It has been a long time since I blogged. I have missed it, if only because a blog usually follows a reasonably significant occurrence in my otherwise dull and miserable existence (!), i.e, a race, or new gear to try, etc. (Look – in my world, those things are significant occurrences…let’s move on.)
In fairness, I did set expectations after my last blog post that you wouldn’t hear from me again in all likelihood until PZ (Post-Zofingen), and now that time has come.
So this is another race report, but an important one for me. At the end of the day, I blog because I like to share my experiences in multisport, and I enjoy multisport because it has imbued my life with a sense of purpose that was previously missing. That might be a rather sad admission on my part, but nonetheless, I have come to appreciate – nay, rely upon – the structure necessary to organise myself to train for long distance races, and do not relish the prospect of that structure being absent.
How did I get here?
Around 18 months ago, I made the decision – all of 6 months into my multisport ‘career’ (!) to focus exclusively on long distance duathlons. This was primarily for two reasons: firstly, it didn’t take me long to realise that there are too many quick boys in my Age Group over the shorter distances for me to ever be likely to be competitive, and secondly, because I like to beast myself. I say ‘like’, when what I really mean is, it represents some kind of self-inflicted purgatory which for some reason I appear to quite enjoy…at least after the session/race is over. In short, I gain a far greater sense of satisfaction from having completed something that is potentially beyond my capabilities than I do by shaving a minute off my best time for a 2 hour race. That’s in no way to belittle or decry shorter-distance races, and indeed I’m in awe of the abilities of some of my AG compatriots in terms of their sheer speed, but for me, it’s the longer stuff that hurts me more and therefore delivers a greater sense of fulfilment in overcoming adversity to just finish the damn thing!
Having made this decision in March 2013, I decided to set myself the goal of qualifying to represent Great Britain in my Age Group at the Long Distance Duathlon World Championships in Zofingen, Switzerland in 2014. I’m not even sure why I set this as my goal; perhaps it was easier to conceive as something tangible as opposed to targeting a PB over a distance that I’d never previously raced, and therefore had no point of reference against which to base it. Just to make sure that I would actually get off my backside and work for it, I made sure to tell a few people of this goal, including a select few I knew would doubt my willingness to actually commit to anything, namely close family and a couple of friends who’d seen me previously dip in and out of other ‘hobbies’ and interests, all of which started with the same high levels of enthusiasm!
Now I had to find some races – easier said than done. There were just two races in the UK in 2013 over distances even approaching those staged in Zofingen (10K/150K/30K), namely Powerman UK Long Distance Duathlon in August, and the London Duathlon Ultra Distance event in September. I don’t need to replay performances in those events here, but in essence, the dirth of races meant I was going to face a challenge in ‘learning’ to race over long distances.
So here we are – almost taper time
Fast forward to September 2014 and, having duly qualified to don my GB tri-suit at Zofingen, I now had all of 3 ‘long’ distance races under my belt; the two aforementioned events from 2013 and Powerman UK 2014.
As we approached my taper, it’s fair to say I had just about had enough of training. Funny how that happens. I suppose more experienced long distance triathletes/duathletes are probably used to it, but I got to my last week pre-taper and frankly, the thought of another 6 hour brick session followed the next day by a 2-3 hour ride really didn’t appeal. It wasn’t so much the physical side of the training, more the isolation that comes from being on your own for such long periods of the weekends, week after week. That said, I have previously admitted to being a man of contradictions, and there have been many times when I’ve been more than happy to be out on my own with my thoughts, but I’ve come to realise there’s a difference between being out for a steady 4 hour ride with an opportunity to reflect, and being out on a race-pace brick session with concomitant required focus on fuelling, pace, HR, etc.
Anyway, my choice, so no point whining about it. Primarily I was just extremely pleased to get through the last big training block without any injuries and having only missed one session over the entire year to that point. I trust my coach, Jimmy George, implicitly, and if I wasn’t going to perform in Zofingen then it wasn’t going to be down to a lack of training, or more to the point, a lack of the right training. We had been through all the right phases of intensity, volume and specificity, and both my body and the data were in good shape.
