In the week before the race I intended to write a short blog post about how I thought I could have prepared differently for the event, without the benefit of post-race hindsight. Then I’d reassess after the race and see if I was correct, or was worrying about nothing or about the wrong things. It would have been so neat, but I never got round to it (such an amateur blogger).
But I’m going to pretend it’s still last week (though I’m mightily glad it isn’t!), and give you my list of should-haves:
- Start gently: I thought I had done, but my right hamstring tells a different version of events. So in future I would start more gently than I think I need to, maybe building a few more weeks into my training ‘plan’.
- Plan and practice nutrition: I didn’t think about nutrition until the last two weeks, but I should have been working out what mix of water/energy drinks/electrolytes/solid food worked best for me on my long runs and cycles. I didn’t go for any long runs or cycles in these last two weeks, so had to make do with testing one gel on a few bike laps of Arthur’s Seat. This left me pretty worried.
- Core work: I know I have a weak core, so I had good intentions of doing a core session like Pilates every week. I started OK, but when I got my hamstring injury I concentrated on the remedial exercises, figuring that I couldn’t fit everything in. While some of these worked my core I should’ve done more, as this would have helped my run technique in particular.
- Gah! There was another one that I can’t remember now. Hopefully it’ll come back to me.
- Oh yeah, it was to not get too hung up on following a 9-sessions a week training plan, while holding down a full-time job and a fledgling allotment, and an attempt at a life.
So the week before the race was not particularly ideal. In addition to stressing about things I hadn’t done, but couldn’t do anything about now, I’d developed a subcutaneous cyst in my groin that made cycling a rather painful experience. My doctor prescribed antibiotics that made me sick, but I stuck with them: hopefully they would help alleviate one of the many problems I thought I’d be facing come race day. I’d given up alcohol and caffeine and was missing both (being alcohol-free helps get your body as hydrated as possible, and being caffeine-free means that when you take caffeine supplements on race day, for endurance purposes, you are more sensitive to their endurance-promoting effects, allegedly). Coffee was the hardest thing to go without, especially as I had a ton of work to get done by the end of the week. Also, the forecast was for heavy rain, strong winds, and thunder and lightning, and kept getting worse as race day neared. My hope for a 6 hr 30 min finish ebbed back to nearer 7 hours, as cycling into the wind is punishing, and I’m very timid when it comes to cycling on wet roads. I’d worked out my initial target on the basis of a 45 min swim (1.2 miles), a 3.5 hour bike (56 miles), a 2+ hour run (13.1 miles), and a bit of time for the transitions. I figured it made sense to have realistic expectations, so I didn’t get demoralised during the race. I’d read that mental preparation is as important as physical preparation for endurance events (though I’m not sure how you’d test that).
But I still felt under-prepared when I arrived in Aberfeldy to check into my hotel the night before the race. Maybe this is always the way when someone takes on a distance/event they’ve not done before. Plus I felt sick, from a combination of nerves and antibiotics. I considered it crucial that I paint my nails red to match my bike (honestly: another bit of mental preparation), but my shaky hands led to a bodge job that my sisters would disown me for. Then I headed off for the registration, pasta party (oh yeah, we triathletes really know how to party: just add starchy foodstuffs), and race briefing, before getting an early night. Or at least that was the plan. Back at the hotel I found that my hire car had been blocked in in the car park, which didn’t bode well for my planned 6 am departure. I asked around in the hotel and bar, and a few locals came outside to see if they recognised the car. They didn’t, and my heart sank. While wondering what to do next a girl who didn’t look old enough to have a licence came along and claimed the car. Her mindless logic for blocking me in was that I was already blocked in by another car (which I wasn’t). Next I attempted a slightly early night, after taking the advice of seasoned endurance athlete Caroline McKay (see earlier blog post) that a wee glass of wine might help calm my nerves and help me sleep. But the live band in the hotel’s bar had other ideas, as their soft-rock covers permeated every room in the hotel, keeping me and the other triathlete guests awake until closing time. Don’t get me wrong: they were a pretty passable covers band, and in different circumstances I would have enjoyed listening to them. When it became clear that sleep was off the table I almost went down to the bar in my pyjamas to request Eye of the Tiger, going out to all the triathletes who couldn’t sleep. Almost. I got some horizontal rest that night, and while I’m not sure how much of it was sleep I am sure that the glass of wine helped keep my nerves from fraying beyond repair.
Race Day: I breakfasted just after 0500 on porridge (with added salt and chia seeds), a banana, a beetroot shot and an energy drink, then headed down to Kenmore, on the side of Loch Tay, for an 0730 start. After getting everything ready for the cycle in my allotted spot in the transition area I joined the other Edinburgh Triathletes on the lake shore, knowing that there was nothing more I could prepare or worry about or eat, all that was left to do was to get on with the race. That was a helpful realisation. As we entered the water to ‘warm up’ a lone bagpiper started playing on a jetty, dwarfed by the stunning surroundings, and then a rainbow formed over the piper. It was breathtaking (no, that wasn’t the cold water), and it lifted my spirits no end. I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it.
Swim (1.2 miles): Then the air horn sounded and we were off. A few hundred swimmers all making a bee-line for a buoy in the distance. Mass swim starts are generally pretty frenetic, with arms and legs thrashing everywhere as everyone vies for the racing line. This one was no exception. At one point I accidentally planted my hand dead-centre on a neoprene-clad arse as I sought out the next bit of water. That’s my defence anyway, and I’m sticking to it. As the hoards thinned out I found my rhythm and kept plodding on. Swimming is probably always going to be the best part of my triathlon, but I’ve learnt not to go all out just because I can… so I reminded myself that pacing was key. I noticed I wasn’t far behind David Forrester, a faster swimmer from our club, which spurred me on and made me think that either I was having a great swim or David was having a bad swim. I got level with him at the finish and just made it out onto the walkway in front. Score. When I checked my watch and saw I’d done 29 minutes I realised that I’d had a really good swim.
