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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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

Colour Obstacle Rush: 13/9/15

After a string of fairly serious races, including a couple of killer half-Ironmans (or should that be Ironmen?), last weekend took something of a different tack. As I mentioned earlier, my wife had entered a team of us into a slightly different type of race: The Colour Obstacle Rush (COR) in Sheffield. The name of the event somewhat says it all, but for those who have not seen one of these before allow me to explain:

  • Colour – Well, you may get a clue about this from the photos, and there was certainly a lot of this on the day!
  • Obstacle – That’s a big Ten-Four! Plenty of these to climb over / around / through.
  • Rush – Note this was not a race, but what could only be described as a crazed run around!

COR12COR13

The event took place at Rother Valley Country Park to the South East of the city, and about ten minutes from my in-laws. I had visited the place a couple of times before, and it has a decent sized lake, surrounded by paths and woodland. You would almost never know you were just a few miles away from the place formerly known as Steel City due to its industrial heritage.

As soon as we arrived at the venue we were transported straight back to our childhoods, with the park taken over by the event organisers and now resembling a giant playground, with what seemed to be bouncy castles, slides, climbing frames and a huge stage which was booming out classic 90’s dance tunes.

This was my first ever team event (not including a triathlon relay some years ago as I still had to swim my leg alone) so I was really excited to have people to run with. We had eight in our team, aka ‘Soul Mates’, 3 chicos and 5 chicas. Alarmingly I was the most experienced racer, and although I was not particularly concerned at a 5 km yomp, this was all new to me.

Amongst the others, only one other was a regular runner at this distance, but everyone was in decent enough shape to make sure we would get around. In fact looking at some of the other teams it was clear why this was described as a rush rather than race, as many would not be getting out of second gear. To be fair once we got going I realised it was more an event to savour, and we actually found we slowed down a lot and even stopped at points to take it all in.

On registering we were given our fun packs, the main thing being a lovely clean (for now) white t-shirt, and our classy matching pink headbands and shades (essential to avoid a PJ & Duncan situation). We also received our first paint packs, having all been curious to see what these would involve. Fortunately they were not heavy paint cans, but plastic pouches containing a dyed corn starch, which covered a very satisfying are when thrown. We did hold off as long as we could before opening them, but of course not everyone could wait, and all of a sudden we were ambushed by one of the girls (it is always the quiet ones!) and from there it basically turned into carnage!

COR1COR2

Our miniature battle (likened by one of us to the battle at the end of Zulu) was brought to an end by the announcers calling us for the warm up. Being one of the earlier waves we had not yet seen any finishers and thought we had a lot of paint on us at that point – oh how wrong we were! The 90’s music was turned up, and about 300 of us launched into a large outdoor version of Body Attack, bouncing around and preparing for this crazy event.

COR3COR5

Warm-up done, we were ushered towards the start line, and able to have a proper look at our first ‘obstacle’. This could best really be described as a reverse car wash, with everyone being funnelled through a start chute into an giant foam pit, simultaneously being showered with orange paint by the slightly over enthusiastic marshals. The whole place looked like a massive orange milkshake!

As we emerged I noticed the marshals wandering around and trampling through the foam. As first I assumed they were making the most of the fun, but then realised they must have been looking for stray bodies if anyone fell into the abyss – who said this was an easy event?! That second, as if to prove the point, a lady on our left took a huge fall into a puddle and soaked us with the splash. After about half a second to make sure it was not too serious we glanced at each other and could not hold in the laughter, necessitating one of the fastest sprints of the day in an effort to hide it.

There were around ten obstacles along the route, so one every 500 metres or so, and the first turned out to be fairly typical: an inflatable tunnel about 10 metres long which we had to crawl through. Again, it was not quite as easy as expected, and Ange in particular broke down laughing half-way through, presumably still getting over the previous incident.

COR7COR6

Team safely through we carried on, and proceeded to get through a series of alternating obstacles, going between inflatables such as bouncy climbing frames and a sort of maze which reminded us all of Takeshi’s Castle, and colour tents where you had to climb through or under nets, whilst being pelted with paint by more of those over-zealous marshals. We quickly learned to shut our mouths and eyes during the latter ones, as one taste of the paint power was enough to put you off ingesting it again.

As you can see I had my phone camera on me, but having had to wrap it in a plastic bag to shield it from the paint, the quality of the images was not great. A few competitors had go-pro type cameras with chest harnesses which looked great, although I if I did own one I am not sure how much I would fancy it being covered in paint, and as for the sharp edges going over those inflatable obstacles, well that was just an accident waiting to happen!

COR8COR9

The further we got through the race the more and more of us was covered: there was literally no part of our bodies free from colour! One of the fun parts was each station used a different colour paint, so as the route was basically an out and back loop, you could see what point other runners were at by what colour they were. By the final stages of the race we were all but unrecognisable, Big Jon looking alarmingly like Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, whilst Rob was more… well… the Pink Panther, as I am sure you will agree from the above picture! Me, well of course I was Ironman again, with a big glowing circle in the middle of my chest – well that was my view, although I have a memory of one of our team being called Papa Smurf!

