Sunday, 14 December 2008

Ironman Arizona

The days before the race I sorted out a couple of minor problems with the bike (thanks to a local bike shop and the guys at Isaac UK for the last minute headset help!) and I was good to go. Then with 3 days to go I woke up with a stinking head cold. I blame the flight…9 months without so much as a sniff. Then I ease back on the training and bang I’m full of cold. By race day I wasn’t too bad, plenty of caffeine and adrenaline and I certainly wasn’t thinking about it.

The Race

The sun was just coming up as we were called into the water at 6:45am. The locals were moaning about the water temperature, 19C, but it felt fine to me. I got in, got happy with my goggles and took a gentle swim over to the far side of the start. For those that have never experienced an Ironman swim before, imagine 2,500 human sized animals all thrown into a lake at the same point with only have one way out - 2.5miles the other end of the lake. The first minutes can be hell and truly terrifying, they call it The Washing Machine and it is. All of a sudden 2500 friendly swimmers change from chatting nervously treading water shoulder to shoulder to lying horizontal and thrashing like mad to swim in one direction - there is a lot of overlap. And that means punches to the head, neck, back, shoulders, legs, hips everywhere. Your legs get grabbed, other swimmers take a stroke and their hand lands in the middle of your back, in their eagerness to get themselves safe (a natural reaction) they push down into the middle of your back to propel themselves forward.
I’ve done a lot of work on my swimming and I can generally get ahead of the worst of the washing machine. My plan was to take off hard and try and stay ahead of the main bulk. Talking to many other participants after the race it seems I was one of the few for which this tactic worked. I tore off the front at a stupid pace, got 3 minutes out and did everything I could to relax and get into my rhythm without slowing too much and letting the throng behind me swim over my head! Apart from the startled safety canoeist who didn’t hear the hooter that I had to duck dive under. It was a dream swim.

Miraculously within 5 minutes I found myself on a great line, following the guide buoys into the rising sun and spent most of the first half hour in clear water, with the throng behind or to my right hand-side. The course was a huge ‘U’ shape out and back, I hit the turn in 28 mins (just under half way) and was over the moon as I knew if I kept the same pace on the return leg I should exit very close to my one hour target.

The swim back was uneventful, I spent a lot of time trying to keep my breathing regular and maintaining the effort levels. I struggle to maintain pace within the swim leg more than any other time in the race as you get no feedback on pace. No mile markers or bike computer to help.

I got heaved out of the water by a couple of the 4000 Ironman Arizona volunteers at just over 1 hour and crossed the timing chip for a swim of 1:00:31 and 229th overall. I had no idea of the swim position at the time, but judging by the crowds around I knew there were plenty ahead. As the swim is my weakest discipline I was always going to have plenty of work to do.

A quick jog through the park to get my bag of bike clothes, a few minutes in the changing tent and I was out onto the bike course, incredibly I'd moved up to 198th - people really are slow in transition.

The bike has historically been my strongest discipline but the tactic for Arizona was slightly different from normal, rather than using the bike to get back up towards the head of the pack I was to keep it as steady as possible. The target time of 5:15 should have been attainable without taking too much out of my legs, allowing me to hit transition 2 and the marathon fresh enough to run a fast(ish) marathon.

The bike leg at Arizona really suited me, it was 3 out and back lap into the desert, on dual carriageway style roads with only a slight hill in the last 3 miles up to the turn around. I hired an SRM for a few months up to the race and had exclusively ridden my low profile time trial bike so I was conditioned to be comfortable in a low aero position for the duration. It turned out on race day there was quite a head wind going out to the turnaround, making the first half of each lap, up the hill, a lot slower. I used the SRM and heart rate to moderate my effort and took it steady for the whole ride. I went through a lot of riders, but quite a few went through me, noticeably a large pack of riders in a group. I had a good scream at them for cheating – the bike is meant to be non-drafting – so each rider must maintain several meters between them and any other rider. Thankfully several of the cheaters got drafting penalties, including one guy who got a 4min penalty whilst sitting on my wheel.

With the wind behind us on the way back to transition I knew as soon as I got to the 3rd turnaround it was going to be a cruise, so mentally it felt like a 90mile bike leg with a 20 mile cruise, which was fantastic. I stuck to my eating strategy, taking on a gel or bar every 30mins and drinking like it was going out of fashion.

Avoiding the temptation to push the last half of the final lap I rolled into transition 2 with a 5:11 bike split (21.6mph average and 189th overall on the bike). Applauding the crowd and getting a shout from Lynz and Anna boosted me as I quickly changed my socks and got out onto the run.

Leaving transition 2 in 6:18 and 146th position overall and 18th in category. I saw Lynz and Anna again and they let me know I was 18th in my age group, with only the top 7 placers guaranteed a slot at the Hawaii Champs I had my work cut out on the marathon.

After a few hundred meters sorting my number belt and gels out, I took a gel and got down to the business of running 26 miles. The agreed target was to run a 3:30 marathon, so 8min miling, but I’ve been running well through the lead up and thought I might get closer to 3:15 (7:30min miles). After an overly excited 6:10 first mile I settled into averaging around 7:30’s. The run was three laps of 8.7 miles and I couldn't believe how good I felt, I went through the half marathon with a huge smile on my face in 1:39. At this point I still thought I had taken things easy enough to run a negative split in the second half of the marathon and finish in the low 9:30’s.

I’d been running cat and mouse with another guy for most of the run, overtaking him in the aid stations and then he’d catch me in the next mile. We got chatting which helped a few more miles pass, but by 20miles we had separated and I had slowed to 8 min miles - the smile was fading! I struggled for 3 or 4 miles, with the 23rd mile being my slowest, slipping over 9 mins. With 2 miles to go the crowds thickened, the smile returned and I picked things up, taking a few more athletes on the way. I had no idea how many from my age-group I’d overtaken, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t done enough. In the end the 2nd half marathon was 1:51 giving a full marathon of 3:30 and a finish time of 9:48:56, 96th overall and 12th in my age group.

Just 3 mins outside my target time, every part of the race went perfectly to plan: I have nothing to complain about. Phoenix was a wonderful location and we had a brilliant holiday afterwards.

I was 14 mins behind 7th place in my age group and qualifying, at the half way point of the marathon I still felt a 9:30 was possible, but on the day it didn't happen. On reflection perhaps I took the bike too easy. I certainly could have ridden under 5hrs, but how much would that have hindered my run? Maybe the head cold was worth a few mins too?

I learnt a whole lot from the race and getting a sub 10 in the bag has given me the confidence to actually race this distance - rather than survive. I’ve got a place at Ironman Switzerland in July so I can have another crack at qualifying there.

I want to take a moment to thank the loved ones, friends and colleagues who have offered me so much support and tolerance in the last few months/year(s)!

Special mention to my coach Dave Parry and the guys at Essex Uni Human Performance Unit- just 4 years of steady training and we're seeing some results. Ed for being at the end of the phone to hear my constant moaning about everything, especially training in the damned UK weather. George and Helen for making me swim faster, David for motivating me to train, mainly by guilt! Clare for some horrid massages and a dis-proportionate amount of dinner cooking! North Road and Darren for making me ride faster, GCR for making me run faster and my work for understanding my mood swings, tiredness and occasional poor performance!!…but mainly I must thank my fantastic girlfriend Lyndsey and my family for trying to understand something that is incomprehensible and not seeing them as much as I'd like...

See you in 2009!

1 comment:

smorgasbord-design said...

Wonderful to read this summary finally. Genuinely inspiring as ever L. I wish I had the same willpower and dedication.