I was ecstatic when I crossed the finish line in Wales but I was left with a feeling that I couldn’t shake. I could and should have gone faster.
Fast forward a few months into 2014 and I had entered two full ironman races and a half iron distance race. It was going to be a pretty hectic year. With the full support of my family, a new coach and a rather trick looking triathlon bike I was ready to take on the Challenges of 2014.
With all the enthusiasm in the world nothing quite prepares you for the early starts when training begins and the thought of pushing yourself to your limits shortly after you’ve woken up can certainly bring a tear to the eye. I had been assigned to an outbuilding at my parents’ house to train on my cycle turbo trainer and through the winter months I was often greeted with a frosty bike saddle first thing in the morning. Fitting in 3 swims, 3 bikes and 3 run sessions in a week as well as fell races, duathlons and numerous other races is quite a squeeze but as the months roll on it becomes a way of life. The Manchester marathon in April was the first big race of the year but due to an illness a few days before i had to miss out.
Barcelona was my first triathlon in May, which was a 70.3 half distance. I was expecting a reasonably chilled weekend other than the race and looking forward to visiting my sister who lives in Barcelona. My dad and brother made the trip out to support me, along with my Friend Rob who was also competing.
It ended up being a bit of a slog from start to finish with my cursed bike box. After hours of meticulously packing it away and tie wrapping it to fort Knox security, I was immediately asked to open it checking in at East Midlands for a security. Once in Barcelona we were stranded for over 2 hours in the centre as no taxi driver was willing to muster up the energy to try and fit it into their boot. After finally arriving at my sister’s apartment we had to scale 5 flights of the steepest and narrowest staircase you’ve ever seen dragging the bike box all the way up. The white plastered walls will never look the same again. A few days later we made our way up to Calella for the race in a rented van (you have to read the small print to realise that Barcelona 70.3 Ironman is actually 50 kilometres up the coast NOT in Barcelona).
Callela was a reasonably pretty coastal resort and for this weekend it was divided into either partying holiday makers or Triathletes. Making our way to the race start in the early hours of Sunday morning we walked past numerous clubs still in full swing.
We set off in waves of age groups, so I hoped for a bit more room than I was used to in past races. We got herded into pens and then moved up until it was finally my time to start. A heart beat thundered out over the speakers on the beach just before the klaxon sounded, which just added to the nerves. I didn’t bother trying to shove my way to the front as I knew I would just get pushed around by the stronger swimmers.
As predicted the swim was a bit slow with lots of staggering around on the beach when I finally reached dry land.
It felt great to get on the bike and get going. The 56 mile course consisted of 3 big mountainous climbs with some pretty scary descents along the way. All the positions I made up on the assent I soon lost on the descent, which was frustrating. I hadn’t quite mastered descending on my triathlon bike and with some pretty sheer drops in sight I wasn’t going to risk everything. Drafting on the bike is illegal in Ironman and they were red hot policing it in this race. Over enthusiastic marshals on scooters seemed to be everywhere with beady eyes shouting at you if you got too close to another rider. Every penalty box I rode past was brimming with athletes
When I arrived back in Callela after just over 3 hours riding I realised that I probably hadn’t pushed myself to my full potential, which was evident by the number of athletes already on the run course.
I hadn’t seen Rob since the start and was hoping he was miles behind me but I was wrong! Rob is a very strong swimmer and had put a good time in on the bike, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw his big cheesy grin as he ran back past me, already well into the run. The run is my time to shine and although it wasn’t my ideal course (no hills) I put the hammer down none the less. The course was twice up and down the promenade to make up the 13.1 miles. The sun was really beating down by this time and the wet sponges at the feed stations were very welcome. I caught up with Rob after a while and gave him a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement before pushing on. The second half of the run was a bit of a grueler but I felt good as I was gaining plenty of places. The atmosphere was buzzing as I arrived onto the finish chute and it felt good to cross the line.
Rob rolled in some minutes later looking a bit broken and we both got stuck into the post race buffet.
Although a little disappointed with the result finishing 223rd overall and 43rd in age group it was great to experience a race abroad. I was looking forward to a few well earned beers after the race, however it was over shadowed by the thought of packing my bike away into the dreaded bike box and wrestling it back down the stairs of my sisters apartment.
