May the 4th be with you

For those of you who follow my (intermittent) blog and instagram posts, you’ll know that my goal for a while now has been to qualify and compete in the Ironman World Championships in Kona. As you can imagine (and my fiancée can attest to), this requires a lot of training; around 15-18 hours a week. My qualification race for this year is going to be in Zurich on 21st July. Around 2 months before my biggest race of the season, I have a training day I call BIG DAY. In capital letters. It’s a whole day of swimming, cycling and running, at race pace, for distances slightly shorter than the full Ironman distance. This year, BIG DAY coincided nicely with the ITU Long Distance World Championships; a race where the swimming, cycling and running distances are slightly shorter than the full Ironman distance. Should work nicely, I thought.

So, two and a bit months out from Zurich, BIG DAY happened in Pontevedra, Spain on Star Wars Day (4th May). I usually keep it close to Basel, so I can stop off at home for some sustenance throughout the day. This year, I had people whose whole role was to supply me with food and drink. Result.

The swim section was the biggest unknown for me this race. For a lot of my swim training, I use the current of the Rhein as a swimming treadmill, but with the water consistently below 10 degrees, those sessions have been swapped out for something that doesn’t freeze my balls off. I relied, and put my hopes, on the swimming foundation I built as a competitive swimmer when young, and the few pool sessions I’ve packed in whilst back in the UK. In the end, on the morning of the race, the officials decided to shorten the swim from 3000m to 1500m because the water was a fresh 14.1 degrees. Whilst less than half the normal 3800m Ironman swim, it was by far the toughest swim I’ve completed in a triathlon. The first 750m were upstream and it felt like I was barely moving forward, but even when swimming downstream for the second 750m, the current didn’t feel strong enough to make much difference and the cold really started to set in to my bones. After 28 minutes 5 seconds, I scrambled out of the water into the brisk May air to try and warm up. I was in 13th place going in to 1st transition (T1).

Transitions are all about the preparation before the race so I can get in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible. My nutrition was wrapped up in neat bundles to be shoved into my pockets, my shoes were attached to my pedals and held in place with elastic bands that snap when I set off. Everything was set up for me to change out of my wetsuit and get going on the bike straight away.

The bike course wound through the Spanish countryside in three 37.5km laps. The first 12.5km of each lap was almost consistently uphill, but what goes up must come down, and the next 12.5km I managed to average a speedy 66km/h. The bike section went well, but I felt myself start to flag in the final lap and have identified it as an area I want to work on. Despite that, I managed to clock the second fastest bike time in my age group. This brought me into T2 in 3rd place. Podium position. Exciting.

I lost a bit of time during T2, but I tend to take a bit longer to stretch my back after a long cycle. It seemed ok and didn’t take long to loosen up once I got out on the run. I started out a bit too fast but soon settled in to my race pace. Over the last year I’ve been experimenting with a run-walk style; running 1900m and walking for 100m. A bit counterintuitive during races you may think. However, during Ironman Copenhagen last year, I clocked a 3:10 marathon with this technique and have found the short breather every 2km makes a big difference over long distances, both physically and mentally. It’s during these 100m walks where the spirit of triathlon is most evident. I get extra cheers from spectators, back pats and ‘come on mate, you’ve got this’s from athletes assuming I’m struggling. It’s simultaneously heart-warming and slightly annoying. But any frustration soon melts away when I start my next run section and trot past them. I give them a thumbs up; let them think their back pats gave me a boost.

Around halfway through the run at the end of the 2nd lap, I was over taken myself by a speedy Belgian athlete who ran a lightning fast 30km in 2:00:18. I wasn’t aware of this and just stuck to my pacing plan. However, that went out the window in the final lap. Michaela shouted that I had someone else on my ass and I quickly identified an athlete who I’d been trading places with for a while. No more 100m walks for me. We stuck together until the end, with him shouting encouragement, or possibly heckling me, in Portuguese. With 1 kilometre to go, I put on a burst of speed, and again at 500 m to go. We were neck and neck, both battling after a brutal 6 hours of racing. I started to pull ahead and managed to keep the speed to the line, finishing 12 seconds ahead of my competitor.

The Belgian athlete finished in 3rd place, 3 minutes ahead of me.

4th place is well known as the worst position to finish in. I’ve been here before; I finished 4th in the Sprint Duathlon World Championships in 2015, 2 seconds behind 3rd place. That hurt. This time felt different though; I’d come with no expectations, competed well, paced myself properly and got a solid BIG DAY done. Of course, a podium is always nice, but I’ll definitely take 4th place in a World Championships when I’m still 2 months away from peak condition.

It’s given me confidence that I’m doing something right in my training plan, and has set me up nicely for a (hopefully) successful race at Ironman Switzerland.

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