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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!!

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Trainer Road – the Power of Power

December must rank as the low point in the triathlon calendar. The racing season is a distant memory, there’s at least five months until my next triathlon event, the evenings are dark and the weather is cold and wet. And as if that isn’t enough, someone has thrown in Christmas with all its temptations.

However the off season is not all bad. It is a good chance to stand back from the relentless pressure of race training and concentrate on fixing a few things. Last year I focused on my cycling as it was by far my weakest discipline, but I wasn’t very scientific about it – I just did lots of it. I went on virtually every club ride going and when there wasn’t a club ride I went out on my own. However there was no structure to it and I had no way of measuring my progress. In fact my first real test of whether I had improved in the off season was in my first race in June. As it turned out I had improved, which is just as well because it would have been a bit late to find out I hadn’t.

This year I am taking a more scientific approach. I have singled out my cycling and swim technique as areas to focus on. I blogged about my swim technique coaching a few months ago and I am glad to say things are still improving. On the bike I have really tried to apply some science. This year I want to be able to measure myself because what you can measure, you can improve.

Power training is all the rage in the world of cycling at the moment. How many untitled (6)Watts of power you are generating is a great real time measure of performance, arguably better than heart rate or training based on perceived effort. The problem with using power to train on a bike is that you won’t see much change from £1,000 for a decent power meter. I can’t justify that kind of expense, but after a lot of looking around I have found a great alternative – TrainerRoad.

TrainerRoad is a turbo based training system that uses other measures to calculate an approximation of power, a measure they call “Virtual Power”. I won’t explain how it all works here as TrainerRoad does a very good job of that on their web site. What I can say is that for £50 or so of components, about 15 minutes of set up, a quick software install and a £6.50 per month subscription I was power training on my turbo.

Trainer Road uses speed and cadence data and the knowledge of which turbo you are using to calculate power stats on the fly and display them on your feature-training-live-feedback-v1.1PC/laptop. You get a live graphical and digital view of the stats and considering all the calculations are happening on remote servers somewhere else on the web, there is no noticeable delay in the speed at which the displayed stats respond to your activity. How accurate are the power readings? Tests show that they are accurate to within about 5% but I don’t think it matters. What it gives you is a performance benchmark and providing you keep your settings (turbo resistance, flywheel tension, tyre pressure etc.) all exactly the same, then all your results can be compared to the benchmark on a like for like basis.

But TrainerRoad is more than just a virtual power meter. It is also a training regime. The software comes equipped with an extensive library of workouts. If you are like me and like structure then you can also chose a full workout program. Wherever you are in your training cycle and whatever you are training for, they have a program to fit with the small exception of one for an Ironman, although they do have a Half Ironman program and when I asked they said a full Ironman program is on the way next Spring.

Like all these things, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – so does it work? I can only speak from experience. I started six weeks ago with a “Sweet Spot” base training program. Every program starts with a test to establish a benchmark and to set the power targets for your workouts. The test is a standard 8-minute test – two reps of eight minutes at full tilt built into a one-hour session– which is used to calculate your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). In English this is the maximum level of power that you could hold for one hour. My test calculated that my FTP was 163 Watts.

The Sweet Spot program was six weeks of three workouts a week, each between 60 and 90 minutes duration. Most workouts were interval based with increasing lengths of intervals in the sweet spot between 85% – 95% of FTP. It was hard work and pushed me much harder than I would ever have pushed myself. Yesterday I finished the program and retested and produced a shiny new FTP of 189 Watts – a 15% improvement in my power in just six weeks. It’s not going to scare Sebastian Kienle, but my verdict? It works all right!

On top of that, interwoven into every workout are lots of technique tips and drills. Not only am I already a more powerful cyclist, I believe I am also more efficient. There is also a social element to it. You can make your results public, to other TrainerRoad users, and even organise teams and collect results. Sharing the experience with my friends Chris Glover (yes the Chris Glover) and Louisa Vere have made me that little bit more accountable and made it more fun.

So with an early Christmas present of an extra 26 Watts, I am going to take a short break – who knows I might even cycle outside – before starting a follow on Sweet Spot base training program in early January. I can’t wait. It is safe to say that I am a huge fan of TrainerRoad.

