Sunday 23 September 2012

Race report: Ironman Wales, Tenby

Here we go again - for the 4th and final time this year, it's time to pack the car and drive off for an Ironman branded adventure (an Ironventure?). This was the one I'd always expected to be the A-race of the year, the one it was all building up to. It was to be my first full distance race, that is before the Ultimate Challenge was announced by Ironman and I signed up for another two races.

Mrs created a page for us, you can find it at Ironman Ultimate Challenge, on Facebook.

Racing as number 103, for the 4th time - It's a lovely touch to keep the same number

I always expected Ironman Wales to be the toughest one of the four. It had been commonplace to suffix "Ironman Wales" with "the toughest Ironman in the World" and some of that repetition was starting to hit home. I was genuinely concerned about the bike phase and if I'd make the cut-off. Mrs and I had been down to ride at the course twice in recent months, and even a lap of the first loop (the bigger of the two) was taking us about 5 hours.

Definitely a course for a compact chainset (borrowed from my road bike!)...

...and "dinner plate" style 11-28 10-speed cassette

Further stress was as a result of the lead-in to the race being less than ideal. You'll remember that Mrs had a "bit of an off" during Ironman 70.3 Galway a fortnight ago. She broke her collar bone spectacularly and was in a fair amount of discomfort. To our delight the NHS had agreed to her desire to have the bone plated, and there was even a slot available for the surgery. The procedure was completed on the morning of Thursday 13th, the day we had planned to spend packing. This wasn't too much of a problem as Mrs packed on Wednesday, and I packed while she was in hospital.

Despite the operation being booked for 9am, I still hadn't heard anything by 3pm and decided to go and see if I could find her. She spent quite a while in the post-op ward coming round from the anaesthetic and waiting for a bed to become free on a recovery ward. Eventually I caught up with her at a bit before 5pm, and it became rapidly clear she wasn't going to be let home that day. The operation was a complete success, but she was weak and the Doctors wanted to run a few tests. This meant we couldn't get the planned early Friday start - in fact we didn't leave until about 3:30pm.

Regular stops to walk about, plus the horrors of Friday traffic on the M25, meant that we didn't get to Tenby until gone 10pm. Another long day, and not much sleep for quite a few days in a row now. Not the ideal preparation. I was a bit stressed and tired, so polished off my Friday with a couple of pints of Beck's Vier - the relaxation was long overdue, and a couple of medicinal pints now were hardly going to impact my performance. It felt good to finally be back in Tenby, to be gearing up for the big race of the year.

Saturday was quite busy. I'd had no exercise for the last 48 hours and was due a short run before breakfast, just to make sure I could remember how to put one foot in front of the other. I ran through the town and across to North Beach to check out the scene of tomorrow's race. On my way back I bumped into Ultimate Challengers Kate and Charlie Stannett having a heated discussion about where the run course goes. Kate and Charlie are seasoned Ironman competitors, with Charlie having competed in the inaugural Ironman 70.3 World Championships and Kate having competed at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. We first met them in June at Ironman 70.3 UK in Wimbleball, and their easy confidence has helped both me and Mrs grow through the year, and they are credited as the inspiration for the Ultimate Challenge. It felt good to bump into them, it made it feel a lot more like a race weekend. Previously it felt a bit weird, as it was to be the first Ironman race without Mrs on the start line, but now I was starting to get excited.

Picked up a little customisation for race day (I love how it perfectly matches my bike's colours)

Having been here as a volunteer last year I knew the layout. Transition and the expo were in the same place, and our hotel, The Giltar, was right on the finish line. I popped over to register and then headed back to the hotel to pack my blue and red transition bags. Despite my enormous list of Things To Take To An Ironman Race (which has evolved further since I posted wrote it), I find I haven't made a list of what to put in the transition bags. I got a little stressed trying to visualise the transition process and make sure I had everything I needed. It looked about right, let's get on with it!

