The road to success is full of challenges

We were lucky enough to head over to Denmark recently for the European 70.3 Championships. This was the 1st time this event was being held outside of Germany and the local Ironman team were keen to ensure that this switch was seen as a success. In my view, this was an outstanding event. A challenging course with lots of twists and turns in each of the three disciplines, superb organization that was well thought through for athletes and a stunning venue based around the beauty of Elsinore harbour and Kronberg Castle. The local people were incredibly welcoming and helpful. The weather on race day was also perfect. Cloudless skies and the temperature rising with every hour, so all the more incentive to get to the finish-line as fast as possible!

It was also my first time to be involved in an Ironman Championship event. The scale of the production was huge, so much grander than an ITU sanctioned event and with 2500 athletes there was a fantastic buzz around the whole race village. It felt more like a festival than a race event. The build up to race day was full of excitement.

We arrived on Thursday and had plenty of time to get our bearings, reccie the courses and ensure that registration was taken care of before the crowds arrived. At registration I had to make my first key decision of the race. Which of the swim waves did I want to start in? It was a self-selecting process with the fastest swimmers heading off first. The cut off for the 1st wave was 35 minutes and I estimated that I should be capable of completing 1900m in just about 35 mins, therefore I opted to start in this first wave. Anyone who has been following my blog will know that the swim has been my achilles heel over the years of triathlon and so to now have developed to the point where I can be classified as part of the fastest group of swimmers is a massive achievement for me. Before I’d even set foot in the water I’d accomplished something and was taking huge confidence into the race.

To minimize chaos at the start, Ironman are now using rolling starts whereby only a small number (in this race it was 4 people) will pass over the start mat every 10 seconds. This provides a bit more room to get into the swim at the beginning and find some rhythm. After a good warm up in the harbour, getting used to the water temperature of 15% the blue caps, (that included me), were called out and asked to head for the start funnel. My plan had been to try to position myself towards the back of the blue wave so that most of the really quick swimmers would be infront of me, but I seemed to find myself somewhere in the middle and once the mass of bodies began to move towards the start mats I simply had to go with the flow. Oh well, I’m sure it will be fine I told myself.

Pre race ElsinoreKathy found me as the mass of neoprene clad humanity inched forward towards the jetty, we had a little pep talk and a kiss for good luck and then I was off into the water. I felt really good as we headed for the first turn, enjoying the sense of rapid forward progress that comes from swimming in a pack. Early on I was holding my own and got around several more bouys without incident. Then things started to get messy. A flailing arm ( not mine I must add) knocked my new goggles sideways but somehow I managed to adjust them without losing too much momentum, but then an endless stream of faster swimmers used me as a kickboard and I found myself getting agitated and then angry. I was hurling abuse (in my head) and trying to hold my position in the water. I realised getting angry wasn’t helpful, refocused on relaxing again and decided to try to get a bit closer to the harbour wall where there might be a tad more room. A few more bouys to negotiate and then I could see the exit arch ahead. I was glad to get out of the water, still a bit shell shocked at the dogfight it had been, but at the same time feeling as though I’d coped pretty well. You can see from this picture at the swim exit just how discombobulated I look as I emerge from the water.

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Kathy was positioned by transition and shouted out to me that I’d been going 36 minutes and I assumed this was the time to where she had seen me rather than for the swim itself. Based on this information, I was reassured and set off on the 90km bike leg in really good spirits.

I’d ridden most of the bike course over the previous few days and knew that it was going to be fast, with a high numbers of tricky corners but no daunting leg stinging climbs. The first 10k or so was along the coast into the wind and with lots of similarly matched cyclists I was on high alert not to be seen as drafting. At times it is difficult, but with either a short sharp effort to overtake or a brief pause to take a drink I was able to maintain the legal 12m distance between myself and others. Distance markers were given every 10km and so early on I worked out that a sub 2:30 bike split could be achievable. As each 10km was ticked off I was still holding this pace.

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3_m-100767682-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1912_000318-8521799As we came back into town around 65km and headed out on the second part of the course I was starting to struggle with overheating. My head felt so hot, but frustratingly pouring water onto my helmet did nothing to provide relief.

29_m-100767682-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1912_063377-8521825My aero helmet only has minimal ventilation and over the last 30km my core temperature was probably continuing to rise. Despite feeling more uncomfortable I was able to hold my speed and got back into T2 well under 2:30.

I knew at this point that I was well on course to smash my pre race goal of going Sub 5. A half decent run around 1:35 would put me close to 4:45 finish time and the run is my strength so I grabbed a couple of gels, sunglasses and visor to keep the sun off my face and set off on the half marathon with much excitement. My plan was to take the first lap of 4 very steady and then build the pace as each lap went on. My legs felt good as I followed the route around the outside of bike transition, but after a few minutes I became aware of just how hot I was feeling and how high my heart race was getting. I needed to get to the first aid station to grab water and get it over my head. Having walked through the aid station I felt a bit better and set off again towards the castle but pretty soon realised that my temperature was shooting up again. In a quiet shady section of the course I took another sneaky walk before coming out into the crowded streets of Elsinore. The first lap was really difficult as I had to reassess my plan.

