A lot can happen in three weeks.
A DNF at my Plan B race Ironman Copenhagen on August 23rd (following a DNS at my Plan A race – Challenge Roth – earlier in the season due to illness) and I was starting to think an iron distance race in 2015 just wasn’t to be.
So what went down in Copenhagen? Quite simply – I forgot about the process and focussed only on the end result. I wanted a PB, which is why I chose this race in the first place and I put pressure on myself to go out and get it. To cut a long story short – my swim was slow (1:04), bike split fell short of expectations (5:09) and I managed about 10k of the run before getting hauled off the course by a race doc after being deemed unfit to continue. In my head I’d envisioned a sub-60min swim, sub 5hr bike and then emptying the tank with a low 3 hour run. What went wrong? Conditions certainly played a part, the swim was tough and congested, the wind was screaming past me on the bike and the run was hotter than anticipated, Nothing I couldn’t normally handle but I wasn’t in the right mindset to adapt my perfect plan. I pushed too hard on the bike trying to make up time after a sub-par swim ignoring my screaming legs and more crucially my thirst. I held it together for about 3hours until my pace started to drop and my plan crumbled. I rolled into T2 emotionally and physically spent. There must have been something showing in my demeanour because the race medic was right on me in the transition tent asking me to remove my sunglasses so he could see my eyes and kept asking me my name and date of birth. Weirdo, I thought. Of course I know my own name. I assured him I was fine and I continued on my merry way. A few kilometers into the run course I became vaguely aware of being followed by a bike. I thought this was strange because they only usually accompany the top 3 athletes and in my mind I felt like I was in last place in the whole race. Maybe it was the sweeper bike making sure I made the cut-off? Weird thoughts (I was actually 5th place pro at the time…). Turned out it was a member of the medical team assessing me as I ran. I did my best to appear unfazed and run in a straight line but made the mistake of running straight through an aid station – I didn’t feel hot (it was hot) or thirsty (I was massively dehydrated at this point) and when I staggered into a bush on the side of the course it was the final straw. I was pulled from the race. On hearing “race number 35, your race is over” I collapsed on the ground a mixture of disappointment, confusion, anger and finally relief (and guilt that I felt relieved) enveloping me. It was over. My first trip in an ambulance and a post-race IV later and the ordeal was done. Then there was the emptiness of unfulfilled goals and failure. If you’re an athlete, I’m sure you’ve been there at some point but you never get used to it. It’s the flip side to success and it hurts.
So. What next? I briefly considered shutting my season down. Briefly. But I knew I had something left in the tank and I wanted to go out and use it. Plus I knew stewing over a DNF over the winter would not be a healthy thing for me so I set to work searching out a Plan C. Challenge Weymouth landed right in my lap. It was the ETU long distance champs and being a home race it was the perfect solution – minimal travel/stress/expense – it was worth one last punt.
Fast forward 3 weeks and I’m standing on Preston beach along with a handful of other pros about to hit the water to start our iron distance day. I felt the usual pre-race nerves but mostly I felt gratitude and excitement that I had a second chance. Self-imposed pressure was replaced by a determination to have fun and enjoy the course – whatever will be, will be…
The swim was 2 x1900m laps in the sea and while the conditions were calm-ish there was a definite swell at the turn buoys. This made sighting a bit tricky but instead of panic like I usually would I kept calm and thought logically about my orientation in the ocean. This kept me mostly on course and I exited the swim in 1:07. And this is where my positive mindset started paying off. Instead of focussing on the time on the clock I used other parameters to judge my swim. I was in 6th place out of the water, 10mins down on the lead pack containing some of the main protagonists but crucially 1min down on Alena Stevens and 1min up on swede Camilla Lindholm (my pick for race favourite). I’d done my homework before this race and had expected to exit the swim in proximity of these two athletes so all was on track. No wallowing in self pity over the time – it didn’t matter – the first leg was over and the real action was about to begin on the bike. I felt fresh exiting the swim so knew I hadn’t wasted any unnecessary energy so got into my cycling right away. Given what happened in Copenhagen my plan on the bike was to ride well within myself, pay utmost attention to feeding and hydrating and very little attention to pace. I rode along in my own little world enjoying riding my bike and the beautiful scenery around Weymouth. I was so switched off from actually racing that it barely registered that I was working my way through the field and was surprised to hear I was up in 3rd place on completion of the first of 2 90k laps. I rode the 2nd lap much the same but because I was feeling so chilled about the whole thing I had to remind myself a few times that I was actually in a race and not out on a Sunday ride which got my arse in gear a bit. I rolled into T2 with a massive grin on my face. I’d eaten all my planned nutrition, hydrated well (notably shouting to my feed station domestique that I’d peed 3x in the first bike lap when questioned about my hydration status) and generally enjoyed being out on my bike. My time of 5:18 was inconsequential at the time but looking at the results after the race I was chuffed to see I’d ridden the 2nd fastest female bike split. There’s a lot to be said for not looking for the race but just letting the race come to you. I left T2 in 2nd/3rd alongside Camilla Lindholm with the race leader 2-3mins down the road. Game on. After exchanging mid-race encouragement Camilla and I got to work – it was every woman for themselves now. The early miles clicked off effortlessly – 7:03, 7:07, 7:09, 7:02, 7:17… I was running faster than the 7:15-7:30 I’d practised in training but my energy levels were good, the gap to first place was closing, Camilla was running away from me…. the racer in me came out and I stopped looking down every time my garmin bleeped and starting to race. I passed half-way in 1:35 in 2nd place to Camilla, held strong for another 5miles or so before my early excitement started to bite. Finally pain had caught up with me. I stopped running away from it and started the process of coexisting with it for that final hour of the race. It was there to stay, the only consolation being that it had taken almost 9hours to catch up with me. In Copenhagen it had been alongside me all day. With pain now accompanying my every move I focussed on sticking to my feeding plan – 2 powerbar hydrogels per lap and and electrolyte bottle from the special needs food station – even this late in the race I was taking no chances. Within sniffing distance of the finish line I was overtaken and demoted to 3rd place. I urged my screaming body to cover the move, which should have been an easy task considering I was plodding along at 8:13 pace but my body refused to respond, laughable now but impossible at the time. That final kilometre was by far the toughest of the whole day. The relief on crossing the finish line was immense. I’d done it! I’d completed my first iron distance race of 2015. Despite fading badly in the second half of the run I put down a 3:22 split. That elusive low 3 run split continues to evade me but the quest for it will continue – I just haven’t got the formula quite right yet.
UK anti-doping tests, a light massage and a hot drink later and my achievement started to sink in. I wasn’t astounded like I had been when I won my bronze medal at the ETU champs at Challenge Almere last year. It was more a feeling of relief that I’d executed a race that reflected how I’d been going in training.
At the awards ceremony on Monday it was a surprise to have been promoted to the silver medal position following some ETU technicality. Though I knew I was really 3rd place on the podium it was nice to receive the medal and it planted the seed in my head of completing the collection next year…. To be continued…