Monday, 10 August 2009
European LD Chamionships, Prague - race report
From the moment of my arrival in the Czech republic it was clear that this was going to be an ‘interesting’ race experience and require a certain amount of cool, flexibility and positive attitude to what was about to be thrown at us over the next couple of days. I certainly realize now how softened we have become by the pampering that we get for the price of an M-dot entry, whereas the Czech attitude to race organization is certainly a lot more laissez fair than us Brits like it, with very little information circulating as regards the course, pre race procedure, race rules or even distances! However I was able to establish that there’d be a police escorted preview of the bike course on Thursday, where the start would be, that the finish was in a different location and that both were somewhat out of town. As for the rest of the details – procedure for transferring wetsuit to the numbered bags, what nutrition would be available on the course, how many laps was the run, transport from the finish line back to transition, when and where was the pasta party that we’d been given tickets for (no one ever found out!) – it would all become clear on the day and the best preparation was to assume the least favourable and be ready to deal with it. Well, we Brits do love a good old gripe, so this chaotic build-up was quite good fun and certainly an excellent bonding experience for the Age Group team of 63 plus a couple of elite guys, out to represent our country.
Saturday morning, 7am and transition opened and 63 members of team GB busy-ed themselves with pumps, elastic bands and setting up the open transition before it officially closed at 8am for our 9.30 race start. At about 8.15am the rest of the national teams started to wander in and set their gear up, whilst we tried to hide from the increasing glare of the sun for another hour.
Around 9 we entered the water for our swim warm up across to the start on the far side of the Vltava River, and had a chance to assess the current. It was pretty significant.
The first wave to start were female elite, 15 of them - we watched them drifting downstream as they crossed the river to the first turn buoy. Several multiples of the stated 2 min time gap later, the male pros…followed quite quickly by the rumour that it was time for the first male wave to start, general confusion and sudden rushing of some of that wave plus some of the following plus a couple of the women who were carried away by the panic/excitement of the start of the age group event! With everyone in identical blue caps, no timing mats or even official starters orders there would be no way identifying who had started with this mass – a concern that those of us hoping for medals would just have to put out o our minds for the next 7 hours, and hope that honesty would prevail. 2 waves later I started my swim with the remaining majority of age-group women. Having assessed the direction and magnitude of the current I did my bets to swim close to the middle of the river on the way down, swim for the buoys at an upstream angle and tuck in close to the bank and try to get in a bunch on the way back up. I was moderately successful at this, though found an irritating tendency to veer, possibly dragged by the current, out toward the middle of river whatever I tried and that, with every one in identically coloured swim caps it was impossible to distinguish faster women who may give me a draft from slow men who would kick my face. The each lap seemed to go on forever, but I feel I maintained a good focus, kept my stroke rhythmic and strong and an eternity later, with aching arms reached the finish ramp. I exited the water by the sharp yank on arm method, which brought on an immediate cramp response in my opposing foot. Luckily the ramp was too steep to have run up anyway, so my crawling did not appear particularly inappropriate. It had taken a heart-breaking 1:13 to complete the swim, but I put this away in my mind with the reasoning that who knows what the distance had really been.
The bike course could not have been mistaken for anything other than an all out race. 6 times out and back along the highway, shimmering with fragrant, cooling breezes of by the stand-still motorway traffic in the adjacent 3 other lanes, there was no mistaking this for the long steady state ride that is associated with Ironman racing. Consequently people, myself included, were attacking the laps – long climb with tailwind on way out, dead turn, long descent with head wind on return –as 3 back to back Olympic distance races. The climb/descend nature of the course worked well with my feeding pattern – 100 kcals every 40 mins, which was about the time it took me to complete each lap, and the downhill section allowing a drop in effort so that the food could be digested. After the first lap we realized that there was an only one aid station, about 150m before the turnaround point and on one side of the road only. With temperatures over 30 degrees I feel that there really should have been at least one other opportunity to pick up water should you miss a bottle on the way through, especially with the pace being this hard. Fortunately, this concern was shared by the spectators on the roadside who began distributing liquids they’d purchased at the nearby petrol station to the desperate and salt covered athletes who called out for it! Feeding plans cast aside by my 4th lap I was cramming down as many gels and energy drinks that I could grab at each turn around in case it turned out to be the last opportunity.
