Monday, October 23, 2017

Race Report: Ironman 70.3 Weymouth 2017

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This blog should really be titled “learn from my mistakes”.  As you will see, even a ‘seasoned’ triathlon Age Grouper can still make a total mess of their race.  So I write this with no small dose of humility or embarrassment; but hopefully if you read this you might be able to have a more successful day yourself.

So, if you read my blogs you’ll know that the decision to race Weymouth 70.3 was taken after a bit of a disaster at the Cotswold Classic triathlon, where I allowed a puncture at 70km to get into my head and ruin the race, leading to a DNF.   I was determined I was going to finish a middle-distance triathlon in 2017!

Weymouth fitted time-wise and the location suited, being only 90 minutes from home.   Still, I left it way too late to get my sh*t sorted and spent precious energy looking for last-minute hotel deals etc.

The week before Weymouth 70.3 coincided with a major industry event that I needed to attend in Nashville, TN.  Conscious that I didn’t want to arrive back in the UK too close to race day, I flew out on the preceding Sunday and returned Wednesday, landing at Heathrow on Thursday morning.   Unfortunately, along the way I caught a cold (I’d call it man flu, but really it was just a cold).   That, plus the travel, the event schedule and the limited facilities at the hotel meant that I did pretty much zero of my planned taper sessions that week.  Rested yes, but hardly race-ready.

So, two runs, one swim and one bike.  That was my taper week.  Oh, and lots of Beechams (pretty sure I’m not guilty of doping – checked the banned list and it doesn’t seem to be there!).

Anyway, fast forward to race morning.  The bike and stuff was already stashed in transition and I’d just dropped off my ‘streetwear’ bag near the swim start.

The swim

The 1,900m course was in the sea, not far from Weymouth beach.  It was a steep descent down pebbles into the cold (16 degrees C) water and there was a distinct chop on the water.  The buoys marking the clockwise course looked pretty easy to spot from up here as the sun started to peek over the headland.

Weymouth has a rolling start, so I seeded myself between the 30 and 32-minute markers.  Normally I’d expect a sub-30 swim, but with the cold and my lack of sea swim experience, I wanted to be cautious.  Every five seconds or so, another bunch of athletes were allowed to cross the timing mat into the water.  It’s a pretty good system and it avoids some of the fist-and-foot fight that used to be the norm at 70.3 race starts.

However, I positioned myself too far to the left and as I took my first sighting breath once I’ve porpoised into the water, I couldn’t see any buoys.  The chop on the water was sufficient to make sighting tricky.  So I just tried to stay close to other swimmers, hoping they could see where they were going!  I was also conscious to keep my effort level below normal, knowing that I wasn’t 100%.

In the end, my sighting was pretty terrible.  The Garmin trace is laughable.  It reckons I swam nearly 2,100m (would be interested to hear what distance others recorded) and I only managed to get in a group and get a draft for the last 150m or so.

Climbing out of the water onto the sharp pebbles, feeling my numb (but somehow still painful!) feet sink into them made for slow progress out of the water.  The run to T1 wasn’t quite like Tenby, but it didn’t feel far off! I’m guessing it was a good 500m run from water to T1, largely on tarmac which caused my feet to complain even more.

Into T1 and I made the absolute rookie mistake (the first of many!) of grabbing my RED (Run) bag instead of the BLUE (Bike) one…  I quickly changed but it was seconds lost and an example of not thinking properly.

Wetsuit, goggles and swim cap into bag after first removing and putting on my bike lid.  Then another run on cold wet tarmac to my bike (chugging a gel down on the way), which thankfully I found first time.

Another run to the transition exit and at last my race could begin (I always tell myself the bike is the fun part and the ‘reward’ for having to get wet in the swim!).  My feet were numb and painful at the same time (how does that work?) but I managed an okay mount and got out onto the bike course with no drama.

The Bike

What surprised me was how slow I was going.  The road felt downhill and looking at my power, it was okay, but I was barely doing 33kph.  Which instantly made me think my Garmin Vectors were playing silly buggers again and misreporting my power (I’d put fresh batteries in the day before to reduce risk of exactly that…).  My heart rate was still high from the swim and run to T1, so I thought best to just settle in for a little bit, then start worrying about power versus HR calculations.

Ironman WeymouthEarlier this year, I switched from my S-Works Shiv to a Giant Trinity and I’ve been very happy with the change, recording some Time Trial PBs on the Trinity despite not being in as good physical shape as I was in 2016.

But one thing I’m struggling with on the Trinity is the nutrition box on the top tube.  Due to previous GI issues with other brands of gel, I pretty much stick to SiS (Science in Sport) gels for triathlons these days.  But the gel packets are big. Much bigger than other brands.  Which means that I can only fit two in the box that sits on the top tube – which also houses the Di2 junction box).

