I’m on a climbing wall, but I’m fully clad in neoprene. I swam to the bottom of the wall in bracing 7°c water that took my breath away, but I’m still struggling to catch my breath because there’s water pouring down on me from above. Although I can’t feel my numb hands I’m trying to ascend the wall, but the competitor below me has her hand where I want to put my foot. I know that when I reach the top of the wall I’ll have to dive into the cold water on the other side. Is this some crazy cheese-fuelled nightmare? If not, how on earth did I get here? Continue reading “Red Bull Neptune Steps”
(Belated race report from IRONMAN 70.3 UK on 26th June 2016)
I’ve done seven ‘half ironman’ distance races, although because they’ve not had the IRONMAN brand they should strictly be referred to, less impressively, as ‘middle distance’ or ‘half distance’. Half Distance?!! The cheek of it. Makes it sound easy! I’ve always been intrigued to see what the fuss was all about, and why people gleefully pay the exorbitant IRONMAN race fees – typically 3 times what I’m used to paying. Also, only IRONMAN do what resembles a world championship in my tri distance. So I signed up for the IRONMAN 70.3 race in Exmoor (N.B. 70.3 refers to the number of miles covered – a bit more respectful than ‘half’/’middle’!)
(As an aside, when my 6-year old neighbour overheard that I was going to do a race organised by IRONMAN he imagined an entirely different scenario. He looked a bit confused – comparing his superhero race to the event he’s supported me at at Aberfeldy. Bless him!)
On race weekend my parents brought their caravan down from Bristol for the race, which also brought a whole new level of relaxation to the race logistics. The campsite was encircled by the run course and was a short walk from the start, which prevented the usual race-morning transportation issues, and queues for the woefully inadequate numbers of portaloos. Oh the luxury! ( It also meant my parents could nip back for breakfast and a nap during my cycle).
The swim was great in my lovely Aqua Sphere Phantom wetsuit, but because I forgot to defog my goggles I was unable to see the buoys I was supposed to be swimming round. So I blindly followed whichever splashes I could see in front of me, hoping that the creators of the splashes knew which way to go. Although I couldn’t see much, the Phantom suit is so distinctive that at least my parents had no problem spotting me exiting the water. I was really surprised to have managed a 1.9 km PB of 30:00.
Finishing the swim marked the last flat terrain of the race. I was anxious about the cycle because it would be the hilliest I’d ever raced (1500 m/5000 ft elevation gain). I also knew that on my lovely new bike Rinny the temptation would be to go hell for leather, which had wrecked my legs for the run at the recent Grafman race. So the ‘plan’ was to NOT GO HARD UP THE HILLS.
Early in the cycle I overtook a few women, including Karen Lennox from my 40-44 age group: an athlete I knew I had to watch given her strong performance for Team GB in Rimini last year. (I should say that going into this race my hope was for an age group medal – I wasn’t thinking about overall placings – so wasn’t worried about racing women who weren’t in my age group). I was taking the hills in my stride and enjoying the course, but started to wonder if I should ease off a bit when I realised that no women were overtaking me. Or should I capitalise on my hill-climbing ability to strengthen my position, whatever that was? It turns out that I was in the lead for a lot of the cycle – news that my parents heard announced by the commentator back at transition, but I had no idea about. The first inkling I got was getting back to transition, with Melissa King – who had overtaken me seconds earlier – being announced as the first lady! The 92 km bike leg had taken 3 hours 13 minutes (which, when compared with the 2:40 I cycled recently at Grafman tells you all you need to know about the hilliness of this course!)
So the race changed instantly for me then: I knew I was leading my age group, but I was also very unexpectedly near the front of the overall race! I was stunned and inspired, given the size and prestige of this IRONMAN race. I zoomed* out of transition onto the run course (*well, it felt like zooming anyway), greeting my very excited parents (and their brown, understated ‘GO LIZ!’ banner on a stick) as I passed. Also surprising was that my legs felt OK: maybe this half marathon would be OK after all. The hilly course soon banished that comfortable feeling. Cruelly, this was also the hilliest half marathon I’d ever run, with an elevation gain of 280 m (920 ft). I tried to keep the women in front in view, but this got harder and harder. I knew my pace was dropping so I just dug in and hoped I could hang on to age group gold. Twice a lap I got to see Mum and Dad (and the banner), which cheered me up and helped me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Their enthusiastic support was infectious and soon complete strangers were yelling ‘Go Liz!’ as I passed.
