Ironman Wales – James Williamson

Ironman Wales 2019

For the past 9 years Ironman Wales has descended on the seaside town of Tenby in Pembrokeshire for a weekend in September.

The race has gained a reputation for being one of the toughest courses on the Ironman circuit – a 2.4 mile sea swim in the bay, followed by a very lumpy 112 miles on the bike and finally a marathon course around the town which also has barely a mile of flat road in it. Whilst the course is brutal the support you receive is incredible and what makes the race really special.

I completed/survived my first Ironman here in 2016 and three years on was going into this year’s race with a loftier goal of trying to qualify for the World Championships, which take place in Hawaii every October. To qualify you have to finish in the top positions within your age group and based on previous years it looked like a top 4 placing out of roughly 280 starters in my 30-34 category would be needed. The race had sold out in record time with around 2300 athletes down to start, so it was unlikely to be lonely out there!

We travelled to Tenby on the Saturday morning and the day before always passes quickly with the pre- race admin – registration, bike racking, race briefing and trying not to spend a fortune at the expo. The rest of the day spent staying off my feet as much as possible and ignoring Kat’s helpful warnings of how many sharks she had spotted in the bay!

After a plain tuna pasta dinner (whilst the support crew tucked into fish and chips and beers) it was early to bed for the usual 30 minutes of sleep! The nerves had built up pretty high during the two week taper but once into the race weekend and the usual routine everything settles down and I was just really looking forward to the race, and putting all the training to the test.

Race morning and the weather was looking about as perfect as it can get in Wales, no rain forecast, relatively light winds and temps in the high teens. Unique to this race is the athletes are paraded on a 1km walk from the transition area down to the beach for the start. This is where you experience the insane levels of support for the first time; there are thousands of people lining the barriers. And not just friends and family of the athletes, it seems 90% of the town/county are here and all the shops are open and selling bacon sarnies and drinks. Nuts for 6am on a Sunday!

Once on the beach, I found myself further back than I wanted so had to do some weaving and jump a fence to get nearer the front. Although your time only starts when you cross the line, tactically I knew it was important to start as close as possible to the front. With 5 minutes to go the Welsh National Anthem plays and the noise echoing around from the spectators on the cliffs above is ridiculous. Even though it’s my 3rd time at the race it still gave me goose bumps and I made sure to take it all in as my heart rate increased. The moment the gun goes is brilliant as you no longer think about what if’s but just focus purely on the process of racing.

I started hard and got into a good rhythm but quickly realised my googles had completely fogged up (not something that had ever happened with this pair but expect the unexpected!) After blindly following the crowd for a bit I had to pause to let some water into them whilst trying not to get swum over. Immediate improvement and the rest of the swim passed very uneventfully. The sea was lovely and calm and not a Jellyfish in sight (a real rarity for Tenby).

On exiting the swim I glanced down at my watch and saw 1hr04 which gave me a big boost. Not up there with the real fish yet but I knew the time gaps to those ahead would be within reach.

Swim : 1hr05 167th Overall / 28th age cat

The challenging nature of the race extends to the transitions with T1 requiring you to don your trainers at the beach and run over a kilometre through the town to get to where your bike is racked. Bonus run distance is fine by me and I pushed this pretty hard knowing that a minute or two gained here could make the difference at the end.

Heading out on the bike the first 40 miles are relatively flat with just a few short climbs as you head west to one of the most scenic points of the course at Freshwater West. In 2017 this section was treacherous as gales blew sand across the road and it was a struggle just to keep the bike upright. No such drama this year and I was really enjoying the early stages and making good progress up the field. At 40 miles I saw the support crew for the first time and they told me I was in 10th place in the age group and 9 minutes down on 4th.


“No danger of not hearing the time splits from Kat”

From this point on the bike course gets very challenging with climb after climb, nothing too long but just relentless and measuring your effort becomes key. The game plan was always to push on from this point as people start to tire and feeling good I began to reel in more riders and started to recognise names that I had identified before the race as likely contenders. Passing the crew for the 2nd time at 80 miles the gap was about the same at 10mins and still in 9/10th position which gave me another boost as I felt confident if I came off the bike within 15 minutes of the spots I’d be in the hunt on the run.

Towards the end of the loop you encounter the two steepest climbs at Wisemans Bridge and St Brides Hill. The latter of these hills attracts all the spectators, a lot of whom are in fancy dress and seem to have already been on the vino for a while.. They line the climb on both sides and part as you ride up, reminiscent of the Tour de France. It is impossible not to light the fuse up here and go way harder than you should!

Once these climbs were dispatched for the 2nd time I knew it was all downhill into Tenby and my mind turned to the upcoming marathon.

Bike time : 5hrs29 Up to 41st overall / 8th age cat

Racking my bike and transition was probably the emptiest I’ve seen it at an Ironman event so I knew the bike split must have been alright.

