This was it. 12 months of work, pain and training had been building to this race. The Ironman 70.3 World Championships. The simple thought of being part of it kept me motivated through what had been a difficult, injury hit season. But that’s all behind me now as I’d made it to South Africa.
I was ready to test myself against the best.
This was going to be only my 4th Ironman 70.3 race and the previous three had produced mixed results so I recognised that I was still relatively inexperienced at racing at this longer distance. Despite this, I felt confident in my ability to achieve a top ten finishing position. I’d studied past results and knew what time I was capable of delivering. I also knew that training had been building well so all that remained was the simple, if not easy, task of executing the perfect race plan.
A danger with big championship races is that it is easy to get caught up with thinking about the opposition and so to avoid this I decided to construct my plan exclusively around aspects of the performance that I could control and a plan that would focus me internally, something that is especially important at parts of the race where I could easily get distracted either by fatigue, errors or the performance of others.
So my plan was as follows:
Pre race: breathe slow and deep
Swim: think core rotation
Bike: 255w average power, stay aero, eat and drink every 15 minutes
Run: relax and be patient
It was a series of simple process thoughts that I could repeat to myself to keep me focussed. If I could execute this plan then the result should take care of itself and who knows that goal of a top ten finish may well come to pass.
My build up to the race was perfect. We arrived in South Africa over a week ahead to give me plenty of time to get over the travel, settle into the new surroundings of the southern hemisphere and finalise training. Everything went smoothly. Scaremongering bike-jacking stories of the danger of riding around on an expensive bike could not be further from my reality. From my personal “holding camp” an hour away from Port Elizabeth in St Francis Bay we were treated royally and my bike became the number one priority for our hotel manager. He gave it its own room, he cleaned it for me daily and got it ready for each of my training rides. Precious was his name and precious was his way. He looked after my bike like it was his most precious possession. He suggested the best roads for me to train on (as its very easy to end up on dirt tracks if you don’t know where you are going) and the bike drew admiring glances from all the locals as I rode past each day. At no point whilst we were staying out at St Francis Bay did I feel threatened. I must admit that once we moved to the big city I did heed the advice to join one of the organised group rides around the race route and after that my training was complete. All that needed to be done in the last few days leading to the race was deal with race admin, orientate myself around the whole race village and then relax. The sign on process was painless and even bike racking the day before took no time at all.
My previous experience of Ironman events is that they have all been huge. They are much bigger than a normal triathlon, with more of a carnival/festival feel. Well, this World Championships was a different scale again. 4500 athletes from over 90 countries gave it a real global flavour that created massive excitement and anticipation.
Ladies and men raced on different days, with ladies going first on Saturday. I found this really helpful as I was able to watch how transitions worked and see how slickly the operation unfolded on race day. We could see that the tracker app worked in real time and so it was possible to get useful upto the moment information about athlete progress throughout the race. I was hoping this might be helpful for Kathy the next day.
Everything was coming together brilliantly. All that I had to worry about when I went to bed on Saturday evening was if the predicted thunder storms would emerge. Even that didn’t keep me awake as since arriving in South Africa we’d been going to bed early so my body clock was ready for sleep at 9pm, giving me a full 8 hours ahead of the dreaded 5 am race morning start. I woke to some pretty favourable race conditions. Very light winds, overcast skies with a light drizzle to keep us cool. What more could a Northern boy want on his big day of the year? The triathlon gods seemed to be smiling on me.
As it was the World Championships every AG got its own wave start. The pro’s went off first at 0730 with Age Groupers beginning from 0738. The 55-59 year old men were due off at 0846 and so I was able to watch the pro’s exit the swim and observe just how to take advantage of the surf. The pro field was stacked with quality and it felt a real privilege to be standing there cheering on some of the all-time triathlon greats : Ali Brownlee, Javier Gomez, Jan Frodeno, knowing that an hour later I’d be chasing them down the same course. They needed to get a wiggle on!
There were plenty of nerves and testosterone flying around in the holding pens as we edged closer to our start time. I focussed on staying relaxed, reminding myself that it was just another race, and mentally rehearsing my race plan. I did take the odd look around the holding pen and noticed that there were only lean looking athletes in with me. Unlike in the past, my reaction to this was not fear that I didn’t belong, but rather pride in this group of fine examples of what the human body can achieve after the age of 50. I knew I would need to bring my A game to bear today and I also felt a deep confidence that this was possible.
We continued to edge closer to the start gate and at 0846 precisely the first 10 guys raced off down Kings Beach and into the surf of Indian Ocean. Every subsequent 15 seconds a further 10 guys were released and their races began.
