Catching up on 2019

Bringing things up to date, 2019 was a mixed year for challenges: fewer races than usual but some new and interesting things to talk about.

From a training perspective, the big new thing at my gym last year was the release of a brand new, purpose built Blaze studio. Touted as ‘the next big thing’, Blaze is a fantastic form of HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training –  short sharp bursts to get the heart rate pounding and maximise calorie burn, while building endurance and strength.

BlazeBlaze studio

The concept is simple, a 45 minute class with 3 x 3 minute rounds in 3 different zones. Firstly a treadmill, usually set as steeply as possible with (if you are lucky) alternating sprint/walks, or otherwise brutal climbs like the training montage in Rocky 4. The middle is a strength zone with dumbbells and a bench to do anything from squats to flyes, planks to deadlifts. The last (and best) is a full length punchbag, for all kinds of kickboxing drills, punches, knees and even some crazy floor work to really de-stress.

drago

To bring it to another level, all participants wear combat gloves and My Zone heart rate monitors (regular readers will know I am a sucker for new kit), with everyone’s performance projected onto the wall and coaches patrolling the room shouting encouragement,  over the music. Activities are targeted by zone, yellow being 80% of Max HR and Red being 90%+, with a goal to spend 12-18 minutes of the session in the red, while recovering as quickly as possible inbetween. It is massively addictive and I loved it instantly, a great way to keep up and track fitness all year round, with an unofficially competitive edge as it is near impossible not to compare your stats to others, which only pushes you on further.

blaze graph

On a slightly calmer note, I managed to get in a bit of diving last year, although not quite on the same levels as usual. This was neither the warm Caribbean sea nor the icy quarries of the midlands, but some more unusual venues. First up was an old fashioned hard-hat experience, diving indoors in one of those brass screw on helmets from back in the day as seen in films like Men of Honour, and wow did those guys have it tough. Not only did the helmet weigh an absolute ton, but the set of lead boots accompanying it ensured it was only possible to shuffle around with all the grace of a moonwalking elephant. My 15 minute experience went by in a flash though, and is highly experienced for any diver if only to realise how good we have it now!

The second part of the day was spending time in a real life decompression chamber. These things allow divers who have been to higher depths and pressures, or worse managed to get themselves DCS, aka ‘the bends’, and looks more like something you might see in a space station than hospital. In the end four of us spent half an hour simulating a deep dive to 50 metres, before the system slowly perfectly decompressed back to atmospheric pressure. And yes, all of the expected side effects did happen, from squeaky voices to nitrogen narcosis! A great experience, although hopefully one I will never have to actually do for real.

Dry Dive

Back on the racing trail it was two more familiar events that anchored the year: Velo 2  and Great Birmingham Run number 6!

The first Velo was my longest race to date and really tough, involving 8.5 hours cycling 100 miles up and down hills around Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the West side of Birmingham. This one was more of the same, but on the East side, taking in the sights of Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire, with plenty of countryside to accompany the concrete. In fact one of the highlights was riding through the cobbled streets in the centre of Cov: who knew it was such a great looking place from that angle! 

The last race of the year was the Birmingham Run, which is really more of an annual tradition, and as mentioned the sixth in seven years (including the marathon). By now these have all blurred into one, but it is always a decent day out and supportive crowd, and I was happy enough that at least it did not tip it down like the previous year. Since October I have been ramping up my running in prep for the Marathon, moving from around 10k per week to closer to 20k by the end of the year, but more on that in future posts…

Because by far the biggest thing to happen last year was the birth of my beautiful baby daughter Isla in May!

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PS. Sponsorship link https://fundraise.cancerresearchuk.org/page/james-and-the-marathon-challenge, with more to follow soon!

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!

 

I am Iron Man!

After months of build up and years of waiting I have finally done it – I am Ironman! Here is how the day went…

Morning

They don’t mess around in the Ironman world, challenging your mind and body before the event even starts! Having spent around 7 hours registering and sorting transitions the day before, race day begins harshly with a 3.15 am alarm call, which feels like it has only been moments since I managed to finally got to sleep. Dragging myself out of bed I pull on my tri-suit and down a bowl of porridge (which turns to be the closest I come to solid food for nearly 12 hours).