In other news spare a thought for my friend Nick Wall. During an off season MTB burn up with some friends in the Forest of Dean, Nick took a downhill jump 1384167_10204339264055272_2592443157215635485_na bit too fast. The problem with downhill jumps is that the ground is suddenly a long way below you. Nick estimates that he was twenty feet up when he lost control and the back wheel came over the top of him. Needless to say he hit the ground hard. When the smoke had cleared Nick had broken his shoulder, his elbow, his wrist in three places and four ribs, one of which punctured a lung. After a bit of surgery he is on the mend and still managing to smile. Here’s to a quick recovery. I am still hopeful that he and I can race The Outlaw Half together in late May but time will tell.

That’s all for now! All that remains is to thank you all for reading in 2014 and to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Let’s do it all again in 2015!

Ironman Blues, News & Barbecues

The term “Cold Turkey” was invented to describe the feeling I got about seven days after Ironman UK. Seven days was how long the sense of euphoria lasted – the period in which I would well up each time I remembered another moment from that extraordinary day in Bolton. It is also the length of time I could get away with wearing my finishers T-shirt without washing it before people started giving me a wide berth in the street. And by coincidence it is also how long it took me to realise that the looks I was getting when I wore my medal to go shopping in Sainsbury’s were not always looks of admiration. If I had paid closer attention I would probably have noticed that seven days was also the full extent of how long people were polite enough to appear interested whenever I dragged the conversation back to Ironman!

Seven days then……nothing. The twelve hours a week of training, the diet, the conditioning, the planning, the online banter, the laundry and the sleepless nights leading up to the event all gone in a moment to be replaced with a vacuum, or more accurately The Ironman Blues. An empty feeling that the party is over but also a complete lack of motivation to get off my arse and do anything about it.

Having suffered a minor attack of the blues after running the London Marathon in 2012 I came prepared this time taking the precaution of lining up some fun activities to fill the large M Dot shaped hole in my life.

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Andover Tri does Ironman L-R Carrie Power (IMUK), Me, Jase Briley (Double Enduroman), Louisa Vere (IM Switzerland), Nick Wall (IM France). Standing Peter Holt (IM France)

First up was the Ironman Barbecue. Seven of us from the mighty Andover Tri Club had completed Ironman races in June and July and that alone was worth a celebration. If you were an Ironman it was about as close to Iron heaven as you will get. We all sat down to dinner in our finishers T-shirt (washed!), wearing our medal, drank beer and talked non-stop about our Ironman exploits, pausing only occasionally to let other people talk about there’s. I am not sure the partners saw it quite like that, but we had a great evening. As the drink flowed the tales of Ironman bravado got taller and the plans for next year got bolder. By midnight we were all going sub-12 next year (which would be a feat in itself as none of us got close this year!) and as we would all be there anyway, we agreed to have the 2015 barbecue in Kona!!

The week after the barbecue our household was consumed by a major logistical trauma also known as Pony Club Camp. It is likely that the Task Force that was mobilised to sail to the Falklands on a flotilla of battleships took less kit with them than two 12 year olds took to spend a week camping and riding ponies ten miles from home in a period of mild weather, winds light to moderate. Anyway mission accomplished – they had a ball.

After the emotional upheaval of Ironman and the organisational stress of camp we were off on holiday without a moment to stop and think about Ironman and the blues.

Regular readers will remember last year that we went to the Mark Warner resort in Lemnos which had the feel of a correctional facility for people obsessed with staying fit – so we didn’t go back there. Instead we went to Mark Warner in Corsica which as far as I could tell was no different. We hadn’t even got off the plane before I had met my first triathlete!

A bit like Lemnos the resort was full of middle-aged men and women who may have been hell raisers in their youth but who now were more concerned with morning runs than Tequila Slammers. No Jack Wills, Super Dry or Hollister here, it was strictly lycra. On a positive note, the daily group bike rides provided a whole new audience of people who wanted to listen and ask questions about my Ironman, at least for the first week. In the second week I was trumped by a new arrival who had just done the Marathon des Sables (seven marathons in six days across the Sahara) and even Ironman couldn’t compete. And even if it could, she had done two of those as well.

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King of the Mountains!!!

I managed to get out and do something that would vaguely pass as training on most days. If I had any focus it was on swimming in the sea as the swim in my race in Majorca in October is not only a sea swim but it is likely to be a non-wet suit swim. After swimming 1,500m in the sea every day I now feel at home with that prospect. But even in the sea I was upstaged by my new friend Mark who was training for the Buttermere 10k swim and who was regularly knocking out 5k training sessions. But on the plus side I was awarded the weekly King of The Mountains prize for my cycling antics – mainly because I was the only person the cycling guide recognised at the awards ceremony 

By the time we got home Summer was almost over and Ironman seemed to be a small spec in the rear view mirror and any opportunity to develop a case of the blues had passed. All the focus now seems to be on next year – not because long distance triathletes are an organised bunch, but because the big races are all going on sale now and are selling out quickly. When I say quickly, I mean “Led Zeppelin Reunion Concert” quickly. The new Ironman 70.3 in Staffordshire which doesn’t take place until next June sold all 2,000 places in 15 minutes which was only eclipsed by Challenge Roth selling all 5,000 places in under a minute. It seems the appetite to suffer is alive and well in Britain!

