‘It’s just so long’ – Long Course Weekend race report

June 30th, 2024 • Posted in News |

Approaching Long Course Weekend, I’d done plenty of swim, bike and run training. BUT … I hadn’t run more than 16 miles (slowly), and hadn’t biked more than 70 miles. My swimming was fine, but apart from that I was feeling underprepared. Combine this with the fact that in 13 years I have never started a race that I did not finish, and I had a fair amount of anxiety* going into the weekend. I really, really wanted that 4th medal.

*(a lot)

Long Course is an incredible event in Tenby that attracts over 10,000 athletes. The full event is basically an ironman over three days. So that means a 2.4 mile sea swim on Friday evening, a 112 mile bike ride Saturday, and a full marathon on Sunday, closely followed by a red carpet ceremony and 4th medal for those who complete it all. Even more closely followed by a huge Italian meal and wine and beer and cake. Many people do shorter events, or variations of these distances. But I was in for the full Monty. Except without the stripping.

My wife Tracey and I travelled down and met up with our good friends Mike and Sian. Mike is a great training partner––we’ve done loads of biking, running, swimming, drinking coffee and eating cake together––and this was the big weekend! We had a lovely apartment overlooking South Beach, where we almost had great nights’ sleep. Almost. The reason why it wasn’t quite perfect is below.

It’s said that in Tenby, even the sea swim is hilly. Funny joke, right? I mean, how can the sea be hilly? Easy. From the roads above the beach on Friday evening the water looked ‘like a millpond’ (my wife Tracey’s words), but that was from the high steps and I suspect she didn’t have her glasses on. I loved the build-up to the swim––the music, the fireworks, nervous chatter with fellow competitors, meeting both old friends and new, and being able to pee in your wetsuit with two thousand people standing around you––but once in the water I realised just how rough it was. It wasn’t too bad out to the first turn buoy, where the usual chaos ensued––best description is a giant washing machine filled with fists and feet and you have to swim through it.

But after this turnaround, and embarking on the long stretch towards the lifeboat station, there was a huge swell that pushed you off course and frequently slammed you down from the tops of waves into the next trough. People were puking from sea-sickness and swallowing water smashed into their faces by the swell. Sighting was incredibly difficult when you couldn’t see over the top of the wave coming towards you. Remember that last scene in The Perfect Storm? It was a bit like that, except without George Clooney. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but it was still choppy as a martial arts film. Many dozens of swimmers were pulled from the water by rescue boats (the speed boats had a busy couple of hours). Lots more competitors swam one lap and then didn’t get back in. ‘Bollocks to that’, was a phrase heard more than once on the beach.

And weirdly, I loved it. I don’t know why, but I found the whole rough swim great fun. Saw a few jellyfish. I refrained from punching any this time. Er, let me explain. When I raced Ironman Wales in 2016 I saw a jellyfish the size of a VW Beetle at the first turn buoy on lap 2 of the swim. Punching it was entirely unintentional and merely a function of my somewhat panicked few swim strokes to get over and past it, and I’d like to apologise to the jelly and hope it’s OK. If it is still alive it was hiding last weekend. Anyway, I swallowed some water (euch), and I ended up doing two 40 minute laps to complete the 2.4 miles (my Strava said more like 2.6) in 1:21. I was wobbly running up the beach to the finish, and I already knew my neck was chafed into raw meat (so bad that it hurt to keep on my medal. But I kept it on, of course. Well earned). But that was the swim over and medal #1 –– done.

We spent Friday evening in our apartment eating pizza and getting ready for the early bike start. This consisted of looking at my bike for ten minutes wondering what I’d forgotten, staring at the huge pile of bike kit I’d brought deciding what to wear, and generally taffing*

*(the triathlon version of ‘faffing’, which involves agonising over what you might do wrong, what kit you’ve forgotten, whether you’ve brought the right food, if that tyre really should have been replaced, etc.)

A 5:30 alarm call was actually OK, expecially after a brilliant night’s sleep*

*(Not. I hate seagulls)

The weather was perfect for the bike, and Mike and I stuck together. Our plan was to take it easy and preserve our legs for the marathon the following day. I must have been over-enthusiastic with the hydration, but the regular toilet stops acted as brief breaks for our legs. Lots of flapjacks helped the ride pass, and salt tabs to fend off cramp. Oh, and a big shout-out to the feed stations and brilliant marshals––arriving at the first feed station and a veggie sausage bap was epic, and those serving chips at a later feed station should be made Dames and Knights of the Realm. I mean it. Marshals are a special breed of humans, and I love them all dearly.