Around this point I think I may have also killed my Garmin, as not only did it get covered in paint (although most washed off) but the battery died in the final kilometre. Admittedly this took slightly longer than normal at around 45 minutes (to be fair we had to stop and wait for a few of the obstacles) but given I had started with 88% battery I was not too happy. It did re-animate itself after a charge, and I managed to map the majority of the race as you can see below, but not sure I want to rely on it again for a triathlon: Time for an upgrade to 920xt next year perhaps?

Colour Rush

Anyway, we made sure we all reached the final obstacle at the same time, a rope climb followed by a fun slide down the other side and over the line. Competitive to the end we stood in a long line together and raced up to the top, but this was one of those races where we were all winners (although I reckon I crossed first of course!). We were then into the after-party, which was basically ensuring any last part of the body not covered with paint was rectified, and downing glasses of water to take away any last starch taste. Oh, and like any good race an ice cream too! I was dead proud of my team for all getting through so strongly, and everyone was so pleased with how well the day went and were immediately planning a rematch of this course as well as some more events for next year: That is if I ever manage to get this damn paint off!

COR10COR11

 

 

Race Report: Great Birmingham Run – 19/10/14

Sunday had something of a bittersweet feeling, as it was not just my final race of 2014, but the culmination of a hell of a year.

Bupa Great Bham Run

This was my second consecutive Great Birmingham Run, which unlike most of the others I have completed this year meant I actually knew what to expect for most of the course, and it did help out a lot. In particular the dreaded hill section (around miles 10-12) which although it still hurt a lot, I was more prepared this time around to conquer it.

The Build Up

I spend the day before getting into the zone by watching back-to-back Dark Knight movies: something about the music really helps me psyche up, and I took this all the way through by listening to the soundtrack on the way to the race (the Hans Zimmer one rather than Prince!) and watching Gotham afterwards! In fact I actually ran most of the course alongside a guy dressed as Batman, accompanied as always by Robin, Bananaman and … er Luigi!

Things started well in the build up area when I spotted a Soreen van with samples of my favourite malt loaf. Much to the embarrassment of my long-suffering wife who had kindly come along to be my supporter/driver/ photographer/kit carrier, I then attempted to fill my bag with as many free samples as I could to ensure I won’t need to worry about my mid-morning work snack for the rest of the month. I even got a photo outside it, although implore you not to stop reading just because of this. I will be writing more about my take on sports nutrition soon, but all I will say for now is this is about as good as you can get during longer distance races.

After a week of not being able to train outside due to rain, and with Hurricane Gonzalo due to reach us just days later, I don’t think anyone had expected it to be sunny. I hold my hands up here in that is was probably my fault – most of the races I have had this year have ended up being much hotter than planned, so I guess the sun just has it in for me. Obviously I had not brought sunglasses or cream, so another unintentional Monday morning red face was inevitable. Still, it was better than it raining.

Batman RunningBham Run Soreen

The Start

As usual there was a great atmosphere around the course, and it was great to see that the official starters were two of my local heroes – Triathlete Jodie Stimpson (see Commonwealth Games blog from July) and Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell – both of whom looked even smaller in real life than on TV.

There are so many people in this race that you are split into separate left and right sides, with a staggered start. Unfortunately I ended up on the left which meant having to wait an extra 10 minutes or so before I could get away, so I had a lot of hopping about on the spot to keep warm. Ahh, that brings us to the group warm up – Something we seem to escape in triathlons, presumably on the basis most people are well prepared for their race, or possibly the fact you start in the water – But I digress. Those who have done similar events may be familiar, a Mr Motivator type guy  gets hoisted up in front of the crowd with a banging soundtrack and goes through a series of stretches, squats and general lunacy, to make sure everyone is ready. It is a bit of fun, but I was fairly capable myself, and as mentioned it was another half hour before I actually got to cross the start line.

Now the important bit – The whole race was televised live on Channel 5, and whilst most of the focus was on the elites at the front there were a few clips of us real racers, and having Sky+ the whole thing I did what everyone does in such situations and watched it back later to see if I could spot myself. Amazingly I was in the only clip they showed of my wave starting, with real pictorial evidence below (I am circled bottom left). Now I am not quite going to suggest it is going to get me VIP entry anywhere soon, or even time to apply for Celebrity Big Brother (although it probably would qualify me). That said, autographs will be available on request.

Bham Run C5

The Race

Looking back at my last blog, I had banged on about how much I liked my GPS watch. Obviously this was an ideal time to be using it, helping me work out how fast I was going to pace myself, and more importantly how much further I had to keep struggling on for! Unfortunately this was the one time it managed to let me down: I had expected it to take a while to lock onto satellites, being surrounded by fairly tall buildings and not to mention thousands of others trying to do the same, so I switched on about 15 minutes before the start, but it just would not connect. Even as I crossed the line I still had no luck, and in the end it took another quarter of an hour before it finally worked out where I was. This meant that I had already clocked up 3km: far faster than planned and using up more energy to boot, as well as giving me a bit of mental arithmetic to do working out where I really was. It also messed up the pretty map I have shown below, as I managed to teleport halfway across town from the start line!

