I hadn't really planned to race Ironman Wales; it just sort of happened. In the fall of 2010, a friend had said that he planned to race Ironman St. George, a notoriously difficult course, in May of 2011. I was planning on spending the winter really focusing on marathoning, with the goal race being Shamrock in March, so I knew I wouldn't really be ready for a May Ironman. But improper preparation has never stopped me from bullishly flinging myself toward nearly certain doom, so I went to the IMSG webpage to sign up, only to find that it had closed out moments before. I was surprised -- it hadn't looked close to full -- but by then I had come around to the idea of doing an Ironman this year, and in my disappointed internet wanderings, I noticed that the inaugural Ironman Wales had opened for registration on that very day. I'd never been to Wales but love that area of the world, so I decided, why not? It looked beautiful and, if the videos and pictures on the website were to be believed, calm and sunny.
It even appeared that the resort town of Tenby, where the race was staged, offered a calming Spanish guitar backdrop, which seemed like it would be great during an Ironman run.
And so, with about 30 seconds of consideration, I signed on the line and broke my post-Cozumel vow never to race another inaugural Ironman. Fittingly, an hour later, IMSG registration re-opened; it turns out that it was just a temporary website malfunction. But fate is fate, and mine apparently was once again to serve as a hard-luck guinea pig in World Triathlon Corporation's macabre laboratory.
Happily, throughout the winter and spring, I found myself very much looking forward to the race. I'd taken a much-needed year off from Ironman in 2010 after racing that distance for four years running (although I'd wish I'd done more running in the races themselves), and I was recharged and ready to go. I spent the winter focusing on running -- I didn't do a single bike workout for six months -- and, at the Eugene Marathon in early May, managed a 3:07 PR that qualified me for Boston in 2012. I'd set PRs in the run portion of every triathlon I'd competed in over the summer. And, in addition, I'd set PRs in the Mountains of Misery double metric century, Diabolical Double double metric century rides, and I'd put down the fastest AG bike split at the DC Tri, so I felt ready to go. As insurance, I'd really cranked up the cycling volume in August, at one point doing extremely hilly 300k (190 mile) and 200k (125 mile) rides three days apart, and feeling strong throughout.
Still, I had some concerns. Most notably, early reports from Europeans who'd pre-ridden the Wales course suggested that it could be... memorable. In early June, the race organizers had hosted a "Long Course Weekend" in which athletes could practice the swim course on Friday, the bike course on Saturday, and the run course on Sunday. Unfortunately, it seems that there was an exceedingly strong current ripping right through the swim course, and it literally flung the swimmers hundreds of yards out to sea. In fact, it was strong enough that the kayakers couldn't even reach them. In the picture below, the swimmers are attempting to get from the bottom buoy straight to the top one, and the current is moving from left to right:
|Swimmers trying to go straight from the near buoy to the far one. Fail.|
A number of people who attempted that practice swim were sufficiently terrified that they immediately withdrew their registrations. It sounded, frankly, nightmarish, and early feedback on the bike and run course made it clear that this would be a race for the ages, with more hills than Placid and very steep ones (16% grade) to boot. As one professional triathlete put it, "The bloke who designed this course is either incredibly fit or has never raced an Ironman." Everyone agreed that it might be the slowest course on the Ironman circuit.
As if the difficulty of the course itself weren't enough, the weather reports leading up to the race looked like a sick joke. Apparently the race would be taking place in the tail end of the hurricane system that had slammed the east coast of the United States the week before. When you're planning for an Ironman, basically the last thing you want to read is that surfing conditions are predicted to be historically terrific, but that's what we were told: 40+ mph winds and driving rain seemed to be our destiny. The predictions also called for 11' swells. Swell.
