Ironman Wales 2019 race report: Craig Burrows
I sat down with coach, Mark (Whittle), back in September 2018 to discuss goals and I asked him if he thought I could ‘compete’ for a Kona slot at Ironman Wales in 2019? Both an ambitious and ambiguous goal I agree. I mean, define compete. We knew there would be 4 slots and the likelihood of all slots being taken by thetop 4 would be unlucky. 5th should do it, 6th would have a strong chance, 7th onward would be slim. It was going to be a big year of work.
Coming off the back of an unexpected 6th place at Long Course Weekend Wales, I began the summer training block on a bit of a high. Despite the marathon and bike split doing a good job of masking the swim time, I was hopeful that the 12-month investment into a Masters Swim squad would translate to a good Ironman Wales swim come September 15th. Fingers crossed.
I told Loz on numerous occasions in the weeks leading into the race that if I swim 65min then I think I will qualify for Kona but if I swim 70min then it would be game over. This self-inflicted pressure was probably why my anxiety increased exponentially on the morning of the race. I was very close to missing transition cut off, I almost had a wetsuit malfunction and I very nearly forgot to put my pink bag on the hook. A shambles of a human, I needed an Ironman miracle…...or a Valium.
I placed myself in the 1:00/1:05 swim pen with the hope that I could somehow catch a draft and squeeze out a few underserved minutes. The conditions were perfect, no chop, no wall of waves and no wind. As a weaker swimmer this was my chance - don't F&@K it up Craig! I began at a comfortable pace and grew into the swim, a stark contrast to my usual ‘escaping a school of piranhas’ pace that I often adopt. It worked. I exited the water knowing that I swam off course more often than I was on it, but I felt like I swam well (technically, at least). I had no idea of time but that didn’t matter, I felt fresh so it was onwards and upwards.
What worked for me:
- I turned off all data on my watch, this stopped me panicking if I glanced at it.
- Tri-Suit around my waist to limit the restricted feeling I usually get.
- Took the swim easy(ish). My GPS data said I swam 4344m at a pace of 1:37 100/m. If that was the case then my assumptions on the day were correct. I swam ok, I just can’t sight for toffee.
I knew I couldn’t hang around on this 1k run up to my bike, I needed to claw back some time. I sprinted through town as fast as I could. I was out of the water and onto my bike in under 8 minutes.
What worked for me:
- I recced the run from my bag to my bike. I also took a video and timed it, I needed it to be second nature.
- I carried my bike shoes to my bike, I run faster in socks than cleats.
I still had no idea of swim time as I left T1 but there were still lots of bikes in their racks so I thought I had done ok. A false sense of security maybe but it relaxed me. Knowing the difficulty and technicality of the course I set my power target slightly lower than I would normally but I needed to run well if I was going to have any chance of competing so I taped my power targets to my top tube to keep me focused throughout the early parts of the race.
The Flatter Bit: Despite my legs feeling pretty good in the early miles out to Angle I was repeatedly getting overtaken. I refused to play cat and mouse and also stubbornly refused to get out of my saddle on the climbs. A tactic of mine is to break the course into smaller segments with a focus for each. This first section from Tenby to Carew was all about position. It’s the fastest section of the course and I really focused on holding my bike position as often as I could. I’m not a super strong rider but I am pretty small and aero and this is where I hoped to gain some free time. Those who know me will concur that I’m pretty obsessive when it comes to all things ‘aerodynamic’. Anything that will help me to hold my position and give me speed for nothing is worth investigating in my eyes. In light of that, no cycling stone had been left unturned; ceramic bearings, waxed chains, aero gloves, trip strips, aero chainring, ergo pads and high extensions.... you name it, I have investigated it, so why not do it all justice and hold the position? In fact, the bike equipment probably deserves a blog post in it’s own right. Basically, If I wasn’t climbing, I was locked in position.
The Hilly Bits: My Strava history tells me I’ve ridden the IM Wales course 37 times in the last 4 years. I’m convinced it’s more than that but maybe it’s just so hilly that it feels more than that. Point being, I know this course like the back of my hand. It helped on the tricky sections such as Summerhill, the tight bends descending into Narberth and the rough single track lanes off the ridgeway. I made up a lot of time on these sections. I was on autopilot.
After being deprived of Heartbreak Hill last year I was super excited heading into Saundersfoot. What a nice surprise to see my support crew at the bottom of the hill ready to give me some splits and encouragement. I knew I was moving well but I still had another lap to go. Heartbreak hill didn’t disappoint, the support was immense and I was welling up. The emotion you experience here is like no other I have experienced in sport, even Maggie Thatcher would have cracked a smile on this climb. I did my best to keep the effort down but that atmosphere does funny things to you, a truly humbling and emotional experience.
