Ironman 70.3 Part 1 – Race Morning

Written June 26th, 2012 by
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Last Minute Race Preparation

Not since my days as an international rower have I had to set my alarm for the ‘dawn of time’ on race day.  Fortunately my body and brain remembered what this felt like and responded as it did in the old days, zinging into action and bestowing me with an energy and positivity that is lacking on most normal mornings!

It was 5am and everything outside was enveloped in blackness.  The hotel had put on an early breakfast for the handful of Ironman competitors staying there.  Whilst everyone else in the hotel was still sleeping, we crept to the restaurant to take on our last crucial means of sustenance that would fuel us for our efforts ahead.  I was extremely grateful in particular for a much needed caffeine boost.  But coffee was not the only stimulant provided to me at this breakfast opportunity.  As I sat sipping my coffee and munching a piece of toast, I looked around taking in a familiar sight and felt a familiar buzz.

As the sky began to fill with a faint pink light from the morning sunrise, there in that restaurant were a bunch of individuals with a common purpose.  We all wore the same pre-race preparation clothing, all ate the same bland and simple pre-race breakfast, all carried sports bags filled with the same items, all boarded a bus to take us to the race venue, all sipped regularly from water-bottles clasped tightly in our hands, all went through the same order of pre-race checks, preparations and warm-ups and all lined up on the start line to go through the same physical challenge.  We were all strangers separated by nationality, ability and experience.  But on this one morning we were united by a common past-time, a common goal, melded together by pre-race rituals, nervous tension, excitement and anticipation. We were all the same.  It was this familiar experience that got me excited.  It was race day!  The race switch had been turned on and my body and mind began to gear up for what I love doing – racing!

Build Up To First Triathlon Race

Written May 9th, 2012 by
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I’ve been in a very fortunate position this past week. As the rain and wind lashes down on the UK, I’ve been abroad basking in the glorious sunshine in Mallorca. I came to do a good week of training and also to compete in my first triathlon event, a 70.3 Ironman, which takes place in a few days time. The 70.3 Ironman is half the distance of a full Ironman event. Right now it’s perfect timing for my build up to the UK Ironman event on July 22nd to put myself through the half distance. I will be able to gauge how my training has been progressing and more importantly I will be able to experience what it will be like to be in a triathlon race environment.

Since retiring from being a full-time athlete, one of the things which is new to me is learning to train effectively with a radically reduced number of training hours per week. It’s challenging having to integrate training in and around a busy life, work commitments and studying for an MSc. The hours of training required for an Ironman are brutally demanding and I really admire people who take on training for the Ironman around fulltime jobs and families and manage to do it!

It becomes quite frustrating not to be able to put every bit of effort and focus into a training goal like I used to. But then the restrictions I have also serve to spice things up a bit! I have to be more efficient and smarter in the way I implement my training plan. That makes it a lot more interesting. I’m also enjoying having a more balanced life, where I have other things going on. This prevents training from becoming all-consuming. However, to put work, study and other commitments aside for a week and be able to focus more on training has been brilliant. I cannot express how delighted and happy I am to be feeling the warmth of the sun on me for the first time in ages. The difference it makes to my ability to train effectively and enjoy it is indescribable. I am a solar powered machine and am truly in my element when the temperature soars!

In my first 10 week block of this Ironman challenge, I really focused hard on the swimming and running disciplines as these were completely new sports for me. But when I recently turned my attention back to bike sessions, I found I’d slipped back a lot on my cycling performance which was frustration. I’ve come to realise this is one of the constant battles that triathletes have. It’s really important to get a good balance of training between all three disciplines, but it’s impossible to give all three as much focus as might be needed or wanted. Strengths and weaknesses will vary between the three and time and recovery constraints will always be the limiting factors. It’s pretty much accepted here will always be one discipline which you have to play catch up with.

Before coming out to Mallorca I assessed my progress and concluded that I’d reached a level which puts me on target for my swimming and running. So my focus has been to get some cycling miles in and build my strength back up on the bike. The terrain, the weather and having more training hours available to me out on training camp means I’ve been able to make some good progress and I’m confident I’m getting nearer to restoring some of my old cycling ability to my legs.

