Sat here in the airport at Zurich with every other person wearing some sort of IM clothing and hobbling around, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my race from yesterday. Warning, this is a long one!
Well, first things first, I finished in 11.04.06 and 17th in my Age Group. It’s a bit frustrating not going under 11 hours, but given how my race progressed, and the fact that I knew that it would always be tight, I can’t complain. It has certainly improved my views of what I think I can achieve and I have learnt some good lessons from the race. With a bit more time to reflect on my result, I have to say I am extremely pleased with it, having nearly achieved my stretch target, which realistically I thought was another year away.
The first mistake I made was snacking on free energy bars that I got form the expo the night before the race. They were actually quite nice, but as I finished it, I read the package and then saw ‘Contains 45mg of caffeine’! Hence, 11 o’clock 2 hours after going to bed I was wide awake trying to get some sleep! I didn’t sleep well either, very broken, up a few times for a drink and woke up at 3.45 tired, hungry and stiff. So pretty much a standard IM start then! The hotel breakfast was alright, though I certainly made the right decision taking a box of coco pops, which I know can sit happy in my stomach before a race, and provide plenty of calories. I also had a few croissants, though in hindsight, given my stomach in the swim, it might have been a mistake.
We arrived at transition at half 5, giving us plenty of time to set everything up. I had a good chat with Mark, who was next to me in transition, who had done IM France 4 weeks ago, so was only aiming for sub 10:30, as you do! Wandering around in Man Tri kit also got a few people talking to me, which was nice. The transition in Switzerland is unlike all the other IMs around the world (so I’m told for most of the others) in that it is a ‘messy’ transition, unlike the others, where everything is bagged other than your bike. But it was a familiar set up, so I set up as I do for every other race, with the added exception of more gels for pockets, and a tub of chamois cream for the bike. I got the wetsuit on, and just missed the warm up, but wasn’t concerned, then lined up for the start.
We had a pre-start where we were supposed to make our way to the start line in the water, and while we were all lined up, I pushed my way forward to get to about the 4th row to get a good spot for the swim. However, many people seemed to confuse the 2 starts and as soon as people hit the start line they went. As there is nothing you can do to stop 500 people who false started, the start gun was fired and we were off.
The swim was the roughest I have ever been in. Sure most races you get bashed around a bit for the first few hundred metres, but this was ridiculous! Even at the half way point, where we got out to cross the bridge and get back in, fists and feet were everywhere! This is further emphasised by the fact that the only injuries I have from yesterday are very tired and sore legs, and bruising all over me, and nice hint of a black eye from the swim! Not even a single blister!
I had a really bad swim; I spent more energy trying to stay alive as people swam over me and into me, than I did trying to swim. I never managed to find a rhythm and settle into the decent swimming I have managed in the pool and lakes over the last few weeks. At around 1k, I got a good kick in the face which knocked one side of my goggles off, so was swimming with one eye shut until I could get to the bridge to empty it out. My stomach was also feeling far too full, and I felt a little sick from a combination of probably eating too much pre-race and being beaten up too much. Exiting a good bit down on my target was hardly surprising, but it was into transition, a good dollop of chamois cream, gels in the back pocket, arm warmers and helmet on, then time to finally let the legs do some work after a couple of weeks of not much.
Target Time: 1:05
Actual Time: 1:12
For the first hour on the bike or so, I felt like I was hardly working and had to keep checking my computer to make sure that I was actually going anywhere! It was good to see I was holding around 35kph on the flats and feeling really good. A dying heart rate monitor a couple of weeks earlier meant I was racing entirely on feel, but I felt like it was almost too easy, exactly where I wanted to be. One we hit the first climb, I allowed myself to push a bit harder, and was soon overtaking most people on the climbs with a compact on, which enabled me to spin up the hills. The bike course was a lot hillier than I was expecting in general, but I was feeling good initially. However, after about 45k and with not much training down on the aerobars I soon began to find a small problem with my saddle, in that I ended up going rather numb! Not only was it uncomfortable, it also made going to the toilet a bit of a problem! So I was left to waiting til the end of a climb where I could spend a bit of time out of the saddle until I got some feeling back, then finding a bush. The course itself was fantastic though, and heartbreak hill is one of those climbs you have to do. All the descriptions of it being lined with people 5 deep screaming at you were all true, and the only way to stop yourself from hammering it up to the top is to get stuck behind someone slower than you! Going up it for the first lap I felt good, and paced myself behind the person in front; quick water bottle grab, over the top, down the descent and then nearly crashing as I misjudged the 90 degree turn and the braking performance of my carbon rims!
