2016 Swim/Bike/Run Plans

It's January, and the internet is groaning under the weight of blog posts setting out peoples' extravagant goals for the year, so not wanting to be left out, it's probably time to write down a few things.

Triathlon

If I was to remind you that in 2014 I raced my first sprint distance triathlon, and in 2015 my first Olympic distance race (along with several more sprints), you might - if you're familiar with triathlon distances - hazard a guess at the obvious next step.  There may be a further clue in the fact I made a point of racing a half marathon last year, as well as doing some fairly long open water swims and bike rides.

In case you haven't figured it out, my main aim for the year is to get a half-ironman distance triathlon - 1900m swim, 90km bike, 21km (half-marathon) run - under my belt.  Lower-case 'i' deliberate, because it's not going to be with 'Ironman' trademark owners WTC - much as the 70.3 Staffordshire race is fairly local, I can live without £200+ entry fees for now.  That said, I have actually spent £200+ on entries - but I've signed up for two events.

The first is the OSB Events 'Outlaw Half' in Nottingham on 29 May.  Close to home and one of the bigger non-WTC events in the UK with something like 1400 entrants.  I raced, and enjoyed, their sprint triathlon organised as part of the same weekend last year. The second is the 113 Events Cotswold Classic on the 21st of August.  Conveniently close to my parents house, and apparently a fairly fast/flat/easy course - so in a way it's something of a backup policy in case the Outlaw Half doesn't turn out how I want it to.

I've already run down the Outlaw Half finishing chute.  I've only got to go about four and a half times further to do it again.  Should be easy right?

So how do I want it to turn out?  Well, finishing is obviously a first priority, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about times.  I think I should be able to get under six hours.  If I manage to hit that at the Outlaw, I'll come up with a new target for the Cotswold Classic.  Otherwise, I'll just hope that the fast course and a few more months training makes the difference.

I'm also intending to race the Nottingham Uni Varsity sprint tri again this year (24 April).  Partly because it falls conveniently about a month before the Outlaw Half, and I think a bit of reminder of how to put my shoes on quickly would be good, but also because it was a really fun race last year.

Running

I'll be book-ending the triathlon season with a couple of running races (if you'd suggested to me a couple of years ago that this would be the case, I'd probably have laughed at you).  To get things started, I'll be doing the Bath Half-marathon on 13 March - mostly to give a bit of focus to working on my running over the winter.  After my infuriating 2h00m12s at the Severn Bridge Half last year, I would have said (a couple of months ago) that anything with a '1' at the front of it would be OK, but with that couple of months of training behind me, I'm starting to think I can do 1h50m.  Can I?  We'll find out in seven weeks.

To round off the year, I've entered the Nottingham Robin Hood Marathon on 25 September.  No time expectations for this one, it really is just to run it and see what happens.  Again, a year or so ago, I'd have flat-out said I couldn't run a full marathon.  These days, I'm starting to believe, although there's a fair amount of work still to do.

Other stuff

I'll be doing the Cycle Derby 160km Spring Classic sportive again on 1 May, mainly to keep building up the cycle miles.  Hopefully, the weather will be a bit less horrible this year.

Then, between the Outlaw and Cotswold triathlons, I'll be going along to another - the full ironman distance Cotswold 226 event run by the same organisers as the Classic.  Not to race the triathlon, but because they're running a 3.8km swim race on the Saturday (16 July), and a 'Tri rules 180km sportive' (ie no drafting, TT bikes allowed, bad fashion choices positively encouraged) alongside the triathlon on the Sunday.  I've entered both, just for a bit of fun and to get a feel for the area the Classic is held in.

Attentive readers might note that, between this and the Nottingham marathon, I will hopefully end the year having done every element of a full-ironman distance triathlon individually - much as I did all the elements of a half-ironman last year, but that's something to think about in the autumn.

So then the rest of 2015 happened...

(but apparently writing stuff didn't, so here it is all in one go)

I had two more racing outings after the Erewash Triathlon.  The first was the Severn Bridge Half Marathon at the end of August - my first half marathon and in fact my first standalone running race since I was at school.  I'd set a target time of two hours, and I finished in... 2:00:11.  Curses.  Aside from that frustration, it was quite satisfying to tick off the distance, which had been one of my goals for the year.  I'm finding the race itself quite difficult to write about, which is partly why this post is so delayed.  Basically I started running, then ran, and ran, and ran some more.  Somewhere in the middle there was a big hill.  Running with thousands of other people on closed roads is quite a nice experience.  Towards the end it got really, really hard, especially trying to keep the pace up coming back over the bridge to the finish knowing that the time would be close.  I think it was probably harder than the Blithfield Triathlon, even though that was almost three hours long.  I definitely felt like I'd earned the (proper chunky) finishers medal.

Next up, just a week later, was the Ilfracombe Triathlon.  A long way from home, but local to the in-laws, and we needed to be down there the following weekend for a wedding.  I could have raced the Derby City Triathlon (my first one last year) on that weekend instead, which would have been a useful measure of my improvement over 12 months, but the North Devon event sounded considerably more interesting - and so it turned out to be.  By way of illustration, here's a list of 'firsts' which I racked up during the race:

 - Riding from home to the start/transition area in the morning.

  • A sea swim.
  • A beach start to the swim.
  • Having to climb two flights of steps to get from the swim into T1.
  • Using the small chainring in a triathlon (for the first twenty minutes of the bike leg, and another 10 minutes or so by the end).
  • Having to wait at a set of temporary traffic lights in the middle of nowhere (although the organisers had a marshall there and did a good job of crediting people their time back).
  • Having to filter through car traffic on the run course.
  • Having to climb and descend a flight of steps during the run leg.
  • Walking a stretch of the run leg (up an endless series of switchbacks on the coast path).
  • Having to negotiate a kissing gate during the run.

It was good fun, although my performance was somewhat 'mixed'.  After making a reasonable job of the beach start my swim lost all sense of urgency, and I went backward through the field during the swim itself and the climb up to T1.  These exertions left me feeling fairly rough as I got out onto the bike and went straight into 5km of climbing, and it felt like I was still going backwards - probably the low point was getting passed by someone on a hybrid.  With hindsight, I think my pace was actually fairly sensible, because I went back past a lot of people on the rolling middle section of the course, and up the series of steep climbs towards the end as they ran out of steam.  The run was just brutal, but I think my pace was OK.

