Where does Inspiration Come From?

It’s been a very tough year and a half, but I’ve emerged on the other side with a new level of inspiration.

Both my parents have died after long, desperately difficult battles with dementia and strokes. I struggled with the prostate health problem that I’ve discussed previously. Racing didn’t go to plan either in 2016 and whilst I wanted to remain committed to my big long term goal of getting to Kona one day, I think deep down I have been questioning whether or not I’ve got what it takes to achieve this.

I am aware that through this difficult period I’ve been doing a bit of reframing. “Lets aim at 70.3 World Champs and see how I get on with that “ is a conversation that’s been going on in my head. This sounds like an athlete that is doubting himself and showing cracks in his commitment.

This is perhaps not surprising, given the context of the last year and a half. Helping to care for my parents and seeing them very slowly decline towards the inevitable end point of death has been hugely emotional. Without the distraction of training and racing, especially the opportunity to release all the painful emotions through hard exercise I’m not sure I could have kept being strong for them during the difficult final period of their lives. I also believe that my dedication to being fit and strong helped me get through the health scare. So on the one hand, my intensity and commitment to training has been a massive help to me, but on the other I have not been able to convert all the training into desirable performance outcomes that meet with my own expectations.

As a consequence, some disappointing 2016 results have been gnawing away at my commitment and belief to the big hairy goal. The clarity of why I want to go for it has been challenged, especially during those dark days of sitting with dying parents who have worked so hard all their lives only to see them apparently exiting the world so weak and helpless. What is the point of it all? It was pretty bleak at times.

However, out of all this pain and confusion a new level of inspiration has emerged. Inspiration that will be so significant that I’m convinced it will reinforce my commitment to my original long term goal. I started doing triathlon to see how good I could be and so I wanted to give myself the ultimate test by seeing just how good I can be at Ironman World Champs in Kona.

Where did this new found inspiration come from?

My Mum passed away on Jan 26th. She managed to eat her last bit of real food at our house on Christmas day. She was already extremely weak and tired. Her race was seemingly pretty much run. Despite being totally dependant on others for everything at this point, she showed such grace, dignity and joy for what little she had left. Everyday from then her physical condition took another step down and on 12th January she was declared as being in her end of life phase. All medication was stopped. She confounded everyone as she continued to live for a further two weeks with the same poise and courage. She was determined to show what real strength could achieve as she left this world.

I was lucky enough to be with her as she finally passed away and at that moment I realized she was leaving me with one last gift.

So, her parting lesson to me, that I will take as my inspiration for the enormous challenges ahead, was surely that when you think you have nothing left to give, there is still much more within you, if only you have the courage and grace to find it, and when you think that you have been dealt a bad hand, accept it with a smile and find a way of turning it to your advantage.

So when I’m racing in future and I get that inevitable feeling of being empty, when I feel as though I’ve given my all, when the voices in my head are screaming at me to stop, I know I can use my Mum as inspiration and dig deep for those untapped resources of strength and energy that exist within us all.

My inspiration has come from this period of personal sadness and I hope I can use it to drive me forward towards my goal. I know how proud my parents would have been.

Peak District Triathlon 3 July

 

What a cracker of a race!

The Chatsworth Estate is an inspiring venue for a race right in the heart of the beautiful Peak District, and when coupled with a still, sunny early morning it created a magical environment that more than made up for the fact that all bikes had to be racked and ready to go by 6:30am (despite my start time not being until 8:20am).

After the torrential rain of the previous day, the race village was pretty wet, but the roads had dried up nicely and the conditions were set for great racing.

Xtramile Events, the race organizer are very good at putting on a race and when it became clear that there was congestion trying to get 1000 competitors onto the site between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m they dealt with it all very quickly and put the start of the race back by 15 minutes. It’s not what they did, but the calm way that they did it that seemed to relax everyone and prevent any unnecessary stress so early on a race day. Well done Xtramile.

Today I was racing the sprint as a warm up and a bit of speed training before my next “A” race (Ironman 70.3 Jonkoping) in Sweden next weekend. This season I’ve used a similar strategy to prepare for my other “A” races and its proved successful so I was hoping to keep it going.

