How a race changed a Welsh institution; Gone is Tenby's reputation as Hen-by - the hen night capital of Wales - and in comes Ironman Wales, one of the world's toughest endurance races. Will Hayward looks at how this iconic triathlon has transformed the small Pembrokeshire seaside town.
AHowever, over the past seven years a transformation has taken place. Gone are the stumbling brides-to-be with L plates dangling from their necks. Gone are the lycra mankinis. The lycra itself has remained, though, in the form of all-inone triathlon suits.
That is because Tenby now hosts one of the toughest and well-known endurance races on the globe.
The Tenby Ironman race, known as Ironman Wales, is now in its seventh year - and the change it has had on Pembrokeshire is nothing short of remarkable.
An Ironman triathlon is the same as a normal triathlon in that you swim, cycle and run to finish. The difference, however, is the distance.
The swim is a mammoth 2.4 miles, followed by 112-mile cycle route rounded offwith a full marathon. For many it is considered not a race but a challenge - with completion within the 17-hour cut-offtime the only aim. It is the equivalent of an average member of the public going 12 rounds with a professional boxer.
Why has Ironman Wales become so iconic? Two reasons. Firstly, it takes in the stunning Pembrokeshire coast. But mainly because it genuinely is one of the hardest Ironman triathlons on the planet. Tenby is hard. If it was a boxer, it would be Anthony Joshua.
The remarkable thing is not that a small seaside town is hosting this iconic event. Instead the real story is how Pembrokeshire has embraced the sport. As you drive through the winding roads of the county in what must be some of the most beautiful scenery in the UK, you see as many cyclists as cars.
People in Tenby like to point out to visitors that there are more Ironmen per capita in Pembrokeshire than anywhere else on earth. Unfortunately, the Government's census doesn't include a "takes part in insane challenges" box, so it is hard to be sure, but the claim is hardly farfetched.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN Father-of-four Matthew Evans, 44, is one of the men responsible for getting Tenby hooked on activity.
A local boy, he runs a business called Activity Wales Events alongside his business partner Scott Powell. He started the Ironman in the town and also runs the equally-challenging Long Course Weekend which also happens every year. The athletes complete the same distances as the Ironman but over a weekend. The swim on the Friday, the bike on the Saturday and the run on the Sunday. Many consider this challenge harder as it gives your muscles just enough time to seize up.
According to Matthew, getting the town on board in the beginning was tricky.
"I started racing Ironman back in early 2000 and and the more you go round the world looking at stuff, you start thinking Tenby could deliver this," he said. "We wanted to put a marathon on in Tenby and around Pembrokeshire because of the coastline and beauty of the natural surroundings.
"We got talking one day in the office and wondered if we should have a crack at Ironman. We picked up the phone and one conversation became two and then two became three.
"Then we started fundraising. We went to the Welsh Government to help and within a year we were running the first race. We had to raise PS750,000 and every single penny of that goes to Ironman. All entry fees and everything.
"Before the first one there was a lot of planning to get the town to sign up to the idea.
"It was a massive culture change for Tenby and Pembrokeshire, there were 74 miles of roads to close for the bike course and people weren't used to that.
"This is a tourism town and they were scared. We spent nearly every single night of that summer in schools, pubs and church halls just explaining what the concept was and saying 'give us a year, let it run and you will understand'.
"We educated a lot of businesses on what was coming. We are local to the area and have to live here 365 days a year - we had to get it right.
"We had to tell hotel owners that if they were going to take athletes, then expect their bikes to be coming into their rooms and all their gear."
People in the town started to come around to the idea.
Matthew recalls the early hours of the first race day. "Tenby stepped up," he said. "We walked down at 2am and hotels had their lights on serving breakfast - it was bang on.
"They just adjusted straight away and then that made the athlete experience good. A lot of athletes went home and said that Tenby got it right."
Matthew no longer runs the Ironman race but still puts on the Long Course Weekend every year.
He believes that, combined, the two races have got the area fitter, healthier and activity-obsessed.
"We need 600 volunteers for long course. I would say 80% of them are from Pembrokeshire. We get a lot of groups like rugby and football clubs and we will give them funding for the clubs in return. Without them, you haven't got a race."
Despite taking the credit for getting Pembrokeshire fitter, Matthew is also responsible for causing thousands of blisters, cramped muscles and sore legs. So why did they make the decision to make the race so hard? According to Matthew, it was a calculated decision.
