Everyone knows that when it comes to Ironman, it’s the night before the night before the race that is the important one to bank sleep. It’s probably the one bit of solid advice I have to offer when it comes to Ironman planning. Yet here I sit, bolt upright and wide-awake in my hotel bed in Tenby at 3:30am on the 12th of September 2015, rain lashing the window. I’ve got a lump in my throat and my eyes are welling up. I turn on the light and reach for a marker pen. So much for sleep.
September 2014, almost a year before to the day. I make a decision that is pretty much the equivalent of sticking my face in a moving ceiling fan to see if it will hurt. I sign up for Ironman Wales. Not just an Ironman; arguably the toughest Ironman on the planet. My logic? When I’d gone full distance before, on an easier course, I’d never doubted I’d get it done. It left me feeling a little flat and like a bit of fraud if I’m being brutally honest. Due to the demands on my family of the training that goes into this lunacy, I’d decided that this would be my last Ironman and I wanted a race with a very real chance of failure. And when I told my Black Line London mates what I’d done, I knew I’d nailed it. “Tough”, “Hills”, “Brutal”, “Oooft!” pretty much summed up the feedback from an array of people who have been to Kona, podiumed in Wales, crush National TTs, lead off the bike at Norseman and generally ride coffee runs at triple the top speed I can manage down a steep hill with a tailwind. Kona Legend Deenzy didn’t even use words, he just looked at me with that face builders use just before they tell you your extension is coming in at 3 times what you’ve budgeted for.
As always, the terror that stalked me in the night for close on 12 months – and is now here in my Tenby hotel room – comes in two-wheeled form. The bike leg in Wales will eat the soul of even the best cyclist and despite spending what felt like every waking moment for months riding up and down every hill Surrey has to offer, I knew my race could very well end at the 10hr30 swim+bike cut-off for those as bicycly-challenged as myself. I am in no doubt that it’s going to be the longest, hardest bike ride of my life and, to that end, I’m trying some different mental tricks to help me along the way. On my tri-bars I’ve written ‘Tiny Giant’ and the words to ‘Spirit’ by The Waterboys are on my gel bottle. With serious rain predicted for the bike, I’ve waterproofed the bento box on my top tube with packing tape (Soggy droewors sections and waterlogged salami cheese wraps anyone?) and spent much of Friday thinking of something motivational to write on it. The answer is what has woken me up. It’s a day out from the start and already I’m struggling to keep a lid on my emotions. ‘RIDE HOME’ I write in thick black strokes that won’t wash off, ‘TO YOUR GALS.’
Tenby (In Welsh, Dinbych-y-pysgod – Little Town of the Fishes) has become Little Town of the Iron Lunatics for one weekend every September since 2011. This town (and the whole of Pembrokeshire county) goes utterly bat-shit crazy for this race. I’m staying at The Hildebrand, a great little hotel 20 crawlable metres from the finish line. Landlady Liz fusses over us like a Mother Hen while we eat breakfast and then three of us head off for swim practice at North Beach, a beautiful cliff-lined amphitheatre a short walk in our wetsuits across the old town. Ironman flags and signs are everywhere. The day before had seen high winds and swell big enough to start whisperings of the swim being cancelled, but today sees perfect conditions. A little taste of the variable weather that can add another fun layer to the Ironman Wales experience.
After an amazingly comfortable short run in the week and a strong ride up the last serious climb the day before (cross winds that needed leaning into!) a good swim practice is the last box I need to tick. I love to swim, but the cold can make me seize up sometimes at the start of a race. I let my hotel-mates Caroline and Shayne hit the water first and then follow. Straight in and I’m rewarded with a tiny ice cream headache to begin with but otherwise the most gorgeous sea swim I think I’ve ever had. We stop at the far buoy and are all absolutely buzzing despite a close shave with a fairly large jellyfish. The coloured houses of Tenby across the bay are a backdrop like you can’t believe. We work out some sighting points for the race and then a couple of jokes from me about Great Whites later (I find out after the race Shayne has a serious shark phobia – if you’re reading this mate, sorry again!) we swim across the bay and then turn for home. Just for fun, I try and stick with Caroline but she glides away effortlessly. A proper swimmer. Still, I feel really, really good. Shayne, no doubt motivated by my shark chat, comes in just behind me. Last box ticked.
