Race Report: IMW22 Lee Harvey

So, after 2 postponements, and 3 years of training, my goal to take part in the ultimate triathlon challenge that is 'Ironman Wales' finally happened on Sunday 11th September 2022, and here's my account of the day. It's worth saying that on Thursday all competitors received an email from Ironman UK asking us to delay travel as there was uncertainty as to whether the event could go ahead following the sad news of the Queen's passing. It was then an anxious wait before a decision was made on Friday afternoon that the event could go ahead, with all athletes asked to consider taking part in memory of Her Majesty the Queen. 

Having travelled to Tenby with Mrs H and my eldest son William on Saturday morning, I registered for the event and picked up my race pack and free bag, and then had to get all my transition bags packed, so that these could be placed on my number hooks in the transition tent, with my bike also having to be racked the day before the race. With the weather forecast looking very unsettled, I had to pack for all conditions, so my BLUE bag (for the bike) had extra waterproof clothing to go over my tri suit if needed, along with all my nutrition which I wasn't able to fit into my bike storage. My RED bag (for the run) also had a full clothing change which I have never had to consider before as regardless of the weather, I have always just got off the bike with my tri suit on, and literally just changed shoes, and swapped helmet for a hat and been on my way. On top of this, we were also able to pick up ‘personal needs' bags, just in case you wanted to put some emergency supplies along both the bike and run routes, but these were handed out on a first come first serve basis and as I was one of the later athletes registering they'd run out so that option was taken away from me anyway. I didn't really know if I needed them anyway, other than I may have just put a spare inner tube in one just in case I had a shocker on the bike and had multiple punctures!!!. Anyway, after all that faffing, I could finally relax (sort of), as my bike was racked in amongst c2000 other bikes, and my bags were hanging on their hooks ready for my arrival at various points the following day. 

The rest of Saturday allowed the family and I to enjoy the beautiful seaside town of Tenby on what was a gloriously sunny day, and meet up with other friends who were competing and their army of supporters. After lots of carb loading, and soaking up the atmosphere that turns Tenby into IronTown, we retired to our flat right in the heart of Tenby to try and get an early night ahead of what was going to be a very early start. Sure you can imagine that I didn’t get much sleep, not even 2 hours in the end. Anyway, I have tried to break the day down as best as I could below, with pre race and post race and the 3 disciplines in between 

Race Day

My alarm was set for 04:30, but having struggled to get much sleep, I got up at 04:15 and started to prepare my breakfast without waking the family. I thought I was doing well till I nearly jumped out of my skin when Rachel appeared behind me in the kitchen. She couldn't sleep either so I thankfully hadn't already failed at my first challenge of the day. After I'd downed my porridge, banana, tea and energy bar, and done a final check of all my kit that wasn’t already over in the transition area, I headed out into the darkness to go back to transition which opened at 5am so that I could put all my fuel and kit onto my bike so that it was all ready to go after the swim, and place any other items that needed to go in by blue and red bags. This included my 2 filled water bottles, tool kit in case of any punctures/mechanical issues, bike computer and some more energy bars and sweets taped to the frame of the bike. So much planning just fries my brain - now some of you will know what I mean when I say it was so much easier when I was 'just a runner'. I was then able to return to our flat to get all my kit on for the day ahead, so tri suit underneath wet suit, then this time we all went out again to meet up with 2 fellow club mates and their supporters so that we could walk to the swim start together.