On the third and final lap the struggle nearly got the better of me, when the usual ‘why am I doing this to myself?’ thoughts started rattling around my head. But I realised I was gaining on the woman ahead of me (or at least, her pace was dropping faster than mine was). I moved into fourth place by overtaking her, and hoped she didn’t have enough left in the tank to make a race of it. Fortunately she didn’t. But then, had I left enough in the tank to even get to the finish line? This final lap was a confusing jumble of questioning, self-doubt, motivation and emotion, as I passed now-familiar sights for the last time. Rounding the bend into the finish chute was fantastic – I ‘sprinted’ for the finish line grinning my head off, and finally spotted my parents’ little brown sign waving frantically in front of me. I’d made it! The run took 1:43:48 (my half marathon PB is 1:30, and in a triathlon is usually more like 1:36, so this indicates the hilliness of this course). My total time was 5:32:57 – only 9 minutes behind the overall winning lady – so not too shabby at all. Overall results here.
I really enjoyed most of this race, and will gladly pay the exorbitant fee to do it again in future. Another draw for me to return is that by winning my age group this time I qualified for the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in Australia later this year, but I can’t go. So I’d like to try to qualify again in 2017 or 2018. Exmoor 70.3: I’ll be back!
Many thanks to my parents for all their help over the weekend. And ongoing thanks to Altium-i10 for simulated altitude training, Aropec for tri kit, Aqua Sphere for swim kit, Leith Cycle Co for bike maintenance, my squad-mates in HBC JETS for making the training more enjoyable, and coach Joel Enoch for superb coaching that is helping me achieve more than I thought I could.
British Middle Distance Triathlon Championships
“Grafman”, Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire, on Sunday 22nd May 2016
I don’t mind admitting I was a little anxious before my first middle distance (half ironman) race of 2016. Firstly, there was this ‘difficult second album’ feeling: how could I follow 2015’s record of six firsts in six triathlons, including wins at European and Scottish Champs? I couldn’t shake the thought that that had been a bizarre lucky streak. Then there were the two sprint triathlons I’d raced in March and April (Tranent and Galashiels) that hadn’t exactly gone to plan. And lastly there was the fact that I was now more invested in my training than ever, having started working with coach Joel Enoch (Tri Scotland’s Performance Development Coach of the Year 2015) and his squad of performance athletes: the HBC JETS.
It might have been better for my nerves had my first middle distance tri of 2016 not been the British Championships, but never mind. I arrived in Cambridgeshire after a week’s holiday in Cornwall, feeling very rested, reasonably well prepared, but potentially overfed (damn those lovely cream teas, ice creams and fish suppers). Race day dawned and conditions couldn’t have been better: dry, calm, and warmer than most UK tris I’ve raced. But as ever I ran out of time for a warm up. One day I’ll learn.
The 1.9 km swim in Grafham Water felt great – thanks to a combination of my training and my superb Aqua Sphere Phantom wetsuit (see earlier blog post). I’d never felt so comfortable and strong in an open water swim. Very happy with a 30:33 swim (including ‘Australian Exit’ – compulsory visit to dry land in between laps).
Then on to the bike leg. Uncharacteristically for me this was the bit I was most looking forward to. Why? Well, I now had a specific triathlon/time trial bike (a Trek Speed Concept), rather than the road bike (Ricky) that I’d used previously. She’d been christened ‘Rinny’ by her previous owner after the Australian three-times Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae, and in a few test rides had already shown that she was going to be a very speedy machine. So I was intrigued to see how we’d get on on this pretty flat and fast course. Could a bike really make that much difference? I was hoping for an affirmative answer that would justify why my flat was starting to resemble a bike shed more than a home. (More about this nervous newbie’s experience of getting used to a TT bike in a subsequent blog post: watch this space). The guys at Leith Cycle Co had got Rinny tuned up and ready to roll, so now it was up to me.
I was also trying to speed up my transition on to the bike, using the elites’ trick of attaching my bike shoes to the bike and then inserting my feet once I’d mounted and was moving. Great idea in theory. In practice: cross mount line, get on bike, realise one shoe has fallen off the bike, stop to go back and pick up shoe, put on shoe but realise something doesn’t feel right, take shoe off and put back on, something still doesn’t feel right, get on bike and cycle off regardless hoping to sort out discomfort while on the move, fail. I think that cost me about 30 seconds. More practice needed, and new shoes (new shoes, yay!).