Starting the run always feels great after 112 miles trying to hold an aero position on the bike so it’s easy to go out too hard. My plan was to hold back slightly for the first half and then commit everything in the back half of the marathon. From experience, this is where people really come apart and times gaps can be erased very quickly, especially with the tough nature of this race.

The course was 4 laps of just over 10.5km, heading out of town and uphill for 2 miles before returning down the hill and then doing a couple of miles in and out of the cobbled streets around town. Definitely not your usual pan flat triathlon run route!

The first two laps I was definitely not feeling good and although holding back the effort was hard already. The time gap was still hovering around 10 minutes to 4th place and I had not made up any further positions in the category. Doubts started to creep in at this point that I would not have the legs to maintain or pick up the pace but I just kept reminding myself that people always crack in the last half marathon and I just had to keep doing what I could in the moment

I could tell from the support crew they were getting nervous that the gaps were not coming down (Kat was especially quiet at this point) but they were doing an incredible job of popping up all over the place and giving me time checks.

“Ali still giving me abuse/support in the early stages of the run!”

Going out on the 3rd lap was time to see what I had left and I picked up the pace, picking a point in the distance such as an aid station or turn-around and just running as hard as possible to there. Surprisingly my body responded and I actually started to feel slightly better the harder I went. I was aware on this lap of passing a couple of guys who looked around my age and coming back into town the crew (in particular my friend Ali!) were going crazy that the gaps were coming down quickly. I had moved up to 6th and was around 6 minutes down on 4th. Thinking about it now still gives me goose bumps and their energy really focussed me and I lifted the pace again. When I came out of town to start the last lap they were getting even more animated as I had moved into 4th place. I had no idea now what the time gap to the next athlete in 3rd was or who was chasing me but it didn’t really matter as I was running at my limit.

Collecting my last lap band at the top of the hill meant it was just 2 miles mostly downhill to the finish. I was starting to cramp in my neck (never had that before) and legs, and my vision was starting to go a bit blurry but knew it was only around 15 minutes of pain left so pushed again. I was aware of overtaking a couple of athletes with the same number of bands as me but had no idea what category they were in.

Clipping the last couple of corners the red finish carpet looms into view and the incredible feeling of heading straight on to the finish instead of turning right onto another lap. Normally it is nice to ease up on the finish chute and soak up the support and emotions but being unaware of time gaps I kept the pace up until the line.

Run time : 3hrs18

26th overall out of 1876 finishers / 4th out of 229 finishers in age group

The main emotion when finishing was just relief that I could finally stop moving! This was quickly replaced by desperately wanting confirmation of the result. I shuffled through the finish area and found the others who confirmed the result and barring any changes in slot allocation I had qualified for the 2020 World Championships.

Like transition earlier in the day the athlete recovery area was eerily quiet and I reluctantly ignored the pizza and sweet treats on offer (can never stomach anything immediately after the race), and headed back to our apartment to chill for a bit with the others. Later in the evening we went out for beers and I could finally handle a small meal, we also make it down for finish line party and heroes hour. There is a 17 hour cut off for the event and it’s really inspiring to see these athletes fighting to get in before midnight and hear the announcers call them across the line as an Ironman.

It was a struggle to sleep the night of the race as everything hurts and I had also consumed significantly more than my normal daily caffeine intake! For anyone interested in the nutrition for an event like this I took 7 regular Torq gels diluted with water on the bike, 3 packs of Clif shot bloks (one with caffeine), a Snickers bar (treat halfway on bike!), 2 Torq caffeine gels and 2 regular gels on run and then flat coke only from the half marathon point. Plus around 16 salt tablets…. Brushing my teeth was not pleasant for the next few days!!

The next morning the official results were published and after two full English breakfasts it was time to waddle up on stage to collect the World Champs qualification badge and bottle of Hawaiian brewing company beer!

To have close friends and family there to share the moment was very special. Although it could look like quite an individual effort from the outside it is definitely not. I would like to thank everyone at the Harriers who has sent messages of support, it makes a real difference knowing people are following you during an event like this and willing you to succeed. Also a special mention to Kirsty for helping me out with some fantastic DHB cycling and triathlon kit to train in.

Thanks to my friends Ali, Gav and Suz for their incredible support/abuse during the event and to my Dad for being there at every long distance triathlon I’ve done come rain, shine or hypothermia 

Finally my biggest thanks to Kat. It has taken a lot of training to get to this point and she gives me the kick up the arse when I don’t fancy another 5km swim but also keeps me in check when the obsession levels creep up a bit too high. It simply would not be possible without her and would definitely not be half as much fun! Hopefully a holiday to Hawaii will compensate for all the early alarm calls!!

Posted in Runners Blogs.