Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Outlaw. 140.6 miles.

This time last year my eldest had just left Primary. We were going through all the usual emotions that they get with that. This year my youngest is in the same place, just left primary a few days go. As any of you with children at 2ndry school will know, with that transition comes a daily rollercoaster of nerves and excitement, their worry that they won't find their way around the new school? Will they fit in? All the 'big kids' there that seem so grown up and capable.  Have they got all the right clothes and equipment? Sometimes, sat watching them think in a quiet moment you can see their minds whirring, going over everything and nothing in 1 go. All you can do is give them a hug and tell them to relax, not to worry and just enjoy it, and before they know it, it will all fall into place.

It dawned on me watching Molly go through this process over the last few weeks that I have been no different with The Outlaw. The feeling that I was leaving behind the familiar small pond, where I know all my friends and competitors. Going to play with the Big Boys on their monstrously sized playground that is a 2.4 mile Swim, 112 mile bike and then a full marathon. Would I fit in? Would I find my way around? Would I have the right equipment, and most importantly, would I be able to cope with the lessons??!? So, after a month of fretting and getting myself wound up and in a knot with one thing and another the last week running into it I took my own advise and tried to relax, and just let it come round, and when the time came, just enjoy it.

So after the final sessions of training  the last week was a total rest, bar a swim on the Wednesday, hindered by awful IBS brought on my the drugs for the back and rib muscle issues.

The focus turned to preparation. First things first the bike got its usual strip down and rebuild and extra spit and polish. I definitely didn't want to waste the last years build up to this with a mechanical failure on the course. At this point I realised that I had made a bit of a bodge. I'd fitted new tubs a month back. They're a great tyre, giving improved drive, better grip, lower rolling resistance, but the trade off  is that the inner tube is built in, so a puncture isn't so easy to repair. The whole tyre is glued on, so getting it off is a bother, and a new tyre has to be fitted. To help reduce the risk of a puncture it's normal to add a liquid that reacts to the air & self heals when you get a small nick or cut in the tyre. I'd forgotten to add it at the point of gluing, and without taking it all off and removing the valve there was no option now to add it. So I would just have to risk it, and hope that my run of no punctures ever in a race continued. I remain convinced that the fatter you are the more you puncture, and had to hope that maxim held true.
As part of the next winter plan, I intend stripping back the bike to rid myself of the burden of a white gloss paint-job. It looks great, but is a pain to keep clean, showing every little scuff and scrape as the grime gets trapped in it. The new proposal is a matt black frame, with gloss yellow detail. Embracing the club colours with pride. Bringing some of that plan forward I gave the bars and tyres a bit of an early facelift especially for the race and jazzed them up ready for action.

All new 'Louth Tri Pride' Bars and tubs ready for action.
The box was then packed, double checking and polishing shoes, helmet, and ensuring the wetsuit was in tip to condition. 2 lots of googles for either bright, or cloudy conditions, Vaseline, trainers and socks. I was ready to rock.

The next big thing that had got some serious thought over the last few months was nutrition, and after various successes and failures on training runs I was hopeful it would be OK. It's known in the longer distance community as The 4th Discipline with good reason. If you get it wrong your body will tire and you will fail.

I was keen not to use gels. Reading the ingredient lists makes it clear they are full of muck, and anything I could do to avoid them being a necessity the better. They had to be the last resort.

Everything I had read from the seasoned long distance athlete, and found out the hard way in training confirmed that nutrition was key, and if I got it wrong I was doomed.

No pressure on Sarah at all then.... she refined the kitchen trials and eventually after much hunting and tweeking of this recipie http://www.thisrawsomeveganlife.com/2013/03/super-food-energy-bars-with-cacao.html?m=1 chucking in some extra seeds and bits, came up with the 'Power Ball'.

Some of the ingredients.
The nutritional nuke that is the patented Power Ball.

On top of this I also got the Juice Lady Junior into overtime action and prepared a Ball Juice consisting of Apple, Carrot, Kale, Brocolli, Beetroot, Cucumber, Ginger, Strawberries, Cherries, Melon, Pineapple, Lemon, Redcurrants, Blackcurrants, Pear, a few Nettles and Honey. Everything possible was picked fresh from the garden, or had been collected out the hedgerow that day. All reduced down into 1 bottle of an eye wateringly strong nutritional hit boost.
100% Natural Ball Juice.

My plan was to take 6 balls in my back pocket in my suit on the bike, along with a small bag of mixed nuts. The Ball Juice was marked for 1/5th to be drunk every 20 miles. A separate bottle of coconut water with a salt tab to replenish me & wet my whistle after the swim, and I could rely of the feedstations to swap this second drink bottle as often as required. I would eat a ball every 15 to 20 miles, wash it down with the dose of Ball Juice, Chew some nuts if needed. Hydrate as required. It looked sparse compared to most, but I was confident in the plans efficient ability to keep my strong.

Saturday Morning we relocated the girls and got the car packed and set of early. A bit of a queue to get parked but it was efficient and clearly well organised from the off.

First things first, I got registered. No requirement to queue at all at this point. Just bish bash bosh and I had my hands full of all the necessary numbers, hats and tags. I also got an unexpected pretty decent Outlaw rucksack as an early registerer. An unexpected treat to remind me of the weekend.

