Grafman – 28/07/2015

It’s been exactly 4 weeks since my first ever half iron distance triathlon. The plan for this summer was always to get in a couple of these longer triathlons in preparation for the big ironman debut in 2016. As I’m off for a jaunt around America in August and sitting my final accountancy exam (triathlon and accounting, what a guy) at the end of July, I ended up scheduling both of these in June.

For a blow by blow account of how that first race went, see here, but in short I finished in 5 hours and 24 minutes. I thought it’d be a good idea in this summary to compare each leg with my performance in Nottingham as the courses was very similar and I haven’t really done any proper training since then. However, I took a very different approach to the race second time around – I was going to hammer the bike and hope the half marathon at the end wouldn’t be too painful.

My mum and the lion very kindly let me use the car again (which I’m very grateful for), and as the event was only 45 minutes away from the family home, I had a reasonable alarm set for the sunday morning (4.30am isn’t too bad for a triathlon).

Unfortunately, with my number one fan Katie having other plans, and me nicking the family car for the day, I had to make the journey up to Grafham Water solo. One of the big cheeses at work (Tas) was also competing, so at least there would be one friendly face around during the day.

I arrived early as usual (it’s always easier when you’re not running around like a headless chicken with 30 minutes to go, trying to register and get set up – it takes the stress away from the start) and got myself set up in transition, making sure to walk through the transition area from swim exit to bike exit so I wouldn’t run in, forget where my bike was, and end up picking up the most expensive one and running off.

The swim exit
The swim exit
'Norah' set up in transition
‘Norah’ set up in transition

The period before the start always goes much quicker in triathlon than running races, and before I knew it transition was closing and we were all being directed to the edge of the (massive) lake for a 5 minute pre-race briefing.

The Grafman was the 2015 English championships, which meant a really high quality field was assembled as people fought for national honours. I knew full well I wouldn’t be involved in any of that, and just hoped to not make too much of a fool of myself!

After the briefing we were allowed a couple of minutes to get into the water and do a quick warm up. The lake was actually a pretty decent temperature (nowhere near as cold as Nottingham), and I thrashed around trying to pretend I knew what I was doing. I failed, swimming straight into someone swimming directly towards me. Warm up done.

The Swim

The swim would be two laps around the buoys (a big loop and a little loop), with an Australian exit at the end of the first lap. Unfortunately, this isn’t a load of Aussies drinking fosters and stoking a few BBQ’s in their surf shorts offering words of encouragement – instead you come out of the water run up the beach and around a marker, before diving back in for the second loop.

I placed myself fairly near the back (knowing how much of a crap swimmer I am), and prepared myself for the charge down the beach into the water. We were set on our way and all hell broke loose, as everyone dived on top of one another into the water. I quickly got into my (slow) rhythm and got stuck into the first lap. Picture a rabbit trying to swim – I imagine I look something like that.

The first lap seemed to last for an awfully long time, before I hauled myself out at the Australian exit – wincing in pain as I ran up the stony beach in bare feet before turning and doing a running dive back into the water. In my head it was going to look amazing, but with the water being about a foot deep, I ended up flailing about on all fours on the lake bed.

Happy that I was over half-way through the swim already, I soldiered on around the second smaller loop. I was hoping to swim slightly quicker than 4 weeks ago, but realistically after having only swam a few times since then, I wasn’t going to blow that time out of the water.

Swim time: 39.36

As it was, I clambered out onto the beach and up into transition to see the clock reading 39.36 – a whole 7 seconds slower than 4 weeks ago. The positive here being at least I’m good at being consistent! I know if I want to move my way up the field my swim needs a ton of work. 39 minutes just isn’t going to cut it and I’m going to look at making some improvements before next season.

Position: 330 out of 576 starters overall and 29/33 in my age group.

Transition 1

I spent minimal time faffing in transition – wetsuit off, watch on, shoes on, helmet on and out.

On the way out to the bike course
On the way out to the bike course

T1 time: 1.14

I’d decided before the race to adopt a new tactic on the bike. In my first race I’d taken it a bit easier, not knowing the effect the 56 miles would have on my legs for the half marathon run. This time, I was just going to go for it, and hope that my legs wouldn’t be completely trashed by the end.

Unfortunately, the terrible weather from the Outlaw half had followed me to the Grafman. We had a load of wind as well as some heavy rain – not ideal bike conditions. I pushed hard for the first few miles out of transition, going past a fair few riders early on. You go down a very steep hill almost straight away, but then turn around after 10 minutes and ride back the other way so you have to go straight back up it! This was the only real hill of note on the entire course though.

We then made our way back past Grafham water until we’d reached the main section of the bike course – an out and back section of road you’d head to the end of before turning round and coming back. Each ‘out and back’ was 20 miles each – which everyone had to do twice. This was a good opportunity to work out where everyone else was in the race, and see the people immediately in front/behind you.

Early on during the bike
Early on during the bike

This route took us through the lovely village of Kimbolton – at first a great place to ride through. However, as it got a bit later in the morning, quite a few of the locals had made their way to the high street for the Sunday morning shop, and at points you had to be on your guard to avoid being reversed into by a parking pensioner.

I knew I was working hard on the bike because I was suffering a fair bit. I also found my back getting very sore during the ride, and I kept having to sit up to stretch it out. A couple of people made comments to me after the event that my position on the bike wasn’t very good and as such I wasn’t riding very efficiently. If I could sort this out and start riding in a more aerodynamic position I’m sure I could take a few more minutes off my time.

