Monday, November 7, 2016

Post 144 - "The Dinosaur Ironman"

I've started 9 Ironman races. My mum and dad have been to 5 of them and they haven't had much joy. They have been to Bolton 2014 which was a disaster, Tenby 2014 which wasn't bad but wasn't great, Bolton 2015 which was a disaster, and Bolton 2016 which was also a disaster. Weymouth 2016 wasn't quite a disaster, and I'd go as far as to say that although it wasn't quite what I wanted, it wasn't bad. So I was happy that mum and dad were able to witness a decent showing and have a good weekend.

I asked my dad to write a few words about Ironman Weymouth 2016. This he duly did, perhaps with a hint of bias, perhaps with a hint of wearing rose-tinted glasses, perhaps with a hint of naivety, perhaps ever so slightly misinformed, and certainly a little bit factually incorrect and cryptic. I wondered about editing his words to make them correct but then I thought no, leave it as it is, his own words, his own thoughts.

He writes below:

The Dinosaur Ironman


“Yeah, Weymouth.”

“As in Jurassic coast Weymouth?  Bolton, Tenby, yes, but I wasn’t aware of an Ironman in Weymouth.”

“This is the first year Weymouth will host a full Ironman and it will run in conjunction with its usual half Ironman.”

“Will that not cause serious logistical difficulties for the organisers, never mind the practical ones for the athletes?”

“Yes it will, but you just have to deal with them.”

“What about your knee, the one you bashed on the rocks jumping into shallow water in Bolton in July?”

John didn’t answer this one definitively.  He was clearly “hedging his bets”.  He had been upping his training and his knee was allowing him to do so, for now anyway.

“I’ve checked the flights.  You can fly into Bristol and drive south to the coast on the Saturday, returning on the Monday.  Brian and I are driving down from London on the Friday.  We’ll all have to stay in Poole, it’s impossible to get anywhere in Weymouth at this late stage.”

And so, with this conversation, we were on our way, myself, John’s Dad, and his Mum.  John had trained hard for Bolton in July and was in excellent shape.  But no matter how meticulous the preparation and planning the “fly in the ointment” can occur at any time.  In Bolton it proved to be a shallow, rocky area of water on the right hand side of the entry zone into Pennington Flash.  A dozen or so athletes were injured here, to varying degrees.  For John, his injury didn’t manifest itself acutely until he began the run.  Bitterly disappointed and justifiably critical of the organization at the start of the swim, he had to pull out.

We suspected that Bolton may have been his last Ironman.  Wanting to finish on a “high”, we knew also that he would give Weymouth his all and we were keen to support him.  Besides, this would be a hat-trick of ironman supports for us – Bolton, Tenby and Weymouth.

Not having been to the south coast before, I was looking forward to the drive through rural England.  I needn’t have bothered.  The roads required our full attention; high, unkept hedges severely restricted views; a drive if seventy miles via Wells, Yeovil and Dorchester took almost three hours, twice as long as a similar drive here.  So I admire the patience and determination of the thousands of athletes who travel to such events throughout the year in England.

At last the horizon of the Channel came into view, atop a clear blue sea, as we dropped down into Weymouth.  It was now about 1.00pm.  The weather had transformed from a drizzly, overcast morning to a bright, cloudless sky, the temperature tempered by a refreshing sea breeze.  And so it was for Sunday.

We met John and Brian for a late breakfast.  Having already reconnoitred the locality, John was happy, pleased with the flat circular run course and delighted with the weather conditions. 

“Hydration on the run will be key,” he commented.

Finding a margin of advantage in the location of racking your bike is like expecting clear water amidst thousands in the swim.  No letters or numbers grid to guide the athletes; it is down to memory and homing instincts.  For those who are competing rather than participating, smooth, efficient transitions are critical.

With the bike racked and gear in place, John was keen to become more familiar with the elements of the course.  He and Brian had already driven a significant part of the bike course, a two-lap course, and on our way back to Poole, he and I would check out the first fifteen to twenty  miles of the course.  First it was down to the promenade, a beautiful expanse of coast, curving in a shallow arch of about six miles to the east and to the west, and flat, flat as a pancake.  Bolton and Tenby are brutal courses to run, but Weymouth would give John the opportunity to really perform, and he knew it.

Fuelled on his pasta diet, John had an early start from Poole on Sunday morning.  We had parked the cars, John had checked his bike and gear by 5.30am.  And then the “fly in the ointment” struck – the call of nature.  On a cold, dark September morning the last thing he needed was to stand in a queue for forty minutes.  This meant a rushed and less than satisfactory preparation for the swim.

We needn’t have worried.  John emerged on the first circuit in twenty eight minutes and was quickly consumed by the masses on his second.  As the rising sun slowly generated a little heat, he completed the swim in fifty nine minutes and passed us going out on the bike looking strong and focused.

“Pace not race”, is a term we have frequently heard in the presence of Ironmen and as John disappeared down the long, straight road out of Weymouth and into the hilly, testing roads of Dorset this would have been uppermost in his mind.  No matter how well an athlete is going, there is an iron will of discipline required to stick to pace.  John had his split times, distance markers and transition times finely calculated to plus or minus ten minutes.  Given this was a novel venue and difficult to compare markers with other courses, his accuracy was quite remarkable.

