Ironman Wales 2016 – Phil Graves report

It's over 7 years now since Philip Graves won Ironman UK 2009, to become the youngest winner of a full IRONMAN event. How did he fare at IRONMAN Wales 2016?

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It’s over seven years now since Philip Graves won Ironman UK 2009, to become the youngest winner of a full distance IRONMAN event. That was also the first and, until Sunday, last time that Phil stood on a podium at an IRONMAN. 

That was until IRONMAN Wales on Sunday when Phil finally put the best part of two years of injury issues behind him to finish in second place in Tenby, just over one minute behind Marc Duelson (GER) after nine hours of racing. Hopefully it is the first of many more to come, “with much more wisdom I’m not going to make the same mistakes I made back then which resulted in a seven year gap between Ironman podiums!”

Here is Phil’s report from Sunday.

Ironman Wales 2016

Well, I’ve written a few blogs this year so far, but to sit down and write about Ironman Wales… it’s all a little different!


The Preamble…

As many of you know, the last 18 months have been a disaster for me with serious injury after serious injury. I picked up Achilles Tendonopathy after racing New Plymouth World Cup in March 2015, which took eight months to get over. Then, after a month very steadily building my running back up, I started to get a very sore knee.

Even now I have no idea what was wrong with my knee, no physio could get to the bottom of it and after another six months of no running, to say I was at the end my tether was an understatement. I was killing the TT races I was doing, getting some great results and wrapping up the National TT Series whilst keeping my swimming ticking over. However, with one month of not even 50% volume running since March 2015, an Ironman seemed not even a spec on the horizon come the start of July!

As a last ditch hope I went to see Dr Kevin Burns at York Chiropractic Clinic. I listed my woes and he seemed pretty certain I could be fixed despite my symptoms being rather perplexing.

Within a few days he had me in, getting my back, knees and hips all X-rayed, which showed up several anomalies. Finally, could this be the start of actually getting back to triathlon?

After a couple more weeks of treatment I started running again and despite it feeling very alien trying to put one foot in front of the other at anything more than walking speed, thankfully the new rehab work I was doing, coupled with a few mechanical adjustments, well, it was all finally beginning to work!

I was still racing a lot of TT races at this point and had entered a 100mile TT on the 31st July on what I initially thought was a fast course on the A19 but it ended up been a sporting, B-road carriageway affair around East Yorkshire. Oh well, I still went to race and used it as training, did an extra 12 miles on the end to make it up to Ironman distance and then did a very slow and painful run off!

I can remember the first km off the bike was so hard; running off the bike was something I hadn’t done in over a year, never mind off 112miles at just over 25mph average! I did 3km and was quite content with that, it was a start!

Finally there was hope, so not knowing what the next few weeks would hold the next day I went about entering Ironman Wales and bought my Professional Ironman license for the rest of 2016. You have to hold your license for 45 days before you can race so I had to get a shimmy on. I think I bought the license and entered Ironman Wales 48 days before the race itself, cutting it fine I know!

So, I got my training diary out and put the days to go before Wales at the top of every page for the seven or so weeks I had left and set about trying to get myself fit. I could write a book about those seven weeks but I trained hard, too hard and again got injured on my last big run day 17 days out from the race.

I had planned to do 2x 10mile runs with 3 x 2km efforts in the second run. I managed one ok and then on the second 2km I strained my quad really quite badly and had to have six days off running and three days off the bike.

This was a disaster, it was two weeks to Wales and I couldn’t even run. It was even sore to go on the cross-trainer so I had no idea how my quad was going to manage a super hilly marathon. I was however so diligent, I did everything to get it better and with 11 days to go before Wales I managed a 35min jog. It was a start.

Thankfully the quad really started to get better quick and I ended up trying to hammer out a decent weeks training, probably more for confidence than anything, but it left me exhausted. I killed myself for seven days, did two races (a 10 and 50mile TT with 5k hard runs off both on back to back days), and by the Monday before Wales I was knackered! Hopefully a taper would sort that out!

Come Friday I was feeling better and after the six hour drive down to Tenby I went out to ride the hillier 60km or so loop of the course. It was very tough, in that 60km there was 950m of climbing and it certainly hurt my legs, which definitely hurt my ride on race day, but least I knew where I was going!

After more course recce on Saturday and the usual pre-race stuff, Sunday came around before I knew it! So the race, the bit you all want to hear about…


The Race…

The swim, well, I found it pretty steady away to be honest. I had swum a lap of the course the previous day, which was the first time I had swum open water since the European Games in June 2015. It was indeed the first time I had actually swum in a wetsuit since March 2015, so to all of those that preach you need to train in open water, I wont hear anything of it!