I positioned myself fairly close to the front of my wave of 180 and got going in about the 7th group. I remember being anxious about how I would cope with the surf as I stood awaiting my turn to start but once I heard that “beep” my competitive side kicked in and I didn’t give any doubts about the surf and waves another thought. I just ran in as far as I could, then dived forward and started swimming. I don’t remember any breakers causing me problems. I just remember looking down and thinking just how clear the ocean was on race morning (this was very different to the other days when I had been practicing ahead of race day). The course was very simple. Swim out 800m to a big red buoy. Turn left and swim a further 300m parallel to the beach, turn left again at next red buoy and then its 800 m back to the beach. Because of the rolling start I didn’t experience any of those classic triathlon bunfights at the turn buoys and in fact I got into a nice rhythm, found a few similarly paced competitors to use for support and put together the swim of my life. I was around the second red buoy and heading back towards the beach before I really had to think about what I was doing, give myself positive thoughts or focus on specific technical aspects of the swim. I really was in that wonderful unconsciously competent territory that does not happen very often (if at all before) for me on the swim. With about 400m to go my perfect little bubble was burst by a fellow swimmer who insisted on slapping my feet with every stroke. This probably gave me a bit of extra impetus to push harder (and certainly to kick harder) to try and shake him off. Happily, I didn’t allow this irritation to grow and instead, kept my form, got to the shallow water and even tried to surf a wave into the beach. I was really encouraged that when I started to run back up the beach, my legs were happy to co-operate, and I didn’t get that jelly legged sensation that can happen after a long swim.
On the run through to transition there were a group of amazing volunteers working as wetsuit strippers waiting to assist. They were brilliant. Stop, stand still, allow them to pull the wetsuit down to your knees, sit on the floor, legs in the air, wetsuit is pulled straight off. They then pull you back to your feet and you are on your way again all within a few seconds. That’s what being in the World Champs is all about!
I was in and out of transition without any drama and away on the bike. The first 10km of the bike course was uphill, most of it very gentle but with a few steep little ramps. My plan was to try and ensure I kept a lid on my power efforts on these ramps to avoid burning too much energy too soon. So, I was watching my power numbers as I overtook a steady stream of competitors and controlled things really well. After the first 10k we were out of the city, heading down hill for the first time and out into the part of the course that I’d only driven in the car. The next part was pretty straight open roads that rolled along and the only surprise was just how bumpy and grippy the road surface was. At the back end of the course we entered the jaw droppingly stunning section along the ocean at Seaview that also involved tackling the hills called the Maitlands.
Again, I controlled my power numbers well and felt really good to get to the turn point in such good shape. I’d been drinking and eating in line with my “little and often” plan and this I’m sure was a huge contributor to how fresh I was feeling. The turn point wasn’t quite halfway but it did signify that most of the climbing was done. We just had to conquer Maitlands from the other-side and then it was a rolling ride home, aiming to keep the power up around 255w the whole way. The gentle drizzle continued to fall and this meant that the roads were wet but at no point did I feel that I needed to be careful. Perhaps if the tarmac had been smoother it would have been more of a challenge to corner in these conditions but the grippy surfaces helped.
Over the last 30km I remember thinking just how much harder work it was than I’d expected. With only 650m of climbing and fairly benign winds I think everyone had expected the bike leg to be less taxing but the bumpy road surfaces made it hard work to maintain speed. I kept eating and drinking and with about 10km to go, took my caffeine gel to give me a boost ahead of the run. The last 3km were back into town where the noise and support of the crowds gave an added boost and I arrived at T2 feeling excited to run. After my last outing in London the thought did flash through my mind about whether I would cramp up as I dismounted ? No way.
I jumped off the bike and felt great. Immediately another of the brilliant volunteers rushed over to take my bike leaving me with the more simple job of locating my run bag and getting ready for the final part of what was shaping up to be a memorable race. I came out of T2 with my legs behaving. Still no sign of cramp and in fact I quickly settled into a really comfortable running rhythm.
Run course was two laps. Transition and the finish was in the middle so we headed out in a northerly direction up past Kings Beach, looped back towards transition and the main crowds, then out to the south for second part of lap before coming back through to begin 2nd lap. So it great for runners and spectators. We got the thrill of the huge crowds 5 times and supporters got to see us 5 times during the run. The boost this provides is massive. Seeing a familiar face, hearing a particular voice, getting the support and encouragement from a special person makes such a difference. I love it when Kathy is there to cheer me on and when I can see that she is getting excited for me, the emotion ramps up even more.
