Category Archives: Races and events

Race to the Stones – 16-17 July 2016

It’s 7.00am on race morning. I am at Race HQ in a field near Watlington in Oxfordshire with several thousand others. It is clear from the moment we arrived that Race to The Stones is a big deal and impeccably well organised.

I am feeling OK. I had spent the previous night in a hotel room with Nick a few miles down the road and had been woken by his version of the dawn chorus. More a trumpet chorus. No instruments needed, just an open window! A few rooms down the hall were Nev who was also running and Jacqui who was support crew for the day.

By 7.45am registration formalities are all done and we are standing in the starting funnel contemplating what was to come. The task? To run 100km (62 miles) along the Ridgeway to a finish line several counties away in Avebury near Marlborough and we had until 7.45am on Sunday morning to do it.

13709914_10154393457054337_6177639379069506213_nBy now we had been joined by club mate Paul Venus and I had already bumped into my friend Louise Cross and her partner Mark. Nick had also seen our friends Stu and Jayne Crawford. Knowing so many people racing was to play a huge part in how things unfolded much later that night.

The starter didn’t feel he was doing his job until he had asked us half a dozen times if we were ready. But eventually he fired the starting gun. We were off. It was the start of what was to be a very long day, night and a small part of the next day!

The Party Miles

For the first few minutes no-one went anywhere fast as about a thousand people headed slowly along a small country track. That fitted in perfectly with our pacing plan! Most people just relaxed and had a chat with those alongside them. Everyone was in high spirits, excited to be underway at last and trying not to think of what was to come later.

Together with about ten others, I ducked behind the first hedge we came to for an overdue call of nature. But in leaving the pack I lost touch with Nick, Nev and Paul. I wasn’t too concerned. At this pace I reckoned I could get back to them quite quickly. As things turned out I wasn’t to see Nick for another 30 miles. I didn’t see the others again all day.

No problem. I was happy to run on my own at this point and get some rhythm and there was no shortage of people to talk to. The race was interrupted a few times as we came to gates and stiles as hundreds of people negotiated them one at a time. We seemed to spend a lot of time standing around in the first fifteen miles. It wasn’t till after the second aid station at about 20km that the field really thinned out.

field

My strategy so far had been to run the flat and downhills and walk uphill. It had worked well and I was feeling good. The only problem with this is that when you come to a hill that is three or four miles long, as we did coming out of Goring, you spend a long time walking and you feel as though you are letting the race tick away. But the words of advice from Enduroman stuck with me: “Play the long game”.

I got a huge lift halfway up the hill when I saw Jacqui waiting patiently at the road side. There were no fist pumping speeches, just a quiet determination to be of help.

“How are you doing? Have you got everything you need? How can I help?”

If Carslberg did support crews.

The hill eventually gave way to a long flat stretch that got me running again and took us through the marathon mark. A few miles later and I was running into aid station number 5 and the half way point. 30 miles down and although things were beginning to hurt, I felt OK.

I found Jacqui sitting on the grass reading her book, left my bag with her and headed for the big marquee which housed a restaurant. A plate of pasta was on the menu. Here I was reunited with Nick, Stu and Jayne. Nev had already left and sadly Paul had pulled out with a knee injury.

With food done, I took a moment to re-grease my feet, change my socks and shirt before Nick and I left together to tackle the second half of the race.

The Business miles

Despite a second wind after a change of clothes and a meal, leaving base camp was hard and the high spirits of the start line were long gone. Nick and I agreed to stick with the same run walk strategy, but during that leg I started to feel the first signs of wear and tear on my feet. I could feel a blister forming.

13754081_10208367543399738_6909435721558293836_nEvery aid station had a medical tent and I headed straight for it as soon as we hit aid station 6. The medic didn’t seem too concerned and wrapped a length of RockTape round my food to stop the rubbing that had started the blister. A quick feed and some water and we pressed on.

The blisters and increasing sore feet slowed us down and our runs with occasional walks now involved more walking. Morale was beginning to dip a bit. We had been on the go for nearly 12 hours and we still had over 30k ahead of us. What better time for my club mate Rob Savill to be waiting for us at aid station 7. I think he was taken aback by how pleased we were to see him. For a second time I headed straight for the medical tent with my blisters as Rob swung into action bringing me a welcome cup of tea and food. Thank you Rob. You weren’t to know it, but your appearance could not have been better timed.

As we were sorting ourselves out Stu and Jayne arrived and we had a natter with them. We didn’t discuss it but we all left together and ran on as a foursome. As we left the aid station I remember clearly having a chat with myself agreeing that this felt like the start of the race. What had gone before was the build-up, albeit a long one, but the real challenge of Race to the Stones was just starting.

Miles of RockTape

The next aid station was 10km away and although it was fairly flat, the going was getting tough. We were clinging onto our run-walk strategy but the walks were getting longer. On top of the blisters, everyone had very sore feet. Old injuries were beginning to wake up.

We knocked off the 10km to the next stop slowly but without fuss, but there was a notable deterioration in everyone’s physical state. As we went about our feeding and watering business at the aid station it was clear we were starting to struggle. My blisters were becoming an issue, Stu’s old knee injury was troubling him. Jayne had fallen earlier and bruised her knee, the cure for which would normally be rest, not finishing a 60-mile run. She was in pain and Nick’s feet were ablaze. We discussed our options matter of factly and concluded that, if needs be, we would walk. At no point was the option of stopping ever mentioned.

