Dreams Really Do Come True

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.

emerging from the water 4

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.

bike aero working hard 2

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.

run relaxedAs 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.

PodiumPontevedra2019

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.

Welcome To The Sixty Club

Turning thirty was life changing. I became a father for the first time.

Becoming forty was very traumatic. I was in denial about getting older and my body was failing me.

Reaching fifty seemed so much more positive. My body was in a better place and so was my mind.

Approaching sixty is weirdly exciting. That part of me that has always wanted to be different, to buck the trends, to be the exception to the rule, is working overtime right now. I really want to prove that at sixty I can still be physically improving. I’m keen to show that my mantra of FasterAfter50 can still be true beyond 60.

So on Saturday morning I had the chance to gather my first bit of evidence for 2019. It was the Clumber Park duathlon and it was to be my first race in my new AG 60-64. My big birthday comes later in the year but triathletes are classified by age on December 31st so I am now officially part of the 60 club.

The standard distance race was a qualifying event for the 2020 World Championships and I was hoping to give myself the option of competing there if I could earn a slot from this race. Clumber Park is an event I’ve done multiple times before so I knew the course, I knew the registration and transition set up so many of the typical unknowns that can create stress on a race day did not apply. It was a beautiful morning, pretty much perfect for racing. The weather was bright, dry and mild with fairly light winds.

So really the only cause for concern was how would my mysterious calf niggle respond to the intensity of racing? The fact that it was a qualifier for next year’s World Championships meant that I wanted to take the race seriously and yet in the context of this season I could not allow myself to jeopardise my two championships later in the year by pushing harder than my calf would allow.

As a result my plan was to run steadily, but keep the intensity in check so that I could manage the niggle and trust that my strong cycling could put me in a position to gain one of the four qualifying slots for 2020.

 

During the warm up I experienced the now all too familiar tightness and discomfort in my left calf but the good news was that it felt like it was going to behave as long as I was sensible.

My wave was due to start at 0905 and consisted of the 60 club plus the 40-44 young pups. I was very conscious not to get caught up in chasing the “youngsters” as the gun went off and instead focussed on finding a sustainable comfortable rhythm . The run course in Clumber Park is not easy as its essentially gently uphill for around 3km, turn back down for 2km and then repeat. My new Garmin watch was giving me split times every km and it seemed that I was making solid progress. Once the pain in my calf settled at around 3/10 I managed to push the thought of this discomfort to the back of my mind and simply enjoyed the feeling of racing again. With it being a two lap out and back course there were always plenty of athletes to observe and allow my coaching brain to wonder what they were all experiencing. Soon enough I had reached the top of the hill for the 2nd time and knew that I had about 3km largely down hill to reach T1. I was feeling really good and probably picked up the pace a little but was very surprised to complete the first run under 40 mins. Wow that was significantly quicker than I’d expected. In training over recent weeks I’ve only been running around 45min for 10k so was pleasantly surprised to realise how comfortable I felt at this much quicker pace.

 

T1 is the one aspect of racing thats easier in a duathlon as its simply a question of removing run shoes and putting a helmet on. There is no messing around with trying to remove a tight fitting wetsuit. So I was in and out in just over a minute. I gave myself a few minutes to adjust to the bike as we negotiated our way out of the park and then began to find a strong tempo. The roads were fairly busy and there were numerous occasions where cars were causing me to slow down as they were being very respectful and patient towards the slower cyclists in the field. I too decided that patience was required and didn’t allow these holdups to lead to poor decisions on my part. The bike course is a very rolling two laps and as I came to the end of lap one my legs were definitely feeling the effects of running 10km before jumping on the bike. I’d forgotten just how punishing on the body a duathlon is. I needed to ensure that I ate and drank on lap two so that I’d be ok for the 2nd run. The wind seemed to get up on the 2nd lap but I held a good position on the bike, stuck to my strong tempo and came into T2 with just 63 mins for the bike leg.

 

I dismounted and knew I was going to be ok. My legs felt good. I was aware enough of what was happening around me to notice that there were very few bikes in my area of transition. This is always an encouraging sign and I set off on the 2nd run thinking that I’d given myself a great chance of achieving the qualifying slot goal I’d set for myself. Our second run was one lap and I knew that I just had to work hard on the way out because at the turn point it would be pretty much downhill all the way to the finish.

 

I picked off a few athletes over the first couple of km and then as I turned to head back towards the finish I focussed on runners coming up behind me. I spotted a number that was very similar to mine and this suggested that I was being chased by someone in my AG. This ensured that I kept working hard despite the fact that I was now feeling pretty tired and I was pleased with the way that I kept my form well.

 

Kathy was there cheering me on as I entered the finishing chute. My time was 2:06:01.

Clumber Finish time

This was about 10 mins quicker than I’d expected to be and this was such a thrill. I won my new AG and would have won my old AG too. In fact I’d just delivered my best performance on this course ever and for someone who is driven by continuous improvement this is really satisfying. Faster after 50 is alive and well.

Clumber prize giving

When the results were published later in the day I was very proud to see that the 1st four finishers in the 60-64AG posted times that would have given them a top 3 place in the 55-59AG. So there is clearly strength in depth amongst my new cohort and I hope to encourage more of our age group to discover just how much pleasure can be gained from competing and pushing our bodies to their limits.

 

All the bike mileage I’ve been doing over the winter is clearly paying dividends and is benefitting my running as much as my strength of the bike. I also showed that by not starting too quickly I was able to remain relaxed and produce a sub 40 10k that I thought was way beyond me at this stage of my year.

 

I can now go into my next 6 week block of training with lots of confidence.

New Year, New Niggle

For the last few years January seems to have been the month of set backs in my training. I seem to greet a new year with a new injury or a recurrence of an old one. January 2019 has brought with it the gift of a new niggle, this one being a bit of a mystery.

I’ve been struggling with my left calf. It’s not like all the calf injuries of the past that have been straightforward tears or strains in the belly of the muscle. This one is on the inside of the muscle, very close to where it connects with the shin bone. It doesn’t feel like it’s about to tear, but rather it seems to get inflamed and create a significant area of tenderness down the inside of the calf/ shin or specifically the medial tibial periosteal region. It causes lots of soreness during the first 15 minutes of running and then as I warm up it seems settle down and the intensity of the pain dissipates. As a result, it hasn’t stop me from training but it is restricting the type of run sessions I can do and it does cause lots of discomfort between sessions. My massage therapist has been working hard on it to relieve the symptoms and I’ve been icing the whole area every day but it doesn’t want to go away.

Because its not been an acute injury, a moment in time where I can pinpoint something that happened that caused the injury and because it’s not been preventing me from training I’ve been guilty of ignoring its significance, or potential significance.

But as its a massive year for me I can’t afford to ignore the signals my body is giving me and run the risk of creating a really chronic injury for myself.

So after a full 4 weeks of being in denial I finally did the smart thing and reached out to some experts for help. Firstly I found an excellent physio, Kathryn Fishlock in Newport who gave me a thorough examination and then introduced me to a bit of funky kit called an anti-gravity treadmill. It works by pulling on a pair of sealed shorts that can then be inflated to hold the body above the treadmill in such a way that only a limited percentage of overall bodyweight is being put through the legs. Thus running can still be possible whilst carrying an injury. Kathryn wanted to assess how my running gait would change as more of my body weight was reintroduced. The good news was that nothing changed and she was happy with my running action. So she came up with a few exercises to try to help strengthen this area.