Sitting on the plane shortly before we were due to take off I felt comfort in the thought that I only had to build my bike up once more when I got home again and the ongoing bike box saga was finally over. At that point the pilot made an announcement. “Unfortunately we have had a problem and we are going to have to change planes. Basically what’s happened is the luggage handler has punctured a hole in the side of the plane whilst trying to load a large box.” It was my bike box!
The next big race was Ironman UK Bolton. A few drops of blood, enough sweat to fill a small reservoir and a little bit of crying and here we are ready for the big one. The race team this time was Wife Tori, Son Frank and our 4 Labradors. Only a few hours up the road and we were there. No bike box required. I really felt that the pressure was on for this race. I had high expectations after all the endless training and had a target to try and complete in under 11 hours and finish in the top 100.
I had cycled a lap of the bike course a few weeks earlier which was a good idea as it’s quite technical in places with a few big climbs. My coach Jason Walkely had cycled the course with me and was also taking part in the event. Jason is a top age grouper and had finished 30th overall in the previous years event. The main hub of the event was based at the Reebok stadium and there was also transition 2 where you would finish the bike leg. The swim start was in Pennington flash reservoir 10 miles down the road and this was transition one where the bikes are racked. There was some travelling to be done to get all the kit ready for the race. Preparation is everything so double and triple checking is a must. From transition bags with run and bike kit in to bike checks and nutrition for the race. One thing left out of the equation will have a big impact on the day.
We stayed at the Wendover Guest house B&B in Bolton and they helped me with all of my strange dietary requirements. They also did the same for the other 5 athletes staying. They never stopped helping us out so we are very grateful to them.
The evening before the race we went to the race briefing. You could feel the nervous tension in the air. You realise how hard all of the athletes in the room have worked to be there and our big day is just around the corner.
The race started at 6AM so I was up at 12.30 for the first breakfast then up again at 2.30 for breakfast no.2. Frank and Tors were straight up and looking just as excited as me. It was going to be a long day for them too as they had so many different points of the race to get to. Not to mention a lot of hanging around. We arrived at the race start at 4.30 and went straight to my bike to pump my tyres up and place my nutrition on the bike. As the dawn broke it revealed a stormy looking sky which added an imposing atmosphere. It wasn’t long before we were called to the start. I said my farewells to Tors and Frank, trying not to get too emotional then made my way down to the water. I made sure I got in at the front of the queue to get a good position in the water. Before I knew it the national anthem was playing and then we were off. The first buoy looked so far away and seemed to take an age to get to. We had a short swim across at the top then headed back to the shore before running out onto an Australian exit and then back in again to start lap two. I rather enjoyed this swim and was out in 1.18 which I was pretty happy with. After a fairly smooth transition I was out onto the bike leg. I set off at a good pace and felt positive from the onset. The minute you finish the bike out to the start of the first loop you hit the first climb called sheep bridge lane. It was shrouded in mist but there was support all the way to the top and at the summit supporters dressed in Spiderman and batman outfits. Tour De France style.
The course is very rolling and the first 60 miles felt pretty good, making places constantly and whipping up all the big climbs soaking in all the support. As I started the climb on the second lap the fatigue started to set in and my back ache started. It was a case of grinning and bearing it for the second half of the bike leg and stretch off whenever I could. I had a target of sub 6 hours on the bike and when Bolton started to loom up in the distance at around 5hrs 30 I was hopeful I could make it.
Everything was hurting now and I felt pretty grim but the thought of seeing Tors and Frank really spurred me on. I only had a 26.2 mile run to do when I got there. I reached transition two in 5 hrs 47 mins and was surprised to see so few bikes back on the racks. I ran into the transition tent feeling pretty chuffed about this. I must have put some good work in here. I slipped into my trainer and off I went. If you filled your legs with concrete that is about the feeling you get after an Ironman bike leg when you start your run.
Never the less I had a smile on my face and was going to give everything on this marathon. I had only rounded the first corner and there was Tors and Frank and also my mum and friend Sylvia. Big high fives. I attempted to stretch my back off and touch my toes a little way into the run. This was a very bad idea as I almost didn’t get back up again. After about 5 miles I started to feel my legs come alive and really started to make some places up. You run 7 miles before you join the 3 loop course that takes you in and back out of Bolton town centre and the atmosphere was electric.
