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Ironman Wales Race Report by Andy George

Wales the land of Rugby, Mount Snowdon, Leeks, the seaside Town of Tenby and the location of Ironman Wales. Now in its 9 th year, it is recognised as one of the more challenging Ironman races on the circuit, with 2295m of elevation on the bike and 429m on the run, it is not for the faint hearted or the normal minded person on the street, which when you look at a triathlete that question is often asked ‘why do we do it?

Triathlon is the most unsociable .. sociable sport I have ever done, it can be lonely and time consuming, with snatches of conversation at the end of a pool lane or a quick natter on a bike leg, I wouldn’t class it as a team sport, but, ultimately it is a little different, that can test every aspect of you, not only physically, but also mentally. It took me over 3 years to decide to enter and I thought rather stupidly that if you are going to do an Ironman branded event why go for an easy option and as I didn’t have enough cash to do Lanzarote I thought Wales would be the second best option. So I signed up for Wales after my 50th Birthday in September 2018 and I started the long road to research, reading, writing, re-writing and re-re-writing my training plan. At one stage I had 15 downloaded plans laid out on the kitchen table and I freely admit it took me over 3 months to write and get right, but did it work?

On the 3 rd January I started my plan, which consisted of a pre-training period before the real 24 week training plan kicked in. After swimming 17,629.5 metres, biking 3,200.49 kilometres and running 988.47 kilometres I finished my last training session on Thursday 12 th September, two days before the event. So what time was I working for? The year had been filled with people in the club doing outstandingly well and all of them so fast! With people representing GBR in age group events and winning practically everything at the home event of the Chichester Triathlon, it was a lot to live up to. I had said to myself my goal was 1:15 for the swim, but as I started training in the sea off Bracklesham Bay, I quickly realised that a time of 1:45 was much more achievable, this included the odd underwater scream as I see my first massive man eating blood sucking electrifying jellyfish, which according to the WALES IRONMAN JOURNEY FB page the sea around Tenby was full of them, who says social media doesn’t keep you informed! 

For the bike, this was a bit of an unknown, I had tried to do the training but trying to fit everything in with just ‘normal living’ and work was hard and whereas some people had the opportunity to train for 6 to 7 hours on a single day I had to plan, arrange and really think about what to do and when to do it, this was not a moan just a plain and simple fact, life does get in the way. However, I opted for a reasonable and hopefully achievable 8 hours, this would let me try and maintain about 22-23km per hour considering the uphill sections, but more importantly trying to get the time back on the downhills. 

The run I had been told would be a war of attrition and having watched a few of the videos from Ironman 2017 it didn’t look any form of fun a sane person would want to take part in especially after a swim and a bike, so I opted for a very wise 5 hours. With transitions, I added a further 30 odd minutes. So all in all a time frame of 15:15, but erring on the further side of caution, anything under 15:30 hours would be respectable and I would be happy.

I suspected that there may be dark times in the race but the advice I received from Neil Bradfield and Steve O’Grady about swimming, Adrian Karn about just going downhill on the bike without killing yourself, Jonty about the race itself and finally the icon that is Shaun Dowling for advice on my training plan and just listening to me witter on about said training plan, would help on race day. However, you can see Shaun works with children the patience he had dealing with my questions and doubts, something which I am very grateful for. With the possibility of being faced with rough seas laden with barrel jellyfish, strong headwinds and unpredictable weather and over 15 hours of exercise I travelled down on Friday 13th September 2019 to my hotel.

Tenby, I had been told, was a very picturesque harbour town and seaside resort and I arrived after a long journey of rush hour traffic and thankfully it didn’t fail to impress me, with a full moon over the bay it was scene of calm and serenity and I stood on Giltar point where my Hotel was I realised that this was the calm before the storm. Also to my surprise, the finish was just outside my hotel, not far to crawl when I finished I thought. Saturday, couldn’t have been anymore different after the quiet of the night before, the streets were full of people and it was a day of registration, racking my bike, packing my blue, red, white and pink bags and going to the race briefing, where we were told there were over 2300 entries, over 12% of them were women and over 40% were athletes who had never completed an Ironman before, at least I wouldn’t be on my own. I spent the rest of the day, walking around town, sitting for periods and doing nothing, visiting the EXPO and buying everything that was Ironman branded and spending more money on kit that I didn’t need. I hadn’t taken any support as it just didn’t work out that way and I think about that now and realise that it probably worked for me, as I had time to think about my day on Sunday.