As we left the aid station with 20km remaining it was starting to get dark, so it was head torches on to avoid fumbling round with those after dark. As we were doing this, we met Claire. I say that like it was a significant moment. That is because it was.

Claire had been running the race with her twin brother who had dropped out with blisters. Claire didn’t want to run alone in the dark and asked if she could run with us.

We didn’t even have to think about it. Claire became the final member of our team. The team that was going to take on the hardest 20km of the race in the dark. She fitted in seamlessly and instantly.

And on we went into the night trying not to think that we still had a half marathon to cover.

By now it was almost all walking. Nick was at the front with Claire and the pace was brisk. Walking fast is not my strong point and I regularly found myself dropping back, usually with Stu or Jayne for company. As we entered the last kilometre to aid station 9 the route pointed uphill. By now it was pitch black and not only was I behind the others but the curse of the blisters was back with a vengeance. A new one right on the ball of my right foot made every step like walking on glass. That slowed me further and I lost sight of the group in the dark. I wasn’t too worried as we were about to hit an aid station but I felt myself going downhill. I hadn’t eaten much on this leg and now I couldn’t be bothered to take my pack off and get food out. My lack of motivation was not a good sign. As I approached the aid station I found it hard to walk in a straight line. With my feet and blisters screaming at me, this was the lowest point of my race.

I got to the aid station a few minutes behind the others and headed straight for the 13781719_10208374663737742_556132655178553146_nmedical tent for the third time that day. The medic said nothing but I could tell from the look on his face that it wasn’t pretty (or maybe it was the smell). More RockTape. I think Nick spotted that I was struggling and brought me over a cup of hot porridge laced with maple syrup. At that moment, in that state, it was better than sex!

I took a few minutes to let the porridge do its work. I took two Nurofen and grabbed two chocolate bars which I kept in my hands so they were always available. No repeat of the nutrition fail on this leg.

We did a quick check that everyone was OK and had all they needed and then we set off on the final leg. We were 11km from the finish. One last push.

I think as we left the aid station I knew we would all finish. In fact through all my tribulations during the day, I never thought that I wouldn’t finish. With each new blister I just resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be a little bit harder. As we headed back on to the Ridgeway I took up the conversation with myself again and was unsympathetic. Something along the lines of: “You wanted a challenge, well here it is”

I think we were all thinking the same. Everyone was near their limits, but there was a resolve about our team. Stu’s mantra of “No-one gets left behind” (expect me at the last aid station obvs!) reflected perfectly how this individual challenge had become a shared team challenge for us.

Take a group of people who joined up by chance, some of who were strangers, each of whom added an energy that made the group better and what you get is a team that is stronger than the sum of its parts.

Something magic happened on the Ridgeway in the final 20k in the early hours of Sunday morning. Left to soldier on into the night alone, I expect some of us may not have finished, but together we were never going to fail.

It took an hour or so before the lights of the finish became visible in the distance. And then in the first sign that we were heading for the finish, the route took us down off the Ridgeway. But agonisingly it took us past the finish and on into Avebury to the Stones. In their wisdom the organisers thought this was a great photo opportunity and so we went through the bizarre process of posing for photos in front of the stones of the Avebury Ring at about 1.45 in the morning.

13697050_10208385337124570_829107936645416902_n (2)

All that was left then was to make our way back to the finish line. Claire had a deadline. Her shuttle bus back to the start left at 2.00am. At a walking pace it would be tight, so after a quick round of goodbyes, she did what any Englishman would do, she ran for her bus. We all stood their open mouthed as she picked up a respectable pace without a single groan.

We followed at a walk retracing our steps out of Avebury, along a farm track, then a sharp left and there it was. We were 300 metres from the finish. Inspired by Claire’s example we spontaneously broke into a run all the way to the line. Even at 1.55am there was a crowd of well-wishers and several endlessly enthusiastic volunteers handing out medals.

For our part, there was no punching the air or extravagant celebrations. Just hugs and handshakes all round. As much as anything else, we were just pleased it was all over.

It is hard to generate any atmosphere at 2 in the morning when runners are arriving sporadically. Behind the finish line was a farmyard with buildings full of inert bodies curled up in sleeping bags waiting for morning. After retrieving bags and a quick cup of tea, Nick and I packed up and headed home.

I pored over the results the next day. I had assumed our official finish time of 17.56 hrs would be at the slow end of the field. So I was pleasantly surprised to see I had finished 566th of 1164. Just in the top half of the field! My team mates occupied the four places above me. But the most striking statistic was that of the 1164 competitors 208 had failed to finish for some reason – nearly 1 in 5 people. That may be due to the heat which hadn’t been in the forecast. But I think a lot of it will be because this is a big challenge.

And what of Nev, my club mate who I ran about 3 minutes of the race with? He showed us all a clean pair of heals and finished in 14.51hrs and placed 276th. Impressive.

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Ultra!

There are now nine weeks to go until Race to The Stones and suddenly training has a very long feel to it. The weekend after Sid’s Morph Marathon was “only” a 20 miler! But then it was time to take a big step up in mileage.

