Challenge Vichy – Ironman distance 2013

About 2 months before the competition I knew I hadn’t gotten my training right, not enough training at high intensity meant I had the distance in me, but not the speed; and so my hopes of breaking the 10hrs mark were lost to the distance memory of ‘start of year exuberance’, but at least I was sure to beat my previous best of 10hrs 50mins – or was I ?….

The 10 week lead up to the competition had been without alcohol and I had lost a bit of weight, but this was of no consolation as mind based injuries had kept me from training the last 4 weeks, mindset was just not quite right. Preparations went according to plan though, a good nights sleep two nights before  (7hrs) easily offset the restless sleep the night of the competition. It was almost a relief when 4:30am rolled around – time for the morning fuel – Ham baguette, S’mores Pop Tart, Coffee, Fruit – the breakfast of champions.

Kristine was waiting for me in the lobby at 5:40 – pump in hand, to give me a ride to the start, as always she was in a cheery mood, the amazingly positive person that she is, and this helped remove the edge of any nerves I could be feeling. I felt fine as I hopped out of the car and into the floodlit transition zone (it was still dark) for  set-up. Its a weird feeling that time of the morning, but one I love, 600 triathletes working in the half light, all following their well rehearsed plans:- pumping and re-pumping tires, re-checking transition bags, sitting with the Ipod playing, eating an apple, cello-taping Powerbars to crossbars etc…. all the time these calm actions masking the non-stop calculations in their heads of the immense effort that they are each about to undertake.

Setting aside the obvious jubilation at the end of a competition, the few moments before the start are always my favourite, I have been blessed with a well fitting and comfortable wetsuit, so feel quite smug as I watch others doing star jumps to get into theirs. The morning dew made the grass a little slippery as it began to dawn on the far side of l’Allier, everyone wanted to just get started, muscles twitching then relaxing  – the wetsuit brings immense relief during this period – the gun goes for the first wave and as they splash away we are invited to make our way into the water.

The narrow channel into the 19°c water is a blessing in disguise, the throng of competitors behind you means you can’t stop to think about your entry, you just have to jump and straight away throw in a few ‘practice strokes’ to find your position at the start line. After an arduous wait treading water, (which was probably no more than 5 mins) we were off.

The swim is a good one straight down the river, with small buoys marking the line and large buoys marking every 500m, a clear turn around point and straight back upriver to get back to the start for 1.9km, then its out, run 25m along the quayside, and this time a jump or a dive (for the brave few of which I am proud to say I am one) back into reasonably clean water to go down and do the second 1.9km lap which ran parallel to first. (the first lap was now being populated by the first wave of competitors doing the half distance). My swim was not my best, but pretty good – 33mins for first lap, 35mins for the second – 180th place – all the way round though I could sense that my form wasn’t quite right – just need more practice !!

T1 was a blur as I did it so fast, 73rd fastest – almost didn’t bother sitting down to take off my wetsuit, but a little head-rush wobble compelled me. So fast I didn’t even notice that my running socks were in my bike bag, I had decided during the night not to put socks on for the bike, but forgot to remove the socks from the bike bag and place them into the run bag – this error was going to cost me later on. But at that point I was feeling good, perhaps a little frustrated to have not done the swim quicker, but still full of energy; overtaking anyone dawdling in the transition zone and with shoes already on bike jumped straight on and attacked the ride.

The fast boys in the half distance were starting 50mins after me, but swimming only half the swim distance, assuming we are roughly equivalent on the swim it would mean that they start the bike about 20 mins behind me, so my primary objective was simple:- DO NOT get caught by Val and Lesly. I had my bike plan: all out for the first 25km, destroy the small inclines, ignore the 1st drinks stop, then start on my bars 3 for the first loop 3 for the second, refilling with energy drink at every other drinks stop. I’m clearly improving on the bike because this strategy worked well and I felt strong all the way round the first 90km – even managing to stay in aerobic position for almost all of it (although this too is still not quite right).

It was with a huge sense of relief when I got past the first loop stage without seeing hide nor hair of Val or Lesly, I later found out that Val had put in a killer time of 2:32, and Lesly 2:37, but my 2:39 meant that had pretty much maintained the gap between them, but could I do it again – short In fact everyone in the race did a slower second lap due simply to the wind, from pretty much the 20km (or 110km) mark it was it your face right until the end of the course which slowed everyone down and tired me out completely. Rules about drafting became laughable, but I couldn’t even keep up with the pelotons passing me (a feeling much like in Liege-Bastogne), couple this with the growing ‘opposite magnetic poles’ relationship that my saddle was developing with my undercarriage and we can say that the second lap – 2:54 in the end – was not a pleasant experience – 199th.

