Completing my first (unofficial) Ironman

It’s easier to commit to something when you don’t really know what you’re committing to. Perhaps that’s why I signed up to do an Ironman in 2020. 

When my friend Marco completed an Ironman in our home town of Tenby, back in 2014, I think my curiosity was triggered, but I didn’t realise how hard it really was and I live in Cardiff so didn’t see the extent of the training he put in. Having never seen the inside of a gym before, I’m not sure I really even knew what an “Ironman” was. 

As I now know, Ironman is the name of the long distance triathlon event series that sees you race to complete a 2.4 mile (3.8km) swim, 112 mile (180km) bike and 26.2 mile (42.2km) run. It’s considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting challenges. 

It took a conversation with a client in 2019 to tip me over the edge into “why not?” territory. She was signing up for Ironman Wales and knew I’d done a 350 mile bike ride to Amsterdam over 4 days in June 2018 to raise money for Dementia UK. My thought process went along the lines of “I’ve done a big cycle before, I’m from Tenby so I know how to swim, so all I’ve got to do is learn how to run”. No big deal, right?

Chris posing with his bike and a "United against Dementia" poster
Me and my bike before my 350 mile cycle to Amsterdam

I’ve always been of the opinion that I can do absolutely anything, if I put my mind to it. It’s my philosophy and I tell my kids that all the time. They can do anything if they put their mind to it, and do a little practice.

I thought perhaps it’s time I put my money where my mouth is and do something bigger. At least in old age I could remind them of that time I’d done an Ironman.

So, I found myself signing up to do Ironman Wales 2020. I still didn’t really have a proper understanding of what I was letting myself in for. I’d covered 100 miles a day when I cycled to Amsterdam, but Pembrokeshire is a completely different ball game – it’s all hills! You’re either going uphill or downhill on that course. 

I started training, but with a busy job and two children I probably wasn’t doing enough. Then COVID hit and the event was postponed until 2021. This probably helped my cause a little, as I’d have been unprepared in 2020. I regrouped and started training for 2021. Lockdown meant I had more time on my hands, and getting out for a run or a cycle was good for my mental health. 

When I heard that Ironman Wales was going to be postponed again, this time to 2022, I was gutted. I was doing 15 hours of training a week and wasn’t sure I’d have enough time to do that amount of training for another year. Also, by now I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do the distance. 

Going it alone

So, in my typical, “not really thinking it through” pattern, I decided I would go it alone and cover the full course as planned on the original 2021 date. I called Marco and told him about my idea. He was as laid back as ever and said, “Go on, I’ll support you. I’ll be your support rig”. Marco has been involved in Ironman Wales for a few years as a volunteer so knew the course well, and, having done it himself, he had a good idea of what I’d need. Support rig would entail meeting me at various points on the course with food and drink, and bringing my kit to the transition points – the changeovers between disciplines.

At this point I was thinking I’d just cover the course and get it done. I didn’t even invite my wife Jennie and the children, because I thought it would be really boring for them. I just needed to satisfy that urge to do the distance and make all that training worthwhile.

I really wasn’t expecting anything other than to cross the line, Marco to throw my stuff in the van and maybe we’d take a picture, and that would be me finished.

How it panned out was a very different story. 

Race day

Sunday 12 September 2021 arrives, I get up at 4am, eat some food and head back to bed for an hour. Then I get dressed, gather my stuff and head to the beach. Marco has brought his van as the support vehicle and roped in his friend Ryan to kayak alongside me during the swim for safety.

Marco and Ryan by the support van pre-swim

It’s an absolutely glorious Tenby morning. There are a few other people going for a dip, possibly fellow frustrated Ironmen. Marco’s keen for me to start at the official Ironman start time of 7am. He says at least if any of my gadgets fail we’ll know what time I started! 

We get to the edge of the water and Marco counts me down, 3…2…1… – and I’m off. The water is smooth, it’s absolutely beautiful, the sun’s coming up, the water is warm and it’s lovely.

Chris swimming with his safety buoy attached and Ryan in his orange Kayak alongside him.
Me during the swim and Ryan in his kayak keeping watch

I get about 500m into the swim and suddenly realise I’ve not set my tracker watch. For any athlete (and, yes, I realise I just called myself an athlete!) if it’s not recorded on Strava – it didn’t happen. I get round the original course, veering off a little at one point as the sun is in my eyes, but when I get to the end I turn and keep swimming to make up the 500m. Marco and Ryan were a bit confused watching me swim off into the distance!

