Ironman Wales, which makes its home in Tenby, is renowned for being one of the toughest Ironman routes, due to the unpredictable Welsh weather and diverse terrain. Many ambitious triathletes descend on the seaside Pembrokeshire town of Tenby each year to compete in this prestigious event. Over the past 10 years, it has continued to grow to be bigger and better, with participants and supporters lining the streets to embark on or support this testing triathlon event.
The Ironman event has its roots all the way back in 1977 Kona, Hawaii, and started out as little more than a dare. In a local awards ceremony, members of opposing runners and swimming clubs engaged in the usual friendly-but-lively debate about which respective sport produced the best endurance sportsmen and women. A commander of the US Navy, John Collins and his wife Judy offered a means of combining three of Oahu island’s already established endurance events – the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, a 3.8k sea-swim; the Around Oahu Bike Race, a 185k course (which was reduced to 180k for the Ironman) and the Honolulu Marathon, a standard 42.2k running race – together to see who would come out as the ultimate competitor, and be dubbed by the rest of the trailing pack as ‘the Iron Man’.
Out of the 15 original race starters that day, Gordon Haller was the name of the first man to cross the line on the first-ever event held in February 1978, as he finished in a time of 11:46:58, earning the right to be crowned as the first-ever Ironman. One year later, Lyn Lemaire, finished sixth overall becoming the first-ever Ironwoman, as American magazine Sports Illustrated picked up on the event with a 10-page special. After the article, race applications came in thick and fast and so began the journey of creating a global event-based franchise off the back of a simple rivalry between some competitive friends.
Today Ironman events take place all over the world, in specially selected locations, aimed at testing even the most seasoned of endurance athletes. There are full and half events – in the 70.3 series – and competitors in full events all take part with the aim of qualifying for the overall winner’s event, which takes place in Kona, Hawaii annually inviting only the best of the best.
In Wales, Ironman’s spiritual home has always been and always will be in Tenby.
Not for the faint-hearted, the route for Ironman Wales consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon, all of which must be completed within the allotted time frame of 17 hours – a tough ask for even the most experienced of athletes. It is evident why the grueling course is aptly named ‘Iron Man’ as its likely participants are as strong as the metal both physically and mentally, with this type of endurance race taking months and sometimes even years to prepare for.
2.4 Mile Swim
The race begins in Tenby on a Sunday morning around 7 am mark, with the race dates alternating every few years to pick a weekend when the tide will allow for enough beach to allow for nearly 2,500 athletes to begin their assault on the ‘course’ with just enough room to jostle. The streets and ascents of the town, as well as any spare space on the beach itself, are lined and packed with hordes of watching onlookers, support teams, family, friends, and sports enthusiasts. The national anthem of Wales is played right before the traditional start music of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ begins to start the athletes ‘shakin’ at the knees‘.
From here, athletes will wade into the sea and swim northeasterly out into Carmarthen Bay, aiming to avoid the flailing strokes of other competitors nearby, as well as the sting of the bathing barrel jellyfish. Around the set-out markers, the swimmers will go, and all in the knowledge that this is simply the first lap of two. They will then jog approximately a hundred yards across the beach and around Goscar Rock, before jumping back into the sea to do it all again.
After the competitors have completed both laps, they then have to scale the steep and winding climb from the beach, up to the main street level, where it is then a few minutes measured jog, from the vestige of the climb out of the sand bowl of the North Beach area, to the transition area where the bikes are all racked, by the Five Arches, and waiting there, ready to be mounted for stage 2 of 3.
112-Mile Bike Ride
Taking to two wheels and hopping on their bikes to ride through the magnificent Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the competitors will be taking it anything but easy. Remembering that Pembrokeshire, from its furthest reaching points from East to West, is only around 35 miles in length, the course splinters out of Tenby here, taking in smaller pockets of villages and towns in order to find the space to let the athletes cover the required 112 miles. They are treated to rolling views and iconic landmarks as well as a number of castles on their route.
Starting in the heart of Tenby, the cyclists are first instructed to leave the town for one loop, heading west towards Pembroke, taking in Lydstep, Manorbier, and Lamphey before reaching the historic town of Pembroke, and again splitting out of the town to do a loop that will take them out to Angle and back through Hundleton and into Pembroke, via Castlemartin and Freshwater West.
Rejoining the route at Pembroke, and hurtling back towards Tenby on the main road, when the convey gets to Carew, they are then told to head north to Templeton and Narberth, and head back to Tenby via Saundersfoot and the infamous ‘Heartbreak Hill‘ – a 12% gradient climb out of Saundersfoot, en route to New Hedges. Not content with making the athletes suffer the indignity of ‘Heartbreak Hill‘ once, the competitors must again make their way out to Carew, for loop two of the same route, until the road from New Hedges into Tenby brings them back to the second and final transition.
26.2-Mile Run (or, a Marathon)
After navigating two loops of Carmarthen Bay in the swim, and a more than scene push around the iconic Pembrokeshire landscape, which Ironman itself tentatively describes as ‘hilly’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re on the downward slope. It’s true in a way: you’re two thirds through. All that stands in the way of you and the finish line now… is a marathon. That’s all.
Just a simple 26.2-mile run that is last but by no means least. The final leg of the event involves athletes running a contained marathon through the scenic and medieval town of Tenby, and out to New Hedges before circling around and heading back. The route itself loops 4 times and finishes along the iconic Esplanade, where the competitors are lead-in by a sea of ecstatic and jubilant fans who will have been there all day just to watch their loved ones, or teammates reach the finish line of Ironman Wales.
It’s all about the epic, and you find it in Tenby.
What to Expect in Tenby
Participants can expect the warmest of welcomes and ongoing support throughout what is considered one of the toughest Ironman routes there is, by a crowd that is Ironman-mad! The streets start to fill up from as early as 4 am in the morning, with people finding slits in railings and putting out camping chairs. By the time the event kicks off, and swimmers enter the water, the atmosphere is palpable, and it is standing room only.
Tenby has a reputation, aside from being a tough race, to also being one of the friendliest. The town really takes Ironman to its heart. The streets are cordoned off from the Thursday before the big day and shut down totally for the whole day. Apartments and holiday cottages in Tenby are full, and usually fill up within hours of the race finishing, such as the popularity of the event. The whole weekend is a fever-pitch for the main event, and there is an IronKids event now for age-group children to get involved in on Saturday. Car parks will be full by 5:30 am, and closed in some places as the event takes some open-air space for transition areas, so regular park and ride buses are run from Sageston roundabout, by Carew Karting.
For the spectators, the races are free to watch; all you need to do is find a good spot, bring along plenty of enthusiasm and well-wishes for the competitors, and enjoy the atmosphere of this enthralling race! Some of the best places to watch the men and women of Iron go by is from Tenby beach or Saundersfoot’s ‘Heartbreak Hill’, although this is hugely dependent on whether or not you’d like to see the running, swimming or cycling sections. You can also keep an eye on the website for updated details of the route and the road closures expected, as well as tracking your friends or loved ones by their number.
Whether you’re looking to take part in the event or are visiting to support these incredible athletes, make the most of your time in Pembrokeshire by exploring this beautiful region as much as possible. To hold this national event in Pembrokeshire is special, as is the event itself. The Pembrokeshire Coast, which won BBC Countryfile Magazine’s Holiday Destination of the Year in 2018 is never more on show than it is during this event, and Tenby is often the picture-perfect example of its spoils.
You should really come and try it out if you think you’re tough enough!