On to Zofingen we go
Won’t bore you with all the logistical details; nice road trip (at least once we escaped Dover) through France, Germany and Switzerland, and arrived Zofingen (about half way between Basel and Zurich) around 17.00 local time, in good time to attend the opening ceremony and pasta party. Nice chance to meet a few of the other GB AG athletes and team captain, Jon Cowell. Good to see that there were several of we newbies, as well as a few who hadn’t been put off by their prior experiences and were back for more.
Pre-pasta party – we’re here now
The local children’s dance troop was a bit ‘eclectic’ to say the least though…
Saturday brought race briefing and a chance to wander round the pretty town of Zofingen, before we joined the GB convoy to drive the bike route following Jon, and our first opportunity to witness the ensuing hell that would be the Bodenburg. On driving the route it was clear that there were two hills of note, the second of which – the aforementioned Bodenburg – was certainly a bit of a brute, but the views at the top made up for it…at least that was my thinking on the Saturday…
The winners’ roll…closest I will be getting to this
What was clear from the days leading up to Sunday was that this was all I had been hoping it would be, i.e, a proper ‘event’. The atmosphere was great, there were grandstands, a professionally organised transition area with boxes for athletes’ gear, a really good expo with some nice gear (always important!), TV cameras and media crews, lots of people milling around and everyone being really friendly to one another, old friends catching up and new acquaintances being made.
Might sound strange to you guys who regularly race IronMan or Challenge events, but we poor duathletes often have to make do with little more than a clap from the families we drag along with us and a nice cup of tea and a biscuit in the canteen at the end!
This felt like a real World Championships, particularly so with the presentation of race numbers to the top elites after the pasta party on Friday, and it was brilliant to see – and give a cheer for – Emma Pooley and Matt Moorhouse up there on the stage representing GB with the other leading protagonists. When you’ve worked so hard for so long towards a specific event, it’s really nice when it feels special on arrival, and this did. Powerman and IPA may not have the following of their triathlon rivals, but they know how to organise a really big and key event, and they did themselves proud, making me proud in the process to be a Powerman Ambassador for them.
So an early Saturday night following the usual race-prep with nutrition, gear, bike, etc, and so we should have been in good shape for race day morning.
Well we would have been in good shape for Sunday had I not inadvertently set my alarm to match UK time rather than EU time. This meant that I had a more hurried departure from the hotel than planned, but in fact worked out quite nicely, meaning I avoided the earlier queues to get into transition and had less time having to stand around and wait before race start.
Relaxed in transition pre-race
So, having racked, warmed up and exchanged “good luck”s with other GB teammates, it was time to toe the line.
I’d walked the first hill on the first run course on the Friday evening, so knew what was in store. We set off and I found my rhythm quickly, reminding myself how much I had really enjoyed my hill repeats on Terrace Hill week after week after week during the summer…hmmm, well anyway, it was good preparation.
First run was nice, being 2 x 5Km laps circling back through transition having descended from the forest and then climbing the same hill to repeat the loop. Bang on target at just under 7 minute mile pace. I was not going to make or break my race through a variance of a couple of minutes either way on the first run, but I could have made it more difficult for myself later on if I’d pushed particularly – and unnecessarily – hard.
Save those quads…we’ll be needing them later
So out onto the bike following a very smooth T1 and I was so, so pleased to be on the super-smooth roads of Switzerland. It was like riding on glass, and compared to the battering I had taken on my long rides on the TT bike back home, the difference in terms of energy expenditure just to keep rolling, was noticeable.
Paced myself well, climbed strongly, took on board Captain Jon’s advice to douse myself in water at the aid stations given the heat was rising all the time, and came in to end of lap 1 (of 3) bang on schedule at around 1 hr 33 for the 31 miles.
Just off top of the Bodenburg
Surprised myself by overtaking David Cookson as we headed out onto the 2nd lap, as I knew he’d logged a really good time of around 7hrs 45mins in 2013, so having checked that my numbers were right and I wasn’t pushing too hard, I cracked on with lap 2 and headed for the hills again.