Birmingham Run Map

As well as my superhero chums there were plenty of other costumed wonders in this race such as Wolverine & Spider-Man, and even one guy who had a caged gorilla suit like the one in Trading Places, but the headliners in Brum are always the Wolverhampton Jamaican Bobsled team who do this every year in full costume. They start in the first wave and I guess the early downhill plays into their hands, but I assume Sanka is on brakes and slowing them down, as I caught them up around the same time my GPS found me. Fair play for the commitment though, as I would not have wanted to wear this get up in Sunday’s weather.

Birmingham Jamaica

I suppose I should say a few words about my own performance in the race. It is a road course, and it is hard to get too lost or really do anything unusual. The biggest difference between a running race and triathlon is you are allowed music and headphones which is great for motivation (power song was Noots by Sum 41), but as just about everyone else has them you don’t get quite as much interaction / banter as in a tri. On the other hand, with 20,000 participants you are a lot more squashed together so at least this is not quite as lonely (as say the Avenger when I spent nearly an hour without seeing anyone).

A word needs to be said about the support for this event though, as it is fantastic. The race goes through a lot of residential areas, and there were tens of thousands of people out and about, cheering us on, and even offering drinks and sweets to keep people going. It really is the best part of this race, was enough on its own for me to have done it again this year.

And the hill. As mentioned it is the one part of the course everyone talks and worries about. The TV commentary describes this as one of the toughest half-marathons on the calendar, which is a surprise as you would not have thought of Birmingham as being particularly undulating. There is a small hill just after the 3 mile mark, which this year caused me no trouble, and if the main hill came then it would probably be ok. But it comes after 1o miles, waiting until your legs are already well and truly shattered before rearing its long neck and finishing you off. But this year I was prepared, or so I thought.

There is a golden rule in racing that you should not try anything for the first time in the race, be it clothing or nutrition. I always adhere to this, and in a triathlon earlier this year I received a new energy gel in the goodie pack, which looked perfect for this race: a Gu Double Espresso gel. A small pack, it had a fair bit of caffeine in it and looked just right to help me up the last section. Having consumed well over a hundred different gels this year I did not expect it to be any different, so downed it at the bottom of the hill – how bad could it be? Turns out very. It had the consistency of an actual chocolate fudge cake, which sounds great, but with an already dry mouth having finished my water bottle a mile or so earlier, it immediately filled my whole mouth and refused to move. As my nose had blocked itself up I therefore could not breathe: not the best position to be in at this point. Somehow I eventually managed to gulp it down and fortunately there was water available at the top, but there is a definite lesson to be learned here…

The Finish – 2.08.40

As with the start, the finish of this race is always fantastic. You run the final mile all the way down Broad Street, lined by tens of thousands of supporters who make a huge noise, while the Chariots of Fire some plays on speakers. I took out my headphones to take it in properly, as it was being drowned out by all the shouts anyway – I presume a few were for other racers too, but they probably just had not managed to watch back the Channel 5 footage of me yet…

I managed to get in a proper sprint finish for the last 200m, which ensured I was able to dramatically collapse into the barriers immediately after crossing the line, but I am sure only a few hundred people saw me so I probably got away with it. And that was it – my final race of 2014 completed, three minutes faster than my previous time- and leaving just a few short months of training to complete the remainder of the Chile Challenge. That is assuming my legs ever recover, as two days later I am so stiff I still can’t climb up the stairs properly…!

Bham Run Finish Bham Run J&A

Race Report: Peak District Triathlon 13/7/14

Another weekend, another race completed! Not only was this a new race for me, but a new race altogether, so it was great to be involved in the inaugural Peak District Triathlon, set in the picturesque grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. One thing about racing is that whilst it is good to compete in local races, you also have the chance to enter events all over the country and explore new areas. This one happened to be 30 minutes away from my in-laws in Sheffield, meaning as well as having my wife to support me (and take loads of fantastic photos) I also had the parents in law as well, so a 3 strong squad to keep me motivated!

Of course being involved in a new race has both up and downsides to it and it would be fair to say there were a few teething issues with this one of which more later, but all in all the day went pretty well.

Chatsworth HouseChats Bike on Car

750m Swim – 16.01

I was really keen to see how this part would go, being my first ever river swim. The main benefit of this format is that you are forced to swim in a relatively straight line, so you don’t accidentally end up drifting miles of course as you can do in a lake. On the other hand, it can be a bit of a squeeze…

The route involved swimming up the river one way, then turning at a buoy and heading back towards the start. With 8 waves at 15 minute intervals and people averaging 15-20 minutes to complete the course, the packs were relatively well spread out, but typically as each group set off, the previous lot were heading back right at them. Whilst the aim was to stay to the left of the buoys, anyone who has been involved in a swim like this will know it is not easy to know exactly where you are, and watching the early starters from the bridge above, it was a bit like that level on Mario Kart where you have to drive into the oncoming traffic – a great one for head on collisions! To add to this, the first buoy at around 100 m was fairly tight, and had a funneling effect, where the groups 6 or 7 people wide had to fit into a gap for 4 or 5, inevitably leading to even more carnage as shown below.

