Thursday, 27 September 2012

Ironman Wales

Cant really explain why it's taken me so long to get this race report finished. Narcolepsy? 
I hope that you can stay awake long enough to read it!!! 

Ironman Wales 2012 (10:12:34 - 3rd Female) 

I arrived in Tenby early in the week before the race, I most enjoy those first few days being at race site before the main influx of triathletes come and take over the place. In Tenby the contrast is most stark – the average age of visitor to the town at this time of year is about 100, and this gave the place a very relaxed  (sedated) vibe. Though you’d have been out of luck if you hoped to find an unoccupied bench from which to enjoy a flask of tea in the September sunshine to which we were being treated. Following the success of last year’s race, the local area had really got behind the race; towns and houses were adorned with Ironman Wales flags and banners, and coffee shops stocked with “Ironman Specials” in anticipation of the weekend.

Being in place early gave me the opportunity to ride the bike course, run on the run course and swim in sea. Having prepared for but not started the race last year, I knew pretty well what we were in for already but I always feel more prepared for a race the better I know the details of the course.  I’d remembered it being pretty brutal, and so it was a good experience for me to ride around it on Wednesday, feeling very strong.

In particular I feel it was an advantage for me to swim in the sea each morning in the hope that I would acclimatize to the cold water. Not fond of swimming under normal circumstances, these refreshing sea swims were really a joy for me – but unfortunately the effect of cold water makes my hands cramp,  “claw” up in attempt to retreat up the sleeves of my wetsuit after only about 15 minutes. This makes it pretty difficult to swim and was a concern. The best I could do was get in the water for as long as possible every day  -more swimming than I’d have liked to have done pre-race but I feared the knock –on effect of disabled digits in transition and the bike more than I did the slower swim time.  Whether 4 days is sufficient time for this adaption is unlikely, but the feeling that I was doing what I could to improve my situation was important.

Race week quickly passed and before we knew it, the town was an international buzz of triathletes, the shared language of race wheels, pointy hats and compression socks. With the race site central to the compact town of Tenby, pre race logistics were really easy for me as we’d managed to get sea front accommodation within 500m of the finish line and transition. This also enabled me to return to my room once I’d sorted my bike on race morning for a final coffee before donning my wetsuit and making my way across to the North beach swim start.

The professional athletes lined up knee deep from the shore line start, with the 1500+ age groupers poised ready to pounce from their position a few meters up the beach. In order to prevent athletes cutting the swim course by running the shoreline towards the first buoy ,an additional marker had been moored a couple of hundred meters directly in front of the start line which we all had to swim around before taking the direction of the first turn buoy. Although a much less ambiguous course layout ,this  set us up for a very rough first few minutes as the faster age-groupers caught the pro pack, and then congested around the tight turn.  I’m quite used to this, and aside from choking on waves, fear of loosing my goggles the blows to the head and sudden appearance of rubber limbs across my path, I am at least presented with a good choice of feet to swim after and take advantage of.  I didn’t feel that I’d managed it particularly well on my first lap, with my mind wandering and line drifting wide of the main mass of swimmers. I felt comfortable but not very “on it” and frustrated at the frequency with which I seemed to come into conflict with other swimmers. The lap felt like it was taking an absolute eternity, so I was surprised and encouraged to be running around the half way point in 27minutes. Despite a far greater feeling of focus and rhythm for the second lap, I was about 2 minutes slower. Overall, 57 minutes is a fairly decent swim for me, but I knew that the likes of Hilary Biscay would already be 10 minutes up the road already by the time I’d made my way up the steep ramped beach exit, slipped on my shoes and begun the 1km dash through town to transition. This quirky feature of the race was great fun – fantastic for spectators and really helps to build a bit of an atmosphere to encourage athletes for the long and tough bike ride ahead.  