Eventually it’s done and I get to my first “transition area”. Marco is taking things very seriously and has laid out all the kit I’ll need for the cycle. 

Neat piles of clothes and kit laid out neatly on a picnic table with bike leaning against it.
Bike kit laid out neatly on a picnic table with my bike ready to go.

I set off on the bike ride. I’ve got a tracking app on my phone, and the plan is that Marco will meet me every so often with my gels and hydration. In the meantime, he can go and get on with his day – taking his sons to rugby training. 

I’ve not been cycling long when a guy cycles past and shouts and points at my wheels. I know I’ve not got a puncture but can’t work out what he’s pointing at. I stand up on the pedals, trying to lean over and look at the wheels, but can’t see anything so I carry on. The next thing I know, a team of female cyclists come past and start shouting at me. As they get close, I realise they’re telling me someone has put drawing pins on the road. It’s becoming too regular an occurrence that a small minority want to disrupt (and endanger) cyclists in this way. I’m not really sure why anyone would do this, but I slow down and can see the pins glistening in the sun. Fortunately I managed to weave my way through them, thankful for the kindness of the other cyclists.

Chris on his bike cycling up a steep hill
Biking up one of the many hills on the cycle course

The bike section takes longer than it would if I was doing it during the official event. The roads aren’t closed, so I have to stop at junctions, wait for traffic lights and generally avoid getting hit by a car. At one point it starts raining, which slows me down even more. I’d fallen off my bike about a month earlier in the rain and, whilst I hadn’t injured myself badly, it had shaken me up, as I wasn’t going particularly fast at the time.

However, it’s not about the time for me. The most important thing is that I get round and complete the course. 

I finish the bike course and come into the bike transition area – South Beach car park. Marco opens the side of the van, and he’s laid everything out in precise order. I get changed, put my bike in the van, say hi to my mum who has stopped by to see me and set off on the run. 

Running the distance

As I run off, I’m completely unaware that someone has seen Marco with the side of the van open, all this gear lined up, me in transition, and has gone over and asked what’s going on. Marco explains his friend Torky (my nickname growing up) is doing the Ironman course. The man (who I later find out is called Steve Morgan) responds, “What, on his own?!”. 

Steve is a member of the Ironman Wales (IMW) Journey Facebook group, and I suppose a little surprised by what he’s just seen, posts on the group:

“Hi guys, just bumped into a lone supporter for a guy named Torky who has been training for 3 years for IMW so decided to go ahead with the full course on his own today. He’s done the swim and bike legs and we’ve just seen him at the turnaround point at North Beach on his first loop of the run so if you’re free and not up to much maybe just head out or keep an eye out for him in town to help get him through. Let’s show him the support that IMW is renowned for.”

Screenshot of a Facebook post by Steve Morgan with 301 likes and 167 comments. It reads: Hi guys, just bumped into a lone supporter for a guy named Torky who has been training for 3 years for IMW so decided to go ahead with the full course on his own today. He's done the swim and bike legs and we've just seen him at the turnaround point at North Beach on his first loop of the run so if you're free and not up to much maybe just head out or keep an eye out for him in town to help get him through. Let's show him the support that IMW is renowned for.

The run takes you on 4 loops of a course around Tenby and its outskirts. As I complete the first loop, I’m starting to realise that I might have bitten off more than I can chew. As I come into the first feed station I say to Marco, “I’m not sure I’ve got this”. 

Marco responds, “Just put one foot in front of the other and keep going”. 

So I carry on. 

When I run through town, there are one or two people I don’t know clapping and cheering. I’m not sure what’s going on. I worry that I must look really dreadful and I’m getting sympathy cheers, like when people cheer on a drunk person staggering home!

Chris running through Tenby town centre. He's dressed in all black running kit.
Running through town

As I’m running back out of Tenby, it’s starting to get dark, there’s hardly any traffic around, it’s drizzling with rain and, like a total idiot, I’m dressed head to toe in black. 

