First Brit at World Championships

Well, that’s the first time I’ve regretted driving the bike course before a race – sometimes ignorance is bliss, though my support team (my long-suffering partner Lindsay) seemed to find it amusing as the car laboured up yet another hill in second gear… Ok, so maybe only a fool would be surprised to find a race in the Alps rather “lumpy” as Tim Whitmarsh, the GB Team Manager described it, but having raced Ironman Austria and Switzerland (fast bike courses in spite of the mountain setting), I was expecting something similar in Immenstadt. This, however, was going to be 130km of unrelenting and often very steep hills on tiny mountain roads with technical descents. Beautiful, but definitely not my forte. I may be a lot skinnier than I was in my rowing days, but I’m no mountain goat.

This was my second time in GB age group kit. Last time (in 2006 for the European Duathlon Champs) my main goal was just to avoid embarrassing myself and the team. This year I signed up having had my best Ironman performance to date in Lanzarote in May (where I was 36th overall and first British age grouper). This race seemed a perfect fit for my preparations for Hawaii, being exactly halfway between Lanzarote and Kona in October. And at 4k/130k/30k it would be long enough to provide a great training benefit and, with the swim being my weakest discipline, give me time to make up ground on the stronger swimmers, without requiring the kind of recovery needed after an iron-distance race. Next time, I will check the bike course profile before committing though…

Fitting training around working

Working as a commercial lawyer to fund this triathlon habit doesn’t always make it easy to get the training and preparation spot on. After Lanzarote I was straight back into long hours in the office, which is not necessarily ideal Ironman recovery, but it did at least prevent me from getting back into training too soon (which would have been a real danger on the back of the surge of enthusiasm that comes with the prospect of another trip to race in Kona). By the time work eased off a bit and I was able to get back into structured training I had managed to put on 6 kgs (people even started telling me how well I looked – never a good sign when you’re racing long distance), so the 2000m of climbing in Immenstadt started to look increasingly intimidating.

Soon after Lanzarote, James Beckinsale (my coach at Optima Racing Team), helped me to put together a basic training structure to take me through this race and on to Kona, looking at the areas where we felt gains can still be found. Given my unpredictable work hours and other commitments, James and I tend to come up with an outline to meet my objectives, which I then turn into a week-by-week plan around my own needs. This enables me to adapt my week’s training as necessary without constantly feeling that I am missing out on set sessions. I am always staggered when I hear about “average” Ironman training weeks of 20 hours or more by age group athletes. I’m not sure how anyone can do that consistently while holding down a job and fitting anything else into their lives, let alone get enough recovery. Historically I have tried to train smart rather than long and tend to put in around 10-12 hours a week through the Winter, though this does go up in the couple of months before an “A” race. For example, in the six months between Hawaii last October and Lanzarote in May this year, I only did three rides longer than 3 hours 20 mins and those three rides were more about reassuring myself mentally that the endurance was still there than for training benefit. However in the last couple of seasons, as it has become harder to make significant improvements and I’ve been getting closer to the front of races, that urge to fall back on volume as the answer is always there and I have found myself at times trying to get the odd 20 hour week in (even when James has rightly pointed out that this should not become a goal in its own right). Looking at my diary and trying to map out the weekly training structure James and I had discussed around my social and work commitments, it was clear that I was going to be pushing my limits to get it all done. But with some fairly lofty goals for both Immenstadt and Kona I decided that I wanted to put everything into it for the next four months and would have to be prepared to take a few more risks in terms of overtraining and recovery than usual. I warned Lindsay that there were likely to be a lot of evenings when she would have the joy of eating her dinner with me sat on the Computrainer, as well as early morning swim sessions and Sunday afternoons when I would be too tired to do anything fun or be much use around the house. This was accepted, but only on the usual understanding that I won’t be doing it again next year…