Nick and I had entered The Marlborough Downs Challenge, a local trail race. There was a choice of a 20-mile or 33-mile route. Being cautious I wanted to enter the 20-miler. Nick doesn’t do caution, he just wanted to kick its back doors in and show it who was boss. That is how I came to be standing nervously on the start line of a 33-mile ultra-marathon. The longest race either of us had ever done!

We got our first taste of the ultra-running community at registration. No fancy runners’ goody bag or rucksack here. Just a complimentary slab of Kendal Mint Cake and a knowing look.

Ultra runners are an earnest crowd, but very friendly. As we walked from registration at Marlborough Leisure Centre to the start line in the grounds of Marlborough College they regaled us with stories of how far they could run without water or their latest 100-mile run, without a hint of triumphalism. We suddenly felt a long way out of our depth.

13237683_1144968082190799_3290903591637468250_n (2)We didn’t help ourselves. Rather than keep a low profile and blend in, we attracted lots of strange looks as we posed for a start line selfie to post on Facebook. I think these two ageing triathletes were something of an enigma to the ultra-runners.

Bang on 9.00am we were off. Somehow I never doubted that the start would be punctual.

It started with a long steady climb and within 15 minutes we were looking down on Marlborough and heading out onto the downs. We were blessed with almost perfect running conditions – blue sky, 150C and a light breeze. It was a lovely clear morning and the views out across Wiltshire were breath-taking.

13226748_1145226588831615_5609537799561219284_nOne thing you get lots of on an ultra-run is time. Nick is a countryman and so to fill the time, I was treated to a running commentary on the birds, the wild flower meadows and the state of the local crops (Nick’s speciality). It passed the time perfectly. After a long drag along the tow path of the Kennet and Avon Canal heading into Devizes, we were suddenly at half way where we celebrated with a Waitrose pork-pie. Apart from slightly aching feet, it was so far so good. But that wasn’t to last!

There was a check point roughly every four miles whose first job was to confirm you were still alive and then feed and water you. Up to Check Point 4 we had always had other runners in sight and so had paid no attention to the route. Suddenly the field had spread out and there was no-one as far as the eye could see, but we just kept running. We first discovered we had gone wrong when we came to a dead-end in some woods. For the first time all day the detailed route instructions came out – all 8 pages of them! We retraced our steps and eventually saw some other runners and were able to re-join the route having only run about an extra half mile.

The next big task was the long climb up Cherhill Down, the site of the White Cherhill_white_horseHorse. Next to the white horse is The Lansdowne Monument, a stone obelisk that you can see from miles around. All the way up Nick was grumbling that the organisers had failed to use the obelisk as a navigation feature in the directions. At no point did the alarm bells in my head ring to warn me that there was a good reason why they weren’t mentioned. Lost again!

We recovered from that small deviation and from the top of Cherhill Down we hit a big chalk path that took us down to the main A4 on the floor of the valley. We could see the A4 in the distance and so assumed we just ran until we got there and so put the directions away for a while. Bad move. We sailed past a crucial turn and got horribly lost, our best yet!

When we hit the A4 and the directions didn’t match what we were seeing, we decided to just run along the road until they did. That would have been a great 13255951_1145226638831610_40641402288940644_nplan if we had turned the right way along the main road. Instead, unbeknownst to us, we were running the wrong way and away from the race. It was only an eagle-eyed marshal spotting us as he drove past that saved our bacon. To cut a long story short we had run about a mile the wrong way which we had to retrace before we could start making progress towards the finish. After 23 miles of running, that was a heart breaker. From that point on we kept the directions in our hands and read them carefully at every turn. Motivated by sore feet, we didn’t get lost again!

We ran most of the rest of race on our own. Inevitably in 33 miles of running (or 35 in our case!) we each had a low point, but not at the same time and so we managed to keep the show on the road.

As we left the last check point we had 3 miles remaining. By now the biggest challenge was two sets of very sore feet and it became a game of picking the softest surface to run on, usually the grass verge.

13062321_10207907974830811_790650953534816030_nSlowly but surely we ticked of the last 3 miles and found our way to the finish line. By the time we got there it was literally one man – not even his dog. We had to rope a few bystanders in to give our finish line photo a bit of atmosphere. You could hear them muttering under their breath: “triathletes”.

And to round off our day in the world of the ultra-runners the final peculiarity. No finishers medal here, just a mug. But not any old mug. It is a mug which says we are now ultra-runners.

 

Big hills, bigger winds and string beans – it must be Winter Racing

It’s spring! I know it’s spring, because we have had the Spring Half Marathon Weekend, a few days when thousands of runners come out of hibernation to run on the streets of Bath, Liverpool, Silverstone and many other towns and cities around the UK in a mass celebration of spring’s arrival.

I have run on spring half marathon weekend for the last few years, but gave it a miss this year. Having taken an enforced month and a half break last summer, I didn’t have the usual off-season. Instead I kept training and competing through the winter. So I wasn’t champing at the bit to get racing come March. Instead I have signed up for a local trail run in a few weeks time.

For my main race of 2016 I have signed up for “Race to The Stones”, a 60-mile ultra-marathon in July run on The Ridgeway starting in Oxfordshire and finishing at the Avebury Ring near Marlborough in Wiltshire. So over the winter I have focused on running and where possible off-road running.

