I just about made it to the swim practice early Friday before race day but quickly decided that the rest of the day was going to be spent indoors at my awesome homestay at the north end of town, avoiding the torrential downpours and blustery winds that were battering Dorset. Saturday wasn't much better in the afternoon and by racking time everyone at the race venue was soaking again. Relative to that, the weather forecast for race day of hardly any rain and just some winds of 16-20mph with gusts up to 30 mph seemed very positive! This was the kind of weather that as kids we used to relish on hiking holidays in Dorset, wrapped up in hardy waterproofs, wellies, with a large thermos of tea to see us through. The kind of weather that made the sheep huddle close to the lea side of the hills so they didn't get blown into next week.
So, positive choice number one: in case of inclement weather, take arm warmers. How I rationalised that arm warmers would suffice for a 16 deg C windy race with threat of rain as the only addition to the same kit I’d wear for a 35 deg C race in blazing sun, I'm not sure, but somehow it worked!
The swim was uneventful. The logistics of getting 1500 athletes into a pond at 6am (and some parking on the run course – never good!) meant that the start was delayed by around half an hour, but this at least gave the morning a chance to go from pitch black to just murky grey. I managed to lose the first group (not surprising given the pace of the first couple of guys) which meant a fair amount of swimming on my own, and then hanging off some age group feet for the middle section, which was fine. I got a little frustrated seeing the gap to the next group widening, but I tried to swim on and quickly realised I wasn't making any headway so sat back in until the feet started to slow down.
Roll back a week to last Sunday. I had to warn my long-suffering flatmate's that I was grumpy. I’d been struggling with a soleus injury for several weeks and it had finally kicked off so badly after a prep race in Bedford that I’d been on a running moratorium for 7 days with little improvement. I was on the verge of pulling out, not being able to face starting another race that I couldn't finish due to injury this year! But Sunday night I had booked in some cupping, acupuncture (the don’t try anything new on race week rule goes out of the window if there’s a big chance you might not be able to race at all!) and an hour and a half of massage (on top of 2 massages earlier in the week). My legs have never had so much attention! Monday rolled round and I procrastinated on the test run, knowing that if it went badly that I’d be pulling the plug. I tooled around all day until 5pm when I finally bit the bullet and went for a broken 25 minute jog. It wasn't great, but it was manageable. Perhaps another massage and a few more days rest. I didn't make the call to withdraw.
Exiting the swim, I was relieved that the hoard of age groupers hadn't overrun me – hopefully I’d not let down Dan my swim coach too badly (Swim for Tri)!. Running to T1, Bella was alongside, and she slid on a muddy corner. I saw her tumble too late and followed suit, wiping out in the mud. Highly entertaining! The bike started uneventfully, though I my aero-helmet felt surprisingly uncomfortable. After a few kms, I realised that I had put the aero side panels on the wrong way round, so they were pointing into my neck at the sides. Ouch – that hurt, though it did make me chuckle! There'll be some strange looking photos from the first 30kms, before I had the sense to take them off.
The first lap didn't seem too bad, but a time check at the turnaround showed that I was well off my predicted pace. On lap two, I started to slow. The combination of increasingly blustery winds and taking two bottles of water at successive aid stations instead of energy drink was making me flag. There didn't seem to be anything extra in the legs and it felt like I was going nowhere fast. Mentally I started writing my race report. The first draft was titled “so this is what being undertrained feels like...” A couple of pros and then some speedy age groupers ripped it past me, and I just let them go. Having little idea of how many had been in the front pack on the swim, I was clueless as to my position on the bike. It seemed pretty lonely out there, the first lap was spent with little sign of anyone else for a lot of the time. The wind and hills had split everyone rapidly, so that even on the last lap, the age group field seemed well spread. I was riding my beautiful orange Trek (Team Timex colours), with Powertap – post race I checked the data. At IMCdA earlier in the year (where I was doing a training brick as shin splints had me off running) I rode a fairly leisurely 5:15 on an undulating bike course... 10 minutes FASTER than my IMUK split, but averaging 20 watts EASIER. That was a tough old bike at the weekend!
Morale was pretty low, but the light in the darkness came in the form some incredible support, some in the form of pompoms and a few Serpie flags dotted around the course. Luckily the rain held off in the most part, so that the support out of the bike course was much more impressive than I had expected.
As T2 approached, I started to feel better, mentally, and having finally picked up some bottles of cola, the caffeine was kicking in too. Autopilot took over for the transition and I was out on the run, full-on bright white compression socks and all. Here’s where I’d find out if my soleus was going to keep it together or not. The dearth of volunteers in T2 watching me struggle with the compression socks made me wonder where I was placed. No one else in T2 was a good sign, right? At some point a couple of kms into the run a kid shouted “you’re in 15th!”. I don’t usually hold much stock in positions being called from the crowd, as I know how uncertain this can be, but it gave me some hope – perhaps everyone found the conditions hard, and it wasn't just me having a bad day. If the legs held together, perhaps I could run down a couple of those age groupers who must have spent themselves on the bike course... So I kept on. Keep it steady. Keep it steady. By mile 5 of the first lap I was contemplating the irony of wearing white knee high socks to what turning into a cross country mud marathon.
Between the castle gates and the centre of town I saw the top three or four running back, so I figured that I was only down about 25 minutes on them. Lap one came and went in a flurry of gels and coke. I did wonder how many more I could take before my body started to reject them violently. On lap two I had a stroke of luck. A Scot by the name of Alistair on his first lap pulled up to my shoulder and we chatted briefly. He was running a solid pace and kept it consistent so we ran together for most of lap two, running a couple of people down in the meantime. I’d counted off at least 3 people by then, so I was hoping I was around 12th. Coming onto lap 3 I caught up to another pro, Kai Soderdahl, and I think that kept us both going for the final loop.
Even at the finish line, I had no idea where I’d placed. A few sweaty hugs later and I had an answer from the Ironman live booth – 6th! I think I was grinning for the rest of the day.
A shower, massage, curry, bath and a lot of tea later, we watched the final couple of hours of the race. The Serpie cheering squad continued to amaze me with their endless enthusiasm late into the evening. For spectators, knowing that the best viewing is the mass swim start and the final few finishers makes it a long day! An endurance event in itself.
And the next day it got even better. I turned down a Hawaii spot last year as an Age Grouper as it is an expensive trip an I had some masters exams to finish off. Having worked out who had and didn't have a spot in the top 5 pros, I figured roll down may reach me... and I was ready to turn it down again, as I really can’t afford the trip this year. Gutting. And then something amazing happened: Rotary offered to part support the trip actually during the roll down. So it looks like I'm off to the Big Island a little earlier than I had planned!
See you in Hawaii... Anyone got a spare bed?!