Anti-gravity treadmill running is amazing. Removing 10% body weight makes a massive difference. I felt like I was running on a cloud, it was effortless. For an experienced and competent runner like me it was such a revelation so I can’t begin to comprehend just how much of a difference it would make for others who are significantly heavier and less used to running.  For anyone who knows that they are carrying too much weight and wonders what it would feel like to run without these extra kilos then go and try one of these things. It is incredible. It is a powerful way of understanding just how much better you will feel once you have got the weight off and thus should provide an enormous boost in motivation for sticking with the process of shedding excess weight.

So I got stuck into the rehab exercises but frustratingly, two weeks on nothing had improved and so I decided to take up a referral from Kathryn to see an eminent sports doctor, Geoff Davies in Cardiff . Geoff examined my lower legs and decided that an MRI was required so a few days later I was back in Cardiff for the scan.

I think he was concerned that there may have been a stress fracture in my shin. The results came back really quickly and the good news was that there was no evidence of any stress fracture and the only anomaly was a build up of scar tissue in the area of pain. His report noted that the scarring was clearly a relic of previous calf injuries as at the area of maximal tenderness there is quite florid scarring and abnormal signal in the tibial origin of the tendon of the medial head of soleus. There is some ossification in the tendon at the origin with some low-grade oedema around it. The scarring of the central tendon extends distally in the calf. The tibia is normal with no evidence of stress fracture. There is also scarring of the myo-aponuerosis between the soleus and the medial head of gastrocnemius compatible with previous injury.

 Reassuringly there is no evidence of tibial stress fracture, which was my major concern. His symptoms appear to be related to chronic scarring of medial soleus / calf which does fit with his history.

However, the scarring was almost identical on the right leg and so it was confusing to me that it could be causing pain on the left leg but not on the right. But what do I know?

Geoff’s recommendation was to continue with physiotherapy and consider a formal biomechanical assessment with Podiatrist Tom Cooper at Ace feet in Motion in Cardiff.

So off I went to meet Tom. This was another fascinating experience. Tom also works with lots of elite sports people and so I knew I was in good hands. He got me to walk barefoot over his sensor pad that built a digital picture of how my feet were striking the ground, especially where the pressure points were throughout the process of making a forward step. Again, good news in that there was nothing dramatic that was going on that could be contributing to my discomfort. He did identify a minor flaw in my big toe ( the same on both left and right foot) that creates a slight restriction in the drive phase of a step, but felt that this was not creating the pain and was concerned that if he tried to correct it we may cause problems elsewhere and so it was best to leave it be. Everyone is different and very few of us have perfect biomechanics and we don’t require perfection to perform consistently well.

We then moved into his run studio where a larger sensor mat is set up. Run shoes were put on and then I was asked to run up and down over the matting. Tom observed and built a similar footstrike profile using the data that was coming from the sensor mat. The result was consistent with the barefoot walking. Apparently, I have good biomechanics and have a very consistent, efficient and balanced run pattern. I strike the ground with my midfoot, am not overstriding and thus put very little weight through my heels. All in all, excellent feedback.

So my third expert is telling me that all the essential ingredients to effective running are in place and looking good. This is obviously great to know, but frustratingly doesn’t mean that the pain in my medial tibial periosteal region is any less!

So Tom suggested three possible routes for solving my problem. Firstly I could try orthotics, but I’ve been down this road before and found that whilst it helped in the short term it created much bigger problems in the longer term, so I am really adverse to going this route again. Secondly he is having some positive results with shock wave therapy that fires sound waves into the tissue to accelerate blood flow and healing. He has been using it for achilles and plantar fasciitis injuries and thinks it could help. I’m thinking this through right now.

The third route is a strength and conditioning programme for the Tibialis Posterior region.

My instinct told me to go with the strengthening programme first and see if we can deal with it that way.

So I’m now having to spend time, several times a day rigorously executing these tiny exercises that hopefully will help to rebuild my muscles so that the pain will disappear.

The good news is that I get feedback every time I run. Encouragingly, the length of time that I am experiencing pain at the start of every run is shortening and so this gives me motivation to continue with the rehab programme. I’m now confident that I’ll overcome this latest niggle and that it wont derail my season.

So whilst I haven’t yet resolved the problem and I haven’t discovered the definitive answer to the question about what is causing the pain, I’m really glad that I didn’t just ignore it as I’ve learnt so much by meeting these three experts over the last month.

And, importantly, I’ve now got an even wider team that I can turn to when I need help in the future.

I’ve learnt that the human body is a complex and sometimes contrary being. It can flummox experts and often there isn’t a simple linear answer to what may appear to be a simple problem. Thus, we need to be open to a test and learn approach to problem solving. Furthermore, niggles are often a result of a slight imbalance that requires a disciplined dedicated time consuming programme of dull exercises to remedy. As we get older we ignore the basics of strength, conditioning and balance at our peril.

Keep at it, its worth it!

Goals For 2019

It’s going to be a big year.

2019 sees me moving up into a new Age Group.

Now, in most other areas of life a reminder of aging, especially reaching the mighty milestone of 60 would be seen as a depressing thought with only the promise of 10% discount at B&Q on a Wednesday or 2 courses for £4.49 at Hungry Horse ( Monday -Friday only) seen as meagre compensation for taking a further giant leap away from youthful nirvana.

Well, its not like that for triathletes. We are reborn every 5 years as we move into a new Age Group wherein we are given the gift of being the young kids on the block once again. So 2019 sees me entering the giddy heights of the 60-64 AG and to celebrate I would love to take advantage of this by going “bling hunting”. Becoming 60 this year is very exciting!

I’m setting myself some very challenging goals and am extremely motivated to try and achieve them.

  • Nail my first long distance triathlon. Naturally I’m aiming high and will be taking part in the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships in Pontevedra Spain on 4th My dream is to get on the podium so the next four months is about building up an even bigger base of endurance to be able to race for upto 50% longer than I have ever done before. I know from what I’ve achieved over the last 5 years that if I can stay healthy then I will be able to put together the kind of consistent block of training that will get me ready to convert that dream into a realistic chance.
  • Get on the podium in Nice in September for the Ironman 70.3 World championships. I’ve earned my spot on the start line already, I achieved a top ten in the last AG as the oldest in the category in 2018 and I know that my commitment to executing every training session will move me one step closer each day. The mere thought of achieving this goal sends a tingle down my spine and I know this thought will be sufficient to get me out of bed on the cold dark mornings that lie ahead.
  • Domestic bling. I’m targeting two UK races: British Duathlon Championships in April and England Middle Distance Triathlon Championships in June. I’d love to grab a medal in one of these two races.

So my race season is shaping up like this:

March 23        Clumber Park Duathlon

April 7              British Duathlon Championships

May 4              ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships

June 2              England Middle Distance Triathlon Championships

July 21             Wales Middle Distance Triathlon Championships

September 8   Ironman 70.3 World Championships

To give myself the best possible chance of achieving these goals I need to focus on the following process objectives over the winter as I build up towards my 1st A race in Spain

  • Increase weekly swim volume to 13k. By the end of 2018 I was consistently executing 3k swim sets and so my objective is to push this upto 3.5k by the end of March
  • Improve 100m swim speed to under 1:40
  • Increase length of weekly winter long bike session to 120k + with 2nd half of rides being strong tempo
  • Improve FTP on the bike by 10w
  • Increase length of regular long runs to 30k+
  • Run off the bike at least once per week through the winter

I can’t wait to get stuck in.

Should my mantra “Faster After 50” now become “Swifter after 60”?

Smash’N Grab in Bahrain

img_1322In my last post I posed the question “what could possibly go wrong with my audacious plan to do a smash and grab raid in Bahrain on a place for 2019 70.3 World Champs?

As I stood around in the dark looking up at all the bright lights reflecting off the shiny new high rise buildings that envelop Bahrain Bay I was eager to get started. The last 8 week training block had been tough mentally. I was ready for a break but knew I had one last race in me and felt confident that it should be a good one. Lets go do it.

