Ironman Wales 2014 race report – by Phil Murphy
All season I have been telling people with a very sarcastic tone that I was off to the “tropical paradise” of South Wales to do an Ironman. Not exactly as appealing as my last two Ironman in the South of France and Hawaii. I could not have been more wrong! What a stunning place, what an amazing event and what an amazing crowd of supporters. The local community of Tenby make the event so special as they are one hundred percent behind the race with the crowds spreading over the entire 112 miles of the stunning bike course and a reported 40,000 people cheering you in within the walls of the town during the run. I went into this race saying I had to experience it once but once only and I have left knowing that I will definitely go back again. The best Ironman experience you can have in the British Isles without doubt.
Zoe, the ever faithful support team, and I travelled down to Tenby a day earlier than planned so that I could get a good look at the notoriously hard bike course and after a lovely drive through Wales we arrived at our 5 Star accommodation for the Thursday night (the bonus to last minute booking, luxury on a shoe-string!) which was the least I could do for Zoe for all the help and support she offers me through the year.
Friday Started with a quick swim on the course in the easterly wind that was forecast all weekend, the only wind direction that the bay in Tenby cannot handle, the water was seriously rough with a lot of very worried looking people on the beach. With a background in surfing in rough water these conditions seemed to bother me less than others so I was quite happy with the forecast for race day. What I wasn’t too happy with was the pain in my mouth from a tooth that I had cracked on the Thursday morning which was now cutting in to my cheek with pounding from the waves in the swim. After a quick trip to the tourist information office I was in a dentist within the hour and after a little bit of “tooth smoothing” from the friendliest dentist you could hope to find, we were all set to go and have a look at the bike course.
The bike course at this race is stunning and relentless but with good roads in general. And this year we were going to face it with the wind the opposite way round to all previous editions so no one really knew how this would affect the course. The first leg would be a tail wind out to Freshwater West along the flattest part of the course and as we made the turn at Angle we would head back in to a stiff headwind over the first part of the hilly section of the route. Looking at it from the car the course looked hard but not as tough as it had been made out to be, but then sat in a nice comfy chair out of the wind I think I underestimated it a bit! However, as I would be riding with a power meter I knew it wouldn’t matter as I just had to hold the right wattage on the flat and not push into the red on the climbs if I could help it. As the course approaches Narbeth it gets really hilly with 3 really steep 20% climbs in the last 15 miles of each loop and I knew I would have to really watch my effort on these climbs.
So fast forward through a pretty tame Saturday of relaxing and watching TV and race day was upon me. The usual 4am wake up to eat a load of food your body does not really want at that time followed by the most stressful part of any ironman for me. Will I be able to go for a number 2?! As usual, the answer was NO! Worrying start to the day and one that would prove to cost me a coupe of places at the very end of the day but you never know what issues others have had on the course as well.
Once I had checked my bike and mounted my bottles and shoes, I headed for the beach with my wetsuit on for a quick warm up and to just get wet before the start. The water was not looking any better and we were going to be in for a really rough time in the water (I have not seen any pictures or footage that really does justice to how rough it really was in the water). As you stand on the beach and look up at the cliffs where Tenby is situated you feel like you are in an amphitheatre with a huge crowd above you, camera flashes going off in the early morning light and that weird quiet you get at the start of a big race. So I put myself right on the front line for a fast start and await the inevitable carnage as we hit the water. The horn sounds and we are off.
The start of the swim was carnage but after France last year nothing was going to seem too hard to handle having nearly drowned there. Once it started to spread out I could see we had caught a few of the pro men and women in the first 500m so I know I was going ok on the hard part of the swim as we swam into the current to the first buoy. At the first turn I took a wide line for the second buoy and at the time I wondered what I was doing as everyone else stayed closer in but it seemed to pay off as I got a bit more advantage from the tide as we got near the turn at the lifeboat station. By this point I was in a group of about 12 but due to how rough it was you really couldn’t tell how far up the field you were. Out of the water for the Aussie Exit and I managed to leave my group of 12 and get on to another group of 2 who were a little quicker and were sighting better than me and just settled in for the rest of the swim with them. Out of the water in a very slow 1.01.42 but 32nd out of the 2000ish starters so I know the swim was really tough for everyone. The pro guys were 5 or 6 minutes slower than normal as well and quite a few of them were behind me getting out of the water so I knew a good pace line could get together on the bike.
The transition at IM Wales is the longest in Ironman with a 1000m run across the whole town but the crowd is so huge the whole way you don’t even notice the 7 minutes you spend getting out onto the bike. Trying not to get carried away with running too fast through the streets is the hardest part. Having picked up a few places in T1 I started the bike in 4th in my age group and 30th overall and settled in to my targeted power for the first 30 miles to the turn at Angle. After the turn I was caught by a big group made up of three pro men, a couple of very well known age-groupers and some rather scary looking Germans so I settled into the middle of this pace line for the next 25 miles. Whilst no drafting was going on with the motorbike marshals never being far away, riding 10 meters behind another rider into a stiff headwind still had a big advantage saving anything from 5-15 watts of effort. This group however was hell bent on splitting themselves up on the climbs and my wattage was regularly hitting 4.5 to 5 watts per kilo on the steep Welsh climbs so I took the decision to let them go. Another age grouper, Charles Pennington, also made this decision and it shows how important it is to not over do it on the bike as he went on to be the top non-pro athlete on the day and place 7th overall. I spent the rest of the bike course on my own slowly pulling back athletes that had blown themselves to bits in the group I had been in earlier. I rolled (crawled!) in to T2 in 28th place and still 4th in my age group but with a slow time so far due to the hard nature of both swim and bike.
I have been working really hard on my running this year, and had for once actually done some runs over 20 miles in prep for this race so I set off feeling optimistic. I was aiming for a 3h30 run on this incredibly hilly run and after the first 3 miles feeling not too great, I found my rhythm and was feeling good running at 7m55s – 8m00s per mile. I remember seeing Zoe in town at 13 miles and her asking how I was feeling and it was this point that made me realise I might be about to start to struggle. All season Chris Standidge, my coach has questioned whether this Ironman was the right choice for me as I had entered it before I started working with him, and as I started the uphill 3 mile section for the third time I could nearly hear the words “I am not sure the run course is suited to you” ringing in my ears. The relentless hills and overall slow time of the day started to tell in my quads and I started to crack. And when you crack on a flat course you can at least keep jogging forward one step at a time. When you crack on the hilliest road marathon course in the UK at the end of and Ironman, you just Stop! From this point there was a mix of walking uphill and running on the flats and down to minimise the losses but inevitably I lost time, not helped by the morning’s toilet issues catching up on me a couple of times, and slipped out of the Kona Qualification slots and down to 43rd overall. To make this worse my 30-34 AG was ultra competitive this year with 32 non-pro athletes finishing ahead of me and 11 of these were in my age group!
In summary, why did it go so wrong? Did I pace it wrong? I don’t think so. If I am very honest, I was simply trying to race right up the front of the age-group race at one of the toughest Ironman courses in the world and I am just not quite there yet. The swim and bike seem to be getting better each year and the run is really improving, but I simply feel that I am not strong enough yet to get the results I am after but it is coming. Also, I don’t believe in racing conservatively to get the kind of finish you are “sort-of-happy-with”. All of the disappointments are worth it the day you pull a truly great result out of the bag.
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