Back home a few weeks later, I did the 50 mile version of the Cycle Derby Autumn Sportive with some current and former work colleagues.  Fairly leisurely ride overall due to mixed abilities (although the climbs are still really hard no matter what you've been doing over the rest of the course) and a really nice morning out once the sun had taken the early morning chill off.

The sportive marked the end of the season as far as sporting events went, leaving the rest of the year to actually spend some weekends at home (I didn't do that many races, but given holidays, stag dos, weddings, and other shenanigans we had about three 'empty' weekends from mid-April through to the end of September).  It also gave me chance to try and figure out some training routines that fit around work and family.

I finally bought some new running shoes, which are Extremely Blue, although nearly 100 miles later I'm still not entirely sure I like them.  Somewhere along the line I also realised I've actually started to enjoy running, rather than viewing it as a necessary evil of triathlon.  I feel like I've made some decent progress since the Severn Bridge race, which bodes well for 2016.

I also had a bit of an end-of-year splurge which saw me acquire a TT bike from a friend and then shortly after add a power meter, enabling me to combine cycling and extreme nerding into one activity.

I wrote down the following sports-based goals at the start of 2015:

  • 6 sprint-distance triathlons
  • 1 standard/Olympic distance triathlon
  • At least 1 open water triathlon
  • Swim 1900m (half-ironman distance) in open water
  • Cycle 180km (full-ironman distance)
  • Do two 160km sportives
  • Run a half marathon

I racked up the seven triathlons as planned, three open water including one sea swim.  In training I did several open-water swims of more than 1900m, including a couple up around the 3800m full ironman distance.  As above, I finished my first half marathon, and have since done the distance again in a training run.  On the cycling front, I did one 160km sportive, and given how horrible the weather was and that I did ride about another 20km getting to and from the start, I'm counting it as doing the 180km ride, even though it was spread over about 12 hours.  The second 160km sportive just didn't fit into the calendar anywhere, but overall I'm pretty pleased with how the year went.  



Erewash Triathlon

I'd had the Punishing Events Erewash Triathlon pencilled into the 16th of August slot on my calendar for some time, although I didn't get round to entering until the Sunday before - partly because I didn't know if the weekend was going to be free of other commitments, partly because I wasn't sure whether it would be a distraction from preparing for my next 'big race', the Severn Bridge Half Marathon at the end of the month.  In the end I decided it would be silly not to given how close to home it is, and stuck my entry in.

The last-minute decision, combined with it being my fifth sprint-distance event this year (plus two last year, and another planned for the start of September on a much more 'interesting' course) meant I felt able to a) not worry too much about it, and thus b) experiment a bit.  I've always found myself holding back on the bike leg to try and avoid my already weak run falling apart completely.  So in the last few days before the event I found myself thinking - "what if I didn't hold back on the bike?".  Being so close to home I know every inch of the bike course apart from the few hundred metres in and out of the leisure centre, so I should be able to pace it pretty well with no surprise hills to worry about.

There's only one way to find out. 

I had a nice leisurely start time on the day of 10:54, which actually ended up around 11:00 by the time the starter actually blew his whistle for my wave.  The swim went by fairly uneventfully - I was on my own in my lane at the start due to a couple of sparse waves ahead of me, but was joined by two others by the time I finished.  Both were set off less than half a lane behind me, but didn't really cost anything to let them through when they inevitably caught me.  I got out of the water at 7:47, which has been pretty much my standard time for pool sprints.   I can go a bit (about 20s) faster over a 400m set in a longer pool session, but apparently not starting from cold.  My pacing is still awful, with individual length times varying from 22 to 32 seconds across the sixteen lengths.  

(Not my most appealing look.  Photo by Xcite Images)

Out of the door, and a run across the grass to T1, with an entertaining climb over an earth bank on the way.  Transition itself was fairly uneventful, and then it was out onto the bike to see what I could do.  The organisers had arranged a road closure for the first few hundred metres of the bike course, avoiding any issues with getting in and out of the leisure centre itself.   

There was a short stretch along the back of Breaston that I knew would be a bit of a lottery - a narrow road which always has cars parked along one side leaving room for a car and a bike to pass each other, but not two cars.  Sure enough, I got passed by a Transit van on the approach to this section (I thought about taking the lane and blocking him, but was still a way off the start of the parked cars and couldn't see anything coming the other way at the time), only to watch an oncoming car appear round the corner and stop him dead in front of me. With hindsight I had plenty of time to go round to the right of him before the oncoming car reached us, but opted for discretion and went up the kerb side, which was a tight enough squeeze to have to put a foot down.  The time loss felt like an age, but was probably only a few seconds.  Probably worse was the leg-sapping effect of accelerating from a standstill, especially when followed by another near stop and acceleration at a junction a few hundred yards later, and then the long and steadily increasing ramp up to the top of the course - the steepest part coming just after joining my regular homeward commuting route. 

Down the other side towards Borrowash, and I didn't feel terribly quick - it's a very shallow descent but on a good day I can turn top gear (on my admittedly short-geared mongrel of a bike, so only 44/11).  This wasn't one of those days, and I was much more comfortable spinning the next one down.  Strava confirms I have gone quicker on that section while commuting, although only by about ten seconds over seven minutes (with the exception of a couple of freakish tailwind days that were much quicker).  I got passed not long after the top of the hill by another competitor (who rapidly disappeared out of sight), then coming into Borrowash heard someone else right behind me.  This turned out to be someone just out for their Sunday ride, but fortunately despite being faster they were polite enough to sit behind until I turned off, rather than come past and force me to back off rather than appear to get a tow. 

The course then took a sharp left in Borrowash, for a long flat (barring railway and canal bridges) drag back through Draycott and Breaston - coincidentally part of my old commuting route before moving offices last year.  I had a brief slow down in Draycott for some more traffic (which was not entirely unhelpful given I had a stitch at the time) before getting fed up and overtaking a few cars to get some clear road through the narrowest bit of Breaston.  Up and over the motorway, then through the cones back into the road closure and then transition for an average of 31kph over the bike section.
(Photo by Xcite Images)

Through a fairly straightforward T2 and out onto the run, and as usual my legs felt absolutely dead - particularly my calf muscles which didn't actually feel like they were extending or contracting at all.  I didn't worry too much about this, partly because I was expecting it as a result of pushing harder on the bike, and partly because previous races and brick sessions have taught me that it's never actually as slow as it feels.  I just tried to concentrate on keeping my cadence high and my feet landing properly, and waited to see if the muscles would come back to me. 