Having experienced the charm of the old town of Weymouth while John gyrated around Dorset, we returned to the long, straight road down which John should appear within his margin of plus or minus ten minutes.  As an √©lite athlete, he was at the front of the pack.  We counted the professionals past us.  He shouldn’t be long following.

“That’s him”, Eileen shouted in anticipation as the sole figure on the bike loomed increasingly large.  His Mum could recognise his frame, his build, his style and of course his colours.

“Right on time,” she added.

The sun was hot now, the day bright and the breeze had lightened.  The athletes doing the half Ironman were now populating the promenade run.  With the full Ironman athletes joining them,  it was going to be very populated.  Hydration and pacing were now critical and looking at the great variety of athletes it was painfully clear the stresses and strains that were now increasingly kicking in.

John passed us on each of the circuits looking comfortable, holding his rhythm and style, clearly grateful for the zero gradient and clearly grateful for the support from familiar faces. He was going extremely well and held this throughout the second half of the run, a phase that has proved so challenging in the past.

We lost count of the number of circuits he had completed and made our way to the finish on the strength of his estimated finish time rather than knowing that he had passed us for the last time.  John had often said that slowing down is inevitable, it is the rate of slowing that determines personal bests.  Trying to compute what this meant for his finishing time, I completely miscalculated.  

Casually taking in the atmosphere at the finish zone, all of a sudden he was there in front of us on the fifty meter run-in to the finish. 

Elated and exhausted in equal measure, John had put the dinosaurs to rest.  He had completed Weymouth as an elite athlete, finishing 14th in his age group and 36th overall in a personal best time of 10:26. Those endless hours of preparation, planning and pacing had gelled.

But then dinosaurs were remarkably adaptable and resilient beasts!!!  Who said the dinosaur was extinct???


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Post 143 - An Ironman UK blog by Chris

My Ironman UK 2016 was a bit of a disaster, but my friend Chris was also competing, and he put in a strong showing at his first Ironman. I asked/coerced him into writing a few words about his day. Something to look back on in years to come...
Chris writes below:

This is really not something I like doing, but here is my experience of this years Ironman UK in my own words. John refused to pass on some excellent race photo's taken by his father Brian until I wrote him something and when faced with outrageous bribary and outstanding photography, I capitulated. Seriously, the sight of Brian crouched down low with his camera point upwards as I ran by made me laugh to myself!
Firstly, I'm not a triathlete like John. I'd never really swam much further than a few lengths until about 18months ago and cycling was just something that allowed me to commute to work and avoid the tube in London. My sporting background was based around football and lifting weights until I started running four years ago when I got a place in the London marathon (that I forgot I applied for!). Fast forward to today and I've pretty much taught myself to swim from scratch and started cycling properly since March of this year, however with a few years of running behind me, that was always going to be my strong suit. With that in mind, I approached this race with the logic of, if I can get through the swim and the bike, I'm confident I can get to the end.
Ahead of this race I hadn't swam outdoors in over a year and only worn a wetsuit once to practice the fit. All of my swimming was in a local 50m lido which opens for lane swimming between 6pm and 8pm on weekdays. As I finish work at 6pm, my longest swim sessions consisted of racing to the pool straight from work and getting straight in and swimming as many lengths as I could before they lifeguards kicked me out at 8pm. On a particularly efficient day I managed about 3200m (2 miles) in just over an hour in the pool. On this day, I was getting kicked out but confident I could've carried on for another 12 lengths to make it up to 3800m on race day.

Race day arrived and I decided to be cautious throughout the day, even though I was confident of swimming the 2.4 miles quicker than 1hr30, I decided to start in the 1hr30 start pen just so I was tempted to swim off like a rocket and pay the price on the second lap. It's quite disconcerting swimming in murky water at 6am when you're not used to it. In the pool you follow the lines on the pool floor until you hit a wall and then turn around, in the lake you can barely make out your hands in front of your face. This proved irritating when swimmers slightly ahead decided to change to breaststroke without warning to check their position and I slammed into the back of them and took a few agressive kicks to the face. I swore at most of them, I  have a temper and competition brings out the worst of it. 
The irony is of course I swim blind most of the time too, I dont sight well and I rely heavily on being able to see another swimmer to the side of me when turning to breathe and assumed if I was with other swimmers, we were going the right way. Safety in numbers. The first 1.2 mile lap seemed to go quite slowly, it took a while to get into a rhythm due to all the stop-starting but the the second lap seemed to go quickly, the field had thinned out noticably and there was plenty of water ahead to swim into without hitting anybody. Some of that water found itself into my mouth, which in a desperate attempt to burp it out, I vomitted back into the lake. John had scared me with horror stories about algae so I didn't take any chances. Sorry to anybody behind me that had to deal with that, unless you're one of those breaststrokers that kicked me! 2.4 miles in 1hour27, including the little run bit inbetween laps and zig zagging across the lake as I dont look where I'm swimming.
I came out of the water really happy, the swim was easily the toughest obstacle of the day for me and it was over with and I felt like it was comfortable. In a peverse way I remember approaching the swim exit and thinking, "I've got this, this wasn't so bad, I could probably do a 5km open water swim one day!". Running along to T1 I saw another competitor just ahead struggling with his wetsuit zip so I unfastened it for him and made a joke before running off into the tent, I was in a good mood at this point! 