After that we wandered around the very uninspiring and overpriced merchandising arena, and just as quickly left again, instead meeting with various friends, chewing the cud while watching the Nottingham Big Swim of 5km being held in the lake that afternoon. There were a couple of club members swimming so it was good to be able to cheer them on.

After seeing the swim off we went back to the car to sort all the kit bags. The transition experience is one of the main differences between this and any of the other distances. First you rack your bike the day before,  it's given a raincoat, and security guards supervise the  pit over night. You are allowed in to add bottles and pump the tyres in the morning, but the bike already has to be in position.

You are also issued with 3 big bags. 1 for everything you need in each transition, and then 1 final kit bag for clean clothes and aftercare. So we sat on the grass enjoying the July sun, talking to others doing similar, taking my time, filling each bag as required, putting stickers where needed and going over the bike one more time.

Prepping the transition bags.

The £million transition pit? Some serious bike porn to guard that night.
Once the bike was dropped off we timed it just right to see the 5km swim winners come in. Craig bagging a decent 5th in what he described as hard work with sighting, and very weedy conditions in the lake. That was a useful insight to keep in mind for the morning.

Not knowing what to expect I then went into the Transition tent. Every athlete is issued a peg, and much the same as with the bike pit I found some markers to run too, practised the strides and hung my kit in the order I'd need it. I got a bit lucky that there was a bench right next to my peg which would give me a place to park my bum while pulling on socks while I got set from the swim and the bike.

Come race time the bag pit was a heaving sweaty mass.
Next up it was the briefing. This was a thorough and informative effort by the organisers, chairs and drink laid on with a decent video slide presentation of each aspect of the course with questions and answers and a re cap of the rules. This was the final briefing of 3, and what went from amusing at a few embarrassed athletes sneaking in a few minutes late soon turned to what I felt was pig ignorant at the number of people waltzing in 20 odd minutes late without so much as a sorry to the race director, causing disruption while a seat was found and they settled. There was a decent rule that if your phone went off you had to give 10 press up to the group as an apology. 1 late arrival sat on the floor like a teenage girl, and twice his phone went off, he sat there like he owned the place. Eventually he was bullied into 10 press ups, but clearly struggled. He sat back down red face and flustered. Jerk.
After that we left the site, checked into the hotel about 10 miles down the road, and headed out to find a nice country pub for the final meal. A big juicy rare steak and chips, with a pint of fresh orange and lemonade later, and Sarah having polished off a tasty looking lasagne and glass of wine we went back for a good nights sleep.
Once there I did some final prep and showered, laid all my kit out including the wetsuit to avoid having to pull it on when we arrived. Number attached to belt, nutrition laid out to put on the bike, timing chip, transfers, and finally a row of drugs to keep the medley of injury pains at bay.

Everything laid out for the morning.

More kit laid out ready for 4am.
I volleyed a round of texts to the multitude of good lucks from friends and family, all as encouraging and supporting as ever. A quick call to a friend who had unexpectedly had her baby 12 weeks early, but all are doing fine. We watched some telly, talked things over and unwound.

I promised Sarah if I felt like I wasn't just hurting, but doing some lasting or serious damage, particularly to my stomach,  I would withdraw and with that we settled down. By 8:30pm we were both sound asleep.
I woke briefly a few times when doors banged in the corridor, but slept very well until the alarm went off at 4am. Straight out of bed, I made a brew and poured water in the porridge pot while Sarah had a shower. I have an awful habit of talking loudly from the off which drives Sarah mad, and I was repeatedly encouraged to whisper given the time of the morning. It wasn't happening.
Almost instantly the surge of adrenalin and the reality the day was here hit me. I've never felt adrenalin like it, I can normally get a lid on it quickly so as not to tire and waste energy, but I was wired to the mains from the off and struggling to focus. Wetting the transfers I stuck my numbers to my arms and my legs and kneeled by the table while I went through my kit. Dressing, number belt, fastening the timing chip etc etc.
I was pretty disorganised and all over the place with my mind, suddenly realising Sarah was sat on the sofa quietly laughing at me. I looked up and she said "I've just watched a man throw his keys in the bin". "Ey?" I replied, looking in the bin along with the tea bags I had dumped in there I could see our car and house keys.  That's how deranged with excitement I was, like a kid at Christmas. If she hadn't been there to keep an eye on me and keep me focused I wouldn't have made it to the start line. I kept having to smile at the thought of me tearing the room apart waking the whole hotel up looking for what I would have no doubt decreed were my stolen keys while everyone else was starting the swim. Disaster avoided. Sarah calmed me down, kept me focused and remained a brick through-out the day forcing me to focus and concentrate on the task in hand.
Arrived. Queued, the parking took about 20 minutes, but moved swiftly and efficiently. There wasn't much time to spare, and again I lost my keys in the boot of the car on arrival. At that point they were confiscated and I was told to get my game face on, and we headed to transition.
As you would expect the start was a heaving throng of bleary eyes, family and friends wondering where they went wrong in a former life to have to endure this unearthly hour surrounded by freaks in rubber suits. Contrast that with 1250 odd Athletes as hyped as myself and it made for a unique experience. Sarah stood in awe of a female athlete who had found the time to apply a full face of make up, and we parted ways, going into the athlete only zone. Next time she saw me I would be an Iron Man. Having had to endure just shy of 3 months of being called 'Half Iron Boy' at home following the Beaver Middle, there was NO way I was wasting the opportunity to put that casual spousal abuse to an end.
I pumped the tyres, and was sweating and nearly spent before I even started after I had finished forcing 200psi into the back and front tyre. Putting the juice and drink into the bottle holders I went over the bike tyres one last time, brushing down any dust or stones, and threw my clothes and the pump in the kit bag, and hung in on my peg in the finishers tent.
The 10 minute warning had gone now, and I rushed to a friendly face and grabbed some help zipping up my skin suit and wetsuit. Donning the cap, vaselining the neck, googles on.