This is the part that I was most looking forward to .I have been riding very strong on the bike since Roth, and have had plenty of practice doing hard, hill sessions in some fairly gnarly weather conditions as a result of training from my home in Somerset through a British summer.  I was hoping for the toughest conditions that Pembrokeshire could provide, which would give me the best chance of making up ground of the women ahead. The plan was to ride as hard as I could for the first 1/3rd of the course and make up as much ground as possible early on, before settling into a more steady middle third ensuring that I was getting enough to eat and deal with the first round of hills by smart gearing  rather than brute force .The final 1/3 is always just as hard as I can go…as long as I have managed that middle section well.  I was pleased with how well I executed this, and had ridden from 7th into 3rd place by the 2nd hour. Being in a podium position kept me focused, and working solidly in the hope a catching a glimpse of Eimer in her distinctive green race attire up ahead. I did not think she’d have had much of a start on me after the swim (I was wrong - she swam 53minutes!!) but has demonstrated that she is a strong cyclist. I kept telling myself that all it would take was for her to be feeling tired after a heavy season of racing  -this is no course for the fatigued! – and kept pushing on. What I really should have been thinking about was who was behind me though, as I was passed by Kristin Lie in that final 1/3rd of the ride. Gutted. I kicked myself for having eased off  the pace (even though this WAS planned, the plan had not assumed I’d be this far up the field)  and from that point on – about the 4.5hr mark- did not let up the pace at any point ,just about able to keep her in my sights.  Logic told me that to have passed me this late in the ride, she could only have been riding marginally faster – and expending more energy in doing so. I was well on top of my nutrition, and felt confident about all of the climbs having eased up them all on the first lap. For sure, my legs ached now, but I was not going to give up a podium finish and the extra cash that I’d receive as a reward.  I caught and passed my friend Chris as we neared the Narbeth, who I typically pass back and forth with during an Ironman, told me that she was only about 90 seconds ahead. By this time it had started to drizzle and the approach to Narbeth has a very fast descent into an off-camber bend immediately followed by a stupidly steep climb. My least favourite bit of road, but I’d practiced it a few times and knew what was coming. Kristin was not so lucky  - as I rounded the corner and geared for the sharp climb out , I came across her trying to get back on her bike, on the steepest part of the hill having dropped her chain or something. She was clearly very frustrated and yelled at a spectator to “Canst Sie Give Ich a Push” ….which he did, enabling her enough momentum to re-mount the bike. Well, her hard luck was a gift for me, I bit down on the bars, and was off. If she wanted to come by again she was going to have to put in another supreme effort, and take some risks on the wet slippery hills in the process to do so. 

I held her off for the rest of the ride, and entered T2 in 3rd place, about 6 minutes down on Eimer. It was the fastest transition that I could manage having decided to wear compression calves for the run because of a sprain that I’d picked up the previous day. They don’t slip onto wet legs all that well! Dashing out with a big smiles from race ref and fellow Somerset RC Tri member Paul Lester and a bar of Kendall mint cake clutched n my hand, I had the company of a lady called Paula on a mountain bike. Paula was obviously a well –known character from Tenby Bicycle Club, and I think that she got almost as much support from the crowds that lined almost the entire run course as I did!  We didn’t, chat much on my first lap, partly because I was unsure of the protocol having never had a bike with me before, but mostly because I was running just about as hard as I could both up the long hill out of town, and then back down it again into the headwind.