For now I have entered the Outlaw Half again (another one day sell out) which was a feat in itself. Nothing they throw at me on the day of the race will match the stress levels of trying to enter a race online using a Kindle and a dodgy hotel Wi-Fi connection in Corsica while the organisers were regularly posting updates on Facebook of how quickly places were going. Anyway that one is booked and I can forget about it for a while. The priority now is to get my training on with only six and a half weeks left until the European Championships at Challenge Paguera and my first outing in a GB tri suit. More on that another time.

For now enjoy the last few weeks of the season.

 

 

10 things we know about Ironman now that we wish we’d known a year ago

If you have just signed up for your first Ironman or iron distance race and you are wondering what you have let yourself in for, don’t worry, help is at hand in the shape of the Ironman Journey group on Facebook.

IMUK2012_newMany of the 850-odd members of the group have now done at least one Iron distance race. While it is still fresh in everyone’s minds, we have drawn on the Group’s collective wisdom and assembled some tips for todays would be Ironmen. Things we wish we had known a year ago.

This is not about training or coaching; in fact it is the very opposite. It is the kind of real life advice that you won’t find in any coaching manual. So here goes:

1. Have the conversation
Ironman is a selfish game. As you approach the action end of your training you will be out of the house for long periods of time – mostly at weekends and in the evening. This is time that your partner and kids refer to as “family time”. Temporarily it has to become “Ironman time”. There is nothing worse than coming back from a long ride to an atmosphere because you haven’t got the family on your side.

More than one person has said that they could never repay the debt to their wife / husband for all their support (although only Iain Edgar’s wife has said she will see that he manages to repay it!). Ironman is an infinitely better experience if you do it as a team and take the family on the journey with you. That needs a proper conversation right at the start.

2. Join the Ironman Journey Facebook Group
Everyone thought it, Cath Hartwell suggested it. At home and at work you will quickly run out of people willing to listen to Ironman talk. The Facebook Group is full of likeminded people. It is the only place where people will think it is normal that you want to cycle 112 miles before running a marathon.

The group is full of reassurance, advice, banter, and top tips. But most important is has a handful of Ironman veterans who are able to reassure you that the menopausal mood swings, high anxiety, sleepless nights and motivational troughs are all perfectly normal. That’s OK then!

I met several people on race day that I had met virtually through the group and there are many more who I am sure I will meet at future events – people who I hope will become friends. Isn’t that one of the reason we all do this?

3. Perspective: Part 1
During the long winter months of training it will get tough. The sheer scale of the challenge can also get under your skin and will sometime appear near impossible. Try to keep things in perspective. You are not being asked to stop the polar ice caps from melting or to solve the national debt problem. You are training for a race that you want to do and have volunteered for. Most important, remember that you are doing this for fun. This is a hobby. If it all gets on top of you see paragraph 2!

4. Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition
All the coaching manuals will tell you how important it is to get your nutrition right on the day. It can make the difference between finishing or not. But here are some tips born out of bitter experience:

Man cannot live on gels alone! Make sure you build some solid food into your race. The bike is the most obvious place to do it. If you are doing Ironman UK you will pass the special needs feed station twice. Pack a picnic and make the bike leg more social like Ines Carr did. But Jason Anderton offers a word of caution – if you fill your tri suit pockets with food, don’t forget to empty them before you disrobe to go to the loo or the last you will hear of your bananas and Powerbars is a splash.

On a serious note, start experimenting with nutrition now. Not everyone gets on with all nutrition as many in the group will testify. Combine a “gel tummy” with race day nerves and the results can be explosive – literally!! A few things to watch out for. Adrian O’Brien advises never to trust a fart on the run. For Chris Glover that was too late, his trust was betrayed in T2, so his advice is simple; carry some loo paper! It’s not all bad news for Chris. His mishap has already entered Ironman UK folklore and will be known forever as “Doing a Glover”.

Niamh Lewis has the last word on this topic and brings a ladies fashion eye to the problem. If you are doing Ironman, don’t ever wear a white tri suit!