I was riding a little off my target pace from the first lap – conditions and that long hill made it a tougher ride than I’d expected, and I was consistently overtaken by riders that I’d worked to pass on the climb as they freewheeled down the descent, despite my continued pedaling. It has certainly caused me to question my very casual approach to aero positioning, race wheels and pointy headgear! However, I managed to maintain my power and speed to within a small percentage of that on my first lap, which as the km’s ticked on and temperature rose, it was clear was not the case for everyone. Many of the guys, with their unvented race helmets, were evidently paying the price for their early hammering and were now barely creeping up the hill on their final laps. The carnage of the bike course would continue to unfold during the running section of the race……
A relatively swift turn around was made a little more exciting, as the matting which had been laid over the long grass for our run into transition catch the wind and blow up in my face knocking me and bike over sideways for another less than elegant transition in front of the spectators who certainly gather around the area in the hope of sighting such comedy. More amused than fazed by this I grabbed cap and run shoes and set off to complete my race, despite having been absolutely certain not more than 10 min ago that, after that ride, I’d not be able to run a step! Perhaps it was adrenaline from the fall, the joy of being off the bike at last, or curiosity as to how my running form is at present, but I was suddenly feeing quite up for this.
There had been some confusion as to the number off laps that we’d be doing because the start and finish were not in the same place – so the stated 3 laps could have been taken either to mean 3 complete laps and a bit, or 2 and bit. There were no km markers along the route (of course!) and not even knowing how long the laps meant that pacing would be tricky and it was time to rely on ‘feel’ learned in training. The route was fairly pleasant; on cycle paths along-side the river, with varied terrain underfoot effectively breaking each lap into sections – a bit of tarmac past a village, an underpass, a bit of hard-pack, a stretch of rooted earth through the trees, and a lap of a sand horse racing – I find that this helps me keep my focus. I set off with the aim of catching and passing everyone I saw ahead. As described earlier, much of this was quite easy, the carnage from the bike leg being evident in the number of blokes shuffling or even walking from the few km. Only minutes into the run I caught up with a Czech fella who I recalled from the ride, passed him less quickly than I’d passed the others and he immediately picked up his pace and followed my shoulder. He then stuck there like glue. Initially I was getting annoyed by this- there was quite a breeze in places and the pace was not easy for me – I felt pissed off that he was be taking advantage off my pacing and shelter without making any effort to share the work. However, it was certainly helping to keep me working in the hope of dropping him. He would not be shaken off though, and so with the rationalization that this must mean I’m running a decent pace and he was actually motivating me to stick at it, I changed my mindset to being pleased to help him out. When, at the first feed station he collected a handful of gels insisted that I take some (I had run straight through with a mouthful of water), I really did start to enjoy the company. It was clear that he was working hard and benefiting from the pace, we shared water and food at the stations and worked our way through the field.
I was surprised at how many girls, mostly Brits, were ahead of me, but reminded myself that this was a quality field an I’d had a slow swim – not to mention the uncertainty of who had gone off with that false start. I went through the first lap in 47 minutes. Based on 3 equal 10km laps I’d hoped to pass in 46 min for a 2:20 run; the equivalent of 3:20 marathon pace. This confirmed that it was 2 and a bit laps, the bit being about ¾ off a lap, and that I was running a decent pace. Just had to keep it up. With a little help from my shoulder buddy, digging deep and the excellent support from all of the GB crew, friends and family as well as team mates on the course my second lap split was another (long) 47. I calculated that the laps must be about 10.5, 10.5, 9km and that I was at least on, or better than pace. Feeling pretty jaded and with the first sensations of gel-induced stomach cramps I forced my way round the last, partial lap. At the far turn around, I saw that there a German girl not far behind us, signaled to my Czech friend that we had only 5km to go and picked up the pace a fraction. He thanked me for the ride and dropped off. I had 5km not to slow down, regardless of what my guts were threatening. In on the horse race track I spied 2 women ahead and found a little remaining strength to run in the hope of catching them – I got one in the finishing chute, just missing the other.
My final time was 7:08; 1:13 swim, 3:40 bike and a 2:14 run. This was enough for the age group win that I’d been hoping for and 12th female position overall. I went into this race knowing that the disproportionately long swim would put me at a disadvantage, and in this case the current made that more distinct, but with the intention of really pushing the run. It was a particularly challenging course and conditions and despite having taken a good 3 hours less than an Ironman, it seemed to hurt just as much at the finish line!
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