I’m not really sure why its taken me so long to capture my thoughts after Dublin 70.3 especially as it was my big race of the year. Given what happened, maybe I just needed time to process it properly before sharing. Anyway, here goes.
2017 has been about getting my head around Middle Distance triathlon racing with the hairy goal of achieving a qualification place for the 2018 70.3 World Championships in South Africa. There have been plenty of ups and downs this year and with Dublin being the first race in the Ironman 2017 calendar that was offering places for 2018 World’s my thinking was that if the race went perfectly to plan then I could be in the luxurious position of going into the winter knowing that I’d secured my place on the startline in Nelson Mandela Bay next September. I could then plan my whole 2018 really early and given all the other things going on in our lives this really would be a massive bonus. Simple, heh?
To give some context to the “other things” comment, Kathy is taking part in the Clipper Round The World Yacht race next year, taking on the two massive legs across Pacific and Atlantic and so I want to be able to support her as much as possible by being there on the quayside to wave her off and cheer her back in again at every stage. In addition we will be moving to Brecon Beacons to set up our new Cycling business. This is a huge project that will require energy, patience and clear thinking to navigate our way through the complex planning process.
So if I could, maybe, somehow please get qualification nailed in Dublin it would make next year so much easier to manage.
No pressure then!
Given all of that potential self induced stress it is so helpful to know that I have learnt to focus on the controllables and ignore the uncontrollables. I had to put “the other things” out of my mind and the more I race the more I’m realising that what I love about racing is the “all consuming mental” place that it takes me to. From the moment that I wake on race day until the moment I cross the finish line nothing else in the world matters. I can leave everything else behind. I’m in my own bubble, striving to eek out the maximum from my physical self and the only battle that takes place in my head is the inevitable one with my self doubting Chimp and this is a battle to which I increasingly look forward.
Back to the controllables. I knew I couldn’t control how others did so I simply had to focus on my race and look to execute another personal best. If I could do this, then who knows what might happen…..
I knew I was really fit as evidenced by my recent training volume and the excellent form I’d shown in my warm up race at Grafham Water. I also knew that I had solved my overheating issue by changing my cycle helmet. I knew I would be well looked after in Dublin as I was staying with Paul, my brother in law and his family on the other side of the City and this would also be keeping away from the stress of nervous athletes. I was travelling over by ferry so had my bike with me at all times and so didn’t need to worry about what might happen in the baggage hold of an aircraft. Everything that could be, was under control.
However, just when things seem to be coming together, life can give you a little reminder that things don’t always go smoothly. I picked up a slight injury in my final proper training session on the Wednesday before the race. My right calf tightened up so did the sensible thing, abandoned the session and went off to see Gemma my brilliant physio. She got to work and went really deep into the muscle, taped me up and told me I should be ok. That was good enough for me. Hearing this expert point of view was just what I needed to avoid getting too anxious about the impact this setback might have on my ability to race on Sunday. We agreed that it was best not to risk trying it out before the race so left home on Friday morning with only the slightest anxiety about whether the calf would hold up. Kathy wasn’t with me as The Clipper Race was beginning in Liverpool on the same day and I knew that she wanted to be there to support her crew mates as they set off on leg one.
I enjoyed a smooth journey across the Irish Sea and then had a seamless registration in the Ironman Village on arrival.
I then drove most of the bike course (to take away another of the possible unknowns) and was excited to discover that it should be fast with pretty good road surfaces. There seemed to be just one tricky section of 2-3km of speed bumps and I decided that I’d probably take no risks here by riding it all off the tri bars and mostly out of the saddle. On race day this proved to be a good tactic and gave me a bit of a breather before heading out into the countryside section.
Saturday was swim practice. Down in Dublin Bay the wind was howling and the water was very choppy.
Surely, race day conditions wont be this bad I kept telling myself as I summoned the mental courage to leap into the water on Northside. In I went feeling much trepidation. Out I came ten minutes later feeling total exhilaration. My swim demons had been well and truly dealt with as I now knew that I could cope with lots of chop and swell in the water. If I could enjoy swimming in those conditions then race day was bound to be a breeze I told brother in law Paul as we drove back to his house for a much needed hot drink and breakfast.
