Almost the perfect race
Almost the perfect race
Build up and preamble
It’s not an understatement to say we had been waiting for this race for some time, I signed up in 2019 but wasn’t able to race in 2020 due to travel restrictions. The world changed with the outbreak of COVID, events all over the world were cancelled or moved, sport wasn’t a priority and rightly so, this upset scores of athletes that had committed to races that either deferred to another year or just didn’t run. For me, it certainly was a disappointment but I knew we would get to race eventually so I set about getting stronger where I could.
As lockdown continued, training was the only reason we were allowed out over periods of the year at the pandemics worst. Getting out for the hour long sessions was a break from the indoor world of Zwift that had now become the norm.
Training in the pandemic wasn’t easy for some. Indoor training kit became the new currency, turbos, swim cords, treadmill and weights were all essential pieces of kit, not everyone was so lucky. Prices soared, the more money you had the easier it was. You could get by if you were dedicated or loaded or both but it wasn’t simple. So, kudos to anyone that got through that period unscathed in terms of training.
Thankfully as the weather got better we were allowed outdoors to train, small groups to start but it was amazing to ride out with others. I had done a tremendous amount of work from October to March indoors and this had made me pretty strong, especially on the bike, it was great to start long rides and runs out in the fresh air.
Long ride of the year, 130 mile ride with Wrighty
Swimming was still compromised for many and as a reflection of this races started offering bike/run options due to safety fears due to lack of swim time, again, this was a lottery for some, depending on your gym or pool and how they handled it you either swam or you struggled to get time, thankfully mine wasn’t too bad.
Whatever happened I was going to fully race both IM Staffordshire 70.3 and IM Tallinn so in my head I didn’t back off, even if they were moved again.
As always, I could swim more, as soon as pools opened I was in when I could, 2-3 times a week but not really enough to compete, it was ticking over, I do the same and say the same each year, I’ll swim more for the next race, I and I never do, I’ve paid for it this year though.
My biking has always been strong, not like a standalone cyclist would be, just good triathlete, working with Total Tri Training over the winter and encouraging events online and Team Time Trials all of 2020 into 2021 was key in bringing me out of winter with more consistency, just need to add endurance to that, consistency is easy on the bike if you love the turbo as much as I do.
Swapping over to the TT bike and changing some of the training however caused me an issue I am still not over, I developed hamstring tendinopathy, I ‘squashed’ the tendon at the top of my right leg somehow and they don’t like that, it was just after a good run block in November 2020, setting 10km and 5km PB’s I suddenly couldn’t run without it getting worse, early 2021 I did almost no running for 8-10 weeks, and then brought it back slowly. I could still run with the issue; it would just be painful, but it wouldn’t get worse and if I didn’t do too many hills, I would be able to run again every other day.
Early season racing in April – brrrrrrr !!
The build-up races went well, I won my age group at Southport Olympic and Deva Middle, then on to Ironman Staffs 70.3, the field wouldn’t be the strongest due to the travel restrictions, but we race who turns up.
The race went well, swim wasn’t impressive, bike I was strong, the run was just … well, the run, it was around the centre of town so good support and then a crawl up to the castle on both laps, the heat on the day was a huge factor, I’ve run in hotter but not in the UK. I eventually crossed the line in 2nd winning an AG slot to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships as well, great race by Scott Whittlestone running 8 minutes into me but I was pretty chuffed to be competitive in a 70.3.
Now onto the main event, IM Tallinn, this was to be my 21st Ironman and I was competing in the M50-54 age group, I didn’t turn 50 until December but the criteria means its your age as at 31st December ! bonus year !! Being the youngest in the age category was exciting, might as well take every opportunity you can, I really wanted another podium and this was the best time for it, Mallorca had been cancelled earlier in the year so everything was going into this one.
I will do another blog on the travel and all the bits that make this an amazing place to race but pre-race the most stressful thing was the ‘will we, won’t we’ scenario around travel restrictions, having to do a 10-day isolation when we got back was not going to happen with 2 kids in their school holidays, so we waited for news on lifting restrictions. If it didn’t, I was going on my own, it wasn’t fair on the kids with isolation and I didn’t want to defer again.
