Sunday, 15 August 2010

Outlaw Triathlon Race Report

Make no mistake; training for an Ironman (IM) is hard. It requires sacrifice, dedication, selfishness and motivation. Ask anyone who’s done an IM and they’ll explain why. This year was no different. All I can say is thanks so much to my amazing girlfriend who put up with all of the above. I also have to say a huge thanks to Beloki (my training partner and fellow competitor) for the hours of hard training, advice, training schedules and for forcing me to do it all.

Having done an IM last year really helped. It made me focus on what’s needed to do well and get faster. I think the biggest advantage came from being able to manage the nerves. Nothing makes you more nervous than the unknown.

Training wise I did the miles. Loads of them. There’s no shortcuts when it come to the IM. Train hard and you’ll get the results, bar mechanical issues. I did quite a bit more cycling and swimming this year. Riding a few 200km plus sportives made sure of this. I never need an excuse to swim, as it’s my strongest and favourite of the three disciplines, so I logged many a lap. I won’t bore you with ‘training spreadsheet’ numbers, but if you’re interested, get in touch and I’ll share them with you.

Race Build-up
The race organisers held three swim events on the Saturday. 500m, 1,500m & 3,000m. I opted for the 1,500m. I hadn’t swam much the week before and following a disastrous zigzag of a swim at the Weymouth Half IM, I wanted to get in the water, check out the course and lock in my bearings. The atmosphere was great in the water, with everyone joking and chatting. As we were swimming in a kayak regatta lake, it was a straight up, across and straight back, shaped course. Having the kayak lane markings was great to help with keeping in a straight line. The best thing about doing the ‘practice’ swim was it allowed me to get used to the weed. In patches it was really bad, like trying to swim over a net, submerged just below the surface. It got stuck on my hands, face, shoulders; you name it. The key was to not panic; swim strong and you’d get through it. I made sure to look around, stretch out, think about my technique and I even made time to wave at my support team watching from the bank. Swim done, it was time to ‘rack-up’.

As I took Felty (my bike) off the car, I noticed something was missing! One of the arm-pad rests had blown off on the drive up. After a small panic, I just thought “Don’t stress, they’ll be selling more at the Expo”. I quickly jogged back to the registration hall and looked around the various retailer stalls. NONE! I could see the sympathy on the faces of the retailers. Although it’s such a small and fortunately ‘not race ending’ piece of equipment, having comfortable arm-pad rests on a TT bike for a 180km ride is kind of a big deal. Not the stress I needed the day before the race. I even asked the Felt Bikes salesman who had a huge range of brand new Feltys if he could help me out. “Sorry dude” was the answer. Seeing all the new bikes, with glistening, shiny unused arm-pads was a killer. Time for Plan B. I cut the remaining arm-pad in half; putting one half on each armrest and taped up the hard metal surface that wasn’t covered. I knew I’d packed some sponges so could make some DIY arm-pads back at the hotel.

From a race organisation point, registration, racking and briefing was a breeze. An improvement for next year would be to increase the bag holding area. It was seriously packed once all the bags were hanging up. All this meant was really having to study the exact location of your bags. Due to the ‘arm-pad issue’ we were a little late getting to the 3pm briefing so had to sit in the corridor with the other latecomers. Had we really wanted to pay attention, we could have attended the various other briefing time slots throughout the day.

One area I really fall down in is race planning. Even the day before the race, I wasn’t quite sure of a time to aim for. I knew I wanted to go sub-60min for the swim and hopefully sub-3:45 for the marathon but not knowing the bike course, I wasn’t sure to aim for 5:15, 5:30 or even 6:00. The bike course makes and breaks a race (I learnt this at Bolton last year) so I was undecided. I’d heard Nottingham was quick, but it’s never ‘quick’ for the whole 180km. It’s easy to ride one lap and label it fast. Add a swim, some wind and 100km before and suddenly the final 80km feels slow. So my plan was to ride by feel. I’d try keep to an average speed of 34km/h but if that were too hard to sustain, I’d drop to 33.5km/h and so on. Run wise, I planned to run the first 5 miles at 3:30:00 pace and then see from there. The run course was marked with 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25mile markers - 40:00 per 5 miles for a 3:30:00 or 42:30 per 5 miles for a 3:45:00. I really wanted to go for a 3:30:00 but with a straight marathon PB of 3:24:00, I knew it was asking a lot. I wrote a few numbers/targets in marker pen on the inside of my left arm and went to sleep. Well…tried to sleep.

(Nutrition Plan – one gel 20min before the swim, a 150ml can of coke in T1, a gel every 30mins, a chicken wrap, two Mars bars and two Power bars on the bike, another 150ml coke in T2 and a gel every 20mins washed down with coke, water or High Five at the watering tables. I worked out this plan pretty much from reading what others do, etc. Not very scientific.)