Down to the lake, passing over the tracking matt it was like being back at assembly at school. Marshals scanned everyone eagerly for appropriate attire. Just before I went through the man ahead was stopped and the marshal asked "where is your timing chip?" Panic flashed in his eyes, he swore and ran back in the other direction. I can only imagine the faff of retrieving that, which of the 3 bags had he left it in? Pushing against the surge of athletes coming against him. Rather him than me.
And so into the water, it gently steaming, warmer than the cool morning air. A few practice strokes, google adjustment and I waved to the compare Kyle (The Celtman) Campbell. He reciprocated with 'Hey Martin' (over the microphone, held up his hand and continued) "I AM SPARTAUS". Raising his hand in battle cry mode.  I was puzzled, but replied "Oh, that's nice for you" and decided the early mornings were getting to him. He shook his head in disgust and sighed, then shouted "Hey Everyone, I AM SPARTACUS". The throng replied "I. AM. SPARTACUS".

Sarah showed me a snippet of youtube earlier explaining the film. What a tit. I had been handed the honour of being the first to reciprocate with the reply, followed by the masses. My complete lack of interest in classic films had bitten me on the bum, and the prestige of the chance to reply forever lost. I, apparently, am not Spartacus.
So to the start.
As crazy as ever. 1250+ at the wet 6am beginning of their journey.
The video does it more justice than I ever could. The usual frenetic washing machine of arms and legs that I have so often and lovingly described, magnified, bonkers. 1.1miles straight out down a huge manmade lake into the morning sunrise, 200m across and 1.1 miles back.
Once settled I found feet and did what I always try to do. Drafting my way through it, there were plenty to choose from. I was paranoid through out that I would repeat The Amphibian injury and unknowingly wreck my back only to be reduced to a spasming mess when the pain killers wore off half way into the bike.

The original target of 58 minutes had been revised earlier in the week and I swam as fast as a I dare without risk of ruining my race. The first length was tough to sight, the sun glinting low and bright, the buoys difficult to make out in spite of it being a straight line swim. The danger with following the man in front is that he doesn't know where he is going either. Eventually the big buoy appeared, and I slapped it in satisfaction as I passed, surprised by the resistance my hand encountered. A solid piece of waterproofed tarpaulin indeed.
Round the next buoy, and I was on the back straight. This leg was very weedy and genuinely required almost a crawl through it in places, tangling around my wrist, getting caught in my watch strap on several occasions. The finishing gantry grew larger and larger and the push for the end began.
A smooth and economical swim, no danger of injury I was pleased as I exited up the mat, faced with a big timer I could see 1hr 3minutes. Rather than 5 minutes lost I knew I had probably bought myself plenty more time by not risking re pulling any still weakened tissue.
Running into the tent Sarah shouted 'Go Ball' from the bank above, and we exchanged a smile and a wave.
Wetsuits off before you enter the tent then straight to the bag, helmet, glasses and socks on. My number belt already on, pre fitted under my wetsuit. Bag rammed with the swim kit, you run out with it to be hung on your finishing peg, dump it with an official, and then on towards the bike. 3 minutes from out the water to the bike. I'd allowed 5, so had already gained 2 back on the swim. Again Sarah shouted and waved.
Shoes already on the bike, I ran out and mounted without issue, and so the ride began.
Out round the lake to start. This was a good time to settle and take a drink, adjusting the shoe straps and getting into a comfortable place. I had broken the ride into 20 mile segments on a sticker on my headstock, with target times by each at the nearest village. I felt good, there was no real wind, and on closed roads some other athletes were quickly caught and overtaken. The reccy ride the month before was invaluable, and the marshaling was clearly going to be excellent throughout. Every junction, turn, bump and bend manned by a smiling, luminous vested volunteer.
Club friend Simon who cheered me throughout,
fulfilling the special needs quota of the marshalling contingent.
Every time I passed he lifted my spirits. Thanks.
The next block of miles through  20  to 40 were similar, passing some, being passed by others, remembering that the distances remaining were huge, and every man had to race his own game. It was no good getting involved in a battle at this early stage.
A few times by now I was passed by what could only be described as a peleton of riders. This worried me, the drafting rules are clear, and every time I eased off and let them through, albeit annoyed at the clear advantage they were gaining from the group pace as they pulled away. 2nd time this happened I was glad to have not got caught up in the action, as a motorbike official passed and pulled up behind them. All I can say is from where I was sat behind it all observing is that the marshals hung back, watched and gave plenty of opportunity for those involved to rectify the issue. The DQ's this year amounted to about 3 pages worth. Unprecedented, but avoidable. It's clear in the rules and was re-iterated at the briefing. The drafters I saw have only their self to blame.
Mile 40 came past, and I was now 3 minutes up on my target time. The Southern loop finished we hit the drag to the Northern loop and again I passed friends on the main roundabouts, exchanging high 5s and cheers of encouragement.
I had been sticking to the nutrition plan, taking on Ball Juice and the Power Balls. Each time they gave me a boost and I felt normal and fresh to continue. I chewed a few nuts. Around mile 50 I grabbed a banana and exchanged my drink bottle at the feed station. Again I cannot fault the volunteers manning these stations. Each of the efficient and friendly, doing all they could to help.
Hitting the Northern Loop the main steep hill of the course fast approached. I didn't flog it, just sat up and applied consistent even effort. At this point I had been riding consistently in touch back and forth with the lead lady for around 20 miles, but on the hill she left me. No point burning out to keep up I decided, my hill work is a weakness, so I just accepted it and enjoyed the climb. At the top, and down into Southwell, there were some great views and public support for the event, clapping us as we rattled through the town. 
From Southwell the wind picked up significantly and the rolling terrain of climbs and downs were hindered with strong head on gusts. At mile 60 I was now around 5 minutes up on my target time.
This didn't last long though, as miles 60 to 80 were to prove to be the low point of the whole event. I let things slide mentally. Tired now, having been working solidly and unrelenting for the last 4+hrs. The change in weather to a chilly, cloudy, bleak and windy day got to me. I hadn't really seen anyone I knew for a while, and my mind wandered to my family and friends who would be willing me on via the live tracker, travelling to cheer me and support me. I was looking forward to seeing them.

