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IM Wales - the journey begins

Updated: Sep 26, 2018

This is Mel's first blog detailing her journey to the Ironman World Championships 2019 in Kona, starting with an emphatic age group win at the iconic IM Wales on Sunday 9th September 2018 #kona #IMWales #Tenby

IM Wales, Tenby Swim Start
Photo courtesy of Jackie Blackburn

If you read my blog earlier this year you will know that I decided not to race long because of my daughter doing her GCSE’s this year. You will also know that as she seemed to be taking the revision and the exams in her stride without too much anxiety I decided to compete in the World Long Course Championships in Denmark. You can read about this here

I still never intended to do an Ironman this year but after seeing the results from Ironman UK, where on a short course the winner of my age group did a slower time than my time last year on the full course, I was a little bit frustrated to say the least. This frustration made me start to think about entering Ironman Wales in September.

I knew I had more time to train over the summer as it was the school holidays which meant that I didn’t have any childminding duties. As well as my jobs as a personal trainer and triathlon coach I have been a childminder for the past 13 years. It was a business I set up when I was made redundant from my job as an HR Manager which just happened to coincide with my daughter starting primary school.

So, it was great having this extra time, but I still didn’t like the thought of the sea swim. I had good reason to be concerned because when I raced in the European Middle-Distance Championships in Italy in 2015 I had a terrible sea swim experience. The day before this race they had a storm and the sea was rough. Had the race been on this day the swim probably would have been cancelled. However, the conditions improved, and the swim went ahead. I still remember clearly running about 5 metres into the water starting to swim and then almost immediately standing up and thinking what the hell am I doing. To this day I still believe that the only reason I started swimming again was because I had the GB suit on. I had a terrible swim, barely being able to see the buoys because the swell was so high and then getting such bad cramp that I had to hang onto a canoe for a couple of minutes. I wasn’t the only person to have a terrible swim, everyone’s swim times were slow and we all seemed to have swam further than the 1.9km. I did complete the swim but in 53 minutes, 13 minutes slower than I can generally do for that distance. I got on with the rest of the race but when I crossed the finish line I burst into tears and swore that I would never do another sea swim again.

I knew that I really wanted to qualify for Kona and have that experience of being with some of the greatest triathletes in the world. It was my husband who said to me ‘Mel what’s the point of trying to qualify for Kona if you don’t like sea swimming’. He had a point as we all know that Kona is a sea swim. My husband was also the one who kept saying to me that IM Wales was my race if I could my head round the sea swim. The course plays to my strengths on the bike and run as I like a hilly course, after all I was the 2017 World Long Course Duathlon Champion on what is known to be the toughest duathlon course in the World because of the amount of climbing.

I really didn’t know what to do. I knew I was in the best shape of my life but still worried about the sea swim. In the end I decided to recce the course and booked to do the Ironman swim course with a company called Swim Pembrokeshire, and then I would decide.

However, things didn’t go quite to plan. I drove the 5 hour drive down to Tenby. I had arranged to meet Swim Pembrokeshire at 2pm on Tenby beach to swim the course. After a quick health and safety briefing, including being shown pictures of all the jellyfish I might see, and which ones were stingers we started to swim out to where the first buoy would be. So far so good and then we started to swim across the bay and I was thinking to myself I am just not moving. Eventually I bobbed my head up and told my swim guide that I didn’t think I was moving. He told me that there was a strong current that was holding us back and pulling us out too. Well you can imagine he took one look at my face and saw sheer panic. Fortunately, this guy was an extremely strong swimmer and pulled me back towards the beach. I asked him afterwards whether it would be like this on race day and he said probably not but couldn’t guarantee it. I went back to my Airbnb that afternoon feeling very despondent. However, I decided to crack on with my plans and went off to run one loop of the run course.

The next day I had booked to swim with Swim Pembrokeshire again in the morning. As the conditions were going to be the same at Tenby beach he suggested we swim at Freshwater east a bay about 10km away. I had a completely different experience here as it was like a mill pond and we had a very enjoyable swim but at the back of my head I kept thinking this is not Tenby Beach.

After my swim I went out on the bike, which was a very enjoyable 2 and half hours of riding the hilly loop of the course through the most beautiful countryside. In fact, it was because I loved this ride so much that I eventually bit the bullet and entered the race with 5 weeks to go. I decided that the swim couldn’t be like it was for me the day before otherwise we would all be going backwards.

So, I got on with my training over the summer holidays fitting in as many hilly rides and runs in the Peak District as I could in the five weeks I had left before the race. We also went to Austria for a family holiday in this time which meant no bike riding but some awesome hill running. My last long hilly ride before the race didn’t go to plan as I had scheduled it in the day my daughter was going to pick up her GCSEs. If I had had the time I would not have chosen, this day but we had only returned from Austria the day before and I was racing at the Relay Championships at the weekend, so this was the only day I had to do my last long ride. Well my daughter suffers from terrible anxiety and refused to go in and pick up her exam results, so I had too. I then spent the next hour trying to persuade her open them to little avail. Tears all round. I eventually I headed out on my bike, but my head really wasn’t in the right place and I turned around and headed home earlier than I had planned to. We then had 4 days waiting on tender hooks until she finally opened her results!!!

I knew I was going to have to travel down to Tenby on my own as my husband would need to stay with kids who were just about to go back to school and in my daughter’s case 6th form college.

