Two weeks after completing The Alpine Coast to Coast, I asked my body to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and run 26.2 miles, to reach the red carpet and cross the finish line at Ironman Wales. It broke me over and over again throughout the 14 hours it took me to finish. My legs had nothing to give and my mind was exhausted from battling. I learnt that you can dig deeper than you ever thought, that when you have nothing left, you can keep going. It hurts and it may reduce you to tears, but it is possible.
A friend recently asked me what it was about Ironman Wales that made me want to go back for a second year in a row. There could be no surprises this time, I knew what it involved, how much it hurt and how deep I would have to dig, yet I wanted to go back and challenge myself again. To many people, I guess this would seem insane. Let me try and explain.
Ironman Wales is unlike any other event I've experienced, the support, the fact that 84% of the competitors are British, the challenge of it all, the beautiful scenery... these are amongst the factors that pull me back each year and are why I love it.
You hear people talk about “the support” and how it helps them pull through, but what is it about Wales that makes it so special? The bike course is a two-lap route which takes you around the stunning coast of Pembrokeshire. You cycle though villages and the streets are lined 10 people deep with supporters. These supporters are amazing. They come in all shapes and sizes, ages and levels of sobriety as the day wears on. They are not part-timers, they are supporting the Iroman and are there to stay. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it makes. You cycle past them and look deep into their eyes as they scream encouragement, you can tell they mean it, they really mean it, and this gives you strength. They set up parties, BBQ’s, sofas, picnics, they even bring out their instruments and make music for you.
Tour de France moment
Just before you hit mile 70 and swoop down into Tenby to begin the second lap, you cycle through Saundersfoot and up Heartbreak Hill.
This is your Tour De France moment.
The crowds are so thick and so animated, it's like a wall of energy hitting you. It’s the toughest climb of the ride and I can honestly say I look forward to it. By this point, I’m well and truly into my sufferfest. I’ve spent a lot of the ride so far dropping into various levels of pain and doubt, when all of a sudden, I turn the corner, swoop down the hill and begin climbing the other side. This is the moment I’ve worked for, the crowds lift me, they give me wings, I know I’ll pay for this burst later, but I don’t care. I overtake six cyclists on Heartbreak hill and I can feel a smile that spreads throughout my entire body. It’s the best part of my day so far and without a doubt one of the most euphoric moments of my life. I know I’ll savour this forever.
Ironman Wales is renowned as being one of the toughest Ironman events in the world. Why? Perhaps it’s the sea swim which this year was utterly brutal due to navigating four foot waves.
Perhaps it’s the 1km run uphill between the sea and first transition, really not what you need after a brutal swim!
Perhaps it’s the relentless hills on the bike course, it doesn’t have many flat sections with a few killers in there!
Finally when you come off the bike and head into Tenby to begin the marathon, you cycle past the triathletes who are ahead of you and cracking on with the running laps. The run consists of four 10K laps which head straight out of town up a long hill for around 3km, down hill, up another hill, down again and then weave around town before repeating all over again.
Perhaps it’s one or all these factors combined that make it so tough. Either way, the challenge of it draws me in.
It’s a complete sufferfest from start to finish.
It doesn’t give you a moment break and I love that. If I’m going to do something as ridiculous as an Ironman in the first place, I may as well do one that really makes me produce something special, something I didn’t know I had by going to places I’ve not been to before. I don’t think I’d know what to do on a flat course, I’d definitely have to get tri-bars to start with!
This year, Ironman Wales proposed a new challenge for me. Two weeks prior I’d finished the Alpine Coast to Coast, a month long cycling and climbing expedition to cycle the Alps and climb their highest mountains. I covered a total of 1669kms on bike, 141kms on foot and 45,530 metres of ascent over 32 days. You can read more about it here and here. It was without a doubt the most intensely challenging and rewarding time of my life. It wasn’t directly intentional to have these two challenges so close to each other. I had signed up for Wales at the end of 2013 before I’d decided to do the Alpine Coast to Coast. Wales is a special event for me and even though I knew I’d be tired, I wanted to go back and race it again. I just prayed that my body would hold up.
My body did hold up, just, but not without a huge amount of pain.
Even though the swim was insane with strong tides, high waves and thousands of people jostling for position, I relaxed into it and tried not to let it bother me so I could conserve energy. I could have fought my entire way round and stressed about the conditions to save an extra 5 minutes, but the amount of energy that would have taken would have come to haunt me later on. You need to play the long game with Ironman, it’s a long old day.
