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Build Up to Ironman UK

Written July 20th, 2012 by
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Having swum, cycled and run myself through a half Ironman distance triathlon, I can now officially call myself a triathlete!  However, I’m after a bigger title than that.  I want to be able to officially call myself an Ironman.  I’m currently engulfed in a daily countdown until my big Ironman challenge.  There are fourteen days to go.  It is a momentous day set in my diary where all my planning and preparation will end and I will need to bring everything together as well as I can to achieve my goal.  I’m very well prepared for this type of countdown to a big performance having faced multiple World Championship and Olympic events.  However, this time I’m facing the pressure not to produce world class times and win, but the pressure to make sure I get through the event itself.  Never in my career did I contemplate maybe not even finishing a race!

I’m not in any way concerned about my physiological ability to be able to do it.  I’m more than well equipped with an engine that will take me the distance.  However, my engine may have its limitations.  It’s very well adapted and tuned to perform like a race car, but not like a diesel engine which is probably a better requirement for a long endurance event.  I trained for years to perform optimally for six to eight minutes in a rowing boat.  I then trained for several more years to fine tune even more specifically to perform optimally at three to four minutes.  Naturally my strength as an athlete is to operate at a percentage close to my VO2max and I’ve demonstrated I’m one of the best in the world at doing that.  However, to be good at Ironman is about an altogether different type of endurance which I don’t quite have.  This is what I find so fascinating about sport and human performance; just how varied and diverse the physiological requirements of every type of sport are and how individual as human beings our physical performance capabilities and specialities are.

I’m a very competitive person and I want to be fast, but I’m not concerned about being fast right now.   I’m not even concerned about not making it through the 3.8km swim.  I’ve gained loads of experience through both the half Ironman and my swim training since then.  I’m confident I can do it.  But I’ve dealt with that swim demon only to find it has now become the run demon.  My concern right now is the possibility that I might not achieve my goal to become an Ironman because my body lets me down biomechanically during the run.  I knew that having only started running in November, building up to marathon distance was going to be the biggest ask of myself and the discipline I’d be most likely to encounter injury.  I started out being really diligent with my stretching and small niggles management.  But as the training hours ramped up and the runs got longer it got harder to dedicate the same amount of time to pre and post training maintenance.  Yet I seemed to be making big gains in my running with no adverse effects so I was pretty happy and positive that I was managing my training ok.

However, during the half Ironman I noticed for the first time in ages I had an aching lower back whilst I was riding the bike section.  I’ve recently concluded this would have been due to muscle fatigue in my back and shoulders from the swim.  Getting on a bike and riding for hours in an extreme aero position is strain enough so there’s no surprise it grumbles a little doing it straight after a long swim.  Going from a long swim to a long bike with tired muscles means finishing the bike with super tired muscles and not in the freshest of form to be embarking on a long run.  It is at this point that all your biomechanical faults and weaknesses appear, and because of the high impact repetitive pounding of running you will begin to become all too aware of them in a very debilitating way!  I certainly found this during the half Ironman.  During the last few miles of the run I was surprised to have an old hip problem return when it had not been in issue in any of my training runs before the race.  It really did become quite excruciating and had it been during a marathon run I would have been in real trouble.

The half Ironman experience really did show that the event deserves a lot of respect for what you are asking your body to do. You really can’t prepare for what it’s like to actually string all three disciplines together.  Each of the disciplines alone are demanding enough, but dealing with and managing the knock on effect that each discipline has on its subsequent one is what makes triathlon the challenging sport it is.

Having done a time in Mallorca that I was more than happy with was great but knowing I’d have to go double the distance in only eight weeks time worried me.  I was hopeful I’d be able to maximise the last six week block of training to set me up well but disappointingly I can’t report that has been the case.  Having tried to extend my long training runs beyond fifteen miles has been impossible.  It aggravated my hip so I had to lay off the running.    To have spent the last few weeks being in self preservation mode rather than pushing on has been frustrating and to have spent what feels like more hours on the physio couch, massage couch, foam rollering and stretching than I have training is also annoying!

Having injuries, managing setbacks and not progressing how I’d like to is one of the things I’ve certainly had lots of experience in throughout my career, so this is nothing new!  I’ve asked a lot of my body over the years, pushed it to breaking point on many occasions so it’s not in the best of conditions or as robust as it used to be.  I’ve got some biomechanical weakness but during the years of training have ingrained incorrect movement patterns to compensate for them.   Training for shorter duration events I can just about get away with it, but it gets more challenging for longer events.  The big lesson I’ve learnt is that you can never hide from these weaknesses as they always rear their ugly heads at some point!

I’ve managed the last few weeks well and I’m a firm believer that setbacks happen for a reason.  If anything this injury has made me take a few steps back and approach the last phase of my preparation very differently.  It’s been with a lot of compromise and a lot more caution but this could be serving me well for the long term, setting me up to enable me to complete the full distance rather than fall to pieces mid way.  I’ve gained more body awareness from the injury and will prepare my body more specifically in the last few weeks.  It’s also given me more insight into my movement whilst running so I’ve now re-addressed my tactical and technical approach to the run which will hopefully be much better for me.

Whenever I get improvements in my ability I have a habit of increasing my targets.  But I’m making sure that I don’t lose sight of the enormity of the challenge and give it the respect it deserves by implementing a strategy which will see me across the finish line.  This will not be about pushing my physiological limits! I’m coming into the taper phase of my preparation where I can do no more.  The hard work has been done so it’s all about resting up and focusing preparing for the day itself.  I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to write my next column where I can tell you all about the epic day itself!

Note: Through her Ironman efforts Rebecca is trying to raise money for Scope, the official charity partner of Ironman UK.  She has raised just over half of her £2000 target but needs more support. Please visit her Just Giving site and donate if you can. Just £1 will make a difference….it all adds up! Thank you.

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