The Swim

The swim start for the pro's was at 06:55, with the rest of us going off in a rolling self seeded start from 07:00. We had to be lined up on the high street above the famous North Beach and Goskar Rock by 06:30 so we could then be led to the starting pens down on the sand which was quickly disappearing as the tide came right in. By now you could sense the nervous energy all around you. The glorious weather of the day before was a distant memory, and the high winds that had been forecast were well and truly snarling, and sea conditions looked grim. If you haven't seen the start of Ironman Wales, you should check this out on You Tube as it is just spine tingling, and this years event didn't disappoint. It was made extra special by the fact it was the 10 year anniversary of the event, but also tinged with an element of extra emotion with a minutes silence observed for the late Queen, followed by the national anthem. What came next was the customary Welsh national anthem, followed by ACDCs Thunderstruck to set us on our way. I don't know where to start on how the swim went, and lets just say you had to be there. After 40 metres one of the pro's pulled himself out of the sea as the conditions were too rough for him, and I have since heard that over 20 of the athletes chose not to even get into the water and over 70 were pulled out of the water by the safety boats. If you want to know what it feels like to be in your washing machine, this is the race for you. I must admit there was the odd moment when I thought I am not sure I can make 2 laps of this 2.4 miles course, but kept thinking of everyone with me and back home that was supporting me, so I just got my head down and tried to battle through it. Unlike in the pool, in open water swimming you need to be able to sight effectively as there is no black line to follow, but when you are going up and down on 3 foot waves, it’s very difficult to see anything other than waves or lots of other pink swim hats. Anyway, I battled on with the ocassional switch to breast stroke just so that I could get my head up on the timing of a wave to see where I was going and then kept ploughing on. After lap 1, I was starting to feel a bit sick, but when I got out to do what they call the Australian exit and re-entry into the water for lap 2, I looked down at my watch and could see I'd swum faster than I ever had before in the sea for that distance. I decided to walk/ jog on the short stretch of sand before going back in so that I could just settle myself and get ready for what I knew was going to be a tougher lap 2. As it happened, even though the feeling of sickness didn't dissipate, I calmed myself down as I knew I was going to be well within the 2 hour 20 mins cut off, and just dug deep to get back round the 2nd lap of 1.2 miles. The conditions did seem a little better, but I still got punched and kicked a few times, with one kick direct to the eye which thankfully just made my right goggle tighter rather than knock it off. The reason for getting kicked was due to the sheer number of swimmers who were struggling who had resorted to swimming breast stroke who I later found out were doing so as they were vomiting at the same time. Luckily I managed to keep everything down but I did feel close at times, but when I rounded the final buoy and made my way back to shore for the swim exit, I felt good and was already planning ahead for the 1km run from beach to Transition (T1). I got out of the water a little dizzy but looked down at my watch and saw a time of 1 hour 20 mins, so had smashed my PB only to later discover that despite the horrific conditions, the strong tidal currents had been on our side which meant we were pushed along the back straight after the hard slog out to the first buoy and then were assisted by the waves back into shore. That was a real bonus as if the tide had been going in the opposite direction I think I may have been on that rescue boat as well. So, you read this right - we have a 1km run to your bike at this point, so something that is unique to Ironman Wales and Tenby is the notorious pink bag. We all have a numbered hook on the zig zags down to the beach which we leave there on our way down. You don’t have to use it, but most do, and you can put in there what you like with its main purpose being to store a set of old trainers to make the run a little bit easier. If you forget to collect your pink bag you would be disqualified. 

The Bike

On the long run from the swim, the atmosphere is electric with 1000s of supporters lining the narrow streets as you run with your wetsuit either pulled down, removed completely for me as I ran in my tri suit, or for the crowd pleasers, some of the braver folks give the fans a delight as they run through in their budgie smugglers. Rachel and Will were tracking me on the app, but it was great that they got to see me come up from the sea safely, especially after seeing so many people being pulled out with no idea who it might have been as we all look the same in our black suits and pink hats.. At this point, you are ready to enter transition for the first time, and collect your blue bag off you peg. Remembering where it located is a challenge in itself, and without my glasses there's the added difficulty of making out the numbers. This is a fairly quick stop as you grab your bikes shoes and helmet, then anything extra such as waterproofs and food to just throw in all your pockets, before then packing all your swim gear back into that same bag before you hang it bag on your peg (yes it does feel like being back at school). Then it's off to locate your bike, and luckily for me I can find it quite easily as I am right at the back as they are racked in order of when people registered so my high number of 2147 meant a place right on the last but 1 row of what must have been 40 rows of bikes. The bike is a tough hilly 112 mile course, and after leaving Tenby, the support naturally becomes much more spread out, but this gives you time to relax and calm down after the swim and start to get some food and drink down you for the 7 hour plus ride ahead. As for the ride, by my standards it was pretty uneventful as I had no mechanical issues to contend with and no punctures, so my only stops were by choice where I collected fresh water bottles, and visited the portaloo's. There were many other cyclists who weren’t as fortunate as me who had no end of bike issues, with some then not making the 10.5 hour cut off. I later discovered that the winner of the event who we happened to meet the following day had a mechanical issue on the bike that he couldn’t fix himself so had to wait 20 mins for the mechanical support motorbike to arrive to help him solve what sounded like the exact same issue I had with my chain at the Swansea Half Ironman event. I didn’t feel it necessary to tell him I ended up having to fix my own, but despite a 20 min stop on the bike and coming out of the swim 5 mins behind the lead swimmer who amazingly went round the 2 laps in 44 minutes, he was able to pull back the time and win outright with 5 minutes to spare over 2nd place. So, thankfully no lowlights on the bike for me of note, but so many highlights. The support in some of the quaint Pembrokeshire towns was unreal. There are also 2 infamous climbs on you way back towards Tenby which you have to take on twice on the 2 lap course, the firt of which is Wiseman's Bridge. This is the steepest climb, but thankfully quite short. It's the 2nd one that is the iconic climb of 'Heartbreak Hill' out of Saundersfoot. It's very steep in places, but unlike Wisemans it is very long. It was here on lap 1 when it was still dry that I got to see Rach and Will who were ringing their cowbell and calling out my name which was a great start to that climb. This is the same hill I had to push my bike up on lap 2 in a bike only event recently, but this time I had no such issues. I went up on both occasions as if I was on the flat as the crowd were just unreal. The streets were lined on both sides all the way up, but as you reach the top there are no barriers, so the crowds just come on to the road and you end up only being able to ride single file as you literally ride through a tunnel of noise. It genuinely feels like you're at the Tour De France. The fact you cant overtake anyone doesn't matter. If anything you'd happily ride through that for the rest of the race if you could, and by this point the emotion of the day and the build up is getting to me, and the goose bumps are unreal. I will never forget that climb, and it certainly didn't break my heart, but boy was it racing. Other than the outstanding scenery and countless hilarious sights along the way that I haven't had chance to mention, the rest is a bit of a blur. The only downside to the bike was the weather went down hill with heavy rain and strong winds on lap 2, and even though that didn't put off the 1000s of spectators, it made it very tricky for us, especially on some of the steep descents and narrow and twisty country roads. it also meant I was going to be soaked for the marathon to come so I had a decision to make.

