Friday, 8 July 2016

Holkam Hall Half Iron, Outlaw Triathlon.

This event first reared its head last winter, a new addition to the OSB Events calendar, and their 2nd offering of a 70.3 distance, this time out of the Holkham Hall Estate off the North Norfolk Coast.
It’s worth telling you a bit of background to North Norfolk from my perspective. Since childhood I have holidayed with family in a small village called Mundesley along the coast from Holkham in a family members chalet that was eventually inherited. The beach is beautiful, the weather is (mostly) fine, and it has always been home from home for me. Somewhere I love being.
When I met Sarah one of the first things she told me about was her regular holidays to the same small village of Mundesley as a child, her parents owning chalets in the chalet park next to ours. We never met as children, but still a completely unlikely random coincidence, and something that has always been a cracking thing to share………15 years of marriage later, having now spent countless year round long weekends and holidays with our own family there, often with other extended family there at the same time, all adding up to hours and hours on my favourite beach, sea swimming, relaxing, enjoying good food and making fond memories, this event held something of a personal appeal. I certainly stood to know the course, where ever it might be.
About a 600m walk from the chalet, a pre-requisite of every visit
 is a photo of the Girls on the bench down the cliff.
Everyone loves a BBQ on the beach. Mmmmm.
This photo pretty much sums up the family relationship with Mundesley beach.
Mock disgruntlement on Molly's face, anticipation on Ella's,
Resignation on Sarah's........and me in the sea. 
There's even a chest in the hallway at home
that is adorned in the North Norfolk Coastline.

With that thought in mind I left it, not wanting to throw money down the drain if fitness didn’t come good, but after The Grafman in April, and then another month of some assessment training, the promise of improving performance held fast, and so I took the chance and entered at the 11th hour. I had also been pondering the potential popularity of the event. The majority of serious athletes would have already entered their A races, and squeezing in the small matter of a Half Iron for fun is no small undertaking. The venue and popularity of the organisers delivered though, and while it took a while to fill it, it did, and it filled with a decent national standard. I even persuaded my sister in law Katie to have a crack with only 3 weeks to the race date. 
Back in October I had been toying with doing ‘The Anglian’, a full 140.6 distance off the North Norfolk Coast complete with sea swim, mostly for the same reasons as I had now entered this – I knew the area, and that thought made it fun. Unfortunately The Anglian was cancelled due to lack of interest, and the Holkham has possibly missed a trick in not holding the swim in the sea when it is on its doorstep, but the lake and the backdrop of the Hall were there for the taking. It’s funny how 2 events so close to one another can have such contrasting fortunes.
It being a last minute entry, things clashed on the calendar, and this meant that I would be going alone, as Sarah and the Girls had other commitments that weekend. It was strange loading up the car to ‘go to the chalet’ alone, but I can now categorically state that regardless of what they say when I am packing to race, it is far less than the copious amounts of ‘essential’ items that I seem to struggle to stuff in the car and roof box when we travel down as a family!
A beautifully fitting bike frame in the car. Made to measure.

I’m not a football fan at all, and I couldn’t name 4 of the England team even after these recent Euros, but I have to confess to having a good ride down tuning into some old school crackly medium wave radio and listening to the Wales v Belgium match, getting into the excitement as the home nation prevailed. I had no idea Belgium were apparently so good. Turns out they weren’t.
On arriving I got unpacked, set up and sorted, went through some race data that had been playing on my mind for a while and then set the alarm, hoping it would be a nice morning, for an early morning sea swim with the North Norfolk Crawlers.

Set up inside 15 min of arriving. Home from home.
2 big chicken buttys, tea and telly before bed.

Waking up early I had a big mug of tea and took a stroll the 0.5miles down to the sea, sitting on the cliff top bench waiting for other swimmers to arrive, enjoying the morning sun. As soon as everyone arrived it was apparent I was the only wetsuit swimmer that morning, but hid behind the need to take it easy for the race the next day! Around 45minutes of even paced effort later I had ticked off just shy of 2 miles, got out, enjoyed a mug of chocolate and a catch up, before heading back for a quick breakfast and drive over to the venue. It dawned on me I was fired up for the race and excited in a way I haven’t been all season. At times I was beginning to think I had lost some Mojo for it, and this familiar, if absent of late feeling was like the return of a welcome old friend. It was Race time!!!

Post swim photo.

The coast road is the quickest route, only about 19 miles from the chalet, but it took about an hour with the traffic, and I revised my set off time for the morning.
Pulling into the grounds it was as beautiful as expected, and quite a dramatic day, rolling clouds, sunshine, and more than a bit of wind whipping up the underside of the leaves on the old and majestic tree lined paths. I registered, soaking up the atmosphere,  chatted to plenty more people that I know, and made my way back to the car, where I took my time re assembling my bike, getting everything how I wanted it before finally pushing it down to transition and racking it ready for the morning. It is always weird leaving your ride on site.

Taking my time, setting myself up in the sun.

Lovely tree lined walk to Registration

And a herd of deer roaming around behind the event village

I then had a wander round the lake to check out the swim, and took in the race briefing, before overhearing the finishers of the 10k race being run on the same track as I would race the next day coming over the line. The winning time was just shy of 40 minutes. That is slow by any half decent runners standard for a 10k, honestly, really quite slow, and I was sure that some decent runners would be out there, which indicated either the condition of, or the difficulty of the course, as I had heard a few times on the grape vine that it was particularly hard. I would find out soon enough…

Leaving the Felt. Our first night apart in nearly a year.

Walking down to the swim

Looking back on the big house & transition from the swim start. That was
the 2nd island you swam round before exiting.

The drag strip style swim - out on the near side, round an island out of sight
in the distance, then back on the far side and out.
The drive back was thundery with plenty of lightening overhead and out to sea, adding excitement, and hoping it would blow itself out before the morning. Arriving back I packed up the car, cleaned up,  I prepped a hearty tea before getting to bed early with an alarm set for 03:50hrs.

Pre Race tea.

Then a tiger powered sleep.
Up with the dawn and out the door to a bowl of porridge, a homemade Juice and a coffee in a mug to fire the engine on route.
I got there about 05:15hrs giving plenty of time to inflate the tyres, prep the shoes, pace out the position in transition, find markers, write splits on my hand, talk to every other competitor, then rubber up and head down to the swim for wave 1.
The long shadows of an early summer morning transition. A nice touch at this
race was the bank of portaloos at both ends just for the athletes use.

The water was warm and clear as we all headed in, but very shallow. The briefing had warned of this, not really a bother for wave 1, but I could see very quickly how it was going to get churned up and silty as hell for the subsequent waves.

There's always time for a smile before the start.
I'm starting to see my trade mark ripped off now......

