Monday, 18 May 2015

The Beavers Middle Ground

So after 8 months of preparation I was staring down the barrel of my first Middle distance on Saturday.

The training was done, and the taper started. I had deliberately picked the Beaver (Belvoir) Middle Distance set in the grounds of Belvoir Castle and surrounding area because it is such a technical course. Some big hills on both the bike and the run, but with both sections on a 3 and 4 lap loop respectively, which meant for plenty of spectator opportunities for the family who were keen to come and support.

I managed to do a reccy of the course one evening the week before, and began to appreciate how tough one particular section of the bike and hill were. From the look of the forecast I could also see that I would be hitting that hill after a 5 mile straight with approx a 20mph wind blowing directly in my face beforehand. On top of that the only flat bit - the straight just mentioned, was mostly a false flat that had just been re-chipped. Any cyclist reading this will know what an absolute grind a new road surface dressing is. Makes for a rough ride, and loss of power. It was going to be a tough test all the way. I cant say I hadn't got what I wanted. what I was beginning to doubt was the targets I had previously set myself out in my mind.

It being a longer race I plumped for a full week of rest beforehand, all except a last open water swim on the Wednesday which included 800m skins at the end to help toughen me up.  By Thursday I was bouncing off the walls with energy, and struggling to stay calm. This was the longest I had gone without doing anything for months. My body was twitching with excitement. The bike got a more than the usual thorough strip down, oil, and polish in meticulous detail. If the bike failed me I didn't want it to be through negligence of my kit.

A full strip down and service before hand.
By Thursday and Friday I was driving the family mental, talking of nothing else, thinking of nothing else to be fair, and spending alot of time in the garage prepping the kit, going over stuff again and again. I dont like racing on a Saturday, it means I don't have a full day to waste getting everything ready, so it felt rushed doing it over 2 evenings. Friday, Sarah was at home, and spent the morning putting together a comprehensive looking picnic for the family and friends that had pledged to support and spectate.

I recieved a random text from 1 such would be supporter retracting her ability to attend on account of being assaulted in the street and spat on by a fallen pop star and having to stay in to give a statement to the police.... definitely the most original excuse I have ever had for someone cancelling on me, but so random as to have to be true. So we let her off.

By Friday night Sarah had served a top tea of trout, kale, brocolli and wholewheat pasta. That got demolished and we all hit the sack early ready for a quick get away early in the morning.
Final Meal.
I had set the alarm and Sarah was adamant she hadn't slept for fear of me not waking up, but at 04:44am I was out the bed and fighting the adrenalin, trying to stay calm, hyping all the bleary eyed Mini Balls that were less than enthusiastic at the unwholesome time of day they were being cojoled out the door. A big bowl of porridge, kit in the car, bike on the rack. Final checks and we were off.


2 happy campers at 05:15am. Unfortunately I couldn't fasten either of them to the bike rack
so had to risk putting the bike on there instead
By 06:30am we arrived. The main Castle entrance we pulled in to was locked, and the guy in front who was also parked up reckoned he had been in that way to pre register the day before. I suggested he force the gate, he looked perplexed, so we left him fiddling with the tanoy next to the entrance, and drove of a bit further down the road and found the signs directing us to parking.

Easy & ample parking, unload the car, pump the tyres, apply the tape to secure the back disc and before I knew it we were stood waiting to register. A quick flash of the liscense and I was issued my numbers, timing chip and the likes, and most originally a brown (it being The Beaver) T shirt, that was quickly taken up by Molly my youngest.

Setting up the kit, I took my time. The run from the swim out to T1 was a good 700m+ over grass, but reasonably flat. I had a good spot right in the corner where you came in from the swim, so finding my spot would be easy, but there was a down side. Transitions are normally set up as a 1 way kind of flow... but today it was bike out at the far end of where I was racked, but then bike in at the same point. That meant I had around another 250 to 300m of run pushing the bike to the mount line, but the same coming back. That would make transition a slow and awkward affair. It seemed unfair, the athletes at the far end were running a good 400m less distance pushing their bike over the course of the day than us at this end. Even with that extra to find I laid out a drink on the towel and decided I was taking a few extra seconds for some fluid after the wetsuit was off.