My pre race tinkering in transition went smoothly. It was all done and it was still dark. Sunrise was at 6:13, the pro race started at 6:20 and the rolling start for Age Groupers was at 6:30. I positioned myself amongst the 35 minute swimmers . Nerves were evident amongst the athletes around me and I had to keep reminding myself that I’d prepared well but once the gun sounded and we began to edge closer to the steps down into the water of Bahrain Bay I felt calm.

The sun started to rise, bringing with it the promise of yet another beautiful sunny day. Colours bounced off the angles of the steel and glass buildings that provided a spectacular arena for the swim.

The swim course was pretty simple. A short section to get away from the shore, turn right and then head straight down the bay for approximately 850 m, turn left, left again and head back up 850m before a final left turn to head back to swim exit. I remember thinking that I should have counted the number of intermediate bouys there were down the two long sides of the course as this would have helped me to tick off in my mind where I was upto. Sighting was tricky as the sun was really bright, even though it was just rising and so I had to keep checking where I was heading more often than usual. Even so, I felt I swam well and I got out of the water bang on 33 minutes which is another PB over this distance for me. I love it that I’m getting quicker. All the hard work in the pool continues to pay off. From the exit steps it was only a short way into the bag area where wetsuit came off, helmet, glasses and race belt went on, bag with wetsuit was replaced on same hook on the racking. This was a new process that replaced the usual bag drop area and it seemed to work pretty well. I was in and out of T1 in 3 mins without any confusion.

Out onto the bike course I went. The first thing I noticed was how super smooth the road surfaces were (and not a pothole in sight). This made for very fast riding, but I did feel that only closing down one lane of the 3 lane highway led to a number of close calls especially in the early stages where there were lots of riders in a condensed part of the course. By the time I was coming back into town on the opposite carriageway thankfully there weren’t many other bikes around me as the car traffic was getting very heavy and it felt like we were racing on the outside lane of M1. You really had to have your wits about you at all times as the odd cone that was separating us from cars travelling at 70mph had been knocked over ( either by cars or bikes) so it did feel a bit scary, particularly as I was starting to fatigue. I remember being really irritated by the noise and close proximity of the car traffic and really looking forward to getting off the busy highway.

The highlight of the bike course was the F1 circuit, which ironically was the one part of the course that was totally quiet. It was a thrill to smash it around the beautifully designed circuit, but I was surprised that the surface here was much grippier than the other roads of Bahrain.

I do need to have a bit of a whinge at Ironman referees. There were so many packs of cyclists blatantly drafting each other and the referees seemed reluctant to do anything about it. Just after the first feed station at 25km I was caught by a pack of about 15 guys riding together. Initially I let them all come past me and then tried to overtake to ensure that I didn’t get mixed up in their games. To get past I had to put in such a huge effort that I was going way over threshold and all they did was latch onto my back wheel. After this huge effort I had to ease back so they all cruised through again.  Frustrated, I sat up, drifted back about 15 metres to observe what was going on and then used it as an opportunity to eat and recover from my big effort. I know drafting goes on and I was determined not to let it affect my mindset during the race so I just hoped they would get their just “reward” for this blatant cheating. Magically, at this point a referee appeared on the back of a scooter and I smiled to myself and thought here we go, penalties are going to be dished out. He went up alongside the group, observed for a while and then without penalising any of them simply turned off the highway. Meanwhile, on the opposite carriageway I could see other large groups all working together. I find it very frustrating especially as Ironman talk so strongly about drafting during briefings, and yet when referees see it in action they don’t follow through with the punishment.

Whinge over.

Into T2 I came feeling more fatigued than I’d planned to be. I knew I’d put in a fast bike split but had no idea what this meant in relation to the race as others were likely to have also fared well on that course. Maybe I’d gone a little too hard in the first part of the bike, but probably the heat was having a greater impact on me than I’d hoped. Also, I probably underestimated the course. Flat courses don’t necessarily mean easy courses. Because it was so flat I spent almost the whole way not moving from the aero position and as a result had worked my glutes much more than usual. As I ran into transition with my bike I was aware that the tops of my legs where the hamstrings and glutes join was incredibly tight and was restricting movement.

Over the first kilometre it was a real struggle. I was so far away from the mental picture I’d carried forward from my last race in South Africa where I’d been flowing along so effortlessly and smoothly. Instead I felt like I was having to consciously remember how to run.  Gradually, ever so gradually, I loosened up and then established a rhythm that I felt was sustainable throughout the three laps. By now the sun was high and the temperature was rising way beyond the 6-7 degrees that I’d left behind at home a few days before. Thankfully the aid stations were frequent and really well stocked so I got into a routine of ice cold sponges to cool me down and water to keep me hydrated. For the first two laps this worked brilliantly but then on the last lap they started to run out of both ice and water. For me this was a little inconvenient but I did hope that the majority of the field who were behind me would be ok. ( I later found out that this did cause significant problems for many of the later finishers)

The run leg was a real mental battle. It was hot, I was tired. The course was pretty anonymous. It was very flat, with long straights and a few dead turns. Not having Kathy there to cheer me on and provide a highlight each lap also made it harder so I had to try and take myself away from the fatigue I was feeling and just keep focussed on the positive which was that I had found a rhythm. I didn’t look at my watch as I didn’t want to risk getting downhearted by the speed ( or lack of it) that I was covering the miles but I did take encouragement from the fact that I was passing many more people than were passing me.

Seeing the leading pro’s was a brilliant distraction and I managed to convince myself at one point that they were going so fast as they didn’t want me to catch them!

With a kilometre to go my thoughts turned to my finish time for the first time during the race. I knew that with a strong swim and a fast bike split I had given myself a huge buffer in my own personal challenge to break 4:45 but maybe the slower run would cost me today. Still, a time close to 4:45 would surely be enough to gain me that all important slot for Nice next year. As I took the right turn and onto the magic red carpet I looked up at the screen to try and calculate my time but in my fatigued state I simply couldn’t do the maths. Oh well, give it everything down that last 50 metres and then it will all become clear. I crossed the line, looked up and saw my time as 4:42:29. I was overjoyed. That was a new PB for the distance and I quickly learnt that it was good enough for 2nd place in my AG in this regional championship. How cool is that?

That’s my first medal in an Ironman 70.3 Championship race. I am super happy and feel really privileged to have had this opportunity.  But I didn’t come all the way to Bahrain to simply compete in Middle East championships. I came to try and win a spot at 2019 World Champs. I had a very nervous wait for the award ceremony to discover how many places would be allocated to my AG. If there was only one, which is often the case, then I was likely to be very disappointed  and my audacious plan would have proved fruitless. Fortunately for me, the field was large enough to justify two slots and so I eagerly accepted my place and the qualification coin.

I’d done it. My smash and grab raid to Bahrain was a huge success and I’d finished the year with a new personal best. Faster after 50 continues to be real.

 

I’m off to Nice in 2019. Super excited.

Why am I here?

Today is 7th December. I’m sat in the sunshine in Bahrain reflecting on what feels like a very long year.

Why am I here? Well that’s a big question….the straightforward answer is to compete in one last race of the season. After the euphoria of Ironman70.3 World Champs in September I really wanted another hit of the world championship buzz and so decided to try and secure my place as quickly as possible for 2019 by finding a race somewhere in the world that could give me that all important qualification spot. Bahrain provided the first opportunity so here I am.

 In the days after the race in Port Elizabeth in September it all seemed so simple. Take a few weeks off then put together a solid block of ten weeks training, travel out to Bahrain five days before, adjust to the warmer climate, relax, put in another performance like South Africa and fly home with the 2019 place in the bag. What could possibly go wrong?