The Thunder of Guns
Race morning. Just before 5. Up. Shower. Breakfast of porridge, butter, banana, chia, flaked almonds, lashings of Pembrokeshire honey and two cups of jet fuel coffee.
“Are you feeling love?” asks Landlady Liz.
“I am feeling love Liz.”
“You’ve got to feel love my Lovely.”
Short walk to transition. No rain, but it is cold and windy as hell. Pump the tires. Check the tires. Stick the gels and nutrition on my bike. Check the tires. Pump the tires a bit more. Kiss the message about my gals for luck. Check my tires again. I talk to my bike.
“Come on old girl, let’s do this one more time.”
Back to the hotel. Body Glide applied. Wetsuit on. I call home and leave a message on the phone. Tap out a last Tweet before I go.
You and me, Wales. Right here. Right now.
‘That’s going to make you look like an utter dick if this goes wrong,’ I think to myself.
Then it’s down the stairs to meet Caroline and Shayne. Nobody has nerves, just butterflies. Ready to go, we we step out of the door.
When I said Tenby goes bat-shit crazy for this race, I was talking about how it turns it up to 11 in the days leading up to the race. On race day morning this town goes all the way up to 100. In fact, make that 1000. It’s only 6:15 and everyone – and I mean Every. One. – in the town is up. The streets are as rammed with people as a London-bound commuter train in rush hour. From the far side of town you can hear the loudspeakers calling the people of Tenby to arms. Bacon is being cooked, tea being poured, flags waved. And through it all, we neoprene-clad few go forth. People are slapping us on the back, wishing us luck, giving us high fives. First sight of the beach and there is a lot more chop and swell than the day before, especially out at the far first buoy. Not that it matters, because that 10-minute walk has made us giants.
By all accounts, the Tenby swim has a genuine claim to be the most spectacular in all of Ironman racing. North Bay is natural stadium with thousands of spectators watching from the cliff-top high above the beach. If you’re racing, you walk down the zig-zag path to the beach, hanging your purple shoe bag on your numbered hook as you go. On the way down I bump into Gordon, a guy I know from South Africa. We chat briefly before I take a few minutes to get in the sea. I swim a few strokes underwater, it’s lovely and peaceful under there. I come up and realise the person next to me is the always-beaming Caroline. We both seem as happy as we were at the practice swim. No nerves whatsoever now.
Swim prep had been just a little thrown off by my regular pool closing for a refurb for the entire month before the race. As a result, I’d done just two lake swims in that time. One 3.6km and one 4.8km, just to keep the diesel ticking over. Having gone 1:09 for an IM swim in flat water before, I put myself into the rolling start with an estimated finish of 1:15. I’m thinking go conservative, rather swim past people than have them swim over you. But then my thoughts are interrupted as Tenby decides it is time for this Ironman shit to get properly real.
For a split-second there’s a tinny sound over the loudspeakers, almost carried away on the wind. This is the signal for the Welsh to do that thing they do. In a heartbeat thousands of voices swell as one from the cliff top and boom Land of My Fathers across the bay into the rising sun. Back in your box La Marseillaise and Flower of Scotland; the competition for Best National Anthem Ever just closed for good.
The singing ends. There’s almost a stunned silence for a second and then; We Roar. There is man hugging of strangers in tight rubber. I’m laughing. I’ve got this image of Gerard Butler in full 300 mode in my head, shouting “This! Is! Tenbyyyyy!” There is a tough-looking (they all are) Welsh guy next to me. He gives me an encouraging smash on the back.
“Wait for it…” he says. “Wait. For. It…….”
We’ve shuffled along a bit and are right next to a huge speaker as this race – which hasn’t even bloody started yet! – punches it up another level. Cue AC/DC’s Thunderstruck…
I was caught. In the middle of a railroad track…
Me and the backsmasher are pogoing up and down.
And I knew there was no turning back…
Now we start moving forward. Somewhere in the chaos I hear a hooter. Paul Kaye’s voice. This is it. We are racing.
Sound of the drums. Beating in my heart.
Right turn down the chute towards the water. We’re running now. I’m yelling my head off.
The thunder of guns….
I hit the water in a headlong dive, come up and start swimming. Full gas. Best swim start ever.
