Ironman Wales 2022 – A Personal Race Review
When you join a triathlon club if you have not heard about it before you very quickly hear about “Ironman”, a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride followed by a 26.2 mile run (Marathon), 140.6 miles in total. To put it in to context if the start line was in Neath and you headed out along the M4 the finish line would be somewhere around Reading Services in Berkshire.
My Ironman journey started in 2017 when I signed up for IM Bolton 2018, inspired by my brother and sister in law who had completed it in 2014. During training for this event I injured my Achilles tendon and ended up deferring to 2019. Training went really well following recovery and I found myself on the start line on a very pleasant July morning, well up for the challenge ahead. To cut a long story short I completed the swim, but about 40 miles in to the bike ride I had a series of punctures that put me out of the race. As you can imagine I was bitterly disappointed but was left wondering could I have finished it. Only one way to find out so two months later I signed up for the 10th anniversary edition of Ironman Wales.
People have many reasons for doing an Ironman, some are just complete loons! Others want be the best they can be, the quickest they can go, qualify for Kona etc, I will never set the Triathlon world alight with my times, for me it is about the personal challenge of completing that distance within the time allowed. You have 17 hours to complete Ironman Wales, my target time 16 hrs 59 mins 59 secs!
We will skip the event cancellations etc, training was going well but last December, I took my turn to be laid up with Covid. Some people have coaches, others not and there are various plans out there you can follow, I was following the Fink Plan which is based around keeping your heart rate low while you train, I was shocked at the impact Covid had had on my breathing and heart rate especially as I had not been particularly bad, and as late as April / May time I was still feeling the impact and wondering if I would be starting at all. After this though things started to improve and I found the training going as it should, and started to tick of the mile stones, the first 10, 15 mile run, the 60, 80 mile bike rides. Things were starting to come together, more importantly I was starting to believe I could do it.
Driving down to Tenby after work, I register for the race on the Thursday evening, so I can then sort all my kit out in the peace and quiet of my home with plenty of room to lay everything out and then load in to the famous Ironman Bags ready for transition. I receive my competitors arm band complete with race number (284) and bar code, also a ruck sack, have a look around the expo and buy a T shirt, I did not want to buy more just in case I did not finish again! Maybe it is just me but Tenby was already starting to buzz or that is what it felt like, there was an air of anticipation around the place, something special is coming!
The day before race day 10th Sept 2022
I arrive in Tenby about midday ready for transition, we had had an email from Ironman confirming that the race would go ahead after the passing of HRH Queen Elizabeth II, it had been an anxious wait before that thinking it may be cancelled again. I headed in to Tenby and bumped in to two club mates, together we went to Transition, racked the bikes and hung the bags in our allotted places, plus a quick selfie to mark the occasion, we then spent ten minutes familiarising ourselves with entry, exits and the area in general. Following this we went in to Tenby town, the place was absolutely buzzing, full of fit looking people and their families. Later that afternoon there was a Celtic Tri photo call on the beach. I really enjoyed this and caught up with a lot of club mates I had not seen since pre covid, it was great to see them. As we gathered for the photo, the announcers on the tannoy were making a fuss of us and the mood was good. See the Facebook cover photo for the result!
As I made my way in to Tenby I was feeling good about the day ahead, I had had a big breakfast and was well hydrated. As I walked up towards the start line above North Beach I came out of the shelter of the houses and was hit by the wind and stopped to look at the sea, I wish I hadn’t, it was rough, rougher than I had ever swum in and I was immediately worried. Never mind nothing you can do about it, just get on with it. I headed on to transition to hand in my “streetwear” bag for after the race and was greeted by volunteers from Celtic Tri in the tent, they all offered words of encouragement and the chat with friendly faces cheered me up a bit. By chance I then met up with the same club mates as yesterday and we headed off to the start together.
A nervous hour with nervous chit chat followed until the famous “zig zag” was opened for us, we wished each other luck and then descended the path to the beach start, hanging our pink bags as we passed our numbered hook. Down at beach level and closer up, the sea looked even worse, now I was really worried. I stood with one of our swim coaches and she was offering words of advice, another club mate and training partner passed us and she was physically shaking and I wondered if she would make it to the end of the swim (she did).
So I was ready, this was it, after the pain of Bolton, all the cancellations, I was finally here, we had a minutes silence for the queen, followed by the national anthem, then followed “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”. I might be English but when you hear the Welsh belting that one out there is nothing quite like it, emotions stirred and it brought tears to my eyes, I wasn’t the only one! I look up at the crowd overlooking North Beach thousands of them, hear to support, family members, club mates or just to see the spectacle, I wonder where my family are, they are here somewhere.
