5 years ago I went to bed wondering how I would feel the next morning. I had just won the Duathlon World Championships in my Age Group in Pontevedra, Spain and literally felt on top of the world. As a 50 something man I had been inspired by my inner 8 year old who had always dreamt of being the best in the world. Through a process of hardwork, commitment and perseverance despite lots of injury setbacks I had achieved it. As I went to bed that night, I wondered if I would awake the next morning, proud yet satisfied and ready to kick back now that my Everest had been overcome?
What happened was quite the opposite. During that night of fitful sleep I visualised a new dream. I wanted to repeat the achievement but this time at triathlon. I had focussed on duathlon because I was such a poor swimmer and had convinced myself that there was nothing I could do about it… old dogs, allegedly can’t learn new tricks. But I wanted to use this truism as the ammunition to drive the next stage of my evolution as an athlete. I wanted to show that old dogs can learn new tricks and this one would relearn how to swim.
So 5 years ago I set myself a new goal and that was to win a medal in a triathlon world championships. And just to set the bar that little bit higher I wanted to show that I could be competitive at all distances from sprints through to long distance racing.
Why make it easy? Always aim higher that became my new mantra. 5 years of even more hardwork followed and with every completed training session a growing sense of belief developed inside me. I began to define myself as a triathlete and I began to achieve race performances that suggested that maybe, just maybe, I could deliver on that dream that emerged in the glow of euphoria that came after that sensational victory on the streets of the beautiful old town of Pontevedra in May 2014.
So 5 years later I was back in Pontevedra to compete again. With a poetic sense of symmetry the ITU had scheduled their multi-sport world championships to return to this stunning corner of North West Spain, the hometown of Javier Gomez, arguably the worlds greatest male triathlete. The long distance triathlon was to be the final race of this festival of multi-sport and amongst the entrants was me. Pontevedra had been good to me once, could it be good to me again? Over the last 2 years I have been competing in Middle Distance triathlon races and have enjoyed some great results around the world, but the long distance format involved a significant step up in volume and so it really was going to be a leap into the unknown.
I felt that I should be capable of handling the distance but my early season calf niggles had hampered my ability to get the requisite mileage in my legs that would have really added a new layer to the inner core belief that I have been nurturing so effectively over recent years. I needed to trust in my coach Annie and take strength from the facts that each of the phases of the race held no fears for me. I just hadn’t put together a 3km swim, 120km bike and 30km run back to back in a race environment. It was likely to mean remaining focussed for around 2 hours longer than ever before. So the challenge was going to be as much mental as it was physical. I had to keep my old friend my chimp relaxed throughout a very long day. Did I have what it takes?
Race day began well with the much anticipated decision to shorten the swim due to cold water and air temperatures at 7am. So a new course of 1500m was confirmed. This decision clearly favoured the strong bike/runners and so I felt like I was already 1 nil up. Into the water I went. What I hadn’t expected was that the water conditions were going to be so different to the practice session I had done in the river only 24 hours before. The temperature didn’t bother me but on race morning the tides were going out and so this combined with the strong river current created swim conditions that were tougher than anything I had ever experienced before. Swimming upstream to the first turn buoy at 750m took an eternity and because the combined current was so strong the field remained tightly packed throughout, meaning the usual fist fight at the start continued for the full length of the upstream leg. Not a pleasant experience, and certainly one I’ll not forget in a hurry. Rounding the buoy I suffered a bout of cramp in my left calf. Sharp stabbing pains were the last thing I needed as I was trying to remain calm in the heat of the battle, but by repeatedly flexing my ankle I managed to shake the cramp out only for it to reappear in my hamstring. The consequence of focussing on getting rid of my cramp was that I took my eye off my direction of travel and was being dragged down stream by the very fast current rather than heading across the river to the next turn buoy. I had to adjust my course and head back upstream to get around the buoy before getting the free ride back down stream towards the swim exit. With the tide going out the river levels were much lower as we exited and so it was much more of an effort to simply drag my body out of the water and onto the pontoon. I’ve never been so happy to finish a swim leg and I was really encouraged by just how calm and centered I was as I began the long transition run back to the stadium where the change tent was located. I remember thinking that I’d done well to deal with the conditions and I was now set up to go to work on the bike leg, the part of the race that should play most to my strengths.