The Run

I came in from the bike in a time of around 7 hrs 15 mins, which was better than the 7:30 I thought it would have been at best, so by now I am buzzing as I know I could walk the marathon and still make the 17 hour cut off, but realise that my goal of attempting under 14 hours is now on, but I am drenched and I have put that change of clothes in. So, I rack my bike, take another quick loo stop in T2, and decide to opt for comfort and grab my red bag off my peg and head for the male changing area, as nudity in the main area is also a DQ offence. I strip everything off which is a struggle as tri suits are pretty skin tight and when wet they are even trickier to remove, so not the most graceful and I have to apologise to those around me for my backside in their face ☺. I am now in dry running clothes, and am now doing the discipline that comes most naturally to me, and I feel ok so I head out of transition onto the 4 lap course that heads out of Tenby most of which is uphill, before you then return to Tenby, which you guessed it is mostly downhill, with the final mile of each lap weaving round the historic walled town which is jam packed with supporters, but also pubs full of locals and holiday makers who turn into triathlon fans for one day only. I see Rachel and Will this time properly, so I am able to stop and give Rachel a hug and a wet and salty kiss and a hug and a high 5 for Will. I run lap 1 really well, and probably too quick and am now thinking I could potentially break 13 hours as a 4 hour marathon isn't too mad to consider, even though at best I can run 3:30 and that's on a flat course and with no swim and bike beforehand. Anyway, that thought is soon thwarted as on lap 2 I started to suffer severe stomach cramps, and I am worried I won’t be able to take on any more nutrition, plus I think I need the toilet - how appropriate I thought, a number 2 on lap 2 - sorry!!!!!! I am feeling down at this point, as even though the swim was brutal, I was in control, and as you know the bike had gone well, but now I was in danger of imploding and yes I pretty much knew I could walk/crawl the rest and still become an Ironman, I didn't want it to end the this way. So, I did walk a little when the pain got to bad, and without putting you off anything you may be eating whilst reading this, I took some action to try and clear the pain. I knew the toilets were unlikely to have any paper, and I had left mine behind as I forgot to pick it up when I changed gear. I did however wisely remember to pop some pain killers in my shorts, so I stopped at a loo, and thankfully didn't need a number 2, but did take some pills and soldiered on, but that lap was by far the slowest. After a challenging 30 minutes or so of run then walk when the spasms returned, the pain killers seemed to do their job, and by the half marathon point I went out on lap 3 feeling much better. I certainly didn't feel as good as on lap 1, but I was running and didn't walk again till I finished other than to stop at the feed stations to quickly grab water and I could even stomach my gels that I had on my race belt as well as the banana and crisps on offer. By now, the crowds are getting drunker and despite the rain that continues to pour down, their support is phenominal. Your name is constantly getting called out, and you cant help but dish out your own words of encouragment to other athletes you can see that are now really starting to struggle with some only just coming in off their bikes. Luckily for me I get to do most of my run in the day light, but by lap 4 it is pitch black so my prescription sun glasses have to come off or I won't see where I am going, but I now know that I am going to finish well within my goal time, and its now about preparing for the lap of honour on my 4th time around the streets of Tenby before I ready myself for my red carpet moment. On the race briefing we are told about the bell at the start of the red carpet for first timers, so I make a beeline for that as I head to the finsh line, lapping up the raptuorus cheers form the enthusiatic massing crowds, and then make my way down the long red carpet. Mrs Hs managed to get herself a prime spot and was able to video me, but to my dissapoingment I couldnt hear her screams and didnt get chance to have one final hug before I got my moment under the Ironman arch, and hear those long awaited works - Lee Harvey, you are an Ironman.

Post Race

So the summary is, my marathon time was a little over 4hrs 30, and it appears my stomach cramps were likely due to swallowing too much sea water, and was the reason a further 200 athletes went down as a DNF as they struggled to keep anything down whilst on the bike, and either missed the bike cut off, or made it to the run but didnt then make it to the finish. I feel so bad for the near 300 people that didnt get to fulfil their dream, but sure for many they will be back to try and tame the dragon that is Ironman Wlaes, and for me I get to savour the memories of which for me will be a lifetime experience as I vowed never again when I met up with Rachel once I'd finished. I am not sure she believes me as she has heard me say this before, but this event was something else in terms of both mental and physhical prep, and I really don't want or need to do that again, so back to shorter distance triathlons for now, and perhaps some Ultra Distance running up next for me. So Ironman status achieved in just under 13 hours and 30 minutes. On top of this, many of you helped to raise over £1700 for the Welsh Air Ambulance Charitable Trust - so THANK YOU.