Silverstone Half Marathon

First race of the season, done. That pretty much sums up last weekend, and an event that may well turn out to be less memorable in the long-term than I had expected, although it has taught me a few lessons which I am sure are going to be useful later on this year. But before I go into those, a few words on how my early season half marathon went down.

The Plan

I have always been a fair weather athlete, and until now every race I have taken part in since getting into multi-sports in around 2010 has been during British Summer Time, between April and October. And for good reason, as we Brits don’t usually get the best weather even during our supposed warm season, but believe me it can be even worse in the winter, which makes training a real pain. This has never been a problem, as my A-Race has always been  from around June onwards, so I have got away with indoor training until the end of March, and then topped things off with a bit of outdoor swimming and running in the sunshine, ready to hit my peak as the weather finally improves.

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But this year, with my first ever full marathon calling, I have decided to get started a bit earlier in order to bank some serious (ish) miles as early as possible, and what better way to do this than book myself onto one of the first majors of the year, the Adidas Silverstone Half Marathon. What a fantastic sounding opportunity to run on the same track on which so many F1 legends have raced – Hamilton, Senna, Mansell – the crowd cheering whilst we spray champagne on the finish line, and so on. Plus, having this in the diary would make sure I put in some effort through January & February (which to be fair has worked a bit – see my last post), to get a bit of momentum going for the year. That was the plan…

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Somewhere along the way however, I got sidetracked by the fact that this was supposed to be one of the flattest run courses of all, and therefore a great one for a PB, so I became fixated on achieving a sub-2 hour time, which given my last time of 2.03 in Birmingham did not seem unreasonable. I think you can see where this is going…

Race Day

Silverstone is probably the most famous racing track in the UK, and as an F1 fan it always feels a bit special. I had been lucky enough to go a few times before, although both times were to see my wife and brother on track day experiences rather than for major events. All the more reason to look forward to running on the hallowed tarmac.

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The first thing I want to say is that the organisation and logistics of this event were absolutely fantastic, possibly the best I have ever encountered. Signposts & parking were clear & easy, and there were an absolute ton of really friendly marshals to help out and make sure everything went smoothly. In fact I am willing to bet there were more race attendants here than there will be competitors in the next race I am booked on for in May. Great work fellas!

Sadly the weather was not playing ball, as despite the Saturday before (and Monday after) being sun-filled delights, it was raining just enough to be annoying and cold, but not quite to the degree of requiring an actual raincoat. The event plan asked competitors to be there by 10.30 am for the 12.00 start, which was sensible to avoid a last minute rush, but unfortunately meant 90 minutes of standing around getting cold before things kicked off. 

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Yep, it was a bit chilly at the start

After leaving my stuff at the bag drop I headed to the line at 11.15, assuming there would be some sort of pre-race briefing or warm up, but again, nada. Just 45 minutes of jogging on the spot (this time minus my warm outer layers) and casually trying to shelter from the rain behind a taller person without letting on what I was doing.

The event plan had said there would be various bands playing throughout the course, but every time I took off my headphones to see what was going on they just seemed to be playing Bon Jovi on the speakers. Not that there is anything wrong with that by the way, but I did prefer my own mix (which included plenty of other 80’s classics). Apparently the starting band was Scouting For Girls, who had a few horrendous songs about a decade ago, which was all the more reason to keep my buds in!

The Race

As with most races this big, the start was a bit of an anti-climax, as instead of sprinting off at the sound of the klaxon, we spent a few minutes doing the awkward British shuffle towards the line, as about 5,000 people tried to squeeze between the starting posts, but finally we were off.

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Thank you to Marathon Foto

It was a strange feeling running on the track, a bit like being in the middle of a nice wide road, but with a surprising amount of water retained in places. The corners were also a lot sharper than expected given drivers must regularly be doing over 100 mph in places!

I set off at an absolute blast by my standards, in my head really going for that 2 hour mark. My plan was basically to keep an eye on the pace screen on my Tom Tom, and keep it below 6 minutes per kilometre, which would see me through on time. And things were going great as I was going closer to 5.30/km or bang on 9 minute miles in old money, and managing to maintain it well. I hit the first kilometre in 5.15, and the 5 km mark in 27 minutes, not far off my top speed for that distance. Perhaps that should have been a warning, but I was too focused to worry for now.

Around the 30 minute mark I saw multiple Olympic gold winner David Weir zooming past on what must have been his last lap in the outside lane (he won the race in 47 minutes!), which was pretty motivating even if it was only for a few seconds. He was miles ahead of the rest of the field, and even the camera car following him seemed to be struggling to keep up.

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The Weirwolf in action at Silverstone, 2016

I have to say, it was a bit mean of the organisers to loop us around the back of the refreshment stand at the start of lap 2, meaning all we could smell as we ran past were bacon sarnies and Cornish pasties, like some sort of psychological torture. Still, I was not too bothered as I was still doing well against my plan, hitting the 10 km mark on 55 minutes. If I could keep this up I would have over 10 minutes to do the last mile or so, no problem…

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My next vehicle…

As much as I would like to say it was fun running on such hallowed racing ground, the actual experience was a bit less so. The British Grand Prix has around 150,000 spectators meaning the stands and banks get packed out, and everywhere the cameras go on TV there are thousands of cheering fans. Understandably the turnout for this race was a bit lower, with probably a few thousand family members congregated mainly near the start finish line, meaning that for 90% of the race the atmosphere was a bit quiet in such a huge venue. And if the outlying stands looked a bit empty from the front, they looked positively skeletal backed by the grey sky as you ran behind them, taking a bit of the sheen off things.

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Lovely day!

About halfway through the sun finally broke through and it warmed up, which means the weather was basically doing the exact opposite of ideal conditions for a race, i.e. warm beforehand whilst you stand around on the line, and then a bit of light rain to cool you down towards the end. Instead, it meant even more of the clichéd runners ‘throwing-water-on-your-head-to-cool-down’ tricks at the pit stops.

At 15 km things were still going alright, as I reached the three quarter mark in under 90 minutes, but I began to notice the route starting to head uphill. And from there it did not really let off for the rest of the distance. When you watch racing on TV the course always looks so flat, and the cars are so powerful they barely seem to acknowledge and gradient. But on foot it is a lot more up and down than expected, and I later found out that whilst more of the first half of the course is downhill (perhaps explaining my pace), the second half has more uphill. Not steep mind you, like the Great Birmingham hill, but just enough to take it out of tired legs.

