Wales Ironman – 11th September 2011

Last year in a moment of madness/stupidity/inebriated, I said to a friend that I would do an Ironman if it weren’t in Bolton! Thinking I had got away with it, Ironman Wales came about and opened for entries for inaugural event! Not to back away from a challenge, I had to enter! After all, what’s all the fuss about! Also was being rumoured to be the UK’s first closed road iron distance race! 112 miles of traffic-free cycling!

After a taste of the event at the Long Course Weekend in June, I was a little unsure at how I would get on as my bike and run training over the summer hadn’t been that consistent and one lap of the swim took me 69 minutes due to unexpected currents. I was really wasn’t sure if I was going to finish within the cut-offs as it had turned out that people were saying the course is on par with the hardest of IM branded events, great!

The plan was to stay in Tenby for a week so could get away and see the area a little but most days, it was wet with strong winds! On the Wednesday I drove the bike route, which reminded me just how hilly the course was. Thursday I registered and talk was going around about the sea conditions, whether the sea would be swimible with the forecasting of the tail end of hurricane Katia on its way! People were saying that the swim would have to be cancelled and replaced with a run that wouldn’t have been desirable! At all times, the organisers replied was that the swim is going to happen!

Friday morning saw the first official practice sea swims off of the South beach, the course laid out was shaped to match the course just nearly half the distance so less water the RNLI had to cover. Although the sea was calmer than earlier in the week, it was still a tough swim and reminded me that on the day, it was going to be rough and cold! Before the Pasta Party on the Friday was the first race brief. This was to welcome everyone and going through what was going to happen on the day.

Quick enough, they announced that on Saturday morning they will decide whether to keep the swim on South beach or move it to the North beach which would be more sheltered but would involve a 1km run to transition. We were told to expect the swim to move and that Saturdays swim practice would be held off the North beach! Sure enough when on the raking our bikes and transition bags on the Saturday we got the good news that the swim was moved. We were handed another numbered bag as another transition area was to be formed to leave shoes/trainers for the run to T1, as we wouldn’t be able to use our trainers in our run bags. This was so we wouldn’t have to go across the town bare foot! The Expo had loads of Ironman T-shirts for sale and Jeannie asked if I was going to buy one but the one I wanted you couldn’t buy because it needed to say finisher on it!

Ironman Wales - Julian Hodge

4am on Sunday morning, I’m awake and thinking about what to eat. Normally at this sort of time of a weekend, a chicken kebab would have been the food of choice but today was different, porridge, High 5 bar and drink! Not as filling but I’m sure a better option. The plan was to walk the mile to transition but as Dave, Jo and Josh had come to watch, Dave offered the option of a lift! Well it would have been rude to refuse! Arrived at transition at 0530 only to notice that had left my aerobottle back at the caravan (normally leave it on bike!)! With an hour until we had to be out of transition, I managed to find Dave for a quick lift back! Wetsuit on it was time to head off to the start!

Ironman Wales - Julian Hodge

As it started to get light, it was amazing to see that all the nights heavy rain had made way for some blue sky and a glorious sunrise, a first all week! Tenby’s North beach is a sheltered beach so the wind wasn’t really noticeable, the sea looked generally calm with odd 4-5ft swells but not choppy and so much more inviting than the conditions on the South beach. Spare trainers were racked on the slope that lead down to the beach so time to test the water. It seemed so much warmer than on Friday and once you got out a little, the swells weren’t a problem. We all got called back to get ready for the 0700 start. Looking behind, all you could see was people watching from any viewing point and there weren’t any empty areas as Tenby had been gripped with Ironman fever! At this point, you could sense the party atmosphere! Bang, we were off!

Ironman Wales - Julian Hodge

The sight of over 1300 people running into the sea must have been a great sight, all I saw was lots of black, orange swim hats and a load of splashing! The swim was a 2-lap affair with you having to run up the beach, over a timing mat then back in for the second lap. Swim felt like it was going well, got out with 30 minutes on the clock, which I was amazed at but quickly headed back to the sea only for someone who got caught in an incoming swell come straight into me. Then headed back to face another swell that managed to rip my goggles and swim hat off but luckily grabbed hat and my goggles were still wrapped in it! Finished the second lap in 36 minutes. 1:06 for the swim, well happy!

