Ironman Wales 2018 – The day I faced the Dragon

I had originally planned to take on my first full IM in 2016, but a knee injury in April put an early end to that ambition. Fast forward to September 2017 and a very wet weekend in Brecon where I had an awakening to once again think Ironman, but more specifically IM Wales. As a member of the OS Explorer team taking on the Dell Corporate Challenge we were lucky enough to meet IM legend Chrissie Wellington, and her insight into what drove her to win three IM world championships struck a chord. That weekend we took on all that the Welsh weather could throw at us, and although it took a team from the British Army to push us into second, I came away believing that Wales could be tamed, or so I thought….

Before I dive into the race weekend I guess a quick reminder of the IM challenge might be helpful. The day starts early, with a 3.8km swim, followed by 180km bike ride and finishes with a 42km marathon run. When the start gun goes your personal time keeps ticking until you finally cross the run finishing line. To add to the stress, each stage has a cut-off time that must be beaten to be able to progress to the next stage. So, you need to have finished the swim and be on your bike in 2:30 hours, the ride has to be completed in 8 hours & finally the run in 6:30 hours; all in you have 17 hours to get the job done……

Don’t upset the Red Dragon….
Training over six months had gone well, though in reality I was ready to race a month too early. Niggly injuries forced an early, extended taper, adding to the stress of losing fitness whilst worrying as to just how well the injuries were recovering.

Total 2017 training load looked good, though in hindsight, way too much, next season I need to train intelligently to avoid breaking down again.
Bike – 4312 miles over 306hrs
Run – 825 miles over 111hrs
Swim – 196 miles over 97hrs, including 23hrs in a lake
Strength & Conditioning – 76hrs

Race Weekend

Tenby North Beach – location for the swim

We stayed in a B&B in nearby Narberth, arriving on Friday to register and collect the necessary swim, bike, run bags that would need to be packed ready to hand in the next day. That evening high tide was at 5pm, an ideal time to get a swim practice in. The water was calm and warm at 16c, a few big jellyfish were an unwelcome sight though…..

Saturday is transition day. Three race bags to pack and hand in along with racking your bike. It’s now 24 hours before the race and the tension is really starting to mount as you focus on the practicalities of making sure you pack all the kit needed for the bike, run and post race recovery sections of the race. Add into the mix the variety of Welsh weather and you could end up putting a lot of kit into each bag. To give you an idea of the kit choice dilemmas my race day check list covered 86 items from bike pumps to baby wipes (don’t ask….). :

Special needs bags were new option to me for the bike & run sections. These would be available at one refuel stop for the bike & run sections, and you can add in whatever you like. It’s a bit like a safety back up, there if needed, but you don’t get unused items returned. So, for the bike I put in a spare inner tube & some extra food and for the run, spare gels & food.

With the bags finally packed, checked & checked again we headed into Tenby and into the Transition Zone. Here all 2,200 bikes are racked outside in race number order. There’s a huge marquee set up for changing, with rows of double pegs, again in race order number; blue bike bag on the top peg, red run bag below. Finally, you hand in your white post-race recovery bag, pausing for a moment to reflect that next time you see this one it will all be done…

Then back outside to start to visualise the flow of transition – where do you come in off the run from the swim?? Which row are your bike/run bags on in the marquee, where do you exit the tent and head over to the rows of bikes? Which row is my bike on, how far in?? Repeat the same analysis for the transition from bike to run. Repeat, and repeat again, then walk the transition several times until you’re comfortable with the flows. Once you leave the transition area, that’s it, there’s no going back, so you tend to hang around checking & rechecking until boredom sets in. That’s then it, nothing more to be done apart from resting & eating, oh and a cheeky glass of red….

Race Day Start

03:30 and I can’t keep still any longer. Not much sleep with various thoughts of ‘have you done this, packed that or checked the other?? Coffee gets me going & I somehow manage to consume yet another bowl of porridge. Out the door, and 15 mins later we’re parked up & walking to transition. It’s a surreal sight with hundreds of athletes & supporters making their way through a sleepy Tenby. There’s hushed silence of athletes deep in thought, but at the same time a low, distance rumble of excitement on the horizon.

Into transition, where the nervous energy ramps up several notches, load up my bike with bottles and food, check the tyre pressure and then the first sign of anxiety. I can’t make my mind up whether to top the tyres up or not. The decision completely flummoxes me until I spot handy bike mechanics nearby with trak pumps. So I queue up with my bike and get a ‘pro’ to check the tyres. Re-rack bike and time to exit transition. 30 mins to go so we find a quiet area to have some coffee and change into the wetsuit. A short walk into the high street where athletes are starting to queue up in swim time groupings.

