Picking Up The Gauntlet

Over a few drinks last Christmas the gauntlet was thrown down by my eldest son Jake and his girlfriend Becky. They wanted to join me in a team triathlon and so fittingly, we entered a race called “The Gauntlet”, a Middle Distance triathlon that formed part of the Castle Series. Cholmondeley Castle is only around the corner from where we are living in Cheshire and so it was the ideal venue for us to put together our scratch team.

Becky was to be our nominated swimmer, Jake our cyclist and I became the runner. Jake had done a few triathlons in the past, but nothing since 2013 when he decided to focus exclusively on cycling, and boy what a cyclist he is becoming.

Becky swam as a young girl but had not trained for a number of years and so this event was designed to be a huge goal for her to aim at. She clearly trained well as her performance on the day was outstanding, easily beating her target time for the swim.

June 26th soon came around for the team. Race day was a beautiful clear, calm morning. The contrast between the weather and emotional state of our swimmer was pretty evident and as Becky sat in the holding pen listening to the race briefing I could see the nerves and tension building on her face. Having never experienced anything like this before to have to listen to the full briefing for a Half Iron distance race must have been pretty terrifying. Thankfully I got the chance to reassure her before she headed off into the lake that she was ready and had nothing to worry about. “Let the fast guys go, position yourself out wide to minimize the start chaos and most all relax and enjoy”.

I’m delighted to report that at least someone listens to my wise words!

After 950 meters the swimmers emerged from the lake, ran back around to the start pontoon and began another lap. Becky came out smiling and celebrating as she heard that she had done the 1st lap in under 19mins. She was swimming really well and clearly enjoying herself. Knowing this, Jake visibly relaxed and headed off to transition to get himself ready for the bike leg.

2016-06-27 13.59.34The leading swimmer entered transition after only 25 mins and the leading lady was just 4 mins behind in 4th place overall. Becky continued to swim brilliantly and soon emerged from the lake and ran up the grassy slope to transition to hand over to Jake in just 38:59. We were the leading relay team and in 44th place overall. Becky’s joy at this news was great to see and we just had to take the opportunity to get her onto the podium at that moment!

2016-06-27 13.59.30Jake disappeared off into the Cheshire countryside settling into his textbook aero position on his Canyon Speedmax flying machine. He makes cycling look effortless, but he even shocked us by reappearing after lap one in 5th place. He had overtaken 39 competitors in 32km and had now got his sights set on the top 4 guys, all of whom were very tasty triathletes. At the end of lap two he was upto 4th and by the end of lap 3 he was only seconds down on Phil Murphy in 3rd place. Jake completed the bike leg in 2:25:03, an amazing 7 minutes faster than anyone else. Admittedly he didn’t have to save himself for the small matter of running a half marathon but it still represented a pretty impressive performance. So says a very proud Dad!

Jake GauntletAs he came past at the end of each bike lap, I found myself becoming more and more nervous. Both he and Becky were performing brilliantly and I didn’t want to let them down. As I warming up my legs felt like jelly and I needed to give myself a good talking to “ you are the experienced one, you know how to perform, so just go out, relax and run”.

2016-06-27 15.45.49We had the advantage over the individuals in the race of a much quicker transition as all we had to do was rack the bike and then transfer the timing chip from Jake to me. So, luckily I got out of T2 ahead of Phil Murphy. I’ve been getting to know Phil over the last few months as he has been helping me with my bike position and I know what a strong and talented triathlete he is. So I decided to go off quite hard to try and put a bit of distance between him and me and then see how long I could hold him off.

The run was three laps of 7km and each lap included an out and back section where you could eyeball the competition and then a stinging hill up and around the castle. As I came back down the out and back on lap one I could see that I was about 400m ahead of Phil and probably 1000m down on Chris Standidge in 2nd place.