The journey to Shugborough is actually a lot easier than expected, probably because no sane people are out roaming the country lanes of Staffordshire at 4 am on a Sunday, other than an ever-increasing convoy of competitors as I get closer. It makes a nice change beginning a race without having to sort transition there and then, so I am able to park up and jump straight on a shuttle bus to the lakeside start.

The mood on the bus is pretty quiet, so I take the chance to get in the mood with a bit of the Rocky soundtrack (the only way to prepare for a race!) as we approach. Once we arrive though, things began to kick off with a really buzzing atmosphere and I am staggered at the amount of people here. My last race of this distance had 250 people; this has over ten times that number!

As I wander into transition to check my bike is still there from the night before the first person I see is one of the pros, Will Clarke, part of the GB Tri team at the Beijing Olympics. And then the man himself, Javier Gomez appears, looking absolutely freezing in a jacket and beanie hat – Galicia this ain’t! Everyone is suddenly super excited, and to be fair he takes it all in his stride, happy to pose for pictures with anyone willing to approach. He is about 50 odd places away from me (in a field of 2700 bikes this is practically next door) so close I can see what type of gels he has on his bike, and for a moment I feel a little embarrassed at the fact my steed is one of the cheapest in the whole park. but actually that is what this is all about. As I have said before, in how many other events around the world can you race against your heroes?

As the clock counts down we make our way to the swim start. In typical Ironman style there is loads of music, and AC/DC’s Thunderstruck seems to be the de regueur song of choice. I chat to some of the other guys in wetsuits & green swim caps who are about to set off with me, and most of them are also doing this for the first time, so there is a mixture of nervousness and excitement, no one really knowing what to do so we just shuffle about in our bare feet. trying to stay warm. The announcer introduces the pros one by one, they make their way to the edge and a minute or so later are off, meaning only one thing: It is my turn now. As they say in Bad Boys – This shit just got real!

Swim – 41.26

Staffs Swim

There are so many people around me in the water I barely notice the claxon signalling the start, but there is no way of missing what was just a few moments before a relatively calm lake, becoming a washing machine on full spin, as 500 arms and 500 legs simultaneously start splashing. Before the start I had planned to try to get to the side to avoid the worst of the scrum, but once I got in the water  I was too caught up in the moment and missed any opportunity, and as a result found myself right in the middle of everything – Nothing for it but to get the head down and go for it!

It takes around a minute just to get through the starting buoys and into some clear water, but with most of the nervous swimmers hanging back and most people looking to pace the swim, we all find a little space eventually. I guess it is the adrenaline but I feel like I  am flying away, and although I am conscious of being whacked by various flailing limbs, do not register any pain. At one point someone switches to breaststroke far too early, and as he effectively puts the brakes on right in front of me I end up doing a flying head-butt into his ribs. Nothing I could have done, so I shrug it off and continue, doubtless him doing did the same and thinking twice about stopping in the middle of everyone space next time.

After about 5 minutes I realise my first mistake, in that having expecting a cloudy day I am wearing clear goggles rather than my tinted ones, so as the sun beams down from a perfect blue sky I can see absolutely nothing on my right side except its glare. This is bearable on the first half of the swim, but makes things a lot trickier after we turn as I can no longer see the turning buoy’s properly so have to rely on watching the other swimmers to ensure I am heading the right way. At one point one of the yellow buoys actually seems to be getting further away from me and I fear I must be swimming backwards, until I realise it is actually the race leader from the wave that set off 10 minutes after ours, who has already caught us and is working his way through our group…

It is not unusual to feel very tired towards the latter stages of open water swims; remember this is nothing like a pool swim, as you have no opportunity to touch the sides and rest, or even ease off as if you do slow down someone will just cannonball into you as mentioned earlier. There is also the cold to deal with, the slight discomfort of wearing a wetsuit and good old-fashioned exhaustion from swimming. But I have none of this here. The chilly 16 degree water feels like a bath to me, and looking back I honestly do not remember feeling particularly tired. You also lose all track of time, and given this is a single loop race with no direct line of sight to the finish line it is hard to know exactly where I am, and I can not tell at points if I have been going for 5 minutes or half an hour.