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Covering every corner of the circuit

It was about that point that I started to struggle, the combination of heat, hills and hunger hitting my body like a rugby tackle and chopping my pace. Suddenly my target of just 6 minute kilometres seemed a long way off, and as it began to creep up over 7 minutes it hit me that the dream was over for today. That realisation and disappointment only seemed to make things worse, as my body began to give in. I was, as they say, hitting the wall.

In triathlons this is known as ‘Bonking’, apparently due to a lack of glycogen in the body. It has famously happened to both Alistair & Jonny Brownlee in recently years (so I guess I am amongst esteemed company), although I did not have anyone around willing to carry me over the line, so I just had to push on as much as possible. 

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After pinning so much on hitting my target I was genuinely gutted as it shattered before my eyes, and had I been more hydrated might even have shed a tear or two, but I was not going to let the race beat me. My pace by now was verging on walking, although I refused to actually go there, managing to get along with the classic runner’s shuffle up the final few slopes as waves of others that I had been overtaking in the last couple of hours began to flow back past me. 

Finally though, the finish was in sight, and although I could not quite manage my ‘trademark’ speed burst for the line, I did manage to get together for the last few hundred metres to the end. Finally, there were some supporters lined up cheering us on, although sadly no chequered flag to wave us over the line, possibly for the best as I might have run straight into it!

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Brian sums up how I felt on the line…

The Aftermath

The first thing I remember after I crossed the line was the pa system playing that horrendous Disney song ‘Let It Go’, probably the most inappropriate racing tune imaginable, although I did have a feeling maybe it was aimed directly at me, to tell me to get over the time and just enjoy the finish feeling. Sadly I was in too much pain, so hobbled over to collect my finishers pack [incidentally – best goodie bag ever, with a quality medal, t-shirt, a ton of food and even a bottle of sunscreen] and downing the protein shake it contained in a single gulp.

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This was my seventh half-marathon, three of the others coming as part of a triathlon, but I honestly can’t remember feeling so bad straight after a run. I really was out of it and had to lean on the barrier for a good 10 minutes before I could do anything, but eventually came around as heart rate began to level out. My final time was 2.05.11, having taken around 35 minutes to complete the last 5 km. Not even a PB in the end, although in the end it was my second best time which I suppose is an upside…

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Now I have had a couple of days to reflect on things, and also read back what I wrote straight after, I have realised I may have been a bit of a drama queen about it. After all, in none of the 20 or so long distances events I have raced in the past have I ever been remotely bothered about my time (other than when I just made the 8 hour cut off by 3 minutes in the Avenger), and I had not done any specific speed training. Maybe this was my best chance to break two hours, or maybe it will come next time.

I also read an interview with David Weir online where he said how tough he found the conditions tough, and also did not beat his own PB either, which made me feel a teensy bit better. It was pretty cool seeing him zoom past, and had I had the energy I would love to have given him a Weirwolf howl (awoo)!

So the main takeaway here is the first race of the season is done, and I survived. Plus I have a head start on training this year, as well as some valuable lessons on both myself and racing that I plan to put to good use in future, and might even talk about next time on here. Plus a great excuse to dig into some of these bad boys that I realised I had stashed away for a rainy day in the house!

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Great Northern & Southern Runs

I realised the other day that I have not written anything on here all year, and wondered whether it could be due to something I talked about a while ago, where the bulk of my winter training has been based on indoor classes. As much as I love doing them, the thing is you really don’t get much time to think, as you focus on following the instructor in time to music, and in my case make sure you don’t fall over! With longer distance training however, you have a lot more time to yourself and your own thoughts which, for me at least, is where I end up writing most of these.

But that is all about to change, as not only do I have something to talk about now, with my opening race of the season just a few days away, but I have managed to man-up and get out in the cold for a few decent runs recently.

Night

To be fair, things actually started a few weeks before Christmas when I was working down in Gatwick and managed to get in a few evening runs, which I wrote about in my last blog. Given that my job involves travelling around the UK and spending a fair bit of time in cities – some more interesting than others – I thought I would make more of an effort to do some exploring on foot and then write about the places I get to along the way.

First up for me this year was of course London, a place where I have to spend a lot of time, usually around the Docklands area. Whilst I have been for plenty of runs around the river and into Canary Wharf, it is not always the most exciting part of town, so rather than glamorous sights such as the Houses of Parliament and Tower of London, it tends to be the Flats of mid-week Commuters and Tower of HSBC.

Olympic Park

But this time I had something different planned, in that I had never been close to the 2012 Olympic Stadium, which is located in Stratford (not the Shakespeare one), a do-able distance from where I was staying. Knowing I would need a fair bit of time to get it done before work, I bit the bullet and set my alarm for a Rocky-esque 5.45 am.

By 6 I was on the road, and heading towards Canning Town high street, and having recently watched a documentary with Idris Elba talking about the fights he used to get into there, I was pretty glad I was going to be the only one about at that time. But I wasn’t, and whilst there was definitely no sign of trouble, I was amazed at how many people were up and about at that time in London, walking, bussing, DLR-ing and all sorts. I am pretty sure where I live it is a ghost town before 7!

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Following the rough map I had in my head from my research the night before, I carried on and tried to follow the signs for Stratford, although being designed more for drivers than runners, I had to ignore a lot when they tried to steer me back to the main road. Once I reached West Ham station I climbed up and onto Greenway, a well-lit footpath which looked like it would take me all the way to the stadium.

Actually, scratch the well-lit part, as within 30 seconds of leaving the station all the lights disappeared, leaving me in pitch black conditions to fend for myself. Fortunately I had not yet spoken to my colleague who lived nearby until after, as when  asked if he knew the area his response was along the lines of “oh yeah, I remember that guy got done for murder around there last year”. Another reason I prefer early morning runs! Still, it was actually really nice once I found my footing, to be in the centre of one of the biggest cities in the world, in near perfect darkness for some distance either side of me. I may have even been able to see a few stars, who knows…

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Once I got to the other side my target was firmly in my sights, and aside from having to zig-zag along a ridiculous road layout to get there, I finally reached the famous Olympic Park. I decided to run a Mo Farah style victory lap around the stadium, which sadly is now leased by West Ham United so full of their branding, but it did feel great and a decent reward for getting up at that time. Reaching the start I saw a few other laggards had dragged themselves out of bed too and were just reaching it, but by that time I was back on my way. Ok, I did also look into jumping the fence to get onto the adjacent running track for a quick lap around that too, but it was getting just that bit too light so I chickened out!