Travel changed, yay!! We still had plenty of hoops to jump through, but they didn’t include a long isolation on return. Getting on the plane on the Wednesday before the race was awesome, Sam Shepherd from TTT and Daniel McParland from Preston Tri just 2 others on a plane pretty stacked with athletes and all just happy to be heading to the start line.
In the 3 days pre-race as a family we did a bit of sightseeing but to be honest that was going to wait til after the race so the girls made the most of the spa in the hotel while I did triathlon stuff. We did the usual, build the bike, test it out with Sam, have a jog or two around town, swim test with Sam again and met up with mates from the big smoke Joe Spraggins who does a superb job of blogging here (at least he got his Tallinn one out in the right month after the race !) and his partner Katie who was doing her first ironman. Also randomly bumped into the Chester Tri guys too. Plenty of good Brit support.
Me and Sam Shepherd after one of the prep jogs around town
Registration for the race was slick, including vaccine checking and a little more paperwork. All good.
Because the swim start was 10km out of town the race organisers set up buses for bike check in, myself and Sam got to the swim area to check in bikes, I then realised that you need your race number as well as bike and helmet to do this, and they weren’t for budging, I should have read the race brief and also listened to Sam, who told me I needed this before we left !!
Chilling at the lake waiting to be rescued
Anyway, the family trekked out to the lake in a taxi with race belt and disaster averted. I also dropped the run bag here too; this would then be taken back to T2 for me. I decided it was a good idea to visit T2 on the way back to orientate myself as the first time I would see this on race day was as I got off the bike and I wanted to know where my racking spot would be.
The night before the race was one of the other hightlights of the week for us, the Ironkids race, both Teya and Millie were signed up, lockdown had meant neither had been particularly active over the last 10 months with races as parkrun hadn’t been running but they were defo excited to take part. I love that IM celebrate the supporters and kids, and yes I know its another revenue stream but I dont care, the kids love it, the girls both have great memories, t-shirts and medals to show for it.
I was up at 3:20am, we all had specific times for buses, entry into T1 and swim start so I only needed to work backwards from the bus time to work out breakfast and what time to get up. I tried to be quiet while I ate breakfast and drank coffee, porridge, bananas, croissant with ham and a double strength bottle of Xendurance Fuel5. Said goodbye to Kelly and was off. All very calm.
I met Sam downstairs at 4:40am and we walked to our bus time of 4:55am. It was strange to see the town still alive at 5am but reminded me of Lanzarote with the revellers coming in from the bars as we were just preparing for the race. We boarded at 5am and chilled for the trip to the Lake. Because of the rigid times, T1 wasn’t open when we arrived, so we waited with others. Bang on the expected time, the gates opened and it was prep time.
The weather predictions all week had been for high winds and rain on race day, all days either side, perfect sunshine and no wind, me and Sam had discussed this, it was going to be the race day weather whatever, just get on with it. It didn’t disappoint; it was windy and already looking ominous for the start. I prepped the bike, nutrition on, Garmin on to pick up the satellites and start it ready for the race so I dont have to faff later, shoes in the pedals and elastic banded to the bike, tyres inflated and then leave without any fuss. We didn’t really have a lot of time anyway so it was good to get to the swim start which was around 1/2km walk. (note : use a spare pair of shoes which then go in your white bag, the walk is too far in bare feet !!)
My swim start was 6:30 so I wanted to get to the loos and then get in the chute, again, pretty well organised, no one was at the toilets, easy, met up and said our good lucks with Sam, Joe and Katie and then went to the beach to wait the start.
Looking pensive at the start, waiting for my 4 second slot to go
Swim Leg, different coloured buoys marking the directions
1hour 6mins – 8th AG
As I said earlier, my swimming could have and should have been better prepared, I knew I was fit enough to get round in around 1.02-1.04 but I really should be aiming at 60 minutes. The course as above has a few turns but it was really easy to follow, red ones turn left, white ones turn right, yellow ones join the dots. 7 buoys all numbered, just tick them off.