Given that I had 2 hours between racking my bike and my start I was under no pressure and took things very gently. It was great to catch up with Erdinger Pete and Cath and have a warm up with fellow Erdinger team-mate Garry. All was going well as I went back into transition to put on my wetsuit and get ready for the swim start. However, the zip on my trusty Erdinger tri suit jammed and wouldn’t zip up. Despite the help of the full Erdinger crew we couldn’t dislodge it and so had to improvise so that I could start. It’s amazing what a few safety pins and some packing tape can do!

CmbNn3EXEAEPrDgRelieved, I headed off to the swim start arriving just in time for my wave to enter the water. 12 degrees was mighty bracing and the 60 second wait for the start gun seemed like an eternity.

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Once we got going I forgot about how cold the water was as I was too focused on trying to find a small amount of it that I could swim in. It was so crowded and the River Derwent through the Chatsworth estate is fairly narrow and shallow at the edges so the swimmable channel was limited to say the least. The downside of improving my swim speed is that it takes a lot longer for me to find any clear water and it wasn’t until we got to the turn buoy at 375 m that it seemed to settle down. The good news though is that my improving technique now gives me the confidence to hold my lines and fight for my position in the water. I’m definitely getting there. I felt like I swam well on the return and was soon exiting the river to head back up the field to transition, dodging the sheep pooh along the way!

My new wetsuit has proved tricky to get off to date and today I probably had more challenges than before. During the run back to T1 I would usually have the upper part of the wetsuit off ready to kick it free from my legs as I get to the bike. Today however I didn’t manage to get it off my arms and ran into transition with both arms trapped. So I lost time doing my Houdini impression and then made things worse by getting the clasps on both my helmet and race belt stuck. 1:51 in T1 was not v impressive and probably cost me all the time I’d made up through swimming faster! Heh ho, at least this is something that should be easy to correct and then I’ll be really hunting down the fast swimmers.

Out onto the bike I went. Today, we were being given special access to the private drive of the Devonshire family which led us alongside the river and out onto the public roads. I don’t know what they have been doing on this road but it was covered the whole way with a thick layer of, what I assume were, animal droppings. By the time we reached the road my bike was coated in this thick slime….nice ( 1st job when I got home was to give my flying machine a good clean!).

After 3km we entered the village of Beeley and headed up the 3-4km steady climb to the top of Curbar Edge. This was my kind of climb as it was not too steep and by tapping out a nice cadence I went past dozens of fellow competitors. Over the top I went and slotted straight back into the big ring and found a superb rhythm that powered me all the way back to Chatsworth. Even the section of road on the return that had its top layer skimmed off didn’t cause me any issues as I decided to take my lead from the Paris-Roubaix boys who talk about going hard to skim across the cobbles. It worked for me and I was soon arriving back at T2. There was a long run across the sodden fields from the dismount line and I was feeling very pleased with my decision to race sockless for the 1st time. Bare feet dealt with the mud and puddles very easily. A much quicker T2 got me back out and onto the run course. This was a brute. It’s all off road on a combination of muddy paths, fields and rough tracks. Its 2.5km up hill and then 2.5km straight back down again. The ascent is a leg burner, pace is irrelevant its just about getting to the top in one piece so that you can then let it all go on the way down.

With a thousand competitors on the course at the same time it created a great atmosphere on the run as friends and family generated lots of noise and encouragement.

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I crossed the line smiling from ear to ear in 1:19:34, after a 23:14 run which is the slowest 5km time I’ve recorded for a long time. But this is not a fast course. Its got long transitions and each of the 3 legs has its own special challenges. So the time doesn’t matter here, it’s the experience that counts and this is what makes it a very special race. I had a real buzz and spring in my step.

As I helped out pouring Erdinger for all the finishers I could see that it wasn’t just me that thought this was such a special race. Everyone was smiling, exhilarated, swapping stories of their own race and their own interpretations of the brute of the hill at the end, the shock of the river, the challenge of the bike course. I think they’ll all be back again.