The floating start was good and wide, meaning there was no bunching. As the crowd gave the count down from the bank and the horn sounded I had plenty of room to get going without any of the usual kerfuffle. That made a pleasant change. The sun was low and blinding to the right, having started centrally I was mid-way between to arrow heads forming to either side. I headed right to get closer to the bank and increase the angle of the bank above my head, hopefully giving more shade from the sun. I slotted in behind the feet of the draft and we swam straight.
The lake was very long and thin, essentially an out, round an island then back the other way. During this time I picked up a few feet, felt like I was working hard and consistently, on the edge of being able to sustain my bi lateral breathing. That’s normally a consistent way of measuring effort. Using breath as a HR equivalent. On that basis I was happy during the swim. The island was larger than it had looked from the bank, and had been taped off in places to avoid submerged branches and debris.
Squaring up for the return leg the sun made it tricky to sight, but again it was pretty much straight which helped. About half way back the 2nd wave went past in the other direction.
For the back 800m to the pontoon I was holding fast with 2 other swimmers, with us sitting a good way off the lead pack that looked to have stayed tight through-out the 1900m and then the main bulk of the swimmers around 300m behind us. A small pod between the masses.
Exiting the run was along a jetty, round a grass corner and into T1. A pretty standard distance and set up. I glanced at my watch and it read 32min. That was an appalling time. 

I still cannot work out what happened in the swim. My last competitive swim at Dambuster was 23min to the timing mat at T1 and that is a long run. That swim was 1500m. My usual 400m time is around 5:50, and allowing for the extra the wetsuit will give me balancing out the fatigue of the extra distance swam I'd still not expect the swim to be over 29 minutes to the line. That means I lost 3 minutes at least somehow. I still don’t know how, but looking after there were a lot of slower than usual swim times, including an extra 1.5minutes over standard for the 3rd placed man overall, but still the swim went wrong somewhere. An embarrassing time. Did the sea swim the day before tire me out that much? Over 3 minutes down on the last 70.3 swim at The Grafman in May too.

A smooth and easy swim out.

T1 one bashed. Found the bike no bother, suit off and out the other side in a minute.
Onto the bike I had nutrition fully sorted, and settled pretty quick into a decent rhythm, passing a few early on as we headed out the estate and north to the coast road. 15 miles in and the first drink station was perched at the top of a stiff climb, seeing them at the top ensured a best effort including standing for the last 50m, levelling off I got cheers from friends and grabbed a drink from another friend manning the station.
The first 25 miles were all into the wind and a variety of rolling hills, with a lot of fine stones and flints on the road dumped there by wash from the rain, but the junctions were well marshalled and without incident.  This half of the ride was pretty lonely, I wasn’t passed, and I never really got sight of anyone in front.  Heading south off the coast road it turned into an 8 mile climb, gradual, steep, gradual, steep, a slight dip, but a drag and a half…
Once at the top it was down past the Sandringham estate and onto the main road as I triggered the half way timing mat. The splits were down a bit against my targets, but I knew that was the tough end of the course, and the wind had contributed. I had stuck to the plan and held HR on target throughout. The times were more than recoverable, and with that to aim for it pumped me up and I got my head down and gave the decent road surface of the long main A149 some welly. 

This had a number of long gradual climbs too, but without the wind in my face it felt easier and enjoyable. Chewing stats after the first 28miles were a 19.6mph average, but the last 28 I drove up to a 23.3mph. Pleased with that recovery.
A few of the quicker cyclists came past around 45 miles in, and I kept expecting the flood gates to open, and stronger cyclists to begin to pour past. It didn’t happen. Grabbing a bottle at the last station with 10 miles to go I was back on track and still felt strong. There was one final big climb towards the estate before entering the south gates, and heading down the long straight path past a monolith and down into dismount.

Unclipped, coming in off the bike.

Heading down the crowds had gathered, and the clapping and cheering began. The sun was out and the masses were making the most of it.
I unclipped for the line, and hopped off without issue. As I did I heard cheers from the side, glancing across I could see my parents and 2 youngest nieces shouting away enthusiastically. Jelly legs and a loss of focus and before I knew it I had tripped over the front wheel and fallen over my bike. Shoving my finger into the spokes I felt it bend back, waiting for the snap, it didn’t come, and I quickly squared myself up with nothing but embarrassment to show for the slip up, lifted the bike high in case it was damaged (to not make anything worse) and ran into T2. Just under 2hrs 40 min and a smidge over 21mph average around the course. Happy with that given how fresh I felt into the run.
Again no issues, and a feeling of satisfaction entering a 98% empty pit devoid of people or bikes. The run to my spot was a long one, but a simple bike down, helmet off, trainers on and I was out the other side and determined to try and make the run count, hitting the ground hard from the off. The timing mat bleeper recording 54 seconds. Considering the awkward prang and need to carry the bike aloft I was really chuffed with that after.
The crowds were cheering and it helped work though that first 400m as I gurned and groaned while the legs settled into their new role. 

Onto the  course and the first drink station soon appeared. I didn’t bother first time round. Down into a quick dip and then up a disgusting dirty climb that drained the legs before we even began. It didn’t look that bad from the road, but running up it, it certainly smarted. The event photographers had sadistically parked at the top of it to get the best action shots of people struggling along.

Hitting the run, feeling the burn

A slight down, and then another longer gradual climb. Awful. I was passing a few people though, and the bikes were streaming past, coming into T2 on the other side of the road. Thinking of the hill they had to climb made me smile.
Turning off the road and onto a stony track, again it was a decent climb, but now surrounded by fields it didn’t seem as bad. I regretted my trainer choice slightly, feeling a lot of the stones and uneven ground underfoot. A bit of a thicker sole would have made it more comfortable, but comfort and speed aren’t often merry bed fellows so that was never going to be the deciding factor in trainer selection.  

This path levelled off after another climb, round a bend and into a dip and the next feed station between some barns. I slowed, took on some fluids and then got the pace back up. The path headed out towards the trees, and I was aware of a big swarm of horse flies above my head. The sun was hot now, and the sweat flowed freely.
This road ran into the cool of the woods, and the drop in temperature was a relief, but the track was rough, and it was hard work to get an even footing to maintain a decent form and pace. The options were 2 deep off road tyre gouged tracks with patches of thick near black mud, or a thin, knobbly strip of patchy grass in the centre of the tracks to balance your way over. I tried all, and settled on the dirtier, but less perilous main track.
This turned down hill and through a final field before passing the camping area, high fiving the children playing on the grass and stood by their tents, and we entered the throngs of people once more, down the main road into the estate for about 400m. The crowd picked me up, and I could see my brother in the distance firing off a few sneaky shots with his grubby zoom lens. 

Better to grimace than get passed and look depressed.

Past the finishing chute, and the commentator was out on the course in full flow. That commentator being the same Kyle Campbell of my previous Red Bull Neptune Steps blog post.
I tried to hide from line of sight as I approached, using an athlete further ahead to block his view of me, but he sniffed me out instantly and the outpouring of ‘man child’ ‘junior category’ and all the usual smart alec comments ensued, so I embraced them (and loved them really), hammed it up with him, and leapt with all my might to reach his outstretched hand and slap him as I passed.
Back down the small dip to the first water station, I clocked the splits and had run the first of the 3 loops (4.4 miles) on a 6:30 min average. Given the course conditions I was really pleased with that, and still on target.
Back up the hill. Now there were a lot of runners on the course, and without the bands it would be impossible to tell at which loop people were on. The run was slower this time round, and I stalled at the 2nd water stop on this loop to take the fluid on fully. At the end of the loop I was aware I still hadn’t been passed, but my time was dropping off now. I was holding heart rate, but the speed had faded. The hills were sapping it and I was feeling the terrain underfoot.
On the positive side I was getting on a lot better than I did at The Grafman, holding greater endurance for longer. The times were down to an average of just over 7 min miles as I passed the chute for the final loop.