Finally though, the finish rises above the horizon, the unmistakable sight of a huge inflatable Ironman arch, and I haul myself up the slipway and onto my feet and the next stage.

T1 – 7.22

This is by far the longest transition I have ever done, in fact it was almost as long as the swim in my last triathlon (despite the fact my time was actually one of the faster ones for this leg of the race). To explain why, it starts with a 250 metre run from the swim exit to the transition tent, across a mixture of terrain from gravel to grass, which does not do my already frozen feet any good. From there I have to locate my transition bag on a rack of thousands which is not the easiest in a half-dazed state, change out of my wetsuit into my bike gear, and then hand back the swim stuff to be transported back for me. The krypton factor had nothing on this sort of mental and physical challenge!

Having handed my transition bag in the night before I  discover I have made all the usual mistakes such as forgetting to unzip my bike top in advance and then being unable to do it with my icicle fingers, so I have to force my head through the gap like the rhino giving birth in Ace Ventura. As with my goggles earlier, I have made the same mistake with my eye wear: my yellow, light-enhancing glasses making the sunshine about ten times brighter than it already is, ready to test my retinas for the next few hours. Once ready I run out the other side to search for my bike amongst the two and a half thousand others, and make my way onto the next part of the course.

Bike – 3.48.17

Staffs Bike

The first thing that stands out to me on the bike course is the amazing closed roads. Now I have completed plenty of triathlons and the bit that always scares me is having to dodge traffic, with cars who tend to either hover behind you like a crazed stalker, or zoom past in full boy racer mode. And as for lorries, well they just do the latter! But we are extremely fortunate in this race to have the roads shut off for us, providing all the space we need, and giving me a massive confidence boost which I am able to translate into a bit of extra speed.

I tend to do most of my bike training indoors, and for some reason always forget how to use the gears on my bike properly, so it takes about 30 minutes or so of fiddling and clunking about until I settle on the best gears for hills and flats, but after a while I get into my rhythm and the first third of the race goes along at a fair pace. At this point I realise my third mistake of the day (after the goggles and sunglasses), as the cycling gloves I painstakingly pulled on in T1 turn out to be on the wrong hands. This means the soft gel padded bit is on the back of my hands, and the thin (aka useless) bit is doing nothing to protect my palms from chafing.

I do however get  lot of love for my Pink Floyd cycling top (see above), mainly from blokes of a certain age to be fair, although given the triathlon demographics in this country that accounts for a fair proportion of the field, and despite the fact it is dark (side of the moon) coloured, I never feel over-hot wearing it.

I like to try to follow some personal rules on the bike, and one of them is you really should not get off and walk, but unfortunately I have to break this a few times. The first of these is actually not my fault, as on one of the earlier hills we hit near the start, whilst my legs are still fresh enough to conquer it, the guy in front of me falls off. This means I immediately have to do the same to avoid a massive pile up appearing on You Tube later, but it makes me lose all the speed I had been carrying into the hill, and I have no chance of getting going again. So I have to push the bike up to the top, although fortunately it is only about 20 metres or so until I am going again.

Bilthfield Reservoir

The second is more down to me, and occurs about two-thirds of the way through, in a place I now know is Blithfield Reservoir. The view from the hilltop approach is probably my favourite in the whole race, and I even slow down on purpose on the bridge in the middle to take it in, but I should have known better, as in triathlons what goes down, must come up again. And so we do, with an almighty steep climb straight after (I know it looks flat in the picture above but take my word on this!) and after holding out for over two and a half hours my legs finally decide they had enough and cramp up on me. As a result I have to swerve off course and dismount, and spend about five minutes pushing myself to the top of the hill. I even question whether I am hallucinating, as the solitary supporter cheering me on is dressed in a full Luigi (from Super Mario Bros) costume!

Fortunately after that there is a nice long downhill section which allows my legs to recover and gets me through into the Cannock Chase park section, which is just as stunning as the reservoir. Inevitably there is another hill though (as Javier Gomez later agreed in his winner’s speech, it was NOT a flat course!) and inevitably I find a new muscle group in my legs to get cramp in, which  results in further few minutes pushing my bike to the top.