Still over 50 miles to go, it was tough. My bum was sore, and my testicles numb, I had sat up to adjust myself and accidentally sat back down on one, squashing it under me, pushing it straight up back in my body. The pain was eye watering. To boot, the pain killers taken at 4:20am had now properly worn off, and it was too early to re-medicate, leaving a nagging pain in my groin, stomach and left side that wouldn't shift. I knew it was hindering performance. I had to be strict and dismiss the pain, so shifted down a gear to spin the legs and give me something else to focus on. Honestly, this point was tough. Just being on a bike for coming up 4 hours was mentally tough, and I was sick of chewing nuts.
During this time I was dropped by a stream of athletes not in the same phase as me. Cyclists whipping past and a few more peletons making easy work of the wind, I went through the motions back down the drag off the northern loop, into stronger winds and spits of rain. I knew this couldn't continue if I wanted to succeed, and tried to pick myself up. Eventually reaching a roundabout where my friend Vicky was marshalling she smiled and waved warmly, shouting 'looking strong' and with a thumbs up that gave me the boost I turned the corner in my mind.
Hitting the 80 mile marker I had thrown away the cushion on my time now, and was about 3 minutes behind. Angry at myself at having wasted my earlier efforts somewhat, I had stern words, and  with new impetus as I hit 85 miles the back of it was broken, and it was time to get the head down for home.
At this point I re-medicated with ibuprofen, and as much psychosomatically as physiologically the stomach pain subsided and I was able to focus wholly on the job in hand. Passing through Car Colston, a small village for the 4th time, the weather was now foul, strong winds and unrelenting rain. I was in awe of the dedication shown by the unabated crowds clapping and cheering and spreading the love as we went through. Cow bells and clapping galore. It was brilliant.
I quickly noticed at this point that with the weather now properly foul other athletes spirits were breaking much like I had struggled earlier.  And so I began gobbling up athletes crumbling under the weather, those who had put extra layers on, now soaking and cold clearly hurting the most. This motivated me greatly, and as 95 miles came by I re-medicated again with the kick arse pain killers ready for the run, and banged out the last 20 miles keen to de-saddle.
The only bad bit of the whole course was the last mile. A dirty, gritty, pot holed and dangerous track. I passed 1 fellow athlete out cold on the deck, having lost it presumably on 1 of the numerous and ridiculously high speed humps. He was clearly unconscious and being attended to urgently. Not good.
Seeing that calmed me down, and passing under trees I had trouble seeing the floor, the pot holes unclear because of the rain and puddles. Trusting to blind luck I rode them sat up off the bars and finally reached home.
Feeling the love. And the wet. Glad to hit T2.
Coming into base, the first person I saw was my Dad, a grin on his face clapping and cheering, Ella next to him.  A quick 'Now then Dad' as I passed, and I saw Sarah, Molly, my Mum, Sister and Nieces all cheering too. Everyone looked soaked, but chipper. All too quickly they were past, round the bend and peddles off. I'd done the bike in 5hrs 48min, and just about held 20 miles an hour through out. Had I not let the mind slip for that middle section this would have been much better, and is a valuable lesson learned for the future. I must harden off when the going gets tough.
Handing the bike to a marshal, I heard shouts from above and looked above me to see the smiles and waves of the familiar yellow Louth Hoodies with Jackie and Kerry cheering wildly beneath them. Running straight into Kyle he gave me a shout on the tanoy about being the smallest man on the planet and bigged up last years 24hr swim. Jogging into the transition tent I was feeling the love.
Shoes off, fresh socks and shoes on. No point in the hat or the shades. Stuffing a few more Power Balls in my pocket. 3 minutes and 5 seconds after handing over my bike I was running towards the exit and the beginning of a marathon.
I triggered the timing bleep, and set off at the tried, tested and practiced pace. Passing all the family on the first bend I got chance to smile properly and wave my appreciation for their support.
Within 2 miles it became apparent the run needed revision. This was always likely to happen, and was the big unknown.  The legs felt more than capable, but the chest was tight and every step created a sharp stabbing pain like a knife pushing deep in my stomach. Blasted injury.  The more I tried to maintain my pace the more intense it became, and I felt a danger of passing out. Failure is never an option, but I had promised not to do lasting damage, and going home in an ambulance would definitely count as that. So I eased off gradually until it became bareable and manageable, getting on with the job in hand. Better to get round and get the full distance under my belt and succeed, than withdraw.
Round the back of the first lake loop I passed Sarah, my Dad and Ella again, on route to the car to get the picnic. No Ball mass gathering is complete without 'The Picnic'. A little bit jealous, but glad they would be enjoying themselves I puzzled over how they would manage it in the weather we were under. Afterwards I was enlightened.
In lieu of dry grass, they commandeered and blocked a busy corridor to eat!!!
Everyone on the run was soaked, it rained stair rods throughout, and down the embankment along the river to the city it was thick with puddles and mud. Inspite of that the crowds remained out in force, and on each of the 4 occasions running around the lake on the loops, there were corridors of cheers from the crowds, waves from family, and the roar of the finishing chute as people began finishing. Children hanging out there hands to be High 5ed, shouting with joy.
I never normally drink on a run, but did stop a few times here as I took on fluids, and walked maybe 10m each time while I drank. Starting again was no problem, which let me know I was under performing on the run, but as a friend said to me before the race, race smart and race again another day. As hard as it was I was doing the right thing.
The target time of 10hrs 10mins was well out the window now and this was all down to the run. Another marshal and friend pulled alongside on the bike a few times to check I was OK, and he lifted my spirits. A random hello from an old work colleague, and a shout from extended family and another old school friend all added to the day. Coming back round for the final loop I could see the girls waiting to run with me, and as I shuffled past grimly it was hard not to nudge a premature left round the corner and give them a hug. They would be waiting next time round, and as I went round the back of the lake another friend on another microphone cheered me again.
In spite of the set backs, in spite of the miserable weather and the pain, I can honestly say there was no low point on the run. It was all a great experience and invaluable experience for future races.
I think there are 2 types of people who tackle endurance events. The thinking human who spends the lonely hours in the saddle and on the run, trapped alone in their mind chewing over the deeper questions. Wrangling with their soul, and coming to terms with themselves. Then there are dimwits like me. Looking back I honestly couldn't tell you what was going through my mind for the majority of this race other than thinking about the job in hand. The closest I can articulate it is 'Run, Forest. Run'.
That said, if you want to challenge yourself mentally, forget the physical requirement. Doing an iron distance will leave no stone unturned, no question unanswered in your mind as to who you are, your limitations, your strengths and weaknesses.
And so, finally, into the finishing leg. I had been shuffling along with a really cheery guy for the last 3 miles. He grabbed a Jaffa cake a mile from home, and we tried our best to wick it up for the finish.
Wet, tired and in pain, the crowds got louder, the lights brighter and before I knew it I had a daughter in each hand and we were sprinting down the finish chute to cheers of the crowd and the finishing banner. "MARTIN BALL. YOU ARE AN OUTLAW" came the welcome cry.