Chatsworth Swim Group Chats Swim exit

The water itself was also pretty different to the last few races I have done. After the Avenger’s balmy 21 degrees, this one was measured at just 16 degrees (and a few marshals mentioned that was at a push). Was it noticeable? As Churchill would say, Oh Yes. I was one of the first in on my wave and t was a lot tougher treading water in the few minutes before the hooter, so something of a relief when we got going.  With most people around seeming fairly nervous I chanced my arm at starting at the front right, and it seemed to work – well I came out with all my original teeth anyway. The funnel effect was pretty noticeable as we were forced towards the bank, but at least there was no leg grabbing or any of that kind of thing, and we all made it through ok.

Chatsworth PontoonChatsworth Swim 1Chatsworth Swim 2

Around 250 metres in though I really started to feel rough, with tight ribs and some shoulder pain. I was not sure if it was the cold, or not breathing properly, but the next stretch up to the turning buoy was really painful. When I chanced a brief glance at my watch on the turn I realised why: the first digit was a 6, meaning I had really over paced myself, having expected to be more around the 8 minute mark at this stage. Whilst it was great that I was going fast, it was not a great idea with everything else to come, so I stepped off the gas a bit on the second leg and made it back to the pontoon (the far one in the above left picture) in just over 16 minutes. I later found this put me in the top third of the field for the day, so an even better result.

T1 – 6.05

Unfortunately that was not the end of it, and rather than strolling into T1, there was a 400 metre run across a gravel path and uncut grassy field. On a good day in my trainers I would be looking at a couple of minutes for this, but with bare feet, cold hands and trying to simultaneously strip off my wetsuit, it was a whole new challenge. I reckon the run took around half of the 6 minutes, and that sounds a more realistic outcome.

Given that I had just legged it over, I was practically dry by the time I got to my bike. The time could have been better, but I wanted to take on some fluids too, knowing I had quite a challenge coming up next.

20 km Bike – 54.34

Chatsworth Bike out

Given that this was taking place in the middle of the Peak District I was expecting some hills, although after the evil Avenger bike course secretly hoping they would be nice and gentle… No such luck. My first mistake came the day before when we had to register for the race, which meant driving back to base along the bike course. The fact that the hill seemed to take ages even in my car was a warning sign, and by the time I reached the top (and turning point) I had it clocked at an 8 km straight climb. This was like King of the Mountains in Le Tour! It would be fair to say I was bricking it for the rest of the evening before.

The first stage of the course however involved leaving the estate grounds and negotiating a couple of potentially tricky roundabouts in full traffic. Fortunately it all went well, although when I finished the race I noticed a guy next to me in transition had a time penalty for unsafe entry into the main road, so clearly I had got a little lucky on my timing.

From then on I was into the climb, and miraculously it actually went really well. As most of my training has been either indoors on turbos and stationary bikes, or if not on fairly flat local roads, I have next to no experience on hills. As mentioned I had 4 massive hills in the Avenger which almost killed me, but to be fair in a 110 km race I felt less guilty about having to get off and push. Here in a 20 km event it was simply not an option.

Somehow thought I managed to get the bike into a decent gear and just keep pushing, with plenty of No Pain shouts from Duke in my head. Even more amazingly I actually managed to start overtaking others (bearing in mind in my last two races I barely saw anyone for 90% of the bike leg). The trip to the top of the hill took around 35 minutes, but was well worth it once up there, for some amazing views of the hills and valleys on either side. The sun even emerged for a brief few seconds, before going back into hiding.

A loop around a massive roundabout saw us commencing the descent. which might sound easy, but in a way was just as tricky as the way up. Yes there were a few lunatics zooming down like stinger missiles, but personally I was not keen on breaking my neck for this. I still went pretty quickly, and got down in under 15 minutes – less than half the time it took to go the other way. Going down also gave me a much better view of what was happening on the other side, and the other main issue with the course – traffic.

The problem is, this is the main (if not only) road between two sides of the district, so anyone needing to get around that day had to use it, and closing it was not an option. To combine that with 500+ cyclists of mixed ability is not a great combination, and you could really tell. On my way up I managed to stick close enough to the curb to allow cars past without causing too many issues, but on the way down I passed all sorts. Guys and girls literally pedaling at snail pace up the hill, followed by huge queues of cars, caravans, buses & lorries, most of whom seemed incapable of knowing how and when to overtake. This has the double effect of winding up the drivers so they take more dangerous chances, and intimidating the bikers into doing something daft like drifting over. Whilst I did not see any accidents, I would be amazed if there were none, and hopefully this will be taken into account next year.

Anyway, I managed to make it down unharmed in the end, and a few minutes of light rain was actually pretty welcome to cool me down. By the time I got back into the estate the crowd also seemed to have picked up (I assume not just for me but you never know) and it pushed me through into transition.

T2 – 2.00

Chats Trans

Half of this time was probably having to do almost a complete circuit of the transition area to get to my spot. Typically I came in at the exact same moment as the guy next to me who was doing the relay, and his partner for the running leg seemed oblivious to me rolling in a few steps behind him and unable to slow down, causing me to crash past her with my bike (this may have explained why I overtook her about 500 m later even though she was on fresh legs!).  Other than that this was basically a textbook changeover, and I was back out on the run in double quick time.