My first race of the winter was The Dorset Coastal Challenge Half Marathon at the start of December which was traumatic. I would have helped myself if I had paid attention to what I was entering. All I saw was “half marathon”. I glossed over the words “Dorset Coastal Challenge”, a clear signal from the organisers that this probably wasn’t a PB course! I also paid little attention to the organisers own rating of the race as “Extreme”. How difficult could a 13.1 mile run on a coastal path be?

The answer was brutally difficult. Firstly, in an effort by the organisers to put their own little twist on it, this half marathon was 16.5 miles long – nice touch! My heart sank when I heard that news at the race briefing (I think I was the only person who didn’t already know) but in the scheme of things it was to be the least of my worries. It was the 4,500 feet of ascent that was to keep my mind from wandering.

The race was just a series of very big hills interspersed with aid stations. As the race went on the hills got

11139766_1198059723542227_242225385142675523_n

The hills were steep and long!!

progressively steeper until the final hill which was so long and so steep that the local council had built a set of concrete steps into the side of it – hundreds of them.

You know that the hills were extreme when it has taken me three paragraphs to mention the other major feature of this race – the wind. This was the weekend when we got the tail end of Hurricane Edna from the other side of the Atlantic. With nothing to slow it down the wind carried all the way from the North American Coast gaining energy and strength until it made landfall in the UK on – you guessed it – the Dorset Coast!!

It may be the only time I have been grateful to be running at a few pounds over race weight. Seriously. Every extra pound made it more likely that you were going to remain upright as another gust of wind in excess of 50mph came through. I ran with a German girl for about 20 minutes – a slip of a thing. You don’t like to ask what a lady weighs, besides which she would have told me in kilos and I would have been no better off, but I would guess 8 stone. I lost count of the number of times she was blown clean off her feet. I spent several miles picking her up.

12295360_10206742127645360_5342873566782179982_nSo having taken no more than ten minutes to work out that I was way out of my comfort zone, my sole focus was on reaching the finish line which I eventually did in a little under four hours. I am still debating whether I never want to see this race again or whether I want to go back and see what I could do now I know what to expect.

My next race was in February – The Wilshire 10 – a 10-mile road-race in Melksham. This time I read the organisers description slowly taking particular care to find the word “flat”.

I arrived early to make sure I could park in the town centre near the start. It was a bitterly cold day and so I sat in the car while I waited. I watched the car park fill up with car load after car load of string beans. Long lean athletes with barely an ounce of body fat between them. I wondered if I was in the right place.

I bumped into my friend James on the start line. He is a much faster runner than me and so I got my excuses in early. Just a training run for me I told him – ten nine-minute miles.

It was great event. It had a really friendly local-race feel to it and the course wound out into the Wiltshire countryside and only came back into town to finish.

I was pretty true to my promise of nine-minute miles finishing in 1.28hrs which was nine-minute miles for eight miles and then a two-mile burn up with the guy I ran the second half of the race with. The kind of burn up where you pretend you aren’t racing but neither of you wants to get beaten and you finish within seconds of each other and collapse in a heap having buried yourselves for the previous 15 minutes!

It wasn’t until the end that I learned that this race I was treating as a day’s training was doubling up as the South West of England Road Running Championships. That would explain the string bean convention in the car park.

Training for Race to The Stones has now started in earnest. It was all going well until this week when I had one of those “busy” weeks that seem to push any of idea of training to one side. I managed to get out for a 6-mile trot today. I will be back on it this coming week. Although I have a training plan of sorts, I am still trying to work out how to train for an event like this in a way that suits me. At the moment I am experimenting. I would be very grateful for any tips or ideas.

Next up for me is another local race, this time a 16-mile trail race from Coombe Gibbet to Overton in two weeks. In a complete reverse of fortune this is a race which starts at the top of a hill and for the first two-thirds is gently downhill. I think I can say with a clear conscience that I have earned a downhill race!

The Cone of Shame & Other Tales From a Train Wreck of a Season

I am not sorry to see the end of the 2015 triathlon season. The fact that I haven’t written a blog entry for over six months says it all. If 2014 was a story of unimagined highs, then 2015 was a train wreck!

It all started so positively at the Bath Half Marathon which I ran with a group of friends in February. I made it round in 1.44hrs. Not my fastest, but fine for a pre-season benchmark.

That left me almost exactly 12-weeks to get ready for the Outlaw Half – a half iron distance triathlon which had been one of the high points of my 2014 season. This is where the problems started.

My work circumstances meant I hadn’t had as much time to train as last year and as I headed for Nottingham on a Saturday at the end of May, I knew I was a little short of my form of a year earlier, but confident that I would be OK. But there were clouds on the horizon, literally. Biblical conditions were forecast for Sunday and if I am very honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it.

I awoke on Sunday morning to heavy rain and as I drove the short distance to the race venue at Home Pierrepont at 5.00am, I would have taken very little persuasion to turn south and keep going until I got home.

The conditions for the race were every bit as bad as forecast and then some. As we trod water in the lake waiting for the off, someone commented that you know that conditions are bad when the swim is not going to be the wettest leg of the race. That was probably the last time anyone smiled until the finish line!

