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I wrote my last post right after Ironman Wales 2018 in September, and had all the best intentions of the next article coming out straight after my next event, Ironman Santa Rosa in 2019. Well, 2019 was a year of best intentions and dubious outcomes…..
It’s been a few
weeks months since Ironman Wales 2019, and one eye has stopped weeping long enough to be able to type, but more on that later.
Before I start getting verbose, here’s the short version of what’s happened since my last blog post. I finished Ironman Santa Rosa in May an hour and fifteen minutes faster than 2018 (yay!). My goal had been to make it in to 14 hour bracket (from 15:14 in 2018), and I came in at 14:04, almost in the 13 hour bracket. After that I competed in, and finished, Ironman Santa Rosa 70.3 in July an hour slower than last year, but they did make us swim this year, so I’m sure that was the reason. Then came Ironman Wales 2019, and I had my first DNF (did not finish).
Despite having finished three full distance Ironman events it took a DNF for me to truly appreciate just how hard an Ironman distance event really is. I learned a lot about myself crossing each of the finish lines and, surprisingly, even more about myself by not crossing one.
Where Have You Been?
I started this blog entry at Heathrow Airport, right after IM Wales in September 2019. I rewrote it, rewrote it some more and now, in
January May of 2020 I’m finally completing it – at least as best I can recall after all these months.
After a great day out at IM Santa Rosa in May 2019, I did the half distance in July and I vaguely recall it went ok. The weather was fantastic for the swim and bike, but by the afternoon the 95F temperature was too much for the half marathon. To think they were planning on holding the full Ironman in July 2020! A marathon in that heat? No thanks. I was secretly hoping that some global event would strike that would prevent me from having to run 26.2 miles in that heat…..mmmm……
I kind of went off the boil between July and September and my training suffered a little……. Perhaps there were one or two more beautiful evenings sitting outside Whole Foods drinking cider instead of ploughing up and down the pool. You most definitely reap what you sow when it comes to these endurance events.
Facing the Dragon
As some of you avid reader (yes, that was meant to be singular) may know, not only is IM Wales is fondly referred to as “Facing the Dragon” but my cycling kit, and now body parts, are adorned with dragons in some sort of strange ex-pat homage to my home country. As I headed off on this year’s adventure I hadn’t really given much thought to the fierce reputation of the event, despite having staggered through it last year with a wonderfully potent mixture of naivety and bravado, but mostly naivety.
I left San Francisco for London with Virgin Atlantic and my shiny new bike bag to protect Black Beauty, and that’s where the “fun”really started.
After a great flight and easy car rental pick-up from Hertz, it was off to Wales! Since we were planning on heading to my most favorite restaurant that evening, I drove past the various service stations that were trying to tempt me to stop and indulge my passion for pork pies. Now that’s a mental challenge.
It’s always fantastic to see this sight and, for the first time I can remember, there was no toll to pay! When I used to commute across the predecessor to this bridge in the 80s it was 25p each way and during my last visit it was something like GBP 5.60! At least they charged you to enter Wales and not insult you with a charge to enter England.
The next day I unpacked the bike, and disaster had struck, my fancy electronic gear shifting didn’t work! After some frantic calls I found a local bike shop, The Bike Doctor, and we’d be seeing. a lot of each other over the next few days. The cable to the rear shifter was pinched and had to be replaced and the bike shop did a fantastic job to get me going on once I’d found the parts. I missed the ability to ride that weekend and get limbered up, a sign of things to come, but I did get a small ride in until the ominous looking clouds told me to head home.
Did You Know the “Swimming Pool Smell” is Not Chlorine?
After a pretty stressful weekend and a couple of miles on the bike, I headed to the pool on Monday morning, taking full advantage of the 3am jet-lag wake up. After paying my Pound, I was in Merthyr Tydfil swimming pool.
