It was about halfway through the third lap of the 5 km swim where I really started to question what on earth had I been thinking to sign up for this. Now I know I have done some long bike rides and even reasonably long runs in the past, but this was brand new territory for me, and the voices in my head were asking some tough questions, chiefly: Who in their right mind signs up for a race that badges itself as ‘harder than Ironman’?
As I mentioned in my last blog, it was just over 12 months ago that I first came across the Isoman, with this ‘new kid on the block’ race debuting in one of my local parks. It has one of those concepts that is so simple you wonder why no one has done it before. In short, most long distance triathlons are heavily weighted towards the bike leg, so competitors who specialise in the swim part of the sport do not benefit as much as they should. This goes back to its origins in Hawaii, when Naval Officers decided to see which of them was the fittest, and set up a race based on the 2.4 mile Waikiki swim, 112 mile Oahu bike ride and 26 mile Honolulu marathon.
The Isoman corrects this by reducing the cycle element and (significantly) upping the swim, to create an event which (in theory) should see each leg taking roughly the same amount of time to complete. Being someone who considers themselves to be a marginally better swimmer (more by default than anything) this ought to be the perfect race for me, and with the added incentive of an early bird discount I was booked on less than 24 hours later.
Race Day – 2 July 2016
As usual I had been watching the weather forecast like a hawk for the last 10 days, and amazingly enough it turned out to be alright, with a reasonably sunny day forecast, although anyone reading this in the UK will know that does not necessarily mean much! It had tipped it down the night before during the pre-race briefing, which did not help with the nerves as the last thing you want before a bike ride in particular is a wet road.
Start time for my race was a very civilised 9.30 am, meaning I did not actually have to leave my house until after 7.30, a massive bonus compared to a pre-4.00 am wake up at Ironman last year. The
lunatics folks doing the full Isoman had already started their swim, setting off at 7 am, aiming to be more than half-way through by the time my lot got in. The half-Isoman wave I was in was actually fairly small, just 48 of us, with no age group or gender separation, just all in at the same time, which I was much happier with.
The transition area was a decent size with nice roomy bike racks, personally labelled for each competitor. I was pretty pleased with my kit in mostly matching black and yellow, which happen to be both my school and rugby team’s colours. As usual I had a wander down to spy on other people’s kit, and noticed that as usual, my bike was worth less than most people’s wheels. I should have known really when my car was one of the only ones in the car park with a bike rack on it – all the others had carefully taken their bikes apart and put them in the car rather than outside, possibly wrapping them in cotton wool at the same time. At least that is what I would do it my bike was worth that much! With everything set up I wandered down to the jetty to get ready to start a seriously long swim.
5 km Swim – 2 hours 22 mins
Yes, you read that right. All I can say is imagine if I had been doing the 10 km… The first thing I noticed when I got into the water in full wetsuit was that it was actually surprisingly warm. And whilst that can sometimes be a slight worry in open water (let’s not go there), it was genuinely not too bad – around 18 degrees I believe – I have certainly swum a lot colder. The visibility was less good, possibly a bit churned up by the earlier swimmers, in scuba terms it would be about 2 inches and very murky. Good thing I had been practising my sighting in the pool. Not wanting to waste too much energy given what lay ahead I stayed fairly still until I worked out why everyone was swimming to the other side of the lake, as this was a deep water start.
Fortunately, and I guess understandably given the distance we were looking at, this was easily the most laid back start lines I have ever experienced. Gone were the usual elbows and feet to climb over each other, in favour of a nice courteous spread of bodies, as people decided there was enough to contend with in the swim itself rather than expend unnecessary force fighting for a few seconds gap. Obviously many of the people who had signed up for this fancied themselves as more swim specialists, so we took off fairly quickly and a lot of them soon pulled away as we spread out.
The first lap was a bit of a feeler, as although I knew the park well, I was not sure what it would be like, how best to navigate the buoys and so on. It was a fairly simple clockwise loop with an island in the middle to swim around, and I had the benefit of having a load of faster swimmers in front of me to follow so managed to not get lost.