Onto the bike, 112 miles of hilly Lancashire countryside.  I dont have a fancy time trial bike, I have an aluminium road bike that I use for work with a few aerobars fastened to the front. I was worried about this course and my climbing ability. On a few training rides I'd really struggled up some inclines and some of them were of a similar diffficulty to both SheepHouse Lane and Hunters Hill which I'd have to scale twice. I couldn't understand why I was so terrible at climbing. I wondered if my gearing was different to everybody elses, I wondered if it was a weight issue as at 75kg I don't have a cyclists physique or if I just lacked climbing strength (I only started cycling more than two hours in April). 
As luck would have it, I got my bike serviced three days before the race and my local workshop said the chain was worn out and replaced it. On Friday evening after registration I drove to the steepest part of the 112 mile course, Hunters Hill, to do a recce and see what I was up against. I took the bike out of the back and spun up to the top quite easily. I was confused. It was tough, my heart rate shot up but nothing overly challengeing. I took confidence from the fact I even got up it at all, but I assumed it was because I was fresh and it would be a different prospect 90miles in on race day.
I remembered John's advice for the bike, keep it nice and easy until you get up SheepHouse Lane for the first time which is about 12 miles in. I believe his exact words were "let them go, you'll see them again during the marathon". It seemed a sensible approach as I was also conscious that in a 70.3 race last year I pushed too hard for a bike split of 2:30 which left me in pieces during the run. On a good day I run a fresh half marathon in under 1:20, in my half ironman I finished in over 1hr50 and was a little embarrased with my supposed strongest discipline. 
Twelve miles or so into the bike I could hear lots of noise, I realised that SheepHouse was approaching, the 2.5 miles of hills to the top of Lancashires moors. I spun up the hills, kept spinning, it flattened out a little, then up again, I kept spinnning and spinning. While I was spinning, bikes were falling behind me like a weird 90's arcade racing game, I thought that was odd. Then suddenly I was approaching the summit and steepest part of the hill, I dug in but surprisingly I scaled the whole things without the need to come out of the saddle. I spent a lot of the decline on the other side looking at the bike computer (39mph was the fastest I saw) and wondering what all the fuss was about! 

The same thing happened at Hunters Hill, I remember appraoaching it and pumping myself up to grit my teeth. As I spun up the hill I heard a really distinctive South African accent shout from the side of the road "Excellent cadence Chris!" which I particularly liked. In the narrow climb of Hunters where supporters encrtoach on to the roads I was so quick up the hill that it almost became dangerous as I had to try and overtake in limited space. It's easy to seen hindsight that a really knackered old chain had been holding me back for months and I was actually a pretty decent climber. However, at the time I was genuinely panicking about changing my gears and derailleur on my bike to assist with hills or even the indignity of having to get off and run up the hill like Chris Froome!
It was a windy day, in my head before the race I thought I could cover 112 miles in 6hours30 while taking it very easy and not detonating before the marathon. I could tell very early on that this wasn't going to happen, it was windy, hot and I refused to make the same mistake as last years half ironman and chase a bike split that killed my run. In the end, I finished in 7 hours and ready to run.
For this final 5 miles of the bike I started getting incredible cramps in both feet, I assume this was from them being fixed into one place for 7 hours and/or dodgy cheap cycling cleats. For the final 3 miles of the bike, I took my feet out of the shoes and with just socks on pushed down on the shoes/pedals to try and breathe some life back into my feet...
.. it didnt work. I jumped off the bike at the start of t2 and couldn't walk. This was was supposed to be the second happiest part of the day for me, right from the start I thought this was the moment I told myself that I had to get to. I knew if I got here, with "just a marathon" left, then by hook or by crook, I'm going home an Ironman. Not exaggerating here, I limped with my bike to the bike rack and hobbled into the tent and sat down to change. I didn't know what to do at this point, do I just walk/limp 26.2 miles? 
I knew competitors only have 17 hours to complete an Ironman or you get a non-finish. I remember glancing at my watch as I hobbled into the tent and as I'd only been racing for roughly 8hours30mins, I worked out that I can probable just about walk to the finish if all else fails. I sat on a chair in transition frantically self massaging both feet, (yes both feet had identical problems) to try and force some life in to them. After three of four minutes of this, I put my trainers on and forced myself out of the tent and on to the road. It was a little better, I was running but not comfortably and not gracefully, but it was quicker and easier than my hobble through transition and at least I was making progress.
Running after a bike leg of an Ironman is interesting. As a runner, I often go out for long runs at a very comfortable pace which doesn't really elevate my heart rate but trains my legs to build up muscular endurance. I can quite comfortably run 18-20 miles at 7:00 mile pace and talk to one of my friends next to me in full sentences the whole time. An Ironman marathon is a different sport altogether, I knew this beforehand because John was trying to tell me to start conservatively and not ruin my race. So the first few miles I had my eyes glued to my watch, I was committed to running the first five miles at no quicker than 8:00 mile pace, yet every time I got distracted I would accidentally speed up and be running 7:00 again and have to force myself to slow down by taking smaller steps. 
One of my biggest takeaways from this race (which my running friends found quite amusing) was the bizarre feeling of running what we would consider a very slow pace yet overtaking triathletes one by one almost continusouly for the first five miles. It's just a very strange feeling for a non-triathete to be running what we consider to be ridiculously slowly, yet this pace was overtaking lots of people. After 6 or 7 miles I arrived at "the loop" which in a nutshell, is one road that you take until you reach an end turnaround point, at which point you go back along the same road and into Bolton Town Centre, (straight by the finish line) where you turnaround again. You do this hilly up and down loop four times until you accumulate 26.2 miles.
I spent almost the whole loop scanning the road side looking for John and my supporters. Before the race I'd already made a conscious decision to get information on John's race position and relay it to him just in case it makes a difference to his finishing position. Seeing familiar faces and sharing a 5 second conversation really breaks up the race and is a welcome distraction.  With almost one loop gone and no sign of John or the supporters I looked at my watch and saw the clock said 9:50, I reached the conclusion that this would probably be around John's finish time and that the supporters were probably cheering him across the finish line. 
A few minutes later I saw the supporters and got told I was looking strong and doing really well. I thought it was a joke, I was basically jogging and I made a joke about finishing the marathon in 1hour40 and qualifying for Kona. Then I heard John had dropped out before I ran out of range to hear the end of the conversation. I was confused for the remainder of the loop but focussed on enjoying the crowds in the Town Centre, I was loving the run, it felt easy, I was overtaking people and I was running much better than I thought I would off the bike. It was about mile 14 that the magnitude of the Ironman caught me up and bit me on the backside. 