I put my wheels on my bike (you're in trouble if you forget those), attached my gels, checked the tyre pressures, and headed back to transition to rack and drop off my bags. Having everything close to hand is so much easier. This process alone took half a day at Bolton what with driving around the various venues and getting stuck in traffic jams. Much less stressful here.

Trying to have less to do in T1 here than at Bolton, just the minimum for kit and comfort

With rain expected, towel and dry socks were essential options

We managed a couple of hours rest in the afternoon, and then it was over to North Beach for a quick swim. The sea was lovely - warm and calm, nothing like it was a few weeks ago when we popped over for course reconnaissance.

A hook for the extra shoe bag, a peculiarity of this event, with Goskar Rock in the background

On that weekend the waves were so big as you crested them the next swim stroke was completely out of the water and then you fell forwards about 5 feet, plunging into the next wave. It was very exciting and a bit scary, and would have been a real pain if we'd had to complete 3.8km in it. Thankfully, nothing like that, and I did a quick 10 minute lap of Goskar Rock, the large rock in the middle of the bay. Everything was working well - wetsuit felt comfy, nose clip and neoprene hat were perfect, mirrored/polarised goggles were clean and clear. I felt ready for race day.

Solid nutrition prepared, going with 100% on-bike this time - no bulging pockets required

I popped into the Race Briefing to see if there was anything new (there wasn't), and then it was back to the hotel. After dosing up on white bread and spaghetti bolognese it was time for bed. Again I had no problems sleeping, I'm really pleased I can relax and sleep ahead of a race. I know that a poor sleep the night before doesn't really affect your performance, but that depends on having had a good few nights previously, and I was barely managing 7 hours for most of the week.

Race morning arrived and I was up at 4:30am. Another nice side effect of everything being in the same place was no need for a really crazy early start - a far cry from the 3am alarm I had for Ironman UK in Bolton! We've got race day morning's sorted now, and Mrs helped me with my preparations. Over to transition to pop my solid food filled bento box onto the bike, wetsuit on, and I was ready. Female professional Eimear Mullan was running around looking for elastic bands. She had a last minute mechanical at Ireland, and had needed new pedals here in Wales - she doesn't have much race morning luck! It doesn't seem to impact her performance too much, she won Ironman 70.3 UK and Ironman UK, and came second in Ironman 70.3 Ireland. Sorry I didn't have any elastic bands for you, Eimear!

We were held in a waiting area ready to be marched across town in a great black rubbery procession. I was right at the front. I fidgeted. Although I'd used the toilet when I got up I needed to go again, I decided that it was too late and I'd have to hold it for now. I'd regret that decision later on - twice, in fact. As it was we were held for what felt like about 20 minutes before finally making our way across.

There was plenty of nervous banter in the group. "Is this your first time?", "How much training have you done?" etc. I must appear quite stand-offish in these situations as I don't really want to get involved in these conversations. I prefer to remain centred and settled, thinking about the task ahead. There's no point talking about training now, or joking about what's going to go wrong or how crap you are! I try to stay away from the negativity.

The rubbery procession, lead by Laura Beecroft from Ironman

We were paraded through town to polite early-morning applause, it's a big ask for enthusiasm at 6:15am, but the assembled friends, family, and locals were trying bravely. As there is the same 1 km to go back to transition after the swim exit, we are permitted an extra pair of shoes to put into a yellow carrier bag. An additional set of transition hooks are provided on the ramp up from the beach. My previously mentioned girly feet would be very glad of this. I'd elected to include a pair of socks too so I make sure I don't catch my big toe nail on the inside of my shoe. The toe got very bruised in Bolton 7 weeks ago, and the left side has become detached. It's still held firmly in place on the right side, but the last thing i want is a stupid mistake at the start where I end up tearing it off - I'm convinced that would result in untold pain and a DNF for certain.

