Halfway there in the rain – The Owler Middle Distance Triathlon

It’s 06:15 on Sunday 26th July and unusually my alarm has not gone off.  Must be time for the Owler Middle Distance Traithlon.

The reason is that my alarm was not needed was because I was in bed with my oldest little girl Niamh and we had both been up since 5am.  We are staying in Hythe, Kent, to house-sit for Cat’s Dad and Girlfriend and make sure that Cat’s 15 year old brother Miles doesn’t burn the house down.  Niamh is sleeping in a different bedroom than usual.  Crucially it has a double bed in it and no blackout curtains.  As such she gets up when the sun gets up (about 5am) which also means that either Cat or I get up at that time too.  Luckily for me I had to be up early so no real harm was done.

The Owler Triathlon was held in Ashford, at the Julie Rose Stadium.  Breaking from tradition I had organised all my gear the night before and even put the bike in the car, so it was a relaxing morning getting ready and then driving on the backroads from Hythe to Ashford to ensure that I avoided Operation Stack.

Half way through setting up pre-race.

Arriving in plenty of time for the 08:30 start I registered and made my way down to the transition area.  This was situated on the outer edge of an athletics track and made for a fairly spectacular location.  There was plenty of space in transition with individually marked out bays for your bike and plenty of marshals on hand.  I was number 73 and struck up conversation with number 72.  He had done the Owler Middle Distance Triathlon a couple of years before and said it was a great event, well organised and well supported.  It certainly seemed that way so far to me too. 

At this point I would like to clarify something.  There is nothing “middle” about a “middle distance triathlon”.  It is named in rather a confusing manner.  The order of difficulty (increasing distance) in triathlon goes Super Sprint, Sprint, Standard (also known as Olympic), Middle (also known as Half Ironman or 70.3) and then Full (also known as Ironman, Iron Distance).

The “middle” distance is also known as 70.3 because this is the number of miles that you cover during the race.  Just to make things simple I work in kilometres so will describe it in that for you.

1.9km swim
90 km bike ride
21 km run (half Marathon)

It is exactly one half distance of the race that I have been building up for, Challenge Weymouth in September.  One half of an Ironman.  Not to be under estimated.  Some people train for years just to attempt a half Ironman.  I had less than 2 years training behind me and only 5 previous triathlons of any length.  Gulp!  Anyway back to the plot……….

Chatting away to number 72 we were soon warned that it was time to make our way down to the lake for the swim.  The lake was only a short walk away and would be my first lake swim of the year.  Following on from the briefing I made my way into the water and was surprised how cold the lake was.  I was glad to be in my wetsuit.  Positioning myself at the back of the swim bunch to try and avoid getting bashed about too much the countdown of 3-2-1 was heard and we were off.

Swim Course

Advice from absolutely everybody regarding the longer distance traithlon’s (Half and Full Ironman) is to take it easy at the start.  There is no point in going all out in the swim and using up too much energy, especially as a few minutes gained in the swim can be made up much more easily on the bike or the run.  “Nice and slow” I was thinking to myself as I swam straight into the feet of the swimmer in front.  It was murky in the lake and visibility was not good at all.  I picked my way through a few swimmers as best I could, got kicked a few times in the ribs and an elbow to the side of my face.  I couldn’t help but smile.  This is what triathlon is all about.  The idea of getting kicked in the face whilst swimming would probably terrify most people.  To us triathletes it simply means the race has begun!

Settling down into my swim I concentrated on getting into a rhythm and sighting (lifting my head up to see where I was going) every 6 strokes.  I felt good in the water and despite swimming through some very thick weed and a swan almost landing on my head I was steadily overtaking a few people.  Simply concentrating on swimming smooth, I rounded each buoy in turn.  Bizarrely I ran aground when passing past the middle island on the final part of the swim.  There was big pile of gravel under the water which my arm hit.  It was just deep enough to slide over using my hands to push me along and then I was off again.  Round the final buoy I turned left, swam a short distance to the shore where I was helped out of the lake by the marshals and then it was a short run back to the athletics track and into T1.

