How do you even begin to describe one of the most incredible days of your life?
To understand why this race meant so much to me, we need to go back to 2018.
I’m 24 years old, and I’m in Hyde Park. I’ve just finished a small 10k race in the snow, and I’m standing at the finish line talking to a runner who had finished a few minutes before me. The conversation turned to triathlon, and then to Ironman.
I had vaguely heard of Ironman before. It was some sort of extreme triathlon that took a whole day to complete, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I didn’t know the exact distances. I had done the London Duathlon a few times, but I’d never done a triathlon before, and at the time, could barely swim 50m front crawl without getting completely out of breath.
The runner described in visceral detail what it was like to run down the “red carpet” at the end of an Ironman. He described it as one of the best feelings in the world, and one sentence stuck with me: “You cross the finish line, and you hear someone shout “YOU. ARE. AN IRONMAN.” After that moment, nobody can ever take that away from you.”
The passion in his voice and the fire in his eyes was contagious, and just like that, I decided I wanted to experience an Ironman finish line myself. I was 26 at the time, and thought that I’d aim to complete an Ironman before I turned 40.
I had no idea how much this conversation would change my life.
In 2019, I completed my first Sprint, Olympic and Half Ironman triathlons. (You can read more about that here.)
I did all of this with my close friend and flatmate, Geraint. Being from Cardiff himself, he’d spectated Ironman Wales a few times when he was younger, and had described it as an incredible event. It was a bucket list item for him, and after completing his first triathlons, it was starting to feel more likely.
I looked into Ironman Wales, and was immediately daunted. An Ironman sounded hard enough, but this course was regarded as one of the hardest in the world.
Triathlon Magazine dubbed it “harder than Kona”.
220 triathlon called it the 10th hardest Ironman in the world.
“Once you finish Wales you know you can finish anything,” says reigning champ Lucy Gossage on this painful day in Pembrokeshire.
“Everyone knows I love a tough Ironman. As someone who’s won both Lanzarote and Wales, I think it’s fair to say the tough courses suit me.
“Of all the races I’ve done, Wales is probably the hardest, but also my favourite. The choppy swim, the long, long run uphill to T1, the relentless hills on the bike and the marathon that’s, quite literally, entirely up or down, make for a physically tough day out. Add on the high probability of somewhat inclement weather and there isn’t much about it that’s easy! On average, Wales is probably an hour (at least) slower than other Ironman races. But I’d argue that it’s more rewarding. And once you finish Ironman Wales? Then you know you can finish anything!”
In September 2019, just after I’d turned 26, we registered.
In 2020, naturally, the race was pushed back a year due to the pandemic. In a way, this was a blessing, as my training in 2020 had been sporadic.
In July 2021, just a few weeks before the race was due to start , the race was postponed again. This was heartbreaking, as I’d dedicated the previous nine months to disciplined training. On the same day it was cancelled, I registered for a full distance triathlon called The Dalesman. This was a much smaller-scale race, but the same distances as a full Ironman. I raced it in August 2021, and it was brilliant. It wasn’t an Ironman, though…
A year later, after nine more months of even more disciplined training, Ironman Wales was finally happening.
I’d spent 3 years waiting for it, and I was giddy at the thought of it.
I had just turned 26 when I registered for the race. The race finally took a place a week before my 29th birthday.
Between registering and racing, I’d gone through three (?) lockdowns. I’d experienced my first (and hopefully last) pandemic. An 18-month relationship had blossomed and withered. My business, Encore, that I had spent five years building, was brought to its knees and spent 2020 on life support. In 2021, like a phoenix, Encore had surged to new heights we’d thought were impossible. The team rapidly doubled in size. I’d moved flat twice. I’d been in my first serious crash.
Training for this race had been a constant through the chaos. I was a better person because of it.
2022 was a challenging year for my Ironman training.
After catching Covid in December ’21, I spent January easing back into training, and by February I was on good form again. Between Feb and April, I set new PBs in the Mile, 5k, 10k, Half Marathon, and Marathon distances. What an incredible start to the year! Everything was going to plan…
Then, while riding through London in May, I crashed into a car while going downhill. I’ll spare the details, but I hit a car as it turned in front of me, forward flipped over the bonnet, and landed on my back on the other side of the car. I think it was the nearest I’ve come to life-changing injury, or even death. Miraculously, the only injury was a broken toe (my foot was the first part of me to hit the car) and so I was forced to take a 6-week break from running. Not ideal considering Ironman Wales was four months away.
I was also forced to miss my first two triathlons of the year, a Sprint in May and a hilly middle distance race called the Slateman in June.
My coach guided me through a frustrating couple of months and we prepared for my first race of the year, a middle distance tri at Castle Howard in York. I had no idea what to expect from this race due to a fragmented training block, so I was blown away when I finished 10th overall and 3rd in my age group! This was the best result I’d ever had in a triathlon, and a real breakthrough. I was back in action.