I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the half Ironman, but if I’m honest, I’m a little apprehensive and nervous. The event is a 1.9km open water sea swim, a 90km bike taking in a 14km and 1980ft climb and then a half marathon run. I can cycle that distance no problem but I finish tired when doing it at a good race tempo, I’ve run a half marathon distance in training three times now and I’ve even swum that distance in the pool, albeit only once. But I’ve never strung all three disciplines together. Therefore I’ve no idea how my run section will fair up after a bike section at race pace and I’ve no idea how the bike section will fair up after the swim.

In fact I’m actually quite worried about the swim. It really is a long way! I wrote about my lack of swimming ability in my previous blog and documented how I pretty much started swim training from scratch, only being able to swim two lengths front crawl and being in a terrible state at the end of it. I’ve progressed well in the pool, and apart from a quick baptism in the freezing waters of Dorney Lake for a filming session for my sponsor SiS, I’ve only just been properly introduced to open water swimming out here in Mallorca over the past week. It’s been too cold to swim open water at home and my strength and endurance has only just reached a standard allowing me to tackle longer open water sessions.

Pulling on my wetsuit for my first decent open water swim session was exciting but I wasn’t prepared for the shock of what sea swimming was going to throw at me. The initial rush of cold water seeping inside my wetsuit and over my face took my breath away and panic began to set in as I was unable to settle into a rhythm and make distance through the water. There was the inconsistent chop of the wind and the waves disrupting any flow and relaxation and the unpleasant sensation of the salt water that was swilling in my nose, mouth and throat was a big distraction. The biggest problem for me is not having that option every 25m of grabbing the side of the pool if needed to catch my breath or the lane ropes to guide me effectively in a straight line! I’m fearful of the mass start too. The mayhem of 1500 people dashing into the water is something I will have to prepare myself for, especially because I find the first 10-15mins of swimming hard until my body settles into it.

So my first target for the half Ironman is to get through the swim successfully! Assuming I do, my overall target is to string all three disciplines together at my full Ironman target race pace and practice pacing and nutrition strategies for the longer distance race I have coming up in July. Above all this 70.3 Ironman event will hopefully give me a bit of race experience and something I can learn from. If I deal with it ok then that will give me confidence, but if I don’t, I’ll then be able to focus my training a bit more specifically over the remaining 10 weeks to make improvements in time for the Ironman in July. Overall I’m just really eager to experience in full this new sport of triathlon that I’ve taken up and as always I’m excited at the opportunity to pin a race number on my back and unleash my competitive beast!

Swimming

Written March 27th, 2012 by
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Anyone who had seen me do my very first swim session at the end of December would have taken a sharp intake of breath at the shock of being told I’m going to swim 2.4 miles comfortably by July.  I know I definitely was.  Here follows the scenario for my first dip in the pool….

By the time I got to the wall after the first length my breathing was sharp and laboured.  At the wall I clung on for a second or two gasping deeply before pushing off to complete the second length.  Half way through the second length I gave up turning my head to try and breathe.  It was pointless.  I just powered as hard as I could to get to the wall before I passed out.  That wall by the way was twice as far away on the second length as it had been for the first.  My fingers grasped the edge of the pool, my feet finally found their footing to render me up right in a more familiar and comfortable position, and I spent a whole minute or so hyperventilating.

Hyperventilation and high pitched squealing noises whilst trying to suck in litres of air to recover from oxygen debt are no strangers to me.  Those who have trained with me or been around me whilst I’m training don’t bat an eyelid at the torturous noises I frequently make.  This is quite normal and common place for me and I can sustain it for quite a while without actually dying.  However, this usually only occurs whilst I’m sustaining all-out maximal intensity sessions and should not happen within the first 50m of a swim warm up.

Once I’d recovered I pushed off the wall to try again.  This time I slipped gracefully through the water powerful and fast, turned quickly at the wall and demonstrated a huge turn of pace to race back to the start again. Without needing a second to regain my breath I quickly concluded and announced that I was going to swim the whole of the Ironman swim course breast-stroke!  I can swim breast-stroke no problem and I’m actually not too bad at it, but freestyle, forget it.  Unfortunately though, I’ve had to face facts.  We all know that freestyle should be the faster and more efficient stoke. So freestyle for 2.4miles it must be……somehow!

