Monday, 7 November 2016

Kona Ironman - Going all out on the Big Island

Since I secured my place at Kona in September 2015, exactly what the event would be like had remained a mystery. I kept hearing of places such as ‘The Queen K’, ‘Ali’i Drive’ and ‘The Energy Lab’ with no clue as to what or where they were. I’d heard it would be hot, windy, humid and filled with over 2,000 budding triathletes; well think extremes: very hot, very humid, very windy (in places) and so many competitors focused on their single most important race of the year (or even longer). Arriving at Kona 7 days prior to the race meant that I could find these mysterious places, acclimatise to conditions and focus on relaxing, registering, racking and generally preparing for the race.

I took my approach to the entire Kona experience similar to how I approach my training. Yes, the Ironman was the main focus of the trip, what I had been working towards for the past 6 months and I was ready to give everything on race day, however I was also here to have fun both before and after the race, meet lots of like-minded people and get involved in everything Kona had to offer. Whether it was swimming out to the coffee boat, doing the underpants run, hanging out at breakfast, taking part in the Parade of Nations, or just lying in the sun, these were all things that would give me fond memories of the place regardless of how I may perform on race day, and besides who knows if I would ever have the opportunity to go back again.

Race day was on October 8th and it started at 4am for me. By 5:30am, I found myself amongst the 2,300 other nervous competitors preparing to start their race. I was desperately trying to ignore a slight virus that had come on a couple of days before, and that would eventually catch up with me on the day following the race, but first of all I had 140.6 miles to knock out. Here's how the race went....

What's it like to be amongst the best part of 1,500 swimmers all heading for the same buoy 1.2 miles out to sea and back again? Well imagine a whole lot of splash, constant concentration not to get kicked, and no idea if you're heading the correct way; with all this continuing throughout 60 minutes of the swim course.

At 6:55am, the cannon fired.  Immediately I chose to go out relatively hard in order to try to find some faster feet to pull me along, and there was certainly no shortage of them, as pair after pair would continually appear in front or to the side. The carnage that followed was something I’d only ever experienced at Nice Ironman in 2010, where the sheer number of people in the water meant no let up in pace and using such concentration to avoid being hit. It was relentless and, even after 20 minutes of swimming, very little had calmed down. As we reached the turnaround point, the entire field was once again pushed together into a narrow stream. Despite everything going on around me, I felt good and a quick time check at the halfway point suggested I was close to my 60-minute target.

After the initial excitement of the start, I had chosen to take it more steady in the second half, not risking the thought of surfacing from the water at all out of breath. As I emerged from the water and into the packed changing tent, I saw my time was 61 minutes, on target with where I wanted it to be.

Coming out of T1 in amongst hundreds of other cyclists, I planned to go very hard and pass as many as possible early on. Who knows what power I was doing, as my power meter was broken from the outset, but it must've been 300-330w. Along the initial short out-and-back, I caught Will Newbury, had a very brief chat as we compared our swim efforts, before heading up on to the Queen K and the view of still hundreds of cyclists stretched out ahead of me.

I continued to put down a fair effort, being very mindful of not drafting anyone and trying to catch some faster trains up ahead. Eventually I caught up with Paul Burton and we sat off the back of a small peloton, cruising steadily down the Queen K. After 30 minutes I felt ready to push on and put in an effort to go past the lot of them. Whilst I potentially paid for this later on, it was my call to race up to the turnaround point at Hawi. My lack of confidence to go much over 35 mph was going to slow me down on the return descent, and I felt I needed to get some time in the bank as a consequence.

80 miles in I was feeling good. I'd gone through at least 5 litres of water/Gatorade, a load of shot blocks and a Clif bar, so was well hydrated and fuelled by my standards, plus I’d had made a fair dent in the field. However the headwind and 'semi bonk' was about to hit. Paul came back past me looking very strong and gestured me to go with him, but I had nothing. That had been a very sensible ride from him, and his decision not to get over confident early (on as I had) was a wise one. The last 15 miles were a real struggle and I was pleading to myself for the run to come sooner. I eased up, which may have lost me 5 minutes in the closing stages however I felt that, by taking it steady, I was far better prepared to start the run.