From mile 14 until around mile 20 I made a conscious decision to copy a lot of my fellow runners and power walk some of the ridiculous up hills and then run the flats and downhills. By mile 20, I was pretty much broken, and also walking through every aid station to get sugars and water topped up.  was now running 8:30 and 9:00 miles. That's right, the pace that was "too easy and I keep accidentally speeding up" from miles 1-6 had suddenly become too much handle. Lots of people were telling me I was doing really well, I'd lost my smile, I knew I wasn't. I remember walking after the aid station one man in the crowd saying "the aid station is over now, get moving again" and instinctively I did - I always seem to respond better to the stick than the carrot!
It sounds coutner intuitive, but in hindsight I know this dramatic loss of run speed was almost certainly down to bike fitness. I knew a few other athletes in the race this year, none of which can match my running performance over almost any distance, but all of which are far superior cyclists, all of which clocked a quicker Ironman marathon time than me. Simply put, riding 112 miles in 7 hours is more taxing on my body than covering the distance 30/60mins quicker is for another competitor. I saw the support again at mile 22, four miles until the finish and I made a joke that my legs no longer work and that I'll see them at the finish in 40 minutes!
Back into Bolton for the final time, a few people noticed the red band on my arm which means all laps had been completed and shouted at me to finish hard. I overtook maybe seven people with red bands in the final 400 metres, it's funny how I suddenly had energy when my legs didn't work five minutes ago.
The finish line. In my imagination I always hoped for an empty red carpet to power down at the end, high fiving the crowd, doing a little dance, savouring the moment before being photographed crossing the famous finishing line. In life you dont always get what you want. I saw two people just ahead that I was quickly closing on and could (and probably should) have overtaken on the red carpet but I as this was my one and only Ironman, I wanted to ensure I got a good photo crossing the line! I slowed down a little to create a gap to the runners ahead which only pushed my back closer to another man right behind me. My plan didn't really work as four people more or less crossed the line within 5 seconds of each other - what are the chances!

Still across the line, a mini celebration of becoming an Ironman and receive the confirmation of a medal. It wasn't pretty, I certainly wasn't bike fit but I got through it and can proudly call myself an Ironman. It'll probably be my last one, it's not something I can really commit time to again. However, even just a few days later there's a gremlin on my shoulder that is telling me that I could do it again so much faster with the knowledge of my weakenesses and the confidence of familiarity. You can smash the hills. You can swim the distance. If you do an easier course you could take two hours off that time. 

Unfortunately, that is my personality summed up very accurately in a few words. Three years ago an Ironman was a ludicrously difficult challenge for the super fit (idiots) like John Lenehan not weight-lifting footballers like me. Two minutes before stepping in the lake at 6am I wasn't 100% convinced I'd be able to complete the challenge. Two days post-race and I'm sat critiquing the mistakes and telling myself it wasn't good enough and I need to do it again and do it better.  I hear Barcelona is nice (and flat) at this time of year! :)

Post 142 - A blast watching Ironman Wales

And so to Tenby for Ironman Wales. Not to compete, as in the previous three years, but to watch my good friend Matt take on his first Ironman, at possibly the most difficult Iron-distance racing venue in the world. Hills, hills, and more hills. Possible (likely?) wind and rain. 140.6 miles. For a 65kg whippet, the hills would be tough enough. Matt is strong and powerful but he’d be the first to admit that he’s not a 65kg whippet, so he couldn’t have picked a tougher course on which to make his Ironman debut.

I had been looking forward to spectating at Ironman Wales for a long time, and although part of me wished I was doing it again this year, another big part of me was very glad I wasn’t – it’s such a tough day out. A cold, rough jellyfish-infested sea swim isn’t especially appealing, and neither is 112 miles on a bike going up and down the steepest horrors that Pembrokeshire has to offer. The hilly marathon at the end doesn’t appeal either. But, it’s a hell of a day, with absolutely awesome support all around the entire course.

On Friday morning, just before setting off for Wales, I had two job offers on the table. One in Edinburgh and one in Cork. I accepted the job in Edinburgh and I’ll start in Scotland in late October. Bye bye London, finally. It has all come to a natural end, as my housemates are selling up the house and moving to Ireland before Christmas.

