You don’t realise you’re doing Ironman Wales until AC/DC’s Thunderstruck starts playing. Until that moment, the whole morning passes in a blur of self-doubt, nervous energy and stomach butterflies. Even waking up at 3.45am to force feed myself jam-smeared bagels didn’t make my brain register what was about to happen.

Ahead of me lay a 2.4-mile sea swim, 112-mile bike ride followed by a full marathon. I had waited three years for this day, as had the other 1,994 athletes amassing on Tenby’s North Beach. Ironman Wales has become a rite of passage in Pembrokeshire ( you can see lots of inspiring pictures from this year's Ironman Wales here ). Since the first edition in 2011, I have watched so many family members and friends complete the race that my participation had become inevitable- a matter of when, not if.

Yet walking down the zigzag I couldn’t help but feel I was on the wrong side of barriers. The sea looked menacing as an east wind had whipped up a swell that sent boats pitching and rolling in the half light. Between the pink bags my family and friends sipped flasks of coffee and offered encouragement in the febrile atmosphere. I wanted to climb over, slip a coat on and join them. However, after padding onto the beach things changed. A deep orange spread across the horizon silhouetting Tenby’s lifeboat stations and slipways, a view capable of lifting the spirits of even the most nervous athletes. I felt like a gladiator waiting to enter the colosseum, nervously shifting cool sand between my toes, anticipation choking me.

Read more:Tenby, the town transformed by a decade of Ironman

Sunrise over the water at Tenby before Ironman Wales
Sunrise over the water at Tenby before Ironman Wales

The wait between taking up your starting position and starting seems to take for ever. I was terrified and didn’t talk to anyone, content to just mould and remould my earplugs. Eventually commentators Paul Kaye and Joanne Murphy announced the professional line-up and I broke my silence to cheer ‘local hero Finn Arentz’, a Tenby lad in his first year as a pro and more importantly, my cousin.

Then came a minutes silence for the Queen and the English national anthem, followed by Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. To say it was moving would be a massive understatement. North Beach transformed into an amphitheatre overflowing with passion and pride. Tears rolled out of my eyes as I forced myself to look around and at least try to take it in.

But then it was over and the air filled with the sounds of Angus Young’s electric guitar. Talk about mood changes, this could rival even the most eclectic of Spotify playlists. First went the pros who sprinted into the surf, only for one of them to swim 20 yards, vomit, and return to land. Encouraging.

Adam Hart before the swim at Ironman Wales
Adam Hart before the swim at Ironman Wales, before the reality of the situation kicked in

Moments late and we mere mortals waded into the waves and began swimming. The chop was worryingly awful, and we’d barely left the harbour yet. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I focused on putting one arm in front of the other, desperately keeping panic at bay every time I swallowed a mouthful of seawater.

My first real moment of doubt, and the worst moment of entire Ironman, came 600 metres into the swim as I swam around the first buoy. I paused to breaststroke and choke up some seawater and witnessed the carnage of a choppy sea swim. In front of me was the buoy, but I was looking down on it as it sat in the trough of the swell. On the other side, a gang of swimmers rounding the corner were level with the top of the buoy, arms flailing at the peak of the swell. Swimmers bashed into me and I felt sick with panic. How on earth was I going to complete this? Thunderstruck seemed like a long time ago.

Rounding the buoy my only thoughts were what excuses will I tell my family and friends when I abandon. Only the fear of drowning kept me swimming, not the dream of finishing. But fear is a powerful motivator and combined with a helpful tidal current I finally found a rhythm of sorts and made it to the second buoy. The final leg back to Tenby proved the easiest as the waves did a lot of the work for you, and the noise of Tenby draws you in.

Finn Arentz, right, and Adam Hart, left, pre Ironman Wales
Finn Arentz, right, and Adam Hart, left, pre Ironman Wales
The choppy waters of Tenby harbour on the morning of Ironman Wales was when reality started to kick in
The choppy waters of Tenby harbour on the morning of Ironman Wales was when reality started to kick in

Shakily I staggered from the water like a drunk off the sofa and was shocked to see 33 minutes on my watch, far faster than I expected. Surely I could do that again, I thought, as I dived in for lap two, ashamed at myself for thinking about quitting. 34 minutes later I was out of the water for good in a time of 1.07, a massive and totally unexpected PB. But already my triceps were screaming in protest and more worryingly my hamstrings were twinging with cramp from swallowing so much saltwater.

