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?”

I love it when a plan comes together.

I love it when a plan comes together.

I love it even more when I can see evidence of a dream coming true.

Yesterday I ran the Liverpool Half Marathon. It’s a while since I’ve run a big City race with many thousands taking part and there is something really special about the atmosphere of these events. This gathering of people of all shapes, ages and ambitions to celebrate health and fitness, to enjoy being alive, filling bodies with fresh air, cheered on by loved ones is an example of humanity at its best. If you haven’t been along to support or participate in one of these great events then you really must. With 6500 people in the field yesterday, there were 6500 different stories and probably 6500 different reasons for taking part. What a fantastically inspiring way to start a Sunday.

For me, the reason for taking part was to test out my run form.

A year earlier I’d run a more low key half marathon near Wrexham with only around 10% of the field size and I had stunned myself by running a new Personal Best of 1 hour 26 mins and 59 seconds. I’d gone into that race hoping to run under 90 minutes and I chose that word “hope” very deliberately, because for years I’d felt that I had the potential to run under the 90 minute barrier but had never succeeded. I knew I’d trained well leading into that race, but proving I could do it created an uncertainty, a doubt about whether I had what it takes to convert potential into performance. Not only did I go under 90 mins ( I’d have been overjoyed with 89:59 ) but I truly smashed it by going more than 3 minutes under my target time.

So I’d done once, but could I do it again? Another year had gone by. I’d trained really well. Consistency has been excellent. I’ve not missed many sessions and I’ve completed them all in line with Coach Annie’s plan. I was ready to test out where I’m at ahead of another big season where I’ll be running many more half marathons, but just to make them a bit more of a challenge, they’ll be at the end of Middle Distance triathlon races.

Conditions were ideal. It was cool, bright and just a gentle breeze. Just before race began I got a message from Coach Annie. “Smash it” read the message. “Better do as I’m told”, thought I.

The race began at 9am sharp and runners filtered slowly across the start line. I took the first couple of miles easy as I had not been able to warm up ( 20 minute queues for the loo had put paid to that) and then at around 3 miles I caught up with the 90 minute pacer who was accompanied by a huge group of runners. As I approached them I was deciding whether to tuck in alongside them for a few miles as I was clearly going more quickly than might be sensible or go past straight away. My own pace felt comfortable and so I went past and didn’t give them another thought for the rest of the race.

We then entered Sefton Park and for the next 4 miles I enjoyed discovering what a beautiful public space this is. At 8 miles I decided it was time to take a gel. Last week in the duathlon I’d made the mistake of forgetting to have one with me and so this week I was better prepared. Fatigue was just beginning to kick in as a few little things were starting to bother me. The running surface suddenly seemed more uneven, the odd runner was now getting in my way( they weren’t it was just my interpretation ) the heavy “breathers” sounded louder in my head. I was mentally tired and starting to get irritated. It’s interesting though that physically I was still knocking out the miles as consistently as earlier. This tells me that I get mentally fatigued way before I get physically fatigued and my brain can easily trick me into slowing down if I let it.

Fortunately this didn’t happen. The gel worked its magic over the next mile or two and as I entered the last 3 miles I was once again sharp and focused on maintaining form to the finish. This was actually the trickiest part of the course. The riverfront promenade was twisting and turning with long sections of cobbles to deal with. It was definitely beginning to hurt but I was thinking straight and knew that I was heading for a special finishing time and so I just kept it going. I didn’t once try to calculate what my time might be. This felt unnecessary. I had the mindset that if I just focused on what I was doing which was staying relaxed, ensuring that I safely navigated each of the twists and turns, then the result would take care of itself. This worked as the last 5k was my fastest of the race. I entered the finishing straight and saw the clock had only just passed 1 hour 25 minutes.

One hour 25 minutes and 3 seconds was my finishing time. I was so happy. I’d well and truly smashed it! Kathy came rushing over to the finish and she knew straight away that I’d done something special. I could see in her eyes that she was delighted for me.

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Once again I’ve set a new personal best. I thought 1:27 was pretty good, but to take a further 2 mins off and set a new best of 1:25 is really exciting. Who knows where my limit will be? I’m just really enjoying the process of discovery and putting into practice my belief that we can be faster after 50.

I don’t know which part of the brain confidence comes from but the tap inside me is definitely wide open right now and confidence is flooding my body. Knowing that I am going faster than ever is such a powerful sensation. Hard evidence that proves that at 56 years of age I’m running faster that at any other moment in my life gives me such a boost of belief to keep chasing that dream of winning at Kona one day.

This race has been so important for reinforcing the power of benchmarking progress to build confidence that I know will help me as I prepare for my “A” races this season.

I’d better get back to training then!