He said: "When you plan a race you can either be the fastest or the toughest, there is no point being in between.
"You either need them to break a personal best or you need to break them. They need to get that medal and say 'I earned this one'."
Like many seaside towns, business in Tenby is seasonal. The population of the town swells as people flock to the 21/2 miles of sandy beaches, medieval town walls and 15th-century churches.
From June, the holidaymakers start to trickle in before the school holidays mark the beginning of the flood. Businesses in the town need to make hay and fatten up during this time if they are to have any chance of still having those doors open in June the following year.
The Ironman helps them do this in two ways. Firstly it is the equivalent of the autumn harvest. One last surge of custom before the long, customerless nights set in.
It has also helped in a less quantifiable, but perhaps far more useful way. The introduction of the Ironman and Long Course Weekend has changed how Tenby is perceived by tourists. No longer a place for men and women to spend their "last nights of freedom", it is instead a place to get fit, get active and get outdoors. The beautiful Pembrokeshire Coast Path is there all year round and a new attitude brings a new kind of tourist to Tenby who are not just there for the summer.
One man who has witnessed the boost the Ironman has helped to make is Matthew Ronowitz. He runs the Qube restaurant and The Cove bar in the town as well as an outside catering company.
He said: "It has added a better dimension to Tenby because the stags are not as prominent in Tenby any more.
"We don't see as much of the stag and hen dos. There has definitely been a decline in recent years.
"The Cove, which I run, is a pub and you are not allowed into my place with any fancy dress and many places won't allow groups of above eight.
"You want the people who come down with their families and want them to feel comfortable in Tenby. We don't want that man on a stag party in drag - they are not the people we want in Tenby.
"It is quite rare to see a stag or hen do in Tenby now unless they're local."
While some businesses see a boost in trade because of the Ironman, some can attribute their very existence to it.
Rhys Jordan was working in social care when the Ironman and Long Weekend allowed him to start a business based around his passion.
The 28-year-old from Pembroke runs two cafes in Tenby, one in the leisure centre and the other in the town centre called Feel Good Inc. These are not your run-of-the-mill greasy spoons, however - they are targeted at cyclists, triathletes and runners.
They not only sell products like energy bars and basics for bikes - they also provide advice and seminars for athletes.
If you want to see the passion that can motivate a person to do a super long triathlon, just ask Rhys for his thoughts on Ironman Wales.
CONTINUES ON PAGES 6&7 CONTINUED FROM PAGES 4&5 "Ironman Wales is a different beast," he said. "It is horrendously hard - the hardest things you will ever do. I have raced across the world and have done stretches where you don't see anyone. But there is not a point on the 112 miles where you are not supported from two-year-olds to 100-year-olds.
"If you want to know what it feels like to score a try at the Millennium Stadium at Wales versus England but you're not good enough to do that, do Ironman Wales because that is what it feels like."
According Rhys, there are still people who resent the upheaval of Ironman weekend, but they are in the minority. He said: "There will always be people who complain but that's life.
"It is a distraction for a weekend but in terms of the money and opportunities as well as the healthy lifestyle it's created in Pembrokeshire it far outweighs a person not being able to milk the cows at 10 o'clock on one morning of the year. " THE HIDDEN IRONMEN ON TENBY As you walk around Tenby what you may not realise is that a lot of the people around you are secret athletes going about their everyday lives.
One of these athletes runs one on the town's most iconic shops. From the outside Equinox looks like a normal small shop selling a range of souvenirs. However, upon entry it is like the Tardis or Hogwarts - you are always finding more. This shop has been a staple of the Tenby high street for 40 years.
Much like the shop that she owns, Victoria Randall, 49, is deceptive. On the surface she is a friendly, mild-mannered shopkeeper but underneath she is an Ironman. She has defeated a course that has conquered many professional athletes.
She said: "I have been running the shop for 13 years. I completed the Ironman in 2013 and prior to that I had been a volunteer. I did it because I just thought I could!
"I knew the town before the Ironman came in and I think it has had a massive impact on local people in that we have the highest proportion of Ironmen per population anywhere in the world.
"Most people that I know have some connection with Ironman in terms of completing it or being a volunteer.
"I think it has certainly impacted in that people are more conscious about being fit. There are more people cycling than when we moved here 20 years ago from Cardiff."
As the date of the Ironman nears you will start to see out-of-town Ironmen scouting the area before they take on the hellish course.