Well done XtraMile for putting on such a great event. Huge thanks to Erdinger for their continued support to me and especially today for the running repairs that got me to the start line.

Oh, and I later found out that I finished 2nd in my AG and given that this was a 2017 European Champs Qualifier and therefore attracted a pretty high quality field it shows just how much I’m improving as a triathlete.

Chuffed!

What great preparation for next week. If I can get my wetsuit off (and wear a trisuit that works), who knows what I might be able to do !

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?”

Race Report. Aviles, Spain. June 5 2016. World Duathlon Championships

Race day arrived and I woke having slept relatively well, which I interpreted as a good sign. I felt calm and ready. It was almost time for the big test of the World Championships again. A pre breakfast jog confirmed that my legs were ready to race. No heaviness or fatigue. “Steal springs” perhaps, but I’d be deluded if I felt I’d be able to run at the speed of a leapord like that character in Gallipolli….maybe a 57 year old leopard though!

Our taxi arrived on time and he found his way around all the local road blocks easily, delivering me to the race start area in good time. All the variables that were out of my control were now behind me. Everything was going well. Surely it was going to be a brilliant day.

I checked my bike in transition, pumped up tires, fitted bike shoes and my set up was done. Warm-up was completed and I was ready to go. The usual nerves started to kick in as we were called to the holding pens but it was excitement rather than fear that I was feeling.

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The start gun fired and we were off. I felt alive and the huge crowds were inspiring as we ran through the main arena and out alongside the river. My stride pattern was good and it felt like I was running well but I think in the excitement of the event I went off a bit too fast, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. After the first half lap (of two) a number of guys in my AG started to come past me and by the time we had reached about 8k I was down in 12th/13th place. This was not where I’d expected to be, but ok, I’ll have to fly on the bike to get back into contention.

IMG_0075During the last 2k back to transition I worked hard to hold my position and keep calm. Once I got out onto the bike I felt great. I got into my rhythm really quickly and began reeling in the faster runners. By the time I reached the foot of the one hill on the course after approximately 10k I had two quick Americans in my sights. I went past them with relative ease and felt this surge of excitement. I was now definitely back in the race and over the next 30k I could really impose myself. Down the other side of the hill I went, taking a moment to recover and then I noticed one of the Americans come past me again. Rather than letting him get into the sharp corner at the bottom first, I stupidly decided I wanted to show him who was in control and I pushed on and took a more aggressive approach into the corner.

Instantly I realized this was a mistake. I was coming into the corner too quickly and hadn’t given myself enough room. I hit the brakes hard to take some speed out before I needed to turn, but I hit them too hard, the wheels locked up and I was sent head first over the bars. I think I hit the ground first hard on my right hip and then somersaulted forward on my back before springing pretty much straight up onto my feet. At some point in this action my shoes came free from the pedals and the bike went in a different direction and thankfully didn’t cause anyone else to crash. I would have been even more disappointed if I’d ruined anyone else’s race.

My world stopped for a second or two. The huge crowd gathered at this corner took in a collective deep breath. I was dazed, confused, in a state of shock. I couldn’t understand what had happened and was frozen to the spot. As I turned around and saw my bike the crowd began to cheer. It was lying in the road and I went over and picked it up. The wheels seemed to be running freely. The handle bars seemed straight and aligned properly. The drivetrain was intact. The bike seemed ok.

My body was screaming in pain, especially my hip and back but I instinctively got back on and started gingerly peddling away. With this, the crowds went crazy. Under the direction of the local PA system they started chanting my name. “Hollins, Hollins, Hollins” was ringing out right along the waterfront and I was overcome with emotion as I slowly rode away, confused about what happened and what to do next.