Down the finishing chute.

An Outlaw in an average 11hrs 14mins. 33rd out of 190 in my age group, and 110th out of 1250 (excluding the relay teams). An Outlaw none the less, and more importantly a sack full of experience to take to Weymouth in 8 weeks when I race for Club and Country. Quite proud to have simply completed it while well below par if I'm honest.
One thing I couldn't resist was trialling the GB suit that had arrived in the week. I was shocked by how small and compact the padding was in the seat, but have to admit it performed brilliantly in the race. I know I was sore but it certainly absorbed a lot of the issues. It felt great. It looked great. I just hope I can do it justice in September.
Afterwards, kit grabbed, and up for a shower in the changing room. A bank of hot showers full of us newly crowned Outlaws, looking spent and bedraggled. It was a unique sight, seared in my memory, and one that only fellow entrants will have the honour (and terror) of sharing. Clothes on, and a classy after race look of track suit bottoms, brogues and a hoodie. Classy. I couldn't have cared less.
The organisers had a tent of free food laid on, so I nipped in and enjoyed a Spaghetti Bolognese and some cake, and finally had in my hand a beautiful cup of tea that I had been craving for the last 2 hours. While in there I bumped into another friend, Lesley, who took me under her wing and helped me by kindly carrying my bags and helping me fetch my bike. We then hunted round for my family. Nowhere to be seen, I assumed they had gone to the car to dodge the continuing rain that was throwing down. Lesley stood me with my bags and went into the busy cafĂ© to see if she could find them for me first.
5 minutes later and a Gaggle of Balls appeared, Sarah close to tears, convinced I had died in the medical tent. We packed up the car and headed home. Bed was pretty much an instant affair, I slept better than I hoped, only waking a few times with stiff legs and niggles. Sweaty in the night while my internal thermoregulatory system struggled to get back full functionality. What I can report is that while this was the most physically demanding thing I have ever done, in terms of psychological fatigue the 24hr swim was much tougher. That took me to the edge and it took days to recover. From getting up the next day I have felt nothing but positive about the whole experience. No post race blues, no emotional slumps, just a bag of memories of 11hrs and 14minutes that went past all too quickly. Certainly I now understand fully where the appeal and addiction to the extreme nature of long distance racing comes from.