Coming into September, I felt mostly ready to face the Dragon.
I’d done more swimming in 2022 than any previous year, and maintaining my race pace felt like it was easier than previous years.
I felt really strong on the bike, and had made a few tweaks to position that meant I was now extremely aerodynamic.
The 6-week break from running really wasn’t ideal, and I was concerned about a lack of mileage.
I’d done fairly consistent strength training (or at least, more consistent than previous years), so I felt stronger than previous years, but that didn’t soothe the fear I felt around running a marathon after swimming 3900m in the sea and cycling 180km of hills.
The opening ceremony of Ironman Wales is simply spectacular.
I got down to the beach for 6am and spent 45mins stretching and warming up under a stunning pink sunrise.
6.45am: 2,000 athletes standing on the beach watching the sun crest over the horizon, thousands more friends and family there to support them, and the whole of Tenby out in force to enjoy the biggest event of the Tenby calendar. The atmosphere was electric.
After a minute’s silence for the Queen, we sang the Welsh national anthem, and this is when I started to feel emotional. I had seen clips of this ritual from previous races, but they hadn’t prepared me for actually experiencing it myself.
This will be a recurring theme throughout this race report. I’d spent three years thinking, dreaming and fantasising about this race, and everything about it was even more special than I’d thought it would be.
Once we’d sang the national anthem, the speakers began to blast Thunderstruck by AC/DC. By this point, everyone in a wetsuit was absolutely buzzing. I was literally jumping up and down with excitement.
I stared out over the sea and tried to burn the moment into my memory forever. The word awesome is overused, but I was overcome with awe:
“an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear”
I was simultaneously grateful to have made it to the starting line without injury (hundreds hadn’t) and completely daunted by what was about to happen. I knew the next 12 hours were going to be tough. I knew they were going to be amazing. I knew some of those hours were going to hurt. And I knew it was all about to start in just over a minute.
The gun fired, and we started to slowly file towards the starting gate. Vertical flamethrowers flanked the gate, and you could feel the heat on your skin as you edged closer and closer.
I ran over the start line, pressed start on my watch, and ran towards the sea.
This marked the beginning of the most terrifying hour of my life.
The waves were crashing into us, and I started to prepare myself for a ‘tricky swim’. As we got further out into sea, the waves got bigger, and I realised I was completely out of my depth. I’d swum in the sea before, but never in waves like this. I was getting tossed around like a sock in a tumbledryer, and was swallowing more salt water than I’d bargained for.
You know that feeling you get in your stomach when you drive over the top of a hill quite fast? A sudden dropping feeling?
The waves were so tall they were causing that sensation every 4 to 5 seconds. You could only see the buoys when you were on the top of the wave, and then you were thrown down into the trough again.
A primitive voice in my head started to tell me I should get out the water. Fight or flight was kicking in, and fight was almost entirely deafened by flight.
When you put 2,000 swimmers into the sea at the same time and ask them to swim in the same direction towards a single buoy, you get carnage. Arms and legs were flying everywhere, and I tried to get myself towards the edge of the pack to avoid being punched or kicked.
This didn’t quite work, and I was punched in the back of the head twice during the first ten minutes. The second punch pushed me to the brink of quitting. I started to imagine being punched a third time and being knocked out. The height of the waves meant I couldn’t see any safety boats or kayaks, and that meant they probably couldn’t see me. I imagined losing consciousness amid the maelstrom and having nobody help me. Drowning is one of my deepest fears, so my already over-active brain went into overdrive.
After that, I started to imagine actually getting out the water and failing to complete the swim, let alone the race. The complete embarrassment of dedicating three years of my life to a race that ended after 10 minutes. I couldn’t imagine having to tell people that.
It sounds strange, but the fear of shame won out over the fear of drowning, and I simply forced myself round the course. There’s probably more to unpack there, but this is a blog, not a therapy session. 🙂
The course was two loops of a triangle, and my pace felt slow on the first two sides. The final side was assisted by the tide pulling us towards the shore, so I made up for lost time there and ended up posting a respectable time of 1h15!
My goal had been 1h15, and I’d had no idea how choppy or traumatic the swim would be, so I was absolutely delighted to get a swim time like this.
Most triathlons involve a short jog of maybe 100-200m from the swim exit to the bike racks, but IMW isn’t most triathlons.
Transition running from the beach, up a zig zag ramp to street level, and then running a kilometre to the bike racks.
The support here was unreal. HUGE crowds on either side of the barriers screaming encouragement at you as you run through the town in your wetsuit. I was grinning the entire way.
I felt good getting on to the bike, and settled into a good rhythm fairly quickly. I was 1,000th out the water, so I spent the first few kilometres of the bike course overtaking people and finding clear road.