Early arrivals begin  filling Transition under the gaze of the Castle.

The pre-race blurb had stipulated a drinks station on the bike after each lap of the course. With that in mind I decided to take a punt and only had the one bottle of honey loaded homemade juice on the bike with me. The plan being to drink that for energy, then grab a drinks bottle at the station to wet my whistle and re hydrate as I passed. Silly to carry the extra weight if I didn't have to. So that and a few energy gels, and I was set.

Early on the weather was threatening. The blue inflatable arch in the distance is about half way from T1 to the swim out.
It was a long run in rubber.....
Queuing for my final poo in the bright pink portaloos I had a lovely chat with an older lady from down south, who had travelled the night before, and we watched some Red Kites circling over-head, her remarking how they were seeking to devour the flesh of the failed athletes at the end of the day.

All set, I greased and rubbered up and we headed down to the lake. In and floating about some quick warm up sprints and we jostled between the buoys for the optimum position.

All of a sudden the horn had sounded and it went from peaceful and aprehensive to absolute bedlam. I just had time to hit the start button on the watch and the washing machine turned to Super Spin cycle. Everything around me was a murky muddy froth.

Draft on the bike and you're DQ'd. Trip someone up on the run and you're DQ'd.
Punch and kick a man in the head in a cold lake, and you're fine. 
Kicking like hell to get up to speed the elbows had to go wide and hard from the off to carve some personal space to breath. The guy on my right, much larger than me seemed hell bent on thumping me in the back of the head with every entry of his left arm. A couple of slaps back didn't abate him, but breathing to my own left I understood his issue as the low bright morning sun glared in my eyes, mixing with the churning water to blind me on that side. I tried tucking under his armpit and drafting his crazy stroke, but that didnt work, so I moved to the left. NO room there pal. I was straight up against the side of another guy and as I turned again to my left to breath and avoid the lunatic on my right popping my goggles as I tilted to his side I was suddenly eyeball to eyeball with lefty. We locked gaze for a split second, goggles almost touching, and then both dissapeared back down, head into the water. That glance was enough though, I spotted the weakness in his returning stare, the smell of fear at the boiling melee about him. Elbows back wide as my right hand man came lunging further over, I kicked out harder and swung sharp to the left, swimming clean up and over the guy I'd just eyeballed. I felt him beneath me for a few strokes, as I swam on his back, then he weakened, submerged and was gone. I had his spot to myself now, with some space to the sides. Now we could settle in, grab some faster feet in front, get in a draft and ease off the kicking and let the chest do the work.

After the inital 30 seonds of lunacy the swim was a decent, even paced affair. Twice round the course, it was unbelieveably silty and muddy at the far end. Sighting was required more frequently than I would have liked, it didn't taste unclean, but was thick with mud. I was satisifed at the end I had made the most of finding a pace that was just about sustainable breathing every 3 strokes. Looking ahead I could see I had assumed my normal position in the swim of 'best of the rest'. There was a block of the specialist swimmers out front, then I found myself in the hinter land, ahead of the masses, but away from the leaders by between 30 seconds and a minute. Me and a few other drifters.

Past the first loop and I saw the family cheering on the bank. I did my best to smile and pull a quick wave.

A great photo by my brother as I swam past. Thanks.

Climbing out the water I glanced at my watch and it read 26:42. Straight into the long run to transition I unzipped to my waist and was greeted by my brother and daughter who ran alongside me shouting encouragement and stats. That was hugely motivating, and Ella confirmed I was 16th out the water. While catching my breath and processing the swim (as I ran) I realised how much I had missed it. The bonkers start, the face down effort in the complete unknown. The cold wet start - to heart pounding, breathless madness inside a few seconds The absolute black of the murky water. The light dancing on the surface. How it looks so calm from above, hiding the unknown fury that is going on below. The big handful of scaly fish I grabbed about 1/3 of the way round that swiftly swished its tail to free itself from my grasp. I bloody love open water swimming. 

