Ryan Thomas made his mark for Goodwick and is now a veteran Iron Man

It was 2011 and Ryan Thomas, desperately trying to learn to swim in Fishguard Leisure Centre, was essentially told to forget it.

Ryan ThomasDespite being a novice in the pool, let alone the sea, he’d already entered the inaugural Ironman Wales in Tenby that year. His training plan was only a few weeks old when a qualified instructor quipped the prospect of completing 2.4 miles in notoriously choppy waters was an unrealistic one.

Nine consecutive Ironman Wales events later, and it’s fair to say that instructor didn’t realise who he was dealing with.

Nerve-wracking start

“The build up to my first one was very nerve wracking and emotional,” he admitted via phone this week.
“After I was told I would struggle with the swim I brought myself a wetsuit and trained around Goodwick harbour. Me and Anita (his wife) had just had our daughter, Chloe, and they would watch me from the quayside.”

It wasn’t the most conventional of self-coaching methods, but it worked and in September that year he duly completed the swim, 112 mile cycle and 26.2 mile marathon with ample time to spare.
And he’s never looked back since.

2020 in jeopardy but he’s staying focussed

Indeed, one of a select few athletes to have crossed that finish line every year since Tenby’s most spectacular sporting show began, was intensely preparing for the tenth anniversary when Covid-19 took a hold of all things sport.

The 2020 version of the event appears in jeopardy. But Thomas’ commitment to training isn’t.

“I’m 100% preparing as if it’s on.

“This was going to be my tenth and last year and I was focused on giving my all to it. So I’m still following a strict programme and thus far, I’ve been on track and making big gains.

“I’m working with Peter Lloyd who sets my training programme which at the moment is based on timings. So I’m training for about 12-15 hours a week and I usually look to step that up about 12 weeks out.”

And critically perhaps, the hard work is not seen as a chore.

“To be honest I enjoy what I’m doing. I think because I’m now an Ironman veteran the doubt about it going ahead doesn’t play on my mind. If I was a novice then it would be different.”

An Ironman veteran now, yes, although ironically endurance events played little part in his sporting upbringing.

Ryan Thomas header

Grew up with football, especially at Goodwick

Born in Gosport, he moved to Fishguard as a youngster. Growing up it was all about football with Goodwick United, and in the 1999/2000 Pembrokeshire campaign, then aged 22, he was part of the side that beat Hakin 3-1 to win a Senior Cup final. 

He also had brief stints at Letterston and Merlins Bridge, where he helped capture a Division One title, but in 2002 his football was curtailed for five years when he took up a post with the parachute regiment.

His time in the military would include regular training in Catterick and a two year placement in Northern Ireland.

Ryan Thomas tackle

Senior Cup Glory

But by the 2009/10 season he was back in Pembrokeshire and there was to be more Senior Cup glory with Goodwick, beating Merlins Bridge 3-1 at The Meadow on a sun-kissed day in April.

“Out of the two it’s the Hakin final I remember most,” he admits.

“I think there was more passion and meaning to it and the standard of the Pembrokeshire League then wasn’t far off the best it has been.”

And while Thomas didn’t embark on triathlons until finishing with football in early 2011, the credentials of a tough endurance athlete were always apparent. Not to mention the mental strength acquired from the military.

Ryan Thomas in control

Super-fit midfield hard man

Super-fit and  a midfielder he would run all day. He was aggressive. He was full blooded. And he was the type to be giving his all in jury time regardless of whether his side was 3-0 up or 3-0 down.

I learnt this the hard way. I once had to mark him.

“It’s fair to say fitness was a big part of my game.

“Going back to the final against Bridge the main thing I remember was being exhausted at the end from so much running. It was my job to be the workhorse in midfield alongside Tom Jones.”

Ironically, he and Jones would team up again post-football, albeit in an entirely different environment.

Ryan Thomas ready for another  training session


Started ‘Iron Man’ as a chance to raise funds for the Phoenix Centre

But another irony is Thomas didn’t plan retirement from the round ball game. Originally, entering Ironman Wales was simply part of a temporary break.

“It wasn’t that I’d had enough of football - I always intended to go back,” he said.

“In fact one of the reasons I entered Ironman was to raise money for the Phoenix Centre.

“But once I started doing triathlons I realised I loved the individual aspect of it. You are just out there on your own pushing yourself. I’d struggle with a team game now and all the commentary on the side lines.”

He laughed through the last bit. But anyone who has played local football will empathise.

“My first Ironman I was an emotional wreck throughout. Finishing it was more relief than anything and seeing my family afterwards was special.

“But I also knew I had found something I loved. It was never my plan to do 10 in a row but when I’m passionate about something, I’ll give it all I’ve got.”