This time though I have the advantage, as I know what goes up, must come down, and after a fantastic lap around the park filled with cheering spectators, hit the fastest downhill descent of the day on a nice wide, empty road. Checking my GPS I am clocking over 50 km/h, the fastest I have ever ridden by some way! I really feel like I am flying, and within a few minutes I find myself inside the grounds of Shugborough, passing my car in the car park (always worth checking it is still there!) and in sight of transition…

T2 – 5.05

… but was I taking my eye off the ball too soon? You may have seen the pro’s on TV approaching their bike transition line, unclipping and standing on one foot to coast in, but mine is not quite so graceful as my leg has other ideas and treats me to another massive dose of cramp – right in front of all the spectators! Not being able to come off the bike properly I have to do a slow motion crash into the barrier to be able to stop myself falling off and potentially ending the race prematurely, until a marshal appears and holds the bike steady for me to dismount. Using my saddle as a makeshift crutch I then stagger into transition, calf still in agony from cramp, manage to hang my bike up to move on into the tent.

The rest of the transition is a bit of a blur, as I again have to locate my kit bag (red this time rather than blue) before collapsing into a chair to try to change into my trainers. Unbelievably I am back out and on my feet relatively quickly, with just the half-marathon to go between me and eternal glory.

Run – 2.35.01

Staffs Run

This is my fourth ever half-marathon, and I have to say I am actually very pleased with my time considering how knackered I an right from the start. Partly because that cramp I acquired getting off my bike not only refuses to go away as the race goes on, but ends up staying with me for the next 48 hours, and the rest is probably my body getting revenge for the general punishment I inflicted on myself today. I am not sure how many people reading have run a half-marathon with cramp right from the start, but take my word for it, it does not help. As a result, the first lap in particular is more of a hobble at times, but as the race goes on I make myself ignore the pain and manage to get up a reasonable pace. About 30 minutes in my Garmin battery packs in (always good to know I can outlast a watch!) and I lose the ability to track my speed, although perhaps is is part of the reason I later finish about 10 minutes faster than I had planned.

Unbelievably for the third time in the race I had the wrong eye-wear, as having switched to dark sunglasses in transition the sun began to hide behind clouds, meaning I had to keep lifting them up to make sure I could see where I was going at points in the course – Hopefully this will be the last time I do a split transition race!

As before though, my running top proves to be a massive hit. I bought it last year for the Avenger but never ended up wearing it due to the heat, but there was no way I could leave it out today. After all, if you can’t wear an Iron Man top in an Ironman race, when can you wear it! Most of the other competitors are in serious running gear or club tops (this is not a place for people dressed as fridges or juggling footballs) so I am pleased I have something that is both functional and fun. The supporters certainly loved it, especially the kids who all gave me extra cheers whenever I pass. I just hope I have not shattered any of their illusions that Tony Stark might not quite be as fit as they thought he was!

As with the bike course, we have all been expecting a nice flat route, and it starts well with a lovely trek around the stunning grounds of the estate with thousands of my / Gomez’s screaming fans. From there we run into the adjoining village, before facing a hill around 1 km long which was less welcome. That said, although I walk a fair bit of lap 1 due to my leg, when I return on laps 2 & 3 I find I am able to jog up the hill and then really step on the gas as we descend on the other side. The course then winds its way back into the grounds and back to the start again for the later loops.

Having survived exclusively on carb drinks and gels throughout the race, it suddenly hits me about halfway through the run that I have barely eaten all day, and in that instant I transform from being too busy to think about food, to absolutely ravenous. The problem is there is not much food on offer on the run course, so despite feeling hungry like the wolf, the only thing available is half a small banana at one of the stations that I only pass once per lap. Thinking back exactly the same thing happened on the Avenger, so as a mental note to self I will need to bring some extra solid food with me on my next long distance run!

The atmosphere on the run is truly fantastic, and I spent a lot of time chatting to the others around me as we run together which turn out to be some of my best memories of the day. There are so many great people there, and with over 60% of the field Iron Virgins (first timers) and everyone is massively pumped by this point in the race, knowing they have met the cut off times and are on track to complete the course. My favourite moment is at one of the last water stations, where the guy running with me is so hot he ignores the cups being held out and runs to the main table, picks up the large jug of water and tips the whole thing over his head in an effort to cool down. I almost pop a rib laughing!