In previous 70.3 races, I’ve had as many as five gels on the bike.  So carrying only two was at best questionable.  My strategy was to decant a further two gels into the downtube-mounted aero bottle and then top it up with water to make the gel easier to drink.   I’d then use the integrated water carrier between the tri bars for 750ml of Elivar Endure drink (carbs and electrolytes).  I’d refill the front water carrier from aid stations on the bike route.

It sounded good as a plan.   But there were some failures in execution:

1. I forgot to pre-score the gel tabs, making them difficult to bite open on the bumpy road surfaces

2. The aero bottle is more tricky to remove and replace than a normal bottle (nearly dropped it once – as I did a similar bottle in the last Mallorca 70.3 I did).

3. The opaque nature of the water carrier makes it impossible to tell how much liquid is left

4. Most embarrassing of all….  I’d forgot to put the correct cover on the water carrier, meaning I couldn’t refill it (Giant supply with two versions and I usually ride with the ‘closed’ valve to avoid spillage during training rides…).

Anyway. More of that later…

I’d looked at the bike course profile for Weymouth, but hadn’t had the time to drive it.  I was now regretting that.   Not that driving would have changed it, but it might have helped me prepare for its nature, which I have to admit I didn’t really like.

Some of the roads were amazing – fast and really well-surfaced (I hit 78kph on one descent according to my Garmin).  But some were little more than farm tracks and covered in mud, debris and potholes.    There was more climbing than I expected and there were lots of turns and junctions.

My course preference is fast and flowing – it’s just what suits me best.  So the ‘bitty’ nature of the bike course really didn’t work for me (I know others disagree and loved it).   And I was still struggling with power – or rather, believing it.

One minute I felt strong and was putting out my intended race power.  The next I felt super weak and was struggling to put out 200 Watts.  It was like I was having energy peaks and troughs, but I couldn’t understand why.

The nutrition failures above probably didn’t help (although I think they hurt me more on the subsequent run than the bike) and I think running a 90mm front and a full disc rear wheel was a questionable decision (I felt like I particularly struggled on the climbs).

Maybe I was just p*ssed-off at having my visor on my Giro Aerohead helmet fog the moment I left transition (it’s been fine before, but maybe cold sea water plus hot head was more than its venting could cope with..).  Thankfully it has much stronger magnets than the Kask Bambino (lost my fogged visor at the ITU world champs back in 2013) and I was able to invert it and stick it to the front of the lid.  Still annoying, however, to have to ride 90km with no visor and the additional drag.

It’s fair to say that, coming into T2, I was quite relieved that the bike was over.  I wouldn’t say I was looking forward to the run(!), but I wasn’t sorry to be getting off the bike.  The first time I’ve ever been glad to get off the Trinity…

T2 went more smoothly, at least I grabbed the right bag this time and got my trainers on with no issues.

The Run

70.3 WeymouthRunning out of T2 I realised it hadn’t gone quite as smoothly as I thought.  I was still wearing my Fusion speed top (a thin skin-tight long-sleeve top that can be worn under a wet suit and provides some extra warmth on the bike – but not needed on the run)!  Ooops.  I threw it aside (probably due a DQ for littering, although it was picked up and handed back to me later – probably another DQ offense for outside assistance!).

The first kilometre or so felt ok, I was conscious to moderate my pace, knowing that I hadn’t run a half-marathon off the bike for more than a year.  I jogged past the first aid station and on down towards the turnaround point, all good.

Except about another two kilometres down the road my legs suddenly went into agonising spasm and I couldn’t move.  Another competitor spotted the issue immediately: “mate, you’re cramping, you need electrolytes and coke, now!”.  He wasn’t wrong.

I made it to the next aid station and walked it, taking water, electrolytes and coke in order, before resuming a plod to the next aid station.  I could run at about 4:30 per km, anything faster causing immediate cramps that reduced me to a walk at best.  With walking each aid station, I was averaging 5:00 per km.  Awful, but it was the best I could manage without causing the cramps to become unbearable.

And so my half-marathon became a slow and painful series of 1.5-2km jogs between aid stations, walking the line to get coke and electrolytes down.

I have to say that both the spectators and my fellow athletes were superb.  I cannot thank them enough.  It must have been obvious that I was in pain and moving with difficulty, but I got tons of shouts of encouragement.

After the debacle of the Cotswold Classic, there was no way I was not finishing.  Come hell or high water – walk or crawl, five hours or eight, I was finishing.  The run simply became a pain management exercise, going as fast as I could without causing the leg muscles to seize.  I’ve heard since from other competitors that the off-camber nature of the run course (along the sea front) caused quite a few of them problems with cramps.

Anyway, a long story short, I made it to the last aid station which was only 200 or so metres from the finishing chute.  Determined not to walk so close to the end, I jogged through, ignoring the cramps and stitch in my guts (a stitch at 5 min kms, am I really THAT unfit?!).  Onto the finishing chute and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to claw back at least one place.  On the video of the finish you can hear the commentator saying that he thought the other guy and I would cross the line hand-in-hand.  Probably should have!

