Let’s set the scene a moment: I’m bloody tired, probably have bloodshot eyes, my hair has now grown back enough from Roth that it can be messy again, and I’ve been beating my head against any kind of productive thought for about a week. Oh, the season’s over, sure, and I have been thoroughly enjoying that fact. So much so that I, er, kinda forgot to finish writing this all weekend, and due to developments (will explain later) I have to be up far too early for an off-season morning tomorrow, so it’s a race against time to cram it in. Let the reminiscing begin.
Tenby, the jewel of the late-European-Ironman-season’s crown, a course to split the Ironmen from the Ironboys. A place so small-town charming, so full of the kindest and most amenable people I’ve ever met, that one could be forgiven for being surprised when you actually get on the race day course and are sharply reminded that Wales hates you. Not you, generally, athletes; you, specifically, individually. It hates YOU, you jumped up little shit, thinking you can come here and crest its hills and advance unflinchingly into its winds. It wants you to fail, it wants to take everything you love and laugh when you lie broken on the floor. Wales is a vicious beast. I will never return there again so long as I draw breath.
Erm, so yeah… maybe I didn’t quite have the race I wanted, then. Not abominable, but there’s a bitter pang left on my tongue that isn’t just the shit beer I’m drinking. Drinking on a Sunday night? It’s because I’m committed to finishing this damn piece. I had a little bit of writer’s block, so I thought to myself, what can get me back in ‘the zone’? Now I’m drinking whatever alcohol I can find, having just demolished a takeaway, and am wearing a space blanket, because this is as close as I can get to a week ago today. It’s like therapy: you must immerse yourself in the past, become it in order to understand it.
But this isn’t therapy (sorta) and I’m kind of bored of talking about what went wrong. It’s been discussed with a few people (read: anyone I’ve talked to in the last week), but these things have been and been done. There’s no changing them now; there are maybe some lessons to learn, but until I’ve worked out exactly what led to a couple of bike issues, I can’t say for sure how much blame is on me and how much is random chance. Scrap that; I’m not a great believer in random chance. The question is how much could I reasonably expect myself to have foreseen and mitigated against, and what was something that I can live with having risked.
A lot of things went right in Wales, so while I’m disappointed with the overall result, I can also say I’m 8/10 happy with how the whole thing went. This started a week before the event itself; after a disappointing flub of training, I woke up last Sunday to find that my left knee was pretty swollen, and more importantly than just looking a bit weird, was not working properly and I couldn’t fully bend it. After being very sensible and immediately panicking and going direct to the Chief Medical Officer at work – perks of working for a national sporting body – I ended up with a swift appointment at a FIFA-approved sports physio centre, who being used to dealing mainly with Premiership Footballers and overly-moneyed Mayfair housewives, presumably manage far more complex cases of neuroticism on a regular basis than my taper-week brain can conjure up.
Long story short, that I’d torn my Grasilis, a very marginal hamstring abductor muscle on the inside of the knee, that’s primary function is to be harvested for use in ACL construction and little else. Apparently one can cope quite fine without them, so Mr. FIFA sports doctor told me I’d be fine to compete, and that was that. Panic over. Wales was still on. No excuses. I’ve also had a follow up appointment in which they’ve deduced I’d probably have a lot less injuries if I actually paid attention to the fact that I have a core and my core has muscles and these need to be developed, so now I have a 7.30am 2-hour physio workout session tomorrow and every other day for the next three weeks. God forbid I should actually rest in my off-season, right? Anyway, it’s medical prescribed, and one should never argue with Dr. Stride, because he clearly knows a lot about this running malarkey and other stuff.
Knee in good order, arriving to Tenby in good time was a massive blessing. Joe Spraggins and I – yes, him that made me sign up to this silly venture in the first place – travelled way, way out west on Thursday, arriving at around lunchtime, giving us somewhere in the region of two and a half days to relax and go through our pre-race rituals. At times, this seemed like an agonizingly long wait to race day, but it meant that we had plenty of time to get everything in place, and led to a very low-stress few days. I imagine this had something to do with my first PB of Ironman Wales – a record 6 hours’ sleep before the race, leaving me feeling fresh (and rather confused, it was a pretty unusual feeling) on race morning.
