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.