Then, job accepted, my brother and I loaded bikes into his car and we set off for Tenby at around midday. Matt had booked a 4-bed dorm in a youth hostel in Manorbier, 10-15 miles beyond Tenby. We thought that at worst we would be there by 6pm. But the traffic was horrific. It seems that horrific traffic is the norm for south England. We travelled less than 100 miles in over 4 hours (I can cycle 100 miles faster than that), and by the time we had reached Cardiff, still with over 2 hours left to travel, it was 9pm and we bailed out. We were knackered and not in great moods and it wouldn’t have been fair to have arrived at the youth hostel at 11pm, as Matt would have wanted to be sleeping. We went to a Travelodge somewhere near Cardiff. I’m so happy that in a few more weeks when I go to Scotland, I won’t have to deal with such ridiculous traffic again.

I had a terrible night in the Travelodge. I couldn't sleep. I just felt a bit awful. My body was still a wreck after Ironman Weymouth, and I hadn’t been eating well either. I think between the Sunday at Weymouth and the Tuesday evening after Weymouth, I ate about 6 burgers. I barely had any sleep, and then I had to fly off to Cork on the Wednesday for a job interview. This meant getting up at 4am, and with all the travel and poor eating and lack of sleep and general absolute knackered-ness, I wasn’t feeling great at all.

But, as if by some sort of miracle, I was feeling massively better the next morning, and we set off for Tenby and Manorbier. It was to be a good weekend weather-wise. A big, big plus. I can’t imagine Ironman Wales would be much fun in lashing rain. We arrived, and while I unloaded the car and squeezed everything into the fairly small 4-bed dorm, my brother fell asleep on a picnic table in the sun. He has the (dubious) honour of being maybe the only person who has spectated at all 3 UK-based Ironman races in 2016...

To be fair, it is a tough and thankless task to be a driver/spectator at Ironman events

Matt and Elisa had already been to registration the previous day. So after we arrived, Matt spent a bit of time getting his swim, bike and run gear together, and then we headed off for Tenby so that he could rack his bike and bags in transition. Tenby was packed. The town was absolutely buzzing. Matt got sorted at transition, we grabbed a bite to eat, we went into the expo tent (the IronTat tent – all amount of expensive Ironman branded merchandise was on sale). But sometimes the best things in life are free – there was a stall in the tent giving out A3-sized bits of cardboard and providing use of marker pens so that little kids could write “Go Daddy” or “Go Mummy” messages of support. I drew a very quick “IronMatt” artwork. And apparently it is now framed and on Matt and Elisa’s wall. Must bill them £200 or so…

Tenby is great

Swim course, with tide out

While we were in Tenby, Neil appeared from Southampton, so the weekend group of 5 was complete – Matt, Elisa, Neil, Brian and myself. We didn’t really dwell too long in Tenby. On the way back to the cars we saw that the traffic wardens had been out in force. Any car with a wheel out of place, or not in a proper parking spot, had a parking ticket. Boo. Back at Manorbier, we went for a run along the coast. Pictures paint a thousand words. It was awesome.

A busy room

Then we had dinner. Matt had cooked in the hostel – salad, pasta, tuna and risotto – to call it “dinner” actually doesn’t do it justice – it was a banquet. Then it was early to bed, for the 4am alarm on race day.

Next morning, we drove to Tenby in the dark, and got a parking space in town. We made sure to pay and display, not giving the traffic warden pirates any opportunity to fleece us. Matt made his final preparations in transition and got into his wetsuit. “Good luck Matt,” and then we left him in the long queue of athletes heading down to the north beach. We all hot-footed it to the clifftop, hoping to secure a good spot to view the swim.

We ended up with a great spot. Conditions were good. The sea was flat. I was a bit jealous, having had very rough conditions for all three of my Wales swims. The Wales swim is absolutely awesome. If you are down on the beach, the cliffs of Tenby, topped by multi-storey hotels and guesthouses, loom up immediately behind the beach, and with thousands of people all lining every possible vantage point, and with the sun rising over the horizon and the high tide rendering the Goskar rock an island and a natural swim entry and exit point, it’s some sight. It’s like swimming in the Colosseum. Someone had scaled the Goskar rock at low tide, and planted an Ironman Wales flag on top, like something you’d see on the moon. As the athletes were walking down to the beach I caught sight of Matt beside the 1:05 board, with a determined look on his face. 

They all lined up on the beach, and just after 7am, the race was on. They all filed into the water in a rolling start. I guessed Matt would be close to the front, so he’d be swimming within a few minutes. But it took about 20 minutes to get everyone in, by which time the pros were just finishing their first lap. The Tenby lifeboat made an appearance, launching from the lifeboat station ramp and arcing across the far side of the bay with engines on full power, creating a dramatic wake behind the swim course triangle. What a sight.

When the lead age-groupers were halfway through their second lap of the two-lap swim, we headed for the run up to transition. It’s about a kilometre to run from the beach, up the steep zig-zag path, and through the town to transition. It’s an awesome run, and absolutely packed with people. First I saw Jamie (who I beat in the sprint finish in the Bristol triathlon earlier in the year) and I gave him a shout. We’ve been in regular contact since Bristol and I gave him as much info as I could about Wales and the course. Later in the day I found out that he won his age group and will be going to Kona in October 2017. Well done…

Matt’s a good swimmer and when he passed us looking pretty good. We realised he must have swam pretty close to sub-60. Good going. Then we hot-footed it to the road that the bike course follows out of Tenby. There was a designated crossing point that we needed to cross to get to the cars. Getting across was a nightmare. The marshal was showing no discretion. She was not letting anyone cross while there were any bikes approaching in the line of sight. The trouble was, the line of sight stretched back well over 100m and I thought we would never get across. After a good few minutes, there was finally a gap and we legged it across the road. Not long after, Matt zoomed past on his bike. One leg of the triathlon down, but at least another 12 hours to go…

We then planned to drive back to Manorbier, pick up our bikes, and head out on the bike course to do some supporting. But the route to Manorbier was part of the bike course and the outbound road was closed to traffic, so we had to go the scenic route and a 10-mile journey became an hour-long, 20-30 mile drive, involving crossing the bike course where again we were held for ages by a marshal until it was safe.