Ironman Wales 2016 elite men swim start
Copyright Getty Images for IRONMAN

Ironman swims are always a funny affair; it’s a long day out and you get into a situation where no one wants to take it on so the entire swim became a bit of a stalemate. At the end of the first lap there was an Australian exit so I tried to sprint round there and dive back in and swim hard a bit, but there wasn’t really much point in expelling so much energy early on.

Pretty much immediately we started to catch age-group athletes on their first lap and it was like trying to thread a needle for the next 1.5k. It made more sense to stay on a fellow pro’s feet than spend the entire time looking to see where you were going to make sure you didn’t swim into someone on their first lap.

Ironman Wales 2016 - Phil Graves exiting swim
Copyright Getty Images for IRONMAN

Onto the long run into transition and I didn’t feel too bad to the honest. It’s a 1km run through Tenby to T1 which makes for a great spectacle, indeed, the entire day had the most amazing support – it was truly unreal! A pretty standard T1 and out onto the bikes, now the day could really get cracking.

After so much time out I didn’t really know what to expect but after about two miles it was just myself and Daniel Niederreiter at the front of the race. I let him lead a while whilst I settled down before making a pass and cracking on with the rest of my day. I didn’t attack him or anything, I just rode past steady but before long he was back coming past me!

Full credit to him, so I sat about 20 meters back for the next five miles to see if he was going to slow down before I went back past. He sat there for the next 15 miles or so, I wasn’t hanging around but made a bit more of an effort at 25 miles when there was a fast tailwind section to get away and before long I had a couple of minutes lead on him. Right I thought, lets buckle down and get this done.

Ironman Wales 2016 Phil Graves on the bike course
Copyright Getty Images for IRONMAN

The rest of the ride was a lonely affair, I really tried to hold back and felt I was riding at a similar intensity I did my course recce at, just a solid training pace. Like the swim, the last 70km of the bike I found myself passing hundreds of age-group athletes on really narrow, technical Welsh roads, so there wasn’t much opportunity to open the taps… probably a blessing in disguise knowing the run would be tough.

Ironman Wales 2016 Phil Graves on the bike course
Copyright Getty Images for IRONMAN

Off the bike I had about 4-5min lead, not really as much as I had wanted but we can’t have it all. The run at Ironman Wales is super tough, four laps, a huge 2-3km hill on each lap, indeed probably 80% of the course is either uphill or downhill!

I did however not feel horrific, I tried to keep my run form and though 10km I ran 40min flat, well up on a three hour target I had set myself! The second 10km I ran in about 41.30, another 45 seconds in my back pocket faster than three-hour marathon pace!

Ironman Wales 2016 - Phil Graves on the run course
© Getty Images for IRONMAN

Half way into the run is where it always starts to get tough and indeed after about 25km the wheels started to come off! With only one 30km long run in my eight week running block, I was always going to be going into unknown territory and from 25-35km I really slowed. It was awful.

Even coming through Tenby with one lap to go I was in a dark place, I was totally ready to just bin it but I gave myself a thorough talking to. I knew if I could throw myself into that last lap I would get down the finishing chute.

It was around the 35km mark I got passed by Marc Duelson. I had lost a huge chunk of time that last 10k but I really fought the next 5km, I held him at 10-20 seconds and really just fully committed, I mean anything could have happened, even one bout of cramp for him I would have been back up on him, but it wasn’t to be! With about 2km to go I was cooked, it wasn’t my legs carrying me forward any more but just my sheer force of will to get to that finish line!

Ironman Wales 2016 - Phil Graves coming into the finish
© Getty Images for IRONMAN

And get to that finish line I did. Gutted to race for nine hours and loose by one minute, but that’s racing I guess. I really had exceeded my expectations and had just thoroughly enjoyed myself all day! Even now, two days on from the race, just thinking about the sheer amount of suffering I did on that run makes me just love the sport in such a gross, masochistic kind of way, I just cant wait to suffer like that again!

es 2016 - men's podium celebrations
© Getty Images for IRONMAN


So yes, two days on, two days of doing everything to recover and only just now can I walk down a flight of stairs unaided. I really did go all in, gave it everything I could, and for a first attempt back at Ironman and first triathlon in 15 months, I would give myself a B+.

With a few more longer runs in the legs (and obviously the adaptation I’m going to get from mullering my legs up and down that hill in Tenby), I really am excited for the coming months and what they hold! I really feel I’m back to where I was when I won Ironman UK in 2009, and with much more wisdom I’m not going to make the same mistakes I made back then which resulted in a seven year gap between Ironman podiums!

Getty Images for IRONMAN

Thank you everyone for the support, the sheer amount of messages I have had is just unreal and I can’t thank you and my sponsors all enough, thank you for believing and having faith in me!

It has been a VERY dark last 18 months but I feel I’ve come out of a pitch black tunnel and finally am starting to feel the warm glow of some spring sunshine on my skin once again. Sincerely, thank you one and all, you make the sacrifices and suffering all worthwhile!

John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.
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