I guess the next 24 hours will provide the answer ….

Back to the big question….why am I here?

I started this blog a few years ago with the grand ambition of providing inspiration to others to follow their dreams. I’d always wanted to be a sportsman and not just a weekend warrior or Sunday footballer. I wanted it to be what I did. Its taken me over 50 years but I’m now living that dream. Sport provides my focus and influences what I do, how I do it….. Its completely changed my life to the point where I feel so much more confident, I have self belief ( although I still struggle with self doubt in the days leading up to races!!) and has allowed us to make such radical steps in our late 50’s that we have bought an old farm in the Brecon Beacons with the intention of creating a cycling business from it. This really is living the dream.

Living the dream though is never a bed of roses. Over the last few years both of my parents have passed away following tragically slow painful journeys to the end. Dementia is a cruel condition that slowly strips away everything from those that are unfortunate enough to suffer with it. Currently there is so little that can be done to arrest the onset once it has taken hold and I feel a little traumatised still by the emotional pain that I could sense both of my parents struggling with as the condition stole from them even the most basic human skills that enable us to exist independently. Having observed, experienced and helped care for them through this awful process I have tried to learn more about it. Through reading and asking questions I’ve developed my own view on what we can do to try and prevent dementia from attacking our own brains. “Constantly challenging ourselves in new ways” is my over-riding view of how we can improve our chances of beating dementia.

That means learning new things ( languages are ideal as its really difficult especially as we get older but that’s what makes it ideal), keeping fit, really fit, eating healthily, avoiding becoming set in our ways. Avoiding becoming set in our ways is a really big one in my view. We learn as humans when we are on the very edge of our comfort zones, that place that makes us uncomfortable, makes us nervous, makes us awkward or painful, makes us question why we are bothering and in order to force ourselves to repeatedly go to this uncomfortable place we need a really strong reason or purpose for doing it. Often the difficulty in identifying a purpose leads to that comfortable outcome of unknowingly getting set in our ways. Avoiding dementia seems to me to be a negative reason to fight against inertia and I always encourage people to frame their goals and ambitions around positive thoughts. So this is why I hark back to dreams. What did you dream you’d achieve when you were a child or what do you wish you could make happen now? Use this as your powerful motivator to constantly challenge yourself.

Back to that question, why am I here?….because I want to be world champion. I know my Mum and Dad would be so proud, I know I am gaining so much from the process of learning how to be the best triathlete I can be and I’d love to think that through my trials and tribulations I could inspire a few more people to make their own dreams come true. If this helps in some small way to derail the juggernaut that is dementia then that seems like a really good thing to me.

I’ll take this thought with me into the race tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Competing alongside the best.

This was it. 12 months of work, pain and training had been building to this race. The Ironman 70.3 World Championships. The simple thought of being part of it kept me motivated through what had been a difficult, injury hit season. But that’s all behind me now as I’d made it to South Africa.

I was ready to test myself against the best.

This was going to be only my 4th Ironman 70.3 race and the previous three had produced mixed results so I recognised that I was still relatively inexperienced at racing at this longer distance. Despite this, I felt confident in my ability to achieve a top ten finishing position. I’d studied past results and knew what time I was capable of delivering. I also knew that training had been building well so all that remained was the simple, if not easy, task of executing the perfect race plan.

A danger with big championship races is that it is easy to get caught up with thinking about the opposition and so to avoid this I decided to construct my plan exclusively around aspects of the performance that I could control and a plan that would focus me internally, something that is especially important at parts of the race where I could easily get distracted either by fatigue, errors or the performance of others.

So my plan was as follows:

Pre race: breathe slow and deep

Swim: think core rotation

Bike: 255w average power, stay aero, eat and drink every 15 minutes

Run: relax and be patient

It was a series of simple process thoughts that I could repeat to myself to keep me focussed. If I could execute this plan then the result should take care of itself and who knows that goal of a top ten finish may well come to pass.

My build up to the race was perfect. We arrived in South Africa over a week ahead to give me plenty of time to get over the travel, settle into the new surroundings of the southern hemisphere and finalise training. Everything went smoothly. Scaremongering bike-jacking stories of the danger of riding around on an expensive bike could not be further from my reality. From my personal “holding camp” an hour away from Port Elizabeth in St Francis Bay we were treated royally and my bike became the number one priority for our hotel manager. He gave it its own room, he cleaned it for me daily and got it ready for each of my training rides. Precious was his name and precious was his way. He looked after my bike like it was his most precious possession. He suggested the best roads for me to train on (as its very easy to end up on dirt tracks if you don’t know where you are going) and the bike drew admiring glances from all the locals as I rode past each day. At no point whilst we were staying out at St Francis Bay did I feel threatened. I must admit that once we moved to the big city I did heed the advice to join one of the organised group rides around the race route and after that my training was complete. All that needed to be done in the last few days leading to the race was deal with race admin, orientate myself around the whole race village and then relax. The sign on process was painless and even bike racking the day before took no time at all.

My previous experience of Ironman events is that they have all been huge. They are much bigger than a normal triathlon, with more of a carnival/festival feel. Well, this World Championships was a different scale again. 4500 athletes from over 90 countries gave it a real global flavour that created massive excitement and anticipation.

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Ladies and men raced on different days, with ladies going first on Saturday. I found this really helpful as I was able to watch how transitions worked and see how slickly the operation unfolded on race day. We could see that the tracker app worked in real time and so it was possible to get useful upto the moment information about athlete progress throughout the race. I was hoping this might be helpful for Kathy the next day.

Everything was coming together brilliantly. All that I had to worry about when I went to bed on Saturday evening was if the predicted thunder storms would emerge. Even that didn’t keep me awake as since arriving in South Africa we’d been going to bed early so my body clock was ready for sleep at 9pm, giving me a full 8 hours ahead of the dreaded 5 am race morning start. I woke to some pretty favourable race conditions. Very light winds, overcast skies with a light drizzle to keep us cool. What more could a Northern boy want on his big day of the year? The triathlon gods seemed to be smiling on me.

As it was the World Championships every AG got its own wave start. The pro’s went off first at 0730 with Age Groupers beginning from 0738. The 55-59 year old men were due off at 0846 and so I was able to watch the pro’s exit the swim and observe just how to take advantage of the surf. The pro field was stacked with quality and it felt a real privilege to be standing there cheering on some of the all-time triathlon greats : Ali Brownlee, Javier Gomez, Jan Frodeno, knowing that an hour later I’d be chasing them down the same course. They needed to get a wiggle on!

 

There were plenty of nerves and testosterone flying around in the holding pens as we edged closer to our start time. I focussed on staying relaxed, reminding myself that it was just another race, and mentally rehearsing my race plan. I did take the odd look around the holding pen and noticed that there were only lean looking athletes in with me. Unlike in the past, my reaction to this was not fear that I didn’t belong, but rather pride in this group of fine examples of what the human body can achieve after the age of 50. I knew I would need to bring my A game to bear today and I also felt a deep confidence that this was possible.

We continued to edge closer to the start gate and at 0846 precisely the first 10 guys raced off down Kings Beach and into the surf of Indian Ocean. Every subsequent 15 seconds a further 10 guys were released and their races began.