The design of the 4 –lap marathon route was such that there were at least 4 places on each lap where you could get a time check on anyone close to you. Eimer was far enough ahead that I was just missing her on the first lap, but my sister and her boyfriend had positioned themselves in the perfect position to time the gaps and relay the information to me as I made my return past them a few minutes later. “am I doing enough to hold her off?” I asked. Their answer did not deliver much joy –“only just”. With lap one done, I felt that I’d got into a good rhythm for both the ups and downs having run through all of the aid stations on the way. That’s where the Kendall Mint cake came in – 400kcals in a very palatable format and didn’t require a lot of water to wash it down meant that I didn’t need to stop.  At the second turn-around things were beginning to feel much harder, and I learned from my sister that although I’d made small dent in Eimer’s lead over me, Kristin was chasing hard from behind. I was lucky that I had Paula and plenty of support along the route from both spectators and other competitors to keep me from a very dark place for the next 10km, as I could see for myself that she was closing in on me. By the time I reached the third turn-around, I think my lead had shriveled to a mere handful of seconds and even Paula, who had also been providing me with little bits of information, started preparing her farewells. Thinking quickly, my sister reminded me that if caught I could still fight back, and I prepared myself for whatever pace she would pass me at. It’d taken her 25km to catch me, so it wasn’t THAT fast, I reasoned.  I’m not exactly sure what happened then. I think it was a combination of that thought process, the thought of handing over $500 after all this pain, and a very helpful age-group girl (who was on her first or second lap) who gave me encouragement to match her pace as she passed me. The result was that for just long enough I picked up my pace for just long enough that Kristin was unable to quite catch me, and must have lost hope of doing so. The next time we ran through Tenby, up and down the hilly streets to a din of music and cheering, each out-and back section revealed a little more breathing space. By that time in the afternoon most people had started their marathon and the course was getting rather congested. This is where having a lead bike really comes in handy, as I was able to send Paula ahead of me, blowing her whistle and shouting “lead runner coming through” ensuring that I had a clear run of the narrow streets as I dug deep. It was awesome – every one that I passed, whether they knew me or not, gave me a huge “well done” and stepped aside to let us through.  The final run up the hill seemed as easy as the first, but I grabbed several gels just incase a fast finish would be required. I knew that if challenged I’d be able to dig deeper now that I was so close. It may sound a pathetic, the first woman had already crossed the finish line at this point, but finishing in third place was important to me – and was providing the motivation I needed to get the very best out of myself at the end of such a long day. 

I didn’t use my Timex GPS watch due to my haste in T2, but it seems to be widely agreed by those who raced that the run course was somewhere in the region of 2km short, so my 3:09 run split isn’t quite as good as may seem – none-the-less, I am pleased to have felt strong for most of it, and persisted when I didn’t. I feel  that the terrain more-or less than compensates for the mis-measurement, but it’s still a mystery to me that such an error can occur when there are 3 dead turns which should enable adjustment when the route is being checked. Not that I’d have thanked anyone fro an extra 2km at the time!!

In all, a very enjoyable race, if you like more challenging terrain and conditions.  This one really gives value for money with bike splits typically 10% slower than the “average” Ironman and the level of spectator support and local interest from start of the week  and then from the start line to the finish on race day ranks amongst the very best that I have experienced. 

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

My GSSI visit

The Gatordae Institute of Sports Science is a brand new (as of Feburary 2012) lab kitted up to administer a full spectrum of testing and run by Dr Ian Rollo and Dr Jimmy Carter in their wide ranging research around sports nutrition, hydration and performance. In conjunction with the other GSSI laboratories around the world, they are building a data base of physiological data of elite athletes across all sports. So, as well as the Aerobic Metabolism testing that I was primarily interested in for my training, I contributed results across a wide range of  tests from a detailed body composition examination, nutrition and sleep habits surveys, cognitive function, reaction times to the strength of my hand-shake!

The first step for me was a morning of fasting and a break from training. I was not complaining about the latter following a weekend of back-to-back triathlon and half marathon racing, though the fasting (which included coffee!) was another matter - I usually feel faint if it’s more than 2hours between snacks.

I was shown around the gleaming lab, which resembled something between a very modern gym and a space-ship, then asked to pop into the bathroom and pee into a vial.  This would be used to test my Acute  Hydration status. With a specific gravity of <1 .01=".01" first="first" hydrated.="hydrated." i="i" nbsp="nbsp" passed="passed" test="test" was="was" well="well">

The lab have 3 methods of analysing Body Composition and are collecting data to for the  calibration between two sophisticated methods:  BioImpedence Analysis and Air Displacement Plethysmograhy (the BodPod) and comparing both to the classic “skin-fold” measure.  I was pleased to discover that I am 86% fat free and have some muscles. So, I’ll call that a “pass” too. 

Dressed in my cycling kit and ready to get on the spin bike, Jimmy first took some pre-workout blood samples which will be sent away for a detailed analysis for indicators of general health and mineral composition, and also compared to a final sample collected immediately post-exertion.