I had very mixed feelings about all of it. I felt truly ready, training-wise. At the same time, though, my last three Ironman races had been disasters; I'd just fallen apart on the runs and wound up with splits approaching 5 hours for the marathon. I knew I could do much better, but it's very intimidating to have to prove it on an extremely difficult course in conditions unsuited to man or beast. In a nod to the conditions, I did at least cover my bases by bringing along as Zipp 404 front wheel, in addition to my normal race 808.
|Ruins on the grounds of the abbey|
|The lodge at Penally Abbey, where we stayed, with the ocean in the background|
The Wales expo was a step up from Cozumel's -- more triathlon gear, less native art -- but it was largely deserted. I spent some time in the 110 Play Harder tent, where I tried on some really cool compression gear with sleeves made for their custom ice packs. It's like an ice bath without the ice bath, and I'd have gotten some but for the fact that the pricing was higher there than it is back in the U.S. I highly recommend checking it out. I also made friends with Michi Hange, a 48-year-old German who, I learned, is racing solo RAAM (Race Across America) next June. That's simply a sick endeavor: 3000 miles in about 10 days. I began to realize that the guys racing Wales may be tough bastards. Given my proclivity for biting off more than anyone should try to chew, Michi's comment that I "have the perfect build for RAAM" was arguably unhelpful. :-)
Meanwhile, it turns out that conditions were of concern to more than the athletes. At Friday's pre-race briefing, the race directors informed us that the swim might be moved from the south beach of Tenby, right below the transition area, to the northern part of north beach, which is clear across town, nearly 3/4 of a mile away. We were told to stay tuned, and that, on Saturday morning, a final decision would be made. On Saturday, they confirmed that the swim would indeed be moved, and that we'd therefore have to plan to run approximately 1k up a steep ramp to the top of the cliff at north beach, and then across town. We were instructed to bring a pair of running shoes -- but not the "run" running shoes, which would be in our gear bags -- to the swim start on race morning. It promised to be one of the longer transitions in the history of triathlon.
|The swim was moved from right under the "South Beach" notation to the northern part of the orange strip denoting North Beach. The transition area is just above South Beach.|
|Thar she blows!|
I did manage to get in an easy swim in my new wetsuit, a Blue Seventy Helix. Despite the conditions, I felt solid -- the neoprene cap and boots did wonders.
|I defeated the practice swim.|
After racking the bike, Emily and I headed out to drive the course I'd heard so much about. The layout was an odd one: a first loop of 70 miles, and a second of 40 that duplicated the last 40 of the first one.
|The ride starts in Tenby, on the far right, and goes southwest around the western loop, before heading back east and then north around the second loop. Riders then repeat the second loop again|
The first 15 miles didn't seem so bad -- a few climbs to get the legs warmed up, but nothing that would be out of place at Ironman Wisconsin or Placid. It skirted south from Tenby largely along the coast. One thing I quickly noticed is that the roads were extremely narrow, with no shoulders whatever and frequently with high walls or hedges on both sides. As often as not, they were effectively one lane, such that a car had to pull half off of the road in order to pass another one coming the other direction. These walls and rows, I assume, are designed to protect sheep and cattle from the wind, but in order to get in and out of the properties, the walls and hedges are punctuated with large gates that you can't see until you're almost on top of them. These gates allow the wind to pass through freely, such that you can be buzzing along happily until you reach a gate and are suddenly slammed with a 40-mph sidewind. Local athletes told me it wasn't uncommon for riders to be blown clear across the road. Lovely.
The western loop proved to have somewhat unusual terrain -- very open and grassy. In this region, there's really nothing to shield one from the gale, although the whitecaps in the background were very pretty.
|Angle, on the western-most point of the bike course. The grass reveals that it's not so calm out.|
|You'll notice my hair blowing in the breeze.|
The eastern/northern loop, which we'd do twice, seemed pretty hilly, with a couple of climbs in the range of 15-17%. Still, there were cool castles tucked away here and there, as well as little villages that were bedecked in celebratory streamers and signs. In all, I thought I could handle it.
The run course, in contrast, was a huge unknown. Well, actually, it was all too known: four out-and-backs, where each "out" was straight up a hill for a couple of miles, then back down the hill, before looping through Tenby, which itself is hilly as heck. I knew it would be a tough day. I just hoped it wasn't pouring rain for the entire race.