5 km Run – 31.55

After a long slog up and down the peaks, the last thing I fancied as I set off on foot was more hills. So obviously the run was exactly like the bike course, 2.5 km of pure uphill cross country running to the posh sounding ‘hunting tower’, and then back down again to the bottom. Deja vu. Naturally it involved more long grass, rabbit warrens, mud slides and miscellaneous hazards.

I am not actually sure which was tougher, going up or going down. Whilst descending sounds easier and quicker, you had to keep your eyes scanning the ground like a Terminator, as one misplaced step would likely see you on your ass. Funninly enough the thing that kept crossing my mind was John Candy’s line from Cool Runnings – “Your bones won’t break… No no no. They will shatter”. Somehow imagining myself in one of those full body casts cracked me up, and it probably scared the hell out of those on their way up to see a nutter with a maniacal grin charging at them at full pelt.

At the midway point the organisers were kind enough to provide the only snack station, decked out with a bottle of water and some Jaffa Cakes. At that point I was up for anything, having lost my energy gel from my back pocket on the way up the hill. Unfortunately these are not, for me, an ideal on the move feast. With my throat feeling like the Atacama Desert (no moisture for 100 years+) it instantly seemed to turn to dust and clog up my mouth, rendering me unable to breathe or speak for a few seconds. I then understood the drink combination, and washed it down, but I tell you this. If they had the evidence I uncovered there would have been no need for that biscuit vs cake court case all those years ago!

One thing I am really glad about is that I managed to do the whole thing, including the hills, without walking. This was a real personal achievement, and probably the thing I am most proud of from this race, as although it was short I really never thought I would be able to keep going the whole time. How I would have fared at Olympic distance I am not sure, but I like to think all the training I have put in this year has paid off.

Chatsworth FinishChatsworth Drink

Finish – 1.50.36, position 114 out of 165.

The finish chute was great, and as I was not the last to finish for a change, there were actually still people about to cheer me in, right down to the commentators doing their local radio style ad-libs. The best part though – the pint of  beer (ok non-alcoholic)  they kindly handed out on the line – the perfect way to re-hydrate. I will not be happy at future events if this is not a feature!

In terms of my performance, I can’t really compare it to the last Sprint Tri i did in Stratford, given that that had a shorter pool-swim, and flat bike and run courses. I was a lot happier with my place though, coming 114 out of 165 competitors, which is probably my best ever finish!

Good Bad &Weird

I have decided to use a slightly different rating scale this time (this is my blog!) as I wanted to highlight some of the best (and worst) things about this new race – who knows, they might even read this and take it on board.

The Good

  • First up: the location. Chatsworth is a fantastic looking place, with immaculate buildings and grounds. We were fortunate enough to visit the day before to register on a really sunny day, and there are great looking fountains, lovely plants and all the decor and gold bling you would expect to see in somewhere occupied by a family who are not far of the front in line for the throne.
  • There was also great support for the event, as not only were there all the normal family and friends who would come to a normal race, but all the curious visitors for the day too, many of whom had probably never seen anything like this. The bridge over the river meant there was good support for the swim, something which otherwise does not make for the most exciting viewing, and by the time I got to the run and finish there were loads of people cheering us on.
  • My other pick is the goody bag! This is usually a disappointing pack of flyers with a token gel, but for this race there were all sorts of interesting samples, a really good quality technical t-shirt (compared to the usual wear once and throw away ones) and rather than a medal they have given free access to the professional photos, which you usually get charged around £5 each. The best bit though, as mentioned, was the pint on the finish line – I have seen pictures of people with these before but this was a first for me, and a perfect way to end the race. Nice work Xtra Mile!
The Bad
  • This is meant more as constructive criticism more than being too negative, but some areas could be improved. This was a new race, but the admin could have been better. We only received the final race details a week before the race (compared to at least a month in most others I have done) which made preparation a bit difficult. When we came to register the day before we had to pay £3 to park. Fair enough if we wanted to stay, but we were only there around 30 minutes…
  • Also after the finish line the timing chips did not seem to have worked – unless I really did a 7 second 5 km –  and there was a huge queue of people moaning to change theirs, and as I had timed myself I was not that bothered about hanging around to get mine fixed. Fortunately this must have been fixed and the online results are correct, but I guess I would have been more annoyed if I was in the running for a podium and prize.
  • Finally, there was the hills! Not a lot to be done in this part of the world granted, but I am not sure the course was really suitable for novices as they prominently said in the advertising. This was a really major road, and at points it was dangerous for me, let alone people who had never done anything like this.
The Weird
  • Long Grass: This seems really picky, but I really can’t understand why they could not cut the grass into a path from the swim into T1 I am sure the sheep would have coped with the other 1000 acres on either side. It was at points almost knee deep, which is not really appropriate to run on with wet bare feet. Likewise parts of the run course had disguised rabbit holes and other traps, which as mentioned must have done a few people in on the way.
  • Then there was the wetsuit dip. For some reason the estate insisted that all wetsuits had to be disinfected before anyone did the swim. The organisers seemed a bit embarrassed that this clearly came to them at the last minute, so everyone had to wash their suits in a wheelie bin filled with some cleaning fluid. Now particularly as a scuba diver, I am obsessive in keeping my kit clean – if you pay a lot for it you hardly leave it lying about – and I am sure I am not alone here. It might have been ok, if when we got in the river it had seemed clean, but it was pretty horrible, and if anything my wetsuit needed disinfecting afterwards!
  • I have never done a race with temporary tattoos. It has always been stickers or just a permanent marker, but this one had them in. To be fair they went on fine, but you could not see them under your kit anyway, and they then seemed impossible to get off. Forget an Ironman tattoo, it looked like I would be number 522 for ever! More embarrassingly I forgot about them and then felt like a right twat when I went for a swim two days later and still had part of them on (although by then it looked more like 51 and a half!)
Anyway, rant over. To summarise, this was a fun new event, which I think will get even better as the years go on. Although I took longer than other sprints, I was really happy with my time and finish position, and will take a lot away from the day. Here’s to the next race!