Finish – 7.17.12

Staffs Finish Line

Everyone talked in the build up about how the finish of an Ironman event is amazing, and they could not have been more right. Unlike my last race of this distance, where the only people who were still there when I finished were my wife, my sister and a few marshals packing things away whilst looking at their watches, there are hundreds of people lining the finishing chute, with a mini-stadium on either side, loads of music and the commentators half-way down calling out your name as you approach. I still can not quite believe the time I am on for, some 40 minutes faster than last year, proving that all that training over the last 18 months has been worth it.

Ironman Staffs Medal

Finishing is an unbelievable feeling, easily the best individual sporting achievement I have ever done, and in those few moments running down the finish chute and crossing the line, the stress of the build up in the months, weeks and days before the race, and all the pain I have incurred today is gone. I cannot stop smiling as I receive my finishers medal and hear those immortal words, “Congratulations, you are not an Ironman”!

Race Preparation

Things are really heating up now with just two weeks to go until Ironman 70.3 Staffs!

Ironman Staffs 2

After months of hard training I am now at the point where things are starting to calm down with a bit of tapering before the big day (although six separate gym sessions in the last four days might argue with that statement). It is funny that having been through this before with the Avenger last summer I now have slightly different concerns. Whilst previously my main concern was whether I could actually finish a race this long, I now know I can go the distance, and by accounts Ironman Staffs is supposed to have a slightly easier / flatter course (we will see…) which should mean that will take care of itself.

Also unless the weather changes a lot in the next fortnight it is unlikely to be pushing 30 degrees C during the race which will make nutrition a little more realistic and help avoid near collapses on the bike due to dehydration. Finally the cut off time is a bit longer than the 8 hours I previously had (8.30 this time) which I assume has been done especially for me and more importantly might mean I actually finish ahead of someone!

So assuming I can actually finish the course, my attention has turned to the admin side, and I honestly never thought I would have more concerns on this side of the race then actually getting around it!

First up is the location. When I booked the race (which was a mission in itself – see my post from last year on the perils of online race entry) it was because it was less than an hour away from home, which fulfils most of my criteria of being able to get to easily by car and not having to spend money on a hotel the night before. Unfortunately it is the other side of Birmingham in an area I have never been to before, so spent most of yesterday afternoon location scouting in the car, firstly driving around trying to find the venue, which was severely hampered by a load of road closures which confused the sat-nav and the fact that in general it is in the middle of bloody nowhere (I am sure there should be a question mark in the picture below!). Once we actually found it this added to my confusion as the first thing on site is a huge great petting zoo, which is definitely a first for me, although I guess being chased by an angry goat will probably ensure people achieve their PBs!

Shrugb

Next up is parking, and funnily enough writing this blog has made me find another issue. I was just searching for the name of the venue which I keep forgetting and noticed that car parking needed to be booked in advance ‘if you want to park there on the day’. Now bearing in mind I have already highlighted the remote location there is not really a realistic alternative available, as parking miles away and biking in with all my kit is not going to work. So another £14 (yes £14!!) to grudgingly pay on top of the massive entry fees, has at least ensured I will actually be able to park at the race and get home afterwards, assuming I can find it first.

The next, and potentially most complicated part of the day, is that the race actually takes place over two sites. So here you go: You start off at the finish.Yes, although you park up at Shugborough, that is not actually the start location. That is around 15 miles away at a place called Chasewater, where you do your swim and then ride (via a convoluted 90 km bike route) back to the start / finish place. This also means that not only do I need to go along the day before to set up on multiple sites, but on the race day itself you have to get a shuttle bus from the finish to the start. To be honest it is giving me a headache just thinking about it, so hopefully it will all just work out!

chasewater

Oh, I forgot to mention that one other thing that makes this so complicated. I need to be there at bloody 5 am! So as if it was not hard enough finding the place in the day time, I am going to have to leave the house at around 4 am and find it in the dark, whilst managing to actually stay awake. This is because of this complicated set up, as I will need to get to the finish / start and check my running gear is all ok, then jump on the shuttle bus to the start / finish and again check on my bike stuff. I then need to be in my wetsuit and ready to go in the water around 7ish, for my 7.10 wave start.