On the famous zig-zag, I ambled up to my support crew to release an expletive-ridden review of the swim before asking how Finn did. “Fourth out of the water”. ‘Get in! Now back to my race’, I thought. It was time for the famous run across town to transition, which didn’t disappoint. The noise is deafening, perhaps even more so for guys hobbling like me. I nearly forgot to suck down my gel I’d stashed in my pink bag as athletes surged past.

The transition tent is an interesting place. Fully grown men and women are reduced stressful shells of their former selves as the clock ticks. Brain fog makes simple tasks difficult. Snatched conversations end abruptly as athletes charge into one another. Add to that a healthy amount of nudity, pain killers and caffeine and you can begin to picture the scene.

On to the bike now, the discipline I enjoy the most, but today was different. I felt physically sick, and my hamstrings were still twinging. My pockets were laden with jam baps, cliff bars, energy gels and chews so I began chomping my way through the load, praying I wouldn’t throw it up. The roads were dry and unusually fast out to Angle, the westernmost point of the course, as the easterly gave us a rare tailwind.

Adam Hart during the bike leg of Ironman Wales
Adam Hart during the bike leg of Ironman Wales

Athletes were pouring past me on expensive time trial bikes but Finn’s advice to ‘not go out too hard’ rang in my ears. Feed stations were a death-trap, not because of the hardworking volunteers, but the sheer number of bikes coming through at varying speeds. Nevertheless, we turned back to Tenby and began labouring into the headwind. Hundreds of athletes shamelessly drafted each other, myself included, and in fairness there was certainly not enough room for everyone to spread out the required 12 meters.

Eventually the sickness wore off as my nutrition began to take effect and for the first time I enjoyed the day. It was fun ticking off towns like Carew, Templeton, Narberth, all very local to me, where the support was incredible. In almost every layby a speaker blasted Guns n Roses, Queen, Bon Jovi or Journey. Then came the two most feared hills: the idiotically named Wiseman’s (no wise man would choose to cycle up it), and Saundersfoot’s ‘heartbreak hill’.

It's hard to not power up the slope such is the volume of support. You can’t hear yourself breathe as total strangers scream into your ears, willing you through the pain. It’s like riding up Alpe D’Huez in the Tour de France, only a fraction of the length. Cresting the first section of Saundersfoot — the heartbreak hill bit — I heard my support crew erupt for the first time and instantly my legs felt better. Its difficult to describe just how mentally important the support of your family and friends is. But even on steep slopes of Saundersfoot it lasts for only moments before you’re faced with another 73 kilometres of rolling Pembrokeshire roads alone.

Which is when it started to get really hard. In Carew for the second time, the forecasted rain materialised and fell steadily, heavily at times. I was cold, had no jacket and my legs had absorbed 140 kilometres already. Most of the crowds went home leaving just a hardy few on the roadside. Survival mode was activated, and my goalposts shifted again, this time to just getting back to Tenby so I could warm up before even thinking about attempting the marathon. I saw several athletes huddled in foil blankets on the side of the road and felt tempted to join them.

Small groups formed on the hills where we rode silently and just shared the pain. Occasionally someone would swear or crack a joke, but it was mostly cold, mute suffering. For once I hated going downhill as it made my teeth chatter, and my arms shake. We had paid to do this, right?

At last, seven and a half hours after pedalling out of Tenby, the transition tent came into view where I spent 16 minutes warming myself up with a towel and stretch out a pain in my back I’d never experienced before. A cold, wet marathon loomed. Water jacket donned, laces tied, brave face on. The most painful run of my life awaited me, particularly as I’d only managed three runs in the last three months due to injury. For the first time I allowed myself to think about the finish line.

Armed with gels, I jogged out of Tenby and met my best friend Tom who told me Finn had finished seventh, overtaking someone in the last kilometre. I confess, the news depressed me initially, I had 41 kilometres left to run and Finn had bloody finished. But happiness followed and I was so pleased, inspired even at Finn’s performance.

