Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Picking myself up at Ironman Wales

The afternoon of August 31st I was sat, head in hands trying to comprehend how I’d just been disqualified for a cycling error from the Ironman 70.3 world championships, the second of my 2 main races of 2015. My racing career had never got any lower than this; I had hit rock bottom. Around me were thousands of people all cheering for Jan Frodeno crossing the line in a fantastic 3:51, along with all the other age-groupers that I had been up against just an hour before. In terms of my mood at the time, I was the complete opposite end of the spectrum!

I dropped Richard Melik (who runs Team Freespeed) a message telling him about my disqualification, and that I’d look for another race to finish the season with to at least capitalise on the training I’d done, and to make amends for my disappointment at Zell am See. Whilst I was thinking along the lines of another middle distance triathlon, Richard suggested having a shot at Ironman Wales instead and hence allow a full season to concentrate on Kona 2016. On immediate reflection I thought to myself “no way” given I’d not swam or ridden the distance even in isolation since Nice Ironman in 2010, and my longest run since April’s marathon had been about 18 miles. But then I considered it further, and in fact what was there to loose? I’d averaged about 60 and 200 miles a week running and cycling respectively over the summer, there was no pressure as that had been piled on at Zell am See 2 weeks prior, and there was everything to gain through potentially gaining a 2016 Kona spot over a year in advance. I was sold! So signed up, re-restarted my taper and began to prepare myself (mostly mentally) for the 10 hours of racing I’d be doing in 10 days time.

The days leading up to the race were fairly relaxed, with some runs to/from work, some chilled out swimming and a few laps of Richmond Park; nothing crazy and all done at a relatively easy effort. I had a long talk with my Freespeed teammate Charlie Pennington a few days out who had raced Ironman Wales last year. He gave all sorts of useful information for the race and helped calm any nerves about which bike to use, which wheels to use, where to sight on the swim, what nutrition was on the course, and just general good advice from an 8:45 ironman.

My nutrition in the lead up didn’t change at all with no serious carb loading or change in diet, and even had a few beers on the Friday night to celebrate a friends birthday; I just wanted to make sure I was well fuelled for the big day itself. In fact I was feeling very relaxed about everything, and even slightly confident things might go better than expected…..My only real concern was with the weather (in fact that played on my mind A LOT) and how that may impact the bike course. A few days before it was forecast as wind, rain and the typical weather Wales is associated with and I was sure the chances of coming off the bike were riding high.

I travelled down to Tenby with my parents the day before, collected my number, picked my wheels (Zipp 404 on front, 808 on back), racked my bike, got familiar with transition, took a look at finish line and checked out the bay I’d be swimming in at 7am the following day. At which point I decided to pull myself away from the Ironman buzz and concentrate on my own race.

I’ve built into my triathlon prep a walk through in my head for every element of the race that involves any sort of technicality. What I need to do in transition on the morning of the race, what order to put my bike kit on, do I need to eat anything during transition, what happens if its warmer/cooler than expected for the bike, where do I enter/leave the swim/bike/run etc., and I spent the best part of an hour the evening before going through this again and again to get 100% happy with the setup.

Race day came and I was up at 4:30 to have breakfast (2 Weetabix, banana, slice of bread and jam) [fairly minimal, but I prefer to race ‘light’]. My Dad dropped me in to Tenby and I set up my bike: air in tyres/water bottle on/shoes on/speedo on. Then a final walk through of transition and I was set to go! Transition had its typical buzz of excitement, apprehension and organised chaos as everyone carried out their final checks on the bike before walking down to the sea.

I put myself in the first age-group wave, 5 minutes after the pros were being set off. At 6:55am, the pros started and raced down to the sea. The countdown was on to my race getting underway and at 7am I too was running down the beach and into the water. Surprisingly the typical carnage of a mass start never seemed to emerge and I managed to find an open line out to the first buoy. It was never a strategy to get on someone’s feet for the swim, as I didn’t really think there’d be so much benefit given the waves and current. There were enough people ahead of me that I did not need to sight so often and things ticked away nicely to the first buoy. At that point, we almost did a 180-degree turn and were immediately pounded by the waves moving practically directly towards us. It was a hefty stretch across the pack of the bay and the waves meant that the next orange buoy was harder to make out all the time. At the final turn back to the shore, we were with the current again and that made things far easier but my legs were on the verge of cramping up as I think I’d kicked a bit too hard earlier on.

I came back onto the shore and started round 2 of the swimming circuit, and this time the density of swimmers was far less. I reigned my kicking in through fear of cramping up so early in the race and as a result I think my second lap was quite a bit slower than the first, but at the back of my mind was that I was still within the first hour of a fairly epic race.

Ironman Wales varies slightly from other races in that the swim is a good kilometre away from the transition, so there is a short run through the town once you’re out the water. I stripped off my wetsuit, put on my trainers and raced through Tenby to the bike.

Contrary to what had been forecast earlier in the week, we were very fortunate that the early rain had cleared and the wind was far less than expected. In my transition bag, I had put in extra layers and had about 5 minutes to make a decision about what to wear on the 112 mile bike. Given it was still a bit chilly, I opted for the whole lot: arm-warmers and cycle jersey (the cycle jersey mostly due to the fact it had a load of food in). Once out of Tenby, I started to unleash on the bike and cruised with a nice tailwind all the way to Angle (the most westerly part of the course). I had averaged about 22 mph for the first gently undulating hour and was gradually reeling in a few other age-groupers. However, I had taken on no food or drink for this time and suddenly became very conscious that I still had a monumental task ahead of me and needed to keep my energy levels high for the entire race. In my back pocket, I had a load of Clif shot blocks that I then proceeded to work my way through for the rest of the race and, coupled with bananas and energy drink at the aid stations, felt as through my fuelling on the bike was about right [again adopting the ‘racing light’ strategy].