The key additions to my normal training week would be to try and get two strength sessions done (something I have neglected over the last 18 months). This should reduce the chance of injury by increasing my core strength and hopefully add some power on the bike. I would also try to increase my weekly swimming volume from my usual 2-3 times a week to 4 or 5. The swim is always the weakest part of my races and in Kona, with no wetsuits and swimskins also banned this year, I will need to be swimming as well as I possibly can to be competitive. On the bike, where I feel I need to increase my sustainable power output, the aim would be to do some skills and threshold work on the turbo trainer in the week and then alternate between a hard hill ride one weekend for strength and power and a flatter five hour Ironman pace ride the next to develop strength endurance. The run is my strongest card and since I have adapted first to forefoot running under James Beckinsale’s coaching and then this year to “barefoot” running in Vibram Fivefingers, it has become even more of a weapon over the longer distance races. Run training would therefore be more about maintenance, with a little speed and strength work once a week at the track and a nasty plan James devised for me to run up to 20 x 800’s off the fortnightly strength endurance ride. My other running would be to and from the gym for strength training on Monday and Thursday evenings (half an hour each way along the towpath). As it has turned out, getting away from work to do both of these sessions can be a challenge, but even if I only manage one a week that’s better than nothing.

Seeing how hilly the Immenstadt bike course would be, I immediately changed the plan though, deciding that the long steady training rides could wait – time in the Surrey Hills was needed. Despite losing a couple of weekends to non-triathlon commitments, I managed two 5.5 hour hill rides with Stuart Anderson and Declan Doyle, two fantastic age group athletes I am lucky enough to train with from time-to-time who are much lighter than me and significantly quicker up the hills. Stuart knows the Surrey Hills really well and made things tough for me. I knew I had to do this stuff to get stronger, but the ease with which they dropped me on every hill was not a great confidence booster. I got home from both rides utterly exhausted and starving, so running off the bike was not on the cards.

As well as these longer rides, I put in a really solid block of training in the four or five weeks leading up to Immenstadt. The missing ingredient if anything was recovery, as I kept expecting things to get hectic at work again and tried to squeeze in as much training as possible while I could, assuming that the recovery would take care of itself when the working hours increased. With work remaining manageable however I found myself completing nearly all of my planned sessions (other than the swimming) and I even fitted in a couple of very pleasant bonus Wednesday morning rides out to Windsor (a three hour round trip). These rides were not about pace or effort (in the absence of Declan and Stuart), just enjoying the experience of being out in the sunshine. Coffee and cake on a sunny morning in Windsor makes me feel very lucky to be able to do this sport and, on a week day, grateful for the extra flexibility afforded by my Blackberry. Though I guess if any of my clients are reading this I’ve just blown my cover.

As race day approached the bike course profile slipped to number two on the list of potential difficulties. The water in the lake was hovering at 24 degrees – right on the limit for wetsuits – and as a “non-swimmer” that could mean a very long 4km for me and a further dent to my prospects of a podium finish. In spite of my intentions, I had only been swimming twice a week and was feeling very slow in the water two weeks out from the race. In the final weeks though, as time riding and running dropped off a little, I managed to get in the water nearly every day, even if only for 20 minutes or so, and I started to feel much more comfortable in the water. I also avoided training in my wetsuit (which meant dropping down a lane for the Wednesday morning Optima Racing Team sessions when the others were ploughing up and down in neoprene) and squeezed in at least one weekly 30-40 minute swim outside in the Hyde Park Serpentine, which is on my cycle route to work.

By the time I arrived in Immenstadt on Friday, two days before the race, the water temperature had dropped to 17 degrees after a week of rain, so wetsuits would be allowed. I had trained well and got myself back down to something approaching race weight. I was feeling tired after a very late taper (really only starting to winding down on Wednesday, four days out), but started to think I could have a chance of a good performance again.