5. Be organised
If you are like me (and it seems a few are), once you get to the race venue your mind turns to mush and even the simplest decisions become difficult. So try and get as many decisions as possible made before you arrive.

Jason Walkley offered a top tip for those doing 140.6 races that use transition bags. Work out what needs to go in your bike and run bags in the week before the race – then simply take it to the race venue in separate bags and decant it into your transition bags when you get them at registration. One less piece of thinking to do on the day. But make sure you do a final check and avoid Adrian O’Brien’s experience of cycling 112 miles with no socks and brand new bike shoes.

Kaine Pritchett advises against arriving at the venue on the Saturday before a Sunday race. Registering, checking in transition bags, bike racking and attending a briefing is a lot to pack into one day and adds a lot of stress at a time when you want to be de-stressing. Get there on Friday.

On a more practical note Hannah Elliot advises that you make a note of your race number so that you don’t forget it and end up in tears looking in the wrong row in the T1 changing tent!

6. Take your time and don’t panic
Onto the race itself now. Several people offered advice about the swim. 10514594_705906046111239_6860745791808719757_nParticularly be careful at what point you enter the water – with thousands of others around you it is difficult to re-position yourself once you are in. I just joined the queue and once we were in I found myself mid-pack – not somewhere I would have chosen.

Maria Greaves took this to a whole different level and ended up right at the front of the swim and endured what she describes as an aquatic pub brawl!

Wherever you end up in the swim, Emma Hampson offers the comforting assurance that you won’t die so advises against her approach which was to burst into tears as she got into the water.

Lots of first time Ironmen offer advice on not rushing things – 17 hours is a long time. Rob Jude says don’t be afraid to spend the necessary time in T1 and T2 to get comfortable – you are a long time biking and running. Clive Onions is one of many who recommends you invest some of that time in applying Udderley Smooth Chamois Cream around the undercarriage in T1 – Jason Clarke prefers Vaseline!

Vicki Gale recommends you change socks in T2 – having done it myself, I can safely say that Vicki’s tip is one the most important changes I made all day. Starting the run in dry fresh socks was bliss.

A word of caution here from Andrew Rudda. He agrees you shouldn’t rush things, but also suggest you keep a bit of time in the bank to absorb a mishap. Andrew had an episode with a puncture that he couldn’t fix and by the time the mechanic got to him he had missed the bike cut off

7. It’s not a Marathon, it’s an Ironman run
Tim Lebon takes the credit for this one. Anyone who has done an Ironman will know exactly what this means. Normal Marathon rules don’t apply. I read a great article recently which said that an Ironman Marathon is not like a normal Marathon that turns ugly at 20 miles – it starts ugly. Forget your normal thinking about pace and splits – think survival. You have one aim and that is to get to the finish.

Walking is not an admission of defeat – virtually everyone walks at some point during the Ironman run. I had breakfast the morning after Ironman UK with Becky Hoare who clocked a 3.50hrs marathon to finish in 11.10hrs, won her age group and is going to Kona. Becky walked through every feed station.

So take the walking moments to meet your fellow competitors and help each other through it. Most of my best memories of the day are from the run for exactly that reason.

8. Leave your watch at home and enjoy yourself
This was multiple Ironman Jason Briley’s advice to the Group before Ironman UK. You only cross the finish line of your first Ironman once – so make the most of it.

Nobody doing Ironman for the first time really knows what their finish time will be, so why heap all the pressure on yourself of chasing a time that you have pretty much guessed. There will be plenty of future Ironman races for chasing times – just enjoy the first one and aim to finish.

From my own experience I didn’t completely follow Jase’s advice. I had a watch on during the run but the battery died at the start of the last lap. I felt liberated and enjoyed that last lap as much as any part of the race. I could hear Briley in my ear saying: “I told you so”!!

Iain Edgar agrees with this – his single piece of advice is to enjoy yourself. Carrie Power adds a commercial twist recommending that if you enjoy it for no other reason remember you have paid a lot to be there!!

9. Keep some perspective part 2
One thing you can be certain of is that things won’t go to plan. That may be a minor inconvenience, it may be worse. One in five of those who entered Ironman UK this year didn’t finish (some didn’t start). Hopefully that won’t be you, but if it is try and keep some perspective like Cath Hartwell who had to pull out after a bike crash. Cath’s philosophy is simple: “Knock me down 7 times. I’ll get up 8”. She’s already entered Ironman UK 2015 and already has 850 supporters!