After the 3rd buoy the weather properly turned, it was like a washing machine had been turned on, I could feel the rain on my back it was that heavy, the chop was incessant, lots of breakers over my head, breathing sometimes was clear, others it was a mouthful of water, and it wasn’t a great taste. Each time we changed direction the wave direction changed; the new game was to see how many clear breaths before taking in a mouthful of dirty water.
I knew buoy 6 to 7 was going to be the worst, straight into the waves and the longest leg, but I could hear the commentators which made me happy, I kicked from buoy 7 to the exit, wake up the legs, hit the ramp, stand up and check watch, 1:06, I can’t say I wasn’t surprised, it felt long and a hard swim and I was pissed that it was already eating into my time, but I dismissed it immediately, its gone, forget it, move it, get through T1.
3mins 45secs – 4th AG – gained 4 places right there !
Short run to the bike, it was now raining but not too heavy, just annoying, I had packed arm warmers in case it was cold, as I pretended to know what I was doing by making a complete hash of getting my wetsuit off and not get cramp I noticed people running out behind me without any additional clothing on, it was going to be 17 degrees, what the hell, decision made right there, leave the arm warmers! Fogged up helmet on, stuffed wetsuit in bag with goggles and swim cap and then put the 2 extra packs of shot blocks down the front of my skin suit. I’d worked out the nutrition I needed for the whole bike based on 5 hours was more than I could carry in the bento box on the frame so 2 full packs went down my skin suit. Grabbed bike and left. I gained 4 places in T1 alone, honestly, don’t piss around in transition.
4hours 43mins – 1st AG !
No flying mount in the wet, and with a rear mounted bike bottle that could have been dangerous too, feet on shoes and start to pedal. Again, it was like I had never done this before !!! Trying to get wet feet in wet bike shoes needs more practise, bloody amateur !! I felt like I was haemorrhaging time but I tried not to panic, I also had overshoes to pull on so I had to negotiate the narrow T1 exit chute one handed, other hand down at pedal height and get riding without knocking anyone else off.
Hard to spot but faffing around trying to get foot covers on wet feet !!!
I didn’t know it at the time but I came out 11 mins down on the leader in my age group, anyone who says swimming isn’t worth it to gain a few minutes by doing 6 months of work, think again ! If the guy had been able to ride as well as he swam, I’d be stuffed right there !
Fuelling strategy was based on half a pack of shot blocks every 22 mins, I’d set an ‘eat alert’ on the Garmin, this would give me around 70g carbs per hour just from those, I also had a full 700ml bottle of Fuel5 in the aero bottle on the bars, a double concentrate aero bottle of Fuel5 on the frame giving me 2 more bottles if I needed it. The back up was half a bottle of water on the rear, this was to dilute the Fuel5 and also provide some added security if I missed an aid station. So I was on around 75-80g carbs per hour in my head, I was prepared the carry the extra weight due to the course profile, once I was moving it was negligible.
The course is 2 loops of around 85km, with the last 10km back into town, the wind was blowing a bit by now, each change of direction brought challenges, either hunker down, hold tight in side winds or max out the pedals with the tail wind, I had studied the course and knew where to push, where to recover and which parts the cross winds were. The roads were amazingly smooth, a small section was a bit rougher but nothing like home, the only thing to avoid was the water channels where years of car use had created small grooves, I don’t think I saw a pothole in the whole 2 lap section.
The cross winds with a disc and tri-spoke made it interesting, leaning 30 degrees into the wind and a little more on the power to hold position made me think of Kona in the same way but without the driving rain. Into the wind I was happy to have worked well on my bike fit, I had my straw from my aero bottle at the exact height my chin should be to get the best aero position so it was easy to check when I lost concentration. The Garmin chimed, I ate, the aid stations came and went, I just grabbed water to decant which was just as well as the bottles they were handing out were not bike bottles and I didn’t think they would have stayed in the cages.
I already knew what power numbers I would be riding, I had got weight to 71.5kg the week before and I always think anything over 3w/kg can be a solid IM ride if you have worked well on the bike position and try to optimise freespeed. 220w was my target, my current FTP was around 290w so felt that if I started at this I would be able to run well and if I felt like I could give more later I would.