Race Report: Avenger 70.3 Triathlon 22/6/14

Avenger Tri logo 3

Well I survived… The fact that I have taken a good few days to type this up is fairly reflective of how I felt after this race : Shattered!

The clue should have been in the event description – A tough middle distance triathlon. I guess I misunderstood this, thinking that any race this long would be tough, but oh no. They meant difficult for people used to this sort of insanity, and for the rest of us… read on and find out.

Pre-Race

Despite there only being 200 competitors, there was a pre-race briefing the day before. Again this was a useful chance to see the course, the marshals and of course the competition. Perhaps not best for confidence: I was probably the shortest bloke there, and most looked like they had done this sort of distance at least once. My race number summed it all up. 88. As in The Crazy 88 from Kill Bill! Nothing too unexpected was said during the briefing, the only potential shocker was that it was so hot that wetsuits might be banned during the swim, something I was actually in favour of given it is my best discipline and might help me get a bit more of a chance. Oh yeah, and they slipped in that due to some roadworks they had extended the bike course by 3 km. This might not seem significant on top of 90 km, but oh how it did…

Despite one of the warmest evenings I can remember, Neptune was obviously favouring the others as wetsuits were the name of the game, so my sister had to run back to the car to grab mine! The first thing I noticed was the other bikes. Now I quite like mine, but it would be fair to say it was one of, if not the cheapest one there. And at just over £250, there were some which cost at least 20 times more! Some of the wheels alone on those bad boys would have paid for my entire kit and seasons racing. But I digress..

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Transition was on the grass, which was also a new one as I had been expecting to use the car park nearby. No biggie, but it meant that towels, socks, and basically everything got covered in grass and made a mess everywhere. I was in a bit of a rush as I only realised the night before that although my wave was not until 8.30, I had to have everything set up by 7.45. Lesson learned: read your briefing earlier! Fortunately it all went fairly well, and I had some time to calm down before the start, and to watch the end of Wave 1’s Swim.

Swim – 1.9 km – Time 44.18 (mins)

First thoughts upon getting in the water – this is warm. As in:  like a bath. I was pretty amazed wetsuits were still on, but there you go. There must have been around 120 people in my wave, which was one of the larger ones I have done. I am normally one to go out wide, but clearly here so was everyone else and I somehow found myself pretty much in the middle at the front. Not a great idea, as the swim sharks then ran me down a bit to get past, but it made sure I got going! Other than that the swim was pretty uneventful, except for one moment when a guy who was built like The Rock had clearly started far too fast and burned out at the first buoy and for some reason had switched to breaststroke. Not expecting this so early I managed to take an elbow to the face for my efforts in swimming past, which was a bit disorienting, but fortunately there was far too much adrenaline to slow down.

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My target time was somewhere between 40 to 45 mins, and I actually got out of the water closer to 42 minutes, but someone obviously was having a laugh when designing the course, and put a 200 metre or so uphill slope from the lake into T1, so that accounts for the extra time. Believe me, after staggering out of a lake in a wetsuit, up a slippery grass hill, you do not run like Usain Bolt!

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T1 – 4.13

At this part of the race I was still pretty happy with my timing. The warm water meant stripping off was not too bad – my fingers actually worked on the zip rather than acting as useless ice-lollies stuck to my palms – and I even had time for a quick glug of drink. I did lose a few seconds having to nip back to get my GPS watch for the next stage, but it was well worth it to know where I was.

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Bike – 4.15.19

The first half of the bike course was still pretty good. I had some energy, and time to enjoy what was, to be fair, an absolutely stunning course around the Warwickshire & Worcestershire countryside. The only early problems were firstly my stupid bike bag, which for the second race in a row came loose and resulted in me needing to stop to tie it back on properly. I won’t be using it again in sprints (not enough time to change a tyre) but given the distances here it was needed, or a very long walk back! The second was me still getting used to the bike itself, and getting stuck going up an early hill in the wrong gear. Hard to explain to non-bikers, but basically imagine driving up a hill in 5th from a stationary start, and you get the idea. Amazingly I made it up without stopping, although it cost me a couple of places, and hurt like hell.

