A Midlife Crisis in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

  • Contributor information: CNP

Gayle Lister is a Discovery Ranger for Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority. Last year she took part in the Ironman Wales and in her blog discusses the value of the experience for her and for the National Park. 

It’s 4am and my alarm is going off. For someone who isn’t keen on mornings I leap out of bed surprisingly quickly – this is the day I have been training for over the past year – I am competing in Ironman Wales. For the uninitiated, an Ironman race is the ultimate triathlon. A 2.4 mile sea swim, followed by a 112 cycle and finishing with a full 26.2 mile marathon, all within a 17 hour time frame with strict cut off times for each discipline.

I remember watching the athletes’ cycle through the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park during the inaugural event in September 2011 and thinking that I would like to do this in 2015, the year I turned 40. It seemed far enough away in the future that I could forget about for a while! In 2014, whilst watching the cyclists, I decided it would be 2015 or never, so I took a deep breath and signed up. Definitely a midlife crisis! And so began my year of training.

I am extremely fortunate that I live in Pembrokeshire and was able to train on the routes that I would be following on the day of the race. On the days that training felt particularly tough (and there were many of those), I could draw strength and inspiration from the beautiful scenery of the Park. 5 a.m. sea swims were rewarded by beautiful sunrises across the beach and stunning seascapes emerged at the top of brutal hill climbs on the bike. Even running seemed bearable in this scenery.

On the day of the event the streets of Tenby were already filling up with spectators, jostling to get the best viewpoint. As Ironman point out on their website; “Ironman Wales has is one of the most vocal and enthusiastically supported Ironman events with tens of thousands of spectators who turn out for race day on all three disciplines”. This was certainly true for the swim start and I had to squeeze through a crowd already 3 people deep to get down to the beach. At 7am the whistle blew and nearly 2000 competitors ran into the sea to start the 2.4 mile swim. The sea was quite choppy with a deep swell, but every now and then I caught a glimpse of the sun coming up over the bay, casting my fellow competitors in a lovely, early morning light.

At the end of the swim, I whipped off my wetsuit and ran the 1km to transition where I dressed for the bike. The streets of Tenby by this time were jam packed and I couldn’t stop grinning as I heard people shouting encouragement. The local cafes seemed to be doing a roaring trade on bacon butties too! Once on the bike I set off on the 112 mile bike ride. There were very few sections along the route that didn’t have people on waving flags, shouting and cheering or offering help with the inevitable punctures.

The bike route was amazingly clear of gel and bar wrappers, showing that each competitor had taken good notice of the Ironman briefing in which we were told that littering in the National Park during the event would result in instant disqualification.

I made the cut off time for the bike with about 15 minutes to spare and set off for the final bit, the marathon.  I always knew this would be the hardest part for me. I had some dark moments and I can honestly say that I would never have got through it but for the phenomenal support of the Pembrokeshire people who have truly taken Ironman Wales into their hearts. One amazing group of spectators promised me they would be in the same spot for me until the very end, despite the fact it was now pouring with rain. And as I ran towards the finish line, there they were, willing me on. At 11.57p.m, with 9 minutes to spare before the 17 hour cut off and having raised £2720.50 for Macmillan Cancer Support, I ran across the line to hear “Gayle, you are an Ironman!”

I am possibly in a unique position to be able to comment on the Ironman from three viewpoints. As a National Park Ranger, the biggest positive must come from the raised awareness people have of the Park. Many people may not have been aware of the Park before visiting for Ironman but I have spoken to many competitors and spectators alike who have fallen in love with Pembrokeshire and have since returned, or planned to return on holiday, along with family and friends. As a local resident I appreciate the advance warning of road closures so I can plan my day around these and take the opportunity to support and soak up the fantastic atmosphere. Finally, as a competitor, the support for this event, from spectators and residents to local businesses offering discounts to competitors, is incredible. 2015 was the last year of the initial five-year agreement to hold Ironman in Tenby. Thanks to the amazing positive feedback from competitors, local residents and local businesses who enjoy the extra income the weekend brings (accommodation for the weekend is now usually booked a year in advance), the event looks set to stay for many more years.

I’m not competing this year, but instead will be participating in another event, the Long Course Weekend, run by Activity Wales. These are the same distances as Ironman, but over a 3 day weekend in July. So, as I write, I am gearing up for another 7 months of training in the beautiful surroundings of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.


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