In September 2016, having just completed the last race of the season (makes me sound more pro than saying the last race of 2016), under the direction (persuasion) of Blair, I began training for my first 70.3 distance race. As I’m a slow bod I decided to sign up to the famously flat and friendly Outlaw Half, with the logic that if I couldn’t do a flat middle distance course, I shouldn’t even consider dreaming of the likes of the full distance Norseman or Swissman in the future.
Unlike the previous winter I actually managed to focus myself to train all the way through without a dip in December, likely due to the fact that I knew this longer distance would be harder than anything I’d ever done before, and a month’s intensive lull could be disastrous in the overall scheme of things. Not that I want to give a false impression however. My Training Peaks wasn’t a continuous stream of glorious greens. From 1 October to 20 May (the day before the race), according to my Training Peaks, I should have completed 223 hours and 43 minutes of training. In reality I completed 152 hours and 58 minutes of training. If I trained for an average of 7 hours a week this difference represents 10 weeks of missed training. I guess that’s why I’m not being headhunted to join Team GB in the next Olympics. I’m not a pro however, and one of the main things I love about Blair is that he’s a coach who gets that – and appreciates that life throws curve balls at you, sometimes big ones, and sometimes lazy little ‘I just can’t face it today’ ones. After 8 solid months of training however, come the week leading up to the race I felt 100% ready. Having also matched my 8 months of training with the aim to race lighter, I was not only heading towards race day at my fittest and strongest in 7 years, but also at the weight I had been 10 years previously, a stone and a half lighter than when I started training in October.
Having planned everything to the n’th degree, from what sports bra to wear under my new trisuit, to sneaking my microwave into the hotel room so that I could have real porridge on the morning of the race, I turned up to the race briefing on the Saturday feeling positive. At no point had I underestimated the distance that I was about to take on, and all the way through my training, knowing I’m one of the slow ones, I focussed simply on meeting the race cut offs – nothing more, nothing less. No amount of turbo training whilst watching Xtreme Tri videos however can prepare you for the mass onslaught of tall, toned, athletic men who join you in the briefing, all adorned in Ironman finisher Tshirts. To say I was beginning to feel out of place in my Primark top and 15 year old baggy jeans was an understatement. Was I too supposed to be wearing shorts, compression socks and trainers? Was my race going to suffer because I hadn’t?! The ‘Kona Finisher 2016’ was the nail in the confidence coffin for me. I was literally surrounded by people who looked like they were born to do this.
Following the race briefing I took all of my race numbers, chip, free suncream etc off to the glorious hotel that promises a good night sleep or you money back. With my boyfriend and family there with me I soon relaxed into an evening of dinner and conversation, not worrying at all at what was to come. In fact, if I was to be completely honest, I hadn’t felt nerves at any point – instead I was actually incredibly excited. I hadn’t tested my body like I was about to since I ran the Rome Marathon in 2010, and, knowing that that day had been a success, I was keen to see if tomorrow’s race would follow suit.
Setting my alarm for 3.30 I spent a good hour getting everything ready, including attaching my race number to my belt, and, as a small added bonus, sticking my race number tattoos to my legs.
I slept like an absolute log, and pretty much jumped out of bed when my alarm when off. The microwave was a God send as instead of a watery pot of something resembling porridge, I was able to eat a proper bowl of hot oats. Such a comfort. We packed the car and left the hotel at 4.45 to ensure we were at the venue for about 5.15, giving us plenty of time to be sat in the queue of cars and get set out in transition by 6am, ready for the first wave to start at 6.15.
Still no nerves, I made my first mistake of the day when I was sent to the row to wrack my bike and found an empty spot. I began to set up and luckily looked over to my neighbour at which point I noticed a name and number on the rack. Bugger. They had allocated rack positions. Popping everything back into my bag and grabbing my bike I walked back up the row to find my number. It was a tight squeeze but the two girls either side of me were lovely and we all worked to make room for each other. I got chatting to one of my neighbours and we both agreed we needed to check that out bikes were in the correct gear. A little team work ensued and we wished each other the best of luck.
Being a water baby I couldn’t understand why, when we got down to the pontoon, people in my wave were sitting on the edge dipping their toes in and squealing. Perhaps I don’t feel the cold like others, but I just jumped in and felt the immediate benefit of the water go down my wetsuit. I think people must have thought I was mad. Once we were all in the water we were signalled a five minute warning. At the 3 minute warning I began to get frustrated as treading water was beginning to really tyre me out – not a use of my precious calorie intake that I had planned for. I needn’t have worried however as following the buzzer I fell into a really comfortable rhythm almost immediately. In terms of comfort this was definitely turning out to be my best swim in a race yet. Happy to stay at the back I simply concentrated on my watch which I had set to show average pace. I knew I simply needed to ensure I stayed below an average of a 3 minute 100metres and I would meet the cut off. Based on my averages in training and racing my aim was to do the swim in 52 minutes. I was therefore beyond happy to be leaving the water at 52 minutes and 8 seconds.
I walked through transition and took my time getting ready for the bike. In all previous races I charged through transition. The difference this time was that I knew I was going to be out on the bike for perhaps 4 hours, and therefore making sure I got everything just right and set up correctly so that I’d be as comfortable and as efficient as possible on the ride was more important to me than racing through transition for the sake of a fast time. That said, apparently no amount of attention to detail and time taking can alleviate all mistakes and, as I rode out on my TT bike (which was its first race outing), I realised that my Garmin was on my wrist and not on my bike where I had trained with it. Damnit. Although only a small detail it meant to see my speed (again, average) would mean me having to twist my wrist and risk losing my balance in aero position. Oh well, too late now.