Every single bike session I’ve done over the last 18 months has been using a power meter. The session will have a target average power, and intervals will require me to hit certain power targets for fixed lengths of time. I had my power meter connected to my triathlon watch and my bike computer on the front of the bike, which meant I could keep an eye on the averages throughout the race and avoid pushing too hard.
My target was 70% of FTP for the entire race, and I was just slightly over this until 6km, when my power meter completely died.
I spent 10 minutes trying to reawaken it and flicking through menus on the bike computer trying to reconnect while riding, and eventually just gave up.
I had no choice but to ride based on feel, and to keep an eye on my heart rate as a proxy for power.
This was extremely frustrating at first, but looking back, it was also a blessing. Without power data to watch, I was more present while riding, and had more time to take in my surroundings, soak up the energy of the crowds, and chat with fellow riders when we were going up steep climbs.
I have no idea what my power was for the entire race, but if I was to hazard a guess, I’d say it was probably a touch over 70%.
The course features some fun, fast and flat sections for the first couple of hours, and I’d been advised by many people not to get carried away during this section, so I didn’t. I kept repeating “AERO AF” to myself along the course, and tried to be in aero position whenever I possibly could to minimise drag.
I would often see zealous riders attack climbs and surge ahead of me, only to be reeled in on the flat as they presumably experienced lactate build-up and struggled to settle back into aero position. When I was younger, I used to think that attacking hills was a sneaky way to save time, especially as I was small and lightweight. I now do the exact opposite, and do everything I can to preserve my legs for the run!
The support along the course is absolutely incredible. There were climbs in the middle of nowhere that had local cycle clubs cheering at the top of the summits. There were dance parties along flat stretches with people chilling on deck chairs with wine and making a day of it. There was a guy wearing nothing but his underwear holding an unplugged iron. As I passed him, I burst out laughing as I realised he was an iron man.
The support in the towns was also magical. Again, people lining the streets and cheering amateur riders as if we were pros in the peloton. The buzz of the crowds and the smiles along the entire course made it one of the most joyful bike rides of my life.
That joy started to dissipate around 140km when I realised my legs were starting to ache slightly. I had gotten carried away on one particularly energetic climb (Heartbreak Hill coming up from Saundersfoot) and had been high on adrenaline for about 15 minutes,. The high wore off, and I realised I hadn’t been fuelling enough, so I calmed myself down and got back into a rhythm of sipping carb mix, alternating Maurten gels and bars, and taking salt tablets every 20 minutes or so.
Heavy rain began to fall around 160km, and I was so glad my coach had suggested I pack arm warmers. Some of the corners started to feel sketchy, and we were exercising a lot more caution on the dramatic downhills. (My max speed on the day was 72kmh!) I passed a few unlucky riders who had crashed at the foot of the hills, and I focused on getting to the end of the course without joining them in the medical tent, even if that meant losing a few minutes.
I remember riding the final few kilometres and thinking “Oh shit, my legs don’t feel fresh” which probably confirms that I did ride slightly too hard. Unfortunately, due to a lack of a power meter, we’ll never know. I kept a high cadence for the final stretch to prepare my legs for a marathon (lol) and hopped off my bike at T2.
One of the things I’d struggled with during the bike leg was a gradually increasing feeling of bloat. I don’t think I ate too much, but I have a history of mild stomach discomfort, and believe it or not, I’m incapable of burping. I just can’t do it. This means I can often feel quite full after 6 hours of riding with no breaks, and combined with the pint of salty sea water I’d swallowed during the swim, I was starting to feel quite uncomfortable.
I spent T2 trying to get comfortable again, popped into a portaloo, then jogged to the start of the marathon…
It didn’t take long for me to realise that, although it was going to be epic in hindsight, the run was going to suck in the moment.
The rain was pouring down at this stage, and my paper thin aero tri-suit – designed to keep you cool during hot races – was now doing very little to keep heat in.
I still felt bloated, and couldn’t take in any gels or food while running. I went from averaging around 90 grams of carb per hour on the bike, to averaging 0 grams for a 4hr marathon.
My quads also felt tight, and I struggled to “open up” my stride. I was enjoying the support of the crowds, and I was still grateful to be racing after a three-year wait, but my mood gradually declined and I spent the first three hours of the run feeling pretty empty, to be honest.
The course involves running up and down a hill four times. It’s one of the reasons IMW is regarded as one of the hardest courses in the world. After swimming in the sea and climbing 2500m of elevation on the bike, you then run a marathon that has almost no flat sections. You’re either climbing, or you’re descending, and both were hurting for me.