I was determined to keep my transition times quick, following James’ advice I had put a little something salty in my run bag, (for the diverse minded – by this I mean TUC biscuits), shoes were left on the bike, I changed tops, searched frantically for my socks (which were long gone in the other bag) and so was forced to accept that I was about to experience some really painful blisters, stuffed a couple of TUC in my mouth and legged it out of there in just over 3minutes – which is normally less time than it take Val to do his hair ! (which incidentally he no longer does and has massively improved his transition times)

The run is 4 x 10.5km laps going through a park, down the river, across the bridge and back up the other side, but before all that it’s straight through the finishing arena to get cheered on by the spectators. At that stage (7hrs in) and still in the first 500m of the run, adrenalin is high and emotions are all over the place ‘just’ a marathon ahead of you – so it makes such a difference to see the friendly faces of people waiting for you and cheering you on, willing you to get round – the huge smiles and cheers of Juliette and Kristine really gave me a lift… for about the next 500m until the cramp kicked in !

Yep thats right, after 1km I slowed to a hobble as my right quad cramped up. I had been watching the clock and I knew that only a 3hr marathon would get me home in under 10hrs, that wasn’t going to happen, but I was fairly confident I could put in a 3:30 and get myself round in 10hrs 30, but this new pain threatened to sideline me entirely. I tried running with high knees and the pain subsided a little, so I figured I would just try to run it off and that kinda worked as I found a rhythm of 5mins per Km and it wasn’t until almost at the end of the first lap that it came back with a vengeance.

I had to stop and stretch it out, ironically at a team training weekend I had already experienced this pain, so I knew what to do, and in no time I was shakily back to arena to end lap 1 – 3 more to go ! The stretch seemed to have done the trick though and lap 2 felt good, I developed my nutrition plan alternating between gel + water at drinks stop and energy drink at the next (the High 5 energy drink is especially good) and even had the presence of mine to collect the free gels as I went round to give to Juliette when I saw her next. My next pass in the arena was great as all the others from the Half Triathlon had finished and were all waiting for me – as I entered I heard an almighty roar from them all and saw everyone cheering – felt good.

3rd lap things began to get serious, I had slowed to 5:30-6mins per km as the inevitable blisters on my feet and lactic acid buildup in my legs were beginning to dictate my stride pattern (longer strides = stretching legs and pushing with foot – 2 things which were becoming more difficult to do) but I had in my mind that I was doing well so I soldiered on, helped by Lesly and Jamie, who, on their way home, had drummed up some local support, and surprised me with a chant before the second bridge crossing. “Its only 10km” were Kristine’s words that stuck in my head as I passed through the arena for the final time before completion “actually its 10.5km” I wanted to respond, but speaking was beyond me. As I went past the distance markers for the last time I happily acknowledged that it would be the last time EVER that I see those signs (the markers each have 4 distances on them (1 for each lap) so you develop a love/hate relationship as you go past each time.

About 8km from the end I glanced at my watch to do the final math and estimate my arrival time, and it was then that I realised that at my current (slowing) pace I risked to be very close to or even arrive later than my previous best – I couldn’t let this happen, but it meant taking my current 6min per km pace and turning it into 5mins per km for the remaining distance. Now normally this is pretty easy, 8km at 5mins per km is almost a literal a walk in the park, normally. I had managed my energy pretty well thus far, so strength wasn’t the problem, once again my lack of training, and hence conditioning of my legs was the issue. I figured – all I could do was try.

I managed to incrementally increase my pace, every km checking my pace, 5:43 per km, 5:26 per km – 5kms left – it was going to be close, I was overtaking everybody else on the course (as all the good runners had already finished) ignoring all the aid stations just powering on. Just over the bridge and round the corners to the arena but this was the part of the course that hurt the most as the bridge meant a hill, and the corners were painful for the blisters, but I didn’t slow and arrived in the area for the final time – a huge cheer from everyone who was waiting for me – I punched the air with delight – 10hrs 40 – I had made it !