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Having taken part in plenty of straight line out and back races where the return holds no excitement, I always try to find a different way in my runs, so veered towards the city centre and tried to find a new route, which whilst slightly less exciting (that damn main road the signs were trying to take me to earlier) was also less eventful, and given I was starting to tire by then was probably for the best.

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All in this was a 15.15 km run in 1 hour 40, not particularly fast by any standards, but given that firstly I had forgotten my water bottle (fortunately I had a single gel in my back pocket) and stop-started a load of times to take photos and get lost, was not too shabby and hopefully a good sign for my upcoming half-marathons.

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My next trip was up to the far north of England, the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of Alan Shearer, the Angel of the North and of course Ant & Dec. It was a place I had never visited before given it is a fair way away, but I had always fancied it given a great running heritage thanks to the Great North Run, the World’s largest half-marathon. Whilst I did not quite have the time or inclination for a run of that distance, I did manage to get in three pretty decent efforts during my fortnight there.

First up was my explorer run, another early morning job (this time a lot quieter as I had expected before), where I made my way around the city centre at leisure, scoping out the Quayside, Chinatown, St James’ Park football ground and a few nice enough parks. Despite getting a bit lost towards the end and doing a couple of km longer than planned (the city is a labyrinth in parts) things turned out well, and I got to see a good proportion of the local sights as the sun gradually rose.

The next afternoon I tried a different tack, running alongside the north side of the river. Initially I headed East and towards South Shields, the finishing point for the GNR and more importantly into Byker (the Grove!) but it turned out not to be particularly well lit, so after a mile or so I turned back and tried the other way inland. This was a lot busier – there seems to be tons of running clubs up there, all going off around 6 pm – but again there was not a huge amount to see. A nice peaceful run is all well and good, but given the short time I was there I fancied seeing a bit more, so I turned it into a bridge run, covering the four major bridges across the Tyne in turn: The Millennium Bridge with its spectacular lights, the High Level Bridge for some spectacular views, the low-level Swing Bridge, and to finish things off the famous Tyne Bridge itself.

Amazingly it turned out when I got back that my run was almost identical to the one the morning before, which was not bad given how often I was stopping to take pictures and check my GPS!

Newcastle runs tomtom

The following week I though I would try something a bit different and keep on the Gateshead, southern side of the river where I was staying. The plan here was to make a parallel run up the river but turn off after a couple of miles to run past the office I had been working in.

Although the first section was well lit, things got a bit dodgier after a mile or so after I turned off and headed away from the river. Going back to earlier, part of the reason I prefer early morning runs is because you tend to have places to yourself. Now with all respect to Geordies who are some of the nicest people I have ever met, Newcastle is somewhere which has a reputation for being a tough place (especially amongst soft southerners), and the further away from the main track I ran the more I imagined meeting a group of ne’er-do-wells.

After deciding against running down the deserted canal path on my own, I skirted the main road instead, and after one particularly bad stretch where all I could imagine was meeting David Patrick Kelly’s character from the end of The Warriors, I rounded a corner and found the office. I can honestly say I have never been so glad to find an industrial park in my life.

That just left me with getting home, which was equally challenging, as the bus route I knew involved a massive hill, and for some reason I was desperate to find a park I had read about which looked like it had some sort of Disney castle (no joke, google it) which involved a bit of a detour. So another couple of miles later I found myself at Saltwell Park and immediately regretted it, as it was pitch black and all the entrances were padlocked. Probably for the best as all I could think about was that it looked more like the kind of abandoned amusement park Scooby Doo would hang out in than Fantasia.

Still, the one benefit of my ‘shortcut’ was that it would all be downhill from there, and a good thing too as by the time I finished I was over 14 km, well over what I had originally planned to do, and whilst it was a long way from The Shining (probably closer to the Jeremy Kyle graffiti above…) this run it did teach me a bit of a lesson about planning my routes a bit more in future.

Gateshead run

Despite all that, I have to say Newcastle is an amazing place, and I am looking forward to going back there some time (ideally in the summer as it really is cold!) for another round of city running. But in the meantime it is tapering time, as this weekend is time for my first proper race of the year, the Silverstone Half Marathon. More on that next time!

Great Birmingham Run 2016

It was about 24 hours before this year’s Great Birmingham Run that I started to think I should probably have done some more running. In fact, despite having already done one half-marathon back in July (courtesy of the Isoman Triathlon) I have barely run at all this year, with at best half a dozen sessions of 10 km or longer.

Don’t get me wrong, I had no worries about finishing the race as I feel fitter now than at any point in my life, including when I was playing regular rugby at 18. But as I have made clear a few times on here, running is my least favourite discipline of the Swim/Bike/Run trinity, and in general I will always look for alternative training sessions.

This was particularly relevant in the build up to this race, as for a start it was not part of my plans at the beginning of the year. Having previously done the race twice in 2013 & 2014, I gave it a miss last year due to the fact I had wanted to focus on Ironman, and also that because of major roadworks in Birmingham centre the course was going to be changing. I had expected to leave it out again this year, but then something came up which changed all that, which I will come back to later.

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So anyway, rather than signing up nice and early and planning ahead, I did not get around to entering until September, giving me a fairly narrow window to train. As I mentioned finishing was not a concern, given it would be my sixth half, three of which as part of long distance triathlons, so knowing my legs would finish up in one piece before the start gave me some advantage. The problem was more the two races before, where I had clocked in times of 2.12 and 2.08 respectively, and being a competitive blogger I knew it would be shameful to come in slower, and thus had to ensure I beat my previous times to achieve something worthwhile. No pressure then.

The other problem was that rather than go by the book / training plan, with 3 or 4 nice runs per week (including a long one on Sunday) blah blah, I just did my normal training – Body Combat, Attack, RPM and so on. This at least ensured my fitness stayed high, but probably did not get my legs into the shape they should have been.

