Sunday, 28 December 2014

Ironman Barcelona

It's Boxing day and I'm killing time in Bristol airport once again. As I prepare to kickstart my 2015 season, I realise that I've yet to write a report on the final race in my 2014 season; Ironman Barcelona which was back in October! An indication of just how busy I am able to make myself once the training and racing is on hold for a couple of months…and also that some recent crap in my personal life took a lot of energy from me, and made it hard to focus on such things.

But as we approach 2015 and the opportunities it brings - I feel that the review of this great race will help me back in the frame of mind to make the most of the two weeks I'm about to spend coaching a festive New Years' tri training camp with my good friends at Trisports Lanzarote. So be warned - this could be a long post!

Whilst the home races of Ironman UK and Challenge Weymouth were the real focus of my racing season, I entered this former Challenge race in Barcelona on a high after  what I measure as a successful season on the suggestion of friends who were also planning to do the race. With the fast course, end of season timing and an easy to access location it was appealing on a number of levels. The choice to do this race was primarily for fun, and also to see how fast a time I could manage. 3 weeks after Weymouth is not long, but that was a relatively undemanding race and experience of the last few years has shown that I do tend to perform at my best with a few months of racing behind me…as long as i'm not too fatigued buy that point. So basically it was a 50-50, but since it was "for fun" I felt under little pressure here. The recent takeover by Ironman meant that the original prize purse offered by Challenge was still honoured and therefor  superior to a typical P2000 event. There was a large and  strong field - kind of an alternate Kona - so a top 3 never seemed likely for me, but being in the top 8 was my goal, would cover my race expenses and possibly leave me a few quid for a holiday afterwards too.

Travelling alone to Calella was somewhat of an experience, arriving late at night with bleary eyed and uncertain navigation and a broken rental cars taking up the small hours, I was extremely displeased to spend the following morning making an additional trip back to the airport to deal with what turned out to be a very small oversight by the car hire firm. At least I knew my way between airport and hotel well enough for a confident return trip! Having established a parking space near my hotel, I did not need to move the car once for the whole stay; Ironman Barcelona is actually cited in Calella - a small resort on the Costa Brava just north of the city - and is  one of those great race locations where everything to do with the event is easily accessible on foot.

The ocean was beautiful and felt almost warm enough to be non wetsuit, but we were assured that it was still safely within the range for a wetsuit "optional" swim. The bike course was simple - out and back along the main coastal road. Not entirely but mostly flat, making it fun to ride and with fantastic views of the coast as it wound through the various coastal resorts, the potential speed came from the lack of junctions and almost perfectly smooth road surface. The run followed the beachside path up and down between Calella and the small neighbouring resort with a variety of running surface and this was absolutely pan-flat. The potentially difficult aspect of this would be the monotony of 4 flat laps, and possible heat. I loved the location, was enjoying chilling out mostly on my own, and was really looking forward to riding that course.

Come race day's early start  -and just as i'm leaving my hotel rain starts. Storms had been forecast and not materialised …and oh ,what timing ,now it was. Within 5 minutes the spitting rain was an absolute torrent and in the 20 minute walk to transition I was soaked through. The torrent continued, accompanied now by thunder and fork lightening as we quickly set up bikes in transition, shivering now in the drenched lightweight waterproof that I had on me. 2000 bodies sought shelter in the transition tent as the storm continued and cut the power. Most people got into wetsuits for warmth - few of us believing that the race would go on in these conditions! But no announcements were given and, despite the continuing wind, rain and most worrying forked lightening, we made out way to the starting pens. With approximate 10 minutes to go before the male pro start, news reached us that they were announcing a delay. We gathered in one of the large marquees whilst race organisers advised us of a 30 minute delay. At this time it did seem that the storm was getting lighter and local understanding of the weather patterns proved to be correct as 20 minutes later conditions had almost completely calmed, other than the ocean being choppier than it had been during the last few days. I have to admit that by this time, being wet and cold and rather intimidated by the long, single loop swim within a small wave of female pros and wet conditions on the roads, i was not wholly enthusiastic about starting the race - lucky for me Elle Haresign was also racing and we get along well, have a good laugh and her positivity was a good motivation for me. The time came, they announced us each by name into the water, the rain eased to a stop and we got on with it!

