Some lessons you teach yourself, some lessons you’re open to, and there are those that force themselves on you like the drunk fat lass at a disco, whether you like it or not.
Early season training had gone pretty well this year. I was feeling fit and looking forward to racing Tri Amsterdam – a half Iron distance race right here in town – which was to be my A race for the first half of the year.
But, in the month before the race, all that good work seemed to go out of the window faster than a cheeky, threadbare window cleaner in a 60s British comedy.
One problem was, well, life: weekend away with friends, weekends of friends visiting, long days after starting my new job with a spot of illness thrown in.
The other problem was one of preparation or lack thereof; due to shitty weather, shitty luck and a shitty bike shop, I’d actually only ridden my new TT bike once ever before race day. Due to the same crap weather but an excellent swimming pool experience (mad props to SwimGym yo…), I had also only pulled on my wetsuit once since last August for an open water swim.
Last excuse – not really, you’ll see there’s a positive root to the old excuse tree shortly – the week before the race was BUSY! BIZ. ZEEEEE. To the point where I didn’t even have time to register and check my bike in the night before the race, as intended, and had to do it the morning of the race… a nice quirk of this particular race as it’s often not allowed at Ironman and Challenge events.
So. In summary, I was definitely not overtrained and expectations were low. Which leads to the conclusion that maybe I have been overtrained in the past and could benefit from a bit more rest now and then… especially when life gets all stressful and the like. The other thing I did in this race was force feed myself way more calories than I’d managed to take on before.
Uneventful, checked bike in and set everything out (no bike or run bags here which doubtless did speed up the transitions). Got there early so felt pretty good and confident all was as should be. Did a small warm-up run and then pulled on the wetsuit ready for race start.
The swim was a rolling start, so I got myself right to the front to make sure I didn’t have to swim my way around any of the self-assured Dutchies who consistently overestimate their abilities in the water. There were some delays as they waited to get the OK from the stewards on the bike course. I was able to busy myself by waving to and hiding from The Boy who was in the crowd nearby with Wifey, The Folks and The Inlaws.
Then, suddenly, BANG. I fair haired it down the ramp and managed a big running dive which, let’s face it, always looks and feels cool in a triathlon. It was a little dull on the day so visibility wasn’t great and, being out in front initially, I was simultaneously grateful for the canoeist who was leading the way while cursing her between breaths for staying just a bit too far ahead to be easy to spot! At the halfway point, I was feeling pretty good and steady but knew the water would be choppier on the way back as the course took us further into the middle of the Amstel river which is pretty wide at this point.
Fortunately, just then someone overtook me (eventual winner it would turn out, a local pro triathlete) and I was happy to stick on his feet for almost all of the second half of the swim, until he put a little spurt on with 100m or so to go back to the swim exit. I kept it steady and emerged from the Amstel for a time of 24:42, second out of the water and the third fastest swim overall.
T1 wasn’t spectacular but it wasn’t the customary early-season fuster-cluck either so I was on my way out on to the bike course in 1:18.
My best half IM split on the bike came from pushing around 250w average and while I was in that sort of shape a couple of months before this race, I knew for sure I wasn’t there so decided on around 230-240w as a figure that seemed sustainable given everything.
I held second position overall until about 10km into the bike when a group of three came past me, and I held on to the back of two of those guys – maybe 15m or so ahead of me – for the next 10km or so, which helped to keep the power high but maybe had me pushing closer to the 255w range. Eventually, reality caught up with ego and I decided to let them go from view.
It was a nice course but a lonely one, out in the countryside to the south of Amsterdam with very few villages touched. The first 30km was fun but, by then, my back was feeling the lack of experience riding in the TT position. It was going to be a long ride..!
The next 30km featured a lot of flat and open terrain into a very stout headwind which brought down the pace, and made staying low and aero (which by now felt like the sort of torturous position that only the writers of Game of Thrones could possibly devise) even more vital.
It also dried the mouth out and – the only criticisms of what was otherwise an excellently organized, well-policed, and bang-on proper distance race – there were a) 2 aid stations on the bike and not the 4 advertised b) the aid stations were on the wrong side of the road c) the water bottles were only half filled at best! d) the people handing out water were numbers 1 and 2 in the line instead of first and last which would give us the opportunity to grab 2 x water bottles. Given that it was a hot and humid day, this led to some pretty full-on dehydration for me, riding 30km or more of the course without any water to hydrate with or to knock down my thick carbohydrate mix.
At 50km, another two riders went past. I was feeling a bit low at this point and didn’t even try to follow.