Race Day
One of the reasons I don’t like staying in a hotel is the lack of a kitchen come race morning. Luckily this is normally the same issue for all races out of London so I’m used to it. Boiling water into a bowl of porridge and leave for a few minutes. Job done. Washed down with a banana and a glass of innocent smoothie. Oh, and a horrible hotel room instant coffee.

First priority when I got to transition was to tape the new DIY arm-pads onto Felty. With that sorted, I relaxed and focussed on the race ahead. Did the usual pre-race ritual – pumped up tyres, filled juice bottles, stuck Power bars to the bike, etc. Nerves were surprising calm. Bit of banter amongst competitors and before I knew it, it was time to don the wetsuit. I didn’t take the opportunity but the organisers kindly allowed everyone access to their race bags. This wasn’t allowed at IMUK last year and it’s a massive relief to know you can get to your bags in the morning if needed. We could even go so far as leaving helmets on ours bikes. I decided it was best to just trust my bag packing and leave everything on the bag racks.

The atmosphere on the start line was great! Everyone wishing each other good luck, cracking a few jokes, etc. I positioned myself in the sub-60 swim area on the far left hand side of the course. The one negative of a straight out and back swim course is that it just looks so flippen far to the turn around point. Distance over water always looks far worse than what it actually is, so I just kept telling myself that all that was required was to swim non-stop for an hour.

Everyone remained calm (well at least looked it) and behind the start line which is rare these days. I wished Beloki good luck, put my goggles in ‘race’ position and waited for the horn.

I didn’t go mad off the line but swam steadily and assertively; keeping my line when I got bumped and pushed around. I found some open water and just concentrated on my breathing. I’m a firm believer in the theory that breathing is the key to swimming well. I try settling my breathing as quickly as possible to get into a rhythm. Long, powerful strokes. Reach, catch, pull, push. Until I hit the weed patches. I knew they’d be there so remained calm, despite at times feeling like it was pulling me down. It definitely slowed me for a few seconds but I gathered it was doing the same to everyone so stopped worrying about the lost time.

I sang in my head, kept sighting to keep on course and before I knew it, it was time to turn for the stretch home. I quickly looked at my watch as I turned the last buoy and got quite a surprise when I saw 27min something. Had I done too much too early, etc, etc? So many thoughts, very little time to worry about it. I still had another 2.4km to go. I figured I might tire a little towards the end so being up on my planned sub-60min halfway split was probably a good thing. I certainly wasn’t redlining it and was swimming within my limit, which made me feel confident. As we were swimming in a sprint kayak & rowing lake, there are distance markers along the banks of the course. This was awesome as it allowed you to gauge your pace and distance left to go. So long as you added on a little as we were finishing about 250m past the official kayak course finish line. With about 1km to go, I knew I could up my pace so I pushed harder and upped my stroke rate.

I ran (fast walk) up the swim exit ramp and looked down at my watch – 54:38. WATCH OUT GRANT HACKETT! Just the confidence boost I needed early on in the day. This time put me 11th. (I have to admit, I think the course was maybe 150/200m short. But I would have still got a sub-60min swim so I’ll take it!)

Wetsuit off, into transition and not much else really. To Beloki’s credit, we swam without our tri tops. We’d pre-loaded our tops with race nutrition so it was a simple matter of putting the top on, zipping up (best to use a full length zip tri top) and heading off. I think this worked ectremely well for 2 reasons. 1 – swimming with less clothing on under a wetsuit is better as it retains less water, keeping you lighter. 2 – starting the bike with a relatively dry top on is MUCH better than starting with a sopping wet one – especially racing in the UK where it’s not boiling hot that early in the morning. I opted to put my shoes on versus have them clipped in. I’d rather lose 30 seconds than try jump on the bike with shoes clipped in, fall over and end my race. Transition was very short distance wise which always helps to make a faster race.

T1 time – 03:01 (the average for the top 20 seems to be around the 02:30/03:00 minute mark so no major time to be made up here. Fastest was 01:48.)

The start of my bike leg was great. As I came out of T1 I saw Barbs and Sahara (Beloki’s wife), gave them a whoop-whoop and settled down into race mode. I made sure not to go balls to the wall too quickly so kept the speedometer at around the 35km/h mark. As the first bit of the bike course required rounding the lake, it’s dead flat so the urge to leg it is something I really had to resist. Get the legs warm and get comfy, it’s a long day yet.

For the next 20km I felt like I was on the Queen K Highway. This first section was flat, totally closed off to cars and the sun was starting to shime. I was isolated, the road surface was smooth and I was in high spirits. The sound of Felty sliding over the tarmac was music to my ears. I was probably smiling ear to ear.