It was the day after a weekend, so I should have known better, but the eye-stinging reaction when I entered the pool area told me that a lot of kids had peed in that pool over the last couple of days. Well, as the old saying goes “In for a penny, in for a pound”, which I had just spent. There were a couple of fast swimmers in the lanes so I joined the octogenarian for slightly less of an embarrassing ass-kicking. Slightly, only ever so…
In keeping with my tradition, the next stop was Tesco for one of their fine English breakfasts. Yum.
Before heading to Tenby we took a few trips to Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil, including Trago Mills, which I am struggling to find words for, but let me try. Imagine someone decided to build a huge building shaped a bit like a Disney princess castle mated with a warehouse, then stuck it on top of a mountain and painted it grey/gray (yes, I am multi-lingual) and filled it with everything you could possibly buy. That’s Trago Mills. Clothes? Yes. Furniture? Yes. Motorcycles? Yes. Armadillos? Yes. No, not that would be cruel. Quite a fascinating place and I couldn’t quite decide whether to beat a hasty retreat or cruise every single aisle……
I also managed a quick overnight trip to London to see my son, and experienced the joy of the Megabus – 11 Pounds (about $14) for a round trip of some 300 miles from Cardiff to London. It was a lot of fun being a tourist, meeting up with friends for lunch at The Ivy Canary Wharf and visiting the fascinating London Docklands museum. After a long day of sightseeing we ended up at the famous Brick Lane, the center of Indian cuisine in London. Since battling the death rays in 2016 I’ve been a wimp when it comes to spicy food but when in
Rome Brick Lane and there’s a Jalfrezi on offer, it has to be done. I was literally crying from it, but it was soooo good.
On Thursday it was time to head to Tenby and I checked in to the same great guest house we’d stayed last year, literally a hundred yards from the transition area and start/finish. I love getting to Tenby (or Santa Rosa) early and just taking in the whole ambience of the place before race day.
Friday was registration day and the town started filling up with athletes from across the world. I got registered early and then began the first endurance event, shopping in the merchandise area. I think last year took 5 separate trips to get everything I could with “Ironman Wales” written on it, this year it just took 3, so I must be getting better, right?
After registration, it was time to organize all my stuff ready to be dropped off on Saturday. Once you get the band on your wrist, and the collection of colored plastic bags, it all suddenly starts to feel very real.
To give my credit card a break, I left the merchandise tent and headed to the beach for a practice swim. The water was around 63F and super clear. You could see the light from the sandy bottom, and not one jellyfish in sight!
With all the
crap equipment one has to schlep to a race, it was somewhat inevitable that I would forget something, and that something happened to be a charger for my Garmin watch. If I did the race and it wasn’t recorded on Strava, I may as well have not bothered, right? Thankfully, there’s a great Facebook group for this race and after a quick post a kind stranger by the name of Ian Sullivan lent me his. A former competitor himself, Ian is a lunatic who stands on one of the steep hill climbs and let’s everyone know what position they are in and then goes back to Tenby to support runners in one of the less supported parts of the marathon. A top bloke indeed!
The idea on Saturday is to do as little as possible and stay off your feet to rest up for the big day on Sunday. We decided to do some sightseeing around parts of Wales that bring back many great memories from years past. Before that, it was time to drop off the bike and different colored bags in preparation for the race.
The weather was absolutely amazing (for Wales), and it was the perfect day to take a trip through Haverfordwest, Newgale and out to the beautiful old port of Porthgain, where they used to export slate.
After a great day out with my parents, it was time for dinner and a quiet stroll around Tenby, the calm before the storm.
I’m not the greatest sleeper at the best of times, but the night before an Ironman race is especially tough. As much as I tried sleeping, it wasn’t to be and I ended up getting up at 3am to start fueling for the day with a couple of pots of instant porridge. Thanks Tesco!
With the transition area so close, it was a gentle walk to go and put all the day’s nutrition on the bike, check the tires and generally faff around until it was time to head to the beach.