The furthest reach of the running course is New Hedges. I’ve just reached that point on my second loop when a car overtakes me, pulls up in front of me and a guy dressed in running gear gets out. Immediately I think, “Well, that’s for me”, as there is nothing else around. He jogs over to me and asks, “Are you Torky?”. 

Later I’d call Ian Vickary my “knight in a shining head torch”. I desperately needed both some motivation and some light at this point. He’s clearly a seasoned runner – I mean, you’d have to be to come out and run 2 and a half loops of a marathon course on a miserable Sunday evening after dinner.  

The kindness of strangers

Ian offers to run with me, which might have seemed strange to anyone else, but by this point I’m lonely and really struggling. My brain has started to convince me that perhaps if I just run another loop I could “see how I feel” – which I know is code for “I might stop”.

As we run, he tells me he’d seen the post on Facebook and thought he’d come out and run with me for a bit. I’m confused. What post? 

He starts explaining about the Facebook post and how lots of people were responding to it. We chat about Ironman and different things, and it’s exactly what I need. It stops me thinking about the pain, and the run, and how much my feet hurt. 

As we come into the feed station (Marco’s van set up with my food and hydration), I’ve now got Ian running with me and the crew with Marco has grown to include his wife Katie and their two sons, my mum, my Aunt Naomi and my friend Lorraine and her husband. I think, “This is cool”, and the extra support gives me a bit of a boost.

A group of people holding banners reading "Go Torky" and "You got this" stood in the rain at the side of a road
The growing crew at the run feed station with Go Torky banners

As we come back into Tenby to finish the second loop, I see my friend Annalise at the bottom of her street. She gives me a hug and a kiss as I go past. The route coming into Tenby takes you on a detour up the hill of a seafront road called The Croft, and then back down the same road into town. As I get to the bottom of The Croft, before I start struggling up the hill, I see my old friend Bethan. She’s written “Torky! GO” on the road in chalk and is shouting and whooping – my legs get another burst of energy.

Chris running down a hill with "Go Torky" written in chalk in big letters on the road
Torky! Go written in chalk at the bottom of The Croft

At the bottom we run past a block of flats called Croft Court. I notice a family on the doorstep as I go past. They’ve brought out pots and pans and are banging them and cheering as I run past.

I finish the second loop feeling quite bemused by what’s going on. Through town, there are a few more shouts of “Go on Torky!”. It’s starting to dawn on me that perhaps people have realised what I’m doing and are cheering me on.

As I start the third loop, a couple are waiting with their three year old, Oliver, to see me. He wants to give me a drink and some chocolate. I hope they haven’t told him Ironman is coming, as he must have been really disappointed when he saw me and not Robert Downey Jr! 

I struggle to eat the chocolate. I’d misjudged my nutrition on the bike and had eaten too much earlier. As I run, I’m struggling to digest and keep dry heaving, each time apologising to Ian who doesn’t seem to mind too much. 

After that second loop, there are so many times when I’m not sure I can finish the run. I’m telling myself I don’t have what it takes, I’ll have to stop. My stomach is sore, my feet are sore, I’m wet and pretty miserable. But then all these people are suddenly cheering me on. 

Every time I’m flagging or a negative thought creeps into my head, as soon as we turn a corner, there is someone else there to take it away and give me a cheer and a clap. They couldn’t have spaced themselves out better if it was planned.

Outside Tenby, where there are fewer people, the negative thoughts creep back in. Then  it hits me – what about all those people back in Tenby? What would that update on Facebook look like – I’ve given in and stopped? It’s a rainy Sunday night, and they’re out in the street waiting for me. I’ve got to keep going.

As we run the 3rd loop, Ian’s head torch is starting to run out. It’s pitch black now, and I’m running behind Ian, focusing on his trainers and watching for kerbs. I’ve really not thought this through, wearing all black and with no event lighting to guide me. 

We get to the feed station by New Hedges when a stranger (who I later learn is called Simon) passes me a hi vis to wear. I message Marco and he brings me a head torch to wear as well. On the way out of New Hedges, a family stops us and gives us each a flashing armband to wear – we go from invisible to disco in an instant!

By the time I get to my final loop, word has really spread. The earlier family at Croft Court has been joined by 5 or 6 other groups of people on balconies all cheering me on. 