It’s at Lamphey on the second loop that things usually start to unravel, but today I felt strong. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was getting harder but nothing like the sudden wall of doom I am accustomed to. The early pacing decisions were starting to pay off as were the nutritional ones. I was slowly sipping my way through 500ml of Beta Fuel an hour which contains a whopping 320 calories and 80g carbs. This is the equivalent of 2 bottles and 2 gels of most other products. No faff, no aid stations, no gut problems. Game changer. I arrived back at T2 with a bike time I was very happy with and ready to run.
What worked for me:
- I had a race plan and stuck to it, are those extra watts you push to save you 20 seconds up Narberth worth it?
- I didn’t eat solid food this year, just the Beta Fuel. Practice your nutrition and practice it again. One less stress to think about.
- I stayed aero when I could, 15mph or less then I sat up, apart from that I was down.
- I know the course…. Really, really well.
I was in and out of T2 in little over 3min. My plan for the run was simple. Run easy up the hills, hard on the downhill and steady on the flats. Nothing more complex than that. Almost all of my long runs over the summer were on the course and all done to feel not pace. Each lap of the run is 6.63 miles (10k-ish) and I set my watch up to lap at this point instead of each mile to ensure I didn’t push a climb.
I usually feel awesome on the first lap, having to hold myself back. However, today my legs felt heavy. I climbed out of Tenby for the first time and it was here that I was greeted by a wave of support - everyone who had made the trip West to watch me was gathered here. It was a real boost and it refocused my mind to the task at hand, I needed an Ironman run PB to stand any chance of a Kona slot. I collected my first band and headed back into Tenby town to complete my first lap of 47:28’, too fast, I thought.
I was beginning to find my running legs but my head was still in the sea, I don’t remember much of lap two apart from telling Mark that I felt like crap (a statement I would now like to retract and use for the third lap instead) The second lap concluded and in ‘47:31’. I was flying. Half marathon done in 1:36.
The third lap in was a blur. I remember seeing people I recognised but I was in a bad place, often only managing a small hand gesture in exchange for some support. I collected my third band and made my way back down into town. The wheels were beginning to wobble, I missed a gel at this point, the eyes were beginning to close and the cramp was setting in. I was so deep in the hurt zone that I just missed my watch beep and it came back to bite me later on. After a meander around Tenby it was penultimate done. 50:37, 3 minutes slower. Welcome to the Grind!
The final lap hurts for everyone, not just me (but at that moment in time, in my head, I was the only one suffering in the world). I was running my 6th fastest marathon, my fastest Ironman marathon and racing for a Kona spot, this was supposed to hurt. My hamstrings and calves were cramping with every step and my energy was rapidly depleting, I needed a Mario Mushroom (or my forgotten gel) I was in a world of pain and looked like Casper the Ghost, I just didn’t want to run anymore. James (Grandfield) informed me that I was 10th in my AG but was running ‘significantly faster than all but 2 of them’. This was it, I had 10k left to get to the big dance. How hard can one push? I suppose it depends on how much you want something. I was deep in the well at this point, with pain as the only metric not pace.
Descending back into the crowd laden streets of Tenby for the final time felt so good. It’s almost like the crowd volume doubles for your final push. Despite the pain and suffering I wanted that emotion to last forever.
My watch lapped for the final time in 50:36, with only a sprint down the red carpet to go. I finished in a time of 10:17:27 passing 4 people in the last 5k. I broke down at the finish line when I found out I had finished 6th in my AG. I wanted to compete with the best in my AG and I had done exactly that. I was very proud and very emotional.
What worked for me:
- I wasn’t a slave to pace, I barely looked at my watch. this terrain is so varied that it will average out. Go too hard on the climb out of Tenby and you won’t pull it back.
- I walk the aid stations and ONLY the aid stations.
- I talked myself through the last 10K. When things got dark I reminded myself of why I was there.
- I trusted my training and my run legs. If you have done the training and paced the bike well then you will grow into the run.
2019 started off with a wedding and ended with an Ironman. I’m not sure which one was more stressful but I know which one I'll be doing again soon. It’s been an epic year all round largely due to the support from Loz who postponed a 2019 honeymoon in the hope of one in Hawaii in 2020, sadly she will have to settle for fish and chips in Porthcawl now.
True to our assumptions and previous trends, the Kona slots in my AG rolled down to 5th but sadly not 6th. Missing out by under 5 minutes hurt, especially as I predicted it would come down to the swim time. Fine margins, but we knew it would be. Despite this, I had a race I am very proud of, the 7th fastest AG run of the day and a group of family and friends whose support and generosity never ceases to amaze me. It wouldn’t be worth it without them. Missing out this year has only added fuel to the fire and I'm sure I’ll sit down with Mark again soon and plan Ironman (insert name here) for 2020.