My first thought was that my race was now over. I couldn’t get back into contention after such an horrific crash and so I’d ride back to transition to retire. A motorbike came alongside me and the rider was concerned for my health. He tracked me for a few minutes before I reassured him that I was ok to make my own way back. I then remembered I had a gel on the bike and so I took it. This helped to calm me down and as I slowly rode the 7k back towards transition I took my awareness around my body, checking out the physical situation. Apart from my hip that was thumping with pain, the rest of the body seemed ok. Only a few months ago, id experienced a similar hip pain on the left side ( another bike crash!!) and knew that riding hadn’t caused any further problems on that occasion. So my thinking began to change. I decided to complete the bike course and then see how I felt when I tried to run. Its not everyday you have the honour of competing in a world championship and so I wanted to give my all.

I set off on lap two, with a view to simply enjoy the rest of the race. I might not win but I was going to relax and soak up the awesome atmosphere that was being generated by the combination of team supporters and locals who were out in their thousands to cheer on the athletes. Once I relaxed, I found I was riding strongly again and soon began overtaking lots of other competitors. As I approached the infamous corner on the second lap I went into it much more cautiously. To my surprise the crowd recognised me instantly and the cheering and chanting  “Hollins, Hollins, Hollins” began again. I was overwhelmed by their support for me and this certainly endorsed my decision to continue. I pushed on further. By the time I approached T2 I could see that I had re caught a number of guys in my age group that I had overtaken prior to crashing out. This gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I was going to finish, even if it meant walking the last 5k. The moment of truth arrived at the dismount line. Was I able to run? Good news, the pain through my hip did not stop me from running and so I went through the long transition with the bike, changed into my run shoes and set off.

As I came out of T2 I saw Kathy and decided to tell her that I’d crashed just in case she was concerned about why I’d been so long on the bike. The fact that I was running should reassure her that I’m ok, was my reasoning.

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I took it easy over the first kilometre or so and then realised that I was running ok and so pushed on. I think my 2nd lap was quicker than my 1st and as I ran back towards the finishing arena I could see a number of athletes ahead. I began to pick them off and managed to overtake at least one guy in my age group.

I crossed the line feeling hugely proud that I’d battled on to finish the race despite the crash. I thought I would perhaps finish in the top 15 after all the time I lost, so was totally chuffed to discover that I finished 8th. A top 10 finish in the world championships after crashing is probably as good a performance as in any previous championships when I’ve been lucky enough to win medals…..and its certainly a performance that I’ll never forget!

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What did I learn?

Its crucial to stay calm and “in the present” at all times when racing. I allowed myself to get overexcited by the fact that I was reeling in those competitors in my AG that had run faster than me. In less than 10k I’d gone past at least 6 and knew that I was capable of putting myself into a medal position by the time I got off the bike. However, I made a huge error and took too much of a risk going into that corner. I knew the corner was there, I knew it was a tricky one to negotiate and yet I simply failed to give it the consideration it deserved because I wanted to get through it ahead of one of my American rivals. The reward for doing this would have been negligible and given I’d already made up more than 30 secs on him in 10k, I was surely going to put much more time into him over the next 30k of the bike leg. But in the heat of the race, I didn’t think straight and was too aggressive going into that corner.

So the 2nd bit of learning is about risk-reward. The rewards for taking risks need to be significant to even consider taking them. If not, back off.

And finally. It’s never over until it’s over. To get 8th place finish, less than 1 minute behind 5th after all the time lost and the damage done seems pretty remarkable and acts as proof to me that I should never give up.

I’m going to take a week off racing now and give myself time to recover properly before building up to the next biggie of the season which is a trip to Sweden for Jonkoping 70.3 in July.

My thanks as ever to my amazing wife Kathy for her love, support, patience and selflessness. Also big thanks to everyone in Aviles and ITU involved with organising this wonderful event, Jez Cox and his team, plus the whole of the GB team for creating such a wonderful team spirit.

72 hours on: Reflections from Windsor Duathlon

I thought I should follow up from Sundays Windsor Duathlon race report with a few reflections now that I’ve had a couple of days to process the event.