Anyway, we got back to Manorbier, we ate a massive second breakfast, and we got ready to head off on the bikes. I had my own bike, Elisa had hers, Neil had his, and I had borrowed a bike from my housemate for my brother to use. I produced a pair of bib cycling shorts (they look a bit like a Borat mankini) and asked my brother if he’d like to borrow them. Cue a look of horror. He decided he wouldn’t be cycling with us, but he would drive to the same spots that we were planning on going to.

So we set off on the bikes for Carew Castle, about an hour away at a leisurely pace. We had to cross the bike course, where we were held by a marshal until the road was clear. “Where are you off to?” she asked. “We are off to Ca-REW Castle…” “No, no, no, it’s CA-rew!” she reprimanded. “And where are you staying…?” “Ermmm, just down the road in Manor-BIER…” “No, no, no, you are not locals! It’s MANor-bier!” Neil spent the next hour on the bike hooting “Ca-ROOOOO, Ca-ROOOOO!”

I was still very tired and my legs were still sore after Ironman Weymouth, and so I could barely cycle up the hills. We made it to Carew and instead of watching at the corner by the pubs, which was busy with spectators, and where it’s difficult for supporters and competitors to acknowledge one another, I suggested that we cross over the inlet to the hill on the far side. It was a good call as we found a perfect spot some way up the hill. We could watch the competitors approaching the bottom of the hill at speed, and then as the hill’s gradient started to bite, their speed decreased until they reached us at slow speed.

Matt had given us estimates of when he thought he would be at various points on the course. His ETA at Carew was sometime between 11am and 12pm. We had a little bet on what time we thought he’d arrive. Whoever was furthest away would have to buy ice cream. He came past us not long after 11am, looking very comfortable and strong. But he knew well, as did I, that the day was going to get a lot tougher as the hills get worse the further into the bike course you go. Elisa lost the bet. Ice cream on her later in the day…!

Look closely...
Going up a steep Pembrokeshire hill...
In the early stages of the Ironman bike...
On the big ring!
Monstering it...

We planned to go to Saundersfoot next, maybe another easy hour away. The hill up out of Saundersfoot is incredible. Crowds five deep, all screaming and ringing bells and fist pumping. It’s like a mountaintop finale at the Tour de France. The first year I did it, I responded to the crowd and went mad up the hill, the harder I went the more they roared, and I got to the top and saw my heart rate was nearly 180bpm and I told myself what an idiot I was for going so hard. I learned my lesson, and the following year I cruised up, waving and smiling. Matt is smart, I knew he would pace the hills. I was looking forward to seeing Saundersfoot as a spectator.

We arrived into town beyond the top of the famous hill, and quickly realised that the crowds were so dense that we’d have trouble getting to the bottom of the hill. This year they had actually barriered off the main part of the hill up out of town, I guess to ensure that athletes had space to ride. We were hungry by now, but there would be no food bought or consumed in Saundersfoot as it would take too long to fight through the crowds and get to the shops at the bottom of the hill. And anyway, we wanted to be somewhere where the crowds were a bit more sparse, so Matt could actually see and hear us. 

We positioned ourselves just beyond a girl who was holding a big placard saying “Touch for power”, and just beyond a guy who was holding a big placard saying “Don’t be shit!” It was funny watching the reactions. Before reaching these two placards, competitors had to climb the hill, and most athletes who rounded the corner at the top of the hill, about 200m below where we were, had amazed looks on their faces thanks to the noise and the support. Then they saw the placards. Some did indeed smile and touch for power. Some did indeed laugh at the “don’t be shit” placard. Some were just too dazed to notice. Matt appeared soon after, still looking strong and looking comfortable. It’s always good to see your supporters out on the course, and you could tell that he got a good boost from seeing us. 

Then we had to make a move back to Carew to see him for the final time on the bike, and to avail of some pub grub. So we got back on the bikes and headed westwards again. In Carew, we went to the same position as before, up the hill beyond the corner.

By now we had been on the go for a good while, we hadn’t eaten, and we were maybe starting to get a bit lightheaded as a result. So we did some serious supporting. We had a cowbell. It did some serious ringing. “Dilly ding dilly dong!” “EAT that energy gel!” “DRINK that drink!” “RIDE that hill!” “PUSH those pedals!” “ALLEZ ALLEZ!” “Go on Irish boy, you are doing your country proud!” “SPIT that spit!” “FIRE that snot rocket!” Etc etc, all while clapping and cheering. It was a bit of a laugh, for us and for the riders.

It's tough being a spectator 

Matt appeared, and although he still wasn’t looking bad, he was looking less good that previously. Understandably so, he had just swam 2.4 miles and cycled 80 miles. But he was still smiling. We ran beside him for a bit. “How are you feeling Matt?” “Mutter mumble stung by a bee….” “What?!” He looked OK though and I didn’t see evidence of anything to cause concern, so all we could do was to tell him to keep going and we’d see him on the run.