Transition 1: Running up into the transition area I was excited to see my trusty supporters Caroline McKay and James Reynolds, who had selflessly camped in the rain to come and cheer me on. After getting out of my wetsuit, drying my feet, putting on cycling shorts, bike shoes, helmet, gloves and sunnies (more to guard against spray than sun), and shoving a chunk of roasted sweet potato in my gob I grabbed Ricky (the bike) and headed out on the bike course.
Bike (56 miles): The scenic course followed part of the 81-mile Etape Caledonia I’d done in May (see blog post): heading up Schiehallion, down the other side, round Loch Rannoch, back over Schiehallion, and finishing at Aberfeldy. I managed a reasonable average speed over most of the course, and fuelled up on the move with one energy drink (High5), 2 electrolyte tabs and one energy and caffeine gel (also High5) every hour.The two descents of Schiehallion should’ve been the good bits, where I could get up some speed and make up some time. But the first one was met with scarily-strong crosswinds in unpredictable gusts, prompting me to slow right down in places and unclip
from the pedals because I really thought I was going to be blown over. By the time I came to the second descent the rain had set in and much of the road surface was like a sheet of glass. Given the amount of tread on my tyres (i.e., none, see pic) and the scary aquaplaning incident I’d had a few weeks before in wet conditions, I was extremely cautious when cornering or descending. Again it was frustrating to be braking on parts of the course that should’ve been my quickest. Still, as I checked my progress it seemed I might get back in less than my predicted 3 h 30: I was 9 mins quicker in fact.
Transition 2: I have a bad memory. I can go into a shop to buy three things and forget two of them. Hence while on the bike I worked on a little aide memoire for the things I needed to do in the second transition. I’m that smart. Luckily everything began with S:
- Shoes: take off bike shoes and put on running shoes. I remembered this.
- Shorts: take off cycling shorts as they’ll be a nuisance to run in. I forgot to do this.
- Swig: take a drink. My bike was taken from me before I thought to take my bottle.
- Snack: I forgot to do this.
- Socks: I did remember to put socks on, although this was hard as my feet were soaked.
- Strava (see blog here): change from logging a cycle to logging a run. Of course I remembered this. Where would I be without Strava?!
- Sh-toilet: I looked at the queue and thought better of it. I made use of a handy field a bit later (which turned out to be a golf course).
- Sunnies: take off sunnies as they’ll be a nuisance to run in. I forgot to do this, but remembered as I started running, and luckily Caroline was there to take them from me.
So all in all I’m not very good at remembering aide memoires either.
Run (13.1 miles): As I set off I felt pretty strong, all things considered, and realised that if I did a sub-2 hour half marathon I would finish in under 6 hours. This was amazingly motivational, but I tried to be realistic and not get my hopes up in case I ran out of steam on the run. I thought 2 hours might be over-ambitious, having never exercised for this long in one go before. The longest bit of training I’d done was a bike-run session in which I burnt out after 4.5 hours, half way through the run. It was an out-an-back course along the same road, so to be starting on a 2-hour run as the winners are coming back in to the finish is quite something to see. Yes, potentially demoralising, but this race did include some elite athletes, competing for the Scottish National Middle Distance Championships. The winner was just over 1 h 30 m faster than me! Anyhow, seeing which clubmates were in front and which were behind was a good feature of this out-and-back course, enabling me to gauge my progress. On the run I got through another bottle of energy drink, 2 electrolyte tabs and a caffeine and energy gel (I carried a bottle throughout). Looking back I realise that I didn’t feel short of energy at all during the whole race: I think my strength was the limiting factor, and particularly my troublesome hamstring that kept me from running any quicker. With 6 km left to go I realised that I was likely to finish in under 6 hours, although I still could not muster any more leg speed. I finished the run in 1:48 (see pic), which included a golf course comfort break, so it was the second fastest half marathon I’ve ever recorded. I felt a bit bewildered at this thought, so when I crossed the finish I enquired of a marshall ‘what just happened?’. He didn’t know, of course.
My total time was 5:46:46 (see print-out pic). I’m still a bit bewildered by how that time was possible for me. Nonetheless I’ve always suspected that I’m more of a long-distance than a sprint athlete… I can plod for a long long time! Getting support was a real boost, particularly from Caroline and James, as was the competitive aspect of the race, so these will have spurred me on to do better than expected. I’m overjoyed at getting such a result: I was 16th female of 47, and 122nd out of 238 men and women overall. It was a great race, fantastically organised, and enjoyable for the most part. The fun element was a bit of a surprise for me: I’d been so caught up in the preparations and stresses of the previous week that I hadn’t actually thought about what the event would feel like. I am hooked and will be returning next year to see if I can get some dry conditions on the cycle and thus improve my time.
But what about the list of should haves? Meh! It all worked out, and I needn’t have worried so much, but I will still start more gently, try to train smarter in the time available, plan my nutrition better and do more core work for next year. I will also have a set of tyres with tread ready just in case! When I think back on what I’ve achieved since starting training in April I’m really impressed: there’s no way I could’ve completed the race back then. I hope this post, and my blog in general, has been an inspirational message for anyone considering taking on such a challenge while juggling many other little life challenges at the same time: you can do it!
If you’ve read this far you are truly an endurance blog reader, and I greatly appreciate your interest. If you think my exploits merit a wee donation to a great cause (hint: they do) please sponsor me here. Thank you, and good luck in all your personal challenges.