But first I would like to congratulate all the medalists from Sunday and especially Messrs Mahon, Wood and Pollitt who won the medals in the Mens 55-59 AG. Duncan Wood and Martyn Pollitt dealt with the disruption of being held up mid race brilliantly to come back and finish really strongly, thoroughly deserving to win their medals, thus knocking me out of the top 3 in the process. Here is the revised result:

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Now, when I crossed the line I was wonderfully knackered and experiencing that sense of exhaustion that comes from really testing yourself to your physical limits. It’s a pretty euphoric sensation and it can tend to distort your view of what’s real. When things have gone well then the feeling is total elation and when things have not gone to plan then the world can feel like its about to come to an end. Neither is rarely true even if it absolutely feels that way in the moment. But on Sunday I was experiencing a mixture of confused emotion. I thought I’d won a medal, which gave me such a high for several hours, but on the other hand I knew I hadn’t quite nailed the performance and at that time I was ready to blame external factors.

With the benefit of 72 hours to reflect, to gather more information relating to the results confusion and importantly to offload the unhelpful feelings I was experiencing, I’m now in a mental place to learn from the event.

Reflection is such a powerful performance tool as it can help to identify the important factors that have impacted on an outcome such that they can be built on or changed the next time, or if they are out of your control then they can be forgotten about.

The controllable factors for me from Sunday were:

  • Dealing with the conditions: I got most of it right in that I stuck to my normal transition bike set up routine but I should have carried the bike out to mount line “cyclo-cross style” to get my bike leg off to a faster start.
  • Dealing with my chimp factor: since my Gran Canaria camp with TriSutto I’ve been wrestling with what to do about my bike as its too small and I’m now just waiting for the new bike to arrive. In the meantime I should have been much more relaxed about the bike and used my past performances as evidence that I can ride strongly on it. Instead I think I was looking out for any indications that reinforced the negativity I’ve been feeling and on the first lap I found lots of examples to get my chimp agitated. This definitely cost me time on the bike.
  • Avoiding distractions on run two: as I get tired I must continue to focus on what enables me to run well and not get distracted by such things as the race commentary, the pace of others, what might be ahead etc. I need to stay in my bubble where I know what to do and how to get the most out of myself. On Sunday I forgot all this!
  • Run hard until the end. Ultimately its about getting the most out of yourself and if you do this then the result will take care of itself. I found myself scanning the other runners to see who was coming from behind to ensure that I held off others who may have been in my race rather than ensuring that I squeezed every last drop from myself.
  • Roll with the punches better. Things will always go wrong and often these are out of your control so I need to ensure that I don’t get bothered by things I can’t do anything about…..and on Sunday there were more of these than at most events!

Finally, given the theme of my blog “Faster After 50” and inspiring others to chase their dreams I can’t finish without giving huge respect to Gill Fullen who missed out by a mere 5 seconds on being crowned overall Womens National Champion whilst representing the 50-54 AG. Gill you are phenomenal and an inspiration to us all.

The Windsor Duathlon : Queues, Quagmire, Queen and Query

Wow that was one tough race. A stunning setting with challenging conditions.

My experience of the inaugural Windsor Duathlon, hosting the British Championships, left me with a battered set of legs, a memorable return to Windsor two years after moving away and a sprinkling of confusion over the results.

The executive summary would read: Queues to get into the car park caused the race to be delayed. The race delay led to The Queen’s plans to drive across the course to cause havoc with the race and this led to confusion over finish times that have left me considering querying the result. Oh, and the quagmire around transition added a whole new level of challenge to what was already a pretty tough mornings fun!

So, to my race report.

Race morning was bright and chilly. I only had a two mile ride down to the start so I didn’t have to endure the stress of many of the competitors who were stuck in traffic queues waiting to get into the race car park before 7:30am. Not a great start to their days, I can imagine and the queues just kept getting longer so ultimately the race organisers decided to delay the start of the racing by 30 mins. The heavy ground conditions were making it difficult to park cars safely.

Fun and games really began in transition which was sited in possibly the boggiest part of the Great Park and being a former local I can confirm that this area is always likely to flood with a bit of bad weather!