Working the figures afterwards confirmed I'd done a 5:37  400m pace for just over 1.2 miles. Well happy with that. By far my best swim for a long time, it buried a few demons from the pool sprints earlier in the year. I have always much favoured being in a lake or the sea, and as a mate always says 'dont worry, you've done the training, it will all come together when it counts'. He's right. That time was way better than I'd hoped.

The long lonely run to T1.
Some 3 minutes later and I am in transition, a welcome cheer and smile from Molly and Sarah as I entered. The wetsuit slips off my legs with ease, the helmet goes on and I curse at forgetting that I should have just put my number belt under the wetsuit to save clipping it on - as I do just that. I grab the drink and squirt half of it into my mouth. It tastes great.
 
What feels best is the sheer mass of bikes still in the rack around me, I don't see anyone else around except for 1 man 2 or 3 places down from me. All the while I am setting myself for the bike leg he is stood talking to me. It feels like a joke. He's trying to ask me about the swim, how windy the bike will be. I nod to be polite and wish he would shut up, I cannot understand how a man who has clearly had a great swim can be so blase and slow in his attack on the course. As I take hold of the bike and make to run past him he wishes me a good race, like he is is a spectator. He has been out of his wetsuit the whole time I am there. I am perplexed and wonder if he will start blow drying his hair. All he was missing was a cup of tea.


Welcome to T1. Sit back, take a load off, I think we should be friends. Nutter.
Onto the bike, I elected to band the shoes as normal. It's still quicker than not, and there's no point in wasting time. T1 in just over 1 minute. Given the distance running through it and the quick drink I took I was pleased with that. Checking my super-high-tec on board wizardry that is a written list of time splits on the back of my hand I can see that I am 4 minutes up on what I targetted at this point. Excellent news.

True Working Class Triathlete Style -
My patented, cutting edge, on-board live timing technology.
And so out of the castle grounds, high up looking across the vale of Belvoir the wind is strong, as I turn down the first hill and after about 2 miles we were into the straight. Rumbling along on the stone chips into a strong head wind is hard, but I can see a few people ahead. Head right down, a glance at the white line on my left, I know there's no turn to make, so keep that position and let the legs burn. I settle into what I have practiced, the best sustainable pace I think I dare hold that won't cripple me in the run later.

Off the straight, and the wind moves to my side & buffets me through the gaps in the hedges as I approach the just shy of a 4 mile climb culminating in the lowest gear, stand on the pedals and cry in pain slog that is the last 500m. Towards the top of this there is a gathering of sadists, sat cheering, laughing at the pain etched on the athletes face as he crests the top of the hill. The climb slowly slowly eases off, and a grab of the Ball Juice seems in order to invigorate me. Now there is a back wind, onto the flat, but after a brisk 1 mile of this there is a junction to a main road and the speed needs scrubbing. Being so high up the wind is one of those winds that always feels like you are working against it. Dipping down into a village the road twists and bends, it is difficult to maintain my pace.

Up and out of the village there is a decent bit of gentle down that gets a good hammering in the highest gear. This leans into a sweeping cambered right on decent tarmac, I commit my trust (and my arse) to the tyres completely and I imagine the countless other cyclists and motorbikers that have whipped through the bend here, and I grin as I lean over as far as I dare to hold the speed. This gives way to a sudden steep sharp down hill left. Too sharp not to break, it cruelly leaves you devoid of the speed you breifly tasted, and back into a climb.

The road opens out into a mostly back wind & undulating ride. Passing a few, being passed by a few, I feel like I am more or less holding my position. The sky is blue and although windy isn't cold. Head down, working hard I enjoy this segment the most as it turns into a wicked bit of decent downhill. Next time I come down here I'll be around half way.

Down hill long enough that I can stamp on the pedals in top gear to the point where I spin out, then shift my bum from the seat and lay my belly on the saddle, my backside hanging as long and close to the rear wheel as I dare. Chin on the head tube between the bars, completely out of control careering down the hill, my knees tucked in as aero as a I dare. One day this will go wrong, at best my bum will touch the back wheel and I will go home with a big rubber burn line up my crack. At worst I'm eating gravel. But not today. All too soon it ends as it curves back up and into the final village before the course enters the grounds of the Castle once more. This is another continual uphill into the wind, but the waterstation is in the distance as faithfully promised.