The Aerobic Metabolism and Aerobic performance tests can be carried out on either a watt-bike or treadmill. It is more common to do this type of testing on a stationary bike because it’s a lot easier to control the work-load, easier to collect the athlete samples, and less of a nuisance for the athlete working at high intensity (we’ll get onto that later!)  The “samples” that were to be collected in this case was my exhaled breathe for measuring the oxygen conversion that was occurring in my system which meant riding with a mask with placed tightly over my nose and mouth. The test starts by cycling at a low power for 3minutes whilst heart-rate is measured, and my exhaled gases are fed through an analysis machine. The power is then increased in 35watt increments every 3minutes. As I ride, I am asked to indicate the level of perceived effort on a chart which is held up in front of me. The progression typically goes like this –“very easy”, “easy”, “easy”, “moderate”, “moderate”, “quite hard”, ”let me off!!”, ”arrghhhnnpphhhckckkk!!!”. In other words, it’s very noticeable when a “threshold” has been reached, and for me there’s not a lot of go after that point.  It’s important that the testing team provide plenty of encouragement for during the test – some good music and plenty of verbal, as wearing that sweaty mask and uninspiring nature of pedalling a stationary bike adds another dimension of discomfort and may accelerate the desire to terminate. My team did a good job, and I was able to push out a full minute longer in my final step than I had on my prior visit 3 moths ago. Jimmy guided me off the bike and into a seat in order to collect a second round of blood samples.

Whilst they got busy in the office working through my data, I sat down and filled in a number of surveys around my sleep, training, nutrition and drinking habits and perceptions. The lab is funded by Pepsico, fundamentally for the research into Gatorade sports nutrition product.  My answers will help provide some insight into the differing habits and attitudes around nutrition of elite athletes from various sports, as well as highlighting areas in my own performance which might be enhanced.  I scored only 64% on the Nutritional Habits questionnaire - it’s encouraging to know that I have so much scope for improvement by making some simple changes.

The data obtained from my Aerobic Metabolism test is what will really inform me about my nutrition requirements, and we next sat down to discuss my results and the significance that they have for my training and nutrition.
Most athletes understand that we have two sources of fuel for exercise: fat and carbohydrate. At lower intensities we burn mostly fat, from our abundant body stores.  For very high intensity exercise, like sprinting or power sports, is fuelled by carbohydrate (CHO) which initially comes from the finite glycogen stores in our muscle and then must be ingested as various forms of sugar.  The Fat: CHO ratio varies as exercise intensity (which is measured by heart-rate) increases, and the rate of change of this relationship is different for everyone. Doing a Aerobic Metabolism test, as I have described above, will produce your unique “Fat-buring” curve, identify significant training thresholds and determine training zones to improve relevant aspects of your metabolic response. My test results show my FATmax HR to be around 110bpm, or ~40% Vo2max.  At 140bpm, 60% Vo2max, it’s about 50:50 – a point commonly termed Aerobic Threshold since beyond this Fat oxidisation drops off rapidly and CHO becomes the critical fuel source. At the Intensity that I target for my Ironman racing (one stage above this), I’m closer to 60% CHO:40% fat - which has an effect on the amount of hydrogen accumulation in my muscles as well as fuel consumption requirements.
As an endurance athlete competing in day-long events, my objective would be to “shift the curve” through training methods such that I’m utilising higher proportions of fat for fuel at higher intensity. Ian and Jimmy had some interesting and useful suggestions for me around the type of training that I could incorporate into my off-season to help with this.

The Aerobic Performance element of the same test is focused around a well-known factor called Vo2 Max. It’s essentially a measure of the amount of oxygen that can be consumed whilst exercising at maximum effort. It’s pretty difficult to determine absolutely, since not only is it pretty difficult to attain “maximal effort” in test conditions (see the following description of my run-based test) but it’s also weight dependant  (i.e. you can improve your Vo2max by dropping a kg), but is nonetheless thought to be a good indicator of athletic potential especially in sports where high intensity work is required.

