Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Challenge Weymouth 2014 - race report

I’ve just returned from another great weekend of British Long Distance racing at the inaugural Challenge Weymouth. Great for me as it’s just about 90 minutes drive from home, and I have friends with a wonderful holiday home close to the course so it’s a low stress and low cost event for me to race - with the added advantage of certain amount of knowledge of the bike course. It’s a little out of my radius for cycling from home, but still close enough to make a day trip by car feasible.  Billed as fast and flat, some might have been a bit surprised to have accumulated 1800m of climbing on the bike, but it was certainly about as flat as possible given the local Dorset terrain! The race was a few km short here and there, in particular on the run which appears to have been set out to enable an accurate Half Challenge course and there was thus half a lap missing from the Full Distance race..but I know that will be adjusted for 2015 when the event will be the ITU European Long Distance Championships. 

On the day, unusual and strong easterly winds created a humungous surf in the bay and the swim portion was reduced for the Full Distance athletes to enable a denser covering of swim safety crew. This was announced to us as we prepared in transition at 5:30am on race morning - the start times would all be pushed back 30 minutes to enable the reorganisation of the course marker buoys and water safety team. The change was managed and communicated well - and though many people we disappointed that they’d not be completing the entire Challenge that they’d train so hard for, when we saw the size of the surf and swell out there, no one was thinking that even the shortened swim would be an easy option! 

Getting in and out through the waves was exhausting and with a strong current pulling to the west, I think I was washed most of the way to Portland! There was a stoney groin just to the west of the course and there was sa real danger of ending up on the wrong side of that at the end of each lap - I did manage to correct myself there and swam a better line second time around, but this diversion and lack of practice in surf conditions, I exited the water exhausted to find my gear back all alone left in transition. As the last Pro out nto the bike I wasn’t feeling very happy and the overcast morning did not help my mood. However, if wasn’t long before I caught up to and passed a couple of the other girls on the climb out of town. They then stuck around just behind me, where they seemed to stay for most of the ride. Eventually I also picked up Tamsyn Hayes and on the second lap the tiny Michi Herblauer. The three of us would occasionally exchange positions but for the most part each time one of them came to the front, it felt that the pace slowed a lot and within a few seconds i found myself moving past again. However, any gap i gained stayed pretty small and although I knew that there were still at least 2 women ahead of us, I was reluctant to really push the bike,  knowing that they'd benefit from that so in all it wasn’t a hard ride. I suppose the lack of punishing hills, the good conditions and a better (more ample) nutrition plan on the bike all combined and I felt pretty strong and enjoying being “in” the race. Michi seemed to decide to make a move at the 120km point, opening up a small gap - which took a bit of pressure to close down again and at that point we lost the others.  We’d just been through the part of the route which is an out-and back, enabling me to establish that Caroline Livesay was about 3 minutes ahead, and as I passed again Michi I communicated to her. Regardless of what she decided to to, I was going to try to close that down and with a bit of a push along the flat parts of the course I didn’t see her again. However, as I turned back into Weymouth we were slowed up by traffic, and the next time I looked around there she was. 

We entered and left transition together, and I was thankful that I’d had a pretty "steady" ride - there was going to be lot of work to do on the run. With this small, light and fast looking rival on my heels, I knew the first few kilometers had to be fast to shake her off .That’s all I thought about - get rid of her and then settle into a sensible pace, figure out who it is that’s leading , and by how much.  Michi was left behind me after those first couple of km, and Caroline was not too far ahead. I reckoned she was a bit tall for a very fast runner…and that left only Eleanor Haresign in front, a couple of minutes ahead of her. I reckoned i'm faster on foot than she…we'd raced together once in Lanzarote but it had been more like leap -frogging between toilets stops for the both of us. She made it to the line first on that day but i didn't think that proved anything…so set out to get her. If i can maintain it, my “sensible” pace will yield a 3:15-20 marathon.  In first half marathon i managed to close the gap to the lead from 4 mins to under 2…passing Caroline in the process. The win was in my grasp! I just had to keep fighting for it. The support that I had was fantastic. My Mum was there on the side of the course passing me my bottle each lap - I’d hand it back to her as I passed in the opposite direction, and she’d fill it ready for the next time around. She was spot on with that, and had hooked up with Joe Skipper’s family and other serious Iron-Parents -even Elle's crew were giving me splits - and lads from the tri club came down for the day and between them I all got great support.  Of course every single person who encourages me out there is appreciated, but it’s even more motivating when it’s people I know. Of course Elle was getting even more encouragement as the leader having the lead bike is a real advantage as everyone gets behind you. So, she wasn't gonna give it over that easy, and although i heard that she was "having a wobble", she rallied back after 25km and opened in that gap right back up to 4+ minutes just as I had a wobble of my own & pace had dropped to barely faster than 5mins for 25-30km. As we rounded the turn around on the last lap, I became aware that my position was in danger from behind - Michi was making up group and fast! With a lap to go it was down to under 1min…I knew i'd have to pick it up or else. Luckily i have some experience of running scared in the last 5km of a race …and i knew that the run course was short -  so that last half lap really was a frantic "sprint" to the finish! So much so that the finish line crew did not see me coming…and I took a wrong turn rather than into the finish chute, headed off out onto another lap! My legs gave out as I crossed the line,  but it feels good to finish like that,  in 2nd place and to a super strong winner.  