Then we had a bit of spare time – we weren’t in an urgent hurry to get to the next spectating point by a certain time. Matt still had a couple of hours before he would be on the run, and he’d be running for at least four and a half hours. So it was very definitely time for food. Drawn by the smell of barbecue, we went to the pub on the corner. They were serving something called an “Ironman burger.” Yes please. The Ironman burger consisted of two burgers, bacon and pineapple. Yes pineapple. I’ve never had pineapple in a burger before. It was well worth it, but let’s just say it was “juicy” (i.e. it squirted and splurted all over me).


Ironman Wales flags everywhere

Suitably burgered up and re-energised, we went off for a lap of the grounds of Carew Castle. It was situated on a long tidal inlet. Being a tourist for a change was nice, and it was a very scenic part of the world to be a tourist in.

We headed back to Manorbier on the bikes. We knew we’d have to ride back up a hill that had a 17% gradient, and which I had nonchalantly passed off as being easy and nothing like 17%. Ha. That came back and bit me as I struggled up the hill in my lowest gear while Neil (on a bloody fixie!) and Elisa left me eating dust and gasping up the hill. Thankfully my burger didn’t re-appear and we got back to Manorbier. We dropped the bikes off and headed into Tenby.

I was worried about getting parked as the streets were lined with parked cars, many of which had parking tickets. We did a couple of laps of one car park, and then a couple of laps of another car park, resorting to asking random people if they were going to be vacating a space any time soon. We were just about to give up and drive back out the road to Manorbier, to try to park out of town, when I had the following conversation with a random couple:

“Are you leaving that space?” “No sorry…” “How much do I need to pay you to leave that space? Ha ha…” “Sorry, we’re not leaving…” “Oh but I suppose we could leave and get a sandwich…” “No darling we are not leaving…” “Sandwiches are nice…” “We’ve bene trying to find a space for an hour!” “Oh darling, these poor people can’t get parked, we could just go and give them this space…” (My head nods frantically). “Oh OK then…” “Great, thank you so much, have a lovely day!”

So we got parked. A miracle. We headed for the centre of Tenby. It was packed. The atmosphere was amazing. There’s surely nowhere else in the world that goes as crazy for a specific race or a specific day. Athletes were still finishing their bike rides. The pros had almost finished their marathons. Matt would be out on his first of four laps in the marathon. We’d see him shortly in town.
I knew that he would have no problems with the swim. And he swam 58 minutes. That’s not just “no problem”, that’s excellent. I knew he’d get around the bike. Based on his Wimbleball half-ironman bike split (which is also hilly), I thought he would bike around 8 hours. But he smashed the bike, and did 7:19.  

But the run… The Ironman run is so tough. His standalone marathon PB is just under 4 hours. So I didn’t think he’d crack 5 hours in the Ironman marathon. Time would tell. We saw him after one lap, running through town. He looked good and was moving well. But still 3 laps to go. It doesn’t matter that you’ve done 2.4 miles in the water, and 112 miles on the bike, and 6 miles on the run. All that matters is what you’ve still to do, and he still had 3 hard hilly laps to run. Come on Matt.

We then went for ice cream. Elisa had lost the bet. My brother had gone to try to find an Irish bar showing football. So there were 3 of us for ice cream. We all got a bit of a shock when 3 ice creams cost nearly £15. Poor Elisa. And poor Neil who had to subsidise, as Elisa didn’t have enough cash on her. What a rip off. But, my first ice cream of 2016 was very nice. I was eating like a champion. Burgers and ice cream…

Then we went to the junction where the athletes make three passes in the space of around 15 minutes. It's a scenic spot overlooking the bay, and busy with spectators, with shops close by. A good area to watch. And if you want, you can walk for 5 minutes down to a quieter out-and-back section where there are fewer supporters. We decided we’d stay around town for the rest of the marathon and not walk up the hill out of town. It’s a long, long, mentally torturous drag up out of Tenby to the turning point at the top of the hill, maybe 3 miles from town. Up there, you pick up a coloured armband for each lap you’ve done. Up there, there are port-a-loos. Up there, there are aid stations. Up there, there is unseen pain. Up there, anything can happen.

By now Matt had done two laps of the marathon. To be honest, I was surprised by how good he looked at this point. He was moving very well. In terms of the overall race time and distance, he was nearly done. But the toughest 13 miles were still ahead. The “death zone”. This is where things get ugly. Vomiting, shitting, pissing, walking, limping, collapsing, fighting your demons, going into a dark, dark place, tunnel vision, wanting to quit, anger, irrational abnormal thinking, little voices in your head, and even DNF-ing/quitting/abandoning. Any or all of these things could happen. Come on Matt. 13 more miles.

Still looking OK

While he was no doubt gritting his teeth and fighting up that damned hill for the third time, an ambulance was trying to get through the narrow, barriered part of the course. It just wasn’t wide enough and athletes were having to stop. Neil and I jumped the barriers to try to move them and widen the gap, while also trying to warn and direct athletes around the ambulance. It was a bit of a drama because at all costs you don’t want to disrupt athletes but at the same time, if an ambulance has to pass through… The ambulance was intending to go up the road that led to transition, but this had by now been barriered down the middle so athletes could run in both ways. The race would have been badly affected if the ambulance had gone up here. In the end a race official made a decision to send the ambulance along the clifftop road which was a bit wider, so a number of spectators-turned-helpers moved the barriers and shouted at athletes to warn them.