Then it was on, ACDC Thunderstruck starts up and the hooter goes, we are finally off, we all start walking forward, just before the start I hear my name called and on the beach there is my brother, sister in law and wife, I am delighted to see them, I go over to them hugs all round, “stay safe” my brother says, I look at the sea, “this could be over quite quickly” I reply and off I go “to face the dragon”.
I run in to the sea and immediately hit by the waves and knocked back, head in again and dive in prepared for the cold shock, it never came, it was actually quite warm, the waves though are breaking in to me from the side and generally giving me a very hard time, welcome to Ironman Wales. I gather myself and get in to some sort of stroke pattern and steady my breathing. At about 80m I pass a life raft, there are four people hanging on to it, at least I have got further than them I think to myself, it kind of gives me a boost of confidence. Sighting is difficult with the waves but the odd glimpse of the yellow buoys is enough to keep me sort of on line. The first turn buoy is at about 500m and you lose some of the shelter offered by the natural bay as you near the buoy, the water became rougher and choppier, and to get to it was a constant battle of trying to breathe in the rough sea without swallowing a mouthful of sea water and maintain an effective swim stroke, you are also battling against a current, but reach it I did and as you turn the buoy you head in to the waves which made life a lot easier, still rough but more manageable. The second turn buoy comes quickly and then you head back across the bay towards the life boat stations. The waves now seemed bigger but were rolling rather than breaking. I found out afterwards that there was a slight current with us that made this leg a lot easier, sighting though was still an issue in the waves and it was only on the peaks you had a decent view of the way ahead. I relatively quickly reach the third turn buoy and then head in to the beach. Much better now, the waves are working for us, nudging us towards the shore, as I am heading back in I think to myself you’ve done it once you can do it again. My confidence is now high and I think that overcoming that sea on the first lap set the tone for my mind set for the rest of the day, if I can overcome that I think to myself, I can do this! I reach the beach in good spirits, look at my watch and am delighted with my time, 41 mins not my fastest but I will take that all day long in those conditions.
Just need to do it all again now, lap two is pretty much a repeat of lap one, this time I see more people hanging off the liferafts, I passed someone being sick as well, and there was the usual nudging and collisions as I rounded the buoys. Lap two goes well but as I am rounding the third turn buoy, it rides up on a wave and comes down on top of me, pushing me under, short on breath and a very large buoy pushing me down I have a bit of a panic, after a few seconds but what seemed like an age I am released and pop back up to the surface, swim a few strokes away then stop to compose myself. A bit shaken but ok, I continue on.
I finally get to the beach feeling really pleased with myself, but just as I stand up to exit I am struck by cramp in both calf muscles. Between the cramp and the waves washing back down the beach I am knocked off my feet and face plant the water again just short of the finish buoys, very embarrassed and still cramping I do a two leg hobble across the finish. Official time 1hr 27mins. From wondering if I would finish the swim I am now on a real high.
The run to transition is a bit of a blur, I was just overwhelmed by the support and the sheer number of people that are there, I hear name called out time and time again as I run, high five club mates that I manage to pick out, hear shouts of encouragement and a constant cheering from the crowds it is just incredible
Transition went well and I head out on to the bike course in good spirits, as I leave transition I hear an announcer saying, that is two hours gone, bang on my hoped for target time to be out of T1. As I head for the first corner I see my family again, wave and smile at them and then realise that I am heading for a right angle bend and a barrier far too quickly, hit the brakes and just make it around unscathed and still upright, that could have been an embarrassing and painful early exit, concentrate I say to myself!
The bike course is made up of three 35 mile ish loops, loop 1 heads out from Tenby to Pembroke and then to Angle and back through Pembroke to Lamphey, where you start Loop 2, which goes in a round about way to Carew, then Templeton, Narberth and back down through Wisemans Bridge, Saundersfoot and back to Tenby, loop 3 is a repeat of Loop 2.
Loop 1 went well, the wind was in my favour heading out to Pembroke and it is generally a nice undulating course with good views and just a couple of hills out of Pembroke and Freshwater West to give the legs a taste of what is to come later! I have ridden the course a lot in training and was enjoying the ride, apart from the sea water running out my nose every time I lea forward, this finally cleared about 15 miles in to the ride! I am also feeling the boost in energy as I started to eat and drink as well. This loop went quite quickly and it did not seem that long before I was heading out of Pembroke to Lamphey and the start of the Narberth Loop.
