I’m always dead excited for the start of the triathlon season. After a long winter/spring of putting in the hard yards during training, it’s a chance to find out if flogging yourself senseless in a tiny room in your flat, pedalling for hours but moving nowhere, has resulted in being able to pedal harder whilst cycling in circles on a road before ending back in the same place you started – hopefully in a few minutes quicker than last year. I would say the same about swimming, but we all know I can’t actually really swim, so expectations are always low in that department.
Avid readers of this blog (Mum, Nan, Katie (sometimes)) will know that I have been doing a lot of running races, which have produced some encouraging results. The guy who used to vaguely resemble Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate factory is steadily getting faster, giving hope to chubby 15 year old’s the world over. Coach Dan has tried to keep me on the straight and narrow, reminding me that triathlon involves 3 sports and not one, but I just can’t deny the fact that running is by far my favourite.
Despite this, there has been many a morning where I’ve longingly glanced at my trainers sitting idle in the hallway before jumping on the turbo trainer for an hour (or sometimes four..) before work, desperate to keep improving and maybe one day reach my goal of qualifying for the Ironman world championships is Kona, Hawaii. I spend the majority of my training sessions with this carrot dangling metaphorically in front of me, and it’s this thought alongside the drive to squeeze the absolute best out of myself that keeps me plodding along day after day.
After spending Friday night faffing around trying not to forget the thousand and one items of kit required for a triathlon (is four inner-tubes going to be enough? Probably not taking into account my recent luck), all that was left to do was set-up my fancy new water bottle that sits on my handle bars and has a little straw so I can take on fluids as required without having to move from my slightly aerodynamic position – see example below.
The only task that requires thought in this process is cutting the straw to the correct length. Employing Katie to help, she advised me that the length I was considering was much too short, and I should cut off small bits at a time to avoid this issue. After chopping off a huge portion of the straw, it was far too short. So much so, that my nose had to pretty much touch the handlebars in order for me to be able to drink anything. Who needs to look at the road when you’re cycling anyway?
Collecting our hire car on Saturday morning, we hurriedly crammed it with all the gear before rushing over to Fulham parkrun. Anyone who’s been following my Strava feed recently will know Katie has transformed into Usain Bolt in the period of 2 weeks, and so the plan was for me to hopefully pace her to a new 5km personal best before the long drive north.
I’d like to build up the suspense, set the scene and tell you we dived over the line with one second to spare, but I think you already know how this one is going to end after last weeks efforts. She didn’t just beat her best time, she smashed it out of the park, running a whole 2 minutes quicker than she ever has before – 20:49. This personal best had previously stood for 2 and a half years and since then she’s had 70 efforts at trying to better it, so after a brief period of lying down on the floor recomposing herself at the finish, it was smiles and hugs all around as we celebrated another incredible result.
Four hours later we were rolling into Chester, heading straight to registration to collect race numbers and get signed in ready for the following morning. After a brief stroll around the town centre, we checked into our bed and breakfast (Chester’s version of Fawlty Towers) and spent a couple of hours relaxing before heading out for dinner with a group of Clapham Chasers who were also taking part the following day.
I was the only one taking part in the half-iron distance race, with all the others racing the shorter Olympic distance, which represented a qualifying event for the GB age-group triathlon team. There were some fantastic performances on the day, with Vicky Randall securing a spot at the world championships in Rotterdam later this year, and Tim Murhpy doing the same (although he’d already got a place as part of the Australia team, which is a real shame, but we’ll let him off because he’s a good guy). Jo Muddle also had a blistering run split, working her way up the field to finish 9th in her age group.
After a hearty meal and lots of triathlon chat (I felt the need to apologise to Katie afterwards, who was finding the conversation slightly difficult to follow at times – as would anyone who didn’t know about FTP and watts per kilogram), it was back to our executive suite with a 4.30am alarm looming. After a DIY breakfast of porridge, raisins and honey (Basil had said, probably quite reasonably, that 4.30 was too early to serve breakfast on a Sunday morning), I pottered about sorting out the last of my kit, unsuccessfully trying not to wake Katie up.
I arrived in transition nice and early, getting my bike set-up and wetsuit on with plenty of time to spare. Despite this, I’m always surprised with how quickly time passes before a triathlon, and before I knew it we were being ushered down to the river. Everything was fairly familiar as I’d done this race last year as part of my build up to Ironman Switzerland, which is also rather helpful for the purposes of this blog as it gives me a direct comparison on how I’ve progressed over the last 12 months.
