Sunday, 15 September 2013

Ironman Wales, Race Report

My good friends Debs and Darren from TriSports Lanzarote had decided to come over and give some support to me and other the athletes regularly who go out and train from their villa during the winter. They kindly sorted out my accommodation and acted as super support crew over the weekend, with the perfect balance of leaving me plenty of time and space to myself in the days before the race and being there in full force on race day. Being a little out of town, I kept my head down and really thought about the impending race very little over the 36 hours that preceded it in order to avoid the feeling of “mild dread” that tended to follow any consideration of what was ahead…

Race morning I went through the usual race morning routine, still not really thinking too much about the day ahead…but when the attendant in the Tenby multistory car park paid for my day ticket rather than making me go back to my car and find the £2 change, I gave thanks for a positive start to the day and reminded myself that maintaining that was in my own hands. Or rather, in my own head.

Tenby offers an excellent and unique view of the swim race to spectators who are able to line the streets overlooking the North beach. They see the Pro field slowly edging further into the water as the Welsh national anthem plays, seeking to create as much space between ourselves and the 1800 age-group athletes waiting 100m or so up the beach,  ready to run us down in a mass start. We made it to the first marker buoy, enabling us a few seconds of swimming before the fastest in the pack hit us from behind and crushed us around that first turn. I had a good start – there was a good sized pro field and for once I found that I was able to stay in amongst the back of the pack. After the first turn the front of the mass field caught us, providing further bodies to draft. My swim training has been going very well in the pool and although I tend not to do so well in the sea, fortunately for me we had relatively calm conditions, and once through the rough and frantic first kilometer or so I stayed within a loosely spaced group swimming together. I felt I was swimming well and at a suitable intensity, though it always seems like an age has passed before even halfway! Once in this rhythm though I found that my mind was wandering – I was loosing focus – and so was glad of the “Australian exit” providing a short run on the beach and a chance to survey the spread of the field ahead and receive some encouragement from the spectators who had packed the beach despite the pouring rain that had started as soon as the canon fired! My second lap was still with my group which I could see include a few male pros but no pink capped females, and although certainly less intense I felt my focus was better and I continued to swim strong.  I exited the water with friend and former EverydayTraining camper, Team Freespeed’s Tim Bishop.

A unique and enjoyable feature of the Tenby course is the mile dash from the North beach to T1 on the other side of the town. The run up the long ramp from the beach is hard going, with an extra transition point on the way where run shoes can be collected.  Athletes must make a call as to whether to remove wetsuit before the run and carry it, or run in it and get it off in transition (I felt it was faster to remove it). Tim caught back up to me just as we entered t1 and commented that the swim was a couple of minutes slower than last year…how he knew this, or why he cared at that point, I don’t know – but it turns out that he was right. I felt I’d had a much better swim this year, but having checked the results see that I was indeed a couple of minutes slower than in 2012.

To my surprise Steven was still in transition when I arrived, and was struggling with a pair of am warmers. Due to the forecast conditions I had packed mine also, but seeing how much time he had lost trying to get his cold wet arms in them, I quickly decided that a wind vest would be enough and left him to it. I felt bad for him knowing that must have had a poor swim or a very long delay in transition and would not be happy to see so many people, including me, past him already…but I had a race to be getting on with!  The hard ground surface we had to run over to get to our bikes brought tears to my eyes to the extent that I didn’t really notice how many of the other women’s bikes were left on the racks by mine.  Knowing who was in the field, I had a pretty good idea of who was likely to be long gone though…I figured probably 7 or 8 out of the 12 starters.

The bike course consists of one large loop of 110km, the second half of which contains all the major climbs and is ridden twice. With a total of 2700m ascent over 180km, there really is very little flat riding on this course, although most of the climbing is done in after the first 30km. This stretch is scenic, rolling, quite exposed to the coast and heading west towards Angle, generally into a head-wind. At the far western point there’s the opportunity to see the male pros and the front of the female field on their way back. I was feeling good and starting to warm up and enjoy the ride. I had plenty of company amongst male age-groupers, but not so much that there were issues with spacing or passing. A course with regular hills tends to spread riders out well – and I was being extra cautious on the wet descents having seen several crashes and punctures on the wet and gritty road surfaces. I don’t recall passing or being passed by any of the other pro women, but settled into a good rhythm holding my power steady and not taking risks on corners or descents. The winds did not seem too strong fortunately, however it did rain on and off all morning which made me feel extra nervous about the more technical parts of the course. To be truthful I didn’t enjoy the down hills at all and spent most of the ride in fear of either puncturing or falling off the bike. I don’t recall a race where I saw so many people at the side of the road with “technicals”, ambulances’ on the course or riders with bloodied elbows and hips, which made me feel even more nervous. I completed the first lap feeling good and set out again for the repeat of that hilly 75km loop. Riders were a lot more dispersed and the course was quieter. There were still lively pockets of support despite the weather, but these did tend to be focused around the main hills. Riding out along that Tenby –Penbroke road, I started feeling very drained…my powermeter concurred that I had lost a lot of power compared to my first lap, and it was a struggle for me to pick up the pace. I ate gels and hoped that this bad patch would pass before we hit the hills again! Well, it didn’t really and I must admit that the second lap was not much fun and by the time I got to the very steep hills (those which are over 17%) I was genuinely concerned that I’d be able to get up them or stay alert enough on the way down. I just kept eating and buying myself a bit more energy before the next wave of tiredness got me. By Saundersfoot - what I had remembered as the last climb in the course – I was pretty light headed, and so it was with some horror that I remembered the REAL last steep hill that we had to get up back into Tenby town centre!