The Narberth Loop is lumpy, the hills come one after the other and drain the legs of energy, long up hills followed by short fast downhills that only give you moments of respite before the next hill. I kept eating and drinking water and electrolytes, absolutely crucial, and was surprised that I kept in relatively good spirits and shape all the way around the course. Those that know me know I like to eat and on the bike course as well as its importance it is a good morale booster and distraction!
There are four hills on the course that during training I had grown to hate, they are well known in IM Wales circles, I nicknamed them “the bitch hills”, the climb up through Templeton, the climb in to Narberth, the climb out of Wisemans Bridge and the aptly named “Heart Break Hill” out of Saundersfoot up to New Hedges. Luckily although steep they are relatively short and present challenges to be overcome. A special mention to Heart Break Hill though, when you hit the bend at the bottom you also hit a wall of noise from the supporters, they are having a party, many in fancy dress, music playing and a gap just big enough for two bikes side by side, and the cheers and shouts are amazing, it is as if they are trying to outdo the support they gave the last rider, it needs to be experienced to be believed, absolutely incredible. The main support is at the steepest parts and is probably the nearest I will come to a mountain stage of the Tour De France. It gives you a real boost and helps the hill disappear as if it was never there in the first place (well nearly)! I counted them down, the “bitch Hills” as I rode the course, it helps break up the time.
The ride was relatively uneventful, the skies emptied on the second loop which made it a bit miserable but apart from that it was not too bad and in a weird way I found it quite refreshing, I was also thinking if I do finish no one can say we did not earn it the hard way that day. I passed the 100 mile marker and remember being happy with how far I had come but surprised at how far I still was outside Tenby, but by then I only had two bitch hills left to go!
There are some lonely spots on the bike course especially on the second loop, other competitors are spread out, the fast boys and girls will be well in to the marathon (the winners finishing) and there are periods where you are riding alone, in the rain, in the middle of nowhere and wondering if you are still in a race, but the pockets of support and the feed stations are plenty and also provide a break and a bit of interaction with other people, all manned by volunteers they were fantastic, I made sure I said thank you to them all as I passed, you usually got a cheer of appreciation as well.
Quite quickly though the “bitch hills” completed I am riding back in to Tenby past the marathon course and the support, my mind turns to transition and my transition plan, I finally pull up at the dismount line, bike leg finished, two down one to go I think to myself. As I dismount an official tells me if you want to get out on the run course you need to be quick! I am confused, but with his words ringing in my ears I go through as quick as I can, I had miscalculated thinking I had about 30 mins before cut off, I later learned I didn’t I had 10 minutes! No wonder my family looked relieved when I passed them. Time to complete the 112 mile bike course, 8hr 31mins, T2 time 10 mins 34 secs.
The run is four 6.25 mile laps, out of Tenby, past north beach, up to new hedges double back, in to New Hedges village pick up lap band, back down in to Tenby and a twisty turny section around the town, all supported by a now worse for wear, jovial and very vocal crowd. I came out of transition at about 5:40pm, I had approximately six and a half hours to complete the run. In training I had run up to 21 miles, never over that so I was also in new territory but felt in remarkably good shape and full of energy, especially considering the swim and the bike. The nutrition, hydration and the long training hours were paying off.
As I ran out of transition I rounded the first corner and saw my family again, they had been joined by my two daughters who had spent the weekend at Bluestone with my wife’s family. I was overjoyed to see them and high fives all round were exchanged, I saw my wife was tearful, while I was blissfully unaware of it, my close call with the bike cut off had put them all through the mill!
I settled in to the run quickly, jogging down past North Beach car park and up the hill out of Tenby, I started passing other club mates coming the opposite way, greeting each other as we went by, easily picked out in the Celtic Tri kit and the blue and yellow of the Ferry Flatliners who I had recently been training with. I realised in my haste to get through transition I had left my Celtic Tri vest in the bag so did not have it on as planned, a stupid little thing but it played on my mind for the rest of the run! As the hill levelled out at the top I increased my speed slightly and headed up to the turn round point, enjoying the run and feeling good. The support was still good and vocal and it was not long before I was picking up my first lap band in New Hedges. Heading back in to Tenby was mostly downhill and I let gravity do the work for me increasing my speed again. When I ran in to Tenby the support again was loud and plenty. Lots of club mates shouting me on at various points which provided a much needed boost again. My family had positioned themselves in the middle of Tenby town at a point that is passed several times so it was great to see them as well and have a bit more interaction than just flying past on the bike.