The lake was a bracing 13 degrees and once we got going I took a long time to settle my breathing down. As I got out of the water at the end of the 1.2 mile swim I was so cold I found it difficult to speak. I briefly cheered up when I saw my mate Gary Hill exit the water alongside me: “38 minutes mate!” he declared. That was a pleasant surprise given the conditions.

The bike leg was brutal. It rained almost non-stop and we had to contend with untitled (18)standing water on the roads for most of the 56 miles. The worst of the weather was forecast for late morning and for once the forecast was right. We cycled into 30mph winds for the last 10 miles. There were three high points on the bike leg. Two were seeing my friends Jane and Iain marshalling, both gave me huge morale boost. The other was arriving at T2.

To cap it all I was pulled over by a course marshal for cutting a corner at a right hand turn. I ducked inside one of the cones to avoid hitting the cyclist in front of me. As if my bike leg wasn’t going to be slow already, now I had a time penalty to add on.

I pulled into T2 after 3.07hrs. I was soaked and tired but happy to get out onto the run and see what my running legs felt like. The short answer is ruined! The bike conditions had taken their toll and the second part of the half-marathon was a sufferfest. It felt a bit like the Ironman run had felt. And just like my Ironman in Bolton, I found myself running with Sid Sidowski cycling alongside me on a BMX dressed in a morph suit. His encouragement, together with my friends Jason and Mel, was priceless and really helped. Eventually after 5.53hrs I crossed the finish line.

Soaking wet, I packed up, went to the car, changed and headed home. As I drove I picked up my messages. One was a slightly panicked message from a friend concerned that he had seen DSQ (results shorthand for Disqualified) next to my name in the online results. “Bollocks” was all I could think of to say. “Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks”. My cone violation had been immeasurably more costly than I had ever imagined.

By the time I got home I had resigned myself to my fate. A convicted cheat!! I was philosophical about it. I was pleased that I had overcome some hideous conditions to record a top-ten finish in my age-group (DSQ excluded!), but I couldn’t help thinking it was a heavy-handed punishment. The very real punishment came the next day when I learned that my time would have been good enough to qualify for GBR selection in my age group for the European Championships in 2016. That was harder to take. But all of that was to pale into insignificance compared to what came next. Earlier in race week an altogether more sinister sub-plot had started to unfold.

I woke on the Monday before the race with a light cold. Exactly the same thing had happened the previous year and it was gone by the weekend. This year it got better, but it wasn’t altogether gone. To cut a long and unpleasant story short, being cold and wet for the duration of the race and pushing myself as hard as I could for six hours flattened my immune system (perfectly normal in endurance events) and had opened the door and ushered back in the departing virus which now took a firm hold. By the Monday after the race I had a cough that a 60-a-day smoker would have been proud of. By the time I went to the doctor three days later it was an infection of my windpipe and chest with an eye infection thrown in for good measure. The remedy? Rest and no exercise until the symptoms had gone.

The next part of my season was due to be an appearance at The Cotswold113, another half-iron distance race and then The Outlaw, a full iron distance event. The long and the short of it is that I did neither. In fact I did no exercise for a month and a half. I arrived at the end of July frustrated, less fit and a few pounds heavier. All I had to show for my season’s efforts was a DSQ and two DNSs (Did not Start). I needed to put some numbers on the board.

What I haven’t mentioned is that I had been given the great honour of being selected in my age group to race for Great Britain in the European Long Distance Championships which were being held in Weymouth in September. When I found out back in February I was ecstatic. A home championships in a GBR tri-suit in front of my family. I now had a decision to make, to follow my head or my heart.

My heart said go for it. How many times am I going to get to race in GBR kit. My head said don’t do it. Any other distance and it may be OK to wing it, but I wasn’t fit and a full Iron distance race wasn’t something to take on with 6 weeks of training. I flipped back and forth for about three weeks, head, heart, head, heart. Eventually it was Cate, my wife, who made me see sense and with a very heavy heart I called the team manager and told him I had to withdraw. He was fantastic about it.

But determined not to let my season end with a DSQ in Nottingham I entered the Weymouth Half, a half iron-distance race being run on the same course as the LD Championship on the same day.

Having pretty much recovered from my chest infection, I was amazed how excited I was to be racing at Weymouth and I set about trying to claw back as much fitness as I could – but work was still busy and spare time was tight.

Fast forward to 7.00am on 13 September and I am standing on some rocks looking over Weymouth Beach minutes from the start of the European Long Distance Championships and about 90 minutes from the start of my own race. Sods Law, conditions were bad again and the sea was rough. It only took 3 minutes from the start of the LD race before the safety boat was hauling competitors out of the water and returning them to the beach, their race over before it had started.

At 8.30am 150 of us waited for the sound of the starting gun before running down the beach and into the swell. For me tactics were simple: survive and get to the swim exit. Time was of no concern. It was to be a horrible 46 minutes being thrown up and down by the rolling waves. Twice I came within a nano-heave of feeding my breakfast to the fish of Weymouth Bay, but I stuck at it and eventually returned to terra firma. Mission accomplished.