Tenby is a triangular course. A long leg away from the beach with the swell and tide pushing you left towards the rocks before the first buoy. Then you turn straight into the swell and tide and swim across the bay towards the lifeboat house that featured on Grand Designs. Right turn around a buoy near the harbour and gun for Goscar Rock. Hit the beach, run 200 metres. And then dive back in and do it all again. 3.8km in total. First lap is uneventful other than I overcompensate on the first leg and get too far over right. Turn buoys are packed but then when aren’t they? I’m riding the swell nicely, letting my body fold over the peaks while a lot of people around me are way too tense and land up air-swimming and slamming down into the troughs.
I reach the end of the first lap and surprisingly am up and running nicely in seconds. Usually there is some dizziness to contend with. Back into the water and I take a better line to the first buoy. The swell feels bigger and a bit choppier but I’m loving it. Almost at the first buoy and the swell IS bigger and choppier. I slide down into a trough and straight into some bloke’s feet with my face. For a second I think I’ve lost my right goggle lens because my eye is full of water. Quick check without breaking stroke allays my fear, but I’ll still need to swim with my eye pickling in brine. Hit the turn buoy on a perfect tight line and turn into the tide. Suddenly it is time to put on Big Boy Pants. This bit of sea has gotten angry since I saw it last.
For about 5 minutes I feel like I’m working hard to just stay in the same place. The sea wants me to go in reverse. I just plug away, hardly sighting because I don’t want to break what little momentum I’m getting. Further across towards the harbour and it gets a little better. Right turn. Chuck whatever’s left at it. Hit the beach running. There are a lot of purple bags still on their hooks. Job done.
SWIM: 1:15:27 Bang on my estimate. When I tell people I am a one-pace swimmer I mean I am a ONE-PACE swimmer. There is around 20 seconds difference between my first and second laps. I swim as fast as I can for someone who was last coached when they were 5-yrs old so should probably get my act together and get someone to fix my technique. I came out of the water in the top 20% overall for the race. Caroline was 6th overall woman out of the water, which explains why I couldn’t keep up with her! Shayne, the dark-horse, beat me by a minute – my shark jokes obviously made a lasting impression.
Where Downhills are Uphill
I know at least one person tracking me wondered if I had collapsed in T1 because I took so long (19 minutes) but here’s the thing. This race will try and stomp you every chance it gets. In other triathlons you get out the water, pad over to your bag and get changed for the bike. In Tenby you have to run up a cliff and then all the way through town (over 1km) just to earn the privilege of changing into some clothes for 180km of hard, hard, hard riding. Quick strip-off of wetsuit, old trainers on and I surprise myself by flying up the hill. If you’ve never run half-naked through the streets of a Welsh seaside town on a chilly morning with thousands of people cheering you on, I highly recommend the experience.
After putting on all the clothes (More time. My wife will tell you I am King of Faffing when it comes to dressing for a ride!) to deal with any weather, from rain to sun (we get them all) it is time to ride. The Wales bike is three loops. I’d not had a chance to recce the course but BLL fast-biker and tri-geek Pablo had kindly provided the next best thing – a hill-by-hill written guide to the course and instruction on pacing. The first loop would be a relatively gentle affair out West to Angle and back where the wind can be a bit of a factor. Second is a bigger Eastern loop where things get gradually nastier up to Narberth and back down to the coast. And then third, a repeat of that second loop that will pretty much make you regret the day you were born.
First loop advice had also come from Nico (podium and Kona Q at Wales 2014). ‘If your legs feel any effort at all you are riding too hard.’ To my surprise, I’m actually whizzing along and not feeling anything. The countryside is absolutely stunning as I spin up hills in a really easy gear and generally go quite quickly. Bit of excitement about 25km in as a bloke blows a tire in front of me and goes down hard (we were going about 35km/h and I find out later he got up, fixed the blown tire with duct tape and finished the race). On the climb out from Pembroke I spot South African colours on a jersey in front of me. It’s my mate Gordon from the swim start. We settle into a pretty easy rhythm, with Gordon – who has ridden the course before – giving me warning of potential hazards like cattle grids and the sand-blown descent into the dunes of Freshwater West. Up out of Freshwater, the second notable climb on the first loop, and the speed return on perceived effort is still good. I’m actually enjoying this!
The descent into Angle comes quicker than I thought it would and I find I’m itching to really chuck it down the hills. It’s unexpectedly dry, the roads are closed and all those semi-dark mornings descending bomb-holed Surrey roads with 4x4s braying as they went the other way appear to have grown me some balls for descending. Gordon stops at the feed station. I want to ride this whole thing without stopping so keep on, eating a wrap as I go, and climb back out of Angle.