By the third loop I was aware of stomach cramps, but pushed on up the hill and then the next. A small amount of time spent running next to other athletes I know. As I turned the corner off the main road onto the track and the 3rd climb for the final time, I was passed by another athlete with 2 bands. The first time I had been passed on the run. I tried to wick it up and hold on to their shoulder, and succeeded for a while. 

Looking at the HR it spiked for a bit, but then died off, I was working harder than ever, but as I approached the last water station it began to drop regardless of the effort I put in and as I eased back to grab a drink the guy dropped me.
After that I couldn’t get going in the same vein again, and quickly followed that through with an involuntary wee that ran straight down my right leg and into my trainer. The rest of the run was a grim one footed squelch. Not only that, but while this is a common placed happening, the otherwise comfortable Huub suit seems to absorb the urine and rub it into the skin causing painful blisters, where other suits have never done this. Agony for a week after. Very strange.

Sarah dealing with the aftermath!

Anyway, that aside, I pressed as hard as a I could past the camping field, family and friends cheered, my Mum encouraging my nieces to clap,  more high 5’s to the children on the sides as I passed, and down the red carpet to finish in 4hrs 50min, 26th/1200 overall, and 6th/210 in my age group. If that guy hadn't passed me in the last 3 miles it would have been 5th. If I hadn't had the worst swim of my life it would have been 4th.... could of, would of, should of. That's racing, and I'm content with the result.
The overall time was slow, but that was reflected in everyone’s times given the physically tough nature of the course, and the results are a great improvement on where I have been. The running fading much later than previously, and giving me a good indication that the training is delivering in the needed areas.

Finding the line.

 I took advantage of the free massage after, headed to the food tent and chewed over the course with other finishers while eating a really decent post race spread. A couple of cups of tea later and I was ready to collect kit and pack the car. We enjoyed a picnic and cheered in Katie who completed it in a very respectable 6hrs 15min, then headed for home.
I haven’t fully decided yet if it was the rarity of a nice warm day this summer, the atmosphere, venue, or a mix of all of the above, but I haven’t enjoyed a race so much for a long time, feeling mentally strong through out - this might just be my new favourite course.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Dambuster Olympic

Dambuster. Maybe it's just because I'm a Woodhall lad, and that's also  the home of the infamous 617 Dambuster Squadron, but this is a race I have come to love, and regardless of the overall years plan it's still a must on the race calendar.

This time last year I had just finished the Dambuster Olympic and walked away with a great time, a top Age Group Position, a top 30 finish overall and an offer of a place at the ITU World Championships in Chicago. A real high point of 2015.

Until last weekend that was the last Olympic Distance I had competed in, having totally pursued long course since. So here I was rocking back up at a great national event, with a full year between the 2 and nothing to measure myself against in-between. To be fair, I had geared my year around that race a fair bit in 2015, but this year was meant to be for fun, a good performance required, but essentially for the sheer love of the sport.

Also for the first time in 3 years I didn’t book a hotel. We decided to camp, and Sarah, having been completely devoured by gnats and midges on a few separate occasions last year veto’d attending, so Ella & myself packed up the car and headed over Friday night to pitch up on the side of Rutland water alongside other enthusiast racers who had travelled down the night before. We picked up a fellow Louth Tri Member who was competing in as relay team, and looking for a PB on the 10k run, the journey down whipped past nattering about everything tri.
Ella, set up and on the all important tea duty.
Pitching up next to family, Miriam found her team and disappeared off with a tent under her arm, while we brewed up and listened to the nervous ramblings of my almost Sister in Law who was here to race her first standard distance, and in true Ball (to be in October) style put her neck on the block and registered her attempt to Q for Mexico. Why not!

Camping is always a risk, but with a 7am start with a near 2hr drive meaning leaving at 4am to get there in time to register and rack I decided to chance. It’s the trade off between a potentially worse night’s sleep, or a comfy bed, but getting up ridiculously early. Camping was only for athletes, and I was surprised as we settled down how many seemed to linger outside, talking, playing ridiculous music and drinking into the night when they clearly had to be up so early and performing at their best. We were glad around midnight when it rained and drove them to their beds.

 I don’t give out negative reviews or critism easily, but I feel compelled to say that the campsite was a big disappointment. The toilets were a long way off, basically the event portaloos. To boot, the majority were locked, only a few available for use, and then the cold outside tap to get some water was in another random unmarked location. And that was it, for £17.50. That coupled with the discovery that although I had been told while booking over the phone that parking was included in that price (usually £5) only to be informed on arrival it was not, so actually costing £22.50 left a very bitter taste.  A persistant stance at the camp sign in / watersports centre desk  meant I got the parking validated for free, and some small recompense, but Anglian Water showed themselves up to be greedy and lazy. PaceSetter, the event organisers can’t help this set up, but if you are thinking of camping there, I would say spend an extra few quid and get a B&B nearby. They will at least look after you.

 So onto the important stuff. The race.
5am, some last minute adjustments and setting up.
 Awake early, time spent going through the kit, readying the bike, and playing through times and stats, writing key data on the back of the hand.

 Bike racked, I ran into an old school friend that has got into the sport over the last few years, and it was good to see him set up and ready to give his best. Race briefing, and count downs, before I knew it we were all rubbered up and down by the shore.
Bumping into an old school mate using this as a warm up for his
Sundowner 70.3 in September. Good Luck Reece.
We got to watch the first wave start, and the adrenalin began to flow in anticipation of the next 2hrs. It was time to focus and get a handle on that, save it burning me out too early.

 Once wave 1 had gone the area filled up with a multitude of familiar faces. For what is becoming such a popular sport it amazes me how small the regular crowd of competitive athletes are. Everyone mumbling hellos, understated nods and side glaces, trying to measure the form of those around them, and recall their form based on the doubtless hours of online stalking, rummaging through race stats/results and social media info to get an insight into everyone elses  current strengths, weakness and goals. Sarah is adamanat we are all crazed stalkers, and this is a pre-requisite for serious competition, in that it should almost be a part of the entry process. I can see it on the BTF ITU Registration form now :

  • Q6 : Joe Bloggs has moved to the region, he is a known capable Regional Class Cyclist, and has registered for all the major events in the region, but little else is known about his tri’athletic prowess. Explain in no more than 600 words how you would go about assessing his form, and what you would do with that information?”. 
I bet most people reading this would think, well that’s an easy question…. Well that’s the point, it is…. but it shouldn’t be, and it isn’t to most of the normal functioning population – so congratulations, if you just answered that, you are clearly a dedicated racer…..