After going to bed at the customary 8pm and waking up at 0445hours which was quite civilised I had a breakfast of porridge and spoke to another guy who was doing the race, this was his 5 th time and he tried to pass on his experience ‘pointers’ he then proceeded to tell me all of the horrible/death defying/dangerous/potentially life threatening and doomtastic events that could befall me prior to and during the race. I quickly finished my breakfast, made my excuses and left him to his musing as he turned to another fellow athlete on another table. I just hope he never tries to be a motivational speaker. I made my way into transition to load my bike of the water and food I would need for the day and ensured I had my fabled ‘pink’ bag to take down to the beach, I put on my wetsuit and along with other 2,300 entrants made my way to North beach. As I rounded the corner at the top of White Lion Street and looked over North Beach I astounded to see hundreds of people lining the roads and pathways down to the beach, the commentator stated prior to the race there was over 8000 people watching the start it was very impressive. As I hung my pink onto its hook I made my way down the Zig Zag, which we would have to run up after the swim and back to transition a distance of about 1km.

At 0657hours, the Welsh National Anthem was played and the effect was electrifying I was feeling ready and excited and just wanted to start. I made my way around the chicane of barriers and having sited myself in the 1:40 group entered the water just after the customary Thunderstruck by AC/DC had been played. I started swimming and disaster struck, well it felt like a disaster I couldn’t get my breathing right and my googles were leaking, I started to panic, I had obviously been spotted by another athlete, as I felt someone grab my shoulder, I spun round in the water a saw a bloke, with a big bushy Nordic styled beard, he said to me, “Put your feet down, your still on the sand bar” I put my feet down and stood up, he said, “Breathe in and out slowly and put your googles on” He looked at me through his clear googles and I did as he said, it was enough, I put them on adjusted them, he then said, “Now swim like you have a shark up your effing arse” he took one final look and said “good” and he dived into the water and swam off, I never saw him again all day. Anyway I followed suit and swam and once I found my rhythm I left the water in 1:19minutes and swam 4,096metres, I had truly started the race now and there was a further bonus that I had not seen one of those dam dream inducing jelly fish! 

I made my way up to transition having put on my trainers and grabbed my pink back as it was an automatic disqualification if you left it on the zig zag and went into transition, which was a crazed jumble of people shouting and organised chaos of guys and women getting change all modesty blown apart as the private changing rooms were busy people were doing full changes by the racks. Once on my bike I made my way out onto the roads of Tenby and beyond, with the streets lined with hundreds of people the first 8km was quite pleasant and I knew I had to stick to my plan if I was going to succeed. The bike route is made up of effectively three loops the first one which is about 60km goes out to Lamphey and then Angle and back before you then do a slightly smaller route twice, around Carew, Narberth, Wisemans Bridge and back into Tenby. The first loop I would have classed as just as hard as riding round the roads and uphill’s of West Sussex and nothing I hadn’t faced before, at one stage, however, I saw one person lying on the floor with a paramedic and another person out near freshwater being treated in an ambulance having totalled their bike on a strip of sand, this lead to quite a large Pelton of about 350 athletes being stationary, chatting and having food for about 10 minutes. With closed roads, it gave the freedom to go that little faster and the rest of the bike while I found enjoyable passed in a blur, the only sections that were of any note were the hills at Wisemans Bridge and the stretch out of Narberth, two fairly hard climbs but with a steady cadence and the willingness of the crowds to shout you up the hill I finished the bike in 7:28minutes. 