Top of the climb out of Angle and it becomes apparent why there are wind-turbines in this neck of the woods. 20mph-plus wind in my face would usually be the signal for me to start getting seriously unhappy. ‘Not a problem’ I reason, and get down on the TT bars and keep spinning into the wind back to Pembroke. I eat when my Garmin beeps, drink regularly even though it is still pretty fresh temperature-wise and I think about my Gals. Lauren in the sunny garden at home, Naomi with her long shiny brown hair, Issy swimming underwater with a big grin on her face. Time and distance pass. It occurs to me that maybe the secret to cycling is to not think about cycling while you’re doing it.
Gordon catches me before Pembroke. The town is heaving with people supporting the race. By now the sun has made an unexpected appearance, the gilet has been pulled off, the arm warmers rolled down, the tan lines being worked on. We roll on. Carew Castle is gorgeous and the start of some climbing up to Cresselly. It’s unrelenting rather than sharp. There are no flat bits. I hammer anything remotely downhill leaving Gordon behind only for him to catch me again on the hills. The two lead Pros come past us like we are standing still and I give Jesse Thomas a yell of encouragement. Still plenty of energy to spend on being a fan. We reach the first of the two notable climbs before Narberth. Gordon tells me the first is a little like Box Hill in grade and length, only dead-straight. The Box has been my before-work run for a few months and I find this easier and shorter – to the extent that I’m high-fiving the many, many kids at roadside, out supporting with their parents. This really isn’t so bad!
In his darkened lair, the Welsh Hill God wakes angrily from his slumber.
Another fast descent into Narberth. The hard right at the bottom turns into a sharp climb and I have my first bit of misfortune. My chain drops off as I change into the small ring and I roll to the side of the road. Cue a surreal moment as I quickly slip the chain back on, look up and see a woman sitting in her front garden overlooking the road wearing what looks like a very big gold necklace.
“Are you the Mayor of Narberth?” I ask.
“Yes I am,” she replies.
“Thanks for lending us your town for the day, “ I say. “It’s very nice.”
“You’re very welcome,” she smiles.
Just then Gordon flies past up the hill. I let him know I’m okay and get back on the bike. 20 metres later, it’s Gordon who has to stop with rear cassette issues. I offer help but am waved on. He’ll catch me later.
Many high fives of kids later (more than one in those little Iron Man suits with the foam muscles) I’m through Narberth for the first time and push on to Princes Gate, the highest point in the course. From here it’s a downhill run back to Tenby with two sharp climbs, Wiseman’s Bridge and Saundersfoot, towards the end. Only I notice that a lot of this downhill run is suspiciously uphill. But that’s okay, because I’m pacing this like a Boss, right?
The descent to Wiseman’s Bridge is narrow and twisty and an absolute blast. I straight-line it as much as possible, on the tri-bars, no brakes. There is actual whooping. On to the climb and it’s not so bad. Quite similar to Whitedown in the Surrey Hills, only not as steep or as long. Another memorable moment as a dude climbs past me, up out of the saddle, dancing on the pedals. Quick glimpse of his number and I see the name ‘Shane’. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to being an international rugby player; experiencing the ‘little’ (not!) Welsh Wizard Shane Williams leaving me for dead as he flies off into the distance.
Over the top of Wiseman’s into another short sharp downhill blast and then up into Saundersfoot. A swoop down into the town and I hit Ironman Wales’ most celebrated climb. Call it Saundersfoot/St Brides/ Heartbreak Hill – what it is mind-blowing. The first ramp up out of town is again not as steep as you expect, nor that long, but it is rammed with people who crowd the road and part just inches in front of your wheel. There are drums, there are hairy men in tutus and fairy wings who run alongside, there are people right up in your face telling you to dig! Dig! DIIIIIIGGGG!!! As a result there is also no chance of sticking to Pablo Orders of ‘don’t overdo Saundersfoot or you will pay for it later.’ You just can’t help yourself. I fly up that thing like a Fat Pantani.
The Welsh Hill God has me in view and adjusts his sights.
I swoop down into Tenby catching a glimpse of Jesse Thomas absolutely flying up the hill in his signature sunglasses, reeling in the lead guy on the run (The Aviator wins the race, his first Ironman, in an eye-watering 8:57:33). Then I’m off on the third loop. I am 42 miles/ 67 kilometres from the end of the bike. That’s just over 6 times around Richmond Park. Not too far.
