Lessons Learnt – ‘Get a Coach’

Race Report – Ironman Wales, September 13th, 2015

Training had gone very well and bar a few minor injuries  – falling down a manhole, coming off my bike and slicing through my finger the night before the race – all was good. I had lost a lot of weight after becoming a WholeHealth convert and had a good training plan and race strategy thanks to Coach Julie. This was to be my second long distance race and although I was better prepared, I was worried. There is a lot of hype surrounding IM Wales – a tough swim, a very tough bike and a hard run. I had made the mistake of over researching and the horror stories were playing on my mind.

IM Wales is based in Tenby. It’s a fantastic location and the setup for the competing triathletes is great. The expo and Transiton are close together and the registration process and racking is nice and simple. I went and registered on arriving and made sure that I familiarised myself with the layout. It’s as much about logistics as it is about swim, bike, run….

Off to the Caravan Park to get settled in and to get out on the bike. Its hard not to be selfish when doing one of these events – you are so focused on yourself that its easy to ignore friends and family. Luckily, they have been through this before so they understand! The bike ride was an easy spin. I stayed out for about an hour and a half and decided to ride some of the course and then pootle round Tenby to see North Beach where the swim takes place. In 2014 the swim was horrendous – many people were pulled out as the sea was so rough. It was due to a change in wind direction that meant the normally calm bay was turned into a washing machine with six foot swell and crashing waves……. You can imagine my joy as I saw it was nice and rough once again!

Following a great nights sleep, I was up early in the morning to go for a coached swim session with the TriHarder team. I had been getting up very early for the last couple of weeks to acclimatise myself for race day where my plan was to be up at 04:00 so that I could eat. I struggle to eat first thing and knew that getting a good breakfast inside me was important. I had overnight oats which is easy to get down and a coffee and off I went. My Dad dropped me off at North Beach and off I trotted to get ready for the swim. My strategy for coping with the cold water is to dive straight in but on this occasion I followed the coaches advice and walked in, splashed water on my face and got some inside my wetsuit. I also followed the instruction regarding wetsuit fitting. Both things were to really help on race day. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the coached session got me round on the day. I am a steady but strong swimmer and the extra confidence that the coached session gave me was superb – swimming in the sea is different to a lake and there were some great tips about sighting and how to swim with the waves.

Back home for some more food, a shower, warm clothes and then down to rack and then off for a drive round the bike course.  Racking was a very easy process as transition is in one place, unlike Bolton where it is split. This made life a lot easier and I was done in about 15 mins.

Now it was time to drive the bike course – I always do a recce as its good to see what you are going to face on race day. My mate Ferg – training partner and would be competitor (he had to pull out due to injury four weeks before) – was with me in the car and as we were driving round the course we were wondering where the famous ‘difficult’ hills were. We eventually found them and were surprised to see that actually they were not as steep or as long as the hills we had trained on. The difficulty would not be in getting up the hills – I had a gear setup that was spot on. The problem was that the descents are very technical and as this is where I usually make up a lot of time, I was memorising the twists and turns in the roads so that on race day I could maximise my downhill speed. The conclusion that we both came to was yes, it was a hard course but its was nowhere near as difficult as we had both imagined it to be. You couldn’t say the same about the run course – we drove part of that on the way back and I knew that was going to be a long hard slog!!!!

Another great nights sleep – in bed at 21:00 and up at 04:00 – and overnight oats and coffee again and it was race day. Surprisingly calm and feeling quite good about things, I went over my race strategy again and made sure that I knew what I was going to do. Steady first lap of the swim, with a harder second lap, making sure I exited the water feeling fresh. 1:25 to 1:30 was my target. Run to T1 and a perfect transition with a full change. On the bike no later than 1:50 (there is a 1K run to T1 at Wales). Bike strategy was to bake as much speed in as possible without blowing my HR target on the first 40miles (its rolling and suited me )and to eat a gel every 20 mins and a piece of flapjack every hour. One bottle per hour, alternating between sports drink and water, Cheese sandwhich at special needs (67 miles) and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps on the second loop… I needed a treat! The plan on the hills was to spin up and to let my HR go up to a max that I had set at 158. This was all about saving my legs for the run walk where my strategy was to run the flats and downhills and powerwalk up the hills, keeping my HR within the max that I had set. Nutrition on the run was simple – water and flat coke at every feed station and one gel per loop.

Learning point number one: Take a head torch to transition on race day. It makes things easier!