A few hundred metres in, another competitor came past me at a pace I thought I might be able to hang on to, and I did - for all of another 500m before the elastic snapped.  Fortunately for me, if not for her, so had some of the course marking tape half way round the lap, and she briefly took a wrong turn.  This gave me a second chance and I grimly clung onto her heels for the next lap and a half as she ran a really nice, gently building pace to the finish. 

While doing so, it occurred to me that I don't really know how running race etiquette goes.  Obviously sitting behind someone for 90% of a bike race then pulling out on the finishing straight would be considered terribly bad form - as well as being explicitly against the rules in a triathlon.  Equally obviously on the run there's minimal aerodynamic advantage to sitting on someone's shoulder (and no rules involved), but it just feels a bit cheeky.  I've since been assured by a 'proper runner' friend that it's fine.  In this case, the question  was rendered a bit moot anyway given a) the lady in question out-sprinted me to the line, and b) having come from a later swim wave she beat me by several minutes in the results.  So I'll just stick to saying thanks for towing me around, Verity Miles of Long Eaton Tri Club.

The run was slightly short of 5k, but had we done the extra couple of hundred metres it would have probably been a few seconds over 25 mins, which was my standalone 5k time at the start of the year.  Actual run time was 24:31 for an overall time of 1:05:32 and a position of 110th - uncannily the same as my race number.  And the experiment?  I'm not really sure.  I felt like I went for it on the bike, but looking back my average heart rate over the bike leg was fairly consistent with all the sprint races from May, and the average speed was about what I'd expect for the (not flat, but not particularly hilly) course.  And of course I ended up doing the fastest run leg of any of them, suggesting I might have exited T2 with a bit more in the tank, not less (although my running has definitely improved too, which would help get the most out of what energy there is).  Nothing particularly conclusive, other than I should probably try even harder next time and see what happens.  

That shouldn't be too hard, given my next sprint race is on the North Devon coast, and even the run from the swim to T1 looks brutal, let alone the bike and run courses themselves.  Before that though, this Sunday is half-marathon time.

Going Long(er): Blithfield Olympic Distance Triathlon

The term that seems to be used in the triathlon world is 'A-race', although I'm not sure it's quite right in this situation.  To claim I had had a season-long coherent plan leading up to this point would be bending the truth (a lot).  "Thing-I'd-not-done-before-but-really-wanted-to-do" would probably be more accurate, if a bit more cumbersome.  Whatever you call it, the idea of doing a standard/Olympic distance (1500m swim/40km bike/10km run) triathlon in 2015 has been firmly planted in my head pretty much since doing my first two sprint distance events last September.   

The specific event was the Blithfield Triathlon, run by Punishing Events - the same local organiser who ran the first (Derby City) event I did last year, as well as the Ashbourne race in May.  The event was run out of the sailing club on Blithfield Reservoir in Staffordshire, about half an hour's drive from home for me.  Oddly, this wouldn't be the first time I'd put on a wetsuit and got into this stretch of water for a race, although the previous occasion dates back to the last millennium, and was for a windsurfing event. 

I did try to do a few bits of sensible preparation, mainly for the swim - acquiring a wetsuit, going along to a few open-water practice sessions with a local tri club, and entering the Nottingham tri to get some race experience at a shorter distance.  Mostly though, I just did what I'd have done anyway, riding to work as often as practical and going out running when time and one-year-old son permits.  I think I managed a reasonable training volume through May and June, but then things went a bit astray in July.  Two weeks of holiday meant no riding (although a few decent length swims in the Mediterranean), but it was the lack of running that worried me.  I'd actually taken my running gear with me on holiday, only to have a bit of a shoulder niggle in the first week which wierdly allowed me to swim with the exception of a few days, but really didn't agree with the shock loading of running.  I didn't do much better on returning home, only managing one 5k outing in the next couple of weeks. 

About ten days before, I turned my ride home from work into a full length 40k/10k brick to get some feel for pacing.  Wasn't too bad, but I started the run too fast and it all fell apart in the last few km. I decided that not taking any food on board during the 2h20m-ish total duration probably hadn't helped either.  One more leisurely round-trip cycle commute in the week leading up to the event and then it was race day.


The (mass) start time was 0850 for the standard distance, but they were also running a sprint event with an 0830 start, so everyone had to be signed on, briefed and racked by 0820.   This worked back to needing to leave home around 0650 - too early to get The Boy out of the house, so I was on my own again. 

I'd carefully planned to arrive, sign on, go to the briefing, then go back to the car to grab all my gear and drop it off in transition before it closed.  This got thrown out of kilter when they didn't run the briefing at the time in the competitor info document.  After standing around looking confused with a few other people for a while someone went in, asked, and came back with a new time.  I then missed the start of it because I was still sorting my stuff out in transition.  Oh well.

After the briefing and a quick pre-race comfort break, I watched the sprint race go and then we were counted into the water.  The organisers had measured the water at about 18 degrees, nice and comfortable in a wetsuit - although you wouldn't have known it by the amount of whinging and general reluctance to get in from a decent chunk of the field.

The course was two laps of a simple triangle, starting and ending at the corner nearest the sailing club.  The field here was smaller (about 150 vs 225) and the start line considerably longer than the Nottingham Tri, and after the startline mayhem there I chose to position myself towards the less crowded shore end of the line, accepting a (possible, and very slight) increase in distance to the first buoy in return for being able to settle straight into my preferred rhythm from the start.  This seemed to help, and by half way through the first lap I was in much better shape and even comfortable enough to engage in a bit of gentle jostling for position around the turn buoys - in contrast to Nottingham where, after getting beaten up in the start frenzy I pretty much steered away from anyone that came anywhere near me for the rest of the swim.