Course Map

The race started to go downhill just before halfway, or perhaps that should read as uphill. It turns out the extra 3 km they had kindly added meant a huge new hill at around 40 km, which was an absolute killer. About 10 seconds in I knew there was no way I would be riding it, and had to get off and start pushing. The guy about 5 yards in front took one glance and looked absolutely relieved as he stepped off to do the same. As did most of the people behind me. In fact I hardly saw anyone actually ride this beast, and this was one of the first times I have genuinely wished I had (rather than just envied those with) a full carbon bike. It was also the middle of nowhere, and whilst it was a road, I don’t remember seeing any cars or non-competing people in the whole section. I will be blunt, in that this destroyed my legs. As soon as I got back on I had cramp in my right quad, but with no chance to stop had to struggle on, and fortunately there was then a long downhill that I could freewheel on whilst the pain died down.

Steep Hill

The second loop of the course seemed a lot longer, and by that time I was getting near the back of the field. A major downside to being in the last starting wave. At around 70 km there was a drink stop in a layby. I first passed this around 30 km on the first lap, and was pretty impressed at being able to grab a bottle without stopping. Bearing in mind how hot it was though, I had now shotgunned the best part of 4 drinks bottles and 5 gels, and was basically running on empty. I decided this time it would be better to stop and take two drinks bottles, but at that exact moment got terrible cramp in my left calf, and despite frantic braking could not slow down enough, which resulted in a fantastic, slow-motion, Starsky & Hutch style crash into a box of drinks, scattering them everywhere!

Starsky Crash

Once again though, the cramp receded almost as fast as it came on, and I was able to pedal away slightly sheepishly. Unfortunately it was not long before I was back up against the same dreaded hill again, and this time it was even worse, at 80 km and with even less energy than before. It must have taken a good 10 minutes to push myself and the bike to the top, plus another few to psyche myself up for the final stretch. Somehow I did make it back, and through the gates of the hall. The final test was a 1 km climb to transition, on a single track road full of visiting cars. After 92 km I was too tired to be nice to them, but also too stubborn to get off and go on foot, so I somehow managed to keep going, riding into T2 like I had both won the lottery and been in a car crash all at the same time.

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T2 – 4.18

This was one of those times where you question your sanity in continuing. I had only ever run one half-marathon – a road race through central Birmingham – whereas this was about to be an off-road trail run, with plenty of hills… On the hottest day of the year… After the toughest bike ride of my life! For some reason I carried on, and again was amazed I did this in less than 5 minutes.

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Run – 2.46.43

What can I say about this? I was trying to think how you could recreate the conditions without having to do the first two parts of the race. Perhaps a spot of crocodile wrestling to start off with, followed by a few rounds with Mike Tyson to soften you up, a few Jager bombs to disorientate you, and an hour or two in the sauna for the dehydration. And then start a half-marathon. At least that was how I felt. About 20 yards out of transition a guy was stood with a hose, and I am with Boris on this, that there is nothing wrong with someone shooting you with a water cannon. Bliss!

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After around 1 km of the race I was faced with the legendary ‘Heartbreak Hill’, a monster of a grass slope, perhaps longer than the bike one and just as tough at this point in the race. The below picture does not really do it justice. Perhaps it was how late on I was, or maybe the heat, but I could not see anyone running this part. After staggering up, and staggering down on the rutted hill, the second section involved a far longer slope, which although less steep, had probably the same overall elevation and took far longer to traverse. The third and final part of the course was the easiest loop, but no less uneven ground, making it difficult to pick up any pace at all.

Heartbreak Hill

The second lap was a total blur, the main thing I remember was wondering where the promised energy gels and food was at the drink stations. After having only eaten a bowl of porridge, a banana and some malt loaf all day, my stomach was starting to eat itself (I later found out I lost half a stone during the race). In fact I still don’t know the answer to that one. Most of the marshals I passed looked smilingly at me saying “nearly there now” and “this must be your last lap” and then quickly turned to sympathy when I murmured that I had one more to go. As I said in my last blog, I had to really stay with my mantra in this lap, with Duke reminding me over and over again – “No Pain”.

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At the start of the final lap I really felt like calling it in. Was it worth the agony for this? One of the marshals shouted to me that there was only an hour of the race left, so I needed to motor if I was going to finish in the allotted time (yet another reason why not to be in the last wave). Then a bit of magic, a marshal who I am sure had already asked me twice before if I was on my final lap managed to offer me half an energy bar. I have no idea what it was as it did not touch the sides, but it may well have been what got me through. I do have a confession here, as I was running in last place, and managed to agree with one of the other marshals to skip out a bit of the course – given I did 3 km extra on the bike I did not miss 1 km on the run – as I was unsure I had enough time to do it. After the second section I was told I had 20 minutes to finish the last couple of k’s, and somehow had to dig out the reserves to get through…

The Finish

I was literally the last person of the day to cross the line, although there were some people from earlier waves who took longer to complete the course. At that time there were still a fair few of people around, and the support through to the finish was amazing, and I even managed a sprint down the chute. Funnily enough all I can remember thinking was I wonder if that ice cream van is still open (it was not). So I managed to have an even better alternative in a big hug with my wife & sister instead. Were it not for the fact I had no fluid left in my body from the heat I may well have cried,  but as it was I was happy to just collapse and soak in the fact I had just completed a half-iron distance triathlon!