We were allowed some time to warm up to the left of Goskar Rock - I was very grateful for this. As I've said previously, I need to introduce myself to the water gently or I end up freaking out and getting very stressed. I get over it in a few minutes, but it's not the best way to start a race. I was right at the front of the procession, and one of the first down onto the beach, and so had a good 10-15 minutes to spend bobbing around and swimming up and down with no pressure or others in close proximity. It did wonders to settle any remaining nerves and get me acclimatised. I felt good, let's get going!

This was to be my first beach start - running down into the water across the sand, doing little jumps over the small breakers like you're competing in the mini-hurdles, and then diving full length into the foam to strike out hard towards the first buoy - it would almost be a crime not to film it and play it back in slow motion with some powerful "male grooming products" style soundtrack over the top (you're a man! You're the BEST!). That's the theory, that's what was in my head (apart from the soundtrack), but it's not quite what happened.

The calm before the storm, the pros have to get into the sea to gain any kind of space

I was hoping to get a good strong start so I positioned myself right at the front. The professionals were held in front of us. They'd been told they were going to have a 30m head start, but they were barely 10m in front, and with everyone edging forwards unstoppably it was more like 5m by the time we were ready to be started. They tried to stay ahead and ended up walking into the water, so their beach start wasn't a beach start at all, more of a thigh-high water start, a no-mans land of neither beach nor deep-water start.

We're off, you can just about see the pros at the front and the first age groupers in

I looked behind me at the hundreds upon hundreds of heads. I know I'm not the fastest swimmer, but I'm used to getting swum over a fair bit so I should be OK.

Wave upon wave of athlete hurling themselves into the shallows, I was already in difficulty

I wasn't. The gun sounded and we ran forward. It's all a complete blur, and I really don't remember much of the first couple of minutes in the water. I think I tried to dive in and start swimming too early, all around me were arms and legs and bodies pushing me down and into the thrashing foam. My nose clip got knocked off almost immediately and I took a few hard punches to the head, one right on my right goggle-eye that left me a bit disoriented. I took in at least three big gulps of sea water as I struggled to find air to breathe. This went on, and on, and on - the battering was relentless as I lost dozens and dozens of places. It's the only time I've been genuinely scared for my safety in a race situation. I couldn't breathe, my arms and legs had instantly filled with so much lactic acid I could hardly move them, and I couldn't keep my head above the water - I wish my heart rate monitor worked in water as I'd love to see how high I went, the thumping in my ears was so loud and fast it sounded like a continuous tone. As if that wasn't bad enough, I started to realise I was relaxing bits of my body that really shouldn't be relaxed in a wetsuit (the first of the two times I would regret not making that final visit to the bathroom), and had to clench hard to avoid extreme embarrassment.

I'm in the middle here somewhere, fearing for my life!

I seriously considered stopping right there and then, but there was no way to do so - when you're in trouble in the swim you should float on your back with your arm in the air, but there would be no chance of being seen and I'd just have got mown down by the whole rest of the pack, so I had to go onwards. I thrashed and panicked my way to the first turn buoy and worked my way round to the far side, in the shadow of the route and out of the way of the never ending stream of swimmers.

I now understand why so many people hold back for free space, might be an idea until I'm more skilled

I clung hard onto the kayak of one of the swim safety marshals and tried to regain my composure. I was soon joined by another swimmer who looked pretty beaten up as well. "Are you guys OK? It looks brutal out there!" asked the marshal. I said I was, I just needed a few minutes to get myself back together and try and relax. My pulse thumped in my ears, and the continuing panic made it hard to think straight. I hung on for a while and felt my arms and legs come back and my breathing start to relax. There's no way I can stop now, I have to go on and complete the Ultimate Challenge. I reassured myself that the discomfort would be temporary, I'd be out and on the bike before long, and could forget about the swim.

I looked around for the next buoy and steeled myself to start swimming again. After a major freak out I find it very hard to get my rhythm and become comfortable. I can't get my head properly in the water -  it takes a good few minutes before I stop making exaggerated head turns to breathe. I got beaten up a bit at the next turn buoy (but nothing like the start) and I needed to tread water on the inside of the turn in order to keep my head above water. I only really started to settle down during the long stretch parallel to the beach. I started reeling people in and overtaking them as I got more and more relaxed, and soon found myself coming to the end of the lap.