Approaching the end of my 2nd lap, I realised I wasn’t going to last another lap without shedding some of the excess fluid that had accumulated! This presented me with a good 20 minutes of debating with myself, until I determined that there really wasn’t any choice – I was feeling too good and too close to target timings to relinquish minutes through an unnecessary stop – but to, oh how shall I put this, oh sod it, let’s be blunt, pee on the bike.
Some things are better left unsaid, but I will admit to having practiced this once – and only once – before in order to work out the optimum lean angles, etc, so as I glanced behind me on a long straight stretch and couldn’t see anyone within around 300m of me, I decided that it was now or never. So, with a smile and unmitigated feeling of relief, the task was conducted without drama, at least that is until I heard a car behind me, and as it passed me I realised that it was the Women’s Race lead car and media bike, closely followed by one Emma Pooley pegging it down the road swiftly followed by Eve Nystrom in 2nd place. I don’t think I caused anyone any embarrassment, but nonetheless, my shouts of “Go on Emma” in response to her “Go Team GB” as she passed me were perhaps tinged with just a modicum of sheepishness!
The rest of the 2nd lap passed without incident and as I rolled through Zofingen again taking on fluids at the feed station, a glance at the watch confirmed I was still bang on target for the 4hrs 40min target I’d set myself for the bike leg.
Hotter than anticipated!
It would be fair to say the 3rd bike lap was hard, but I expected it to be so. Climbing the Bodenburg for the last time I was moving more slowly than on prior laps, but then so was everybody else around me. This is when you’ve just got to get your head down, get in your ‘pain cave’ or whatever vernacular you care to apply, and push through. These are the times when the threshold turbo sessions prescribed by Coach Jimmy come into their own, as he always said they would do. Apart from some hot spots under the balls of my feet which caused discomfort for 20 minutes rather than outright pain, I felt good as I pushed on for the balance of the bike course to come into T2 in 4hrs 43mins , so marginally outside the nominal target but close enough to give me a fighting chance of hitting a sub-8hr finish if the 2nd run went according to plan…
T2 went well – I took the opportunity to change into some dry socks, grab my fuel belt and visor, drink some more water, and head out onto the run. The 2nd run was the only part of the course to which I’d had no prior exposure, so it was a bit of a surprise to find that the initial climbing went on for the best part of 2 miles into the forest, before one emerged onto a plateau, around which one zig zagged following an undulating route before heading back up hill into the forest and then relishing the 2 mile descent back to the finish.
The 2nd run comprised 2 out and back stints on this basis, and on the first stint I felt OK, but was conscious that my average lap pace was not where I wanted it to be. I decided not to panic, worked through some numbers in my head and calculated that I had almost a minute-a-mile’s worth of contingency in my pocket to still come in under 8 hours. I was also aware that I had passed my other ‘target’, David Connor, who had been around 7 minutes ahead of me 2 laps into the bike, but who was now suffering and having to walk some of the 2nd run. I took it easy on the descent into the town, being conscious of the need to run another 9 miles on those legs, so didn’t want to hammer my quads too badly with lap 2 still to come. I won’t pretend I didn’t curse the race organisers for their decision to place the turnaround point for lap 1/lap 2 within about 30cm of the finishing gantry, but nonetheless I was feeling reasonably OK when I headed back for the last stint and uphill again into the forest.
Plateau overlooking the town on 2nd run – not sure there’s even the impression of speed in this picture!
Round about half way up the hill I realised two things: firstly, I was getting slower and any thoughts of maintaining a particular pace now needed to be rapidly eschewed in favour of a survival focus, and secondly, all around me, people looked like casualties. There were people sitting down under trees, walking, stumbling, leaning, crying, so whilst schadenfreude is not a laudable trait, I took some comfort from their discomfort and tried to focus on maintaining forward momentum. More positive vibes came from the shared thumbs-ups between GB athletes on this 2nd run. Few of us appeared to have the energy to speak – myself included – but it did feel really good to feel part of a team of people sharing a common experience and knowing that we were all doing our very best to justify the tri-suit.
