So that was pretty special….
After what was certainly the toughest race of my life, having done the whole thing on feel and not daring to figure out how to show the total elapsed time on my watch, I rounded the final corner towards the Ironman Wales finish line not knowing what to expect.
The first thing I see is that the clock time still begins with a 10 – that’s a good sign! I’d done 10hrs 10mins in New Zealand, but with Wales’s reputation as the toughest Ironman course in the world, I knew that anything under 11 hours would be a decent achievement.
But then what was the announcer saying???
“Even though he took a tumble… Podium…. Machine… Trip to Kona….”
It was all a bit of a blur, and difficult to hear over the thumping music. Was he talking about me? But I certainly had taken a tumble (more of that later), and I’m sure he said “podium”. Whoah. I got a friendly word and a medal from the Mayor of Tenby, and then wandered into the finisher’s tent to try and figure out what was going on and whether it was all a dream….
So let’s take a step back….
Motivation and preparation
After getting a 4th place in the 40-44 age group at Ironman UK 70.3 Exmoor (i.e. half Ironman distance) back in 2014, I’d started to think that Kona World Championship qualification for the full Ironman might be worth a shot and not completely out of reach, especially since in 2015 I would be moving up to the 45-49 age group, so would (briefly) have an age advantage.
Since my sister Sally lives in New Zealand, very near Lake Taupo which hosts IMNZ, I’d always had at the back of my mind the idea of going across for that event. It felt like this was the best chance I was ever going to get, so I trained through the winter and raced in Taupo in March 2015 as my first full Ironman and my first shot at qualifying for Kona.
That meant frequent early mornings with in the dark around Regent’s Park, when it was too cold and icy to go anywhere else, but a week’s family holiday at Club La Santa in Lanzarote at the end of February helped a lot (fantastic place, highly recommended, and a superb choice for HTC’s annual spring training camp!)
IMNZ was a great experience, lovely venue and a beautiful course, but even though my time was better than I was hoping for (10hr 10min 09sec), it was about 12 minutes too slow for qualification – I ended up 12th/133 in age group, with only 4 Kona slots on offer. But I was hooked, so immediately set to work on Plan B – Ironman Wales in September 2015.
I knew Wales should suit me more, as it’s a famously hilly course, and UK 70.3 confirmed that hills worked in my favour. But I also knew Wales is seriously competitive, and as it is the first qualifier for the following year’s world championship there would be almost no chance of a roll-down qualification. So I was going to have to get quite a bit faster if I wanted to have a decent chance of getting to Kona.
I threw myself at all 3 disciplines, but given my run has always been by strongest event, I went especially hard on the swim and bike. I’d previously figured that I could get by on 2 swims a week, but from March-September I stepped it up to 3 a week, and a quick 1500m no longer counted – each session I’d aim to do at least 3K. [Thanks to Daniel and Paul at HTC for the tips and encouragement at the Friday evening swim sessions, which are one of my toughest but most enjoyable bits of training each week.]
The fact that IM Wales was going to be a sea swim scared me a bit. Call me a wimp, but swimming on holiday, I always spend my whole time worrying about sharks and jellyfish, and/or swallowing sea water. Taking part in the swim and bike legs of the Long Course Weekend (LCW) which uses the same course as IM Wales, but over a 3-day weekend in July, helped a lot in terms of building confidence. From the swim, I learnt that solving my goggle misting problem was going to be critical if I wanted to stay even remotely on the right track (it turns out baby shampoo works fantastically), but that in any case I needed to sight off the landmarks, not the buoys, as the latter were so far apart as to be utterly invisible in the swell.
Swimming in choppy seas didn’t feel at all efficient, either, so I went down to see Andy at Swimmergy in Brighton, who came out in his kayak as I swam and gave me loads of invaluable tips. Only one slight issue – that day in Brighton it was as flat as a mill pond, so these rough sea techniques were all a bit theoretical. I was going to have to just take it on trust that it would pay off if things got rough during the event.