The weather was pretty beautiful for the swim: lovely sunrise, air crisp but not cold, fantastic rendition of the Welsh anthem that I have no clue what any of the words are but it sounded dead inspiring, quick hug with Dad who’d come to support and had managed to pick up a good vantage point for the swim start on the beach. The start of the swim was the usual mess; visibility would have been grand if it weren’t for the hundreds of other swimmers thrashing about. For once though, and probably partly aided by the easy to follow course (unlike Sweden) and abundance of space (unlike Roth), I managed to carve out a nice comfortable spot on the edge of the main channel of swimmers passing on my right, so I was mostly drafting anyone who swam past, but didn’t feel pressured or panicked at any point. This is the main thing that I am happy about with the swim: I enjoyed it, I did not come out of the water full of rage and spite. I felt comfortable.
Maybe a little too comfortable, given my time, but hey ho – better that way than the other. 1:16:36 is not the 1:10 I think I am capable of, consider the minimum swim quality for a Kona qualifier, and am convinced I was on course for over the first 4 months of the year. It is also, 13 months after Sweden, what I think I could have managed then; better late than never. That said, it’s an improvement and I’ll take it with open arms: a significant Ironman swim PB for me, over 3 minutes faster than Roth, and that’s definitely something I can work with. Sometimes one just has to look and the year behind and go, y’know what, that is enough. Maybe the goals I held at the start of the season were right at the time, but there has to be some flex room somewhere for a little self-kindness, lest I drive myself into another meltdown.
The lapped course was also a blessing, allowing a weaker swimmer such as myself to break it down into more mentally conceivable chunks. I actually went through the first lap about 5 minutes faster than I managed the second, hitting the lofty heights of a 1:13 pace, although it doesn’t seem to be unique to me to have slowed down. Whether it was the slightly bumpier sea, or the more spread-out field meaning less easy hips to latch on to, quite a few slowed down significantly in the second lap.
The 2-lap swim also meant I got to experience my first ‘Australian Exit’ – exiting the water, short run, get back in the water – and should I do this again, I will remember to take my bloody goggles off for the run. Never have I had a more disorientated 200m sprint, even when shitfaced and running away from some authority figure or the other at uni, than when my goggles immediately misted up when I started to run and I was left just trying to chase the shadows that I presumed were the other athletes in wetsuits. I may have accidentally barrelled into one of the volunteers guiding people into the water for the second lap (apologies dude). Key learning point, that one.
A quick exit from the wetsuit (managed it without falling over, promptly fell over trying to fit it inside the stupid pink bag anyway), and a swift shuffle through town to transition. I don’t know why I was throwing water over myself, the clouds had begun to roll in and the weather was a bit grey at this point, and it was a bloody kilometre run at 80% effort. I think my Ironman race brain just equates running = being hot, and for every cup of water picked up half is to be drunk and half thrown over head, so having the water to wash the salt out of my mouth was just too much for my poor lizard brain to compute and autopilot happened. I had definitely not dried out by the time I got to transition, which was a mistake.
Yes, I said I wasn’t going to talk about mistakes, but I’m going to go over this one because it’s small and stupid, but probably didn’t slow me that much, and it’s only just come into my head while writing this. As I’d dumped the best part of 300ml of water over myself while running and not really dried out, I found it really hard to get my wet arms into the rain cape I’d put inside my new aero bike top as a sneaky aerodynamically-hidden yet waterproof layer, so I got frustrated after about 2.7 seconds of trying and sacked off the rain cape. Given how conditions would deteriorate throughout the bike, this would later turn out to be an error. 5 days in Tenby and the only day the forecast was accurate was the bloody race day. Typical…
I like to think that, considering conditions, my pacing on the bike was not terrible. If anything, I was a little too tame; the first loop of the course was the windiest section, and I had The Fear of breaking myself struggling against it, as is my experience from past rides as a light, lanky guy. I probably could have put a bit more effort into that first loop, but going out super easy meant that I didn’t feel like I was flagging at all by the end of the ride. Coming up Wiseman’s Bridge towards the end of the first big hilly loop one of the spectators was counting us through; I was 593rd and rapidly rising, meaning that I’d made up around 350 places (give or take, the rolling start confuses things a little) from the swim. I had the energy to dig a little deeper on the second lap, and made up just over another 200 places by the end of the bike, leaving me with a bike split within the top quarter of the field. Moreover, I was building while others were falling apart, and that’s how it should be. Not that I’m vindictive or anything.
