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Ironman Wales – Mal Whitelam

The sun has broken the horizon which warms the heart if nothing else, I stand on the beach with over two thousand potential dragon slayers, every one a St George in the making and me …… I feel more like Shrek than St George, an imposter in the ranks, a half decent runner chancing his luck and yet I feel ready. I must be ready, I actually slept, 5 hours straight through without the obligatory pre-race nightmares of stolen bikes, punctures and a general inability to move.

Tension builds the race starts and as always nothing happens, we shuffle down the beach and I collect my thoughts Why are we here? Really? it’s because ………actually I’m not sure. Hey remember when you nearly drown on the River Tummel? You bring that up now, seriously WTF? My mind is not always my friend, the conveyor belt that is the beach despatches a few more into water it’s almost time The water looks cold, Hey remember learning to swim? What? Three years we’ve been doing this to be here now. Early mornings late nights, freezing cold lakes risking life and limb, brain eating amoebas and weils disease Bit dramatic, you started it now shush please man at work. The goggles are pulled downthe sunlight is filtered to a blue haze and my feet enter the water, I’m not 100% sure as to why I’m here if I’m honest the only constant is that I’ve never actually believed that I could be an Ironman and that alone is a good enough reason to try.

As I run into the sea I scoop up handfuls of water and deposit them over my face and down my neck my usual 5 minutes of acclimatisation are not an option with a couple of hundred others entering the water close behind. I’m waist deep and dive in, the cold water holds firm around my chest and I struggle for breath but the mind is now quiet for the first time in month’s “Silence the Dragon, Silence the doubt” is my final thought something that will become a mantra in the hours to come, I breathe deep as I hit a rhythm every second stroke facing away from the swell, spotting infrequently as my mind disengages and I switch off…..for now at least. The first half mile passes by uneventful other than a pinch point at the first turn, shortly afterwards I take a kick to the head and as I move my head to the side a hand comes down on my face, I inadvertently pause and someone swims over the top of me as my mind commences a secondary attack Idiot tried to kill usit wasn’t deliberate I’m done after this lap let’s concentrate on finishing this lap. I can’t see a buoy as I lift my head but with people on both sides I push on and the second turn is upon us soon enough.

My feet touch the floor I’m almost back on the beach and as I stand I fall backwards with the receding tide. I stand again and leave the water, this is it, the biggest single moment of the entire day and I know I can’t afford to think about it. I run (kind of) to start the second lap and body check as I go I’m not too cold and my right eye hurts from salt water leaking into my goggles (after the kick) but I’m good to go in fact I’m already back in Really? I think I’ve got this lets go. I did think I had it for about another 500 meters after which the cold bit and then I wasn’t so sure. Another 500 meters and I was spotting not for buoys but for boats Lets get out just a little further the sensation in my legs is threatening to cramp and I need a minute mentally if nothing else. I swim out from the pack find a space and STOP! A single moment in time that felt like forever, the surreal feeling of being outside of the race looking in is something I’ll never forget. Question, did we come this far not to finish?, even if its only the swim we have to finish. In that moment I spoke before my head did and I took control, I don’t remember spotting again just stayed in the pack and followed the flow it wasn’t long before I stepped onto the beach with the skill and aplomb of a toddler taking their first steps.

Staggering up the beach I unzipped my wetsuit I looked back across the water and was surprised at the number of people still in. I looked at my watch which I’d forgot to start as usual and although I can’t remember the time as I write this, a smile lifted my face. I’d had the swim of my life and I knew it. I reached the top of the steps and looked back over the bay in disbelief, the course sprawled out below seemed less intimidating now, cold and tired (already) I’d slayed my demons, now for the Dragon?

Brutal I have no other words for the next 8 hours, well I do but this is a kids show so let’s keep it clean. I’d always believed if I could get out of the water I could finish although after the first 50 miles I waged a war of attrition against the course. I never really got to grips with the bike and I’m not sure why if I’m honest. The ride had started ok but after the first 20 miles the hills were already taking their toll on my legs. As the end of the first lap neared I was ruined, cresting the top of Mt Saundersfoot (I swear it’s a mountain) a smile spread wide as through a sea of unfamiliar faces I spotted Michelle and Harry, my wife and my son. Now lets be honest here, we aren’t always pleased to see the ones we love, they always appear when you have biscuits or are having a moment of peace and tranquillity but today the sight of those guys gave me something extra. I didn’t get quicker or stronger but I knew I wasn’t alone (I’m never alone can’t even go to the toilet without the dog) I knew that they wanted me to finish as much as I did, I realised then that they had as much invested in this as me.

The second lap of the bike course was much the same as the first if a little slower. I don’t remember much about it to be honest, head down pedalling squares up the hills and unable to gain any time back on the technical downs. I can honestly say one thing for sure though I have never in all my life been so pleased to remove my ass from a seat. I ran into transition and racked my bike unintentionally thanking it as I did. Swim done, Ride done time to run.

PANIC I know looking back that I did. I’d cramped up on the second trip up the hill at Wisemans Bridge and internal chatter had thrown my mind. I’d planned all along to run 9 min miles however thinking I would suffer more cramps I adopted the destructive “Run while you can policy” and went out way to fast and began to suffer around 7 miles, the remainder of the day was spent walking up and running down. At the end of the second lap though something changed, I started to enjoy it. I was able to take things in more, chat to people around me and ever more amused and by Michelle & Harry appearing unexpectedly in random places I began to realise I would definitely finish. 

During the last lap of the marathon I had many moments of reflection, thinking back over seven and a half months of training. Repeatedly being pushed out of my comfort zone by Coach Clark. The summer had been tough I’d struggled to build the mileage on the bike, at times I’d been unable to run afterwards as my lower back locked. I’d repeatedly fallen short on open water swims leaving the water shaking and cramped from the cold. At times I was filled with dread never daring to believe I could be here, now, 10k from the finish line. During the last two weeks of training proper I’d finally managed a 2.5 mile swim in the lagoon and my first 100 mile ride, in some ways I had no right standing on that beach as the sun had climbed over the horizon that morning. I passed through the town centre one last time and reached the split in the road, laps to the right finish straight on. I’d not planned a finish line celebration but as I approached the finish line I raised a finger to my lips, I’d not slayed the dragon just silenced her and my own self doubt at the same time Shrek and Donkey style .

Coach Clark I can’t thank you enough between your plan and an element of bloody mindedness on my own part somehow I heard those words “Malcolm Whitelam you are an Ironman”. There are times when I haven’t liked you so much those times are called Bank holiday bonuses. I was stupid enough to try this three years after learning to swim and with very little experience on a bike and you along with several others have helped to make this happen. Michelle and Harry you have me back although you are probably sick of me already and John Chambers you’re a true friend, not sure who annoys who the most some days but you had me covered and it was always good to know you were suffering too, well done on your PBhun.

Would I do another? Well after two weeks rest I think the answer is yes, but I need a lot more time in the saddle first. Do I feel like an Ironman? Not really I still think of myself as a Try-athlete however that swim made my day, I probably expended too much doing it but when I look back at the photo’s of the swim course ……You couldn’t do that twice, I already did!

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