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To make things worse / better (depending how you look at it) two weeks before the race I had a Les Mills Live day in Manchester. I won’t go into huge detail here, as it was fairly similar to last year (https://chilechallenge.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/one-live-manchester/) but safe to say it was another fantastic day involving 6 different classes, 5 hours of training, and nearly 4,000 calories blitzed. Ouch & yes! But probably not for my legs, as it took most of the rest of that week to recover.

What about the weekend one week before the race I hear you ask? Well, that was of course the time my gym decided to launch the new quarterly Les Mills releases themselves, necessitating another morning of 3 back-to-back Combat, Pump and Attack classes (in Halloween fancy dress natch!) and another few days of Doms in my legs.

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Mid-week tapering with 4 days to go? How about getting asked to play football for your work team in your bi-annual 5-aside tournament in Leicester, with guaranteed ice-hockey style tackles on the pitch and ideal-training-food-curry afterwards. Yep, that happened too.

Hopefully that all gives you a bit of an idea why I felt slightly under-prepared for the race when I was sitting looking at my kit 24 hours beforehand. But still, I was confident enough I had the fitness, all that could get in my way now was the weather…

… so it was with some irony that I woke up on Sunday to the sound of a monsoon outside, as the rain decided to lash it down with the remains of some storm or other doing its rounds through the Midlands. The best laid plans, eh? But I had a new plan, stealing an idea I had found on the race information website.

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So quite what any observers would have made of me an hour or so later, crouching in the front seat of my car in an underground parking lot, trying to wriggle into my race shorts and rubbing Vaseline into my chest to avoid chafing, I will never know, but I think the fact that none of the bypassers batted an eyelid must speak volumes about what goes on in Birmingham car parks. If that did not get them, the sight of me stepping out wearing a full black bin bag and striding down Broad Street to shelter from the rain, looking like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Derek Zoolander doing Derelicte in my homemade poncho. Regardless, it did the job, and by the time I reached the new start line – which was some 4 km from where I had parked (20% of the race distance!) – I was still reasonably dry.

derelicte

 

At that point, having survived the monsoon and with a forecast of more to come, if a someone had offered me a bet that it would end up nice weather for the race I would have laughed in their face. But they would have been right, as inconceivably, just as we got to the starting area for the group warm up, the sun came out and it started to warm up. Throwing off my old tracksuit (another tip I picked up this year: if I ever spot someone on one of the Birmingham underpasses in a knock-off Rugby World Cup top I will feel I have done my bit!) I lined up in the holding pen alongside 20,000 others and waited for one of my heroes, Commonwealth Gold Medallist and local triathlete Jodie Stimpson to kick us off.

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It does not get more Birmingham than the Bullring!

As those who have entered big runs like this before will know, the start can be a bit of an anti-climax, with everyone pumped up & ready, a massive klaxon going off, and then rather than the mass brawl you get in say a triathlon swim, you have a 5 or 10 minute wait whilst you are shuffle down a funnel of barriers  towards the line (in a typically polite British fashion of course) before eventually getting to the front, looking down to make sure you start your GPS watch the moment you cross, and actually getting going!

Needless to say, by then all that adrenaline you have had is starting to wear a bit low, so rather than the measured start you have been planning before the race, you hare off at almost twice your cruising speed along with everyone else, before you realise a few minutes later there is no way you can keep it up, and forcing the breaks to conserve some energy. It never fails to amaze me how many people I see walking and looking knackered about 5 minutes into the race, who have already blown their load and are going to have a hell of a next few hours doing the other 95% of the distance. Not that I would ever do that…

Despite this, for the first half of the race, I really was motoring (by my standards anyway). My first kilometre was over in a shade over 5 minutes, and the first 5 kms were 27.11, not far off my best Parkrun time. I even managed to fly up the first mini hill as you veer off the main road just after the 6 km mark (the little kink on the map) which I remember absolutely killing me the first time I did this race, and certainly having to walk a bit the second time around, but this time around I barely slowed and could enjoy the immediate downhill on the other side.

The route through the halfway was much the same, as I focused on keeping my pace below 6 min/km on my TomTom, with a view to trying to achieve a magic 2 hour Finnish. Things were looking up as I hit the 10 km mark at 55.29, another fantastic time for me, well ahead of what I would normally do in training. Perhaps I should have known then it would be too good to be true, but I used it to keep my legs pumping as I looped around Cadbury World and started retracing my steps down Pershore Road.

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It is worth mentioning at this point the support you get in this race, which is absolutely fantastic and part of the reason I am happy to do it again and again. This is a road race, and other than a small section early on where you run around some of the less salubrious areas and warehouses of Birmingham, you are going right past people’s houses, sometimes just yards from their front doors (meaning it must be a strange experience for those who fancied a lie in that Sunday). Obviously a bit of good weather helps, but the fact is literally thousands of people turn up to watch, many giving out sweets or drinks to help us crazy runners, and most of the kids offering hi-fives for a bit of extra pace, which I can never turn down.

The second half of the course it where it starts to hurt a bit, as you begin to get a sense of deja vu going past some of the same landmarks the other way. I do like the fact it is a single lap course, having done plenty of triathlons involving multiple loops which really test your patience (although there are rumours this will change to multiple loops next year) and the other fun part of this section of the race is you can spot those from later waves going the other way.  At around 12 km I passed my Body Combat instructor going the other way at around the 5 km mark for her, although she did not look happy to see me (not sure if it was more to do with her carrying an injury or the fact I was closer to the finish line…!)

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The next part was the only new addition to the race this year, a bonus loop around Edgbaston Cricket Ground, location of my first temp job after finishing uni. This time however I was not serving drinks, and Freddy Flintoff was not smashing a mighty 167 runs, as there was obviously no match on. Now I am sure this sounded a very good idea on paper, but I have to be honest in that the rear section of an empty sports stadium is not actually the prettiest part, so as I ran past the empty bars and bare concrete walls I had to rely on my memory to think about the lovely green pitch and the roar of the crowd. Still, at that point I managed to pass a guy running in full firefighter gear &  O2 cylinder (a real one) and Mr Potato Head (not the real one) at that point, and hey, an overtake is an overtake.