One of the (many, many) magical parts of Ironman Wales is the walk from the transition area to the beach. In Santa Rosa you get on a yellow school bus with not-quite-enough legroom for a 45 minute drive to the lake, but in Tenby you walk through this magical town with thousands of spectators lining the streets – at 6am!! The fire station is open serving bacon sandwiches and coffees to the spectators, and a few athletes, and the whole town seems to be up and about. There’s really no way to describe the atmosphere and it just gently builds as swim time approaches.
Tenby’s North Beach is a natural amphitheater and the crowds line up along the top of the cliffs to watch the swim. There were thousands of supporters out as we headed down the zig-zag stairs to get staged on the beach.
You group yourself by your estimated finish time, from 50 minutes for the super fast to the 2:00 hour group for those that want to use all the time available for the swim. I put myself in the 1:20 group based on my previous races, and after the national anthem reverberates around the cliffs, the music changes to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck and we start inching forward to the start line.
The swim is two laps of a 1.2 mile course that heads out to the left of Goscar Rock, turns towards the lifeboat stations and then back to the beach to the right of the rock. A quick run across the sand, and repeat!
The conditions were absolutely perfect, flat calm and a beautiful sky.
It was incredible on the section out towards the lifeboats to see the colored houses and thousands of spectators lining the cliffs every time I took a breath. Before I knew it I was back on the beach for my second lap, after the taxing 100 yard run on the sand. When you’ve been laying down for 40 minutes swimming, it’s a very odd sensation to stand up and start running.
The second lap was a bit tougher and I lost my way through a bunch of boats that seemed to be hanging out on the course cooking bacon, of all things! In Santa Rosa you’re choking on diesel fumes from the safety boats, in Tenby you’re being tortured by gently frying pig. Reviewing my stats from the swim, I somehow managed to add an additional 1,782 yards to the swim (or 0.8 miles!). I knew I wandered a bit, but I think my Garmin was wrong….
Zigging the Zags
Another unique aspect of Ironman Wales is that they make you run the 1km from the beach back to the transition area to get the bike. 1km doesn’t seem like a lot in the grand scheme of a day that will see you travel 226km, but it starts with an uphill run from the beach back to the clifftop where you get out out of your wetsuit, stuff it in a pink bag, put shoes on and then run through the mad crowds lining the roads. I really wanted to walk but the encouragement from everyone is truly overwhelming and carries you along, despite having just spent 1:26 laying flat in the water (while swimming, just to clarify, not just laying there…)
This year, being a more seasoned “Ironman”, I decided not to do the full change of clothing and had worn my tri-suit under the wetsuit so it was a quick (for me) change to the bike shoes, after lathering my feet with Vaseline, a few dabs “elsewhere”, grab the helmet and off we go.
Exiting Tenby makes you feel like a rock star, well, if rock stars rode bicycles and their fans cheered them on those bicycles, if you know what I mean. The crowds were great and the conditions were just perfect for riding.
The 112 mile bike course is known as one of the hardest on the whole Ironman circuit and consists mostly of hills, hills and more hills. There’s a single large loop of around 70 miles and then you repeat a smaller loop of a mere 42 miles.
Black Beauty was eating up the miles but after about 45 minutes I was feeling a little queazy. I wasn’t sure if it was an over-indulgence of sea water or not enough nutrition, so I just kept going and was enjoying the scenic descent just before Angle when we all had to stop as an ambulance was blocking the single lane road. We could hear someone screaming in agony and there were the remains of a bike on the side of the road. Someone had hit a small stone bridge and had broken a leg, so we were told. We had to squeeze by the ambulance in single file with the poor rider howling away.
Most of the first lap was pretty good with some solid climbs up in to Narbeth and then the beautiful descent to Wiseman’s Bridge, immediately followed by the awful climb out that averages a 9% gradient, with 20% in parts. I heard Ian call out that I was in something like 1,400th place, so my podium ambitions took a slight downturn…..
