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Ironman Wales 2014 Race Report; Amy Forshaw Winner

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“Sunday was a very big day for me; yes I was the first woman at Ironman Wales but, potentially more importantly, it was the first time in 365 days that I have come out of the swim leg of a triathlon to get on the bike and have legs that feel something like I normally train on. At the 70.3 world championships in Clearwater in 2010 (as an age grouper) I came out of the swim and, after pulling off my wetsuit, I experienced a painful muscle cramp. The cramp locked my left leg in place as my glute, quads and hip flexors all fought against each other. It took me about 5 minutes in T1 and a further 5 out on the bike course to clear the muscle cramp. From that race on I have experienced problems. These range from the debilitating muscle cramp described above (sometimes moving to both legs), to sharp nerve pain running down my left leg and just a general feeling that my legs are not working properly with my power being at least 10-20% lower than I would easily be able to hold normally. Over the past 2 years it has happened, to some degree, more frequently and pretty much at every race. My last good race being Wales 2013, where when feeling good towards the end of the bike leg, the triathlon gods thought it might be funny to organise a puncture for me that took an age to fix, effectively taking me out of the run race.  The following is a summary of my last couple of years of racing:

  • Mallorca 70.3 2013 >> full on both legs muscle cramp. Had to pull out in T1
  • UK 70.3 2013 >> legs felt dead from the first pedal stroke.
  • Vachery Tri 2013 > legs felt dead from the start, ended up pulling out because of a puncture.
  • UK Ironman 2013 >> muscle cramp in left glute just after T1, had to get off the bike and stretch it out until I could continue again.
  • Wales Ironman 2013 >> legs felt good but punctured.
  • Florida Ironman 2013 >> full on muscle cramp in left leg during the Australian exit. Had to be unceremoniously pulled from the crashing surf by a life guard.
  • Arizona Ironman 2013 >> legs felt ok to start but then got nerve pain down my left leg and endured a long painful run.
  • TriStar 2014 >> legs felt dead, but I was at the end of a hard training week so that could also be the cause
  • UK 70.3 2014 >> legs felt dead, so much so I was convinced my wheels were rubbing but after much testing the week after we realised it could only have been my legs playing up.
  • UK Ironman 2014 >> muscle cramp in left glute just after T1, had to get off the bike and stretch it out until I could continue again. Just like the year before!

The last 2 years have been really tough. At times, it would be fair to say, I have felt pretty demoralised and it has been hard for me to see why I should continue competing as a pro. Over the past 3 months there has definitely been much soul searching by both Rob and I. My training has become all about solving the puzzle; – there’s no point being 2 minutes faster on the bike if you’re going to spend 10 or 15 minutes laid at the side of the road trying to stretch out your glutes as everyone rides past. As such, my weekends are dominated by practising the swim to bike trying to reproduce the issue.

When I was stood in the athletes area having just completed the recent Ironman UK, finishing 6th overall, knowing I’d given up time again to everyone else. I was my usual self trying to smile as people congratulated me but inside I was feeling pretty dejected at another race where despite not swimming hard the dreaded cramp impacted me. My teammate Parys Edwards (a physio in addition to being an awesome pro triathlete) had come to watch, I explained what had happened and she said I should go and see a colleague of hers, Dr.Petrie De Villiers, a clinical radiologist. That week I saw him and by using an ultrasound scan he was able to identify that I had hamstring tendinopathy right under the area in my glute where I could feel the pain. He showed Rob how he should use his elbow (quite painfully) on my glute, to help treat it, and some strengthening exercises I should do too. The beauty of the ultrasound is that you can see the issue on a screen and with the tendinopathy it was very obvious that there was a problem and it was right under where the cramping usual starts. The only question was; is this the cause of the issues or is it as a result?