For once in my life being left handed is a genuine advantage, and grabbing the bottle from that side is easy. I ease off, take some decent mouthfuls of water, followed by more Ball Juice for energy, then more water. Disgarding the bottle the climb is steep into that head wind, then eases off as we approach the main staging area and supporters begin to appear, clapping, cheering, enjoying. Lap 1 down. and its back out and down. Checking the back of hand timer again I am now 5 minutes up on my pre race splits. Good work. I remind myself this isn't a cushion, but needs extending. The writing on there is a worst case scenario.

Lap 2 just happens, I know what's coming, it just needs doing, and looking at the times after I have stayed all but 30 seconds off the pace of the first lap. The main hills hurt a lot more, and I have taxed the energy gels and juice quite heavily to sustain the effort on this round. Back through the grounds and this time my family are there, cheering, clapping and making the most noise. Part of me really wants to stop and thank them all, slow down so I can see them longer, but all to swiftly they have gone again. It really means a lot that they can be bothered to sit around for so long to see me for such a short amount of time. I resolve to maintain my best effort for them.


Photo of the day goes to Ella for this snap of my whizzing past.
Lap 3 and the course is now busy with other competitiors on their 1st and 2nd laps. This gives a false feeling of ability as you pass some really easily, feeling like you are doing more than you are. My glutes are now burning, and these are joined by my thighs as I heave up the big hill for the final time. I finish the remaining juice and gels to give them time to process before the run.

I know my bike will be the weak point, and while I have passed some I am aware by the end of the ride that I have dropped maybe 8 places as some seriously capable competitors come hurtling past. This shows more than ever on the last lap, I know I am tiring, and this is where understanding the longer game comes into play. Some of the guys have taken their time, but I am reeled in and they storm past, unrelenting, hunting their next scalp as they pass. I am tempted to try and pace off a few of them, but that would be a bad move, I have to trust to my run, and stick to the plan. I'm confident I am still top 30.

Into the grounds for the final time, the family giving it hell again. This time friends have joined them for some extra abuse to be hurled as I go past. I am so busy appreciating the cheers I find the mount line upon me, and I have to look lively to get my feet out in time. The slightest lapse in concentration and I am nearly DQ for a stupid oversight. No matter, I dismount with mm to spare, and race to rack my bike.

Another quick drink, shoes on, and run. T2 is done in 1 minute and 1 second. Again, slow compared to normal, but given the distance to run pushing the bike it was good, and I am happy.

Settling into the run after that kind of bike isn't remotely funny. The family are all cheering me to instantly justify their support by demanding I overtake a competitor some 50m ahead. Soon enough he is passed, and we head through the trees out into the grounds of the Castle. I claim a few more easy wins from runners struggling to find their stride after the difficult bike.

Just as I settle we hit a hill. It's spoken about and warned about in the blurb, but this climb is just stupid. A steep hill around 1.25 miles in length. It's a dirty slog to the top and I take a few more places.  Grabbing a drink at the turn at the top of the hill, the stomach rejects the water and it comes back up. Nothing new there. Onto the downhill I let the legs free to try and make up the lost time from the uphill. Back through the woods, over the grass and round past transition to begin another loop. A barrage of family / friends cheers again is more than welcome and again Ella runs along side me, telling me that I am 25th, and if I stick to this pace I will hit my aims. Round the corner onto lap 2. Check the back of the hand and I am 9 minutes to the good. The run like the bike has got busier, as more people leave the bike leg and join us on the final stage.

All the while I have been exchanging positions with another athlete, he passes me, I pass him. He heaves and breathes heavy as he grinds it out, and we pass his support team a couple of times, them shouting out splits and positions. On the 3rd lap I realise that he is a full lap ahead of me from what his mate shouts at him, the athletes he is just ahead of, and behind. He is told he must hold the pace no matter what to beat the man he wants to beat. We strike into the hill for his final time and he surges ahead.

