We'll probably keep this blog going until what will be my final competitive triathlon at the Outlaw Iron distance race in Nottingham on August the 8th and so I'll save the whole reflection thing for the next few weeks and months. Today it's all about the race report from the day that so nearly was...
H and I arrived in Lanzarote, managing to just avoid yet more ash cloud disruption, on the Saturday before the race and with it being our sixth trip to the Island since the adventure began we felt at home pretty much straight away. It amazes me how people can spend an entire English winter suffering through long swim, bike and run sessions only to arrive at the race venue late and risk last minute worries and stress. With six full days in which to get stuff done prior to the race just a little bit of bike maintenance, kit buying, race bag packing, nutrition sorting, registration training meant that by Wednesday morning everything that needed to be done. We try and avoid all the pre-race hype and base ourselves in a beautiful little backwater of Lanzarote called Famara where our little one bedroom detached bungalow is provides sun for H, shade for me and peace & quiet for both of us. As usual I took a complete rest day two days out from the race and then slotted in a 30 minute run including 5 x 30 second efforts before breakfast the day before.
Racking & The Day Before
The day before race day is a strange time in Ironman, pretty much everything is done and the feeling of 'waiting' and quite strange. As an Ironman athlete you're used to there being something to do pretty much all the time and, particularly once your bike is racked there really is nothing to do except sit there... even most of your eating is already done! With us being tucked away in Famara Friday was pretty much the first time that I could get a good look at all the other athletes, and more importantly my rivals for a coveted Kona slot. The allocation had been posted at the organisers tent and 10th or best would be required for guaranteed qualification. This was pretty much as I expected and I guessed that a top 50 overall and a finish time starting with a '9' would be required if I was to book my ticket to Hawaii. Once everything was racked, my bags were hanging on their hooks (having been checked, double checked and checked again - not sure how I think my shoes might not be in my run bag seeing as I put them in there in the first place and triple checked them, perhaps one day I'll be surprised!) it was time for an nice early dinner. Not wanting to mess with my stomach a nice simple pasta dish was order of the day... Phil Graves did persuade me to join him for a black pudding starter though!
Arriving at transition at 5am the familiar race morning buzz was starting to build and again getting there early meant that I could remove the chance of any last minute stress and panic in the event of some unexpected 'moment'. By 5:30 I'd pumped my tyres up, stuck nutrition on the bike, checked my bags (again!) and benefitted from the early morning lack of toilet queues. By six o'clock I was sat down with H and enjoying 20 minutes of quiet time whilst the Ironman world wandered up and down. We also bumped into my club mate Richard Howarth, it was great to see a familiar face from back in Leeds and I knew that despite his awesome swim ability (Rich swam 50 minutes and was 11th out of the water) there was a good chance we'd find oursleves in close competition for a 35-39 qualification slot seven or eight hours later. I pulled my wetsuit on at about 6:30 and as usual shed a few emotional tears as I waved goodbye to Mum, Ray and H and wandered down to the water for a quick warm-up.
The Swim - 58:56
Despite being surrounded by 1,500 people who are about to do the same thing as you, the moments before the gun goes are up there with the most lonely in sport. At that point it's just you against the world, even if your best mate was stood right beside you you'd be unlikely to recognise them and even if you did they'd disappear into a thrashing of arms, legs and water the instant of the bang. Readers of this blog will know that I'd only managed about 10% of my normal swim volume in the 20 weeks leading up to the race and despite a couple of confidence building swims during race week I really didn't have a clue what was about to happen. As usual my Ironman Swim God was watching over me and for the sixth time in a row I completely avoided anything remotely approaching 'biff' and once round the first turn buoy found some nice feet to hang on to and settled into a great rhythm. My swim strategy had been to think about technique, tactics and pacing and not worry about fitness. With no regular feedback in open water swimming (i.e. a time check every 50 minutes) it's easy to let the negative thoughts creep in and imagine that not only are you at the back but even going in completely the wrong direction, when you've had such a bad swim build up the temptation to convince yourself this is the case and for your head to drop is strong. I felt good though, really good and exiting the water at half-way to the amazing shouts and screams of H motivating me for the first time in the race (see pic) was thinking I might surprise myself. Probably around 1,000m later my lack of swim volume was showing its face as my arms tired, and my lack of open water practice was showing as I got seriously sea-sick... all this combined with my goggles really starting to hurt as I'd not worn them continuously for this long since July 2009 meant that by about 3k I was really 'over' the whole swim thing. Not wanting to start off the day with negative feedback I'd not started my watch so that I couldn't be disappointed with my swim time. Fortunately there was a race clock at the exit and with a time of 58:56 I learned two things... a) the swim was shorter than last year and b) despite that I must have had a blinder as at six minutes ahead of my predicted time I must at least have 'split the difference'.