I’ll leave the last word on this to Andy Holgate – after all it is his fault that many of us were there at all. Sadly Andy’s race at Ironman UK this year ended in an ambulance. He says:

“Sometimes things happen that are out of your control that can end your race. Don’t dwell on it, stay positive, refocus and make a promise to yourself to come back stronger. Perspective, an Ironman DNF is not the end of the world :-)”

10. So if you have your partner on side, got your nutrition sorted, joined the group, ditched your watch and you’re organised and ready to roll, there is only one tip left to give – an Ironman Journey Group favourite: Don’t be shit!!

Ironman UK – 20 July 2014

It had been nearly a year since I entered Ironman UK and during the course of those 12 months it has never been far from my mind. Now finally it was here. From the start of Ironman UK race week this felt very different to anything I had done before. I managed to keep my nerves in check, but was glad when the time came to travel to Bolton on Friday, arriving in time to register and attend a race briefing.

Saturday was busy delivering my bike and transition bags to the right places. It was when I arrived at Pennington Flash to rack my bike that the scale of the event first hit me and the nerves stepped up a notch. Sunday morning couldn’t come fast enough.

On Saturday evening we had dinner with my club mate Carrie Power who was also competing. Carrie had registered a DNF at Ironman Switzerland in 2013 and had lived with the disappointment for a year. Sunday was all about laying that ghost to rest for her. As we waded through a mountain of pasta, I could sense Carrie’s single mindedness. What’s the saying about a woman scorned? Ironman didn’t stand a chance!

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My Iron support crew – Cate & Matilda

Even by triathlon standards the alarm call on Sunday was early. My alarm was set for 3.00am so I could catch the shuttle bus to Pennington Flash at 4.00am. As usual, I was awake well before that. I had managed about 4 ½ hours of fitful sleep – hardly the perfect preparation for the long day ahead.

Cate and Matilda, my Iron support crew, dutifully got up at 3.30am and drove me to the Reebok Stadium and waved me off.

Three hours later I was standing in a queue of 2,000 very nervous wet suited competitors waiting to be allowed into the water. With over half of the field doing their first Ironman the atmosphere was incredible.

As we waited, standing next to me was none other than Andy Holgate, the triathlon author, whose book about his journey to Ironman had given me real encouragement to do this. I asked him if he would zip up my wet suit. I told him that it was partly his fault that I was there, so it was an appropriate last act before we started. He laughed and did me up before shaking hands and wishing me luck. What a nice guy!

As 2,000 of us trooped into the water my nerves turned to excitement. I soaked every moment of it in, it was exhilarating. I swam about 250 yards out towards the start line and picked a spot in some space. I looked behind me to see a huge crowd of people treading water. I was somewhere in mid pack – about 1,000 in front and 1,000 behind. This was going to be interesting!

They played the national anthem – very American. Then I heard the PA system announce 10 seconds to go and the huge crowd on the shore cheer. No turning back now! Then a loud hooter. Ironman UK was underway, the start of a very long day.

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The crowded swim

The noise was incredible as 2,000 people burst into action – the world’s biggest washing machine! For the first few hundred metres there was no room at all. I got clattered a few times, but nothing too bad. By about 600 metres I had found some room and some rhythm.

The next challenge was the first turning buoy at about 900 metres – having spread out a bit, hundreds of people swimming around me were now all heading for the same 20 feet of water. I decided to go round as close as I could to the buoy. I wasn’t the only one – at one point you could have walked over the raft of bodies, but we all got round in one piece without any dramas.

In what seemed like no time I was at the exit at the end of lap one – 1.2 miles (1.9k) done. As I ran the small stretch on land I saw the race clock – 37 minutes – about what I would have expected.

The second lap was much less congested and I hit a really steady rhythm and certainly didn’t feel as though my pace dropped. As I approached the exit for the last time, I heard the announcer over the PA and the cheering crowd from about 200 metres out. I kept swimming right to the exit ramp before I stood up unsteadily. A volunteer reached his hand out and I grabbed it gratefully. He pulled me up the ramp and seconds later my feet were on terra firma. One Ironman swim done!

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One Ironman swim done!

As I ran to T1 grappling with the zip on my wet suit I passed the race clock again – 1.21 hrs. I was surprised that my second lap had been slower – but 1.21hrs would do. Much more exciting was seeing Cate and Matilda for the first time cheering madly holding up their “Go Dad” banner. It was a real boost. Then it was time to think about the bike.

Ironman style transition with kit bags and changing tents make fast transition difficult. I was in and out of the tent and onto my bike in 6 minutes which was fine.