Given the difficulty of the day, I decided to simplify as much as possible by carrying all of my nutrition with me, and just replenishing water on the bike. That meant a bottle of CarboPro 1200 on the downtube (1200 calories), plus 6 gels and 3 mini Clif Bars scotch-taped to the top tube. I got a good night's sleep, had my traditional pre-race meal of oatmeal with raisins and walnuts and topped with a Honey Stinger gel, and chased with a couple of stroopwafels. I felt ready to go!
Inexplicably, we left the B&B to find something I never expected: it wasn't raining! Perhaps it would be my day after all. We parked in town near the transition area, and I got my bike set to go, putting the computer on auto-pause to minimize distractions in T1. For whatever reason, there was no body marking. The winds were blowing stuff everywhere and the temperature was about 55 degrees. It was expected to peak around 60, so I was undecided whether to wear arm warmers, which I left in my bike gear bag. We headed off on the 15-minute walk to the swim start at North Beach.
North Beach in Tenby is a world-famous coastline; it was ranked by National Geographic as the second-most pristine coastline in the world, or something to that effect. And its rugged beauty really is something to behold.
|View looking north from the top of the cliffs along North Beach.|
|View from the cliffs, looking south this time toward where the picture above was taken. The colorful town of Tenby is easily seen. Also, the cliffs are high.|
|I make neoprene look damn good.|
|Off to battle!|
|I'm pretty sure I had theme music, which unfortunately you can't hear in this picture.|
|It turns out that there were other athletes in the race.|
|It's cold! I don't want to go back in there.|
|Many Germans. Almost no women. I'm about the fattest guy there.|
|Happy to be swim-free!|
|Up and at 'em.|
|Meet the tunnel of pain. Note the sand.|
|It was long. It was steep. And it hurt, a lot. Yeah, we went up there.|
|The air up there -- top of the climb on race day.|
It briefly occurred to me that, a mere 25 miles in, I shouldn't be feeling so gassed. But I wasn't pushing too hard. It was just a fight for every mile against the elements, and in that war, we were all losing. The first aid station wasn't until mile 25, which, given that I was only carrying one bottle of water, was pushing things a bit, but I hoped the cool day would help me out.
One thing I noticed: cyclists in Europe are f-i-t dudes. There's something inherently demoralizing about finding yourself surrounded by guys named Klaus and Hans on a bike course. There doesn't seem to be the culture of Ironman participation in Europe and the UK that you find in the States: races don't sell out, but the people who register aren't thinking anything about cutoffs. They're simply hard blokes, in the local parlance.
|The castle at Carew, as seen from the bike course.|
|The quaint town of Narbeth.|
One thing I've finally learned, I think, is to listen to what my body is telling me, and to push myself as hard (but only as hard) as I can go at the moment. I'd set my marathon PR at Eugene by running entirely without a watch -- purely on feel -- and I decided to do the same thing at Wales. I figured that my watch couldn't tell me anything more than my body was; if I were behind goal pace, I'd risk getting discouraged or speeding up and blowing up, and if I were ahead of it, I'd risk slowing myself down and potentially not getting out of myself everything I had to give. Unfortunately, the need to trust my system was immediately tested by the fact that, in T2, I looked at the Fuel Belt full of Carbo Pro 1200 and realized that I wanted nothing to do with more of that stuff. So I headed out on the course resolved to live off of the land, whatever it brought me.
The run course proved to be every inch as difficult as people had said. The first two miles of each loop were straight up a long hill nearly as steep as Skyline Drive or Stafford Street, for Arlington locals. After cresting the hill, you'd turn around and run back south to Tenby, before looping around through very hilly parts of the town.
|Cruising toward the end of loop 1.|
|Take this jacket and shove it. :-)|
For the whole of the last lap, I'd been trading off with a blonde girl who seemed to run at a consistent pace, no matter what, come hill or descent, aid station or not. And, as we rounded the last straightaway toward the finish with her about 10 yards in front of me, I decided to stick up for mankind everywhere and hoof it to the line. And so I did, and thereby scored a minor victory in what was truly a major war. Given how the day I had gone, I'd been hoping against hope to sneak in under 12 hours. When I saw 11:38 on the scoreboard, I knew I'd put a serious run together at last.
|I'm on television!|
|Bringing it home.|
|Winning. With armbands.|