Around 70km, I had to sit up on the base bar and ride upright for 5 minutes or so… the back was just too painful to stay aero, but, powered by relief, I didn’t lose too much pace. With 15km or so to go, we joined the course of the Olympic distance race that was happening at the same time and, happy to be able to see other people at last and buoyed by the ability to overtake them at will, I was able to drop into the aerobars again and keep the pace and power up. With 5km to go, a motorbike with a camerawoman pulled up beside me and filmed me for a long while, obviously forcing me to stay super aero and force the pace while trying to make it look effortless and smile… worth it as I made it on to the event wrap-up video for all of 2 seconds!
Finally, T2 welcomed me – a bike split of 2:30:54 was not bad at all (average of 36kph almost exactly) considering everything and I figured I was probably in the top 10 overall, so time to get the run shoes on and head out on to the run. Except T2 was a bit of a mess as I forgot my gels, then my hat, then decided I didn’t want a hat (it was pretty hot and humid but not too sunny) so I somehow managed to take longer in T2 than T1, with a 1:28 T2 time.
Agh, the run. Top 3 out the water. Top 10 after bike. This is where a whole bunch of skinny shouldered types with no calf muscles would cruise past me and knock me back down the pecking order. Wasn’t it?
The run was 4 x laps of 5.3km. I always turn my Garmin on as I come out of transition but refuse to look at it until 2km or so into the run, a tactic that works well and allows me to find a comfortable rhythm. All told, a 1h35 half marathon (4:30/km average) would be very decent indeed, I’d decided before the race. Already feeling the dehydration kick in and not really able to do anything about it now I was on the run, I decided that 1h35 could be a best-case scenario.
But, as I came through the race village for the end of the first lap, and got the inevitable lift from seeing loads of ATAC team mates, I was feeling very steady, very controlled, and was running 4:22/km pace.
Mentally, I broke each loop down into sections – quarters – and I knew that the first part of each loop was the hardest, into a headwind with a slight gradual climb up to a bridge. Once through that in an acceptable pace, I knew I could hold it together for another lap and – again lifted by spotting Wifey and My Dad out on the back end of the course – I did just that, coming through in around 4:24/km average to finish lap 2. Even more significantly, very few people were passing me on the run – those who did were doing relays or clearly had done fewer laps – while I was even passing a couple of the guys I’d seen ride past me or head out of T2 just ahead.
Lap 3 is the killer – always. Make or break time and, although I was getting very dehydrated by this point, I also felt the benefit of the extra calories on the bike and gel on the run. The extra work I’d done on core strength (in lieu of being able to train outside so much) was also paying off I was holding run technique together much better than in previous races, in spite of getting very, very hot now. I got a big cheer on from the full family crew and knew that this was going to be a good run – and also a very painful last 7km or so. I spotted them again going over the bridge as I came around for my final lap… just as the race winner was crossing the finish line.
Right at the start of the final lap I saw one of the athletes I coach – attempting his first full Olympic distance, a huge accomplishment for him – also on his final lap of the run and it gave me a massive lift to know that he was going to achieve his goal. My pace had slowed to 4:38/km and this was the lift I needed to push hard again and bring the time back down. I’d seen the time as I completed my third lap and calculated that running 4:25s would get me in under 4h30… unfortunately, that water-starved, over-heated and fatigued calculation as based on a 5km lap, not a 5.3km lap.
Last time past the aid station, last time up the ramp to the bridge, last time over the bridge, last time down the slope, last time over the foot bridge… and into the finish straight. No point in a sprint finish – I could see now that it was going to be a 4:30-something time and that there was nobody close behind, so I lifted The Boy out of Wifey’s arms and carried him across the finish line where he collected my medal… and proceeded to wear it for the next hour.
30 minutes or so later, after congratulating my first-time Olympic distance athlete and sipping down a bit of water, I made my way over to the family, received their congratulations and collapsed onto the ground with dehydration and the sort of headache that historical epics were written about, my vision blurring in and out. Coca-Cola, water and ibuprofen saved the day – as did the nice medical staff who provided them. But it was an indication of just how hard I’d pushed.
The busy week continued straight after the race, as we headed home, I grabbed a shower and we left The Boy with The Folks as we hit Best Kept Secret festival for two days of Arcade Fire, Radiohead, cider and burgers… So it wasn’t til the next week that I fully realized I’d managed a top 10 finish overall (from about 200 competing in the half distance) and I’d smashed my half Ironman PR by more than 6 minutes… come to that, an Ironman PR set on an Ironman 70.3 Luxemburg course that was 1-2km short on the run…
Most pleasing of all, I guess is that I held a very solid run together – a 1:32 half marathon (4:23/km) on an honest course, which is actually faster than I managed for a fresh half marathon in March this year! That gives me a lot of confidence going forward.
Most telling of all is that this was achieved on limited training, and I think I can continue to race decently at this distance even as training time gets squeezed increasingly by the challenge of a new job and a family that is due to get one person bigger in autumn, and all the challenges that is going to bring.