Anyway, back to the race. All this serious last minute prep and assessment always brings out the child in me. The stern faces, the posturing and macho crap that abound make me go the other way, and I start prattling about, smiling, waving, pointing, chatting and generally annoying those around me.
Messing about seconds from the off.....
“30 Seconds, the next sound you hear will be the starting horn” comes the tanoy announcement. Everything goes quiet and tense. I start my watch 10 seconds out and begin the count down in my mind.

Claxon sounds, BOOM, and the familiar rush to the water begins. I get a good start, push hard and the fastest guys start trickling past. I grab a series of feet to draft off, some are too much, and I lose them, but eventually I settle on the back of a Huub clad athlete with a ferocious kick that turns the green hue of the water around me a frothy white. I latch on and go with him. This tactic certainly improves my pace, but it soon becomes apparent he is terrible at sighting and swimming in a straight line. I intermittently leave his trail as he zig zags about, and eventually, as we turn the first bouy he swings wide, and I drop him, not on speed, but by simply getting my head regularly out the water and making sure I’m pointing at the next bouy. I pick up a few more guys by working hard to catch a group ahead and again draft with them. By the seconds bouy I lose them, and the flavour of the swim is served at that point. Intermittent drafting opportunities, and longer periods of solo efforts, slogging to work to the back of the main front pack about 20 seconds ahead.

No excuses at the start. Hard and fast from the off.......
......swiftly followed by a dodgy dive/fall !!

The way the swim worked cost me about 30 seconds on my target overall, but it was a solid effort and I was happy to get out and enjoy the run down the chute into transition in just under 23 minutes.
The wetsuit was down on the run and off the legs as soon as I found my spot. Helmet on, bike grabbed and out the other side. An efficient and no hassle transition.

On the bike it’s a bit of a meander out the park with a slight climb and then onto the road. It proved a windy start that required some hard work. I tried to get my head down, back flat and began eating away at a few of the back markers from the wave in front. I wasn’t being passed, and holding steady against the respective athletes dotted in front from my wave.  The first climb warmed the legs, and I settled into the rhythm, taking on fluids as required to keep fresh.

Having done the course a few times, and Olympic distance now being pretty much a training distance the miles soon got eaten up, and I reflected on the first few standard distances I completed and how tiring I felt them and how challenging they were. It is funny how things change over time, and I enjoyed seeing people out on the course giving it their all, some on bikes that were clearly the ride of a first timer, but also clearly loving it.

Just over half way round there’s a particularly big climb, which I stood up on and ground out. I focused on training I have been doing at this point ready for the hilly course in Austria, and while the splits on the back of my hand were indicating the wind had certainly slowed me up compared to last year I felt a lot stronger on the hill than I have done previously, and it was good to reach the top where there is always a collective group of sadist spectators enjoying the sight of suffering athletes as they crest the climb, and be able to look them in the eye with a flat stare, not the usual heaving chest and weak legs!

From there the road rolled through a few villages and climbed back to the main road that eventually turned for the last few villages and 1 final nasty sharp climb, before it was back into the park. About 8 miles out I decided to take on a caffine loaded gel to pick me up for the run. I had been feeling a bit fatigued and decided it would help. I had taped an SIS gel to the stem, but hadn’t paid attention to the flavour. It was cappuccino. Squeezing it into my mouth wasn't pleasant. I needed the hit, but no pun intended – that one wasn’t my cup of tea! I’ll stick to what I know in future I think.

Dismount and through T2 without any issue I was disappointed in my bike times, I could see I had dropped about 4 minutes, which is unacceptable, and a huge margin, and had gone from the 23mph that I have hit round that course before to 21.5mph. Looking back afterwards the conditions of the day probably accounted for a couple of those minutes, but with another few to account for I have been honest and on reflection come to the conclusion that with all my training being for a long focus there probably just isn’t that raw thumping  power delivery  there at the moment that is needed to empty the tank over the 2hrs of an Olympic distance. When all the A races are about 4+hrs it becomes a different animal, and that change in focus shows up with me when racing across differing distances. The depth isn’t there (yet). On a positive note it is good to see this effect, and gives me something to work on over the winter depending on which way I decide to go with 2017.

 So onto the run, it wasn’t too hot, and I settled quickly into a sustainable pace, remembering to press a bit harder every couple of hundred meters to ensure I wasn’t easing off. Just shy of 2k in the lead athlete passed me on the way back in, at which point I began counting as a few more passed, ready to shout data at others that I knew were ahead, so they had some info on where they stood relative to the leader to give them something to work against.
A great photo from Ella as I settle in on the run.
Around 3.5k in I realised that I hadn’t seen a friend from Lincoln in my Age Group that I knew was keen to beat me this year. He has been working hard with this as his A race focus to Q for Mexico at the World Champs, and I had hoped to pass him on the bike. Always a quicker swimmer I would previously have taken him at around mile 10 on the bike, but hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him throughout the last 1hr 40min, and started looking out for him passing the other way, trying to see what kind of gap he had held on me, and if there was any hope of clawing it back over the run. It was something to work on and it upped my pace, focusing my mind.

Waiting, and waiting for the pass but it didn’t come. I couldn’t get my head round it as I went round the cone at the turning point, my first thought was surely Jp isn’t that far ahead? It seemed the only explanation and I was pretty demoralised if I am honest. That was until about 750m back the other way  &I passed him on his outward leg. Genuinely surprised we nodded, and I blurted out “I’m not sure how that’s happened” to which he replied “Me either”. He said after he was waiting for the pass at any point on both the bike and the run. According to the stats I passed him on the bike, but neither of us saw each-other and both would expect to spot each other, and be actively looking out for one another. A very strange quirk of the race.

 After that it gave me the impetus to push a bit harder and hold the gap. I never saw Jp again, but am really pleased to say he took Qualification with his time none the less, not far behind at all in the end, and a huge dent on previous margins. On another day, another course there’d be a really close battle to be had now. I look forward to that down the line.

Along the dam, over the rolling grass and into the finish straight. Big cheers from fellow club atheltes, friends and most importantly Ella, who had got herself in prominent spots and cheered her head off, and shouted splits and times at me through out the day. She fired the camera and I crossed the line. 
Hitting the home straight.
After the race we stuck about to cheer on fellow club members, particular highlights being Katie completing her first Olympic distance just 2 weeks ahead of her first half Iron, and then  Laura forming the swim leg of a relay team taking second placed team over all. A fantastic result, with a strong swim/bike and run split through out. A partial podium for Louth at least! Then finally, but certainly not least Miriam took a fantastic PB on the run leg of her relay team, before going off and doing a second 10k race as a pacer the next day!!  Great results all round.
Post race with Laura and Katie.
Afterwards we went to load up the tent, only to be gratefully surprised that Ella and my brother had used their time while we were out on the bike wisely, and everything was packed and sorted ready to dash after the race. Thanks! You saved some tired legs doing some unwelcome work.

And so that was Dambuster 2016. Not my best result, 12th in my age group out of 158. Could certainly have been better, but I have to be pragmatic and accept that last year here was a big focus and I was wired to the mains for it. If I can gear up in the same way for Austria then I will be laughing, and it gives practical substance to the value and importance of ‘peaking’ in your training plan.
Dambuster remains my favourite course.