Ironman Wales - Julian Hodge

Ran up the beach to the exit slope and removed my wetsuit as soon as possible so was still soaked and easier to take off! Trainers on and now the 1km run to T1! The streets were lined with lots of vocal supporters! Comments have been made comparing Challenge Roth’s Beer mile to a possible Tenby’s Wetsuit 1k! T1 involved trying to predict what the weather was going to do as were warned that the conditions were going to deteriorate as the day went on. Opting for a short sleeve jersey with arm warmers in the pockets just in case, I headed off out on the bike route. As leaving Tenby, Dave was there to shout and cheer. Think he was surprised to see me so soon considering the run to T1 went past a café and I hadn’t stopped for a breakfast!

Ironman Wales - Julian Hodge

Once on the bike, 112 miles to cycle on closed roads over 2-laps. First you head west to start the first lap of 72 miles. The first 40 miles or so is rolling terrain with some stunning views particularly Freshwater West where you ride down a long downhill to the coast and back up through the sand dunes. The remainder of the lap was generally hilly and quite technical in places! Straight away you could feel the strong head wind but it was the same for everyone so just a case of getting down on the tri bars and get into a steady rhythm. As the miles were ticking by, it was noticeable that in every town, village or group of houses, people were out on the road cheering everyone on which helped motivational wise. After about 40k was where it started to go bad as my lower back starting to go into spasm which meant I had to stop to try to stretch it out. How it turned out, I had to stop every 10-15km to stretch then carry on. Obviously it was annoying and time consuming to do this but I was keeping track of the time and knew I had the time before the cut-off to go round at an easy steady pace. After all, with not a lot of training I was never going to win it and the aim was to finish it! Going through a place called Narberth was electrifying, as they had created a carnival atmosphere and loud speakers pumping music out. The last section of the lap involved numerous steep downhills to the coast and then straight back up steep climbs. Entering Tenby ended the first lap, passing a cheering Dave, Jo and Josh and started the second lap (40 miles) that involved the second half of the first lap again (the hilly part!) The ride was event free but the weather had been getting worse throughout my second lap. Hitting Saundersfoot to start the last climb of the bike route was welcoming. The fact that it starts with 2 hairpin bends on a 15% gradient then averages 8% for about a mile afterwards was not welcoming considering the 109 miles already cycled! But on the hairpins was a large group of people shouting and cheering everyone on and loud speakers like Narberth but the pain of the hill disappeared when I heard the Superman theme tune blasting out! Being an 80’s kid, I flew up the hill and started the long descent to Tenby in by now, heavy rain.

Ironman Wales - Julian Hodge

Out on the run was generally wet, windy and steadily got worse as the hurricane leftovers decided to make an appearance. The 42km run consisted of 4-laps and apparently 800m of climbing. To compare, IMUK 70.3 at Wimbleball has 400m of climbing so those of you that have done that can imagine what the run was like! With my back getting worse, the plan was to walk up the hills, run down them and little but often refreshments from the aid stations. That was fine and on course to finish possibly under 15hrs until the second lap when my stomach had decided it had had enough and I couldn’t face consuming anything. Carrying on I passed 2 aid stations and only had a bit of water at each. But now with the mixture of the strong winds, heavy rain, my back getting worse and dropping energy levels, all of a sudden I hit a real bad patch where started to sway, head spinning and could hardly keep walking (bit like the state I could have been in when saying about doing one!). Approaching a roadside bench, I thought I should sit down to sort myself out as was thinking I wasn’t going to be able to make the finish even though I had plenty of time. Once at the bench, I had to walk past it as knew if had sat down, I wouldn’t have got up! Luckily it was downhill to the next aid station and had to eat and drink whether my stomach liked it or not. Managed to have some Gatorade and a few crackers, 5 minutes later I could feel a difference. The miles were slowly passing by and started the last lap which was hurting with my back and after having soaking wet feet for hours, a big blister had formed and burst. Coming round the first corner from a sheltered street onto the sea front, sent me a step back and nearly over as the wind was gusting over 40mph by now! Round the town where there were still a lot of people cheering you on and finally to the last corner, where the lap marker girls gave me my last band! Time to turn left rather than right and onto the esplanade to head down the crowd lined finishing chute. Crossing the line, the PA systems shouting out “Julian Hodge, you are an IRONMAN!”