The first bit feels okay. Still not pushing anything. Every hill, no matter how small, gets the granny gear. Feeling my legs a bit now. The roads are quieter with a lot of people having ridden away from me as they paid me back for beating them out of the swim. I get to Lamphey and take the right turn, pick up a bottle of water at the feed station and start to climb.
The Welsh Hill God locks on target, puts his thumb on the ‘Fire’ button and does his best Darth Vader voice, ‘…I have you now…”
Everything seems to go wrong at once. Back hurts. Feet start to feel like they are on fire. Legs go to jelly. Gels taste revolting. Don’t fancy a wrap much. So very, very, very thirsty. I read the words to Spirit written on my bottle, there for this very moment.
Man gets tired/ Spirit don’t/Man surrenders/ Spirit won’t/ Man crawls/ Spirit flies/
Spirit lives/ When man dies.
Great words. But they do not flatten hills, turn off wind or iron out a creased back. Past Carew. There is no more chat amongst the riders. We ride in silence, like the undead. Climb to Cresselly. Gordon finally rolls back up to me.
“Everything f*!king hurts,” I moan.
First Narberth climb. Second Narberth climb. The Mayor has forsaken us. Princes Gate, and Gordon is riding away from me now. Even the downhills feel uphill. I’ve got nothing left. I play back Jen Hill’s (4th Fastest bike split at Wales 2013) advice, ‘Just keep on keeping on.’ I look longingly at the grassy green verges. Mel Wasley’s (second at the National TT on a borrowed bike) voice in my head, “It’s 10% physical, 90%mental Al.’ A little lie-down seems like a genuine option. Just for a minute or two. I get my wish –there is real fear that I will not be able to finish this.
Ride Home. To Your Gals.
I inch closer to Wiseman’s. I’m yo-yoing with another rider and they edge ahead as we hit the descent to the bridge. I was touching 70km/h down here on the previous lap. This is where I want to fly, but they’re on the brakes and tip-toeing down the hill. I can’t get past. I have to go slow. I was relying on it to give me a mental lift before the climb and now they’ve ruined it! I don’t think I’ve ever hated someone more in my life.
Onto the bridge and the climb looms. I’ve spent all my mental ammunition except one thing. I look at the words on my TT bars. I’ve been wondering when she’s going to appear and now she’s here. The Tiny Giant. Like she’s on some kind of telepathic Skype.
“What are you doin’ Alan?” comes that unmistakable little voice.
“Riding my bike Maudie” I groan (quite possibly out loud).
“I can ride a bike too!”
“And I did a swim before.”
“I can swim too!” she says.
“And later I’m going to run!”
“Like we ran at the marathon!?” she laughs.
The Tiny Giant is my niece, Maude. She is six years old. She has Cerebral Palsy that means she has to use crutches to get around. But that has not stopped her from riding a bike or qualifying and racing for her town swim team (I’m writing this just a few hours after seeing a video of her rock climbing a 5 metre indoor wall!). She is unstoppable.
When I ran the London Marathon earlier in the year, she popped into my head about 4km from the end and I ran the two fastest kilometres of my whole race. Blew up horrendously afterwards of course, but she made me fly. I really believe she is destined to do great things, and she’s done one now, on a hill in Wales. Because while that chat happened in my head, the climb has all but vanished under my wheels. I’ve ridden almost all the way to the top, past people who have sacked it off and are pushing their bikes up the hill. Now I know that the secret to cycling is to not think about cycling while you do it.
Onwards, and I’ve got this now. Saundersfoot is all stare-at-the-stem ugly guts and no glory the second time around. Punch the air at the New Hedges roundabout and head down the hill to Tenby. Up a last hill through town and into transition. I get off and kiss the ground. Seriously. There may even have been tongue.
BIKE: 8:01:49 Officially the longest I have ever been on a bike (bar 20 seconds for the chat with the Mayor of Narberth). I lost over 800 places in the overall ranking out there. There is nothing individually frightening about the course, but collectively it is an utter horror-show that can finish you almost at will. Andrew, a fellow hotel guest, flatted at the foot of Saundersfoot, rode back to Tenby on the rim and missed the cut-off by 73 seconds. There is no mercy to be had. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like getting in the ring with a young Mike Tyson and he promises to just hit you with body shots rather than sparking you straight out with a shot to the head. Last words on this can only belong to one person. “I was going to do a bike recce of Wales with a run after. I finished a loop of the bike and thought ‘Bollocks to this’ and went for a pint instead…’ Deenzy, you are #Knowledge.