I was out of the water in about 35 minutes, about five minutes slower than I'd have expected/hoped to be over 1500m, although I'm pretty sure the course was long.  My Garmin 910XT called it short at about 1400m, but is visibly wonky when you look at the track against a satellite picture (below).  Most of the other competitors' tracks which show up on Strava seem to be around the 1600-1700m mark, which would explain most of the difference.  Maybe I should have found the extra hundred quid or so for the new 920XT.


There was a short run from the shoreline up to the grassy transition area above the sailing club.  I managed to make less of a hash of stripping off the top half of my wetsuit during the run, but managed to hit 'stop' on my watch rather than 'lap' (to tell the auto-multisport mode I'd finished the swim), then wonder why it still showed 'swim' rather than 'transition' when I got to the rack.  Fortunately it was easily restarted once I figured out what I'd done.  Stripping the bottom half of my wetsuit and getting my shoes on still seemed to take an age (official T1 time was 2:42) before I was ready to head for the exit. 


The bike leg was two laps of a loop course with a short spur connecting to the sailing club at the start and end.  Heading out along this spur was a bit tricky, trying to get past people who had exited T1 just ahead and find some clear road, while simultaneously trying to avoid the sprint race front-runners who were coming back in at the same time with a 40mph+ closing speed. 

The start of the loop passed through the centre of Abbott's Bromley, complete with traffic calming chicanes and parked cars (I got briefly stopped on both laps behind cars that had to give way to oncoming traffic).  Once through the village, the rest of the lap was easily navigated with no traffic issues.  The marshalls (both on the bike and run courses) were great, shouting encouragement at everyone that passed, and the sun even came out at some point in the first lap. 

With running remaining my weak point, the byword for the bike leg was 'restraint'.  It's one thing to suffer through a 5k after giving it a big effort on the bike, another entirely to do that for 10k.  I'd decided, more through gut feeling than science, that if I kept my heart rate just under 150bpm most of the time I'd probably be alright.  This seemed to work out well, and I actually ended up doing both laps of the main loop with only 36 seconds difference over 35 minutes (and pretty similar speeds at all points on the loop).

The other key point for the bike was to remember to take some fuel on board.   I'd gulped a gel down during T1, reasoning it would only add a couple of seconds and is much easier to do stationary with both hands available, but I'd guesstimated wanting another mid-bike and then to have a third handy for the run.  Incidentally, I was trying out using a Flip-Belt (no, I don't look like the people on the link when I exercise) as a number belt at this race.  I'd bought it a month or so earlier - primarily to keep keys/phone in when out running, but also with half a thought that it might work as a number belt (given the only real requirement for a number belt is 'you can stick safety pins through it') for longer events where I did need to carry food/gels.  I did look at some other products like the SPIbelt which are actually intended to be used like that, but decided I preferred the 'clean' look of the Flip-Belt.  I was wearing it with the openings on the outside, since I was more concerned with ease of access than the risk of losing a quid's worth of gels, and it was easy to reach round and grab one out without even lifting off the aero bars.  Go me.

I think I gained places overall on the bike, although at the time of writing the full results file is missing some columns so I can't check.  Naturally a few came past, including one on what I think was the full-fat non-UCI-legal Specialized Shiv Triathlon.  Fortunately he vanished up the road before I dribbled too much.  I just about managed to hit a 30kph average over the bike leg, which I'm fairly pleased with, since it matches the fastest I've done over the sprint distance on a 'proper' road course with some hills in (at Ashbourne).  I did about 34kph average at the Nottingham Tri, but that was on the pancake-flat, traffic-free perimeter road of the rowing lake. 

(Although to ensure I don't feel too pleased with myself, while I was doing this, a friend of mine was out doing a 50 mile (80km) time trial - double the distance - at 37kph average.  I doubt he ran anywhere afterwards, but still.) 

The run was again two laps (almost as if they were running another event half the distance on the same course), out and back along the shoreline, with the turnaround in the middle of the causeway which divides the reservoir in two.  About half dirt/packed gravel and half tarmac/concrete.  The first few minutes out of T2 was horrible.  Everything hurt, and I was preparing myself for my target time to disappear out of the window and to be fighting just to finish.  Of course once I'd gone far enough for the average speed reading in my watch to stabilise I realised it was because I was actually going way faster than I thought, and indeed way faster than was sensible for that point in the run.  After that I relaxed a bit, although looking back my pacing was still all over the place.  The sun was well and truly out by this point, and it was quite hot.  The split into four obvious chunks (out/back/out/back) was a psychological help at least, as was gulping a final gel on the first lap.  I flagged a bit on the second outward leg, but managed to pick it back up in the last quarter, and even sprint for the line (for a loose definition of 'sprint') to make sure I stayed clear of the person I'd been able to see coming up behind me looking back across the last few bends.

I crossed the line in 105th place in 2:51:43, which I'm pretty happy with.  I had three hours in mind as my "I'd be disappointed if I missed that" time, so it was good to be comfortably inside.  I still need to run faster though - or improve my cycling to the extent it doesn't matter.  I came out of the swim in 106th place, so any places I made on the bike disappeared again on the run.  The other point of note was that I was still a bit marginal on fuel.  I didn't have much left in the tank at the end, and having forgotten to pack anything to eat immediately after I was almost chewing the steering wheel on the half-hour drive home!  I'd probably slot in at least another gel or something solid into the bike leg next time.

For now though, the next few weeks is all about running.  More on that later.

Manic May part 3: Nottingham Sprint Tri

(Erm yeah, this one got lost in the ether for a while.  Had it 95% drafted just after posting the other two race reports from May, then forgot about it, then went on holiday, etc.  Fortunately, to borrow someone else's phrase, it doesn't go stale.)

I rounded off the month with the OSB Events Nottingham Triathlon.  This was by some margin the biggest event I've done so far, with 960 entry slots in total, albeit run as four separate races of 240 through the day then recombined in the results computer.  I was in the second wave, or 'blokes in their thirties', starting at 10:15am.  It was also the first event with an open-water swim, which almost doubles the swim distance from the shortened-for-practicality 400m typical of pool triathlons to the 'proper' sprint distance of 750m.  The open-water swim also meant it would be my first mass-start, with the entire start wave setting off at once. 