 

 

I positioned myself fairly close to the front of my wave of 180 and got going in about the 7th group. I remember being anxious about how I would cope with the surf as I stood awaiting my turn to start but once I heard that “beep” my competitive side kicked in and I didn’t give any doubts about the surf and waves another thought. I just ran in as far as I could, then dived forward and started swimming. I don’t remember any breakers causing me problems. I just remember looking down and thinking just how clear the ocean was on race morning (this was very different to the other days when I had been practicing ahead of race day). The course was very simple. Swim out 800m to a big red buoy. Turn left and swim a further 300m parallel to the beach, turn left again at next red buoy and then its 800 m back to the beach. Because of the rolling start I didn’t experience any of those classic triathlon bunfights at the turn buoys and in fact I got into a nice rhythm, found a few similarly paced competitors to use for support and put together the swim of my life. I was around the second red buoy and heading back towards the beach before I really had to think about what I was doing, give myself positive thoughts or focus on specific technical aspects of the swim. I really was in that wonderful unconsciously competent territory that does not happen very often (if at all before) for me on the swim. With about 400m to go my perfect little bubble was burst by a fellow swimmer who insisted on slapping my feet with every stroke. This probably gave me a bit of extra impetus to push harder (and certainly to kick harder) to try and shake him off. Happily, I didn’t allow this irritation to grow and instead, kept my form, got to the shallow water and even tried to surf a wave into the beach. I was really encouraged that when I started to run back up the beach, my legs were happy to co-operate, and I didn’t get that jelly legged sensation that can happen after a long swim.

 

On the run through to transition there were a group of amazing volunteers working as wetsuit strippers waiting to assist. They were brilliant. Stop, stand still, allow them to pull the wetsuit down to your knees, sit on the floor, legs in the air, wetsuit is pulled straight off. They then pull you back to your feet and you are on your way again all within a few seconds. That’s what being in the World Champs is all about!

I was in and out of transition without any drama and away on the bike. The first 10km of the bike course was uphill, most of it very gentle but with a few steep little ramps. My plan was to try and ensure I kept a lid on my power efforts on these ramps to avoid burning too much energy too soon. So, I was watching my power numbers as I overtook a steady stream of competitors and controlled things really well. After the first 10k we were out of the city, heading down hill for the first time and out into the part of the course that I’d only driven in the car. The next part was pretty straight open roads that rolled along and the only surprise was just how bumpy and grippy the road surface was. At the back end of the course we entered the jaw droppingly stunning section along the ocean at Seaview that also involved tackling the hills called the Maitlands.

 

Again, I controlled my power numbers well and felt really good to get to the turn point in such good shape. I’d been drinking and eating in line with my “little and often” plan and this I’m sure was a huge contributor to how fresh I was feeling. The turn point wasn’t quite halfway but it did signify that most of the climbing was done. We just had to conquer Maitlands from the other-side and then it was a rolling ride home, aiming to keep the power up around 255w the whole way. The gentle drizzle continued to fall and this meant that the roads were wet but at no point did I feel that I needed to be careful. Perhaps if the tarmac had been smoother it would have been more of a challenge to corner in these conditions but the grippy surfaces helped.

 

Over the last 30km I remember thinking just how much harder work it was than I’d expected. With only 650m of climbing and fairly benign winds I think everyone had expected the bike leg to be less taxing but the bumpy road surfaces made it hard work to maintain speed. I kept eating and drinking and with about 10km to go, took my caffeine gel to give me a boost ahead of the run. The last 3km were back into town where the noise and support of the crowds gave an added boost and I arrived at T2 feeling excited to run.  After my last outing in London the thought did flash through my mind about whether I would cramp up as I dismounted ? No way.

 

I jumped off the bike and felt great. Immediately another of the brilliant volunteers rushed over to take my bike leaving me with the more simple job of locating my run bag and getting ready for the final part of what was shaping up to be a memorable race. I came out of T2 with my legs behaving. Still no sign of cramp and in fact I quickly settled into a really comfortable running rhythm.

Run course was two laps. Transition and the finish was in the middle so we headed out in a northerly direction up past Kings Beach, looped back towards transition and the main crowds, then out to the south for second part of lap before coming back through to begin 2nd lap. So it great for runners and spectators. We got the thrill of the huge crowds 5 times and supporters got to see us 5 times during the run. The boost this provides is massive. Seeing a familiar face, hearing a particular voice, getting the support and encouragement from a special person makes such a difference. I love it when Kathy is there to cheer me on and when I can see that she is getting excited for me, the emotion ramps up even more.

 

Over the first couple of kilometres I remember thinking about Coach Annie’s advice about being patient. The half marathon is a long way and I wanted to ensure that I finished strong , ideally with a negative split. So as each kilometre ticked by I was monitoring my pace and started calculating what finish time this was likely to result in. After about 6km it seemed that I could go under 1:35 for the half marathon. If I could do this I’d be really happy I remember thinking. But its important not to get ahead of yourself so I gave myself a talking to about just being in the present moment. I kept relaxed, aimed to maintain an even pace until the last 4-5km and then would see what I had left. At each feed station I took a sponge to cool my head, a bag of water to drink and occasionally a mouthful of coke. I was like a metronome. The kilometres were being ticked off effortlessly and I was still feeling good. I did start to think about the finish as I went out on the final lap and Kathy was screaming encouragement from the sidelines about a top ten finish being a possibility (clearly the tracker app was doing its job!!) I still needed to remain patient as there was still 10km to go. The metronome kept going in the same relaxed manner until I came past Kathy again. There was now 4km to go, her info was telling her that I was in 11th place and I was desperate to get a top ten finish. It was now I needed to work hard. Adding that extra level of effort which might only be 3 or 4% seems to take an extraordinarily greater amount out of the body. Relaxation goes, stride length gets longer, leg turnover probably stays the same or maybe even reduces, and whilst it feels like speed increases the reality is that this doesn’t seem to be the case. My final 5km which was without doubt the hardest I was working didn’t translate into the fastest section. In fact it was the slowest. Maybe I should have focussed on remaining relaxed, its certainly something to work on in training over the coming months. Another indicator that effort doesn’t result in speed is that those last few kilometres seemed like the longest! As I went into the final right turn and headed for the magic red carpet I was giving it everything. Because of the rolling start there could be someone who had finished or someone behind who could be within a few seconds of me and I didn’t want that feeling of if only id given it a bit more up those last 200metres.

I crossed the line empty of energy but overwhelmed with happiness and pride. I’d executed my perfect race. Irrespective of finish position I was delighted.

World Champs 703 finish line

Kathy was there looking so happy. The tracker confirmed my finish time was 4:49:00 and that I was in 10th place. I felt so pleased but had to remind myself again that someone could come in over the next few minutes and beat me if they had started at the back of our wave. So over the next 5 minutes I was constantly reloading the tracker page and much to my delight it soon adjusted the final positions to place me in 9th. Wow, 9th in the world championships. I think I can now call myself a triathlete as much as a duathlete. I was on cloud nine and didn’t even care that the heavens had opened and the threatened thunder storms had now arrived. I had put together the best 70.3 race of my life so far and felt such pride in proving that all the hard work was worth it and the setbacks couldn’t derail me. I’d nailed a 34 minute swim ( I’d have been happy with 34 mins for 1500 metres a couple of years ago), ridden a controlled 2:33:50 bike leg so that I could then run 1:33:53. Irrespective of my race position this was an outstanding performance for me. I’d shown what the best of me looks like and this time would have won the race in 2017. The race had also inspired me as 8 other guys from around the world in their late 50’s were even quicker than me on the day. Now that’s something to focus on for next year!

 

A few reflections since the race:

1          limiting assumptions. I did not think I was capable of running under 1:35 after a bike leg and this race proved that I can. So the question for the future is how much quicker could I go now that I don’t have this limiting assumption holding me back?

2          The link between relaxation/form and speed. For 17 km I ran very relaxed and then over the last 4km I increased my effort level, knew that my form was suffering but felt that I was going quicker because I was working so much harder. The reality is that I slowed down over these last 4 km. so I’ve learnt that its quicker to hold form and stay relaxed. I look forward to putting this into practice in my next race.