As the course turned back to Tenby, so the wind was from the other direction and life on the bike got a bit harder. What’s more the undulations got bigger, but that plays to my strengths and, before long, the number of age-groupers ahead of me seemed to reduce. The road the surface was pretty good and generally far better to what I am used to in Surrey hills. The early rain meant that the road was still damp in places and I refused to take any risks whatsoever throughout the whole course. What this cost me in time may have been 3-5 minutes, however I was not prepared to take corners or descents at speed given the potential impact this may have. As per Alpe d’Huez Triathlon or Nice Ironman, the route on the Ironman Wales bike course was incredible, making its way through the Pembrokeshire countryside and every town or village was packed with supporters. 70 miles into the course was the town of Saundersfoot and the climb out of the village felt synonymous with that of the Tour de France as the crowds parted to let me through. Halfway up the climb I was in the red, but kept on pushing to the top purely due to crowd encouragement.

When I returned to Tenby for the first time, the announcer said that I was the first age-grouper so it was now was a case of holding it together for the rest of the bike. The second lap of the bike course encompassed only the hilly parts of the first lap, which I should really be thankful for but, at the time, was quite vocal to myself about how much pain I was in on some climbs. At 90 miles, I'd had enough on the bike and was starting to fade. At the back of my mind was not the 26 miles of running still to do, but the two 15% climbs in the final stages of the bike course. It seems any logic becomes slightly warped after 6 hours of pushing it. Anyway, I dispatched the climbs and cruised into Tenby to finish the bike-no mechanicals, no crashes and thankfully no red cards!

When I got to T2, I spent time cleaning out any sand in my toes, putting Vaseline between my toes and treating myself to a fresh pair of socks as I really didn't want to get any blisters on the run. I drank some flat coke I'd put in my transition bag (thanks Charlie for the suggestion) and got cracking with the run. Whilst the run is my strongest discipline, running 26 miles on tired legs after 6 hours of effort is completely different type of marathon race. During my 70.3 training, I'd practiced running at 5:30-5:35 min per mile off a 60 mile bike, now I had to force myself to run at 6:30-7 min per mile otherwise I'd be bound to detonate catastrophically at some point (my experience in my Nice Ironman was a 1:20HM/1:50HM split, ouch). Needless to say, that plan soon went out the window and I found myself trotting along comfortably at 5:45-6:15 per mile, dependent upon whether I was on a hill or not. Initially I was in complete isolation: the pro in front was way ahead, the next age grouper way behind. I was still aware of ensuring I took on enough fluid, so started to have a few sips of water at each of the aid stations. As time went on and I ticked off the first of 4 laps, the run course was beginning to fill up with the other competitors and the crowds continued to build and cheer in Tenby. In fact the crowds were phenomenal and at no other triathlon has the support been quite so amazing! Lap 2 included a toilet pit stop which never normally happens for me in a race, but after that I started to feel way better and was now just waiting for that wall to hit. My original enthusiasm for running was beginning to wear off and was now being more sensible about pacing. I adopted a 'walk through aid stations' strategy whereby I'd have a cup of coke, walk on and have a cup of water, before returning to a run. That way I got some sort of recovery as well as made sure I got fluids and a small amount of extra energy.

As I started the 4th lap I was aware that I was catching one of the pros ahead, and at 2k out, a very helpful spectator told me I was only 30 seconds behind. Whilst in my mind I knew I was actually 4:30 minutes ahead (due to my wave starting behind the pros), I still thought to put an effort in to try and catch him. Finally I had the finish line in my sights. It had been over 5 years since my last Ironman and the crowd cheering on the finish was just like I can remember at Nice. I did no showboating, summersaults or even a high 5 up the red carpet; I just had one thing on my mind to cross that line. My time was 9:31:01 and this rounded off one of the races of my life. Shattered, drained, exhausted but ecstatic is how I felt, and so pleased to have been able to put Austria behind me.

When the results came out, I had placed 5th overall and had beaten the next age-grouper by over 30 minutes. 2016 Kona spot was well and truly booked!

There are so many people who helped me on my way to this race, and all is so much appreciated. In particular to Skechers who make sure I always have pair of trainers to go running in, Blueseventy for providing an amazing wetsuit, Clif for helping with that nutrition, and Virgin Active for allowing me to swim/bike/run those indoor miles. Thanks Richard for putting the idea of Ironman Wales in my head, and to all my running and cycling mates who are always keen to help put the miles in. And finally my parents and family who have been very supportive through a tough year, and I couldn’t really have asked for more than them being at the finish line on Sunday.

Top 10 results:

Name Country Category Overall Rank Swim Bike Run Finish
Thomas, Jesse USA MPRO 1 00:54:20 05:03:28 02:52:19 08:57:33
Vistica, Andrej HRV MPRO 2 00:57:00 05:05:46 02:52:18 09:03:09
Thomschke, Markus DEU MPRO 3 00:57:01 04:57:14 03:12:54 09:14:52
Snilstveit, Gudmund NOR MPRO 4 01:02:38 05:03:21 03:08:18 09:22:15
Greenleaf, Andy GBR 30-34 5 01:05:17 05:20:42 02:55:47 09:31:01
Wiltshire, Harry GBR MPRO 6 00:51:55 05:19:21 03:12:47 09:31:33
Holtham, Elliot CAN MPRO 7 00:57:01 05:25:31 03:04:54 09:35:47
Schifferle, Mike CHE MPRO 8 01:04:07 05:22:46 03:04:56 09:45:26
Manente, Felipe BRA MPRO 9 00:56:54 05:37:04 03:03:17 09:47:28
Beranek, Anja DEU FPRO 10 00:54:26 05:30:15 03:23:16 09:56:31