After this 20km section it turns right onto the 3 lap section of the course. Support on the sides of the road was starting to build and being at the front end of the field, I got loads of shouts of encouragement. I tried to give everyone who shouted the double thumbs-up acknowledgement they deserved. The support was phenomenal. The water/feed stations were brilliant. The volunteers would run a few steps next to the bike to ensure the bottle handover was as smooth as possible. The loop was probably 2/3s undulating and 1/3 flat/downhill. The time lost in the first section was easily made up on the second section. The second portion was biking heaven. Speedo easily hitting 45/50km/h.

The only ‘issue’ I experienced on the bike was a faulty speedometer. It kept losing signal so would give the correct speed for 30 seconds and then drop off for 10 seconds and so on. It was very annoying but it’s the kind of problem I’d take any day over a flat tire, broken chain, cramp, etc. It just made me worry that I won’t be able to check my average speed correctly. Fortunately with riding many miles in training, I had quite a good feel for what speed I was doing. It was only into a headwind that I struggled to know what speed I was actually doing.

What was really encouraging was that I wasn’t getting passed by too many people. And when someone did, I was able to keep the gap between us constant for quite a few kilometres. I kept my effort steady and watched the miles tick away. At around the 70km mark Beloki caught up to me. I have to admit I was quite surprised as last year I stayed away on the bike until we reached T2 together. Beloki is super strong on the bike so I just sucked it up, accepted it and tried to match his effort. It was a nice break from the loneliness to be able to have a bit of a chat with a mate and training partner. We discussed our swim times and laughed that we didn’t have carbon bikes and deep-set carbon wheels like most of the guys we were riding alongside. I even said I thought I was the first non-aero helmet in the race. (I laugh now thinking about it – Beloki and I always joke about the fact that we use entry-level equipment so imagine what we’d do on top spec equipment!?) This banter broke the boredom and really helped take my mind off the hurt/distance still to go. It wasn’t long before Beloki started edging ahead which just felt too hard to match. (I’d like to add that at no point did we draft. I pride myself on never drafting even if there are no marshals around. You’re only cheating yourself if you do.) Little by little I noticed Beloki increase the gap until he was out of sight, even on the long straight sections.

With Beloki gone, I knuckled down and kept stamping on the pedals. All I could think about was completing the 3rd lap and getting onto the final 20km section back to transition. As with all really long bike rides, there gets a point where everything just aches. Neck, back, bum and legs. More so the neck and bum. I found myself standing on any slight incline, just to relieve the ache for a few seconds. Finally I got to the turn back point and knew it was roughly only 20km until I’d be back in transition. Just the lift I needed and I noticed a sudden surge in speed.

Nutrition wise, having a gel every 30mins helped break the ride into manageable chunks. I ate my chicken wrap around the 100km mark and ate the Power bars in small portions throughout the ride. I forced myself to drink and knowing where the water stations were on each lap helped, as I’d make sure I’d finished my bottles so I could pick up fresh ones. Stupidly at times I’d talk to myself as if I were a naughty child “Now finish that juice Troy, or else. Yes, the whole lot!” Ha ha ha. The weird things an IM does to your brain. Or maybe it’s just me!

Bike split – 05:22:01 (Average speed 33.6km/h) STOKED! (25th bike position)

The organisers arranged for volunteers to take our bikes from us as we dismounted. A really nice touch.

And now I need to apologise. As I ran into the bagging area, a kind lady volunteer followed me in to help locate my run bag. I knew exactly where it was, so as I got to it, I bent down to grab it, but so too did she and I properly head butted her. I was wearing my helmet so felt nothing but the poor lady stumbled back, a little dazed. I turned to see if she was ok (she was), shouted sorry and ducked off into the changing area. Shoes on, new gels in pockets, a can of coke in my hand and I was out of T2 in 03:01.

I think the brain actually blocks out the reality of running a marathon after a 180km ride. If the brain allowed the body to know what was in store, I reckon it would shut down on the spot. I felt good, great actually, as I started the run. I downed my coke and looked around at the many cheering spectators. So much fantastic support!

The run course consisted of 3 loops, each going around the regatta course and into Nottingham along the towpath. Except for the first lap where we had to run around the regatta lake twice. Coming around the lake for the first time, I saw Barbs, my mom and Sahara on the other side and they shouted to me and I smiled back. Being near the front of the field, the first time out along the towpath was REALLY lonely. I just kept doing math sums in my head relating to run and finish times. Luckily I’m really shit at maths so this takes ages, even using fingers to count at times. (That’s why I work in the creative industry!) It kills the time big time. I ran the first 5 miles on a 03:30:00 target but knew early on that I’d struggle to keep this for the rest of the run. I wasn’t at my limit but I just knew the entrance to the cave was nearing and I’d need to back off at some stage.