Thursday, 21 April 2016

Red Bull Neptunes Steps.

What can I say about this one!!?! Certainly not a blog I thought I would have the pleasure of writing.

Before we start be warned its a long one,  but I loved this race. It was personal. And this is my personal record of it. 
The journey to this event really started last year. About a week after the inaugural event, after all the press and videos came out I got a flurry of social media posts/shares and comments on the various marketing material that Red Bull had put out, with the general thrust being ‘Hey Martin, definitely one for you’.
I had a good look over it and had to admit from the off it looked pretty juicy. That said I could also see there was only 200 slots total, and even in its first incarnation it was stuffed full of quality athletes. I kept it in the back of my mind along with a pinch of realism that told me not to bother getting my hopes up about getting into this one.
At the end of last year the media hype started again, and once more the gradual trickle of nods, winks and nudges towards it from friends/fellow athletes and so forth started. The usual furore from a wider crowd shouting about  along the lines of ‘yeah definitely, I’m doing that too’…. a bit of quiet research quickly told me that there was a fairly strong chance none of us were.
Out of every one of the numerous initially keen entrants I have to apportion the full credit for me getting in to fellow triathlete and training partner Olly. He surprised me at the time, he really ran with enthusiasm for the event form the off – the notion of it totally gripping him. Insisting several times we try and get in, and sending me constructive links for registration and the race requirements.
What I appreciated most about that was that I know that the person pushing others to get stuck in is normally me.  As I have aged I have increasingly tired of trying to whip up people and motivate them to engage in, and do (what I perceive as exciting) stuff. Previously that enthusiasm would often railroad people into getting involved, and they are always super chuffed to have done it after the event, but I have learnt to tread my own path, and not waste time on those who do not a; reciprocate or b; likewise invest the same enthusiasm back towards me – instead spending my time around those that do. Olly really delivered on that score, and the whole event was consequently extremely enjoyable. Not having to remind/cajole/enthuse and motivate other entrants to the event  made a refreshing change.
So, forms filled in and submitted – bang on the second that registration opened. I mean literally the second it opened. Alarms had been set and laptops were out, ready to pounce. We sent in our details. Paid the registration fee and waited.  200 places….. and approx. 100+ of them pre designated to full time professional swimmers/triathletes and the like.  I didn’t much fancy the odds.
I cracked on with the day, trying not to inbox watch. Let’s just say that failed. Soon enough the email popped up and I opened it. A low key confirmation of my registration, and a couple of lines that said matter of factly at the end ‘You’re in’. No more. A muffled whoop to an empty room, and a pretty big jiggle of delight to myself to celebrate. At this point I decided it might be a good idea to let Sarah know I was thinking of entering, so I casually sent through the confirmation email to her with a tsunami sized level of enthusiasm and excitement. Confident it could wash aside any worry or reservation that I knew she would try her best to surpress. I think it worked….. Then I thought ‘oh bugger, Olly will be miffed’. Seconds later he text through his confirmation. Couldn’t believe it – we were both in.
From that point on Red Bull did an incredible job of keeping everything very mysterious and hushed up. Another email confirming the dates,  and a warning to keep your eye out for more info to follow - it wasn’t until a week before the day that any more info & the start lists were sent over, and the heat times designated. I have to say, I really enjoyed the way it was put together. Register – Race a month later, and all kept quiet to the 11hr. No messing, no months of hype. Just a bish-bash-bosh. It really made for a snappy high pitched build up on the enthusiasm‘ometer.
A couple of weeks before I then also found out that another friend had winged an entry courtesy of the fact he is a well known commentator for numerous tri events around the Country, and via this path had secured one of the additional 12 places designated for reporters. That, and possibly the fact that Kyle is a very capable and talented athlete/swimmer who also happened to be able to report on the event for 24/7 Tri magazine meant the Shire had 3 representatives.  Just shy of a massive 1.5% of the overall field. We were definitely flying the flag.
Going through the starters in the wave, I kept turning up quality after quality after quality athlete. There is always normally the belief that you can really do well at an event, and the pressure that brings. This time there was NONE. Looking at the times, the pedigree and the calibre of athletes down next to my name on that bit of paper clearly confirmed I was going for the experience. I was willingly driving a 500 mile round trip for a Red Bull Neptunes Steps swim cap.  You have to understand that swim caps are not universally liked in our house. They seem to find themselves everywhere…. cupboards, draws, on top of wardrobes, bags and bags of them in the loft. They have been used to wrap and store stuff in the freezer before now, & I think I’ve seen a few under the sofa and behind the telly. So Yay! Another swim cap on its way back to Louth.

About a week before and all I'd received was this nifty box
with a bit of info and some red bull in.
1 rule they had warned us about. Footwear was mandatory.
Flourescent pink verucca socks obviously then.

With that realisation that no amount of training, (and how the hell do you train for this anyway?? – cargo nets in ponds and all manner of stupid plans were discussed and rejected) would influence the results I cracked on as usual with my Tri season program.
Soon enough we were heading to Glasgow. Staying at a friend’s house near Edinburgh (really appreciated) for the night, we arrived to a voice message from Kyle that seriously stoked the fires of expectation. He was a dribbling, frothing, raving mess of excitement for the course and the event, having spent the day lock side watching athletes pose for photos and test out the course. He agreed with, and enforced the reality we shared, that we were making up the numbers to keep the event real, and seem achievable to the masses come the post event analysis. Regardless, it was clearly going to be fun!

Kyles ultimate voice message of enthusiasm here...

Pre race tea. A suitably fishy affair.
Up early. Breakfast was a pre prepared race day juice and some home-made ‘Balls’ made up of various nuts & seeds etc. It soon had me bouncing off the walls and the nervous poo’s from the ongoing adrenalin overdose kicked in.
Breakfast time. Ramping up on energy and caffeine.
Parking was non existent, but we arrived early enough to be able to grab a slot roadside, right next to the lock system. Being early always has its advantages.  I went straight to the portaloo's and had another dump, before meeting with Kyle and walking the course. It was a bright sunny day, some athletes were milling around and there was an expectant buzz in the air. The water was clearly cold and dark and immediately it was clear where Kyles prior excitement had come from. This looked tough. We assessed the obstacles and discussed tactics.

From near the start the canal ran high over an aquaduct.
Uphill off in the distance gate 1 of 8 and eventually the finish line.
Representing The Shire. Kyle. Olly. Myself.
(And my lucky open water race bathrobe)

A flavour of the obstacles before us.

Basically the only thing that mattered. The Blue Carpeted RB Archway.
And tickets hanging under it to get you to the next round...

Finally, the course map.

On arrival Red Bull were still setting up. You could get all over the course without restriction. It really was a refreshing method of running an event. Bung it up last minute, start a bit later, and then pack it all away and clear off quick. We chatted with one of the course designers.  He explained that it had cost a fortune to design the climbs up the locks with them being a listed structure – they couldn’t drill, screw, modify or damage the locks in any way so had to design a series of special braces that fitted around the locks to hold the obstacle securely under the pressure of the water and frenzy of scrambling athletes as they hurried up them. Knowing this tit-bit of info made it all the more fascinating to study the set up as we kept treading the bank up and down combing over the race before us. Initial bit of course assessment video below.