It’s time to say good bye to your supporters, hard to let go but increasingly all you want to do is get on with the day. Then suddenly you’re in the mix of 2,200 neoprene clad athletes, trying to keep the nerves at bay, trying to embrace the atmosphere, trying to stay focused, knowing that this is it, race day has finally arrived 😊.

Time to hang your pink bag with running shoes on your numbered peg before making your way down the zig zag path to the beach. Suddenly there’s a hushed silence over the crowd, followed by a single voice breaking the silence with a familiar tune. This is the signal for the Welsh to do that thing they do. In a heartbeat thousands of voices swell as one from the cliff top and boom Land of My Fathers across the bay into the rising sun. Back in your box La Marseillaise and Flower of Scotland; the competition for Best National Anthem Ever just closed for good.
The singing ends. There’s almost a stunned silence for a second and then athletes & the crowd roar en masse, showtime! Like horses at the beginning of the National we’ve shuffled along towards the start, straining to get started. Right on queue Ironman’s anthem punches it up another level. Cue AC/DC’s Thunderstruck…

Now we start moving forward along the beach and suddenly we turn right down the chute towards the water. Over the timing mat & my race has officially started……, into the swell, pick a spot of clear water, dive through the surge and start swimming.

It’s a strange sensation swimming as part of a mass of thrashing bodies, easy to let the anxiety take a grip. But I felt completely in control, moving between swimmers. Spotting the marker buoys and claiming clear water to keep a rhythm. The backdrop of Tenby bay was stunning, and the sun warmed your face with every stroke. I let these natural distractions take my attention, felt privileged to be swimming in such beauty and refused to let others crowd my space.

The turning buoys are always a pinch point with swimmers crowding round the inside line. Through the chaos and now the long drag across the bay to the lifeboat station. Spot & feel a few jellyfish, but they’re gone before you can react. Round the second turning buoy and head to shore. Power right onto the beach, rise out of the water into a jog along the beach before taking on the second lap.

All too soon the swim was done, and I can honestly say it was a beautiful session, I really didn’t want it to end. Back onto the beach again. But this time turn left and jog up the steep zig zag path that leads up to the town. Tough on cold legs but over soon enough. Plenty of pink bags on hooks means I’m early out of the swim, great start to my IM day.

Run shoes on, wetsuit off shoulders, quick swig of water then start the 1km run through the town to transition. Roads are closed and the route is a mass of supporters, amazing given it’s still only 08:15. If you’ve never run half-naked through the streets of a Welsh seaside town on a chilly morning with thousands of people cheering you on, I highly recommend the experience 😊. I can’t help but grin all the way, this is IM Wales and I’m actually right here, right now, unbelievable!!

Transition was brief, loaded up with enough food to ride back to Winchester, donned my helmet and bike shoes, out the transition tent to find my bike. Blimey there are a lot of bikes, but moving to the right row, then counting off the numbers brought me to the right steed. Jog the bike to the mounting area and we’re off, stage two & only 180km of Pembrokeshire to tackle….

The IM Wales bike route consists of three loops that I’d recced one sunny day in July so I knew what awaited me. The first loop would be a relatively gentle affair heading west to Angle and back, but the wind can be a bit of a factor. Second is a bigger eastern loop where things get gradually nastier up to Narberth and back down to the coast. And then third, a repeat of that second loop that will pretty much make you question the sanity of taking on the challenge.

 

Riding out of Tenby was mad, wetsuit runners coming in, crash barriers keeping the crowd at bay, and the noise, loud enough to distract you into a crash. All I could think of was don’t clip a barrier & end on your backside in front of so many people….

The countryside is absolutely stunning and I try to relax and find a rhythm, but it doesn’t matter what I try, nothing feels quite right. Have I got a slow puncture, is the front wheel loose?? Anxiety levels start to rise. More & more riders seem to be passing me as I struggle to relax. In the end I decide to ride within myself and try not to force the pace. Up out of Freshwater, the second notable climb on the first loop, and then the descent into Angle looms large. The cross winds round the bay are fierce, lashing angry waves onto beautiful sandy beaches. No wonder I’ve been struggling, head wind had been the hidden factor.

Cautiously I tackle the descent into Angle, reminding myself to ride my own race as others flash passed in full aero tuck. Many villages and high fives of kids later (more than one in those little Iron Man suits with the foam muscles) I’m through Narberth for the first time and push on to Princes Gate, the highest point in the course. From here it’s a downhill run back to Tenby with two sharp climbs, Wiseman’s Bridge and Saundersfoot, towards the end.