After a quick spin on the bike, I was ready to head back across the city to deal with dropping kit in transition. Everything was done. I was ready to go.
At 5.15 the next morning my Taxi arrived, bang on time and we were soon speeding through the sleeping city following the first section of the bike course. I was feeling good, excited and calm. I could sense that it was going to be a great day.
Conditions in Dublin on race morning were perfect. The wind and swell from yesterday had gone. The sea was like a mill pond. Just how I like it. The sun came up with a smile and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. This was not typical Dublin weather! It really was going to be a great day.
My head was clear and positive. I knew that there was no benefit to me in having a warm up jog as I would be risking filling my head with doubts that may come from any calf twinges. So instead I just had a good stretch and made my way down to the swim start area early.
When the race began at 0710 I watched closely as the swimmers were released 4 at a time every 6 seconds into the bay. There seemed to be lots of space. There seemed to be no chaos. The mass of triathletes shuffled their way towards the start chute. Nerves and anxiety was rapidly being translated into excitement. I wanted to be in there. Soon enough it was my turn.
It was a beach start so I took it very gently, mindful of where I was placing my feet and careful not to run too hard. I didn’t want to risk irritating my calf so early in the race. In I went. The water was perfect. Temperature was ideal, no waves nor chop and the Irish Sea was as benign as could be possible. I had an amazingly clear swim. There was no agro at any point, even around the turn buoys and I was soon heading towards the exit pontoon on the final leg. I had thoroughly enjoyed my swim and had even had time to reflect on just how much I had improved. 1900m in race conditions now feels normal. 36:04 was a solid start for me.
Onto the pontoon I climbed and headed up the jetty towards transition. My focus immediately went to my troublesome right calf. There were a few odd sensations rumbling through it as I trotted towards the changing tent but nothing to cause concern.
Wetsuit off, helmet on, race belt on, goggles and wetsuit in bag, bag handed over and I was then moving cautiously through transition area for my bike. Encouragingly there seemed to be most of the bikes still here. That reinforced my perception that I’d swum well and I was excited to get out on the bike.
However, the bike leg didn’t start well as my chain came off and got jammed as I mounted. This was a new mistake for me. “Don’t panic this will only take a few seconds” I told myself and I was soon on my way again with some encouraging cheers from the crowds surrounding the bike exit area. Importantly I didn’t go too hard over those first few miles to make up for the time lost with my chain mechanical, instead focusing on finding a smooth rythmn, a strong sustainable cadence that would get me into my own zone. I did notice that I was passing lots of riders and no one was coming past me as the first 10km flashed by.
Into the city centre we went. The roads were closed off with Garda patrolling every junction and it was such a buzz to be travelling so quickly through this area that would normally be so busy with traffic and people.
Before I knew it I was out of the city, passing Pheonix Park and heading into the countryside to the west of Dublin. The route seemed exactly as I’d logged it in my recce. Other than that one nasty section of a couple of miles with speed bumps every 200m the roads were really good. I was clearly going well as I continued to pass lots of riders and there were only a handful of others travelling at a similar speed to me. At around 35 miles we turned back towards Dublin and there was a long section on the road towards Dunboyne where I did not see another competitor for miles. It felt as though I was the only person in the race. I had the road to myself. At first this was exhilarating but then my mind started to wander. I began imagining what it must be like to be leading these races. However, It wasn’t long before my prevailing feeling changed to exhaustion. With no one ahead to focus on I suddenly became much more aware that my body was beginning to fatigue. It was time for a caffeine gel. With this on board I was able to dig deep and rediscover the smooth cadence that enables me to stay in the present moment. “That’s better. Just keep cracking out those 75-80 revolutions each minute and the rest will take care of itself” I told myself. When I hit the speed-bump section again I knew I must be getting close to the end and as we got to the top of a nasty hill we turned sharp left and were into the park. This had come more quickly than I’d expected. It was time to prepare for the dismount. How would the calf react? I’d soon find out. The bike leg had been done in 2:27:47 which I’d later find out had put me strongly into 1st place.