Now all that remained was the 26.2 miles between myself and the finish line. No mechanicals to worry about, no real possibility of penalties to be handed out, and the best part of 250 other age-groupers to try to work through. By this point, the temperature was well over 30 and I was grateful of the locals spraying us down with hose pipes on Ali’i drive; I was drenched through within 5 minutes, but that was fine.

My aim was to set out at 6:35/mile pace, which should feel comfortable on any other day, and that would bring me in with a 2:53 marathon. Along Ali'i drive I passed Paul, who encouraged me to go and eat up as much of the field as possible.

The atmosphere along the whole of Ali'i drive was fantastic, both from the spectators and other competitors. I'll be honest, I could hardly muster an acknowledgment but the support was much appreciated! As I progressed up the Palani Road (the only major climb on the run), the heat was getting to me and all I was longing for was the next aid station to fill my suit up with ice and take on more Coke and water; this was the strategy I then adopted for the rest of the run course.

Whilst my pace wasn't quite the 6:35's planned, I continued to work through the field and each competitor became a target to chase down. At 15 miles, I was told I was the 35th age-grouper and, by the time I got to the Energy Lab at 18 miles, I'd moved up to about 20th. Things were going well however the irony was that, shortly after coming out of the Energy Lab, I was so close to falling apart.

Now it was a case of just closing out those last few miles. I looked behind and the road was clear. Up ahead the gaps were too large. I accepted that little could be done on changing my position and so put my head down and prepared to head for home. With 300m to go, and to my surprise, another competitor, who’d obviously gradually been reeling me in, overtook me. I wasn’t expecting that, so cue a Greenleaf sprint for the line and any of the planned high-5'ing down the finish shoot was scrapped. Over the line I collapsed into a volunteer's arms, relieved to have held my position and finished in 9:08:27. I was too delirious to fully appreciate what was going on around me and was more focused on trying to stay upright and taking on water, but at last I’d completed the Kona Ironman.

I finished 53rd overall and 5th in the 30-34 category (turns out 6th place was only 14s behind, so the sprint was worthwhile after all). The whole event was an eye opener to the quality of other amateur triathletes from around the world, and also an appreciation and respect to those professionals who swim, bike and run some frankly insane times.

My race had gone perfectly up to 95 miles on the bike, after which I'm still a little frustrated about the time I lost in those closing miles. Perhaps I over did it too early on the bike or perhaps I didn’t get my fueling quite right, but my feeling at the time was to go for it and this required overtaking some fairly significant groups. I also think I slightly underperformed on the run, however there is little preparation you can do in the UK (or even anywhere) to understand quite how to fare in a marathon of 30+ degrees and after 6 hours of racing. I appreciate I'm probably being over critical of my performance, and I am thrilled with my effort as I left everything out there on the course, but it gives me an appetite to go back for more at some point.

Kona was more than just a one-day race, it was the culmination of training for the past 6 months, and there have been a number of people who have supported along the way:

Huezkateers/RP Stags/Cottage/Pub Laps for pulling me around many laps of Battersea, Regent's and Richmond Parks, either running or on a bike. Thanks guys for putting up with me for all those hours, there’s no way I’d have had the motivation to do this solo.

Mum and Dad for being there right from my qualification at Ironman Wales and then coming all the way to Kona to support. I’m so pleased you were able to make it out here and cheer first hand!

Richard and my Teammates from Freespeed. Since joining the team at the start of 2015, it's helped to give me opportunities to compete in races I’d never even considered doing 3 years ago. Along the way I’ve had the chance to meet all sorts of people across the sport, whether it's other triathletes, sponsors or just others interested in the sport. Having teammates to draw upon for advice and support has been extremely valuable, not only for Kona but also in the lead up and I’m sure all this has helped enable me to racer stronger.

Thanks to all of the individual sponsors who support the team and allow me to train with the best kit and nutrition. Brett and the team at Skechers for providing us with fast trainers and all the support for the team, the team at Clifbar for all nutrition during long bike rides and races, Virgin Active for the use of the gyms and enabling those painful Wattbike sessions, Blueseventy for wetsuits and everything water related, Speedfill for all the equipment to carry water and tools on the bike, Lezyne for all the tools, Precision Hydration for providing electrolytes which are especially helpful when it's Hawaii hot, and Endurance Conspiracy for great clothes to wear to races.