The run got more interesting when all the top pros started coming back towards me and I tried to count positions but with relays competitors included I got too confused and laughed off the counting. What worked really well for me was breaking the run into 5 mile portions. Each 5 miles had to last about 40 – 44mins to hit target and I need to take a gel every 20min so it became a 2 gel/40min habit. Only thinking of each 40min section made the run seem easier. Again, mind tricks work.

As I completed the 2 lap, I passed my supporters and mentioned that the cave was imminent. My mom then shouted a great piece of advice, “DON’T THINK, JUST RUN!” So all I did was put one foot in front of the other and looked at the ground in front of me. I pretty much just zoned out. I was in my own little world. And surprise, surprise, my pace increased. So much so that I thought I might go sub-10! Sometimes being terrible at maths is a good thing because thinking I could go under 10 hours allowed me to push myself. Especially because at that stage, Beloki was on schedule for a sub-10 and all I could think was that he’d do a 9:50 something and I’d get a 10 hour something and being able to claim a 9 something Ironman just sounds so much better than 10 something. Men and egos!

So I pushed the last lap. Looking at my lap split time, I don’t think I pushed so much as just held my pace, but generally at this point you’re deteriorating (slow) quite a bit so I wasn’t going faster but the other runners were slowing (so it seemed anyway). The effect was that I felt like I was flying. I wasn’t passing people in front of me at the same points as before along the out and back course. When I didn’t see Beloki at our usual meeting point on the course I knew I was running strong (in hindsight, Beloki had hit the wall and slowed on the last lap). Suddenly in my head I thought, imagine if I catch Beloki…AND go sub-10!? Push push push!

When I came down onto the regatta lake for my final circuit, the realisation hit me that I wasn’t going to go sub-10, or catch Beloki for that matter. It was a great fantasy while it lasted but it didn’t bother me that the dream was over. It wasn’t my goal so I just kept running, admittedly a little slower than before. Then the mind games started again. On each lap, we were given a coloured elastic band so marshals could see how many laps each competitor had completed. I had three bands on my arm but stupidly I thought, maybe I need four bands? (The confusion came from running around the lake 4 times, but only doing 3 laps in total. Two lake laps on the first loop and then two lake laps as part of the final two loops.) My brain was convinced that there was no way I was about to do a 10 hour IM so in my head I kept thinking, when I get to the end, they’re going to send me on another loop. I still believed this even though I could see that Barbs, my mom and Sahara had moved from their normal spectator point, to the finish (I assumed they’d gone to the finish).

I turned at the top of the lake and passed the 25mile marker. 1 more mile to go. But maybe not is what when around in my head. I was so confused, that I didn’t even take notice of the Hooters girls at the final feed station (yes, Hooters Bar in Nottingham sponsored a watering table!). Ok, I lie, I did have a good look but I didn’t stop for a chat. I had been walking through some of the watering points to take on water and coke, but with possibly only a few minutes to go, I didn’t even take on supplies. I read somewhere that it takes the body nearly 8 minutes to process liquid energy so it was pointless to take it on. Hopefully I’d be at the finish line bye then!

Coming into the home straight, I spotted the marshal who allowed competitors to siphon off into the finishing chute. I showed her the three bands (I’m still wearing them now. I’m emotionally attached to them) on my arm, made my best puppy-dog face and hoped like hell I would be allowed entry. She gave me a massive smile, stepped to the side and gestured me into the finish chute. All I heard was the crowd erupt with cheers and laughter. They must have seen the relief on my face! Instantly I raised a fist to the air and did my best Tiger Woods fist pump impersonation (that sounds dirty after Tiger’s recent activities!). Yes, I was claiming it big style!

I looked for Barbs and my mom on the sidelines, spotted Barbs and ran straight towards her for what is now the traditional hug and kiss in the finish chute. Pash over, I turn, pumped my fist some more and soaked up the finishing experience. I heard the commentator read out my name, congratulate me and shout – Troy Squires, you are an Outlaw!!!

I stopped the clock in 10:07:37. I’d run the marathon in 03:44:50 (28th run position). Job done.

I felt the emotion build, had a little talk to myself and stumbled into the finishers’ tent.

And even then, my first thought was “I’m sure I can go sub-10 next time…”

(For the record, Beloki raced an absolute blinder. He clocked a 10:02:09. 14th overall and 2th in age-group. Sub-10 for him is merely a matter of racing another quick course. I finished 20th overall and 3rd in age-group. 1st in our age-group finished 2nd overall! And I’m absolutely certain he’s a pro and doesn’t work 45hour weeks like the rest of us.)

You deserve a medal too getting to the end of all of this! Thanks for reading it and going the distance.