In fact that is another thing I like about this race, as whereas in triathlons I am usually the guy who turns up for fun, comes out in the top half of the swim before getting smashed by everyone on the bike and run, in a mass participation race I actually do alright and actually manage to overtake people on foot. This might seem strange as it is of course a fun run, but overtaking is a real motivator (when you are doing the taking at least!) and definitely helps with a bit of an extra speed boost.

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Pretty consistent Heart Rate throughout the race. Unfortunately it was in zone 5 (sprint) rather than endurance, so probably a bit higher than it should have, but still…

Next up on the course is the park, which involves a small hill, but more importantly the radio stand, where you get some loud music and importantly some carb drink. Whilst I am not a qualified sports nutritionist, it is one of my interests, and I like to use myself as a bit of a human guinea pig to test out different combinations during training to come out with something to at least get me through longer distance races. Here my fuelling strategy for the race had been to have an energy gel at the start, then three more spread out over 30 mins or so, with just water at the fuel stations, which had worked alright for a bit, but been based on the assumption that it would be a cold and wet race. Of course that was not to be, and with the sun out and wearing a black long-sleeved top, I was loosing fluids much faster than usual, so found myself gulping back blue Gatorade (or whatever was sponsoring the race this year, I cared not) knowing I needed all I could get for what was coming up.

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Yes, the final stage of the race could mean only one thing, looming in at kilometre 16 like an active volcano: The Hill. Perhaps the most famous part of the Great Birmingham Run, and described in the Channel 5 commentary by long distance legend Dave Moorcroft as ‘one of the most savage in UK athletics’, this kicks in around three-quarters of the way through the race (i.e. when you are most tired and need a bit of a hand) and goes on for pretty much the rest of the course. Observe my elevation profile above for a graphic illustration. Before I first did this race I used to wonder what all the fuss was about, having driven along the road in question many times without noticing any particular steepness, but on foot it is a whole different ball game, as I found out to my cost the first time I did the race. And the second. And indeed this time as well, as despite being fit enough to tackle the first kilometre section under the bridge (and are handed an orange segment by supporters for your troubles), it just went on and on.

Despite the pain of the hill, I do have mixed emotions to hear they are going to scrap it next year in favour of a different route, as it is the run’s USP and gives those of us who conqueror it something in the way of bragging rights, so it will be interesting to see what happens next time.

Still I can proudly say that for the first time ever, I did not walk at all. Sure I did that strange sort of shuffling run athletes do when they look like they have just done a Paula Radcliffe where you barely seem to be going forwards, but as far as I am concerned it was still running, and I am pretty proud of it. Needless to say the worst and hardest section of the whole race was the exact moment you go past my work office by Five Ways, at the summit of the hill where you have absolutely no energy left to even give it a wave. Or at least some sort of gesture.

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Not my best race photo… ouch!

By this point I knew my hopes of a 2 hour finish were gone, having been over the 7 min/km mark towards the end of the ascent, but with the pressure now off I could at least enjoy the end, so after being given the largest ever handful of jelly babies (to the point that they overfilled my mouth and I couldn’t actually breathe) by the kind cheerleaders at the boost section for the final km, I switched to a power song on my headphones and put on the afterburners onto Broad Street and into the finish chute with a trademark final sprint over the line.

great-run-finish

My final time was 2.03 hours, agonisingly close to beating that two hour mark, but I guess still leaving something for me to aim at in future with a bit more training. On the positive side, my previous times were 2.08 in 2014 & 2.12 in 2013, so I managed to knock off a huge 5 minutes from my PB, and I could technically extrapolate my time to around 1.58 if I was to do this again next year.

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But I won’t be doing this race again next year, at least not this distance anyway. That reason I mentioned earlier about why I signed up for this race in the first place? Well I am a firm believer in facing my fears, and could not turn down the opportunity to enter the first Birmingham Marathon, which is going to take place next October at the same time as the half-marathon, although parts of it will be on a brand new course. It is going to be a huge personal challenge for me, but in the end that is what this is all about, and I have to say I am pretty damn excited about running further than I ever have in my life. Better get training!

National Day of Suffering

Just like trains, after months of waiting for a blog on Sufferfest two come along in the space of a week, as although I could have tucked this in at the end last time, I thought this was something worth mentioning separately.

Having been around for nearly half a year, Sufferfest does not seem to have taken off quite as well as our gym bosses might have hoped, with many of the classes appearing fairly (if not totally) empty. Fortunately the company behind Sufferfest had a great initiative to help shake things up a bit, by introducing the Sufferlandrian National Day: The Day of Suffering. Obviously this was too good an idea to be missed.

suffer-day

My gym (David Lloyd) is actually pretty good at putting on special events, often to coincide with the quarterly launches of new Les Mills classes, which tend to have a theme – the last one in early September was ‘Back to School’, which saw us battling our way through back-to-back Grit, Step, Attack & Combat Classes whilst dressed in our finest shirts and ties – whilst the next one due will be a Halloween themed version in October half-term.

This one was to follow a similar format (although sadly without the fancy dress – next year perhaps?!) in that we would complete 3 consecutive Sufferfest classes in 2 hours, although to add a bit of variety the Sports Manager Kevin would be joining us, and (sort of) leading the class with a few words of encouragement and motivation. To top it off, we could also do a regular RPM class with him afterwards, taking it up to a 3 hour ride. Oh yeah, and it all kicked off at 7.15 am on a Saturday (I time when I am normally trying to stay asleep) so I had to be up at the crack of dawn to get ready.

sufferfest-starters

The Starting Line (I am on the right in the blue t-shirt)

Sufferfest 1 – Igniter: Described as a 20 minute warm up, inspired by British Cycling (who obviously took most of the Golds at both the Olympics and Paralympics – just saying!) we were apparently the first people in the club to try this. Some nice scenery and gradually increasing difficulty, although to be honest it was a little bit vanilla, but a good intro for anyone who had not tried Sufferfest before, and more of a companion to another session than one you would do on its own. Still, it got the legs spinning and was probably a good idea given the circumstances and time of day.