The bike course was a 14-mile point to point section which joined what everyone referred to as “The Loop” – a circuit of just under 50 miles that we had to do twice. It was crowded to begin with as hundreds of competitors poured out of the swim venue and in the shake down of slow swimmers who were fast cyclists racing through the field, I saw several crashes.

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The “Mankini Men” on Sheephouse lane

 We reached the The Loop in a bit less than an hour and were straight into the first of two climbs – Sheephouse Lane. It wasn’t a steep climb, just long and relentless. As I approached the top I was distracted from the pain by 4 men at the side of the road dressed only in mankinis and coloured wigs, dancing to thumping music coming from their camper van. Was I hallucinating or had the world briefly gone mad!

At about the 30-mile mark I caught Carrie and rode with her for a quick chat. She’d had a stellar swim finishing in 1.09hrs and was feeling good on the bike and seemed in good spirits. That was all I needed to know. We wished each other luck and I pressed on.

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Sheephouse Lane

By the time I started the second lap it was late morning and large crowds had gathered at the best spectating points. By far the highlight of the bike course was Babylon Lane or “Colt Alley” as it has become known on Ironman race day. The hill out of Adlington had been taken over by Colt tri club and friends – several thousand of them lined the route pressing right into the road leaving only a few metres for competitors to cycle through. The noise was deafening, this was the closest thing I will ever experience to riding a climb on the Tour de France. It was awesome – a real goose bumps moment.

Finally at about 2.30pm and after just over 7 hours on the bike, 112 miles and 6,751 feet (2,058 metres) of ascent, I pulled into T2 at the Reebok Stadium. I love my TT bike but I wasn’t sorry to hand it to a bike catcher and head into the changing tent. I was tired but ecstatic to have the bike leg behind me. I got an extra little boost when I looked around and saw that the bike racking in T2 was still less than half full. Two down and one to go – even if that one was a marathon!

Once again transition took 6 minutes – nothing if not consistent!

The run course of Ironman UK was brutal – there is no better word to describe it. When I think run, I think flat, but not in Bolton! The run started with a quick taste of things to come – straight into a hill. But despite the ascent it didn’t take long for my legs to feel something like my own.

The run course was an 8-mile stretch into the centre of Bolton to join a run loop around the town centre which was about 5 miles long and which we did 3 ¾ times. I saw Cate and Matilda again about 2 miles into the run – the timing was perfect and gave me a huge lift. They were next to a feed station so I was able to stop very briefly and give them a high five. A moment of light relief during an increasingly difficult afternoon

The run into Bolton is partially along the tow path of the canal where I took a 0759_032105short break and walked with two guys from Team True Spirit, the club that gives recovering injured servicemen the chance to take part in events like this. We chatted as we walked and despite their obvious injuries, all these guys wanted to know was how I was doing. Two humble but deeply inspirational human beings – suddenly my aching legs seemed unimportant. After a while we all wished each other luck and I ran on with tears in my eyes. What a moment! It cost me a minute on my race time, but a minute that will inspire me through challenges for as long as I continue to take them on.

Once I reached the loop in Bolton town centre the whole mood changed. I felt as though I had arrived at the party! The first lap was fun. The entire run loop was lined with supporters cheering and encouraging and the closer you got to the centre of town and the finish, the bigger the crowds became. Coming out of town was a different story. It started with a sharp hill followed by a short flat section to get your breath back then a steady incline for most of the rest of the outward part of the loop. The 26-mile run had a total of 1,000 feet of ascent.

As more and more runners joined the loop the atmosphere built. I have many great memories of the run – the crowds of young spectators outside the pub halfway along who got drunker and more encouraging with each lap – meeting numerous people who I had been virtual friends with on Facebook until now, but who became real friends in Bolton bonded by our common struggle – my old friend Taff Davies who I haven’t seen for over 20 years introducing himself to the race booming out “Come on Whenty” across the run course.

When I was about half way through my first full lap I finally saw Carrie on the run coming the other way and stopped for a chat. She had made it through the bike leg which had been her nemesis in Switzerland – I couldn’t have been more pleased. But seeing Carrie had only briefly distracted me from how hard things were becoming. 15 miles into the marathon, I had been on the go for over 10 hours and my body was beginning to object violently.

Whoever you are, an Ironman ultimately boils down to a moment when your body says no and you have to find a way to say yes. It happened to me about 18 miles into the run, on my second lap. From then on it was one long negotiation. I seemed happy if I knew when the next walk would be. I set landmarks: “Run to those traffic lights half a mile away and then walk for 20 seconds, then run to the next feed station half a mile further on and walk through it” and so it went on. I don’t think I let myself off lightly, but I definitely slowed on the last third of the run.