The descent to Wiseman’s Bridge is narrow, dark and twisty, not my idea of fun. On to the climb and it’s not so bad, a short sharp out of the saddle, lung busting climb, but manageable. Over the top of Wiseman’s into another short sharp downhill blast and then up into Saundersfoot. A swoop down into the town and I hit Ironman Wales’ most celebrated climb. Call it Saundersfoot/St Brides/ Heartbreak Hill – what it is mind-blowing. The first ramp up out of town is again not as steep as you expect, nor that long, but it is rammed with people who crowd the road and part just inches in front of your wheel. There are drums, there are hairy men in tutus and fairy wings who run alongside, there are people right up in your face telling you to dig! Dig! DIIIIIIGGGG!!! As a result there is also no chance of pacing yourself in a calm Chris Frome like manner. You just can’t help yourself as you attack the pedals shaking your head in disbelief and admiration for the crowd support.

I swoop down into Tenby and shoot out the other side to start my third & final loop, only 67km from the end of the ride, things are looking good. At first things feel okay, I’m still not dipping into the red, but all too quickly I become aware of energy starting to drain away. Can’t understand it, I’ve kept on top of gel consumption, but then it dawns on me, I’ve only nibbled at my picnic of solid food, I’m way down on calorific intake. I stuff a whole pain au chocolate into my mouth & quickly regret it. My mouth is too dry & my stomach rebels against the volume. Nothing I can do now but continue to nibble at energy bars hoping to somehow refuel enough to take on the run. Slow & steady was my plan, eat & drink what you can & keep using the crowds energy.

And that’s exactly what I did. It was amazing to see the same faces still out on the course cheering you on. If anything there seemed to be even more supporters on the final loop, with their support evolving from pure enthusiasm to admiration for the athletes still powering on.
The last hour became quite a tense affair. My mind became fixated with hoping the bike would avoid a mechanical or puncture. All I could think about was finishing the ride, never mind taking on the run.

At long last I was back in Tenby & the chaos of the crowds. The ride in takes you passed part of the run route, and I could already see athletes on the course. Into transition, re-rack the bike and run shoes on for the final stage. Just for a moment before I exited the tent it dawned on me I was knackered and was about to take on a marathon….. I refused to let the thought linger and stepped out into the bright afternoon sunshine & told my legs to do what they do and run.
The noise from the crowd was amazing, I couldn’t help but pick up the pace, grinning from ear to ear. Zig zagging through the town the crowd seemed to pick me up & push me round. I’m flying & this is going to be fine, after all running is what I do best. Wrong, oh so wrong……
Out of the town and time to take on the 2 mile climb. In the summer when I stayed in Tenby for a few days, the hill seemed like a long drag, but now it might as well have been Snowdon, my legs just slowed to a crawl; nothing; absolutely nothing in the tank…

Running a marathon at the end of an Ironman is so different to a regular running event. For a start it’s inevitably a looped course, based on an out & back route. So you have runners travelling in both directions. Then there were runners at different stages of their race; first, second, third or final lap. Different pacing, different states of physical collapse and all unfolding in front of hundreds & hundreds of supporters. It looks like a war zone of athletes, utter chaos! I realised I had to adjust my run plan, and quickly. So a 4hr run, became a 4:15 target, speed walking up the hills and running the rest; fueled by whatever was available at the fueling stations. That didn’t last long. The gels & drinks at the fuel station were too sickly & my stomach had had enough of sweet stuff. Flat Red Bull was similarly rejected. Next problem was cramp starting to take hold of my legs. I fumbled about in my race belt for salt tablets, but realised I’d left them in transition… I grabbed a bottle of water to try & stave off dehydration but the volume was too much & again my stomach refused to accept the intake…..

This was my darkest time, 17 miles still to go, no fueling option was working & my body was starting to break down. For the first time quitting started to lurk in the corners of my mind. Each time I slowed to a walk the crowd would yell encouragement and each time I started to jog again they would roar approval. It was such a public way to slowly fail and I began to doubt I could take much more….