Before the race I had decided to replicate my Ironman tactics in total, so in T1 I needed to change out of my wetsuit into my bib shorts and cycling top ready for the bike leg.  Arriving at my bike I already had the top half of my wetsuit off.  Quickly getting it off my legs I threw on my dry robe (think large hoodie made of towel material with the arms cut off) over my head and pulled my bib shorts on.  Taking the dry robe off, I realised my shorts were inside out.  Back on with the dry robe (to hide my modesty) I then turned the shorts round the right way and put them back on.  Dry robe off again, I realised my shorts were back to front.  Muttering an obscenity under my breath it was back on with the dry robe once more, then finally my shorts were on correctly.  I clipped on my heart rate monitor, my cycling jersey was zipped up, helmet and shoes on and I was on my way out of T1.  Good thing to, as I had been there for about 25 minutes and I think the marshals were wondering if I was going to make camp.

Before the race I had set an alert to go off on my Garmin if my heart rate went over 155 beats per minute.  The idea behind this is to make sure that you keep your heart rate low, allowing you to maintain an endurance pace for longer as you are not over exerting yourself. As I was reckoning on it taking me at least 3.5hours on the bike endurance was definitely the name of the game.

Off onto the bike course my Garmin was going beserk.  It was constantly alerting me that my heart rate was over 155 and I was barely pedaling.  I was convinced it was malfunctioning (something it does only too well) and was getting frustrated with the constant bleeping alarm.  Luckily, I was soon to have something more important to worry about, as after about 9 minutes of cycling my rear wheel went flat.  This was not good news; however these things happen. I carry a spare inner tube and this was good practice for if it happens at Weymouth.

Pulling over I set about changing the wheel, accompanied by the constant bleeping of my heart rate alarm.  All was going well until I went to pump up the replaced inner tube with my CO2 cartridge and rather than the CO2 coming out when I want it to (using the switch on the CO2 dispenser) it just started whizzing out.  I quickly got the end of the nozzle onto the valve but the CO2 was running out already and I barely got 40PSI into the tyre.  I run my tyres at around 100PSI and the difference would be clearly noticeable.  Anyway there wasn’t much I could do.  I didn’t have a normal pump or any more CO2 so it was time to get back on the bike and get on with the race.  I had wasted over 12 minutes changing this inner tube and with 22 minutes of the race gone I had barely covered 3km.  Not quite the start to the bike leg I was looking for.

Almost exactly as I got back on the bike it started to rain.  Rain had been forecast, but as I own absolutely no wet weather cycling gear I decided to just race in my normal stuff.  This would turn out to be a mistake, but more of that later.  The rain falling and my under inflated rear tyre made the bike handle like a rodeo bull, but thankfully I managed to stay upright until I reached the village of Wye where there were some marshals stationed.  “Have you got a pump” I shouted as I rode towards them.  “Certainly do, Joe Blows” they cheerfully shouted back and then got out their Joe Blows (this is a genuine brand of bike pump) and topped me up to 100PSI.  One of them kindly gave me a spare CO2 cartridge and then I was off, with a properly pumped up rear tyre.

Bike Course

At this point it was raining hard and I was already getting cold.  There was nothing for it though than to just keep pedaling.  I was very conscious not to go too fast to try and make up for lost time.  I just kept up a steady rhythm, concentrating on riding smoothly and keeping an eye out for potholes, manhole covers and any other hazards that become infinitely more hazardous in the rain.   Exchanging some words with a few of the riders I was overtaking I was really feeling good mentally, but extremely cold physically.  The good part about this was I felt like I was putting in hardly any effort.  I had turned off my heart rate monitor shortly after my puncture and was riding purely on feel.  This is where my training really started to pay off.  I was used to the feel of steady exertion.  All the hours in the saddle meant that I knew how hard I could push for what length of time.  Somewhere inside my brain I knew that I was at a sustainable pace.  I knew that I would make the bike course and get to the run.  There were a few very scary moments, including a big rear wheel slide on a fast downhill but other than that things were going well.  I also lost a water bottle as it slipped from my hand towards the end of the bike leg, so rode the final 25km with no liquid refreshment.  

The major issue was the cold.  My feet had gone numb after only about 45 minutes of riding and had stayed numb.  I had lost feeling in my fingers and my quads were absolutely freezing.  Out of all of these, the quads were worrying me the most.  My quads like to cramp on the run stages of triathlons.  Starting a run with them freezing cold was not going to help.

