No matter how much older I become or how much more experience of racing that I accumulate, the start of a new season seems to always feel like the start of a new school term. That magical cocktail of stomach twisting nerves combined with the excitement of what might be around the corner is a feeling that I never want to lose.
I occasionally wonder to myself how much longer I will want to continue doing all this and the easy answers are to say never or to say that I’ll stop when I begin to decline, but I think that the key trigger for moving on will be if and when I no longer have that start of new term feeling.
During the days leading up to Sunday 6th March that feeling was well and truly building up inside and I processed this as a sign that I was ready to start racing again.
The race at Oulton Park is one that I’ve done for a number years now and so it provides a familiar environment to test myself without any pressure. I chose to do the sprint this year for two reasons. Firstly for fun as the new drafting format is so different and I find the bike leg to be a huge buzz, where you need to keep your wit’s about you and your concentration sharp at all times to ensure that split second decisions are being made about positioning on the road, awareness of others and intensity of effort required to get yourself back into transition as quickly as possible whilst preserving as much energy as possible for the final run. The second reason for choosing the sprint was the time of year with a risk of being cold, I didn’t want to be racing for too long, especially on the bike. At 0830 stood in the car park with snow coming down this felt like an inspired decision!
By 10am when the race was starting the snow had stopped and the sun was out and I began with gloves, arm warmers, calf guards but no hat. This was the correct combination for me and I managed to stay warm without overheating throughout the race. With this race being a World Champs qualifier there was a large and high quality field in all age groups and over 300 honed athletes stood on the start line focused on their own goals.
For me, this meant testing out my levels of fitness, sharpening my race craft and most importantly staying safe. With the snow that had just fallen I agreed with Coach Annie that I was not going to take any silly risks on the bike as this was not an important race in my year and to treat it as a hard training session. I didn’t need to worry about qualification as I’m not aiming at any Sprint Championships this year and my place on the start line for the World standard race is already assured.
The first run went exactly to plan. I set off strongly and then settled into my own rhythm as the field began to sort itself out. No matter how many times I run around the Oulton Park circuit it never gets any easier and the back side of the track is pretty challenging with two punchy hills to deal with. I was encouraged by how quickly I recovered from the second and steeper of the two hills and ran strongly over the last kilometer into the first transition to record my fastest single lap yet, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Good start.
Transition to the bike was smooth and I was out onto the circuit chasing down a small group that had formed up the road and it took about half a lap to get in amongst them and recover from this hard effort. I prefer to be up near the front of the group so that I can mark any attacks that might be made to try and get away and also because I feel a bit safer with fewer wheels in front of me. As a result I probably do more than my fair share of the work, but as this was principally a hard training session for me this didn’t really matter. The five bike laps were soon complete and I was leading a group of about ten riders back into T2.
A little issue getting my left foot into my run shoe delayed me by a few seconds and one of my 55-59 competitors was in and out ahead of me. My legs dealt with the transition into running really well and apart from the shoe that was still not sitting correctly on my left foot all was well. I was confident that this would resolve itself as I got into my running and so did not need to stop to make any further adjustment. However, unconsciously I allowed my focus to switch to this shoe and lost concentration about the important matter which was this other competitor disappearing down the road. By the time I was relaxed in the knowledge that the shoe was now sitting right I realised that my rival was already 200 yards ahead and I just couldn’t catch him. I described after the race how I’d fallen asleep over the first 1500 metres of this 2nd run and during this period I’d been consumed by the shoe and whether it would cause an ankle blister rather than focusing on the run mechanics that help me to maintain form and pace in a fatigued state. (I’d forgotten to take a gel out on the bike to give me a little boost for the 2nd run so was probably more mentally fatigued than I should have been).
My second run split was down by almost a minute on the 1st run which I was instinctively disappointed about but I think I need to get things into perspective. This is very early in the year and the last time I did this race was just two weeks before the world champs last year when I was flying and in peak fitness and then I cracked out two identical run splits. This time I’ve gone even faster on the first run so need to believe that the indications are really bright for yet more performance gains as the season progresses.
The final result was a 3rd place AG finish in a solid time. I finished feeling strong and as always when I’m beaten, gave myself an additional shot of determination to apply myself even more in training, in recovery and in preparation.
As for my race goals, well I’m really happy with where my fitness levels are, I scored 10/10 for staying safe and I learned a few important lessons about race craft.
Lets get back to training for the next four weeks before the next race at Windsor.