Taming the Tenby dragon
How do you tame a dragon? I'm not really sure if there's a simple answer. In fact I don't think you ever really can. They're unpredictable beasts and their fire can stop you or slow you down when you least expect it. But I certainly gave it a go at Ironman Wales 2017. My method wasn't perfect and I know I could do it better (and faster) next time. But here's my guide to Helen style dragon taming.
1. Choose your arena
Some dragons like to live near calm lakes, in flat valleys or in big cities. Others prefer to be hidden away in special corners of the world, where conditions can be harsh, the environment brutal, but the scenery always stunning. This is Ironman Wales.
The race appealed on my levels; I wanted to experience the infamous Pembrokeshire support, but from a romantic point of view I loved the idea of racing in Wales, the country where I grew up, but more importantly, the area where my dad spent his childhood. I also felt that I hadn't quite scratched the Ironman itch, after coming within 41s of an Age Group podium at Bolton last year. 2017 marked my final year in the 30-34 Age Group and I was keen to give it one more go and round off an amazing five year adventure with Coach Rob Wilby.
2. Prepare for the environment
Dragons will do battle no matter the weather or terrain
Although I had told myself not to, I checked the weather obsessively for ten days before race day. As soon as you see heavy rain, your heart sinks. “Don’t worry” they tell you, “It will change.” Of course, it did. One moment it looked like we’d be hit with light showers, three hours later, the obsession would kick in, I'd look down at my phone and gale force winds were on the cards!
I headed to Tenby with everything, from a full-on winter jacket to a quick dry compression vest top. After worrying for a week about what to wear, and one last look at the forecast, I chose gloves, arm warmers, an all-in-one tri suit, a cycling cap and a gilet. As someone who feels the cold, even after racking I was worried that I hadn't left enough clobber in my blue bag. But thankfully, it was just about right.
The sea swim worried me because I had developed a totally irrational fear of jelly fish (!) and I didn't know how I'd fare as most of my open water swimming is done in Salford Quays. But I entered the water feeling confident as I had done a practice swim off the beach in Saundersfoot, where I didn't spot a single gelatinous horror. However I found the swim much harder going on race day, with shoddy sighting and choppy conditions. In the end I did 1.08, three minutes slower than IMUK.
I’d ridden the bike course at the Long Course Weekend (LCW) and knew I was in for a bumpy treat on the run. I'd done a lot of hill work in preparation, but chuck in some ridiculous weather and conditions were even more crazy than normal.
3. Put the physical and mental work in
Dragon's might be bigger than you, but you can be physically and mentally stronger then them
Like everyone else on the start line in Tenby I had trained my butt off. The hard work started back in October 2016. A typical week for me would involve some gym and core work, along with 3 swims, 3-4 bikes and 3-4 runs, a total of around 9-10 hours with some weeks of around 13-15 hours.
Perhaps I had worked my butt off a little too much as I wasn’t in a great place three weeks out from the race. My hip had started to hurt and I was tired and stressed, having just started a new role at work, with longer hours and more responsibility. It took far more out of me than I thought it would and I had reached the point of just wanting to get the whole thing over and done with. I was wasting energy worrying about pointless things I couldn’t control, scared of failing and not meeting my own expectations.
Cue help from Laura Siddall, Chrissie Wellington and Nikki Bartlett who were amazing in getting me to think straight. The one thing I knew I could nail was out-smiling everyone. But Chrissie also made me think about why I was really doing it, Nikki asked if I was ready to have the best racing day of my life and Sid summed it up with her final message on race day morning of “F**k Yeah.” HA!!!!
4. Don’t do it alone
Dragons are pretty complicated creatures; involve fellow dragon tamers to help you along
I've said before that long distance triathlon is a ridiculously selfish sport. But it is also incredibly friendly and sociable and given the amount of work involved, you need a good gang of people around you to get you to the start line of an Ironman.
They're the amazing ones who share your passion, motivate you on the days when you really can't be arsed to be in the gym at 6am and are happy (or at least they say they are) to join you on a hilly ride when it's chucking it down outside.
Vicky McKinnon has been a total star all year. My fellow Knutters have also been a constant source of inspiration and mid-way through the bike leg at Tenby, even though, I was sodden and cold, I had a little chuckle to myself. I thought back to three weeks prior when I'd been riding with Rich and two KTC buddies Mike Stockton and Matt Wackett when we had bailed half way through a six hour ride because conditions in the Peak District were so miserable. I am such a fair-weather rider that it made me proud to be battling on in Pembrokeshire.
5. Bring in an army of supporters
When the dragon is making you feel down and beaten, have people to pick you up
My amazing husband Rich was in the support crew from the beginning, as were my mum and dad which was superb. But the magic didn't stop there. I heard my dear friend Annette calling me out of the water, my brother and sister-in-law made a flying visit between moving half way around the world and yelled for me through Saundersfoot while relatives who I barely know stood waiting for me in the pissing rain at the entrance of their farms to cheer me on through Angle. The KTC crew popped up again and again, as did Raceforce buddy Meryl who kept me going at Wiseman's Bridge, Sue Pugh (who I hope isn't crippled next year) yelled for me through town and Pedalcover Jo told me I looked strong when I was shuffling through New Hedges. (I so didn't feel it!) All of the Oxygen Addict triathlon podcast listeners blew me away with their support, so a huge thanks to fellow competitors and listeners for the extra cheers. Then there was Tom, Chrissie and THE banner. Legends in so many ways. Aside from making the best banner ever, Chrissie waited for me to give me my medal at the finish. Talk of emotion and pride!
6. Have a secret weapon up your sleeve
You need something special to match a dragon's fire
There was simply no way the dragon would beat me on smiles, I made sure of it. I had fun out there. Yes, I probably wasted a load of energy as I rode through Pembrokeshire grinning away, merrily waving to drenched onlookers. Or as I cheered back at the Cardiff Tri gang willing me up the hills, or as I tried to join in (but not fall off my bike,) with Hevin and his pals who heaved us all up Heartbreak Hill. The nuns and monks were also greeted with smiles as I worked my way up the 16% out of Wiseman's Bridge. Even on the run I tried to smile my way around. I was caught grinning like a loon many times by cameras I didn't even realise existed. Even though I was hurting and struggling, I gave the impression I was having a total ball but I genuinely was so grateful for all of the support, love and friendship.
7. Reflect on the victory
"All the drawing lacks is the final touch: To add eyes to the dragon" Diane Duane, The Wizard's Dilemma When I crossed the line just before 7.30pm, I felt I couldn't have given any more on the day. I made it through the swim, I smiled all day long (and even made the Tenby Observer, above!) I stayed upright on the bike and I had finished my third Ironman, not only in Wales, but also surrounded by the most amazing friends and family. From that point of view it was perfect.
But we always look back things and think how could I have done better? What could I have done differently? I was disappointed with my swim and run. I felt I had a better marathon in me and I was unable to show it. To be honest, I think I was a bit over-cooked going into the race. Even a week on, I still can't walk properly, so there's something going on with my right leg/hip. Who knows if that got to me during the run? What I do know is that my body and mind need a break from long distance triathlon for a while. I will be back at some point, because that dragon- Welsh or not- will need taming again.