Despite the cold I was amazed to finish the bike leg in around 3hrs 30 minutes, which was bang on my target time despite the puncture.  Climbing off the bike and into T2 I felt pretty good.  Sadly I had to change clothes again.

Remember the dry robe from before?  Well this was no longer dry.  It was absolutely soaking having sat out in the rain for hours, as was pretty much everything else.  The only things I had managed to keep dry was a pair of socks and my trainers.  Struggling under the soaking wet dry robe, it was off with the cycling gear and on with the running gear.  The dry socks and trainers felt like heaven on my freezing feet.  I paused to have a quick chat with a marshal as I had ridden past quite a few stranded riders who had either given up or suffered mechanical breakdowns and wanted to make sure somebody was going out to get them.  I was reassured that a van was going round picking these unfortunate people up, so I shuffled my way out of T2 and onto the run course.

The Owler run course.  2 x 10.5km laps

Either I hadn’t read the blurb properly or had forgotten it, but the first and last 2.5km of each lap of the run course was cross country round the lake.  The run was two 10.5 km laps, so I would have to run 5km of each lap cross country.  This is usually not an issue; however it was very very very very muddy and finding a dry path was proving difficult.  Fortunately the rain had let off just after the start of the run and I was making progress.  My plan was to follow my Ironman run tactics.  Run for 1.8km, walk 100 metres then run another 1.8km.  The only reason I had chosen 1.8km was that this is the distance between aide stations at Challenge Weymouth.  I will be walking through all the aide stations in Weymouth, so it seemed logical to practice exactly this.  

Running is my weakest triathlon discipline.  Compounded by a foot injury that I have had now for about 4 weeks causing me to stop all run training, I knew the run would be tough.  I was making very steady progress using my run/walk tactics and managed to stagger round the first lap in 1hr 6 mins.  This was not bad for 10.5km and better than I was expecting.  The second lap really took its toll as the heavens opened up even worse than during the cycling and the wind whipped around me.  I could no longer manage to run for 1.8km before walking.  My foot had thawed out and was starting to hurt, my quads were screaming and every step it felt like my calves were going to cramp.  I just concentrated on form and swapped to a strategy of running for 4 minutes and walking for 1.  This slowed my pace to 7min 30sec kilometres, but gave me a second wind and I was still making progress (all be it very slow progress).  

Rounding the half way point of the second lap I knew I only had just over 5km to go.  I have run 5km hundreds of times and just imagined that it was a sunny morning on Southsea seafront and I was enjoying a relaxing jog with friends.  This was quite some leap of imagination, as in reality it was monsoon-esque, but I was feeling good.  I was going to complete The Owler.  Best of all, I was looking like finishing in less than 7 hours.  A smile crept across my face.  I felt like a proper Triathlete.  Even better than that I was going to become a finisher of a Half Ironman race.  It’s not everybody you meet who can say that.

Love this medal

Jogging along in my fantasy world, thinking about sunny weather, cold beer and what Challenge Weymouth had to hold the final 5km went past without incident and I was through the finish chute and over the line.  The weather was so bad that the announcer couldn’t even see my race number so I had to tell him who I was, which he then triumphantly announced over the loud speaker.  The irony of this was not lost on me, as there were only about 10 other people around.  Most of the other competitors had finished and were either safely inside out of the rain, or had gone home.  Never the less I heard the announcement and I felt very very proud of myself.  Completing the 70.3 was the biggest achievement of my athletic career to date.  Definitely something to smile about.

YES YES YES, Ive done it

As you can see from the picture on the left I completed the race in 6hrs 50 minutes.  Most encouraging was a good swim time and a very decent bike leg considering that it was awful weather and I had a puncture.

The run was slow, but this was to be expected.  I am not a good runner and probably never will be.  

Who cares though right.  Race done and onto Challenge Weymouth for the big one.

The final thing for me to say is sorry it has taken me so long to write this update.  I have been a very busy boy of late, with some major changes for me and the family on the horizon. Not to mention rather a lot of Triathlon training. More of this to come in further updates.

TTFN

Snooky

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