30km in I was still cold, the decision not to use arm warmers was giving me a bit of concern and the extra 2 packs of shot blocks down my front were letting in cold air, but as soon as we turned into the wind I forgot all of it, I soon warmed up pushing against the wind.
Another thing that was keeping me warm was wee !! Yep, I was drinking to fuel myself and not to thirst so that meant in the rain, it was too much, I wasn’t sweating and it was cold, no need to rehydrate for no reason, the first 2 bottles though were fuel and I wanted to keep the fuelling up for the first half to a decent calorie number just in case my taste changed second half. This meant in the first 100km I had to pee 3-4 times, on a flat course this meant slowing down to stand a little to release the pressure and concentrate on peeing, it also meant that if I was in any pace lines I was losing touch with the others, and even if I wasn’t in a line I could see my next target getting further away. So after my second bottle of Fuel5 I decided to drink just to help with carbohydrate absorbtion and only drink when I needed to have shotbloks, I soon stopped weeing.
I was also starting to play games in my head, I knew I wanted to win the AG and I was looking for people in my AG, if I saw someone that I thought was older I moved my number round a little to one side to hide the number and AG bit, then when I realised it wasn’t aero, I moved it back, pathetic but I didn’t want anyone latching onto me as I went past and encouraging them to push harder, as it turned out I was charging through the field so I shouldn’t have worried and the speed I was passing people it would have taken someone to really give extra to hang on.
By the 60km mark I knew I was on for a good time, I hit it in 1hour 34mins, I started to calculate, 4hr 40mins was possible ! wow this course was fast, but I needed to hold pace and the last part of the course would be into the wind. By this point I was only 5mins 30secs down on 1st. It was still raining, a lot, I was loving it, I hoped they were hating it.
I got to 120km in 3hrs 05 mins, I was now up on the 4:40 pace, it must have gone to my head because 2km later on a left hand bend I crashed. Stacking it wasn’t part of the plan, my Garmin says I was moving on the floor without any power for 7 secs, it felt a long time sliding with the bike on top of me but it happened so fast all I could do was wait til I stopped and hope the bike was OK. I hit my head hard as I landed, the visor came off and I just felt stupid, the kind of stupid that makes you get up really quickly and pretend it didn’t happen and ignore any offer of help around you !! Then try to mount the bike without thinking about how hurt I was or that I probably needed my visor. I stopped, picked up the visor, checked the bike, tried to get on, the chain was off, put chain on, get back on and started riding, probably around 45 seconds but felt like minutes.
My head position is a little higher as the race went on – need to learn to stay down as the race progresses !
I had banged my hip pretty hard and there was blood all over my arm and leg on the left side. I was in one piece though, I think, my arm hurt but I had to get back in the aero position, this hurt like hell but after a few miles it soon went numb so I stopped thinking about it, but kept looking at it just to check. Power numbers climbed for the next 30 mins or so, adrenalin can be a bad thing in a race this long but I was angry now the stupid feeling had dissipated. Still, the rain came down and I wanted to stay upright.
The downside to falling off was that it made me more cautious, the last 60 km had the majority of the turns, a few roundabouts on the out and backs and a dead turn to contend with and the last thing I wanted to do was stack it on the right side and smash the gears. So I probably lost a few seconds here and there but in all I stayed upright and still no one passed me so I must have got the pacing at least right.
I hit the end of the second loop and this time went straight on, I thought it was a drag straight into town, however, Ironman had other ideas, after the flyover, we were directed off the main road and onto bike paths I’d not seen before, turns, pathways, potholes and quiet neighbourhood streets in the last 10km dented the average speed somewhat but it was the same for everyone, so I just sucked it up and got on with it, I was a bit lost to be honest but eventually came across a garage that me and Sam had passed earlier in the week so I knew it was less than 2km to go. I waited til the last moment to undo the shoes and strip back the covers, feet on shoes and off the bike at the mount line.
I came off the bike 1st in my AG and 37th overall.