I got my medal and collapsed to the floor, legs not happy at all.  Of course, the marshals don’t like you doing that (for very understandable reasons!), so several of them tried to pick me up but every time they tried I screamed in pain as my left leg went into spasm from my knee, up inside my thigh to my groin.  Excruciating! They went to grab a paramedic, but no need for a medical tent visit, just some massage and a big MTFU pill.

Lessons Learned

I knew that performing well at a half ironman just days after two transatlantic flights was going to be a big ask.  And perhaps that accounted for 20-50 percent of the problems I experienced during the race.  But in all honesty, I have to admit that I came to the race badly prepared and I executed it poorly.

So, I share these in the hopes that you and I can both learn from some silly mistakes.  I’m pretty sure there’s nothing new in these lessons, but perhaps hearing from someone who has made them first-hand may carry more weight than a faceless magazine coach’s advice.

1. HAVE A RACE PLAN

Ironman 70.3 WeymouthI’ve raced nearly 10 half ironman / middle distance races.  I got complacent and thought I knew what I was doing.  So I didn’t bother preparing a race plan.  At least, I didn’t physically write one and commit to it.  I certainly gave thought to my fluid and nutrition needs, but I didn’t set myself any hard limits.  When I first started racing 70.3s, I set an alarm on my bike Garmin, reminding me every 25 minutes to chug a gel.  It wasn’t perfect (sod’s law the alarm goes off in a particularly technical section!), but it made me remember.

I’ve stopped doing that.  And as a result, there never seems to be a good time to take a gel on the bike.  As I’ve mentioned, some of the roads at Weymouth 70.3 are pretty crappy, so I’d refrain from taking a gel, telling myself the next section of road would be smoother and better for riding one-handed.  But it never was.

And I just didn’t drink enough.  Retrieving my bike after the race, I found my front aero bottle still MORE THAN HALF FULL! Bearing in mind I had not refilled it during the bike course, that is just crazy.  I say again, crazy.  It means I drank less than the equivalent of a can of coke for a hilly 56-mile bike course (followed by a half-marathon).  Idiotic.  But during the bike, I just wasn’t thinking about it.

The ‘gel in a aero bottle on the downtube’ strategy simply didn’t work.  The little aero bottle that comes with the Giant Trinity is just too tricky to remove and replace.  It’s okay for training or stashing on the bike to have a sneaky start line drink in a TT, but on the bumpy roads around Weymouth, it just didn’t work for me.

So I should have sacrificed a tiny bit of aero and just gone with a regular bottle (which could have been swapped at aid stations) or found a better bottle.

2. PRACTICE THE RACE PLAN

You read it in almost every magazine.  But if you’re a seasoned (if you call six years of competing ‘seasoned’) hack, perhaps it’s easy to become complacent and stop practicing.  After all, you’ve worn the GB suit four times, qualified for the IM70.3 World Champs twice, you know what you’re doing, right?!  Wrong.   Not once in the last year did I do a 90km ride with race power and race nutrition (I barely consume any nutrition on most training rides).   And not once did I do a long ride into a brick run, even an easy one.   Again, really quite stupid when you come to think about it (I can come up with no shortage of excuses, but that’s all they are, excuses).

3. EXECUTE THE RACE PLAN

I like short-course racing.  I like that there really isn’t much strategy to it and you really don’t need to give much of a monkey’s about nutrition planning or pacing.   So after a few successful short races this year, I thought I was in good shape.  But racing a 70.3 isn’t like a Sprint or Olympic.  It requires a lot more discipline.  If you have a power zone for the bike, stick to it.  Same goes for gels and liquid. If you’re supposed to sip a drink every five minutes and take a gel every 25, that’s what you do.

If your plan is to run the half marathon at 4:30 pace with walks through aid stations, don’t race off out of T2 and bypass the first aid station!

This is all advice that both you and me have read more times that we can count.  But I flouted almost every one of the items above.  And it cost me dear – what should have been a 4:40-4:45 70.3 became a 5:07, my second-slowest time ever.

Above all, what I neglected to do was respect the race.  I treated like a parkrun or a sprint triathlon, where you pretty much can turn up and go with little or no preparation.  An Ironman 70.3 isn’t like that.  And it’s hopefully good to have been reminded of that.

As for next steps, I am not totally ready to throw in the towel and will be thinking about when and where I might go for another shot at qualification for the world champs.  I’ll race more short races, because I honestly think that I both a) enjoy them more and b) can cope with them in my work and travel schedule.  But I do get more satisfaction from racing a hard 70.3.  So its’s not all over just yet.

A final word to the marshals and spectators at Ironman 70.3 Weymouth – thank you, from the bottom of my heart.  You were fantastic and I’m sure all the competitors would join me in my gratitude.

 

 

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Matt Fisher runs TriathletesDiary.com - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a 2014 qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs

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