Fast forward a couple of weeks to the Monster Triathlon. This time I swam in a river which allowed Rob to film me throughout the swim leg. I deliberately pushed hard on the swim and through on to the bike, this time, there was no cramp. Awesome! I was able to push a good power for the first 10 miles and then I started to get the nerve pain down the back of my left leg and pushing anything near my normal power levels was impossible. In I trundled in to T2 a good 10 minutes behind everyone else where I promptly burst in to tears. We decided I shouldn’t try the run leg and called it a day. Whilst watching the rest of the girls Rob and I got chatting to Dan Bullock who said that I should definitely go and see Caroline Kramer as she had done wonders with his fiancé Vicky Gill (and a host of other triathletes). That week I met Caroline and she set about working on realigning my body through the Bowen technique, focusing on my back and around my pelvis (which has an anterior tilt). In the aftermath of Monster we also reviewed the footage of the swim and it became immediately apparent I was sighting far too much. Furthermore, my hips seemed to be too low in the water which is something I don’t normally suffer with when swimming in a pool. As a swimmer I am often a slow starter and generally find myself picking my way back up the field. I consciously sight to find my way through and to also find feet to draft .Could this be the ‘race scenario’ I am missing in my training? Could my body position and strain I put on my low back and pelvic area be the cause? We decided I should do the Rubicon triathlon to test out sighting less during a race and to generally get feedback on the work Caroline had done to date. I certainly was feeling much looser in my body after just a few sessions with Caroline and I felt longer in my swim stroke; I even had someone comment that I looked taller! I raced to plan, sighted far less and focused on being over on my chest; once again out on to the bike and I am feeling good. We said that given Wales was coming I should push the envelope a little to really test my body out, I hit the bike hard at the start and I felt good. However, about two thirds through I started getting the nerve pain and my power dropped off again. This time in to T2 I felt that I could try running through and I lightly jogged out on to the course to find Rob. We had a quick discussion and decided to see if I could run it off, which I did after a few miles and I was able to bring home a morale boosting win.

We came away from there more positive, two races and no cramp and the time period in to the bike in which the issue was starting seemed to be getting longer. Also, those races are flat aero position races – Wales brings with it a lot of respite because of the undulating nature which would allow me to unload my back and glutes as you climb.

That week I went back to see Petrie (Dr.De Villiers), he redid the ultrasound and we expected to hear that the tendonopathy was still there but it wasn’t. Petrie was actually quite surprised that it seemed to have cleared completely – Rob’s magic (and painful) elbows seemed to have done the trick. So that was kind of good, but what was causing the nerve pain I experienced in the past 2 races? We talked it through more with Petrie and he started scanning my pelvis, near my SI joint. In there he was looking specifically at the sacroiliac ligaments which overlay on another nerve (similar to the sciatic) that runs down your leg. He immediately spotted that the ligament in question was quite inflamed which he stated was indicative of highly mobile pelvis. i.e. my core is not stabilising my pelvis and these ligaments are taking the brunt of the power trying to transfer through my pelvis area. Petrie moved the ultrasound up around my abs and asked me to engage my core, it was very obvious on the screen that my transverses abs where not being recruited at all even when I thought they would be. Additionally, Petrie felt that my transverse abs were quite under-developed which is indicative of a general lack of engagement by those muscles. Petrie advised that, given I still had 2 weeks to IM Wales, I could get plenty of strengthening done before I raced and so off I went, twice per day, working on my transverse abs almost exclusively.

I went in to the two weeks prior to IM Wales feeling positive for the first time in a long time. We have spent a lot of time (and money) having people tell me they ‘think’ they know what the issue is and maybe you should ‘try’ x, y or z. Now I have 3 different areas where we can see obvious problems and we have a clear strategy as to how we can fix them. I saw Caroline two more times, continued to work on my Transverse Ab activation and did as much Open Water swimming as I could fit in, focusing on getting over on my chest more to ensure neutral body alignment and keeping sighting to a minimum… and off I went to Tenby.

The days before were the usual pre-race routine of briefing, racking etc. Although for this race I went down to the IronKids races and helped handing out medals for the kids. This was the perfect way to use up a couple of those nervous hours before i try to go to bed. The kids were so cute and even at that young age you could see there were a few uber competitive ones that might be destined for greatness!

The night before was the usual routine; eat and relax watching a comedy film (Bridesmaids this time), before getting in bed 8 hours before I planned to be up. I was off to sleep by 9pm and up to my alarm at 4am. Walking in to transition that morning I had a concern that had been nagging me all weekend – what if there were no other pro’s? Us triathletes are a competitive lot and it would feel strange not having at least another pro to compete against and should you cross the finish line first it would make the win very hollow. As I said on twitter, I’ve never been so pleased to see another competitor! A number had dropped out and one other girl didn’t turn up which left it to me and Julia Bohn. This was the first time I had met Julia and I have to say she is really nice. Sometimes the other athletes can have a big barrier around them to the point of being a bit rude (maybe that’s there coping mechanism or how they need to prepare) but I like to smile and wish people good luck and Julia seemed exactly the same.