Sufferfest 2 – The Wretched: This is where things kicked off properly with a session best described by their website as “like a a 35 minute fall from the tallest ugly tree and your legs hit every ugly branch on the way down. Except you’re falling up. Did we mention the ugly tree is on fire and your legs are on fire and everything’s on fire?”.  In fact the whole Sufferfest blog is awesome (I can only dream) and I highly recommend a read: https://thesufferfest.com/blogs/the-sufferfest-blog/111999110-taking-a-closer-look-at-the-wretched

Anyway, the set up is you are a washed up former hero Sufferlandrian, who has left your glory days behind, but managed to make it to the final stage of the Tour de France, and need to finish well to earn enough for your bus fare home. What follows is a 6 hour Tour leg crammed into 45 minutes, which includes 2 King of the Mountain sprints and a huge race for the finish line at the end (spoiler –  you win the race). Sounds simple enough, but it is a real killer, with huge climbs accompanied by stunning French mountains (I have a feeling you might end up in Paris, but geography is not important here).

There is plenty of humour along the way (one of my favourite features of Sufferfest) which is mainly at your expense, and you do actually find yourself getting into the storyline as you pass bystanders lining the race who express their surprise at how well ‘the Sufferlandrian’ is doing when they thought you were old news. Painful yes, but I am sure I will be doing this one again before too long.

tour-de-france

Sufferfest 3 – The Nine Hammers: The last of the video sessions was a climber’s paradise (which for most sane people means a nightmare). Again, this one had something of a back story, with you attempting to complete a legendary series of mountain climbs in Sufferlandria (banned by the United Nations!) 6 of which were VO2 max, and 3 threshold climbs. If that last sentence makes no sense apologies, but it is a bit much to explain here: suffice to say it was tough, especially after the two earlier runs. The hills seemed to go on forever, but by this time we had been joined by a few more riders, and we managed to get to the end with a great atmosphere.

In all around ten of us managed to complete all three sessions and earned a coveted Sufferfest T-shirt (both unexpected and surprisingly good quality!) At that point any normal person would leave the room to relax / vomit, but at that point Kevin announced he was about to run a normal RPM class, and full expected all of us to stay for it. Of course we could not say no, so the morning turned out to be a bit longer than planned…

sufferfest-finishers

The hardy finishers

Les Mills RPM – To be honest I can’t remember any of the tracks we did in this class, as by now I was pretty gone. It was nice to get a bit of different variety for my legs, as whilst the Sufferfest element was almost entirely based on endurance, with average speeds from 80-100 RPM, this brought in some more top speed 140 RPM sprints mixed in with high gear hill climbs at closer to 60 RPM. Anyway, I made it through, and that was the main thing!

One thing that really interested me at the end was the data I managed to get from my TomTom Heart Rate Monitor, which if I am honest I don’t usually spend much time on. Having kept it going for the whole morning rather than each individual element, it actually creates a great visual representation of how the sessions panned out. As a starting point, my resting heart rate is around 50 BPM, and my max heart rate (220 minus age 34) is 186 BPM.

The first peak from 0-25 minutes is clearly Igniter, taking my pulse up to around 160 and then calming down as would be expected from a warm up, although note it does not drop below 100 BPM for the rest of the morning! The next hour or so to 1.20 is The Wretched, with another steadily increasing climb, with a couple of massive peaks at 187 BPM for the two hill climbs at the end. Up next to 1.20 is Nine Hammers, which perfectly displays the 9 peaks (you can actually count each of them) and shows what a textbook interval session this is, with peaks and troughs for maximum exertion and recovery. After a short recovery gap to get the RPM class started the last session from around 2.35-3.10 minutes has a slightly lower average heart rate, although by that time I was concentrating more on getting the pedals around than working too hard!

heart-rate

Day of Suffering Heart Rate Chart

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Official Nine Hammers heart rate chart: pretty similar if I don’t say so myself!

I have to say, when I first saw my gym was going to be offering virtual training, my first concern was that it could ultimately see a reduction in instructor led classes (as part of a drive to reduce costs I guess), which would be a real shame given the loss of experience, adaptability, motivation and other factors this would mean. Fortunately six months on this does not seem to have happened too much (although our old Sunday evening class has been replaced by a video one), although time will tell.

So the aim of the day was obviously to kindle some more interest in Sufferfest, and did it work on me? Well I will definitely be going again, although as someone who loves spin classes and tends to have a bit of extra time in the week from working from home (my own virtual commute!) this would be ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’ my usual times. It also firmly ingrained on my brain Sufferfest’s catchphrase ‘IWBMATTKYT’ which is translated below:

iwbmattkyt

Sadly all that extra mileage and sweat we put in over the weekend must have caused a few issues for the machinery, as the AV equipment has apparently gone on the blink and there have been no virtual classes for the last few weeks whilst it is being fixed. So I guess those real instructors are safe in their jobs and I will have to take a break from suffering… at least for now…

 

Welcome to Sufferlandria

After months of promising and distraction by other events it is finally time to talk about Sufferfest!

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I will start off today with a bit of a Meet Cute, as I first came across Sufferfest a few years ago in a magazine (Men’s Fitness  I think), where one of the reviewers was talking about an insane new program, where people rode stationary bikes whilst watching a torturous video of cyclists riding Le Tour or something similar, and trying to keep up like some sort of computer game. At the time I was doing Olympic Triathlons and whilst I had a turbo trainer, I had never even done a spin class, but was looking to try to find ways to motivate myself to go longer, so looked into buying one of the DVDs. Sadly they were a bit out of my price range, so I thought better not to not take the risk and forgot all about it, and kept trundling along on my bike in the lounge, watching endless repeats of the training montage from Rocky IV to spur me on.

Fast forward a couple of years, and thanks to Les Mills RPM and some great instructors I have turned into a spin class addict, ensuring I do at least one session per week (preferably more),  even down to the part where I have special clipless cycling shoes especially for indoor spinning (in addition to my regular tri bike shoes) and do most of my solo bike training whilst listening to bike specific RPM tracks.

Sufferlandia motto.jpg

So I was pretty excited when I got back from an Easter holiday to discover my gym’s spin studio was being refurbed, and a new AV system being put in place which would allow ‘virtual’ spin classes, and specifically they had purchased a licence to run Sufferfest sessions, so obviously I had to give it a go so booked myself onto one of the launch classes. But what it is all about?