As the sun sets over the harbour, North Beach is starting to fill up with athletes having their final preparation swims before the weekend.
Standing by the beachside shower washing the salt from his wetsuit is 28-year-old Felipe Manente. It may no longer be fair to characterise Tenby as just a destination for Brits as Felipe is from the south of Brazil.
"This is my second time in Tenby," he said in his thick Brazilian accent and nervous smile. "2015 was the last time I raced here and I came eighth place in the pro category. I flew from Brazil on August 16 and went to race in Dublin and I arrived here two weeks ago to train.
"I like this race because it is a hard race. It is not flat and it is difficult and it's the first tournament with points for the world championship so this is for the qualification. I bring my bike with me on the plane and I stay at a friend's home while I'm here.
"It is the very hardest. I didn't really know about Tenby before the Ironman, but I like this place."
Next to Felipe there is a very different competitor both in terms of experience and distance travelled.
Veterinary student Sarah Jones and Tom Hill are girlfriend and boyfriend.
"I am racing on Sunday and Tom is my training partner," said 22-year-old Sarah. "This is my first one and it's a hard one! It's my home event so I can't wait. I have been brought up in Carmarthen and I have been coming for years and I have just got the buzz for it. The atmosphere is incredible.
"Tenby had to be my first one. I've got quite a few friends who will come across to watch - the sport has taken over!" Across the beach there are dotted individuals and pairs in their tri-suits putting in the last-minute miles along with a few dog walkers. However, the most noticeable people are a group of about 25 gathered at the bottom of an enormous staircase leading down to the beach called the Heart Attack Stairs.
These people make up one of Tenby's largest sports clubs. They are from Tenby Aces and they are preparing for their swim practice. They will be swimming across the bay towards the harbour and then back, covering much of the ground the aspiring Ironmen will be tackling over the weekend.
After training Gareth Rees, 48, stands imperiously looking like he could probably do it all over again. Gareth, who is an original Ace, said: "I was one of the founding members of Tenby Aces. It was Tenby Aces Cycling Club to start with and then after the first year of Ironman we made the decision to add a triathlon section rather than change it to full triathlon club. It made sense with it right on our doorstep."
According to Gareth, the Long Course Weekend and Ironman have been incredible for the club. He said: "We have 170 members, that has probably doubled since we added a triathlon section."
For many people having done one Ironman is enough. However, for married couple Nicola and Charlton Coates it is supremely addictive.
"Why do I do it? Fitness, fun and to just have a good time!" said 54-year-old Charlton who has done all the Ironman Wales events.
He believes that the club has not just made everyone fitter, it has built friendships for life.
He said: "I was one of the original starters of Tenby Aces and triathlon has built the club up more.
"There are a lot more younger people, we have people in their teens and in the 60s. It is a social club as much as anything. We had a beach barbecue last week with members coming down with all their children. We try to get everyone involved."
Charlton's wife Nicola, who has represented GB at long-distance triathlon, is one of the club's organisers. "I am the treasurer and they call me 'mother hen' because I am a bit of a control freak," she said laughing. "I was going to say organiser but I think control freak is better!" It only takes a few minutes of talking to people who have done the triathlon to find stories. The very nature of the event means that people pull together to support each other. Sharing a six-hour hilly marathon together builds bonds in a way that no evening in the pub can.
One of the most moving stories is that of 65-year-old David Hill. At an age when most people are settling into a relaxing retirement, he has learnt to swim and will be taking on the Ironman this weekend. This is all done to support his brother.
"I saw a little video back in October last year after it had finished and it was so inspiring watching and and seeing them sing the national anthem blew me away really," he said. "The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
"It is such a brutal thing to actually do and I thought it was almost impossible to swim 2.4 miles, then cycle 112 and then run, walk or crawl 26 miles.
"I had been running a business with my brother for 35 years and sadly he has got Alzheimer's after retiring, which is an awful thing to happen to him.
"I thought to myself I can either sit around and do nothing or I can try to do something which is as brutal as it must've been for him to be told. He was a tremendous athlete and I thought we would have probably have done this together."
David has a very gentle and soft voice but when he speaks his words carry a steel that leaves you in no doubt he will get round the course.
"I am going to do this, I took lessons in swimming and practised the cycling and running and here I am today with only days to go. It is pretty frightening but I am going to do it. I am going to do it for the Alzheimer's Society and try to raise what I can."