3mins 37secs – 1st AG
The run into transition gave me time to consider my options, there wasn’t many bikes in T2 so I knew I was doing well, I found my racking spot, the new COVID rules meant you had to take your own bike to the rack and the T2 bag was on the floor, I racked the bike, took the helmet off and sat down, tipped the bag open and peed myself 😊 Got to love multi-tasking, no point running into a portaloo when you can put your trainers on while saving time by having a pee on a rain soaked floor so no one would notice. Decided I didn’t need the hat and glasses and grabbed the 5 gels and left.
4 laps out and back on the run
3:17 – 1st AG
Running out of transition I knew what the goal was, a 3:15 marathon, I had tried this many times before and never got near, anytime I was close, the course was short, I always aim at sub 3:30 but today felt different.
I decided to run completely on feel and see what happened, so many times I have limited myself by heart rate or looked at pace and thought, ‘I am going too <quick><slow>’ and worried about it. So on my last few long runs I had worked out what ‘sensible’ felt like and decided that was it, I still kept a check on pace each mile as they popped up on the watch but that just made me even more determined to keep pace as it was looking pretty good on the first loop.
I had 5 gels ready in T2, one to chug straight away as I left T2 and the next 4 were for each 3 miles, that would get me either close or ‘to’ my special needs bag at around 15 miles before I needed another one, there were 4 more XEndurance gels in the bag. On the first lap I clocked where my special needs might be, front row, I could then pick it up next lap now I knew the general area. It wasn’t a great set up, they were just laid out under a tree randomly but mine was easy to spot.
Each lap I had asked Kelly to be around the hotel we were staying in, this was for 2 main reasons, support, which was essential and also give me splits, how close the guys in my AG were in front and behind, I had almost 4 minutes out of T2 and it was already down to just under 3 minutes at 7km. I swear I never saw one timing mat/beacon/line the whole day but they were getting splits every few km, it was helpful but as he closed, it was less so in my head. Lap 1 was done in 46 mins, onto the next one. I was seeing familiar faces on the run, Sam and Dan were storming it and both looking reasonably happy and comfortable.
Lap 2 I held the same pace, I still felt really comfy, no issues from the crash and I was feeling surprisingly good, Kelly shouted at me, he was now 1:38 behind, bloody hell !! 13km in. 3rd was 5:50 and holding same pace. I couldn’t let up, but I couldn’t go faster, I was already on sub 3:15 pace and I knew if this guy wanted it, he had to push harder and go faster, and if he was that good of a runner nothing I did would change what was about to happen.
Showing injuries from the bike but wasn’t really feeling any ill effects
Next time check was 17km and he was as close as I wanted it to get, 90 seconds ! and I knew if he didn’t back off soon he would be with me by the turn around at the finish area and I wouldn’t see Kelly again until lap 3 so I was on my own for splits.
I hit the half marathon in 1:35, it was the same time I had done in Staffordshire 70.3 over 3 weeks ago, the weather was playing a massive part in me being able to hold this pace, in my head I was flying, I knew there was a long way to go but I had never felt this good in an ironman marathon.
On the way back out on lap 3 I caught Joe Spraggins aka ‘The Energizer Bunny’, last time we saw each other in a race was in Kona in 2018 and the shoe was firmly on the other foot, I was aware his running wasn’t at its best right now but I never expected to pass him, he was currently doing a tour of the portaloos each lap, he gave me a shout of encouragement and I left him to it, its amazing how supportive others are even when they are struggling, it was a lift to go ahead of Joe, I know it was hollow as he was struggling but in an ironman you use everything to gain a positive edge and I knew I was doing well being ahead of one of the best runners I have had the pleasure to race with.
I got to 25km and saw Kelly for the last time at the bottom turn, ‘he’s 2:18 behind now !’, A-MA-ZING, he was cracking, I needed to hold pace, 3rd lap is always the hardest mentally, you hit the ‘16 gone – 10 to go’ mark and 10 miles is still a long way. Completing the lap 3 turn was a massive milestone, the course was so easy to break down I knew what I had to do now, no slowing significantly and keep eating the gels, I only realised on lap 4 that I was feeling that good I hadn’t had any coke yet at all, I tried some …blech !! … wont be doing that again !! when you don’t need it, its not the best taste in full flight.