It turns out that there is more to it than just watching Bradley Wiggins on a big screen and pedalling as furiously as possible to keep up (although there are plenty of famous riders in the films); there is a whole back story / history within Sufferfest. Originating in the fantastically named fictional Kingdom of Sufferlandria, where riding is religion, suffering is a must if you want to achieve mastery. Only those who work the hardest, ride the fastest and climb the steepest hills are considered worthy. This is all made clear to you during the introductory video, which explains how the on screen instructions work, and gives you a scale of how hard you need to work. Having done a few different classes now, these are always different, and usually raise a few laughs, involving phrases such as’Ride like you are being chased by angry Sufferlandrian wilderbeasts’.

sufferscale

Those involved in the videos who support you in becoming a hero cyclist are classed as Minions, whilst non riders are given the ultimate insult of eating donuts in the rival region of Couchlandria, where hard work is shirked. There are a lot of nice little touches to add some humour to what could otherwise be a pretty painful and serious experience, such as at one point during one of the films where people might otherwise be slacking off, a door appears onscreen, and a large gentleman enters the room like a door to door salesman asking if you are from Couchlandria as you are not working hard enough!

The classes being with a fantastically overblown, James Bond style title / credits sequence, where details of what you are going to be down are interspaced with animated shapes morphing across the screen, accompanied by classical music to build up some atmosphere. Whilst this is totally irrelevant to the remainder of the class, as a massive Bond fan myself, I personally enjoy this bit, plus there is the bonus that it is the few minutes of the class where you are not in pain.

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The format it actually very straightforward, with one countdown bar to show you how long you have left until the next section, one to give your cadence (pedalling speed), and one to say how hard your gear should be. This also tends to be well mapped to what you see on-screen, so when the riders start going uphill you gear up and slow down, and when they come down you can open the gas and start pushing faster. And really that is the main thing you need to go. There are other elements, such as notices to get out of the saddle for hills, and warnings that an increase is coming up (by way of an engine revving sound) but otherwise they stick to the Keep it Simple Stupid formula.

The videos / classes range from shorter 20 minute blasts, to full hour and a half marathons, and have at least a dozen different varieties, each with its own theme depending on the workout target. Examples of ones I have tried include ‘Do As You’re Told’ which involves a race where you are followed by a support vehicle who tells you to speed up or slow down during certain parts of the event depending on team tactics to practice your endurance and sprint skills, ‘Climbing Angels’, where you complete sections of the Giro d’Italia, which unsurprisingly involves a lot of hill climbs, and others with names like ‘The Wretched’, ‘Long Scream’ and ‘A Very Dark Place’ which I will leave to your imagination.

do-as-told-graph

One moment I particularly enjoyed during Do As You’re Told was when the guys in the car following received a text (from Dr von Agony) saying it did not look like you were working hard enough (with a cat meme and everything !). It was also quite a nice moment when at one point you got a virtual puncture and a few minutes rest!

As you would expect, there is music throughout the films, which all seems to be either custom-made for the videos, or at least non-mainstream, as I have not recognised any of the bands or tracks so far. This is actually good, as it means the music does not distract you too much as the tracks change every couple of minutes, so you don’t find yourself singing along. The tunes tend to be on the heavy side, either hard rock or hip hop, and whilst they do not match the pace perfectly as they do in say an RPM class where you could track your speed even with your eyes closed, they do at least fit the mood of whatever you are following on-screen, such as sprinting or powerclimbing.

There are also some interesting and even unexpected extras in the classes. Th first one I did for example had a whole separate five minute docu-film at the end, as a warmdown of sorts, about a young lad in the Lake District who was trying to ride fast enough to set off a speed camera on a quiet country road. It showed various clips of him riding and making improvements to his bike, clothing, helmet and so on, each time getting slightly faster and more aerodynamic to try to beat the camera. Totally irrelevant to the 45 minutes that preceded it, but actually fascinating as a study of speed, which most cyclists find themselves interested in at some point.

So is it any good? Well as with everything there are positives and negatives. Because it is automated it makes great use of the cycle studio at my gym, taking the number of classes from around 20 per week, to nearly 100, meaning you can get in and do some extra training almost whenever you want. Because it is all pre-programmed in and automated, the classes will also always start and finish bang on time, which is even better if you are in a rush, although it has meant that on occasions the projection screen suddenly drops down during the cooldown in my regular spin class, much to our instructor’s annoyance.

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The videos on screen are really high quality, and make the most of he fantastic locations they feature, most notably the Tour, Giro and Vuelta (in France, Italy & Spain respectively), with stunning views of mountain tops, alpine forests and seaside cliffs to motivate you. This is countered by the fact that you lose the element of imagination you can get in a spin class when imagining climbing a volcano or riding through a desert landscape (or is that just me?!) Obviously there are those who are against all indoor cycling and say ‘why not just go ride outside’ but this really does make it feel like you are taking part in these glamorous and famous races, that in reality would never actually happen to most people. On that note, when you do it in a fairly full studio it feels even more like you are in a peloton as you hear others whirring around you, although it does still work well when you are on your own and want a bit of (virtual) company for your ride.

smash-climb

Although it is available to riders of all abilities, the fact it is not directly ‘coached’ does mean it is more suitable for experienced riders, who know what they are doing with gears and bike set ups, particularly as there is no stretching at the end. Also whilst the jokes and other motivation (or beating with a stick!) does encourage you along, it can’t compete with having an experienced instructor in the room who can offer advice, tailor the class to your targets, or even slow down if you are struggling (and of course speed up if you are slacking). For those who have not done any indoor riding before, I would recommend going to some normal spin classes before, to learn how to properly set up your bike to avoid injuries and ensure maximum effort, before going into something like this, but of course it is open to anyone.

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Having done most of these now, I would say if the opening few paragraphs of this piece sound like your idea of fun, you would love this kind of thing, but if Couchlandria sounds more your thing then that is understandable!

Next time, Sufferfest goes big, with the ‘National Day of Suffering’…

I am Isoman

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.

Pie Chart Pie Chart

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.

Isoman Is Coming

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.

Isoman Transition

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.

isoman swim

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.

Isoman Lake

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.

Isoman Swim up

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…

tired swimmer

I know how this guy felt…

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.

isoman bike

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.

stoke prior windmill

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.

Isoman elevation

Isoman Elevation Profile

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.

cycle hills.jpg

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.

salted caramel

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

Isoman T2

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.

lock laces

Lock laces in action (not mine)

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.