Despite my first horrendous swim experience I forced myself to battle on with the front-crawl stroke.  To start off with I would battle with the temptation to switch into breast-stroke half way through a length in order to get to the end of the pool without drowning.  Persistence paid off and gradually the idea of doing the Ironman course breast-stroke subsided in favour of possibly just doing half and half!

My saviour at this point became the pull-buoy.  I found that I could use it to aid my buoyancy and body position and enable me to isolate my arms to work on getting a better grip and propulsion on the water.  This meant I could get some relaxed rhythm and timing and also generate some speed through the water.  It helped to lessen the effort I was putting in and along with better timing of my stroke and a more streamlined body position I found I could actually breathe better between strokes too.  I remained training like this for a while to build up the technique of my arms, the technique of my breathing and to build up some strength and endurance in my upper body.

The time came when I knew I needed to remove the pull-buoy in order to progress.  It had rapidly become my crutch and wasn’t easy to let go.  The first time I swam without it I completed four good lengths freestyle.  This was nothing to rave about but was a breakthrough at least.  I gradually shifted the balance of pull-buoy lengths to non pull-buoy lengths until one day I ditched it completely.  From that point on I’ve felt confident to call myself a competent freestyle swimmer and it’s great reward for being persistent and taking my time to break the big goal down into manageable, achievable chunks no matter how frustrating and worried about lack of time that I’ve felt .

It’s so tempting to want to just bash up and down the pool and do length after length to get used to it.  Especially because the distance is so huge to cover during the Ironman and I’ve a short amount of time to train for it.  It’s tough not to panic about still being so far from being able to swim close to 4km continuously and feel like I should be able to do at least 2-3k solid continuous swimming by now.  But I know enough to know that building good foundations whilst learning, particularly in a very technical sport like swimming, is really important and will serve to make much better improvements further down the line.  One of the things that I’ve been really strict about doing is lots and lots of drills and technique practice.  It can be arduous but it’s the only way to break down the complex cycle of the freestyle stroke to work on its smaller specific components.  Every session I will do at least 20mins of drills and it really helps to set me up and make my stroke much better for the main set of work.  I really enjoy this bit of swimming, working on analysing and breaking down the technical requirements of the stroke.  It’s much like the rowing stroke with the feel, the timing and the finesse required to be efficient and move through the water fast.

I feel much more comfortable and at ease in the water now and I’m making some positive improvements week in week out.  To give an indication of where I was when I started out in my first few weeks of swimming, my absolute flat out 100m was 2:05min. I then progressed to being able to do sets of 5 x 100m with 30 seconds rest at 1:50-1:55 pace.  Since doing a few weeks of longer endurance focused swims I’m now in a position where I can swim comfortably for 1000m blocks at 1:50-1:55 pace.  I’m now hoping to work on bringing the pace of my shorter intervals down some more and then increase the repetitions of the steady pace longer blocks, gradually lengthening them out to 2k, 3k and 4k continuously in time for mid July.  But before that I’ll be introduced to some open water swim training.   I can’t wait to get my new wetsuit and give it a go – I’m sure that’s going to be a whole new swim experience all over again!

Running Post-Christmas

Written February 14th, 2012 by
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So it took approximately 8 weeks to progress from only being able to do 10mins running to being able to do 40mins running.  On July 22nd I’m going to have to be ready to run a marathon which starting on December 26th gives me 30 weeks training.   If progress were to continue to be as slow as my post-Christmas running it would be a tall order, although not impossible.  For me to be ready to run a marathon after a not very leisurely 2.4mile swim and 112 mile bike…. well I’d prefer not to think about that right now!

Having just finished training week 7, I’m pleased to report that progress has been much quicker than I’d hoped and I’m sure that the sensible slow build up pre-Christmas has served me well.  My Christmas present Garmin watch has been invaluable for monitoring what I’ve been doing and also for pacing during my sessions.  Looking back to week 1 when I first used it, I monitored what I was doing for a few 30 min runs – 3.5miles/8:40pace.  That wasn’t too bad as a starting point, but the real aim was to increase the distance so I dropped the pace and tried not to let my hr go to high.  I gradually pushed it out to 5miles, then 6miles so that by the end of week 3 I’d managed the big 8miles.  It was tough and each time I tried to squeeze that extra bit of distance I’d feel the pain.  But I made sure I didn’t do anything silly because making sure I create that good running base over the next few months is the most important thing.  Forcing too much distance or pace at this point is not clever I really don’t want to be carrying any injuries from such an early point.

