Ironman Wales 2023: A Day like no other
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” Michelangelo.
One of the toughest, one of the best, and a race that has seemed aspirational (if not out of reach if I’m honest). This was only highlighted further when in January of 2023 I saw a consultant who advised I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t stress my cardiovascular system, I shouldn’t swim alone and I had to wait for surgery to help me understand how I would stay well. Not exactly ideal for triathlon training or even attempting an Ironman.
At the same time my brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t visit as I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t see my family to check they were ok, I was stuck at home as I couldn’t work from my office. When I look back, I realise that the only thing I could do and that I had a degree of control over was zone 2 training. Moving forwards each day. Holding onto the hope that it would all be ok.
I remember seeing Allie a few weeks out from Brighton Marathon. A race that I couldn’t race, but where the goal was to take part and to stay well. Allie said I didn’t have to do it, that I didn’t have to do Wales, that I could postpone, that I could do it another time. That I could take the year. This was after a failed easy run where we walked back as I didn’t feel able to run. That evening I saw my family and they put together a plan where I could have support at Brighton Marathon if I wanted to do it and so it felt safe enough to try. To try and get round a marathon. I’ve never planned to fail so much until this year.
Brighton Marathon came, it went, I was well. So it was ON !! I had my surgery booked for a few weeks later, Dylan was doing really well and had his much more significant op and after a very uncertain 5 months I started to feel like I was getting it back. I also decided that I would take this opportunity to raise money and awareness of the work of the Brain Tumour Charity who were running a campaign at the time to #accelerateacure.
We went down to Wales to reccie the course on a beautiful weekend, I felt good on my bike, and was beginning to feel some confidence in my body when running. Still no clarity with how to stay well and avoid an episode but each with each week I was feeling more in control of my physiological responses to stress.
The Summer was patchy – missed races as not feeling well, challenges with not able to travel, but also some fun training days out when everything was going well. Tears when it was hot and hard and I felt the mountain too big. Laughter and pride when I smashed the sessions. None of which were solo. I’ve had weekly track buddies, swim escorts, chauffeurs, and the best cycling adventures. Pretty much all of the time: all of the 407 hours, the 4115miles, the 163,000ft climbs. It wasn’t a perfect build. But no one has a perfect build. It was a build though, and it was consistent. To the brains behind the show: THANK YOU Allie. Thank you.
And with two weeks to go to Tenby I was starting to dream that I could get to the end.
3 September 2023
Leading up to the race I felt good, I felt well, I felt strong but I had that constant physiological anxiety. The kind that it doesn’t matter what your brain is thinking it is still there in your stomach. Fast forward and we get to Tenby and in an instant this was replaced with excitement. Ironman sure know how to put on a show ! The volunteers, the competitors, the whole town were so encouraging, so kind, so excited that it was infectious. I was in Tenby. I had made it this far. Even better though, Sarah had made it too. I was going to be able to share the day with one of the most dangerous enablers, one of my very best friends. Without Sarah it would have been impossible.
So I had two jobs: stay safe, have fun. I owed this to myself and to everyone around me.
Sia, Unstoppable. Swim start.
The red devils, the fire works, the music, the commentary, it felt so exciting. I was so happy. I was so proud. The sea was beautiful. I knew it was going to be a good day and with that I crossed the start line.
Ran into the sea, long slow strokes, swam wide, clear water. Stayed out of trouble. Lap 1 done. Quick aussie exit and onto lap 2. Tried to expend as little energy as possible. Overall, pleased with my swim. Nothing spectacular time wise but thrilled with the process and how it felt.
4371yards; 1hr 27; 2:00/100yards
Up the zig zag, wetsuit off and the 1km run through town. The first time I could appreciate how many people had come to support. The streets were lined with people cheering. Into T1, shoes, helmet, SUNCREAM, number. Go. Onto the bike and it was downhill even if only briefly.
Village People, YMCA. Party at Narberth.
Absolutely savage. It was so hot and hilly. Waited a good 15 minutes to chill into the bike before embarking on the fourth discipline of long course… “how to get enough carbs in your body so that you stand a chance to get to the end.” The plan was half a bar (Maurten, Bar 50) every 20-25minutes until the end and to drink at least a bottle between aid stations.
On the way back from Angle (miles 25-35) I realised that I’d survived the swim, that I was feeling good on the bike and that again I was going to have a good day. That I wasn’t undertrained and I reckoned if I made smart decisions I may even be able to continue to enjoy it and with that there were a few tears.
There is absolutely no flat on the bike course. It is up, down, up and up, down, up, down and more up. Got to Narberth and saw Andy and his family who were supporting. Got to the aid station and decided not to rush through but to pull in, to stand and stretch my back, to get plenty of water and to cool off. This became the plan for each aid station and I was really pleased when I finally got to the end that my back and my feet were in much better shape than they were when I did Outlaw. So a few minutes at each aid station saved me at least 10 minutes in T2.
Wisemans and Saundersfoot climbs are famously supported but tough and I’m pleased that they didn’t disappoint. The first time up Saundersfoot I was lapped at the bottom by Nikki Bartlett, female pro, who went on to win the race. The crowd went mad as she went up the climb with little me moving considerably slower behind. The noise was deafening. I couldn’t hear myself breathe, I didn’t dare look down at my Garmin and you absolutely have to keep pedalling. Heartbreak hill #1 was done. Now to do it all again.
Lap 2 was similar story. Hot, hilly and full of carbs. Into transition and surprisingly my body was feeling ok but the best bit was that I saw Sarah ! We’d both made it to the run. Now all we had to do was get around the marafun.
111miles; 8,058 ft elevation; 7hrs 42; Average pace 14.3mph
Pink, Just like Fire. Disco at New Hedges.
During the run at Outlaw I really struggled with stomach cramps so was waiting for their return at Wales. I knew it had been hotter than I’d trained in, that it would put more stress on my body and that I would have to keep myself in check to stay well and get to the end.
From the start of the run it was a walk/run effort. I didn’t want to push too much uphill as even if I had the pace would have been slow and I really wanted to be able to do some running downhill and around town until the finish. This became a really important and helpful goal. I had a gel every lap, water every aid station, and was able to execute my plan. Could I have moved faster around the marathon course ? Probably. Would I have got to the end and been able to run aspects of the last lap ? Who knows ? Am I proud of the decisions I made on the day and the pace I moved at ? Absolutely.
The support on the day and the whole time we were in Tenby was unreal. Being in the 10% female field felt extra special. You could see in children’s faces that they loved supporting the women in the race and that as a female we had a special role to play in inspiring and encouraging future athletes.
And so the final lap came. The bell was rung. And those words I had been waiting for all year were said: “Samantha, you are an Ironman” and with exhaustion and the journey having come to an end I burst into tears.
5hr 41; 26.7miles; 1,916ft elevation; 12:46/mile
Taking my total finish time to 15 hours and 27 minutes.
I had stayed well. Did I enjoy it? Yeh I think so. Ironman is hard. Would I do it again…?