All set up and dressed in rubber, I walked down to the start and found my rolling start slot – 1:25 to 1:35. Really quite calm and looking forward to the day ahead. The hooter went and we started to move forwards and into the water. The rolling start was superb and following the tips from the day before, I walked into the water, got to about waist height, dived in and started swimming. It was choppy on the first leg and I started to suffer the usual spike in HR which normally leads to a panic attack. However, this time, it didn’t. I have worked hard to identify why I have panic attacks and have trained to work through them. Its all about my heart rate spiking followed by an adrenaline rush which then leads to fear which makes me stop. In training, I have been simulating these race starts and have a strategy which enables me to calm everything down and relax.. its called smiling.. it may sound daft but I think happy thoughts. I can feel the adrenaline (or panic juice!) drain from my body, from my head all the way down to and out the tips of my toes… once this happens all is good. It took a bit longer to work this time but I stayed steady and kept swimming. Once I was round the first buoy, I felt great and got into a rhythm. I will put on record that it was the most fun I have ever had in a wetsuit – it was absurd, like a fairground ride, but incredibly enjoyable! Out the swim in 1:28 and ran to T1. Out on the bike in 16 mins – job done.

The wind was behind me on the bike for the trip out to Angle which meant I could get some great speed baked in. I was averaging about 30kph and my HR was inside my max target. I was eating dn drinking and in the aero bars for long periods. Being a good bike handler, I nailed the downhills. The dreaded rain had held off so the roads were just damp but drying out. The sacrifice I had made in gear setup cost me additional speed in this section but I knew the payback for this would be in the second and third hilly loops. On the return from Angle, we had a headwind but due to having clip on tri bars, I was able to get aero again and this made things easier. I completed the first out and back loop with a 29kph average and the entered the hilly section. I went with the strategy of spin the hills and power the descents and it worked a treat. Having driven the course I knew where I could go for it and where I needed to hold it back. Apart from shipping my chain a couple of times (don’t change into the granny at the front if you are in the big ring at the back) it was a great bike ride…. I executed it exactly as planned and was very surprised to come in about 30 mins faster than I expected in 7:09. My avg HR was lower than my target so actually I could have gone harder… maybe 15 – 20 mins? T2 was a bit of a disaster.. I took way too long…. This was down to a combination of things – firstly I couldn’t find my bag. I had forgotten that I didn’t have a labelled peg unlike the bike bag rack so spent ages looking for it. There was no room in the private changing area (nudity is a DQ) so I took my time.

Learning point number two: Don’t do a full change from bike to run – get a LD trisuit or clothing that you can bike and run in. Less hassle!!!

And now it was run time… my least favourite bit.. or so I thought (in all honesty I enjoy my running more than the other two events – just don’t tell anyone!) I had my plan and for the first two laps it worked a treat. I enjoyed every second of it… smiling throughout.. walking through each feed station, I was on for a great time. Then I made my biggest mistake of the day which cost me dearly. I was on the start of my third lap and turning right at the finish turn (instead of turning left!!) I followed a slower runner. I went to overtake him and jumped off the pavement on to the road. This tweaked my hamstring.. I have a history of hamstring problems so slowed immediately and assessed the pain.. it wasn’t sharp but I could feel it pulling.. so I started  walking. It was heartbreaking because I was on for a really good time. I power walked and trotted the third loop and half the last loop getting to the turnround point at the top of the hill. At this point I knew I was going to finish so I decided to run. Two nurofen just after the pavement episode seemed to have numbed things so I went and ran it in all the way in. I knew the time and wanted a PB so, on the basis that even if I broke things I would still finish I had my fastest 5K!  I finished in 14:37 which was an IM PB by 21 minutes. It was way above my expectatons as I had read and believed all the hype about Wales which probably meant that I had trained harder and as a result had a better day than I thought I was going to have!

Lessons learnt

  1.     1.  Prior planning and preparation are crucial. You have to think of everything and plan plan plan. I should have ridden the course beforehand and recce’d the run course in person. Elevation profiles and maps don’t mean a thing. I didnt run up or down enough hills, especially down….
  2.    2.   Stay safe in the days before – don’t put yourself in any dangerous situations. Be ultra careful. I came close to throwing it away three times.
  3.    3.  Get your bike setup spot on – gearing, position etc. I did and it worked a treat
  4.    4.   Don’t underestimate your ability… I did and it cost me time and a sub 14 hr Ironman. I was capable of it on the day and should have delivered!!!
  5.     5.  Training isn’t everything – you need to eat properly. Losing weight  has helped me a lot and I will continue to lose it
  6.     6.  Get a coach – its all about accountability and working things through. Race plan? What Race plan? I would have had a nightmare were it not for being told to get a race plan together

There we go.. roll on next year

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