My legs were close to shot, they had been propelling me forwards for about 11 hours. My feet felt like a bomb site – I shuddered to think what I would find when I eventually peeled my running shoes off later. But somehow I kept myself moving forward – I can’t explain how, it’s just the way you’ve wired yourself for this day.

Eventually I found myself running to the turning point at the far end of town for the last time. I passed through the penultimate aid station and fuelled up for one last effort. Then I ran the 100 metres to the turnaround, ran over the timing mat and turned for home – 2 ½ miles.

I chatted to another runner as we both headed for the finish. We agreed that running downhill back into town should have been a pleasure but it wasn’t – it hurt. Past the supporters at the pub who by now were feeling no pain – 2 miles.

I saw Carrie coming back out of down on the other side of the road, still looking happy – 1 ½ miles

Down the steep hill into town and into the final feed station – just a cup of water this time – ½ mile.

0759_049531As I left the feed station I could hear the announcer at the finish line. For the first time I started to celebrate, I was going to do it. I ran round the corner, into Victoria Square and there was the finish – 200 metres of Bolton’s dusty cobbles were all that stood between me and my Ironman dream.

I ran into the top of the long winding finishing chute and looked around for Cate and Matilda. I had to see them before I crossed the line. Apart from living this whole thing with me, they had both been up since 3.30am standing on the side of roads around Bolton cheering me on – Iron support – this was as much their moment as it was mine. They weren’t hard to spot – Matilda was doing a passable impression of Animal from the Muppets trying to attract my attention. I ran across to them for a big sweaty family hug. Cate was more concerned that I hadn’t finished yet but for these few seconds the clock could tick – I was where I wanted to be.

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In the finishing chute

And then came the moment. I ran slowly down the red carpet urging the crowd on, round the corner and there was Paul Kaye, the Ironman announcer. As I ran past him to the finish line he gave me a high five and I heard him say over the PA system; “Enjoy your finish Peter, YOU – ARE – AN – IRONMAN.” I had done it. 13 hours and 33 minutes after I had started in Pennington Flash I had finished. I was an Ironman! My marathon had taken 4.48hrs.

A volunteer hung a medal around my neck. There was no outpouring of emotion, just a real sense of achievement. In the athletes tent after the finish line there were about 20 other finishers, most of whom were sitting down staring a thousand miles into the distance. Their bodies had done their jobs and had now shut down.

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After 13.33hrs I am an Ironman!

On offer was all the Dominoes pizza you could eat. In my case that amounted to precisely none! After 20 Powerbar gels and heaven knows how much energy drink my stomach was closed for business. Just a bottle of water to celebrate!! I was soon reunited with Cate and Matilda and then the celebrations could really start! I also caught up with my old mate Taff.

I wanted to stay and watch Carrie finish, but I had a 12-year old on my hands who had been awake since 3.00am and was dropping. Reluctantly we headed back to the hotel, but I followed avidly online and celebrated as she crossed the finish line about an hour and a half later. One ghost laid to rest! We all had a great celebration breakfast in our hotel the next day.

0759_046454The next morning I was wide awake at 5.00am. As I lay in bed reliving the events of the day before, I felt a real sense of satisfaction and pride. I hadn’t come to Bolton to qualify for Kona, or to win a prize or even for a fast time. I came looking for the answer to a question: When I push myself to my limits and I am staring into the abyss, have I got what it takes? The answer came at about 7.30pm on Sunday evening when I heard those four words.

In my mind

When I am running, in my head my running style is the same smooth, floating style as Steve Cram.

CoeCram460 (2)When I am swimming, in my head I have a smooth long stroke and I cut through the water effortlessly.

If I step out of my head for a moment and into the real world, I know none of this is true – but that doesn’t matter. Right now I am preparing for a battle which, in the absence of injury or a mechanical problem, will be largely won or lost in my head.

With ten days to go, there is little I can do to my body that will improve my chances on 20th July – that small task has consumed most of the last six months but is now largely complete. All I can do is to try and keep my fitness levels where they are and stay sharp for race day. So a lot of my time now is being spent working on what is going on in my head.

Someone asked me the other day if I was getting psyched up for the big day. Are you kidding? Psyched up? I have been permanently psyched up for the last two months. I can’t watch an Ironman motivational video without bursting into tears. Even following my friends via the online athlete tracker as they did Ironman France I was welling up. My problem isn’t getting psyched up, it’s trying to stay calm!