Down on the beach was something to behold. The sun was rising in front of us as clouds cleared whilst (literally) thousands of spectators lined the sea wall behind.

Even if you don’t race IM Wales you should go and watch the race just to experience the atmosphere and the sheer spectacle. The passion of the support is something you feel rising along with the sun and I can only imagine what it must feel like within the crowds as the thousands of passionate welsh start singing ‘Land of my fathers’ shortly before the gun fires. I had done a dry land warm-up (c/o swim-for-tri) but still took the opportunity to get in the sea for a final loosening and firing of the muscles. The sea was weird though, looking from the beach you didn’t see huge waves crashing but once you got in you felt the big swell as it literally rolled you around at will. I got out and stood looking back out to sea literally scratching my head – this was going to be a very very tough swim. There was this big swell and here is me with my plan about not sighting too much and focusing on a neutral body position to reduce the load on my lower back and hips. I decided I would try and just go with it, not overstretch myself by fighting it too much and accept that this was going to be a slow swim. Planning to not swim to hard was all well and good but when the gun went it soon became apparent that you had to fight for every inch out to that first buoy, the strong swimmers punched their way through the swell and made good time. The rest of us simply wondered if we were even making ground to the first buoy at all! I started off breathing to my left (towards land) which isn’t my preferred side but I am competent enough however I soon found myself feeling a bit sick and had to start breathing out to sea running the gauntlet of inhaling a wave. Once round the first buoy the rest of the lap was pleasant enough and I got in to a good rhythm. Out on to the Australian exit and high fiving a few children on the way back in I found myself laughing at the prospect of another battle out to the first buoy. I started breathing to the right immediately as I fought my way out. This time though, within metres of the buoy, my luck ran out and I swallowed a mouthful of salt water, cue the usual coughing and spluttering but I was in no doubt some went in and didn’t come back out. I ‘survived’ the swim in 1:08:13, the slowest I have swam for a long time but that swim was tough and I was concerned that by pushing too hard I could trigger a post-swim cramp. It was no surprise to hear 100 people dropped out during the swim leg and everyone who completed that swim deserves a medal for that alone. I ran up the beach to my trainer bag and took off my wetsuit, crammed it in to the bag, trainers on and then began a steady jog up the switch back ramps up the sea wall from the beach. As I reached the top I could hear the crowds cheering, 3 or 4 deep as far as I could see. I was  not feeling any signs that I was about to experience cramping  so I decided to really open up my legs and ran the 1km to transition hard. As a result I took as much as 2 minutes out of some of the girls in front of me.

Out on to the bike I felt good straight away, but I had a plan and knew I had to be disciplined and stick to it, given the bumpy nature of the last two thirds of the bike. One of the things the cramp has taught me is the importance of race management because there have been times where I have tried to make up the lost time by pushing harder and ended up suffering later on. I was really pleased with my discipline which meant that by the end of the bike, the difference between my normalised power for the 2nd half of the bike would only be 8W (4%) less that the 1st half with a VI of 1.1. Which, given the amount of steep ramps was pretty pleasing. The first part of the bike was going out to the west (a village called Angle) which meant we should have benefitted from an easterly wind, but the roads were quite protected and it never really felt like we got much of a push. In Angle was the first major timing mat as the bike course turned back to travel easterly towards Tenby. I remember crossing the mat at the exact same time as another athlete but thought nothing of it. Little did I know that the timing mat had not picked up my timing chip and that this would throw my family and friends back in to the emotional rollercoaster that comes with supporting me! They started to get concerned when other athletes started showing up on the first bike split but they well and truly hit bottom when the following message appeared on the Ironman live blog.

“02:50 – Here are the first 10 women through 38km. Amy Forshaw isn’t on the list right now – we’re not sure if she’s having some issues out on the course or not…”

If you look back at my recent results it is easy to understand why they feared the worst. Somewhere in the Pembrokeshire countryside my family and friends were coming to terms with me potentially having another muscle cramp, or worse! My mum was holding back tears and Rob had pretty much resigned himself to it being game over and being another long drive home. However two of our close friends (Anna and Brodie) had come to watch me race for the first time and Brodie kept checking the splits repeatedly over the following 20 minutes. Eventually I showed up on the next split which I am told prompted much jumping and cheering. You can imagine my bemusement as I passed them a few minutes later to find them all screaming like crazy! Especially, as my head was still in a bit of daze after being knocked off my bike just minutes before. I flew up to a junction and I didn’t see the signage causing me to go briefly off course and it transpired that a few of the age group men also followed me, when I realised I hit the brakes and then heard the squeal of a few bikes trying slow quickly behind me and then whack. I hit the ground pretty hard and as I type this my right elbow is bruised with a few cuts healing up but my right thigh is very swollen. The doctor in the medical tent afterwards told me I had a hematoma and that there was bleeding deep in the muscle that was causing the muscle to swell up. I couldn’t believe this was happening, everything was going so well and there I was my luck conspiring against me. I just thought, ‘this is not going to happen’ and checked that the guy was ok (he was) before jumping back on my bike and getting back in to the race.