I took advantage of the option to sign on the day before, popping across to the National Watersports Centre at Holme Pierrepont after work.  I was on the motorbike, so didn't join those doing a few practice laps of the bike course.  I came home with a massive stack of race numbers - the usual pair of paper ones for the number belt, stickers for helmet, bike, transition bag and supporters, plus for the first time, number tattoos. 

Signing on early saved enough time in the morning to make a family outing practical, we got out of the house and over to the event fairly easily - aided by me actually having written a checklist at the start of the month, and only slightly complicated by The Boy throwing up his entire breakfast in the car on the way over. 

The mass start also meant a mass queue to get into transition as everyone arrived at once, but the marshalls were doing a good job of getting through the usual brake/helmet/check-you're-actually-a-competitor-and-not-just-trying-to-steal-stuff checks and so it moved along fairly quickly.  It was actually a split transition - only about 10 metres apart, but necessarily so to allow the course to progressively spiral outwards from the lake and avoid a potentially dangerous crossing between the bike and run courses.  According to the PA announcer they'd only had one person in the first wave leave their running shoes in T1 rather than T2. 

Having done what I could to pick out some landmarks for two transition spots rather than one, I popped back over to where Sarah was sat to swap warm clothes for wetsuit, then headed down to the briefing at the swim start.  After that they funnelled us through the swim exit timing mat to get everyone 'registered' in the timing system then back over to the swim start and into the water.  The line was sufficiently close to shore that you could get a decent warm-up (or cool-down) then either stand chest-deep or hang onto the jetties until the last minute or so.

The starter gave us a minute by minute (and then closer in the final minute) countdown to the start, interspersed with shouts of 'Keep Back!' and 'We're not going to start until you're all behind the line!' as he tried to stop people from creeping forwards.  I wasn't one of these people - having identified a counter-productive tendency to set off a bit too quick in pool-based sprints, then lose pace and end up failing to hit the times I can do in training, I'd positioned myself in the second or third row of starters, a little way behind the line. 

Then the airhorn went off and all hell broke loose. 

I had, over the course of the preceding weeks, worked my way up to about five times the swim distance in open water, so there should have been no problem just swimming round the course.  Funnily enough though I hadn't practiced swimming over, under, and through a load of other people.  I spent the first couple of hundred metres drinking lake water and switching back and forth between freestyle and breaststroke to try and figure out where to go and calm down a bit, and it wasn't until the home leg of the U-shaped course that I felt like I was swimming properly.

If I was doing a longer distance race (like the following day's Outlaw Half, with a 1900m swim), I'd actually be quite tempted just to wait for thirty seconds at the start, then aim to get straight into a proper rhythm and come back past people as things spread out and calmed down.  I think I'd probably be quicker to the end of the swim, and certainly in better shape for the bike and run.  Probably a bit too leisurely an approach over the sprint distance though. 

Over the course of the previous five events, I've got my T1 time down to something sensible - my first was a shocking three-and-a-half minutes, the last couple have been down to about ninety seconds.  Still giving away a bit of time to the sharp end, but of the order of 30 seconds rather than minutes.  Add a wetsuit into the mix and it all fell apart again.  Coming out of the water I struggled to get hold of the velcro flap covering the top of the zip, and ended up pretty much walking to the bike as I tried to sort that out and get unzipped.  With hindsight I could probably have just pulled the zip down then just pulled the velcro apart from the inside rather than trying to pick at the edge of it - but either way, it was something I hadn't thought to practise beforehand, and it showed.  Once I was at the bike, I faffed around a bit more trying to get the rest of the way out of the suit, then being a bit unsettled, felt like I was having to concentrate quite hard just to put my helmet, number belt and shoes on. I did redeem myself slightly by passing someone while getting onto the bike at the exit, but overall lost several places through T1.

The bike course was four laps of the lake perimeter road, which was unsurprisingly dead flat.  The wind was blowing at about 45 degrees to the lake axis, so one way was a bit harder than the other, but it was pretty quick all the way round.  I spent a lot of the time swapping back and forth with another rider who had a similar pace, and with the short lap there were faster and slower people everywhere, but there was generally enough space for it not to feel too difficult sticking to drafting distances.  There were actually referees from Triathlon England there, although I suspect they were mostly watching the fast guys - I got passed once by a motorbike which I assume was chasing the leader.  I ended up doing the fastest bike split of any race I've done so far at 34kph before rolling into T2.

The run start was a bit rough, with my calves deciding to cramp up, not helped by having to run up a steep bank to get away from the transition area.  Fortunately they loosened up within the first kilometer. 

I'm not a strong runner, and I'm perfectly used to people coming past me on the run, but in a pool sprint with continuous wave starts you can kid yourself that you were never going to beat them anyway - they've already pulled several minutes on you, so there's no point chasing them.  In a mass start race there's no hiding from the fact that every single one is a position to be fought for.  I did lose a few, but at least tried to let them tow me along for a while before getting dropped.

The flat terrain and simple course meant the finish was visible from a long way off, allowing me to kick towards the end, and even pass someone on the approach to the line.  Sharing a race weekend with the Outlaw Half meant a proper finish experience with red carpet and giant timing clock, although they had high barriers alongside so no chance to high-five random people in the crowd.

The wierdest experience of the day however was being handed a pint of beer after the finish, courtesy of event sponsors Erdinger Alkoholfrei.  Alcohol-free and 'isotonic' or not, it wasn't exactly my idea of a recovery drink.

Once all four waves had been run, my time of 1:19:42 put me in 565th place of 781 finishers.




Manic May part 2: Clay Cross Sprint Triathlon

I had a choice of two events this Sunday, and almost opted for the One Step Beyond 'Speedy Beaver' Sprint at Belvoir Castle, but was wary of doing the longer (750m) open water swim with minimal practice.  I'd only had one (very cold) opportunity to try and get used to swimming in a wetsuit - and not turning round every 25m - by the time I had to make a decision, so I went with the pool-based PMA Racing Clay Cross 'Coalman' Sprint instead.  As it happened, I did a comfortable open water swim of about 2,200 metres the day before - which is well over the half-Ironman distance, never mind a sprint - so it would have been fine, but there will be plenty of open water opportunities in the future.  The Clay Cross event was new this year, and it seemed to show in the numbers signed up - only 150 or so, compared to the 300-500 that might typically be expected.