That said I am actually really glad I have this start time, as my age group (30-34) is the first ‘normal’ start time, meaning some others won’t even begin until I am halfway around the bike course, which should mean I have some companions during the run, rather than the lonely, painful struggle I experienced on my last lap in the Avenger.

Gomez

Finally, there is just the small matter of the ‘elite’ competitors taking part. As this is such a high-profile Ironman event (televised and everything) there are some big names in the mix, and none more so than the current ITU World Champion and Olympic Silver medallist Javier Gomez, who is in the first swim wave of the day starting just ten minutes before me. That’s right, I will be hot on the heels of one of the fastest triathletes on the planet! Well, that is probably the closest I will come to him unless his bike falls apart (although I expect he can run faster than I can ride anyway), but it is an amazing thought that I will be that close. I wonder if he will give me any encouragement before the start? That’s if I can work out where the hell it is!!

Gomez

Race Report: Tewkesbury Triathlon 10/5/15

After going from a couple of races per year to half a dozen last year, I have toned things down a bit for 2015 with just a two main races, partly due to being busier but mainly to get back in favour with my better half! Whilst one of them is Ironman 70.3 – one of the biggest races in the UK calendar this year with over 2000 entrants – I thought I would go the other way with my warm up event and try a nice local race with under 200 competitors.

Tewkes Tri Club

This type of early season race is great for a number of reasons. Firstly to make sure my kit still actually works after spending the most of the winter in the wardrobe / shed. This mainly applies to my bike, as although I have been doing loads of training in the last 6 months it has all been at the gym in either spin classes or the stationary bike (I am not a fan of riding in the rain or cold, especially in the roads around where I live), but also to other things like my tri-suit (fortunately I seem to have lost some weight so still fit in) and other race day equipment.

The other reason is to practice the specialist parts of triathlon, such as timed starts, transition and a finish line sprint: all of which of course are possible to do on your own but a lot less fun then normal training, and therefore I don’t really bother. Anyway, let’s talk about the race itself:

Pre-Race

It turned out I was also in the ‘senior’ race group (a first even for me…) which also meant I had to wait a fair while for my start as part of the final group, so after a 5.45 am get up, 6.45 arrival, and 7.15 briefing, I had to wait until after 9am to actually start, which – I am not going to lie – was not the most fun 90 minutes or so of my life. I spent most of it in the car listening to the Rocky soundtrack and trying to stay warm, given I had to change into my tri-suit before the start of the race. Finally, it was time to get into the pool, and near to the start.

Swim – 8.14

This was only the second pool based triathlon I have done, and the logistics can be a nightmare so I was interested to see how they would do this one. As before, we were split into 30 second stars based on our predicted swim times (making me wish I could have added on a minute or so to be able to start earlier!), but rather than working our way from one side of the pool to the other by ducking under a lane rope every few lengths, this one instead involved staying in one lane but each of us wearing a different coloured hat. I chose yellow of course, so coupled with my black tri-suit it matched my bike (little things…)

Twekesbury pool

The pool was nice and warm which meant that other than dodging up to  3 others who were in at the same time as me things went well. Fortunately the breaststrokers had finished up by now, as when I was watching some of the earlier starters there were a few awkward looking collisions and overtaking manoeuvres.

The main incident involved my slightly old school digital watch with its velcro strap, which I use for triathlons as my GPS is not waterproof. It works fine on open water swims where I can tuck it under my wetsuit sleeve, but it has a habit of undoing itself in warm water pools, and did not let me down on lap 1 of this race, meaning I had to grip it in my fist for the return leg and hurl it at the friendly starter-lady as I neared the edge for her to hang onto until I got out.

She seemed to get the idea though, and looked after it until I hauled myself to the edge.This was another area I did have some concerns on before, as unlike my local pool where the water comes right to the edge of the sides, this one had a good 8 inch or so drop from the edge to the water, meaning it was a real effort to climb out after a heavy swim, and a for a few competitors in particular it was far from glamorous!