By lap two I managed to lengthen my lead on Phil but was now approx. 1500m down on Chris. I was still feeling good and running with a strong rhythm. As I got onto lap 3 I knew that I’d be able to hold on and keep the pace up. All I had to do was tackle the castle hill for the final time and then it was downhill all the way to the finish shute. Jake and Becky were waiting and we crossed the line together, all delighted with our mornings effort. We finished 3rd overall and 1st relay team. 4:28:58 was our finishing time. I really didn’t imagine we could get close to 4:30:00 so to go under this barrier was a hugely satisfying achievement. My run time of 1:23:37 was also way faster than I’d expected and so this provided another little layer of pleasure.

Gauntlet finish lineCrossing the line together was very emotional for me. I felt really proud to have competed alongside Jake and Becky and to have Ben, my other son, Kathy and my sister Judith cheering us all on throughout the day made it really special.

2016-06-27 15.45.48I know that in many of the events that I race I become very focused, lost in my own bubble of concentration, sometimes unaware of the support and sacrifice that the family make on my behalf and so it was brilliant to experience racing in a different way this time. This felt like a real shared experience and one that I’d love to repeat again and again.

So, you can imagine just how delighted I was to be asked later in the day “When can we do that again?”

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Race Report. Aviles, Spain. June 5 2016. World Duathlon Championships

Race day arrived and I woke having slept relatively well, which I interpreted as a good sign. I felt calm and ready. It was almost time for the big test of the World Championships again. A pre breakfast jog confirmed that my legs were ready to race. No heaviness or fatigue. “Steal springs” perhaps, but I’d be deluded if I felt I’d be able to run at the speed of a leapord like that character in Gallipolli….maybe a 57 year old leopard though!

Our taxi arrived on time and he found his way around all the local road blocks easily, delivering me to the race start area in good time. All the variables that were out of my control were now behind me. Everything was going well. Surely it was going to be a brilliant day.

I checked my bike in transition, pumped up tires, fitted bike shoes and my set up was done. Warm-up was completed and I was ready to go. The usual nerves started to kick in as we were called to the holding pens but it was excitement rather than fear that I was feeling.

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The start gun fired and we were off. I felt alive and the huge crowds were inspiring as we ran through the main arena and out alongside the river. My stride pattern was good and it felt like I was running well but I think in the excitement of the event I went off a bit too fast, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. After the first half lap (of two) a number of guys in my AG started to come past me and by the time we had reached about 8k I was down in 12th/13th place. This was not where I’d expected to be, but ok, I’ll have to fly on the bike to get back into contention.

IMG_0075During the last 2k back to transition I worked hard to hold my position and keep calm. Once I got out onto the bike I felt great. I got into my rhythm really quickly and began reeling in the faster runners. By the time I reached the foot of the one hill on the course after approximately 10k I had two quick Americans in my sights. I went past them with relative ease and felt this surge of excitement. I was now definitely back in the race and over the next 30k I could really impose myself. Down the other side of the hill I went, taking a moment to recover and then I noticed one of the Americans come past me again. Rather than letting him get into the sharp corner at the bottom first, I stupidly decided I wanted to show him who was in control and I pushed on and took a more aggressive approach into the corner.

Instantly I realized this was a mistake. I was coming into the corner too quickly and hadn’t given myself enough room. I hit the brakes hard to take some speed out before I needed to turn, but I hit them too hard, the wheels locked up and I was sent head first over the bars. I think I hit the ground first hard on my right hip and then somersaulted forward on my back before springing pretty much straight up onto my feet. At some point in this action my shoes came free from the pedals and the bike went in a different direction and thankfully didn’t cause anyone else to crash. I would have been even more disappointed if I’d ruined anyone else’s race.

My world stopped for a second or two. The huge crowd gathered at this corner took in a collective deep breath. I was dazed, confused, in a state of shock. I couldn’t understand what had happened and was frozen to the spot. As I turned around and saw my bike the crowd began to cheer. It was lying in the road and I went over and picked it up. The wheels seemed to be running freely. The handle bars seemed straight and aligned properly. The drivetrain was intact. The bike seemed ok.

My body was screaming in pain, especially my hip and back but I instinctively got back on and started gingerly peddling away. With this, the crowds went crazy. Under the direction of the local PA system they started chanting my name. “Hollins, Hollins, Hollins” was ringing out right along the waterfront and I was overcome with emotion as I slowly rode away, confused about what happened and what to do next.