At the end of the first lap came one of the bits I had been looking forward to most of all – the pit stop! Now every race swim I have ever done before is done in one continual go without stops. In fact one of my favourite triathlon stories involves multiple World Champion Chrissie Wellington and her legendary coach Brett Sutton, who loses his rag during a training session when he spots a swim bottle by the pool, lambasting his team as you can’t have a drink during a [3.6 km] Ironman swim, so you should not get used to it in training!
But this was a 5 km swim, and we could. Not only that, but they had the triathlon equivalent of a swim-up-bar, that you could stop at on every lap, perch your feet on a rocky surface, and gorge yourself on drinks, gels, bananas and so on. On my first lap I was reasonably fresh but thought I would give it a go, so just had a bit of the carb drink I had set near the edge before setting off. It is amazing how thirsty you get when swimming for a long time, and you can understand how sailors end up going crazy with a huge thirst when surrounded by water you can’t drink.
On later laps I was a bit more adventurous, downing a glass of coke (apparently it kills off some of the germs in the lake) and piece of flapjack. The other cool thing was you could sort of dive off the ledge and under the floating arch that marked each lap, which felt a bit like when the pros have multi-lap swims where they climb up and dive off a pontoon each time: very professional.
After a surprisingly easy first lap I thought I was in the zone, until my brain started dealing with the monotony by mentally ticking off each landmark as I swum passed them:
- Further than an Olympic triathlon swim
- Further than a half-Ironman swim
- Further than I have ever swum in open water
- Further than a full Ironman swim
- Further than I have ever swum before. Ever.
- And then still going…
I encountered the last of these around the end of my third lap, and as I started this blog, it was where I started to get a bit scared. By now my shoulders and sides were really starting to ache, after literally thousands of strokes. Trying to do anything to distract myself I did another thing I sometimes do in races and worked out how many strokes I would be doing. In a pool I usually swim around 18 strokes per 25 metre lap, although that includes a push-off the wall. This would be more, although my wetsuit would make it a bit easier too. I decided 20 strokes per 25 metres would be fairly conservative, so at around 80% this meant I would be doing at least 4000 strokes of pure front crawl along the way. They is a lot of reps, and went some way to explaining the pain.
Well, that and the whack in the eye I took from a lady with pink goggles who had mysteriously slowed down in front of me and managed to somehow elbow me in the face which any other time would have resulted in a shiny black eye. Fortunately my goggles managed to cushion the blow, so other than a a quick heads up for her to apologise, we both moved on and put it down to a racing incident, the cold water doing its job of numbing any ocular pain I had coming.
As I had suspected the weather was a bit hit and miss. It had started in perfect sunshine and I was grateful for my tinted goggles, which not only looked the business but reduced the glare. At this point it had all changed, and at one point I noticed it had started raining, not really a concern for half-drowned rats in the lake, although I did realise my bike kit was going to be soaking wet when I got around to putting it on, cursing myself for not covering it up like I had planned earlier.
By now the quarter Isoman triathlon guys had also started, and I began to be overtaken by orange capped torpedoes, some of them looking like they had literally been shot from a submarine such was their speed through the water. Still, having been spread out from the rest of my field after 3 laps it was nice to have a bit of company, and after convincing myself not to give in and push for the final lap, I got far enough around that I had no option but to push for the end, the added incentive that I really needed to stop at the portaloo in transition giving me some extra speed towards the finish line. After giving it my all for over two hours I found myself staggering to shore and up the slope into transition. And that was a third of the race done…
Transition One – 9 minutes 51
Given that they had already played with standard triathlon rules in extending the swim, the organisers had decided to break with convention on the inbetween bits too. Rather than the usual scrum you get with mer-folk leaping out of the water and straight onto a bike, this had a whole 8 minute window built in, to give a chance to get back, dry off, get some chow down and even use the facilities if needed. I made the most of it doing all of the above (I noticed someone in the full race took nearly half an hour which must have included a kip as well – can’t blame them) before trundling off with bike in tow. After managing on my third attempt to get my tired leg over and clip in, I was off.