I figured that my body temperature was out of control and so decided that the best way to get to the finish was now to treat this run as an interval session, with recovery coming at each of the aid stations where I would walk, get as much water over my head as possible, sip on electrolyte solution and generally try to get my heart rate down. Once I’d made this new plan it became so much easier to execute the rest of the race. I kept an eye on the clock and knew that my pre race goal of Sub 5 was still achievable. I knocked off the laps, focusing on getting from one aid station to the next as efficiently and relaxed as possible.

Soon I was going around the castle for the final time and within sight of the finish shoot. I saw my name come up and the timer ticking over towards 4:58. I’d done it, but wanted to see if I could cross the line before the clock got to 4:58. A last burst and I got there in 4:57:59.

It was great to know that I’d achieved my Sub 5 goal, but I knew that I’d run really badly. Kathy was waiting at the finish area and I was so pleased and relieved to see her. The physical effort of putting it all out there always seems to trigger tears and this race was no different. This time it was especially poignant as it was Fathers Day and I was suddenly overwhelmed with thoughts of my late dad who would have been so proud to know that I had achieved another significant goal.

As I recovered over an extremely well deserved Erdinger Alkoholfrei I started to reflect on what had just happened during the race.

Post race Erdinger ElsinoreI was really pleased with the way that I’d executed the race and dealt with the unforeseen challenges that it had thrown up. The dogfight of the swim, the constant adjustments on the bike to avoid drafting and my overheating on the run could all have been race wrecking situations, but I kept a really clear head and overcame them. More than that though, as I’d put together a PB swim of 35:23 and I’d banged out a bike split of 2:28:51 despite struggling with overheating over the last hour. That was worth celebrating.

However, as we sipped another Erdinger I couldn’t get beyond the fact that I had run badly. What had caused me to let at least 10 minutes slip away? The competitor in me was desperate to know just how crucial those 10 minutes would prove to be in the final race positions.

It wasn’t long before I found out. I was 10th. 10th in European Championship is good. 10th in Europe is a mark of real progress of how far I have come as a triathlete. But those vital 10 minutes made the difference between 10th and 2nd. This was a missed medal opportunity. But racing, just like life is not about could haves and should haves, its about what you actually do that counts.

Rather than dwell on the medal that might have been I can take away encouragement from the fact that I’m now a contender at this triathlon distance racing in Europe. I know there is more to come from me and that gives me lots of motivation to continue putting in the hard work in training. Two years ago I wouldn’t have believed it. I really am getting faster after fifty.

Kathy and I enjoyed a really chilled evening in Elsinore. We strolled back into town to watch the awards being given, visited the lovely Street Food market and then went back to our hotel to sit in their deckchairs and share a bottle of wine. As the sun began to go down over The Baltic we both agreed that we were so lucky to be able to do these wonderful trips. Elsinore is another one of the real gems of the world that we would never have come to if it wasn’t for racing. Life is good.

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”

Where to start?

I guess to reassure everyone that I’m ok. I’ll be out of action for a little while, whilst I try to get to the bottom of what caused my problems during the race but I’ll be back stronger and better prepared for having endured what I went through on the streets of Jonkoping!

I’d never been more excited in the days leading up to a race. It was going to be my first official Ironman 70.3 race and it was our first time in Sweden. The scale of the whole event dwarfed most other things I’ve been involved with for the way it took over the whole community. ITU and ÉTU championships are great and have brilliant atmospheres but the excitement around the town of Jonkoping for their first ever Ironman event was captivating and a privilege to be part of.

I felt ready and my performances over the previous couple of weeks suggested I was hitting a peak level of fitness and form just at the right time. This was the race I’d been looking forward to all year and I had a well of confidence that was building inside.

We arrived in Jonkoping a couple of days early and had a chance to look around. It’s somewhere that we would never think of coming to unless it was for a race and I’m so glad that we’ve been. The setting on the enormous Lake Vattern is stunning and for a town of less than 100,000 it has amazing facilities for its people (and having visited the inside of its leading edge hospital it was like being transported into a very bright future compared to our overstretched NHS ). We enjoyed a relaxing day exploring the bike course which took us through some stunning countryside, stumbled across a fabulous restaurant for lunch and most importantly took even more confidence from the terrain. The toughest section was over the 1st 40km and so once I’d ridden this as practice I knew how hard to push to ensure that I could really go to town over the second half. Confidence was building even more.

2016-07-09 12.25.06Race day arrived and the conditions were pretty much perfect. It was cool, overcast and the high winds of the previous days had dropped to simply a steady breeze. It was going to be a memorable day.

The added complications of transition with red and blue bags and changing tents all seemed to be falling my way as I had the ideal slots at the end of racks and would have no problems finding my things. The stars were aligning beautifully!

2016-07-09 14.36.30A short warm up swim calmed me down and helped get me in the zone for the start. An enchanting rendition of the Swedish national anthem just before the Pro start brought a tear to my eye and reinforced what a special day this was going to be.