So the big question I keep getting asked is ‘what pace are you doing?’ Whilst building up to 8miles the pace would keep coming in at 9:10 every time – I’m pretty consistent at least!  Going into week 4 I had a bit of a recovery week and did two shorter runs but this time sticking a bit of pace on it. I went and did a circuit that I’d started on in November that had taken me about 25mins to hobble round in with lots of pain.  Bang!…5mins knocked off that I did 2.6miles in 20min/7:45pace.  The next one was a 6mile loop in 51min/8:35pace which was a big improvement from where I’d been a couple of weeks previously.

Weeks 5, 6 and 7 have been interspersed with keeping pace anywhere between 8:30-8:45min miles for 5-6mile runs and keeping the longer runs at a slower steady pace between 9-9:15min.  The next break through run has come just at the end of week 7 where I managed 10miles quite comfortably at 9:15pace for just over 1hr30.  It’s such a great feeling to be able to do something that really did feel impossible not that long ago.

One of the things I have to be strict about is keeping my training steady and forcing myself to run slower with a lower hr than I’m used to doing.  You always have to keep the long term goal in mind and that is to run 26miles after the swim and the bike.  I’ll never get to that 26miles if I don’t run controlled and within myself.

As for targets, well it’s still quite unknown.  I’ve no idea how much and how quickly I can progress?  9-9:15 pace feels quite good at the moment and I will try to keep that up and extend the distance.  Over time as I get fitter and better I might find a bit more pace on the shorter runs then maybe find I can knock a bit of pace off the longer runs.  But realistically, the pace to finish the marathon at the end of the Ironman can’t be much more than I’m currently doing.  It would be good to know the experiences of other people in their running training, what kind of progress experiences they’ve had etc.  Another area I’d like to look at is body weight and how much difference that can make to running speed.  I know how much 1kg less on a bike can make to speed and power output, but not sure how to quantify it within running.  If I were to get serious I think I could get lighter by 6-7kg and that will surely have a big impact on my running speed!

For now though, despite the cold, I’m having a great time and loving the running.  I’ll post another blog soon and tell you all about my swimming….!!!!!

Running Pre-Christmas

Written February 14th, 2012 by
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Fundamentally I’m pretty lazy and after I stopped cycling in September I didn’t do much exercise for a while. Come the end of October I decided that I really shouldn’t let things slip too much so set myself up in the garage doing a fitness dvd workout called ‘Insanity’. Insanity is pretty much what it says – Insane! I’ve never struggled so much with all the jumping, plyometrics and full body work-out torture it puts you through. Around that time I also decided I wanted to start trying to run. Running is a great way to keep fit, doesn’t cost anything, is time efficient and can be done anywhere – perfect for a busy lifestyle. So that was my plan for the future, to throw in a mix of regular Insanity workouts and runs, and that would keep me ticking over and able to consume the odd bar of chocolate (actually, make that regularly consume big bars of chocolate!) without any guilt.

In my lifetime I’ve done hardly any running. When I was at senior school I was the one who was made to run the 1500m at sports day (the longest track event) because I was the ‘sporty one’. But to me it was ghastly and like running the Marathon. Because it was such a ridiculously long way and took all afternoon, I placed a water bottle at the start line so I could drink after each lap – laughable I know! When on the rowing team we would at random be made to go running. I was the worst in the team, it would be agony and my heart rate would be at maximum just shuffling along very slowly. A few years ago I attempted a bout of running training in order to get the benefits of some cross training. But my efforts were futile because I could only get as far as 30mins maximum and that was with the last 10mins being an agonising hobble because my knees or hips would be giving way.