50 km Bike -2 hours 6 minutes
There are pros and cons to taking part in a race close to home. The good thing was that I knew at least part of the route, given that I go past it on most weekends to do my weekly shop and had scouted a section of it the night before after the briefing. The bad thing is knowing just how busy that first few miles of road can get, particularly on a Saturday lunchtime, which I will admit had been giving me a few sleepless nights. Whilst my last race had the massive advantage of being large enough to have closed roads, this one most certainly did not, so it was with some trepidation that I steered my bike out of the park and onto the dual carriageway to head into town.
Amazingly I managed to join without any problems, walking my legs up by pedalling hard to get into a decent gap. The next dodgy part was also incident free, as we went uphill and onto a large roundabout, where again a fortuitous gap opened up in the traffic and saw me speed off in my exit (I did check back to ensure it was not one of those ‘gaps’ which leads to a major pile-up. The last part of the opening section involved a sort of corkscrew climb away from the dual carriageway which I had been just as worried I might not have had the legs for after the swim, but remembering a tactic I was to employ many times during the ride, I accelerated into the climb as much as I could, to create enough momentum to get close enough to the top before I really had to push.
After those first few miles things changed a lot, as we started to come out of town and into the wilds. It was a massive change going from Redditch, a town which could be described in parts as a ‘concrete miracle’, to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country in the Worcestershire countryside. There was also a real lack of cars, and the next half hour or so went incredibly smoothly, as I ate away at the distance and looked like I would be on for a cracking time.
Of course things never actually turn out that way, and around the halfway mark things started to get tougher. First up was the unravelling of my bike nutrition strategy: I had planned on a two hour race, with a carb gel every 20 minutes (caffeine gels on the hour marks), and had two 500 ml electrolyte drinks. As I hit the hour mark I realised I had been concentrating so much on the ride I had only consumed one gel, and still had half of my first drink bottle left alongside a very dry mouth, leading to me downing most of the rest of it and getting a nice stomach ache as a reward.
The reason I had been concentrating so much, is that the even had a bit of a reputation for signage problems. In the first race the year before, there had been a totally separate bike race going on locally on the same day, and somehow both had managed to put up yellow arrows, causing chaos as knackered triathletes ended up riding miles out of their way whilst accidentally following the wrong lot of signs. Luckily the I did not hear of anything similar happening this year, but it still meant a lot of worrying when there was a long gap between route markers. This became even more pronounced when we split from the full distance course and I lost sight of any other racers, leaving it just down to me and my thoughts.
It was around then that I realised other races I had done previously had described the bike route as ‘fairly flat’, which ended up actually being quite hilly (see Ironman Staffs for example). This one had described the course as ‘undulating’, which I had not thought much of, but now realised this meant ‘very steep in parts’. I dread to think what those which actually admit the course is ‘challenging’ (the preferred nomenclature) other than I assume you have to pack a set of ice axes… Oh yeah, and it started to rain as well.
Now I have a confession to make in that I rarely ride my bike outdoors, except for racing. Whilst I have racked up hundreds of hours doing RPM and spin classes at the gym, I had not actually used my bike since Ironman last June. Some people will probably think I am daft for that, but to be honest I am not really that much of a fan of weaving through traffic, particularly given how many incidents I see on the other side of things when in my car (not caused by me of course).
Confession number two, is that despite a lot of racing I don’t really know how to use my bike gears properly. I head people go on about ‘the big ring’ and so on, but I have no real idea, all I do is mess around with the gears until I find the most comfortable position and pedal away. If I get to a hill and it becomes tough, I change down until things work again and keep moving, making a note for the next time around. I am sure if I knew more about them I would be able to do more, but maybe something to learn for the future.
The combination of these factors – hills, nutrition, lack of time in the saddle, and potential misuse of gears – seemed to really take an impact on my back around the 25 km mark, and I had to keep changing position to avoid being in agony, particularly as I knew I still had the half marathon to come. I am still not sure why it felt so tough, given I had done two much longer 90 km rides for the Avenger & Ironman,so I can only put it down to tiredness from the swim. My hill tactic of speeding into the base had actually been working pretty well, and I even managed to get to the top of one particularly long but steady climb of about 2 miles without putting a foot down, but after going over yet another dip I saw one of those mountains cyclists must have nightmares about, and knew that would be it.