The cycle (91 km in 2:41:32) was a delight – through lush countryside under blue skies with barely a breath of wind. I was so comfortable in the compact aerodynamic position the bike was designed for that the bike felt like an extension of me. It was so odd for me to feel so good on a 90 km cycle. I loved it. But how did Rinny compare with Ricky? Hard to tell for sure because Ricky hadn’t done this course, and I’m better trained and probably more powerful this year. But I think the best comparison is with the flat cycle at Bamburgh Middle Distance tri (Castles Challenge) last July. At Grafman, with Rinny, I maintained an 8% faster average speed, on a course that was 2% longer and with 30% more elevation gain, at a 6% lower average heart rate. As a stats geek I am very impressed with those numbers! Rinny is a keeper (don’t tell Ricky). (Another input into this equation that I should mention is the ‘altitude training’ I’ve been doing with the Altium-i10 hypoxia device, leading to increased aerobic efficiency).
Back into transition I was so relieved to be able to take my painful bike shoes off (post-race I was able to work out that a hard plastic part of the strap had somehow become folded and had been pressing into my foot the whole time). Putting on my trainers I was blissfully unaware that my feet were about to become a whole lot more painful. I started out on the run, buoyed up by the great cycle, and endeavoured to work out my race position. My age group (40-44) were numbered 99 to 146 so I wasn’t too bothered about other women. As I ran out to the first turn point I counted seven women coming back the way (i.e., in front of me), of whom I think two were in my age group. Could I hold onto 3rd for the whole 13 mile/21 km run? My legs were suffering from the cycle, and the running was already hard going, so I wasn’t sure. Checking my watch, I realised that a sub-1:45 run would give me my first sub-5 hour finish time in a middle distance tri with a full length swim, so that gave me a secondary goal to focus on. (But I still really wanted to hang on to that podium!)
After about 30 minutes of running I felt my right heel beginning to rub. Oh dear. I’d not had blisters during my previous six half ironman triathlons, despite running most of them without socks (as I was doing at Grafman). Twenty minutes later my left heel started rubbing too. What was going on? Whatever had caused my heels to object to this particular run and shoe combo wasn’t important really – I just had to concentrate on getting through to the end. Meanwhile number 104 had overtaken me (boo!) but I’d managed to overtake number 108 (yay!) so I thought I was just about clinging to the podium (although by this time it was difficult to work out who was in front and who was behind). This run was really hard going – my legs felt like lead weights and my heels were steadily being grated off by my trainers (hey: maybe I’d be a smaller shoe size by the end, that’d be a bonus) – and made me question for a moment why I was doing this for fun. (Though the soul-searching did not plummet to the depths encountered at Aberfeldy last year!). Crossing the finish line was a joy – I whipped my bloody trainers off and enjoyed walking bare foot on the grass. My run time was 1:36:50, giving me a total time of 4:51:09. I’d gone sub 5 hours!!!
I won silver in the F40-44 category, only 1 minute and 21 seconds behind gold (Susan Fairfax). I had lost it on the run: I was in the lead off the bike, but she was 3 minutes quicker than me on the run. How much I can put down to my blistered heels I don’t know – my run time was not too bad for me. All in all, this was a great race, and I was chuffed with silver. There are definitely things I can improve on for next time though…
Winter training has been TOUGH: upping my training volume in some manky Scottish weather, combined with early starts and cycling to sessions through storms nearly finished me off! But the prospect of a warm weather training camp at Sands Beach, Lanzarote, in March kept me going. I was itching to try my new Phantom wetsuit, which had been kindly provided by my swim kit sponsors AquaSphere. It’s a stunning shiny blue suit, which is a dream to wear. It’s so distinctive among a sea of black suits. So much so that the aquathon team I was part of in Lanza decided to name ourselves The Phantoms!