Thanks to my good friends Olivia and Andy who put me up in their lovely cottage for the long weekend. Olivia placed 3rd in her AG in the Half Distance race, despite being full of cold and caffeine! And thanks to my mum who made the trip down to support me by train, having lent me her car. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

Ironman UK - race report

It's clearly been a busy 6 weeks since my 3rd place finish at Ironman Uk in Bolton …never has a race report taken quite so long to write! But with 2 days remaining until the start of Challenge Weymouth, I felt that this may be a good time to reflect on that race, and use the learnings from the day to help me through this upcoming race.

The conditions in Pennington Flash were great as usual; a warm if slightly green-tinged lake, so calm water other than the beneficial whirlpool motion of the masses all swimming counter clockwise at pace! Nice big buoys mark a simple course ,which includes an "Australian exit" up the jetty, 60m run through crowds of cheering spectators and a "no dive" re-entry for lap two. The pro field had a  good separation on the start line which is the best scenario for me, with faster age group swimmers coming past after about 200m proving ample foot-following opportunities once the Pro field has strung out behind the super swimmers. As usual Harry was there to set the pace in the pond.

I felt that I swam well, did not loose the back of the small  pro pack at the start of the swim, and found my self side by side with another pro female through to the first buoy. She was swimming close, a bit too close, to my left side which was to her disadvantage in the end as I turned very tight to the first buoy, squeezing her out of space. Not entirely intentional (certainly not since I'm friendly with all the other women in the race!) but with my race head on thinking of my best interests first. The effort level was hard throughout the swim, I seemed to hold my position and always managing to be with and just behind a small group.  I *felt* that I was successfully implementing the stroke points that our swim coach had rather harshly drilled me with earlier that week, certainly my arms were aching as we concluded 3.8km. So I was a little disappointed to post a time of 61 minutes (when I have swim under an hour in each of my previous races here) but I was not last out of the water at least. The swim times are always subject to variability - even in a lake - dependant on the exact position of the buoys and water level, I suppose. I was focused throughout and couldn't have executed that swim any better, really.

It was a small female pro field at Ironman Uk this year, with just 7 women registered and only 5 of them starting on the day. All of them were known to me, the "on paper" favourite being Katja Konschak of Germany - recently placed 9th at Ironman Frankfurt in 9:20…but with Ironman "rookie" Tamsin Lewis the one that I had my eye on for the day. She races 70.3 with speed far superior to me across all 3 disciplines and would likely have a lead from the start.  However, with Katja having raced so recently and the testing bike course that she had not yet even seen and Tamsin's inexperience at the long distance (and to be fair, an unfortunate history of not finishing races) - I was certainly in this race feeling that I had an excellent shot at the win.

As it happened, it was only those two out T1 ahead of me I jumped on my bike and got to peddling!  Twice before i've lost all my bottles at the mercy of the concrete speed bumps on the way out of transition - i kept a close eye on them time time and managed to avoid the worst part of the bumps - but saw age-group champion Tracy Cook loose both of hers as I passed her. She's a great rider and it gave me a little motivation to push on, hoping to stay ahead. I feel that, although far from being amongst the top ranking  Pros, my status in the Pro field is validated as long as I am not beaten by the amateur athletes. There are some brilliant women racing age-group at the moment, and although they don't effect the Pro prize pay out or ranking points (in Ironman), it's not appealing to me to finish behind them! This could easily become a segway into another topic regarding what's the 'real difference' and who should be entitled to a Pro Licences …but let's not do that now!

Having rained torrentially all through the previous 2 days, the conditions early on that particular Sunday morning were rather grey and misty. As we gained height on the bike at the start of the first loop ( now two long loops rather than 3) the mist thickened, and after the steep limb up Sheephouse Lane to the moorland at the top, it was a thick fog. You couldn't see the top, which was sort of nice because that hill does go ON! I was rather surprised to have passed Katja already on the start of this climb which is only about 30km into the ride, putting me into second place. I felt that I had a great advantage in these conditions because, although I was terrified descending off the top in these blind and wet conditions, I did at least know the road pretty well, whereas Katja certainly was riding the fast descent blind.

I was really (kind of)  enjoying this race - feeling that I was racing myself into a win. The motorcycle film crew were appearing at regular intervals to film, and were giving me splits. Tamsin was ahead by 5 minutes by half-way on the first lap … not impossible, certainly if she "blows". Of course, I was riding hard too, and it hurt. By the second lap, it really hurt…and I was feeling hungry too. To the point of seriously considering stopping to pick up dropped food, or pulling quickly into a local store and begging for the loan of a MarsBar. The bike course at Ironman UK has been significant improved, in my opinion, by the changes ( two long loops which take you through some nice scenic areas and up the sharp incline of Hunters Hill) but certainly not made it any easier! The route winds along some of the more rural roads in the areas, all up and down and lots of tight bends. Uneven surfaces and patches of gravel are inevitable on these sots of roads. The effect on the cyclist is a constant changing momentum, lots of slowing and accelerating, short sharp climbs where you're likely to find you're in the wrong gear if you don't know the roads well, or accustomed to riding then at speed. A lovely route for a ride - a very hard route to race.