To my delight however, there was already someone at the base of the hill who looked like they were about to climb off. I soon realised it was the person I had been chatting to before the race as we were next to each other in transition, and she had been debating whether to use her wheelchair or crutches in the swim. Yes, those of you who thought this was a tough challenge, something more to think about. She had obviously kicked my ass in the swim, but seemed to be struggling more on the bike leg.
Pedalling up I played the knight in shining armour (well cyclist covered in sweat on a cheap old bike) and offered my assistance, but it turned out she was just having a rest before attempting the hill. Now seemed as good a time as ever to switch to plan B, so I hopped off and suggested walking up the hill. This was where I employed my secret weapon, my mountain bike shoes. Heavier than the proper racing shoes I assume everyone else was wearing, these have a big advantage in one area, that they have deeper tread so make walking up a road easier – a good thing as I seem to find myself doing it fairly regularly during long races.
After checking my companion was fine, I legged it up to the top of the hill, using the opportunity to knock back another energy gel (salted caramel – mmm) and some more drink, before hopping back on to make the most of the descent on the other side. From there, things finally started to look up again, as my back had eased up and I was full fueled. Whilst in the past it felt like every time we came across a sign pointing towards Redditch we were turning the opposite way, this time we actually began to head towards home, and the last 15 km or so went past in a bit of a blur. Before I knew it I was trundling back into the park and home to safety.
Transition Two – 4 minutes 21
After racking up over 4 hours of pain so far, I had a fantastic moment getting back into transition as I noticed my wife had come to watch the race, having been unsure earlier that morning. Given this was a fairly low key race, it was fantastic to have some support, and seeing her there gave me some real motivation as I get into transition and changed into my run shoes. As before the organisers had played with the rules and given a 5 minute window for transition, so it was great to know I did this in less.
Half Marathon – 2 hours 38 minutes
After the isolation of the bike course, it was great to have some faces for the first part of the run at least. Having done a couple of Parkruns there earlier in the year I was again familiar with some of the route, the majority of it being on paths ways and therefore easier to run on.
Surprisingly I always look forward to the half-marathon in a long race. I say surprising as I am definitely not a runner; the main reason really is it means the end is approaching! If also at least gives some potential for rest when needed – on a swim or bike you can’t really stop and there is a limit to how much you can slow down without drowning or being run over – but on in a race like this I think it is perfectly excusable if you need to take time out for a bit of a walk / hobble. It is nothing like a normal half or even full marathon, where you would usually come in fresh, having done some stretches and perhaps a proper meal first. In this you have just dragged your carcass around a lake for a few hours before ragging it around the countryside on a bike for a few more, so there is no shame in taking it easy to make sure of a finish.
One tactic I learned from Ironman was to ‘walk the feed stations’, in other words don’t try to be a marathon hero and grab a drinks bottle on the move from an outstretched arm, but slow down, take in what you need and keep moving, but nice and slowly. This way you get a bit of a break without loosing too much of your rhythm, and get to actually drink / stuff your face without spilling too much of it everywhere.
Another thing you are always told about racing is never try new kit on the day, but I did have one thing I was doing for the first time, my new elastic lock laces. Any non-racers, just skip ahead now as this may well be the most boring thing you have ever read. For the rest of us, how have I not got around to these before! They are amazing. I have always had problems having to stop / start to keep tying or tucking in my laces before, but these were nice and snug, easy to get on, and did not need adjusting once during the run. Lovely stuff.
The run course was mainly on tarmac, but had a slightly strange first kilometre off-road, winding through a bit of scrub land, presumably so they could make up the distance. It was far from my favourite part of the run, although a nice couple did offer me a handful of Jelly Babies along the way, and I was more than happy to break the ‘don’t take sweets from strangers’ rule I learned as a child. It was interesting having others on the course, as all my other runs had been done on closed pathways. Being a Saturday afternoon the park was full of families, most of whom were happy to step aside from the sweaty lunatics running towards them, although of course there were always a few kids who had to be awkward and stay in your way, resulting in a number of last minute leaps off the main path.