On the bike, I was riding 50K or so each Tuesday and Thursday evening with London Phoenix, which was a great way to track progress as I gradually moved from struggling to keep up, to middle-of-the-pack, and eventually getting to the point where I could start to drive the pace, at least some of the time. The weekends tended to involve a long-ish solo ride to get used to the TT position. One particular 100-miler in several hours of pouring rain (with a mid-rainstorm puncture as the icing on the cake) was especially miserable, but it gave me confidence that I would be able to take whatever Wales could throw at me.
Last big run 3 weeks before, last big ride 2 weeks before, last hard swim a few days before. Plus a few bits and bobs here and there. My taper wasn’t particularly well organized, and most of it was spent looking at the long range weather forecast which was being obsessively discussed on the Ironman Wales facebook group. The other occupational hazard of a taper is you become accident-prone and hypochondriac. In the fortnight before the event I picked up a gastric bug, a bruised knee from an ill-advised ride on a too-small mountain bike, and a weird nerve problem in my foot, but I figured that on the day the adrenalin would help deal with most of it, and that pretty much proved to be the case.
Debs, my better half, was back at base with the kids supporting via the internet, so my onsite support party was my parents, who’d picked up the Ironman bug in NZ, and were phenomenal. Not only did they bring a giant Yorkshire flag with my name on it, but they also found a guy in Saundersfoot who was doing boat trips to watch the swim from the water in a rib, giving them an amazing vantage point.
One the morning of the event, I was pleased to discover I was finally gastric symptom free, and so found myself lined up at the swim start at 7am feeling pretty good. Not only that, but the weather forecast, which been oscillating wildly all week, now looked good for most of the day – it was going to stay dry and might even be sunny.
For the first time, Ironman Wales used a rolling start, instead of the traditional Ironman mass start. So athletes organized themselves into pens based on estimated of finish time, and the pens were started in sequence, with times being based on the moment your “chip” crossed the swim start line, not the time from the starting gun. The down side to this is you’re no longer in a straight race with your competitors, you can beat someone over the line, but they might have a better chip time than you. On the upside, though, it made for a much smoother experience – everyone was in the water within 11 minutes and it felt less frenzied and chaotic than the mass starts of IMNZ and LCW. Afterwards, when they took a vote, there was almost unanimous approval that the rolling start should be retained.
I put myself in the <1hour pen based on my NZ swim time of 57.58, but I knew this would be tough to live up to, given the sea conditions. The practice swim on Saturday morning had been a mill-pond, just like Brighton, but what I was learning was that good weather and calm seas are hardly correlated at all. Sunday’s sea had a 5-foot swell, and that seems to have been the cause of the high DNF rate (about 20%, similar to 2014 which also had tough swim conditions).
I actually found swimming the first two legs, with the swell sideways-on pretty, good fun – not fast, but an enjoyable challenge. And then the final leg of the triangular two lap course was exhilarating as you were swept in by the swell, almost surfing. Unlike during the LCW, I managed to run up the beach without doing a face-plant in the sand, and I headed up to find my trainers for the 1km uphill run back to transition on the other side of Tenby.
A glance at my watch told me that my swim split was over an hour – couldn’t quite read the next digits – looked like 1hr 8mins? That seemed a bit disappointing – would be 2 mins slower than LCW. But I had other things to worry about – I tried putting my trainers on, and found myself flapping around like a fish. Every time I bent over to put them on, my calves cramped up. That was embarrassing – I spent about 2 minutes just trying to put on trainers which should have taken 15 seconds. Something to practice, I think! But never mind, off up the hill, and did my best to catch a few people on the run to transition.
As I entered transition, I heard the announcer say ‘these guys have done the swim in about 1hr 10mins’ which made me even more depressed about my likely time. [It turned out I’d emerged from the swim in a time of 1hr 3mins – 5th in AG, 52nd overall – so actually it was my best split of the day!]