The race plan

Although I was keen to put in the best performance possible here, it was also to be a chance to tweak a few of my race strategies to try and gain some extra advantage for Kona. The plan for the swim remained unchanged – find some good feet to draft early on, settle into a nice rhythm and get through it without incident if possible. With a good draft I thought a 61 minute swim should be very possible and I knew that I wanted to be out of the water in less than 65 minutes as it was likely that I would be chasing down guys who would swim 10 minutes quicker than that. Before seeing the course, the plan James and I had discussed was to push harder on the bike than I normally do in Ironman – using HR in past ironman races, I have generally tried to keep to the 140’s throughout the bike, but having recently invested in a Quarq power meter this would be the first opportunity to race using power and hopefully get some useful feedback from that after the race. My strength in Ironman racing has always been based on managing my effort to ensure that I can run well throughout the marathon section. To take the next step up in my age group though it is time to risk straying across that fine line and I was keen to find out what level of bike effort I could sustain without my run falling apart. The run strategy would be simple – run the first 10k fast, push through the middle 10k and then hit it hard for the last 10k. On a reasonably flat course, I hoped that this would bring me home in around 2:05. I would also be putting my forefoot / barefoot running technique to the test by running in lightweight racing flats. I have raced in Newtons for the last two seasons and loved them, but after six months running in Fivefingers, it was time to get closer to the ground and see how that would feel after 30k. Racing in the Fivefingers is something I will do at some stage, but I will need to get faster at putting them on and I decided that this race was too important to risk, so I opted to use some very light Mizuno racing flats. On nutrition, I normally eat Torq energy bars throughout the bike in an ironman, (1/3 bar every 15 minutes), but I decided that at a higher rate of exertion, it would be easier for my stomach to absorb gels, so I loaded my bike up with seven Torq gels and just one energy bar (another gel and bar would go in my bike bag to put in my pocket for emergencies).

Once I’d seen the bike course however, the “hammer the bike and hang on” strategy didn’t seem such a good plan. It’s a two loop course with the worst of the hills coming round for the second time at around the 95k mark, and they looked steep enough that bad pacing on the first loop could lead to complete disaster. So the revised plan was to get round the first loop of 85k in good shape and attack the last 45k if I felt good. Not having had much time with my power meter I set a fairly arbitrary power target for the hills (to hold just over 300 watts and try not to “spike” too much at the start of each hill), which may or may not have been optimal, but would at least give me some useful feedback afterwards.

The swim

Race day itself dawned sunny and beautiful and the anticipated mist on the lake hadn’t materialised, so my gamble on a delayed start and a bit of extra sleep looked like a possible mistake as my breakfast wouldn’t have the usual three hours to be digested. There were two waves, with the Elites and over-55’s starting at 7 and the rest of us at 7.30. Knowing that the water was now pretty chilly I only got in with about 5 minutes to go and maybe didn’t do as much of a swim warm up as I should have. When the gun went I was about three rows back from the front and hoping to get onto the feet of a reasonable group from the start, but after being pulled down from behind three or four times in rapid succession I found myself having a bit of a panic and I had to stop and re-group. By the time I got swimming again, my free ride had vanished and I had to set about the 4k pretty much on my own. After that the swim was largely uneventful and even enjoyable at times, though navigating into the rising sun on the 1.8k return leg was tricky and the resultant zig-zag took 3 or 4 minutes longer than the swim out. I was out of the water in 1:04, not at the quicker end but just within my target range, so I put the swim behind me and headed rather light-headedly through T1 (Note to self – sit down to put your socks on when you’ve been swimming for over an hour in cold water).

The bike

T1 was in a field of damp grass, so I had decided to put my bike shoes on before running to my bike, rather than leave them on the bike and have wet, muddy socks for the rest of the day. Not a speedy transition, but once I was onto the bike the race could begin. Just 4 kms into the ride was the first steep climb, narrowed by the tunnel of cowbell bearing supporters. Some riders were already off their bikes and walking at this early stage – there was no point looking at the power meter on this one – I had no choice but to get out of the saddle and grind up it. Soon after that I came up alongside one of the other GB age groupers Russell Cox. We had a bit of a chat on the way up one of the hills and also a good laugh about one guy who was hammering away like he was angry with his pedals – this was going to be a long day for him we reckoned, and sure enough about 30 minutes into the bike, we passed him again and I suspect his day became increasingly unpleasant from there on in.

