There was stunning scenery, hypothermia, excitement, white-knuckle fear, a feeling of accomplishment, and a sodden but dedicated support team. Ladies and gents may I introduce to you possibly one of the most dramatic Ironman races on the circuit of 2017, the beast that is IM Wales.
IM Wales is set in the beautiful seaside town of Tenby and the surrounding coastal and countryside areas of Pembrokeshire. There are many stunning vistas throughout. I entered this race well trained and prepared and had aspirations of seeing Martin Potter and Ian Dickens at least once on the run. Mmmm, little did I know.
The backdrop to the swim is picturesque at any time of day. The unique architecture around the bay makes sighting a doddle. There were no vomit inducing waves as had been present in previous years. As I walked to the start I felt as though I were in the land of giants. Not that unusual given my stature at 5’2” and weighing 100 pounds, but the physiques around me resembled those of well-developed armed forces personnel. I hoped the buoyancy would reduce the impact of being swum over by these heavies. I also wondered if I had enough body to get around the course.
The prospect of some 2,200 people peeing in the same space as you is another incentive not to swallow the seawater. It’s easier to swim when at one with the water, adjusting stroke and breathing to wave pattern and staying relaxed. I ignored the jellyfish hovering 5ft below trying to avoid the frenzy. Frequent sighting avoided being kicked in the teeth. There is an art to swimming over people. It’s also a useful skill to be able to kick harder to move forward when someone punches you in the leg. No place for apologies around the buoys – all’s fair in love and war. As if on cue, the wind started to whip up once the last swimmers were out. Given the low air temp and wind, I ran the zigzags and 1 km to transition in my wetsuit. Putting additional lycra on damp skin is hard enough without the shivers.
The bike course was a journey in it’s own right. What is an amazing hill cyclists dream of a route on a sunny, showery, calm day, turned into a scary, upsetting and unbelievably challenging route on race day. Head and side winds between 25-35 mph with gusts up to 50mph reduced my average speed to a depressing all time low. Did I mention I am 5’2” and weigh next to nothing? Driving torrential rain, a saboteur that put diesel on several of the technical down hill sections, tree debris, wet leaves and sand on the roads resulted in the white knuckle ride of my life. At around 75 miles, I had lost all feeling in my hands and fingers. Not great for changing gear and braking. I was battered and twice I thought I would either end up in the middle of a field concussed, or be in an impromptu sea burial in the Atlantic.
I, and the feed station ran out of nutrition before the last hour and 25 minutes and hilliest section Wiseman’s Bridge and Saundersfoot. Although temporarily bolstered by the fact I’d chick’d some blokes who were walking their bikes up the hills, I also had to hold back the tears on realising I was at risk of a DNF (Did Not Finish). Not wanting to disappoint my friends and family kept me going. I made the cut off with 3 minutes left. I think I gave my supporters a heart attack. On the plus side, the 2 looped bike course provided opportunities to see how the pros do it. Is it a claim to fame to eat the wheel spray from female winner Lucy Gossage?
An unprecedented 8.5 hours in the saddle later, in a tri suit, without saddle sores, niggles or injury, I was pleased to get off the bike. Full credit to my physio bike fit by Neill Williamson at Echelon bikes, Pershore. The run is four laps on a hilly course. A different coloured band is given for each loop. Did I mention a masochist designed the course? Band envy is real.
On lap 2, the rain and wind started again. Weirdly, my muscles felt fine; no cramp, no aches and pains. My head however, was telling me to curl up somewhere quiet and go to sleep. I started to fall asleep while walking through an aid station. I later learned these were signs of hypothermia. Volunteers held me upright, empathised and gave me flat coke, telling me just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. More flat coke and tortilla chips meant I could walk up and jog down the hills and jog all around the town section. Any hope of seeing Ian and Martin had long gone.
The healthy number of portaloos meant you didn’t have to worry about ruining your cherished tri suit, or being sick from toxic fumes. The nutrition available reduced the chance of collapsing through hunger. The course design meant you were never on your own. This added to feeling safe while running in the semi dark. The support from locals was mindboggling. They partied hard and supported us all the way through. At 11:15pm one lady gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me how well I was doing.
The final lap was both incredible and a mild form of torture. The finish line was so near, yet so far. The lateness of the day meant I ran through crowds of people that offered me beer, kebab and chips. Yummy. If it weren’t cause for DQ, then I would have had a feast. Exhausted, ecstatic and a tiny bit dazed, I finished in hero’s hour.
Does IM Wales live up to its reputation as one of the toughest courses? Yes. Facts speak for themselves. This year over 1 in 5 did not finish. Highest failure rate of all races this year. That includes pro triathletes. Would I recommend it? Yes. It’s an amazing event that rewards those who respect what it takes to finish a technical and hilly long course triathlon. The atmosphere created by the Tenby locals is unrivalled. Would I do it again? Yes, if I can double my muscle mass and have the power to weight ratio of a cat 2 cyclist.
For anyone inspired to enter a long course triathlon, be aware it is resource hungry. It places a strain on your body, mind, time, money and relationships. It is as much an emotional journey as it is physical. I entered this race well prepared and confident with a plan to race, not merely to survive it. Although now pleased and feeling strong, it has not been easy to reconcile the emotions around my desired and actual finish time.
And finally, the relationships I have with Lou and Russ Morey, Colin Garrett, my mum and family enable me to reach my goals and follow my triathlon dreams. I would not have finished this race if it weren’t for them. My journey is as much a roller coaster journey for them as it is for me and they don’t even get a medal. Support from all my fellow triathlete friends has also been phenomenal and heart warming. All expressions of kindness are much appreciated.
Has this put me off a lifetime of training to try and qualify for Kona? No. With the help of my friends and family, anything is possible……