I'm afraid that it's another terrible swim experience to report. Though I started well and remained connected to a small group, I found myself shortly at the front of it, sighting off one of the large yellow buoys. I could see the main group over to one side through the chop, but continued swimming on my line. A canoeist was close by - not necessarily a bad sign, but eventually she pointed out to me that the buoy that i was heading for was not actually part of the course - in fact i'd swum a long way off to the left and had quite a lot of chop to cut across to get back to the first turn buoy. I had seen the course layout mapped and not felt that there was anything complicated by it. With all the power outage, the very large transition area and confusion prior to the race, it had not been made clear that the line of permanent yellow swim buoys were not actually in line with the course and not to be used for sighting off - and I'd not taken the trouble to make sure I knew this. A hard lesson learned as the majority of the swim is a 2.2km stretch northwards into a choppy current …which I after this error i was left to face solo. It seemed to take forever!!

Time has passed now and I can't remember whether I was actually last out of my wave to grab her bike - but it seems likely given the 1:07 swim split…

The start of the ride was rather treacherous, 3km through narrow and winding streets of the town, recently soaked slick drain covers and aggressive speed bumps. I was leaving transition at just about the same time as the fastest male age groupers, amped up, racing these streets and taking each corner far too fast. Amazed that no one came off, it was great relief to finally exit the town via a small hill and onto the highway where the fun would finally begin. The sun was fully out now and drying the roads, no noticeable wind (in fact it was a slight tail-wind out, headwind back) and as described earlier this beautiful 50km stretch of road offered a smooth ride with great views…3 or 4 distinct "bumps" in the first 20km or so, then flattening off almost entirely. Closed to traffic there were just the roundabouts that gave cause to reduce speed occasionally…and a few patches of sand and debris left by the earlier storms. The perfect road to ride, and ride fast! Knowing that Eleanor would have likely been a good 10 minutes ahead of me out of the water, I had some riding to do to make up ground on her if i was to redress the 2-0 balance of the season so far. She's pipped me by one place one both the previous occasions we'd raced and despite the respect I have for her, in both cases I'd felt that it was more down to error on my part than superiority on hers. So I was very to pleased to see that at the far turn point, she was only ~2 minutes ahead  -had I closed such a gap already?  I was riding as well as I felt! I got ready to bring her in on the return to Calella, feeling sure that I could hold this effort for the duration.

Well, that would have been the case had there not been 2500 other competitors out on that same road, and with little to separate them they seemed to be gravitating into packs. During my first lap it was not so bad - fewer riders out on the course, and it was really the stronger male age groupers who tended to be riding solo or at least in legally spaced pace lines. The next lot of groups that passed me were still pretty small and were going rather faster than I was and did not disrupt my rhythm too much if I hung back  just a few pedal strokes to let them go. But I found that on any slight rise I'd be cruising up past them again, find myself on the front and over the next km or so get sucked in, through and since not willing to engage in the drafting, out the back of the group again. Rather frustrating and somewhat disruptive, but at this point still quite entertaining and giving me something to focus on and pass the ride time. As we rode further into the course, and more and more riders joined the laps, the conditions on the road became crowded with large bunches of riders forming - whether deliberately or simply an inevitable outcome of putting such large numbers of cyclists out on a course of this nature, there was a lot of drafting going on. It soon got to the point where easing off to avoid riding within the draft of a group that had just caught me simply meant drifting into the front of the next, slower moving, one. With the application of a few more watts I was able to ride past most of these groups - but they'd soon bridge the gap back up to my rear wheel, before one or two riders would come round to "take their turn" ….this pattern of riding was detremental to my own pacing and utterly frustrating. As such I spent the middle lap of the bike surging -  and pondering possible solutions to this problem . I felt sure that most people would prefer not to have been caught in this situation, but had succumbed to the reality that everyone else was doing it and that a genuine effort to follow the rules was effectively a decision not to "race".  That was the situation I found myself in, and eventually decided that my best resort was to ride just a bit off the back of a decent paced group - keeping the legal distances much as possible - though this was easier said than done due to the rolling nature of the course which meant that if i did not ease off significantly on even the smallest climbs, or lost focus and allowed my power to climb up on the flats, I'd find myself riding right into the back of the bunch. It was probably after having observed a few of these moments that a motor ref decided to single me out for a penalty and I was shown the red card. I have to admit that it never even crosses my mind that this part of the pre race briefing would apply to me, and was a bit unsure of what exactly I had to do!  I knew not to dispute it…and that I'd have to stop and serve a 6 minute penalty at some point…but could I choose where? or did it have to be the next box? and where were the boxes?? My hopes of catching Elle disappeared and were replaced by a big struggle to maintain positivity for the remainder of the race; we were about 4.5 hours in, with another 90minutes or so left to ride and a marathon to run - I couldn't give up on it yet; there was certainly still all to race for, although I was only in 8th place at that point and 6 minutes would surely see me off the bike outside of the top 10. I had to remain positive of my ability to run it back, and the generally unknown nature of what's going on "up the road". For all I knew all of the top 10 women had been served penalties!