I’m never convinced anyway actually looks forward to diving into the River Dee (or any river for that matter) at 7am on a Sunday morning, but the water temperature was surprisingly pleasant as we bobbed about, treading water and waiting for the starting hooter. I’m also always amazed at how friendly everyone is before the start, knowing full well the carnage that is about to ensue. Jokes were shared, advice exchanged and good lucks passed around.
The hooter then sounds. It’s every man, woman and child for themselves. Arms and legs are everywhere – is that person deliberately trying to swim onto my legs? Probably not, but kick harder and I’m sure they’ll go away. Bang – someones kicked me directly in the eye – it feels like it was someone with a black belt in karate but I’m not sure how well the two sports crossover. It hurts, but it’s nothing major, so on I plod, swimming at the only speed I have in my arsenal – moderate.
I reach the turnaround point, and things don’t seem to be going too badly. After fairly ambitiously seeding myself two rows from the front at the start, it doesn’t seem as if people are constantly streaming past me. The only real swimming I’ve done in the build up is drills focusing on improving my technique, so I just spend the duration thinking about putting these into practice.
Something must be working as I hauled myself out of the water in a time a minute faster than last year, a nice surprise to start the day with. On the sharp uphill run to transition Katie spotted me, immediately asking what had happened to my eye. Unbeknown to me, Jackie Chan had opened up a small cut above my eye, but I still had the ability to see and therefore the show must go on.
Swim time: 33:44 (37th Overall, 5th in Age Group)
I never like to faff in transition – wetsuit off, helmet on, bike shoes on, away we go. I managed to shave 22 seconds off last years effort, overtaking 11 people in the process and starting the bike in 26th position. Someone took over 8 minutes – I literally have no idea what they could possibly be doing in that time. Paul Brown might be able to give me an insight, being the king of a leisurely transition.
T1 time: 1:13 (4th Overall, 1st in Age Group)
The bike was the most intriguing element of Sunday’s race for me. Having not raced on the road since New Years Day, I was excited to see what effect a winter of hard work would have on my performance. Last year I was riding on my trusty road bike, but over the off-season I’ve upgraded to a triathlon bike with a fancy set of wheels and also started training with power for the first time. I was hoping that a combination of all of these factors would lead to an improved showing this time around.
Having rode the course before, I knew the opening 10 miles were slightly slower so didn’t let myself get too despondent when the average speed wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. I tried to settle into a rhythm and slowly started picking off those that were ahead of me after the swim. A couple of guys absolutely flew past me as if I was standing still – I need whatever they’ve been smoking.
The second half of the lap is much flatter and faster, giving me an opportunity to get my head down and power along some sections of the dual carriageway we were riding on. This was also my chance to incorporate my new hydration strategy of ignoring the road and dipping my head down whenever I had a moment in an attempt to take in some fluids – a couple of hairy moments aside, this seemed to go rather well, although I think I’ll be purchasing a new straw before the Outlaw.
Heading through town at the end of the first of two laps, I unexpectedly rode past Katie out on her long run, momentarily breaking my position to wave and shout hello to make sure she spotted me – definitely worth the 2.3 seconds I’d lose due to inferior aerodynamics. I noticed a couple of the guys I’d been playing leapfrog with during the first lap had dropped away, and I was managing to hold a consistent effort through the ride.
The bike course was much busier during the second half, with those taking part in the Olympic distance (which started slightly later in the morning) now out completing their lap of the bike course. I was constantly passing others, whilst some others flew past me (including a group of 6 quite blatantly drafting in a huge pack). I was excited to get out on the run now, so pushed hard through the closing few miles, buoyed by the fact I could see my time was going to be significantly faster than last year.
As I turned out, I was exactly 10 minutes quicker, a combination of better equipment and a large dollop of hard training. As encouraging as this was, I’m hoping there’s lots more improvement to come on the bike, as I only had the 13th fastest split of the day. I jumped off the bike having moved up from 26th to 13th position. For those that like to know the stats, I averaged 240 watts (3.4 watts/kg) with an average heart rate of 141bpm.
Bike time: 2:23:13 (14th overall, 2nd in AG)
After last years debacle of trying to run out of transition with my helmet still on my head, I was determined to have a smoother passage this time so ran through in my head exactly what I need to do during the last 5 minutes of the bike ride. The problem with this is, having a plan and executing it are two very different things. I clearly need some practice with how to slip on a pair of trainers without needing 4 attempts at it.