Then I remembered a couple of gels stuffed in my trisuit that I hadn’t used on the bike. These were more yoghurt-based & had worked well in training. Next fueling station I took one with some water, no immediate complaints from my stomach so I started to plod on. Sometime later I sensed energy beginning to reach my battered legs, it was like a ray of sunlight reaching out after a long dark night. I started to jog, felt better and started to believe again. Grabbed another bottle of water & this time just swilled out my mouth without threatening my stomach, and all seemed better. Start of the third lap & I remembered my Special Needs bag & the extra fuel waiting for me. Just need to get to that refuel stop and that would see me home. Now I had a plan, walk the hills, swig water, jog the flats & run downhill, chew on stuff, but don’t swallow, getting to my Special Needs bag became my focus. Made it, took time out to savour the pit stop, visualized the rest of the run, reconfirmed my plan, then set off to deliver.

I was so fixated on each step forward I nearly missed the shout from my partner Jayne. A massive ‘Go Nick’ towards the beginning of the last lap. I snapped out of a world of pain & mentally turned to shout ‘one more lap’ but for some reason out came a coarse version of ‘I may struggle to continue….’. No idea where that came from, but Jayne was ace, ‘you’ve got this!!’ came the immediate reply. I nearly, so very nearly cracked at that point, tired, battered and hanging on, I turned and once again began to jog.

The last lap was all about the next hill, the next fuel station, the next corner, nothing more than the next immediate check point. At last, at long last I was back in Tenby, 2 miles to go. By now it was 8pm, and the town had been ‘partying’ for a long time. The crowd was going bonkers for the athletes, roars of approval & encouragement, shouts of ‘you are going to be an ironman’ came thick & fast. Round the final bend & this time no right turn to start another lap, this time was straight on to the red carpet and the finish.

This is the moment all wanabee IM athletes dream of. The red carpet is the final 100m, where the crowds are gathered to roar you home. It is your moment to finally acknowledge you are going to achieve your dream. All the hours of training & sacrifices now seem worth it as you approach that finish.

Throughout the race I had a small Welsh flag tucked into my tri-suit, a gift from my youngest daughter, given to me on Xmas day, with an ask to carry it over the IM finish line. So with massive pride, out came the flag, and yep the crowd went batty!! I couldn’t help but respond in kind and picked up the speed for the last few metres.

That’s where my body finally threw its toys out the pram. Bang went hamstring & my left buttock felt like it had been shot. Momentum carried me over the finish line as the announcer proclaimed, ‘Nick Lindsay you are an Ironman!!’

So after 12:50:18 I could finally stop, I had delivered, it was over. Dazed & in shock that I had done it, a medal was placed round my neck & someone wrapped me in a space blanket. A volunteer put his arm around me to guide me to the recovery tent, asking if I was ok. Inside was a mass of wrecked bodies, some buzzing from their results, others silent, reflecting on what had come to pass. There was hot food & drinks on tap, but I found a chair & just slumped down. Quite frankly I could have stayed there indefinitely but I could feel things seizing up & knew I had to start recovery soon or it could get messy. I couldn’t face queuing for food so shuffled out to reclaim my recovery bag, smiled as we were reunited & went into automatic pilot to recover. Food in, change of clothes, more food then out to find Jayne.

There she was with dozens of other worried supporters. I had no words to say, just slumped into a hug. It was done, I was broken & needed a dark place to digest all that had happened. Somehow I retrieved my bike & run/bike bags. We worked our way through the crowds, to the car, back to the B&B and bed. I felt guilty not following the Ironman tradition of cheering other athletes home, but I knew I had to put recovery first and leave others to do the right thing.

Reflection

Athletes refer to Ironman as a ‘journey’, and now I understand the meaning. This ‘journey’ is in two parts, the first gets you to the start line, it’s the training you commit to, the sacrifices along the way and the setbacks you overcome. The second part is the journey you take as your race unfolds with all the highs and inevitable lows. Through this second stage you learn much about yourself and what you really are capable of in a very exposed, public arena. There really is no hiding place on this journey. This is the hardest challenge that Ironman presents, do you have the mental strength & stamina to keep going, to keep believing in yourself, knowing that only you can determine the outcome…..

As for my performance., there are two aspects that I look back on. The physical challenges were met with an awesome swim, battling bike ride and mentally tough run. I had hoped to beat 13 hrs and delivered on that. But in truth the run time was poor, but with proper fueling discipline on the bike I know there’s plenty of room to improve. But, and it’s a big but, I came through, have the medal and can tick it off the list.

The greater pleasure though is from reflecting on how I embraced the day, engaged with the crowd and smiled through the whole experience. Yes, there were dark, dark times, but I refused to let them take over, I found a way to come through and deliver. And those memories give so much more pleasure than any time or finisher’s ranking.

I guess the true test of the experience, is whether I’d do it again??
Too bl@@dy right!!, but for now it’s rest, recovery and plenty of chill time….
😊