In transition I faced the usual challenge of making a snap decision about clothing for the next 6 hours on the bike. Arm- warmers helped for the first 90 minutes, and came off as soon as the sun came out. The windproof gilet was nice to have as a backup, but not needed in the end.
So, over the mount line, and I’m away! Or am I?
The first thing I hear is Paul Kaye, European voice of Ironman, saying “87, you don’t have your race number. You need a race number!”
WTF??? I do have my race number… But it’s on my front – I need to spin my race belt around so it’s on my back. Unfortunately, I try to carry out this maneuver while travelling at about 3 miles per hour with my feet not yet in the cleats. This has predictable / semi-comic consequences. I crunch into the curb and go flying, decorating my body with minor grazes, but fortunately doing little damage to the bike other than dropping the chain and almost dislodging the torpedo bottle-mount between my aero bars.
The words of advice from all the pros in the tri magazines I’d been reading finally started to make some sense. “Don’t panic if things go badly – they will get better…” I’d managed the first part of that equation, I just had to trust in the second part.
So, I headed off again onto the bike course, gingerly at first, examining my various abrasions, but gradually getting down to business and seeing if I could take back a few places. The wobbly bottle-mount worried me a bit – it meant my Garmin was wobbling too, and having lost a Garmin during IMNZ, I didn’t want to lose this one, so I decided to play it safe, put it in my back pocket, and cycle purely “on feel”.
In terms of nutrition, my tried and trusted approach worked a treat. A top-tube bag stuffed with Clif bars and jelly babies carried me through nicely. Ironman has a great system for drinks too – you just grab a pre-filled bottle and discard empties as necessary. One thing about doing long course triathlon – you realize you’ll never need to buy a drink bottle (or swim hat, or sports backpack) again – I now have an immense collection of all three.
The cable-tie/rubber gasket hack my engineer brother Sam had done to hold my water bottles in place behind the seat post worked well, too. Interesting to see from the winner’s report that he took the lead when his fellow pro had to stop at a feed station after losing a bottle through premature ejection. It’s a weirdly fundamental design flaw common to all seat-post mounted bottle holders…
As I expected, the hilly second half of the course seemed to go better than the flatter first half. I kept looking at everyone’s bib who I passed or who passed me to see what age group they were. There weren’t very many 45-49s, but of those there were, about an equal number seemed to be going in each direction. So it felt like I was just about maintaining my position, but what the hell was that position? I had no idea.
It turned out later I’d managed to stay in 5th place after the bike, but the 4 people ahead of me after the bike were completely different from the ones who’d been ahead of me after the swim!
The support on the bike course at Tenby is everything its cracked up to be and more, including Tour de France style ascents with crowds in fancy dress on both sides closing in and cheering you on – absolutely brilliant, but not sure it made the hills any easier.
My goal on the bike was to get under 6 hours, which the Long Course Weekend suggested would be tough, but not impossible. With my Garmin in my back pocket, I actually had no idea what time I’d done [turns out it was 5.55], and I didn’t see any clock as I ran into T2 either, so I just kept on blindly, hoping for the best.
Unlike T1, my T2 was actually pretty good. You had to rack your own bike (in NZ someone did it for you), but for once I managed to find my spot right away. I’d decided in advance I was going to wear socks for a change [didn’t help – still got blisters from hell and lost 2 nails!] so I took an extra few seconds to put them on. With the sun now beating down, I was thankful I’d put a visor into my run transition bag “just in case”, even though it had seemed insanely optimistic, considering the weather forecast.
I’m comically mal-coordinated when it comes to transitions, so the fact that my T2 time of 00:02:34 was second fastest in my age group was pretty surprising. Not sure what everyone else was doing!