The bike leg was frustrating. A long climb out of Weymouth (regulars will recall Weymouth runthat climbing is not my forte!) then a technical stop start 20 or so miles with dead turns, roundabouts, hairpins and little time to get into a rhythm. The second half was better and finished with a 4-mile sleigh ride back into Weymouth. Along the way I had lost about 5 minutes when a guy crashed badly right in front of me. He landed on his head with a thud and was hurt. I stayed until medical help arrived.

T2 was slow – poorly organised. But eventually I got out onto the run and was pleasantly surprised at how I picked up a sub 9-minute mile pace comfortably. As I came out of T2 I was greeted by a crowd of friends from my tri-club – one of the benefits of doing as local race!

The half-marathon was three laps of a loop along the Weymouth seafront. Scenic, quite well supported but a constant stink of fish and chips. That breakfast 11988429_10206630830904946_4859279063563653509_nthreatened to appear again! Eventually I went round the turning mark for the last time and headed for home. At this point I was on for a sub 1.50 half marathon. That would be a PB for me but I wasn’t running at that pace – something was wrong. Most people would go with it, but when you already have one DSQ to your name, your immediate assumption is that you have got it wrong. But it turned out I was OK, the course had been wrongly marked and was about a mile short. I finally crossed the line in 6.03 to record the year’s first legitimate result and end my train-wreck of a season on something of a high!

So all’s well that ends well, even if the route was a bit rocky!!

Something different planned for 2016. More to follow!!

The ETU European Middle Distance Triathlon Championships – 18 October 2014

The Build Up

At the start of this season, GB honours hadn’t even entered my thinking. My single goal for the season was to finish Ironman UK. But then in June at the Outlaw Half I had one of those races where everything clicked and I ended up on the podium and I qualified in my age group to race for GB at the European Middle Distance Triathlon Championships in Paguera-Majorca in October.

My friend and club mate Judit Leszkovich also qualified and we travelled to Majorca together on Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s race, neither of us sure what to expect but very excited.

Things kicked off on Thursday with a GB team bike ride to recce the course. The ride was done at a very gentle pace, so lots of conversation and the general consensus was that this was a rolling course with the potential for fast times. Spoiler alert – in my case it wasn’t!

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The swim course on Thursday

The afternoon was a team swim practice. This was less inviting. On Thursday there was a big swell which was driving breaking waves onto the beach. It is never a good sign to see people surfing on the swim course two days before an event! What I thought would be a gentle team swim practice turned out to be a crash course in how to swim in rough water. The only crumb of comfort was the forecast, which said that the sea state would be calm on Saturday, but worryingly it also predicted that the temperature was going to rise sharply.

Friday was a logistics day, but first Judit and I ran one loop of the run course. It seemed pretty straight forward with just one longish hill, but even at 10.00am it was baking hot!!

The rest of the day was taken up with team photos, bike racking, a pasta party and a race briefing. Our excellent team manager, Brent Perkins, kept the GB team behind afterwards the race briefing for a pep talk which finished with: “You are all Team GB triathletes now, you are here because you have earned it, race proud”. I don’t mind admitting that I left the room with a lump in my throat.

Fast forward 24 hours and about a thousand competitors are standing on Playa Tora, the main beach in Paguera, staring out at a flat calm sea waiting for the race to start. The sea state forecast was never in doubt!! The race referee had declared a non-wetsuit swim because of the water temperature. For reasons best known to the organisers, the race start had been set for midday and already the temperature was into the high 20s – Thursday’s wind had died, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was breathless so we were all bracing ourselves for a long and very hot day at the office.

The swim

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Our swim start – we’re in there somewhere!

Everything started spot on time so at 12.15pm exactly the hooter sounded and about 100 of us in my wave (all male age groups over 40) made a 20 yard dash to the sea followed by a free for all. I positioned myself to one side to avoid the inevitable ruck.

Conditions couldn’t have been better for the 1.2 mile (1.9km) swim.  The water was flat and beautifully clear and I could see all of the marine life below me – what’s not to like! I found space early on and quickly settled into a rhythm. Once round the turning buoy at about 950m I had a good second half of the swim getting towed along for a while by a Danish guy.

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One 1.9km swim done – not looking my best

At the swim exit a red carpet led us uphill for the 300m run from the beach to T1, so I arrived at my bike with my heart pounding out of my chest.

The Bike

The 56 mile (90km) bike leg was two laps which started with a ride straight through the middle of Pageura which I used to try and sort myself out with a quick drink and a gel.

Like my swimming, I always take a while to settle into a rhythm on the bike. Unfortunately the first and only hill of note on the bike course arrived before the rhythm did. This hill had seemed easy on the recce ride but my attempt to attack it today only partially succeeded.

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Trying to attack a hill!

Next came a 10k “out and back” section on a narrow road. The outward 5km was pretty much all uphill. Add to that cyclists on the return leg coming back down the hill at speeds of over 40mph passing less than a metre from us (one of which was Judit!) and things got a bit hairy.

Most of the rest of the course was quite fast with plenty of opportunity to settle onto the aero bars and establish some rhythm.

We passed through the holiday resort of Palmanova where, as you would expect, wearing a GB tri suit got you got some passionate patriotic support from spectators who probably hadn’t been up long. Guys you were great and put a smile on my face for the next 10 minutes!