And finally to Anna for all of your support along the way, and for helping me balance and appreciate so many other things to life. I would have loved to have you there on the day, but your enthusiasm and encouragement never ceased, all the way to the end of your very own Kona party.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Back on track at Dublin 70.3

After a slightly disappointing race at Castle Howard in late July, Dublin 70.3 was an opportunity to regain some confidence and put into practice some of things I'd picked up at Castle Howard: notably not to go out too hard on the swim and find yourself shattered for the rest.

With that in mind, I put myself slightly away from the front line of the swim start and took off at a fairly relaxed pace when the claxon went off.

I tried to find some feet, but I just wasn't feeling as though I wanted to push myself too hard at 7:30 this morning, and so found myself drifting backwards in the wave. Not a problem as we were about to catch up with the wave ahead and the prospect to using too much energy to weave in between was far from appealing. So after just over 30 minutes, I emerged from the Irish Sea, not with the quickest of swim times, but feeling fresh and now ready to push it on the bike.

Dublin 70.3 course starts southwest of the city, follows the coast up to the city centre, before completing a loop to the west and finishing in Pheonix Park. This was the first flat course I've done all year, and it felt great to be rolling along at 25+mph for large sections of the course. Having emerged alongside many of the 35-39 and 40-44 competitors, I had no idea where I sat even within my own 30-34 category, so set about reeling a few in. A fair amount of my race was spent shouting 'keep left' or 'coming through', and I apologise to anyone if it may have come across a bit aggressive, but adrenaline was probably kicking in. I made a conscious effort to stay as aero as possible throughout, and I felt good, both aerobically and my bike legs. I was able to attack any climbs (I knew last week's Dauphanee Hill climb had a purpose), and kept a decent speed on the flat. One thing I am considering now is riding to power as everything is done of 'feel' at the moment and my concern is either pushing too hard to taking it too easy at Kona over such a long distance. My other area for development is how to negotiate the 60 odd speed bumps on the route with losing too much speed, but I think that is probably unique to Dublin. Anyway, I rolled into transition about 5th in my wave feeling ready to hit the run fairly hard.

Again, a first for the season, a flat run. With other competitors to chase down, I thought I'd take it out hard and see how I'd fair. My tempo sessions off the bike along the Thames Path have me running at 5:35/mile, so when I started at 5:22/mile I knew it was punchy, but I felt good. I over took the male pro leader (Collins), which caused a bit of confusion to the bike lead, but a quick explanation that I was an age grouper soon cleared that up, and besides I was 2 laps behind. I maintained pace reasonably well, dropping to 5:25/mile, but the slight unknown of which other athletes may be ahead gave a reason to continue to push hard. On the tannoy, I heard a lot of commentary about Brian McCrystal as the first age-grouper, but I had no idea for how much further ahead he may be. So I took it to the end and eventually came across the finish line in 4:04:53.

This put me 4th overall, and second amateur after an outstanding performance by Brian McCrystal almost gave him the win. My Freespeed teammate Sarah Lewis achieved 3rd overall in the women's race, so overall a good day out for the team.

3rd and 4th for Sarah Lewis and myself respectively

1. Ben Collins (USA) 4:00:41
2. Bryan McCrystal (IRL) 4:00:56 *M35-39
3. Harry Wiltshire (GBR) 4:04:05
4. Andy Greenleaf (GBR) 4:04:53 *M30-34
5. Paul Reitmayr (AUT) 4:06:41

1. Susie Cheetham (GBR) 4:22:33
2. Natalie Seymour (GBR) 4:25:48 
3. Sarah Lewis (GBR) 4:31:54 *F35-39
4. Anna Halasz (HUN) 4:35:22
5. Claire Hann (GBR) 4:38:06 *F30-34

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Victory at Ironman 70.3 UK Exmoor!

I took a late decision to race Ironman UK 70.3 in Wimbleball and very pleased that I did! The week following Staffordshire 70.3, I felt good and so had a fairly hard week. Then a week of low volume in the lead up to Wimbleball left me feeling ready to race.

I much preferred the setup here compared to Staffordshire as it was a rolling start based up predicted upon swim time, so essentially this meant that anyone challenging for the top spots would likely to be starting within 20s of each other.