The bike pretty much went to plan. I had a few issues with my gears jumping, but luckily not when I was grinding up the hills, and at one point I had to stop to get a wasp out of my helmet before it got too upset about life, but this probably only cost me about 20 seconds and, most importantly, I didn’t get stung. I seemed to stick to my target power and found myself feeling strong and going past other competitors towards the end of the 130k. This was definitely a course that would favour not just a strong hill rider, but also anyone who knew the roads well. I was able to keep off the brakes much more on the descents on the second loop. Generally the scenery was stunning, the aid stations were frequent and efficient and there was great support from locals along the course, with music blaring up the steeper climbs and plenty of cow-bells and Alpenhorn to liven things up. The one significant flat stretch of the course was into a headwind, so there was rarely a time throughout the four hours when I felt like I was cruising along particularly well, but the final descent into Immenstadt was a blast and I hit 85kph while trying to get one final gel down before the run.

The run

Tim Bishop in ImmenstadtBack in town I negotiated without incident the narrow, twisting approach to T2, based at the town’s athletics stadium, going through my mental checklist for transition as I did so. Our run bags had been brought up from the lake by the race organisers and as I ran into T2 one volunteer took my bike from me, another handed me my run kit bag and I was directed to the change tent. I tipped the bag’s contents onto the ground, sat down (lesson learned), pulled on my shoes, stuffed my bike helmet back in the bag, grabbed my visor and bundle of Torq gels and was off. I felt like I’d been pretty quick through transition and the volunteers looked a bit flummoxed by my haste, but I don’t believe in giving time away at this stage – it turns out I had the quickest T2 of the day, by a fair margin, but unfortunately there are no medals for that.

The run started off with half a lap of the wonderfully springy athletics track, which was a great focus for support and also had plenty of Euro-pop blaring (Boney M and Milli Vanilli’s pensions will be secure as the German royalties keep flooding in). I’m usually very quickly into my running and I have to be careful not to set off too fast. Being on an athletics track with music and cheering probably didn’t help with that, but there was a little climb just after leaving the stadium that forced me to focus on efficiency and settled me into a sustainable pace. The three lap course was partly through the town centre on cobbled streets, but mostly on gravel paths alongside the river and railway, with a few twists and turns and little inclines to get up and over bridges and through underpasses. I felt very smooth and light on my feet and went through 4 kms before hitting the lap button on my watch to check my pace – 17 minutes dead, which was close enough to my target and just under 3 hour marathon pace. The next km was slower (at 4:30) but I went through kms 6 and 7 in 8:01 and 8 and 9 in 7:06 – I felt like I was running a fairly even pace, so clearly the markers weren’t quite right, but I seemed to be on about target pace and feeling good. My nutrition and fluid intake on the bike had been good (8 Torq gels, one Torq energy bar and probably around five bottles of energy drink consumed during the four hour bike leg, together with water when I felt like it and to wash down the bars. I had also taken bananas at a lot of the aid stations, which I find easy to swallow and digest in races). Given this and the 30k run format, which I didn’t think should take me much more than 2 hours, I decided not to force as many gels down as I would during an Ironman run (when I would aim to have one gel every 15-20 minutes), eventually using just two of my five Torq gels. This was supplemented with the odd bit of banana from aid stations, which probably came along every 2kms or so and where I would also drink some water (pouring some over my head for cooling on what was turning into a hot day) and alternate between cups of coke and isotonic drinks.

There were a couple of turnaround points on the run where you could see other athletes coming the other way and, in the absence of any age group identification, I found myself using the other British athletes as my targets ahead (and also trying to pull away from those behind me). On the first of the three laps I noted that Jon Heasman was a couple of minutes behind me and Russell Cox a further three minutes back from him, both running well, but I thought probably no faster than me. Ahead was Chris Rhodes, who was running incredibly fast and immediately got crossed off the potential target list as there was no way I was going to catch him at that pace. That seemed to be it though, so it looked like I might hang in as second Brit whatever was happening in the overall and age group race (which was much harder to work out, especially given the two wave start).