The 1st lap I completed in 1hr 21min, the 2nd was a repeat of the same but in 1hr 24min I was pleased with my consistency considering what I had already been through and reaching the half way point was a good feeling. The third lap also went well completing in 1hr 26min, one thing I do remember was passing North Beach coming back in to Tenby, I looked down at the sea, by this time it was 9:45pm I had been on the course for nearly 15hrs, in this time the tide had gone out and come back in, the sea was like a mill pond, flat as a pancake, not a wave in sight, typical I thought to myself recalling the conditions in the morning. Close to the end of the third lap my sister in law ran with me for a bit, told me of club mates she knew had finished and updated me, “keep the gas on” she said, “predicted finish is 11:15” this was great news for me, my mind and body by now were exhausted and I had given up trying to calculate pace, times etc, she also told me last bus back to the “park and ride” was 12, so they would probably not be at the finish, I was gutted at this but obviously understood. I plodded on soon passing the Lap direction arrow and the finish direction arrow, the next time I see you I think it will be going down the finish, it was a good feeling. The time was just before 10pm I have 2hrs 05mins to do 6 miles, I finally allow myself to believe that I might just finish this!
The last lap was a bit of a blur, I allow myself to walk up the hill to New Hedges and ran the flat at the top and back down hill, again letting gravity do the work, as I came back in to Tenby I had lost time but was still in a very good place, although starting to fade, I think by this time I was both physically and mentally exhausted but your mind keeps telling you to go on, after all as I told myself in the early part of the race, “what else have you got to do today”! I see one of my Celtic Tri club mates “there you are he shouts, we have been waiting for you” he comes over we shake hands and he gives me a hug “you’ve done it” he says “you’ve done it” just over a mile to go and just under an hour left to do it in, it finally sinks in that I am going to do this. I thank him and his wife for his support and the shouts during the day and then carry on. As I enter Tenby for the last time the streets have gone quiet, people have either gone home or to the finish line. I make my way through town and pass where my family had camped, they were gone, it was a real bitter sweet moment, I was so close to the finish, glad they had been there for the day but devastated that I was so close and they would not be there to see the end.
Finally I get to the finish line direction arrow I remember thinking I hope it is not a long way to the actual finish, I needn’t have worried it was quite short. The crowds were back, cheering, banging on the placards, hundreds of them, I pick out a few people I know as I pass, high five them and wave, then the carpet with its Ironman logos and the red lights appear. I couldn’t really take it in. The last lap I completed in 1hr 41mins. 20mins slower but who cares!
I crossed the finish line with an official time of 16hrs 23mins 38secs, well in to “heroes hour”! I see the photographers pointing their cameras at me, I do a two finger pointy thing in some sort of effort at a celebration but by this time while ecstatic, I was also dead on my feet as they say. I hear over the tannoy, those immortal words “Mike Kethro you are an Ironman” at the same time a medal appeared around my neck and someone was wrapping a foil blanket around me, and asking me if I am ok, it instantly felt warm and I tell him I am fine. I am then aware of my name being called, I turn and see my family I couldn’t believe it, they had been back to Carew picked up the car and come back to see me finish, I was just overwhelmed, hugs all round again and photos with my medal. You will have to ask them about the conversation that happened, I do not remember much of it, I think I was on an exhausted high and talking jibberish by then!
To conclude (finally!)
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned any names while writing this. It was a deliberate decision as I did not want to miss anyone out. When I set out on my ironman journey the support has come in many guises, the people I have trained with past and present. Many people have given me advice in conversations, the tactics they had for transitions, training tips, things you need to think about, nutrition, hydration their own experiences etc the list goes on. The coaches that run the Celtic Tri sessions are second to none and guide you in techniques and how to get the best out of yourself, and the other members of Celtic Tri, it is a club of special people doing extraordinary things and a club I am proud to be a member of. All of the information that has been imparted to me over the last five years I have tucked away, for the formulation of my race plan, ready for the big day.
The support on the day was incredible, I have never experienced anything like it, so if you were there cheering on the competitors, shouting my name when you saw me, leaning out of apartment windows cheering me on, high fiving me or shaking hands as I passed by, this also helped me achieve my goal.
Finally my family, the advice from my brother and sister in law has been invaluable and the support from my wife and daughters, above and beyond! From putting up with me stumbling around the house at 5 in the morning as I head out for a training ride (trying to be quiet and failing miserably), and the endless training that you have to commit to, to achieve the goal.
So although I have not mentioned any names, you all know who you are, and if you fall in to any of the categories above, I will never be able to truly and adequately express my gratitude, but on behalf of myself and all the other competitors that day I thank you all from the bottom of my heart, you helped me get to the Ironman finish line at 11:35pm on the 11th September 2022.
Mike Kethro (Ironman)