What a weekend! I was in two minds about racing at all before the weekend. On the train down I had pretty much convinced myself that the season had ended at Austria and that I'd not get above training pace on sunday. Arriving in Sherbourne picked me up a bit: the sun was shining, the town was beautiful - it seemed an ideal place to race. The atmosphere at the expo and in the school where I was staying with a host of other athletes was infectious. But the weather deteriorated on friday and saturday until by saturday night, Sherbourne had been turned into a mud pit. The rain was pouring, the wind blowing, I was feeling tired and I seriously needed to catch up on some sleep.
Sunday morning rolls around. Up at 3 - a little earlier than anticipated but the cubicle room I was in wasn't very sound-proof, so once someone in the dorm decided to get up, there was no point in trying to sleep any longer. Used to a 4:30 wake up for a 7am start, I found the 6am start time a bit of a surprise (only realising the day before!), and being out of bed before 4 seemed wrong! Having eaten enough to feed a small country over the last few days, I stuffed down the usual pre-race meal and got a lift to the start with Scott, the eventual race winner. Still pitch black, I was relieved that the rain had stopped by the time we reached transition. The wind seemed to have died down too. Getting ready I wasn't too nervous - I had given myself enough sensible reasons to pull out at any time, all based around the fact that my little 'recovery' experiment was turning out the way most people had suggested it would. I was mildly concerned about some GI problems I was experiencing - one of the bagels was not sitting happily. O well, if it reappears on the swim, that's life. And then the sun came up and suddenly we were trudging through the mud to the swim start. Into the water, swim 200m to the start line. And wait. And wait. And wait. At about 6:20 we finally start, numb hands and all. I'd positioned right on the start line, with a couple of female pros on my left and a couple of male pros to my right. After the initial charge, I settled in. The 20 minute stall had settled my stomach and the swim seemed easy. A few bursts to keep make sure the pack I was with didn't drop me, and two laps later it was time to get out, albeit with a bit of cramping in my inner thigh. I just thought: won't need that on the bike, right? I knew the swim had been quick as I had been sticking with two pink caps (women pros) who I figured might be Bella Comerford and if I was lucky Hillary Biscay (turned out to be Yvette Grice) - so if I was right I was guessing at a swim somewhere in the range 52-54. Got hauled out and checked the watch on the run to T1 - it was reading 50 something. Good work!!!!
T1 turned out to be a casual affair, a bit of banter with the crew, and a tough time getting on my arm warmers, which wouldn't go past my elbows, so that's where they stayed for the rest of the race. Already I my mind had worked out that my PB swim could only be validated if I finished the race. Otherwise it was just a straight 3.8km, and it'd never stick. So running out to find my bike, I heard someone shout my name followed by "you're with the pros!". Let's see how long I can stay there.
Out onto the bike course I quickly realised that my chain wouldn't change down to the small ring. Don't panic. Just get up the first hill out of town, then there'll be a downhill section, and I can sort it out there. So my heart rate went up, and I was overtaking a couple of people within 2 km of T1. Not ideal, but I was mashing, so what can you do? About 6km in stop to fiddle with the front derailleur. No joy. Bella passes me. A few other guys do too. Back on the bike, I figure I'll just change it down manually at the bottom of every hill. I try this once. Stopping, changing and restarting bites, and the accelaration seems to be just as bad as pushing a bigger gear than I'd like. And plus I start thinking about the number of times I'd have to go through this process on a 3 lap undulating course. I do the maths: I'm stuck with the big ring. I completely give up all hope of fixing it after the a second aid station answers 'no idea' when quizzed about the whereabouts of any course mechanics.
But the cup is always half full: its all an experiment... let's see what happens if I don't have any fall back gears to spin up the hills with. For the first lap this seems bearable. The course seems empty, and other athletes are few and far between. Pushing through the hilly section I pass the two leading women - I hadn't noticed Hillary pass me on one of my stops as well (EDIT: that's because she got out of the water ahead of me... of course!). Lap two comes and goes - I keep expecting a pack to blaze past, but instead I just exchange places with a handful of other athletes - a few pros, a few age groupers - back and forth. I see a few of the same people a few times as we each flag at different stages then get back on after a bit of a regroup or some extra calories. Eat. Eat. Eat. Drink. Drink. Drink. The wind started to pick up, and by lap 3 it was a pain in the ass. And the legs. And my gearing situation was not helping matters. That MUST have screwed my run. O well... we'll find out soon. The last 20miles really dragged - undulating and into a headwind. And cold.
T2 was a welcome relief. Chatting to the volunteers, it seemed that me and the pro who'd got in just before me were around the 20th mark. Brief disbelief ... but then my swim had been good, and, unbelievably, no packs had rolled past. Guess my 5:15 bike split must have seen me right. Now for the fun bit. Unlike the bike, which we'd driven the day before, I had no idea about the run course. And I'm glad about that. This was going to hurt whatever - not knowing how hilly the course was turned out to be a blessing. The first 5 miles my shins were tight, I kept the pace down, and actually enjoyed the mud on the Castle laps. Only one pro passed me there - the guy who'd got into T2 ahead of me had been slow getting out - and he cramped round the corner. So I'm still in the top 20. But I'm running slow. Even if I hold on for a 3:15 somehow (I'd have to speed up and deal with hills) the pro's are going to start rolling past fairly soon. Second lap of the Castle grounds Paul Perry (a Serpie) blazes past me just starting his run. Like MAN he was flying. I figured it couldn't last too long, but the difference in our paces alarmed me slightly. I really seemed to be fading and was only 5 miles in. But it all got a bit easier. I was eating a gel at every other aid station, trying desperately to keep smiling at all the great supporters, and was faintly amused by the predicament I'd got myself into. There was NO WAY I could do anything but run my ass off at this point. There would have to be a pretty good reason for me to be at survival pace when I'm 5 miles into a marathon and somehow in the top 20. So I speed up a bit. After the second lap of the Castle loop, where it had been getting busy again as more and more athletes were starting the run, I was out onto the other half of the run section - including a horrific out and back rolling dual carriageway section, with a monster uphill into a headwind. Ouch. But on the first lap of it I got to count the runners ahead. 17. 17?!! Holy smokes! And then the fear - having hit the turn around, I knew I was being counted by the guys behind me - very close behind me. I think that's when I really sped up. I don't think I was overtaken on that loop, I can't really remember. But I do remember overtaking two more athletes - including the race's earlier leader, Rhodes, who's calf had blown and was walking his way to the finish. And then it was time to head home. In my mind there was a pack of people waiting behind with strong finishes, and I was just praying that I wouldn't cramp of my legs fail before the finish.
Crossing the finish came quickly. I was pretty sure I was somewhere around the 20th mark, but didn't dare hope for 15th. I'd been assuming that I would get taken before the finish so I hadn't got my hopes up. But there it was. A minute faster than Austria on a much tougher course... also unexpected: my watch had only been giving me section times, not totals.
Awesome. So, a few personal limiters removed: I had been riding too conservatively at Austria; I can run near 3 hours already. I can swim sub-50 already. Good news: I'm ahead of schedule. That's a couple of next year's targets already met - the top 20 finish being one of them too.
So did the experiment work? On balance, yes. I was verging on overdoing it with the high vol fortnight but its what I needed at the time to keep me happy, and it got me mentally relaxed enough to just go out and have some fun.