Things are starting to get serious. I’ve been working towards Ironman UK for nearly 6 months now, and we’ve now got less than 6 weeks to go. It’s at times like these that I like to don my flat cap, to help ease the pressure and anxiety. But this Sunday’s race had no place for comical headgear; it was time to see if this training stuff actually works.
However, with my date with Bolton firmly in mind, there was no time to ease off in the lead up. I’d logged nearly 22 hours of training in the 7 days before the race, and my legs certainly knew about it. I went for what was meant to be an easy run on Thursday night and could barely move my legs; it felt as if my batteries were completely flat.
Luckily, I had a couple of easier days on the cards, with ‘just’ a 4km swim in Tooting Lido on Friday morning, followed by a few miles on Saturday morning at parkrun. We’d planned to do a bit of tourism on the route to Chester, and landed on Stratford upon Avon as a nice place to visit en route (it also happened to be one of the faster parkrun courses we could find…)
It’s been well documented both on here and social media that Katie has had her fair share of bad luck with injuries over the past 6 months. However (I’ll whisper it quietly), I think things have finally turned a corner. It’s been an absolute inspiration to watch her over the past half a year. Whilst not being able to run, she’s been tirelessly working away, doing various physio exercises every day and attempting to retain a good level of base fitness without being able to do anything that involves impact.
So, with that in mind, I was as nervous as her when she lined up to start on Saturday morning, having slowly built her running back up over the last month. It’s only in the last 2/3 weeks that she’s been able to incorporate some sessions and speed work into training, so we weren’t expecting miracles; just a solid run and a marker before the training starts in earnest for the Chicago marathon.
She preceded to storm around the course in 19:21; her second fastest ever 5km and just 13 seconds off her all-time PB. Madness. 11th place overall and 1st female. If anyone is looking for reasons to hang in there, even when it feels like things are never going to get any better, Katie should be a perfect example. She turned herself inside out on Saturday morning, and got exactly what she deserved.
Buoyed by such a brilliant result, we treated ourselves to a nice breakfast and wandered around Stratford. Apparently, some guy that used to write books lived there once, but we swerved the cultural stuff and bought a couple of fizzy drinks from Poundland. This little detour broke up the journey nicely, and we arrived in Chester in time for a spot of lunch.
After getting registered and plundering the free supply of Clif bars, I spent the rest of the afternoon faffing around with my bike and ‘getting in the zone’ (which could be confused with sitting around in the hotel room in my pants). Katie has recently transformed herself into the female version of Chris Froome (minus the inhaler), and she rode all the way to Wales and back in her fancy new cycling gear. I may or may not have spent this time shaving my legs.
This race always seems to attract a strong contingent from the Clapham Chasers, and a nice pre-race meal had been planned. We nearly all went to bed hungry after realising that Vicky Randall had decided to book a table for the following evening, but we were squeezed in and loaded up with food.
As usual, I’d booked a room with a rather rowdy wedding going on outside our window. However, I was shocked to hear my alarm going off (4:30am), having had one of the best pre-race sleeps ever. Katie was equally shocked to hear me drop my porridge spoon in the sink, which was followed by a rather loud swear word, as my attempts to creep around and make breakfast failed miserably.
I always love the trip to the start of an early race, as you spot numerous people stumbling home from rather large nights on the town, and I laughed as I came across a lad who’d managed to lose a shoe at some point during the night. I like to get to transition early, and I had my bike racked and gear sorted out with a good hour to spare. I went on a little warm-up jog to ‘get in the zone’, this time with more clothes on.
During set-up I was reminded why I love this race and keep coming back for more; everyone involved is so friendly and helpful, and everything seems to run like clockwork. With time ticking on, I threw on my wetsuit and spotted clubmate and super-fast runner Martin Rutter on the way to the swim start. Martin and I have been doing some training together and he’s also doing Bolton this year; it’s nice to be able to share the journey with someone.
It was an absolutely beautiful morning, and it was clear conditions were going to be good, if not a little hot by the time we got onto the run. I had a quick kiss from Katie before jumping into the water to check out the temperature before the swim start; actually quite pleasant. They’d changed the format this year from a mass start, to a rolling one, with two swimmers starting every 5 seconds. Martin and I had agreed to start together, so we wished each other luck before taking the plunge.
I’ve worked so hard on my swim over the winter with Ray, from Swim Canary Wharf, which has seen me make considerable progress on both times in the pool and my feel in the water. After an extremely average showing at Thames Turbo, I was determined to prove to myself that I was trending in an upwards direction.
The rolling start meant there was so much less agro in the first few hundred metres, and it was easy to settle straight into a rhythm. No getting booted in the eye this year. I got my head down and concentrated on lengthening my stroke and just trying to relax, with Ray’s words of wisdom ringing in my ears.
I’m feeling a lot more comfortable in the water, and I seemed to be swimming in a relatively straight line, which is always a bonus. As it’s a river swim, half the time you’re swimming against the current, but I can’t say I really noticed the difference. I’m guilty of getting ahead of myself at this stage of the race, thinking ahead to the bike and run, before forcing myself back into the moment; stop getting carried away Spraggins.
