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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