Later on I found out that there was an issue on the bike course where some idiot had thrown drawing pins onto the road, and this had cost several people a puncture. I don't know where it was, but my sympathy goes out to all those that suffered because of this.

I want to take the time to thank all the people I knew and who encouraged and supported me on the day and in the months of training before hand too. In no particular order. First on the day - Andy for zipping me into my suit and giving me a hug. Jim on the run course smiling from ear to ear every time I passed despite the weather, encouraging me on. Kyle and Lee and their public bellows over the microphone. Lesley for looking after me while floundering after I finished, and taking all the Balls under her wing, and with Sharpy on 1 roundabout shouting encouragement, and Vicky on another with a big smile and wave that picked me up each time. Paul on his bmx trundling along side me shooting the breeze for a few minutes each time to make sure I was still with it. Alex, getting up early and cheering me on, and general encouragement through out the year. The Louth Tri club duo that is Kerry & Jackie....Both cheering me on from the rooftops off the bike, Kerry, who ran with me from the side-line for a bit towards the end, (but then stopped to avoid it being perceived as outside assistance and getting me DQ'd at the 11th hour) and then again at the end with Jackie when they stripped me of timing chip and bands and both hugged me wholeheartedly. To the numerous club members with their well wishes of support and kind words, and especially to the guys I train more closely with who understood the need to complete it regardless while injured. Where others  have told me to withdraw, these guys understood the drive and commitment, and instead talked through managing the course as best as possible with me. You know who you are, thank you. To all the club for being a great unit to train with and enjoy the love of our sport with. Craig and his swim help. Everyone who sent texts and calls of support before, during, and after. To all my family for putting up with the hours of training and the countless times you have come to support and enjoy your picnics! Anyone I have forgotten, and I'm sure I probably have, apologies, it has still been appreciated.

Part of the reason I mention the above is because the biggest lesson I have learnt in this warm up for Weymouth is that when that big race comes round in a few months I will have none of this. It makes me realise how lucky I have been. At the Euros, as I climb out the sea I will be just another face in the crowd, a random athlete among hundreds collecting impersonal cheers. That will be unusual and tough, in a sport where I have made many friends. It is time to prepare for that, for that I feel will be the biggest challenge.

Before that we look forward to a few weeks well deserved holiday. Covering Scotland from north to south, enjoying fresh food, the scenery, swimming in lochs, climbing mountains. Taking the time to enjoy each others company, and recover.
(Almost) Finally, if you are toying with the idea of doing a 140.6, I can say only this: stop thinking, and get it booked. You won't regret it. There will be trepidation over the training, there will be set backs, there will be progress. The day will come around, and you will achieve something that most people never will. You will always have done it, if you come first or last you are still a winner, and I don't very often say that. Everyone I saw on Sunday was a winner. It is a true test of physical and mental character, and the biggest part of that is having the self belief to enter one. All you need is the commitment from the off that Failure is NOT an option.

The previous paragraph I finished about an hour and half ago. I was ready to post it, felt it complete, but it now needs an addendum. Testosterone and Bravado aside I want to share one last thing as a word of caution now. The image below sums it up succinctly.

Undertaking the race hasn't been without a cost, and I have just spent the last hour and half crippled over with a new back pull all spreading all across my ribs, chest and left lower side. Sure it will heal, but my priority now is to make sure I deal with this to ensure the family get the holiday they are all so excited about and deserve in a few days. Pushing yourself to the absolute limit and more is a personal choice, and one I don't regret, but there is a tax to be paid. Race with care.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Injury is no excuse.

This might be the last post before The Outlaw, but a lot unexpected aggravation has happened so I wanted to update, so will dive straight in with the nuts and bolts of what's been going on.
Back in the last post from the Woodhall Sprint I mentioned a stomach injury that made running painful. After that race it has all been about the build up to the 140.6, and everything in terms of training and racing was constructed with that in mind.

So after that race I took a week off the running to give my stomach chance to rest. I turned out a week on Tuesday later to run a half marathon, and the pain was still there from the off. A jarring, stabbing pain with every stride low down in the bowel just above the pelvic area. I decided at the time to suck it up, and ended up running a 1hr 22min, which I was well happy with. The stomach soon settled, but a few more shorter sprints in the week still gave it jip. It just wasn’t getting better.