I put myself fairly close to the front of the pen, which was a bit punchy given that my swim is relatively slow compared to my run and bike. I thought I might be able to find some feet to drag me to a quicker swim, but in fact it meant that, for the first third of the swim, I was actually moving backwards through the field. Towards the end of the swim I found a group much more suited to my pace and came out in about 28:30 (and I would guess about 30th).

On to the bike, and I can honestly say it must rate as one of the toughest bike courses I've ever done. Basically 56 miles of up or down. Straight on the bike I hit it hard and by 6 miles I had moved past my fellow Freespeeder, Tom Higgins, and into third. What then happened was pretty much the bike played out: I was overtaken on the descents, and clawed back the ground on the hills. At about 30 miles, Brian Fogarty came through, followed shortly after by Clive Kennedy-Burn, and both looking very strong. In my mind I thought that as long as I came into T2 within 2-3 minutes of them, there was a chance of catching them in the run. On the second lap, aerobically I felt strong, however my legs found it tough particularly on the short sharp climbs. Bike done without any issue and I came in 3rd, about 3 minutes off the lead. Now to get my head down on the run....
At 11.5 miles on the run (Photo: Huw Fairclough)
The run course is a mix of trail, gravel road and minimal tarmac, and continues the trend of being very undulating. My legs were in bits after the bike but I could see the other 2 competitors ahead and knew that I could dig in and reel them in relatively quickly. By 4 miles I had taken the lead and then it was just a case of keeping things steady and not risking blowing up. I ran very controlled and kept it a consistent 5:50/mile (aside from the hills which I allowed myself to slow up for). The finish line atmosphere was incredible, high-5s, crossing the tape, spraying champagne, just a fantastic experience!

I now feel as though I've cracked my strategy for 70.3's and have come to the conclusion that it's probably my favourite distance to 'race' (as you can genuinely 'race', as opposed to 'hold on' in an Ironman). I take minimal fuel on, in fact today I had 2 gels and a bottle of squash for the whole race, and I find that works for me.

In the days following the race, I came on with De Quervain Syndrome, which sounds rather nasty, but essentially is an inflammation and tendonitis in my wrist. So painful that I actually took myself to hospital for it. I can only assume was from a lot of breaking and climbing on the hood and now, 2.5 weeks on, it is finally just about subsided.

My next Ironman 70.3 is Dublin in August where I'll be up against Clive Kennedy Burn again, and in the meantime I will start to include some longer rides and runs in the buildup to Kona.

An update on training since the London Marathon

I’ve not blogged for a while, mostly due to being away racing for large parts of the weekend, and during the week either training hard before and after work, or out trying to maintain some sort of social life. As I move from focusing on triathlon over the summer as opposed to the cross-country running over the winter, the ramp up in volume of training certainly impacts trying to keep on top of everything else in my life. Anyway, on to what I’ve been up to for the past couple of months…..

My plan for 2016 had always been split into 2:
1. Jan-Apr: Focus on running, with the target being the London Marathon
2. May-Oct: Build up the time on the bike and swimming, with the target being Kona

Since the London marathon, I have gradually built up the time on the bike, so that I'm now cycling 200-250 miles a week, and running 45-55 miles a week, however swimming continues to remains very minimal. As was the case last year, my bike legs seemed to have come back relatively quickly, which suggests to me that aerobically the marathon training converts well, but also that a few Wattbike sessions over the winter coupled with the longer and shorter running intervals are all a good base. I've also re-introduced the 60mile bike/10mile tempo brick session (running at about 5:35-40/mile pace) as I find this is best way to get a long work out down in the smallest amount of time, and a short trip to the Alps in May has certainly reminded me what it feels like to be in the saddle for number of hours and has provided me good endurance in a few races recently.
Peabrain's at the top of Alp d'Huez climb
One thing I do struggle with in triathlon training is to have that regularity in sessions that I achieve with running. My marathon prep is built around a very set routine of short intervals (Tuesday), threshold (Thursday), long run (Sunday). However my triathlon routine is hardly well established: cycle before work if it's not raining, run to and from work steadily, occasional Tuesday running session (although these are much shorter reps now and I don't believe convert well to ironman), higher intensity bike laps in Regents Park once a week, long ride/run brick at the weekend, or a race. Whilst I would love to have a routine, trying to balance the number of hours required to train for long distance along with work/socialising/racing/mending bike/etc. , just doesn't fit into a schedule as something else always comes up. Given this, I've come to the conclusion as long as you put in the required volume, and make sure enough of it is quality, then that is sufficient.