Having done a full change and time ticking on I headed out for my favourite discipline, the run, I have always loved running or plodding whatever I call it now, but my legs were heavy and my quads and calves were firing that warning shot that they were going into cramp. After the relative flat section out of the town, I faced the small hill that I had to run up, this ‘hill’ was about 3.5kms in length and I had to run up it 4 times, it was challenging, having reached the turnaround point you then run down the hill for a short distance then back up hill to where you collect your fabled

coloured band of which you need four. Having stopped at the first aid station I made the conscious decision to ditch any further gels and stuck solely to water and salted Doritos for the rest of the marathon. This worked and the cramp quickly left. The laps were about 10km long, but due to the crowds in Tenby, it passed in a blur, the support in the town was quite frankly mental with music playing, the crowds especially near the pubs shouting and offering words of encroachment like ‘YOUR A LEGENDDD’ to eventually slurred words of professing their undying love for me, bless them I could really see the downhill spiral of drunkenness as the event went on, or was it I out there for so long! At stages, I did run with some people and chatted to some as we walked up the hill, the night was drawing in and with the light gone I was on my last lap, I felt OK but my legs were heavy and sore, as I entered the last road to make the final turn I saw Ian Gay AKA Bartman who I had seen a few times on the run obviously running in the other direction, he had finished and done outstandingly well, I shouted to him for his time and he said don’t worry just enjoy the moment and he was right. I intentionally slowed down and jogged to the finish to enjoy the moment and try to savour all the work I had put in over the last 9 months. 

I crossed the line in 14hours 34 minutes, having smashed my predicted time.

It was a fantastic experience and to my surprise I didn’t have a dark time I remembered a few words that Linda Roberts has sent to me about Chrissie Wellington, who said, ‘when you feel like you’re not going to finish it this is how it is supposed to feel, just crack on and get it done, admittedly the last bit is mine, but the sentiment is the same.

Am I happy? Yes. Over the moon? Yes. Would I do it again? No. It’s an itch that has been scratched. I loved every moment of that day from the start to the finish, it was an experience I don’t think I will ever attain again, I smiled practically all the way round saying thank you to all the supporters and volunteers, if you want a race of a lifetime for the support of a lifetime, then I can’t recommended Ironman Wales enough, I can see why people go back, but I feel that if I did it wouldn’t be the same, plus the fact that I don’t think I could face that hill on the run again.

My top tips

  • I must say if I was going to give anyone advice it would be trust your plan I was dubious about training slow and employing the 80/20 rule. It was very hard running at a pace where a disabled motorised buggy over takes you and even a bloke pushing a pushchair, but persevere. Be committed and stay positive, you need an outlet to make sure you are going in the right direction, mine was Shaun Dowling which helped me no end, even if it is three chats in a 24 week programme, that reassurance does your confidence no end. 
  • Get in the sea, I can’t stress this enough it prepares you not only physically, but also mentally, my timings in the pool were good for me 1.54 per 100m, but in the sea 2.07 so there was that difference.
  • Plan you time carefully I took the odd days leave here and there to get the long bikes in but I managed about 8 to 10 hours per week. I tried very hard not to let it impact on my home life if you have that issue.
  • Race carefully, I didn’t find a ½ middle distance that suited me, as advice states to have one roughly 12 to 14 weeks from the event, I ended up doing one standard and two sprints and a couple of ½ marathons and I found on each occasion I PB’d each time, don’t tire yourself out.
  • Make sure you take your rest day and don’t stress if you miss a session, I did on occasion finish a session off the next day or simple split them: for example running, I was supposed to do 24 km, but due to time, family etc. I did 12km on the road at lunchtime and then 12km on the treadmill in the evening.
  • Don’t forget your nutrition on the bike I did try various things and the golden rule of ‘don’t try anything new on race day should be tattooed on your arm, it is not worth it, I did try on a training ride a new mixture of drink concentrate as all advice states 90g of carbs per hour while on the bike and this drink would assist with this, let just say I did a lot more stopping on that training ride than others!
  • Don’t forget your strength training, the aim is not to bulk up and if you can stand being next to people who lift weights that are too heavy for them or teenagers spending more time admiring themselves in the mirror then you should do fine you only need about 30 to 40 minutes of basic strength exercises. In the initial stages I was going about twice a week, but in the later stages just once a week to maintain that extra strength and flexibility.
  • Don’t fret and stick to your plan and remember as they say in Tenby DBS.

Andy George – Ironman

September 2019.