The run at Tenby is 42.6km of pretty much 5k uphill and 5k downhill repeated four times. Flat is not a concept that has made its way to this part of Wales. There is a section through the old town that is – surprise! – a series of sharp ups and downs filled with crazy crowds and the mouthwatering smell of vinegar on fish ‘n chips. The smart money says stay calm and take it very, very easy on the big uphill out of town to give yourself time to settle after that bike.
I stress the words ‘smart’ and ‘calm’ in that last sentence. I get into the transition tent and I am neither. I am literally babbling with excitement at the prospect of getting onto the run. Surprisingly Gordon is still in there, shoe-horning himself into an eye-watering pair of South African flag running tights. We plan to head out together, but I’m ready to go. I wait. I wait. I’m bouncing up and down.
“Gordo, I gotta go!”
Like a junkie finding a pipe, I’ve cracked. I’m about to do the one thing I told myself not to.
Out onto the run and I take off. Down the road. Along the old town wall. Right turn. Crowds cheering. Feeling amazing. Bottom of the big hill. Still feeling good. This isn’t actually that steep. Look at Garmin. Slow down maybe? But I feel so good! Feed station. Take some water. Run on. Slowing. Hmmm, actually feel a bit funny. Little walk. Okay, feel quite sick now.
I have no real idea what running an Ironman marathon physically does to your system, but this is the second time I’ve done this to myself. The first time I did this distance I landed up walking because I took off too fast and felt ill. It was the thing that left me feeling flat about the race. And now I’ve gone and done it again. I’d left transition with about 9:45 on the race clock and thought 5 hours of marathon would get me in with a time starting with 14. Not a bloody chance now. I’d be lucky if I didn’t land up puking into a hedge like the guy in the Pirate top I just trudged past. I know myself. I’ve got an over-developed sense of self-preservation. I don’t have the will and desire to push through this. I’m going to play it safe trudge up and down this bloody hill for hours and then collect a medal that I don’t feel I really deserve. My last Ironman and I’ve blown it. “Don’t Be Shit’ is the unofficial Black Line motto. It doesn’t mean be fast, it means give it your best shot, have fun doing it and be nice. But I don’t have a clue how to do any of that from here. I’m going to be shit. It’s all gone very bleak, very fast.
I walk. Trying half-heartedly to run every now and then and failing. I eventually get to the far end of the course and collect my first lap band. On the way down I get chatting to a guy I recognise from Facebook, David Swan. He’s a local legend/ fire chief and one of the ‘5 Crowns’ – guys who have done all 5 editions of the race. He’s put his back out but is in good spirits. He lifts mine a little with some good stories. Fellow Black Line Londoner Matt, who was hoping to nail a Kona slot comes past and tells me he’s out of the running. Lots of people’s days are not going according to plan and mine is no exception as I continue to feel really rough. In town and I’m hanging for a feed station – I’ve got four gels in my pockets, but the thought of them makes me want to retch. David kindly gives me half a cereal bar and tells me his family should be at the fire station up the road and may have a plate of chips left over. It keeps me going to the next feed station where I go for a cup of water, a cup of Coke and a handful of pretzels. I try some running, thinking I’ll stop at the Fire Station and wait for David. I get there and it looks closed. I’m still managing a very slow jog so keep going. ‘Nick a man’s cereal bar, then run off down the road’ is as close as I get to a run strategy for the first hour and a half.
Lots of walking up the hill. Some more half-hearted running. More clouds of disappointment – although the water/coke/ pretzel combo seems to have dissipated them a little. I collect my second band and trudge up the little rise after the turnaround. I’ve done around 14km of the 42. I know from bitter experience that I’ve got hours of this ahead of me. I’m not talking to anyone, but for some reason I speak out loud.
“That’s it,” I say. “I’ve run up my last hill in an Ironman. Ever.”
Behind me someone laughs. I turn and see a guy who is wearing the same Princes Gate top as Shane Williams. In fact he looks as if he could be his (not much) older brother. What I don’t know is that this is the bloke who is going to save my race.
“I’m not running any up the hills either,” he says. “I’ve even worked out all the places I start walking.”