A short trot across the beach and it was back in for lap number two. There wasn't much congestion getting back in, and I went slightly to one side to get some clear water. Much better. The first turn buoy came up in just a minute or two - I was amazed at how close it was, it felt like it took an age to get there on the first lap. No hanging on to kayaks this time; a swift left turn and I was off and and on my way. A much less eventful second lap, thankfully. I'd fallen into my usual rhythm which, although not as fast as I can swim, was clearly going to get me to the end of the swim with the minimum of fuss, and after the "fun" of the start that's all I was looking to achieve now.

Despite the rough'n'tumble, it looks like I managed to swim in a straight line

Exiting the water I checked my watch and was somewhat amazed to see 1:09 - that's 6 minutes faster than at Ironman UK, and an average (not including the beach trot) of 1 minute and 49 seconds per 100m. Now there's no way I can sustain sub 1:50 for 3.8km, and with my major problems at the start and the jog on the beach to account for, that meant it would have to have been faster than even that pace. This means one of two things, either a nice favourable current across the long stretch while we were parallel to the beach, or the course was short. In any case, I was out in 1:09 and the swim was behind me.

My Garmin measured the swim at 3.59km in 1:09:22 - taking off 30s for the beach run, and a conservative 30s hanging onto the kayak, that makes 1:08:22 for 3,590m which gives an average of 1:54/100m which is about spot on, and averages very slightly faster than the 1:55/100m I swam at Bolton (in much better conditions). Therefore I think the course was a couple of hundred metres short. But believe me, I'm not complaining!

It's clear from my swim stats that I performed poorly compared to expectations (top 1/3 in the swim or higher). I think my finishing position is a fair reflection of the experience!

  • Swim, 3.8km (3.6km?), 1:09:42
  • 119 out of 204 in my age group (58.3%)
  • 674 out of 1,214 finishers (55.5%)

My yellow bag was easy to find, there are some advantages to being number 103, and within a few seconds my socks and shoes were on. I had planned on a brisk walk across town to transition to get my heart rate under control, it always spikes after the swim and when I set off on the bike, but the crowd were so active and vocal I found myself drawn into jogging along with everyone else. It was here we got our first taste of the level of support that would be with us all day. Every inch of the kilometre back to transition was lined with people, 3 or 4 deep in some places, and the shouting and cheering and relentless cowbelling was deafening. It was amazing! I've never been on the receiving end of anything like it.

I'm the bald one clutching the yellow bag, right in the middle at the bottom

My good friends Rachel and Simon had come down to support for the day, and they along with my Mum and Mrs were cheering away - they'd seen me come out of the swim, but I hadn't spotted them.

T1 was uneventful. I was very careful to make sure my feet were dry, and applied a liberal smearing of liquid chamois elsewhere to protect from what I'll delicately refer to as "intimate chafing". I lost a few minutes at Bolton trying to get arm warmers and my cycling top over wet skin, so this time I wore arm warmers under my wetsuit and all my nutrition was on the bike already so no need for a second top.

1km trot across town, including wibbly bit to pick up my bike and run to the mount line

There was only one way to run to fetch the bike and leave T1 so none of the orientation problems I had at Galway. Apart from a near pile-up as the guys in front ran over the mount line and then instantly stopped and faffed trying to get onto their bikes and blocking the entire road in the process, I was through cleanly and accelerated off up the road for the 112 mile ride. I looked forward to the next phase and put the swim far out of my mind.
  • Transition 1, Swim to Bike, 12:39
After my fast and enjoyable ride at Galway where I learned the value of pacing and holding back, I aimed to take all of that into this race. I set off at a moderate pace, comfortable on my tri-bars, and not putting too much power down. The first of the three passes through Lamphey came up quickly. This was where the course split out on the first lap with an extra loop. I turned left and set off out to Angle.