So, 5 heats. Luckily we were all in different waves. Olly was first to the holding pen, and missed the opportunity to see any racing before he set off.  Time frames just allowed myself and Kyle grab the first race and get a feel for the day. The crowds had gathered, the sun was out, the commentators hyping everyone up now in full flow and suddenly the claxon sounded. Race 1 underway….
The first athletes from wave 1 hit the first net.
It was clear from the off that 32 people charging down a confined channel was going to be the pinch point. A quick get away was clearly the order of the day in my mind. We followed the lead few as they leapt from lock to lock, and assessed the different techniques for negotiating the climbs. As predicted these boys were quick, and I smiled and thought ‘I’ll enjoy this’.
At the top I caught Olly heading down to the start just as I went in to get prepped for my wave. We traded some quick observations on the first wave and he was gone.
The next 30 mins involved sitting in the tent, hearing the screams and battle cries of those in the mix outside, as we were given the briefing ,safety, and race regulation chat.
The rules were simple. 32 swimmers in my wave. Swim 420m uphill through a series of lock gates using the obstacles provided as fast as you can. Not technically a contact sport, any  unreasonable/unsporting behaviour would result in a DQ. At the end there would be 10 flags hanging from a trident under the Red Bull inflatable arch. First 10 to grab them progressed to the next round. Simple.
We were led down the far side of the canal system, opposite the baying crowds. As we walked I saw Olly swim past in the penultimate lock. Knowing his stroke well I could see he was exhausted. The crowd and the commentators roaring at the swimmers to push harder.  I couldn’t quite see, but I got the feeling he was just about on the edge of getting through. He definitely looked wrecked.
Just before the start line there’s a secondary briefing that double checked we were all who we said we were, and finally we were heading down to begin. A diverse looking group of swimmers, but all kitted out it was impossible to tell who was who, and who knew what.
Down on the start line, the bank, a pontoon and a cold dark lock. Looking uphill (the only time I’ll look uphill in a swim I reckon) the crowd were staring and cheering down. I zoned out and focused on the job in hand. Drawing on experience from countless other races I tried to visualise the race before me. The horn. The commotion. Recalling that explosive feeling in my lungs, chest, arms, legs at the reality of a mass start. Preparing the body and mind.

Easy to spot pink socks. We prepare to get in.

There was an insane level of posturing from the athletes around me. Stretching off. Arm waving, leg extensions. The marshall’s gave the first call ‘12mins to start’. During this time at the start we had been advised we could get in and ‘warm up’ as required.  I stood and watched as others jumped and dived in. They started sprinting up and down the small stretch at the start to phyc out the rest of us. At this point I started to see some hope in my endeavours to progress. Maybe an outside glimmer of a chance I might grab the 9th or 10th flag purely on experience and a winter of ice swimming holding me in good stead against the cold.
A few of the early dippers climbed out “ohh its cold. My lips have gone numb” one bloke declared. Clearly not a seasoned open water swimmer.  I continued to sit and watch the myriad of preparation techniques around me. The race plan was firmly formulated in my mind now based on a rolling assessment of the competitors around me…
I eased into the water. It was cold, but nothing to write home about. 7 degrees maybe. The suit more than made up for the chill on the body, and my hands and feet couldn’t have cared less. I put in a few 10 metre lengths, form, sprint, form, sprint. “1min”.
Heart in my mouth from the adrenalin and the taste of the lock, I deliberately swam as slowly as I needed to be last back to the line.  This parked me firmly at the front.
“5..4..3..2…1  ‘HURRRRRRRR…’.

Last 30 seconds.....
That familiar explosion of madness around me. Head down I surged forward, arms wheeling wide and fast to keep people away and create some space. Kicking like a maniac, the usual clawing of hands at my ankles as people jockied for position.  Gasping for breath, then head back to the dark void below. Some faster athletes whip past. I tried to draft, aware of 2 others giving it everything to my left, battling it out. Every breath to that side giving me a surreal stop motion type glimpse on their own NS experience.
I desperately wanted to reach the first obstacle quickly. All out effort for the first 165m to achieve that aim. I'd worry about the rest of the swim after I'd got to the top of the net.
The lock kept everyone shoulder to shoulder. I knew I was centre middle, slightly ahead of the front pack. As the gates grew closer the old brick sides of the lock loomed higher. I could just about hear voices high above me cheering and baying as we approached the net. The madness echoing and ringing against the high brick walls and water around me. It was like swimming into Mordor, the thunder of the water coming through the gate getting louder as I approached. The counter current hadn’t been noticeable down at the start, but from about 10m to the net it increased exponentially with every stroke. This was a steep learning curve and within seconds it was apparent that the only way to attack each obstacle was going to be swim head long at it until you banged into it. If you eased off the current pushed you back.
Suddenly the cargo net is in my hand. The force of the water in the face surprisingly strong. Getting a breath was impossible. Hanging on here, after a flat out sprint, 2 hands on a net and gallons of water being thrust in your face. People around you, in front of you, behind you all grasping for position. It was difficult to stay calm. No hamming it up, no bullshit. That first second or 2 hanging there was tough. Every logical part of your brain is saying ‘let go, swim back, get your breath’. Suppressing  the urge to back off I took a chance and realised that if I breath into a jet of water with my lips pursed and teeth gritted I will swallow a lot of water, but I will just about get enough air in there too to make progress. Not ideal.
Athletes clinging to the net for dear life.
All the while I'm also discovering I cant get my feet in the net because it doesn’t go into the water. It stops level with the surface and is being pulled and yanked about by those around me. Desperate for air,  I wedged my knee in the bottom loop to get purchase and hauled myself from the froth. People all around me, I could see people below me. Once bloke choking to my left.  I shot up the rope as quick as my body would allow. At this point it became apparent that’s where I would make up ground. Light and nimble was certainly preferable to the more traditional big bulky swimmers bodies around me struggling to firstly heave their frames out the water against the flow, and then find momentum up the nets. What I lost in pace I would make up for in the climbs as best I could.
At the top I was taken aback by not only how out of breath I was, but how much my muscles already ached. No time to dwell on that. Over the top.  Head down. Dive. Max pace again….. A straight forward rope climb.  Surprisingly hard having given so much already.
Out. Dive. The water slapping my face I distinctly remember feeling dizzy at this point, arms/legs/lungs all burning from the effort. Again at the next lock, walls loomed cold and forbidding. I could see people at the top of the side of the wooden ladder on the banks cheering and clapping encouragement to find a way to get going. And that was the hard bit. Every time. Tired arms. Nowhere to get purchase with the feet. A brutal dead weighted heave against the force of the water pushing you back down. Cold, numb, wet hands to raise yourself up and find that all important  foothold. Water thumping into your face, unrelenting, to deprive you of much needed oxygen. Confusion doesn’t even begin to describe it.  I might sound like I wasn’t enjoying it here. The reality was there was a lot of pain and discomfort but the adrenalin and abstraction of where I found myself gave a complete thrill and I embraced it with pleasure.
Rope Climb. I adopted a 2 rope approach at this point. Rather than one hand over the other as before  I had arrived at this 3rd rope alone, and out of desperation, genuinely unsure where the strength was coming from to overcome it off the back of the last 2, grabbed one rope in each arm and performed a kind of chin up. Slightly different muscle groups firing. Up we went…
Kyle dominating the ladders.
Fireman style.
Swim. This breaking of the pace to punish the arms and legs with a climb really didn’t help momentum.
Rope Ladder.  Swim.
Rope Climb. Urgh.
At this point the dive off the top led into a lock called ‘The Basin’. The broadest and deepest of all of the bays of water the next obstacle was a barge moored in the middle. Pull yourself onto that, climb up and throw yourself off the top. Given the height no diving allowed. From up there was the first real chance I had to assess where I was. I had been so focused on simply giving it my best and taking it all in that I hadn’t processed where those around me really were. I felt quite a novice in this respect as I have never been bad at having a reasonable awareness of where I’m sitting in the field. From the top of the barge I could finally see the finish line 2 locks up, and some swimmers at the obstacle in front, but not that many.  Was I that far behind?