As athletes began coming in and out of transition to set up bikes etc the whole area was quickly churning up and turning into a mudbath. These unique conditions were playing havoc with mindsets as experienced athletes were changing their normal bike set up regimes as whispers went around about whether the mud would make it more difficult to put bare feet into cycle shoes after running through the quagmire to the mount line. For a minute or two I even found myself questioning my normal strategy, but then quickly came to my senses and reminded myself to stick to what I know. I prepared my bike as normal, with shoes clipped in ready for my feet to slip into at the mount line. This was definitely the right thing to do.

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Race briefings are a mandatory part of every event and they are a bit like the safety briefing on an airline. Everyone is half listening and half focusing internally on what is about to happen. Right at the end of this briefing however my focus was brought fully back to the briefing as we were informed that the race was due to be held up at some point between 1030 and 1100 as the Queen and some Royal friends and family were going to drive across the course. Was I imagining this? Was it April 1st? No, it was real. The announcer went on to explain that a timing mat would be set up either side of the road that the Royal Party would pass through so that any athletes held up would have their timing chip stopped on one side of the road and restarted when they crossed the mat on the far side plus these affected athletes would be given a 20 second bonus for inconvenience! I can’t imagine a more bizarre set of circumstances for a race, but we were being given the treat of using The Queens back garden so I guess this was the price we were paying for getting access.

The race started at the foot of a stinging climb heading towards the “Copper Horse” with one mass wave of all male standard athletes jostling for a good position. The hill goes up in three steps and was a punishing way to begin. Once at the top we then had a fast flat section that led onto the beautiful polo fields. The first 6k was all on roads and then the terrain changed to footpaths and then a long downhill section on a sandy horse trail. This was the bit I was least looking forward to as it is normally loose sand but fortunately it had all been compacted and so was pretty good to run on. Once we emerged from this forested section it was then cross country across fields of mud before popping out onto the long walk for the final section back to transition. This was a tough first run and so I was pleased to have completed it in a solid time.

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The mud was definitely getting thicker as we approached transition, so I gave myself one tiny reminder to do what I normally do and before I knew it I was heading out after a fairly smooth transition. In hindsight I should have carried my bike “cyclo-cross style” out of transition as the tyres picked up lots of mud which caused a few issues over the first mile on the road but once this cleared I forgot about the mud.

The bike leg was four laps of an undulating technical course which was made even more tricky with the sheer volume of riders on the narrow Park roads. The first half of each lap was twisting with lots of short punchy hills, so very difficult to get into a rhythm. A few close calls with other riders who made unexpected lateral movements in front of me didn’t help to settle me down and I found the first lap very hard mentally. My legs didn’t feel good, I couldn’t get into a relaxed position and then I realised that my saddle had dropped. My “chimp” was now getting into overdrive and I spent the rest of the 1st lap battling with myself to think positively. By the time I got onto lap two I was in a much better mental place. This definitely relaxed me physically and I then began to enjoy the challenge of the two distinct halves of the course. The 1st half brought the twists, the changes of gear on the climbs, a few little moments out of the saddle, the chance to hydrate and take on fuel, whilst the back half of each lap was about sitting in the best aero position I could find given the lower saddle and powering a big gear. I felt I was performing better as each lap went on and once the sprint athletes had completed their two laps it was much easier to navigate the thinned out traffic and push on with confidence.

Turning right at the end of the 4th lap for the final mile down the Long Walk with Windsor Castle in the background was truly spectacular. This for me was possibly the best moment during any race. There did not seem to be anyone else on the road at this precise moment and I had this awesome view to myself. Maybe I got distracted by this because before I knew it I was at the dismount zone and misjudged my dismount by perhaps a quarter of a wheel length. Unlike most events there was not a line across the road so (in my defence!) it was really hard to know exactly where the line was. I should have dismounted a few metres earlier as this mistake cost me time. The official called me back and made me stand for what seemed an eternity before releasing me back into the trenches of transition. Fresh shoes were waiting for me and off I went, gingerly picking my way towards the timing mat at the edge of transition.