Isoman run map

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.

No Pain

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

Isoman Finish

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!

Isoman After

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!

 

Virtual Insanity

I first started writing this blog two and a half years ago to document my progress whilst undertaking a 4000 km virtual triathlon across Chile. The idea was that I could record all my swim, bike & run training miles throughout the year to accumulate enough distance to cover the world’s longest country, without the time and cost expense of actually spending a year there (although I did manage 3 weeks which was great!).

Prior to the Chile Challenge I had completed a few triathlons, although I never really had a proper training strategy, but came across the concept of virtual racing the year before whilst on a fitness website called Fitocracy: a kind of social media game which involved logging your workouts and being  awarded ‘points’ which seemed to be based loosely on numbers of calories burned with which you could compete against others. For various reasons I ended up getting bored with the site, but one thing I did take away was the virtual races, where you could challenge other members to see who could cover the most distance in a week or month, which of course helped me get the idea for my own event.

It was also towards the end of the Chile Challenge that I tried my first spin class, which I quickly became addicted to and has probably been my main training method ever since. I mentioned on here a few weeks ago that the cycle studio in my gym has recently had an upgrade, and we now have a shiny new projector and speaker system, meaning they have been able to introduce a whole new range of classes based on video coaching and on-screen racing, the kind of thing futuristic thing that would not have seemed out-of-place in the 2017 of Back to the Future Part II. Obviously being a keen rider I have had to try a few classes to see what it was like.

les mills virtual

The first class I tried was Les Mills Virtual, which is quite simply a recorded RPM class, with a number of master instructors teaching a session that you can join in with. The tracks and choreography are by the book, exactly the same as you would get in a live class for say RPM 70. Being the top instructors they do look like they have just walked off the set of Zoolander, with white teeth, big arms, and the obligatory Kiwi accents (Les Mills is an NZ company). One of the guys looks like he could play Hugh Jackman’s double in the next Wolverine film. It was fun, in that of course I like any RPM class so I have no complaints about the video itself, but I did come out with mixed feelings.

virtual RPM

The most apparent benefit to both the club and members is we can have a lot more classes than ever before. We have been lucky enough to have a purpose-built cycle studio for a few years now, with a few different bike based classes including Les Mills RPM, Sprint and normal Group Cycling, but no more than around 20 sessions per week, with a fair few taking place during the daytime which those of us with jobs do not really count, and I know for example we had been asking for ages for the Sunday evening class to be reinstated, after it was taken off during the (traditionally quieter) summer period last year.

Cycle studip timetable

They have of course been able to sort this now, as well as significantly increasing the volume of classes so there is something on nearly every hour, pushing to well over 80 classes in the same timeframe (see above), meaning it is a lot easier to have some sort of coached session at just about any time of day. They are also going to rotate the timetable, so you don’t get stuck with the same class each time if you can only go at say 6pm on a Monday.

Talking of timings, it is a little strange as the system is fully pre-programmed, so with German railway-like timing, the projector screen will automatically start dropping down at 5.58pm for the class, the video will start and play through regardless of who is in the room (I assume some actually play to empty rooms) and it will then disappear at the end until the next time. This is useful as you know it will always be on time, but can be a bit disconcerting when you are having a conversation with an instructor at the end of a session and a screen starts plummeting from the ceiling towards your heads for the next class!

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Another problem with the ending is they seem to have dispensed with any sort of warm down. The last track ends and bang, the screen is immediately starting to retract. Now this is not a huge problem for experienced riders, as we can take care of ourselves, but for anyone new to the classes they could end up with an injury or slower recovery if they just get straight off the bike and walk out. Again, it may just be the classes I have been to, but having tried both the short 30 minute, and full 45 minute versions, neither has any kind of cool down or stretches after the last track, which is usually a big hill climb.

Clearly a big aspect of this is the significant cost saving for the club. I am not sure what our spin instructors charge – although in terms of the classes I frequent I am of the opinion that they earn every penny – but it means there is next to no additional cost to hold all these extra classes, other than the licenses they have to buy for the videos. I am sure they will say this will be passed onto us as members – not by reduced fees I would assume, but perhaps investment in new equipment and tech.

There is however a bit of a downside in having so many classes, in that it seems to spread people a bit more thinly. Because there is now so much choice, the 30 odd people who might have fancied a mid-week ride might now be split into up to half a dozen classes rather than just one, so instead of having a really full class with a lot of atmosphere (and sweat!) you end up with quite an empty room. Now it may just be coincidence, but the few virtual classes I have done have never had more than single figures present and in one I was absolutely on my Jack Jones. Now I am used to training solo so don’t actually mind this, but it could put others off. To make it worse though, they have squeezed an extra 7 bikes into the studio as part of the refit, making it a little cramped and seeming even more like a the Marie Celeste when it is not busy. It should help a lot next New Year, but I dread to think what it will be like in the summer.

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One final moan about the class is that on a couple of occasions during my sessions people actually wandered into the room mid-class to either set up their bikes for a subsequent session or even just have a gawk – possibly this is just the novelty as it is something they would not dare do if it was an instructor-led class, so hopefully will wear off before too long.

My main fear really is that this technology might end up replacing some of the existing instructor led classes and we will end up with something like the hologram tennis instructor Sharon Stone has in Total Recall, but for now at least we seem to be safe. As mentioned this is not because of the quality of the production, as ultimately the tracks are the same and the trainers are perfect, but it is down to the interaction. In a real class, a decent instructor will be able to tell when to talk, when to motivate the group, when to help struggling individuals or challenge you to the next level. They will be able to mix up the tracks and take requests, start and stop when needed, and generally be trained to hold the thing together. Basically, you can’t replace them with a pre-recorded video!

virtual tennis

So overall what do I think of the classes? Well if I gave the impression I did not enjoy them that was not my intention – I love RPM and an opportunity to do a few extra classes per week is a good thing – I just have a few concerns over how things could turn out in the longer term. But for now at least they are a great compliment to an existing training plan, giving extra variety and making excellent use of a studio that might otherwise have been empty. Those of you with eagle eyes may have noticed from the timetable earlier that the new range of classes does not end with Les Mills though. There is another big name on the scene which I am going to talk about next time… Sufferfest!