TriRadar senior writer Tom Ballard returns for a wet but wonderful race at Wimbleball

Ironman 70.3 UK - Tom Ballard

The swim was lovely, and crucially, flat

Going into this year’s Ironman 70.3 UK, I had been obsessed with breaking the six-hour mark, but after days of pouring rain and more promised for race day, my ambitions changed – faster or slower, I just wanted to get through it.

We arrived at the campsite two days before the event and were immediately pleased to see that after a few site access niggles in 2012, there had been a few changes by the organisers this year.

In fact, from the ‘traffic light’ team ensuring there were no snarl-ups on the venue’s tiny lanes to the introduction of two race briefings – one for beginners, one for returning athletes – the race team and volunteers had everything covered.

That included the camping, which was numbered this year, meaning finding friends was easy despite the whole area being a mobile-signal dead spot. In fact, from our experience, the whole organisation of this year’s event was flawless.

After religiously following my pre-race prep (swim practice, turbo and quick run the day before) and cramming as many carbs down as I could, it was off to bed early.

Race morning dawned overcast and damp, but crucially free from rain. Tyres were pumped, bottles secured, toilets queued for and before we knew it, wetsuits were on and athletes were heading en masse to the lakeside.

The chilly water that we’d watched Tim Don swim fish-like through during the practice session the previous day looked even more imposing now. Wading in over the soft weedy lakebed, tension rippled through the crowd as goosebumps flared during the interminable wait for the start. Over bobbing heads to the right the pros were being introduced on the pontoon, marking the last time I’d see them all day.

Mumbling through the national anthem with chattering teeth, the countdown began. Then: air horn, thunderous splashing, churning feet, thrashing elbows, gasped breaths, desperate sighting and finally I found myself in a bit of open water.

The swim was as lovely as I’d remembered it, with very little argy-bargy to spoil the experience. Around the second buoy, my thoughts turned to transition, and after 35:17 (boo! Slower than last year), I was soon running/stumbling up the slope to T1, remembering to shake and flex my fingers to get some feeling back into them.

Transition was just a case of keeping my head and not letting the rising post-swim mania dictate my actions. In a decent (for me) 5:26 I was clambering aboard my race steed – a suitably equipped Felt AR4 – and off down the lane.

Ironman 70.3 UK - Tom Ballard

As if the bike course isn’t difficult enough without added rain

During the first climb, I exhibited a usually-dormant multitasking ability by clicking down through the gears to spin upwards while pulling on my arm warmers and overtaking a couple of TT bikers who had already run out of cogs. I felt justly smug, happily spinning past pointy-hatted athletes honking out of the saddle and sounding as if they didn’t have long for this world.

My pre-race plan was to take the bike easy and try to run as much of the final leg as possible having been reduced to a few walking patches last year. The compact Rotor Q-Rings were definitely helping me with this but before the course’s big descent – which signals that the tough hills are looming – the rain began. To be honest, we were lucky to escape the weather for so long, but from there on in, damp turned to wet, which soon made way for soaking before finally settling on sopping.

None of this seemed to bother the army of spectators, who gleefully created a wall of supportive noise via loud shouts of encouragement, the ringing of cowbells and the waves of applause that urged each athlete to push on up the last big climb. Likewise the superb volunteers happily discharged their duty by handing out nutrition despite the wet – in fact, I think their smiles may well have been of a ‘rather you than me’ nature.

Despite being completely drenched, I got onto the second bike lap in a great mood, remembering that this time the year before my legs had been shaking and I’d been petrified that I couldn’t finish the course. On that occasion, I’d had to coax myself through with a mixture of bullying, positive self-talk and the promise that I was just 25 miles and a run away from being able to pack the sport in entirely!

This year things were going (almost literally) swimmingly. Lap two was colder than the first and my hands were turning into a pair of tri bar claws, but as I climbed the final hill back to transition, I didn’t need the spectators’ shouts of ‘Smile!’ to etch one on my face.

Coming towards the dismount line, I managed to get one foot out of my bike shoe, but misjudged the distance to transition and ended up hobbling through with the other one still on – something questioned (in the voice of someone anxious about another’s mental wellbeing) by the helpful volunteer in the changing tent.

Ironman 70.3 UK - Tom Ballard

I promise that I’m actually moving forwards here

Still, I’d put in a decent (for me) 3:17:33, two minutes faster than the previous year. Making sure I didn’t repeat my 2012 mistake of pulling one of my running socks over my bike one, I got out onto the run course.