The next Saturday was an opportunity to take a recce of the bike course, doing the Southern and Northern loop of the Outlaw Course. On race day it will be South/North/South totalling 112 miles. Setting off from a local bike shop as a group doing South and then North made it 90 miles all in, and would give me a decent taster of what to expect.

On arrival I was surprised to find how many people were doing it in their comfortable riding gear, or on bikes that they wouldn’t be using come race day. For me this was a chance to simulate race day nutrition, my intended kit, the bit set up. A proper dry run. This was definitely out of the ordinary thinking among the group and I was surprised by that.

Langdale Lightweights before the ride. A nice bunch.
That said, it was a good group, led out by a couple of really capable pure bred cyclists from Langdale Lightweights that drove the pace. There were moments of beauty where we ate up the miles as a fully working chain gang, the guys on the right rolling forward and falling to the front of the ride, soon replaced by the man behind them as they trickled back round to the rear, and repeat. With 12 of us in the group that meant nobody was working at the max for too long at the front, and we were able to hold 21mph+ without too much bother at all.  It gave me confidence that 20mph should be achievable come race day without wrecking myself for the run.
One big decision that was made last winter was to give up the allotment to free up time to train in the evening. Might not sound a big deal, but after near continuous plot cultivation since we got married 14 years ago, and having long been my main source of relaxation, not to mention decent family food it was a big decision and 1 that troubled me. To counteract the inevitable feeling of loss I decided to dig over the front lawn and replace it with a small scale allotment plot. That way I still had the fun, without the hours and hours of commitment, the drive there, the drive back, and all the additional faff. Seemed like the perfect compromise, and has been working well.

And so I was stood in the front garden digging the beds on the Tuesday night, and felt a minor twinge in my back and shoulder. The twisting of the fork as I turned the soil seeming to pull my back & neck a tad. Nothing to worry about.

The some what demented looking front garden.


Training carried on and I still had the stomach pains.

On the Thursday I had the day off to take part in the Castle 2 Coast 2 Castle 100mile Cycle ride from Lincoln, (unsurprisingly to the coast) and back again. I had been given free entry and a snazzy cycling top courtesy of my Sponsors, Delta Simons, who put together a great team, and we had a decent ride there and back among mixed abilities, with the opportunity to talk and network along the way. It was a good day out and perfectly timed for some additional volume mileage in the legs. A quick lunch thrown in at the half way point in the sun made it all the more enjoyable.  A proper look round the back roads of the Shire.

Team Delta Simons outside the cathedral at the start of the ride.

As we headed back I got my foot down and made a break, wanting to test myself at pace over longer distance. The last 20 miles I put down alone at a decent pace and was pleased. Once we got back I packed up the car and took a bit of a jog between the car and the BBQ laid on by the organisers.  The stomach was agony instantly, and I swiftly stopped. It clearly wasn’t getting better and proving a proper problem with the running. I had dropped a significant portion of the weekly training mileage to help it heal to no avail, and I had noticed a few times when swimming it seemed to hurt as I rotated in the pool also. Maybe a trip to the doctors was in order. This I did and he indicated that a scan was in order and almost certainly would highlight a hernia. We had a chat, and I explained I couldn’t sort anything out until after the season was over, and he agreed to do what he could to get me through it.
The following Saturday was a swim race called The Amphibian. At 5km in 500m loops with a 100m run in between each swim loop it was again a tactical entry to give me some over distance race simulated practice before the big day. Lots of fun but competitive long distance stand alone events had seemed to fall perfectly to help with the final run in.

Once we arrived my concern for my stomach climbing out onto the run and hurting me motivated me to take a few painkillers to stop any bother. My brother had also decided to come out of retirement and give me a race, and my PHISH relay team mate Suzy had also entered the 5km with a pledge to skin me. Other friends were in the 2k, and Ella and my Dad were racing in the 1km, Ella being excited at her first full adult open water event. The painkillers seemed worth it to ensure we all had a great day.
I had a total target time of 1hr 22min in mind (including the runs) and knew that would put me top 5, depending on who turned up on the day. It was an achievable target and things started nicely. At the horn I got a cracking start, well away from the melee behind, and settled in with the front pack for the first 3 laps. People started dropping away as they finished the 1km and 2km races and left the 5km green hatted athletes dotted about. Now I was on my own, and the pace seemed to be easing.
About this time on the 5th lap Suzy pulled alongside me, and gave me an eyeballing as she swam level. For the rest of that loop we swam side by side, me eventually easing off & letting her get ahead round the last buoy so that I could draft and pull her ankle to psyche her out, knowing she hates it. Climbing out of the water my run was quicker and I got back into the water a good 10m ahead.
Before the first buoy however she was back past and in full stride. Try as I might I just couldn’t keep up, and by the end of the next lap she was in and out of the run phase before I climbed out. Nothing felt wrong, and I couldn't understand where the speed had gone.
Team mate Suzy Hegg laughing as she passes me on the run section....


...but nothing was going to spoil the picnic after.