We repeated the same test the following day running on a treadmill. Using the same apparatus and basic procedure, I was tied to a harness and run at increasing speeds on a slightly inclined (1 degree) treadmill with the face-mask on. We started off at walking pace and increased by 1kph every 3 minutes, measuring my heart-rate and indication of level of perceived effort. It did not take very long for that perceived effort to reach “hard”, though this was more due to the very confined feeling of running with my head held in place by the mask and no visual feedback as I ran as the mask and tubes almost entirely blocked my vision.  I think that this test takes a bit of getting used to and I had to really focus on how my legs and breathing felt rather than how uncomfortable and annoyed I felt by the contraption that I was wearing at each stage.  Once we’d reached a critical speed (governed by how fast my legs were actually capable of turning over!) the intensity was increased by means of adding gradient. I made it through 9 ½ stages, and reached a max HR of 172bpm - about 90% of what we’d got to the previous day.The FAT% graphs here made interesting reading –unfortunately not as smooth as the cycling test due to a very different set of circumstances. Whilst the cycling test was conducted according to the usual fasted and rested protocol, this running test followed an hour swim set, a typical breakfast, then a 3hour ride and …probably the most significant….a recovery bag of  Jelly Snakes. However, this was planned, as we felt that it would provide me with some real race- relevant data.  And, anyway – sweets are not entirely off the agenda in my training or racing.

I was to be tested on my Cognitive Function and Motor Skills.  The former was actually rather enjoyable and tested my awareness of changing environment and ability to react to it quickly and calmly. The "D2" machine really does resemble part of a spaceship’s controls, with an array of LED buttons in a radial pattern surrounding a small central digital screen at eye level. The test subject de-activates each button as quickly as possible, whilst simultaneously reading out the numbers which appear on the little screen in the centre in order to measure mental processing and reaction time skills.  Certainly something which one would very quickly improve on with practice. My score was a comfortably above average 85% hit-to-miss ratio with a slightly above average reaction time of .68 seconds. This does not tell us too much other than that I’m more accurate than I am fast!

Testing my Motor Skills was an exercise in real humiliation for me – putting me in mind of playground games! The "Ispan" consists of nine illuminated discs mounted around a goal-like frame, with 3 on each post and 4 across the top bar. They are movement sensitive and the lights are de-activated by waving a hand in front of it.  Once de-activated, the next light will come on, and the test is a time-trial through a random sequence of 12 lights  - the faster you can switch each light off, the faster your test result. It’s exactly the sort of skill set that the lack of  drove me away from sports in school, and a comparison of my test results against average (5% below) were not too surprising given that I spend most of the 23 seconds tripping over my own feet.

The next test uses a very clever machine to take a very simple measurement. The strength of the muscles in the forearm and hand are here used as an indictor of overall Muscular Strength, and are measured by simply squeezing a solid metal sensor. To my surprise, my readings spat out a score of close to 70kg, which is right at the top of the “above average” range for females.

Finally we move onto the final test of the day, and in a sick sort of way, my favourite. Probably because I like the name: the Wingate Test. The test itself is quite horrendous, but is over very quickly. Back on the watt bike, in order to measure peak Power and Anaerobic Capacity – the ability to use the muscle-bound energy sources of Adenosine TriPhospahte (ATP), Creatine Phosphate (PC) and glycosis in a short max effort burst.
For this test, only power is recorded – the effort is too short and sharp for heart-rate to be of much relevance. On the Watt Bike I pedal with low resistance, and over a 30 second period gradually increase my cadence from a start-point of my comfortable 80rpm up to my maximum of around 120rpm. At this point I have 5 further seconds, with the very loud encouragement form the testing team, to spin my legs even faster before the resistance goes on. All of a sudden, I’m churning out close to 700Watts before my legs realise what has happened to them. This will be the Peak Power that I produce. The test lasts for 30 more seconds at this level of resistance and I pedal furiously to maintain as high a power as I can for that time. The power graph on the screen shows a clear peak at 0 seconds and then a shallow drop off until about 20 seconds, where I manage to pick it up again for a final 10 second all-out effort.  My peak and average numbers, and the 20% loss in power over the duration compared very well against the collected data averages for females. For an endurance athlete, who’s training really is quite specific to this sort of test, this should not come as too much of a surprise. 

At the end of my visit I’m given a full report of all my testing results, which Ian and Jimmy are happy to discuss, as well as other questions and ideas about nutrition that I have for them.  I’m keen to return in another 3 months time to see if these recommended tweaks have a measurable effect in that short period. I may also do a little work on my motor skills!

The Bod Pod - ready for launch!
Aerobic Metabolism and Vo2max testing 

Cognitive Function Test
Motor Skills? I'm a triathlete....

Wingate Test -  the "before" shot!