Ironman UK: Race Day

I slept okay, up at 2:30am and having breakfast by 3am. The nerves got the better of me and I found I had to force myself to eat.

We arrived at transition for 4am (when it opened) and I readied my bike…speedfill aero bottle, bento box (cut up bar pieces and gel flask), watch, shoes with bands. Checked gears and tyres. Dropped special needs bag off with two gas canisters and a spare 80mm tube and hoped I’d never see them again, thankfully I didn’t.

T1 was a hive of activity so I headed for the nearest toilet queue, chatted with a few guys, got rid of a few grams, popped an Imodium and off to swim start. I met up with Rach and got some final last words of encouragement. On the way I bumped in to Helen Smith (from Thames Turbo) who convinced me to head over to the right side of the pack. We sculled our way over and took up a position on the far right.


A last look to Helen, who was pressing start on her watch. Good idea I thought and we were off.

It was a straight 750m to the first left turn buoy and I went out hard but not all out. It was relatively trouble free so I was able to get into a good early rhythm, breathing every two strokes to begin with. The first turn was a bit messy on the inside, so I went wide to avoid the hassle. The second left turn, all going well and we were heading back to shore with the wind, but extremely bright sun which made sighting difficult. I decided to go in to cruise mode and focus on breathing every three strokes with better technique. The pink hat swimming next to me meant I’d caught one of the pro-women.

Swim: Australian Exit

Swim: Australian Exit

I exited the first lap in 31 minutes, upon re-entry I decided that with a more spaced out field I could now take a tighter racing line. I was now comfortable and looking for a draft. It was at that point I felt something wrapped around my foot…weed. I kicked but it clung there. I kicked harder, but it still clung there. I dragged that tangle of weeds around for about 1700m, I couldn’t believe it. In hindsight, I should have stopped for 10secs to remove it. To drag it for so long would have cost me time. Focus!

The second loop was better than the first and I was able to turn tight to the buoys with no hassle. I kicked hard for the last 100m to get the blood to my legs and must have dislodged the weed because when I looked down on exit, it had gone. 1h 03m I was very happy (Target: Beat ironman swim PB of 1h 08m. Aim: 1h 05m with a good draft). I ran past Rachael shrugging my shoulders, arms held out in disbelief…where did that come from? She beamed back and from that moment it was game on!

Swim: 1h 03m (188th fastest overall, 21st in age group)

The answer was that the swim had come from training and it was great to be rewarded for hard work so soon into a race.

Swim: Final exit to T1

Swim: Final exit to T1

A long run to transition lets you gather your thoughts. I stripped to my waist and found my transition bag easily. Wetsuit off, helmet on, shades on, gel flask…go! Gel flask in rear pocket on way to bike. Counted the rows and ran to my bike, got it, ran to the mount line.

Bike: Exiting T1

Bike: Exiting T1

Rubber bands held as they had done in practice, a quick flying squirrel mount that the juniors I coach would have been proud of and I was heading out of T1, bare feet on shoes spinning along.

T1: 3m 15s (3rd fastest in age group)

Once away from the crowd, I put each foot in. Careful to do it between speed bumps. It was on the last speed bump when I heard something crash to the floor. I didn’t see anything. I reached down to my bottle cage, everything was in order…hmmmm, not me then.

Bike: Leaving Pennington Flash

Bike: Leaving Pennington Flash

I turned out of Pennington Flash and started to take note of the watts. This is when RPE can really let you down. You feel so good, even what feels like a moderate effort can be way harder than you should be going. Sure enough, I looked down and I was way over my target watts. I slowed up, paid attention to my watch and sipped water for the next few miles. It was at that moment that I realised the noise exiting T1 had been my gel flask falling out of the bento box as I hit the last speed bump…arrgggghhh. Okay, don’t panic – there’s food on the course. But, only energy bars. I thought about this for a while and decided to eat solids for the first half and then switch to my second gel flask (still safely in my rear pocket) for the second half. I then spent the next 10 minutes calculating what nutrition I had on board, the carb content of half a PowerBar (from feed stations) and re-calculating how much I had to pick up. It pays to know the nutrition content of everything you can get from an aid station. Fortunately this was one of the many things we checked in the days before the race.

This was my thirteenth long course event and it never ceases to amaze me how many riders go out too hard from T1. I just bided my time easing up on inclines to stay under my wattage ceiling – as riders blasted past me, wasting watts that they were going to be preying they had saved later in the day, half way around lap three.