No diving allowed. A knee bomb off the barge then.
Pedal to the metal I launched off the barge and forgot to close my legs tight. The force of the water as I entered winded me from the ‘man zone’ up, and I gasped for air as I came up. No time to enjoy the pain,
I swam for my life to the climbing wall. Wet and slippy it required a more haste less speed approach, pressing the body close to the wall to avoid slipping off. Over the top. A good clean dive to loads of cheers from the surrounding masses, and the final rope climb.

Final dive from the final rope climb. Pleased to hold form.
Once that was done I could see the finish line and also through the misted up goggles a couple of people crossing the line grabbing tickets… Could there be some left? All I knew was I had to make myself proud so diving back in I kicked like billio, arms clawing at the water for home.
Blue carpet beneath me. Hands on the deck. Knees.  Feet. Loads of tickets left. Unbelievable.
Strolling to the line I was 4th home. Mind blown.
I laid down and recovered and processed the situation, watching much better swimmers come over the line behind me and joined in the cheering as they battled over the line for the last few places. In reality all this was only seconds behind me, and it was frantic. Getting ahead early and the advantage on the climbs had given me just enough. The out and out pool swimmers had struggled in the cold, those not used to the more physical start shying off from the battle. The line up for the next round was nearly exclusively triathletes, and serious professional open water swimmers – most of these swimmers had very decent ASA rankings too, but the pool swimmers who had no previous pedigree outdoors had become an endangered species now.
Kyle had likewise made it to the next round, and as we prepared we discussed tactics. He remained convinced that the race started for him after the first climb. A fireman by trade he is used to scaling things in difficult circumstances, and where as I believed in a hell for leather start he was happy to hang back and ease into it. I knew he was quicker than me in the water, and looking around at the situation we found ourselves in I honestly couldn’t believe I’d bagged a second go on the course. No chance of getting to the final. No chance. Kyle maybe, an outside one…
The semi final & wave one were soon on their way.  This gave us time to recover and prepare. Go through the next briefing and be led down.  There was definitely nobody messing about in this wave. All around me the competitors seemed like man mountains. A ridiculously obvious contrast in size. This race was a bonus, and all I had to do was give it everything to do the best I could. Swim like I’ve never swum, climb like I’ve never climbed. Don’t finish last and don’t cross the line even able to breath or move unassisted. A simple plan.
Getting in was different this time. Nobody dived in early. People found their way a few minutes before, some warm up meterage. We all knew what was coming. Everyone wanted it. That was for sure.
“3….2…1….. BOOM”. Here we go again. Frantic doesn’t come close.  I had been floating next to Kyle and surged ahead as planned. People were passing me a lot quicker this time as we settled in, at a fraction of the turn over rate given their size, and I worked hard to hang on to the back of a leading pack. The breathing was a desperate ‘every 2’. Around 100m in Kyle pulled alongside, he was close to the wall, sticking to his plan that it was better to hit the side of the net where the flow was less and there should be less competition to get on the ropes. I could see his paddle sized hands clawing at the water and his distinctive style as he eased passed me with every kick to present me with his feet as the channel closed in again on the approach to the net. He got some more meters on me and disappeared from view. As I approached the climb I looked up to see a mass of bodies ahead of me. It was 3 deep in men.

Video of the start. Kyle snug to the wall, me slightly ahead with pink feet in the middle. What's amazing watching back is how calm and serene it all seems. It certainly didn't feel like it from under the water.
My next move was probably the easiest tactical racing decision I made all day. It was more than clear as I hit the net that I was about 15 to 18th. If I hang back and wait my turn at the net like some one them seemed to be doing I wasn’t getting through. I also wouldn’t have been able to honestly tell myself I had given my best. OK, pushing through was going to be contact, but it made more sense to risk a DQ for sheer effort than fail through in-action.
(The video above shows Kyle, still on the inside, with a slightly pink under-hat reaching the net way before me. My only option to plough through the gap. I struggled to get my footing at this point, but once it was in I was away...)
And so I ploughed on through the guys in front of me, swimming clean over a couple of them, reaching over another's shoulders to grasp at the climb. I found a hold on the net, and got some space. It seemed to take for ever to get my feet in, but once I had, I scrabbled up with everything I could muster.  It was clear from those around me that I had made some good ground, but that they would soon be back past in the swim. Every obstacle had to count. Again I had no idea exactly where I sat, but had a feeling that I was knocking on the door of the 10th spot and a possible place in the final. I decided run with that thought to motivate my best effort, and hope to hang on by the skin of my teeth.
And that’s what I did. Right until the ropes at loch gate 6 I could see I was closing on 2 guys battling in front of me. I was relatively alone, but could also  see plenty of swimmers well ahead. The next obstacle was the barge, a chance to assess where I sat. As I climbed the rope at gate 6 I became aware of 2 swimmers behind me.
Dive in. Swim. I mean really swim.
Just as I hit the barge the 2 that were behind me draw level. Crap. I have to up my game, I really do have to give everything now. There isn’t a lot left. Arms and legs feel like lead. I gain a precious couple of meters on the guys at my sides by the time I reach the top of the barge. I don’t look below, no care if theres swimmers down beneath me. I just hurl myself off as far out as I can possibly muster. BOOM. That familiar contrast of blackness prickled with the light dancing off the confusion of bubbles around me.
Climbing wall now. Again these 2 are level. They are making ground every time. I stay calm, get a grip and climb. Quickly but calmly. I haven’t made as much on them as I’d like this time. This is getting serious and is going to be close. Who wants it more? How much do they hurt? We will soon find out.
Scampering up the climbing wall
A fellow athlete struggling to get grip

