In my last post I posed the question “what could possibly go wrong with my audacious plan to do a smash and grab raid in Bahrain on a place for 2019 70.3 World Champs?
As I stood around in the dark looking up at all the bright lights reflecting off the shiny new high rise buildings that envelop Bahrain Bay I was eager to get started. The last 8 week training block had been tough mentally. I was ready for a break but knew I had one last race in me and felt confident that it should be a good one. Lets go do it.
My pre race tinkering in transition went smoothly. It was all done and it was still dark. Sunrise was at 6:13, the pro race started at 6:20 and the rolling start for Age Groupers was at 6:30. I positioned myself amongst the 35 minute swimmers . Nerves were evident amongst the athletes around me and I had to keep reminding myself that I’d prepared well but once the gun sounded and we began to edge closer to the steps down into the water of Bahrain Bay I felt calm.
The sun started to rise, bringing with it the promise of yet another beautiful sunny day. Colours bounced off the angles of the steel and glass buildings that provided a spectacular arena for the swim.
The swim course was pretty simple. A short section to get away from the shore, turn right and then head straight down the bay for approximately 850 m, turn left, left again and head back up 850m before a final left turn to head back to swim exit. I remember thinking that I should have counted the number of intermediate bouys there were down the two long sides of the course as this would have helped me to tick off in my mind where I was upto. Sighting was tricky as the sun was really bright, even though it was just rising and so I had to keep checking where I was heading more often than usual. Even so, I felt I swam well and I got out of the water bang on 33 minutes which is another PB over this distance for me. I love it that I’m getting quicker. All the hard work in the pool continues to pay off. From the exit steps it was only a short way into the bag area where wetsuit came off, helmet, glasses and race belt went on, bag with wetsuit was replaced on same hook on the racking. This was a new process that replaced the usual bag drop area and it seemed to work pretty well. I was in and out of T1 in 3 mins without any confusion.
Out onto the bike course I went. The first thing I noticed was how super smooth the road surfaces were (and not a pothole in sight). This made for very fast riding, but I did feel that only closing down one lane of the 3 lane highway led to a number of close calls especially in the early stages where there were lots of riders in a condensed part of the course. By the time I was coming back into town on the opposite carriageway thankfully there weren’t many other bikes around me as the car traffic was getting very heavy and it felt like we were racing on the outside lane of M1. You really had to have your wits about you at all times as the odd cone that was separating us from cars travelling at 70mph had been knocked over ( either by cars or bikes) so it did feel a bit scary, particularly as I was starting to fatigue. I remember being really irritated by the noise and close proximity of the car traffic and really looking forward to getting off the busy highway.
The highlight of the bike course was the F1 circuit, which ironically was the one part of the course that was totally quiet. It was a thrill to smash it around the beautifully designed circuit, but I was surprised that the surface here was much grippier than the other roads of Bahrain.
I do need to have a bit of a whinge at Ironman referees. There were so many packs of cyclists blatantly drafting each other and the referees seemed reluctant to do anything about it. Just after the first feed station at 25km I was caught by a pack of about 15 guys riding together. Initially I let them all come past me and then tried to overtake to ensure that I didn’t get mixed up in their games. To get past I had to put in such a huge effort that I was going way over threshold and all they did was latch onto my back wheel. After this huge effort I had to ease back so they all cruised through again. Frustrated, I sat up, drifted back about 15 metres to observe what was going on and then used it as an opportunity to eat and recover from my big effort. I know drafting goes on and I was determined not to let it affect my mindset during the race so I just hoped they would get their just “reward” for this blatant cheating. Magically, at this point a referee appeared on the back of a scooter and I smiled to myself and thought here we go, penalties are going to be dished out. He went up alongside the group, observed for a while and then without penalising any of them simply turned off the highway. Meanwhile, on the opposite carriageway I could see other large groups all working together. I find it very frustrating especially as Ironman talk so strongly about drafting during briefings, and yet when referees see it in action they don’t follow through with the punishment.
Into T2 I came feeling more fatigued than I’d planned to be. I knew I’d put in a fast bike split but had no idea what this meant in relation to the race as others were likely to have also fared well on that course. Maybe I’d gone a little too hard in the first part of the bike, but probably the heat was having a greater impact on me than I’d hoped. Also, I probably underestimated the course. Flat courses don’t necessarily mean easy courses. Because it was so flat I spent almost the whole way not moving from the aero position and as a result had worked my glutes much more than usual. As I ran into transition with my bike I was aware that the tops of my legs where the hamstrings and glutes join was incredibly tight and was restricting movement.
Over the first kilometre it was a real struggle. I was so far away from the mental picture I’d carried forward from my last race in South Africa where I’d been flowing along so effortlessly and smoothly. Instead I felt like I was having to consciously remember how to run. Gradually, ever so gradually, I loosened up and then established a rhythm that I felt was sustainable throughout the three laps. By now the sun was high and the temperature was rising way beyond the 6-7 degrees that I’d left behind at home a few days before. Thankfully the aid stations were frequent and really well stocked so I got into a routine of ice cold sponges to cool me down and water to keep me hydrated. For the first two laps this worked brilliantly but then on the last lap they started to run out of both ice and water. For me this was a little inconvenient but I did hope that the majority of the field who were behind me would be ok. ( I later found out that this did cause significant problems for many of the later finishers)
The run leg was a real mental battle. It was hot, I was tired. The course was pretty anonymous. It was very flat, with long straights and a few dead turns. Not having Kathy there to cheer me on and provide a highlight each lap also made it harder so I had to try and take myself away from the fatigue I was feeling and just keep focussed on the positive which was that I had found a rhythm. I didn’t look at my watch as I didn’t want to risk getting downhearted by the speed ( or lack of it) that I was covering the miles but I did take encouragement from the fact that I was passing many more people than were passing me.
Seeing the leading pro’s was a brilliant distraction and I managed to convince myself at one point that they were going so fast as they didn’t want me to catch them!
With a kilometre to go my thoughts turned to my finish time for the first time during the race. I knew that with a strong swim and a fast bike split I had given myself a huge buffer in my own personal challenge to break 4:45 but maybe the slower run would cost me today. Still, a time close to 4:45 would surely be enough to gain me that all important slot for Nice next year. As I took the right turn and onto the magic red carpet I looked up at the screen to try and calculate my time but in my fatigued state I simply couldn’t do the maths. Oh well, give it everything down that last 50 metres and then it will all become clear. I crossed the line, looked up and saw my time as 4:42:29. I was overjoyed. That was a new PB for the distance and I quickly learnt that it was good enough for 2nd place in my AG in this regional championship. How cool is that?
That’s my first medal in an Ironman 70.3 Championship race. I am super happy and feel really privileged to have had this opportunity. But I didn’t come all the way to Bahrain to simply compete in Middle East championships. I came to try and win a spot at 2019 World Champs. I had a very nervous wait for the award ceremony to discover how many places would be allocated to my AG. If there was only one, which is often the case, then I was likely to be very disappointed and my audacious plan would have proved fruitless. Fortunately for me, the field was large enough to justify two slots and so I eagerly accepted my place and the qualification coin.
I’d done it. My smash and grab raid to Bahrain was a huge success and I’d finished the year with a new personal best. Faster after 50 continues to be real.
I’m off to Nice in 2019. Super excited.