Bike: Keeping an eye on the watts

Bike: Keeping an eye on the watts

So, the bike course was a lollipop stick, three loops and finally a 3km run into T2, with 5249ft of elevation gain. At 31.9km/h, it would give me a time of 5h 40m. The lollipop stick was quick and I averaged about 32km/h, so I banked a couple of minutes before hitting the first loop. I hit the lap button at the reservoir just before the first climb. A crowd was already gathering and a glance down at the watts told me to back off as I was over my ceiling and letting outside influences (the crowd cheering) into my race. No way I was going to mess this up, I had a 1h 03m swim in the bag. I shut them out and those riders around me who were again overdoing it on the climb…crazy. I could even hear their breathing, which told me they were at threshold. Up and over the first climb, another two and I was done. Watts were high and pace had dropped but the fast sections were still to come. The descent off the top was fast and I stuck to my lower wattage target, mindful that there was a bit of wind around.

It was great to have recce’d the course and knowing to gear down before the turn at the Black Dog pub really helped smooth that corner. Going into it hard and exiting well really got the crowd going as well, which gave me a nice boost. The climb out was one to watch as it was easy to over-gas it here having recovered from the descent. The power meter (Quarq Elsa) was a great help again.

Then came the fast sections. The first lap felt the windiest and I got blown about a bit. It was good to see the average speed going up though. I came into the built up areas where there are a lot more twists and turns and was joined for the rest of the first lap by Amy Forshaw, 3rd female. We went back and forth as I eased back on the climbs and she thrashed past me. This went on for a little while and I was aware the group was growing. This was turning into an issue. There were some riders keen to draft and I chatted to one guy who agreed we were picking riders up as we were going past. So, when the majority of them slowed down to grab a drink, I got the last bottle and put the hammer down for a while. I never saw them again.

I crossed the reservoir and hit lap. 1h 36m at 207w NP. Two minutes under target pace and 2w under target NP…result! All my calculations, testing and recce data was stacking up. 75kms into the bike and everything on target. Now it was going to be a test of the training plan, fueling, patience…

Bike: Climbing

Bike: Climbing

The second climb, and again I pootled up as I had the previous lap. The crowd was getting bigger and louder and there weren’t so many riders keen to hammer past me. Things were starting to bite for those that had had gone out too hard.

Descending more carefully off the top due to increased traffic, I hit the (Black Dog pub) corner harder than before and got an even bigger cheer…I was enjoying this. The descent down Belmont Road (A675) wasn’t as windy so I took the opportunity to relieve myself, hoping at 80km/h most of it would fly backwards away from me. Most of it.

Feeling comfortable, I was already going past those who were going to have a very long day and I was mindful that obstacles were going to become more of an issue. Feed stations got a bit tricky but fortunately I got through them all okay. I agree with anti-littering measures but having to dump your bottles close to the feed station means lots of people weaving around while they’re filling their aero bottles. I think it would be better if there was a bottle dump zone some way away (100/200m up the road) from the feed station or have a 200m stretch where it was okay to throw bottles.

I saw Rachael on the Tour de France-like Babylon Lane climb and was happy to report that I felt great! She told me that she thought that I was about 12th in age group. Good to know, but it didn’t really matter I was sticking to my plan. What will be, will be.

I crossed the reservoir again, 1h 35m, 211 NP, 45 seconds between lap 1 and 2. 126km, average NP 210 (still on target!) in 3h 58m, av speed of 31.8km/h. The accumulation of hitting target after target was increasing my positive mental state. I just had to hold it for another lap…

Last time up the Sheep House Lane climb. Again, it was hard not to get carried away by the crowd but I’d banked so much, up to now. Again, the power meter kept me in check. I was mindful of how my legs felt on the climb and I picked my way through people weaving up to the ‘lonely tree’. My legs were still good and I had to hold back – very encouraging.

Off the top, down Rivington Road and a final showboat with the Black Dog crowd…oops!!! Go it all wrongggggg. Locked up the back wheel and was heading for the crash barriers and an increasingly frightened group of spectators…rented wheels, rented wheels, rented wheels…an inch away from impact…one foot un-clipped…I stopped. A quick turn, clip back in and I was all smiles as the crowd’s nervous “wwooooaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!” had turned in to a massive cheer and shouts all the way up High Street. ..phew! Great to give the crowd some excitement, but very close and very stupid. Focus!

For the remainder of the lap I had noticed it was harder to maintain target watts and I consciously allowed myself to coast a bit more below my downhill wattage target. I hit lap at the reservoir for the last time: 1h 38s at an NP of 204w. That meant 3x50km laps within 2m 25s…not bad pacing ;-)

No third climb for me, and the crowd in front of the Chapel give you an extra cheer when you carry on Rivington Lane and on to T2. One of the great event memories I have, was approaching a group of local cyclists who all pulled over and clapped me past. I got the feeling that they really appreciated that this was tough. Cheers guys!