The ride out to Angle is relatively flat with just one slow hill coming out of Pembroke - it's not overly steep but is quite long. The rest of the route is undulating to say the least with little to no flat at all, and one or two exposed areas where we'd been warned about headwinds.

Looking fresh on the way down to Angle (not sure why I'm not on the tri-bars though...)

I started to get quite a level of discomfort about an hour in. I often have some "wind" to expel after the swim, though that's much less of a problem now than it used to be (I ended up crippled over in pain at the Virgin Active London Triathlon a couple of years ago). I put it down to how I breathe in the water, and can only assume I'm getting better at making sure the air goes into my lungs and not my stomach (though massive under-water burps are hilarious and pleasing distraction in a long swim).

With a little adjustment in position on the bike (and some good core muscle control) the air can normally be released without much of a problem, but after a few minutes of that it was clear that this was a bigger deal. I really began to curse not making that bathroom trip earlier, life was getting very uncomfortable! The first feed station was at Angle, the Westerly tip of the course and there are usually portable toilets at the feed stations. After clenching for dear life on the last 5km into Angle I was overjoyed to find a toilet. All I'll say about the experience is: 1) I've never been so happy to find a full roll of toilet paper in a portaloo; 2) local seismologists will be puzzling for decades over the unexpected tectonic activity they picked up on that chilly September morning. Moving swiftly on...!

I felt relaxed and comfortable now, and slowly started picking off the places I'd lost while I was stopped. Having some familiarity with the course was a real bonus, I knew when I could open up and take full advantage of a downhill, and when I needed to push a bit harder to get some momentum up the other side. On a few occasions I flew past groups who were struggling up a hill as they hadn't known it was there, and had failed to use the preceding downhill to maximum effect. Just like at Bolton and Wimbleball, I was grateful for the time we'd spent on reconnaissance.

The bike route - left loop is only completed on the first of the two circuits

I worked my way through Pembroke which had an odd little out and back section in the town centre, and back to Lamphey for the second time. Straight on this time, and onto what is in my opinion the hardest section of the course, up to Narberth. There are steeper hills on the course, but I find this part quite relentless in the long gentle climbs. This section is more sparsely populated and in some places there's not much to look at either, so it's mentally quite tiring. I found a good gear and settled in, chewing up the miles. I still felt strong, I was keeping on target with solid nutrition, a little behind on fluids but nothing to worry about too much.

In one town there was a young boy by the side of the road in Templeton, a mile or two before Narberth, shouting out everyone's positions - thanks kid, nice touch! He said I was in 599th place. I'm happy enough with that!

Before long I reached Narberth and one of the recognised challenging climbs on the course. It's a tough steep climb into the village, and I could hear the cheering before I'd even rounded the corner and come into view. The support was phenomenal, hundreds of people were out in this small town all shouting and waving. Pubs had their doors wide open and music on full blast - there was a real carnival atmosphere. It was incredible. You can't help but dig a bit deeper, turn the pedals a bit quicker, and make an effort to look strong and smile. I've never been in an event that's had this kind of competitor support form the locals, the other Ironman races were good but this was really a step beyond. Thank you, Narberth.

Out of the saddle on one of the short tough climbs at the end of the circuit

Passing through Narberth is a big psychological step, it means there's only around 20km left on the lap, and that shouldn't take too long. The hills came and went until the next area of massive support, and that was Saundersfoot, and in particular what was considered to be the hardest hill on the course coming up from almost sea level right up onto the coastal cliff. I praised my decision to fit a compact (34/50) crank onto my bike. It normally has a road crank (39/53) and I think that would have killed my legs. With amazing crowd support, and more than a few wheel-spins, I pushed up the hill and made a few places in the process.

Before long I swept down into Tenby, shot across the small double roundabout, and was off on the second and shorter lap. I checked my watch, just over four hours and I was about 110km in. The test rides we'd done had taken five hours to go this far, so I was making good time.