I often describe the sensation of running off the bike as being a bit like running through treacle. The legs are heavy, the blood seems to be in all the wrong places and the brain hasn’t yet worked out that you are now trying to propel yourself on foot again. Well imagine this normal sensation combined with actually running through a treacle like muddy field for at least 400 meters to reach the stability of the “Long Walk” metalled road. I almost lost my shoes twice in the mud but managed to navigate my way to safety and was given a real boost as the race commentator recognized me, and flatteringly mentioned me in his announcements. The second run was a dead straight out and back loop of 2.5 km. The first lap was agony as my legs were struggling but then on the second lap I began to feel stronger and think I picked up the pace a bit, although the time for this 2nd run was poor, so maybe I was imagining it!

The beauty of these out and back runs is that you can usually eyeball your competitors but the problem yesterday was that there were no distinguishing features such as colour or letter coding to identify the different age groups. Given that this was the British Championships I think it was a shame that this hadn’t been done.

I finally crossed the line feeling totally spent. I’d given my all and was totally satisfied with how I’d performed. I’d made a couple of errors but overall I’d done a really good job and was delighted to hear on the tannoy that I was across the line in a medal position (unofficially).

Now I’ve never done well in the British Championships so the thought of a medal was massively exciting. For a couple of hours I was elated until I was shown a copy of the updated results that revised my finish position to 4th. Its still unclear to me what happened but I can only assume that the guys who were finally placed 2nd and 3rd were caught up in the Queens crossing incident. If so, they must have been behind me at this point in the race as my wife told me later that I went through the crossing point just before the Queen arrived and so I was blissfully unaware of any disruption this may have caused behind. My split times for each leg of the race appear to add up to a faster overall time than the guys placed 2nd and 3rd and so I am assuming that their “finish time” is their actual chip time whereas the splits represent the times at each point from the start.  I hope that there is a clear explanation and the results can be adjusted to reflect the true reality of what happened. You can see below how the results are currently being shown.

I’ve spoken with BTF and they are going to get back to me.

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Whatever happens it was a great day. We caught up with a number of friends that we haven’t seen for ages, I got cheered on by, hopefully, the next generation of duathletes and I got another strong race in my legs. But, where was the Erdinger Alkoholfrei as we crossed the finish line to recover with? I missed you!

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So now its back to training to prepare for the next biggie, European Long Distance Championships in Copenhagen next month.

 

Stepping Up a Notch and a Return To Windsor

This weekend things step up a gear as it’s the first standard distance duathlon race of the season for me.

I did a sprint duathlon a month ago and I gave my run legs a good test over a half marathon three weeks ago. The body responded really well to both and I’m so happy with the way I’m recovering from these races. Much better discipline towards nutrition, massage and foam rolling is paying massive dividends as I’m not getting injured nor am I needing to take long periods of time to get ready to train hard again.I can’t emphasise enough just how much of a difference this makes to the way I feel about everything and how much belief it instills.

The last 3 week block has involved a few monster sessions and I love the challenge of completing these tough workouts. They are very different to racing as there are no distractions and it is all about how well the session can be executed. Even so, the physical challenge can be just as demanding. Not only that, but the mental benefits that come from training on the edge are always helpful assertions for me on race day. I just love training hard as it gives me a feeling of being so alive and testing myself.

I think I’m ready to step up another distance notch.

This weekend its back to racing and it is the Windsor Duathlon. Windsor is hosting the British Championships and it’s a few years since I’ve competed in the Brits. I’ve never done well in the past, so it will be interesting to see how I get on. I’m really excited to be going back to Windsor to race as its two years since we left the town and moved out of our home of over 20 years. There will no doubt be lots of fond memories swirling around in my head during the build up to the race and hopefully we will have a chance to catch up with lots of friends afterwards. Windsor Great Park is hosting the race and we are really lucky as it has been opened up for racing for the very first time and I know it will be a brilliant venue.

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What makes it even more special for me is that these roads and trails of the Great Park used to be my training venue of choice. The short punchy climbs that make up the bike course were where I started to take this sport seriously so hopefully my legs will remember how to smash it up them without going too far into the red until the last lap at least. And the run laps will be equally familiar as I’ve completed hundreds of sessions along these roads and trails. I can’t wait to get back there and compete.

I’ll let you all know how it goes!

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!