I can’t remember whether it was still raining at this point, a mindset that’s probably indicative of how shattered I already felt, but my legs were pretty cold as I joined the other athletes plodding onto the run course, where continued rain or not, the ground was churned into mud for much of the mostly off-road course.

Determined to run every pace of the half-marathon, something I would later question as I tried to run and quaff coke, it wasn’t until the running past the finish line (a really cool new addition to the run course) that I had an idea of my overall time so far. The clock read 4:04.

Having repositioned my goal pre-race from sub-six hours to just-get-around-in-this-horrible-weather, I was pleased to be in the position I was. If I managed to finish within the next 1:56, I could still just edge under the time that had been weighing so heavily on me in the months before the event.

In my exercise-muddled state, I spent the next 10 minutes or so trying to work out what pace I needed to run at, the cogs of my mind grinding slower than the dreary leg turnover I was able to manage. By then I was up the course’s big hill and traipsing down the slippy, muddied farm track on the other side, having gained a boost from staff writer Jek, who, being injured, cheered on from the sidelines. I was only a bit jealous.

Ironman 70.3 UK - Tom Ballard

My knee wasn’t happy by the final lap of the half marathon

Running across the spectacular dam at the end of Wimbleball Lake, I felt the horrifyingly familiar tweak in my knee, signalling that my ITB would be flip-flopping over the bony prominence there for the rest of the run.

Weirdly, it was in my left leg, rather than right (which was the one that had caused problems more recently) and as I flip-flopped around the lake – on the newly widened gravel track – the pain increased, got worse and then reached a constant stabbing sensation.

Catching a fellow competitor who was taking a stretching break, I plodded on before the same bloke steamed past only for me to overtake him as he walked later on. Then he was ahead again. I overtook as he exited a portaloo, then I was behind, catching him on the hill, behind, and so it continued for the rest of the race.

In retrospect, considering the painful flippety-flop of an ever more enflamed ITB, a walk-run strategy would probably have been sensible, but a surprising drive not to break my no walking plan, and the fear that if I did walk I’d never get going again, kept my legs turning over.

On the final lap, I reckoned that by barring catastrophe, I should just make my goal of going sub-six. As the walk-runner sprinted ahead to the finish (he deserved it) I gratefully turned onto the red carpet to see the luminous yellow numbers on the clock displaying 5:47 – told you my pace calculations were rubbish.

Crossing the line in 5:47:50 after a good (for me) 1:46:28 half marathon I was incredibly happy and utterly spent. Sometimes after events I wonder whether I could have given more, but as I gratefully received my medal and space blanket, my screaming muscles and tight chest told me I’d gone as hard as I possibly could.

Ironman 70.3 UK

Despite the weather, the age groupers were out in force on this spectacular course

Sat in the recovery tent, I was incapable of movement or rational thought. My knee was in such a state that the tiniest movement sent shocks of pain that cut through all the other pain I was feeling. Luckily, I was almost completely out of it. I think that Jordanian pro Lawrence Fanous came to talk to me at one point, but his toned physique and apparently-brisk recovery following the event may just have been a mirage.

I’d meant to return to the finish to cheer the wife on, but in knocking 30 minutes off her PB, she found me first, her look of concern at my state reaffirming the fact I couldn’t have gone any faster during the run.

A delicious hog-roast roll and shower later, I felt almost human again and we were off to the prize giving. After cheering the pros and age-group winners on, eyes growing wide at the ‘impossible’ times they had finished in, it was on to the nervous excitement of the roll-down.

Quite why more people don’t stay for this part of the event is beyond me as not only does it create an electric atmosphere, but places for the Ironamn 70.3 World Championships regularly filter down through to 20th or even 30th place in the age-groups. This year we had everything from raucous shouts of acceptance from the ladies to teary-eyed explosions of emotion from the guys.

Ironman 70.3 UK

The prize-giving ceremony and roll-down conclude all M-dot races

In all the excitement, it transpired that the wife was off to Las Vegas after finishing third in her age group, something which really topped off the event for us (not to mention that it was her birthday too).

The race had reached its natural conclusion and although the desire to race there again has diminished after attaining the goal I’d set out too, I know that’s only temporary. Ironman 70.3 UK is undoubtedly one of the best triathlons in the country and being an M-dot event makes it that little bit more special. The event feels almost homely now – a testament to the friendliness of all the athletes, staff and volunteers there – and it won’t be long before the incredible course and magic atmosphere lures me back.

Many thanks to all the Ironman UK team as well as the marshals, volunteers and competitors that make Ironman 70.3 UK such an amazing event.

Pictures: FinisherPix, James Mitchell