As a result (highlighting how impressive last years transition time was taking into account helmet-gate) I was a full 6 seconds slower than last year – a crushing blow on my hopes of securing the fastest transition time – it’ll happen one day, i just need to keep putting that hard training in. I spotted there was only one bike from my AG back in transition, and in general not very many bikes at all, which was a bit of a novelty and a first for me.
Transition 2: 1:08 (15th overall, 3rd in AG)
I’m always excited when I get on to the run – during the bike I’m always worried about puncturing or crashing. Once I’m in a position where all I have to rely on is my legs and lungs, I’m a happy man and ready to find out how hard I can push myself.
The start of the 3 loop run course was fairly congested with some of the olympic distance athletes, but after the first mile (a rather ambitious 5:52) the middle distance route splits and continues on along the river, giving you a bit more space to run. This also allowed me to check my position in the field as I could count the people ahead of me coming back the other way on this out-and-back section. I counted 13 ahead of me (which turned out to be spot on) – best get on it with then!
Annoyingly, my heart rate monitor was playing up so I was just relying on feel, trying to stick somewhere close to 6 minute miling. During the first lap this felt manageable, and I gradually started to reel in those ahead of me. Katie had picked a prime spot along the route where she’d see me multiple times, and she was great at keeping my spirits high and staying positive even when it was clear I was tiring further each time I saw her.
By the time I started the second lap, it was impossible to tell if those you were passing were in the same race as you, let alone the same lap, so I just concentrated on holding a consistent pace and picking off as many people as I could. Rather encouragingly, I wasn’t passed by a single person during the entire run, whether they were doing the 10km or half marathon distance.
I hit 10km in exactly 38 minutes, promptly falling over trying to negotiate a U-turn and slipping on the mat, much to everyone’s amusement. By this point it’d started to warm up and I was making sure to keep cool by drenching myself in water at every opportunity. I inadvertently applied my nutrition strategy of not having any, as I didn’t feel like I needed anything on the run bar a few sips of water every now and then. Coming to the end of the second lap I knew now was the time to press on with anything I had left.
I knew there were some fast runners behind me but I’d been monitoring the gap between them and this was holding steady – barring an explosion they’d run out of road before they caught me. The last 2 miles were a real grind but I tried to keep pushing right until the end, not knowing whether I was closing in on anyone ahead of me or not.
I came down the finish chute, spotted Katie and gave her a quick high-five, before crossing the line, well and truly knackered. I spent a brief period making friends with the floor before hauling myself off the ground to collect my medal and try and find out what position I’d ended up in.
I’d come into the race thinking any improvement on my 19th place last year would be a welcome improvement, maybe I could even sneak into the top 10? My jaw nearly hit the floor when I printed my result – 5th place! I’d run my way up from 14th to 5th, and solidified my position of 2nd in my age group.
Unfortunately, the run course was again not the fully advertised half-marathon distance. Last year it was 12 miles, and this year the organisers had improved that to 12.5 miles. It’s a shame, as apart from this, the race itself is a fantastic one – so well organised and it runs like clockwork, with brilliant volunteers and marshals present throughout.
So my final run time of 1:16:05 would have left me with a 1:20 half-marathon over the full 13.1 miles – a result I’m ecstatic with considering until March I’d not broken 1:20 in a stand-alone half marathon race. I averaged 6:07 per mile during the run, holding a consistent pace throughout.
Run time: 1:16:05 (3rd overall, 2nd in AG)
Overall time: 4:15:25 (5th overall, 2nd in AG)
The chap who beat me to the age group win (Joe Beech) is a pretty decent athlete – he came 2nd overall in the Outlaw triathlon last year and won his age group at Ironman Wales (co-incidentally the 2 races I’m doing this summer), so to be beaten by someone like him is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It just inspires me to keep striving to be better and make that next step in the sport (and also learn to swim).
We had to hang around for an hour or so afterwards so I could attend the awards ceremony and collect my prize for finishing 2nd – a jumbo box of energy gels that I’ll probably never use and will sit in my bottom drawer until they pass their use by date; still, it’s nice to win something!
I spent the drive home on cloud nine, annoying Katie with further chat about the race and daydreaming about what might be in the future. I’ll have a couple of easier days before jumping straight back into training with the Outlaw now just 7 weeks away. This result has given me a decent confidence boost but I know the hard work is only just about to start.