3          The point of the bike leg is to set up the run. I deliberately held back on the bike by a small amount of effort to see if it would allow me to arrive in T2 feeling fresh for the run. This worked so well for me. I estimate that if I’d pushed harder and gone 2 mins quicker on the bike I would probably have been 5 minutes slower on the run.

 

What next ?

I’d love to be on the start-line for 2019 70.3 World Champs in Nice and so I’ve decided to do one more race this year to see if I can gain a qualification spot early. I’m heading out to Bahrain for the race on December 8th.

 

Thanks as ever to Kathy and my sons for their unwavering love and support. Thanks to Annie my coach for believing in me and getting me ready to perform. Thanks to Sarah Logan my new physio who puts me back together every week and of course thanks to Erdinger Alkoholfrei for rehydrating me, supporting me and encouraging me every step of the way.

Finally, thank you to the people of South Africa. You made us so welcome, were so genuinely warm and friendly and wanted us to have a great time. We certainly did and we will be back.

My achilles heel

Where did the 1st 5 months of the year go? How has time flown by so fast when at times its also felt like ground hog day?

Well I guess that time will fly by when massive things are happening in life. Moving house, starting up a new business, my wife taking part in Clipper Round The World Yacht race, sadly losing my wife’s father have all been pretty massive events that have been all consuming at times. They have each created a rollercoaster of emotions that have distracted me from the groundhog day sensations connected to the recurrence of my old Achilles injury that has been lingering around since the end of 2017.

I’m not very good at being injured. Injuries get me down, especially the ones I’ve had before that I know take lots of patience and commitment to heal. Injuries challenge my belief in myself and my ability to achieve the goals that I’m working towards. The recurrence of this old injury has been particularly difficult to deal with mentally and physically so I’m just so grateful that I’ve had these massive things going on that have stopped me from becoming too self focused.

As it was an old injury I thought I knew what I needed to do to sort it out. So whilst it was frustrating to not be able to do any quality run work around Christmas I didn’t think it was a big deal as I’d spotted it early and I could focus on swim and bike improvements instead. However it didn’t respond how I’d imagined it should.

It crept up on me and then before very long was no longer that 5 minute irritant at the start of each day as I got out of bed and struggled to get off my heels until a bit of blood started flowing and the tendons warmed up. A 3/10 pain whilst running slowly became a 7/10 and despite lots of ice, manipulation, rest and strengthening work I couldn’t shake it off. So towards the end of January I decided that a 200 mile round trip for a consultation with my brilliant physio Adam Eustace of Modus Physiotherapy in Crowthorne was required. He gave me reassurance that it shouldn’t derail my season as biomechanically everything was pretty good but I needed to rest it before beginning the rehab road. So that’s what I did. No running for 3 weeks, then aqua jogging, eccentric calf raises and once I could hop for 30 secs pain free I could then begin the return to running. At this point I cancelled my early season duathlon race programme and whilst this was disappointing I was very clear in my mind that this season was all about being in tip top form for the 70.3 World Championships in September, so it was definitely the right thing to do.

The return to running was a real high point of my winter even if it simply meant one minute jog followed by one minute walk, ten times and then building very slowly from there. However, it wasn’t straightforward and after about a month of building slowly I got all the way back to running easily for 40 minutes when it went again. I was now back to square one, total rest followed by the same disciplined approach to rehab. Still no change and by end of April I was starting to panic a bit inside. Was I going to be able to run again? Adam had once told me that an Achilles injury is like a dog: its for life not just for Christmas and that it needs to be constantly looked after. Despite doing everything to keep it strong I was beginning to have real doubts about my body’s ability to bounce back again.

Taking the decision that I wouldn’t be able to compete in one of my favourite events, the European Middle Distance Championships in Denmark was really hard and it did begin to catalyse my doubts about whether I’d even be fit enough to take my place on the start line in South Africa in September. So I got back on the phone to Adam and through a few chats he both reassured me that there was nothing fundamentally wrong and also identified a possible hole in my rehab. The Achilles is supported by both parts of the calf (soleus and gastroc) and I had been focusing predominantly on exercises that would build the gastroc. Perhaps I’d still got a weakness in the soleus which was causing the continued pain? This seemed to make lots of sense and I couldn’t wait to get going. He set me some very specific exercises and every day after swimming I was straight into the gym to carry out these new strength building exercises. Within a week the Achilles was feeling very different with the key difference being that I didn’t notice it anymore. It felt normal for the first time in 5 months and I’d forgotten what normal felt like. No aches, no shooting pains, no stiffness, no tension. No nothing. It was brilliant. I got back to running and whilst this felt very wooden at first it is now beginning to feel natural again. Slow yes, but natural and I’ll take that for now.

Last week I managed to complete a 40 min run alongside my Coach Annie. Once we finished she told me that we’d begun at 8 min mile pace and finished the session with the last two miles at 7 min mile pace. This feedback gave me such a boost. I’ve now got 3 months to build a bit of speed before South Africa, but I’ve rediscovered my confidence as it feels like the Achilles is now healed. Sport like life can change so quickly. Its only a few weeks ago that I was beginning to question if I’d be able to compete at all this season and yet now I’m excited about pulling on my tri suit for the 1st time this season. This weekend I’ve decided to give it a go at the Blenheim Sprint triathlon. I plan to take it very easy but am so excited to be taking part again and I really want to just go there to enjoy the sensation of being healed, healthy and getting my heart rate racing again. Most importantly I want to savour a well earned Erdinger Alkoholfrei as I cross the finish line. Cheers.

Another Season of Achieving Faster After 50

Its now the end of November.

My race season has officially ended and I’m keeping myself amused with cyclocross racing through the winter. I’m treating these races very much as fun and they’re really helping to lighten the impact of hard winter training. Cyclocross is new to me and I’m finding it really refreshing to challenge myself with completely new things to learn. Each of the races I’ve entered so far has been different to the others and so I find myself constantly in that invigorating place between being consciously incompetent and consciously competent. Thankfully I can report that as each race progresses I spend more time in the conscious competence zone!

So the focus for this post is a review of the season. It’s certainly had its ups and downs with results seeming to improve as the year went on. I thought it would be useful to look back at my Development Plan for the year and see how I have done as objectively as possible.Slide1

You can see that I broke my 2017 plan into three parts.

Part one is my ambition for the year and whilst I know it is not within my control, it is the articulation of why I do it all. I’m driven by a desire to be the best I can be and recognition of this through winning medals and qualifying for world championships is hugely important to me. The dream of achieving my ambition excites me and motivates me to work hard, to work consistently, to do those sessions that I don’t really feel like doing. It gets me out of bed on cold dark mornings to swim when I’m feeling really tired. It gets me out on the bike when its chucking down with rain outside. Without a clear ambition I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be as consistent in my approach to training as I have been. So achieving my qualification spot for South Africa next year has been deeply satisfying.

Part two are the performance goals. They represent the “what”. What do I need to nail in order to achieve my ambitions? These were very specific, should be within my control and represented a step change from what I had been doing in performance terms in 2016.

Finally part three are the development objectives, the “how” that provides day to day focus and if I could follow them consistently would give me a fighting chance of improving my performance in line with my goals.

So how did I get on with my development objectives ? These were the key areas where I felt there was most room for improvement. Well, early morning swimming has gone from a chore to a great way to start my day in 2017. I’m proud to confirm that I now enjoy rather than endure swimming and as a result I hit the 15 sessions a month target with an average set of 2500m. This consistency has been key to my improved confidence and speed in the water.