I’ll take all the help I can get at this point, so I fall into step next to him. We do one of those complex rituals that males do to see if we’ll get along.
“Looking forward to the rugby?”
With that out of the way we get to the top of the rise, and walk becomes jog. I tell him I’ve been feeling pretty crap. He tells me he’s had a cortisone injection because he’s got three stress fractures in his shin.
“What are you even doing out here?” I ask.
And then he puts my little sulky meltdown in perspective. He tells me he lost his big brother a week before the race, had his funeral on Thursday just past. Going to get to that Finish Line no matter what, wearing a shirt with a special message on it. I say very little in reply. I’m too busy taking a long hard look at myself and my pathetic little pity party. Meanwhile, our jog has turned into a run. Easy as you like, matching each other step for step. Not thinking about it. All the way down to town.
The change is a simple one. We’ve got a plan and we’re sticking to it. We call it as we run. To the light in the road. To the round sign. To the hotel flags.. Rhythm. The town section is fun this time. My name is on my number so I do the Meerkat joke with the people outside the pubs. Alan? Alan? Alan!? Alaaaan!? I see Caroline’s husband Mat. I tell him I’m smashed but loving it. And I realise I am! I get around to actually asking my mate his name. Rob. We head back out of town. Up the hill. We walk it. With purpose. No trudging. Guys come past us, running, working hard but not going that much faster than we are. Reach the top. Get the red band. Turn. Run.
We both notice something. The people who were slowly running past us up the hill are coming back to us now. They’re still suffering on this down hill and we aren’t. We’re dropping them. It brings to mind chats with BLL Mountain Goats Carel and Alechia about how it’s not about running fast the whole time, it’s about getting to the finish as efficiently as possible. We hit a flat section and someone who is walking actually shouts “You boys are flying!” Splits are around 6min/km. Not that fast by many standards, but for two ex-fat blokes at 28km into the marathon of the toughest Ironman around, it feels utterly fucking glorious.
Down into town. We approach the special needs stop (Rob’s wife had asked him if he needed his crutches – crutches! – the last time). Rob’s son and daughter flit around us asking their Dad what he needs before running ahead to sort it. His son is rapid! At the stop, he takes a few seconds to change and then catches up to me. Red and white shirt. ‘Love You Big Bruv’ on the front. I get some dust in my eye when I see him come around the corner wearing it.
But this race is not done with me yet. For some reason I decide to forego my cup of Coke at the next feed station. My body is obviously on a tightrope, because the nausea kicks back in by the bottom of the hill. We run some flat bits but I’m struggling to keep pace.
“You’re running faster than me mate,” I say. “Crack on if you want to.”
“No,” comes the reply. “We’re finishing this together.”
There’s my motivation to not be shit. Funny that in a sport that on the surface is totally individual and selfish, it’s having someone with me that is getting me through. I hang on. Chat dries up a bit. I’m dreading the turnaround when we’ll need to start running properly again. But when the blessed Green band comes and we turn for home, I fall into step again. The sickness goes. We’re not going quite as fast as the last lap, but we’re still passing people.
Halfway down and I’ve just spotted Gordon, my bike-mate. He’s looking strong as only a man who has run the London Marathon in that Rhino suit can. And then Wales gives us one last present. It absolutely sheets down. We’ve had it all now; cold, clouds, sun, heat, wind and rain. The lights of Tenby glow below us and I think of a song that has always come to me during races. ‘A Sort of Homecoming’ by U2 (when they were still great).
Through the rain and fallen snow/ Across the fields of mourning/Lights in the distance/ Oh don’t sorrow, no don’t weep/ For tonight, at last/ I am coming home/
I am coming home
My gals are in my head. There is just the sound of our feet on the road and the rain pouring through the trees as we run down towards the lights. A perfect, perfect moment.
We reach a flat section that we’ve run the times before, but this time Rob asks if I want to walk it. There’s a problem, but he’s not saying it outright. We walk to the next downhill section and go again. He’s behind me now. It’s my turn to have the running in my legs. We walk at one of our markers – a bus stop sign – and he says it.
“My leg’s gone again. I can feel it’s really gone.”
“We’ll walk then,” I say. I make some joke about not being sure I have the strength to carry him to the line (he is standard Welsh loose forward size), but I’ll give it a bloody good go if I have to. I realise I’m not actually joking.
