Better than expected

So the (apparently) eagerly anticipated race report…

Things went a lot better than expected, but then I didn’t go into this race with any real goals or expectations. I was in fact the most relaxed I’ve been about a race in a long time. Sure the night before a little bit of pre-race nerves sneaked in, but really not much to speak of. And I did vaguely formulate a ‘somewhere between 6:30 and 7:00 sounds about right’ race plan. Otherwise though all I really did was make sure I turned up at the race with the right equipment (OK, I forgot my race belt, and bought the cheapest I could at the tiny race expo) and the GB uniform.

Headed out to Almere on the Friday and spent the day rushing back and forth from the Centre Parc I was staying at and various bits of race venue. Not having had any time to sit down and relax I chose to skip the opening ceremony, even with the promise of a Robbie Williams impersonator as entertainment. Much as it’s part of the whole Worlds event, I’m glad I missed it, taking the time to relax dispelled a lot of tension that had built up. I took the day as a full rest day prior to the race, and it seemed to do the trick as I woke the next day feeling pretty fresh.

Saturday was far more relaxed, having not run much this week I went out for one before breakfast and felt that overall my legs were in reasonable shape. After breakfast a group of us rode over to drop our bikes off at transition ready for the next days race. The Netherlands is basically flat, the roads were good and the winds were light so it was easy to pick up speed and I felt good on the bike. It was probably around this point I started to think things might be able to go reasonably well on Sunday. Once the bike was checked in the rest of the day was spent sat around doing as little as possible. If anything I was the most prepared for a race I’ve ever managed having my bag laid out for transition early in the evening.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a race report… So Sunday. I managed to carry the relaxed state of mind right through to the swim start. I also managed to continue with the early preparation, for once there was no last minute rush. I was finished in transition well before they closed it, my wetsuit was on in plenty of time for the swim start, this was all running pretty smoothly. I would say my first mistake in this race was poor placing for the beach start, whilst others rushed to position themselves near the start line I casually made my way to somewhere which seemed roughly right.

After some confusing about whether we were having a delay to the start or not we were set off. At this point my strategy was to try and minimise the amount of swim melee I was involved in. Things were pretty busy though and for most of the first lap I struggled along in a large throng of triathletes. All this was made worse by my goggles fogging a little and a glaring early morning sun blinding everyone at the top of the first loop. The second lap that took us round to the swim exit dragged on and on. Unusually though I didn’t get the urge to check my watch. Without the crowds I started to enjoy the swim and focus on technique and then began picking up position and moving up the field. Really good progress was hindered by going off course quite a bit, but otherwise my swim was going well now. It did however seem to be endless and after a while I really just wanted to get it over with, much as I had no certainty of the time it had to be more than an hour. Imagine my surprise when I got out of the water and saw 1:23 on my watch!

I’m an OK swimmer, about an hour for an Ironman swim, actually better at pool swimming in many respects. I’ve been doing a lot of work on my open water swim of late and though I couldn’t be sure I didn’t expect to be that far off the pace. Once I was in transition there was a reasonable hint that if I had been swimming slow then so had a lot of others. It was a little reassuring, but still I wondered if I’d blown my race, that 6:30 idea wasn’t looking likely anyway.

Out on the bike and the first section is straight into a headwind and a lot stronger one than I’d expected. After a poor swim to find the bike such hard going and to have people overtaking me was a bit demoralising. Then the first turn comes and now the headwind is a tailwind and I’m flying. All those people who overtook me are quickly passed and I’m feeling good. That pretty much sets up the rest of the bike, my tactic was simple, hit it hard and keep at it. It’s not the most sophisticated strategy and comes at a risk to my run. My heart rate was a bit on the high side for most of the first lap for sure and dropped a bit in the second. However if I look at the results my bike times are incredibly evenly split, only 1 minute between the two laps. I think the difference is that the second lap certainly felt harder and I switched to a slightly lower cadence and a higher gear. The lower cadence possibly led to the lower heart rate compared to the spinning of the first lap. Lap 2 certainly felt a lot harder, but ultimately I was maintaining a solid effort it was just becoming more taxing to do so.

After 3:11 on the bike switching between tough grinds into headwinds, a solid and more comfortable pace with side winds and flying with the tailwinds I was back in transition. Some faffing followed with compression socks which are a real pain to get on in a hurry. I think I may skip them for my main races in the future as really the main benefit seems to be my legs are less trashed the next day. I got out onto the run course with another simple tactic, hit it hard and keep at it. The back of my mind said as close to 2 hours as possible, realistically I was thinking hit the half-marathon in under 1:30 which would be fine then hold on. All went well up to that point and a little further. After the first lap I was pacing myself against another GB athlete in my age group. I’d passed him in the first lap and he was coming back strong now.

Then at about 23k an emergency pit stop in the woods was demanded and my pacer was gone. I got back into the run quite hard, I think I picked the pace up a little too high at first as with 5k to go I really started to suffer. My legs really stiffened up and I suddenly had a much tougher mental battle on my hands. I was briefly walking aid stations to get nutrition in effectively, but it was getting harder to pick the pace back up. With not long to go I was constantly reminding myself it wasn’t long now and not to slow. Getting into the final kilometre and the pain suddenly became far more manageable and I uped the pace. You grab a Union Jack as you get close to the finish line and suddenly the pace goes up a bit more still. Unfortunately I seemed to be competing with other GB athletes about to finish so we all got the same effect!

I’d managed just under 2:09 for the run having slowed by 5 minutes on the second lap. The net result was a 6:50:44 overall for the race. I didn’t find out the details till I got home and downloaded them today, but a quick play with the spreadsheet tells me the following. In the age group race I was 32nd overall, 8th in my age group and the 8th Brit home. So for a race that I went into without a plan and without a taper I’m pretty pleased with a top 10 result in my age group! My overall times in bike and run are within the top 10% and 5% quite comfortably, my swim time, not so much!

The positives I’m taking from this race are that my fitness is pretty good right now, even with some time off and no taper I can put together a solid race. I’ll be honest and whilst it was ‘training’ I went at it pretty hard. I wouldn’t like to say if I’d have gone much better with a proper taper for the race. I’ll get to find out in December in Western Australia the two courses share a lot in common, both pan flat and with the main challenging being the weather. As such it bodes well for how I can do in that race and I’m more optimistic about that sub-9:30 goal. Clearly my biking has improved, but I am paying a price on the run for the hard bike, on the other hand I may suffer on the run, but still produced the 22nd fastest run split of the age groupers so that’s not so bad. Long term better bike fitness and run fitness will help address this if I can keep the high bike pace but at a lower relative effort level I’ll be fresher for the run. It’s more of an issue with the longer bike and run of Ironman, this O3 event was right at the point where it starts to become a problem.

I’ve also learnt a few things from the race. Firstly a reminder of how important massage will be for me with the new lifestyle. My massage last week really helped get my legs in race shape following a 10 day period of around 700km cycling. On a similar line, the amount of rest I now get is another significant benefit of the lifestyle that helps me absorb that much training and recover. Preparing well in advance for the race and not rushing is also a great way to keep my nerves in control, obvious really! I need to pay more attention to the details too – I knew my goggles were tending to fog now and new ones would solve that issue and have been a big help. More importantly I need to work on my swim a lot, transfer speed I have in the pool for shorter distances to longer distances. Practising the details for transitions is also on the to do list there’s room for improvement there to, maybe not enough to make a massive difference, but it’s all part of the package of going fast. On the bike and run my main focus is really just to continue the work on my fitness.

Way too long, sorry!