T1 – 2.52

There is a massive difference between the first transition in an open water swim to a pool one. In the former your fingers are typically frozen, meaning minimal dexterity and an inability to perform simple tasks such as doing up zips or laces; in the latter you are supposedly a bit warmer and therefore in theory more able to get changed. Of course in reality it does not quite work that way, as part of the problem is the fact your brain is a bit fuzzy after getting out of the water, which means however carefully you have laid out your kit before the race you still end up doing things like putting your top on the wrong way round, wasting valuable seconds trying to change it back! Other than this minor indiscretion my T1 was fairly uneventful (which is a good thing), and before long I was away…

Bike – 51.41

The bike course was beautiful, riding out of town and onto some nice quiet country roads. Although there was a bit of traffic it was still fairly early for a Sunday morning, and plenty of space for the odd car to overtake, so a good choice of course by the organisers. It was a fairly flat out-and-back course, with just a small hill around the halfway point, so a good chance to blow the dust off the bike tyres and stretch the legs.

Tewkes Bike

It did make me feel a bit better that there were another 50+ people starting after me, so there were at least people coming the other way during most of my return leg, as there are few things more depressing that knowing you are pretty much the last person still on the course (I would know, I have been there!). Also, I literally just found out when checking my time online that the bike leg was 24 km rather than the 20 I thought it was, which does make me feel a bit better about my time, meaning I would have easily been under 90 minutes if I had not been cheated!

T2 – 0.59

As always, very little to say about this part of the race, except I was in an out in under a minute and everything went to plan.

Run – 27.31

After a frankly stunning bike ride around the Gloucester countryside I had high hopes for the run: fields or woodland I wondered to myself as I left transition for the second time. But, much like the Stratford Triathlon I did last year (in fact it was actually on on the same day this year but I decided to do this race instead) this was far more exciting – a tour of the Tewkesbury industrial parks! I kid you not. This was a fairly flat route which took me past a delightful series of office buildings, factories and warehouses (some of the businesses I had actually worked alongside in a former life), which were of course deserted at this time on a Sunday morning. Charming!

tewkes bus park

Perhaps underwhelmed by the scenery the run did not feel great, and without my GPS watch to give me an idea how I was doing I assumed I would be on for well over 30 minutes, so imagine my surprise as I got found myself on the return loop marshal shouted there was only 1 km left, and I realised I had only been running for 22 mins. I could actually do this in under half an hour (yes, that is a big thing for me)! So a final push managed to get me through in the above time which was not far off my PB, a great way to end the race and start the season.

Finish – 1.31.16 (133 our of 196)

For the first race of the season I am very pleased with this. Of course it would have been great to get under the 90 minute mark, but I will take that – especially after I found out about the extended bike leg which probably added close to 10 minutes. Most of the competitors were also part of the local club so knew the course well, which does help with pacing, etc, but in bearing in mind it was effectively a training race this was fine. The finishers loot was also not too shabby, with a medal to add to my collection as well as a nice mug from the triathlon club (a new one for me). All in all, a good early season race, and excellent preparation for Ironman next month!

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

May Round Up: 360 km

In much the same way Partridge would describe The Archers, May was something of a mixed bag for the Chile Challenge.

On one hand I exceeded my target, achieving a football style 101% of the goal; I chalked up my first event of the year in the Stratford-upon-Avon Triathlon; and had a solid mix of activities, including some great trail & beach runs and a fantastic sea swim.

On the other I could have covered a lot more but lost about a week of training with a pulled hamstring after the race, leading to a frustrating and slightly worrying few days as to how long it would last. Thankfully it seems to have passed, and things now seem back to normal and ready for the huge events coming up, but more on them later…

Wine 1Wine 4

Returning to the Chile Challenge, I have now covered just under 2000 kilometers (or 1200 miles), which puts me well into the beautiful wine regions that lie around the waist line of the country. Chile has a fantastic climate for wine, with warm summers, good soil a long coastline and reasonable amount of rain. Apparently… at least that is what I have read. I will be honest I am no wine expert, but having visited the beautiful Santa Rita vineyard south of Santiago and sampled some of the local grape I can only agree that it is excellent, particularly the Carmenere which is unique to the area. My wife also feels the same (as evidenced below!)

Wine 3Wine 2

At this point I am getting close to halfway through the country, and should be hitting the capital in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for more updates in the coming weeks, with a full review of the first half of the year.