You can donate to David at www.justgiving.com/fundraising/david-hill51 Ironman has also fostered an active lifestyle for the younger generation in the town. One of these is 16-year-old Ryan Semper who is just about to start his first year of A-levels.
He said: "I have been doing triathlon for a year and a half now. My brother started doing it and I jumped in and did the odd cycling session. I have really taken to it and I really want to go pro. Getting up to that standard intrigues me. I train every day and I have one day off."
Ryan is desperate to try his hand (and feet) at the full Ironman, but you have to be 18 to enter.
He said: "I will go up to half Ironman next year. You can do a half when you are 17 so I'm going to step up my training over the winter."
If there is one man who sums up the spirit of Ironman it is local fireman Nicky Rees. A former rugby player, he has completed every single one of the Ironmans in Tenby.
Speaking to him at Tenby Fire Station where he works, it is easy to see how he got round the course. He seems to have boundless energy and his jaw appears to made from iron itself.
"I started marathon running in 1999. "Before the Ironman came about the marathon was the in-thing to do, endurance wise.
"I love the training aspect of it and the event is the end product.
"I used to be a rugby player and I loved training then. It has been a great replacement for the rugby - you see a lot of people who take it up.
"I'll tell you one place that has suffered and that is the golf course. Obviously when people were coming to the end of their sporting career they would take up golf and they have taken a big hit in the last four years."
One of Nicky's friends Gareth Scotcher wanted to take part in the race himself.
This was not possible because Gareth has motor neurone disease. Nicky was not going to allow Gareth to miss out and he made a plan for them to do it together.
He said: "Gareth has motor neurone disease which is very similar to what Stephen Hawking has. He has the same strain as him. He wanted to do more than he could so what I decided to do was do the Long Course Weekend with him.
"I got an inflatable kayak, although his mum wasn't too pleased with that."
Nicky towed Gareth in the kayak for the whole of the swim. "It was difficult to train because I didn't want to hassle Gareth too much, so I got one of our dummies to practise with and sometimes used my wife as well!" he said.
"For the bike we got him a bike where he would be able to pedal a bit as well."
For the marathon on the Sunday Nicky and Gareth made their way round the whole 26 miles with Nicky pushing him in a specially-designed chair.
Just over a decade ago barely anyone in Tenby knew what an Ironman was. Now the town is hooked. With addiction comes pressure and nowhere does that pressure weigh more than on the shoulders of 37-year-old Oliver Simon.
Local boy Oliver (Olly to his friends), holds the current Welsh record for an Ironman.
Sitting in Feel Good Cafe, by his own admission Olly loves his home Ironman but says it does bring its own pressure.
"It is fun and it is pressure - it is rolled into one. It is kind of a rollercoaster of emotions.
"If I do a race around here I will usually win it, but obviously there is a different standard of athletes for an Ironman race.
"This is a bit of a last-minute entry because I have had an injury, but I have sponsors and I want to represent them. I also like racing where my family can watch me and here I don't have to spend lots of money to get to the race."
No-one is better placed than Olly to see how the Ironman has transformed the area. For him, the differences are obvious.
"When I started doing triathlon, I was one of a handful of people who would be out on the road cycling and running. Now if I drive in to come for a swim I will see loads of cyclists and runners going out.
"Lycra on men used to be a no-no - but now there are plenty of boys in the gym wearing some tights!" The iron town of Tenby The Ironman and Long Course Weekend cannot take the credit for the Tenby and Pembrokeshire active lifestyle transformation.
Yes, it has been the catalyst but there are so many component parts that have created this radical shift.
One of those things is the setting. Driving through that part of Wales is a treat in itself. The coastal path, the hills and small rivers are a true national treasure which has provided the backdrop for the area's addiction to triathlon and putting it on the map.
But most of all it is the people in the area. People who are prepared to travel round churches and village halls to explain why road closures are a good thing. People who will literally strap a friend to their back so they can take part. Mother hens who will send out reminders that training will indeed be on tonight despite the rain. Hotel owners who seamlessly adjusted to serving breakfast at 3am so athletes could digest before their swim.
No one individual has made it work. It had been the collective decision of a county to stand by the side of a random Pembrokeshire country road and cheer on a cyclist from Brazil that has made Tenby the global heart of triathlon.
It has had a massive impact on local people in that we have the highest proportion of Ironmen per population anywhere in the world
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Sep 9, 2017|
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