My first thought was that my race was now over. I couldn’t get back into contention after such an horrific crash and so I’d ride back to transition to retire. A motorbike came alongside me and the rider was concerned for my health. He tracked me for a few minutes before I reassured him that I was ok to make my own way back. I then remembered I had a gel on the bike and so I took it. This helped to calm me down and as I slowly rode the 7k back towards transition I took my awareness around my body, checking out the physical situation. Apart from my hip that was thumping with pain, the rest of the body seemed ok. Only a few months ago, id experienced a similar hip pain on the left side ( another bike crash!!) and knew that riding hadn’t caused any further problems on that occasion. So my thinking began to change. I decided to complete the bike course and then see how I felt when I tried to run. Its not everyday you have the honour of competing in a world championship and so I wanted to give my all.

I set off on lap two, with a view to simply enjoy the rest of the race. I might not win but I was going to relax and soak up the awesome atmosphere that was being generated by the combination of team supporters and locals who were out in their thousands to cheer on the athletes. Once I relaxed, I found I was riding strongly again and soon began overtaking lots of other competitors. As I approached the infamous corner on the second lap I went into it much more cautiously. To my surprise the crowd recognised me instantly and the cheering and chanting  “Hollins, Hollins, Hollins” began again. I was overwhelmed by their support for me and this certainly endorsed my decision to continue. I pushed on further. By the time I approached T2 I could see that I had re caught a number of guys in my age group that I had overtaken prior to crashing out. This gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I was going to finish, even if it meant walking the last 5k. The moment of truth arrived at the dismount line. Was I able to run? Good news, the pain through my hip did not stop me from running and so I went through the long transition with the bike, changed into my run shoes and set off.

As I came out of T2 I saw Kathy and decided to tell her that I’d crashed just in case she was concerned about why I’d been so long on the bike. The fact that I was running should reassure her that I’m ok, was my reasoning.

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I took it easy over the first kilometre or so and then realised that I was running ok and so pushed on. I think my 2nd lap was quicker than my 1st and as I ran back towards the finishing arena I could see a number of athletes ahead. I began to pick them off and managed to overtake at least one guy in my age group.

I crossed the line feeling hugely proud that I’d battled on to finish the race despite the crash. I thought I would perhaps finish in the top 15 after all the time I lost, so was totally chuffed to discover that I finished 8th. A top 10 finish in the world championships after crashing is probably as good a performance as in any previous championships when I’ve been lucky enough to win medals…..and its certainly a performance that I’ll never forget!

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What did I learn?

Its crucial to stay calm and “in the present” at all times when racing. I allowed myself to get overexcited by the fact that I was reeling in those competitors in my AG that had run faster than me. In less than 10k I’d gone past at least 6 and knew that I was capable of putting myself into a medal position by the time I got off the bike. However, I made a huge error and took too much of a risk going into that corner. I knew the corner was there, I knew it was a tricky one to negotiate and yet I simply failed to give it the consideration it deserved because I wanted to get through it ahead of one of my American rivals. The reward for doing this would have been negligible and given I’d already made up more than 30 secs on him in 10k, I was surely going to put much more time into him over the next 30k of the bike leg. But in the heat of the race, I didn’t think straight and was too aggressive going into that corner.

So the 2nd bit of learning is about risk-reward. The rewards for taking risks need to be significant to even consider taking them. If not, back off.

And finally. It’s never over until it’s over. To get 8th place finish, less than 1 minute behind 5th after all the time lost and the damage done seems pretty remarkable and acts as proof to me that I should never give up.

I’m going to take a week off racing now and give myself time to recover properly before building up to the next biggie of the season which is a trip to Sweden for Jonkoping 70.3 in July.

My thanks as ever to my amazing wife Kathy for her love, support, patience and selflessness. Also big thanks to everyone in Aviles and ITU involved with organising this wonderful event, Jez Cox and his team, plus the whole of the GB team for creating such a wonderful team spirit.