I hadn’t seen Tas for the entire ride (despite looking for him after each turnaround point), and to my surprise I found myself riding past him with about ten miles to go. I had (rather naively!) been looking behind for him instead of in front of me. In fact, he’d had a strong bike and had managed to hold me off up until this point. We exchanged a couple of words of encouragement and I pushed on towards the finish.

The only disappointing element of the race were the presence of packs riding on the bike. Triathlon is meant to be an individual sport, but I spotted a couple of groups of riders bunched together and ‘drafting’ off each other to get a bit of an advantage (it’s easier to ride in a group as those not at the front can shelter from the wind).

If anyone had been caught by the marshals, they would have received a time penalty, but as far as I’m aware, none were given out. It didn’t really affect my race, but I suspect it must have been annoying for those nearer the front trying to place highly in their age-groups.

My legs were feeling pretty cooked as I headed back towards transition, but I knew I was on for a good bike split (well, good for me anyway). I got my feet out of my cycling shoes ready to jump off the bike and run to my racking position. I hopped off just before the dismount line and immediately grimaced – to say my legs were not feeling too fresh is a rather large understatement.

Bike time: 2.42.01

Bike split: 158/576 overall and 14/33 in my age group.

Despite having lost all use of my legs, I was chuffed with my bike split. This was a massive 23 minutes quicker than my last effort, and I knew if I could hold it together during the run I could make some improvements on my Nottingham time. However, that relied on me being able to find my running legs as quickly as possible.

Transition 2

Transitions are sometimes called the ‘4th discipline’ of triathlons, and it’s really important to waste minimal time here – every second counts, something I’ll touch on again shortly. I threw my bike on the rack, slipped on my trainers (no time for socks), picked up a couple of energy gels to carry with me and I was out and on my way. Just the small matter of a half marathon now.

T2 time: 1.03

The Run

After a hard bike, the plan on the run was just to try and hang on to 7 minute miles for as long as possible. If I could manage this, I knew I’d run a time in the low 1.30’s, which would do just fine. I always look forward to the run, as I know it’s my strength and it’s where I can make up some time.

The course was two laps, which could be broken down into two parts. The first part involved the run from transition along the dam wall before turning around and heading back (about 2 miles total), with the second part heading the other way alongside grafham water through a wooded section before turning around and heading back (about 4 miles total).

I spent the opening section trying to get myself together and find some sort of rhythm. Despite my legs feeling like they were on fire, I still set off at a fast pace, and forced myself to hold back slightly. I had an energy gel and took on some water, focusing on one person at a time and slowly making my way through the field.

Must be early on as I'm smiling
Must be early on as I’m smiling

The second part of the lap was tougher than the first, with a couple of short and sharp hills to contend with. I passed a few people out for a sunday stroll, and they were just staring at everyone as if we were completely mad. I guess they’ve probably got a point. The out and back nature of the run course meant you could offer up support to runners coming the other way, and I exchanged a low-5 with Tas as we passed each other.

Moving on to the second lap, and things started to get really tough, but you just have to keep telling yourself it’s nearly over – just another 45 minutes of running. I had another energy gel during the first section of the lap as the mile splits started to slow – I was running on empty.

As I came back into transition to start the second (and last) part of the last lap, for the first time I allowed myself a glance at the race clock, which was hanging above the finish line. I immediately wished I hadn’t. I was ready to just limp home through the last 4 miles and just get it over with. However, the clock read ‘4 hours and 30 minutes’. If I could just cover the last 4 miles in half an hour, I’d have a chance of posting a time of under 5 hours. Before today, I didn’t think I could get anywhere near that time, so I was pleasantly surprised at the situation I found myself in.

I kicked myself into race mode, and accepted that I was going to put myself through some pain in these last few miles. It was taking everything I had to try and hold the pace I thought I needed to run. I kept going past people and tried to pull myself up the hills as quickly as I could. I reached the turnaround point in 15 minutes – it was going to be close.

I was starting to feel slightly light headed but knew it’d be over soon. Time seemed to move so slowly and the last 2 miles felt like 10. With around half a mile to go I passed Tas for the final time heading in the opposite direction. He said something to me (I can’t quite remember what), but all I could offer back was some sort of grunt.

I turned into the finishing funnel and caught my first glimpse of the time – 4 hours and 58 minutes and counting. There can’t have been a bigger smile that day in Cambridgeshire, as I was grinning from ear to ear as I made my way towards the line, high 5’ing a few of the people in the crowd. The guy on the PA system called out my name as I finished and I collapsed in a heap on the ground – I was completely spent.

Run time: 1.34.10

Finish time: 4.58.06

Finishing position: 109/576 overall. 11th out of 33 in my age group.

World's happiest man at the finish
World’s happiest man at the finish

Despite the significantly faster bike time, I’d really dug in during the half marathon and managed to run just one minute slower than my run time in Nottingham. I spent a few minutes trying to collect my thoughts and realise what I’d just done. I couldn’t stop smiling – all the hard work I’d put in over the last few months had paid off. If only I could swim properly!

After chugging a couple of the free beers on offer at the finish line (alcohol free of course), I congregated around the finish line to cheer some more finishers over the line and gave Tas a big shout as he finished in a very respectable time considering he was just treating the event as a ‘long training session’.

I’m sitting here a good few days later with a massive grin on my face. Sunday has given me real belief that I can get closer to the front end of some races in the future. It’s also set a solid platform to build towards the ironman dream in 2016.

3 thoughts on “Grafman – 28/07/2015

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