I was amazed to see the swim exit coming into view; and what’s more, I still felt incredibly fresh, so I guess everything I’m doing with Ray is paying dividends. I was over a minute faster than last year, but more importantly, felt like I’d put in hardly any effort to get there.
Swim time: 32:31 (70th overall, 18th in Age Group)
I’ve finally done it! You might as well stop reading the report right here, as this bit is all that matters. I had the fastest transition in the entire field, even though I took 3 attempts to get my wetsuit off and I couldn’t get my number belt on. I also don’t strap my shoes to my bike, so I had to put those on too.
My excellent dressing skills catapulted me from 70th to 38th. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; what are these people doing? With mobile phones not allowed, they can’t be ringing family members to let them know they’re safe (my mum would love that), so something else must be going on that I’m missing.
T1: 1:21 (1st overall)
I could scarcely wait to get going on the bike. I’d put so many hours in, under the expert guidance of Sporting Director Paul Burton, and now it was time to see where I’m at. The man himself had even graced Martin and I with his presence during a session in Richmond Park, where he preceded to hop on my back wheel and critique my bike position, making 300+ watts seem like a piece of cake.
There’s a few twists and turns through the city centre before you head out onto more open roads, where you can really start to get the power down. One guy (Phil Ellison) flew past me in the first couple of miles, but I had my own plan to stick to and didn’t want to get wrapped up in racing this early. The first 10 miles of the loop are quite lumpy, so it was easier to push some higher watts. I got a bit carried away as I passed quite a few other riders, feeling strong early on.
The field had become much more strung out now, but I caught a train of 3 riders who were (just about) riding legally. I was determined not to get caught drafting (riding within 12 meters of the rider in front, and therefore getting an aerodynamic benefit – this comes with a 5-minute time penalty if caught), so immediately I went to the front. Annoyingly, they kept passing me and slotting in ahead, and I had to sit up a few times and get off the throttle.
I put in a little dig on a flat section into the wind, tucking my head in and pressing on. Quite satisfyingly, a little glance back 5 minutes later showed clear road behind me. Coming back into town I had my one and only chance to top up on water. I discarded my empty one and promptly dropped the one the volunteer tried to hand me at the aid station. I was definitely going too fast, completely my own fault. That’ll be the last 23 miles without any fluid then; not ideal.
The second lap was much busier with the course now busy with those taking part in the Olympic distance race. This was a nice distraction, although there were points where I’d get held up slightly in traffic. It was now much more of a struggle to hold the target power, but Paul and I had decided that I was going to ride hard and take a bit of a risk, and then see what happened on the run. So I dug in, gritted my teeth and soldiered on.
It was great to see some other Chasers on the bike course and I swapped words with Steve Leonard as I passed him. I was surprised to pass him, as Steve’s a very good athlete in his own right, so figured I must be having a good day on the bike. Coming back into town, I was nervous to find out what state my legs would be in for the run; this was definitely the hardest I’d ridden in a race of this distance.
I hit the timing mat to record a 2:15 on the bike, 8 minutes faster than last year, which is another massive leap forward. I was absolutely chuffed, as I’ve worked so hard over the last few months. This was the 6th best split of the day, and I’d moved up into 5th position after the bike leg (although I didn’t know this at the time).
If anyone likes hearing the numbers, I rode 268w normalised power, which works out as 3.7 watts/kg. I averaged 24mph, on what can be described as ‘below average’ roads, with one section of 5 miles or so essentially like a gravel track.
Bike: 2:15:51 (6th overall, 2nd in AG)
Jumping off the bike and hitting solid ground, initially the legs didn’t feel too bad. I decided against wearing socks, but I had to take my shoe off and put it on again as the innersole had folded in on itself. Valuable seconds lost. In fact, it seems as if I had an absolute shocker after the dizzy heights of T1; I was a full 25 seconds slower than last year. What a rookie.
Transition 2: 1:33 (78th overall, 12th in AG)
I knew I wasn’t in quite as good run shape as this time last year, judging by recent performances and training sessions, so for once I was slightly concerned about how the run was going to go. Thankfully, I’m not an absolute donkey on the bike anymore (just the swim), so I don’t have to rely on it so heavily.
I didn’t really have a pace target, so I just settled into an effort that felt sustainable and concentrated on getting some water on board after having been without for the last hour or so. The course is 3 laps of just over 4 miles, where you run out down the river before turning around at the halfway point and heading back. This allowed me to count the guys coming back towards me and get a rough idea of how far ahead they were. I was in 5th; 1st seemed to be long gone, with 2nd and 3rd about 8 minutes ahead. Still plenty of work to do then.
I managed to stack it, slipping over on the grass on one of the 180 degree turns. In my head I styled it out pretty well, but other observers might have a different opinion. I’d settled into a pace that was slower than last year, but the temperature warming up nicely and this was the best I had at the time. Coming through the finish area for the first time, I spotted Katie and Gemma having a nice relaxing drink in one of the café’s, and I was sorely tempted to join them!
