It’s the ultimate test of fitness and endurance in Wales – the Ironman Wales event in Tenby on Sunday. There’s only one guarantee – pain. But Rob Cole hears why so many people just can’t get enough of it.
How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time!
That is the simple, non-nonsense philosophy that will be applied by nearly 3,000 athletes taking part in the eighth Ironman Wales event in Tenby on Sunday.
The former Cardiff and Wales scrum-half Andy Moore will be there as a spectator this weekend, but with five Ironmen races, four of them in Tenby, under his belt he is as well qualified as anyone to talk about the demands, pleasures and pains of swimming 3.8K in the Irish Sea, cycling 180K and finishing it all off with a 26.2 mile marathon run.
So where do you start when trying to get to the bottom of why anyone would want to expose themselves to such an extreme physical test? Is there more agony than ecstasy, or is it all worth it in the end?
“The one thing you learn at the end is that you must have been pretty stupid to enter in the first place. It is tough, very bloody tough, both mentally and physically,” admits the now 50-year-old Moore.
“But if you like a challenge, then this is a very personal one. It is you against your body in an extreme mental battle. You learn a lot about yourself over the 13 or so hours it takes you to complete the three sections.”
Moore is one of a number of former Welsh rugby internationals who have completed the Ironman event in Tenby. Paul Arnold and Shane Williams will be in the field this weekend and others who have met the challenge include Chris Stephens, Ryan Jones, Ian Gough and Richard Webster.
“I think Chris Stephens is the fastest of us all at 11 hours, 20 minutes. Webby did it on his crutches! It helps if you are a little bit mad,” added the four-times capped Moore.
“For some people the addiction is alcohol, for others it’s drugs, but for many of us who keep on going back to Tenby it is the pain of the Ironman triathlon. There is lots of pain, especially on the run, but you learn how to block it out.
“The one thing you have to come to terms with if you do an Ironman triathlon is how to confront the inevitable pain you are going to feel. “You have to find ways to block it out mentally, find comfort in small steps along the way and keep yourself moving forwards.
“I have never been a great swimmer, but the first phase is possibly the easiest. The trick is not to use your legs too much because you need them for the cycling and the running.
“If the sea is calm it is a real bonus because if not your times can vary by 20+ minutes. You have to split it up into segments – 3.8K is 76 lengths of the old Empire Pool or 152 lengths of a normal leisure centre pool.
“The quicker you can get out of the water, the sooner you can get started on the leg work. The cycle ride is one of the toughest on the circuit and ‘Heatbreak Hill’, coming off the seafront in Saundersfoot is exactly that.
“The support you get there often gives you an adrenalin rush and you can push hard to get to the top, but then there is an even longer, slower drag that is a killer. It’s the same on the run – four laps of a pretty tortuous route.
“Each time you complete a lap you get given a wrist band. This leads to some sever cases of wrist band envy as you see runners with more than you.
“Will it ever end you keep asking yourself? Of course it will, your mind takes over and ensures you get there.”
As well as a record 2,800 entrants in the Ironmen event there are also 2,000 entries in the Ironkids event which takes place the day before the main race.
Since it first began in 2011, Ironman Wales has become one of the best events of its type in Europe and has a huge impact on the local economy.
It is a major spectator spectacle and the elite end of the field will complete the course in under 10 hours.
Last year’s event was won by Australian Cameron Wurf in 09:07:03 (Swim 48:22, Cycle 4:57:50, Run 03:11:00), with Britain’s Lucy Gossage the first woman home in 10:11:20 (Swim 01:00:01, Bike 05:46:01, Run 03:16:20).
“I cannot overstate the impact that the spectators have on the athletes. You need to draw on every single shout of encouragement to get you round,” added Moore.
“I’m going down with a group of 40 from the CrapTri Club in Cardiff. There are 25 taking part and the rest of us will be roaring them on.
“However hard it is, I promise you it is a special feeling when you reach the end. After all, it is the end!”