There was a band playing just outside of the town which had attracted another huge crowd of supporters. Each lap round you get a wrist band and when you have collected your third you are on your final run into town and the finish. My family were in the town centre to cheer me on each time round and I eventually saw Jason out on the course. He didn’t look too great. The next time I saw him he looked a bit worse and a little concerned as i was taking big chucks of time out of him. I was loving it and half hoped i might catch him although he was some way ahead. The run course was rolling and there was a big climb out town that sapped your legs big time. I could have eaten a horse i was so hungry but just kept the energy gels flowing and my muscles kept working. As I entered the latter part of the run I dug in, kept smiling and drew energy from the crowd.
It’s almost a bit surreal when you collect your final wrist band and head into town for the last time. You have been going for such a long time and it’s nearly all over. I ran very hard for the last few miles and felt overwhelmed as I passed through the streets for the last time. Turning left for ‘THE FINISH’ instead of Right for ‘LAPS’ is an incredible feeling and the hairs stood up on my back as I headed down the finish chute packed with support either side. I had no idea what my time was and when I saw 10.23 on the finish line screen I was over the moon.
Jason was sitting in the finish tent waiting for me and we congratulated each other. He admitted id kept him honest on the run and it had kept him pushing hard to the finish. My family greeted me with huge smiles and Tors told me I had finished 55th overall. I staggered up to the Physio tent for a post race rub down which was agony but freed me up no end.
The atmosphere at Ironman events is something to be savoured and we watched as other athletes finished the race. You have 17 hours to complete the distance so the Finish line has a party atmosphere all the way to the last athlete late into the night.
The race gave me a real confidence boost as i really didn’t expect to finish so high up. After a week’s break i was ready to hit the training again and prepare for the mighty Ironman Wales 8 weeks later.
It was great to be back in Tenby for some sea air. It’s such a beautiful town and the locals really embrace the Ironman event, the local athletes’ have shop fronts and banners dedicated to them all over the towns. Most of the Pembrokshire roads are closed for the day and all the towns you pass through on the bike leg are packed full of cheering supporters. This year I had quite a following of friends and family who had come to support me and experience the Ironman event. With 2150 entries in this years event I was a little concerned as to how busy the swim start would be. I was really hoping for a calm sea for the race start and would have been more than a little anxious if I'd known what was to come !
Race morning and we were up for 3.30 . My 2 year old son Frank leaped out of bed with all the enthusiasm in the world ! I wasn’t quite so keen feeling the nerves jangling as soon as I woke.
We arrived in Tenby a few hours before the start and I made my way up to the transition area to check and place my nutrition on the bike. At 6.30 the athletes make their way down to the swim start through the streets of Tenby. I waved farewell to Tors and Frank and made my way to the beach. The day dawned with a beautiful deep red sunrise.
As all of the competitors filed onto North beach we were met with an angry looking Atlantic sea that seemed to swell in front of us. It had been like a millpond when we had arrived on Friday. Wading into the sea for a warm up I soon realized this wasn’t going to be easy as I battled through the waves to attempt a brief warm up.
Back on the beach and we are summoned to the start. All 2000+ ready to dash in with the Elite athletes starting just ahead in the water. It must be quite a sight from the cliff tops as the claxon sounds after the national anthem is played and the competitors pour into the sea.
As the tide was very low the 50 yards were on foot wading out through the crashing waves. It was a roller coaster ride of a swim to the first buoy. A frenzy of legs kicking and everyone trying to find some clear water to make progress. Sighting was very difficult as you could only see ahead when right on the crest of a wave. Other than one sharp kick to the eye which glued the goggle lense to my eye ball I emerged on the beach after the first 1.2 mile lap unscathed and ready for another lap of madness.