Just then, out of the darkness, three figures walk up the road towards us. More big Welsh blokes (the race is packed with local men and woman – it has the highest local participation of any Ironman, which adds to the awesome support). They look shattered after finishing the race but then they spot Rob.
“Rocket!’ they cheer as they run across the road to clap him on the back and will him on. “Go on Rockettttttt!”
We plod on. In the silence I ask the obvious question.
“I was pretty nippy for a loose forward.”
There’s a little smile through his grimace. I just thank my lucky stars for that triple stress fracture. No way I could’ve stuck with him without it slowing him down.
Just the town section to go. A heartfelt thanks to the old couple that have been there for hours, manning the turn-around on the cliff-top promenade through the rain. Down the cobbles past special needs. Up through town and down the fish ‘n chip and roaring drunk cheerleaders road. A last turn at windy corner. Up a hill. Down a hill. Turn right through the arch. And then, at last, the glorious left. Rocket has said we should finish together but I’ve told him that photo is for him and his brother. Just before we reach the finish chute his wife and kids are there, cheering him on. We run on and his son and daughter catch us again. Little Rocket grabs his father’s arm just before we reach the carpet.
“I’m proud of you Dad!”
Maybe 100 metres from the finish line and that kid almost buckled me for good.
I’ve spent months thinking about the end of this thing. How I would feel. What I would be thinking. But I never thought it would be such a blur. I watch Rocket run to the finish ahead of me. Paul Kaye is telling me my Black Line mates have been blowing up Twitter while I’ve been blowing up during the race. Rocket crosses the line and I’m punching the air for him. Then all kinds of lights explode – although that may just have been in my head – and I hear Paul give it his best…
Alan! You! Are! An! Ironmaaaaaan!
A clumsy click of the heels over the line (my Mom reminds me later this was my Dad’s signature move in his youth) and I’m done.
RUN: 5:21:53 After the utter balls-up I made of the first 14 or so kilometres, this run could never be about total time. It had to be about coming back from a bad place. I don’t think I’ve ever run past more than 5 people in a race, but after meeting Rocket around that 14km mark I got back 16 places in my age group and over 70 overall. Most importantly, I landed up having one of the most memorable runs of my life.
TOTAL: 15:08:17 They say add an hour to your usual IM time for IM Wales because it’s so tough. I haven’t done enough of these things to have a ‘usual’ IM time, but this is just 28 minutes slower than I have gone before at this distance. I’ll take it. This race was everything I hoped it would be and so much more.
I get over the line and almost walk straight past the Mayor of Tenby who is handing out the medals. Priority is to find Rocket. We hug it out, see if we can find him some pain-killers for his leg and then go and eat pizza in stunned silence.
Later we get massages. After that I head to the hotel to call home. I find out later that Rocket went into shock from the pain of his leg and the paramedics didn’t let him go ‘til after 1 in the morning. Did I mention they grow them tough in Wales?
I go back to the finish line to see the last person come in. While I’m there I drink The Greatest Beer Ever in the History of the World™ and get to chat to Pro winner Jesse Thomas and his wife (Lauren Fleshman – very, very fast runner, smart person and ace role model for my girls) at the finish line. I don’t make a lot of sense, but they are kind enough to pretend I do. They are now my favourite couple in all of sports, ever.
The Last Words
Usually you get to the end of a race report and tell people why they should do the race you have just described. If you have read all of this and still need convincing, then pick another sport. Like the man Paul Kaye said at the race briefing, “You get Ironman… And then you get Ironman Wales.”
My Number One Gal: Outside of getting married to you and the birth of our two children, this was the most epic day of my life. It is no coincidence that you have been instrumental in making all four of the events listed above happen. I love you Laydee!
Naomi and Issy: Daddy’s Home!
Rocket: The toughest Welshman I’ve ever met. And ‘Toughest Welshman’ is a bloody competitive category! That beer WILL happen my friend.
The Black Line Crew So much help, so much advice, so much encouragement, so many #AlanGroveFacts! I was so proud to wear the colours out there. Truly a team of friends.
The People of Tenby and Pembrokeshire I come from a country where a large part of the sporting psyche is defined by one epic event, The Comrades Marathon. Your Ironman (and it is yours) has the makings of becoming similarly legendary. The participation, the support, the welcome for those who come to take part in Ironman Wales is hard to describe unless you have been there. A truly special race, in a truly special place filled with truly special people. And bloody hell, you lot can really sing!