BIKE: 5h 42m, target 5h 40m. (84th fastest overall, 16th in age group)

Because T2 was uphill and I ride with very uncomfortable cycling shoes (not tri-specific shoes), I decided to keep my shoes on until I handed over my bike to the volunteers who racked it (badly, they broke my Speedfill aero mounting – how, I have no idea. All I know is that I couldn’t have ridden with it like that and I would have noticed). I then took off my shoes and ran into Rivington High School bare footed (that tennis court surface really hurt!).

Inside, the volunteers were a great help locating my bag and I was quickly on my way. It was running out of T2 that I quickly came across an issue. I carry my own fuel – two Fuel Belt flasks for water and one gel flask. I put the gel flask in my rear pocket of my tri-top (which had been okay on the bike) but now it bounced about alarmingly. I had used this tri-top before, but there was no way it was staying in there this time. I had to carry the gel flask. I don’t like anything in my hands when running but I was going to have to suck it up today. Note to self: when testing kit, all kit means ALL kit, no matter how stupid you think you’re going to look on the Thames towpath.

T2: 2m 06s (5th fastest in age group)

I’d recce’d the run course and knew it was slightly rolling, but easy enough for the first 10km and that settling in, fueling and focusing on good technique were the important bits. A couple of guys went past me and I grew concerned that I wasn’t moving quickly enough. Going by RPE, I didn’t feel fast but checking the Garmin I was running 4:45min/kms comfortably. The target was 5min/km but knowing the lumps came later I had made the decision to bank a little time early on. So, I was happy to hold this pace.

Starting the run at the front end of the race and running along the canal was a bit lonely. A couple of guys passed me (one in my age group) but again I stuck to my plan. I amusingly swapped HR data with an Irish guy running past (he asked)…I was pleased to report 142bpm to his 165bpm! Bye for now, I’ll see you later (at that effort), I thought.

The first 10km was tough but my feet felt great (Newtons with a soft orthotic sole and talc…joy!) and I was fueling well (every 20mins) and the gels started to kick in. Running along the canal, thoughts of how tough this was going to be came in to my head. I used the rebuttals I wrote down. I thought about how hard the club juniors that I coach work, and I wanted them to be proud of me. Lots of ‘what ifs’…personal, coaching, my athletes, those I coach, family and friends, etc.

Leaving the canal there’s a tough incline and I passed two guys walking that had passed me only minutes earlier. At the top, Rachael said I was about 15th in age group and there were a few in a bunch just ahead. Encouraged, I joined the main three lap run circuit and my mood started to lift. Everyone was eye-balling each other’s number belts as they ran out and back, which was easy to do with so few on the course at this stage. I made the decision not to get into it and kept my head down and just kept doing what I was doing. My plan.

Heading into Bolton city centre I crossed into the middle of the road to high-five Jon Heasman (Thames Turbo Speedo Race Team). Just out of interest, I took a time check, he was 17mins ahead when I got to that position on the return. 1 lap down. I passed my dad and his partner (Shirley), which gave me another lift. I tried to encourage a struggling Bella Bayliss with a shout. My average pace was holding. I eased back on the steep section out of the city, which gave me a little extra on the false flat sections.

Run: Lucy Gossage in the background

Run: Lucy Gossage in the background

I ran with first female, Lucy Gossage for her last two laps. We went back and forth a few times as she hammered past me on the steep sections and I would re-overtake her as it flattened off. I thought it was a risky strategy, but it obviously worked for her. The crowd noise for Lucy was huge and a very welcome distraction.

Run: Drafting Lucy Gossage

Run: Drafting Lucy Gossage

On the second lap I got two fresh Fuel Belt bottles and a gel flask from Rachael from the special needs station. Fueling was still on target and my head was up. I just kept focusing on running tall, from the hips, head up and relaxing jaw, shoulders, arms, etc.

Run: Daniel Halksworth coming for a chat

Run: Daniel Halksworth coming for a chat

Around the city centre Daniel Halksworth (winner) passed me on his last lap. He was keen to chat with me about his displeasure about being sent down the finishing chute a lap early. I thought, ‘uh huh, yep, sorry dude, I can’t process your problems, I’ve got my own issues here fella’ :-) and he was gone…mumbling into the distance.

There were a lot more people on the course now and it was hard for me or Rachael to keep track of where I was. It didn’t really matter as this was all about what I could do. I knew my swim time. I didn’t know either transition times or my exact bike split at this stage (I’ll work on this) but I knew it was roughly on target and if I could keep this run pace going I’d be in with a shot of beating 10h 30m and getting a possible Kona slot through roll down. I tend to do the calculations pre-race and then just focus on hitting that pace at the time. Barring incident, the end result should work out.