One last hill and a descent took us back to Paguera and the end of lap one. At this point and I was on for a sub-3 hour bike split which would have done fine. But things are never that simple. The hills and the heat took it out of me on the second lap and eventually I pulled into T2 after 3.09hrs.

The run

I headed out on to the run in an optimistic mood. The run is my favourite discipline and it’s the one I usually do best in.

It normally takes me five minutes to shake off the effects of the bike and to see what state my running legs are in. Today I knew almost immediately that I was in trouble. My legs weren’t the problem, I just had nothing in the tank. Holding a modest 9 minute mile pace was already proving a struggle. As I ran along the beach front I genuinely wondered how I was going to complete a half-marathon.

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The run – hard yards!!

Then the rational side of my brain kicked in. What had gone wrong? I hadn’t hammered it on the bike and my legs felt OK. It had to be a hydration or nutrition problem. I mentally retraced my steps on the bike leg and I couldn’t remember drinking a lot. I needed a plan.

By the first feed station I was labouring. I walked through it and took a salt tablet, a gel and drank as much water as I dared. I did the same at the next two feed stations. By midway through the second lap a little energy returned and things looked up.

The hill that we had thought little of on the recce run proved to be a huge obstacle under race conditions. By the second lap there was a long queue of people walking up it – even pros. It wasn’t just the gradient that was providing such a challenge, it was the heat. The thermometer outside the pharmacy on the run course in the centre of town said 36 degrees C (97 degree F) – the heat was just sucking the energy out of the race.

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The thermometer on the run course – sweltering!

By the third lap things had deteriorated further. I saw several people who had just stepped off the race course and quit. I also saw a girl racing for GB sitting on the kerb by a feed station, she was completely spent. Her race was over. When I saw the results later there were a lot of DNFs and several GB team mates spent the night in hospital with dehydration. By any standards conditions were brutal.

The race for me became a war of attrition. I don’t know if it was the tri suit I was wearing or just a stubborn streak, but I stuck to the task. As I approached the hill on each lap I promised myself that I would not walk, but as a reward I allowed myself ten seconds of walking at the top. Apart from that I only walked through the feed stations but admit I sometimes lingered!

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Still moving forward!

One of the things that I am sure kept a lot of people going was the fantastic support for GB. Holidaymakers, friends, family and all the GB support team lined the streets all afternoon cheering us on. The atmosphere in Paguera was incredible. I have to mention Nick and Simon from Tri Camp who for just two people made a lot of noise. Simon parked himself at the top of the big hill and encouraged tired triathletes up the last 20 metres all afternoon.

By the fourth lap I was feeling all right (everything is relative!!) – I think the psychological effect of knowing I was on the home stretch helped. My last lap turned out to be my fastest and I gained two places in my age group in the final 5k.

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Never been so pleased to see a finish line! (Subtract 15 mins from clock for my wave time!!)

Finally after what seemed like the longest afternoon of my life, I ran into the finish area. Finishing involved a lap around the main square with a grandstand on two sides, both of which were full. The atmosphere was great. I think the crowd understood the ordeal we had been through. I have never been so pleased to cross a finish line. And who was the first face I saw when I finished? The ever present Brent Perkins.

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Judit and me – just pleased to have finished!

My finish time was 6.13hrs and gave me 12th place out of 23 in my age group. I was the 5th Brit home out of 13 in my age group. It wasn’t my fastest 70.3 by some way, but it is one I am proud of. Proud that I was representing my country and I don’t think I let the side down – that was very important to me. But also proud of the way I came back from adversity on the run to finish well. I feel as though I thought clearly under pressure even if the pressure had been caused by my own lack of concentration on the bike. I am also pleased just to have finished. It was without question the hardest 70.3 race I have done.

The Aftermath

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A well earned beer

I caught up with Judit in the athletes area. She had finished in 5.41hrs and had placed well in her age group. We chatted to other GB athletes and the story was the same everywhere – this was the hardest race they had done.

A few hours later, after a shower and a change we returned to the square for the awards ceremony and closing fireworks display. Then the highlight of the evening, the Team GB after party. Brent had arranged that we take over a bar on the beach front.

Take a group of excited triathletes, a large dollop of adrenalin and feel good endorphins, a warm evening, add a plentiful supply of cold beer and you have the recipe for a great party. About 75 of us spent several hours telling each other how brutal the race had been. Doesn’t sound much of a conversation does it – but we enjoyed it!!

After what seemed like 10 minutes I looked at my watch and it was nearly 2.00am. A quick bite to eat and it was time to bring an incredible day and a fantastic triathlon season to a close. Strangely I had no problem getting to sleep!

Thank you Brent Perkins and your support team as well as all my team mates on Team GB. You were all awesome, the camaraderie was incredible and I had the time of my life – an experience I will never forget!!

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Team GB – ETU European Middle Distance Triathlon Championships 2014 – Paguera – Majorca

A date with The Ironman

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Knock knock, we’re here!

It’s race week. As if I need reminding, someone posted a picture on Facebook of the Ironman banner tied to the front of Bolton Town Hall with the ever so slightly sinister caption: “Knock knock, we’re here”. I am not sure if it caused the release of a shot of adrenalin or a little bit of wee. Either way, it got my heart rate up and my week off to a lively start.