At this point I wasn’t even thinking about the run –what I have learned through doing so many Ironman races is that it’s really better not to. I don’t think that I have EVER finished the bike course in an Ironman feeling great, full of energy and keen to run a marathon. I doubt if anyone ever does, but it seems to be no reflection on how I feel once I’ve dumped the bike, been through transition and lifted by seeing the support out on the run course. 

This time was no different and my legs felt good as I ran out of the town. The fact that after the first 500m there is literally not a single flat step on the route was a little daunting, but I had the confidence of having run the course well last year and a recent, decent run at ironman UK. I certainly missed having a lead bike with me - it provides SO much motivation-  and so was desperate for some information about my position and the time gaps both ahead and behind me.  I did not have to wait long before I saw Deb and Daz who had positioned themselves smartly to relay the information that I was in 6th place, had about 9 minutes to make up to 5th and there was someone about 2.5 minutes back. So, I was “in the money” but only just – and had to watch my back. It was only a matter of minutes before Julia ran past me at a pace that I might have maintain for a lap, but certainly would not survive. I had passed her around midway through the bike course, at the side of a road with the mechanics van – clearly one of the race favourites she was having a bad day but certainly not giving up on it! At the start of such a long and challenging run, my strategy was to hold my own pace and wait and see. I am always slightly surprised at the drop out rate ahead – and with such a tough race, athletes less prepared for the bike course ride which typically takes an extra 20-30 minutes to complete, may pay the price on the run.  I focused on my own race, pace and used the motivation from support and seeing others that I knew out on the course as we passed back and forth. With several out and back sections within the 4 laps, it was quite easy to keep an eye on the gaps ahead and behind. I was pleased to see Scott leading the men’s race and already almost two laps down! Tim had done about 8km by the time I first saw him (so 6km ahead of me) and Steven, who had passed me surprisingly late in the ride was about 3km behind him. I felt pretty sure that even if he had a good run, I’d catch Steven before the end and used that as motivation. I fell into step with a nice looking guy who was a lap ahead – he didn’t speak a lot of English, so I chatted to him a little in Spanish, which he seemed to understand a bit better (he was easy to find in the results as he appears in Lucy’s finish-line photo! - it appears he was from Venezuela) and we ran almost two laps side by side.  I passed Steven at the end of our second lap, had lost more time to Julia but we were both closing a little on the girls in 4th and 3rd. News from my super support crew was that I had a comfortable margin back to 6th place, and I was certainly feeling the strain of the day by then I guess I used that as excuse to ease off the pace a bit during my third lap. Up until that point I had been carrying a small drink and some gels so that I’d not need to stop at aid stations- but between 20 and 30km I did walk through a few of them, and also made a port-a-loo stop. My average pace dropped to over 5 min/km though I still passed into 5th place as Simone, who had been holding 3rd, reverted to frequent walking (before eventually withdrawing). Near the end of the third lap I heard Lucy coming from behind, completing her race. She told me something along the lines of “it’s all falling apart up there” – meaning that the others ahead were dropping pace too. Being simultaneously lapped and encouraged shamed me into digging a bit deeper, although by this time my ITB was tugging pretty aggressively on my left knee cap, and was making the down hill sections especially painful.  I was at that point feeling relatively comfortable in the belief that I had a 9 minute lead on the woman behind me, so it was quite a shock when, as a made the final far turn around, to see her within 5 minutes. She’d closed that  in a matter of 4 or 5 km….and there was enough of the race remaining for her to make a pass unless I seriously addressed the situation!  Over the next couple of kms she managed to gain another minute or even two on me…I was running as hard as I could with 5km remaining, all of them down hill. I calculated that she’d need to run almost 1 minute per k above my pace to close the gap down, but she had certainly looked comfortable when I’d seen her at that turn around, which was a million miles from how I felt! But, I appreciated the kick up the backside and the challenge of digging deep for the finish,  reasoning that I’d just had a pretty cruisy lap to recover, whilst she must have been pushing hard to catch me. I wasn’t taking any chances though, and with tunnel vision made my way to the finish line with thoughts of a sprint finish that I’d rather avoid. 

I crossed the line in a time of 10hr45 having held my 5th place. The time was substantially slower than last year, largely due to the run being a full length marathon rather than 2km short as it was previous years, but also both bike and swim splits seem to have been slower across the field too, due to conditions.  Taking that into consideration and given standard of the female field this year, I am happy with how I raced and pleased with the result.

I’m equally happy that there are no more Ironman races in my schedule for several months :o) ...although i cant quite put my feet up yet, since Steven and I are heading out to Lanzarote next week for the first running of EverydayTraining's  "Late Season Training Camp, Lanzarote" which will be based at the Trisports Super-Villa. 
You will be able to read my blogs from camp via the above link :o) 

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