I expected only to need the suit for open water swims, but the pool was so cold that I wore it all week. I swam a total of 10 km in it over the week, so I worried that my shoulders might suffer from the increased resistance. But the shoulders of the suit were so flexible that this wasn’t an issue. This is a real bonus for the swims in longer races (the swims in my middle distance races are 1.9 km). Another issue can be rubbing from the neck (the dreaded ‘wetsuit hickey’) but the low and soft neck seal on the Phantom helps to avoid this. I didn’t have the hickey trouble that squad-mates with other wetsuits had during the week.
I’ve never worn a wetsuit in a pool before, so have never been able to directly compare neoprene and skin. Wow! The reduced drag from the Phantom suit enabled me to be much faster out of my turns: I felt like I was flying! A clear sign of the lack of friction from the neoprene was my inability to keep a pull buoy (float) between my legs! The gains in reduced drag and efficiency will be much appreciated during my races this year.
I must confess that one issue I’m still having with the suit is doing the zip up myself – although this is not a problem in a race as there will always be people around to help. But one big plus the Phantom has going for it come race day is how quickly you can whip it off! The cut of the ankle panels means it’s much easier to pull your leg free. In a race simulation we did in Lanza I was able to get my suit off before a squad-mate who was out of the pool before me… result!
All in all the Phantom is a seriously good bit of kit, with lots of great features that will come into their own on race day. It’s the best wetsuit I’ve ever worn, and I’m looking forward to racing in it. My first open water race is the British Middle Distance Championships at Grafman, on 22nd May. Eight weeks! Eek!!! I’ll let you know how it goes.
I started this year just being chuffed to have qualified for the European Championships, determined to do myself proud. So from January I trained my arse off (literally, someone pointed out), and amazed myself with an overall first in Trowbridge’s Big T Standard Tri in early May (my first ever triathlon win), and then winning my age group at the European Championships later that month. This was shaping up to be an awesome year!
Triathlon is a hobby, for me and many others who will never make a career out of it. A leisure-time pursuit undertaken for pleasure. Some people think that our hobby doesn’t sound very pleasurable. During this year’s Aberfeldy Middle Distance tri I started to see their point. It was an unpleasant struggle and made me question continuously what I was doing it for. Why was I continuing to cycle when I was whole-body shivering and couldn’t work out whether my fingers were frozen solid or just stuck together with energy gel? Why was I continuing to run towards the turnaround point knowing that every step took me further from Aberfeldy – the nearest cuppa and hot shower – while my Achilles ached, my feet were prickling with pins and needles and my spirits flagged? Why was I doing this ‘for fun’ in my spare time? I had no answers. Continue reading “My most unpleasant race to date: Aberfeldy 2015”
My first triathlon podium – and when I realised I might be quite good at middle distance – was provided by the Castles Challenge race in Bamburgh in 2014. Almost a year to the day after this (26th July 2015) I returned to the scene to see if I could ascend the podium from last year’s 3rd place. In my favour was the fact that my training had been better, and I had some good confidence-boosting results behind me. But going against me was the fact that the swim was unlikely to be as wrong (as long) as last year, and that I’d taken advice to treat this as a training day rather than an important race (so that I’d be in better shape for the Scottish Championships in Aberfeldy three weeks later). This meant I hadn’t ‘tapered’ my training off, so I wasn’t as well rested as I could have been (e.g., I’d swum a hard 4 km set two days earlier).
Continue reading “Castles Challenge: what a race!”
I’d only started to get some good race results in 2014, so this was my first triathlon for Team GB. I had travelled to Rimini, Italy, alone, for a recce and relaxation week, but met up with two seasoned GB triathletes in the evenings for dinner. They gave me two bits of information that changed my outlook on the whole race. And probably influenced my result. Firstly, that the top three GB finishers in each age group would automatically qualify for the subsequent European Championships. And secondly, that the competition, and their previous form, could be easily perused online. Cue Project Qualify-For-Next-Year.
A friend once said to me “You never regret a run”. I disagreed. I’ve too literal a mind for such sweeping generalisations. True, I’ve not regretted any run I’ve been on to date, but I would probably a regret a run if I fell and broke a leg. Or at least would regret the part where I didn’t see that rabbit hole. Continue reading “You never regret a run?”
So: I qualified to represent Team GB in the European Championships for middle distance triathlon (half ironman) in Rimini, Italy in 2015!!! What?!!! Not me surely – the kid who would have got 10/10 for effort at school but never quite made the netball or hockey teams, and was only ever involved in sports day because no-one else could be persuaded to run the 1500 m?