There is no flat to be found on the Ironman Wales bike course

The second lap was plagued by squalls of cold rain, drops like needles stinging my exposed shoulders and arm pits. The going was definitely tougher. I took the descents a lot more carefully, and around half way round needed to take my glasses off as they were covered with crap from the road and had steamed up. I spent a lot of time riding on the hoods now rather than the tri-bars - partly as I wanted to be nearer the brakes, and partly fatigue.

It's at around this time, five to six hours in, that my lack of deep base fitness and very long bike rides on my tri-bike start to have an impact. I'm just not used to riding for this long, and certainly not used to holding an aero position on the bike for this long. Sitting up is slower, less aerodynamic, and less efficient but the change in position makes it easier to stretch out your legs and back and certainly helps comfort. Before I take on a long course race again I need to make sure I'm comfortable over six hours or more on my tri-bike.

Heart rate shows steady over 1st lap (0-4 hours) then drops off, could have pushed much harder

I was overtaken by a few local ambiwlans (ambulances) and soon came across a number of crashes at the bottom of steep hills. Maybe they made a bad wheel/brake choice for the conditions, or just overcooked it. It pays to be a bit cautious when the weather turns and there's still a lot of race left.

Speed echoes heart rate - big drop on lap 2 in the rain

A fair amount less support in Narberth the second time due to the cold and rain, but those that were still out were highly vocal and again made a big difference to all the athletes. I managed to keep it shiny-side-up and got back to Tenby in one piece, rolling in to T2 after a bit over 7 hours. I was expecting to come in somewhere between 7 and 8 hours, and despite having slowed considerably over the last 40km I was still in the pleasing end of the bracket so I shouldn't complain too much.
  • Bike, 180km, 7:07:49
  • 127th out of 204 in age group (62.3%)
  • 660th out of 1,214 finishers (54.4%)
Unlike the guy behind me, I managed to dismount both before the line, and without falling off. I'd managed to avoid thrashing my legs too much (as can clearly be seen by not even getting into the top half on the bike), and I felt like I had saved some good effort for the run. T2 at Ironman UK in Bolton had taken an age. I needed the time to recover mentally after a tiring and poorly managed ride and spent time applying sun cream, using the toilet, eating a bagel I'd put in my bag, and all manner of other things. All important at the time, but not ideal if you're in a hurry. I didn't feel the need to do all that this time, I felt good and wanted to get out onto the run.

My feet were dripping wet and I was monumentally grateful for having put a small towel and spare socks (with talcum powder in) in my run bag. I'd had spare socks in every race, and had never changed them until today. I took the time to make sure my feet were properly dry - the last thing I wanted was a blister-plagued marathon.

I slipped on my wonderfully light Brooks T7 Racers, and ran out of transition and off for the final leg of the race.
  • Transition 2, Bike to Run, 07:12
The run was four laps and consisted of two main sections. At the start of the lap you're directed out of Tenby for an out-and-back section. This is a long uphill of maybe 3-4km, a dead turn at the end, and a long downhill back with a wibbly bit along the way to collect your lap-marker arm band. Once back in town the course winds tightly around the centre with several narrow parts, right angled turns and absolutely no flat whatsoever. Just like the bike, I don't think there's a single flat spot on the whole run course.

The complete run course with the long out and back hill clearly visible

I felt strong and set off at high cadence and good pace. I caught a glimpse of my Father-in-law as I left transition and tried to wave, hopefully he saw. Both of Mrs' parents had come down for a few days; it really was nice that people had made such an effort to come and lend their support. Just like at Bolton it made a big difference knowing there were some close family and friends out there rooting for you.

I'd followed my nutrition plan to the letter and therefore, as had worked in previous races, I would eat and drink as and when I felt like it on the run. My first kilometre was a bit fast at just under 6 minutes, so I backed off and settled in to 6-6:30/km.