Run: Bolton city centre

Run: Bolton city centre

The last lap and this was it. I was determined to run the steep hill out of town, which I did. There were a lot of people walking by now. After this, the final rise out of town and I decided this was the point to crank it up to the line (6kms left). I grabbed some cola from the feed station. I love cola but only use it as a treat towards the end of races. A reward. It was in plastic cups, so of course I threw it all over my face…great!

With head up and a last high-five with Jon going the opposite way (the gap now eight minutes between us) I started to search for those with three bands (meaning they were also on their final lap). I noticed a couple of guys in my age group and decided to pass them at speed so they wouldn’t be able to track me. I was flying. It hurt, but I just kept telling myself that I had put together a great race so far and to be able to speed up at this stage was my reward for 135kms of patience. I still had no idea what the result would be, but I was daring to hope. I was mindful not to push it too much. I could feel tightness in my legs and the fear of cramping in the final kms was a very real possibility.

I was constantly wondering whether this was good enough and that if it was there was no way I could ease up. I had to grit my teeth and push on. I was definitely inside myself at this stage. The soft talc soles of earlier didn’t exist anymore, and I could feel every piece of gravel. Preying that my legs didn’t cramp.

Is it really painful? Hmmmmmm, it certainly isn’t pain like when you hurt yourself. It’s not sharp or acute in any way. You can’t point to it. It’s not even like pain/soreness from a hard hilly interval session. It’s deeper and more whole bodied. Pushing a deeply fatigued state, your limbs can start to tingle, your vision narrows and you do go inside yourself. You definitely become more separate e.g. a mind within a body. Like you’re looking out from inside something. I didn’t notice much, even within this loud bizarre spectacle. Ignoring all feed station offerings. I was now just thinking about the line.

And…there it was…I turned a corner and started heading away from it…what!…errr…I turned another corner and there it was again…phew! (word to the course designer…that wasn’t nice!)

Run: Finishing Chute

Run: Finishing Chute

I was hurting coming down the finish chute (as you can see) but I couldn’t take my eyes off the time…10h 13m (and some change I didn’t care about)…eh!? This didn’t make sense. Had the pros set off earlier than the rest of us? No. Confused, I crossed the line…not even celebrating, still trying to work things out with a very mangled brain.

I saw Rachael and my dad and we all hugged. Rachael and I were all teary and open-mouthed about the performance. I asked about my time and she confirmed it. It was a great moment. All the sacrifices she’s made and the help she gives was really pleasing to deliver. You can’t perform at such a level without rock solid support, understanding for what it takes and belief.

I then went into the tent and found Jon (5th, 35-39) and another Thames Turbo Speedo Race Team athlete (Richard Newey, 2nd 45-49). They knew their positions and told me to go out back and ask Richard’s wife to find my position on the tracker. I was a nervous wreck waiting for Gill to bring up the age-group results… 4th..!!! No way. I had to look at it myself. I’ve never seen my name so high on any leader board before. Woah, that could be automatic qualification?!?! I went back into the tent and reported back to Jon and Richard. We all sat around, shattered and bemused. I couldn’t sit still. I had to find Rachael. I went out back and she was there with my dad and we just started jumping up and down. I’d done it, but had I? It seemed that way, but it was all guesses based on past years and the number of Kona slots available in each age group. You’re just not 100% certain. How many slots were there? What if I hadn’t served a penalty, been DQ’d…arrggggghhhhh.

Run: 3h 22m, 4:46/km pace (23rd fastest overall, 3rd fastest in age group).

I was all smiles though. I knew I’d put in a solid performance, hit all my targets and managed to surpass my run pacing target. The thought of an automatic Kona qualification meant years of dream realisations came flooding in. It was a real buzz (or maybe it was the caffeine) and I couldn’t stop smiling. I was soooo happy.

Total: 10h 13m, 4th in 40-44 age group and 41st overall.

Although the Ironman athlete tracker was saying 4th in category and last year this was automatic qualification, I still wasn’t booking the flights just yet. I was 80% sure…I still had to show up the next day at the awards ceremony, where there was a one hour window to accept my qualifying slot and confirm my intention to go to Kona.

After finishing I got a massage, some more to eat and we hung around the finish chute clapping atheletes still to finish, including Helen (who podiumed in her category). We eventually jumped in the car and went to T2 to pick up the bike and transition bag then on to the hotel, a quick bite to eat and bed. I checked the car had petrol and set two alarms that night.

Next morning it was back to the Reebok Stadium and the Ironman expo where there was a nervous wait with other potential qualifiers (and families) all stood around. Finally, a list of category qualifiers was sticky taped to a wall confirming my position and qualification. I could now pay for my slot…85%.

It wasn’t until my credit card was swiped, payment was confirmed and the torn-off receipt roll was being handed to me, that I finally relaxed, well…90%. I’ve still got to get there…