The town of Tenby, nestled in the southwest of Wales, is typically a tranquil retreat. But on one day in September 2022, it transformed into a battlefield where athletes from around the world gathered to take on one of the most grueling races known to man –Ironman Wales. For me, it was my third Ironman, yet nothing could prepare me for the unforgettable journey that lay ahead.
The events leading up to the race were laced with a profound sense of melancholy. The nation was in mourning following the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, just 3 days prior. Amid this transition, the air was thick with a blend of sorrow, respect, uncertainty whether the race would happen and anticipation.
As dawn broke on race day, the serene Welsh coastline echoed with the deep, resonant voices of a male choir singing the national anthem. The Welsh athletes rang out with both adrenaline and a deep-rooted passion for their homeland. A moment later, the first strains of "God Save the King" filled the air, a tribute to the newly ascended monarch. The atmosphere was electric, the start of the race imbued with a sense of history and significance that none present would ever forget. After all, given COVID causing 2 race cancellations, some people had been training for this event for 3 whole years!
The race began with a challenging 2.4-mile sea swim. The sea was merciless that day, its rough waves contributing to more than 50 athletes being pulled out during the first hour. Despite the harsh conditions, I managed to complete the swim in 1 hour and 6 minutes, significantly quicker than I expected.
Emerging from the sea, I was met with deafening cheers. In a moment of pride, I mistook the applause for my performance, until I realized that it was for Welsh rugby legend Shane Williams, who was hot on my heels. Despite his athletic prowess, it was a small victory knowing I had out-swum him!
Next came the 112-mile bike course, notorious as one of the most challenging in the Ironman circuit. It was a battle against the elements - the wind was howling, the rain relentless, and the ascents seemed endless. The pinnacle of the course was the infamous 'Heartbreak Hill', a steep climb flanked by a sea of cheering spectators. It was an exhilarating, yet daunting experience, reminiscent of the formidable Tour de France.
The first half of the course snaked through picturesque sand dunes, while the second half, repeated twice, was marked by steep climbs and perilous descents. The technical nature of the descents was a learning curve, causing me to lose precious time. After an arduous 6 hours and 30 minutes, I returned to the relative safety of Tenby where transition was based, my energy reserves nearly depleted.
The final leg of the race was a 26.2-mile run through the charming streets of Tenby. Despite the pouring rain, the town was buzzing with the infectious energy of supporters who lined the streets. The run was a grueling four-lap circuit, punctuated by a lengthy climb and a descent back into the heart of Tenby. It was a test of mental and physical stamina, the toughest Ironman run I've ever encountered by far.
The run took me 4 hours and 15 minutes to complete, culminating in a total finish time of 12 hours and 12 minutes. While this was over an hour slower than my previous Ironman in Tallinn, Estonia, I knew I had to be proud of myself for completing what is known as the toughest Ironman on the circuit.
My family was my rock throughout the day. My wife Caryl, daughters Ffion and Bronwyn, my parents and, my parents-in-law, all stood by me, cheering me on tirelessly, as well as a few friendly faces in the crowds. The Welsh connection of my wife, in-laws, and daughters proudly bearing Welsh names, made this race extra special. There was a poignant moment when a Dryrobe clad Bronwyn even ran alongside me, sharing my struggle, if only for a brief spell.
Crossing the finish line was a moment of mixed emotions. Physically and emotionally drained, I felt a sense of accomplishment, tinged with a dash of disappointment over my longer completion time. I finished 47th in my age category out of 248, my best Ironman finish statistically, but I couldn't shake off the feeling of wanting to do better.
The celebration that followed was a welcome relief. Following a long soak in the bath at our rented Tenby house, we headed out for a well-deserved feast of steak, chips, and beer. As we toasted to the day after all, "win or lose, we drink the booze!"
As we left the restaurant, the Ironman course was still alive with the glow of determination. Competitors were still battling it out, striving to finish before the midnight deadline. Their perseverance was a reminder of the indomitable human spirit that the Ironman race embodies.
The awards ceremony the following day was another moment of reflection. Joe Skipper, the winner of the men's race, described the swim as the toughest he'd ever experienced. His words echoed my sentiments, highlighting the immense challenge we all faced on that course.
In retrospect, Ironman Wales 2022 was an experience that transcended the boundaries of a mere race. It was a test of physical strength, mental fortitude, and emotional resilience. The electrifying crowd, the stunning route, and the brutal conditions combined to create a memorable event that truly lived up to its high reputation.
Though it wasn't my fastest race, I had indeed tamed the Welsh dragon. Amid the hardship, I emerged stronger, more determined, and with a story that will inspire many more Ironman journeys. Each stroke, pedal, and stride was a testament to the unyielding spirit of an Ironman.
As I look back, I feel a sense of pride. Despite the tough course and harsh conditions, I persevered, driven by sheer will and the unwavering support of my loved ones. This journey was more than just a race; it was a testament to resilience, endurance, and the human spirit.