The majority of long distance races I've done have been fast/moderate courses. Ironman Wales doesn't quite fit that description. It's an iconic race which - after experiencing it firsthand - really is one for the bucket list. With great weather forecasted, friends racing and a host of support coming to watch, I was looking forward to ending the season in style. Course familiarity was on my side as well, having made a few trips to Tenby in the lead up to the race, making sure I was confident for the bike course, in particular the climbs and descents. The only hiccup as race day approached was the wind, or rather the wind direction. An easterly meant the swim was going to be almost as hilly as the bike and run! No pictures I've found do the swim conditions justice – everyone was going to be in for a day to remember.
Within the first thirty seconds it was obvious this would be tough. I kept in touch with the main group for the first few hundred metres, but as we approached the first turn buoy I started to lose touch with them. The chop was the hardest element to contend with, struggling to time my breathing correctly and find any sort of rhythm. From the moment I lost the group, I was in the unwanted position swimming solo. After rounding the first turn buoy we swam parallel to the shore to the next buoy, which fortunately was far easier relative to the first leg. The final leg to shore for the “Australian exit” seemed to pass quite quickly, but I was fairly sure that progress had been slow. The long run up the beach to the turnaround point seemed exactly that – long. The second loop wasn't any easier (times were slower across the board, as the incoming tide meant more swimming and less running). As much as I think of myself as a non-swimmer, I was actually quite enjoying the swim. It was by far the toughest swim conditions I've raced or trained in, but that somehow eased the pressure. With the beach in sight, I was expecting a deficit of close to 10 minutes to the leader(s). The split was 54:40. My on course spotter Richard Haydn Lewis told me the gap was 6 minutes to the leader and 3.5 minutes to a group. Game on.
For all the challenges this race offers, one of the things I loved most about the day was T1. Zig-zagging your way from the beach up to the road (picking up your trainers along the way) starts what is over 1km to T1. That in itself is memorable, but what makes it more so is the phenomenal crowd support. Considering the time of day, the streets were lined deep with spectators cheering you on through the town, encouraging you to run too fast towards transition. As I reached the tent I saw the group starting the ride. I clocked who was there and there were no surprises.
The first 40 miles of the ride are reasonably fast, in the context of this being Ironman Wales. Conscious of making the most of this part of the course, I started aggressively. Around the 25 mile mark I saw the leader, the time gap being 6.5 minutes. After going out hard I expected to gain at least some time, but hadn't. I put my head down and continued to push until close to mile 70, which is where things began to unravel. I'd maintained the status quo, but that was all. I was still just over 6 minutes behind. One 16% climb followed immediately by another climb well over vo2 power pushed me over the proverbial edge.
Power dropped by 20% and my ability to turn the pedals with any meaning had escaped me. As with every race, Brian and I had a target wattage and I'd exceeded it for the first 3 hours of the ride. Not by much, but by enough. This is perhaps the biggest difference when racing as a professional – there's very little room for error. With an already aggressive strategy, overcooking the power was only going to have one ending. I'm sensible enough and - with this being my fifteenth race over the distance – experienced enough to know better. I didn't give up, but the final 40 miles were dark, losing 10 minutes and ending with a 5:19:45 split. As it transpired, Matt and Fraser really did ride amazingly well, beating the previous course record. Even my best executed ride over the full 112 miles wouldn't have been close to them, so I can really appreciate how hard they took to the course.
Coming into T2 in 6th place, I was still hopeful of executing a good run. Despite my implosion on the bike, I felt well fuelled and hydrated, if a little tired after a particularly challenging swim-bike. I started conservatively and soon moved into 5th, but with the four ahead a long way up the road. Again, the crowd support was amazing. With family, friends and one of my sponsors on course supporting, I really couldn't have asked for better support. Like the bike course, the run in Tenby is anything but easy. With close to 500m of vertical ascent, the climbing and descending (all on tarmac) is hard to contend with.
A conservative opening half had me through halfway in 1:33, but from mile 10 an recurring niggle had been bothering me. With the podium out of sight and 13 miles to go, I had a decision to make. I reached mile 14 and stopped, not walked, but stopped. A foot issue that has sporadically bothered me since 2011 had flared up, with every left footfall being uncomfortable. The question I asked myself was simple, Is it worth potentially worsening this injury for a 5th place finish? 5th place at an Ironman isn't anything to scoff at, but my ambitions were higher. After 3 minutes of consideration at a complete standstill, I decided to give it a few more miles.
From that point on a number of walk breaks ensued and I decided to finish the third of four laps and reassess. With one lap to go I heard that 4th place had pulled out. All I had to do was get through another 6.5 miles without slowing too much and a 4th place finish would be possible. When I eventually made the turn to the finish I was relived it was over. 3:17:58 of running, walking and standing had come to an end, with 9:41:04 on the clock.
The performance – more so than the result – was far from what I envisaged and worked towards, but disappointments are part of racing. You have to risk going over the edge to find out what you're truly capable of. It didn't work out in Tenby, but one day it will and when it does, the end result will be memorable.