I have definitely been consciously experimenting with my cycling cadence and have also been much more focused on training how I race and thus spending many more hours on the TT bike in the aero position. 3_m-100767682-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-1912_000318-8521799Doing this has helped me to find a cadence that works for me and given me more confidence for race days, so another big tick. However, I have to confess that I failed miserably with my objective to race more TT’s in 2017. ( I think I did one!) I can’t explain this, as I love the simplicity and purity of a TimeTrial and I even have a regular Thursday evening event that goes virtually past my house. Maybe I was just unrealistic in what I could fit into my training programmes?

I set myself some clear nutrition objectives for the first time this year because I thought I would benefit from losing weight for racing. I’m so pleased that I constructed these objectives in such a way that they focused on food types and better meal planning rather than trying to hit a weight number. As a result I really enjoyed learning more about cooking and the way that food influences energy levels and didn’t get negatively hung up on whether I was losing weight. I don’t remember stepping on the scales at all throughout the year but do know that I went into races confident that I was full of the right stuff to perform.

When I put this plan together I remember thinking hard about the specifics of my performance goals. I thought that I needed benchmarks and so deliberately developed a goal for each of the three triathlon disciplines. I imagined that they would remain clearly at the front of my mind throughout the first half of the year and become a real driver for training performance. However, they didn’t. My marathon goal was nailed in early April and this gave me such a boost. Soon after however I was into triathlon race season and so the opportunities to really test myself against the other targets didn’t seem to occur. The reality of my training workload is that most of the time I’m feeling relatively fatigued and so perhaps don’t feel that PB chasing in training is realistic and I didn’t get myself organized sufficiently to enter any individual discipline races during the tri season. Hence, no focus on the PB speed goals. I need to rethink how I approach this for next year. Ultimately though, the important thing to look at is what happened in races and did I manage to improve ? The year was about middle distance racing and I’m pleased to report significant improvements versus 2016. Despite not putting all three disciplines together as well as I’d like I still managed to beat my 70.3 personal best twice throughout the season. I delivered a 10% improvement versus 2016 in my swim splits and a 15 minute or 6% improvement in my bike splits from the previous year. The run, which has always been my strength, was an enigma in 2017. I don’t feel that I went so hard in races on the bike that I’d got nothing left when it came to the run and yet for multiple reasons I didn’t manage to put in a strong run performance until the final race of the year. I’m confident though, that next year I’ll be banging out impressive runs to finish off my races( and maybe set some more PB’s)

My conclusion therefore is that its been another great season. I’m another year older, another year more experienced, I’ve learnt new things and importantly its been another year of getting quicker.

This is really encouraging and a mighty endorsement of Coach Annie’s work.

You really can be FasterAfter50.

A few highlights:

  • Marathon Personal Best of 3:12:33
  • Qualification for Great Britain AG Triathlon team for 2018 Euro Championships at Standard and Middle distance
  • Qualification for Great Britain AG Duathlon team for 2018 Euro Championships at Standard and Middle distance
  • Silver Medal at English National Duathlon Championships ( Standard Distance)
  • 70.3 Personal Best in Dublin of 4:53:16
  • Qualification for Ironman 70.3 World Championships in South Africa 2018

Huge thanks to my Coach Annie Emmerson, my sponsor Erdinger Alkoholfrei, my physio Gemma @ Anatomy in Chester and most of all to my amazing wife Kathy for encouraging me to follow my dreams.

Nailing My 2017 Goal

I’m not really sure why its taken me so long to capture my thoughts after Dublin 70.3  especially as it was my big race of the year. Given what happened, maybe I just needed time to process it properly before sharing. Anyway, here goes.

2017 has been about getting my head around Middle Distance triathlon racing with the hairy goal of achieving a qualification place for the 2018 70.3 World Championships in South Africa. There have been plenty of ups and downs this year and with Dublin being the first race in the Ironman 2017 calendar that was offering places for 2018 World’s my thinking was that if the race went perfectly to plan then I could be in the luxurious position of going into the winter knowing that I’d secured my place on the startline in Nelson Mandela Bay next September. I could then plan my whole 2018 really early and given all the other things going on in our lives this really would be a massive bonus. Simple, heh?

To give some context to the “other things” comment, Kathy is taking part in the Clipper Round The World Yacht race next year, taking on the two massive legs across Pacific and Atlantic and so I want to be able to support her as much as possible by being there on the quayside to wave her off and cheer her back in again at every stage. In addition we will be moving to Brecon Beacons to set up our new Cycling business. This is a huge project that will require energy, patience and clear thinking to navigate our way through the complex planning process.

So if I could, maybe, somehow please get qualification nailed in Dublin it would make next year so much easier to manage.

No pressure then!

Given all of that potential self induced stress it is so helpful to know that I have learnt to focus on the controllables and ignore the uncontrollables. I had to put “the other things” out of my mind and the more I race the more I’m realising that what I love about racing is the “all consuming mental” place that it takes me to. From the moment that I wake on race day until the moment I cross the finish line nothing else in the world matters. I can leave everything else behind. I’m in my own bubble, striving to eek out the maximum from my physical self and the only battle that takes place in my head is the inevitable one with my self doubting Chimp and this is a battle to which I increasingly look forward.

Back to the controllables. I knew I couldn’t control how others did so I simply had to focus on my race and look to execute another personal best. If I could do this, then who knows what might happen…..

I knew I was really fit as evidenced by my recent training volume and the excellent form I’d shown in my warm up race at Grafham Water. I also knew that I had solved my overheating issue by changing my cycle helmet. I knew I would be well looked after in Dublin as I was staying with Paul, my brother in law and his family on the other side of the City and this would also be keeping away from the stress of nervous athletes. I was travelling over by ferry so had my bike with me at all times and so didn’t need to worry about what might happen in the baggage hold of an aircraft. Everything that could be, was under control.

However, just when things seem to be coming together, life can give you a little reminder that things don’t always go smoothly. I picked up a slight injury in my final proper training session on the Wednesday before the race. My right calf tightened up so did the sensible thing, abandoned the session and went off to see Gemma my brilliant physio. She got to work and went really deep into the muscle, taped me up and told me I should be ok. That was good enough for me. Hearing this expert point of view was just what I needed to avoid getting too anxious about the impact this setback might have on my ability to race on Sunday. We agreed that it was best not to risk trying it out before the race so left home on Friday morning with only the slightest anxiety about whether the calf would hold up. Kathy wasn’t with me as The Clipper Race was beginning in Liverpool on the same day and I knew that she wanted to be there to support her crew mates as they set off on leg one.

I enjoyed a smooth journey across the Irish Sea and then had a seamless registration in the Ironman Village on arrival.

I then drove most of the bike course (to take away another of the possible unknowns) and was excited to discover that it should be fast with pretty good road surfaces. There seemed to be just one tricky section of 2-3km of speed bumps and I decided that I’d probably take no risks here by riding it all off the tri bars and mostly out of the saddle. On race day this proved to be a good tactic and gave me a bit of a breather before heading out into the countryside section.

Saturday was swim practice. Down in Dublin Bay the wind was howling and the water was very choppy.

Dublin swimSurely, race day conditions wont be this bad I kept telling myself as I summoned the mental courage to leap into the water on Northside. In I went feeling much trepidation. Out I came ten minutes later feeling total exhilaration. My swim demons had been well and truly dealt with as I now knew that I could cope with lots of chop and swell in the water. If I could enjoy swimming in those conditions then race day was bound to be a breeze I told brother in law Paul as we drove back to his house for a much needed hot drink and breakfast.

After a quick spin on the bike, I was ready to head back across the city to deal with dropping kit in transition. Everything was done. I was ready to go.