Ironman races seem to begin with a rolling start to minimize the washing machine effect and so the 2000 competitors slowly edged their way to the start line with 4 swimmers at a time being released down the ramp and into the water.

The swim course could not have been more straight forward. Up the lake for 900m, turn left for 100m, turn left again and swim back for 900m. Easy. I swam ok and did not get passed by too many others. The last 400m was hard as I was beginning to get a combination of tired, bored of swimming in a straight line with nothing else to think about and a tad anxious that my heart rate was a bit high. I was glad to reach the swim exit and pleased with my legs as they got immediately into a smooth run along the blue carpet towards transition.

My thoughts now turned to getting out of the wetsuit. Would I be able to execute this today or struggle as I’ve been doing recently?  Zip down, Velcro released, out popped my shoulders and my arms were out without any drama. Easy. “Can’t wait to tell Annie” I thought as I ran towards T1.

It must have been 800m to transition and so plenty of time to take stock of how I was feeling. My most over-riding thought was that my heart was still racing and this felt very odd and so I tried to breathe deeply and slowly to bring it down, without any joy.2016-07-09 14.35.15

Once into T1 I grabbed my bike bag and headed into the tent. Wetsuit was removed seamlessly, helmet on quickly, swim stuff put back into the bag and away I went, dropping the bag into the big bins en route to my bike. There seemed to be plenty of bikes in my area which is an encouraging sign of my swim progress and off I went. As I got into my riding I was still very aware of just how high my HR was and so I continued to focus on slowing down my breathing to get it more under control.

I then settled into a strong TT position for the first few kilometres as I headed out of town towards the 1st big climb. I’d practiced this climb and so was pleased to find that the gears I thought I’d need were the ones that I used. This race was going to plan. I reached the high point of the bike course in good time and then felt it was time to push on. I’d been taking plenty of fluid on board and swapped a bottle for a new one at the 40km feed station.

During the 2nd half of the bike things began to unravel. I was getting distracted by strong sensations of the need to pee and yet I couldn’t manage it. This was creating tension in my body and I felt an increasing need to get out of the aero position and stretch off a bit.

2016-07-10 19.33.53-1I was pleased to get back to T2 and get on my feet again as I thought this would unlock my ability to pee once I got going. I had a good transition and flew out onto the run course feeling momentarily invigorated. My legs felt great and I thought I was about to put in a strong run. However after 200m I suddenly felt odd and vomited in full stride. It seemed like the gels I’d been taking throughout the bike course had been rejected by my body. My stomach was churning violently and I had to slow down and hang on for the 1st aid station. I made it and felt a bit better after a visit to the toilets but was still concerned that I hadn’t really managed to pee properly. Despite this, I thought that I needed to get some water inside me to help dilute the gel concentrations that were probably still sitting in my stomach. I was now feeling pretty rubbish but concocted a plan to jog between the aid stations and walk whilst taking on bananas and water until i felt better. However, everytime I tried to increase my pace I felt the waves of nausea returning together with an increasing frequency and intensity of the need to pee ( but I simply couldn’t).

So I now had a choice. Do the sensible thing, pull out and accept its not my day or battle on and reach the finish line?

I kept hearing the voice of the race director in my head explaining that the finisher medal was the same for the pro’s as it was for the age groupers. I wanted that medal and the worse I began to feel the more I wanted that little bit of metal on the end of a yellow ribbon. Getting that medal drove me on, even though I was getting slower and slower.

As I passed Kathy on each lap I stopped to reassure her that I was ok, even though I was becoming increasingly aware of how much I was struggling. To her credit she didn’t once try to get me to pull out but just gently asked me to re-evaluate each time. To me this was a critical moment, a test of how well I understood my limits. I wasn’t going to put myself in danger but I did want to see how much I could suffer in the pursuit of something I wanted to achieve. I had plenty of time ( two and a half hours on that run, if you can call it that!!) to listen to my body and assess what was going on. I had a pretty good idea that this was a recurrence of a urine retention problem I’d had last year and it would probably end up with a visit to hospital but in that moment I just had to believe that I could reach the finish line.

On I went getting slower and slower. The encouragement from the crowds were overwhelming and small children almost brought me to tears with their words of support in perfect English.

I finally crossed the line 3 minutes short of 6 hours to proudly receive my finisher medal. I knew deep down that I needed to find a medic quickly but it took Kathy’s arrival to make me do it. I was put straight into an ambulance and taken to the hospital where a brilliant team were waiting to sort me out.

Total relief. Total admiration for the skills of these people.

2016-07-12 13.10.115 hours later, following a series of tests I was allowed to leave, still proudly wearing that Finisher medal. I feel huge gratitude to the whole team who helped me at Jonkoping Hospital.

Ironman 70.3 Jonkoping did not work out the way I’d hoped or planned but I loved the experience, loved the weekend in Sweden and it will most definitely rank very highly in terms of my most memorable races!

As ever, thanks for the continued support of Erdinger Alkoholfrei, thanks to Coach Annie for all the guidance and preparation and thanks to Kathy, friends and family for all the love shown to me.

I’ll be back!