Despite feeling pretty stunned I felt generally ok, my elbow and thigh felt a bit sore so I had some paracetamol that I carry for when I have the muscle cramp and this seemed to do the trick. The next section through to the return pass in Tenby was up the famous hills of the course and this is where the crowds really come in to their own. I can only liken it to the Tour de France, on some of the hills the roads were lined 5 or 6 deep with but metres between either side for the cyclists to work their way through. The only downside to the crowds was that their excitement was really infectious, each time up the steep climb out of Saundersfoot I found myself putting on a bit of a show on for the crowds with my power flying straight through the upper ceiling we’d agreed. My bike strategy was all about control, the bike is hard but the run is pretty brutal too – up and down with sharp turns on surfaces that are not conducive to easy-on-the-body running. I felt I could run most people down and by sticking to my power plan it would ensure that I would have running legs available to me. However, the crowds just made you feel stronger and want to hammer the hills!

Towards the end of the bike I started to feel the effects of the mouthful of sea water, my stomach was starting to feel like I shouldn’t put anything else in it and I had to make a decision on nutrition that meant I would be 400cals down from where I would normally be. I could feel my power starting to drop off, it had been a tough bike with the hills and in some sections the wind seemed to be in your face regardless of which direction you rode as it swirled round the valleys. I imagine the wind impacted the guys less but for us lighter girls there were some sections that felt a bit of a slog. As I got towards T2 I finally caught Age Grouper Heike Funk, who from reading about is a renowned swim/biker and she’d certainly pushed well today. As her passed her she shouted me encouragement and that was another enjoyable aspect of the race, it seemed like all of the girls were supporting and wishing each other well. Riding in to Tenby was something else altogether, large crowds, the bike camera in front of me, my family and friends going wild and, most importantly, none of the usual issues had occurred save for a brief dismount of the bike and the start of a dodgy stomach. For me this was verging on about as good as it gets!

I was through T2 fairly quickly and out on the run. As with the bike, I had to focus on keeping my pace in check as the energy from the crowds outside of T2, as you ran towards the sea front, was amazing. Although this was soon to be tempered by the sea water swilling round my stomach. Within 2 miles I knew I had an issue, I’d had 2 gels by this point and my stomach did not like it all. I knew I was out in front and I knew I was one of two pros so I was very focused on trying to put down a good run split to keep my time respectable but I was struggling to get in any nutrition. By the end of the run I’d had only 4 gels (I would normally have 10) and two attempts at the flat coke, even water wasn’t having the desired effect. My best friend on the run was the lovely lady cycling with me who kept me fully abreast of where the next set of toilets where, which given I had to take 7 ‘comfort breaks’ was pretty important. It would seem I wasn’t the only person struggling as queues started to build up at the toilets – something I’d never seen before! This run is tough at the best of times, your legs are a bit smashed from the bike and you are running either uphill or downhill consistently. The section through the town, whilst great for spectators, is very hard due to steep downhill and several 90 degree turns which start to feel quite expensive energy wise as you decelerate and accelerate. It is the run course that make this race so hard, there are other races that have an equally hard bike (like Lanzarote) but anywhere else a race could be known on the basis of this run course alone!

As I have said throughout, the support from the crowds (especially the locals) is like nothing I have experienced elsewhere. Through the time of day I was racing they were unrelenting in their support and cheering of all athletes, it was something that carried me on through the final 6 miles of the run and I needed it. I don’t know what I looked like come the finish line but I was seriously flagging, I was literally running on fumes and all thoughts of a finish line chute celebration were gone from my head – I just needed to stop running as I felt so empty. Also, my right thigh was starting to stiffen up because, as I would find out later, I had suffered a deep muscle tear during my time on the floor that was causing bleeding and swelling in my quad. As I approached the finish line I almost felt too exhausted to smile, I was very light headed and to be honest I didn’t really feel like me. I crossed the line and all my head was saying was ‘sit down’! The pictures show me smiling but they’re not smiles of an Ironman winner, they’re smiles of someone thinking they can stop running now.

