“There’s Ironman. There’s Ironman Kona. Then there’s Ironman Wales. Not to scare you. It’s just fact.” This is what we were informed during our race briefing in the lead up to Ironman Wales.
Over the past 11 months I have been training to complete my biggest sporting challenge to date – a full Ironman distance triathlon. For what was my first (and likely to be my last) Ironman, the weather could literally not have been better. Apparently it was the best they’ve ever had in the 5 years or so it’s been held at Tenby.
Transition, Racking and Prep
For an Ironman you rack your bike and bags the day before the event. Yes. Bags. There were 4 bags in total to pack! Blue=Bike Red=Run White=street gear and Pink=Run transition bag. Both the blue and red bags had to be checked in on the Saturday, but you couldn’t then touch them on race day morning.
I’ve had some issues with the front brakes on my bike and was a bit stressed that I was going to have to ride my bike with the brakes on the whole time or keep adjusting them while riding. Thankfully with the twist of an allen key in the right spot, the legends from Pembrokeshire bike shop stand sorted it out.
Checking in the day before saves time and chaos on race day, but means that you end up spending the whole day wondering what to do, waiting for the race to begin. Once the bike was in transition it was a case of just chilling in town, meeting up with some other Ironman mates, drinking cups of tea coffee and just resting. I had initially planned to do a practice swim on the Saturday but decided on the day to keep resting my calf longer.
Race day – Transition set up
On race day I was up before 4am in order to have enough time to get dressed and get some food down. My friend Emily drove me to town and dropped me off at transition for 5am when it opened. Since the bikes and bags were all racked on Saturday, all that was left to do on race day was put my bottles, food and Garmin on the bike, change into my wetsuit and leave my street wear clothes in the transition tent for afterwards. This literally took me about 15 minutes so I had plenty of time to spare, but I’d rather have extra time than be rushing around stressing before transition closed at 6:45.
Once transition shut, we all got into the queue based upon our self-predicted swim time. I was aiming for 1hr 20, which turned out to be a popular slot. We all then proceed to waddle our way through Tenby clad in our neoprene wetsuits and clutching pink bags of run shoes.
Not only is it considered one of the toughest Ironman courses in the world, Ironman Wales also happens to have an additional run involved from the beach to transition. A run that doesn’t count towards the marathon at the end. Ironman Wales steps it up a notch with Swim-Run-Bike-Run.
The pink run bags were placed on the appropriate numbered hook and then we waited on the beach watching the sun rise over the ocean while the Welsh National Anthem played. It was incredible looking around the cliff top seeing all the spectators out cheering us on. As far as the eye could see there were people!
First the pro men were sent off, shortly followed by the pro ladies and then the rest of us made our way towards the start line. Considering this was the race I’d been training for all year for, I felt surprisingly calm. I knew I was going to finish, that I would be an Ironman by the end of the day. There was never any doubt in my mind!
It seriously could not have been a better day weather wise for an Ironman – particularly one with an ocean swim. The ocean was literally flat as a tack on the first lap. As I had done zero training in the weeks prior to Wales thanks to a calf injury, I played it cool on the first lap mostly just using my arms, slowly starting to move and test my legs with the odd kick here and there. Before I knew it I was onto the second lap listening to announcements that the pro’s were already running to transition!
The swell started to get a bit rougher on the 2nd lap with no major concerns. Until the jellyfish monsters arrived! Seriously they are enormous. I was glad they waited till the 2nd lap as that would have put me off getting back in again if I’d spied them on the first lap. Normally jellyfish make me extremely anxious and send my adrenaline levels spiking, although for some reason I kept my cool here which was a relief.
After peeling off my wetsuit by the beach I ran to the transition tent grabbed my blue bike bag and put on my jersey, which had tubes/pump and food already stuffed into the pockets. Shoes on, helmet on, I was definitely in a bit of a daze and started the first lap of the bike in chase mode. I think it was because I was excited to be allowed to ride my bike again! Time-trialling this year has resulted in this instinctive response that anytime I see a rider in front of me I want to overtake them!!
Technically IM Wales is a non-drafting event, where you are meant to have 12 metres between each rider, and once you initiate overtaking you have 25 seconds to complete it. However, there is literally not enough road to avoid drafting unintentionally at some point as there are cyclists in front and behind you no matter what you do. At one point I had to overtake about 40 cyclists in a row!
Around the time I had finished the first loop I started to calm down out of my attack mode and rationalise that this was a long day ahead, that I should probably take a step back as I had to run afterwards! I hadn’t run since tearing my calf muscle 3 weeks earlier and also there were hills to conquer!