Sprinting for the final rope climb, then hardest of them all. One man to my left. Another to my right. They have scissored either side of me. 4 ropes. 3 men.
They each grab their respective edge ropes. Leaving 2 free in the middle. I decide to chance it, grabbing one in each hand like before, instantly yanking myself up – I could feel my biceps close to tearing with the effort. At the top I was slightly ahead again. Completely exhausted I stumbled over the top of the gate and dived as best I could.
A good dive bought valuable seconds.
As I came up I felt the wash of the 2 behind me as they surfaced their hands just off my feet.  I could see the line. I was over the limit now and imploding fast. I heard myself growling – my body’s go to response to an excessive effort to try and distract me from the pain. Growling ferociously I knew now there was nothing else I could do but maintain this. The maximum delivery of effort was certainly being given. Everything hurt, everything was screaming for more oxygen as the muscles burned. Bang. Bang. Bang. Hurling my arms over my head for the next stroke. I could keep trying to describe how this felt, but it would be pointless. 
It seemed an eternity, but within seconds the blue carpet was beneath me. As I looked up the 2 I had closed in on earlier grabbed tickets. There were still 2 left. I couldn’t believe it. I could still here the 2 behind me, they were about to climb out. Up to my feet and a final sprint to the trident. Grasping that ticket to leave the last one hanging was a feeling beyond compare. A true highlight in my athletic endeavours. A wash of elation and emotion came over me, I let out a satisfied cry. Seconds later I collapsed, like a crumpled wrung out stinky old dishcloth, devoid of any ability to move my arms and legs. Laid on the carpet, breathing like a dying dog. Coughing up manky Glaswegian canal water. Couldn’t have been happier. Eventually I opened my eyes, Olly cheering me from the gantry above. Kyle stood by my feet. Turns out he had been one of the 2 closing me down in the back half, after I had leap frogged him at the first net. He had missed out on the last ticket by a second. Gutted for him for a split second at least, I was ushered to my feet and sent to the tent for the finalists briefing.
Destroyed. But in the final.
Never in a million years expecting to be here. 1 of 20 in the final, I had genuinely given so much just to get here I could not comprehend how I would even make it through the course again, let alone compete. I had about 10 minutes to work something out.
Instead I just decided to savour it. Sat in the tent talking and joking with the other finalists. Most of them laughing at my bright pink socks. Turns out people under 30 don’t seem to know what Verucca socks are, let alone that they came in fluorescent pink. All I knew was my footwear cost £1 (including postage) from China on ebay, they were all in specialist neoprene swim socks – heavier, bulkier and about £50 a pair. That was my outright win of the day.
We walked down. The crowd louder and more hyped than ever. I could see Olly and Kyle cheering and waving from the far bang.
20 finalists. 19 giants. 1 man-child. No prises for guessing who's who...
In the water, about to start. I already felt tired. Time to forget that. Based on where I finished to get here I fully expected to be last.
Phenomenal support from the crowds through out.
The claxon sounds again. Again we are off. This is becoming a habit. Once more I had manged to get to the front of the start, and was giving it everything from the off. Treating this first 165m like a 25m sprint, hanging on for dear life and seeing what happened is all I could do. Everyone stormed past, and they weren’t even trying.  Looking back on the videos after you can clearly see they are doing 1 stroke to my 3. The difference in ability at this stage in the game was incredible. An absolute chasm.
I tried to up the pace, pulling across to catch a draft as a swimmer came past. Timing it just wrong, tired & too keen to get a tow I took the full force of his heel in my face. Bashing my cheek bone and dislodging my goggles. Knocking the wind out my sails. I attempted to defy the laws of nature an not breath or see, but carry on regardless…. That last about 0.5seconds. I had to sit up and quickly ajust, cough out the water I had inhaled and get back down to it. In that small time the pack was gone. They were going and disappearing fast. Long before I reached the net, I could see guys clearing off over the top.
Knowing I was at the back was somewhat liberating. There was genuinely no chance this time of anything. I could enjoy the swim. The unexpected extra turn on the course, and just try and give my best.
Me. Centre left.
At the top of the net I had closed on a few other back markers, and could hear the dulcet tones of Olly and Kyle bellowing at me to give more. “Don’t dare be last. Catch that man”. Or, abusive words to that effective. The growling by now already well established. It was becoming more of a desperate howl from my confused and flogged body.
The climbs certainly closed the gap. He and I were pretty evenly matched, and clearly he was tired. I was a bit nimbler on the climbs, him marginally faster in the swim. On the 2nd rope climb he pulled a good margin and it looked lost. I stretched out my stroke and simply kept swimming. 2 obstacles later and we were locked shoulder to shoulder once more. I noticed he would hesitate just slightly before the dive back in. Micro seconds counting I would need to make the most of even this little extra.
All this jostling spurred us both on, and I relished in the competition. It drew us closer to the next man in front. Close enough that we could almost taste him. Climbing the barge once more the noise of the crowd was insane. My arms so tired, my legs numb from the effort, the jump from the top was a best effort, but certainly didn’t have the force of the earlier efforts that had got me to this point. I could see the winner was already home and the commentators were hoarse with enthusiasm as they urged everyone to push those last few meters to completion.
On the climbing wall this time I had one of my few slips. Sheer fatigue and pressure causing a slight error that set us back level. Deep breath. Recover. Continue. Focus. Hurdling the top of the lock an advantage of all but a few cm over my fellow straggler. A battle of pride. The final climb was approaching. We remained side by side. Knowing I could sneak out the double handed climb to get a small advantage I prepared to find a deeper reserve of energy and effort than I had ever mustered before.  
Ropes grasped. Heave. Up and over. A good body length on my man now.
The unrelenting force of the water in your face.

And finally my last dive, desperate to hold form and gain ground before the finish.
At this point I swear I detached from my body. Absolutely every fibre in every muscle screaming to stop. Begging me to let them rest. I seemed to sit in my brain, but only driving this body around me  like a man controlling a machine, or driving a car, forcing it to give its best when the engine is thrashed. It's screaming for mercy, but the throttle is wrung regardless. Possibly the best analogy is when someone has a heart attack. The desperate last gasp efforts of family or first aiders gathered round - pummelling the chest and the heart of the dead man, pleading him to come back to them. That’s how I felt. Banging my body for home.
I'd been breathing over my right. Competitor on my left. I didn’t want to know where he was. This was everything and that’s all that mattered. I hit the mat and broke into a run. Over the line.
As I exited I felt him behind me. A gnats cock in it, but enough. I was last but one.  My best time of the 3 attempts in the day too. Where that came from I will never know, but job done. Best given.
I collapsed and recovered. The cameraman sticking his lens in my face.
A great end to an truly insane race. Not for the feint hearted. Not for the feeble minded. One everyone should try and enter at least once though.

Pushing some stats about after we worked out 2 random things worth sharing. The journey there and back was  a508 mile round trip. For every mile we drove I had swum 248cm. For every mile Olly travelled he had swum a mighty 82.6cm. What a ratio!!!. Even better than that, the whole day cost me £24. From entry, to swim socks, to a cup of tea out the tent after. £24 for the most unique and challenging swim race I am likely to ever do. Thank you Red Bull for laying on something truly dangerous and heart stopping, and icing that beautiful cake by also making it by far the cheapest event I have also ever had the privilege to be in.
Swim cap in hand. We packed up and went home. Happy.
Thank you for sharing this with me, feel free to check out the full album here.