By and large, barring a couple of obvious lapses of concentration, I can also say that my bike handling skills are coming along nicely. After that boast about descending in the (second) post-Roth blog I was honestly a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to back it up, but compared to the company I was in – either wiser than me and concerned about the conditions of the course, or fast swimmers that were tepid cyclists, or maybe even people I’d lapped – I was going downhill faster, breaking smoothly into the corners, leaping on the pedals out of them to keep up the momentum. I had to have a few harsh words with competitors who were hogging the dead centre of the road on descents, which I felt a bit bad for, but… it’s a race, guys, and if you don’t get the hell out of my way and back on the left like you’re meant to be, I’m going straight up your arse at 60kph and very, very few of you are going to enjoy that.
Despite the issues I’d encountered on the bike, there was definitely a point – I’m pretty sure it was coming up the hill into Narbeth on my second lap, the heavens having opened again, soaked through and heaving – that I realised part of me was loving it. Performance George was very frustrated at this point, but This Is Grimly Hilarious George was finding everything grimly hilarious. After all, here I was, still plugging away at one of the hardest courses on the Ironman circuit, in the worst conditions it’d been run in (confirmed by one of Joe’s and my fellow guesthousesers, who had done every Ironman Wales to date), on a malfunctioning bike with a bloody 53/39-11/25 gearing (for the non-cyclists, that is far more suited to a flat powerbiker’s course, which I am not nor was on). There was so much stem gazing going on my glare might have burnt a hole in the poor thing, and the second time up Wiseman’s I was in so much pain I couldn’t decide whether I’d fall over or throw up first, but I did eventually finish the bike in 6:38:42; respectable, but almost 40 minutes after I’d hoped to. Y’know, in an ideal world, but I wasn’t in an ideal world. I was in Wales.
At the end of the day, is this not what we’d come for? Was I not amused? Joe and I had signed up long before the extra Kona slots had been announced. We’d come for the hurt, to throw ourselves against one of the hardest courses in the world; if there’s a harder Ironman than that course in those conditions, you can keep it, I don’t want to know. I could have quit on that bike leg, but sometimes one just has to say to oneself: fuck it, if I’m stupid enough to survive years of self-harm and suicide just to spend thousands of pounds on doing this stupid shit for a medal and a t-shirt and bragging rights, then I deserve every little bit of lactic-burn pain coming my way and by Thor I will revel in it, because I am doing what I came here to do. The day was tough but by surviving it, it didn’t half make me feel alive. Not that you’d have known that if you’d seen me in the hours post-event, where it looked like “someone had stolen [my] soul”, actual quote (maybe, I got quickly drunk).
T2 yielded up another small issue in that, having lost my triathlon cycling shoes, I’d done the event in my road cycling shoes; not an issue for mounting the bike as I don’t do flying mounts for long distance racing, but a bit of an issue in that my left foot had swollen to the point I couldn’t get it out for a swift dismount, leaving me to hobble through transition in a repeat of Roth, left foot still in shoe, right foot bare with shoe on crank. This weird gait absolutely was not helped by the transition zone being the roughest, most unpleasant surface to run on barefoot that I’ve experienced (jeez Ironman, would it kill you to put some friggin’ carpet down?), and it was a painful, painful hobble over to the loo for a quick break before heading out on the run. And that was where magic #1 happened – in a fetid transition portaloo, immersed in the urine and defecation of those ahead of me, I experienced the first of what I can only describe as latrine Nirvana.
Long distance triathlon is a weird sport. You spent years as a kid learning to hold your pee in until you can go potty, just to actually practise undoing all those years of conditioning in your twenties, like a rational adult. Then there’s the number 2s. To date, I have not managed to make it through an Ironman without numerous stops for… comfort breaks. It was one of my chief motives this year behind working with Jo Scott-Dagleish on my nutrition this year, and the race-day side of things paid off, almost by accident. After Roth I’d been practising with more watery gels, alongside little bundles of wine gum-esque joy called Clif Bloks. Somehow, I’d forgotten to pack any gels, and Tenby being a small place there was nowhere nearby to pick up my specific brand, so I decided to just go with the Bloks on the run. I’d also learnt to actually count what carb intake I was aiming for on the bike, and stuck rigidly to my strategy.
The result was I’d managed to fuel well on the bike, keeping energy levels up, but not overloaded with crap (har) so that I felt ready to explode when I got off the bike. Not that this deterred me from sprint-hobbling to the nearest available portaloo anyway, because that was just what I do, right? I think I actually just stood with a weird confused look on my face and an awful, awful smell in my nostrils, and lost a minute in T2 that way, wondering why I didn’t need to use the loo. And then I shrugged and started running, and that was the end of that; neither did I need to stop at any point on the run. It’s such a weight off my shoulders to have nailed that, even if so completely by my own idiotic absentminded nature, so much so that I am still on the fence as to whether this should be second-best or top outcome of the day. I’ll go with second, but only just.