Ironman Wales - Julian Hodge

After stopping, I soon felt pretty rubbish with stomach packing up and my back stiffening up to the point that Jeannie helped me put my trouser on as I just couldn’t bend over, thanks again for that. Next day, legs were a little stiff but due to not being able to put any power into the bike and run they were fine by the evening. On the other hand, may back is still aching and finding that I had a load of sand work its way into my tri-suit, thus turning my saddle into a kind of sand paper also a little uncomfortable!

The event was amazing, the support received and comradeship attitude by the other entrants was unlike any other triathlon I’ve experienced. The Pembrokeshire locals that came out in force to support and cheer everyone was nothing but amazing! The party atmosphere they created in a Tenby, Narberth and Saundersfoot was credit to not just to themselves but Wales in general! I’m sure it will easily sell out next year and so glad I’ve done it. If you’re thinking of doing an Ironman, sign up and do Wales! It’s tough and doesn’t have a short run like IMUK 

Don’t just take my word for it, here’s some comments from Facebook:

Kristen Moeller (female winner) wrote the following on her Facebook page:
IM Wales: I’ve got the double of UK. Enjoying my 2nd Ironman victory. After a stormy swim in the Atlantic, cycled a very windy bike course, including 2400m of altitude. Took over the lead at the 1st of 4 loops in the Marathon. The hilly run course with it’s 800m of altitude; made IM Wales by far the toughest Ironman I done.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the whole race. Never smiled so much in a race or thanked so many supporters. It was an awesome day, which would have done a long-standing race proud, but to pull this off (in such adverse conditions) on a first attempt is an excellent job. Fingers crossed they don’t tame it – from start to finish this is the hardest race I’ve done – hardest swim, hardest bike and hardest run. The support in places was awesome – at Narberth the crowd was huge and then coming out of Saundersfoot it brought tears of joy to my eyes. Really really fantastic.

Thank you for an amazing day. My first Ironman and what a choice! Superb!

I for one will be registering for 2012 and hope nothing changes including the North Beach swim and the long run to T1! My family and other supporters they spoke to thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle from the natural amphitheatre, which will become iconic I’m sure.
Did IM Lanzarote 3 times and Wales is even harder. Great race and congrats.

Stunning race guys, made me proud to be Welsh. It had everything but most importantly the helpers and supporters were nothing short of sensational…only in Wales can you find passionate people like that. This can and will go on to become an iconic Ironman race, as it will only improve every year. Huge congratulations to everyone that took part in some way shape or form!

What a fantastic event you guys pulled off despite the worst the Welsh weather could throw at you. At last a UK long distance Ironman that we can recommend to overseas competitors with no qualms. The whole Pembrokeshire community did themselves proud with the amazing support and general hospitality. Even after one of my worst ever races I am left with a massively positive memory. Thank you.

Thank you Tenby/Pembrokeshire for a fantastic day yesterday. It was my first Ironman and I’m so glad I chose this one, the people were enthusiastic throughout and the volunteers couldn’t do enough. Brilliant. Ps are the any flat roads in Wales?

Fantastic support from the crowds everywhere in particular Narberth, Saundersfoot and of course Tenby, eye of the tiger being pumped out on the PA system at the top of Narberth hill definitely lifted my spirits and almost had me in tears at that stage – Tough course…

Well done IM Wales. The support was superb and the fans were amazing. If you want the toughest course out there with the hardest conditions, bring your a$$ to Wales. It will gladly serve you a slice of pain.

And from non-racers

What an awesome race, tougher than Lanzarote most said but the atmosphere, scenery, supporters and volunteers were amazing – that’s what makes an Ironman so special. I was volunteering at the finish line yesterday, giving out some much needed assistance and all those I spoke to were polite, gracious and so grateful for any help – you all deserve to be Ironmen in more ways than one – I salute you. A good one to do as your first?

What a fab day, atmosphere amazing, I’ve got two little boys who want to be Ironmen when they grow up, that’s how much all of you mega fit people inspired them. Can’t wait til next year

I just wanted to join everybody in saying how fantastic the atmosphere was on Sunday. I was just a supporter and am totally in awe of what you all achieved! I think I will need to train for just the supporting next year, I rubbed the skin off my finger from ringing the cow bell so hard, ached from head to toe the next day and am only just getting my voice back!! And you Ironmen think you had it tough! 😉