I got my feet out of my shoes in good time, landed just before the dismount line and was jogging into transition. With every step I took I realized that the calf was sending signals to the brain that it wasn’t entirely happy. Was it cramp,was it muscle tightness or was it normal fatigue at this stage in a race? I wasn’t sure. Should I stop and stretch it out, should I ignore it and carry on or should I begin conservatively? I opted for the latter.
I lost a few precious seconds in the T2 tent as the racking was set up differently. In Dublin the two transitions are in totally separate areas of The City and the athletes only get to see the Start area transition. In T1 my bag had been on the bottom row of hooks but in T2 it was on the top row. In my state of exhaustion and concern for my calf I struggled to compute this information and was totally disoriented for a moment or two. Thankfully I eventually found my bag, put my shoes on and was headed out for the run. I could feel the calf tightening so slowed to a jog. At this pace it seemed happy. On a scale of 1-10 the pain settled at a 3 and so I was happy to crack on. Lets get to the 1st km marker and reassess. It felt like it took an age to get there but the positive aspect of this was that the tightness was not getting worse. Other than this I was physically feeling good and mentally I was determined and positive. With 20km to go it didn’t seem worth pushing on just yet. Once I got to 3km I tried to increase the pace, but got instant feedback that the calf didn’t like it. By slowing down the pain reduced immediately and so I took lots of confidence that I could manage this niggle and if necessary I could keep going at this pace. The run was 3 laps and during that 1st lap I seemed to be taking just under 5 minutes for each kilometer. Whilst this was slow I did think that it should be good enough to get me home. Once out onto lap two, the calf was beginning to behave. The longer I went the easier it was feeling. I stepped up the pace by about 15 secs per km and this felt better. I now knew that I would definitely finish and so my thoughts turned to the time. Using the finish line clock I did some crude calculations that suggested that I was going to set a new PB despite this calf issue. The last 5km was hard as I was tired. Its at these moments where its so important to maintain focus on the mechanics of the run action and ignore the growing fatigue. Keep it going. Don’t try anything silly in the last mile or so.
Making the final 180 degree turn and heading down the red carpet was brilliant. I felt so happy. I crossed the line and saw Paul, my brother in law. As usual at this moment a wave of emotion totally overwhelmed me.
Somehow I held back tears but was probably blubbering all kinds of nonsense about how happy I felt. He told me I’d finished in 4:53 and that I was currently in 2nd place in my AG. This was great news. I was bursting with pride. Could I really have finished in 2nd place? Might I possibly earn a place in the 2018 World Champs? Might another step towards my dream be taking place?
I’d find out in a few hours. We had time to go back home to change before returning for the awards ceremony. The result was confirmed . I was 2nd in a time of 4:53:16 and that meant a place on the podium but not necessarily a place for South Africa as there was only one guaranteed slot in my AG. Picking up my first trophy for an Ironman event felt significant. I was really proud. Then came World Championship slot allocation. I waited nervously to discover if there was to be more than one slot for my AG. It was confirmed that there was just one slot available. Damn, maybe it wasn’t to be on this occasion as the slot is obviously offered to the winner. Liam Williams, my AG winner did not respond when his name was called. Three times they called him and still he didn’t respond. Wow, the slot was going to be offered to me. I didn’t need to be asked twice. Yes please I’d like to take it. Thanks Liam, I owe you one.
South Africa here I come in September 2018.
Over the next few days I walked around with my World championship coin in my pocket at all times. I kept showing it to people, whether they wanted to see it or not. I was so proud. A few months on I’m still just as proud and I’m still just as excited about what next year has in store. It really feels like a breakthrough and given that I’ve set a new PB whilst carrying a calf niggle I know that there is still so much more that I can do.
Faster after 50 is real. Just how fast though, is the exciting unknown. Bring on next year to find out.