Tenby Long Course Weekend - Gemma Marshall

Long Course Weekend – July 2015

My whole season has been geared towards completing my first Ironman - in Barcelona, on October 4th 2015.  (I’m not sure why I phrase it ‘my first ironman’ perhaps that’s my subconscious knowing that I’ll need to do another one after I’ve learned from the experience of my first?!)  Anyway, it started with learning to cycle LONG; the Fred Whitton, 112 miles with almost 4,000m of climbing, followed by the Tour of Wessex, 336 miles over three days. After this came learning to run LONG. I had planned on doing the Brighton Marathon, but due to an unexpected operation at the beginning of the year it wasn’t possible.

So here I was, facing my biggest challenge so far…the Long Course Weekend.  I knew I could make the swim and the cycle, but the run was a whole different story. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs/race reports you’ll know that I’m not a runner. I’ve completed half marathons on a couple of occasions but that’s all. The thought of running a marathon (after the hilly cycle and a night to seize up) filled me with dread and bought a tear to my eye!

My training had been going well and Blair (Blair Davies Coaching) had assured me I would be fine! I’m the Queen of self-doubt and didn’t believe him! (Sorry Blair!)  I’d raced the Grafman the weekend before and had come 2nd in my AG so had my confidence boosted a little, a week of being sensible with recovery and training under Blair’s careful watch and off I went on the very long drive to Tenby.

Arriving in Tenby on Friday I pitched my tent (yes, tent! Over the course of the weekend I would recover in a pop up tent – no hot baths or vegging in front of a TV,) Heading in to the town to register I was overwhelmed by the buzz, the town centre was filled with compression socks, visors and neon trainers! It was the most exciting pre-race atmosphere so far, the whole town was excited and supporting the event!

The swim started on Friday evening, there were hundreds of swimmers. The yellow caps highlighted the crazy few of us who were taking on the whole Long Course Weekend, I looked around trying to see who the other females were but struggled to find any!  There was a guy stood next to me who I made polite conversation with for a bit while he swung his arms around to warm up.  I later realised (when watching it back on TV) that this was Steven Bayliss. We were all shepherded to the edge of the sea and the countdown began for the start. I was starting at the front so I didn’t have to think about or see the volume of swimmers about to crush each other! It was a good move as I had a relatively clear swim up to the first buoy. The only thing I had to dodge were the Jelly Fish! They were huge, some bigger than the width of my shoulder. I’ve never been so scared swimming! The first lap went quite well and the Australian exit in between laps was really cool, the crowds roared the swimmers on as we ran out and around the rock!

The second lap however was much harder! The tide was changing and despite swimming as hard as I could I was barely moving! It was exhausting! My second lap was a good ten minutes slower than my first.  Crossing the finish line on the beach I was grabbed by the TV crew and gave a little interview – amazingly this made the cut and I had a moment of fame on channel 4 and Eurosport!  This was my longest swim to date and I was grinning from ear to ear, I was so pleased and loved every moment of it!

The next morning was FREEZING! It may have been ‘summer’ but waking up in a tent at the top of a hill in Tenby, in the wind and rain wasn’t pleasant! Quick breakfast and cycle down to the start of the sportive.  I had quite a late start which surprised me, and it turned out to be the fastest wave with no one off behind. Sh!t! How did I end up in this group?! I really had no idea what had gone wrong but I knew I had it all on to get to the finish before the cut off time.  I tried to hang on to some of the wheels in the group, but cruising at 25mph at the start of a hilly 113 mile ride isn’t possible for me. I got dropped. I struggled for the first 20 miles, in horrendous wind and rain, up the relentless hills on my own, I knew I was dead last on the road and it was pretty soul destroying.  At one point there was a turnaround point and I could see the pelotons coming the opposite way…how I longed to be tucked in there! –Head down I felt almost embarrassed for them to see me on my own at the back!!

I seriously had to have words with myself and at about mile 25 I got my groove back and started to hammer it, I managed to catch people up and my confidence grew and grew. I didn’t stop the whole way round, still scared of missing the cut off and being disqualified from the Long Course standings. To be fair it was great practise at doing that distance on my own, there was no one to draft so it must have done me some good! I chatted to a couple of guys on the way round which was a bit of a morale booster too.  I’m pleased to say I made the cut off with about 45 minutes to spare. Phew!

I must admit, I welled up a bit at the finish, I was so so relieved to have reached Tenby town again and not have given up!  Unfortunately, as I’d gone on my own I had no support at the finish line, so headed straight back up the hill to my little tent!  A big dinner and straight to bed, only with my fearful thoughts about the marathon that lay ahead tomorrow!  Needless to say I had the worst night’s sleep ever! My legs ached from the effort I’d put in against the wind and made me restless. I had major doubts about how on earth I’d make it round the marathon the next day, and strangely, was also really really excited?!

I woke early (which means I must have had a little bit of sleep at least?!) and had the biggest bowl of porridge I could cook on my camping stove. Standing up off the airbed was a major challenge with my seized up achy legs.  I pulled on my trainers and running kit and drove down to the start.  Once again, compression socks and visors everywhere.  Everyone looked like ‘proper’ runners! What was I doing?!  It was also raining and rather chilly. I’m surprised that someone hasn’t designed neon bin-bags for pre-race warming to match the socks and trainers?!

I had a few nervous conversations with other people in my start area and realised that actually, apart from the gazelles on the front of the start line, we were all a little bit petrified! Phew!  Before I knew it we were off!  There’s always an eerie silence at the start of running races which always baffles me, everyone stops talking and goes in to their ‘zone’, this actually lasted until half way around the marathon!  I took it really really slowly, concentrating on keeping my heart rate as low as possible and saving energy, having regular gels even if I didn’t feel I needed them. I almost cried in relief at the lady with cups of sweets at mile 12, she’s my hero! Thank you! Clutching the cup for the rest of the marathon I used the sweets as a reward for every hill I ran up. There were a lot of hills.  Thankfully, I had a lot of sweets J  Despite the wind and pouring rain, the views at the top were always amazing, you could see for miles!

My favourite moment of the run was when a few of us were struggling up a hill (18%+) which had a photographer about 2/3rds up…we agreed to ‘sprint’ past the photographer and all went together! Such a morale boost at mile 20!

To my utter surprise I enjoyed every moment of the marathon. I thought I’d hate it! I was disappointed with my time, but considering how slowly and cautiously I’d set off, and the amount of hills, I’m hardly surprised! Crossing the finish line was another completely emotional moment, although I didn’t have a chance to cry as the TV crews saw my yellow LCW number and jumped on me again – another small moment on channel 4!  I was actually really proud of myself for completing the marathon and grinned from ear to ear for days afterwards!  I finished 13th overall for the LCW, which I’m really pleased with.

It was an absolutely amazing weekend, and it’s set me up perfectly for my ironman in October.  I found it really really hard, mostly mentally – but it’s taught me that I need to trust my training – Blair knows what he’s doing and made sure I was ready – but also that I’m not someone who would give up and that even when I might think I’ve failed I can pull it back again and find a second wind.

Bring on Ironman Barcelona!!!