Around 300m up the hill it gets too much and he stops dead. Since the point I realise he is a full 3+ miles ahead of me in the run he is not a man I am battling for a spot with, and so as I approach and pass I do what I would hope any self respecting athlete would do for me. I shout abuse at him :  

'MOVE, RUN. NOW... Dont you dare stop. You will regret it if you do. Sort your shit out. It is only pain, embrace it you fool'.

He looks up and obliges, and we work off each others shoulder to the top. He doesn't look well, I am impressed by the drive he has. Somewhere deep inside he is forcing himself to continue. At the top once it becomes a bit easier he mutters 'cheers mate', and we turn and do our best to drag each other at an improved pace down the hill as the first placed man thunders past us both. We part ways, he enters the finishing chute to claim 4th place, and I turn for the final loop. That 3rd lap was the worst. I have been taught a lesson by that hill. Its a good job I have the extra bit of time from the swim and bike to trade off.

Grinding it out with the 4th placed man.
And so the final climb, looking at my watch thoughout I am aware the times have been well under what I have put down in training, although given the Hill it is hardly surprising. I nearly stop at the top, but know I will never forgive myself and struggle through, especially after the lip I gave bib 1 just 15 minutes earlier. Picking up some pace on the final down, my lungs and legs are now on fire. There isn't much left to give, but there isn't far left to go. With a painful push I'm back across the grass. The family are cheering and clapping and I'm over the line. I am free to lay down and die as the lady hangs a brown Beaver Middle medal around my neck, I enquire and she confirms I am 20th. 23 minutes behind the winner. I'm please with that.

I now understand the meaning of 'Spent'.
 
A quick drink and a round of hellos and congratulations from the fabulous Ball support team. I know they are all hungry, and aware there is a pack up in the boot. They have all waited for me, starving.... I urge them to get the food and get started. I have no choice but to sit and watch them all tuck in. It looks so good, but I feel like I expect. My stomach completely unable to stand anything inside it but sips of water. It will take a good few hours for this to subside, I just have to hope there is some left overs that I can pig out on in bed later.

My turn to support as I watch everyone
tuck into the food.
We grab the print out before we leave and I see that I have come 4th in my age group. I can't help but grimace at missing the podium, but doing the maths later I am chuffed to see that despite losing 8 minutes compared to my normal run pace I have still done the 13.1 miles in 1hr 30min, and the top 20 has put me at only 112.3% of the time of my Age Group, and in this case, the overall Winner.
 
I am more than aware that my achievements are modest and I write like I am winning, but that I am still a very long way off the guys at the top, but this is a learning curve, and I have taken a lot from it. More than anything I wanted to give it my best, and come away feeling I had given a good account of myself. I'm happy that 4hrs 20min does that.  With life to juggle, family and work, I try not to be disappointed at not being higher placed, but be pleased with what has been achieved.
 
To Qualify for GB at this Middle Distance you have to complete inside 120% of the winning AG time. At my first attempt I have got easily within the overall winning time to claim my spot for the Half Iron Worlds next year. I am already excited about that.
 
Much more importantly than that though, 70.3 Miles later, I have gained a lot of experience, information about myself, my limits and what I can at least half expect at the full Iron distance in a few months time. What I now know is that however hard I train it won't be enough. It will hurt like nothing I have experienced before, but I will love it. 
 
Sunday morning I was wide awake at 05:30am, and feeling like I had had a lay in. I realise that triathlon has ruined my life in some respects. I am now a slave to the early morning sun, those quiet golden training hours while the World still sleeps. My ankles ache from the strain of the down hill on that run the day before. So I get up and let my family sleep, and spend time in the green house pottering. Chewing over the race. A few hours later Sarah brings me out a brew, and we enjoy the day with family.
 
And so 06:30am this morning I was back in the pool. Back on the program. Like nothing has changed, but, going long is like starting again. A whole new sport. Re-setting the bar. Maybe now things will start to get serious.