During training, when I thought I’d be doing the official event, I confided in my trainer about my worries of not finishing. She told me not to worry, that on the day the crowds would carry me on. 

I never expected when I decided to do the event on my own that I’d have my own crowds. That there would be people out cheering exclusively for me. It makes all the difference as I struggle through the run. I can feel everyone willing me on, wanting me to finish. I can’t stop, because they are out there for me. 

The finishing line

Ian has run 2 and a half laps with me, but as we near the last stretch, he shakes my hand and says, “The finish line is just up ahead. I’m going to let you soak up all the glory and I’m going to go home now”. With that, he turns and disappears into the night. He doesn’t take any credit at the end for how much he’s helped me through. Like a superhero, his work here is done. 

Ian dressed in a red running jacket and Chris in a high vis jacket pose for a photo smiling. They are both wearing head torches.
My knight in a shining head torch, Ian Vickery

By this time it’s 11pm, little Ollie is still awake, waiting for me to finish, and people who had been drinking in the pubs have heard what was going on and come out to cheer and ring cowbells as I run up the Parade to the finish line.  

Marco, my mum and friends are all there – as well as people I’d never met before, but who I recognised had cheered me on earlier. There are balloons, flags and a girl called Ffion has even made me a finishing line banner to run through. 

People holding up a homemade finish line banner which reads "Ironman finisher" there is an Ironman Wales flag just behind
The finish line, complete with home made banner

As I cross the line, Marco gives me a hug (I think I almost fall into his arms to be honest). He offers me a beer, which I definitely don’t want to drink, and his wife Katie places Marco’s official Ironman medal around my neck. It’s a temporary loan – he earned that one himself! I hug my mum as around 30 people stand and cheer. 

There is a round of “hip hip hooray!” and then Marco shouts out the important words, “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN” and the crowd joins in. It’s incredible. I couldn’t have finished on a higher note. It occurs to me that in my first Ironman attempt I’d managed to come both first and last!

I also feel totally overwhelmed. Physically I am in shock, but mentally I can’t quite take it in either. My friend and Ironman veteran Matthew has made me a medal and reminds me to stop my Strava – I’ve totally forgotten by this point. I can hardly speak, and I’m not sure what to say beyond thanking everyone for their support. 

After I hug and thank everyone, Marco drives me home. I get in the van okay, but have to be helped out at the other end. I sit in the shower, letting the hot water warm me up, and feel completely exhausted. I have difficulty sleeping, even though I’m so tired. 

In the morning, I go online and see all the posts and comments on Facebook. It feels so surreal to see all this encouragement from strangers, so many people being so kind. It’s lovely to read them all. I sit and write a reply thanking everyone who has helped me.

What’s next?

Ten months later, I probably feel more emotional looking back than I did at the time. I feel proud of myself for what I accomplished but so aware that without the kindness of friends and strangers I would not have finished. As time has gone on, it’s become more incredible in my mind –  people went to such an effort to support a total stranger. It’s genuinely changed my perception of humanity. 

I even got a video message from Paul Kaye, the voice of Ironman. For the last 30 years he’s been at the finish line announcing “You are an Ironman” to every person that crosses the line.

So, what now? This year I’m signed up to do Ironman Wales officially. Now that I’ve done it in 16 hours, I want to do it in 15! The best thing is that I know I can do it. I’m taking part in a half Ironman in Swansea in preparation and have chosen to do that in support of the Air Ambulance charity. I’d be grateful for any support you might be able to give on my JustGiving page. We’re also running a raffle where you can win £500 of hair treatments to raise money.

With thanks to: 

  • My family – Jennie, Lola, Reuben, my mum Tina and my Aunt Naomi for putting up with me throughout
  • Heather Williams for coaching me to the start line
  • Marco and Katie Hernandez and their family and friends for being my support crew
  • Ryan Messer for looking after me in his kayak on the swim
  • Ian Vickary for coming out and running with me
  • Simon Batty for the hi vis jacket
  • The people who gave us the flashing armbands – disco running!
  • Little Oliver for the power ups
  • Ffion for the finishing line banner
  • Matthew Broadhurst for the homemade medal and hoodie
  • Jenni Taylor for helping me tell my story
  • All the strangers and friends who cheered me on

Guy Christian Salons