I hit 10km in 38:48, at this point onto the 2nd lap and having to really concentrate to maintain the effort. I’d moved into 4th and could see the gap between me and those in front getting smaller, which added extra motivational fuel to the fire. The run course was really busy by this point with both middle and olympic distance runners, so there was plenty of weaving and dodging going on.
Just before the end of lap 2 I moved past both 3rd and 2nd (Phil Ellison, the guy who had come flying past me at the start of the bike), but for some reason had become confused and thought I was in 3rd. This was the reason I ran through the end of lap two asking Katie if I was 3rd or 4th, and I think she replied with 3rd. So, we were both wrong, but I didn’t really care at this point, I just wanted to get to the finish in one piece.
I was seeing other Chasers out on the run course now, and it was great to offer up shouts of encouragement to momentarily take my mind off the pain. Martin and I had passed each other at various stages of each lap, and he offered up a high five as I made my way to the final turn, but I managed to miss his hand altogether; just as well as I had so little left I’d probably have been knocked backwards.
My nutrition on the run consisted of just water; I think I’m an outlier when it comes to long-course triathlon and fuelling, as I never felt hungry or low on energy over the course of the day. I just had one bottle of slow-release carb drink on the bike and a solitary Clif bar. I attribute this to being predominately fat burning athlete, but I’d like to look into this further.
I turned for the last time and saw that I’d already put a fair bit of gap between 3rd and 4th, so I was able to touch the effort level back slightly and make sure I had enough left should they come back at me. Coming over the bridge for the last time and heading down the cobbled street towards the line, I finally allowed myself to relax and take in what I’d achieved – another well executed race on fairly fatigued legs.
Katie and Gemma were in the finish chute and I flashed them a grin before crossing the line, as my legs suddenly deciding they didn’t want to do the standing up thing anymore, so I let the barriers do that for me. For a third year in a row the run course still wasn’t quite accurate, with my 1:19 split more like a 1:22 half marathon with the distance around 12.6 miles. I managed to bag the fastest run of the day, which I’m pretty stoked about.
Run: 1:19:09 (1st overall, 1st in AG)
Overall time: 4:10:27 (2nd overall, 2nd in AG)
Official results (Change the event box from Olympic Distance to Middle Distance)
Despite thinking I’d finished 3rd, I’d obviously struggled with counting up to 5 and had actually ran my way up from 5th to 2nd. Unfortunately (for me!) Joe Beech turned up again this year, beating me to the win and the age group prize at the same time. However, rather encouragingly, the gap between us was closer than last year despite him logging a faster time, so there are definitely positives to be taken away. Joe’s a great athlete, so it was awesome to chat to him afterwards and ask him for advice around training.
Katie was waiting in the finishing area and I gave her a massive hug despite being the world’s sweatiest man; it was amazing to see her so excited for me. I was in a mild state of shock, as I could never have hoped to place so highly in a race like this. I’d knocked over 5 minutes off last years’ time, and I remember at that stage thinking back then that there was no way things could get any better than this!
We had the nice problem of having to hang around for quite a while afterwards for the prize giving, where I was given a rather large trophy, some Clif Bars and even a bit of prize money. That’ll pay for the nice hotel I treated Katie to on Saturday night (note – this had nothing to do with no other rooms being available).
Martin also had an absolutely superb performance, finishing 7th overall and 2nd in his age group despite by his own self admission, hardly doing any bike training. The guy is a real talent and inspiration to me. Vicky Randall also finished 7th and 3rd in her age group; really impressive, especially considering she’s only really been training for short-course triathlon. It was so much fun sharing the course with these guys, as well as all the other Chasers taking part over the weekend.
I’ve got mixed emotions now that the dust has settled. I’m really proud of the way I’ve applied myself in training over the last 6 months to get me in a place to compete in these races, but I always saw Chester as just a stepping stone to Ironman UK, and nothing more. It’s a great box to tick, and it’s further fuelled my motivation and desire to turn up in Bolton in the shape of my life.
It’s now up to me to not doing anything stupid, keep logging the sessions, and look after myself for the next 5 and a half weeks. No hero sessions required, and no risks need to be taken. Thankfully, I’ve got my Sporting Director to make sure I don’t waver off piste. On a serious note, I do really already owe Paul so much, as he’s not only put up with my constant daily messaging but helped me get into a position where I’m able to be competitive for the whole race and not just the run.
The real hero in the whole piece is Katie, who has to put up with my constant moaning/training/talking about some small-scale race in Hawaii. If she wasn’t so understanding I’d either not be able to do any of this, or more likely be single. Seeing her back running and training is worth more than any race that I do; it’s amazing.
So, the final countdown begins. If you come into contact with me in the next few weeks, I apologise in advance for talking about Ironman, as I’m sure it’ll be shoehorned into conversation. I’ll try my best, but I can’t promise anything. When it’s all over, I’m sure normality will resume. Either that, or I’ll sign up for another race. I’ll let you decide which of those is the more likely.