In an ideal world I would like to remain calm right up to the moment when the hooter goes at 6.00am on Sunday week. When the hooter does go, I hope I can go calmly about my business. There is no hurry and it is likely to be a very long day, so no rush of blood to the head needed.

A far more likely scenario is a week of obsessing about the problems before and during the race. Once you go looking for them, there are lots to be found.

Sheephouse Lane, one of the two climbs on the bike course seems to have found its way into many peoples’ heads to the extent that it is now bigger by reputation than it is on the map! But such is the size of the task that it is not surprising that I, and hundreds of other first timers like me, are all very nervous and allowing our minds to run riot. Managing the mind is a big challenge!

Apart from some training and some mind games, the next ten days is all about getting organised. I have lots to do – bike service, change the tyres, new cleats, check wet suit over, get a massage, pack my kit, unpack it, check it and pack it again (that little loop will consume two days alone!) and so the list goes on.

And then next week there is the haircut! For Ironman I am going short. Short is normally the preserve of kids or men who are bald and who if they didn’t shave it all would look like Friar Tuck. I don’t qualify on either count. I could try and pretend short is more aerodynamic on the bike, but as I will be wearing a helmet throughout, that excuse won’t wash either.

The truth is that it is another small part of the mind games. I want to look like I mean business. In my mind I want feel like I could be an Ironman. As with my imaginary view of my running and swimming style, sometimes in this game that is so dependent on your mind, it is not what you really are that matters, it is what you think you are!

Have a relaxing and productive last ten days everyone. Not long now!

My body is eating itself

Two weeks and three days to go and the nerves are beginning to jangle.

Everything became a bit more real this week as three of my friends completed 10491098_10152549189272288_4681211261765486426_nIronman France in Nice. Up until now I have to confess that I have been hiding behind my friends. In my mind Ironman UK was after France and so if Ironman France hadn’t happened then Ironman UK wasn’t here yet. Well it just did and it is. On Sunday evening on La Promenade des Anglais, Nick Wall, Liz Mayon-White and Pete Holt became Ironmen. Heroes!

Meanwhile back in the UK my training was reaching a crescendo with one last push. The last two weeks have been full on – 32 hours of training, two one hundred-mile bike rides, long runs, full Iron distance open water swims and more. I have emptied the tank and now it is time to let it recharge.

I hesitate to use the word taper because to me that word has connotations of putting your feet up and declaring training over. Nothing could be further from the truth. My training continues but the really long sessions are done. I plan to keep some volume and intensity for the next week and then ease off for the last ten days to allow my body to fully recover before race day. But I will continue to train lightly even during race week.

One of the side effects of the huge volume of training has been on my body weight. I reckon that in each of the last two weeks I have burned about 12,000 calories over and above the 2,500 a normal man burns just by existing. Surprisingly that amount of calories is quite hard to replace, especially if you try and do it sensibly. It is equivalent to 140 slices of granary bread (20 a day!!) or 80 cream eggs!! Without a stream of cream eggs to keep the calorie count up, my body has turned to its own fat stores for help. It is literally feasting on itself.

Even though I am constantly hungry and eating ad lib, my weight has gone down. For the first time in maybe 20 years my weight recently started with the words “11 stone”. Maybe I have stumbled upon an effective fool proof weight loss regime – on second thoughts it probably has a limited appeal!

In other news I had the most pleasant surprise this week. On the strength of my result at the Outlaw Half, I received an email from British Triathlon telling me that I have been given a place to race for Great Britain in my age group at the European Middle Distance Championship in Majorca in October.

It is impossible to put into words what that means to me. At first I just felt Zerod-Tri-Suit-500x500excited as I rushed around booking flights and hotels. It wasn’t until a little later when I went online to order my GBR triathlon suit that it suddenly sank in. I am going to race for Great Britain! I am going to race in a GB tri suit with my name on it and everything! What an honour.

My 82 year old Mother came to dinner on Monday to celebrate her birthday. She was naturally thrilled by my news – a proud Mum. But the spice went out of it for her when she learned that we weren’t going to Majorca on a chartered British Airways Team GB plane. Well she has a point!

But having done what I need to do to get organised for October, I now have to put all that to the back of my mind. Ironman is not something you can go into preoccupied, it needs to have my full attention for the next 18 days. My GB selection will be a lovely distraction to return to after that and will hopefully go some way to relieving the post Ironman blues that everyone talks about.

To everyone doing Ironman UK, happy tapering. We are almost there!!