After about 80k I had started to get a bit bloated from pushing a bit too hard, and switched to just water and gels, with a Nutrigrain at around 120k to try fill my stomach up. At the start of the second lap, I still felt reasonably good, but noticed a bit more of a headwind and the effect of the first lap in my legs. There did seem to be a fair bit of drafting on the course, as was confirmed when starting my 2nd lap, a big pack of about 30 riders who looked more at home in an ITU race than an IM went steaming past me. I heard reports of people in my hotel being overtaken by big packs only for someone to come back to them after a bit and tell them it was their turn to do their pull on the front! Thankfully quite a few people did seem to have penalty marks on their numbers, so the referees were doing their job, but a few more wouldn’t go amiss. It was also reassuring seeing lots of mechanics going past with spare wheels on the back, helping putting aside any worries of a flat ruining my race. Soon after beginning my 2nd lap, the lack of training to eat at high intensity began to show, and I soon began to drop off. An energy bar at 150k helped pick me up to the finish, but for future reference I know a bag of jelly babies is not the best food to have when pushing hard, and to take more gels! However, having an interval timer going on your watch every 15 minutes proved to be a great reminder to eat or drink something for when you forget, and this ensured that I at least kept something going into me. The saddle issue also affected my ability to stay in the aero position for any period of time, further affecting my speed. After a quick first lap, my 2nd lap proved to be over 10 minutes slower, but having had a sub 6 hour target for an IM bike for a year now, I threw caution to the running wind and pushed hard to come in just under my target, which I was pleased with.
Target Time: 6:00
Actual Time: 5:55
Having been given a good boost by beating my target for the bike, I entered T2 pleased, and quickly put my running shoes and visor on, and grabbed my fuel belt as I ran out. Given a string of good run performances at races recently, I was quite confident in putting in a good run, and with a sub 4 hour target, was hoping to beat this. However, given my legs were knakcered from the bike, I wanted to set out, put in a good lap or two and then see how I could do, probably running in between aid stations and walking through them. A quick loo stop straight after transition, and I set off on the first lap, and felt pretty bad for the first 20 minutes until I found my running legs, and just settled into a good rhythm. I finished the first lap in about 55 minutes, and felt good, pushing 5:15 pace. I slowed down for the 2nd lap, coming in at around the hour after another toilet stop at the start of the lap, but still feeling pretty good. At this point, I worked out if I could take a few minutes off each lap, I would just be on for sub-11, and decided to go all or bust and just went for it and started to try and push. However, by this point, my legs were pretty tired, and although I got quicker each lap, I just couldn’t find the final bit of speed I needed. The third lap is when I really began to hurt, and having now run further than my longest training run, my feet began to feel the effects and I attempted to take some painkillers until I dropped them trying to get them out of my pouch and decided to just push through. A final toilet stop later, and I was on the final lap. From the end of the 2nd lap, when I decided to try and get sub-11, any thoughts of walking any part of it were soon gone, and by this point I was running full pelt through aid stations, grabbing sponges, water and bit of banana as I went, but succeeding at getting very little in my mouth! Another lesson is that SiS gels work for me, Powerbar ones don’t. So only taking 4 with me on the run was a bad idea as having a couple more might have helped! From lap 2 to lap 4, I kept knocking a few seconds off my pace but in the end it proved to be just not enough to secure sub-11, especially with all the toilet stops. Peeing on the move is definitely a skill I need to learn! And having now done it, running sub-4 for an IM marathon is a lot harder than when you write it down on a piece of paper the day before!
Target Time: 4:00
Actual Time: 3:50
Crossing the line in 11:04:06 was slightly disappointing as I had been trying for sub-11 for most of the run. But given that sub-11 was my absolute stretch target if everything had gone perfectly, and as I had faded on the bike and had a bad swim, I can’t complain. I gave it everything, and can walk away knowing that I couldn’t have pushed any harder.
Coming down the finishing shute is an experience that nothing can rival, and is an incredible feeling every time. Anyone even thinking of doing one, sign up, you won’t regret it!
My swim was a little disappointing given how I had been performing in the pool, but I still came out of the swim in a reasonable position in my age group, though some more work to solidify my swimming would help me get out with some quicker cyclists.
However, given my cycling performance, I don’t think this would have made much difference! I lost a lot of time of the bike, with almost everyone ahead of me in M18-24 coming in under 5:30 for the bike. This extra half an hour would have put me in the top 10, which shows that this is the main area I need to work on. What is slightly reassuring is that most people in my age group seem to be a couple of years older than me, so given the extra years I should be able to build up the speed. It wasn’t a case of endurance and not pushing hard enough on the bike, I don’t think I could have pushed harder. A bit of endurance might help me keep up the speed I had for the 2nd lap, but I have the proven endurance to run strong off the bike. Running a 3:50 marathon meant I ran down 9 people in my age group! My marathon time was right up there in my age group, and it isn’t until you get to around 7th or 8th place that times were comfortably ahead of mine. However, with the winner of my Age Group clocking an 8:38(!) I have a bit of a way to go if I want that Kona slot 😉
How To Proceed
Well the first thing to improve on from above is my swim. Although I spent a lot of the time boxed in in the pack, some more OW practice with other people would have certainly helped. Also not having swum for since Wednesday didn’t help, and a bit of planning to get a swim in on the course would be good, rather than turning up and finding the lake shut for all the other races that weekend! Moving back to Manchester which allows me to get back to squad swimming should really pick up my speed though, as it is a lot easier to push harder in a squad in a decent pool than it is in the local leisure centre at half 6 in the morning! Besides, if I get bumped up a lane, I end up having no choice but to improve as I hang on for dear life trying not to get dropped at the back of the lane! Some video analysis will help iron out the bad habits I have probably picked up from swimming unsupervised for a year.