On the way out for Lap 4, 2 gels left and still moving well
My pace was slowing a little, but not so I would be bothered, 7:30 miles occasionally became 7:45’s up the hilly bits, but I got it back the other side, I saw Dan and then Sam going back the other way, still going strong and ready to smile back which is another lift, I got to the turnaround in town and knew I had just over 3 miles and I had to ‘let rip’ !! This is in fact ironman run code for ‘hold pace’ and don’t slow, I didn’t know at this point how far back the others were and I didn’t want to relax, I just wanted it to be over.
The last 3 miles were a bit of a blur, I was getting giddy, I was passing everyone, in fact I don’t think anyone actually passed me on the course the whole day but in the course of 42.2km I started in 32nd and ended up 26th overall, I was so happy with that.
In the last 2km I passed Linda Worral, long time friend from Chester Tri, she held up one finger as if to sign that she knew I was in first, I think she was scared to shout it in case I was in a foot race and 2nd was close, I said thanks and carried on, so with 2km to go I knew I could do this, the turnaround past the finish area is soooooo long, we pass all the pubs and bars, its great support but torturous this late in the run, pace was good, zip up the tri suit, and for the first time, go left instead of straight on.
OMG, I was so happy, the banner time on the stage was the time of day, I still had no idea what the race time was, the commentator goaded me to sprint, so I did, I heard Kelly and the kids on the side cheering, the biggest smile !!! I had given that everything.
I did my usual over the finish line, once I had stopped I nearly collapsed, the medical staff were great but this time I wasn’t shivering I was just exhausted, it only dawned on me at that point that I had also run the whole marathon, no walking at aid stations, only stopped to stretch my back and a short pause to find the special needs bag, I think if I had walked I wouldn’t have got going at the pace again.
I hobbled to the finish area, Sam and Dan were there already and almost changed and fed, they asked how I did, I still didn’t know, I looked at my watch, 9:14:30 OMG !!! I shouted ‘YES !!’ I had done it, everything (except the swim time) I had achieved, life was good, Dan checked his phone as I didn’t have mine, officially it was 9:14:58, lol, still done it !!! and even though I knew it, he confirmed I had won my age group, by over 9 minutes !! Get in !
Sam didn’t look as happy, we checked both their times, Sam was a smidge over 9 hours and had come 4th, I felt for him, his nutrition bag at the special needs wasn’t easily found and his last lap was a war of attrition ! Dan got his sub 9 !! Fantastic and I was made up for him, I was made up for Sam too but it wasn’t what he came for and I understood.
It was time for beer, and a change of clothes, I needed to walk and this year’s athlete areas are not really somewhere to linger, so I found my Uber supporters and we went out to support a few of our friends still to come in, Joe had snuck in while I was in the finish area and was still upbeat even after a battering on the run, and was more concerned about Katie anyway, her and one of our other mates Gary Davies were due soon, the bar we found was on the run course with less than 1/2km to the line which was perfect. The stories were already coming in, everyone seemed to enjoy the course despite the constant rain and overcast skies. It’s definitely a race we will do again.
We drank, cheered friends in, laughed and ached, a lot, that, was some race !
I always have people to thank in the lead up, sponsors Bikmo and XEndurance UK provide me with peace of mind and my main race nutrition, thanks to both of them, I’ve been coached for any years by Chris Standidge at TTT, even though he knows I can swim more I don’t really give him much to moan at but it’s been a good year this year so far and I’ve been more consistent as a by-product of a great training group to work with and train with. As well as that the area I live in has some great triathlete mates and their encouragement to get out on the harder sessions definitely helps too.
Lastly has to always be family, Kelly and the kids put up with my early mornings and late night training, I hope to inspire them to be as driven as me but if they took just one thing from me and the sport I do its do something because you love doing it, I could add in loads of other things but for now, fun.
To other athletes I feel that dedication is key, if you want to be good at something then commit, get up early, train when you dont ‘feel it’, tough it out, push yourself, be consistent, and want it more than the next person. And it’s a bit of a cliché this year but age is no barrier, I proved that by winning the age group below mine as well as my own. And I want it more than ever now !!!
Roll on Ironman Portugal in October.