The support on the bike course was absolutely fantastic. There were kids, adults, little old ladies and people dressed head to toe in pink cheering us on as we rode around the course. As a woman (and someone who can’t seem to wipe a smile off her face), I felt like I got extra cheers. Go Girlie! Girl Power! Iron Girl! These were all were heard frequently. In fact there were only 10% of competitors who were women in total!
Having your name written on your number is fantastic because even if there is only one person you actually know around, it seems like the entire town and surrounding area are your fan club. Some of the supporter signs were entertaining as well. Pain is just French for Bread was a favourite – a good reminder right before a 16% climb!
The climbs seemed more treacherous than they had at Long Course Weekend, or when I had practiced them. I literally crawled up one of the steepest, just staying upright at 4kph!!! The benefit of having ridden the bike course previously though was that I knew where the climbs were, but also felt comfortable flying down the descents. As I was on a time trial bike I would typically get overtaken by road bikes going up the hills, but then fly past them on the descents. I’ve now got a new top speed record going down a hill of 71kph! Good fun!
I was overtaken by a couple of the pro men when I was at 90km which meant they were already starting their run before I had even finished my 1st lap. Way to make you feel slow… I had anticipated that I may have had a faster bike split compared to Long Course Weekend, but it ended up being pretty much the same.
I was feeling a bit nauseous for the first hour or so on the bike, so didn’t quite get through everything that I had planned to eat on the bike. Perhaps about 60-70%. On one occasion I stopped for the loo by the feed station where one of the lovely helpers filled all my bottles for me – unfortunately he also filled the bottle of concentrated energy mix which made it a bit harder to judge how much energy I took in on the second lap.
A quick change of shoes in the transition tent while eating a pack of chips (I was craving salt) and I was running the streets of Tenby to complete the marathon. I wasn’t sure how my leg was going to hold out so played it safe and didn’t push it too hard.
Running is not my strength, and I struggle to keep a constant pace at the best of times, so I had been training run-walk in the lead up to Ironman Wales. I’d previously ran the run course, so I knew I could run up all the hills on fairly fresh legs. However it’s much tougher with tired muscles!
My plan was to run 9 minutes, walk 1 minute which I kept fairly well to for the first 2 laps of the course. However after running a half marathon I could tell I was starting to get a bit glycogen depleted because the inclines started getting tougher, resulting in me walking most of the hills.
Nutrition wise, on the run I pretty much ran from feed station to feed station on cups of coke and water, with the odd shot blok in between. Apart from the last feed station where I was starting to feel a bit crook so didn’t take anything.
Running through Tenby town on each lap was quite entertaining thanks to the spectators. You could smell the booze in the air and see everyone getting more drunk on each lap! The cheers were fantastic, and it was great to have my friend Emily there. My coach Sam had told some of her mates to cheer me on so that was fantastic as well.
I didn’t have any pain or anything, just towards the end of the marathon on the last lap I could feel my body starting to fade and lack energy. I was still smiling non-stop and felt fairly happy, but any slight incline and I was reduced to a walk. I had already been training run-walk anyway, but it happened to be a lot more walking than I had anticipated.
The last 3km were tough. I wasn’t in pain, I just had no energy! There were guys running along side me in encouragement which was fantastic and it seemed to take forever to reach the red carpet, but I made it! I ran down that red carpet to hear my name being called out. Gemma. You. Are. An. Ironman!!
It was all a bit of a daze in the end! I met the Mayor of Tenby who was giving out the finisher medals. A number of volunteers kept asking if I was okay, which I thought meant that I didn’t look okay but I was reassured that that was their job! Inside the athlete village tent they had hot cups of tea and massive slabs of pizza which was absolutely perfect. By this time I was pretty tired, so tired in fact that I could have laid down on the floor and slept right there and then. Another Mersey Tri member was in the tent so we had a bit of a chat before grabbing street gear, transition bags and checking my bike out of transition.
The car was about a 20 minute walk away, which I think helped eased my muscles to avoid them cramping and meant I was walking normally without much DOMS in the days afterwards. I was so glad for Emily being there to drive us home! I was in no fit state to drive afterwards! So so so tired! But so incredibly happy as well. Happy I had finished. Happy I wasn’t in any pain. Happy I hadn’t injured myself in the process. I had done it! I’d ticked off another bucket list and completed an Ironman.
Keep posted for some more posts coming about my training in the lead up to Ironman Wales, how I managed to juggle full time work, training and a bit of a social life, plus nutrition for injury recovery!!