At the end of each lap we were handed a coloured sash, which did at least give some indication of who was ahead on the run course but still with no idea on age group status.

Around 9k into the run, just as I was starting to think about whether I could take it up a notch, my right inner thigh cramped up, quickly spreading round into the quad. I seemed to be able to run on, albeit slower, but this was feeling like it could develop into a race-ending problem. I stopped and tried to stretch it out but I couldn’t even work out what stretch to do for it, so I set off again and hoped it would ease off. After about 10 minutes it did and I was able to get back up to about the same pace as before, but each time I went up an incline it threatened to return. I have never suffered with cramp before, so I can only assume that it was down to the amount of climbing on the bike, but it’s something I’ll have to have a think about before Kona. During this bad patch, Jon and Russell both put about a minute into me, but once I was back into my stride I was able to pull away from Jon and stop Russell from gaining any more time. Then halfway round the second loop (I think) I passed Chris Rhodes, who was going through a bad patch. I couldn’t be 100% sure, but I didn’t think there were any other Brits ahead of me at that stage, which I was pleased about.

Into the third and final 10k loop and although I was feeling pretty good in terms of energy levels, the twinges of cramp still had me too worried to go with the pre-race plan of pushing myself to the limit. I was running at a good pace, but was afraid to redline it then have to pull up, throwing away what felt at this stage, 6.5 hours down, like a pretty solid day’s racing. In the meantime, the support out on the course was fantastic, not just from the British spectators, but also from the other GB athletes as we passed each other.

With about 5k to go I started to push on a bit and passed more people who were also on their final lap, making up places. My impression was that there weren’t very many left ahead of me, but it was impossible to be sure as the overlap sections probably only gave an opportunity to see anyone who was within about 10 minutes of you, so there could be plenty of people further ahead than that. At the final turnaround, with just over 2k to go I decided it was time to let rip, easing up to maximum effort at last – it felt really good. As I passed one of the Elite women (who had started 30 minutes earlier), she asked if I was on my way to the finish and when I said yes, she accelerated to get on my shoulder for the final section. This suited me fine and I imagined myself running back from the Optima gym a few weeks ago, exhausted, but running as hard as possible to shake off another runner who had tried to hang with me after I passed him. After about 1k though I was on my own again and soon I ran into the stadium, where Tim handed me a little flag to carry what I thought would be the final 100m to the finish… 300m later I realised that I had started my finish line sprint rather early. Still, there was no one close enough for me to chase or to catch me at this point, and I was able to ease off as I turned off the track to the finish.

In the end I completed what was a very tough course in 7 hours 24 (when I entered I had assumed it would be about an hour quicker than that) and was 24th age grouper overall and 6th in my age group (M40-44), which as seems to be the way this year, was the largest age group by far – no signs yet of any of my peers growing old gracefully and leaving me to pick up the silverware. Kona is a different matter though and I will take a lot of positives from this race. I tried out a few different things with my race nutrition, which seemed to work out fine. Also, after a Winter of running “barefoot” in Vibram Fivefingers, which has improved my running cadence and efficiency, I was able to run a long distance race in racing flats with no issues (the cramping in my right leg was I think down to the climbing on the bike rather than anything to do with the run). My run time was slower than planned, at 2hrs10, but was still the 15th quickest of the day and I’m sure without the cramp issues I could have taken 3 or 4 minutes off. I am also looking forward to analysing my bike power data with my coach to see what we can learn from that.

It was very enjoyable to be part of the GB team and to have the opportunity to see a beautiful region that I would not otherwise have thought to visit (and the normal middle distance Allgau Triathlon, held largely on the same course, is definitely worth putting on the to do list). Unfortunately, with their normal biking skills supplemented by local knowledge, the Germans pretty much cleaned up on the medals, but there was some impressive beer drinking back at the GB team hotel afterwards.

So, next stop Kona (after a few swim lessons and a lot more work on my bike power), after which I fully intend to make up to my friends, family and of course Lindsay for my neglect over the last couple of years…