Having raced in Leeds in 2016 with my back brake on, I was now aware of the sound this creates. For the first five miles this was all I could hear. So I stopped and tried to rectify it (before you say anything I’d done all of my pre-race bike checks so this wasn’t as the result of me being careless in my race preparation). I got back on and the sound didn’t go. There was nothing I could do so I just endured it. The first 30 miles were, without question, the fastest miles I’ve ever ridden on the road. At points I wondered if my watch was broken, but I could feel the speed through my bike and knew that I was going at a much faster pace than I had ever before. Perhaps it was being excited by this, or perhaps the wind caught my front deep section wheel, but at about mile 36 something unexplainable happened and from happily going down an unassuming flat, straight road I all of a sudden found myself what felt like 10 metres in the air, seeing my bike fly out the other way, and feel the sudden shock of falling through a bush and hitting the floor. It says everything about the sport I love that immediately there were three fellow competitors picking me up, stopping their own races and therefore slowing their own race time, just to help and check I was OK. As if the Gods of triathlon were watching over me I had managed to crash in front of one of the race support vans. Whilst one picked grass out of my helmet (literally) the other checked my bike, both telling me they had no idea what had happened as one minute I was going along and the next, without any obvious reason, I was flying into a bush. It will forever be one of my biggest race mysteries. Once the shakes had gone away having taken a gel, it soon occurred to me that this could be the end of my race. I started looking myself over, as did the crew. Thankfully, other than being completely covered in mud and having a bloody right knee, there were no obvious race ending injuries. My bike too was a little cut and bruised, with one handlebar bent in slightly, but nothing that would mean me having to stop. Thank God! The support crew therefore poured water down me to remove as much of the blood and mud as they could and checked me out on my way. To say my confidence was shaky for the rest of the ride is an understatement. I slowed down considerably bringing my average down from 16.8 mi/h to an overall 15.7 mi/h. I told myself not to be greedy however as my planned pace had been 14 mi/h to meet the cut off, so 1.7 miles above this was a pace I’d never even dreamed of achieving.
The last 5 miles felt like an eternity and when I finally turned back into the venue it was amazing to have my dad and boyfriend standing waiting to cheer me on. They must have been there for ages as they told me afterwards that they weren’t tracking me.
As with T1 I decided to take things easy in T2. To the point where I took a leisurely walk over to a portaloo to have a very much needed wee. I have been told mythical stories of people training themselves to wee whilst running so that they don’t have to stop at any point. This however hadn’t factored into my training plan, and rather than be uncomfortable for the whole of the run I guessed it would be time well spent emptying my bladder before the run even began.
This proved such a wise decision as I felt fleet of foot for the first lap of the two lap run. I watched my pace sit at about 12.2 minute miles which I was delighted with (I am not a 7 minute mile type of girl). The run along the river path was incredible, with a mix of pavement, mud and grass which suited me perfectly. The final 2 miles of the loop were around the lake where we had swum and, although on the face of it delightfully flat, I found this part of the loop mind numbing due to it being so straight and flat. Having to run past the finish line, seeing people complete their race was a massive psychological challenge. I had to just blot it out and think that it would be me next time I got to it. Starting the second lap I felt much the same as I had when I started the first. However I noticed myself begin to tyre and my pace begin to slow as I moved closer to mile 8. It wasn’t my legs or feet – in fact, they felt incredible and light. But a mix of the 3.30am start making me start to feel so utterly shattered and the pain across my upper back and shoulders from where I had landed on them in the earlier bike crash was starting to make it feel like I was carrying a tree across my shoulders with me. The final five miles were a constant battle between my happy legs and painful shoulders and exhausted mind. At mile 11, knowing that I was on a 2 mile straight flat route I decided to try and help the exhaustion by taking short 2-3 second naps whilst running, closing my eyes every 50 metres or so without stopping. I was determined to run the whole way as, for me personally, walking at any point would have made me feel that all of my 8 months training had been wasted. Not to say I would criticise anyone for walking – and I have had to do just that in a couple of previous races – but for me on this particular day and race it just wasn’t an option.
Believe it or not, being a slow ‘athlete’ can have the most incredible perks that faster people will never feel the benefit of. One of these came into itself as I reached the red carpet leading to the finish. As so many people were now enjoying the feeling of completing their race, and perhaps by now even sat on their sofas at home, it left the last 100 metres of red carpet to me, all on my own. I knew that crossing the finish line would be the result of 8 months hard work. So I wanted to do it in style and decided to sprint finish. I could hear my family and boyfriend shouting but it was like a haze as I crossed the finish line.
It’s a funny feeling when you cross the finish line because having run for 13.1 miles it’s as if your legs no longer belong to your body and decide to go on strike. With the adrenaline leaving my body, the impact of the crash on my body all of a sudden became all too obvious and walking was an incredibly uncomfortable and painful affair. That said, I had done it, and all of the pain was so absolutely worth it.
For months leading up to the Outlaw Half I had worried constantly about not meeting the cut offs. The overall race cut off was 9 hours. This was therefore my aim, but to do it in 8 hours 30 minutes would have been a dream come true. To cross the line in 7 hours, 40 minutes and 11 seconds (which within it took into account the 10 minutes I stood being sorted out post crash, and the fact that my back brake – which is broken and needs replacing – was on for the whole ride) was beyond my wildest dreams. Who knows where I could be next time. But something is for certain. I now know I can do the distance in the allocated time, and there will therefore definitely be a next time!