Into transition I went and despite the cold early morning temperatures it felt like a furnace already inside this dark military style tent. I found a spot away from the rest of my competitors to get out of my wetsuit and then nipped down to my racking spot to grab my helmet for the bike leg. I’d anticipated that I would be shivering after the cold swim and so would need to add arm warmers and possibly a jacket to avoid a cold start on the bike but I recognised that my core temperature was good and my extremities felt warm so no extra clothing would be required . My transition was really efficient and I was soon settling into the long bike leg.
The key to a good bike leg was going to be management of effort. The course was really hilly. I’d done a recon of most of the lap and knew that with three laps and over 5000ft of climbing it was absolutely crucial not to go too hard too soon. Or more precisely not to go too hard at any time as the bike leg was only the prelude to the small matter of a 30km run. The race wouldn’t be won on the bike but it could certainly be lost by going too hard and having nothing left for the run.
So I knew the power range I needed to operate within and I was also monitoring my HR, aiming to keep it close to 130bpm on the climbs, bringing it down on the technical descents at the far end of the course. I broke the course into three parts. The biggest section was a long climb out of town which went up in steps and sweeping bends. This led to the technical section which was a fast, descent with lots of switchbacks to a dead turn and then back up the same road to meet the road we had come up. There was a short section of descending before another dead turn to retrace steps to the point at which we descended all the way back into town along the same sweeping road. This was scarily fast, no brakes required and trying to get as aero as possible as speed ramped up over 70kph. I loved it. Towards the bottom, the road surface became a bit bumpy and broken and so concentration was key to find the smoothest way through. This led into section 3 which I treated as a bit of recovery as it was in town, it felt quite intense, the road seemed narrower, the crowds were large and more bikes around. So I stayed off the skis and had my head up to be able to react quickly if anything appeared in the road in front of me. We went over the river a couple of times, through an industrial estate with lots of lefts and rights and then weaved our way back to the start of the next lap. Laps one and two went really well. I was controlled, felt great and simply stayed in the moment. On lap three I was beginning to fatigue, but kept to my nutrition plan which involved eating every 15 mins, drinking my super strength betafuel energy fluid, plus grabbing water at every feed station. As I took each water bottle I gave myself the challenge of taking a few huge mouthfuls, squirting lots over my head and shoulders and then discarding it before the end of the litter zone approximately 100m down the road.
By lap three I noticed more cyclists starting to come past me. I knew that they were the quick racers in the aquabike event that was also going on at the same time and I recognised that I shouldn’t be affected by how quickly they were going. Afterall they didn’t have to run 30km once they’d dismounted from their bikes. They weren’t in my race and so I knew I needed to ignore them or use them to help focus me back on the managed effort I was working to, but there were the odd moments when I allowed myself to get distracted with negative thoughts, especially during the long ascent of the first section. This was the hardest part as the hill seemed steeper the third time up, there was nothing new to observe and the power numbers were harder to hold onto. It’s at these crucial times in the race where it’s even more important to retain focus and dig in. I seem to be getting better and better at this and I came through this little wobble well. Once onto the technical section for the final time I was buzzing again, relishing the fact that I’d nailed it three times and was now just one long fast descent from T2. I attacked this final section before arriving back in town, mentally preparing for the long run. Enjoyment was my goal. Taking it one kilometre at a time was my challenge. Ok lets get ready.
Into T2 I came. As it was a world championship there were bike catchers ready to take our bikes and allow us to head straight to the change tent where we would find our final bag of kit for the run. The downside of the bike catchers is that you don’t see how many bikes are back in your AG and therefore getting a sense of your position in the race. It was much quieter in the tent this time. That had to be a good sign and I was really happy with my performance so far. I put my run shoes on, visor on, grabbed a caffeine gel and was about to exit when I noticed a Danish guy coming in. His number was very similar to mine and so that suggested he was in my AG. Ok I thought this means he’s going to be chasing me.