The rest of the route was ok, although not the most spectator friendly. You may be able to see the words ‘Industrial Estate’ featuring prominently on my run map above, which says it all really. We did two loops for the half marathon, starting off by transition where everyone was watching, before going deeper into the middle of nowhere until I started to get that feeling from the bike that I might have missed a turn and could be going the wrong way. On the plus side, it was mainly flat, so aside from the pain which had worked its way down my body from my shoulders on the swim, my back on the bike, and was now concentrating itself around my knees, quads and hammies.
Although I said I liked the bike, the one problem is it gives you too much time to think. On the swim I tend to go into a bit of a trance and filter out any thoughts (which is actually quite nice), whilst on the bike I tend to be thinking about navigation and avoiding any other vehicles. The run though just had me thinking ‘what on earth was had I been thinking signing up for this?’. As the pain got worse the race was beginning to look about as good an idea as Ross Geller’s leather trousers, and it felt at times like I was wearing them too. Cruelly the run was in a sort of figure of eight, so the loop took us back towards the transition area, before sweeping off to the side to add even more distance before the halfway point.
When I did finally finish my first lap it was great to see my wife and some supporters again, and probably good for her to know I was still alive after a lap that must have felt as long for her as for me. This was not exactly the most spectator friendly course, as aside from a few minutes at the beginning, middle and end, you had no chance to see your family of whoever was cheering you on. I did prefer the fact that both Ironman and the Avenger had three laps, so whilst it meant a bit more time going over the same ground, you felt a bit more motivated along the way.
On the plus side, unlike the Avenger, I was not going to be doing the last lap on my own this time, as there were still plenty of people on the course doing either the full, half or quarter Isoman. They did have a system to help identify people, based on Gold, Silver & Bronze, although as they could not get swimming caps in those colours it was actually Yellow, White & Orange. This meant opportunity for some smugness when you overtook orange people who had been doing a lot less, but equally additional pain when a yellow runner zoomed past, considering what they had been through already.
I remember a lot less of the second lap, although that may be down to my brain having mentally blocked it out. At one point I passed a guy wearing a ‘one hundred marathons’ t-shirt, and later discovered this was his 107th. To be honest he looked nearly a hundred himself, and fair play, anyone who can do that number and race a course like this at that age deserves huge respect.
I know I had to do a fair bit of run / walk along the way, probably a bit of staggering and a lot of swearing too. As I have mentioned on here before, my own way of motivating myself is to repeat the ‘No Pain’ line from Rocky IV. Under normal circumstances I keep it to myself, saying it over in my head, but this was not normal circumstances and I found myself shouting it out loud, mainly when I was on a stretch on my own, but at times I am sure there were some startled runners around me.
Finish – 7 hours 21 minutes 56 seconds
Finally though, I was on the last section of the race, the final straight mirroring the end of Parkrun. As I got closer to the end zone I could hear the band playing on the stage getting louder, and caught a glimpse of my wife on the line. I even managed a smile as I was able to tell the lady standing on the lap splitter that it was my final one this time, so I could turn left and head towards the finish, taking in a few cheers and high fives down the chute. One massive hug later and it was finally over!
So how did it rate compared to the other longer races I have done: The Avenger & Ironman? Different, for sure. Looking back, I actually really enjoyed the swim, as whilst it hurt a heck of a lot, I was pleased with the rhythm I got into and actually pretty happy with my time. All three races had fantastic bike routes, and despite the fact this was almost half the distance of the other two it seemed to hurt even more, although that could just be short-term memory failure, and possibly due to a different focus in my training this time, The main let down in this one was the run, with a bit of an ugly course in parts, and less chance for supporters, but in the end you are always going to be limited to the location. After all, what do you expect to see from a Torquay hotel bedroom window?!
So what next? A well-earned break I think, before some thoughts about how to follow this one up. In the meantime, I am happy to say I can now call myself an Isoman!