However, looking at my Age Group comparisons, the main thing I need to improve is my bike. This race has finally altered my perception of where I am currently, reinforcing previous race results of an average swim, good run and poor bike relatively. Bike speed takes time to improve, but it will definitely be my area of concentration this off-season. My climbing doesn’t seem to be a problem, as I can comfortably out-climb most people from what I have seen, but it is general speed that I am lacking. The first thing to address this is to go saddle hunting, and find one that will cure the ‘numb nuts’ problem! Allowing me to spend more time in the aero position will allow me to gain some ‘free’ speed, which is much needed. Then lots of time trials and higher intensity work should help bring the speed up, which will be built on a solid base of volume. This is what I know works for my cycling from past experience, so I hope with building in big hours on the bike along with some long sportives, coupled with time trials and shorter races, my speed should be able to rise. A consistent 2nd lap would have put me around the 5:40 mark, so this is definitely something to aim for, though I think I should be capable of 5:30 with a good year of training (depending on the course obviously!). And as proved by Mark, the Scottish guy next to me in transition, I don’t need a flash TT bike to do this (although it would be nice!).
Whilst volume works for my cycling, it appears to be frequency that works for my running. I didn’t run more than 2 hours for my long runs this year, but I was running almost every day by the end. I believe this gave me the muscle memory and feel for my recent running performances. Add this to a body weight lighter than when I left school has put me in good stead for my running. However, there is certainly room for improvement. A bit more volume will allow me to hold the higher pace longer for the race, and the odd run of 2 and a half hours should help me get comfortable running for this long. A bit of speed work will help bring my easy pace up to a higher level, allowing my race pace level to be higher for the same work. Speed work for running does need to be implemented carefully though, as it is an easy way for me to get injured. Avoiding placing it on days when I have tired legs should help minimise this, and not much is needed. From my training runs, I know I can run around 3:30 pace at a comfortable pace when fresh, a small amount of speed work and more endurance work should help see me carry this through to being able to do this for an Ironman.
The biggest thing I can do to improve though, is to keep my consistency up. As mentioned by countless coaches and athletes (including a good article by Russell) consistency is key to any improvements. The forced break in Russia thanks to a certain volcano won’t have helped matters, as well as a couple of small instances with illness or injury. Minimising these will minimise effects on performance, and will allow small incremental improvements.
So having reviewed my main race for the year (seem ridiculous doing this in July!) it is time to look ahead. As well as some small races that I have penciled in the rest of year, a 3 marathons in 3 days ultramarathon for some ‘fun’ in November, and probably Tough Guy for some fun too now, the main focus for the next few months will be some R&R, and time to recharge the batteries both mentally and physically. I am planning on doing another Ironman next year, and probably a WTC event whilst I still am chasing a slot in the unlikely event I put together a stellar performance and get VERY lucky with roll-down, however for next year, I hate to admit the main concentration will be on my final year for my degree. Whilst I will still devote most of my spare time to training, when push comes to shove, studying will have to take priority. However, this doesn’t mean that I can’t set some tough goals to aim for! So for my Ironman next year, the initial goal are:
Swim: 1:05 – try and solidify a good swim performance
Bike : 5:30 – build speed to come off the bike in closer contention with the quicker athletes and set myself up for a good run
Run: 3:30 – build on my good running of this year to up my speed and further push myself higher in the placings.
IM Time: 10:30 – allowing for some contingency time, and a realistic goal of cutting 35 minutes off my time with another year of maturity and speed in my legs (and arms) shouldn’t be unachievable. After all, if you don’t aim high, you will never get there.
Finally, after looking back on the year, it has to be said it was a good one! Some consistency, good race performances, finding a decent running ability and beating my two main goals of the year, of a sub-6 bike, and sub-4 run can leave me feeling happy about the year, and looking forward to what I can achieve next year, which will only be my 3rd year in the sport! In all honesty, I never thought 11 hours would be even on the cards this year, and to go so close has given me a good boost, and shown what I can achieve.
Sorry this post is such a long one!