Over the first couple of kilometres I remember thinking about Coach Annie’s advice about being patient. The half marathon is a long way and I wanted to ensure that I finished strong , ideally with a negative split. So as each kilometre ticked by I was monitoring my pace and started calculating what finish time this was likely to result in. After about 6km it seemed that I could go under 1:35 for the half marathon. If I could do this I’d be really happy I remember thinking. But its important not to get ahead of yourself so I gave myself a talking to about just being in the present moment. I kept relaxed, aimed to maintain an even pace until the last 4-5km and then would see what I had left. At each feed station I took a sponge to cool my head, a bag of water to drink and occasionally a mouthful of coke. I was like a metronome. The kilometres were being ticked off effortlessly and I was still feeling good. I did start to think about the finish as I went out on the final lap and Kathy was screaming encouragement from the sidelines about a top ten finish being a possibility (clearly the tracker app was doing its job!!) I still needed to remain patient as there was still 10km to go. The metronome kept going in the same relaxed manner until I came past Kathy again. There was now 4km to go, her info was telling her that I was in 11th place and I was desperate to get a top ten finish. It was now I needed to work hard. Adding that extra level of effort which might only be 3 or 4% seems to take an extraordinarily greater amount out of the body. Relaxation goes, stride length gets longer, leg turnover probably stays the same or maybe even reduces, and whilst it feels like speed increases the reality is that this doesn’t seem to be the case. My final 5km which was without doubt the hardest I was working didn’t translate into the fastest section. In fact it was the slowest. Maybe I should have focussed on remaining relaxed, its certainly something to work on in training over the coming months. Another indicator that effort doesn’t result in speed is that those last few kilometres seemed like the longest! As I went into the final right turn and headed for the magic red carpet I was giving it everything. Because of the rolling start there could be someone who had finished or someone behind who could be within a few seconds of me and I didn’t want that feeling of if only id given it a bit more up those last 200metres.
I crossed the line empty of energy but overwhelmed with happiness and pride. I’d executed my perfect race. Irrespective of finish position I was delighted.
Kathy was there looking so happy. The tracker confirmed my finish time was 4:49:00 and that I was in 10th place. I felt so pleased but had to remind myself again that someone could come in over the next few minutes and beat me if they had started at the back of our wave. So over the next 5 minutes I was constantly reloading the tracker page and much to my delight it soon adjusted the final positions to place me in 9th. Wow, 9th in the world championships. I think I can now call myself a triathlete as much as a duathlete. I was on cloud nine and didn’t even care that the heavens had opened and the threatened thunder storms had now arrived. I had put together the best 70.3 race of my life so far and felt such pride in proving that all the hard work was worth it and the setbacks couldn’t derail me. I’d nailed a 34 minute swim ( I’d have been happy with 34 mins for 1500 metres a couple of years ago), ridden a controlled 2:33:50 bike leg so that I could then run 1:33:53. Irrespective of my race position this was an outstanding performance for me. I’d shown what the best of me looks like and this time would have won the race in 2017. The race had also inspired me as 8 other guys from around the world in their late 50’s were even quicker than me on the day. Now that’s something to focus on for next year!
A few reflections since the race:
1 limiting assumptions. I did not think I was capable of running under 1:35 after a bike leg and this race proved that I can. So the question for the future is how much quicker could I go now that I don’t have this limiting assumption holding me back?
2 The link between relaxation/form and speed. For 17 km I ran very relaxed and then over the last 4km I increased my effort level, knew that my form was suffering but felt that I was going quicker because I was working so much harder. The reality is that I slowed down over these last 4 km. so I’ve learnt that its quicker to hold form and stay relaxed. I look forward to putting this into practice in my next race.
3 The point of the bike leg is to set up the run. I deliberately held back on the bike by a small amount of effort to see if it would allow me to arrive in T2 feeling fresh for the run. This worked so well for me. I estimate that if I’d pushed harder and gone 2 mins quicker on the bike I would probably have been 5 minutes slower on the run.
What next ?
I’d love to be on the start-line for 2019 70.3 World Champs in Nice and so I’ve decided to do one more race this year to see if I can gain a qualification spot early. I’m heading out to Bahrain for the race on December 8th.
Thanks as ever to Kathy and my sons for their unwavering love and support. Thanks to Annie my coach for believing in me and getting me ready to perform. Thanks to Sarah Logan my new physio who puts me back together every week and of course thanks to Erdinger Alkoholfrei for rehydrating me, supporting me and encouraging me every step of the way.
Finally, thank you to the people of South Africa. You made us so welcome, were so genuinely warm and friendly and wanted us to have a great time. We certainly did and we will be back.