I had a much earlier start time than Ashbourne, so was flying solo again - and actually ended up cutting it a bit fine due to a bit of dithering while unloading the car.  I was still in transition about 13 minutes before my start time when we were supposed to be poolside by ten minutes before.  Fortunately, the pool wasn't that far away.

The swim was pleasantly uncrowded - only one other person in my lane at the start, and a different one at the end.  I was a bit frustrated with my time - I've fairly consistently clocked 7m45 to 7m50 in all the events I've done so far, then on the previous Wednesday had done a 7m17 set in training after I'd already swum 2000m, so to end up just under 8 minutes here was disappointing.  I know why - partly starting from cold, but mostly being rubbish at pacing myself in the context of a race.  My first length pace, if I could have sustained it for a further fifteen, would have put me in the top ten swim splits.  Obviously I can't, and there were a few later lengths that were ten seconds slower.  A bit of work to do, although in the overall scheme of things, I'm losing a lot more time on the bike and run than I could ever gain in the swim (I might put together a proper post-mortem data-nerding post at some point). 

Out of the pool and through T1, made slightly awkward by closely spaced concrete bollards separating tarmac from grass all around the transition area (not really a lot the organisers could have done to avoid this) and earlier starters coming back in from the bike.  I managed to avoid any collisions on the way out - although you can see me making a fairly abrupt direction change in the photo below to avoid winding up in a fence after having to dodge another competitor coming across the timing mats. 

(Photo courtesy of PMA Racing and Sport Sunday Photography) 

The bike course was best described as 'rolling'.  No massive climbs, but fairly frequent ramps and some very fast descents, on mostly quiet roads between Clay Cross and the M1.  There were some pretty horrible road surfaces in places as well.   I went past a few others, and was in turn passed by a few - carrying #40 putting me close enough to the sharp end of the field to have some seriously quick people coming through - although not all as quick as they seemed, at least a couple coming flying through on the flat then slowing in front of me on the climbs.  The last few miles was a bit brutal - straight into a strong wind, then uphill to the leisure centre and T2.   

The run was two 'T' shaped laps, out of the back of the leisure centre then up and down a wide pavement cycle path, climbing back into the leisure centre (the upright of the T) twice, once for the turnaround and once for the finish.  I wound up 58th in 01:15:59.

(Photo courtesy of PMA Racing and Sport Sunday Photography) 


Manic May part 1: Ashbourne Sprint Triathlon

When I stuck a metaphorical finger in the air at the end of last year and decided that about half a dozen triathlons would be a reasonable target for the year, I imagined it happening at a rate of about one a month through the summer.  It's not quite worked out like that for a whole range of reasons - available events within a sensible distance combined with holidays, visiting family and friends, stag dos, weddings, birthdays, and assorted other stuff - and so it was that I found myself packing three races into four weekends in May.

The first was the Punishing Events Ashbourne Triathlon on the 10th - which I'd actually entered around the New Year.  When the date came round it turned out to be a nice weekend weather-wise, which combined with a very civilised (11:24am) start time meant it was a family outing.  It was a proper town-centre event, with the local council obviously fully on board having closed one of the road bridges to act as the transition area.

I had a fairly uneventful swim, doing my usual sort of time (7m46 for 400m).  First time racing with the Garmin 910XT giving me a backup on my length counting, which took a bit of stress out, although the combination of blue goggles and something about the lighting in that pool made it pretty difficult to read underwater.  Out of the swim and it was a moderately long, but well rubber-matted run up to transition.  The assortment of trees and telegraph poles by the roadside made it easy to aim for my spot, although the red tyres on the bike and hideous beach towel on the floor also helped.

After the first hundred yards - mounting, clipping in and trying to settle down on a fairly narrow road with parked cars and traffic coming the other way - the bike was a really nice rolling course.  It was my first time racing with the proper TT bar setup on (having left the drops on for the Varsity tri back in March) plus the 60mm Planet X wheels and it at least felt fast.   I ended up clocking a 30kph average despite some reasonable climbs.

Through T2 and out onto the run.  The leisure centre is sat right on the southern end of the Tissington Trail, and the run course was two laps out and back along the trail - the first 400m or so of which was actually through a tunnel under Ashbourne (which, incidentally, plays havoc with GPS watches).  Being a former railway line, it was of course fairly flat, with the exception of a section just before the turnaround where the bridge the railway used to cross no longer exists, and the trail has to drop into the valley instead.

I made it three quarters of the way through the run before being passed by the first and only person to do so all day - faintly disappointing, but after a brief attempt I had to admit I couldn't stick with him.  That just left a final trip through the tunnel to the finish - 93rd in 1:08:35.

(run photo by Xcite Images - http://www.xciteimages.com/endurance)


2015 Is Go! Nottingham University Varsity Triathlon.

So then somehow it was mid-March, with all the posts I'd been planning to write at the start of the year about racing goals and training plans still unwritten, and the first race of the year already finished.  I'd blame the (now just shy of eleven month old) little man again, but he gets blamed for all sorts of things, so let's just chalk this one up to my own laziness.

(Photo by Shawn Ryan)

The race was the inaugural University of Nottingham Varsity Triathlon, which took place on Sunday in the grounds of the University's Park Campus.  I wasn't actually expecting the tri season to kick off until May, and had been focusing my concerns on the 100 mile Cycle Derby Sportive - which I (foolishly?) entered in a flurry of optimism in January, before getting ill with a lingering cough and not going near the bike for two weeks - when this event popped into my Twitter feed a few weeks ago.

With a fairly early start time at 0920, a recommendation from the organisers to allow plenty of time for signing on, and the pessimism about Nottingham traffic that comes from working near the University during the week, I ended up leaving home around 0700 - meaning I was on my own, because there's no way we were getting the aforementioned little man out of the house by then (hence not much by the way of photos).  I was slightly concerned about the way the temperature reading in the car stubbornly refused to rise above 5 degrees on the way over, given I'd shortly be running out of a swimming pool in just a dripping wet tri-suit, but blue skies offered some hope.  

I arrived with plenty of time to sign on, figure out where the pool actually was, put a bit more pressure in the tyres, rack the bike and scope out the transition layout, and remember how awkward 'just popping to the toilet' is when wearing a tri-suit with warm clothes over the top, before dumping said clothes back in the car and making a swift move to the warmth of the pool building.