At the plateau I passed one Rob Woestenborghs – seeded 1 and last year’s winner – walking. I wasn’t quite sure what to think, so just quietly muttered something ridiculous like “Keep going Rob” whilst plodding past. It got progressively harder on that 2nd lap, as one might expect, but with others dropping like flies, I determined to keep going and not walk. I did summon up just about enough energy to give Matt Moorhouse a shout of support as he headed back towards the finish looking strong. I have to say that here’s a guy right at the top of his sport – a damn tough sport at that – who couldn’t have been more accommodating or generous with advice and guidance before the event, despite not feeling anywhere near 100% himself. A class act, and I just hope he comes back next year to grab the medal his endeavours so obviously deserve.
Taking on fluid at every aid station, and shovelling a load more water over my head every 2.5km as well, I just about managed to keep down all my gels and I’m sure the final caffeinated gel – whilst difficult to stomach at the time – was much needed in making sure I could actually finish. Finally heading out of the forest and downhill to town, I made a couple of new mental targets, having figured I was going to miss my 8 hours by now. I wasn’t going to let the German past me with whom I’d been to-ing and fro-ing on the 2nd run for around 2 hours, and I was going to try to catch the Irish fella whom I could see about 100 yards in front of me and who I’d noticed earlier in the race. I had no idea whether either of these two chaps were in my category or age group, but some mental stimulation was called for in order to at least drag a strong finish out of myself.
I duly pushed on past the German and headed for Mr Ireland, drawing level with him as we approached the finishing chute. I decided my best chance – this was a one-shot opportunity the way my legs were feeling – was to leave it as late as possible, but I had reckoned without a 90-degree bend in the finishing chute with 30m to go to the line, and he had the inside line! I couldn’t risk turning an ankle or, worse, stacking it under the grandstand, so discretion had to be the better part of valour, and I finished some 2 seconds behind him. It transpired he was in my bloody age group category as well so 9th could have been on the cards!!
The final push gave rise to massive cramps in my left quad so unfortunately the world was denied a nice smiling picture of yours truly crossing the finishing line, since I collapsed in a heap within centimetres of the line, drawing the concerns of the medical staff as I did so!
Hardly arms-in-the-air-elation but there you go
I was fine, and as the cramps subsided, and I managed to stand up, I will admit to basically getting a little emotional and sobbing my way to collect my medal! Around this point I checked my watch to find that I’d missed my 8 hour target by just 4 minutes, but I was surprisingly not disappointed. I knew I’d executed the plan agreed with Coach Jimmy, I’d done my best and I’d stayed calm when things got tough, so this time at least I wasn’t quite ready to start berating myself for missing what had always been a nominal target.
It’s difficult to explain quite what was going through my mind at that point, but suffice to say there was a degree of outpouring of pent-up ‘whatever’ and it took me a couple of minutes to regain some semblance of composure.
We did it (stood up again, I mean!)
So, 8 hours and 4 minutes, 2nd Brit in my AG, 10th overall in AG and 58th finisher overall from 142 starters in the Long Distance ITU event, albeit 27 of these Did Not Finish. That is a staggering 19% of starters who failed to cross the finish line. I guess it was a tough little day out.
I owe an awful lot of thanks to my brilliant coach, Jimmy George of VO2 Maximum Coaching, who must have wondered why on earth he agreed to take me on 3 months before my first ever long distance race in 2013, but who has kept me injury free and motivated for longer than I would have dared to believe in readiness for this. I also need to thank Skechers Performance division for providing me with appropriate footwear throughout training and for racing, without which I might not have remained injury free, and, I have to say, I might have suffered a lot more discomfort on that damn 2nd run! Similarly, Xendurance have been very supportive with the provision of supplements that I am sure have helped me to recover quickly enough during major training periods so as to be able to absorb the training load without always hobbling around like an (even) old(er) man.
As usual, this post has gone on far too long – almost as long as the race itself – so I will dispense with any summaries or forward looking statements about ambitions, plans, 2015, etc.
I will just say this. For once in my life, in the minutes and hours after the race, I actually felt a little bit proud of myself. This happens rarely.
For that reason, I would like to thank whomever invented the stupidly brutal event that is Powerman Zofingen, as for now at least, it has enabled me to come to terms with a few of my demons, and provided a relatively worthwhile outlet for my undeniable mid-life crisis.