At the top of the hill, you think that you are hallucinating as you see nuns, drinking beer. The support from there is fantastic and then it’s the descent down in to Saundersfoot and perhaps the craziest section of the bike course, St Bride’s Hill.
It’s like being in the Tour de France on mushrooms (allegedly….), with the crowds cheering you on up a 6% – 12% gradient while people in dragon suits, just underpants or a myriad of other costumes run along side and shout encouragement. As much as you want to get off and push, the energy of the crowd makes that nigh on impossible.
The “special needs” section is at the top of St Brides, where you can access a bag you drop off that morning in Tenby. It includes spare tubes, CO2 cannisters and anything else you may need at the half-way point. My bag also contained pork pies as you’re desperate for something not sweet after 65 miles of sickly liquid nutrition. I took a couple of bites and headed down in to Tenby to start the second lap.
On the last part of the descent in to town doing about 30mph I was behind a guy who just tossed his water bottle off to the side and it started rolling back in to my path. How I missed it, I have no idea, but that would have been an ugly end to my day. As I passed him I shared my opinion of what he did and he was, thankfully, apologetic and “hadn’t seen me”. Perhaps because we’re tucked in at 30mph and focusing on the road ahead?
At the start of lap 2 I knew I was in real trouble.
My left knee and calf were letting me know that all was not well and I started feeling some gastric issues coming back, after a relatively tranquil period over the last 20 miles or so. As I got to mile 78.33, or thereabouts, I pulled in to use the bathroom at Lamphey community center and after a few trips to the shiny blue plastic sheds, I made the decision to end my day. My stomach and left calf were not in great shape, and the thought of another 34 miles was too much for me, at the time.
The volunteers there were awesome and brought me a cup of tea and some Welshcakes, and even gently tried to persuade me to get back on my bike in the loveliest of ways. Mentally, and physically, I was done. I sincerely regret stopping, as I look back on it today and ONLY 34 miles to go, but clearly my mind was made up.
The support vehicle collected me and took me back to Tenby where I watched the last of the cyclists just make the cutoff for the run, and a few that sadly didn’t.
Ah, did I feel crappy or what?
The physical pain was pretty bad, but the mental pain of not finishing was probably worse, and doesn’t get any easier as time passes. In the moment, the thought of those remaining miles on the bike with another 3,000ft or so of climbing, which would have been another 2 or 2.5 hours in the saddle, and then taking off on a 26.2 mile run was just too much for me.
No sauntering down the red carpet this time, although that is unlikely to ever happen during daylight like this beautiful photo.
Simon of the Dead
Monday was an unbelievably sad day for me personally. Almost 3 years of incredible highs and achieving things I would never have thought possible, all came crashing down in one fell swoop.
Everyone else was shuffling around like zombies in their shiny new finisher t-shirts, proudly wearing the t-shirt and the glow that comes from conquering what is a truly formidable task, and beating your doubting self more than anything else. For me, it was an early bout of post-race depression and the start of an extended period of “What ifs…..?”.
After finishing Wales in 2018 and Santa Rosa in 2019, I said to myself as I crossed the finish line that I never, ever, ever wanted to do a long distance race again. Ironically, not finishing this one made me even more determined, so when the invitation to come back in 2020 appeared in my email, there was not the usual procrastination, I paid up and entered immediately. I was most definitely down, but most definitely not out. I wasn’t going to let this result be my last memory of such a fantastic event.
We left Tenby later that morning and had a great few days before I had to pack up and head back to California. I stuffed the bike carrier with a variety of British foods and made the trek to Heathrow, determined to come back and Face the Dragon next year, and not be beaten into submission by tea and Welshcakes.
I haven’t been kicked off the Fxck Cancer Endurance team (yet), so if you take pity on me, please feel free to donate to Fxck Cancer. Donations of any size are greatly appreciated and all go to a very worthy cause.
Thanks for reading!