This event was run slightly differently to the two I did last year, with distinct waves rather than a continuous stream of people entering the pool.  Each wave of 32 (of which I was in the second) got a briefing before heading poolside, four people to each of the eight lanes, and set off at ten second intervals.  I thought it worked pretty well - no mismatch of pace between people at the start and end of their swim, a bit of reassurance that you've counted your lengths right because others are getting out at the same time, quite a long time before overtaking is necessary, and (crucially), every single person there had been told five minutes earlier "overtake by tapping feet at the ends of the lengths, not in the middle".  I was the second off in my lane, and there was very little between the first three of us - the guy behind overhauled me part way through but I then sat just behind him the rest of the way.  The fourth was slow enough to get lapped by the end, but got out of the way politely enough.

I exited the pool with all the elegance of a beached whale thanks to the high poolside and deep water, and didn't even think about the outside temperature as I headed to T1.  I thought I was fairly quick through the transition area itself (but the timing sheet says otherwise), then out for the 200m or so run down to the mount line, which made me glad that I was in mountain bike shoes rather than road shoes or barefoot - although the latter approach makes for an indisputably faster transition.

The cycle leg was five laps of a 3km loop contained entirely within the campus - which sounds easy on paper, and is short even for a sprint tri, but contained a lot of elevation change, a lot of acceleration, and a rather interesting chicane.  Although the campus was still open to general traffic, it was naturally quieter than the open road, and a one-way system had been enforced in the same direction as the race, so we could generally just concentrate on riding, with what cars there able to easily pass on the 'wrong' side of the road.  

(There was one exception - most of the entry points to the campus were well marshalled, and they were holding cars back when bikes were coming through, apart from one, where the marshall was only making sure people adhered to the one-way system, and waved cars onto the roundabout in front of me pretty much every lap - at the only junction with any real potential for danger, with bikes coming downhill at speed and trying to make a right turn.  The cars should have - and generally did - still stop, because the direction the bike course was coming from had right of way, but drivers have a nasty habit of assuming it's OK to go when someone in a yellow jacket points them in a certain direction, so I was always on edge preparing for an emergency stop at this point.  This is genuinely the only complaint I could possibly make about an otherwise brilliant event.)

After a slightly slow first lap trying to find my legs and figure out where the course went, the next four were pretty consistent (-ly painful), and included the satisfaction of flying past someone on a full-on TT bike on one of the climbs (where admittedly the bike wasn't really giving him any advantage) before it was time to get off the bike and make the long run back uphill to T2.  The sun was well and truly out by now, enough to merit grabbing sunglasses out of the transition bag before setting off on the run.

The run course covered an even greater height range (albeit only once rather than five times), following the cycle course over its highest point and down the first steep drop, a chance for a breather on the bike but a desperate attempt to avoid tripping over tired feet here.  Another short rise followed before diverging from the cycle course and dropping right down to the very bottom of the campus for a lap of the lake, dodging the families and pensioners out for their Sunday stroll.  Then back up, up, up, passing through the courtyard of the Trent Building on the way, before a final few hundred metres down to the finish.

Final results say 106th, and on closer inspection that the run is still my weakest point relative to the rest of the field (well, apart from transitions, but there's less time to lose there).  I think my running has improved over the winter, and I did a decent (for me) 5k off the back of a session on the rollers a week or so before the event, but the hills were the killer here - both on the bike and the run.  More work to do over the rest of the year.

(results from DBMax)

Update: Racing, Not-racing, and more racing

It's been a while since I last sat down and worked up the motivation to write anything.  A six month old baby will do that for you.  I left off having just completed my first sprint triathlon, and entered my second.  Since then, I've done that second triathlon, a 50-mile cycle sportive (the 'not-racing' part), and as of last weekend, made my first foray into the world of cyclocross.

The triathlon was the PMA Racing Derby Sprint Triathlon, run out of the village of Etwall, out to the west of the city.  The swim was carnage - 25m pool and narrow lanes meant it was much more congested than at 33m Moorways two weeks earlier, especially since I seemed to have drawn a lane full of people who had massively over-estimated their ability when entering their predicted swim time (which determines the start order) on the entry form.  I had a couple of head-on collisions, which I'm pretty sure were with the same person from the next wave after mine.  Once my fault and once his, and probably both the result of frustration with the traffic.

Out of the pool (timestamps on Sarah's photos from poolside show I was within 15 seconds of my predicted time, just saying) and I think I was a bit more efficient through transition, aided by elastic laces and not bothering with either gloves or jersey, but hindered by getting a bit unsighted looking for my spot in the racks.  Unfortunately the timing mats were having a bit of a bad day, and a lot of us didn't get a full set of split times, so there's no definitive measure of how long it took.  I do know that I started the cycle leg a few seconds behind a female competitor who had been in my start wave and who I'd beaten out of the pool, so there's still work to do.

After the unwelcome shock of the first 500m or so being a reasonably steep uphill, I settled into the bike and my newly acquired aerobars.  In contrast to the City Tri's urban out-back-out-back course, here we had a single loop round quiet country roads to the west of Derby - well, quiet apart from the convoy of vintage tractors heading in the other direction half way round, which was a bit of a squeeze to get past on the narrow roads without giving up too much speed.

Through T2, and out onto the run - again with the not-entirely-welcome treat of two 45-degree grass slopes to climb to get off the playing fields and out onto the roads.  In the photo above I'm looking at the second of those climbs, hence the look of distress.  I did get into the swing of it, and was even able to smile for the finish line photo, but still too slow - the same lady from my start wave, who I'd repassed and gapped on the cycle, breezed past me a couple of minutes in to the run, and pulled a good five minutes on me by the finish line.  Some work to do over the winter.

(photos courtesy of the organisers and Sport Sunday photography)

The weekend after was the Cycle Derby Sportive - the 'not-racing' bit of the title, despite involving a marked course, a mass start, and timing chips.  I opted for the 50-mile variant, had a brief pang of regret at the start for not going for the 100-miler, but it was definitely the right call, as there was a lot of climbing involved.  Completed the course at an average of 15mph, including a few stops for food and for losing a contact lens half way round.  I carried a camera the whole way round without taking any pictures en-route, so here's one of the new Derby Velodrome at the start.