Avenger Finish Line

Build Up & Admin ***** (out of 5)

Could not fault it. This was a great race to get involved in, and since registering at the back-end of last year and joining the Facebook page, there have been regular updates on everything from photos of the course, to the sponsors and obviously the usual of self-deprecating banter from the competitors. Compared to other races I have taken part in this made for a great atmosphere and felt much more welcoming to be part of. I also managed to get down for a practice swim session with the main local tri club a few weeks earlier; again a great chance to scope out the place and meet a of the friendly competitors.

Course & Scenery ****

As mentioned this was great looking, from the perfect lake (well at least before it was filled with neoprene clad warriors) to the scenic countryside, and even the run was a great looking course, spoiled somewhat by the fact I was so tired I could barely see! If anything I have to take a star off for being too tough, as in that heat I am genuinely amazed I made it thought without a hospital visit.

Atmosphere & Support *****

For such a small event it was incredibly well organised. There must have been nearly 50 marshals, if not more, for less than 200 competitors. There was also all the families of competitors, plus the normal visitors to the hall – who must have been horrified at the bunch of sunburned, barely dressed zombies staggering their way around the luscious grounds they had come to see – but everyone joined in and cheered us on.

I do owe a particularly massive thank you to my wife and sister for supporting me. My sister Lucy came all the way from London, despite the fact I hardly managed to actually see her during the race, but giving me loads of support right to the finish. And my wife Angela, who has put up with my training for the last 6 months for this event, drove me on the day, took photos, cheered me on and generally was amazing! Thank you both so much xx

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My Performance ****                                     Total Distance 115 km. Overall time 7.54.57 placing 166 out of 191 competitors.

Might be a bit generous? Well, I considered giving myself five stars just for finishing this nightmarish course! The first half was decent, with a good time on the swim and transitions, but the bike course killed it for me. As for the run, I had little left in my legs, plus the remnants of earlier cramps, and then the heat to deal with. Apparently the run course got up to 35 degrees C during the afternoon, which quite frankly for this country is insane. But I still did it.

But the big question is would I do it again? I had even wondered before this race if I could one day do a full on Ironman. To be honest I am not sure now, and whilst I would wholly recommend this event for the above mentioned reasons, if I do another 70.3 it will be something different. A distinct memory I have now is from the middle leg of the run, when all I could hear in my head was Apolo’s voice at the end of Rocky saying “Ain’t gonna be no rematch”, and Rocky saying “Don’t want one”. And given that I won this race that leaves me as the Avenger, and no one can take that away from me now.

Avengers Assemble

Alright, I will admit it, I have been waiting all year to be able to use this title! But I am finally there, with less than a week until the biggest race of my life: The Avenger Triathlon. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you on the sign below and for those of you who prefer the metric system this will be a 1.9 km swim, followed by 90 km bike and then 21 km half-marathon!

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I am still not exactly sure how I ended up entering this event. Part of me wants to see just how far I can go. Tired as I was when I crossed the line in my first Olympic distance race, I thought I had some more left in the tank, and ever since have been pushing my limits. Technically this is called a ‘middle distance’ race, which makes it sound a bit lightweight, but in my mind that is like saying that Santiago is in the middle of Chile – it is still a bloody long way from one end to the other! Whilst I have covered the elements of this race individually enough times – a long practice swim in the lake last week for example, the Birmingham half marathon in October, and perhaps less excitingly my 100 km stationary bike in the gym in April – combining them all back to back with no breaks for the first time could lead to anything!

Perhaps it could be the location? I have been thinking of racing this distance for a while now, but it can be difficult to find the right event, and given that this is taking place at Ragley Hall, just a 20 minute drive from my house, it stood out to me. And after scoping the place out the venue it does look perfect: The lake tucked away in a corner, surrounded on one side by a wood and the other with a grassy slope which I assume leads up to transition;  the bike leg covers a quiet but picturesque part of Warwickshire, hopefully also reasonably flat and car-free; and the run is around the spectacular grounds, where my wife and sister will be cheering me on from the sidelines whilst having a massive picnic.

Another reason could be to raise funds for charity. After 4 or 5 years of doing ever longer races – swims, sprint & Olympic triathlons, half-marathons – I was running out of new things do to persuade people to part with their cash. In case you somehow missed it, I am raising money this year for a Bowel Cancer charity. Although there is no formal target it will all go to a really good cause, and if you have been considering sponsoring me for anything ever, this is the one!

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/jamesuren

Those are all good reasons, but who am I kidding really. I am doing this as it is called the Avenger and I am far too geeky to miss out on the chance to actually be Iron Man myself! It may well be that this is me in the picture below (with thanks to Esquire magazine) perhaps more likely with the guys behind about to lap me on the run leg. The main thing for me will be finishing, but how will I do – we will see on Sunday!

Iron Man In Triathlon