At 5.15 the next morning my Taxi arrived, bang on time and we were soon speeding through the sleeping city following the first section of the bike course. I was feeling good, excited and calm. I could sense that it was going to be a great day.

Conditions in Dublin on race morning were perfect. The wind and swell from yesterday had gone. The sea was like a mill pond. Just how I like it. The sun came up with a smile and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. This was not typical Dublin weather! It really was going to be a great day.

My head was clear and positive. I knew that there was no benefit to me in having a warm up jog as I would be risking filling my head with doubts that may come from any calf twinges. So instead I just had a good stretch and made my way down to the swim start area early.Dublin pre race

When the race began at 0710 I watched closely as the swimmers were released 4 at a time every 6 seconds into the bay. There seemed to be lots of space. There seemed to be no chaos. The mass of triathletes shuffled their way towards the start chute. Nerves and anxiety was rapidly being translated into excitement. I wanted to be in there. Soon enough it was my turn.

It was a beach start so I took it very gently, mindful of where I was placing my feet and careful not to run too hard. I didn’t want to risk irritating my calf so early in the race. In I went. The water was perfect. Temperature was ideal, no waves nor chop and the Irish Sea was as benign as could be possible. I had an amazingly clear swim. There was no agro at any point, even around the turn buoys and I was soon heading towards the exit pontoon on the final leg. I had thoroughly enjoyed my swim and had even had time to reflect on just how much I had improved. 1900m in race conditions now feels normal. 36:04 was a solid start for me.

Onto the pontoon I climbed and headed up the jetty towards transition. My focus immediately went to my troublesome right calf. There were a few odd sensations rumbling through it as I trotted towards the changing tent but nothing to cause concern.

Wetsuit off, helmet on, race belt on, goggles and wetsuit in bag, bag handed over and I was then moving cautiously through transition area for my bike. Encouragingly there seemed to be most of the bikes still here. That reinforced my perception that I’d swum well and I was excited to get out on the bike.

However, the bike leg didn’t start well as my chain came off and got jammed as I mounted. This was a new mistake for me. “Don’t panic this will only take a few seconds” I told myself and I was soon on my way again with some encouraging cheers from the crowds surrounding the bike exit area. Importantly I didn’t go too hard over those first few miles to make up for the time lost with my chain mechanical, instead focusing on finding a smooth rythmn, a strong sustainable cadence that would get me into my own zone. I did notice that I was passing lots of riders and no one was coming past me as the first 10km flashed by.

Into the city centre we went. The roads were closed off with Garda patrolling every junction and it was such a buzz to be travelling so quickly through this area that would normally be so busy with traffic and people.

Before I knew it I was out of the city, passing Pheonix Park and heading into the countryside to the west of Dublin. The route seemed exactly as I’d logged it in my recce. Other than that one nasty section of a couple of miles with speed bumps every 200m the roads were really good. I was clearly going well as I continued to pass lots of riders and there were only a handful of others travelling at a similar speed to me. At around 35 miles we turned back towards Dublin and there was a long section on the road towards Dunboyne where I did not see another competitor for miles. It felt as though I was the only person in the race. I had the road to myself. At first this was exhilarating but then my mind started to wander. I began imagining what it must be like to be leading these races. However, It wasn’t long before my prevailing feeling changed to exhaustion. With no one ahead to focus on I suddenly became much more aware that my body was beginning to fatigue. It was time for a caffeine gel. With this on board I was able to dig deep and rediscover the smooth cadence that enables me to stay in the present moment. “That’s better. Just keep cracking out those 75-80 revolutions each minute and the rest will take care of itself” I told myself. When I hit the speed-bump section again I knew I must be getting close to the end and as we got to the top of a nasty hill we turned sharp left and were into the park. This had come more quickly than I’d expected. It was time to prepare for the dismount. How would the calf react? I’d soon find out. The bike leg had been done in 2:27:47 which I’d later find out had put me strongly into 1st place.

I got my feet out of my shoes in good time, landed just before the dismount line and was jogging into transition. With every step I took I realized that the calf was sending signals to the brain that it wasn’t entirely happy. Was it cramp,was it muscle tightness or was it normal fatigue at this stage in a race? I wasn’t sure. Should I stop and stretch it out, should I ignore it and carry on or should I begin conservatively? I opted for the latter.

I lost a few precious seconds in the T2 tent as the racking was set up differently. In Dublin the two transitions are in totally separate areas of The City and the athletes only get to see the Start area transition. In T1 my bag had been on the bottom row of hooks but in T2 it was on the top row. In my state of exhaustion and concern for my calf I struggled to compute this information and was totally disoriented for a moment or two. Thankfully I eventually found my bag, put my shoes on and was headed out for the run. I could feel the calf tightening so slowed to a jog. At this pace it seemed happy. On a scale of 1-10 the pain settled at a 3 and so I was happy to crack on. Lets get to the 1st km marker and reassess. It felt like it took an age to get there but the positive aspect of this was that the tightness was not getting worse. Other than this I was physically feeling good and mentally I was determined and positive. With 20km to go it didn’t seem worth pushing on just yet. Once I got to 3km I tried to increase the pace, but got instant feedback that the calf didn’t like it. By slowing down the pain reduced immediately and so I took lots of confidence that I could manage this niggle and if necessary I could keep going at this pace. The run was 3 laps and during that 1st lap I seemed to be taking just under 5 minutes for each kilometer. Whilst this was slow I did think that it should be good enough to get me home. Once out onto lap two, the calf was beginning to behave. The longer I went the easier it was feeling. I stepped up the pace by about 15 secs per km and this felt better. I now knew that I would definitely finish and so my thoughts turned to the time. Using the finish line clock I did some crude calculations that suggested that I was going to set a new PB despite this calf issue. The last 5km was hard as I was tired. Its at these moments where its so important to maintain focus on the mechanics of the run action and ignore the growing fatigue. Keep it going. Don’t try anything silly in the last mile or so.Dublin703run

Making the final 180 degree turn and heading down the red carpet was brilliant. I felt so happy. I crossed the line and saw Paul, my brother in law. As usual at this moment a wave of emotion totally overwhelmed me.

Somehow I held back tears but was probably blubbering all kinds of nonsense about how happy I felt. He told me I’d finished in 4:53 and that I was currently in 2nd place in my AG. This was great news. I was bursting with pride. Could I really have finished in 2nd place? Might I possibly earn a place in the 2018 World Champs? Might another step towards my dream be taking place?

I’d find out in a few hours. We had time to go back home to change before returning for the awards ceremony. The result was confirmed . I was 2nd in a time of 4:53:16 and that meant a place on the podium but not necessarily a place for South Africa as there was only one guaranteed slot in my AG. Picking up my first trophy for an Ironman event felt significant. I was really proud. Dublin703podiumIMG_5035-3Then came World Championship slot allocation. I waited nervously to discover if there was to be more than one slot for my AG. It was confirmed that there was just one slot available. Damn, maybe it wasn’t to be on this occasion as the slot is obviously offered to the winner. Liam Williams, my AG winner did not respond when his name was called. Three times they called him and still he didn’t respond. Wow, the slot was going to be offered to me. I didn’t need to be asked twice. Yes please I’d like to take it. Thanks Liam, I owe you one.

South Africa here I come in September 2018.

Over the next few days I walked around with my World championship coin in my pocket at all times. I kept showing it to people, whether they wanted to see it or not. I was so proud. A few months on I’m still just as proud and I’m still just as excited about what next year has in store. It really feels like a breakthrough and given that I’ve set a new PB whilst carrying a calf niggle I know that there is still so much more that I can do.

 

Faster after 50 is real. Just how fast though, is the exciting unknown. Bring on next year to find out.