And finally, this weekend, I made my first foray into cyclocross with NDCXL at a very muddy Markeaton park.  Not terribly successfully - I fell off the back of the pack within about five minutes, then got passed by the under-23s and most of the ladies, and lapped twice by the leaders before the bell.  Then with the end in sight the rear-mech hanger snapped about a third of the way into the final lap, leaving me to carry back to the pits for a DNF.

I came home from my first triathlon, fired up the laptop and entered the second.  Having done the second, I've already got several pencilled into the diary for next year, and am currently trying to figure out a winter training routine to make myself faster.  Likewise, doing a 100-mile sportive is a definite goal for 2015.  As for 'cross, much as I wanted to like it, the jury's still out, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I expected it to be difficult, and to be at the back of the field, but thought there'd be enough spread to give me someone to race against - as was the case with enduro, rally, and triathlon.  As it turned out, I'd need to make a massive improvement to even be at the back of the field.

Secondly, I felt a bit out of place.  Judging by the pits, about two-thirds of the field had turned up with two bikes, a petrol-powered jet-washer, and a helper to wash and service the bike they weren't riding so they could swap bikes each lap.  Most of the remaining third was people who couldn't find a helper but had still brought two bikes.  Two people didn't have a spare bike, but had left a spare pair of wheels in the pits - and one of them had also DNF'd with a broken rear mech hanger.  I had a box with a couple of tubes and a pump.

A bit of a post-DNF grump? Possibly.  As it turns out, I can't do either of the rounds in December anyway due to other commitments, so I've got until mid-January to decide whether I want to have another go.

It's racing Jim, but not as we know it.

For someone who doesn't consider themselves particularly competitive, when I look back at my life there seems to be quite a lot of racing.  In my teens it was windsurfing, and latterly (as regular readers will know), it's been motorcycle enduro and rallying.

(photo: Tony Ferrari)

I've loved riding the rallies over the last couple of years, and I'll probably do the odd one in the future, but there's a lot of money, time in the garage, and time away from home involved in doing a full season.  Not really compatible with a new baby, so it's time to find a new challenge a bit closer to home.  I've been toying with cyclocross, and there's probably some of that in the future, but it's a winter sport.  In the meantime, I saw a poster for the Derby City Triathlon in the local pool while taking baby Toby for his first dip, thought "why not", and signed up when we got home.

I've done a lot of cycling this year - 1400 miles and counting - but at the time of signing up, the last time I'd run was a five mile or so jaunt around (the admittedly very hilly) Longleat Centre Parcs with a couple of friends which left me hobbling for a couple of days after.  The last time I swam lengths in a pool was probably at a similar time.  I did manage one go at the distance in each in the intervening weeks.  The run - straight off the bike after cycling home from work - resulted in the usual twinges in my right knee.  The swim - on a busy Sunday morning with no lanes - was fine, but took a minute or two longer than I expected.  We'll call that training then.  It's only Sprint distance (400m swim, 20k cycle, 5k run), how hard can it be?

So the day (last Sunday, 31st August) came around, an early getup, and time for another check of the (surprisingly large) pile of kit I'd collected together before loading it and the bike into the truck and setting off for Moorways sports centre with my father-in-law Alan.  I'd been along to collect my number, timing chip and swim hat the day before, so it was straight to the transition area to drop off the bike and kit for the cycle and run.

We were there pretty early, because I thought it was probably a good idea to go to one of the briefings held on the hour through the morning.  Since I was starting at 1012, that meant it had to be the 0900 one, hence the empty racks around my start number.  With hindsight, it didn't tell me anything that wasn't in the online instructions.  After the briefing, we stood and watched people coming through transition for a while before heading up to the pool.

When I'd collected everything together the day before, Sarah had asked why on earth I had put two pairs of goggles in.  That question was answered when, standing poolside with about ten minutes to go and the first pair pushed up on my head, the strap snapped.  Plenty of time to get Alan to throw the other set down from the viewing area.

Eventually, my wave was called forward, ordered into the pool, and given the starting whistle. I had to pass two people from the earlier waves within the first couple of lengths, then had clear water for the rest to concentrate on keeping count of the required 12 lengths.

Out of the pool, exit through the fire exit at the back, and a barefoot run across the grass to the transition area - reminding myself half way not to sprint and wear myself out.

Out onto the bike, and after a few minutes of feeling a bit wierd (body going "hang on, I thought we were swimming?") I settled into it.  Two laps of a fairly flat out-and-back course, with a leg-burning mile or so stretch into the wind on the way out.  Head down and go for it.

Heading back into transition after two laps, I'd passed a lot of earlier starters, and only been passed by one or two people who weren't on full-on time trial bikes.  Not bad, and I was still feeling fairly good going into the run.  That feeling lasted for about the first hundred adrenaline-fuelled yards before, again, my body noticed that it wasn't cycling any more.  I did get into the swing of it about half way round the first of two laps, but was still being passed by far more people than I was catching.  Back around the stadium bowl for the final time and onto the running track for three-quarters of a lap to the finish, there was still something in my lungs and muscles, but by that time my knee was starting to hurt again.

And then it was over, 1h21:53 after I'd started.  The energy drink they were handing out at the finish was, incidentally, disgusting.

The results came out a day or so later, revealing that I'd finished 190th out of 350 starters.  Satisfyingly for those of a data-nerd persuasion, they are made available as a CSV file of everyone's times, including both transitions as well as the swim, bike and run.  Looking at the three parts individually, I set the 113th fastest time for the swim, 128th for the cycle, and 261st for the run.  So far, not terribly surprising - did I mention I'm no good at running?

More embarrassing were the transition times - 331st through the T1 (swim to cycle) transition, and 344th (out of 350 remember) for T2 (cycle to run).  I worked out that if my transition times were around the average of everyone elses, I would have been more than thirty places higher without actually getting any better at any of the three disciplines themselves.

Something to work on then, and I will be trying to do so next Sunday, having entered the (confusingly similarly named) Derby Sprint Triathlon.  In preparation, I've fitted aero-bars to the bike, and perhaps most importantly, replaced the laces in my shoes with elastic ones.