The splits information that I was getting were growing - Tamsin eventually finished the bike in the region of 15 minutes ahead of me - but I was still in second place, my best standing in an Ironman (this one actually) to date, and with the run still to come. That's where I've gained places in the past when I was having a decent day. I was looking forward to it.

The end of the bike course caught me out - one aspect that I had not recce'd, or even looked at closely, before the race and had made assumptions that we'd follow the obvious road route into T2 at the Reebok stadium ( now Macron, I think ). Nope, we were suddenly diverted off the main road into housing estate, a steep slope down and "shoes off" "dismount" all happened in a flash, Not that i was sorry that the ride was over, but not quite prepared. The run through transition was agony - rough stoney surface. It was unfortunate that the file crew was on me as I yelped out strongly recommended that they get some carpet, with the use of an expletive or two, I'm told.

Fastest T2 of the day! Then, the run out onto the bike course was right up the steep slope that we'd just ridden down. Ouch. Everything really really hurt, and I needed the loo. Maybe wish i'd spend a bit more time, and a penny, in transition! But I was chasing - and of course, being in second place I was being chased. 

Luckily for me friends of mine Steven and Roger had also just finished their rides and were on the early part of the run. Steven I was sure I'd catch up to and pass, whereas Roger I know to be an excellent runner. He was slightly behind me, but soon came by. If I could stick with him I felt sure of a good run, with the bonus of company and encouragement of a friend. I had no GPS on my watch, so no clue of our pace - but it felt solid. More solid than I did! Roger was running comfortably, I figured it to be about 4:20-30 pace. Reluctantly I let him slowly pull away from me. I consider that was my first show of weakness. Why did I too that? It's hard to justify in retrospect  -sticking at that pace would have certainly gained me a faster run (Roger ran 3:13) and  almost certainly prevented me from being caught. I suppose that to feel like I  was running "hard" after only 3kms (and not knowing my actual pace) didn't seem a risk worth taking at the time. We saw Steven, faster swimmer and cyclist, at the turn-around and I focused on catching him. I was impressed and pleased for him that it would actually be about mid-way through the marathon before I did so. 

One of the great benefits of being a leader in the race is having the "lead bike" for company. These volunteers give varying degrees of support, but in general they're willing to chat, give a little info and lots of encouragement. It also alerts the watching crowds to who you are and that you're a significant part of the "race" whilst they wait in support of their own loved ones further back in the field. And as always, the support up on Bolton is massive! Ironman have really built on the event over the 10 !!! years that its been run here and these days the atmosphere out on the run course on a sunny day rivals that of any Ironman in Europe. Racing on "home turf" adds another bonus n that I know so many people out there on the course and in support that it's a real joy for them to see me doing well. So I run stronger for that, and always try to have a smile or wave for anyone who calls me. 
I had found my running rhythm and was feeling pretty good, running alone, just me and my bike guy, for the first 15km stretch from Transition in Horwich to Bolton town centre. Following a few short very steep hills between the canal path and the centre of town, I developed a stitch …just as I was given the news that Katja was in sight behind. I wasn't sure but reckoned she'd made up about 5 minutes on me by that point. Maybe it was because I was having a bad patch …but at the time it really didn't occur to me as anything but inevitable. And let her pass with out any thought of sticking with her. Again, it's easy to be critical in retrospect and look at the "what ifs" - but at the time a stronger emotion was ruling my actions, and although I had set out to win and did not want to concede my position of course….I just handed it over at that moment. In a way it might have even been a relief. We switched bikes and the new guy was nice enough but didn't really know much about the sport or the race or even the time though he did get the crown going when I came through each time and tried to keep a look out for any other of the pre women coming from behind. From that moment on it was really about keeping moving forward and getting through another Ironman - Tamsin was looking great out there and was certain to win it. Katja was not looking great, but her hunger for Kona Points was driving her constantly forward. Amy is a strong runner and always has me looking over my shoulder, but aside form a brief panic after the final turn point when I didn't see her and imagined her right there on my heels, she was too far back off the bike to be a threat. I held it together and finished on the podium in a time of 10 hours and 21 minutes, having lost a whole 10 minutes to Katja, in second, on that run. A 3:33 marathon is feel below what I feel I should be able to do - whether I did push too hard on the bike, or just a bad day or simple down to those couple of low moments when I let myself be defeated to easily. On my last lap , when I suddenly became paranoid that Amy might be catching me I really did pick it up and ran a hard 5km to the line I guess I could have used that at an earlier point  - but for sufficient motivation. 

In all, I can say that I finished on the podium, was not beaten by any amateurs and did enjoy the racing experience at Ironman UK. I also learned a little bit about how to race stronger …now to implement that at the next one Challenge Weymouth on Sunday! 

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