Goodwick treble coincided with his best performance at ‘Iron Man

He still follows Goodwick now and indeed, on that night in May 2016 when they sealed their famous treble at The Obs, the image of Kieran O’Brien’s header crossing the line also captures Thomas wheeling away behind the goal in celebration.

But by then the football boots were long packed away and perhaps poignantly, it was that year which also yielded his best Ironman performance to date, clocking just over 11 hours seven minutes. Thomas knows the electric atmosphere now so synonymous with the event better than most, but while he doesn’t need the crowds to drive him, the support is notable.

“It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and understanding from your family to do an Ironman.

“And to have the atmosphere and encouragement from people you know is a nice thing to have at the end of all that.”

Horrendous experience in Lanzarote

But it isn’t just Wales where he’s tackled elite events. In fact, ask him about his hardest event to date, and there’s no hesitancy in the answer.

“Ironman Lanzarote was horrendous.

“I went out there in 2016 along with Tom (Jones) and a few other friends. We didn’t actually have the wind they talk about over there but I think I suffered more from having no breeze – it was extremely hot on the bike and when running.

“I needed to be strong minded that day, it was one of my toughest moments. I finished in 13 hours and 38 minutes and was so disappointed with that.

“As a reminder, I didn’t take my Lanzarote wristband off until four months later when I crossed the line in Tenby with my best time to date.”

Ryan Thomas on the runFinest achievement

His finest achievement however, lies closer to home. As it happens, very close.

“My favourite race is the Ocean Lava middle distance triathlon around Fishguard. I once came 11th there out of a really strong field and that has stuck in my mind more than anything else.

“My swimming isn’t the strongest so quite often I will leave myself a lot of work to do. But that day I made up real ground.”

You’d think that shorter distance races would be something of a breeze for an athlete so used to tackling extremes. Last January, I ran alongside (and subsequently behind) Thomas at the rain sodden Team Pursuit 10k in Crymych. While most of us cowered under shelter at the start line, he bounced around like a caged animal.


Aggression, not nerves as challenges increase

As it happens, I mistook aggression for nerves.

“I’ll be perfectly honest I’m very calm on an Ironman day.

“However, I do feel anxious at smaller events. There is more pressure on me there because of what people expect and it does creep up on me at the start line.”

Indeed, there is no such thing as a low quality field these days. The popularity of endurance races has grown immensely and the extremity of events continues to evolve.

Thomas himself, has seen the vast difference that 10 years can make.

“Without a shadow of the doubt the scene had got bigger and standards have gone up.

“Every race now is hugely competitive. People who you saw starting out a few years ago are suddenly giving everything to training and winning age group races. I think it’s a good thing that events are selling out though because it’s getting people in Pembrokeshire and beyond into swimming pools, on bikes, or out on the road running.

“There is a lot to think about now and it is easy to get too obsessed though. I make sure I eat well and have actually changed my diet this year and had gains because of it – but you still have to be able to relax and enjoy yourself.”

Ryan Thomas celebrates finishing

Looking forward – as always

But while the scene will continue to evolve, what of Thomas himself?

With September set to be his final bow on the Ironman scene, if the race is cancelled then obviously at the age of 42, that’s it then?

Obviously not.

“I’d have to speak with my wife if it was put back until 2021,” he said with the kind of nervy laugh which indicated she was within ear shot.

“I’d like to get it out the way this year but having built up towards doing a tenth it would be a shame if it never happened all.”

To translate that answer, is the event is postponed until 2021 – he’ll be there.

By his own admission, he’ll keep competing in other races too. But moving forward, it’s the training of another family member that will become a bigger priority.

“I’ve had a very heavy schedule last few years with working full time (as a heating engineer), training for Ironman, and my family. The programmes from Peter Lloyd have made it much easier for me to structure things but it’s time to cut down on the bigger events.

Family matters

“Anita and Chloe have been such a big part of it for me and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without their understanding and support. Seeing them smiling at the finish line is the best feeling.

“Now Chloe is really into her swimming and in the county squad and I don’t want to miss out on watching her.”

In fact, Thomas now helps train Chloe himself. Fair to say he’s gone full circle since that moment in Fishguard Leisure Centre.

“I won’t force her into endurance events it’s up to her what she want to do. But I love what they’re all about – a certain type of dedication is needed that is different to anything else.”

A dedication is seems, that Thomas possesses in abundance.

And finally . . .

But he isn’t the aggressive, belligerent, intense character I perceived him to be from the moment he told me I’d have to ‘run all day’ to get near him in a Goodwick v Solva game kicked off many seasons ago.

Underlying the determination is a humble character, a family man keen to credit those who have helped him, and for whom nerves and emotion are all part of the process.

Prior to this interview, he even made a tentative admission.

“I’m not the best at speaking about these things. I’m not one who likes to big myself up.”

He doesn’t have to.

This past decade, his mental strength and endurance have already done the talking.