Close up of the twisty-turny Tenby contortions, may no road be left un-shuffled upon

I held this pace for the first few laps. The crowd support was outrageous - cheering, clapping, cowbelling, all sorts of kitchen objects being hit with kitchen implements, it was a truly amazing experience. Thank you so much Pembrokeshire for coming out in such force. I caught sight of my Mum at the end of my second lap and gave her a quick hug (longer than intended, she wouldn't let go!), and then spotted Simon and Rachel across the other side so they got hugged too. Another friend, James, had also come to support so I zigged and zagged my way back across and he too was hugged. No supporter to be left un-hugged!

Already there were athletes who had finished and checked their stuff out of transition walking their bikes home or to wherever they were staying. They looked like they finished hours ago! I cursed them in a good natured way. Such parading of superior athletic ability shouldn't be allowed when the rest of us are still out here!

At the start of lap 2, still feeling good and on-pace at this point

My Garmin Forerunner 910 XT was behaving perfectly today, and at the end of the second lap I let myself check my overall time. I had no plans to hit a certain time today, it was all about getting to the end and completing the Ultimate Challenge, and so I hadn't thought about what a suitable finishing time might be. However, with the closing stages of the race ahead I allowed my thoughts to turn to what final time I might achieve, and if it could be quicker than the 13:17:45 I'd clocked at Ironman UK. My watch said 11:48 elapsed, that meant I had 2:29 to run the 20km of the final two laps if I was going to PB. On any other day it would be no problem, but this was the last 20km of a 225km race, so anything could happen.

I held a reasonable pace for the third lap and completed it in 1:12, leaving 1:17 for the fourth and final lap. Thoughts of a PB drifted away as the fourth lap unfolded and I got slower and slower. I suffered from some pain in first my left knee, and then my right. I kept my cadence up, above 85, but just couldn't find the pace. I dropped to around 7:30-8:00/km. I was pleased that I didn't walk (apart from one tiny steep downhill that I didn't think my knees could handle running down), that was a big psychological victory over Bolton where I did a considerable amount of walking.

Both my cadence and...

...heart rate dropped off sharply on lap 4

Clearly resulting in a dramatic reduction in pace - I just couldn't hold it for the final 10km

My spirits were kept up by a couple of American athletes who recognised my IM Talk tri-suit, and again by the fantastic support form the crowd and marshals. Special mention must go to the group of young girls at The Croft who were marshalling the dead turn point there, they were relentless in their incredibly loud and motivating support for each and every weary athlete - amazing work, the volunteers were all just brilliant!
I finally got to the end of the lap and was able to turn left down to the finish. Father-in-law thrust a big union jack flag into my hand, and I held it over my head as I ran down the finishing chute. Ironman MC Paul Kaye shouted out that I'd now completed all four UK and Ireland Ironman events, and that I, Norman Driskell, was an Ultimate Ironman!

Amazing photo, courtesy of Simon Rowe

The run was slow, but the primary objective had been met - and that was to finish the race.
  • Run, 42.2km (though Garmin GPS logged it as just 39.8km), 4:45:42
  • 163rd out of 204 in my age group (79.9%)
  • 920th out of 1,214 finishers (75.8%)
Mrs, who was gutted at not being able to compete, having had a plate put in her shoulder just a few days ago following her bike crash at Ironman 70.3 Ireland, had spent most of the day volunteering at the finish line handing out medals. She was waiting for me there with all four of my 2012 Ironman finishers' medals, and placed them all over my head together. Perfect!

The Mayor of Tenby, councillor Trevor Hallett, deserves a big mention too, by all accounts he was there to award medals to the first finishers, and then stayed all day and handed out the finishers' medal to almost every other athlete. He looked to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and tried to give me another finishers' medal after I'd already got mine from Mrs!

