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.