From then it was clearly a bad day at the office and things felt slow. It just wasn’t coming together and I finished 11th with a novice time of 1hr 30min total. Absolutely abysmal. Knocking out the run splits left me with just a 6:58 min 400m pace average. Absolutely shocking.
No matter, it was a bit of race training fun, lots of family and friends present, and so we sat down and enjoyed the Picnic before heading home. I think more photos were taken of the picnic than the race. Picnic done, the day had turned from a wet murky start to glorious sunshine, so home to enjoy the garden.
By 3pm I was in agony. The painkillers had worn off and my back was spasming uncontrollably. It seemed that the poor swim had come from adding to and damaging the strained back/shoulder muscles earlier in the week and not realising. By now it was hurting to breath, and that night I barely managed any sleep not knowing what to do with myself. Every position standing/laying/sitting excruciating agony. Early Sunday morning required a trip to A&E that resulted in confirmation of torn back and intercostal muscles. The little muscles in-between the ribs being the reason it hurt so much to breath, like a belt with nails knocked into it, pressing in deeper as the chest expanded, tightening round the ribs.

Excellent Wifery after the hospital on Sunday Morning.

Home with some painkillers and anti-inflammatorys, and not a lot else that could be done I spent the next 48hrs unable to move, twitching, trying to find a way to sit or lay that wasn’t painful.
And so that was last week. By the end of the week with the glimmers of a recovery, and having not dared think about the upcoming Iron Distance I took to a few small runs to see how it coped. Limping along to a 9min mile pace for 3 miles seems terrible, and it is, but I was just pleased to be able to do. Swimming a week last Wednesday I managed 200m and got out in agony. By last Saturday I managed 0.75miles at a steady easy pace, but I could see a potential for a way forward, The Outlaw just maybe being possible with some swim adaption that means breathing only over my left shoulder, so every 4th stroke (rather than every 2). I could see how with some recovery time that plan might just see me through the swim. So Sunday I got on the bike and put down 65miles, again, at an easy pace of 18mph, but it didn't made things worse.
The biggest problem seems to be once you are warmed up and working hard there very quickly comes a point where I can’t catch my breath deep enough, and it results in a painful gasping. Most of the speed comes in the final throws of effort, when you are at your limit, the chest bursting, the legs on fire. By taking that away you lose the most the quickest. So annoying. A stitch developing quickly and prematurely that necessitates easing off swiftly. All I could keep doing is pushing this limit and gently stretching the muscles.
 This week has been more of the same, adding a bit more speed into each set where I can, before easing off in agony. That said, there has been no painkiller use, and every swim, every bike, every run yields improvement.
 So that is a very dry and succinct account of a miserable and stupid injury that has completely thrown my final plans for the Outlaw.  I have doubtless lost some form, but how much (or little) I don't know.
 What is interesting though, what's worth blogging about is how an injury like this has taught me more about myself and my limits.
You never know how you will respond to something until it happens. The first few days were just misery, laid there, but I kept saying to myself 'see how it goes, you've got 3 weeks, and that's a long time to heal'.
Once I could move about and think about the most gentle of runs I did them. It always seemed that whenever I was wincing in pain someone would drive or walk past. Always catching you at your worst point. To be fair I have had a lot of people express me concern and worry and tell me to take it easy and it has been touching to know people care. I would be saying the same thing if I saw someone doing what I am doing, but being in the situation and reading your own body I know that deep down it is capable. It all comes down to resolve.
It's weird, but I know that I need to hurt myself to improve myself enough to still be able to compete at a level that will do my training justice. It hurts, but it is about acceptance. This is the hand that has been dealt now, and I can either embrace it or fail. There is no middle ground. I am Martin, and for the next month of training and racing my body will have to hurt. Accepting that fact allows me to push on.
Swimming is the most acute, gasping for breath making the leg kick and spasm out involuntarily as I do. As much as it hurts though, it is strangely satisfying. Knowing that each breath stretches the muscles that little bit more, stopping them healing tight and stiff. Letting them know from the off that if they are weak and choose to get injured there will be no compromise. They have to conform, build up and repair, coming back stronger than ever. The weak link was shown, and it is being addressed. Of course this has to be tempered by not pushing it too far, because re injury will certainly now mean I wont make the start line, but that is the thing. What looks mental to the observer doesn't feel so bad from within. It is knowing that limit. Knowing when it is 'just pain' and when it is more. When it is damaging. It is finding that line, and pushing yourself up to it, careful to never cross it. I cannot advocate training through injury to anyone else, it is definitely not the wise course of action, I simply speak from my own perspective here.
 So from 140.6 seeming daunting and a challenge in itself, it is now 'can I do it at around 70% of form' and still 'race' the course, not just complete it. I have to admit I like the extra. The curve ball has swung in, and (hopefully) it is being dealt with. If you are going to do an iron distance you may as well make a challenge out of it. There's a good chance I will live to regret these words! but there is no alternative attitude right now.
 After the Outlaw I am looking forward to a 2 week holiday with family swimming the lochs of Scotland again, camping on the beaches in the North, hopefully getting wet with passing Orca and Porpoise.
 And then the pressure returns - the relays. The team have made it clear that these set backs are no excuse. This is motivating me to push on right now more than the Outlaw. The fear of letting down the team when we only missed National Gold by 14 seconds last year. Its easy to fail for yourself, but when others are depending on you, you are not just wasting your own efforts by giving up, but essentially the hours of training they have also committed. That can never happen.
Onwards and upwards. Thank you for reading, I know this has been one of the less interesting posts.