So at the beginning of November I decided I was going to have one last attempt to beat my running phobia and try and become a better runner. This time though I was going to do it properly. None of this thinking I was a fit athlete and should be able to churn out a 30 min threshold run just like that. I was going to take it incredibly slowly and build up steadily so I began with a very easy 10mins. At 10mins my knees were feeling it and when I stepped it up to 15min I had to stop and walk the last few minutes home. A few days later I tried again, I managed 15mins and only got pain just at the end. A few sessions keeping it at 15mins and it started to get easier so I pushed it out to 20mins. When 20mins was ok I’d look to extend it in small increments, always finding that I would go through the same scenario of stopping with pain, walking the rest, recovering for a few days and trying again. It was a slow but controlled, sensible build up of running to get my body accustomed to it and with a diligent stretching routine I gradually made progress and could focus on increasing the speed I was doing these short runs at. It was just before Christmas that I hit the 40min marker. This was a massive break through for me – I’d never run continuously for that long ever!

Around this time the thought of doing an Ironman as one last sporting challenge had been floating around. I guess having run 40mins and enjoyed it (something I hadn’t ever thought possible six weeks previously) gave me the positivity and motivation to believe that anything could be possible! Just before Christmas I signed up to do the Ironman and firmly laid it down as a goal to achieve. My Ironman training officially started on December 26th and with my new Garmin running watch I started my run training with the aim of turning that 40min achievement into a 26mile marathon achievement.

Ironman Challenge

Written January 18th, 2012 by
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Yes it’s true; I have signed myself up to do an Ironman triathlon event!  Stupid, insane or naive I may well be, but it’s been the herculean efforts of several Ironman competitors I know which have opened my eyes to the event and given me inspiration to give it a go myself.  A triathlon of any distance, let alone an Ironman is something I’d always dismissed as being totally off my radar.  Doing one sport is bad enough, who would want to combine three?  But the lure of taking on a challenge that will force me confront my uselessness is something I have a habit of doing.  I love getting stuck into new and different sports, figuring out how to get better and training to get better.  If it’s something I’m no good at or averse to doing (like running….arghhh!) then I’m strangely even more drawn to it.

But why the Ironman?  Well, for starters it’s the most iconic endurance event there is and I don’t just want to do a triathlon, I want to be part of a great epic event.  Also, aside from the Professionals and the Age Group Qualifiers, the Ironman is not so much a race, but a personal challenge, and that’s exactly how I see it – a personal challenge.  Many people of all ages are clearly able to complete an Ironman, but I seriously question if I’d be able to do it.  I’ve barely done any swimming since I was about eight years old, I couldn’t possibly complete 3.8km of swimming within the 2hr cut off point.  If I did I’d be so exhausted that the two following disciplines, a 180km cycle and a marathon run, would be inconceivable. Even breaking down the disciplines and doing them as individual events would be close to impossible challenges in their own right for me.  Stringing them together, well that’s definitely impossible.  At least, it is right now.  But that’s why I’ve signed up to do it!

I don’t like giving in to my initial sensible response that says I couldn’t do it.  In the back of my head a little voice says “but is it impossible, could I actually do it?” and I’ve always followed through with my thinking that if you don’t give it a go you will never know.  Of cause I couldn’t do it right now, but that’s what training is about and I intend to give it a good old go.

So just before Christmas I put my entry in for Ironman UK in Bolton which will take place on Sunday 22nd July.  Having no experience of open water swimming, mass swim starts, triathlon transitions and other factors such as pacing and fuelling for an ultra-distance triathlon event, I have also entered Ironman 70.3 (a half Ironman event) in Mallorca on Saturday 12th May for some experience and practice.

My official training plan for the Ironman started on December 26th giving me exactly 30 weeks until the big day.  I should be competent and strong in the cycling discipline, although a distance of 180km on a time trial bike will certainly be pushing my limits, but I’m not starting in a very strong position when it comes to the swimming and running and I’ve got a lot of work to do there.  My initial target is completion – to get to the start line and cross the finish line within the 17hr cut off point.  As I settle into training and make progress I’ll be more able to gauge my capabilities and maybe set myself a finishing target time.

I’m aiming to be blogging regularly on my training and Ironman challenge experiences.  Check back to hear more and follow me throughout this challenge.  I’m actually quite excited about it!

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