Matt Leeman is an outstanding triathlete and has won some fantastic full iron distance races this year. He tells us about his experience competing as a pro for the first time.
This whole year has been about me gearing up to be able to race at an international professional level. That meant no corners could be cut and I had to get the most out of every day. Ironman Wales was chosen to be my first professional start at full iron distance. Me and my coach Perry Agass had chosen this race as it played to my strengths with a hilly bike and run. There was a strong start list of 22 including Ironman champions and World championship qualifiers. I had a rough aim in my head with regards to position but was mainly focused on the process of having a solid race and making a good account of myself at the level I want to race at.
Tenby is a seaside town on the Pembrokeshire coast. The sea swim is fairly straightforward with an Australian exit (run out of the water and back in again), which in this case was around a massive rock on the beach. This is great for spectators and competitors as it enables you to see your position in the race. It was a beach start which is a favourite of mine as it's pretty exhilarating charging towards the water without any regard for the race being over 9 hours, it’s all about the sprint and getting yourself to the front of the field.
My first lap was pretty quick and I was sitting at the back of the lead group of six or seven. I made the effort during the Aussie exit to ensure I started the next lap with the front pack; the sand saps your energy but if the elastic breaks and you’re not there, you won’t be catching up again. I put the effort in and dived in on the feet of the group. I then found the swim feeling pretty comfortable, maybe because the spike in heart rate from the run around the rock warmed me up or the confidence gained from being at the front of the race. I worked my way nearer to the front and settled in. We passed the back end of the age group field and got to the last buoy. I took an aggressive line from the buoy and into shore and found myself at the front of the pack. I decided to capitalise on this and kept the tempo high to dissuade anyone else from coming around me. However, Harry Wiltshire had jumped on my feet and sprinted me on the last few meters and began charging up the beach. The run into transition is around 1km uphill through the town. Once I got running I overtook Harry and lead the race into transition. I couldn’t believe that me, a humble lad from Essex, was leading an international field from the swim in my first pro Ironman.
Once I had negotiated the Ironman transition I started the bike leg in third place. I knew I was going to have to ride my own race to get the best performance out of myself. The bike is an area of mine I need to work on to balance myself out across the three disciplines, but I knew it was hilly and drew from my experience of the Castle Series Bastion and how hard that felt 80-90 miles in and paced myself accordingly. I remembered being told by George Gandy, running distance coach when I was at Loughborough University, ‘Don’t fight the hills, or you’ll lose’. Great advice for this type of course. The first loop took us out to Angle, a narrow peninsula at the tip of South-West Wales. Strong winds were forecast and they were in full swing by the time I’d reached this area, making for a good test of bike handling skills. Once this area and the sand dunes had been negotiated, it was back inland where it had began to rain quite heavily and the roads were now very wet. I had taken a tumble from my bike two weeks previously in a race so was still a little cautious on the wet roads. There had also been some oil put on the corners of some country roads which made it even sketchier. I was very happy to be heading back into Tenby on my bike having stayed on two wheels for 112 miles. I had caught a few athletes who had gone up the road earlier on the race so knew I was still in a decent position in the race.
I started the run in 8th place and just focused on getting the first of four laps done, by breaking the marathon down into quarters. There are a few turn around points on the run on Ironman Wales, therefore plenty of opportunity to work out how everyone is getting on around you. I knew I was putting time into the athletes behind me, bar one, Andrej Vištica who was absolutely flying when he passed me. And fortunately some of the athletes ahead began flagging so it very much became a war of attrition. I had worked my way up to 5th place, which was a massive boost, as I had not expected to place this high and although the race wasn’t done I was determined to keep it. I had put 90 seconds into the athlete I had overtaken quite quickly, but he seemed to be maintaining this gap and although I was pretty certain he wouldn’t make that time up in the last 3 miles, I got my head down to put as much time into him going into the last few turn around points to make sure he didn’t want to try and fight back. I learnt this lesson the hard way when I was younger.
I pushed on till the end and crossed the finish line in 5th place. I took a huge gamble this year by not pursuing a full time job and deciding to go pro instead. Winning prize money at this race justifies this decision and the sacrifices that come with it. It’s been a long season, I have surpassed my expectations and am now enjoying some down time freshening up physically and mentally to get working ready for next season.