Okay, pause: let’s clear something up. I AM NOT GURNING GODDAMMIT I WAS JUST HUNGRY.
I don’t like the idea of using unpaid for watermarked photos in a blog, especially not one where I’ve paid to own my own domain name. It looks cheap. But you know what? Fuck you FinisherPix. Fuck you because your pricing is stupidly extortionate (going by the prices in the Ironman merchandise tent this is pretty on brand, but still). But an extra big fuck you because I have a bit of a complex about my face and overbite doing weird things in race photos, and there were actually some running photos where I looked like a graceful fucking Gazelle, an no. No, you post on my own Facebook profile a picture of me stuffing my face with the aforementioned Clif Bloks. Fuck you FinisherPix for preying on my insecurities. I’m never buying anything from you ever again. You charlatans.
Anyway, the whole nutritional apotheosis was only second because of what happened for the 3 hours, 18 minutes and 47 seconds following my departure from T2. I ran like I was genuinely still in the mix for a Kona slot. Here’s a bunch of numbers – on a brutally tough course after a brutally tough ride, my run split was 5th in the Male 25-29 Age Group, faster than 4 of the 5 Kona qualifiers; of the 14 male pros who finished I ran faster than 6 of them. I am pretty over the moon with that, and even happier that I had to be escorted away from the finish line after collapsing, because I can now say I’ve had a run where I feel I’ve given it absolutely everything I could have, and maybe it could have been faster in a year where I’d trained properly and on a course where I’d had a smooth race, but the effort level was where it needed to be. I think it proves that I am definitely where I need to be for 1/3 of the sport, at least. And at least I wasn’t the idiot running with a tempo trainer strapped to the back of his head (seriously, who does that, it’s soul-destroying and I was only near him for 20 seconds).
That wasn’t the only run highlight, of course. Straight out of the blocks I went hard, kicking into marathon (like, a normal marathon, without the swim/bike warmup) pace and it felt fine. There was no 15 minute bedding in period where I hated everyone and everything like there was last year. I maybe went a little too fast, and my first lap was definitely my fastest, but then my second-fastest was my finishing lap so I didn’t blow up either, I just settled to a more realistic pace.
The point at which I realised I was definitely running too fast was about 2 kilometres in, when I spied a moped infront of me carrying what might as well have been a great big red flag to a very very fast bull: a guy on the back with a camera, and a 1ST MALE sign. It turned out I was perched about 10 metres off the back of Cameron Wurf, the eventual winner of the men’s race. I hadn’t clocked it straight away but he was on his last lap and I was on my first, but that was irrelevant; I was running faster than the pro winning the race. Inch by inch I crept up on him, until I was running alongside him, and then I passed him and felt like a damn god, and then I tucked in behind the moped to get out of the damn wind and probably ruined a good few minutes of race footage. Sorry Cam, but each man’s gotta run his own race.
The support in Tenby was absolutely a highlight too. It was apparently reduced from previous years due to the weather, and I can believe it; there didn’t seem to be as many people around and Wales’ reputation had led me to believe that there would be. That said, damn did those hardy souls who stuck it out make up for it. From the families along the beach front to the drunkards outside the pubs (who, it must be said, had a keen appreciation for my colour matching and floral panache); to Dad and Julie who had turned up with a giant Cornish flag to stir up my patriotic juices; Cousin Chelsea, her Fiancé Ryan and Uncle Bob who were the loudest of a loud mob; Sarah, from who I have shamelessly stolen a few photos that are definitely better than the FinisherPix ones. The drag out from town was horrendous, the drag back infinitely more tolerable because you knew you were on the way back to those lovely, lovely people.
I have no idea how to finish this overly long-ramble. Wales was the end to my 2017 season; there’s still a couple of events to go, but nothing serious. A couple of sportives that I’m riding just because I fancy getting out on the bike, an obligatory showing at the Jekyll & Hyde duathlon that will be done non-competitively in fancy dress. Mostly, trying to pretend my watch will not vibrate me awake at 6am, I’m looking forward to having a break after a trying year, to buckling down and concentrating on recapping the year, planning for next, showing off my newfound abs and finally qualifying as a triathlon coach. And definitely not signing up for Wales 2018. Definitely not.