A note here about the phrase ‘Schoolboy Error’. And another phrase, Read Your Race Pack. And another one … Always Follow A Plan. I could tell you that Mike and I came in at the end of the first 70 mile lap just 8 minutes before cut-off intentionally. I could say it was planned, and that we knew what we were doing standing around in feed stations chatting and making sure we didn’t smash the bike too much. I could, but I won’t, because it’s not true.

Anyway, back out onto the second lap (which is a repeat of the toughest and hilliest part of the first lap, just for fun), we met a competitor at some traffic lights who asked if I had any painkillers. I’d necked mine by then unfortunately, to stave off sore feet I sometimes get on the bike, and when I asked what was wrong she said, ‘It’s just so long.’ And she’s right. It’s so LONG. The organisers should accept this fact and state it in the race title.

Our bike went generally without incident, although we did see a couple of nasty accidents. Sobering. Some of those roads are tricky, but I noticed just what good conditions Pembrokeshire roads are in compared to those around where I live in Monmouthshire, whose roads are more suited to gravel bikes. Mike and I sailed over the finish line, and it was medal #2 –– done! Back to the apartment, it was time for spag bol and cake and refuelling for the next day. Less taffing this time … trainers, tee shirt, shorts, number, jelly babies, job done.

Another night passed listening to seagulls arguing and screaming and shagging and just generally living it up directly outside our window, and a very civilised alarm call of 8 a.m. meant it was marathon day. This was always the part of the weekend that worried me most. I’m not a great runner, and my training had comprised lots of 8, 9 or 10 mile runs, and only a couple at around 14 or 16 miles. Not ideal.

Mike is a natural runner, so he skipped merrily off into the distance and I settled in for a long day. My plan was to stick at 10 or 11 minute miles, and as usual the first couple of miles were faster. But I soon settled into my plan. The best thing about the run? The people. I ran with my friend Jules and his son for ten miles, then just before Pembroke (the halfway point) I went on ahead, a little worried about the 6 hour cut-off time. I also ran with 7 or 8 other different people at various stages, and every one of them was lovely, encouraging, and helped the miles pass by.

I love triathlon. I love everything about the sport, but most of all, it’s the people. If you have any doubts about humanity, just go and race a triathlon (or a marathon, long bike ride, whatever), and your faith will be restored.

Which leads me to the finish of the marathon. Down that last nasty hill into Tenby (and after 25 miles, a steep downhill is torture that should be illegal in most civilised countries), and the support from Tracey, Mike (he’d already finished in a banging time of 4:04) and Sian, and many friends from my tri-club the brilliant NEWTS, actually got me a bit emotional, especially heading onto that red carpet and down the finishers’ chute. My big smile was because IT WAS MEDAL #3 DONE, in a not dreadfully terribly crap 5:15. I was very happy with that time! All three long distance events finished, I grabbed a beer and some food, bumped into some more old mates around the race village (hi Matt, hi Nathan!), then headed along the red carpet with hundreds of others to collect that 4th medal. Brilliant. Around 800 people started the full distance Long Course, and only about 400 finished all three distances. I’m guessing that’s mostly because of the tough swim.

I’d been looking forward to Sunday evening for a while … a nice Italian meal with Mike, Sian and Tracey, some wine, some beer, and a bloody good relax. Despite the seagulls. It was lovely.

I’ve had lots of chats with people about whether Long Course is harder than an ironman (which takes place in one day with a 17 hour cut-off time). I’m still undecided. With an ironman you’re toe-in-the-water at 7 a.m. and you know you have a long day ahead of you, and you’re mentally prepared for that. With Long Course, you have the evenings and nights between disciplines to stiffen up, rest, refuel, and stress about the next day.

Whatever, that competitor Mike and I met on the bike who said ‘It’s just so long’ was right. But it was great fun, and Tenby rocked! And I see they also run a Long Course in New Zealand, Belgium, Mallorca … perhaps it’s time to go on tour!

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