Lewis Eccleston was doing Ironman Wales, and I am friends with his Mum who was part of our relay teams at the Relay Championships, so I asked if I could share a house with them. I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Jane who waited on me hand and foot all weekend and was just the most fantastic race supporter.

The lovely Jane!

I spent most of Saturday at the mechanics tent trying to sort out issues with my bike. My head set had come loose, and the gears must have been knocked in the car on the way down because during my test ride on the Saturday I couldn’t get into my smallest rings at the back. Thank god I had done a test ride as it would have been a complete disaster not being able to use my small gears on such a hilly course. Rule number one when you are racing always take your bike for a spin the day before the race.

Finally, I put my bike into transition and headed back to the house to chill out and stuff my face with carbs.

That evening I posted on Facebook that I was racing IM Wales tomorrow and that I was not looking forward to the sea swim. I was overwhelmed and extremely touched by the messages I received that night wishing me all the best and telling me I could conquer the sea swim. Thanks everyone who sent a message your kind words and encouragement will always stay with me.

Race day and up at 4:30am for the obligatory bowl of porridge curtesy of Lewis’s girlfriend Olivia.

Lewis and I walked through the streets of Tenby to T1 in the dark with all the other competitors, worried looks on everyone’s faces. Final bike check done we donned our wetsuits and started the 1km walk to the beach. I said my farewells and wished Lewis good luck at this point as I knew he would want be up at the front for the swim not at the back like me.

We had been told in the race briefing that we all needed to be lined up on the road above the beach by 6:20am.They would then play the Welsh National Anthem and then we would make our way down what they call the ‘zig zigs’ to the swim start. Ironman Wales is slightly different to any other Ironman race because the transition from the swim to T1 is a kilometre long from the beach through the town to T1, because of this you get an extra pink bag in which you can place a pair of trainers, that you hang on hooks up the zig zags. We were told that if we did not pick up our pink bags on exiting the swim that we would be disqualified.

The Claxton went off and from where I was standing on the zig zags I had a clear view of the pros starting their swim. I felt calm at this point and was just pleased to finally get going. I just told myself to just relax into the swim and this seemed to be working. Just before I got to the first buoy my face began to sting and I kept thinking had I must have scratched myself before I got in the water and the salt water was making it smart. It wasn’t before I was into my 2nd lap and the sighting of a jellyfish before I finally realised that I had been stung on the face by a jellyfish. Doh !!

On about the end of the first lap I started to get a bit of cramp in my legs, but this isn’t unusual for me and I just did my best to ignore it and get on with the swim. I found myself enjoying the swim. So much so I even reverted to coach mode and was analysing other peoples swimming technique. I had a guy next to me who was throwing his arms over so fast and kicking his legs like mad that I kept thinking to myself you are going to be exhausted by the end of this swim. By the way he wasn’t moving any faster than me – he was definitely a swim smooth Arnie.

Ten metres and I could see the swim exit and then my left calf just went into a massive cramp and I found myself flipping over and desperately doggy paddling until I could put my feet on the floor. I knew that the cramp would go as soon as I could stand up and once on terra ferma I was off.

Later I found out that I had done 1 hour 20 minutes in the swim which is a new PB for me. I never wear a watch in the swim because I know that my swim is not great and if I have a particularly poor swim the time will play on my mind for the rest of the race. So better just not to know and get on with the rest of the race.

The only problem with coming out around this time in the swim is that its very busy and the zig zags were narrow, and a lot of people were already walking. I had to keep asking people to move out of my way as I wanted to run. Again, I found out later that I moved up from 10th place out of the water to 3rd by the end of T1. This goes to show how important your transition time is even in a long-distance event.

The first part of the bike course was like a sportive as the roads were narrow and there were lots of bikes. People were drafting left right and centre. I made sure I was not one of those people.

The bike course is hilly and beautiful and, in my mind, not as tough as everyone makes out. Yes, it is hilly but if you have trained on the hills then you will be fine. Personally, I think the hills in the Peak district are tougher.

I had no idea at this point what position I was in and I kept looking out for woman in the F50-54 age group. I was disappointed only to pass one lady in this age group but as it later transpires I had overtaken the lady in 3rd.

I enjoyed the bike ride, riding to feel as I now always do. Keeping my breathing easy and spinning on the hills and pushing as hard as my fear would allow me on the downhills. The crowds on the course are unbelievable, with parts so crowded with spectators that you are forced to ride single file as they form a tunnel like in the Tour de France.

Its always a relief to get to T2 without any mechanicals or accidents.

Out of T2 and I saw Paul and Jane. Paul shouted at me that I was in 2nd place and that the lady in front me was not a great runner and I just had to do what I am good at and run her down. I cannot tell you how fantastic that was to hear but I still had a marathon to run and a lot can happen in four hours.

I was still feeling a bit bent over from the bike ride and it took me a couple of miles to straighten up and get into my stride. Again, I ran on feel keeping my breathing steady. In my head I was just telling myself to relax and keep the effort the same whether going up or down the hills.

Lap 1 done, and Paul told me that I was now 5 minutes in the lead. Lap 2 and I was 10-12 minutes ahead. Lap 3 and I had 25 minutes in the bank. I was pretty done in by now and knew I was not going to be able to run all the last lap, so I was trying to work out how much walking I could do. In the end I allowed myself to walk 4 times for about 2 minutes each time on the last big climb and then I ran the rest. The last mile through the town seemed to last forever and then finally the finish line was in sight. Writing this brings a tear to my eye now as I remember the emotions of utter relief and elation. I was the 50-54 age group WINNER I was going to KONA.



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