Decent runs in both of my two previous Ironman races had given me plenty of confidence for the foot portion of the race -  my running does especially improve with a few races behind me and I felt well recovered from Weymouth's 38km flat "marathon".  This experience of long and full race seasons is something that I felt I had over Elle, and most people, at this time in the year. It was a great run course - dead flat and with an interesting variety of surface and scenery - with plenty of vibrant support on a hot and sunny afternoon. Although I'd travelled out alone, I am lucky enough to know plenty of people on "the circuit" and was getting some great support - and bottle aid - along the way. Although there seem to have been fewer aid stations on Ironman run courses this year, they were distributing drinks in bottles at this event - with the caps on if requested - which I really appreciated as it enabled me to run with a drink in hand pretty much the whole way around. This is especially valuable later on in the run when the course gets very congested around the aid stations.

I don't remember the run very clearly; like all marathons it got pretty painful, but my recollection is that throughout I was running pretty well and felt strong. There was no walking and no toilet stops anyway!  I passed a couple of Pro women…thinking "maybe now i'm back in the money" …but was later on passed by Katrina Gossman - who I tried to keep pace with briefly but she was in another gear altogether..and that threw me into a bit of a wobble, and another girl passed me…she didn't pull far ahead and I  like to think that I dug in a bit and caught her back..but am unsure of that fact now. Anyway with about 5 km to go I became aware that I was damn close to being caught again ( maybe it was the one that I had re-passed and was going for another go at it, perhaps I was facing the loss of another position) and had to drive deep to prevent it.  As I write this I now remember the agony of that last half-lap!!! But for me that's the sign of a good race - when I can push that hard after  9hours of racing and pick up the pace. It always seems to be the same situation that provides the motivation for me- not wanting to be caught (again) at such a late stage! All whilst these "twos and fro"s were going on, I was somehow oblivious to the fact that Elle was having a tough run a very short distance ( like a couple hundred  meters!!) ahead of me, and going through the same fear of being caught  -by me! She was being damn sneaky to evade me spying her at the turn-arounds as she told me later just how close I was. I know that if I'd been alert enough to see that, I'd have pushed on and caught her, and she admitted how relived she felt as she realised she'd managed to stay out of sight!

So, I finished in just over 9hrs 30 - a new PB even with the 6 minutes stop time - but in 14th position, which was disappointing for me. If it were legitimate to take that penally time off, then yes, i'd be in the top 10 and getting paid. I'd have finished in front of Elle and have a sub 9:30PB. But of course I can't really claim that, and although it's unfortunate that the ref took the decision to punish me - a lone female Pro caught within the masses of bunches of guys - I can't deny that there were plenty of moments when I was way too close to other riders out on that course. As a professional you just have to accept that this is something that will happen, and deal with it as part of the sport, in the same way that punctures, crashes, mechanicals and wrong turns can effect your race, and if you do enough races it will inevitably happen to you at some point.  Overall it was a great race experience, and one that I'd return to under similar circumstances-  an end of season race for the joy of racing and without pressure to earn money or points.  

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