We were again getting hungry by this time, so my brother (who had re-joined us) volunteered to go to the shop. “Buy me something healthy” I told him. He came back with a bag of Haribo sweets. Yeah, great, perfect, thanks. Matt passed us having completed 3 laps. He had 10km to go. Maybe another hour. The daylight was just starting to fade. He was finally starting to look like he was finding it tough. That look in the face. I’ve seen it in photos of myself in the Ironman “death zone”. The completely knackered look, which betrays pain of every kind, not just sore legs, but sore insides, and a horrible fatigue that only long-course endurance athletes will know. It’s the look that says “I just want to be done with this, and I could be done with this right now, I could just stop, but I am damned if I am stopping, the only way through this is to keep going and get to the finish line come hell or high water…”

No ability to smile at this stage

But in spite of this look, Matt was still moving amazingly well. Visually, his pace had not dropped. Bloody hell, if he maintained his pace he could break 13:30. I would never ever have thought he would even get anywhere close to breaking 14 hours. I’d have said that 14:30 would have been an amazing time for him. And 14:30 would genuinely have been an amazing time. And here he was with 10km left to run, absolutely smashing it. Impressive to watch. His blog is on and he confessed to feeling a bit emotional on the run. I can empathise with that, but I didn’t think I’d feel so emotional as a spectator…

I remember running alongside him for a few steps as he headed out of town for his final lap, telling him “Dig so deep…” I knew he would, but like I said, anything can happen in the latter stages of an Ironman marathon, and sometimes you don’t have a lot of control over what might happen… I hoped he would finish strong. He disappeared out of town. We headed for the finish area. It was packed. What an atmosphere. I thought this was my last year doing Ironman triathlons. But… Tenby… Ironman Wales… Hmmm… Shut up voices…

It was difficult to get a good space at the finish area as it was so busy, and we ended up splitting up. Neil and Elisa were situated just before the finish, while Brian and I went down to the grandstand to see if there would be any chance of getting a spot. He ended up climbing a pillar and getting in. I couldn’t have climbed a pillar in my state. So I headed on down to just past the finish, and because I am tall, I had a great view. But unfortunately (and I am not making this up) my phone had 1% battery left and I was literally praying it wouldn’t die before I could photograph Matt at the finish. So I didn’t dare try to text or call the others. I put it on aeroplane mode and hoped for the best.

I watched people cross the finish line and become an Ironman (or an IronLady, it always seems weird to me that females are also referred to as “Ironman”), I watched them re-unite with their supporters/families, I watched them get their medals, it was brilliant. And then Matt appeared. “Matt O’Donnell you are an Ironman” yelled the announcer over the music, crowds cheering, Matt had absolutely nailed his day and finished in 13:26, he had held it together for the last lap. What an effort. My phone played ball and I got a few photos before it died. Then the others appeared to congratulate him. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Matt had spent most of the last lap trying not to puke… 

Just a pity that an iPhone 4s camera isn't good enough to take very good photos
in poor light, but at least my 1% remaining battery allowed me to take them at all

I was genuinely very impressed with the whole performance, and with the fact that his run splits did not fall away in the slightest. He had run 4:46, he had paced it really well, he had passed a pile of people on the run (the sign of a well-executed race) and he had gritted it out and hung tough. Matt headed for the athlete-only area to get some food, drink, a finisher’s t-shirt and a massage while we waited around. Neil had to head off back to Southampton as he was working the next day… crazy.

There had been a lot of talk about the famous “pizza place” in Tenby – when I was competing in Tenby, my supporters had been to the “pizza place” on the corner – apparently it’s the best pizza place in the world, and I was really keen to go there and try it. Matt was also really keen.

It was getting late. But the pizza place was still open. And… they were no longer serving. I pleaded and begged. But no. There would be no amazing pizza or calzone. We went next door to an inferior pizza place and had inferior pizza instead. Boo. By the time we were done, there were still people running/jogging/shuffling/walking/moving towards the finish line, and any remaining athletes on the course would have been on the go for over 16 hours. Respect.

We decided that rather than come back in the morning to pick up Matt’s bike and bags from transition, we would try to get four people and one bike into the car and bring everything back to Manorbier that evening. It was a very tight squeeze but we managed it and made it back to Manorbier. I wasted no time in going to sleep, and slept great.

The next morning I was looking forward to a big dirty fry-up in Tenby, but my brother was keen to get away early, which I suppose (grudgingly) was a good call, as it had taken us 11 hours over 2 days to drive from London to Tenby. I was sorry to leave Manorbier and Tenby and Pembrokeshire, I’d have loved to have stayed a good few more days and explored. Maybe a future holiday destination? Kayaking, swimming, cycling, running, eating, drinking, beach-ing, pizza place-ing etc. Ironman-ing…?

But that’s not a note to finish on. This weekend was Matt’s weekend. If you are spectating at an Ironman, you exist for the weekend for that person and to help them as much as possible and go to bed at 8pm because it’s what they need, and get up at 4am because it’s what they need, and you get out onto as many parts of the course as you can to see and support. Your enjoyment of the weekend is secondary. Although fortunately I enjoy all this! So the note here to finish on is well done IronMatt…