I felt pretty low and disappointed in myself. I’d done all of my brick runs on hills to prepare myself for this marathon, and had done a lot more strength training than the previous year, and yet I felt like my legs were now letting me down. I wasn’t really having fun, and started to question why I’d spent so much of my life preparing for something that wasn’t even enjoyable.
Looking back, I think my low mood was caused by something deeper. I haven’t taken a proper holiday (over a week in length) since 2019. I’d used most of my annual leave on long weekends, or on traveling to places like Paris to run marathons. A fun use of annual leave, but not exactly a relaxing week of rest and recuperation.
I was experiencing symptoms of serious burnout a couple of weeks before the race, and IMW had kept me going during some of the darker moments. It had been a light at the end of the tunnel, and I think I’d expected to feel pure bliss and joy all the way around the course.
These expectations were obviously unrealistic, but when I started to feel low and empty on the run, they made me feel disillusioned.
Thankfully, I saw Geraint and his girlfriend, Elise, halfway through the second lap, and my spirits began to lift. Gradually, my body started to open up, my stomach began to calm down, the rain stopped, and every step was taking me closer to that magical finish line.
I started to feel the runners high around 32km, and enjoyed the final 10km a lot more. The finish line represented the end of a three-year chapter of my life, and the culmination of over 1,000 hours of training. This pushed me on, and after 4 hours 10mins, I turned the final corner and started to approach the red carpet.
I had the beach on my left, and crowds on either side that were just as energetic at 7pm as they had been at 7am.
It was even more magical and cinematic than I’d thought it would be.
100m before the end, there was a huge red Ironman logo with a bell on it that “first-timers” could ring before running down the red carpet.
I HAMMERED that bell. I actually think I nearly broke it.
I was ecstatic as I ran down the finish line, and felt completely satisfied.
The red carpet is a bit of a blur for me, and the photos show just how empty, spent, and stupefied I was. It’s hard to articulate, and for most people, hard to understand, but I absolutely love that feeling of emptiness, of giving every ounce of your being to a challenge and feeling like you really have nothing left.
I crossed the line, stared back in disbelief, took my medal, and then started to cry. There was so much wrapped up in this race, and I’d conquered it. A medic approached me and asked if I was alright, and whether I wanted to go into the medical tent. I didn’t.
I stumbled towards the finishers tent, then saw Geraint and Elise, and cried onto Geraint’s shoulder as I thanked them for supporting me all day. Geraint had signed up for Ironman Wales with me in 2019, but due to injury, had been unable to race. Instead, he had come to Tenby with me and cheered me all the way round the course. I knew it had been tough for him, and I was so grateful.
I continued my coordinated stumble into the finishers tent, found an empty seat, and sat down in silence surrounded by other finishers who were equally broken, all of us staring into our own personal little voids. I sipped some tea, enjoyed the bizarre cocktail of emptiness, exhaustion and silent camaraderie, then made my way back into the real world.
It was one of the best days of my life, and although gruelling, it’s an experience I would recommend to anyone who wants to explore the very outer edges of their limits.
Over the last week, the same questions have come up repeatedly:
Would I have done anything differently on the day?
Truthfully, I can’t think of much else I would have done differently on the day.
On the bike, I might have taken one or two of the hyped up hills (and I really mean just one or two) slightly easier, and maybe eased off the power towards the end of the bike leg, but it’s hard to know whether slightly less power would have yielded a faster run, or whether I would have arrived at the marathon feeling just as tight and uncomfortable as I did on race day, and running a very similar time.
Could I have managed my emotions better on the run? Maybe, but I was really fighting as hard as I could on the day.
When’s my next Ironman?
Not until at least 2024!
I’ve spent three years “training for an Ironman” and orienting my life around it. It requires sacrifices and meticulous time management. I want to enjoy at least a year without that underlying pressure.
When I do take on another Ironman, I’ll be continuing to explore the nutritional dimension of long distance racing, which seems to be letting me down. I’ll also try to do even more strength training, and I’ll try not to be hospitalised by a bike crash in the lead-up to the race.
Some flat Half Ironmans!
Every race I’ve done for the last two years has been full of hills in order to prepare for Ironman Wales.
I’ll be racing two or three half Ironmans next year, and aiming to get on the podium again…
Cross country season!
I joined Highgate Harriers in April so that I could race in the cross country league, and the first race is next month. I’m excited to get muddy and race for a team.
Last year, I cycled the height of Mount Fuji (3778m) by climbing Swains Lane 50 times.
I want to complete a full Everest soon, but I definitely won’t be doing it on Swains.
I’ve missed Parkrun, and the Ironman training plan hasn’t allowed for many “full gas” Parkrun efforts since 2021. I can’t wait to get back into the weekly groove of 9am “not racing”.
If you’ve read this far, you have the patience of a saint. I think this is the longest post I’ve ever written, but that feels fitting as an account of the hardest thing I’ve ever done.