I set off out of transition feeling good, mentally checking in with all parts of my body. My head felt good. I wasn’t overheating. My shoulders were ok, not tight, arms were relaxed, hands loose, core strong, glutes firing nicely and legs felt surprisingly light.
I hadn’t done a recon of the run course but knew roughly where it was going. It consisted of two parts a bit like a figure of eight with the stadium in the middle. The first section was out along the river and through a park and the second part was a climb up through the old town and back to the stadium. Each lap was 7.5km so we had to run 4 laps. Lap one went in a flash. I was cruising along at an easy tempo that I knew that I should be able to sustain. It was a slightly slower pace to that I’d held throughout the 70.3 World Champs last September and so I hoped this should be sustainable. Onto lap two and I was still feeling good. Kathy had been trying to get information about my position in the race. She thought I was in 3rd position as I went out onto the 2nd lap and so I felt that pretty good about this but had not seen anyone around me that was in my AG. So where were they? Towards the end of lap two at a dead turn I noticed the Danish guy I’d seen coming into transition and he was definitely catching me. I couldn’t control what he was doing and was aware that I still had another 15km to go and so needed to simply focus on managing my own effort. I was feeling really composed and thinking clearly.
As we went onto lap 3 he came past me and he seemed to be going so much faster that I didn’t even contemplate trying to go with him. Suddenly the race became really hard. The air temperature seemed to rise significantly, the sun was really strong and there seemed to be no shade. My body started to hurt. My legs were screaming and my old friend, my chimp got out of his box. It was almost like he was running ahead of me, taunting me. “Stop, take a walk, you’ve had it. Use those aid stations to recover and refuel”. Every step became a battle against myself and I just refused to stop. I knew that if I walked through one aid station then that would become the new norm (and with 5 aid stations per lap that would be a lot of walking). At this stage I was confused about where I was in the race. If Kathy was right that I had been 3rd then surely now I must be 4th and I really didn’t want to come 4th again in a world championship. I had to battle on. I had to find a way of coming through this bad patch. I had to believe that the Dane could blow up, given the pace that he went past me, but every time I saw him on the third lap his lead was increasing. But there was still another lap to go and rather than thinking that this was more potential danger to me, I viewed it as the opportunity I needed to get into a medal spot. As I went onto the final lap Kathy had some new news. I was in 2nd place. The initial information she had been given was wrong as I came off the bike in the lead and had held this for the first 15km of the run.
This news was such a boost. It didn’t stop my legs from screaming but it did give me the belief to relax and enjoy the final few kilometres. I’d set out on the run with the intention of enjoying the occasion and apart from the very dark corridor I found myself in on the third lap I’d managed to do this. My 4th lap was quicker than my third but sadly I didn’t manage to close down on my Danish foe. After the climb up through town for final time I knew that I was going to hold on. Kathy was running alongside me, excitedly affirming the news that I was second and then I turned into the stadium to head down the home straight. The announcer called my name, confirmed that I was in 2nd place and I crossed the line feeling absolutely spent but totally elated. I was completely overwhelmed. It was amazing to know at that moment that I was indeed 2nd in the world championship. In every other race I’ve done there has always been a delay between finishing the race and discovering finishing position and I have to say that there is nothing quite like the feeling of knowing it as you cross the line. I had won a silver medal in the world championships. My dream of winning medals in both triathlon and duathlon at distances from sprints to long distance was real. I’d done it. I was overjoyed.
Once I’d composed myself I found Kathy and we shared an emotional embrace. I remember telling her that id pushed myself to my absolute limit. I knew I could not have given more nor converted that effort into a better performance on the day. I also remember commenting that 7 hours is a long time to be racing. I’m sure she must have been thinking, yes and 7 hours is a long time to be supporting too. The extra two hours really did take its toll. My body felt truly battered and the couple of steps onto the podium later that evening really did feel difficult, but what a moment. I was so proud, and you can see from the look on my face just what it meant to me.
I’ve done it. I’ve made my dream come true. Thank you to everyone for supporting me to become a triathlete. I could not have done it without you.