After swimming and cycling for seven hours, Adam starts the marathon leg of Ironman Wales
After swimming and cycling for seven hours, Adam starts the marathon leg of Ironman Wales

For those unfamiliar with the four-lap run course, it is essentially a hilly, soul-destroying out and back, to New Hedges before returning to Tenby for a tour of the pubs and packed narrow streets. In New Hedges runners collect an armband denoting what lap they are on. These armbands are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are powerful motivation to get up the hill, on the other, depressing when you are overtaken by someone with three or four bands when you have none. Murderous thoughts filled my mind as these superior athletes passed me, such is the potency of the armband-fuelled jealousy.

My first lap clocked in at 1.05, certainly not breaking any records but if I could repeat that three more times I would be an Ironman. My plan of four gels, a salt pill and plenty of water on each lap seemed to be working, so now it was just a mental battle. Several factors made this battle swing violently, the first being a blister popping on my foot 12 kilometres in. But the gels saved me time and time again, and I thanked the SIS boffins for thinking of so many flavours. Raspberry, apple, orange and tropical were all enjoyable, blackcurrant not so much and pink grapefruit made me wretch. Sticking it to the back of my throat and squeezing hard on the packet was the only way to get it down. My legs had begun deteriorating but I was happy with a second lap time of 1.10.

With darkness descending I plodded up to New Hedges and heard a familiar voice shout my full name for the third time. This time I looked up and was surprised to see my year six teacher leaning over the barriers, smiling, shaking her fist in support. Thanks, Mrs Keating!

Then it was down to Tenby for the penultimate time, three bands around my arm, legs numb with pain, but spirits buoyed at the thought of my amazing support crew waiting in town. I passed them and shouted, “one more lap!”, single finger held aloft in front of me. They had pints in hand, I had a salted caramel energy gel in mine. I completed the dreaded third lap, touted by many as the hardest part of the Ironman, in 1.12. C’mon!

By now darkness had settled in and I was finally overtaking athletes who’d flown past me on the bike. A silent, shuffling, lycra-clad army toiled in the gloom, glow sticks shoved in tri suits, cramp victims sprawled on the verge. At 35 kilometres my blister popped again, this time agonisingly. I tried to run on the outside of my foot, but this only caused other problems, so I resigned myself to wincing and yelping on every step. Apart from the blister, I couldn’t believe my legs were holding together, and if I’m being honest, blowing hot air up my own arse was the most effective way to keep moving forward.

Finally I made it back to Tenby but was hit with my first proper cramp of the day three kilometres from the finish. My groin was protesting painfully at the abuse I’d subjected it to. But stretching and a few stern words sorted it out, and before I knew it my feet were carrying me faster than ever through Tenby, splashing the puddles collecting on corners, wet hair bouncing against my forehead. I felt lightheaded, and my breathing became ragged. My lace came undone with one kilometre to go but I wasn’t stopping now.

My final memories were of the dark, wet concrete turning into red carpet and the Ironman logo above the finish line glowing red against the night sky. One last kick and I was over the line, medal around my neck, slumped in the finishers’ tent, spent. I don’t remember Paul Kaye shouting “Adam Hart, you are an Ironman!”, nor did I remember to ring the first-time finisher bell. Exhaustion had got the better of me.

I sat down and stared at the small patch of gazebo in front me for about ten minutes, panting gently as waves of pain washed over my legs. I thought about crying but it was too much effort. There was no joy or elation, just an overwhelming tiredness, one I’d never felt before. I felt sick, overcome with fatigue, yet also really calm. My head was an absence of emotion, barring a tinge of relief.

I could feel sleep creeping up on me in my plastic chair, so I got up and ate some watermelon which was truly delicious. The elderly lady who handed it to me said: “Well done, you are in Ironman” and only then did I realise quite what had happened. Thank you, elderly lady.

Exhausted and being held up by friends like he'd drunk too much on a night out, Adam after finishing Ironman Wales
Exhausted and being held up by friends like he'd drunk too much on a night out, Adam after finishing Ironman Wales

Finisher t-shirt on, bike unracked, I staggered out of transition and into the arms of my girlfriend Sally and my best mates Tom and Henry. Gradually we made our way back across Tenby, me slumped over their shoulders as though being taken home from a night out. It had been a brutal day filled with pain, fear and self-imposed suffering. I have a blister the size of Britain on my foot, and I can’t walk properly. I’m exhausted, constantly hungry and have to limp everywhere. Where do I sign up for next year?

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