The Bike - 5:33:24
With what I thought would be my weakest discipline done and dusted I set off on the bike in 140th place overall, and with a top 50 the target, had some serious work to do. Despite that, and the desire to take at least ten minutes off last year's 5:41, I knew that the fastest Ironman bike split is built on the foundations of a steady first couple of hours. In my head I had split the course into three sections - The start to Famara (2:15 and easy), Famara to the top of Mirador (1:45 of steady work) and then Mirador to the finish (1:30 of hard work) and knowing it like the back of my hand felt comfortable in familiar surroundings from the start. For the first 20 miles my left leg was really struggling to keep up with my right, it just felt weak and despite my heart rate being about right (aprox 145) and my perceived pace feeling good, as I moved up the places I was a little worried. You can only play the cards you're dealt though and I just kept saying to myself that it was probably stiff from the swim and would not doubt loosen up as the race went on. I also had to stay on top of those negative feelings associated with the odd athlete flying past like I was stood still... they're either better than you or going too fast, neither of which are reasons to 'react' so early into such a long race. With the words of Ryan Hall ringing in my ears I repeated out loud (a sign of madness I know) that I 'must have faith in my ability and stick to the plan'. It was nice to see some familiar faces and as Jim Peet went by and I in turn went past Rob Quantrell the brief moments of positive encouragement between us really helped to keep the spirits high and the mind focused... although Rob's contents of 'go on Tom, kill it!' probably lifted my heart rate a little high for a while ;) Coming through Tinajo at about mile 40 I once again benefitted from the shouts of H, Mum and Ray, which seemed to give my left leg a good shot of aneasthetic. Just 20 minutes later I was beginning the second 'section' of the bike... climbing from Famara to Haria and starting to feel really great.
You can't win the race over the next 20 miles but you can certainly loose it if you succumb to temptation and hammer the hills. By this time though I was starting to feel great and making solid progress up through Teguise. I'd caught last years female winner Bella Bayliss at around 60 miles, which at around 20 miles earlier than last year was a great boost prior to the final proper climb up to Mirador. The views from the top were, as always, amazing and as the highest point on the course disappeared into background I got myself ready for the final push home. At about 87 miles you make a right turn at Tahiche for a 5k climb to Teguise and then with all the tough stuff behind you and a tail wind home if you've paced it well then it's 'happy days' until the run. I knew mum, Ray and H would be at this roundabout and had been looking forward to seeing them for a while. As always their shouts spurred me on and seconds later I caught up with Rich Howarth... he told me he'd swum 50 minutes and he's a strong cyclist so I knew I must be going well to have made up over eight minutes. As we climbed up to Teguise I'd never felt so good 90 miles into and Ironman bike, had avoided pushing it for any of the ride and with my biggest ever bike training volume in the bank I was confident that I'd have no problem unleashing my best ever run form. Just coming into Teguise, the final proper climb was done, a guy by the side of the rode shouted that I was in 80th overall and with 60 places taken on the bike a top 50 was looking good...
Ironman's a funny thing though and no sooner had I practically awarded myself the Kona slot than my legs blew into a thousand pieces... Rich, who I'd caught so quickly just 15 minutes earlier, edged further and further away and with absolutely nothing to give all I could do was try and keep the pedals turning and limit any damage. Over the next ten miles I lost 30 places but knowing that the final ten were mostly downhill just kept pushing and pushing, if I could just get over the top then just maybe I could turn things round before the run. It's so important to stay positive at times like this, not to panic and just try to get through the low patch... Four caffeinated Power Bar gels and ten fast downhill miles later and it was time to strap on my running shoes and get stuck in to the final three and a bit hours of a five year journey...
The finish chute of my first ever Ironman triathlon, way back in Austria 2006, was probably the most amazing moment of my life. It marked the achievement of something that deep down I'd never believed possible and was the culmination what was at that time the hardest training I'd ever done by quite some way. Helen, my mum & Ray and loads of friends had come to support and seeing as without them I would never have even got to the start line let alone survived the race I'd spent what seemed like hours taking in the moment, dishing out the high-fives and generally celebrating. Yes it cost me a load of time but it was absolutely worth every second.