Remembering how tough the run had been in NZ, I’d consciously tried to leave something in my legs for the (hilly) run, spending more time in the saddle on the climbs than I normally would. This seemed to help – I set of onto the run course feeling pretty good. Sure, there were hills, but nothing crazy steep like Hampstead Heath. I got into a steady rhythm and got chatting to an friendly American triathlete , and thought I was keeping things nice and under control, but looking at my watch I was actually running 4.30/km which was a little on the ambitious side since on the much flatter NZ course I’d struggled to stay under 5.00/km. [Although the run went well overall, I was overtaken in the latter half by several guys who I’d confidently overtaken in that first few kilometres, suggesting my pacing still needs some work.]
The four lap route, much of it winding around the tiny streets of Tenby, meant you got fantastic encouragement all the way around, including from my own support crew, armed with their massive blue “Go Matt!” Yorkshire flag.
I’d figured that the 3rd lap would be the toughest, and that by lap 4 I’d be cruising homewards, but it didn’t quite work like that. Every mile, like most people, I’d been taking a 10 second walk through the aid stations, to gulp down a water, an electrolyte drink and a flat coke. But I think at one of them I skipped the coke, thinking ‘hey, I’m nearly there now’. And so I found myself heading up the several km long hill out of Tenby and suddenly discovering my legs would barely move – completely out of gas. What? Was I going to actually have to walk for a bit? Kind of scary… that never happens… It really felt a bit like a locomotive grinding to a halt. After a couple of 5-10 second walks on the hill (blissful but shameful!), I just about built up enough of a head of steam to carry me to the next aid station. A proper refuel there sorted me out but it was a real a reminder to watch the needle on the gauge. The last 5K, which were either downhill or running through the cheering streets of Tenby, were as pleasant and enjoyable as the last 20 minutes of an Ironman can be expected to be, and the split time for the marathon [3hr33min] I was very happy with – quicker than NZ despite the hills.
And so I rounded the final corner, saw the time on the clock, and tried to make out what the announcer was saying. Several days later I found the livestream and was able to play it back…
“Number 87. Even though he took a tumble and picked up some gravel rash, still podiumed. What a machine!”
I’ll take that 🙂
I had been hoping I would have a decent shot at Kona, but getting onto the podium was a massive unexpected bonus. The awards ceremony was great fun, even if it was held on a rainy Monday morning in a draughty aircraft hangar. As with a lot of Ironman stuff, they don’t mess about with the trophy – it’s huge!
Claiming a Kona place went smoothly – key thing is you must bring your passport and credit card with you to the roll down ceremony, but fortunately I knew that from New Zealand.
So, that’s it – mission accomplished – now 13 months to prepare for Kona ‘16!
Massive thanks to Debs for making it possible for me to devote a pretty huge fraction of my non-working waking hours to Ironman training, with all the compromises that implies in terms of family life. Definitely couldn’t have done it without that support. Also to my parents for the incredible on course support.
Thanks also to:
- Hampstead Triathlon Club
- Swimmergy (last minute sea swim tips)
- Swim Canary Wharf (technique coaching)
- Bike and Run (pre-race bike check/prep)
- Freespeed (bike fit)
- Impact Personal Training (lots of core work to avoid getting injured)
all of whom helped on the long and winding path to Kona qualification, and who I can’t recommend highly enough.
To anyone who’s looking to qualify for Kona, What’s in a Kona Qualifier? is a really good article on the Ironman site. I only came across it after Ironman Wales, but it makes some excellent points and emphasizes that pretty much anyone can qualify for Kona – it just takes time, perseverance and consistency (the last being the toughest thing to achieve, when so many things – work, holidays, illness, injury – can get in the way).
- Great write up here by IM Wales 2015 winner, Jesse Thomas, a US middle distance specialist who was doing his first full Ironman, just for a bit of end of season fun, after a disappointing 70.3 World Championship… Safe to say that he enjoyed his day!
- Coach Cox provided an analysis of times and conditions for IM Wales 2015 as well as a spreadsheet with full list of results and splits. 2014 was a pretty good guide to the times needed for Kona qualification in 2015, so the 2015 times are probably not too bad a guide for 2016.