My greatest concern remains the swim, which is hardly surprising given that I am managing just one of two swims per week at the moment. With 3 months to go to Kona, I really ought to push up my swim volume and I am looking for a triathlon/swim group in London that might push me to be able to go a bit harder.

In my run up to Kona, I've chosen not to race any full distance triathlons, and rather focus on 70.3s, given the distance allows me to 'race' all the way (rather than 'hold on' in an ironman marathon), recover relatively quickly, and provide a good opportunity to build up more speed endurance. With this in mind, my first target, and indicator for how training has gone since the London Marathon, was Staffordshire 70.3, shortly followed by Exmoor 70.3 and then Hever Castle Middle distance. Next up is Castle Howard, and then Dublin 70.3 in mid-August. With a week in the Alps in early August, where I plan to do some significant bike miles, I feel that my Kona prep is right where I want it to be at the moment. 

Monday, 25 April 2016

London Marathon 2016 - Nearly a WR, Rio qualification spots up for grabs and silver for the team again

Going into this year’s London Marathon, my target was probably a little punchy, but there’s nothing wrong getting to the start line with a bit of optimism every now and then.

My build up had gone as planned: ticking off a number of Thursday night threshold sessions (these are generally running at marathon pace for 18-24k), shorter intervals with The Cottage Relocated on Tuesdays, and some pacey long Sunday runs around Richmond with Jonathan Poole. The majority of my racing this year has been on the country and I’d picked up a few good results on the way. Only my one half marathon at Cardiff was a little disappointing, but I wanted to put that down to the weather that day.

As the club runners lined up at Blackheath behind the elites, the introducer reeled off who was in field: Eliud Kipchoge (last year’s winner), Dennis Kimetto (WR holder), Wilson Kipsang (London record holder and previous WR), Kenenisa Bekele (previous 5,000m and 10,000m WR holder)….quite frankly an unbelievable line-up and no surprise of the quality of the race that was about to unfold at the front.  Amongst the top British runners were several contenders likely to achieve the realistic qualifying time of 2:14 (the requirement to gain selection to the Rio Olympics), and who would be racing for the top 2 British spots a short distance behind.

By 10am it had warmed up considerably and I set out at my planned 5:20 min/mile pace. It always takes few miles to settle down and I eventually found myself running with Neil Renault, a fellow 14AC’er and who I’d got exactly the same time as at last year’s London marathon. The miles weren’t ticking by as easy as I’d hoped and the north-westerly wind hardly helped keep to my target pace, but I thought a more conservative start was sensible and may well pay dividends later on and so was happy to runner a little slower.

At 15 miles
We reached halfway in 70:40 and, shortly after, we got to witness the elite women racing and then falling over each other on the other side of the Highway. At 16 miles I was overtaken for the first time in an hour and, at 18 miles, it felt as though the wheels were starting to fall off. That’s pretty early on in the marathon to start to struggle, but was a relatively short bad-patch and by 21 miles the physiological boast that I got running for home certainly helped pull me along.

At the Tower of London I passed 4-time Olympian and previous Parkrun record holder Craig Mottram. Kudos to him for having a crack at trying to qualify for a 5th Olympics and also for going on to finish the race when things obviously weren’t going to plan. Meanwhile, at the finishing Eliud Kipchoge was racing to victory just outside the world record in 2:03:04, with Callum Hawkins taking the British honours in 2:10:52 to guarantee selection for Rio.

Back to the Embankment and at 24 miles, I hit my usual lunchtime route and, helped by some sort of familiarity, my pace seemed to pick up a little. Millennium wheel…Big Ben...Birdcage…The Mall…2:25:17…job done. Although the time was quite a bit slower than I’d hoped for, I’m very happy with the outcome and its given me plenty to think about what went right and what could do with some tweaking in the build up.

As always, the support out there was incredible and great to race with a number of group who have trained together. Now I’ll have a few easier weeks before dusting off the bicycle and starting the prep for Kona.   
Thursday Battersea group - looks like JP, myself and Dave got team silver