Nothing was sinking in initially, I hugged my ecstatic family next to the finish line and then found Rob a few metres up and with the cameras on us. I threw my arms around his neck just to take some of my weight off my legs – he said, ‘I’m so proud of you’ and I replied ‘I’m so tired’. That was all I could say. The seawater had blown my nutrition out the water, being around 1000 cals down over the final hours of the race, and to be honest I don’t know how I ran a 3:33 round there with 7 toilet stops thrown in. I am a bit disappointed that I had the stomach issues because my running has been feeling really good and I think I could have gone a lot closer to a 3:20, which was my target and the main reason for me being more conservative on the bike.

After a minute or so I started to realise what I had done. I was now an Ironman Champion and it felt amazing. After all my problems over the past few years I needed this. I don’t think I can put in words how much I needed something like this to keep me going in this sport. Rob and I had spoken a lot and IM Wales was verging on make or break – if I’d had another bad race it would have been a really big blow for me to get up from. I probably would have carried on because I know I would hate to look back with regret and feel like a quitter, but it would have been hard to keep seeing a light at the end of a long and very dark tunnel. The next hours were a blur; interviews, celebrating with Julia/family/friends and then an hour in the medical tent as my quad ballooned. As I lay down in bed that night I couldn’t stop smiling and they were proper ‘I’ve just won an Ironman’ smiles, I think I probably slept smiling!

Could I have gone quicker? Yes, definitely… Can I go quicker? IF we have resolved my cramp problems then that is a big yes as my training can focus on making me faster, rather than focusing on how to avoid cramping up in a race… And the big question that will no doubt have been discussed; would I have won if the pro field was deeper? Probably not depending on who was racing, but then you can say that about most people’s win save the World Champion at Kona. There were only two of us and I am under no illusions that I benefitted from a very light field. However right now I don’t care, as I said above, I needed this and I’m going to take it with both arms and enjoy it. I hope this is my corner turned and I can use this as a platform on which I can get on with delivering the improvements and performances I think I am capable of. Right now that is all I am focusing on.

Final comments….

Thank you to Ross Grieve/©Dirty Green Trainers for the great pictures!

A big thank you to all of my sponsors and support. My sponsors must have been thinking they have bought in to a race horse with a gammy leg! Tri Sports Lanzarote, Trainsharp, Maison de Velo, Powerbar, ProFeet, Sailfish, Xendurance, G4Physio, Compex, 110% Playharder, The Caroline Kremer Method and also to Saddleback for lending me the Enve wheels for the race; on a course like Wales they really saved my running legs for when it mattered.

A massive thank you to T2coaching and all the girls for their help and support, especially Parys who advised me to go see Petrie. Similarly to Vicky Gill and Dan Bullock (swim for tri) who told me I should go and see Caroline.  Fingers crossed Caroline and Petrie now have me on the right track.

The biggest thank you goes to my friends and family who never lose faith and tell me I’ve done amazing no matter what happens, a big shout to Anna and Brodie who now have to come to every race as my lucky charms! Last but not least, Rob who is my biggest sponsor and supporter – through all the disappointment and bad races he continues to believe that we will work through my cramping issue and I will reach my potential.

Finally, Ironman Wales is the most amazing and magical race. The support is immense especially from the locals who embrace it fully, which isn’t something you can say for all races. Yes it is hard, yes you will not break any pb’s here but the race is so rewarding. After all you don’t just want to be an Ironman, you want to be an Ironman at the toughest of them all. It’s not even a question of ‘if you get the chance’, just get yourself signed up and do this race. For me there is, of course, an interesting fact that cannot be ignored – in the past 2 years it is pretty much the only race I haven’t had cramping or nerve issues at. Maybe, despite all the treatment and strengthening, Ironman Wales is the only race I can ever do. Maybe it is the very long uphill run from the sea to transition. Maybe it is the passionate support of the locals giving me extra strength. Or maybe the beautiful scenery of Tenby and Pembrokeshire with its dramatic sunrises and the, sometimes, even more dramatic weather means that this little corner of the world is somehow my spiritual home. I really hope I’ve turned the corner but if I haven’t or I never do and Ironman Wales is the only race ever do, then that would be just fine too.”


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