The sea was even choppier on the second lap. The currents were so strong and heading back toward to beach after rounding the final buoy seemed to take forever as the waves swept me further off line. I emerged from the water feeling a little disorientated and bloated after taking on what seemed like pints of sea water. I wasn't particularly fussed as to what time I had done the swim, but was just elated to have got through such a challenge. Over 50 people had been pulled out by the recue team and many backed out before the start -so testing conditions for all. I was out of the water in 649th place so not too bad for a skinny lad. The beach was packed with supporters as was the entire 1 km run to the bike transition tent after the swim exit.
As I ran through the town my stomach churned with the amount of sea water I had swallowed. Many Athletes struggled with digestion thorough the day as they has taken in so much . Once changed and out of the transition tend I grabbed my bike and headed out of Tenby. It was great to see family and friends as I headed off out of Tenby to start the 112 mile bike course. Around 7000 ft of climb makes it the most challenging course on the Ironman calendar. Not being the quickest swimmer, this is where I have to get my head down and start to make places. The first section of the bike is relatively flat as you head out to Angle but as you head back towards Pembroke the hills start coming thick and fast. Once back to Pembroke there is a 2 loop course taking in villages and towns of Lamphey, Narberth, Saundersfoot and Tenby. Each town is packed with support and the nicknamed ‘heart break hill’ in Saunders foot is lined from bottom to top with crowds. The support you receive up that hill is quite overwhelming as things are starting to get tough at that point, especially on lap two. The weather was great and the scenery stunning which takes your mind of things and you can enjoy your surroundings. The dreaded back pain was stabbing after around 60 miles but after finding a rather obscure looking stretch I managed to ease it off every 10 minutes or so. I was on top of things psychologically and the nutrition was going in well as my thoughts turned to the marathon which lay ahead. I was hoping for a sub 6 hour time on the bike so as I headed back down the hill into Tenby with 5 minutes to spare it was going to be close. I crossed the timing beacon into Transition 2 in 5hrs 58. There didn’t look to be too many bikes back in the racks which I found promising. If I had known I was 135th in I probably wouldn’t have been that pleased but kicking my trainers on and heading out onto the run course I felt fired up for my strongest discipline. My family and friends were ready to cheer me on as I headed out for my first lap. The marathon course is a 4 loop circuit which takes you up out of Tenby and back down into the town where you wind through the streets before heading back out again. Things get interesting here and how you have paced your bike will determine how tough the run will be. Running felt more like a waddle but after a few miles the legs eased off. Eventually your brain registers that you’re running and not cycling. The first few laps went well. After the grind up the hill out of Tenby you can look forward to the downhill back to town and then soak up the atmosphere through the streets of Tenby. There was a closely fought battle going on at the front of the race between the Elite men which was inspiring to see at different stages of the race. Heading back out of the town for the second time I felt I was fading and hitting a bad patch. The sports gels and power bars didn’t seem to be working anymore and the sun was really beating down. All I could think of was something savory and seeing a plate full of Pretzels in front of me at the next feed station was nothing short of heaven. I dived straight in and emerged with two handfuls like a greedy kid. I felt vigor restored as I worked through them. I don’t think Pretzels will ever taste that good again. Shortly after I passed the leading Elite female Amy Forshaw which gave me just the buzz I needed. With two laps to go I was ready to dig in and give it one big effort. Although I'd had a little glitch on the run, overall the pace had been strong and I had only passed other competitors which is great for moral.
When I finally collected my last lap wrist band and headed back into town it was quite a surreal feeling that it was almost over. Thoughts of lounging on the sofa in the evenings and lie ins on Sunday mornings crossed my mind. I was almost a little disappointed as I was enjoying myself and still making places so I pushed hard for the final few miles. By this time the run course was packed with athletes and town was in full swing. Running through the narrow streets of Tenby for the last time felt magic and finally onto the Esplanade overlooking the sea to the finish line. My family and friends were all waiting at the line and we enjoyed the moment together. One I will never forget. I had finished in 42nd place in a time of 10.44. My celebratory pints of Guinness tasted pretty good that evening !
Overall it has been a great season and competing in three Ironman events I have accumulated good points in the Ironman All world athlete age group 30-34 rankings placing 4th in the UK out of 1383 athletes and 80th in the world out of 18,302. At Wales I had finished 11th in age group frustratingly missing qualification for the world championships in Hawaii by 5 places.
Only one thing for it. I best get training again!