other!  Unlike on previous days where the “compassionate nature” of Group 1 would have sent us flying by, this time we joined forces to make one larger group to ride into the grounds of Versailles for a photo session by the lake together.  The roads had been busier all day, but now we saw a marked increase in the number of people about.  On the paths around the Chateau we weaved in and out of the tourists and visitors, making our way to the far exit, ready to head into the city.

WP_20150606_022Once on the far side of Versailles, the whole party – all four Groups – were joined together, however the guides felt this was too large a number to ride such a distance together and so we once again broke into two sections – Groups 1 and 2 leading the way, with Groups 3 and 4 to follow shortly after, with the plan to join back together by the boating lake in the Bois de Boulogne.

WP_20150606_023We rode on, up a steep slope and down a steeper hill.  Over the river and into the wooded parkland where there were plenty of locals and tourists soaking up the Sun, as well as a cycle event taking place around the Longchamp Hippodrome.  The infamous prostitutes were also in attendance, seemingly oblivious to all of this, and took great delight in exposing themselves to innocent and shy rugby boys on bikes!

WP_20150606_026Soon after we arrived at the meeting point and alighted from the bikes.  We waited.  And waited. And waited….  For a very long period of time, maybe an hour, Groups 3 and 4 were nowhere to be seen!  We had already passed our estimated arrival time at the Eiffel Tower and still we had the city centre to navigate….  Eventually the second large group showed up, having suffered yet more punctures and two crashes!  Charlotte had fallen and grazed herself badly, but was back up and running and Colin had badly damaged his bike and would have to meet us somewhere near the finish!  Day 4 certainly was eventful!

Now we joined to form one complete group and received a final briefing and safety warning from the guides who were seemingly beginning to panic they would lose or kill someone!  We formed up a huge peloton, riding in pairs, and headed for the recognisable landmarks….