The classic finishing shot

It was the best possible way to end the race, and I'm so happy and proud of her still being a big part of the day, giving up her time to contribute and help out when so many others would have spent the days after a big operation in the house complaining about how unfair it all was. Yes, it isn't fair that she couldn't finish the Ultimate Challenge, but I think she's embodied the Ultimate Ironman spirit more than any of us, and it's given us a great set of stories to tell round the campfire in the future.
  • Total race time, 13:23:07
  • 140th out of 204 in my age group (68.6%)
  • 775th out of 1,214 finishers (63.8%)
I needed some help walking, so leaned heavily on Mrs as I went through to post-race food, collected my white bag, and then picked up my blue and red bags and bike from transition. Again I reflected on how much simpler it was when everything was in the same place.

Check out all the metalwork!

I didn't feel up to dancing on the finish line, so we rocked it from our room balcony instead. We had a great view over the finish and cheered as loudly as anyone else. Three bottles of champagne later (probably not the best recovery drink, but I don't care!) and it was time to turn in and make sure I was up for the awards ceremony tomorrow. Apologies to those finishing at just over 16 hours that were surprised by the champagne cork fired on to the red carpet, that came from my balcony...

View from our balcony of the Mayor of Tenby running the last few metres with the final finisher

The next morning we were kindly given a lift over to the awards ceremony by my parents-in-law. I don't know why a venue couldn't be found in Tenby, but as it was we needed to drive out to Carew Airfield. There were some refreshments laid on, and Paul Kaye got proceedings under way in his usual up-beat style. He announced the pro winners, age group winners, and then a special category for those successfully completing the Ultimate Challenge.

The Mayor continued his fine work, and presented all the awards to pros and age groupers

The times the pros had put in were astounding on this course, including quite a few sub-3 hour run times not just from the pros but from the leading age group athletes too.

The Magnificent Seven of Ultimate Finishers 2012

From Left to right:

And a massive shout out to the ones who started the journey, but for one reason or another didn't make it to the end:

  • Matt Pritchard (100, M35-39) - Did not start Wimbleball
  • Charlie Stannett (102, M55-59) - Missed bike cut-off in Bolton
  • Kate Driskell (104, F40-44) - Did not start Wales after bike crash in Galway
  • Stuart Barr (106) - Did not start Wimbleball
  • Russel Cox (107) - Did not finish Wimbleball after a huge mechanical on the bike

It's also worth noting that Eimear Mullan completed all four UK and Ireland Ironman races too, but was not one of the Ultimate Challenge crew as she hadn't signed up for all four races up front at the start of the season.

Successful Ultimate Challenge finishers were given a t-shirt and jacket, and a glass commemorative photo frame engraved with the four races and the year. Getting up on stage as an ultimate finisher was a high point of the whole experience and what the year had been about for me. I was so proud to be there, the only way it could have been better is if Mrs was by my side - but she got a big mention in the lead up to our awards, and a round of applause for her heroic performance in Ireland.

The Ultimate Finishers' limited edition jacket

After another day in Tenby we headed over to Newbridge-on-Usk for a week of relaxation, beer, and far too much food. That's where I am now, enjoying my last few days before going back to the real world on Monday.

At Terry M at the Celtic Manor Resort, proof that Ironmans own more than just lycra!

Not a bad year's work


  1. Well done! You and Mrs are an absolute inspiration, looking forward to next season's supporters club outings :) x

  2. awwesome stuff. will inspire me to race ironman wales 2013 and i hope do what you have done in the future. hope your wife recovers soon and you are also healing well too.

    i know what you mean about burping to keep a long swim fun.

    thanks a million

    1. Thanks Nick - go for it, it's an experience you won't forget, but it gets quite addictive (maybe not straight after you've finished, but once the aches start to retreat you find yourself talking about "next time" without even realising you're doing it). Wife is doing well, stitches out on Thursday we hope. Glad it's not just me that burps underwater!

  3. Hello norm
    Thanks for a great blog.
    I'm competing in the ironman wales this year but was never aware of the ultimate ironman.
    Is this ran annually or was it a one off? I like to try this in the future.
    Ian shaw

  4. Congrats on an aersome finish, Norm! I'm not sure if I'll ever do Wales, but in my bucket list it is! ;)