Out of the water and onto the bike I felt great. Really great. I couldn’t wait to get back on my bike after two weeks of virtually no exercise. I wanted to see how I felt on the Tenby hills after cycling up mountains for a month. For the first 25 miles I felt strong. There are probably people reading this blog who saw me whizzing past them on the first section only to do the same to me later on. I was calculating my speed and figured that if I continued like this, I might beat my time from last year – 12hrs 56 mins.
Oh how wrong I was.
Dealing with disappointment
Around mile 25 my legs packed in and from that point I knew I was going to have to fight for it every inch of every mile. For a while I really struggled to deal with the disappointment I felt knowing I wasn’t going to beat last year’s result. I knew that was stupid, I knew I could only deliver the best I could do and that’s all I can ask from myself, but it still hurt my pride. I reasoned with myself and looked at the facts; I was clearly fatigued to depths I’d not known before, I’d not prepared for this race in a normal fashion, I was going to do the best I could do. I needed to come to terms with all of this as I wanted to enjoy the race, afterall, what is the point if I can't smile through the pain?!
Determined to finish
I was going to get through this race, I had to. I knew what was coming up and I knew I could do it, I just had to keep going. It hurt me, mentally, physically. It took me to the depths of what I had to give, broke me, and then asked me to deliver more. When I felt I had nothing left to give, but knew I had to keep going, there were a few tears. I hated feeling like that, like I had nothing left. Yet, when I look at these photos I realise they epitomise why I keep going back to Ironman, it’s the raw, real emotion of it all. It asks you to step up and perform, to do something extraordinary, whether you’re a PRO or the last person to cross the line in 17 hours, it’s an incredible achievement. It’s living.
Smiling through the pain
Winston Churchill once said “I like a man who smiles when he fights.”
It’s these challenges, these moments of inner turmoil, what we face and overcome, that are what we live for. When we face challenges and adversity, we grow, we become more, we live. I don’t want to just exist in this life, I don’t want to breeze through it surrounded by things that make me feel secure and safe. I live to question, to question myself and life's possibilities.
I live to feel life pulsing through me so strongly I feel I could burst.
How Ironman makes you feel
That’s how you feel, when at the end of your 4th lap on the marathon you are able to turn left instead of right. You’ve got 200 metres to go and you hit the red carpet. The crowds lift you once more, they make you feel like a star, you start to think to yourself “I’ve done it” and the hairs rise on the back of your neck. You see the finish line, you sprint, you feel so full of life and emotion, you savour this moment and you look up as you cross the line and stop running. A medal is placed around your neck and you hear the words over the loudspeaker “Sophie Radcliffe, you are an Ironman”.
In that moment, I knew it was all worth it.
Every step, every doubt, every tear. It’s a moment of glory you can keep with you forever.
As I write this, my body fills with emotion and pride once more. Out of the 2086 people who lined up at the start, 1661 completed the course within the 17 hour cut-off. I finished in 14hrs 6 mins this year and I am as proud as I was last year. I knew it took all I had to cross that line and that I did the best I can do. I feel this is a very fine lesson to take with me on my journey through life; set yourself big, audacious goals, go for it like your life depends on it and accept the result you achieve without self-judgement because you should know you did the best you could, in the end, that’s all you can ask from yourself.
A few thank yous
Huge thank you to Arena and their UK distributor, SoloSports who supported me with a wetsuit, trisuit and goggles. The kit was amazing, fitted well and kept me warm. Thanks also to CEP Sports who provided me with compression socks to race and recover in. I wore a sports bra from DBA with the words "DREAM BELIEVE ACHIEVE" written on it.
Moreover, thank you to everyone who recognised me from reading my blog or connecting with me on Twitter. Your words and encouragement really made my day, I can't thank you enough for all the things you said as we past each other on the course. Well done to you all.
Thank you to Charley, not only did he spend the month of August supporting me and helping me get through the Alpine Coast to Coast adventure, he was also there for me at Ironman Wales when I really needed him.
Last year whilst training to become a first time Ironman, Mark Kleanthous from Ironmate coached me. He was racing alongside me this year and the support from both him and his wife Clare, before, during and after the event was very special. Thank you.
Thanks to Dirty Green Trainers, Getty Images and everyone else who sent me photos some of which I've used in this blog.
Finally, thanks to Ironman for putting on such a superb event and for inviting me back to race. You may see me again :)