Monday night was my last Club track session before Ironman. At the end it was hugs from all the girls and manly handshakes from the men wishing me luck. Sam, our longest serving coach reminded me: “…we’ll all be following you online on Sunday. Remember that when you are out on the course. It will help”. I drove home feeling a little tearful. In my defence it doesn’t take much to make me well up during this emotional roller coaster that is Ironman race week. I am sure if it caught me at the right moment, the Shipping Forecast could have me in tears!

My support crew has also been busy this week with race day preparations. 10423723_10203250841805396_6413460381151933135_nMatilda has been hard at work producing a banner to hold up at the roadside. Hopefully I will see a lot of it on the bike and the run and it will make my job a little easier.

So far I feel OK. We travel up to Bolton tomorrow (Friday) when I expect the whole experience to crank up a notch or two as the Ironman process takes over. Registration, expo, race briefing Friday. Then familiarisation swim, bike racking, transition bags on Saturday. And then it gets serious.

It concludes with 2,000 nervous athletes standing on the shore of Pennington Flash as the clock approaches 6.00am on Sunday wondering what the day ahead has in store for them.

Everyone starting on Sunday, and those in whose footsteps we follow, know how much of a challenge Ironman is. They know better than anyone that it is not just about 140.6 miles that thousands of spectators will see in Bolton on Sunday, but just as much about the thousands of miles they haven’t seen. It is hard to imagine as we bask in a heat wave that for many this incredible journey began on cold winter mornings in January. All of that commitment for one day – or one glorious moment.

Everyone will have his own goal in mind. Me, I am not going to Bolton seeking a Kona slot, or a prize or even a fast time. I am there to finish. I am not interested in being better than anybody else. I just want to be the best me I can be on the day. If I manage that and I finish, there won’t be a happier man in Lancashire.

It’s been a long time coming. It’s been a journey that I have really enjoyed and I hope I will enjoy the race as much. Now it’s here, I can’t wait to get on with it.

Good luck everyone!

The Chiltern Challenge 100

I wouldn’t usually blog about a cycle sportive but the Chiltern Challenge 100 was different for several reasons. It was to be the first time I have ridden 100 miles (lots of 75-85 milers recently but no century) and it was also one of my final dress rehearsals for the bike leg of Ironman UK.

I chose the Chiltern Challenge 100 because of the timing. It took place exactly four weeks to the day before Ironman which would give me time to fit another one in if I wanted to and it was also quite a challenging ride with over 4,000 feet of ascent. I also chose to do a sportive rather than a ride at home because it imposed a “race day” discipline on me. I had to be at registration by 7.30am which meant I had to get up early which all added to the sense of dress rehearsal.

Fast forward to 8.00am and there I was waiting under the starting arch with about ten others listening to a safety briefing and then we were off. I should point out that there were more than ten of us doing this ride, it is just that they set us off in small groups for safety reasons.

The first ten miles were pretty straight forward, a few introductions and a bit of chat but any ideas that this was going to be a six-hour social were dispelled as we hit the first big hill at about 15 miles. It may have been the first hill but it was the biggest hill of the day reaching 12% at it most spiteful about half way up. I was grateful for my compact crank set which meant I never struggled with my cadence while others around me almost ground to a halt – literally.

The climb gave way to a long and satisfying descent which got the average speed back up and was only interrupted by the first feed station at about 20-miles.

Part of my dress rehearsal plan was not to use or do anything that I couldn’t do on race day. I had a slight challenge here as Ironman only gives out Powerbar products on race day and The Chiltern Challenge 100 was sponsored by High Five and so only dished out their goods. I was very keen to see how my stomach reacted to 100-miles of Powerbar and so I had to carry it all with me, including energy drink mix. I lingered at the feed station just long enough to fill up with water and mix a fresh bottle of energy drink.

The next 30 miles or so were unremarkable apart from a long hot climb out of Henley, the appalling condition of the roads, one or two impatient local drivers and a small navigation error which cost me a few miles. Once back on track I was soon at feed station two which was more like a banquet with a full on buffet! I momentarily ignored my dress rehearsal rules and had a spot of lunch.

The second half of the ride was hot but not quite as hilly as the first half and what hills there were came right at the end – thank you organisers. Other than that it was all pretty routine and almost exactly 6.30hrs of riding time after I started, I crossed under the finish arch at race HQ. My Garmin was showing an average moving speed of 16.2mph (26.0kph). I don’t know who measured the route, but my Garmin, which is pretty reliably accurate was showing 106 miles (170km).

The others riders finishing just after me all quickly discarded their bikes and headed for the free massage or the bar, so I got some strange looks as I swapped my bike shoes for running shoes and set off on a 1-mile run around the playing fields in front of the finish area. I was pleased with how easily I knocked off a mile – just the other 25.2 to worry about now!

All in all a good day. My nutrition strategy for the Ironman bike is now decided and I was pleased with how I felt at the end 106 miles on a course that has more climbing than Bolton. I plan to repeat the exercise on another 100-mile sportive this coming weekend, this time in The New Forest. This one has a bit less ascent and I plan to use it as a full dress rehearsal which means I am on my TT bike this time. It also looks as though the weather man, having given me hot last weekend, may give me rain this weekend – so all bases will have been covered – deep joy!!